Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Pura Vida!

After the issues at the Nicaraguan border, and especially the huge amount of time we spent in cars, busses, ferries and planes, we arrived in Costa Rica hoping to have a good time.

Well, the first days have been fantastic - or Pura Vida, as they say in Costa Rica!

We arrived in the capital San Jose on Thursday and decided to spend 2 nights there. Which was 1 too many, there is absolutely nothing to do there! On Saturday we took a bus for 4 hours to La Fortuna, a small town next to a volcano, where lots of awesome activities were waiting for us.
La Fortuna

On the first day we hiked down to a gorgeous waterfall. Daniel did a bit of swimming, but the current from the falling water is extremely strong! Kendy decided that the water was a bit too cold for her :) 

On the way home, we saw something amazing - this toucan was just flying around us and eating the papaya from the tree!!

In the evening, we went for a hiking tour on the volcano itself, walked through a lava path (created by a recent eruption) and ended the day in a nearby in a hotspring, which is a natural hot bath: the water is warmed up by heat from the earth (in this case, volcano)!
Hiking the lava path

 Nice rum-soda in a hot spring!

The next day we went on a 2 hour rafting trip on a crazy river!! by far the toughest rafting we've ever done (class IV). After rafting we were taken to an ecological farm, where we had a delicious lunch, fruit and coffee, after which we learned how they grow it themselves. 

Kendy getting the sugar out of the cane! We drank it later.. SWEET 

On day 3, we rented a Jeep to drive to Rio Celeste waterfall park. The Jeep ride was already fun (according to Daniel), as the final 20km were hardcore off-road, and took us to a beautiful national park. After hiking for about 2 hours, you enter an area with amazingly colored water. There are 2 rivers with different chemicals which come together (brown + white turns blue!) or see water boiling from the volcano's heat. We also saw a coati, snake and an agouti (small guinea pig)!

The 2 rivers coming together

 The water will change with the color of your eyes! So special!
OK not really, it's a chemical reaction between sulfur and calcium carbonate that causes this.

The water boiling

On the way home we stopped by lake Arenal for a great dinner (we deserved it after hiking for 4+ hours!) and sunset view over the lake.

Can you see all the windmills? More then 90% of Costa Rica runs on green energy! 

 Little parakeet was chilling in a tree, they are not shy of humans apparently. Parakeet vs Eagles is on

On our final day, Daniel decided to rent a Mountain bike after hearing some good stories about the mountain biking trails near the volcano. He didn't know how hard it would get!!!! Uphill, more uphill, and even more uphill. On the way there was a huge group of coatis near the road! So quiet and friendly!  Kendy took it a bit easier and went on a chocolate-making workshop. We are moving to Monte Verde tomorrow, a nearby mountainous area.

Cute little Coati

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Entry Denied! :(

After enjoying the dives and beaches in Honduras, we were planning to visit volcanoes and colonial cities in Nicaragua. We were pretty excited to go to Nicaragua: we were told that people are extremely friendly, it is super cheap, there are lots of adventurous activities and it is the safest country in Central America. Sounded like a perfect destination to spend a few weeks!

The trip from Roatan (Honduras) to Leon (northern Nicaragua) takes very long. Normally, travelers have to make an overnight stop in either Tegucigalpa or San Pedro Sula, two cities in Honduras famous for their high murder- and crime rates. As we really didn’t want to stay in either, we took a shuttle from La Ceiba (the city where the ferry from Roatan goes) to Leon, which takes around 15 hours. The first ferry from Roatan left at 7am and arrived at 8.30am, when our driver was already waiting for us with other passengers.

