Sunday, October 29, 2006

Monteverde and the Cops

We left Tamarindo and headed for Monteverde on Friday morning and had a crazy drive up into the mountains. Stop wondering about the cops part and pay attention, this part is cool too. Imagine the bumpiest road you can for two hours, the kind of bumpy that makes your stomach churn, the jack rattle loose from its mounts under the seat of your rental car, and your vision first blur and later get those weird little sparky things in the corner of your eyes. For me, the excitement of pretending to be a rally driver was enough to keep me going. For Emily, it was the prospect of entering the lands of coffee. The mountainous highlands of Costa Rica are famous for their shade grown coffee that they sell to Starbucks, of which there are none as far as we know of in Costa Rica.

First stop, Belacruz coffee shop/gift shop/bird watching sanctuary/home of the nicest people on the planet. They fed us, showed us birds, translated difficult Spanish words into English with a dictionary and gave us 3 great recommendations for hotels complete with maps and the traditional "Con mucho gusto!", roughly translated "with pleasure!" I liked the empanadas, Emily loved the coffee. We successfully got a picture of a hummingbird.

We stayed at Sunset Hotel, run by an uber-friendly German named Klaus who was filling in for the owners while they were on vacation. Klaus has traveled the world, has bright eyes and a firm grip, and calls you by your first name. As long as you don't beat around the bush - ever - you're going to like Klaus. Our towels were folded in the shapes of a swan and a fan. I got the fan.

So what's in Monteverde? It's really a few sleepy towns at the end of a horrific road with nature reserves, canopy trekking, ziplines, coffee, and some serious gift shops. We hiked in the reserve towards dusk and got immediately lost. That's not fair, we got steadily lost as daylight faded. We think the caretakers are a little sick - they provide brightly colored, well marked maps of trails that start with matching colors corresponding to the map. As soon as you are far enough into the woods to be disoriented, you encounter multiple intersections with no signs or colors. Then the colors change, purple for blue, green for yellow... before you know it, tarantulas are salivating over your sweaty panicky self. We got out by going the opposite direction of signs pointing towards the information office. That was after it took 4 circles to realize we were going in circles. The place was beautiful, however, and I found the ants as fascinating as Emily found the coffee beans growing in their natural state.

We took a canopy tour and ziplined the next morning. Incredible! It was really high, really fast, and really... safe? The guides had radios, first aid kits, we were clipped in to standards acceptable in no less than 4 countries, and we never really touched any of the equipment or got stuck or had any problem whatsoever. It was a little eerie, but you really had nothing to do but enjoy the incredible views whizzing by as you zip over canyons, through forests and down mountainsides. Like 4 G's, 500 feet down, and half-mile long ziplines. Skytrek tours, everyone. I think someone chipped a toenail in '97 or they would have a plaque from the International Safety Federation for their perfect record.

We arrived in Monteverde wondering what a cloud forest is - what, never heard of one? "Cloud forest - A wet, tropical forest, often near peaks of coastal mountains and at an altitude usually between 1,000 and 2,500 meters, that is characterized by a profusion of epiphytes and the presence of clouds even in the dry season." We were at the right height, and exactly the right humidity, but I swear we never saw an epiphyte the entire time. There are Quakers that supposedly founded the area, and we saw a couple people who looked Protestant, but I don't think that's even close.

We said goodbye to Klaus and our breakfasts as we trounced back down the more-pothole
-than-road ... road and hit the highway. (This is the cop part). After a ride that slow, I hit the gas and rolled through a speed trap at 99km/h, whatever that is. It sounds faster than it is, but the cops were serious about it anyway. Apparently there was a town or something hidden in the woods, and it was a slow area. The friendly but firm officer wrote us a ticket for 55,000 colones (that's MORE than it sounds like) and took my license, suspending it for six months. I explained to him that a driver's license issued by a government with recognized diplomatic ties to his nation can't be suspended with pre-approval from said government as it is a right conferred by the citizen's government and thereby irrevocable. Of course he didn't buy it and wrote a ticket. Then Emily explained that we were leaving the country the next day and we couldn't possibly be in court the following week to get my license back. That made him pause, and he talked the matter over with his colleague. After much hemming and hawing, they decided to tear up the ticket for a couple of Cokes (international currency). Of course we didn't have any Cokes, but when they asked again with a knowing look, a couple of Cuban cigars seemed to make them really happy.

So now we're back in San Jose, license in hand and trying to organize ourselves for the jump to South America. We bumped into a couple of fellow Portlanders, Deb and Barb, who we met a week ago and just happened to be back in San Jose at the same time. They moved down to Costa Rica this week and are headed to Monteverde for a permanent stay. We relayed our story about the police here thinking it would be helpful, and hopefully we'll bump into them back in the Northwest when we're all up that way.

