Saturday, July 14, 2007

Central America 2007

Central America 2007

Chapter 1 – Beaching in Belize

Hello!  I'm a little over one week into my trip, so I figured it was time to send my first report. Chapter 1 is entitled "Beaching in Belize".
Caye Caulker, Belize
I landed in Belize City from a red-eye flight, took a bee-line for the water-taxi station for the first boat to Caye Caulker (one of the nearby islands).  It was a 45minute transfer in an open air speed boat.  On arrival to the island, one of the locals 'Jesus' befriended me and told me about a good place to stay, and by the way, he'll take me there in his golf cart for $2US.  I took the bait.  The place turned out to be really great, $15US per night for a private room, right on the beach, with electricity, a fan, and shared bath.  Belize is HOT, about 90' in the day and blazing sun.  The island is pretty small, with one main sand road, and only golf carts and bicycles for vehicles. I walked everywhere.  The slogan for the island is "GO SLOW", and so I did.  I met another local as I was buying some fresh fruit, and we started hanging out for the rest of my time there.  He took me out in his canoe for a paddle around the island and a swim off one of the best docks.  The water here is hotter than bath water, not exactly refreshing, but swimming is necessary to avoid melting in the heat.  I call my new friend "Tarzan" because he walks barefoot everywhere, and scales coconut trees to collect coconut, then cracks it and drinks the water.  He caught a baracuda when he was fishing, and together with some of the other locals, made a fish stew over open fire right on the beach one night.  It was so hilarious, we had to scrounge a pot, knife, bowls and spoons from local restaurants, then go buy the veggies at a local corner store.  It was really delicious.  We ate sitting on some old lobster traps right beside the water.  The frigate birds swarmed above and neighbourhood cats wandered below in hopes that some fish bits would be offered to them.  I took an all day snorkeling trip to the Blue Hole (you should Google this, it's cool), with a stop at a nearby island for some more snorkeling followed by lunch.  In one of the snorkel spots, there were so many fish swarming us, it was like fish soup!  So much fun.  My parents sent me with some little trinket giftie-poos to give to the children, and I decided to start giving them away here.  I befriended a couple of enterprising kids that were trying to sell me some shells they collected, and as I sat down with them on the picnic table in the middle of town with the bag of goodies, all the other local children caught a wiff of what was going on, and all of a sudden I was swarmed.  The kids were so thrilled, and it was such a highlight for me too.
Tobacco Caye, Belize
My next stop was Tobacco Caye, which involved a 4hr bus (old school bus) south from Belize City, then another water taxi over to the island. This country is so hilarious.  At one point on the bus ride, one of the passenger's luggage flew out of the open bus door.  They had to stop the bus, and back up to go find it.  On arrival to the seaside town of Dandriga, I managed to find the water taxi dock (read - a couple of planks on the shore of the inlet, no sign).  A local named 'Charlie' was hanging around that area, and told me that I can catch a ride to the island from a guy who is going over in about an hour.  I told Charlie I was hungry, so he said he would go get me some food from a lady that he knows a few houses away.  He told me it cost $7BZ (=$3.50US).  I wasn't sure whether he could be trusted to come back again, but I figured it was a small gamble.  In the end, the food took so long to make, that I had to track Charlie down to give me my money back because my boat was leaving.  He agreed.  Tobacco Caye is about the size of a postage stamp (couple of acres of land??) 30minutes off the coast by speed boat, complete with dolphins jumping at the bow. There are several places to stay, and without an advance reservation, I took a chance there would be availability.  I booked into "Paradise Inn", with private huts on stilts over the ocean, each with a private balcony and hammock for $30US/day.  This place reminds me of summer camp on Gilligan's Island.  The stay includes three squares a day, and you can get snorkeling gear to check out the reef which circles the little island.  