A Travellerspoint blog

Central America - Week 31 & 32

Guatemala-Belize-Mexico

sunny 35 °C

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[Franck]
We left Antigua early morning with one of these overpriced, packed and uncomfortable tourist shuttles. The only advantage they have is that they take you from A to B without having to change 10 times on the way and it appears that they are surprisingly less targeted by highway robbers who are known to shoot public buses in Guatemala. That being said we felt a lot better later on in Guatemala when we finally managed to escape the crowds of tourists and hop on local buses, which turned out to be more spacious than the tourist shuttles.
We arrived in the evening in Semuc Champey, a site renowned for underwater caves and natural swimming holes deep into the forest. We stayed in a nice hotel, El Portal, where we had our own wooden cabin next to the river. The next morning we entered the natural reserve and walked about 1 hour –watching a few howler monkeys on the way - to reach the view point over what looked like a canyon with several swimming holes interlinked by small waterfalls.
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The view was stunning. The site was unlike anything else we had seen previously and it gave us hope that we could still be amazed by the things we see during the rest of our trip. We walked down the mountain to take a closer look at the swimming holes and enjoyed some relaxing time swimming in clear and fresh water.
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We left Semuc Champey for Flores, the main access point to the Maya ruins of Tikal. After another 9 exhausting hours in a cramped shuttle we decided to get off the shuttle and take a public bus to the village of El Remate, which is less developed than Flores but closer to the archaeological site. This was a great decision. We found a lovely room in the forest, just a few meters away from a lake with clear water where we enjoyed cooling off. The hotel was French owned and I enjoyed my first “Boeuf Bourguignon” in a long while.
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The following morning we left the hotel at 5.30am to get to Tikal around sunrise.
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The bus was a bit late and we missed the sun rise but at least we arrived quite early and we had almost the site for us alone. It took us about 7 hours walking into the jungle to go through the whole site. It was big! Temples were spread out in the jungle over several squared kilometres but the walk was enjoyable as there was a lot of wildlife, surprisingly few tourists and amazing Maya temples surrounded by dense vegetation. We saw a fox, toucans, woodpeckers, coatis and a lot of monkeys among other things.
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After the visit we headed back to El Remate for another swim into the lake and to relax a bit before entering Belize the next day. During dinner we saw a tarantula crawling under our table… Nice! A local guide told us it was a baby but it was so big that I’m glad we didn’t see the parents. The guide also told us that he had seen a black panther crossing the street at dusk that same day! We still haven’t seen any big cats in our travels though…

We have spent only 6 nights in Guatemala but we haven’t been blown away by this country for which so many travellers have raved about. It wasn’t bad but this wasn’t our best experience. To do it properly, I think you need more time, take public transports and interact more with the locals. On the other hand we have also heard stories of travellers who have been robbed at gun point and others witnessing a bus being shot at, so we were not that sad to leave the country for Belize after just a week.