Speaking of new friends, we want to say hi to some new ones we made in San Juan del Sur during those less pleasant times - V and E, if you're out there, we salute you. You guys were the highlight of Saint John for sure-hope Ometepe is treating you well! They are a couple of South Africans spending a whopping year on the road, doing an around the world tour - with surfboards. See all the cool people you meet on the dusty trail?

See you all in South America.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


What a day in Tamarindo!

We just had a glorious day in Tamarindo Beach, Costa Rica. Last time we blogged you got the impression times were "tough"; things have improved! Let's do this all backwards. And maybe upside down.

We just got done surfing some incredible waves on the beach at sunset. Emily has been teaching me how to surf without making spastic ungainly movements. Before that we took a two person kayak out to an island in the bay and watched critters in tidepools and the waves crashing on the rocks. There were shells piled high, almost a wall of white that was blindingly bright. We had the little island all to ourselves to explore until the tide began taking it away and it was time to move on. On a sad note, we saw a pelican who looked like he was on his last legs. He would hold his head up high until we turned around, and then he would slump to the ground, almost as though he was too proud to let us see that he was dying. He did that a number of times, it was almost eerie. We then took our kayak through some surf in the bay which was exciting as the waves come in and turn in all sorts of crazy directions. Only one kayak capsize, though, and we were very glad the camera was safely back at home. We even managed to recover most of the little "treasures" we had found on the island, well, Emily had found I should say.

Yesterday was our beach tour. I think we saw four or five beaches along the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, some of them relatively remote and some of them INCREDIBLY developed. There was a peninsula with jaw-dropping hotels and homes built into the sides of the cliff overlooking water on both sides. Costa Rica is astonishingly built up compared to the rest of Central America that we've seen. And expensive!

Before the beach tour, we spent the night in Playa Coco. Not our favorite place, it reminded us of San Juan del Sur. Something about the cheezy touristy overbuilt syndrome that's a little repulsive after seeing so much natural beauty.

I'm sure at this point you're wondering how we're getting around... we rented a car in San Jose! It's been killer having our own wheels, making our own schedule. A few days on the road makes us shudder to think what it would have cost us to be at the mercy of tours and shuttle buses here- everything has a price tag, even seeing waterfalls or parks. Much of the $$$ goes to preserve the natural habitat, but it's nice to see waterfalls for free back home in the Gorge.

Getting to each place has been pretty hilarious in our tiny four cylinder 4x4. The little Hyundai something or other has done a fine job though, as I'm pretty sure updated maps might show a few new roads that we forged.

Before Playa Coco we were in La Fortuna and Volcan Arenal - yes, another volcano. Fortuna wasn't much to blog about, but Volcan Arenal... We hemmed and hawed about staying at a nice resort that had an amazing view of the volcano. They had hugely discounted rates for low season, but we weren't sure. They told us you could see the volcano erupting at night, that was a big draw.

Sure enough, we opened the curtains to see the volcano before going to bed, and caught a view of glowing rocks and boulders hurtling down the sides of the volcano! We've seen a few volcanos on this trip, but that was really sweet. We hiked close to the volcano the next day and could see and hear the flaming boulders rolling down the mountain. Cool.

Before that we were in San Jose, which is a really nice city. We enjoyed the cosmopolitan atmosphere, ate some really nice meals and washed all of our clothes. We hate to be snooty, but there is something delectable about all the amenities in a major city. Like dryers. Like hot water. Like good restaurants.

So here's some more big news - our trip is about to take a turn. We decided that we're almost done with Central America, and we're really close to a major airport... so we booked flights to Argentina, South America. Somewhat whimsical, but we've been talking about it for a while now and figured - why not!? We've got the time, we're interested in continuing our Spanish education, and we're intensely curious about South America. We'll arrive in Buenos Aires, Argentina on Tuesday morning and see what happens!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Saint John of the South

I don't know what you have heard about San Juan Del Sur, or what you think you may have heard, but get ready for the skinny on this Nicaraguan not-so-sleepy weekend vacation paradise.

We've been on the road for a bit. You've been a faithful follower. It's time to cut through the worn out "everything's great!" facade and let you know how it really is.

San Juan doesn't have power from 11am-3pm every day.

The water turns off intermittently. This means the fan doesn't work at night. If you've ever been to latitudes south of Miami, you just gasped.

The town's only coffee shop is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday and is only open until 3pm other days of the week. If you live in the Northwest, you just gasped.

