A Travellerspoint blog

Costa Rica

Days 85-90 of 184

rain 20 °C
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By this point, we were really starting to get used to catching the local buses. To the extent where catching four separate buses over two countries and twelve hours seems achievable. It also helps when said route costs $10 and tourist shuttles begin at $65… And so begins the journey from San Juan Del Sur to Monteverde, Costa Rica.

We left at 7.30am with Julianne, a German girl we had met in the hostel. The chicken buses from SJDS to the Nicaraguan/Costa Rican border all went fairly smoothly, excluding one bus driver refusing to let us on (still have no idea what that’s on about) and a huge queue of lorries for the border meaning our bus gunning it on the wrong side of the road and squeezing into tiny gaps at the last second. But we’re battled-hardened now.

A long queue later for both Nicaraguan and Costa Rican customs and we were through to Costa Rica. We bought tickets for the last bus that would get us to our connection to Monteverde on time – in the end we only had fifteen minutes to spare! My first observation of Costa Rica was that the buses seem much nicer and better organised than in any other country since Mexico.

The rest of the day went smoothly, though it was a bit of a slog. Our connecting bus was an hour late due to an accident, though once it eventually arrived we were treated to a picturesque ascent towards Monteverde. A successful, and cheap, journey.

We only had six days to play with in Costa Rica. We had spent more time than initially planned in both Mexico and Guatemala (an active decision, due to loving both places so much) and so had to make a decision between which of Nicaragua and Costa Rica to spend less time in. Being told the price of staying in Costa Rica by other travellers made the decision easier (and it did live up to those high costs expectation!). Hence the rather rushed itinerary. We decided to spend a couple of days in Monteverde, then head over to La Fortuna for a few days, then spend one night in San Jose before our flight to LA. These two locations were conveniently on the way down to San Jose (if a journey that takes twelve hours and requires four separate buses counts as “on-the-way”) and we hoped they would help us achieve our main goal in Costa Rica – see lots of wildlife.

In our only full day in Monteverde we spent a few hours walking around the Santa Elena Cloud Forest. This was nice enough and did exactly what it said on the tin – it was a forest and it was very cloudy. It was a pleasant walk and we saw a few snoozing owls and a number of hummingbirds, but it definitely wasn’t the most exciting thing in the world (in fairness, the hostel receptionist did set those expectations).

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As a result, we signed up for a night tour, hoping for a bit more bang for our buck. Well, this was excellent. We saw so much: an orange-kneed tarantula, an eyelash viper, a motmot, an Esmerelda toucan, a side-striped palm-pit viper, a scorpion, a kinkajou racoon, an opossum, a rainbow beak toucan, a rhinoceros grasshopper and a red eyed tree frog. Absolutely fantastic. The only big thing left on our list was a sloth (“they’re usually here” – thanks Mr Tour Guide!!!). But hopefully we’d get a chance in La Fortuna…

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Monteverde was a nice couple of days. The town was noticeably more Westernised than anywhere we’d stayed yet and had a few nice cafes and shops. The weather was soooo much cooler than SJDS, which was a welcome break. We were looking forward to La Fortuna by now though, which we had heard was more of a proper town.

We didn’t like La Fortuna. Maybe it didn’t help that it rained almost non-stop. Maybe it didn’t help that we stayed at the most batshit crazy hostel ever (more on that very shortly, don’t you worry). Maybe we had kind of checked out of Central America already and were ready for the next leg of the trip. But it just didn’t click with us. However, oh-boy-oh-boy, did we manage to see all the wildlife we’d hoped to (more on that later also).

Right, so back to that hostel. Howler Monkey hostel in La Fortuna. I am giggling to myself as I write, thinking back to the ridiculousness of it all. Hopefully below gives you a taste of how weird this place was:

• We arrived to be greeted by a guy at reception who was visibly drunk. He spent around fifteen minutes showing us the pool and then forgot to show us our rooms or ask for any money.
• Later the actual manager turned up, seemed a bit more with it (you will soon find he was not). He was then the person who we always dealt with.
• We signed up to a cooking class that first night, led by said manager.
• The cooking classs involved the manager getting extremely drunk and high, putting all the ingredients on the table and then saying "right, off we go let's get cooking", forgetting to tell the group (of around twenty people!) what we were even making.
• During the day the manager had apparently found a married Texan couple about 50 and invited them over for the “cooking class”. The wife got super drunk (Rachel also noticed the husband regularly helping himself to quadruple measures of the manager’s rum). During the cooking class, the wife started grinding on a broomstick in the kitchen with a 19-year-old male hostel guest gyrating behind her while her husband watched on!
• At this point Rachel and I decided we needed to drink a lot of beer just to get through the evening.
• At one stage, a random middle aged guy turned up stinking drunk. We asked the hostel manager if it was his friend. Very adamantly he said, "no he's not my friend, he's my neighbour..."
• Said neighbour kept just saying "sorry" to me (we had just met, no idea what he was sorry for) and asking for selfies with Rachel.
• The manager didn't bother to get anyone to clean or wash up the huge mess that night (the food was surprisingly good on a side note). The next morning, I got up to find the cleaner in tears, having an argument with the manager. I assume he asked her to wash up the mountain of mess. She quit and walked out there and then.
• We just decided to go out for the day to escape (more on that below, we actually had a great day).
• That evening, when we got back, Rach and I were cooking in the kitchen. A group of guests were asking people if they wanted to go out for dinner. They also asked the manager who said yes. He was the only staff member at the hostel. So he showed Rachel where the fire extinguisher was and said "you guys are in charge now". We were glad for some time on our own.

