Saturday, 29 April 2017

Bocas Del Toro

It was a long journey over two days to get from Montezuma to Puerto Viejo, travelling via the capital, San Jose. Considering Costa Rica is a fairly well-developed country with a decent standard of living, it is surprising the condition of the roads, many of which are unsealed, pot-holed and require a four by four to get around. Even our accommodation in Montezuma advised leg one of the journey to San Jose would take three hours, where it in fact took seven! Still, we’re not in any kind of rush, so no problem there.

We arrived in San Jose to torrential rain, thunder storms and a power cut – it was actually a welcome relief to the high temperatures and humidity in Montezuma! Our accommodation had a view over Poas volcano, which had a small eruption a couple of weeks ago – just a bit of gas and smoke – but we were relieved to pass through without further incident as the area was on alert for a while, in case of further eruptions.

As we travelled through Monteverde and Montezuma, we kept meeting people headed from or to Bocas Del Toro, Panama (on the border with Costa Rica) – to the point where we wondered what we were missing. Upon a little research, we decided that too we should amend our itinerary (which was pretty open) to spend a week there and add another stamp to our passports…

So, we hopped on a bus to Puerto Viejo (a journey which actually took its designated travel time of five hours and not the usual seven!), the jumping off point for Bocas Del Toro.
Puerto Viejo is a backpacker destination in its own right, however – a very laid back atmosphere, miles of coastline, nice beaches, good surf and hot weather.

Puerto Viejo - Playa Cocles

Puerto Viejo is on the Caribbean Coast, to which there’s a really different vibe to the Pacific Coast. In addition to the local Costa Ricans (Ticos, as they like to call themselves) there are also local Caribbean people, speaking in their own Creole dialect and serving up ‘rice and beans’ and other Caribbean food in their restaurants.

We stayed near Playa Negra, where the sand is black (burning the soles of your feet as you run down to the sea) and two kilometres away there’s Playa Cocles, a long stretch of white sand, good surf and nice for swimming.

Surfboards on Playa Cocles

There’s a jungle path to walk between the Playa Negra and Playa Cocles and on the way, we saw three sloths in the trees! The first two were sleeping as we spotted them during the day, but we saw the third one at dusk and he’d just woken up and was having his dinner (breakfast?) Please forgive the terrible photo – I really tested the limits of my camera in the fading light and zooming right in. Still, you can still make out that it’s a sloth and at least it wasn’t moving too fast to photograph!
 
Sloth!

After a few nights in Puerto Viejo, we took the shuttle over the border into Panama and then the boat into Bocas del Toro.

Bocas Del Toro is a chain of islands and we chose Isla Bastimentos for our first stop, as it seemed a bit quieter with nice beaches. It's really picturesque with wooden houses built on stilts over the sea.
  
Isla Bastimentos

However, we decided to move to a different island after one night due to there being no running water on the island because of a water shortage.
We were allowed to have a short shower from the tank, but basically had to ask the hotel management for permission to use the water. Now, the weather app on my phone told me the humidity levels were at 92% at one point, which makes the 32 degree temperatures feel so much hotter, so you don't feel clean for long – and we decided we just couldn’t live without running water. What divas we are! 

So, we took a boat back over to the main island and stayed in Bocas town, which was perfect for us.
All the nice beaches are a short boat, or bus ride away and the town has the best food options as well – though to be honest the standard of food is nowhere near what it was in, say, Mexico!

The closest beach, on Isla Carenero, was idyllic with calm turquoise water, white sand, palm trees and a restaurant with decking out over the seas that served the best pina coladas. After a couple of visits there, however, Kev learned the hard way that there are also sand flies, which made a meal out him. Astonishingly, they went for Kev and not me – it is usually the other way around! At last count, Kev had over a hundred bites and is currently being driven to distraction by the itching…

Isla Carenero

The island was also home to some small crabs with one claw as big as their whole body – I thought it was interesting how some were right and some were left-handed (or clawed!)
 
