Friday, June 19, 2015

Birthdays and beaches in Nicaragua

Ometepe Island, Nicaragua (N 11°29.708 W 85°32.677).

What does a good boyfriend do for his girlfriend for her birthday when they are living out of a car in a third world country you ask? Well, this boyfriend decides that his lady needs an island birthday and takes her to the closest thing to a tropical island, which for us happened to be Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua. What a lucky gal she is! :) The island is made up of two volcanoes (yes we are starting to get sick of them) and connected by a narrow low lying piece of land all of which is inside the massive 110 mile by 35 mile Lake Nicaragua.

Racing down from Masaya, we make it to the docks in time to board Lola onto the slowest moving ferry ever. And an hour and a half later arrive on the lush Ometepe Island. We have heard of overlanders bush camping on a stretch of beach on the island, and had our hearts set on this. We check the maps, figure out where it is, and off we go in search of this. To our pleasure, we roll up and see three other overland vehicles parked on a uninhabited section of the beach! We pull up and are met by friendly people of various European nationalities, and get straight to cooking some yummy beach camping grub and enjoy some cold brewskies with our neighbors. We check out everyones rigs and share travel stories from the road. Perfection is what that is called!

Bow pointed at Ometepe's Conception Volcano
Wild looking cloud formation!
Beach camping with some fellow nomads.

The night is cut kinda short by the rain, as are many nights lately in the beginning of rainy season here, but we were happy to have some comradery in the not so perfect weather. Turns out some kind of mini monsoon was hitting the island, blasting the beach with strong winds, heavy rain, and thunder and lighting lasting until almost 11am the next day. The storm forced us to rest up inside Lola this whole time, making the best of the close quarters by reading, catching up on The Wire, and trying not to be jealous of our friends in their roomy RV type vehicles. Antsy to end our micro hibernation at the first sign of the storms end, we say bon voyage to our friends and hit the road to explore the island. We take a drive around the rugged south loop of the island - a dirt road circling one of the two volcanos that make up Ometepe (means "two mountains" in an ancient native language), and take in the island life of the locals.

Where exactly does one evacuate when stuck when on a volcano in the middle of a shark filled lake!

Chris has plans for a very special 31st birthday for Mallary and finds us the most perfect little beach cabana with a view of the lake to celebrate at. We spend our time swimming in the lake while also trying to ignore the fact that it is full of sharks. Once thought to be a seperate species, it was recently discovered the sharks here are indeed Bull Sharks that swam upstream from the Carribbean. So much for some exciting Sharknado theory. Occasionally horses join us to grab a drink, highlighting an already scenic backdrop of luscious green volcanoes.

Racking up brownie points with a stellar cabana!
Shark bait with a good background.
It seems like you are at ocean, until you see horses drinking at it's shores.

Some exercise is needed so we embark on our bikes for a ride around the rolling hills to a spring fed pool called Ojo de Agua to take a refreshing dip in the mineral rich rejuvenating waters. While frolicking in the waters we hear the plop of something landing near us, a closer look reveals green poop, how the heck!? Hold up, there are Howler Monkeys staring at us from the trees above, and they really do throw poo!! That wasn't the last of it either, shortly later one of the younger mischievous monkeys walked along a tree limb overhanging the pool and peed down into it. It wasn't a trickle either, it was a full on stream! So this is what the pool means by being mineral rich.

Ojo de Agua
The poo throwing culprits.

We indulge in some hummus, veggie curry and fresh fruit smoothies at the vegetarian restaurant which serves local and organic food from the island. By further biking around, we follow our noses to a locals house which serves up huge portions of the best damn tacos we have ever had for just a few bucks, and wash those down with some cheap beers on the beach. We repeat this the next day, with a return visit to our new favorite island establishments for more delicious drinks and food, swimming in our beach side pool complete with pool side service, and then top off the day with professional massages in our cabana, followed by the always refreshing skype time with the family and doggies. 31 is looking pretty good for Mallary, as the list of things in life to be thankful for just keeps growing with every year that passes! :)

You know it must be Mallary's birthday if Chris is eating at a vegetarian restaurant!
Best tacos since Mexico!