What an experience. Rachel was close to tears at times. I felt delirious. We had three nights to kill in La Fortuna and thankfully we had only booked two at the Howler Monkey (we were this close to just booking a new hostel for the second night anyway and double paying). We weren’t sad to leave and head to the Arenal Backpackers for the third night.

However, before moving on I need to discuss the great day I mentioned above. The hostel-debacle couldn’t even ruin that (though the manager did try to dissuade me from what we were doing, saying he didn’t like the people who ran the tours – thank goodness I’d witnessed enough madness from him already to ignore his advice). On the back of some advice of a couple we met in Ometepe, we headed to the Bogarin Trail to try to see some sloths. This was a rare occurrence where we decided it would be worth paying the higher cost to get a guide and, oh man, was this a correct decision. We were led around in a group of four by William, a lovely Costa Rican whose family owned the trail. We had come to find sloths and, as it turned out, William seemed to be the sloth-whisperer. Within five minutes we had seen a mother and baby sloth crawling around branches. The cutest thing we’ve ever seen. And so, William the sloth-whisperer lead us around the trail, seeing sloth after sloth. High pitch squeals were common from Rachel, myself and the other two women in our group. They really are just the cutest animals going. We were lucky enough to see an adolescent sloth from about ten metres away, staring at us all.

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Baby sloth just having a little armpit scratch!

On the trip we also saw another type of red eyed tree frog, so many different toucans, a poisonous red tree frog and a Jesus lizard, amongst many other animals. We were so glad we spent the extra money, William was worth his weight in gold. It more than made up for the mad experience back at the hostel (though when we left Rachel was despairing, “don’t make me go back Joe”).

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By the time we got to Arenal Backpackers the next day, we were kind of done. It had barely stopped raining for the entire time (though in some fortunate twist of fate, it let up during our Bogarin Trail walk) and the experience at the hostel had just tired us out. We took the day easy, deciding the heavy mist and rain would make a volcano trail pointless, and revisited the Bogarin trail, this time just showing ourselves around. William’s skills had obviously rubbed off, as we managed to find a sloth on our own! Skillz.

We did do a nice, quick trip to some natural hot water springs nearby. These were actually really great. A quick walk down from the main road to a river and there you were. Free hot springs. Rach and I relaxed for half an hour or so in the river, surrounded by a good number of tourists. I forgot to mention earlier that this was where the hostel manager actually signed up that Texan couple to his cooking class. That seems a really funny thought, them having a chilled time in their swimming costumes and Edison the hostel manager just shimmying up in his trunks and somehow bringing up the cooking class. Hey ho – each to their own.

On to our final day in Costa Rica (and Central America)! We didn’t really sign off in style. An eight hour bus journey (it would be improper to finish Central America without an absolute slog of a bus journey that costs absolutely nothing) and we arrived in Alajuela – the town next to San Jose airport. We went and had that traditional Costa Rican meal, a KFC (/sarcasm), and packed our bags.

The end of a chapter. A slightly bizarre way to end it in La Fortuna. But what an amazing few months. So many mad experiences and adventures. Maybe I’ll write up thoughts on all the different countries one time (just maybe not when I’m a month behind on the blog!), but all I can say right now is that we wouldn’t change anything.

And now… onto what feels like a noticeable change to the trip. USA, New Zealand and Australia. Here we come.

Posted by joe90mitch 00:26 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (0)

Ometepe and San Juan Del Sur

Days 77 to 84 of 184

sunny 30 °C
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Right, so I’m a month behind on the blog as I write this. Woops. It has been a mad-dash few weeks, with lots packed in. I’m really going to have to pick my brain to remember everything from our last two weeks in Central America and beyond.

