Monday, 31 March 2008

'ello, 'ello, 'ello

Guess who got pulled over by the police yesterday for overtaking on two solid lines? Not me, of course, cos I'm not keen on driving in foreign parts (plus am also a goody goody when it comes to driving and would never do anything so naughty). Yes, it was hubby. Tsk tsk. We were rather fortunate that the police man couldn't be bothered to write out a ticket for pesky gringos who claimed (quite truthfully) not to speak Spanish. Phew. And no bribes needed either.

PS Have added photos to the two postings below, including a distant shot of me frolicking in the surf...

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Monteverde, paradise lost for sure

Tuesday morning we dragged ourselves away from the beach in Samara to drive to Monteverde, in the middle of Costa Rica. We were looking forward to visiting this fabled place which is reknowned for its cloud forest and for its dreadful roads.

It's true, the roads are absolutely appalling. Luckily we had a 4WD car or there is no way on earth we would ever have got there. Admittedly we did take the absolute worse of all the roads that it is possible to take, although we didn't know it at the time. So, we (meaning hubby, who did all of the driving) slogged our way up there through jaw-shattering potholes and over what may have been boulders at approx 15km/hr. The reason the roads are so bad is because the people who live in Monteverde (and Santa Elena, the other town up there) want to keep this little piece of paradise as Eden-like as possible by discouraging visitors. Imagine our surprise when we got to Santa Elena itself to find that the townsfolk are living it up with fully tarmacked roads. No potholes and boulders for them, oh no. And, even worse, the town is probably the most touristy place we've been to since Las Vegas. It was awful. Full of tour parties (mostly consisting of American school kids on spring break - great), hotels and expensive restaurants.

The reason most people visit Monteverde is for the cloud forest, where you can take canopy tours which involve zip-lining through the trees or walking across suspension bridges. Hubby and I did this, along with a gazillion other people - so much for keeping the area pristine and discouraging visitors. If that's what you want to do, then why supply all these activities, hotels and restaurants? Very odd and somewhat hypocritical methinks. As you can probably tell, I didn't think much of Monteverde.

Thursday morning we gladly left Monteverde and its crappy roads and headed to Lake Arenal and its volcano. Lake Arenal is very pretty and we drove all the way round the shore, after having our 2 punctured tyres repaired in a Costa Rican fashion (involving blu-tack and spit). We came across a German bakery where hubby was pleased to find a bag of Haribo jellies and I was even more pleased to find a bar of Ritter chocolate. Yum in my tum.

We spent the night in a hotel with views of the volcano which regularly rumbles and throws out lava streams - quite impressive, but not as violent as we'd hoped. I was more impressed by my first ever sighting of fireflies!

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Costa Rica, the story so far

Crossing the border
Well, that was an adventure in itself. All started pretty well, we got a taxi from San Juan to the border at Pinas Blancas without any trouble (unless you count having your teeth shaken from your skull on the appalling Nicaraguan roads.) We even managed to negotiate the 'leave Nicaragua, enter no-mans-land' part of the journey without too much back-tracking - we've noticed that border crossings in this part of the world are amazingly bereft of signposts, hence it is very easy to walk across a border without getting the necessary stamps and paying the necessary fees for who knows what. Anyway, we finally found the Costa Rican immigration post due to the length of the queue outside the building. This was a bit of a shock as until now we have pretty much breezed across all borders (which probably means we did something wrong somewhere, no doubt we'll find out what when we try to board the plane home.) It turns out that there was a power cut at the immigration office (hello, get a generator), hence things were going somewhat slowly. And all the tour buses that turned up were getting priority ahead of any independent travellers. Great. Still, with our limited Spanglish we weren't exactly in a position to argue with anyone and we always follow the advice of the Lonely Planet (stupid damn book) to "dress smartly and be polite" at border crossings. Well, we can manage polite, but smart clothes are a thing of the past. Anyway, finally we were forced to just give our passports over to someone and trust in their promise that we would get them back. EEEK. Well, we did get them back, and all in all we were probably only at the border for a couple of hours, which wasn't too bad I suppose.

The town in CR, not the African country. We shared a taxi from the border to Liberia with an American chap called Mike. The taxi drivers at the border had told us there were no buses, which is an age-old scam, but one which actually turned out to be true in this instance. You see we had foolishly chosen to travel on Holy Thursday. Holy what? Yes, Holy Bleedin Thursday when CR shuts down. Hence, when we got to Liberia it was like a ghost town and, true enough, there was not a bus to be seen. We managed to find a Chinese restaurant which was open (you can always guarantee on a Chinese restaurant to not be observing the holidays) and I looked forward to tucking in to my 'arozzo y verduras'. Now, even with limited Spanish, I was confident of tucking into a plate of rice and vegetables, so imagine my surprise when a plate of rice and various off-cuts of meat along the lines of Spam, turned up. But, who was I to argue?