As soon as we crossed the border under a scorching heat we liked the atmosphere a lot more compared to Guatemala. People are actually native English speakers and songs played in the bus were in English! After 7 months of Spanish we almost felt at home instantly after crossing the border! The atmosphere was so hot and stuffy that we decided to head straight to the coast and miss out on the Cayo region where apparently amazing caves with human remains could be visited. By mid-afternoon we reached the coastal town of Dangriga and met Ellie and Florian from France who we travelled with towards Tobacco Caye, a tiny island about 45 minutes from the coast.
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[Charlotte]
Upon arrival we found a rather cheap place to stay with Mister P at Fairweather’s, but the catch is that food wasn’t included in the price and there was almost no way to buy food on the island! We hated the place at first. We walked around the whole island in less than 10 minutes and we couldn’t really get any information from anyone. There are about 20 inhabitants on the island, most of which are crazy old fishermen or rasta men. We spent our first evening eating peanut butter on toast and chatting with our new French friends. We woke up the following day and went out to get some breakfast around 8.30am, which is quite late for us backpacker. People on the island were about to get things moving. We eventually managed to find some instant coffee and tortillas for a ridiculous amount of money (that I will keep for myself). Franck decided then to go fishing and catch a big fish for dinner. Mister P gave him a line, a hook and baits and there he went with Mister P’s grandson, Kermick, fishing on the pier.
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I spent my time lying on the beach and enjoying the snorkelling, which is really rich. It is not too difficult to spot sea turtles and rays as they come really close to shore.
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Life isn’t too hard on Tobacco Caye. After a couple of hours and still no fish, we gave a few dollars to Kermick who got a fish for us. He was so nice and friendly that he also cooked it. A Canadian couple from Vancouver turned up the same day. The hostel was full. They were coming to do some diving with Eric and Brian, who are in charge of the diving on the island. We decided to go with them the following day. We did two dives and saw nice coral walls, different types of colourful fishes and a cool turtle. We also went on Southwest Caye for a break, which is the most beautiful island we have seen so far in the Caribbean but really expensive to stay on.
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When we got back, Eric, the dive master, invited us for dinner and made the best dinner we had in ages, coconut rice and Caribbean chicken stew. We were tempted to spend more time on the island and do more diving as they were looking for the whale shark the following day. We fought back the temptation and thought about our finances. We decided to head to Caye Caulker with Ellie and Flo, which was not cheap either!
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It took us about a day to go to Caye Caulker. First, we took a boat from Tobacco Caye to Dangriga; then, we took a bus to Belize City and another boat to Caye Caulker. We settled in Edith’s guesthouse, which was cheap compared to the other places.
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We also got a 10% discount on the diving because we were staying with them, which was the argument for spending more money on the diving. We are kind of addicted to it now. We hence decided to stay at least 3 nights as both snorkelling and diving are worth it. We went snorkelling in Hol Chan with Ellie and Flo and saw a massive manatee. We then headed to another spot, shark alley, where nurse sharks and rays gather around the boat as they got some seafood from the captain. We were on the water with them (these sharks do not have teeth, which makes life easier), which was nice for the experience but the whole concept of feeding them felt not right.
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On the way back, we got served shrimp ceviche and rum punch. It didn’t do me any good. I arrived at the dive shop a little tipsy to fix my equipment and try my gear. One of the guys asked me the number of dives I did as everything looked upside down. At this stage, Franck was a bit ashamed.
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No worries, I did manage to get on the boat at 5.30pm and get down the Blue Hole the next day. It’s a deep hole with supposedly sharks in it. It was impressive to see the stalactites but unfortunately, we did not see any sharks. Some divers saw 17. We then did two more dives at the lighthouse reef, which has splendid corals and marine life. We saw sea turtle and a manta ray. There was also a colony of red footed boobies that Franck enjoyed taking photos off.
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Our last day on Caye Caulker was dedicated to the beach. We spent the entire day on the pier enjoying the sun.
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[Franck]
After another early start to the day and a combination of boats, taxis and buses we made it to the pier where we could allegedly take a boat to get to the Maya site of Lamanai, near the town of Orange walk. We got there at about 10.30 but all tours had already left. We were left a bit frustrated but decided not to spend the night in Orange walk and make our way to nearby Mexico instead. The region around Orange walk is known for its peculiar local community of Mennonites. The Mennonites are a religious community which were funded by a German guy opposed to Catholicism and Protestantism. I don’t know much about their ideologies but all I could tell is that they are dressed in a very old fashion way. Men wear straw hats, checked shirts and shoulder straps, while women wear long black or blue dresses, hats and tights despite the heat. They look like characters from little house on the prairie (la petite maison dans la prairie). The contrast with rasta men could not be bigger and I really wonder how they ended up cultivating the land in this part of the world rather than anywhere else, which would have seemed a little bit less out of place.
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We made it to Tulum, in Mexico, by about 9pm and checked in a hotel near the bus terminal on the main street. On our first day we visited the ruins which are situated on the sea front. There is nothing much left of the temples and the fortress however the location just on top of a cliff by the beach is stunning. The colours of the sea and the white sandy beaches around there are some of the best we have seen on the Caribbean. The only problem is the mild wind that makes the sea a bit rough. We did some snorkelling there but it was a bit expensive and not good at all because of the waves.
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On the next day we started our Advanced Open water course (we are talking about scuba diving here), which involves 5 speciality dives. The Yucatan area in Mexico is famous for its “Cenote”, which are caves often used by the Maya as human sacrifice places and we were looking forward to being trained inside these caves. Unfortunately, our first two dives took place at sea and that was all the more unfortunate that the sea was so rough that I felt sea sick and threw up a few times. Anyway, we completed our first 2 dives and saw a massive turtle but nothing else out of the ordinary.
[Charlotte]
After spending the rest of the day at the beach we took a cab and headed back. Well…we asked the driver to drive us to Tulum, hotel Maya for 50 pesos. He took a scenic road along the coast and stopped in front of resort Hotel MayaTulum. We told him that we wished it was our hotel but ours was hotel Maya in Tulum. He asked for 50 more pesos making the trip a 100! We said no way. He then decided to go to talk to the police, which were down the road. We ended up having an argument in front of the guards. We tried to explain in Spanglish the situation. The police was laughing as the argument was going nowhere. As they could not see who was wrong, they proposed to talk to a judge. The taxi driver suggested we pay him 80 pesos to get back to Tulum. We said no and we did not want to get back on the taxi with him. The police said you will have to pay for the service though, so at least 50 pesos and then take another cab for 50 more…hmmm we were going in circles. I dropped the price to 70 pesos but he dropped us 4 blocks away to destination, just to make the point, as he drove past our hotel.
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Posted by lebrunfo 16:38 Archived in Mexico Tagged guatemala belize Comments (1)