Ometepe is a beautiful island formed of two volcanoes rising out of the middle of Lake Nicaragua. Now, Lake Nicaragua is huuuuuuge (awesome fact – it has bull sharks in it, but is an entirely freshwater lake – WTF!). We caught another couple of chicken buses (chicken bus fear – completed) and arrived at the lake front. The lake is so big, it just looks like a shoreline. And the waves are swelling at around two or three metres. And we had to catch a ferry over it. Long story short, it was an extremely choppy ride, two tourists got drenched by a gigantic wave and Rachel almost darkened her pants. But we survived another dodgy journey.

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Two different takes on enjoyment levels on the ferry

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Our first views of Ometepe

We arrived at our accommodation in the early evening. The taxi drive was a treat itself, with picture perfect views of both volcanoes. Our room was in a shared lodge-type house. It was fantastic. Probably the best accommodation of the trip so far. Everything was open, bright, airy with a huge shared kitchen and lounge area. We liked it so much that we immediately asked the owner Ben, an Englishman who had moved out twenty years prior, to extend one more night. We loved staying on Ometepe, and I think a big part was the accommodation. Waking up to howler monkeys, well, howling, being greeted by Ben’s lovely dog Geronimo, doing a farmyard walk, treating ourselves (on three separate occasions!) to the food from Ben’s café, Campestre. It really was a beautiful three days.

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A howler monkey

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On our first full day, we used two of Ben’s bicycles and cycled around a little. There were a couple of problems here. It was bloody roasting. The brakes were shocking. Ometepe is hilly. It’s fair to say that we struggled. However, we battled on and made it to a chocolate “factory” (disappointing – just a hut run by Westerners that was super pricey) and a coffee plantation (a nice hour long walk, where we saw howler monkeys up close). The next day we did a kayak tour through the middle of the two volcanoes. This was great, it was just us two and a guide and we saw so many different birds (I remember seeing ospreys, many different types of herons, but sadly don’t recall the names of lots of them now!). I got a bit grumpy (I’m entitled to once every three months I believe) and threw a paddy. Hopefully it didn’t spoil Rachel’s enjoyment too much!

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Generally though, Ometepe was just great as a place to relax, with lovely accommodation, delicious food and beautiful landscapes and nature. We were sad to be leaving, yet excited for some time on the beach in San Juan Del Sur. And so, off we set again. After threatening to never leave the island if the only other option was to go back on the ferry, Rachel was just about persuaded. Luckily, the waters were still on the way back and it was a smooth ride. The only worthwhile comment on the journey to SJDS was the crazy bus terminal at Rivas. This was a horrible experience, with touts pulling you left right and centre telling you “the last bus has left”, “there isn’t one for three hours” etc. Sadly Rachel and I fell for the scam and ended up just catching a taxi. It just seemed easier and wasn’t a huge amount of money. But it was definitely one of our least favourite towns on the trip.

Nevertheless, we arrived in SJDS fresh and happy and caught a shuttle to our hostel, The Space. This was a resort-feeling hostel. It was in the middle of nowhere, furnished to a standard we’d never seen before and seemed to have a completely different crowd to backpackers. We did enjoy our time here though, it was a chance to just completely relax and have a different experience. SJDS was a chance to slow down and take it easy on the beach. We visited some beautiful beaches, including the picturesque Playa Maderas. The only downside was the huge winds currently hitting the Pacific coast. It was actually uncomfortable at times sitting on the beach – the wind would throw all the loose sand up and whip it along the beach. It hurt! We still had a nice time though and were able to escape back to our lux-hostel when needed, so can’t complain!

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The Space

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After three nights at The Space, we decided to try a different hostel. This time we moved onto Hola Ola, a more typical backpackers type place closer to town. We really loved this hostel, yes the rooms were more basic but there was a great atmosphere here. On the first night we had a “family dinner” style meal of typical Nicaraguan food with the other guests and ended up playing cards all evening with a group. We played a new game for us, called Bingo, that became a favourite of ours that we’ve since taught to family and friends in USA and NZ.

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Hola Ola's view

On our second day at Hola Ola, we took the hostel organised trip to a beach for surfing lessons. It turned out that surfing isn’t really for Rachel. The waves were pretty big and she struggled to even get out deep enough to meet the instructor. So, feeling sorry for herself, she made the difficult decision of going and sitting at the bar and having a few cocktails. In all fairness, it doesn’t seem surfing is made for me either. Of everyone there (excluding Rach), I was the only one to not stand up (though I got close, sort of)… But I had a fun couple of hours.