Left and right-handed crabs!

Fortunately, we also visited some other lovely beaches without sand flies: Bocas del Drago, which leads on to Playa Estrella is home to hundreds of orange starfish, which you can see with a snorkel, just a few feet from the shore. I saw around thirty of them in as many metres, whilst swimming along the shore.

Bocas Del Drago

Starfish at Playa Estrella
I also thought I’d share with you the famous Costa Rican (and Panamanian, evidently) ‘suicide shower’ – so called because there is an un-earthed heating element in the shower head itself and you are advised not to touch the shower head with wet hands - for obvious reasons! This is a particularly fine example of one in our guest house, complete with gaffer tape and a piece of string holding it up! (Note: the accommodation also had a cold-water shower which we preferred to use!)

The famous suicide shower!

After another day in Bocas, we’re heading back to San Jose via Puerto Viejo for two nights to break up the journey. Then on Wednesday we fly to Colombia for the final leg of our journey – I will write again from there.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Montezuma

We've spent a lovely week on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica in Montezuma. The cool temperatures we experienced in Monteverde have been replaced with thirty-five degrees, sunshine and high humidity, so it was a bit of an adjustment to make but lovely to be back on the beach again. 
 
Montezuma beach

Montezuma is a lovely, laid back town with a similar vibe to, say, Zipolite in Mexico - lots of people arrive and never leave - and it's easy to see why: endless beautiful beaches fringed by jungle and excellent surf (not that we take advantage of it but it's fun to watch the waves crashing on to the shore!)
 
Another Montezuma beach

We arrived during Easter week (Semana Santa), which happens to be the busiest week of the year for holidays in Costa Rica - and everyone heads out of the city to the coast.

Only booking our accommodation the day before we arrived, we were lucky to find somewhere to stay at all, but fortunately we found a real gem of a place: set amongst a mango orchard and backing on to jungle, but just two hundred metres to the town and beach.

I reckon the locals outnumbered the tourists ten to one, but on Easter Sunday everyone went home and the town was suddenly deserted.
 

Kev on a deserted Playa Grande

Practising handstands on the beach
We'd wake each morning to the sound of howler monkeys in the trees, howling to each other  as they picked the ripe mangoes above our accommodation.
 
One morning we had a particularly loud wake up call at 5am, where there must have been at least twenty of them up there - it was so loud and sounded quite ferocious!
 
The mangoes were so plentiful that the monkeys would pick one, take a couple of bites and then drop it (where it would hit the roof of our chalet with a loud thud!) if the monkeys cries don't wake you the sound of falling fruit will!

In addition to the howler monkeys in the trees over breakfast, we also watched white-faced monkeys in the trees and on the beach foraging for food. They are much less tame than the long-tailed macaques in Asia and weren't trying to steal anything from our bags.
They got quite close to us on the beach - or rather we were sat quite close to the trees they were foraging in, but didn't seem interested in us, which was a relief!


White-faced monkeys
The end of our week saw the first rain of the year - an hour's torrential downpour. We had luckily left the beach by then and made it to shelter of a restaurant for dinner.
 
Bizarrely, the rain awakened thousands of red crabs and the next day as we walked the jungle trail to Playa Grande, all we could hear besides the surf and the cicadas was the sound of crabs scuttling through the leaves.
 
Crabs!

As we went to leave the beach later in the day, there were hundreds of them gathering at the entrance to the beach and at the shore, presumably ready to make their way down to the sea. Each crab about the size of my hand with distinctive orange legs, purple claws and black back.
 
Hundreds of crabs!

Back at our accommodation in the evening we even found crabs scurrying around on the steps leading up to and outside our room on the patio! Sadly, there were also lots of them squashed on the road.

I have no idea where they all came from, but the town was all of a sudden crawling with them! During dinner we watched as a couple of them stealthily crept into the restaurant, sneaking into a dark corner. I'm not sure if they were looking for food, or the ocean, but the locals didn't seem to be bothered by them.
 