Central America - Week 29 & 30

Nicaragua-Honduras-Guatemala

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On the day before leaving Matagalpa, we booked our bus ticket from Leon (Nicaragua) to Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras. There were no spaces in the “Tika bus” for three days so we had to spend 3 nights in Leon: a record for us as on average we have only spent 2.3 nights per place since the beginning of our trip and we usually don’t spend more than half a day in most cities we visit! We hence decided to book a nice hotel with swimming pool (Lazy Bones) in order to spend some quality time in hammocks or by the pool. Leon is the second biggest city in Nicaragua but it seemed more like a big slow paced village with some nice buildings and cobblestoned streets. Locals had left the town for the coast to escape the heat during the Easter week-end but the few remaining people were involved in several religious processions for the Easter celebrations.
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Over the three days we spent in Leon we haven’t done much else than enjoying very good food in the restaurant in front of our hotel and relaxing by the swimming pool. On the only day when we ventured outside of the hotel we attempted surfing at Las Peñitas, a beach town on the pacific coast, but the currents were too strong and we had to give up before even trying!
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There were numerous tours organized from Leon but nothing really new to us e.g. climbing a volcano, kayaking in the mangrove, visit to a coffee plantation, etc… We are starting to be a bit picky about the places we want to visit and the activities we want to do as after almost 7 months of travelling and seeing and doing so many amazing things, we really need something out of the ordinary to get our motivation back. This is why we decided to plan a little bit more the rest of our trip and we booked our flights out of Mexico city on June the 16th to give us a goal between now and then. We are going to spend a week in Vancouver, Canada, and we will be flying to Hong-Kong on June the 22nd where we are yet to decide where we will go in Asia and for how long…

We left Leon at 6am on the Tika bus to San Pedro Sula in Northern Honduras with the intention to get a connecting bus in Tegucigalpa for La Ceiba, the main access point to the Bay islands in the Caribbean Sea. The Tika bus is an expensive bus that does international connections and which is supposed to be fast and to save you the hassle of border crossings. Actually, the border crossing was way longer than usual as we had to wait for everyone in the bus to clear immigration and it turned out that the journey was much longer than with some local bus companies in Honduras. Upon arrival in Tegucigalpa, I was pleased to set my feet on the ground of this town well known from geeks (like me) who like capital of the world quizzes! I wasn’t particularly sad to leave it straight away as the taxi driver took us to the terminal of another bus company that had a 3pm departure to La Ceiba. After an exhausting journey, we finally made it to La Ceiba at 9.30pm, where we found a decent hotel for the night.

The following morning we didn’t really know what to do. Shall we go to the backpacker’s hang-out on Utila island (which was the whole point of going to La Ceiba in the first place) or shall we spend some time on the coast or shall we start moving North towards Guatemala? We decided to go to Utila and we didn’t regret it. At the harbour we met Lucinda, from London, who had been on the tika bus with us the previous day but she had to spend the night in San Pedro Sula and get a 5am bus to La Ceiba to be on time for the boat to Utila. We felt really pleased with our idea to change bus in Tegucigalpa as we had made it to La Ceiba in one day only.