Our five days on the island came to an end with what seemed like a blink of an eye, and soon we were slowly rumbling back across the lake to mainland. The strip of land between the lake and the Pacific Ocean is fairly narrow so we drove across to find ourselves a resting point before entering into Costa Rica the next day. Where to go for now? We made it to the touristy coastal town of San Juan del Sur, but unattracted to what we saw, we chose to drive south for something a little more remote. A rough 15 miles later we arrived at La Flor Wildlife Refuge. The main purpose of this mostly ignored park is to protect the nesting grounds of Olive Ridley sea turtles along with being a research center. Worldwide the Olive Ridley is dropping in numbers, and likely to be listed as endangered in the near future, therefore this park is one of a few of it's kind hoping to give these turtles a fighting chance. The folks here seemed a little surprised that anyone would randomly show up, and were not exactly welcoming at first. Despite the cold intro, we stuck around anyway and helped ourselves to the beautiful and completely empty beach. Early in the night we met a friendly ranger named Luis, who informed us that even though it is not turtle nesting season (full moons from July-December are best), that we might still get lucky and see them as a few turtles were nesting each night that week already. He was going out at 9pm to collect eggs, and we could go with him if we wanted. Heck yea!

Our turtle beach during the day
A recent hatching site!
Searching for treasure

9pm rolled around and we were at Luis' heels scouring the beach for turtles. We make it all the way down to the end of beach before we start to see the dark lump of a turtle close to the treeline! It's one of the Olive Ridley's that was just finishing packing in the sand on top of it's eggs! It was neat to see, but we wanted to see the whole process so we continued searching. Suddenly, in a fit of excitement, Mallary yelled "Look tracks!" and sure enough another fresh set of turtle tracks led from the water and up into the darkness. We followed the tracks and came across another turtle, and lucky for us she was still searching for a good place to lay her eggs. According to Luis it was important to give her space while she dug a hole for the eggs, once complete we quietly approached behind her. Part of the mission of this refuge is for the rangers to collect the eggs and release them at birth so they can be protected against poachers, animals, and also allow more of the baby turtles to make it to the sea. Luis expertly dug a tunnel at an angle that connected to the hole the turtle had made and backed away to let us watch the eggs slowly drop and start to fill in the hole! We were kneeling less than a foot behind the turtle shining our red lights into the hole, silently and estatically taking in the beauty of nature in front of us. It was incredible watching this happen. As the turtle finished up, Luis quickly scooped out the eggs, giving the turtle room to fill in and pack down the sand (totally unaware we had her 90 eggs). She did a meticulous job of packing in the sand and covering up any signs that she had been there. You could tell she was exhausted from the entire process, as she would frequently take breaks and a few deep breaths, but was determined to protect her babies on the very same beach that she was born about 50 years ago!! Normally only one flash photo is allowed per person, but since it was just the two of us we were allowed to take plenty more when she was finished laying, and even touch the turtle shell - Luis actually urged us to! From there, we watched the turtle scoot back down the beach and return to the sea. The whole process itself took roughly an hour, and left us with an amazing experience that we were very fortunate to see live. Fully satisfied from the night hunt, we went back to camp ready catch some sleep and get up early for the morning crossing into Costa Rica.

Turtle eggs! Scrambled or easy over? ;)
Feeling a rush while up close and personal with mama turtle
Luis pulling out the eggs.
Mama heading back to the sea

La Flor Wildlife Refuge, Nicaragua (N 11°08.636 W 85°47.566).


Thursday, June 18, 2015

Kicking Ash in Nicaragua

León, Nicaragua (N 12°26.234 W 86°52.560). An hour was all it took, we were tired from the double border crossing, but not too tired to promptly sign up for some volcano boarding early the next morning! Cerro Negro means black hill in Spanish, and it is Central America's youngest volcano. Born in 1850, and one of Nicaragua's most active volcanos, it has erupted 23 times already, the last being in 1999. Locals seem to think it is due anytime now, but in the meantime it is a top site for adrenaline junkies looking for a unique experience.

Countryside view while going up Cerro Negro.