The property caretaker 'Joe' typically cleans fish off the dock each day around 4pm, and the stingrays are now in the habit of circling the area at that time for the fish scraps that he throws into the water.  They are a bit skiddish, but if you are really still, you can get in the water and just float with snorkel gear while they feed.  I hit an all time record for laziness in this place.  For an entire afternoon, I lay motionless in my hammock, reading my book and dozing in and out of naps.  There is a little beach bar hut, which I wandered over to the first day.  One of the locals introduced himself as "Crazy", then there was Captain Buck, and Kirk the bartender.  By the end of three days, I was friends with many of the 30 locals that live on this tiny little island. I loved it here, I was barefoot and in my bathing suit the entire 3 days.
Placencia, Belize
I'm in Placencia, in the Southern part of Belize.  While on Tobacco, I met a nice couple from the states who where headed this way as well, so we travelled together.  We stopped part way and went to Cockscomb Wildlife Sanctuary.  It involved getting off the bus in the middle of nowhere, wandering over to a little hut on the side of the road and paying the admission fee, then finding a taxi to drive us the 7miles deep into the jungle along the rough dirt road, and convincing him to come back for us at an agreed time.  The santuary is home to many local jaguars, which remained elusive for us unfortunately.  This place is in the Belizian rainforest, and it lived up to it's name that day.  The downpour started as we began our hike, and poured heavy for the entire time.  It's a good thing I brought a dry bag for my camera equipment, because every square inch of me and everything else in my bag got totally soaked.  We saw a couple of armadillos, some lizards, some cool birds, a small snake and a toucan.  We saw some jaquar tracks and marks on the trees where they sharpen their claws.  After getting back to the main building at the santuary, we traded our wet clothes for dry ones, and caught our return taxi to the main road.  We had to stand on the side and wave for our bus to stop for us.  Back on, we travelled another hour to the town where we catch another water taxi to Placencia.  I love the company names in this place.... "Hokey Pokey Water Taxi", "Pickled Parrot", "Jake's Purple Space Monkey Internet Cafe", "Ocean Motion Tour Company",  "Jake and Julia's Last Resort", "Tipsy Tuna".  I'm staying at a nice guest house right by the ocean, with double decker verandas and hammocks for $15US/night.  Loving it!  I just came back from an all day snorkeling tour to go see the whale sharks.  This is one of the only places in the world to see these huge filter feeding sharks, the largest of all fish species.  And as luck would have it today is a full moon, which is when they are most often sighted.  The average size is around 20meters long, they are harmless and actually quite curious around humans.  I was dissapointed to only see one swim past me as I snorkeled today, but did see and swim with dolphins and little tiny ( ie.5feet) reef type sharks.  
Meeting people
I'm meeting tonnes of other travellers here.  It's funny actually, because paths cross all the time with people from the last stop on the travel circuit.  I know about ten people in Plancencia (where I am right now), met all of them at the places I visited before coming here.  I'm also noticing that there are TONNES of ex-pat Americans living down here.  They came on vacation, and never left.  They traded the hustle bustle of the western world for a slower paced lifestyle in this little slice of heaven right here on earth.  I'm tempted to do the same.........
English is the first language in Belize, so I haven't been able to dust off and practice any Spanish yet. Belize is apparently one of the most developed and civilized of the Central American countries, so it's a good place to start to ease into the culture.  
Next on the itinerary....
San Ignacio, Belize (caves and jungle)
Flores, Guatemala (Mayan ruins at Tikal)
Panajachel, Guatemala - for a week of Spanish school
Quetxaltenango (Xela), Guatemala - for a week of Spanish school
Then.... Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica
Barefoot, sunkissed, waterlogged, and completely decompressed,
Belizian Beach Babe