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Rachel on her one and only attempt (on all fours)

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Rachel surrendering

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Joe still trying (but not quite succeeding)

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The evening took a strange turn when a girl in our group fell of her board and dislocated her shoulder. We sat and kept her company whilst we waiting for the hostel 4x4 to come pick her up. Naturally we all had a few beers (the injured girl included). Eventually the car arrived, however there was no room for us. So whilst they took her to the hostel we consumed a few more bevvies. A few beers later the car picked us up, stopped at A&E on the way back to pick up the injured girl (cue huge cheers from us drunkards in the minibus) and finally ran us home. We all decided to head out for food straight after. It was a fun drunk evening, with one Canadian especially getting over excited and repeatedly buying us shots. We had a 6am start and 12 hour journey the next day. Bad combination. I had to effectively drag Rachel away from the bar so we could get a good night sleep (I joke I joke…). It was a fun evening to end an exciting and varied fortnight in Nicaragua though!

And just like that, another country done. And the Central America adventure was rapidly coming to a close. But first… Costa Rica!

Posted by joe90mitch 01:26 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Granada

Days 74-76 of 184

sunny 30 °C
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Granada is perfectly OK. A pretty, colourful colonial town, but we felt it didn’t have the same charm as some of the other places we’ve stayed (San Cristobal, Antigua, etc). We had high expectations too, but it didn’t quite live up to them.

We arrived at The Townhouse hostel after catching two chicken buses from Leon (easy peasy). It wasn’t great. There generally didn’t seem to be many good hostel options in Granada and we’d taken quite a bit of time trying to find somewhere with a private room. However, our room was swelteringly hot, extremely basic and had paper thin walls (next door neighbours were, ahem, not quiet). Quite disappointing.

This will be probably one of the shortest blog posts yet. We just didn’t do much. There wasn’t much to actually do. We explored the town, walked down to the lake (so windy!) and ate a few decent meals. We met up with a kiwi couple we had met in Leon and watched the Leeds – Arsenal FA Cup match (lucky them). It was somewhat novel watching Leeds on TV in a bar in Nicaragua.

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The highlight of our stay was visiting Lake Apoyo. More chicken buses to get there (we’re naturals now). Here we just had a really peaceful day. The lake is a crater containing surprisingly warm water. We paid for a day pass at one of the lakeside hostels and took it easy. We bumped into an English/Canadian couple we had shared the 20 hour Leon shuttle with and chatted with them a while. We jumped on some rubber rings and floated around a bit. Saw two ospreys catching fish. Nice day. The only hiccup was some roadworks which meant the buses back weren’t running. But this being Nicaragua, there was no warning or signs about this. So we eventually got told by the hotel staff around 30 minutes after waiting. But still, a taxi and bus combo later and we were back, so can’t really complain.

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And just like that, another place done. I did like Granada, but I’d say it’s pretty low down on the list of places we’ve been. We just found it lacking atmosphere, whilst also feeling much more touristy than Leon.

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Posted by joe90mitch 16:08 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

León

Days 71-73 of 184

sunny 32 °C
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I’ve mentioned bus journeys a fair few times in these posts. They’re an integral part of backpacking, certainly in Central America anyhow, but aren’t really part of the fun. Part of the experience, but not really part of the fun. I’ve also probably regularly commented on our bus journeys in a less than positive light. Well, buckle up, because this bus journey wins all the prizes. So begins our shuttle from Antigua to León, Nicaragua.

7.30am – we wake up, order and then promptly wolf down our breakfast at El Hostal BnB (breakfast starts at 7.30am, bus is meant to arrive at 7.30am – not a great combination).

8.20am – almost an hour late, our shuttle appears. Glad we ordered and rushed eating our fruit salad to ensure our breakfast was quick, rather than get the pancakes we wanted… We are the last pick up on the minibus – instead of this being fortunate, in reality this means we are left with the worst seats. No seat belts, no head rests, squashed into the back of the minivan where there are no windows and no aircon. Rachel does not look too happy at the prospect of this being the next 20 hours…

10.30am – first border crossing from Guatemala (bye Guatemala, we love you!) into El Salvador. Pile off the bus. So sweaty. Regretting wearing jeans – I was anticipating the freezing cold aircon I’d got used to on Mexican and Guatemalan buses.

1pm – arrive in El Tunco, El Salvador. Here there are four of us on our shuttle who are going onwards to León. We’ve not really been told anything, so just mill around and leave all our stuff on the bus. Five minutes later we get told we are changing onto another bus. It’s even smaller. It’s even older. No headrests. No seatbelts. Aircon looks suspicious. At least there’s only 10+ hours left… And with only four of us, there’s loads of room. Oh no, wait – there’s about twenty people over there joining the shuttle now. Sardine time. Time to leave El Tunco.

2pm – we’ve made it about five miles out of El Tunco. Huge traffic jam. Our grizzled driver uses every bit of hard shoulder, pavement, sideroads and the wrong side of the road to work his way up the traffic. I’m not sure if I’m impressed or terrified (definitely both). Suspicions about aircon were correct, it doesn’t work. At least we probably won’t need a wee, we’re sweating too much for any other fluids to possible escape.