We spent 6 nights in Utila, a new record (previously 5 nights in Pucon, Chile), living on about 500m on the main street of the only settlement on the island. As soon as we arrived in Utila, we were welcome by numerous people selling scuba diving classes; we picked one a bit randomly and ended-up in the dive centre with the most backpackers and party crowds! This is not what we were looking for but we eventually had a great time. In the afternoon we were already in the classroom starting our theory classes. We were back to school and even had homework to do for the following day. Our hotel was very nice and cheap with a private access to the sea and great sunset views.
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We didn’t have much free time as our agenda was dictated by Allan our instructor with a mix of classroom theory and open water practice. In the evening, we were usually meeting with Lucinda to share our diving impressions while having a few drinks. Although Utila is full of backpackers, the parties weren’t that wild as most people here were either on diving courses or diving instructors and we had very early starts every day. The place is full of expats blending in rather well with the local crowds, who were often descendants of English or Dutch people mixing with Caribbean people. Here, travellers often get stuck for several months balancing their days between diving (learning or teaching) and rum drinking. For me, life on Utila was a bit like living in a 500m long bubble! Certainly nice for a little while (and we could have stayed a lot longer) but I wonder how long you can live this life without being totally disconnected from the reality.
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I didn’t particularly enjoy diving at first and thought about giving up. Why would I carry on inflicting me this as it wasn’t giving me any pleasure and was also making me sick? During the second session in the swimming pool, my stomach started to tell me to stop and I really had enough of all the exercises that we had to do at the bottom of the pool. The acidity in my stomach didn’t stop until the following morning when we had our first session in the sea. This one went okay, but as soon as I got back to the boat I started feeling sick again and told the instructor that I wouldn’t do the second dive. Charlotte encouraged me and I went into the water. I felt a bit better but I was glad that we had our afternoon free and I could forget all about this diving. We just relaxed and enjoyed the scenery before our final 2 days of diving with 2 sessions each time.
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Charlotte was going through the lessons like a fish and was praised a few times by the instructor. The last four dives went a lot better and I really started to enjoy it. At the end of the class, we were wondering whether or not to enrol in the advanced diving course straight away or do it later in Belize for instance. Even though the reef was stunning with all the corals, we didn’t see any amazing fishes so we decided to take the advanced course in Belize where the water is teeming with sharks, rays and other colourful fishes.
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We left Utila with Lucinda and made it to Copan Ruinas by mid-afternoon. This is a small mountain village at the border with Guatemala, which is famous for its Maya ruins. After weeks of really hot weather, we enjoyed a bit of rain and cooler temperatures. The town was actually very pleasant with a lot of good bars and restaurants but not overly touristic. We stayed there two nights but could have easily stayed here a few more to enjoy the slow pace of life and the nice surrounding country side. The archaeological site was bigger than I thought it would be. It was located on the edge of town in a forested area teeming with birds.
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In the afternoon we visited a bird sanctuary where we could get close to toucans and macaws. A bit too close to my taste as a macaw did a hole in my t-shirt and the toucan bit me as I was taking a macro shot!
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We left again early morning at 6am with the shuttle bus to Antigua in Guatemala. We had a nice time in Honduras and wouldn’t mind coming back to explore it more as we have only scratched the surface of this country which is the second biggest in Central America after Mexico.
We got to Antigua by 1pm and we had enough of one afternoon to walk around the historical centre with great views on the nearby volcano.
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This is probably one of the nicest colonial towns we have seen but half a day there was enough for us.
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Guatemala is supposed to be a cheap country but Antigua is definitely not cheap and the place is full of tourists. As described in the lonely planet, the place is a bit like fantasyland and not the real Guatemala. After spending quickly a lot of money for various expensive shuttles between towns we left the next day for San Marcos, on the shore of Lake Atitlan, another big tourist magnet.

The setting was impressive. The lake is surrounded by small lush mountains and towering active volcanoes. There is a strong Maya influence in the local villages and people still wear traditional clothing.
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We felt we were back in Peru or Bolivia near Lake Titicaca. Upon arrival in San Marcos, Charlotte initially felt at ease in what seemed like a pretty relaxed and hippie town but after walking around for a few hours and talking to several tourists we both started to laugh about this place, where there seemed to be more meditation centres, yoga centres and massage places than inhabitants.
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Many tourists got here while travelling and decided to stay for several months looking for the meaning of life. Charlotte and I talked to a young Maya girl who said she really liked it here as the tourists were providing entertainment to them with their funny behaviours. We saw one guy who was about to swim in the lake shaking his hands and making funny noises. Another guy was obsessed with Maya astrology and was calculating everybody’s Maya sign: Charlotte is a coyote by the way and I was born in the month of the Jaguar! We saw others meditating in group in a fenced area and a women lying on her back under a blanket being massaged on the shore of the lake. People in our hotel consisted of girls playing with hula-hoops or guys trying to juggle. There’s nothing wrong with that but I guess that after months of doing this they could have tried to find different objectives in life. One of them a bit more ambitious did decide to do fruit picking in Canada. As I’m writing this, all the clowns from our hotel came back from the belly dancing performance and are playing with drums just outside our room.
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On Sunday we visited the colourful Maya market of Chichicastenago, where tourists were all trying to get sneaky shots of the traditionally dressed locals.
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Our Guatemala experience has been a bit disappointing so far. We believe that this country has a lot to offer in terms of culture and scenery but if you don’t want to spend too much time in public transports, which are appalling, you end up following the main tourist trail using expensive tourist shuttles and don’t get to see the real face of the country. We think that we are not going to spend more than a week here as we would like to spend a bit of time diving in Belize and also at least 3-4 weeks in Mexico before flying to Canada.

