Thursday, April 21, 2011

Pura Vida in Costa Rica: Nicaraguan border – San Jose (5th - 21st April '11)

Possibly my favourite food of all time (though its claim to the title has been challenged by my recent discovery of cinnamon rolls) is mangoes. In Costa Rica I reached mango heaven. Dripping mango trees lined the side of the road, we camped beneath them (and gathered their bounty in the morning) and we were given presents of mangoes by numerous people that we met.
However, besides the mango treasure trove, the first few days of cycling in Costa Rica were a bit tough – headwinds, heat and harsh traffic along the Panamericana Highway. However, we met lots of lovely hospitable people, and the busy traffic was soon forgotten once we turned off the busy highway to hit some lovely quiet and scenic backroads.
We headed upward – up some very steep climbs into the hills towards Puriscal. This route wasn't really on our way, we could have stuck to the lower route along the coast, but it ended up being a fantastic side-trip choice, not only because of the amazing landscape and views we cycled through but also for the people we met. We knew we were on a good route when we stopped part away up a huge climb to admire the views and get a breather, and ended up watching toucans who were also chilling by the roadside. Our rest was complete when a man on a trike stopped to give us some more delicious mangoes. Jolly D!
However, the best reason for our little strenuous detour up was to materialise on an evening not far out of Puriscal when we started looking for a place to camp. The owners of a family restaurant with stunning views over the hills and valley below offered to let us camp undercover in their restaurant. We were a little concerned about the effect that scruffy cyclists hanging around would have on their evening trade but they insisted we set up our tent in the middle of the restaurant! We were then treated to great food and fantastic hospitality for the whole night, and then the whole next morning.
We got to know Adolfo, Grettel and Naomi, their gorgeous almost-2 little girl who was full of energy, and then the next morning we met more of the family, got a tour of the town and went off with Adolfo to help set up a marquee for his party rental business. That is the best thing about cycling, you think you are just climbing a mountain range to see the amazing landscape and you end up in a small field setting up a circus tent for a horse parade! Plus Adolfo took us to the best bakery in town and we had pastries and coffee for breakfast, a wonderful morning all round, and the cinnamon rolls he found us were definitely up in the top 10!
We didn't want to leave our restaurant-home and the wonderful family that had adopted us but unfortunately we had to push on that day. It turned out to be a day of both stunning riding through the hills, and highly traumatic riding along a rough as guts gravel/mud road, with super steep ascents and descents. Towards the end of the day we got caught in a thunderstorm – welcoming us to the beginning of the wet season. When we finally arrived in the tiny town of Mastatal we sought directions in the local bar where the focal point was a man passed out in the middle of the floor. All the other guys in the bar was also heading in that direction (floorward) so they weren't much help providing us with the directions we required. We gave up trying to work out where we needed to go and had a beer with them instead.
We spent about ten days in the area of the tiny village of Mastatal – a few days chilling at a fantastic property with jungle views out to the coast, and then about a week volunteering at an organic farm called Villas Mastatal. The farm was owned by a wonderful Costa Rican family and was in an amazing location, perched on a hill above a river complete with waterfalls and pools, and adjacent to Cangreja National Park.
We learnt lots about the organic farm, even more about Tican life, as well as some colourful Spanish words and phrases! We had great Tican food, walks in the jungle and we were in wildlife heaven.  We spotted Toucans most days, Scarlet Macaws flew overhead as we worked, frogs plopped around the farm and we watched an interesting fight between the family cat and a beautiful tree snake (both escaped unharmed thankfully). We were less keen on the smaller wildlife , especially after one of the neighbourhood dogs required some home surgery to remove a botfly breeding within him. Jules paranoia towards the bug-world increased and she is now gorily convinced I have a similar fly breeding within a sore spot on my foot. I keep trying to convince her its just a blister but she has been regularly examining my foot, half frightened and half hoping that some creature is going to burst out like a scene from Alien.
Jules and I could have quite happily pottered around the hills of Mastatal for a lot longer but we had to jog ourselves out of our delightful reverie and head into the big smoke of San Jose. We left Norma and Betty to commune with the cows while we bused into the capital, to prepare for a little side trip... to Cuba!
We spent a couple of days in San Jose, an increasingly frustrated couple of days as we tried to do outstanding jobs, bank stuff, tax stuff, etc. We also managed to find ourselves a hostel with an infestation of bedbugs and after one restless night we ended up covered in bites. I already had a rash on my legs from working in long grass so by the time I had a bad reaction to the bedbugs I was splotchy and itchy from top to toe. To complete the look I had a stress-related out-break of cold sores across my chin and, according to Jules , my foot still looked ready to hatch.
Definitely time for a beach break with some good friends and some Cuba Libre, though in our state we might get quarantined by the Cuban customs.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Dawdling through Nicaragua: (15th March - 4th April '11)