Our room at the hostel in Liberia was really horrid so we wanted to spend as much time out of it as possible, which was tricky since everything in town was shut. Mike suggested a walk to the Best Western which has a casino. He was going to gamble while we sat in comfort and sipped drinks. So, off we toddled to the BW and, guess what, the casino was closed. Even worse than that, when we did find a bar, Mike & hubby were distraught to discover that Holy Thursday means NO BEER! In fact, no alcohol at all. We had a walk round the supermarket (which, miraculously, was open) and all of the alcohol was shrouded in black plastic, and the fridge doors all had official looking stickers across to prevent them being opened. All except for a fridge with some Guinness in it...

Playa Samara
We had a room booked at this lovely beach town (more like village, or even hamlet) for Easter Friday through til Sunday. Silly us. Holy Friday also means no buses! So we were forced to shell out $100 for a taxi from Liberia - ouch, that hurt. Although the blow was cushioned somewhat when we realised that the somewhat pricey hotel we'd treated ourselves to in San Juan, had only charged us for 3 nights instead of 4. Result.

Playa Samara was lovely but, OMG, was it ever hot. And our room only had a fan, no a/c! Sweaty betty. We liked it so much we decided to stay an extra night. On Monday we hired a car (for the duration of our visit to CR); we drove approx 7km along the coast to Playa Carrillo which was a huge, extremely shallow beach. And it was pretty much deserted - there must have been no more than 10 of us there. I'll post photos soon.

I hope you are all sitting down cos this might come as a shock to those of you who know me
I went boogie boarding. Twice! I loved it! I might go again! Enough exclamation marks.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Happy Easter from Costa Rica (ooo, it rhymes!)

Hope you all have a lovely easter with lots of yummy chocolate eggs. I'll be thinking of you all, and I'll be jealous, especially if any of you is enjoying a Chocolate Buttons egg which is my fave. Today hubby went to the supermarket and, in true hunter-gatherer mode, brought me back a bar of Dairy Milk, which is only the second bar I've had on this entire trip - which is quite a miracle for me since I'm a total chocaholic.

Anyway, that's it for now, I'll leave a proper blog of our Costa Rican adventures so far at some other time.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Topsy & Tim go to the Post Office

If you were to write a Topsy & Tim book about visiting the Post Office (or 'correos' as it is called) in Nicaragua the book would have to be about 3 times longer than one for visiting the PO in the UK (even taking in to account that there is no queue at the PO here, compared to the usual half-mile long queue in the UK.)

This morning we went to the correos in San Juan del Sur. We would have missed it were it not for the friendly (and armed) guard standing outside who must have spotted the wedge of postcards we were clutching, since it is very approximately the size of a cupboard-under-the stairs - I'm not kidding. With our pigeon Spanglish we were able to communicate our need for 12 stamps for Ingleterra. Not a problem. We were told they would cost 14 cordobas each. Fine, so we started counting out our money and the lady
started hunting through her desk drawer for some stamps. Yes, this is the Post Office... Eventually, she managed to cobble together 12 sets of stamps which added up to 14 cordobas each. One of our postcards is decorated with 7 (yes, SEVEN) stamps. Silly us; when we had written our postcards we'd left room at the top for a couple of little English-sized stamps, but we should have learned our lesson - in Central America they like to make stamps as big as possible. I think the largest stamps we've seen so far were in Mexico where they were about 2" square. So, if you are the lucky recipient of one of our cards from Nicaragua, you may not be able to read what we have written and you may not be able to admire the pretty picture, but at least you'll be able to start your very own stamp collection!

BTW, if you do get one of the cards, would you please drop us an email as we'd be intrigued to know if they do actually make it to the UK.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

OMG it is HOT here!

Many apologies to those of you who are suffering chilblains in good old Blighty. I know I shouldn't complain, but it is sooooooooooooo hot here in Nicaragua, somewhere in the 30s, quite possibly the high 30s.

So, after three nights in the lovely Granada, today we took two buses down to the coast. Public transport is such a bargain here - for nearly 4 hours of bus journeys, it cost us just over 1GBP each. Remeber in the good old days when buses in England had conductors as well as drivers? Well, it's like that here, plus they have another person whose job it is to get up on the roof to load/unload all the bags, boxes and kitchen sinks that are part of the luggage that everyone likes to carry. Nicaragua is apparently the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere behind Haiti, and yet each bus employs 3 people. And yet in the UK (definitely not the poorest country in any hemisphere) our buses have the all-in-one driver/conductor in order to cut costs, and give the drunks more opportunity to annoy the rest of the passengers. How does that work?