4pm –Stop at a service station. The other shuttle running that day has broken down, our driver spends 30 minutes unsuccessfully trying to help them fix it. We get the biggest ice creams you’ve ever seen from the service station then start wondering when the drivers give up on the other van and we move on.

8pm – boy, this is a long journey, isn’t it. Next border crossing, El Salvador to Honduras. Wait, that’s the other shuttle. The one that had broken down. How have they caught up and overtaken us?!

9pm – random service station on the middle of nowhere. Drivers tell us to be very quick with our break. We all stand around the minibus afterwards, waiting for ten minutes. Where are the drivers? We were all quick, as they asked! Someone notices them slowly having dinner in the service station.

11pm – should have arrived by now. At the Honduras to Nicaragua border crossing. It’s a dirt track with a few shacks. Is this where we’re murdered? Realise someone has stolen my North Face puffer jacket at a border crossing. This isn’t my favourite day ever.

3am – León. 20 hours later. Bus driver doesn’t want to drop us at our hostels at first. No thanks mate. Around thirty minutes later, we finally make it to Poco a Poco hostel, check in with the night porter and crash. We are here.

To be fair, after all that hoo-ha (and we did make a knowing decision to take that shuttle to give us more time in Nicaragua), we really enjoyed León. Funnily enough on our first day we decided to take it easy. Quick tour of the town, then laze around in our cool hostel. In the evening we did a free walking tour which was pretty good. Lots of interesting stories about Nicaragua’s past. It would have been interesting to have learnt something about the recent troubles, but understandably locals are very wary of talking about it and landing themselves in danger.

León seemed to be a pretty nice town – colonial with all the colours and the coolest cathedral I’ve ever seen (you get to walk on the insanely beautiful roof). My first impressions were that it seemed a little more run down than, say, Antigua, but that’s understandable considering there have been two years of unrest that only finished recently. It also is really hot. And humid. Quite the change from the agreeable climate in Guatemala.
The next day was a bit bonkers, but fortunately also excellent. We’d signed up to volcano boarding, the biggest tourist attraction in León. Yes, volcano boarding. Riding a board down a volcano. Who even comes up with this stuff…

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We were picked up at 8am, shoved into the back of a pickup shuttle with a big group from the hostel. A quick detour to the office to pay and get a free tshirt (main reason we did it, obvs) and off we went. We enjoyed a bumpy hour drive (my mind was thrown back to Semuc Champey) and duly arrived at Cerro Negro volcano. Our guide, Matt, helpfully explained that this was one of the most active volcanoes in the world – it is only around 150 years old and has erupted 22 times. It last erupted in 1999. I did some quick maths and quickly realised it was overdue. I hoped Rachel didn’t do the same maths in her head any time soon. Things can definitely be a bit sketchy out here and this was definitely one of those occasions.

Anyway, we did it. We had to each lug our board up the volcano, a walk of around an hour. It was quite challenging carrying the board, with the wind catching it quite regularly. We’re volcano experts now though, so no real challenge. We all went to check out the crater (very cool), then headed back to the point where the boarding begins.

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It really was all quite surreal. We had to change into bright yellow boiler suits, don goggles and gloves and then shuffle over to the start point. We looked like a Breaking Bad/ Devo/Mad Max (delete as appropriate) fan convention. Rachel and I had different fears about the upcoming boarding. Rachel was worried she’d go too fast. I was worried I’d go to slow (I’ve got history of my obese bum meaning I go around one mile per hour down water slides). We both over analysed those going ahead of us, Rachel keeping a keen eye on those who were basically not moving and myself watching those who sped past.

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Our time came up. Rachel went ahead of me, I watched as she crawled down. I was pleased for her. Then, around halfway down each boarder slides out of view – it becomes more steep at this point. Nevertheless, I was really pleased that Rachel had managed to figure out how to go really slow. Except, as I later found out, as soon as she’d hit the steeper bit she built up more and more speed. To the extent where she actually finished further along than any other rider – so was travelling faster than anyone else at the final point. I think she enjoyed it really though. [Rachel: I was going so fast at the end that I was shouting “move back” to people as I thought I was going to run over their toes!]

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Warning - speed demon coming your way

My turn. No fat bum issue. I actually sped off, I was a little taken aback by how fast I started. I shot past the person who had set off ten seconds before me. Rocks are flying into your goggles, you’re trying to use your feet to correct your path, the noise of the wind is so loud. It is a hell of a lot of fun. I hit the steep part at a high speed and then… somehow started slowing down. Noooooo! It seemed no matter what you did, at times it was a little out of your hands. And then, just like that, it was all over.

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Not sure why I look eight months pregnant!

What a surreal thirty seconds. I’m not even sure how to describe it. Definitely surreal and definitely fun.

