Monday, July 6, 2009
I've been home for 3 months now and still my backpack is not unpacked. There it sits by the front door fully packed "just in case". In case of what I am not sure, I'm pretty sure that if I unpack it I'll have to face the reality of the adventure being over. If it's still there in a few months I will seek professional help.
Not that reality is that bad, I had work lined up for when I got back so no financial crunch. My piece of crap 86 Bronco that I had left parked, outside in the snow when I left 4 months beforehand started 1st try after a battery re-change. I got home just in time for May long weekend. The 1st long weekend after winter when every resident of Vancouver gets in their car and parks on highway #1 to get out of town. I headed to Cultus Lake with some friends a short 1 1/2 hour drive from Vancouver. I have also made it over to Victoria this summer and in a few weeks over to Tofino for some surfing. I saw some beautiful places on my travels but there really is no place like home, British Columbia is one of the most beautiful places I've seen so this summer I am going to play tourist in my own province.
I am defiantly hooked on traveling and fully intend to keep exploring. It's a big world out there and I want to see as much of it as I can while I'm here. This trip was my first "big" trip and I did it solo in countries that I didn't speak the language of. In the beginning it kind of scared the crap out of me. During the 1st couple of weeks I constantly asked myself what the hell was I doing and why did I think I could possibly do it? The turning point was in Mexico City, I wanted to go to a museum on the other side of town. I didn't want to take an organized tour, I wanted to take the sub-way and mix with the locals. I've never been in a city with that many people before or on a sub-way the size of the one they have. I knew odds were slim that there would be many English speakers around and I was right, I didn't meet one on the trip there or back. Once I mastered the sub-way I knew that no matter where I went I'd be okay on my own.
I left Vancouver in January and returned home in May. The 4 month trip through 7 countries cost me about $3000.00 Canadian ($2700 US). I didn't do any of the "big ticket" items as I have done most of them, I do highly recommend you give them a go if you have never tried them. White Water Rafting, Zip Line Trips, Bungee Jumping, Fishing Trips, Whale watching trips, day boat trips, horse back riding ( did do one of these this trip), will all run you about $30.00 to $60.00 US. There are some really great multi day/camp out hikes that will run you about $150-$300 US.
Things I learned On My Trip
- Latin people are incredible - Some of the locals I met on the trip live on next to nothing and are in living conditions that North Americans would consider sub-standard. Yet they are friendly, warm, helpful and most of all happy. It makes one take a look at what is and is not important in life. Seeing a farm family come into town on Sunday for church dressed in their best cloths and in their donkey pulled cart brings home how trivial it is to care about what you have and the brand names on your stuff. I much prefer the Latin outlook on life, they value what they have and although they may want to better their situation it is rarely based on the "keep up with the Jones's" attitude of North Americans.
- Never trust cab drivers - Although I always got to where I was going and in no way felt threatened my wallet took a few hits. Some tips: Always agree on a price before you get in. If you can keep your backpack in the back seat, just in case your driver wants to renegotiate once you reach your destination. They can't hold your stuff hostage you can pay them the agreed price and walk away. If you can share cabs; usually at bus stops & hostels there are people going the same way, ask around. Most people are happy to cut their costs down by sharing.
- Beware mystery chicken bus snacks - During those long 6-12 hour long bus rides food vendors will board the bus, they stay on for a stop, get off, cross the road and catch one going the other way... Repeat for 8 -12 hours per day. There is everything from drinks to chicken and candy. Some food is not identifiable. Sometimes it may seem like a good idea to take a walk on the unknown side but it rarely is. I should add that these buses do not stop for more than 5 minutes at a time, there are no bathroom stops. You can train your bladder to hold out and avoid liquids but mystery bus food could cause more than a little discomfort.
- Get the top bunk in hostels - It's a matter of preference some people don't like the top bunk but I prefer it. - Closer to the fans; in 90 degree heat the closer to the fan the better. Head is not by the lockers; most lockers in hostels are next to the bed and a lot of them are metal. You won't get thrown up on; sadly in the hostel in Panama in the dorm room next to mine someone partied a little too hard. They were sleeping on the top bunk and tossed their cookies over the side, total party foul. I met the guy that was in the bottom bunk at the time and he got hit, apparently not a way you want to wake up. The down side; some of those bunks are really high 7 + feet and there are no ladders. If you are drinking and find you don't feel well getting down can be a challenge.