Chapter 2 – Caves, ruins and Spanish School

Hello again.  So much has happened since my last update, I figured I was due to send another.  This chapter is entitied “Cave, Ruins and Spanish School”
San Ignacio (Cayo), Belize
My trip from Placencia in the south to San Ignacio took about 6hours.  First a water taxi, then short taxi ride to the bus stop, then travelled by bus, with one bus change required.  The local buses are fondly known by all as ´chicken buses´ because of the livestock that often accompanies the passengers.  They do the milk run through the country, stopping every 200 feet if there are passengers to pick-up.  Most of the time, I´ve been the only gringo on the bus.  On arrival to San Ignacio,  I checked into a basic little hotel for $11US per night, for private room with shared bath.  This place is smoking hot, in the 30´s day and night.  The town itself isn´t much, but San Ignacio is a hub for all sorts of really awesome excursions.  The most popular tour is called  ATM Tour, which stands for Aktun Tunichil Muknal, which I think is the name of the mountain.  It´s a cave tour, lead by a guide deep into the jungle to the site of an ancient Mayan ceremonial site inside these caves.  It´s a wet tour, which means that we tredged through the water, and actually swam through sections of the river that runs within the cave.  This may have been my favourite day so far on my trip.  Outfitted with helmets, headlamps and wearing soaking wet hiking boots, we carefully manuevred our way through some tight rock formations, for about 1km deep into the cave.  The cave is completely pitch black, and totally unnavigable without headlamps.  At the end of the cave was the dry chamber, which we had to climb high up into carefully.  One wrong slip of the foot and it would be game over.  The dry chamber is a very spiritual and ceremonial location for the ancient Maya.  We walked amoung the skeletons of the humans that were sacrificed in their ceremonies.  I loved the stalagtite and stalagmite formations in the cave, and all the calcium crystalization.  I think caving is my new favourite passtime!  My second day in San Ignacio was more relaxed.  I wandered up to some local ruins, then spent the rest of the day at a foo-foo resort ($2.5US drop-in fee).  I swam in the pool, drank a few beers and chilled to the musical stylings of Anne Murray and Dionne Warwick playing at the pool bar.  
Flores and Tikal, Guatemala
My crossing from Belize into Guatemala was hilarious.  First a short local bus ride from San Ignacio to the border town.  Then a short taxi ride from the bus stop to the border station.  Once I checked-out at the Belizian station, I had to check-in at the Guatemalan station.  Both had a small fee for doing so.  It´s totally chaotic, with people hanging around wanting to sell you stuff, change currency, and offer ongoing transportation.  I took a taxi from the border to the town of Flores.  The two hour drive by air conditioned private taxi cost me $10US.  Flores is a really nice island town on Lake Petan, quite quaint and safe.  It´s a hub for tourists coming to visit the Mayan ruins at Tikal nearby.  While wandering around Flores late one morning, I was approached by a charming old man that managed to explain to me that he has a boat, and would take me on a private tour of the island and surrounding area for about $15US.  I had the loveliest time with this old guy.  I had a chance to dust off my Spanish, and was able to communicate reasonably well.  At the end we traded compliments of each other, and a short embrace.  The Guatemalan people are so lovely, I can´t tell you!  I took a tourist mini-bus ( 1.5hrs) from Flores to the ruins of Tikal.  I decided to stay overnight just outside the ruins in order to take advantage of sunset as well as sunrise the next day.  I stayed in a cute little cabana set in this beautiful jungle setting, complete with hammock.  Hiking through the ruins in the late afternoon, the jungle was filled with sounds of exotic birds and howler monkeys.  The monkeys sound very much like a lion roar, which was quite disconcerting at first.  I climbed to the top of one of the pyramids to watch the sunset with other park visitors.  The climb up was challenging, but the climb down was absolutely harrowing.  Standing at the top, I could see the base of the pyramid through my toes.  A tourist died the week before when he lost his balance and tumbled down.   The 20 minute walk back through the jungle was a bit nail bitting, since darkness fell quickly in the jungle after sunset, and we were warned that the jaguars, snakes and crocodile come out after dark.  That night I fell asleep to the sounds of the jungle birds and crickets, and was awoken by the howler monkeys early in the morning.  My sunrise tour of the ruins started at 4.45am.  We hiked to the farthest and highest most pyramid in the ruins, then climbed up and sat to watch the sunrise.  Magical.  That was followed by a three hour tour of the ruins lead by a guide.
Chichicastenango, Guatemala
From Flores, I took an internal flight to Guatemala City, then travelled by mini-bus to the lakeside town of Panajachel.  As luck would have it, the largest local Mayan market in Guatemala was happening in the nearby town of Chichicastenengo the next day, so I decided to go.  Locals and tourist alike flock to this market from far afield.  What a mad house.  Make-shift stalls errected to form a maze throughout the town centre.  Locals buying and selling everything under the sun.  Kids walking around with canvas bags full of clucking chickens, huge slabs of meat on display in the blazing sun, eggs by the thousand, people hollaring their sales pitch into the crowd, and lots of textiles to appeal to the tourists.  
San Pedro, Guatemala
