Granada, Nicaragua

Granada is a beautiful city and always a must-see for anyone visiting Nicaragua. It is located just south of Managua, the capital, and on Lake Nicaragua (where Isla de Ometepe is and the bull sharks live).
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The city is named after the Spanish city of the same name. The architecture and layout of the city also mimic its European history. The center of town has turned into a huge tourist hub. There are horses drawn carriages to take you around the town square, souvenir stands everywhere, and hotels/hostels on each block.
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The city is gorgeous. There are huge colonial buildings painted in beautiful colors and several amazing churches.
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Granada has a nice little museum a few blocks from the main square. It’s in an old church and beautiful! My favorite part was that it was cool in the courtyard. (I live in the rainforest at a very high altitude by CR standards. I live in sweatshirts and fleeces. When I go on vacation and experience typical tropical weather, I melt. I hate it. It’s bad.) The museum is pretty eclectic. They had some really neat old ceramic pots, crucifixes, and huge sculptures.
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From the city square there is a street that runs all the way (10 blocks or so) to the port on Lake Nicaragua. This street is the center for tourists, although we did see many Nicas here as well. Almost every building for 3 or 4 blocks is a restaurant, and the few that aren’t are hostels, hotels, or tour companies.

End of the street on Lake Nicaragua.

End of the street on Lake Nicaragua.

You can find anything to eat here. We particularly enjoyed the burgers and wings from a roadhouse place while enjoying the Little League World Series. (Hey, I live in Central America, I can enjoy a US meal when I’m out). We also indulged in Irish food, gelato, etc.

Besides good food, you will also find Nicaragua’s delightful begging children here. I believed I mentioned them in my San Juan del Sur post. By far, they are my least favorite part of coming to this country. Street vendors don’t bother me. You can ask me if I want to buy a pack of cigarets or a vase. Then when I say no, that’s the end of the story. These kids though, well they are much more persistent (actually pushy, annoying, and rude). “No gracias” followed by “no” and “NO” again is an exchange you can expect repeat every 5-10 minutes or more.
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Back to the baseball… remember I said when you cross the Costa Rica/Nicaragua border you enter a completely different world? Baseball is a perfect example of this. Costa Ricans could not care less about baseball. I have never seen a game in this country. Nicaragua? Our first taxi driver asked us about the Yankees. In Costa Rica, every town has a soccer field. In Nicaragua, every town has a baseball field. The cities even put money into large baseball stadiums. I do not like baseball in general, but it was nice to sit down and watch the game in the restaurant. I’ve been here for 7 and a half months, so reminders of home are always appreciated.
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A highlight of our Granada adventure was the Mombacho Cigar Factory. This was a requirement from Charlie before we left, but I figured I could learn about one more thing I don’t consume. (I can tell you the basics of how beer, wine, and coffee are made. I don’t drink any of them.) To my surprise, it was really neat! They have maybe 10 people there hand rolling and then hand testing each cigar. After watching how they do that, we were taken into the back where they store the cigars while they age. I don’t smoke, but wow it smelled good! (It was also air conditioned which was great because I melt here, remember?) They even have a beautiful outdoor lounge where you can sit and smoke and have a drink.
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One morning we took a walk through the local market. This market is HUGE and sells everything from food to clothing to items for the home. Busy markets don’t tend to shock me much, but there was one big difference in this market. Meat is kept out. I mean, you walk by a lady that has a bunch of filets (of any meat) sitting in a basket in front of her (in the 90+ degree heat) while she waves a hand fan over it to keep the flies away. Blech!

We also heard two squealing pigs around the corner and within a minute you could see the guy walking through the aisle with one pig leg in each hand while the little pigs squirmed and screamed bloody murder. Nothing surprises me here anymore.
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I have to skip ahead a little bit for Granada Round 2. We met Zach in Leon (our next city) and then backtracked to Granada for a night to catch our bus back to CR.

One of the churches allows you to climb their bell tower to see the city. I thought this would be a great idea! It’s $1 and you get a great view of the city. It was a great idea until I saw the staircase. It was steep, narrow, spiraled, and open. I basically freaked out the whole way up grabbing for whatever I could hold on to. After finally making it to the top though, the view was definitely worth it. (The trip down was very similar, except in the dark with an old Nica man behind me who seemed a little irritated. Sorry!)
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So that’s Granada!
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Ometepe, Nicaragua

The vacation I’ve been waiting for!