Anyway, enough economics for today. We are now down on the coast of Nicaragua in a small town called San Juan del Sur. We only got here about 4.30pm so we haven't had much chance to look round yet, what with having to take cold showers and worship the god of air-con for quite a while. Hopefully tomorrow we'll get to have a gad about and also spend some time on the beach to top up our tans. Sorry, I'll go now before you start getting annoyed with me!

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Pop goes the hermetically-sealed air-conditioned bubble!

After 4 days of air-conditioned, high-end comfort on luxury buses and in even more luxurious hotels, we are now back in traveller mode. We had 3 lovely nights at the Hilton in San Salvador and a fab night at the Crowne Plaza in Managua, where we were forced to stay in a suite as they had no regular rooms left. Oh, the life of the budget traveller...

Now we are back to earth, although not with too much of a bump as we are staying in a lovely little hotel in Granada, Nicaragua. Granada is another colonial town, but it's different to the others we've seen so far on this trip as it is much quieter, far fewer Gringos around, and it has a very laid-back, almost Caribbean, atmosphere. We like it a lot.

This morning we went to Volcan Masaya, an active volcano where you can drive right up to the edge and look down in to the smoking crater. No lava to be seen, unfortunately, but constant smoke and a warning on the brochure to park your car facing downhill (presumably for a quick getaway), and to take shelter under your car if the volcano starts spewing rocks. And it is recommended that you limit your visit to 20mins. We were there 45mins, thus doubling our chance of death by lava, but we survived.

It is v v hot in Nicaragua, way hotter than in Guatemala. We don't really know what the weather was like in El Salvador as we were totally air-conditioned, but it looked hot out of the window...

Monday, 10 March 2008

MacDonalds in San Salvador

Look what you can get for $2.99 - El Chavo! Wonder if that comes wrapped in Burberry print paper and with a side of gold jewellery?

Kate Adie Reporting

From, allegedly, the second most dangerous city in the western hemisphere - San Salvador. I've just been on Google, but I can't find out which is the most dangerous city in the world though - anyone know the answer? Anyway, San Salvador is allegedly dangerous and so in order to protect ourselves from the gun-toting drug warlords, we were forced (tee hee) to check in to the Hilton which, again allegedly, is the most luxurious hotel in Central America. How fancy! The photo above is the view from our room of a volcano, hopefully inactive. When we arrived, despite doing our best inpressions of bedraggled, weary travellers straight off the bus from Guatemala, we got upgraded to an Executive room. Double fancy! Being executives means we get to use the Executive Lounge where we get free food and drink pretty much all day (we have been filling our boots) and free wi-fi (am currently using the computer in the Executive lounge and ear-wigging on a business conversation, some people are sooooo important).
Yesterday we ventured out onto the mean streets of the city. Well, actually we got a taxi everywhere we went cos that's what you're supposed to do (although apparently the area we are staying in - Zona Rosa - is perfectly safe to walk around as long as you don't go out after dark and aren't carrying anything...) I was massively excited as we made our way to MetroCentro, the largest mall in all of Central America. I had such visions in my head of the Oracle in Reading but a gazillion times bigger. Imagine my disappointment when, although large, it turned out to be more the sort of mall you'd find in Watford (apologies to anyone who lives in/loves Watford). So, after a quick jaunt around, we took another taxi to Galerias Escondidas, hyped by the Lonely Planet as the fanciest mall in the city. I was looking forward to browsing Louis Vitton, Chanel and Dior before putting my feet up in the champagne bar and feasting on blinis and caviar. Back to earth with a bump. There was a Macdonalds and a Pizza Hut Express in the food court, and Nine West and Bennetton was about as high-end as it got. Still, at least there was a nice coffee shop and hubby was v happy to find a sweet shop selling jellies.
From our drives around the city, and also the bus journey we took through the country when crossing over from Guatemala, both El Salvador and San Salvador look really nice. It's such a pity they both have such a bad reputation and, being a bit of a sissy, I don't want to be the one to push it to find out if the reputation is actually warranted.