Posted by lebrunfo 18:00 Archived in Honduras Comments (2)

Central America - Week 27 & 28

Nicaragua

sunny 30 °C

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We left La Fortuna early morning and made it to Los Chiles, at the border with Nicaragua at 11am. Everything went well despite the longish wait for a connecting bus on the way. Once in hot Los Chiles we headed towards the emigration office to get our exit stamps. After this we went to purchase the ticket for the boat that was going to take us accross the border. Unfortunately the person in front of us took the last remaining seat for the 12.30 boat and we were told that another boat would leave at 1.30. We bought the ticket and waited in this unpleasant town where everyone seemed to be quite rude. By 1.45, the guy from the boat came to us and gave us our money back as there were not enough passengers for his boat! We were told to wait for the hypothetical 2.30 boat (which never arrived) and finally boarded a boat at 4.30pm. What a waste of time and energy. The 1 hour boat ride was however very scenic along the river where we saw more king fishers than I ever saw in my life and many other species of birds as well as small indigenous villages by the river bank. Upon arrival in San Carlos in Nicaragua, the border official asked me if I would sell him my sun glasses, with a big grin on his face. The atmosphere was already more friendly and relaxed than in neighboring Costa Rica.
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San Carlos is a busy river port with good connections to small villages along the Rio San Juan and to the nearby Lago de Nicaragua and its numerous islands. Our hotel hunt started unsucessfully with quite a few hotels that were fully booked. The only one we could find was a very basic room for US$7 for the two of us! We wandered the streets of this town for another hour before going back to that place as no room was available anywhere else. We got used showering with water buckets and flushing the toilets with buckets as well... The bed seemed more like a few wooden planks set next to eachothers and although we had a view over the lake from our window, we also had a view on the nearby night club playing loud music until 2am. That evening we met Michael from Texas with whom we decided to try to go to the nearby Solentiname Islands the following morning. Public transports to the island was only 2 days a week and private boats cost about US$120 for a day trip so we were not very hopeful to visit those islands.
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After a good night sleep,.. we headed to the port with Charlotte and Michael in order to talk to fishermen to see if we could get a ride on a boat. We saw a boat full of tourists from Nicaragua at the dock and Charlotte went to ask the captain were they were heading to. Bingo! They were doing a day trip to the islands and agreed to let us on board for about US$10 each. This was the perfect scenario for once. We sat at the back and became the attraction of the day. People were curious to know what we were doing in Nicaragua. After a little chat in Spanglish, we got invited to stay in Chinandega. The agenda of the day tour was to spot various birds on the island Zapatilla, then explore San Fernando and Mancarron. San Fernando is a really small and relaxing island. We would have liked to spend the night there and explore further the island. We had only a couple of hours and decided to head to the museum, which did not tell much about the island but instead told us about the fishes of the lake Nicaragua that put you off from swimming. We then wandered a little while on a trail around the island where we could see a lot of tropical birds called Trogon.
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Mancarron island was more inhabited than San Fernando and less attractive to us. Michael decided to settle there for a few nights. We wandered on the island and left him there. On our way back, we went down the Rio San Juan and spotted various birds and monkeys. A couple of fisherman families were also living there, some of them were cleaning the fishing net for the next day. San Carlos at night is not very attractive and it certainly does not invite people to walk around. We headed to the Kiosco for dinner. It first did not look very appealing but as it was recommended by our landlady and as we try not to judge a book by its cover, we decided to give it a chance. We had a really good fish, which completed this nice day.
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The next morning, we headed to El Castillo, which is a small village by the Rio San Juan. The journey took about 3h00. We were impressed to see how small the village was. There was the main street by the river. We stayed at Hotel Neña, which is run by a family. The room are nice and not expensives. Neña also offers tours in the Indio Maiz reserve, which we did the following day with our new friends, Antoine, Zack and Rodolphe.
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After about an hour down the river we put on the rubber boots and started a 3 hours hike through primary rainforest. There wasn't much to see but I was pleased to see numerous type of frogs, including the famous blue-jean frog with its red body and blue legs. We also saw a few more monkeys but honestly we've been seeing monkeys almost on a daily basis since Northern Colombia and it doesn't impress us that much anymore!