Rainy season started, meaning we very innocently gave our laundry to our host family, and it's been hanging out in the yard for three days. You have to duck under my boxer shorts and Emily's unmentionables to get a seat at breakfast. I can only estimate that our clothes have moved more than 10 times as the rain comes and goes, the side benefit being that sometimes the underwear you confront has a different pattern. Today it was boxers with white with red polka dots (sale at the Gap, post-Christmas sale '04 - neither here nor there).

We've made the most of it - we went surfing in the rain today, we've done a lot of reading, and learned a ton of Spanish. We also researched flights to South America, and we're thinking about pulling the trigger if the rainy season is here to stay. South America is smack in the middle of Spring right now. At least that's what we think, we left the South American guidebook at home. Maybe we've been enjoying the best Central America has to offer on borrowed time, and as they say here, the fiesta may be finito...

Don't look surprised, it's all part of the experience. First we found out paradise has an off-season, now we found out it has a rainy season.

(Don't think we're down-and-out or anything, and please don't feel sorry for us. We're well aware we're stuck in the dramatically cliff-enveloped cove of a Central American beach town with some great surfing, amazing cultural experiences and bueno fish tacos. We just wanted to let you in and let you experience the real thing in all its gritty, sweaty, sand-in-your-bathing-suit splendor. It's good for you.)

Gotta go, time for rice and beans. It's the national food of Central America, even for breakfast.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Active Volcanos Are Much Easier to Climb

We moved on from Granada and caught a ferry to this crazy island called Ometepe. There's a silent TL on the end, it's supposed to be Ometepetl in the native language of Nahuatl, but TL is just too hard to pronounce so they gave up.

The word Ometepe means "between two mountains", it describes a crazy island that is made up of two huge volcanos and a little piece of land in between where the lava flowed together. Yesterday we climbed the active one, Concepcion. It was 10,000ft lower than our first but it was still a rough climb. They don't know about switchbacks in Nicaragua, so it was 5,000ft straight up the mountain, often on all fours because it was so steep. Our guide was Ramon, we met him the night we arrived while the bus was stuck in the middle of the road with a flat tire. We were late meeting him for our climb because the same bus had another flat tire before it got to us. They are quite expedient about fixing flats, however - happens a lot I suppose.

Again, Emily rocked the volcano, carrying the backpack all the way up. I carried it back down again as my contribution.

The views from the top were spectacular - the lake is gargantuan, the other volcano looks like another stranded island, you feel like Tom Hanks in Castaway when he gets to the top of the island and realizes where he is. The mystery is increased by the hot sulfur and gases pouring out of the still active crater. The volcano looks like a model volcano you would make in 7th grade, complete with a perfect cone at the top, lots of old lava flows down the sides and clouds of hot steam and gas pouring out the top. Way cool. Luckily it hasn't erupted since last year, and even that was a little one. Now that I write this, it explains why the island isn't so popular with tourists. We were surprised at how few tourists we saw during our visit, but I would attribute some of that to being off the beaten path and the rest to the fact that there's nowhere to run if the volcano goes.

We also went horseback riding, which was GREAT. We rode up to a beautiful viewpoint, down along the beach at sunset, and through the jungle under lots of low hanging branches. I thought the horse would automatically recognize a tree branch at head height and move around it, but Emily knew better than me and I ended up eating them involuntarily. Luckily a lot of the plants are medicinal.

In summary, Ometepe is quite amazing and really undiscovered. We spent last night sitting on the shore, looking up at stars untainted by city lights and listening to some local guitarists croon songs in spanish. I leaned over to mention to Emily that it couldn't get any better and a shooting star went flying past our heads. Honestly!

This morning we reluctantly left our hotel in Ometepe and took a bus, a ferry and a taxi to San Juan del Sur. Welcome to the Pacific Coast! This place is really beautiful, lots of restaurants, hotels, shops, two dive shops and a bunch of spanish schools. We're going to stay for a week and soak up some local language and some sun. We start a homestay tomorrow, we'll let you know how it goes.

On our taxi ride here, we learned about local politics which was fascinating. Their election is in only 23 days away and we have seen several horse carriages, streetlight poles, bicycles, and tuba players campaigning. Now we know who to vote for if we can just fit in enough...we also confirmed that the official Nica's favorite type of music is American soft rock from the 80's. Everywhere we go we hear Chicago and Brian Adams. And "Guilty feet have got no rhythym." Unfortunately, we already know all the words and can only entertain ourselves by trying to translate them into Spanish.