- Bargaining is a national sport but there is a line - Mexico was the most expensive country I was in Panama would come in 2nd, the rest are very cheap but in all most of the vendors are people who are just scraping by. I think because the money is so different you sometimes loose track on exactly how much something is. I found myself in Guatemala negotiating for a hotel room, it was a private room with my own bathroom and they wanted $35 Quetzal's, I offered $20.00 and then I did the math and realized I was haggling over approximately $1.75 US. The hotel is local family owned; they live on-site in rooms that are not as nice as the ones they rent out. The grandfather lived in a room with no bathroom. That $1.75 a night was not going to break my budget but it could make a huge difference in their world so I offered them $30 which they accepted. I met some backpackers on the road who would spend an hour arguing to get a better rate and some of them do. Personally I prefer to pay a fair market price if my budget ever got low enough that such a small amount of money would make that much of an impact it's time to go home.
- Patience - Nothing in Latin America happens quickly; if you go to a sit down restaurant it is expected that it will be a 2 - 3 hour event. They will never bring you the bill/check unless you ask them for it. It's part of their culture; they consider it rude to ask if you want your bill or to just bring it. You can't just say hello to someone; there is a ritual involved that involves 10-15 minutes of small talk. It is considered rude to not chat which leads to everyone being late for pretty much every thing. Line ups are standard everywhere; they never move quickly. Banks are especially horrible it's not uncommon to have to spend an hour in a line up. On the upside most of them are air conditioned so you may find yourself bypassing the ATM in favor of the teller just for some relief from the heat.
- Don't give money to the street kids - As cute and as sad as they are they do not get to keep the money. Either their parents get it in which case it is bad because if the kid can earn money they won't enroll them in school. Or they are working for someone and they take the money making it bad because it encourages child slavery. It's hard to do, my friends and I got swarmed in Leon outside a bar at 2am by 6 little boys aged 8 to 10. As bad as you feel for them and as crappy as it makes you feel you aren't doing them any favors by giving them money. I have bought them food and drinks, that they get to keep.
- A positive attitude and a smile will go a long way - There will be things that will aggravate you. Seeing the humor in a situation will make things easier. Getting frustrated and voicing it will not. People are more inclined to help you out if you don't abuse them, in most cases they have no control over whatever issue you are having. A smile is contagious if you do it you will find others around you doing it.
- Hablo español- My Spanish is pretty basic, so it is embarrassing to speak it; I keep thinking I'm butchering their language. I can form Tarzan like sentences but it isn't pretty. Despite that it is preferable to give it a try, the locals appreciate it and although they may laugh and correct you when you mess up the fact that you are trying will score you points. The locals talk fast so it never sounds the same when they say it as it did in class, its okay to ask them to speak slower. There are 2 forms of you in Spanish, tu is for friends and people you know well and usted which is more formal. Always opt for the formal, the Latin culture is very etiquette sensitive and you could offend someone by using the casual version.
I am definitely going to continue to travel, during this trip I met a lot of people who were doing volunteer work as they traveled. I would have liked to have done more on this trip but I would want to spend a couple of months doing it so it would be more of a 6 month trip for me. Lots of people were working at hostels to help defer the costs of their trips, a free place to stay and free or discounted meals and drinks for a few weeks can help extend your travels considerably.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Saturday, May 2, 2009
Unfortunately we made a miscalculation on our departure time from Puerto Viejo, the last ferry to Bocas Del Toro leaves at 5pm and we did not have time to take the bus and none of us wanted to spend the night on the mainland so we had to catch a cab from the boarder to Almirante where the ferry leaves from. There is another route via Changuinola and then a ferry but they are dredging the canals so the service has been temporarily suspended. Too bad cause it sounded really cool, the canals are suppose to be beautiful. Anyway we hooked up with another guy so there was 4 of us in the cab at a cost of $8.00 each. We made the ferry with 5 minutes to spare, the cab driver called ahead and reserved us some spots so we made a beer stop along the way, good thing he made the reservation as it was a full boat. The ferry costs $4.00 and takes about 35 minutes, the ferry is a large speed boat that is covered, a pretty comfy ride and some nice scenery along the way, it is a very beautiful area, everything you would imagine the Caribbean would be.