“Summer” has been long, stressful, and exhausting. The light at the end of the tunnel was a vacation with Charlie once he got off course. He got back with the plan (thanks Zach!) of a week in Nicaragua hitting Ometepe, Granada, Leon, and possibly San Juan del Sur.
Volcano close upAs usual, the car, bus, taxi, bus process didn’t let us down and we were on our way northwest to Nicaragua. This was my second time to Nicaragua and it still stuns me how you can cross the border and be in a different world. With the exception of a shared language, Costa Rica and Nicaragua couldn’t be much more different.

Right when you cross the border you are met by two beautiful volcanoes to the east. They form the island of Ometepe, our first destination. It took us a bike taxi and a ferry, but we got there pretty painlessly (thanks to Charlie’s awesome planning). One interesting note if you ever visit: is there are “taxes” (entrance fees) to go anywhere. It’s usually only about a dollar, but slightly annoying anyway.

Island of Ometepe from Lake Nicaragua

Island of Ometepe from Lake Nicaragua

It was a nice hour long journey to the island. It is located in Lake Nicaragua, the biggest lake in Central America (and 19th in the world). Fun (and terrifying) fact: there are bull sharks in this lake! “…in Nicaragua have been seen leaping up river rapids, salmon-like, to reach inland Lake Nicaragua.” AHHHHHH! Some of our courses kayak the Rio San Juan (the river rapids they’re mentioning) and all I could envision is kayaking down the river and having a giant bull shark jump out of the river at you!

Well Ometepe was amazing. The town itself is fairly small. While there are hotels and resorts all over the island, we chose to find a hostel in town.
Ometepe from the beachNicaraguans seem to love their pizza. As we set out for food, our choices seemed to be: fancy pizza, pizza cafe, storefront pizza, or pizza truck. We chose the “fancy” pizza place mainly because of how close it was since we were starving. We did not choose wrong! The pizza was delicious and you couldn’t beat the price of one big pizza, soda, and 2 beers (and tax & tip) for $15. (We may have ended up going back the next night.)

The second day we had to move hostels so we checked into an amazing bed & breakfast called The Cornerhouse. It was a little bit of a splurge for us (at $35 including breakfast), but the rooms were wonderful and the food was delicious. It’s nearly impossible to find good bread here, but they make some tasty bread in house for toast and sandwiches. The owner is a super friendly British guy who was incredibly accommodating. Since we showed up with no plans, we asked him for suggestions and he kindly listed out several options.

Our ride for the day.

Our ride for the day.

On his recommendation, we rented a little moped to drive around the island. For $25 we got a day of entertainment that was definitely worth it! The island is made up of two volcanoes and this allowed us to check out both, the beach, and all the towns in between. I was very surprised at how many towns there are! They surround the entire island.

Beach between the two volcanoes.

Beach between the two volcanoes.

We were told the first day that there was a fiesta happening in town. Originally we thought it would be pretty cool to check out, until we got the inside scoop that it’s really an excuse for the locals to get wasted. Nicaragua is putting a lot of effort into their tourism industry. This fiesta was put on by the Nicaragua Tourism Board and they’re doing a tour of these street parties throughout the country.

Ox Float

Ox Float

We watched all day as bus loads of people were driven up the main street. I mean bus after bus after bus (and “full” Central American style, which is a whole different level of full). The island is big, but not that big! There was also going to be a parade, but the rain had other plans. We did get to see some floats though (decorated carts) and their cheerleaders. Yes, those are thigh high, lace up, platform boots.

Cheerleaders- look closely at the boots

Cheerleaders- look closely at the boots

Horse float

Horse float

That night was loud. They partied all night. The next morning I was pretty happy to be leaving, but I would go back in a heartbeat. It really is a beautiful place!

Tortuguero

Michelle’s and my last hurrah before she left!

Like all good trips around here, our adventure began with a: car, bus, taxi, bus, bus, and water taxi. But for the first time we didn’t have to leave at 4:30am which was nice.

Bus ride there. Who needs roads?

Bus ride there. Who needs roads?

Old water taxi

Old water taxi

Tortuguero (translated means the Land of Turtles) is a region on the Northern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. It’s a unique peninsula with a river (and many canals) on one side and the Caribbean sea on the other. The town is tiny and the “streets” are more like muddy ally ways. You come to Tortugero for one reason: to see the animals. And we made sure to plan our trip in right in the middle green turtle nesting season.

"Streets" in town

“Streets” in town

As we stepped off the boat, we met a wonderful guide named Mauricio from Rainforest Life Tours. He showed us to our hostel and then gave us his whole spiel about the tours. Michelle and I didn’t need any convincing. We knew we wanted the tours, we liked him, so we signed right up for his 3 tours.