We head out early with our guide through the lush farmlands that lie in the towns surrounding the volcano. The black volcanic soil makes perfectly mineral rich fertile land for farming... so although they seem slightly crazy to be living under an active volcano, we are mighty thankful for the delicious veggies we amply find at markets! Our driver scares us a bit with a few close calls with some cattle and horses along the black sandy road, but we make it, ready for a new experience.

We head up the rocky trail carrying our supplied gear: board, safety glasses, gloves, full length jean jumpsuit, and bandana. The board is a slender piece of plywood with a couple of foot rests installed along with a rope handle for steering and a padded front lip to help cruise over the pebbles and ash. Underneath the board is the key component, sheet metal and a smaller piece of formica, the latter of which gets replaced after each ride, this gaurantees each trip is packed with the ability to reach top speeds. We can clearly see the path the lava last took through the forest, along with a stunning view of the countryside as we make our way up to the rim of the two craters that sit atop Cerro Negro. The ground is palpably hot, with steam vents scattered around, smelling strongly of sulfur.

Chris demonstrating some chivalry and helping carry his ladies board.
Mal lookin good with the
Actual steam coming out of the ground!
Crater #1, and some people far off on the rim.
Posting up in front of crater #2.

After taking in the views, we suit up. The fine black rocks are about to come flying at us as we slide down the 40 degree slope in front of us. The hike up took an hour, but takes 45 seconds to slide down the 1,500' descent! Our guide offers to stand in the middle of the slope with our camera so she can snap a few photos as we speed past her one at a time. In drag race fashion, she raises her arm then drops it giving the signal to go. Chris goes first, the sled is a bit cumbersome initially, requiring some effort to build up momentum. Then almost magically the sled overcomes the drag and picks up speed, and quick! It takes a matter of seconds to appreciate why we are in so much safety gear, small stones begin flying up pelting the body and face. Once you get used to the relentless bombardment of volcanic debris, the fun factor really picks up as you realize how fast you are sliding down this volcano playground. Within 45 seconds the ride was over, but totally worth it. Mallary shot down next like a bat out of hell. She flew down so fast, the only thing heard at the base was a series of hilariously loud explicatives. Highest recorded speeds have exceeded 60mph, but we didnt quite reach that. Fully peppered by ash and pebbles, we ride back to Leon for some much needed showers.

About to hit the slopes looking like an 80's rap group.

In Leon, we enjoyed some $2 typical Nico meals, and $1 local Toña beers. On the downside, we did experience our first theft of the trip. The morning we left Leon, we discovered that the seat had been stolen off of Chris' bike. Why they chose to steal the most uncomfortable seat ever made was beyond us, but ultimately they did a us favor because for $6 we found a replacement that was ten times more comfortable! Thanks for the forced upgrade, thief.

Typical Nico dish.

We pointed the 4runner south towards some neat places that were recommended to us. The first was Apoyo Lagoon, a large lake that over time had filled in the crater of a massive extinct volcano. Sadly, this is one of the few lakes in the whole country that can be safely swam in. The saving grace for this lake is that almost the entire rim and drainage zone is protected lands....preventing the unchecked development and dumping of hazardous waste that plagues most other lakes. The crystal clear waters felt great, and the park had kayaks, inner tubes, and a floating dock to play on.

We could have, and maybe should have, stayed at Apoyo Lagoon much longer, but we knew that volcano Masaya was nearby and that you could sometimes get a glimpse of some red bubbling lava at night. So we headed there, hoping we would just get lucky this particular night and see the "gate to hell". There are sometimes guided tours at night, but rather unlucky for us, tonight the volcano was exceptionally steamy and there would be no night tours. With a bit of daylight left, we drove to the top and peered into the steamy abyss, only able to tolerate the conditions for 5-10 minutes before the continous emittance of sulfur dioxide gas burning our eyes and noses sent us back to the base. Bummed that we wouldn't see lava, and also that we left the beautiful Apoyo to camp at the foot of an angry rumbling volcano, we made the best of it and cooked up a lovely camp dinner, having the entire park to ourselves for the night. It was storming, and it was quite hard to tell what was thunder and what was the volcano growling... so as advised by the park staff, we parked facing out, front seats clear of anything, ready to make a quick getaway if indeed Masaya decided to let loose that night!