We checked into the Hieke Hostel which is located on the main street across from the park, cost of a bunk in a dorm room was $10.00 an night and included a kitchen, cook it yourself pancake breakfast, free coffee all day and free wireless Internet. It is a nice place, rooms are clean, plenty of bathrooms, the staff is very helpful and a great vibe. Again ran into folks I had been meeting up with along the road, among them 3 French Canadian guys I ran into initially in Semuc Champey and again in San Pedro and again in San Juan Del Sur. I have no idea what their names are but I'm pretty sure they think I am stalking them and are a little afraid.
There is a lot of things to do in town, restaurants and bars everywhere and a couple of beaches 1 within walking distance that is not so good and one you need to take a bus to, cost of the bus is $2.50 US (Panama currency is US dollars) each way and the beach is okay but not up to Puerto Viejo standards. To get to the best beaches you need to take a boat and that costs $'s, anywhere from $5.00 each way up to $20.00 if you do the whole day tour that includes a visit to a few beaches, some snorkeling and a trip to Zapatillas, the cost does not include the fee to go onto Zapatillas which is an additional $5 to $10 as it is a national park. The fee is based on if the captain of the boat you are on can talk them into a discount.
We did not succeed in evading the rain, which kind of sucked but again we had a few days that the sun came out of hiding for. However not for long enough that any of us wanted to pay $20.00 for something we might be doing in the rain. As luck would have it we met some Canadian guys who have property on one of the islands along with a sail boat and a run about boat. They took a bunch of us from the hostel out for the day and we did a trip to Bastimentos Island to Red Frog Beach. There is a $3.00 charge to go to the beach as it is on private property. Bet you are noticing a trend here, as nice as the place is there are $'s attached to pretty much anything you want to do. After the beach we went back to the Canadians sail boat were we sat around, snorkeled and made pina coladas for the rest of the day.
I went out to a couple of bars one was on an island across the way at a hostel called Aqua, on Wednesdays and Saturdays they have free drinks for women folk, finally something that was free yippee, well almost you have to take a water taxi there at a cost of $1.00 each way. The other bar was just down the street Barco Hundido Bar. One of the cooler ones I have been in, part of it is on a dock and there is a swimming hole with a wrecked ship that runs under the dock. Not sure how wise that is with a bunch of drunk tourists running around, they do have a sign saying swim at your own risk things will cut you so I guess they are off the hook. Was fun watching all the fish swim around, no tourists gave it a go while I was there. I also had a few coupons for free drinks so a happy place for me.
I was now down to 3 days left on my travels and the rain was not letting up so I opted to head back to San Jose for some shopping as I had not been able to pick up anything on my travels due to the whole backpack weight space issue. It was really hard to say a final goodbye to the folks I was traveling with 1 has another 6 days and the other a month so they were off to Panama City. Happy trails amiga's, it was great sharing time with you!
So off I go to solo on the last leg of my Central American journey to San Jose.
Thursday, April 30, 2009
By day 3 everyone who was suppose to arrive had gotten there and they too where experiencing the joy of the private rooms. All of us are female and we are all traveling alone and have been doing so for 3-7 months so none of us felt obligated to hang out together all of the time, always good when you can find like minded people. Funny because we are all very different partially due to culture (none of us are from the same country or part of the world) and partly because we are different personality types and have different backgrounds. I think it's my favorite part of traveling, getting different perspectives and finding out about how people live in other places. It does make me a little ashamed of myself as well, they all speak at least 2 languages and all I have is bad English, some Spanglish and almost forgotten French from high school. It seems to be a North American thing, in Europe they have to take other languages in school usually 2 of them.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
The boarder between Nicaragua and Costa Rica was brutal, it was so busy it took over an hour to just get the "get out of Nicaragua" stamp on the passport there are no signs telling you what to do and it is a bit confusing. So tips for crossing the boarder.
