Thursday, April 30, 2009

Puerto Viejo Costa Rica

Getting from La Fortuna to Puerto Viejo was a rather painless endeavour. The Dutch couple decided to head to Monteverde so we parted company and I headed out on my own, but we are facebook buddies for life LOL. I found a great site for bus schedules for Costa Rica all the info you will need to find your way around.

I caught the 7am bus out of town going to San Carlos for $1.50 US, I had to make a transfer there to the bus for San Jose, the driver was very helpful and yelled at me to get off when he saw the San Jose bus coming up the street from the depot and I made the transfer, cost of the bus was $7.00. I have kind of gotten used to bus employees yelling at me, not sure I'll be able to take transit when I get home without someone to yell and shoo me off the bus, "vamous, vamous".

The bus goes to the Atlantic terminal and I needed to get the bus to Puerto Viejo at the Terminal Caribenos, the terminals are about 10 blocks apart, I could have walked it but we got in at 11:15 and the Puerto Viejo bus was leaving at 12:00 if I missed it I'd have to wait until 2:00 (Note: the last bus leaves for PV at 4:00pm if you miss it you have to spend the night in San Jose) so I opted for a cab. I have decided that I really do hate cab drivers, I asked this one how much to the other terminal and he said he had a meter. Well the meter was rigged cause he charged me $5600 Colon's which works out to $9.85US. As he was holding my backpack hostage in his trunk I had no choice but to pay the creep but lesson learned. I usually don't put my backpack in the trunk for just this reason but I was tired and in a hurry, my bad.

The bus from San Jose to Puerto Viejo takes 4ish hours and cost $8.00 US. You will notice I am using a lot of US pricing, it is because most of the prices are in US $'s but you can pay in either currency.

At this point I have 12 days left before I head out of Central America and a few of my road buddies are also heading home in May so a few of us arranged to meet up from our various points in Puerto Viejo. I was going to stay at Rocking J's hostel however one of the road buddies I was meeting mentioned Hotel Puerto Viejo, I was the first one in the others were not due till the next day and a couple the day after so I checked it out. I ended up booking a room there, it was $8.00US a night for a private room with shared bathroom & kitchen along with free WIFI and was in the middle of town. Rocking J's was $7.00 for a dorm and is a little outside of town. Some other folks that I knew from the road stayed there and said it was great, I did attend a party there and a fabulous time was had by all. For the most part I'm okay with dorm living however every now and then I treat myself to my own room in order to keep my sanity, living & sleeping with 8 strangers every night can get on your nerves after a while. Within minutes of getting in the room I had my shit spread out all over the place, what a great feeling. Mine all mine mwhaha! No having to consider someone else, wake up when I want, sleep when I want, don't have to lock my stuff up, total paradise. The folks that run the place are surfers and the atmosphere is great, very chill.

I was in Puerto Viejo 4 years ago, it has changed a bit, lots more people selling stuff, they put in sort of a mini mall and they have taxi's now. There is still only 1 paved street (not paved well, potholes everywhere) and most of the same restaurants and bars are still there. Puerto Viejo is a surf town and home to one of the best waves in Costa Rica Salsa Brava. I got to see it in full force last time I was here, alas this time I arrived too late in the season and it was a shadow of it's former self so most folks were surfing Playa Cocles. The rainy season seems to have started early this year and there was a killer lightning storm one night, I sat out on the beach under a tree to watch, the whole sky would light up and then the thunder came, it was an awesome sight.

The best way to explore the area is to rent a bicycle for $2.00 for 24 hours pack a lunch, snorkel gear and hit the road. There is a stretch of 15 kilometers of potholed filled road that will take you to one of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean Manzanillo. The road is pretty flat there are a couple of minor hills once you get close to Manzanillo so the ride is pretty easy. I should mention that the bikes are the old fashion kind, no hand breaks, no gears, it takes some getting used to. Mine was a pretty pink and white one (my friends are laughing their asses off with that visual) with more than a little rust.

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.