My intention was to stay in Panajachel for a week of Spanish school, but on arrival, I just wasn´t comfortable in that town.  It´s quite touristy, didn´t have any charm for me, and my spidey sense was that it wasn´t altogether safe.  I decided to enrol in a school in the nearby town of San Pedro, also on Lake Atitlan.  I wandered down to the local dock, and started talking to people, and before you know it, I´m talking to a guy with a boat that will take me to San Pedro for $3US (40min by speed boat).  I love San Pedro.  It´s a cute little lakeside pueblo at the base of a huge volcano, with lots of excellent Spanish schools.  I am staying with a local family, and have one-on-one instruction for 4hours per day under a little thatched cabana beside the lake.  The cost is about $15US per day for school, room and board.  Can´t beat it.  The locals have a hard time saying my name, so for the rest of my trip, I´ve officially changed my name to “Rosita”.  Rose is my middle name, and “Rosita” is the spanish version of that.  My house mother affectionately calls me Rosie.  School is from 8am to 12noon each day.  I´ve been filling my afternoons with all sorts of cool stuff.  Thermal pools, massages, salsa dance lessons, weaving lessons, conversation classes and kayaking.  One afternoon I volunteered to deliver food packages donated by the school to needy local families.  I had the opportunity to go into their homes and speak with them and their children.  That was really cool.  As I was studying in my room one evening, I felt the earth start moving, it was an earthquake.  I ran out of my room assuming that the family was heading for cover. They were not.  They told me that the earth moves quite often around here.  No biggie.  Maybe it´s the rubblings of the volcano beside the town, I´m not sure.  Another evening I was studying in my room, and I heard a huge racket outside in the street, I opened my window to find a huge parade of people running with fire lit torches, apparently in celebration of something.   Another day, all of the town's three wheeled tuk tuk taxis were decked out in streamers and balloons, and drove around town in a convoy throwing candies and toys into the crowd of onlookers.  Still not sure what that was about.  One of the big selling points of any hotel or home is 'hot showers'.  In most places they achieve the hot water through an electric shower head with a heating unit inside.  Most of the ones I've seen have loose electrical wires connected by duct tape.  I'm a little concerned about the safety of the units, so if you don't hear from me again, the shower head might be the villain.   I just love the people in this town.  Everyone in the street smiles and greets you, and in some cases stops and wants to chat.  The females all wear traditional dress and carry supplies around on their heads.  The little children playing in the street stop me and want to play.  The town itself is a little rough around the edges, but that´s what I like about it.  It´s authentic Guatemala, nothing fancy, but a really genuine and lovely spirit.  
San Marcos, Guatemala
My itinerary so far has been in constant flux.  I ditched my original plan to go to Xela, Guatemala (the second largest city in the country), and opted instead to stay in the rural lake district and just move to the next pueblo on mountain encircled Lake Atitlan.  I enrolled in the sister school to the one I had been attending in San Pedro.  I love the quiet country living, and being able to walk everywhere.  I choose San Marcos because of it is a centre for massage, meditation, yoga and all sorts of spirituality and alternative healing practices.  Apparently the place has some special energy, which is good for healing and enlightenment.   On arrival to this place by boat, I saw a nude woman meditating on the rocks by the beach. The same woman ended up being my yoga instructor and masseuse. Spanish class is four hours every morning, with my same Spanish teacher from last week.  Some days we conduct class on the beach, or walking around the pueblo in conversation.  One day we conducted the conversation portion of class while attending the huge summer fiesta in a nearby town.  I filled my free time with lots of yoga and meditation classes, massage treatments, breathing practices, swims at the local beach, wood burning stone saunas, eating vegetarian and school homework.  The yoga here is mui loco.  Breathing like a lion, standing on your head doing fish faces, spinning around in a circle doing little hops, breathing like you are in the throws of passion, and doing swimming arms for five minutes in the seated position.  I'm convinced someone is just making this stuff up to see what crazy things people will do in the name of yoga.  The yoga studio is in this really cool pyramid shaped building, with entry from the bottom of the building through a door in the floor.  San Marcos is a TINY little pueblo, consisting of two little pedestrian streets.  It's necessary to carry a flashlight after dark, because there are very few lights to guide you otherwise.  The big event each night is the movie (sometimes English, a veses en Español) that plays at a local restaurant at 7pm.  The restaurant seats about  20 people, and the movie plays on regular sized television in the corner of the place.  Es mui tranquile aqui.  The school is new in this town, so they don't yet have a network of families for homestays in the area.  Instead I'm staying at the little 5 room hotel on the school property.  Private room with shared bath, veranda, hammock, hot showers, view of the volcano, and beach volleyball court for $8US per night.  The lake district in Guatemala is definately cooler than everyplace so far.  My long pants and fleece have come in handy here.  I have a feeling they won´t be needed for the remainder of my trip though.  I´m bracing myself for temperatures in the 30's and 40´s for the rest of my trip.   
Next on the itinerary:
Antigua, Guatemala - where I join a three week tour with other adventure travellers.  We'll visit Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
Chilled-out, stretched-out, and all spanished-out,
Guatemala's newest Spanish speaking sensation