The beginning of journey was smooth, with a total of 20 people in the group – this is more than usual so the organizer arranged for 2 extra cars next to the minivan. We sat with 5 people in 1 car. We knew this was going to be anything but comfortable, but we were really happy we could get there in 1 day. So we thought…

We stopped a few times at gas stations and overall had a very good trip. Around 9pm, we arrived at the ‘Guasaule’ border between Honduras and Nicaragua. First the Honduras side: just get a stamp, very easy. The borders in Central America are full with people (unfortunately often kids) that offer money exchange – as soon as you get out your car or bus, many kids are around you waving with money so you can get rid of the other currency. Next to that there are people selling food which looks like it could really upset your stomach for a few days, and there are always street dogs walking around (they don’t have to get a stamp apparently). Not the nicest place to spend your time but you don’t really have a choice.

After the Honduran side we had to cross a bridge to go to the Nicaraguan entry point. This must be the most depressing border ever: ugly concrete buildings, dirty and totally unclear where to go. Our drivers took very good care of us, but we heard this is a chaotic nightmare for travelers during daytime. We were told that stamping all the passports in Nicaragua would take about one hour, maybe longer. Efficiency has yet to be introduced in this part of the world.

We already knew that borders in Central America are not familiar with the Hong Kong passport that Kendy holds. Every time we crossed a border, it took a bit more time than European or American passports. Usually they flip through the passport, try to see if it is fake and ask their colleagues for the procedures for this “rare” passport. The same happened in Nicaragua. But they examined the passport much longer than usual… at one point they asked our driver / guide to go into their room, and about 10 minutes later he asked us to go into the room as well. The immigration officer told us that Kendy’s visa is not valid for Nicaragua... Which we extensively researched before the trip: the visa requirement for Hong Kong passports is a CA-4 visa to enter Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Kendy got the CA-4 visa from Guatemala in the Netherlands and we had no problems in Guatemala and Honduras using this visa. However, the immigration officer said the CA-4 visa does not apply to this case (but he didn’t explain why). He did tell us that Nicaragua is trying to improve their relationship with China, so visitors from Hong Kong and Taiwan cannot get into Nicaragua without a visa issued by Nicaragua (how strange can it get). After talking to him forever, even showing internet sites which state that the CA-4 visa is sufficient for a Hong Kong resident to enter Nicaragua, he kept shaking his head and denied entry for us. It was around 11pm by now and we were angry and disappointed, but there was absolutely nothing to do. So there we were, being sent back to one of the worlds most dangerous countries right before midnight with no idea where to go.

Despite everything, some luck was with us: the driver could send the other tourists towards Nicaragua and drive us back to Honduras with one car, so we weren't left to sleep on the street. On top of that, his parents had a house in Tegucigalpa (in a safe area), where he offered to drive us (3 hours!) so that we could figure out what to do the next day.

We first had to get back into Honduras, which could be interesting: you cannot enter Honduras within 72 hours after exiting! Luckily their border was more flexible, they even saw it coming - around 2 weeks ago, a group of Hong Kong visitors got rejected while some were even holding a visa issued by Nicaragua. We got back into Honduras and arrived in Tegucigalpa around 3am… Exhausted.

We were very lucky that our guide stayed with us for the whole time and was willing to drive us back to Tegucigalpa. His parents were very friendly and cooked breakfast for us the next morning. We called the consulate of Nicaragua in Honduras, who told us that it takes 2 months to process a visa (which could be done in one hour at the embassy of Guatemala in the Netherlands) with no guarantees. So we decided to skip Nicaragua and find a flight ticket to Costa Rica on the same day. So we are in Costa Rica now! Nicaragua never again, we will forget about this bad experience and enjoy the beauty in Costa Rica and Panama!

At least we saw the most beautiful place in Nicaragua.. from the plane :) 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

One week in Honduras without a plan

Last week Monday, we left Guatemala City to travel to Honduras. Our bus left at 5am (!) and after a quick border crossing, short stops in Copan Ruinas (an old Mayan site.. but we had seen enough Mayan sites in Mexico and Guatemala so we skipped this one) and San Pedro Sula (the murder capital of Central America- let's get out of there), the bus arrived in La Ceiba, the 3rd city of Honduras, around 7pm. The streets in La Ceiba had a very shady feeling and you definitely don't want to walk around at night. We took a taxi to our restaurant, which was closed, so we ended up at Pizza hut :)

The next morning we took a ferry to Roatan, one of the islands on the Honduran Caribbean coast. What a difference from the mainland: the atmosphere is relaxed, touristic and very safe. We settled into a nice bungalow and had a great sunset the first evening!