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In the afternoon we just relaxed in the quiet and sleepy town of El Castillo planning the rest of our trip.
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We initially thought that we would come back to San Carlos to get the Thursday ferry to Ometepe Island but after talking to Zack and Antoine, we decided to go with them down river to the town of San Juan del Norte on the Caribbean coast. As we took our decision late in the day, the fast boat was already full so we had no choice but to take the slow boat that was going to take about 10h in a small and packed river boat.
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We got to the pier at 8.30am for the 9am departure but the boat did not arrive until about 10.30. As soon as we left, the boat broke down and we didn't actually leave until about noon. We were sitting on the only available space, a tough wooden plank! Luckily, after a couple of hours people were getting of the boat and we found more room and were finally able to enjoy the amazing jungle scenery with crocodiles, monkeys and birds. We arrived at the end of the world in San Juan del Norte at dusk for some fantastic sunset scenery in the mangrove next to the Caribbean sea. Upon arrival we enquired about the boats to Bluefields, the only way to get out of San Juan, and found out that we would have to spend 2 nights there waiting for the Thursday morning boat.
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We hired a young local guide with a boat to take us around the area for half a day and enjoyed swimming at the mouth of the river next to the sea.
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In the afternoon I went fishing and called for help within minutes of starting as I had a mid sized fish at the end of my line and I didn't want to touch it!!
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It is without regret that we left the next day on a small boat packed with about 15 people for a 4 hours journey in high sea. It is with relief that we finally arrived in Bluefields, some of us drenched (Charlotte) or sun burnt (Zach). We however found out that there was no ferry until the following day to take us to Corn island. We had to spend a night in dodgy Bluefields.
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It was an interesting experience. People here on the coast are very different from the rest of the country. They are usually of African origins and speak more English than Spanish. The town is allegedly not really safe at night so we took a taxi to an excellent seafood restaurant with our growing number of friends who we met during our amazing journey down the river (Zach, Antoine, Sabela, Miguel and Christine). The next day we were finally on the boat to Corn Island, the place we had all dreamt to get to for over a week.
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After beeing burnt alive by the sun during 5 hours we arrived on Great Corn Island and waited a couple of hours to board another boat to take us to our final destination: Little Corn island, which is smaller, traffic-free and has nicer beaches than big Corn. Christine, Zach and Antoine took a very cheap 3 bed room near the pier, the bars and restaurant, whereas Sabela, Miguel, Charlotte and I looked for a small cabin to share on the beach on the other side of the island. For US$10 each we had found our little piece of paradise 10 meters away from the turquoise water from the Caribbean sea surrouded by palm trees.
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We spent 4 nights here enjoying the excellent sea food, rhum, amazing weather and beautiful scenery. It felt like we were again on holiday from our holiday. The main fact worth describing in more details was our snorkelling experience. Although the marine life and coral reef was less impresssive than in Costa Rica, we saw and swam with numerous sharks. First we saw a lot of sleepy nurse sharks in clear water at the bottom of the see and when we went into deeper water we were soon noticed that we were swimming among a group of at least 5 hammerhead sharks (requin marteau), which we could see from above within a few meters from us.
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Zach, Antoine and Christine decided to leave the island on Monday and hopefully they managed to catch a boat unlike charlotte and I who were left stranded at the pier the following morning with no boat to take us back to Bluefields. We had been told that there would be regular ferrys during the holy week but we were left with no other choice than to get a cab to the airport and ask about flights to the capital, Managua. At the airport we were told that the next flight was full but that there would be another one 20 minutes later! We bought the ticket for about US$100 each and within a few minutes boarded the plane with only another 4 passengers.. In no time we got to Managua, took a taxi to the colonial town of Granada and had checked-in our hotel. Everything seemed to have gone really fast that morning from the tropical paradise on Corn Island to the busy colonial town of Granada.