Chapter 3 - Honduras and Nicaragua

Hola mis amigos!

Chapter 3 of Heather´s Central American Adventure is titled “Honduras and Nicaragua”.  But first, just a quickie on my last town in Guatemala, before crossing the border into Honduras.

Antigua, Guatemala
I joined my tour in Antigua, Guatemala and met the 8 other adventure travellers in the group, all from Europe.  A couple from Sweden, a lady from Norway, three girls from Germany, one from Switzerland, and one from Holland.  Our tour leader is originally from Mexico, but has lived all over the world.  We all commented that I´m the only one in the group with English as my first language, and yet English is the language we all have in common.  Antigua is a beautiful colonial city, once the capital of Guatemala. Really beautiful old buildings, lots of lovely cafes and restaurants, and cute little shops.  I spent my time in Antigua roaming around this quaint little town, taking photos, taking to the locals in the town square, stopping for a leisurely coffee, checking out some of the local ruins, and taking salsa dance lessons.  Antigua is known to be a hub for Spanish schools, and therefore attracts a lot of English speaking people.  I heard a lot of English being spoken in this town.

Copan, Honduras
Our group left in a private van for Copan, Honduras.  The six hour journey took us through Guatemala City, then through the countryside, finally crossing the border of Honduras at about 7pm.  These borders are so hilarious.  This one was quite quiet at that hour, but still the border vulchers are in full force, mostly with offers to change money.  The exchange rate isn´t good, but it´s still a good service because leftover currency is of zero value after you leave the border.  The trick is to arrive to the border with as little leftover currency from the last country as possible.  Our tour leader took charge of our passports and collected the border fees from us in order to process the exit from Guatemala and entry into Honduras.  Neither country has a proper office, it operates out of somebody´s house.  We just pull over to the side of the road and park.  There is no gate or border guard.  Nobody makes sure that the number of passports matches the number of people in our van, and nobody makes sure that the passports match the people.  Nothing is computerized, there is just a handwritten log book where our guide fills in the passport details for each person.  “Copan Ruinas´´ is a cute little village, which sprouted up beside the Mayan ruins of “Copan” We took a guided tour of the ruins in the morning, lead by a Spanish speaking archaeologist, and translated by our tour leader.  I was impressed that I could understand a fair amount of what our guide was explaining in Spanish, even before the English translation.   In the afternoon, a bunch of us decided to go to the local hot springs.  We piled into the back of Pepe´s pick-up truck, and bounced around in the back for the one hour drive on a really rough country road to the location of the hot springs.  We sat in a natural pool of hot water in the river, and climbed to explore the water source in the adjacent forest.  We had a barbecue dinner beside the river, then returned to town.  That was the best fun, I loved it.

Roatan, Honduras
We travelled by local chicken bus to the port town of La Ceiba.  The bus played the same collection of 80's ballads on replay for the entire trip.  Blast from the past with Air Supply, Chicago and Toto.  After the bus ride, we  boarded the 1.5hr ferry to the Caribbean island of Roatan.  I think I´ve found paradise.  This is my favourite place so far on this trip.  Warm crystal clear turquise water quietly lapping onto the powdery white sand beaches.  Roatan is a fairly large island, we stayed in the main beach town called “West End”, which consists of one sand road, lots of guest houses, great seafood restaurants and dive shops, immediately beside this beautiful white sand beach.  Our group went snorkeling at the local reef one morning, followed by a full afternoon beach flop.  I lay in the shallow surf reading my book, sipping cold beers, and trying to think of a way I could move to this place.  In the evening we feasted on lobster and beer.  I LOVE IT HERE!!!  The second day was equally lazy in the morning, but the afternoon was spent waterskiing.  My Norwegian friend was a superstar, getting up on the first try, and skiing around for 15min before calling it quits.  I managed to do some slolomn (one ski) skiing, which I haven´t done in many years.  So much fun!