The rain also brought out the bugs in their various forms: mosquitoes, flying ants and other unidentifiable insects. I was thinking earlier in the week that there weren't many bugs around considering we were in the hot and humid jungle. Well, here they are now!
 
As an interesting aside, we have noticed how sand castles vary around the world: in Thailand they build sand temples, in Mexico they build sand (Mayan) pyramids and in Costa Rica they build sand volcanoes! It makes sense but I never thought of sand castles as being a particularly British thing!
 
Next, we're crossing over to the other side of the country, to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast, by the border with Panama. This region is the home of Chiquita bananas, so think of us next time you're buying your bananas in the supermarket!
 
I'll write again next week.
 
Pura vida! (as they say in Costa Rica)

Thursday, 13 April 2017

La Fortuna and Monteverde

On to country number eight: Costa Rica!

At the airport check in desk, the Aero Mexico staff member laughed when he looked at photo page of my passport – I asked him what was so funny (the picture isn’t THAT embarrassing!) and turns out the main character in a computer game called Starcraft is also called Sarah Kerrigan! She even looks a bit like me (maybe)!

Lead charater, Sarah Kerrigan, in computer game, 'Starcraft'
After a brief overnight stopover near the airport, we headed to our first destination, La Fortuna.

La Fortuna means ‘fortune’ and is so-called because when the Arenal volcano, which looms over the town, last erupted it erupted on opposite side of the mountain, sparing la Fortuna. I do hope this isn’t tempting fate when the still-active volcano next erupts (currently next predicted to do so in a few hundred years).

It is said that only one in two visitors to La Fortuna actually get to see the peak of Arenal volcano as Costa Rica’s tropical climate, frequent rain and the sheer height of the volcano means it is often shrouded by clouds and the view is not great.
 
The view of Arenal volcano from La Fortuna
We went on a ‘two volcano hike’, a five-hour trek up the steep side of a dormant volcano that sits next to Arenal. The clouds descended the day we went so the views weren’t great but the hot and humid conditions at the bottom soon turned into cooler temperatures and swirling mists when we entered the clouds.

Cloud forest hike
The dormant volcano is now what is known as a flat volcano – where it has collapsed into itself and formed a fifty-metre-deep by five-hundred-metre-wide lagoon in the crater, filled with rain water.

Posing by the crater lake
After hiking back down the other side of the volcano, we continued on trails that took us over hanging bridges and on to a waterfall.

The benefits of hiking with a guide meant he pointed out plants, birds and animals along the way – that would otherwise have been too well camouflaged for our untrained eyes to spot. We saw a toucan, hummingbirds, a tree climbing snake, an eyelash viper, a white-faced coati, funnel web spiders, the famous red-eyed green tree frogs (synonymous with Costa Rica) and heard the song of nightingales that sounded like a water harp.
There is certainly a lot of biodiversity here – apparently five percent of the world’s species can be found in Costa Rica.

A tree-climbing snake
After our hike, we were taken to a river to soak in its thermally heated (thirty-eight degrees Celsius) water. It was strange to be in a river as hot as a bath, but lovely to soak our legs and feel clean again after our long day of hiking.

The following day we fancied another soak in the thermal water so we went to one of the many nearby hot springs. The pools are arranged so that the higher up you go the hotter the water – the bottom pool being around thirty-seven degrees and the top pool around forty degrees. However in a hot climate, it was a bit too hot to spend too long in the hotter pools and I kept needing to cool off in the cold plunge pool.
Generally Costa Rica is a bit more expensive than its neighbouring countries and as a tourist you are more often than not charged in US dollars rather that in ‘colones,’ the local currency. It’s also the busiest time of the year – Easter week plus the last month of dry season so it’s busy with tourists and local holiday-makers alike.