And thus we all waited at the bottom whilst everyone else finished. No one was badly hurt (one guy bailed and tumbled around ten metres, but was just about OK) and we all piled back into the pickup truck.

Morning done – just your average volcano boarding before lunch. We also got a trip to the beach thrown in in the afternoon. Can’t complain. Sweat, volcano dust and gravel was engrained in every fold in my skin and deeply matted into our hair. The sea was calling. It felt amazing to dive in and just wash all that grit away.

We then just chilled by the beach for a couple of hours. A few of us started a volleyball match which locals joined in with. This sounds nice, but we were all awful at volleyball and the locals were not. It got a bit tiresome after half an hour. I still had fun though.

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Back to the hostel. Cocktail night. Really bad (and very strong) cocktails made by volunteers. I went back to the beers after my first one, though Rachel kept on knocking them back (the trooper). I was really starting to feel the effects of inexplicably waking up at 4am, carrying a wooden plank up a volcano, about eight straight hours of strong sun and an hour of volleyball at 10pm and so hit the sack. Rachel is somehow immune to all these things when a party is involved, so went out with a few people from the hostel. I think the night was quite average. I will have to try to not be an old man one of these days and actually make it out.

And just like that, we were done in León. Short, but sweet. We really enjoyed it, but were ready to hit the road again.

Posted by joe90mitch 10:02 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Antigua (Part II)

Days 62-70 of 184

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View Round the world 2019/20 on joe90mitch's travel map.

JM has kindly offered to pass over the baton and let my (RD) voice shine through for the next leg of the journey. If you don't hear from me again you'll know what he thought to my version of events!

On Christmas eve we awoke at 9am knackered and riddled with hangxiety. The latter perhaps being justified given we had to make our way back to Antigua from Atitlan with no idea if the water taxi services were still running, check into our Airbnb and do our Christmas shopping all before stores shut. Even though we had of course asked around beforehand even the locals didn't seem to be too certain...nothing is ever fixed here! Luckily for us the journey couldn't have run much smoother. A boat was dutifully waiting on the docks to take us back to Panajachel, the shuttle was on time and there was even time for a greasy spoon type breakkie in-between. The only less than ideal element was the windy roads that led me to take out a plastic bag in anticipation of a revisiting from the greasy spoon...

We checked into our Airbnb perfectly on time and we were both pleasantly surprised. A sprawling rooftop terrace with an abundance of flowers creeping up the trellising, a space for cooking/dining and a fantastic view of the three volcanoes - it was perfect!

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However much we wanted to relax and enjoy our apartment, unfortunately now was not the time - we had to get to the supermarket before it shut for Christmas. Vamos! Well, what an experience it was. Forget Lapland, if you want to experience real Christmas then you need to visit a Guatemalan supermarket on Christmas eve (I appreciate this may be controversial to popular opinion). Snow blasted in our faces from fake snow machines, wheel marks on our feet from trolleys, hands grabbing final items off the shelves and queues in the double figures... we left the supermarket with a few extra grey hairs.

A short, cheeky tuk-tuk ride back to our flat later and we unpacked our Christmas goodies. No expense spared, we had all the treats we wanted including Early G [ed. note - Earl Grey], chocolate, cheese, Freixenet, prosecco, beer, cinnamon swirls, fresh bread and pistachios. We were fully stocked, ready to hole up for the next couple of days. That evening we sat out on our rooftop drinking beer, making spurious mulled wine with limited ingredients, playing cards and began watching the His Dark Materials TV series Joe had downloaded. The latter felt like a real treat - we haven't really watched any TV or films since we started travelling! We were getting pretty tired (as we went to bed at 5am the previous night) but knew we had to wait until midnight!

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It was worth the wait. When midnight struck the sky was flooded with colourful explosions. We didn't know which way to turn or where to look, not wanting to miss out on the spectacle. If we caught a glimpse of new explosions on the other side of the terrace we would sprint across the roof to get a closer look, only to sprint back a few seconds later. Multiply this about thirty times - it was comical. The firework display lasted over an hour. These guys take the birth of JC seriously!

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Waking up on Christmas day in Guatemala felt slightly surreal. I had an Early G in bed (of course) and then we made our classic breakfast - banana pancakes. 10am came and went, a perfectly acceptable time to open the prosecco. We spoke to our families and had lunch sat out in the sun on the terrace. We continued to nibble on snacks throughout the afternoon which meant we didn't start cooking our dinner until about 8pm. We finally ate chicken and chickpeas in white wine sauce at 9.30pm, certainly our latest Christmas dinner to date. All in all we had a lovely day even if it wasn't the most traditional.