Leon, Nicaragua
We had a very long travel day getting from Roatan to Leon.  5am wake up call, for the 6am flight to the capital city of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.  Two flights actually, the first one in a tiny little dual prop plane from the island to the mainland, then a larger plane into the capital city.  The planes were decked out in 60´s upholstery, and looked like they haven´t been cleaned since then either.  In the capital city we had a private van to take us to the border of Nicaragua.  We asked the driver to take us to his favourite local breakfast joint, which he did.  A little hole in the wall place with no sign, filled with locals, not one English word being spoken.  Full breakfast with coffee for $1.50US.  The border of Honduras and Nicaragua is the craziest I´ve seen so far.  The rough dirt road is absolutely jammed with hundreds of semi-trucks waiting to be processed.  Most of the drivers had hammocks set-up under their rigs to hang out and relax in the shade while they waited.  The border vulchers were in full force here as well.  Lots of money changers, but also lots of beggers.  Again with the disorganized passport processing, but this time there were a couple of officials that came out of their huts and took a glance inside the van.  The roads in Nicaragua are very rough, lots of potholes, making it difficult to get up any speed.  We saw quite a few local kids along the route that set-up a string ´baracade´ in an effort to get us to stop and give them money.  One such ´baracade´ was constructed with empty plastic pop bottles in a line on the road. The kids weren´t dangerous, they were just poor and desperate.  That said, I´m glad I was with a group, and happy not to have stopped the van.   We arrived in Leon, Nicaragua after 14hours in transit.  Leon is steeped in history including being the centre of the revolutionary war in the 70´s and the home of the beloved Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario.  It is a cute little colonial town, quite near the Pacific Coast.  I spent my time here just wandering around the old town, and climbing up to the roof of the beautiful old cathedral, the largest in all of Central American.
Granada, Nicaragua
From Leon we took a private van to Granada.  This was a really fun travel day, because we stopped along to way to see some really cool stuff.  First the Masaya Volcano, which is one of the world´s most active volcanos.  We drove right into the crater area, and right up to the active part which was spewing smoke and gases.  They say not to stay longer than about 20min of you might feel the effects of the gas.  Our next stop was an old prison used at the time of the revolution to house and torture opposition to the dictatorship, and subsequent to that, opposition to the Sandonista communist government.  It´s amazing to me that these heneious acts took place in my lifetime (in the 70´s).  This history is still very raw here in Nicaragua.  Granada is my favourite place so far in Nicaragua.  Really quaint colonial town right beside Lake Nicaragua. Lots of cute pedestrian streets, cobblestone, beautifully painted buildings, old churches, and lovely little cafes and restaurants.  There is a really cool project here called “Seeing Hands Blind Massage”, where blind locals are trained to give massages to earn some money.  My 35min massage by two different blind men cost $5.  I love to just walk and get myself lost, then figure out the way back, so that´s what I did here.  That´s the best way I´ve found to have authentic, local experiences, talk one on one with the people, and see the place as it really is.  I took another Salsa dance class here, $1 per hour for private instruction.  Can't beat it.   
Ometepe, Nicaragua
We travelled by chicken bus to the port town of Rivas, where we caught the passenger ferry to the volcanic island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua.  This open deck, old wooden ferry looked like it was held together with paper clips and rubber bands.  Boarding is by walking along a narrow plank from the pier.  They handed us life jackets immediately upon boarding, still not sure it that is a good sign or not.  The water was as rough as I've ever experienced, especially for a lake.  Ometepe Island is really cool, it was formed by the two active volcanos in the middle of the lake.  It is the largest lake in Central America, and is home to the only species of fresh water sharks.  The island is very lush, raw and wild.  There are small towns and some tourism on the island, but it is very unspoiled and natural.  Our hotel was right on a beautiful black volcanic sand beach, complete with volleyball nets.  Parrots and monkeys could often be seen in the hotel and outdoor restaurant.  I spent my time here doing a little forest wander, renting a bike to go to the local natural springs for some swimming, and chilling in the beach chairs and reading my book.  Bonfires on the beach and star gazing were popular nighttime activities.  On our van transfer back to the ferry, the van driver let his six year old son take the wheel to practice driving.  The main hazard he had to watch out for was the herds of cows, and occasional road crossing of other assorted animals.