To keep the cost down, we’ve been eating in the local cafes, called sodas. Our favourite local speciality is the ‘casado’ – chicken, fish or a pork chop with rice, black beans, plantain, salad and vegetables. Pretty balanced and healthy too!
 
 
Local speciality: casado
We had a much better view of the volcano on day two, though the peak was still in clouds. However, when we took our boat transfer to Monteverde, we were very lucky and had a wonderful clear view.

 
We spent our next few nights in Monteverde: hiking in the cloud forest (which due to the dry season and sunny weather, wasn’t in the clouds on the day we hiked, but made for lovely walking conditions)



We did an amazing zip-line canopy tour, high above the tree-tops and reaching top speeds of one hundred kilometres per hour and including a ‘Superman’ zip line, where you fly headfirst like Superman!

 
 


I also had the opportunity to do Central America’s highest bungee jump! A 143-metre cable car jump, where I went off backwards (for added fun!) There were stunning views from the top and I’d put the jump in my top three bungee jumps – just a shame it wasn’t a bit higher, with a bit longer freefall!

The bungee platform over the cloud forest
Lastly, we went on a coffee, chocolate and sugar cane tour – Costa Rica being a producer of all of the above. We got to see the process of each of the above from growing the plants, to harvesting them and producing them into the finished product – which we then got to sample.

Cocoa beans
A freshly picked coffee berry
Here are some interesting coffee facts for you:

-  The lighter the roast the more caffeine there is – so a stronger, richer tasting coffee has less caffeine than a weaker tasting blend!

-  There is more caffeine in a cup of tea than an espresso.

-  Milk reduces the effect of caffeine so a latte is not as strong as you might think…

'Caffeine per cup' chart
Next up we’re on our way to Montezuma for a week of relaxation and beach time. We’ve been warned it’s where all the Costa Ricans will be heading for Easter weekend too so it’s likely to be very busy – but also a nice chilled-out vibe. I’ll blog again from there next week.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Zipolite

We took the six-hour long minivan journey over the mountains of Oaxaca state down to the coast. It was an incredibly long and windy journey on mountain roads, but worth it when we arrived on the coast - after nine days in the city we were ready for the seaside!

Zipolite beach
Zipolite is on the Pacific coast, which is famous for its massive waves and good surf.  On certain beaches though, it is too dangerous to go in past knee deep due to the enormous waves and strong currents.
 
Sunset and surf at Zipolite
 In fact, literally translated, Zipolite means ‘Death Beach’ for this very reason! I’m not sure my video quite gets across how big and powerful the waves are, but it’s certainly an impressive sight.

 

Even on the beaches, where it is safe to swim, the waves can still be huge and you still need to take care – on occasion we watched numerous people being caught unaware and washed in to the shore by a set of big waves – in addition to surfers who couldn’t even get out to where the waves were breaking as they kept being washed in!

Mazunte beach
In Mazunte we were amazed to see boats coming in to land on the beach between the waves – check out their method of doing so – though I’m sure it can’t be very good for the boat itself!

 
By an amazing coincidence, Kev’s friend Solveig (who sang at our wedding) happened to be in Zipolite the same weekend as us, so we enjoyed spending some time with her and her friend Emiliano. It’s a small world!

Kev and Solveig
The Pacific coast from Puerto Escondido to Mazunte has a laid-back hippy vibe – You get the impression that a lot of people come here as a backpacker and never leave!
Not us though, for it’s time to go back over the mountains to Mexico City, ready for our flight to Costa Rica - I’ll write again from there.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Oaxaca

We’ve spent the last week in Oaxaca City, set amongst the mountains in south-west Mexico at an altitude of 1600m. It’s a colourful place, literally and metaphorically, proud of its music, culture and food.


Oaxaca's main pedestrian street
As in other parts of the country the buildings are brightly painted and the region is famous for its colourful handicrafts, as touted on stalls and by every street corner by enterprising locals.
 