Don't buy any papers off the guys selling them, you don't need them
There is someone at the entrance gate to the actual boarder from the bus stop with offical ID tag etc, I don't know if you have to pay them to go through, they charged us a 1 but then no one asked to see the paper she gave us so watch the locals and see if they pay it... If not politely decline as it probably isn't offical.
Once you are through the little hole in the fence go straight ahead to the building in front of you (far one not the closest one that would be too easy) Go around back where all of the people are lined up and get in line
There is a 2 dollar charge to get out, You get a stamp
Once you have it head back to where you came from and hang a left towards were all the big trucks are walk past the weigh scales and on the left hand side a guy will check your passport to make sure it has a Nicaragua exit stamp. This is not customs keep going straight then follow along to the right where you will see lots of people on the left side there is a sign for a restaurant, go into that building walk to the end of the hallway and on the left is customs, no charge to enter Costa Rica and very fast, one stamp and you are done
The bus stop for local buses is right across the street from the restaurant when you come out of the building. There is no ATM so you can't get the local currency (Colon's) but they take American money or if you have Cordobas (NIO's) you can change them with a money changer at a not so good rate.
I caught the Upala/San Carlos bus it does not go directly to La Fortuna but it will go to the fork in the road (San Carlos is 1 way, La Fortuna the other) this was a 6 hour ride on some very bumpy roads, the cost was $8.00 US. When they drop you at the corner see which way the bus goes and walk the other way 2 feet to the bus stop, the bus comes by every hour and it is $1.00 (500 Colon's) to go to La Fortuna.
I stayed at a hostel called Gringo Pete's in La Fortuna. Cost for a bunk in a dorm room was $5.00 a night or $2686.00 Colon's, there is a kitchen. I ended up getting a bunk in the shed LOL a separate building in the back yard, it was actually very nice and clean. Pete is a great guy, very helpful when it comes to tour and local info. I took a hiking tour up the Arenal volcano, 2 hours up then back down and they take you to an observation point to watch the lava at night. After that you get a trip to the hot springs, cost for the trip was $21.00 US ($12028.00 Colon's). Food in restaurants can get expensive, the usual cost is about $3000.00 Colon's, beers are $1000.00 Colon's, the national beer is Imperial. We had a BBQ at the hostel one night which was great, everyone brought something including marshmallow's a great little bonding experience.
La Fortuna is a pretty touristy place, there is a souvenir shop every few blocks but it is a cute little place. I found a local bar to hang out in and most nights I was the only visible tourist in the place.
Next stop Puerto Viejo Costa Rica.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
San Juan Del Sur is a town on the Pacific coast and is very popular with the backpackers and surfers. I checked into a hostel called Casa Oro the cost for a dorm room was $150 NIO’s. This is the first hostel I stayed at where they made you where a wrist band, they also have a million rules like; No outside alcohol, no drinking after 10pm, they shut the Internet including the wireless access down at 10pm, reception closes at 8pm and a security guard comes on and he locks the door so to get in or out you need to get him to open the door. Some people I had met in Ometepe shared a locker with some other people who took off for Costa Rica it was their lock on the locker so they took the Dutch folks passports to reception and left them for them. The person at reception didn’t tell anyone else she had the passports, so the Dutch people freaked out thinking the other people had taken their passports to Costa Rica, they asked 5 people at the hostel and all of them said they didn’t have the passports. It was at the point where they were going to hop on a bus to the border and try to catch up to the other people, finally the one who had took the passports came back on duty and they got them back. At 7 pm one night I went to reception and asked if they could change over $10.00 US to NIO’s, they told me no as they were closing, they closed at 8pm. We blatantly disregarded their rules and snuck in booze the whole time, it brought back fond memories from my teenage years. Before I came to Central America I was not a big rum fan however I am now drinking a lot of Flor De Cana, it is not at all like Bacardi or Lambs Navy and it is so cheap, a large bottle of 7 year old cost $100 NIO’s and can last me 4 or 5 days. The hostel does provide a good shuttle service to the various beaches at a cost of $80 NIO’s for a return ticket. You can’t get to the beaches any other way unless you hitch a ride or have a car as no buses go to them and it is too far to walk. Some people who were surfing said that Nicaragua is cheaper than Costa Rica for board rentals but when you add on the extra transportation fee that you don’t have to pay in Costa Rica I think Nicaragua is probably a more expensive place to surf which is okay if you are a good surfer as I heard they have better waves but as a kind of crappy surfer I would prefer to save the money. They do have much better waves for beginners than El Tunco in El Salvador, I bit the bullet and rented a board and paid for the shuttle out to Ramanos. You can catch waves pretty close to the shore there is either none or very little paddling involved which I was thrilled with. The waves were also smaller so I was getting up about 80% of the time. There is a resort on the beach, it is the only place there and there is no shade on the beach itself so if you want to hide out of the sun you need to pay at least $5.00 for the privilege of sitting under cover, not an issue as a beer will cost you $40 NIO's (they are normally $20 NIO's). For surfers who actually know what they are doing there is Maderas beach which has bigger waves and a stronger current.