A bungalow next to the sea, surrounded by palm trees and a nice hammock.. Life is good in Roatan!

Just like in Guatemala, many Americans and Europeans have settled in Roatan to start a hotel, restaurant, or dive shop. Because next to the 2nd biggest coral reef in the world, the main activity on this island is diving! Initially we didn't plan to dive, but we quickly realized that if we ever wanted to try diving, this would be the place to do it - cheap, nice and plenty of English speaking instructors. We started with a one day 'discover scuba diving' course and loved it so much, that we finished the full open water course! BTW - it was cloudy and raining almost every day, so being deep in the water was really the best thing to do :)

The sealife is absolutely stunning here. From turtles, to barracudas, lionfish, parrotfish, angelfish... they all can be seen between the coral reefs. Unfortunately our waterproof camera can only go 5m deep, and we went 10-20m on each dive, so we couldn't shoot underwater pictures - except these at the end of a dive :)

Besides diving, we visited a farm for Iguana's, and really enjoyed the island life for 8 days. Since Roatan is a bit more expensive compared to Central America, and it's full of mosquitoes carrying Dengue fever during the day, and Malaria once it gets dark :/  we can't stay here forever so we're heading for Nicaragua tomorrow!

 "I'm actually a small dinosaur" 

Can you find his head?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Hablo Espanol!

The past week-and-a-half, we stayed near beautiful lake Atitlan. The lake is by origin a volcano, which got its shape from a massive volcanic eruption about 85.000 years ago, and is surrounded by another 3 volcanoes forming a very picturesque view!

We arrived by bus from Antigua to Panajachel, which was pretty easy to reach. In Panajachel we went hiking in a nature reserve with lots of hanging bridges, a waterfall and monkeys!

San Marcos

After two nights in 'Pana' we went to San Marcos, a small and very quiet 'hippie' town known for its meditation courses. We had a nice hotel on the lake and rented kayaks one morning (kayaking is only possible in the morning; the wind in the afternoon is too strong to kayak) and a great restaurant called 'Blind Lemons', owned by a retired American, where we watched American football while eating a burger.

Funny enough the towns near the lake are full of foreigners (extranjeros or 'Gringos') who decided to retire (sometimes very early) here and often started a restaurant or cafe. We had some great Japanese and American food, and found a funny coffee bar in Panajachel called 'Cafe Loco' which is ran by a Korean who makes amazing coffees. When people want a change from tortillas with beans, foreign food is always nearby in Guatemala.

San Pedro
San Pedro, another town on lake Atitlan, is known for its Spanish schools. The school where we took our lessons was la escuela Cooperativa. They offer a combination of private lessons with homestay (staying with a local family) for $200 per week, per person. We decided to take the unique experience and see where we would end up!

Sunday, we went to the school to register and we got picked up by our host family: familia Alejandra, who we called madre (mother). She lives in San Pedro with her husband and two kids, who are normally in Xela, another city in Guatemala attending university. Since it was vacation for them they also stayed in San Pedro. The son loved to talk about football - he likes Ajax :) - and the father was full of stories about his work as a doctor and the development of Guatemala. The family has had estudiantes from the school for over 10 years, and everyone in the town knows them! 

The family was extremely friendly. Alejandra cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner for us every day - always with homemade tortillas! They get the corn themselves from the plantations in the mountains, then dry them on the roof and make tortillas out of them. In a few weeks during the dry season, they get all the corn for one full year! The homemade tortillas were DELICIOUS!

The family didn't speak any English, which was a good practice of our Spanish. At the school we had 4 hours private lesson per day, in a beautiful garden with amazing - sometimes a bit distracting - view over the lake. The lessons were in the morning (8-12) and in the afternoon we would chill by the lake, bike to a nearby town (quite a challenge in these mountains and bad roads) or just chill in a coffee place.