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
This is the only stop I have on my trip to the Pacific side.  Lots of great seafood restaurants right on a big beautiful white sand beach.  This is a big surfing town, so I decided to take surfing lessons here.  17 of us piled into a delapidated old van with surfboards strapped to the top, and we drove half an hour on a rough dirt road to a local surfing beach, called Playa Madera.  Surfing is a really hard sport to learn, the best I was able to do was to ride the waves on my knees instead of standing up.  One night we spent watching the sunset while enjoying happy hour at a foo foo resort just up the hill from our hotel.  Great view of the whole beach and town.  Each night we feasted on fresh cheap seafood at local beachside restaurant.
Next on the itinerary:  two weeks in Costa Rica, with a possible jaunt across the border to Bocas del Toro in Panama.  My next and final chapter will be two weeks from now, prior to my return to Vancouver on July 21st.

Hang ten,

Certified Central American Chicken Bus Surfer

Did you know?
- Ricky Martin´s career in alive and well in Latin American
- There is a Spanish salsa dance version of the Eagle´s song “Hotel California”
- There is Toronto TV channel airing in Granada, Nicaragua.  As I was watching TV one night in my room, an ad came on for Ontario Place and the Toronto Zoo.
- Central America was formed through a series of volcanic eruptions gazillions of years ago.  The whole thing is volcanic, and therefore very lush and filled with a wide variety of wildlife, flora and fauna.
- Guatemala is crawling with Israeli tourists.  
- The Maya language is alive and well in Guatemala.  Many older people speak only Maya, no Spanish.
- Central America is an interesting juxtaposition of modern conveniences such as plasma TVs and cell phones alongside horse buggies and chickens running in the street.