Plaza Santa Domingo
One of Oaxaca's many churches
In the Zocalo, Oaxaca’s central square, there is live music every night – from traditional ‘banda’ (Mexican brass band), to mariachi bands, marimba players and buskers singing and playing guitar or cello.  At any one time in the square, you’re likely to hear at least two performances going on – I’m not sure how it’s possible for the musicians to concentrate and tune out the other music – but they are all keen to earn their evening’s tips!

I don’t think I realized how much of the music I like it influenced by the warm Mexican big-band brass sound. Of course, now it’s obvious, many of the bands I like are from the southern states in the USA, not too far from Mexico, so it’s obvious that the influence might creep across the border.

Here’s a track for you to listen to – and for those of you who know the bands Beirut, or Neutral Milk Hotel – see if you can hear the similarities (though less so in the vocals!)
 

The Zocalo is also home to many shoe-shiners and balloon sellers – there are surely too many of them to all compete with each other, but it all adds to the colour of the square.
Shoe-shiners in the Zocalo

Balloon-seller
One day we did a trip to nearby mountain village, Cuajimoloyas for some hiking and zip-lining. At an altitude of 3200m it was much cooler and a welcome relief from the scorching temperatures in the city. A three-hour hike, however, was exhausting at that altitude, where the air was so much thinner!
 

View from Cuijimoloyes
 
Looking down on to Oaxaca City
We ended the day zip-lining from one mountain village to another – a one kilometre zip line, eighty-metres high and travelling at 60kmph! Well done to Kev for facing his fear of heights to do this!

Zipline from Cuajjimoloyes to Benito Juarez
The foodie scene in Oaxaca is also something they are very proud of and it’s possible to eat very well and very cheaply, with lots of family-run traditional restaurants, food markets and local specialties, including Oaxaca’s own ‘string’ cheese (a bit like mozzarella), locally brewed craft beer, stout and mezcal.

Breakfast of champions!
We enjoyed a meal in the local market – a passageway full of barbecues serving grilled meat, chorizo, chilies and onions. We got rather more than we could eat – our limited Spanish meaning we were unsure quite how much we were getting and the locals taking the opportunity to sell us things by blinding us with science! The meal was cheap and delicious, however!

This led us to signing up for a crash course in Spanish – sixteen hours over four mornings – so whilst we’re still very much beginners, we can at least say a few sentences now and conjugate a few verbs! We’ll practice what we’ve learnt during the rest of our trip – all of which is in Spanish-speaking countries.

Next, we'll head down to Zipolite on the Pacific Coast next for a spot of beach time. I'll blog again from there.

 

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Cozumel



When we last went to Cozumel in 2012, I swore I’d never do that ferry crossing ever again – yet here I am back on the boat, on the notoriously bumpy crossing!

This time, however, it definitely wasn’t as traumatic – with live music on board, beautiful sunshine and a lovely breeze out on deck. Fortunately, my fellow passengers seemed to enjoy themselves too – this is the main point of difference from your last crossing where it seemed everyone was unwell around us. We were fine, as always!

The reason that we – and that most people – go to Cozumel is for the scuba diving. Having not dived for over two years we wanted a quick refresher and the guarantee of some world-class dives.


The weather was perfect for us, and the island was protected from much of the wind that we had in Tulum. 

I must say it did feel odd diving again and I was a bit nervous on the first dive, but we felt really comfortable on the second – if a little cold! It’s funny how even a wetsuit and warm Caribbean water can feel chilly when you’re under for forty-five minutes! 

The dives were good, with excellent visibility and a great variety of marine life. Some of the highlights were seeing a splendid toad fish, a couple of turtles, a huge green moray eel, some enormous lobsters and some flounders on the sea floor.

Other than that, Cozumel was much how we remembered it – a chilled out Island lifestyle (but for the daily arrival and departure of cruise ships) and Mexico's trademark colourful painted buildings and wall murals too. 
 