Note rule #1 on the park pamphlet, they mean business!
Rare parakeets in the background that have evolved to tolerate sulphur and other hazardous gasses.
Peeking into the half mile wide crater!

Masaya National Park (N 12°0.181 W 86°08.909).


3 countries in 1 day... Not as fun as it sounds

San Miguel, El Salvador (N 13°29.082 W 88°10.291). It's 6am and this thing we have become unfamiliar with called an alarm clock is blaring in our cheap-O hotel room. We've got our screen shots from multiple sources loaded on the ipad, we've done our research, all our documents and copies are ready, and we are totally not excited about what the day holds... It's border crossing day. Not any border crossing day either, today we have 2 borders to conquer. The goal is to exit El Salvador, enter into Honduras, drive 2-3 hours through Honduras, and enter into Nicaragua.

How NOT to have a fun day!

First of all, the exiting of a country part is USUALLY the shortest and easiest part of border days... Not today though. We approach the craphole border known as El Amatillo. Despite the appearance and reputation of this dumpster fire of a border crossing, all was well at first. Step 1: cancelled our temporary import permit at the import office. Step 2: filled out our customs forms, and got the very important little white piece of scrap paper from immigration stating that we could leave. Now all we had to do was Step 3: get through one last official guarding the bridge that connected both countries, we will call him Diablo, hand him the scrap of paper, and head on over to Honduras. Well, Diablo had other plans... And that plan involved making a little extra cash today at the expense of some gringos. He decided that since our vehicle permit did not state anything about the bikes on the back of the car, we would either need to pay him $40 or go pay a fine of "$500". Nice try buddy... We will go pay the fine. Diablo didnt like that idea, he insisted that it would be a huge hassle for us and that we need to just pay him, he will even be "nice" and just charge us $20. We held firm that there was no possible way we would give into his corruption, and we drove the mile or so back to the office that canceled our permit. They kindly took the permit, wrote a little note on the bottom saying that bikes were ok, stamped it, signed it, and sent us back to the bridge. However this time, the department of drug enforment decided we needed a car search before exiting... No big problem, just time and a really adorable labrador sniffing out our car. Back to the bridge we go, where Diablo takes one look at our paper and shakes his head meanly. He is bullying us big time, irritated that we took the initative to go through proper channels to call his bluff, he decides to not let us pass and basically just ignore us. We try to reason with him, ask him for rational, even just keep smiling and being nice, but nothing makes Diablo change his mind. He is full of pride and his sense of authority has gone to his head. We turn around yet again in search of the right signature to oblige Diablo. We drive back to vehicle import office for a THIRD time, hoping to find someone to get on board with our epic battle of attrition and patience against the evil Diablo. By this time everyone in the office recognizes us, so one of the senior officials grabs up the phone and calls down to another official down by the bridge. Excited that progress seems to be made, we hurry back to bridge and search around a bit for this person who must be the boss man. He politely tells us to drive behind him as he walks out onto the bridge. Diablo looked stunned to see us returning again, this time led by someone outranking him. The boss man promptly put Diablo in his place with a swift and effective verbal beat down and a schooling of how official papers work. We cheer as Diablo waves us onto the bridge sending us over to Honduras. What should have taken less than 30 minutes, took us over an hour and a half.

Our document plus additional nonsense of extra notes and stamps to allow the bikes and appease Diablo!


The bridge...
Friendly money changer posing for a picture.