I did check out a few of the bars, for research purposes only, the Iguana bar is pretty good ;-) had a great time it is a party town but most folks go to bed pretty early so they can surf the next day so by 12am most of the bars are shutting down. It is more expensive than other places I have been to in Nicaragua but I had been warned and it is a major tourist spot so it is to be expected. Street food like chicken and gallo pinto (beans and rice) ran about $80-$100 NIO’s. When you are used to paying $50 NIO’s it is a bit of an adjustment, in reality the difference is only a few dollars but it sounds like so much more. A note on gallo pinto, it comes with everything. I am now on month 4 of eating it and I now find myself ordering things with no gallo pinto, I think it will be a long time before I will ever do the rice/beans thing again. I am also getting a little tired of the banana chips, as tasty as they are every meal is a bit too much of a good thing.
I did have some really good pictures of the town of San Juan Del Sur along with pic’s of my next stop in La Fortuna however I should not be allowed to play with cameras. I was looking at the pic’s and somehow managed to delete them all so the visuals on this posting are a little thin. I have some people who are going to send me pictures but not until they get home in a few weeks. I will put them up when I get them. Lesson learned, never never hit delete until pictures are loaded on to the computer, it could have been worse I only lost about 200 but it was very stupid of me. So here is a link to some pictures on google of San Juan Del Sur.
Saturday, April 18, 2009
The ferry takes both passengers and cars. There are suppose to be 2 fares; $40 NIO's for the basic cattle option and for 1st class (air conditioning + a bar) it is $60 NIO's. The ferry was packed and we ended up spending the 1 1/2 hour trip standing on a deck at the front of the boat and yet they charged us all $60 NIO's so I'm not sure what was up with that. In Central America you don't pay when you board boats, buses etc. instead once you are underway someone comes around and collects money, they are a very trusting people much more so than North Americans. The guy on the ferry was one of the grumpiest people I have met. on my travels. I had to pay with a $100 NIO bill and he bitched about having no cambio (no change) he was not happy when I said I had nothing smaller and I would not give him the money till he found the change. He gets my vote for biggest dick in Nicaragua and not in a good way ;-)
When we got to Ometepe we gained 2 more people in our group a Dutch couple that we had met in Granada and had gone to Alpoya with. They had some money issues, the only ATM on the island only takes credit cards, no debit cards and that was all they had. One of our group was from Europe so they arranged a complicated money transfer between bank accounts via the Internet so she could withdraw it from her account and give it to them so it worked out in the end. If you are going over take all the cash you will need for your stay, as well as the debit card issue the ATM may also run out of money or break down and the ferry's and launches don't take credit cards.
With it being Semana Santa the locals at the ferry dock warned us that it would be almost impossible to get accommodations, not sure if it was true or not but most places are a bus ride away and the buses are not all that frequent so none of us wanted to take the chance of getting somewhere and having nowhere to stay and no way to get back so we chose to stay in Moyogalpa the town that the ferry docks in and just did side trips to other places.
