Another Two Days in Paradise

24/2/17. After his surfing exploits (and several games of beach volleyball later the same afternoon when it was a little cooler) Stephen woke with stiff and aching muscles that do not get exercised on a bike. He definitely felt his advanced years!

We had arranged, along with Maureen and Ofer, to take a trip in the hotel’s own boat to an island in the Gulf of Fonseca, which is between Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador. The island to which we went, Isla de Meanguera, was claimed by all three countries until an international court decided in favour of El Salvador in the 1990s.

Christine of course took a seasick pill before we set off even though we had been assured that it was a calm day (“You should see it in the winter”), as she is amongst the world’s worst travelers despite her love of travel. The waves did look pretty small – but so was the boat and it was been driven at high speed so it skimmed across them with the bow pointing skywards. There was the occasional resounding, bone-jarring crash as we caught a sequence of waves wrong and the bow came crashing down but, in general, it was simply exhilarating and Christine felt fine.

We stopped in mid ocean alongside a similar sized boat that was out fishing and our two Salvadoran crew negotiated the purchase of 6 fish and 6 very large prawns for lunch. They came prepared with scales as they were sold by the pound (not the kilogramme!) – $1.50 per lb for the fish and $5 for the prawns.

After about two hours we reached the island where we went ashore on a little bay with 3 or 4 small “shacks”, only one of which seemed to be inhabited. The crew gave the fish to the lady of the household to cook while one of them chopped some tomatoes, onions, peppers and limes for the accompanying salad and tortillas. Meantime we swam, walked along the beach and cracked open the beer and water from the cooler the crew had brought with us.

The food was delicious!

We digested lunch gazing at the beautiful blue sea and sipping beer (or water in Christine’s case) before having another cooling dip. Then it was time to set off for a circuit of Bird Island where there were hundreds of frigatebirds circling above and squadrons of pelicans bobbing about on the sea.

At this point Christine started to feel unwell despite having taken another pill at lunchtime. We think it was a combination of the heat (it was pretty warm by now) and the cumulative effect of the sea. After a brief stop at the small harbour on Isla De Meanguera (which Christine used to recycle her lunch to the fishes!) we set off for home.

By now, the swell had increased and the crew seemed unable to decide which was better – going slowly which meant that we rode up one side of the waves and then down the other, or going fast which meant that the bone-jarring crashes were much more frequent. None of which did Christine’s seasickness any favours. She kept her eyes firmly closed and willed the journey to be over.

However, she perked up considerably just before the end as we spotted a school of dolphins and spent 5 minutes circling the area while these beautiful creatures criss-crossed in front of and under the boat.

Although the ride back had been exhilarating for three of us, we were all glad to arrive back at the hotel as bracing ourselves against the crashes and movement of the boat had been quite exhausting. Heaven alone knows what the trip must be like in the “winter”!

We spent Friday in a much more leisurely manner doing little other than reading, eating and drinking until late afternoon when there was a group “litter patrol” (in exchange for a free beer) followed by the release of more than 50 baby turtles at sunset.

The coast here is a big turtle nesting area and the collection of turtle eggs is illegal but the law is not enforced. So there are many poachers selling eggs either to restaurants or a small but growing number of environmentally minded organisations, including La Tortuga where we are staying, which care for them until they hatch.

It was lovely watching the little turtles being released near the water’s edge and making their way over the sand. Some energetically headed straight to the sea while others seemed much less certain what they should be doing. Often they would reach the water only for a wave to push them back the way they had come. However, they all made it even if some received a helping hand or two on the way.

Stephen the Surfing Star. Not.

22/2/17. The big news is that Stephen had a surfing lesson today – the first time. He was only mildly successful –  he managed to stand up once in about 50 attempts to catch a wave! (Don’t worry,  we’ll be back to the usual inane blog shortly.) However, he thoroughly enjoyed himself even though he is reconciled to not getting a role in Baywatch any time soon. And, at a cost of $10 for an hour, including the use of a board, it was a real bargain. He ended the hour totally shattered – who would have thought climbing on a board in the sea could be so tiring? We will try to upload a short video showing one of his minor successes – riding a wave lying down on the board without tipping himself off!

Anyway, when we left you last time we were in León, waiting for our shuttle bus to El Salvador. This was scheduled to leave at 8 pm but our hostel kindly allowed us to sit in the common area even though we had checked out hours earlier. We were a little nervous because the ticket did not show our pick up place so we were hoping that the name had got through from the agency where we booked the trip to the company running the shuttle.