Sure that the rest of the day will go smoothly, statisically speaking, we had our share of hold ups for the day. HAHAHA! Yea right! We accidentally pick up an unofficial border crossing "helper", who ended up actually being quite helpful. This border required 3 seperate trips to the hole in the wall copy shack... Official government offices do not have such machines in them, yet they always require many copies of paper they give you! The immigration part was easy as usual, but then came the vehicle import permit part, which had endless steps, and was continuously interrupted by short power outages. Needless to say, there was a whole bunch of standing around shooting the shit with the local border loiterers. Chris had a blast spending an hour dealing with the highly inefficient system going back and forth from bank to copy shack to import office to copy shack etc. We were at the point of needing some booze asap, but we poorly planned our finances this morning and had to conserve our last bit of precious money. Side note: approach new countries with more cash and rum on hand. We finished up, but before we could pull away from the Amatillo wasteland, our "helper" tried to convince us that we needed to pay him $22.50 to sneak around a 2 hour wait at the nearby fumigation station. "Just hand me the cash, and follow me!" he demands. We look at each other, sensing the aura of BS. Hand him a couple bucks for his prior assistance and politely tell him to take a hike and we'll go it alone. As we drive off, we discover there really was no fumigation or waiting of any form. Nice try "helper"! It felt good to thwart two cons in one morning.

The 2 hour drive through Honduras was uneventful. The standard people selling iguanas on the road side, many fruit stands, a few crazy drivers, and of course pot hole ridden roads. The holes were so gnarly and frequent that we wondered if this was the main highway or a missle test range. Fortunately we came across the occasional teen with a shovel, filling the holes in the road with sand, and motioning to us to stop to tip them for their services. We've got to admit, quite an industrious effort! If we hadn't been previously warned to not stop for the kids, we may have contributed to them, in the end we really did appreciate their work, even if it meant just a few less potholes to dodge!

Exiting Honduras and entering Nicaragua went smoothly at Guasaule, the normal unorganized process, but this time no hold ups! All in all, we had one very productive 10 hour "work day" and felt quite accomplished upon arrival to our destination in León, Nicaragua (N 12°26.234 W 86°52.560).


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A quick glimpse of El Salvador

We take a deep breath, glad that we are half way done with our border crossing, HELLO EL SALVADOR!

Natural, clean, soothing jacuzzis flowing from the mountains... just what an overlander needs after a lovely day of hiking and crossing a border! :) In a perfect world it would have been a bit cooler out, but we weren't complaining! Car camping at some hot springs just over the Guatemala/El Salvador border suited us just fine for the night, and the El Salvador border crossing was quick & painless, and maybe even a little bit pleasant, as the guys working there were very friendly and helpful, and there were no annoying "helpers" badgering us.

The next morning we were off to drive down the Ruta De Las Flores (route of the flowers). Known to be one of the most beautiful drives in the country, certain times of the year it sports enormous amounts of flowers along the highway plus blossoming coffee plantations. We didn't hit it at the right time of year, but it was still a scenic route that we enjoyed. It was a Sunday, and the town of Juayua has a large food festival every weekend that we wanted to pop in and taste. We got there so early that we had to kill a little time, tried out some local pastries and coffee and entertained ourselves in an ameteur reptile "zoo" for a while. One of us thoroughly freaked out and the other enjoying the exhibits but more so enjoying the precense of fear in the room!

We wandered around the food stalls and gladly accepted the free samples from the ladies trying to convince us to choose their food. The most remarkable part was how beautifully they displayed their dishes in front of their stands. Flowers made from vegetables, a whole frog standing erect with toothpicks, fresh grilled iguana plated fancily with its side dishes... It was hard to choose just one thing! We ended up with a heaping plate of grilled beef, fried shrimps, veggies on a kebab, chorizo, rice, salad, and fresh salsas for just 5 bucks! Funnily though, it was all just heaped on the plate on top of each other, barely resembling the artful exhibit of a plate we had pointed to as our order. But still tasted delicious!
Food stalls in Juayua
One of the crowded food stalls, smelling of freshly sizzling BBQ
The red tents made it hard to capture a good pic, but you get the idea...