 
It’s been really hot and when we’ve not been in the water, we’ve enjoyed walking along the seafront and watching the iguanas roaming about. We’re enjoying the last of the coast before we head off to our next destination, Oaxaca (pronounced Wahaca) City. I’ll write again from there.
 
 
Hasta luego!

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Tulum

A relatively quiet week (in terms of activity) for us this week as we took time to stop and stay in one place for a while. We’ve been to Tulum a few times before so we knew we’d be happy to spend a bit of time here. It’s also a good place to get some work done so we worked and relaxed hard on the many lovely beaches in the area.

Tulum Beach
Posing on the rocks!
Not so quiet was our week in terms of noise, as our ten-day stay just so happened to coincide with a ten-day Mayan music festival to celebrate the harvest. We found out the festival takes place twice a year and in our case, took place on the exact dates of our stay in Tulum!

The Mayans sure know how to party, kicking off around 10pm and finishing up around 4.30am every night. Lucky for us we were well-equipped with earplugs and decent noise-cancelling headphones as the music was so loud!

Unimpressed at the lack of sleep on our first night, Kev took it upon himself to craft a two-page letter to the accommodation management, written in Spanish (using Google Translate) at 4am – I would pay good money to see a copy of this letter now and wonder if it made sense in his sleep-deprived, non-Spanish speaking state!

We have been ‘glamping’ this week – essentially canvas tents with thatched, cabana-style roof and a real king-sized bed inside. All brand new and very comfortable with a pool and free bike hire to get around town.

Kev chilling out in the pool
We made the most of the bikes to cycle down to the beach and back most days – a respectable 15km round trip. The beach is stunning, on the Caribbean coast, but it has been really windy, which has washed in a lot of seaweed. However, it’s also a nice cool breeze to cut through the heat of the day and good fun playing in the waves, despite the odd piece of seaweed hitting you in the face!

Dodging the seaweed at Tulum Beach
We also went to visit some of the other beaches and cenotes just outside of town: Ixcacel beach (also very windy) is where the turtles go to lay their eggs, though being there in the daytime, we didn’t actually see any whilst we were there.

Turtle Beach at Ixcacel
A cenote is a fresh-water pool formed when a limestone cave collapses. There are loads of them in this part of Mexico and are great for swimming and snorkelling. The colour of the water is just gorgeous too.

Ixcacel Cenote

Kev claims he once saw a baby crocodile in one and today, in Casa Cenote, we were talking to a scuba diver who had just seen a six-foot croc during his dive in the same cenote! He said the croc was eating a duck when he saw it, so wasn’t concerned that it might also be interested in him for lunch, but I think he must have had nerves of steel to not freak out!
 
Casa Cenote
We went for a swim but after hearing that story we stayed pretty close to the edge, in case the hungry crocodile comes back out! Sat on the edge, we had our own mini 'fish spa' with little fish nibbling at our toes!
 
Our own mini fish spa!
We made friends with the owner of a local Mayan restaurant during our stay. Having planned to just pop in for a quick drink on our way back from the beach, he kept bringing us tortillas, salsas and Mayan specialties that he wanted us to try, to get a real taste of the region. In the end, we didn’t have room for dinner that night, but we did make sure we gave him a particularly generous tip when only charged us for the drinks.

We went back for dinner again a couple of nights later and loved the local fresh fish, ceviche, refried beans and other specialities he prepared for us. We continue to eat well – especially when tacos for two cost as little as £1.50!
Kev and the Mayan family
The contrast in Tulum is the glut of high-end resorts and Western-style restaurants versus the local Mexican and Mayan establishments – there’s a real divide between the rich tourists and the locals, but it’s still a nice town and done on a budget it is possible to live cheaply – fortunately we’re still on budget!

Today we head an hour along the coast to Playa del Carmen, then hop on the ferry across to Cozumel Island – most famous for scuba diving, and will be our first dives of the trip.