The morning before our volcano climb Emily and I were waiting for the bus around 4:45am, just before the sun started coming up. We saw men and women walking to work, men driving cattle on bicycles (think about it before you say something, it'll make sense), dudes with machetes and a bottle of water, women carrying things on their heads, teams of oxen, people on horseback, and pigs, howler monkeys, stray dogs, chickens and roosters running around. It was amazing to see such a vibrant and active community, alive even before the sun rose, and it made us think about everyone's lives around us, how different they are from what we do every day. Especially the guy with the machete and a water bottle, what does he do?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Charger Wanted! Fluent Honk Speaker a Plus

You're waiting for the bus, and off in the distance you hear the honking before it even comes into sight. As the yellow tin can/toyota minibus/stagecoach (take your pick) comes to a tooth rattling halt(more of a pause) and you try to decide if it's the one you want, a gentleman jumps off, grabs your bag and throws it on board and scoops you up as the bus starts to pick up speed. He barely gets on behind you. As you barrel down the road, he determines where you want to stop, collects your fare, and returns to lean out the door to nab his next customer. The bus never completely stopped during this process, mind you.

This is the infamous "Cobrador", the "Charger"(more of a human revolving door), and it is one of the exciting and adventurous jobs available to you in lovely Central America.

It's entertaining enough to keep you captivated for an hours-long bus ride, and Emily and I came up with the job description as we rode (it was an eight hour ride, we had plenty of time) -

Energetic and sociable person wanted as a Charger on the Tegucigalpa-to-Managua Bus Route

-Must be excellent at handling money and people of all sizes
-Photographic memory for tracking paying and non paying customers
-Rapid sales skills helpful for convincing people to ride your bus
-Balance and timing critical for last minute grabs
-Former experience as an auctioneer with a quick tongue optional
-Fluent "honk" speaker a plus

"Honk" with its many dialects is an unofficial language here spoken universally by bus drivers and commonly by others operating motor vehicles. There are different honks for letting people know you are coming, honks for people who are in the road about to get smashed, a different honk for a bicycle in the road, honks for other buses that the driver knows, honks to thank local police for waving them through checkpoints, and honks when you nod off on the steering wheel. Several people have enhanced their vehicles (especially taxis) so that honks can have intonation and charater. As non-speakers, one night we were sure that R2-D2 was about to run us down. If you do speak honk, than you have an edge on the other would-be Charger applicants.

While we're on the topic of buses, it's important that you understand how they work in CA, or Central America. (It's even more important not to confuse it with California, though it was fun to think there were hundreds of other Americans on the road for the first couple weeks of our trip before we figured it out). Our eight hour bus ride from Tegucigalpa, Honduras to Managua, Nicaragua only covered the distance of about four football fields. However, we covered about 400 nautical miles of lateral movement through switchbacks over mountains and around pedestrians, cows and cyclists. Ugh.

One more mental picture of public transportation and we're done. Honduras has just purchased one of the nicest high-speed ferries we've ever seen for travel between the mainland and the Bay Islands. Big picture movie screen, brand new chairs, ICE COLD air conditioning - the works. WAY nicer than any ferry we've ever seen in the US, hands down. However - when you arrive, they keep you behind a fence like an animal with your luggage mere feet from your grasping hands, while people press up against it to try and collect luggage like it all might disappear before their very eyes. You don't get your own luggage, you wait for one of a couple people to hear you yelling, pick it up, bring it to you and check your luggage tag. It was like being at an auction and a traffic accident all at once. People in the front who didn't see their bags wouldn't move to let people in, once they got them they couldn't get out. It was mayhem, and really funny unless it took you 45 minutes to get yours. You should probably know, as an important aside to information about the Honduran Bay Islands, that there are hundreds of suicidal crabs that come out in droves at night and litter the streets to play chicken with the taxis. And they, of course, require a different honk.

Sorry for the diatribe on Central American public transportation, but it's a critical factor in understanding the place.

On a more personal note, we're enjoying Granada, Nicaragua today. We've explored the beautiful colonial town, wandered its cathedrals, walked the waterfront of Lake Nicaragua and took a boat through some of its 350 volcanic islands. We then relaxed in the city's lively Parque Central in the shadow of the largest church and had a giant glass of refreshing fresh squeezed juice and...fried pork skins. They were a "must-try" but I think we each only had one. Finally a local pizza place, a couple of beers and had an ice cream cone to finish the day off. It has been great. (and we just learned how to say that last sentence, that very tense in Spanish last week)

As always, if you really want to understand Central America you should come down and visit us. When you do, take the bus - it's an experience.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Two Octopuses equals Octopi

Hey it's me Emily! The other half! I am quite proud of my husband's excellent writing skills but since I can't get him out of the ocean for long enough to blog, I am filling in for today. We have officially spent more time in wet suits and in the sea than on land over the past week and are loving it. We wander back to our little cabin at some point each night, but otherwise everything you need in life you can find on the deck of a dive shop. Who knew?