Our not so artful, but very tasty food festival meal
Next on our agenda was to find a sweet spot to camp for the night before we hiked Santa Anna Volcano in the morning. We checked out a few places and finally made camp in the forest next to the very crowded parking lot at the entrance to the volcano. There were tons of people here, until about 6pm when it cleared out completely, leaving the whole park to just us and a couple security guards... Quite a deal for only $6! We have to admit though, it was a little unnerving knowing that the next day we would need to have a guide as well as an armed tourist police officer accompany us on the hike. Although the area felt very safe, and we tend to be very trusting, we wondered all night long if it was truely a risky campsite. We had talked with the night guards and they assured us it was safe, but still remained on edge about the whole thing. The next day we woke up sans machete wielding banditos, ready to conquere Santa Anna, the highest volcano in the county at 7,800ft! The deal here is unusual, in order to hike this volcano you must meet at 11am at the tourist booth and go with your said guide and cop. However many people show up at 11 is how many people you will end up hiking up the volcano with. We were optimistic at 10:30 when it was just us and a couple cool German folks, but then 10:50 rolled around and not 1 but 2 groups of about a dozen or so Mormon missionary kids showed up ready to hike! So on we went, us, a few Germans about our age, and twenty-five18-20 year old kids, 2 trail guides, and 2 armed cops! It was like a high school field trip hike up a volcano, complete with a briefing about not taking selfies too close to the crater, as some unlucky soul apparently did recently! If there is anything that will make you feel old, it's trying to keep up with a bunch of teenagers going up a mountain! These kids were on a mission (not the mormon kind either) to get to the top as fast as possible, and we were on a mission to enjoy the hike at our own slow to leisurly pace, hanging with the guide and cop at the back of the group! It's a bit odd that the park has set the hikes up in this manner, and we questioned the system, but at the same time had to be thankful that they at least put some safety measures in place after many incidents of robbery along tourist hiking trails such as this one. Anyway, we made it to the summit, the rim of the volcano that is! Mallary's first time at the top of a volcano! And this particular volcano happened to have a bright aqua bubbling crater lake in it!! Not entirely sure here, but we think the bright aqua color is due to the sulphuric levels combined with the lakes acidic pH of 0.7-1.0. Such a remarkable and rewarding view! We spent a bit of time simply admiring the site in front of us and watching the turquoise waters bubble. We headed down from the volcano, and this time no one was in a rush! Actually the kids seemed quite tired, and many hung toward the back of the group with us. We got to talking to the curious teens about their time on their mission, and seriously these teens were some of the most responsible, well mannered, and intelligent kids we have met while traveling. We left the park that that day wishing them well on their journeys, and thinking that this time of their lives will forever change who they become when they go back to the USA...
Izalco volcano, adjacent to Santa Ana
Crater lake of Santa Ana volcano

Meandering down from the mountains, we reached the black sand beaches of El Tunco for a night. It had been weeks since we were on any coast, and boy was it hotter than we remembered! The heat had us yearning for an A/C motel but we persevered with the help of lots of cheap beer and the good company of some other overlanders from Califonia. Before entering El Salvador we had heard about the legendary Papusa, and in this town we finally got to taste them. A papusa is basically a savory pancake stuffed with any of the following: beans, cheese, jalapenos, chicken, sausage, or veggies, then topped with some cabbage salad and tomatoe sauce. For the most part, they are only found in El Salvador, and it seems to be a food they are quite proud of. We love them also, and really really loved the cheapo prices they sell for all over the place!

The cobblestone beach of El Tunco

When we woke up in the morning we immediately started sweating again, so we went for a dip in the warm black sand and cobblestone beach. In the end, the waves were rough and the heat was not enjoyable, so we headed out for San Salvador. Big cities are a place we dont usually go, but there was a friend of a friend there willing to meet up with us for the night, and nothing beats hanging out with a local when traveling in a foreign land. We killed some time at a fancy mall then met up with Richie that evening and had a wonderful time out to a nice Salvadorian restaurante with him and his friends. The traditional El Salvadorian food was delicious, the night was full of laughter and a mix of Spanglish conversations with our sweet new friends. Richie and his family graciously let us crash at their place for the night, where we throughly enjoyed their company and being in a house for a bit! Thanks again guys!!

We had no idea we were hanging out with The Godfather that night! ;)

Originally planning to hit up another beach further south, we changed our minds last minute because we just were not feeling the heat of it. We knew there were plenty more beaches in our future, and with our time frame we have to pick and choose wisely. Feeling like we had definitely missed out on bits of El Salvador, and also feeling compelled to move forward, we went with our gut and headed for a border town to prepare for a grueling double border crossing the next day!

Somewhere along the PanAm!! :)