It eventually turned up at 8.45 even though there were only two other passengers (Maureen and Ofer from San Francisco) on board. They told us it had called at two hotels before ours without picking anyone up, which suggested things were not entirely clear!

Anyway, we were off. The first part of the trip was 2.5-3 hours to the border between Nicaragua and Honduras and was pretty uneventful apart from Stephen managing to get some sleep in a quite uncomfortable position with the seat belt jabbing him in the ribs. Christine was too hyper to sleep.

We went through the ritual of paying to exit one country and then paying again to enter the next. The amounts were not large but the fact that we only had a $20 bill created problems entering Honduras as the immigration officials appeared not to have $14 in change. (We had a few Cordobas left to pay the Nicaraguan exit tax.)  Luckily Ofer had a $5 bill and Stephen found $1 so we were in!

We were just passing through a narrow stretch of Honduras but the road was awful for the whole way! It seemed as though it was intentional with deep “trenches” cut right across the road periodically which meant that the bus had to slow down to below walking pace. No chance of Stephen getting any more sleep even though he tried. Things were not helped by 2 or 3 police checkpoints where our passports were inspected.

Reaching the Honduras/El Salvador border just before 3 am again filled us with apprehension but it was straight forward, even if the El Salvadorian lady scrutinised all the stamps in our passports very closely. We were a little disappointed that, having done this, she didn’t feel the need to add a Salvadorian stamp to our collection.

Thankfully we were back on smooth roads so Stephen managed another hour of fitful sleep while Christine watched the darkness go by. We arrived at our destination, a small town on the coast called El Cuco at about 4.30.

The hotel had said they would arrange a taxi to meet the bus to take us the final 3 or 4 km but there was no sign of it. It was a little unnerving to wait in the “middle of nowhere” in a strange country about which we knew little other than the civil war of the 1980s and the reputation for gang violence, so we were all glad of the presence of the other couple – safety in numbers and all that. We were also grateful that the bus driver waited with us, although we  could not work out why he did not offer have to drive that little bit further so that he could be on his way again in about 15 minutes rather than hang around for well over an hour. Our collective Spanish was not up to asking him to do this and all he said (that we could understand) was that the taxi would be there by 5 o’clock.

It was more like 5.45 when it rocked up and Maureen thought that the driver said he had been waiting in the wrong place. By the time he arrived it was starting to get light and El Cuco was waking up, with even a group of school children riding into town, parking their bikes against a wall and then milling around outside a small shop that was just opening up.

The hotel was all quiet when we arrived. As the sun was rising off to our left (the beach faces due south and runs east-west for miles in eac direction) we had a very short walk to admire this before crashing in hammocks for an hour or two (as invited in an email from the hotel) to wait for reception to open and our rooms to be ready. We could see that we had ended up in an idyllic spot but all felt “wrecked” of course, even Stephen who had at least managed to get some shuteye, so enjoying it would have to wait.

Boy, oh boy, is this place lovely. It is not a “fancy” hotel but it is just right for its setting. Our room is small – the bed fills half the length and thereis about a foot gap on one side – but is $18 per night, with shared bathroom facilities right outside. Maureen and Ofer were originally booked into a much grander affair (2 double beds in the main room, plus a bed in another room, a small kitchenette, a verandah and private bathroom) although they downgraded to a more suitable one somewhere in the middle of the range. There is also a small house with 5 rooms and a private pool that costs about $200 a night. www.latortugaverde.com

The beach is a beautiful white sand that stretches for miles and slopes gently down to the warm ocean (the Pacific in case you were wondering) where the waves (at the moment at least) are not too large for incompetent novice surfers! There cannot be too many beaches where you can watch the sun rise out of the sea to one side and set into it on the other.

We have already said this place is idyllic. The potential is enormous if only the country’s reputation for violence could be overcome. It is not far from the only international airport (an hour or two perhaps – certainly not a bumpy overnight bus ride from Nicaragua!) and could be developed hugely (and of course changed and spoiled beyond recognition). It is a match for The Maldives (caveated by the fact that we haven’t been there) and considerably more affordable at the moment. Get yourselves here fast before it changes!

Lazing in León

20/2/17. Although we were reluctant to leave the beautiful Laguna de Apoyo, we were also quite excited/apprehensive about the journey from there to our next destinatination, the rival with Granada for the title of oldest city in Nicaragua, León.