I almost forgot to mention our trip in… it poured! Now we live in a rainforest, we’re used to rain, but this was a little excessive even for us. Sure enough, when we arrived they were talking about the “big storm” that just passed through losing power for the town. Normally this isn’t a big deal for us (again, we living in a rainforest), but it meant there was no coffee to be found! So we walked around for a few minutes then crawled into bed for our afternoon nap.

The streets of Tortuguero.

The streets of Tortuguero.

The problem with sea turtles is they work on their own schedule. So even though we were pretty tired from our trip we headed out late to see some turtles. We met with Mauricio’s wife, Yolanda, and a local guide. We then hung around for a while before one of “turtle spotters” found a turtle. Now there’s some fun drama around this, because on our night there was a meeting between the normal (ie: trained) turtle spotters and local hotels. So instead, other people were acting in their place. This led to a misidentification of a turtle digging her whole as one covering it, to children getting in the way of turtles, and various other problems. But… we still got to see 3 in our two hour tour including one laying eggs! It is pretty amazing how they are oblivious to the crowds around them.

Turtle tracks all the way up the beach the next morning.

Turtle tracks all the way up the beach the next morning.

The next day we woke up bright an early for our canoe tour of the canals. But again the weather wasn’t cooperating. We woke up to pouring rain, howling winds, and thunder and lightning. But here comes Mauricio barefoot and soaking wet rescheduling us for 3 hours later. Great! Back to sleep we went.
Turtle!Canal tour

The tour ended up being great! The weather held out and we saw tons of amazing animals. This included birds, spider monkeys (which are huge), jesus christ lizards, a chameleon, fresh water turtles, and… the caiman.
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This is where having a guide really helps you out, because we would have never found him on our own. It was amazing because we were able to get so close to him and he never left!
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We ended the day with a hike through the national park. I think Michelle and I were bad participants on this trip. When you’re visiting Costa Rica, you tend to get very excited about the giant spiders, huge moths, and unique flora. Once you’ve been living here for a while you’ve seen it all a hundred times, and too often in your house.

But we did see a sloth and her baby, some unique cricket things, an itty bitty frog, and (finally) and eyelash viper. It was definitely worth the trip (especially since we got it for “free” after paying for the other 2 tours), but nothing ultra exciting.
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At the hostel we met another traveler doing something really interesting with a can of tuna. Upon asking, we found out you can “cook” a can of tuna using a piece of toilet paper. It was a trick he learned from some Israeli soldiers. Kinda cool…
Cooking tuna

After grabbing our seats on the water taxi, we found our tuna cooking hostel friend sitting next to us. This time we got his name, Ruben, and found out he was finishing his adventures in Costa Rica. He has a very interesting story and has traveled all over the world but is now working in Brazil. He specializes in accent reduction with his own company, Linguistix.

We chatted with Ruben the whole way home including water taxi, bus, bus, bus… etc. He stayed with us that night before leaving early to catch his flight home. It’s always nice to meet interesting people on the road. It makes the actual traveling part much more fun!

Bocas del Toro

Amazing beaches, unbelievable diving, air conditioned hotel, fried chicken… life is good! My 6 month border run was to Bocas del Toro, Panama. Since Charlie had that same week off in Bocas we had a great little vacation!

At some point I should do a post on border crossings. For now all you need to know is I walked across this bridge:
I HATE bridges. I think I held my breath the entire walk.

The trek to Bocas included a: 3:30am alarm, car ride (thanks Michelle!), bus ride, taxi ride, bus ride, border crossing, van ride, and water taxi. But I made some wonderful South African friends who are traveling from Canada all the way south.

Bocas town is a small Caribbean town, but the area is absolutely beautiful! Since it’s an archipelago, the ocean is calm and the waves are small. It truly feels like a huge lake instead of the ocean.

Photo from Melodey :)

Photo from Melodey

Day 1: Playa Estrella (Star beach)
We took a “bus” with slightly too small seats out across the island to Bocas del Drago. After a short (and stunning) walk along the beach we came to Playa Estrella. As its name implies, there are bunch of star fish that live on the sandy bottom. This was my first introduction to the beaches here and I was way more amazed by the fact that I could walk into the water and still see my feet than the sea stars.
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We got attacked by fish. (Mainly Charlie got attacked by fish.) When we returned to the hotel we found out they were venomous. That’s cool.

And there were little baby barracuda! Actually, there were a million little fish in general! Some will come up and eat your toes! (Yes, I was completely giddy about the ocean and the fish the entire trip.)
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Day 2: Diving!
While planning our trip, we decided to dive off of kayaks. I was a little skeptical about this. You see, I’m not the most graceful person in the word nor am I particularly skilled at getting into kayaks. All I kept seeing was me flipping my kayak and my weight belt heading straight for the bottom. But Charlie reassured me that it would be fine.