Diving certification has been an intense amount of fun over the past week and a bit of whirlwind too. Ryan was already a diver and is now at the advanced level as of this morning so I have had some catching up to do. I completed my open water course yesterday afternoon which qualified me just in time to jump in on the night dive of Ryan's advanced course. A full moon, octopus sightings, huge night creatures of the sea made this an incredible experience. And it was our first dive together! At one point we sat on the ocean floor and turned our lights off to watch our arms glow with plankton as we began waving them around. The ascent towards moonlight at the surface was equally incredible. We highly recommend it. Any divers or divers-to-be out there to join us in the future?

We already mentioned the fun variety of people on this island and we have definitely continued to enjoy them. I do think there is heavy representation from the British Isles. We are working on our accents, but those people from small towns we've never heard of really throw us off. My instructor, Lauren, is from Scottland, has lived in England, Africa, Egypt, and Australia (hope I'm counting right), and has been diving all over the world at the ripe age of 23. She was awesome, and I even got to pick up a few Norsk words from the Norwegians I learned with. I won't do them the dis-service of trying to spell them here...Will has been Ryan's instructor and is quite a mover and a shaker as well as a lot of fun. He and Ryan were scheming about dive software for the shop last night while we were out celebrating at one of the two bars in town. It was fascinating until I had to escape.

Sand fleas, flies, and mosquitos are VORACIOUS so I think the time has come to read up on DEET toxicity after this week. I have traded showers for bathing in it.

We love and miss you all! Thanks for your comments, we love reading them! Much love until next time....

Monday, October 02, 2006

There's Something About an Island...

We checked out Rio Dulce in Guatemala, didn't love it, and headed on to the Bay Islands of Honduras where we do love it. It was a heck of a journey to get here, and most say that you can't do it all in a day - but we did.

It's not as impressive when you look at a map and figure it's about 110 miles if you flew straight here from Rio Dulce. It's another story entirely when you sleep through the 5am ferry, catch the 6:30am boat to Puerto Barrios, take a shuttle to the Honduran border, get ripped off by the shuttle driver when he lies to you about the exchange rate and shortchanges you while you're running to catch the yellow-tin-can-grade-school-bus to Puerto Cortes, then another bus to San Pedro Sula, miss the hourly bus to La Ceiba by ...let's just say you don't want to know what we said to the bus as it drove away... load up on snacks from the street market and catch the next "luxury bus" to La Ceiba, then negotiate a cab from the bus station in La Ceiba to the ferry terminal, and take the 4:30pm last and final ferry to Roatan. Of course there's the taxi to the West End of Roatan, which ended up being the most pleasant leg of the journey. We were plotting on shortchanging the cab driver just to make up for the abuse we suffered at the Honduran border, but he was just too nice. He took us to four different places to stay, to an ATM, told us all about the island and helped us learn Spanish. What goes around comes around.

So now we're in Roatan, Honduras. We're staying at a cool little jungalow complete with monkeys, kayaks and free internet. Emily is in dive school right now, I'm going to meet her in a little bit for lunch. We like this place, it's like a UN summit. We've met people from tons of different countries, most living here for the last few years. And OH the diving! We haven't been yet, so I won't gush, but it promises to be good and the prices are ridiculous. $20 a dunk.

Emily and I were talking and wanted to pose a thought to you, while it's on our minds. We were talking about different views on careers and work, and how in the US and some other places, what you do is who you are. We've bumped into a lot of people who don't see it quite that way, and it's a relief. The thought came up because we've gotten such different reactions when we explain what we're doing. A lot of Americans are really surprised we're on the road for four months and say something about how they would love to do that if they could find the time. Some have done it and have a knowing look on their faces. We've bumped into some Brits, Aussies, Israelies, and other Euros who say things like "I guess you could see a lot in only four months. That's a nice trip." One Australian girl we met moved to England on her last backpacking trip, stayed for a while and hit the road once more before completing her round trip journey back to Australia - 5 1/2 years after she left. Granted, we've got a biased opinion, but it's nice to get outside what you know and see how other people live. We are learning that "what you do" is certainly not "who you are." What do you think?

I'm off to pick Emily up for lunch, see how class went, and then we'll dive together this afternoon for the first time. I'm really not handling being apart from her well, I've been by the dive shop a few times in the last couple hours.

This is a nice place for you to come and visit when we're here in the spring! We are here to scope it out for you...