Chapter 4 – Costa Rica and Panama

Chapter 4 is the final installment of my Central American adventure, and is titled “Costa Rica and Panama”
Monteverde, Costa Rica
Crossing the border from Nicaragua into Costa Rica has been the most frustrating and time consuming border crossing yet.  Our van dropped us off and the border station and from there we had to walk about 1.5km in total.  First we had to pass through a gate which is manned by a money taker person.  Each person must pay $1US to pass through the door.  I'm not quite sure who gets the money, it all seemed a bit shady to me.  Then we had two separate offices to visit to exit Nicaragua, one with a charge, the other with a passport stamp.  Then we had to walk 1km with our heavy bags to the Costa Rica border station and stand in line in the rain for 30minutes before they would let us in the building for processing.  A new van picked us up on the Costa Rica side, and from there we drove about 4 hours to our next destination.  Costa Rica has a big problem with illegal immigrants passing from Nicaragua, much as the US has with illegal Mexican immigrants.  We passed through countless police check-points where they wanted to search our vehicle for smuggled Nicas.  Our drive to Monteverde was really quite beautiful.  Lush green rolling hills with wisps of cloud at the tops of the mountains.  Costa Rica is known as the Switzerland of Central America, for several reasons.  The landscape is similar, the politics are similar, and apparently they make good cheese.  Monteverde is high in the mountains in the cloud forest.  It was actually quite cool here, which is a shock to the system.  We had a guided tour of a wildlife reserve where we saw lots of rare birds, monkeys, interesting plants and bugs.  We were even lucky enough to see a quetzel bird, which is an endangered species and only found in a few areas.  The hotel wasn't my favourite of my trip.  I hate to complain.... but....  the scorpion, the musty smell and the uncomfortable bed combined to make me a little grumpy.
La Fortuna, Costa Rica
We had a short boat crossing on man-made Lake Arenal enroute to the town of La Fortuna.  The big attraction here is the Arenal Volcano, but this place has morphed into the adrenaline capital of Central America.  You can drop, dangle, hike and ride your way through this place. Bungee jumping, tarzan swings, white water rafting, volcano hiking, ATV tours, caving, canyoning, rappel down waterfalls, suspension bridges, zip lining and amazing hot springs.   One night we drove to a look-out spot to watch the lava spew from the volcano while eating take out pizza.  Daytime activities included a visit to the local waterfall, white water rafting and a walk through a local eco-reserve.  This town in Costa Rica is like the Disneyland of Central America.  Very touristy, lots of English spoken, tour buses, tour companies on every street corner, signs in English, souvenir shops, etc.    Costa Rica is very lush and abundant with all sorts of tropical crops.  We passed through plantations growing: coffee, plantains, rice, yuca, papaya, pinapple, banana, etc.   
Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica
My three week group tour ended in San Jose (the capital), and from there I travelled by local bus with my Swedish tour mates to this Caribbean beach town.  This place is pretty laid back, with a pretty serious weekend party scene.  The beaches are big and beautiful, the weather is warm, and the beer is cold. I'm staying at the Lizard King Resort, which includes a pool and a resident pet pig, "Piggy". I spent my days wandering around this surf town, chilling with a beer at a barefoot beachside bar.  One day I rented a bike and checked out the beaches a little farther down the road.  It's so undeveloped and natural here, huge beautiful beaches with nobody on them.  The slogan "Pura Vida" / "Pure Life" is used as an all around greeting here.  People use it to say "Hello", "Goodbye", "I agree with you", “Be cool”, etc.
Bocas del Toro, Panama
I took a local bus to the border station which was another memorable Central American experience.  First check-out on the Costa Rica side, then negotiated my way by foot over a train bridge to the Panama side.  I had to buy a $5US Panama tourist visa card at the first office.  There were five 'staffers' in the office doing nothing, and only the guy on the phone was actually able to conduct the business at hand.  So I waited.  Once that was sorted out, onto the second office to get the card stamped.  After the border formalities, I took a taxi to the next town, and water taxi to the islands of Bocas del Toro in Panama. Driving through the countryside on the mainland, I saw fields and fields of banana plantations, and learned that this is home to the Chiquita Banana empire.  The 45 minute water taxi to the island was quite an experience.  Mortoring through the narrow canals in the jungle, the horizon opened, and we moved into the open ocean.  The islands here are pretty cool, with oceanside businesses and houses built on stilts over the water.  These islands have lots of beautiful beaches, dolphins, snorkeling, surfing, and sea turtle nesting.  I stayed two nights in the main town, and two nights at a more remote island just 10minutes by motor boat.  The second place was my favourite, very small undeveloped island with only one pedestrian walkway, no cars.  I stayed in a treehouse mini-hotel here, complete with mosquito net and personal hammock. I met some really great new friends in this place, and together we decided to explore the nearby beach.  It was a 30minute hike through ankle deep mud across the island.  I fell in the mud more than once making my way through the slippery muck.  It was worth it though, long white sand beach and roaring waves and absolutely nobody around.  My last day was possibly the best day of my trip. We took a boat tour through the island archipeligo.  The first stop was at Dolphin Bay to watch the dolphins playing and jumping, then to a remote restaurant on stilts beside some mangroves.   This was a good spot for snorkeling by the reef, then sunning on the dock, flopping in and out of the shallow warm torquise water, laying in the hammocks, having a few beers and a bite to eat. Our last stop was a beautiful remote beach, called `Red Frog Beach`.  We flopped in the surf, and went exploring to find the frogs, and then took our boat back home.  While eating dinner one night, we were befriended by one of the locals `Joseph` who played his guitar for tips at the local island restaurants.  We talked at length with him about his life here, and the changes that tourism is having on these islands.  
San Jose, Costa Rica
I decided that I've had it with chicken buses and longhaul overland journeys so I bought a plane ticket from Bocas (Panama) to San Jose (Costa Rica).   I walked four blocks to the little local airport in Bocas and took the 45 minute flight by dual prop 20 seater plane.  This instead of 10 hours by land with countless taxi and bus changes. My time in San Jose is short (about 24hrs) before taking my international flight home later today.  I walked around the pedestrian shopping streets and hooked up with my Swedish tour mates for dinner.  I was grateful to have someone to go walk with after dark, this city is known to be quite dodgy.  I've had a great trip, but I'm ready to come home.  Here is my trip-in-review:
Trip in review:
# weeks travelling: 8
# of countries visited: 6
# of flights: 9
Worst attempt at a pick-up line: “I´ll bet you were pretty when you were young”
Health incidents: only one short blip where my energy was zapped
# of books read: 13
# of bandito incidents: 0
Average cost of a beer: $1.50US
# of beers consumed: lost count.......
Least amount spent on a room: $4US
Most spent on a room: $30US
Things I'm looking forward to at home: foot treatment, haircut, flushing my toilet paper, and not having my money duct-taped to my body 24hrs a day.
Value of this adventure: PRICELESS!!!
Pura Vida!!!

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