Alejandra making tortillas the authentic way

Mais for one year!! 

Our teachers.. we spent 4 hours a day talking to them in Spanish last week! 

Final days in Guatemala

Our school finished on Friday, so on Saturday we took a bus to Antigua. Another typical adventure was about to happen.. after a delay (probably the busdriver overslept, he was 30 minutes late and we were the first passengers he had to pick up) and filling the bus with passengers in San Pedro and San Marcos, the bus went uphill through the curvy mountain roads towards the highway to Antigua for about 45 minutes. When we almost reached the highway, the engine overheated..

It appeared that the cover of the cooling fluid was gone, and no one had cared to put one back on - so after driving on bumpy roads there was no more cooling fluid. A mechanic came who put about 10 liters of water into the cooling system, but the engine kept denying.. after a delay of almost 2 hours in the middle of nowhere, another bus finally came and brought us to Antigua, where we had lunch with Mario and drove to Guatemala City. And because it was our final weekend in Guatemala, we wanted to end it in style.. we went to a show with Dutch DJ Hardwell this Saturday night! Guatemala knows how to party !!!

Representing the Netherlands :)

After 4 amazing weeks in Guatemala, we will leave to Honduras to continue our travels. Guatemala has been a fantastic adventure, and we can recommend everyone to go there. People are extremely friendly, the nature is gorgeous, the climate is fantastic and the coffee is delicious! Last but definitely not least, a giant THANKS to our friend Mario and his family for their hospitality and showing us their country! 

Friday, January 10, 2014

How to get a hot shower

In Central America, many houses don't have a boiler or heating system - it simply isn't needed with year-round hot temperatures in this region. But, a warm shower every now and then is very much appreciated.. So what do you do? Simple, you heat the water inside the shower, all you need is 2 electrical wires!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Guatemalan adventures part 3: Volcanoes!!

In Central America, lots of volcanoes can be found. In Guatemala alone there are around 36.5 volcanoes (the exact number depends on who you ask), out of which a few are still active and many continuously blow smoke. Some inactive volcanoes have beautiful lakes in the crater. Most cities are right next to one or more volcanoes - which already makes for a beautiful scene - and one of the most popular tourist attractions here is climbing volcanoes. Having never really seen a volcano before (that's Daniel), climbing a volcano was on top of our to-do list here :)

The first volcano we climbed was during Christmas: volcano 'Ipala' which is all the way in the south of Guatemala - next to Asuncion Mita (where we celebrated Christmas). The climb up took about 45 minutes and was do-able but pretty warm.. what a change at the top - suddenly there was a lake, and a strong wind made it very chilly! Clouds literally sheered past us right in front of us. This volcano has been inactive for a long time, which is why it's full of plantation on the slope.

Wind!!! And a big lake in the crater!

On 31 December we climbed volcano Pacaya, which is the most popular active volcano in Guatemala to climb: it's only 1 hour away from Antigua and a 1.5-hour climb, which is not a lot compared to some volcanoes that take 5-8 hours to climb. This volcano is more 'volcano-like' than Ipala: the way up is mostly a black sand (ash) path. From the start, a few men with horses walk with you to wait for the ones that don't make the climb and pay a small fee to reach the top on a horse (AKA taxi). Luckily we were both able to make it. The view from the volcano was truly amazing! Unfortunately we didn't see any lava.. But there were some "sauna" holes which you can get in and feel the heat from the volcano!

The walk up!

Sauna hole! 

Volcano sunset, unfortunately with lots of clouds!

We are currently near lake Atitlan, one of the most beautiful places we've ever seen. It is the deepest lake in Central America surrounded by, guess what, 3 other volcanoes, which makes for an amazing view!!

We will stay here for one more week to attend a Spanish school while we stay at a family (homestay) so we can get the full experience. Indeed, the family doesn't speak English! More about that experience in a next blog!