It was AMAZING! The morning was perfect, warm but slightly overcast. The water was perfect, warm, clear, and no current. The sea life was incredible! (Videos and photos to come.) I won’t waste too much of your time on this because I’m going to do a massive picture/video post from Charlie’s GoPro once he’s back in CR.

Photo from Melodey

Photo from Melodey

Slight brag: I will say though that my “fish” skills in Northern California translate exponentially to tropical waters. It was unbelievable. We did two 30+ minute dives on one tank, and after doing the math I realized I could easily do a 2+ hour dive on one tank. I should rephrase: I could do it without running out of air. I’m sure I’d be exhausted way before that though.

Aaaand… I got in and out of my kayak successfully every time!

Day 3: More beach. More diving.
In the AM we headed back out to Playa Estrella but stopped about half way and had our own private beach. Palm trees… blue ocean… white sand… the whole nine yards. The waves here can be measured in inches instead of feet so we just waded out in the sun and warm water.
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On the way back we decided to fit in one more dive around 4pm. We dove “The Playground” which is a huge reef with tons of fish. The dives are very shallow so you just cruise around and check everything out. It was a great dive. And bonus points, I did my first dive off a small boat… backwards roll and flopping back into the boat like Shamu and all!

Final Day
I ended the trip by waking up in Panama with no cash and no ride home! (Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it sounds. The van that was taking me home broke down and I had spent all my money already. After much freaking out and some generosity from work I made it home. I was unbelievably happy when I got on that bus in CR.)

Photo from Melodey

Photo from Melodey

P.S. If you’re wondering where all of these awesome pictures came from, you should check out Melodey’s blog, True Life: I Live in a Rainforest. She’s much better at taking pictures than I am. 🙂

Volcan Arenal

Travel back in time (a few months, eek!) to when my parents were here. Our first stop (after base/SJ/Cartago) was Volcan Arenal.

Until 2010, it was the most active volcano in Costa Rica. This also makes it one of the most famous volcanoes in CR. While it is no longer actively erupting, it’s definitely a sight to see!

We spent most of our 3 days at Arenal lounging by the pool getting a tan. We were very successful and did not turn into the bright red tourists most commonly found throughout the country. The views from anywhere on the property were incredible. For the first day the weather was a little cloudy and we were concerned we wouldn’t get a full view of the volcano. It is known to be a “shy volcano” and hide behind the clouds. The weather ended up being beautiful as our trip went on!

View from one of the pools.

View from one of the pools.

We took a flat water rafting trip on the Penas Blancas river. Our guide was great and very funny! He gave me a hard time for my lack of Spanish skills, but I’ll forgive him for that. (Surprisingly, my dad is actually quite the Spanish-speaker. Go figure!) As we were driving through the towns to reach the river, I mentioned “there’s a sloth on that fence.” They didn’t believe me (said it’s probably a chicken) but turned around the van and headed back. Sure enough… there was a sloth climbing along the fence of a house. We got within just a foot or two of it! From then on we had a contest about who could spot the most sloths. I think we tied in the end.

We saw 4 (at least) sloths, a red-eared slider that was very brave, many monkeys, and tons of tropical birds. We then ended at a local farm for some tico cheese and plantains. It was a really nice and peaceful way to see a ton of wildlife.

Sunset. I wish I could capture how beautiful it really was.

Sunset. I wish I could capture how beautiful it really was.

One night we headed down to local hot springs. There are several big and famous ones (all fed by underground streams heated by the volcano), but we chose a less known one. It was perfect! There were maybe 20 other people there the whole time. We lounged in the different pools of various temperatures and got a massage from their waterfalls. It was very relaxing and is supposed to be very healing.

Finally we headed into La Fortuna (the local town) for a nice walk around. Then all that was left was to prepare for our transfer to Monteverde. That was an adventure in itself…

View from our hotel room.

View from our hotel room.

Cuatro de Julio

Last Thursday I watched Despicable Me in Spanish, hung out with a bunch of gringos in Costa Rica watching fireworks, and finished up the night eating tacos with Columbians and dancing! What a great way to celebrate Independence Day!

There has been a big lead up to the 4th of July since I arrived here. Apparently there are enough North Americans here that the holiday is an excuse to party even in Costa Rica!

We don’t get any holidays off at work, but we called the work day a little early and headed into Escazu. This is the fancy/wealthy area of Costa Rica. The mall, it’s like a REAL mall. It makes you feel like a REAL person. Life on the mountain can get pretty dirty and gross, but being here made us all feel so much better! Plus, they have this:

Put your kid in a giant ziplock bag, blow it up, then put them in a pool. So much fun!