We spent some time researching how to get to León direct from the Laguna without success and resorted to taking a taxi back to Granada (cost $15 for 18 km) to catch public buses, via Managua, at a total cost for two separate buses (for a journey of 120 km) of $2.80 each. It was an experience! And great fun!

There are shuttle transfers between the two cities in a/c minibuses for about $30 a head which are “easier” and probably safer – but they won’t be half as enjoyable! The real highlight was, on the first section to Managua, observing the young “conductor” hanging out of the open door shouting at people on the roadside to encourage them to take his bus rather than the one 30 seconds behind.

Arriving in León bus station was chaos (take a bow, Lee!)  as we had read.  We were assailed by taxi and pedicab drivers for transport to the centre. Stephen tried to resist but eventually succumbed to the persistent pressure and we grabbed a pedicab who, initially, claimed to know where our hostel was but, as we neared it, clearly didn’t! A phone call using the number in the email confirmation sorted him out and we arrived another $4 lighter in the pocket for about 2 km. (Mind you, not even Stephen would push one of those pedicabs for 2 km with 2 grumpy foreigners aboard for $4 in that heat!

And what of León?

Our initial impressions were not overly favourable when compared to Granada but it has steadily grown on us. The Lonely Planet says “Many people fall in love with Granada, but most of them leave their heart in León”. We are not sure we entirely agree with that but our feeling is that Granada is more set up for tourists while León is more “authentic” – at the moment, but give it a few years! Our recommendation would be to get yourself here quickly because it is changing – fast!

Also, León is several degrees warmer than Granada – say 33-35° rather than 28-30° when we were here.

León prides itself in being the centre of the 1979 revolution against the right wing dictatorship of the Somoza family and there are many reminders of the struggle including a museum (with an ex-Sandinista guerrilla guide) and many murals. It is quite atmospheric wandering the streets. Not threatening, but evocative. (For a flavour of the city, see the photos here.)

We leave León tonight on another overnight bus trip for El Salvador. We have to cross a narrow corridor of Honduras (reputedly the most dangerous country in the world in terms of murders per capita – but  Iraq? Afghanistan?? Syria???) where we will not stop other than for border controls (more passports stamps, please!).

She Has Made It!

20/2/17. While we have been taking it easy cruising across the Atlantic, cycling from Florida to Texas and idling our way round Central America, our amazing daughter Eleri has completed her hike of the length of New Zealand – 3,000 km in 4 months! She celebrated by washing her hair for the first time in 10 days and using shampoo for the first time on her walk! No prizes for guessing from where she gets the adventurous genes. Continue reading She Has Made It!

Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah

17/2/17… here we are, at Camp Granada.

(Sorry. Stephen could not resist another reference to the song. Did it bring back memories of Junior Choice and Ed “Stewpot” Stewart?)

It was in Granada that Eleri was mugged 18 months ago, so we approached the city with a degree of trepidation. Our experience was much better and at no time did we feel unsafe or threatened. We did take precautions, of course, leaving most of what little money we have with us, credit cards and passports at our hostel which had an iron gate at the entrance which had to be unlocked every time anyone went in or out.

Granada vies for the title of oldest city in Nicaragua with Leon (our next destination) and was founded in 1524 by the Spanish. As you will have guessed it is named after the city of the Alhambra and, like its namesake, is firmly on the tourist trail – with good reason.

We had a wonderful time, both wandering around on our own and on a horse and carriage tour, looking at the pastel painted houses and 4 grand churches. The view from the tower of one of the churches confirmed the impression from street level that the city is unspoiled by modern buildings and is being very sympathetically restored.

In addition to the horse and buggy ride we went on another couple of organised trips. The first of these was in the early evening to the Masaya volcano – the active one of two close by. Time at the caldera is limited by the park rangers to 2 to 5 minutes – allegedly but we were allowed about 15 minutes. This is because of the danger of the sulphurous fumes (the viewing point is positioned so that the prevailing easterly wind blows them away from the visitors – which was, thankfully, the case when we were there) and, we suspect, a way of increasing the numbers who can visit.

It was spectacular! We have never experienced anything like it. Peering over the low wall, you look down a near sheer shaft on the pool of bubbling, flowing, glowing, smoking magma (it is only called “lava” once it is outside the volcano, apparently). It was after sunset so the only light came from the magma itself but, as you approached it, it looked as though it was floodlit. It was like a scene from “Lord of the Rings”. The trip cost $19 each (negotiated down from $20!) which sounds a lot for a short time there (particularly if the shorter limit is applied) but, by crikey, it is worth it!