The 6 of us stayed at a hotel that ends in Negra, can't remember the name but it is right across from the hotel Ometepetl, we got 2 rooms with bunk beds. The rooms came with a TV, I have not had a TV since the beginning of my trip in Puerto Vallarta so I was pretty happy at the prospect of getting to watch one. How sad my life as become in some ways LOL. Only 1 station showed some shows in English but I did get to see Cheech & Chong up in smoke so it was well worth paying the $150 NIO's per person for me. There are lots of good restaurants on the Island and some good street food options, prices are about $15 NIO's for a street hot dog, $25 NIO's for a street hamburger, $50 NIO's for street chicken and $100 - $200 NIO's will get you a decent meal at a restaurant . One of the places we found was Yogi's, it is owned by a Canadian guy named Jerry who has been kicking around Central America for 10+ years. He was a great source of information on a variety of topics. If you are looking to stay on Ometepe for awhile he takes volunteers for various projects and in exchange you get a free place to stay (and it looks pretty nice) as well as free food. He tried to talk me into baking brownies (not special ones) in exchange for my diner, he didn't believe me when I told him I can't cook, really it's more than that, I've made people ill with my cooking so.... He has my web site address and may read this anyone who I have ever cooked for is more than welcome to leave a comment on the damage I did to your digestive systems/food poisoning etc. to prove that I am not lying.
There were a lot of Nicaraguans on the Island for Semana Santa and I got to see a few precession's, I even participated in one. Didn't really do it by choice, they go down the street and stop at every intersection for a prayer. I wasn't sure on the etiquette of just cutting through the crowed to get to my hotel so I wandered along at the back for 3 intersections. There were lots of folks partying on the island and the bars made a lot of money over the holiday, I tried to do my part to contribute. I also spent some quality time at the beach doing nothing, there is a nice one about 4km out of town, it was packed with Nicaraguan families having a great time, lots of beach soccer going on. I also rented a bicycle one day, cost of the rental was $20 NIO's per hour. I rode up to Charco Verde and back, at 1pm when the temperature was around 34C the ride was 24km in total. Not something I will do again anytime soon, by the last 5km I was looking for a pickup truck to get a ride back to town good thing there was a beach on the way to cool off at, had to share it with some local livestock but they were very nice about letting us use it. I didn't end up doing it but if it had been a few km more I just might have. Way too hot to be playing that game. The Dutch couple did the volcano hike, a 6 hour hell journey up and back. They said they liked it but it is something you do need to be in good shape to do, a couple of them came back with some pretty good wounds.
One of the guys that was traveling with me really liked Ometepe, there is a group out of Vancouver who are setting up a community on the island, they have a bid in to purchase 75 hectares of land by the lake side. The plan is to sell off plots for $50,000, $25,000, $10,000 & $5,000 US as well as giving people who don't have the money the opportunity to buy in by working on the property in various capacities. There will be a residential section as well as a farm and eventually facilities to rent out to tourists. They will know if they have the land in June and plan on moving people in sometime in December so they can live on site while they build their own homes (there are currently buildings with kitchen facilities on the property) . If you are interested in getting more information let me know and I will get you the contact info for Maria who is currently on Ometepe and she will be happy to answer any questions you may have.
I left Ometepe on Sunday and headed to San Juan Del Sur. I decided to take a launch instead of the ferry to get off the island, only because time wise it was leaving an hour before the ferry. One of the scariest rides every, the boat, and I use the term loosely has no rails and looks like it really shouldn't float. There are a couple of benches bolted to the deck and the boat was packed with people and cargo. The cost to take it was only $30 NIO's so a savings there and luckily it was a calm day on the water. I really wouldn't have wanted to be on it in rough water. The launch does not pull up to a dock on the mainland, instead it pulls up to another boat and they run planks from one to the other that you have to navigate in order to disembark (no rails, just pieces of wood). Not very comforting when you are wearing a 40lb pack and carrying another 10lb one. All that was running through my head as I teetered across was how fast could I get them off if being my usual klutzy self I fell in. It didn't happen so on to San Juan Del Sur I went.