I stayed in Puerto Viejo for 5 days, there were a few nice days weather wise but as previously mentioned the rainy season started early. So with 7 days left and a now seriously damaged liver and a few less brain cells, what to do what to do... Panama was not part of my original plan as I didn't think I would have time but now I do so we all decided to pick up and head down to Bocas Del Toro. One of my friends is flying back to Switzerland out of Panama so it seemed like a good idea as I had not been to Panama before, ah the freedom of travel. So off to Panama we go!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

La Fortuna / Arenal Volcano Costa Rica

The trip to get from San Juan Del Sur Nicaragua to La Fortuna / Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica took about 10 hours. I left San Juan Del Sur at 10am on the Chicken bus, you take the bus marked Rivas and get them to let you out at the Pan American Highway (La Virgen) the cost of the bus was $10 NIO's. You then walk across the highway and catch a bus to the boarder, cost of the bus was $20 NIO's. There was a bit of an issue with this bus, the buses are old school buses and the bus was packed which of course doesn't mean that they don't try to cram more people in. I spent the trip standing on the front stair at the front door (with the door open) and my ass hanging out clutched on to the side handle. All was going fairly well until the big bang and the bus started swerving all over the road. Got to say I thought they might end up scraping my ass off the Pan Am HWY. We had blown a tire, kudos to the driver who managed to keep us on the road and not flip us. A 15 minute break for a tire changed and off we went, except the reason the tire blew was because too many people were on the bus so 10 minutes later all you could smell was burning rubber as the wheel well rubbed on tire #2. No problem we pulled over and they took a hammer to it and dented it up more, problem solved.

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.

As previously mentioned I lost all of the photos on my camera of this leg of the journey so I have a few I took on the way out of town, the rest I am hoping to get from the nice Dutch couple I traveled with on this part of the journey. Some more folks I have run into a few times in various places, we finally just gave up and did this part of the trip together.

Next stop Puerto Viejo Costa Rica.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

San Juan Del Sur Nicaragua

I caught a mini bus from the ferry terminal in San Jorge at a cost of $5 NIO’s, the person I was with paid $10 so it varies from person to person. We got to Rivas to catch the bus to San Juan Del Sur and one was just pulling out when we arrived. I decided to waste some time in the market till the next bus arrived. There are a ton of cab drivers in Rivas as Granada and San Juan Del Sur are so close the price of a cab if you have 4 people is not outrageously expensive. The problem is the cab drives are bottom feeding liars, they all kept telling me there are no buses to San Juan Del Sur due to the holiday, when I told them I just saw one leaving they come up with oh but there isn’t another one for 3 hours, when I pointed at the bus in the depot that was parked with San Juan Del Sur as the destination they said oh but it takes 3 hours… It takes about an hour and costs $20 NIO’s. So moral of the story is never believe anything a cab driver in Rivas tells you.

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.

San Juan Del Sur is a nice little town, when I got there all of the people from Semana Santa where on their way home. Some folks told me the town was packed for the holidays, people were sleeping on the beach as accommodations where hard to come by. I am kind of glad I missed that. It is a very nice town, has the whole beach/surfer vibe thing going for it.

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

Ometepe Island Nicaragua

Ometepte is an island in Lake Nicaragua that was formed by 2 volcanoes, one of which is still active. It looks like an island from a fairy tale, most people who have been there call it magical and I have to agree with them. There are 2 options to get there; on Monday's and Thursday's there is a ferry out of Granada that takes 3 hours. The other option is the one I used as I left on the Wednesday to avoid travel during Semana Santa. To get to the Island of Ometepe I caught a chicken bus out of Granada from the bus depot by the market. The bus goes to Rivas which is a town very close to the ferry terminal the cost of the bus ride was $25 NIO and took about an hour. As there was 4 of us we decided to take a cab to San Jorge where the ferry is at a cost of $20 NIO's each and a 15 minute ride. There is a shuttle bus that you can take for $10 NIO's and a chicken bus that is probably even cheaper but we were also running late and if we missed the
ferry it was going to be a 2 hour wait for the next one.