The other excursion was a boat trip on Lake Nicaragua (the city centre is about 1 km from the shoreline) through some of the 365 (why is it always 365 and never 364 or 366??) small islands close by that are the result of an ancient eruption of the other local volcano. It was beautiful and we had a couple of hours on a small island with a bar/restaurant where we (well, Stephen anyway) could swim in the lake which was a lovely temperature.

After four nights in the city of Granada, we moved to Laguna de Apoyo, which is a lake in the caldera of an ancient volcano (another one!) about 15 km away. What a blissfully quiet (apart from the howler monkeys!) and beautiful spot. It can be another day trip from Granada but we chose to spend one night there in a hostel – and could quite happily have extended the stay by a couple of days except that we had already arranged accommodation in Leon.

Central America – Additional Point

One point that we omitted from the previous post was how impressed we have been with the tours we have taken. In general, we have not been persuaded that tours are value for money but in Costa Rica this view was changed. Never in a month of Sundays would we have seen as much wildlife on our own as we did when with the various guides. In Granada we have been on two (non wildlife) tours that have got us to places we couldn’t have gone unaccompanied (you’ll have to wait for the post to be written to find out what they were!)

Obviously the cost of these tours (generally $15-25 each plus any entrance fees) needs to be factored in when budgeting for the cost of a trip.

Podcasts

We have mentioned on several occasions that we spend quite a lot of time listening to podcasts. We thought we would share the list of those that one or other of us (and sometimes both) listen to.

History

  • The History of England. 220+ episodes and counting! Starting with the Anglo Saxons it has reached the early Tudors. Tremendous fun delivered with dry English humour and frequent references to “the rough end of a pineapple”.
  • The History of Rome. 150 episodes by an American professor. References to Alaric the Visigoth of particular interest to us and our oldest!
  • Presidential. An episode devoted to each of the 44 presidents in the run up to the 2016 election. From the Washington Post.
  • The History of Mathematics. From a 2011 BBC radio programme by Marcus de Sautoy. 10 episodes of 15 minutes focussing on great mathematicians.
  • Revolutions. By the author of the History of Rome, so far covering the English Civil War, The American War of Independence and the French Revolution.
  • The History of English. Brilliant podcast about the development of English from its earliest origins.
  • History Extra Podcast. Weekly history podcast.

Current Affairs & Business

  • From Our Own Correspondent. The BBC Radio 4 programme in downloadable form.
  • Wake Up To Money. The BBC Radio 5Live programme in downloadable form.
  • The Economist Radio. 4 or 5 shows each week from the magazine.
  • Money Box. The Radio 4 programme on personal finance.
  • 5Live Consumer Team. BBC programme with Martin Lewis.
  • Lucy Kellaway. Short (4 or 5 minutes) column from the FT columnist who shares our abhorrence of managementspeak gobbledygook!

Cycling

  • Velocast. Weekly plus daily coverage of major races. Subscription required but worth it if road cycling is your “bag”.
  • This Week In Cycling History. Comes with the Velocast subscription.
  • The Cycling Podcast. Weekly podcast from 3 respected cycling journalists with daily coverage of the 3 grand tours. Free but extra “special shows” available by subscription.
  • Bespoke. Intermittent BBC show with daily coverage during Tour de France.
  • ITV Tour de France. Daily highlights of the TdF.
  • The Spokesmen. Fortnightly round table discussion of a variety of aspects of cycling. Tends to be US-centric and can be overly long.
  • The Rouleur Podcast. Summary of each edition of the magazine Rouleur.
  • Cycling Central. Australian TV channel with focus on riders from Down Under.
  • Cycling News. Occasional shows with daily highlights from TdF.
  • The Bike Show. Occasional shows with an emphasis on touring cycling.

Drama

  • The Archers. BBC Radio 4 soap/docu-drama.
  • Dum Tee Dum. Hilarious weekly review/homage to The Archers.

Other Sport

  • Test Match Special. The daily summary of England’s test matches from the BBC with Jonathan Agnew and Geoffrey Boycott.
  • Leicester Tigers. The rugby team from the city of Stephen’s birth.
  • The Tennis Podcast. Daily updates from the major tournaments.