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Christmas eruption!
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We spent the next few days wandering the narrow cobbled streets of Antigua. Camera in tow, Joe enjoyed photographing the colourful doorways, each slightly different to the next [Ed. note - I fully plan on creating a “Doors of Central America” exhibition when we return - I have enough photos anyway]. We ate delicious food, most notably at the intimate restaurant 'Por Qué No?' which barely fits a dozen people. Perhaps naïvely we hadn't anticipated finding such places in Guatemala. With at-the-counter dining and origami hanging from the ceiling it wouldn't have looked amiss in a trendy London neighbourhood. Here we bumped into Wendy from the trek and she hastily introduced us to all the employees at the restaurant (it clearly wasn't her first visit to the joint). The food was incredible (spicy shrimp in a tomato sauce and chicken in a white wine sauce) and the wine was great too! We must have been good customers because the waitress even started pouring me free wine - top lass!

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Por Qué No
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Other highlights include visiting rooftop bars, a chocolate factory and multiple textile shops (note to self: must stop buying items that we might have a use for in god knows how many years time). We also went to a local farm that holds farmers markets on Saturdays with live music and a farm-to-fork restaurant. Here I bought a 'jade' ring from a stall owner at a great price from a stall owner who was adamant that it was real (whether it is made of jade or plastic is still to be determined). Regardless, it hasn't turned my finger blue yet which I consider a winner. By this point we had checked out of our pretty rooftop home and were back to reality in a hostel dorm - The Three Monkeys. Really nice hostel, fairly sociable, not a fan of their moonshine “cusha”.

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Tasted like a trendy London cafe

Over this Christmas period I had been umming and ahhing about the Acatenango hike [Ed. note - the umming and ahhing began far before Christmas]. This is a where you hike up Volcan de Acatenango and from the campsite near the top watch its neighbour Volcan de Fuego erupt. The next morning you summit Acatenango and head back down. Having heard glowing reviews from fellow travellers Joe was decidedly commited. Being a total worry wart 99% of the time I was uncertain, struggling to discern whether my fears were valid or irrational.

The debate in my head carried out repeatedly like this:

Voice 1: there might be a large eruption on Acatenango, the volcano we would climb or on Fuego, the frequently erupting volcano. Either of which would result in a rather painful traumatic death.

Voice 2: people climb the volcano everyday. They monitor the activity of the volcanoes.

Voice 1: the White Island volcano in New Zealand was supposedly monitored. Volcanoes are unpredictable..

Voice 2: there is probably more chance of dying in a road accident in Guatemala.

Voice 1: this is true, the roads are terrible and there aren't seat belts. Maybe I shouldn't get in any cars now...

Voice 2: that's beside the point, everyone says it's the best thing they've done and if you don't then you'll regret it. Riiiiight….??!

That settled it, so on the 28th December a group of 15 of us along with three tour guides set off up Acatenango. Following the Xela hike I was determined to carry as little as possible to ease my load. I just packed some extra layers (apparently it's cold at 4,000m), snacks, lunch and four litres of water. The hike up to the top was relatively uninteresting and not as difficult as we had anticipated. Scenically, hiking the volcano felt more like walking through a forest with its fertile soils providing dense greenery. The trees blocking any chance of getting a good view for the first few hours and you wouldn’t have known you were on a volcano.

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I had hoped that we would be able to get the worst over with and ascend relatively quickly. This however was not to be as this is determined by the overall speed of the group. Half an hour after setting off two girls in the group were struggling and had fallen behind. The rest of us waited for them at the nearest lay-by. When they caught up with us they looked exhausted and did the obvious thing to do when you are struggling on a walk - they went straight to a guy with a wooden bench of refreshments (of course) to buy a beer each. Me and Joe were shocked to say the least - why would you buy a beer near the start, especially if you're finding it tough?! Shortly behind the girls came three Mexican guys who were similarly struggling - they had flown in from the Yucatan peninsula the day before. The Yucatan is known for its flatness and they were finding the sudden change in altitude tough. Whereas for me and Joe it seemed that our time spent in Mexico City and our hike from Xela had helped us to acclimatize (thankfully altitude sickness is not related to physical fitness).

As a group we spent the next four hours (slowly) ascending. The frequent breaks were frustrating but necessary to keep the group together and it probably helped us to avoid altitude sickness. Finally when we were a couple of hundred meters below basecamp we ascended through the cloud forest and the tree line receded rewarding us with spectacular views. Volcano peaks across the horizon poked through the thick spongy cloud layer. We continued to ascend and as we turned the next corner we caught our first glimpse of Fuego. Heavy plumes of ash and gas billowed from its crater and the excitement from the group was now palpable.

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The bulk of our group (myself and Joe included) and one of the tour guides arrived at basecamp (3,700m) around 4pm. It was a relief to kick back, relax and enjoy the view. Well… relax as much as it’s possible to when you can see a volcano erupting in front of you [ed. note - very easy for me, less so for Rachel]. About an hour later the two girls mentioned previously also arrived with another tour guide. By this point the sun was beginning to set and so me and Joe walked to a little rocky outcrop to get a better view. The fluffy clouds, the erupting volcano and the colour of the sky led to the best sunset of our lives.

