20 April 2009

Unfairly good times

We have had an incredible time in Costa Rica. Any of you who have been working during this time may not want to read on. Despite the price hike and major westernisation compared to the rest of Central America, the tourism is much better developed and as such many beautiful places are suddenly so much more accessible. We spent the Easter holidays in Monteverde national park, one of Costa Rica´s most famous areas in mountainous cloud forest. We were lucky enough to hitch a ride with a local tour operator, from the main road where the bus dropped us, to Santa Elena, the town closest to Monteverde. It was a beautiful winding trip up into the mountains, dry pastoral country at the bottom to dense green cloud forest and a view of the ocean at the very top. From a steamy few weeks in Nicaragua we were pleased to have to put jumpers on in the late afternoon in the cloud forest. The backpackers was lovely and we made a few good friends in the communal kitchen cooking up creative dishes to salsa music.

Excitement of Monteverde included;
- getting personal with the iguanas and nonvenomous snakes in the local serpentrium
- hanging out in the butterfly garden
- hiking through the Monteverde reserve, seeing toucans, howler monkeys, and fabulous forest. oh, and yet another waterfall...
- spotting 6 different species fo hummingbird in the hummingbird garden whilst sipping a latte
- having a coati (Racoon like critter) try to steal our lunch in the hummingbird garden because Natalia emptied tuna juice onto the leaves
- ziplining through primary cloud forest
- spotting a Quetzal (beautiful green and red bird with long long tail fethers) whilst standing on a zipline platform
- scooting out on the zipline with the guide holding me so I could get better photos of the Quetzal
- climbing a large cylindrical parasitic fig tree which had long killed its host and hollowed out, and watching the sun set behind the town from up high
- enjoying a cup of tea at sunrise back in the fig tree, 15m up, complete with bird book and binoculars (Nerds!).

After the Easter celebrations were over and the buses were running again, we moved on to Arenal Volcano, the most active in all of central America. As we crossed the nearby lake to get to the town, Arenal loomed on the horizon with steam rising off the sides where lava flows down to the bottom of the volcano almost every day. Funny to be so nonchalant about camping next toor to a rumbling lava giant. Unfortunately we didn´t get to see it at night as it clouded over and rained all night. However it was certainly a strong presence in the town, visible from everywhere including our hostel hammocks!

Next stop was Tortuguero, on the east coast of Costa Rica, a place described as ¨Venice in the jungle¨as it is based in a series of canals, with a thin strip of land for the village against the beach of the carribean ocean. It's famous for being a turtle nesting beach but we were going there in the off season, and mainly wanted to see a different kind of rainforest (with the obvious bonus of animal spotting whilst sitting leisurely in a canoe). When we got there though, we were told that the Leatherback turtles are nesting at the moment. Holy flip!! I have worked with 3 other species of sea turtle (I think there are 6 or 7 in the world) and Leatherbacks are the largest and most endangered. We spent the first 2 nights walking along the beaches avoiding the guides who would have made us pay $15. On the 3rd night we reluctantly paid the guide (who could take us further up the beach without fear of being mugged) and it paid off, we watched a 500kg, 160cm long old girl lay her eggs and return to the ocean. Magic.

We saw a huge amount of other stuff in Tortuguero either from a canoe or on foot. I caught 2 snakes in 2 days, much to Natalia's disgust afterwards when we found out they were both somewhat venomous. But I was careful! Check the photos for iguanas, basilisks, turtles, plenty of birds, spider monkeys... etc.

Natalia flew out of the city of San Jose the day before me. Very sad to see her go, we have had such a great time together and we (perhaps surprisingly) got along brilliantly and worked well together almost 24/7. She's off to New York and I'm off to London. Back to english speaking shiny expensive cities! My first dose of city life was sitting on the plane from LA to London for 10 hours next to a model and her model boyfriend going to london for a "shoot". They were Sooo LA. She told me what was going on in Vogue magazine and Who is Beautiful and Who is Not.

I'm currently hanging out in sunny and beautiful (yes really) London with a family I met in Thailand who have very kindly offered to put me up for a few nights. I just saw a fox in their backyard. They are getting ready for a big 50th party and want me to try all their cooking for the party. This is something I can help with. Unfortunately I don't feel I can truly repay the favour to them! I only got in this morning, which should have been midnight in LA but am powering on until at least 8.30pm before I go to bed. If this post doesn't make sense, that is why. Later this week I am catching up with a girl I met in Hiroshima who works for the London Police. I hoped she worked in Sun Hill but she crushed my hopes and said it doesn't exist.

Only a few more days until reality comes crashing down on me... see you all then....

13 April 2009

Birdwatching, volcanoes, waterfalls and surfing

Time for some reflection on an action packed couple of weeks working our way through Central America. After leaving the mother's nest in Guatemala we sped through to a large inland lake called Lake Yojoa (pronounced yo-hoa) in the centre of Honduras where we stayed for a few days at a microbrewery just outside a really small town. I enjoyed sampling the brewer's selection of beers, Natalia was battling some stomach bug which got angry when she had beer so she missed out. We both were very excited that the whole place was on filtered water so we could drink out of the TAP!! It was a very cosy place to be based for checking out the lake and nearby waterfall. We met up with two Honduran-Americans who were also on holiday and showed us around. We all had a great evening with an expat american family who ran a pizza place (cunningly disguised with a sign outside saying Sandwich Bar) and were thrilled to let me taste their entire range of home pickled jalapenos. The two Honduran girls ended up inviting us to stay at their place in one of the big cities in Honduras. It was a really kind offer and would have been great to experience their lifestyle - the family owns a big "sewing factory" (aka sweatshop) and sounds like they would have looked after us pretty well with drivers and maids etc - but it's really out of our way and we are keen to keep heading south. 