Nicaragua: land of smoking volcanoes and smiling people. We experienced both in our first few days -people waved from the roadside as we rode in the shadow of the active and smoking Volcan San Cristobel. The road we were on circled underneath it and we were suitably impressed as a smoking volcano is certainly not an everyday sight in Australia! Little did we know we would spend much of our time in Nicaragua getting up close and personal with volcanoes: cycling alongside them, climbing into the crater of one and spending ten days on an island towered over by twin peaks.
Our southward push really slowed down in Nicaragua and we even headed north again to the small fishing village of Jiquilillo. Here we spent a number of days relaxing at the Rancho Esperanza, which was a perfect break from cycling. We only prised ourselves out of our hammocks (and away from Nate's fantastic collection of books) to cook our meals on the beach, have beer o'clock at sunset and to go surfing in the fun little waves.. well “surfing” could be a loosely applied term as I am not sure we really impressed anyone with our performance.. but we sure gave the whitewash a good old workout.
We also hit the waves (but only to bodysurf) a little further south at the beautiful Playa Matilda, which was a very relaxed camping spot right on the beach... Amongst all this relaxing on the beach we did manage to do some cycling and we checked out the cities of Nicaragua: Leon, charming and chilled, Granada, colourful but touristy and Managua, unappealing and frankly kind of odd.
After Granada we caught the ferry out to the Island of Ometepe. The island was fantastic, twin volcanoes rising out of a huge lake. We stayed at El Zopilote for ten days, a lovely laid-back ecological farm where we volunteered in the garden. We spent our days there gardening, building a cob bench, eating yummy home-made bread, studying Spanish, swimming in the lake and one enthusiastic day of hiking up the side of the Volcan Madero, through the jungles, past the monkeys and up into the crater and lake. We then spent the next week moaning as our legs ached – cycling fit is not the same as volcano-climbing fit!
We had some Spanish lessons at the farm but my lessons quickly just became an excuse for me and my teacher to have a good old chat. My teacher was also a biologist (well studying to be one) so I learnt a lot about the fauna and flora of the area, and the environmental regulations of Nicaragua... but I am not sure that my newly acquired Spanish language knowledge of the contamination problems of Lago de Nicaragua is going to prove very useful on our travels! My teacher and I also discussed the turbulent history of Nicaragua, the Revolution and current politics (it's an election year). Interesting topics to discuss in Spanish.. yet somehow I still can't understand when people ask me where I am from and I crumble under pressure when small children ask me my name.
As we travelled through Nicaragua we met quite a few other cycle-tourists. Pete from Belgium , the lovely Michelle and Dave who we met a few times, plus a whole boatload on the way to the Isla de Ometepe! On the boat was Karin and Chris, Yannick and Shirley, who are doing a very fun”transcontinental triathlon” and Allan from France who we first met on our way out of Denali National Park almost nine months ago. With our cycling gang we camped out at the boat launch when we arrived at the island and spent the evening chatting about cycling adventures.

We also had another overlander convention at a campsite on a southern beach where a bunch of vehicle-ing overlanders all coincidentally turned up on the same day. They were also doing the Alaska to Argentina trip, in a variety of 4wds/combi vans and we had a ball sitting up late and chatting with them.

We loved Nicaragua and thorougly enjoyed pottering our way through, taking it pretty slowly, in fact we found it hard to leave and put off heading south a number of times.. but finally we had to spend up our Cordobas, wave goodbye to the volcanoes and head towards the green of Costa Rica.