Friday, 7 March 2008

A Miraculous Recovery

Just so you all don't spend the weekend worrying about poor hubby's health, I'm pleased to be able to tell you that through the magical healing powers of Fanta and half a Twix, he is feeling much better. He even managed a few hours out  and about in Antigua this morning although, bravely or foolishly, he has let me out alone this afternoon with only a wodge of quetzales and a credit card for company. Sit back in wonder as I single-handedly transform the ailing Guatemalan economy using only a small piece of plastic and an eye for expensive fru-frus...   Tomorrow we are off to our next country - El Salvador. We're getting a bus straight to San Salvador where we've booked ourselves into the Hilton for 2 nights. how fancy!

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Montezuma's Revenge

Well, it had to happen sooner or later. We've managed 7 weeks of our trip, 3 of which have been in Central America and, finally, one of us has fallen under the spell of Montezuma. Poor hubby has been suffering somewhat today, and shares in Andrex (or whatever it's called over here) have risen sharply. Typically, poor hubby had to fall ill on the day we decided to move on from Panajachel to Antigua. Luckily, the Immodium did its job on the 3 hour bus trip and we made it to our hotel.

I've had a bit of a wander round the town on my lonesome, and decided to splash out on a nice lunch in a fancy cafe - well, I was all alone so I needed a treat... Poor hubby stayed in bed in a darkened room with just a few sips of water to sustain him.

From what I've seen, Antigua is a very pretty colonial town (in the style of other colonial towns we've seen thus far - Oaxaca, San Cristobal de las Casas). There are plenty of snazzy-looking cafes, bars and restaurants so, as long as Montezuma allows it, there should be some fine dining and much coffee sipping to be done. I'm slightly concerned by the dearth of shops and must investigate more fully tomorrow, especially if I'm not under the eagle eye of hubby. Clearly, I'll have to treat myself to some nice "stuff" to make up for being all lonely and alone.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Guatemala - I'm loving it!

Still in Panajachel on the shores of Lake Atitlan. We had planned to stay 3 nights, but now it looks like we're going to stay 5 nights. Just can't tear ourselves away.

On Sunday we went to the big market at Chichicastenango (don't you just love these Guatemalan town names?!) Luckily for hubby, we were mildly disappointed by the market itself and only spent 25 quetzals (even the currency here has a cool name!) which is less than 2GBP. However, we were impressed by the church procession which wound its way through the market - there were lots of large statues of saints being paraded around and every now and then the whole preocesion would come to a stop so that homemade explosions could be let off. This seems to have involved stuffing lots of small pellets of gunpowder into a scaffolding tube, setting light to it and ducking. Lots of fun!

Yesterday we took a boat ride acoss Lake Atitlan to San Pedro La Laguna and spent the morning wandering round the town. We got a boat back at about 2pm by which time the lake which was like glass on the way out and turned into a churning monster so we crashed and banged our way back across in a little wood and fibreglass contraption, known as a boat. Luckily my doggy paddle has been honed by trips to at least 2 swimming pools while we've been away, so I would have been safe had we met with an unfortunate accident.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Guatemala - tick!

Hooray, we made it to Guatemala! And finally, after 6 weeks and 2 days of travelling I got my first tick! For those of you who don't know about the tick system, there is a spreadsheet that those of us in the know have been using for quite a few years to record every country/dependency/territory, etc, etc that we have visited. TK is currently in the lead with 56 (or is it 57, TK?) but hubby and I are snapping at her heels. Guatemala now puts me on 52 ticks and hubby on 48. TK is sneakily planning a trip to Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil for the end of the year so hubby and I have to put some leg work in to keep those ticks coming!

Yesterday (Friday) was spent travelling from San Cristobal in Mexico to the border at La Mesilla and then onwards to Quetzaltenango. The Mexican part of the journey was conducted in relative comfort on an air-conditioned bus; the journey across no-man's land between the two borders was a bit of a squash in a 'collectivo' taxi, and the Guatemalan part of the journey was 6 hours on a 'chicken' bus. These are basically old American school buses which are garishly painted and drive at high speeds (when possible) belching out noxious fumes with as many passengers as is physically possible (and then a few more) crammed inside. Still, it was an experience!

We spent the night and this morning in Quetzaltenango (shortened to Xela, and pronounced Shay-la - go figure!), which was a very pleasant town (see photo at top). We were especially pleased to find a rather good secondhand bookshop where we were able to off-load a couple of books and pick up 3 new ones. Hooray! It's the simple things that make us happiest.

Then this afternoon we took a minibus another 2 hours across the country to Panajachel on the shores of Lake Atitlan. Fantastic views of the lake, ringed by volcanoes as we drove in to the town. I am very much liking the look of this place as there are shops and stalls all over the place, selling jewellery, bags, clothes, textiles, etc, etc. Hubby might not be so pleased...