On Lake Yojoa itself we had an amazing morning birdwatching with one of the most eccentric people I have ever met, a skinny old English man with a white plaited beard and a variety of baggy camoflauge clothing. He took us out on a boat (complete with boatman to row for us!) and we got to be very professional with binoculars and photography in a very leisurely way. Saw probably 40 species of birds, the highlight being a pair of Toucans, and quite a few basilisk lizards basking on rocks. This was our first truly nature-based bit of tourism and it inspired me a lot. This is why I'm here, not to see dusty cities, beggars and rubbish filled verges.

From here we skipped quickly through the rest of Honduras with a few epic days on chicken buses. One notable moment was on a particularly long and sweaty ride where a drunk local was being way too friendly with Natalia and I. He ignored our demands to leave him alone until the locals on the bus stood up for us and kicked him off the bus at the next stop, minus his bags, telling him to "leave the gringo chicas alone, they don't like you!" We crossed the border into Nicaragua, staying in a small town called Esteli. At first appearance it seemed like another dusty town with a 6am church siren but over the couple of days we were there we noticed a bit of an alternative undercurrent that we hadn't seen before. There were leatherworkers, herbal remedy places and restaurants with organic foods and coffee. I think it would be a pretty interesting place to spend more time in. 

We were totally unprepared for Granada, on the edge of Lake Nicaragua. It's a very old city which was built by the Spanish as a port (the lake is BIG) and centre for the surrounding wealthy gold and silver mines and prosperous agriculture due to the volcanic soils. Consequently it's granduer seems completely out of place from anything else we had seen, with beautiful colonial style buildings, with tiled floors, high ceilings and grand entrances. We spent a lot of time peering in doorways and admiring the garden courtyards within almost every building. Almost everybody has a rockingchair in Granada too as it's very warm, and there seemed to be "rockingchair hour" just on sunset when people appeared from nowhere to recline on their verhandas and enjoy the breeze. 

We booked ourselves on a night tour to Volcano Mombacho, a "sleeping" volcano quite close to  Granada. It was fairly expensive and we were seriously considering not going, but it turned out to be an amazing experience. Tourism in Nicaragua is not very developed, especially nature based tourism, so we were really unsure about what we were going to get. They picked us up in the morning and we drove to the top of the volcano, where there's a biological research station (although we couldn't actually figure out what, if any, research went on). We did a 4 hour hike around the 3 craters at the top of the volcano. It was very steep but phenomenally beautiful, the craters have been long inactive and the cloud forest is thick and sprawls between them. After a quick nap and some dinner we went out again at night with a guide. It turned out that the 2 of us were the only ones booked on the night tour so we had the place to ourselves, with 2 rangers, a caretaker and a cook staying upthere to look after us!! Major excitment on the night walk was seeing salamanders, red eyed green tree frog (eeeep) and ... a two-toed sloth!!! We nearly wet our pants with excitement and I think the guide thought we were a bit nuts. But hopefully he appreciated our enthusiasm. Neither of us slept very well after so much excitement but we got up before sunrise and walked another trail through the mist to listen for birds. We ended up at a lookout where we could sometimes make out Granada through the mist and partook in some early morning cloud forest yoga on a volcano in the clouds. Ahh.

Down the volcano and onto a ferry which took us to Omotepe, an island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua made of two massive volcanes. Omotepe is a strange place, it's a destination that every traveller we passed told us was unmissable, but apart from the ferry landing it was a very un-touristy place. It's mostly farmland, with no central town, just small villages dotted around the volcanoes and joined by the worst roads I have ever seen. Even the DEC fire dozers make a better track through the bush. Being the intelligent chicas we are, we rented bikes from our hostel and attempted to ride around the island. This ended with us being sunburnt, tired, and frustrated with sore arses. We gave up and swam in the creek instead. We were not unhappy to leave, although sunsets with volcano silhouettes were quite spectacular, the lake "beaches" everyone had raved about did not impress us picky Aussies much! Coconut palms were not enough to counter the black sand and grey water! 

Last stop in Nicaragua was my designated surf stop at San Juan Del Sur. It's a small town just south of Playa Maderas, one of the best surf beaches in the world. The town was really cute, and there was a certain hum on the streets as people were arriving in droves for Semana Santa (Easter week) celebrations. There was a real difference in the travellers here, generally they were there to stay and surf rather than moving from place to place sightseeing. We fitted in at this hostel more than anywhere else we had stayed, the surfer guys embracing us as family from the moment we walked in the door. Everyone chipped in each night for a massive cookup by a couple of the guys who had worked as chefs on oil rigs. Awesome! Just hanging out with them was a nice change from the "where have you been, where are you going" conversations. They were our designated body guards on the streets (there is a lot of crime over easter) and we all had a fun night out on the town in the bars along the beach. Some of us may have had a little too much fun and had trouble scraping ourselves out of the hammock to go for a surf at Playa Maderas the following day... but got there eventually. It was a really nice beach with long rolling waves like Denmark and scenic limestone islets jutting out of the water to the north of the surf area. I hired a board and had a bit of fun being beaten around by the water (as usual) before settling on the sand to watch the sun set over the water. I hadn't realised how much I have missed that! We were sad to leave the guys at the hostel, would have loved to just hang there for a few weeks. But onward to Costa Rica, preparing ourselves for prices to double and American tourists shouting at people in English... but it's worth it if we get to see more sloths!!

08 April 2009

sloths, waterfalls, rainbows, volcanoes and hammocks

Hi all,

Some new photos up - Honduras and Nicaragua. Highlight was seeing a SLOTH!!
We are crossing the border to Costa Rica tomorrow.

Also Natalia's uploaded some pictures here if you are bored with mine!

will write more soon :)