General

  • Kermode & Mayo’s Film Review. The flagship movie review show from the BBC. (And “hello” to Jason Isaacs.)
  • Gardeners’ Question Time. The BBC Radio 4 programme in downloadable form.
  • In Our Time. The BBC Radio 4 programme in downloadable form.
  • More Or Less. The BBC Radio 4 programme that “gets behind the numbers in the news” in downloadable form.
  • Ramblings. Occasional series about walking by Clare Balding from the BBC.
  • The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry. BBC show answering semi-scientific questions such as “Is a spider’s web the strongest substance in the world?” in downloadable form.
  • The PC Pro Podcast. Fortnightly show discussing computer related news from the PC magazine.
  • 5Live science podcast. Twice weekly look at science
  • Costing the Earth. The BBC radio 4 programme about the environment.
  • From our own correspondent. The BBC radio 4 programme with stories from around the world.
  • Crossing Continents. Another BBC radio 4 programme with stories from around the world.
  • The Food Programme. The BBC radio 4 programme about (surprise, surprise!) food.
  • Sunday. The BBC Radio 4 programme Looking at the world with a religious perspective.
  • Prairie Home Companion. Weekly news from Lake Woebegone, Minnesota with Garrison Keillor.
  • Desert Island Discs. The BBC Radio 4 programme. What would be your choice?
  • Godpod. A monthlyish theology podcast.

Central America So Far

We’ve been here in Central America for 3 weeks so far. And we’re loving it!

We started on a 10 day tour of Costa Rica where the accommodation (bed & breakfast basis) and transfers between locations (including from the airport) was pre-arranged for us but no tours or activities were included. This was booked when we were in the UK through Trailfinders using a company called G Adventures. This worked really well as an introduction to holidaying in Central America.  

Since then we have been “doing our own thing” and found it easy and fun if a little time-consuming at times. Accommodation has been straightforward (courtesy of booking.com) while buses come in varying degrees of “sophistication” ranging from chicken buses (old US school buses used by the locals) to air conditioned microbuses on individually tailored itineraries. We have used neither of these extremes but have tended towards scheduled coaches from reputable companies (those mentioned in Lonely Planet & Rough Guide).

 

  • Climate. Generally hot (high 20s/ low 30s) and, at times, humid. We are here in the dry season (for most of the region at least). Obviously going up into the mountains means it is cooler – Monteverde felt quite chilly at night (at 3,500 feet)
  • Border Crossings. Very different to Europe! Not difficult if you know the procedures or have someone to show you, but if not….. We are getting lots of stamps in our passports and paying quite a lot in entry and exit fees but that is because we are going across several borders.
  • Safety. So far so good! We were a little apprehensive, particularly after our daughter, Eleri, was mugged in Nicaragua 18 months ago (thankfully she was unharmed and didn’t lose very much), but we haven’t felt unsafe at any point. We remain cautious especially as we are heading into Honduras and El Salvador next, both of which have bad reputations, although the guidebooks do suggest that this is a case of exaggeration and a little out dated.
  • Traffic. (Please note we are not on our bikes here!) Nowhere near as bad as we expected. Less manic and aggressive than Italy.
  • Cycling. We haven’t seen too many people on bikes except around Managua and Granada in Nicaragua where the countryside is much flatter. Generally we wouldn’t say it was the right place for cycle touring for us (especially Christine)  as it is too mountainous and hot. The traffic (see above) would not put us off and nor would the state of the roads which are mostly pretty well surfaced.
  • Toilets. Generally OK. It will be nice not to have to remember to throw loo paper in the bin rather than down the pan!
  • Money. Frequent border crossings means frequent changes of currency, of course, which gets confusing at times particularly if you mentally convert into a mixture of dollars and pounds. US dollars are accepted everywhere and prices are often quoted in $. Most ATMs offer the choice of USD or the local currency (which is the dollar in Panama and El Salvador!)
  • Costa Rica. Lived up to its reputation for fabulous wildlife viewing. Easy and geared up for tourists. Not as cheap as we expected – prices similar to US levels.
  • Panama. We only went to two places. Bocas del Toro which was wonderful, and Panama City which was so-so apart from the canal and the train but they are unmissable. The Metro is easy & cheap to use but one line only (which connects to the main bus station).
  • Nicaragua. We have only been here for a few nights but it is great so far. The most relaxed people. Granada is wonderful.

 

In summary, we are simply loving it here and we suggest that you come if you want something a little different. It is not as difficult or dangerous as you might think – or that is our experience, so far! (Fingers crossed that this continues.)