We only spent a full day in Granada but that was enough to see the main sights and enjoy some good food and drinks in one of the many restaurants lining the main street in the old town.
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On the next day we travelled to the Island of Ometepe on Lake Nicaragua. The island is famous for its two cone shaped volcanoes, Conception and Maderas, and we were intending to climb one of them.
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In the afternoon on the first day we rented bicycles and did a 40k loop along the coast from where we had many different views on the Conception volcanoe and we could also observe a lot of very pretty birds called Magpies jays, which are everywhere on the island.
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On the next day we joined a group 5 Danish guys, one English (Mickael), one Spanish and one Mauritian in an attempt to climb the Conception volcanoe at 1650m above sea level. Charlotte and 2 others had decided to climb up to 1000m to the view point just above the forest but the rest of us had decided to try to get to the top. After about 2 to 3 hours uphill and going through a steep ascent in the forest teeming with birds and monkeys, we finally reached the first view point.
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The walk wasn't particularly pleasant nor easy as the terrain was rocky at times and very dusty. Seven of us decided to attempt the final ascent but after a few minutes one Danish guy and Mickael dropped out and decided to turn back. The climb was very steep, on volcanic rocks and very dusty and slippery.
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The wind was getting stronger and we couldn't see much more than a few meters away because of the early morning mist. We could also smell the sulphur from the smoke of this active volcanoe. After a few more minutes we were just 2 left in the ascent and finally just me and the guide as well as Tom, a French traveller who attempted the ascent without a guide. We made it to the top but the wind was so strong that we were getting hit by small gravels in our face and the clouds prevented us to see the crater.
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We quickly turned back to start our perillous descent. We fell down a few times and got covered in volcanic dust. Tom and I started to run down to catch up with the guide who had left us in his attempt to catch up the Danish guys, who he feared might leave without paying him! All in all I hiked for about 6h30 without much rest and I was quite relieved when it was finally over. I wouldn't really recommend this hike to anyone unsure about their physical condition but even when fit, the walk wasn't pleasant at all.
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We left Ometepe on Good Friday and shared a taxi to Matagalpa with Michael. Matagalpa is in the Northern highlands and his surrounded by cloud forest and coffee plantations. Everything was closed on Good friday and the town looked dead. We didn't do much. We just recovered from the hike, had some nice food in the only open restaurant we could find and finished the day sharing a bottle of Flor de Cana rhum...
On the next day we went to the private reserve, Selva Negra, where we spent half a day walking in the forest. Michael injured his knee during the volcanoe climb so left Charlotte and I who were doing a longer hike. We we met again 2 hours later, Michael showed us his photos of monkeys and toucans whereas Charlotet and i didn't see any animal at all. I was gutted !! we came back to Matagalpa at the back of a pick-up truck (for free) and started planning the rest of our trip. We decided to spend a couple of nights in Leon before getting a direct bus to Tegucigalpa in Honduras.