Put your kid in a giant ziplock bag, blow it up, then put them in a pool. So much fun!

Allison and I headed to the movies (with our new friends) hoping to find something good. What’s better than Despicable Me 2 in 3D in Spanish? (Also known as Mi Villano Favorito 2.) We then headed to “party central” for the fireworks. I guess the rain scared most people away because it was pretty quiet but allowed us to get great seats for the fireworks. We met some new PeaceCorps friends (they’re everywhere here!) and chatted with them while watching the show.

Fireworks here are definitely not legal in the U.S. They explode very very low and you can see them hitting the ground. But it’s Costa Rica, who cares?!?!

To end the night we went back to Jeff’s house and had some tacos with his Columbian roommate and her brother before heading out for some dancing. I met a very very patient Tico who worked with my terrible dance skills. The best part about Latino dance partners? If you’re not in the right place at the right time, they just move you so you are. 🙂

It was a great and very unique way to end our cuatro de julio.

In other news… tomorrow I head off to Bocas to meet Charlie and finally dive!

Mis padres estaban aquí!

Several weeks (a month) ago… but they visited!

It was a lot of fun! They spent 4 days on base then we took off for a vacation. We spent 3 nights at Arenal and 3 nights in Monteverde. After that I returned home (work always gets in the way) while they continued on for 4 nights in Uvita on the Pacific. On their final night I met them in Alajuela (by the airport) for a last dinner before they headed back to the States.

I’m hoping my parents will write a blog post about their version of the trip, because I’m sure they have a different take on it. (Especially life on base!) First the important stuff: The Easter Bunny came! See’s candy is always great, but when you live in a country that doesn’t believe in sweets, it might become the best gift ever! It’s being hoarded and slowly savored for as long as possible. They also brought with them a whole goodie-bag of requested items. We’re needy here in CR so when someone comes to visit, we ask for things. My parents were kind enough to oblige.

Our puppies enjoying a foggy afternoon on base.

Our puppies enjoying a foggy afternoon on base.

Their nights on base worked out very well and they got to stay in their own little apartment. The first two days they were basically on their own while I worked. Before they arrived I warned them that there was not much to do here. I’m not sure that they really understood what that meant. That’s ok though because they got the “real CR experience” here.

On Saturday we headed into San Jose to see the city. We were on a search for the Feria Verde and Central Market. I had not been to either of these places so Michelle came along as our guide. After criss-crossing the entire city, we finally found the Feria. It’s basically one big hippie market and something straight out of the Bay Area. There were lots of organic and specialty food items and beautiful handmade crafts and jewelery. We also made our way to the Central Market which is like any large city market with many different vendors and enough pathways to get lost in.

It was then time to go home. (And this is where it really gets good.) My mom cooked for us! She made two chickens and vegetables for our house! We don’t starve here, but we definitely don’t eat like that. It was delicious and we were so happy to get such a great home cooked meal. (You may not understand why we were so excited about chicken and veggies, but that’s ok.)

There were approximately... 9 or 10 horses on this truck driving through the city.

There were approximately 10 horses on this truck driving through the city.

Sunday we headed to Cartago, a nearby city I had not been to. We visited the Santiago Apóstol Parish Ruins, a local landmark. Several churches have been built on this site but were continually destroyed by earthquakes (due to being in close proximity to the Irazú Volcano), and they finally stopped rebuilding it in 1910. There is a whole folklore about it as well.

We walked several blocks to the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles. This Basilica is considered to be one of the holiest places in Costa Rica. It is home to La Negrita, a small black statue of the Virgin Mary that has healing powers. Every August there is a pilgrimage to the Basilica, and people walk (and sometimes crawl) from all over to visit the statue and drink water from her fountain. It is a gorgeous and ornate church. There was a service going on when we arrived, but we were able to walk along the back half and enjoy its beauty.

OrchidOur final stop was at the Lankester Gardens. The garden has over 3,000 species of plants and was granted to the University of Costa Rica for research. They’re most known for their orchids,  but not many were in bloom while they were there. Still, it was a great way to spend a couple hours. The gardens are huge and they break it up into different areas. Interestingly, we recognized many of the native/tropical plants form home in Southern California. I guess a hot dessert + artificial water = tropical growling climate!

Then we came home and mom made us chicken soup. Have I mentioned how great a real home-cooked meal is?

Bamboo
More to come about Arenal and Monteverde. (And hopefully a post and more photos form my parents.)