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.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Nicaragua Leon Granada

The chicken bus from the Honduras/Nicaragua boarder to Leon was a grand total of $33 Cordoba - NIO ($1.64 US) for a 3 hour ride. We got dropped off on the highway so had to get a cab into town to the hostel at a cost of $20 NIO each for the 3 of us.

Leon Nicaragua

We stayed at Big Foot Hostel in Leon. It is a very nice place, great atmosphere nice common area and they have a pool and pet turtles. Okay more of a wading pond but still nice to dip in after a hot day at the market. Cost for a bunk in a dorm room was $120 NIO. One of us (not me) did the volcano sledding ($25 US and includes a mojito at the end), she said it was okay but not as much speed as she thought she would get going down however lots of folks coming back scraped up from tumbling off their boards so I guess you have to try it and see. Another friend stayed across the street at Via Via which she said was good as well. I personally like them, we went for diner one night and there was a raffle to aide street kids. I bought 3 tickets for $10 NIO and won a big bottle of rum and 2 packs of smokes. Score for me, always nice when you can get all of your bad habits met at one time, well maybe not all but 2 out of 4 ain't bad.

Leon is a nice little place, very colonial lots of old buildings and nice streets, lots of churches, it is a very safe place I went out a few times at night and had no problems. I have been noticing that I have lots of pictures of churches, can't really avoid them here. I like the buildings and so far I haven't burst into flame upon entering them so apparently god is on a coffee break or has something really evil planned for me later. The market in Leon is great, there are food stalls that serve all sorts of meals. My personal favorite was the pancakes, they are rolled up and filled with cheese. Two of those some mystery meat and a coke totaled $30 NIO.

Granada Nicaragua
I took a shuttle bus from Leon to Granada, the difference in cost between it and the chicken bus was only a few dollars and this way I didn't have to change buses in Managua. Cost for the collectivo van was $40 NIO and they dropped us off by the hostel in Granada. Our little group picked up another backpacker from Finland in Leon who I had met previously in San Pedro and Utila and we lost one from Canada who headed back to Guatemala.

We stayed at the Bearded Monkey hostel in Granada a bunk in a dorm was $130 NIO. Great location and the people are awesome, if you are passing by in the next month make friends with Dave the bartender, he is a party all on his own and a great dancer.. Thanks for the tunes, I could have lived without the 2nd bottle of rum :-(

Granada is like a fairy tale city, all pastel colors and very old buildings, it is located on Lake Nicaragua so there is a lot of beach front along the city. While there I did a couple of little excursions. I went to Laguna De Apoyo for the day, a lake in the crater of a volcano, the cost for a taxi for 5 people was $50 NIO each and a $25 NIO entrance fee for the car to get into the park. Great swimming and a very beautiful place. When we left we saw a lot of monkeys playing in the trees we must have pulled over 4 times to try to get pictures but they are quick little things and after a day of sun and lazing in a hammock I was not very fast. Okay I'm not all that quick on my better days but they really were moving.

Excursion number 2 was a boat ride on Lake Nicaragua through the islands just off Granada, they are pretty small. Most of the islands are privately owned and have houses on them and they are some very nice houses with many water toys (jet ski's, boats etc.) however there are a few for sale if you are interested. We also got to visit the island with the monkeys on it. The trip only takes about an hour 1/2 2 of us went and we had the boat to ourselves, at a cost of $300 NIO's it was well worth the money and if we had bargained we probably could have got it down but neither of us wanted to bother.

While in Granada the Semana Santa holiday started (Easter), lots of parades and religious stuff going. I'm not sure what's up with the purple clan members, kinda creepy and strange. The most important part of the holiday for backpackers is it's the week were getting anywhere in Central America gets difficult as buses are full and accommodations are hard to get and pricey. The smartest thing to do is to find a place you don't mind spending 4 days in and riding out the holiday. We decided to go to the Island of Ometepe.