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When the sun finally set we couldn't help but think the best was over. Clichéd as it sounds, how wrong we were. The contrasting dark sky illuminated the volcanic eruptions. You could now see the red hot lava explode out of the crater and flow down the flank. This was accompanied by the thunderous booming sound that we had heard during the day but somehow felt more ominous at night. Joe described it as the best evening of his life.

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Joe enjoying dinner (a little bit too much?)
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Credit to Matt from our group for these night shots

With no cloud protection the change in temperature following sunset was drastic. Within half an hour I had gone from wearing shorts and a vest to five layers on top (thermal long sleeves, another top, fleece, jacket, waterproof coat) and three on bottom (thermal trousers, shorts, Joe's tracksuit bottoms). I know I'm always cold but it really was freezing! The group of us huddled round the campfire together eating dinner, drinking wine and toasting marshmallows whilst watching the eruptions every 10 minutes.

At 7.30pm came a surprise - we saw someone stumbling into the campsite along with the third tour guide. None of us had realised that there was anyone missing! It was one of the Mexican guys and he looked like death, struggling to walk any further - poor guy. He joined the rest of us briefly before heading to bed. He wasn't the only one who was suffering however, a number of people had headaches that weren't getting any better. Knackered, most of us went to bed about 9pm knowing that we would have to be up at 4am to summit for sunrise.

I hadn't expected a good night's sleep knowing that I would be hyper aware of every eruption. However, I hadn't expected it to be quite so cold. Even with all my layers on, a sleeping bag and two extra blankets on I was freezing! We also become much more aware of our own breathing as it was laboured even during rest. In the end I think we both managed a couple of hours sleep and I was relieved when 4am finally came round.

In the dark we put on head torches and set off for the summit. Progress was slow as there was a bottleneck of people ascending. Even though it was only an hour it felt much tougher than the previous days work and as we neared the summit I started feeling increasingly nauseous. Other people in the group were similarly reporting feeling sick as well as out of breath, dizzy and intense headaches. I felt lucky to not have any other symptoms! It was all worth it when we reached the top though. The summit was so exposed you could feel the wind and scree whipping you. Me and Joe found a patch opposite Fuego, slightly less exposed, where we collapsed under a blanket and watched the eruptions while the sun rose.

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When we got back to the Basecamp shortly after sunrise we realised that not everyone had summited. Some people felt too bad to come any further which must have been disappointing for them. We quickly gobbled down a breakfast burrito, grabbed our belongings and set off down the volcano. The descent was much quicker - only taking about two and a half hours. About ¾ of the way down I had only fallen over once (quite some achievement) and so me and Joe decided to get a beer to celebrate completing the hike. Afterwards I managed to fall over another four times (in my defence the ground was loose and slippy), thankfully I managed to not spill any beer.

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Bossed it
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Adventure complete, we headed back to Antigua in a shuttle where we spent the rest of the day recuperating so we would be ready to celebrate New Years the following day.

On New Years eve we checked into a new hostel where we met up again with Anna (the Kiwi) and Yannick (the Swiss) from Semuc Champey. Korbi, one of the other travellers on the Acatenango hike, and Julio, a guy from Mexico City, who were both staying at the hostel also joined our group. Whilst we were anticipating a big new years celebration, we were happy to go with the flow and it ended up being a more casual affair.

We started drinking and playing card games about 5pm before heading out for dinner. We then went to a different hostel where we played beer pong and left to go to the main square just before midnight. The main square was filled mostly with families playing with sparklers and firecrackers. Low and behold at midnight there was another large firework display. Surprisingly it only last about 20 minutes - we were expecting more following the Christmas Eve celebrations in Antigua! We then went to a speakeasy, one of them places where you climb through a not-so-secret telephone box to reach a cocktail bar. Everyone had a cocktail except me, I had a soft drink - I know, I surprised myself too! Noone seemed to fancy a big session so we called it a night after that.

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Everyone naturally enjoying the NYE sunset
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Happy new year!!

We both appreciated waking up on New Year's morning feeling fresh and able to enjoy our last day in Antigua. The following day we would be embarking on a 20 hour journey through El Salvador and Honduras to reach Leon in Nicaragua. We were sad to be leaving Antigua and Guatemala having loved both. Guatemala is incredible with its spectacular scenery, volcanoes, wildlife, lakes and pretty colonial cities. We can't help but feel as though it is on the verge of a major tourism boom. Watch out Mexico - I think your crown has been stolen!

Posted by joe90mitch 16:01 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

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