Nicaragua has been one of the best countries we have visited so far, especially the Rio San Juan area and the Caribbean coast. People were very friendly and we felt really safe here. There are still a few areas that we haven't explored,which might be the reason to come back to this great country in the future.

Posted by lebrunfo 13:30 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Central America - Week 25 & 26

Cota Rica

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[Charlotte]
We left David and its little piece of paradise, Chambres en ville, early in the morning towards the border of Costa Rica. At this stage, we did not know what to do. We were told by a lot of backpakers that Costa Rica was expensive and that the locals were not very nice. Should we stay 5 days, a week or more? We did not have a plan. The only thing we wanted to do was to visit Corcovado National Park in the Osa Peninsula, which is south west of Costa Rica. We had been warned of the usual 4 hours wait to cross the border from Panama. It took us about 10 minutes to cross it without any difficulty! We then jumped on a bus to Golfito, where we took a boat to Puerto Jimenez on the Osa peninsula. We arrived there by lunch time. It was really hot. As we walked to town, we saw a few scarlet macaws having lunch.
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The afternoon was dedicated to finding a way to go the national park Corcovado. There are two options. The expensive one is to go with a guide and not worry about carrying a tent; the cheap option is to go by yourself and carry everyting....we then thought of the 5 days we spent carrying everything in Torres del Paine. Hence we went for the expensive option and booked a 3 days, 2 nights guided tour in Corcovado with Toucan Travel. Tip for those who wants to go to Corcovado: you should go to Hotel Carolina and ask for a guide so that you do not pay additional fees.
In the evening we walked around town to admire the beautiful sunset.
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The following day was meant to be a relaxing one before starting the jungle trek. We rented two bicycles and headed to the beach, which was about 45 minutes from town. I had a nice pink bike with a basket. Franck had a real bike with gears. The heat was unbearable. In addition, after 20 minutes, I lost my saddle. Then I lost it every 5 minutes. Franck complained I did not know how to sit on a bike. He then took my barbie bike and after realising that the saddle was indeed broken, he decided to get some tools and repair it. We stopped by a property not far from the beach, where a nice canadian woman, who settled there with her family a few years ago, gave us some tools. After a few attempts, we headed to the beach with the bike still broken.
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The beach was long and deserted. The sand was burning hot and the ocean was warm with some big waves. These might be the reason why there is nobody on the beaches in Costa Rica. As it was getting really hot, we left and went after the scarlet macaws. It started to rain on our way back. By the time we were back at the hotel, the light and pleasant rain became a tropical rain.
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We woke up the next day with a blue sky. The 6 o'clock call was quite pleasant as it is the only time of the day where you can breath and walk without streaming with sweat. After a 2 hour ride at the back of a truck, we arrived at Carate, which is 3.5km from the entrance of the National Park. Ronnie was our guide. We started to walk on a really long beach. The sand was sticking to our shoes, which made the walk harder.
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We arrived at La Leona, the entrance of the park. We then headed into the jungle and spotted two scarlet macaws that were arguing about something. From what I understood, the baby that was now big enough to feed himself wanted to be fed by his mother; the mother was not going to yield and flew away. We then saw an ant eater. We started to follow it. He then climbbed on a tree.
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We then saw a lot of spider monkeys, which were very curious towards us. Some of them tried to scare us by peing and dropping other substances as we walked under the trees.
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As we got closer to the camp site La Sirena, we saw two tapirs having a bath.
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We arrived at La Sirena late afternoon. Everybody were in bed by 8pm, exhausted by this long day.
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We woke up the next morning at 5am. We saw very few animals, only some monkeys. We went back after 2hours and headed for the second walk of the day at 8am. We saw again some monkeys and coatis, but no sign of the puma.
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Pumas have been seen quite often for the past few weeks. We were then eager to see this big wild cat. As we walked back to the lodge, we saw toucans flying from one tree to another. Franck was out of his mind, following them with his camera in hand.
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In the afternoon, we saw a beautiful snake, which was called by the name of Mica in Spanish.
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A monkey tried also to scare us by shouting at us while shaking the branch he was on. We then had a swim in the river, spotted a crocodile, which was fortunately not in the same river as us. Still, there was no sign of the puma. The evening at the lodge was quite tensed as someone did not come back from the afternoon walk. The night went darker and there was still no sign of him. Nobody was allowed to look for him at night as all sort of things might come out. He was still missing the next morning and the rangers could not find him. Meanwhile, as we were getting ready to get back to Puerto Jimenez, a tapir showed up near the lodge. It went really close, started to sniff around and headed back to the jungle.
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We walked all morning without a break. We were desperately looking for the puma...we instead saw a few footprints, which looked fresh to me. As we walked along the beach at low tide, a tapir was having a spa.
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We eventually arrived where we started, at Carate, by lunch time. Everybody was exhausted but pleased with this amazing experience. The missing person reappeared at the camp site the same morning in one piece. Having spent the night in the jungle, he managed to get back on a small plane but as nothing is free in Costa Rica, he had to pay 50$. The lesson, never get out of the trail.

[Franck]
The next morning we left by bus to the small village of Drake, just North of the Corcovado National Park, by the pacific ocean. Although very close in distance from Puerto Jimenez, it took us about half a day to get there as the roads and connections are not ideal in this part of the country. Drake has a very pleasant end of the world feel with very little cars, noise and people. The main draw is the proximity to the national park, the marine life around Caño island, a 45 minbutes boat ride from Drake, and the wildlife in the nearby rain forest. We didn't do much on our first day and just contemplated the scenery.
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On our second day, we decided to go on a snorkelling tour to Caño. This was very expensive, $75 each for half a day, and we thought that this was going to be a remake of our bad experience in Bocas del Toro a few days before. The area is supposed to be teeming with whales and dolphins but this wasn't the right time of year to spot whales. On the way towards the island we didn't see any dolphins either and we started to sense a rip off! As we started snorkelling, the guide told us that there were jelly fishes and that we shouldn't worry about stings. This wasn't pleasant at all as, at times, we were surrounded by jelly fishes and we got stung on our face, arms, backs, ... The underwater world wasn't bad. We saw various sorts of fishes in great number and saw one or two sea turtles but there was no sign of sharks that we were desperately expecting to see. As I was getting back on the boat after our first session, one guy still in the water said he saw a shark and Charlotte who was still in there managed to get a glimpse of its tail. I was beginning to get very frustrated. We then were left on a nice beach and were told that lunch was ready. It was 10.40 AM!! I ate all I could, as usual, and was not ready at all for our second snorkelling session a few minutes later. We went back into the water and this time we saw a lot of pretty sea turtles - hawkbills turtles - feeding at the bottom of the ocean and going back at the surface to breathe, within centimeters of us. This was incredible to witness this so close. We then saw one white tip shark, at the bottom of the ocean. At first I wasn't that impressed. We were looking at it from above, maybe 6 meters above, and it looked to me rather like a giant sardine that I would have enjoyed eating! Charlotte and I were looking at it, unimpressed, and the shark started to move its head up and it seemed like it looked at us. We both felt a chill as we realised that it was really a shark and not a giant sardine! Two other sharks came by, swimming from behind a rock. This was an amazing sight. A few minutes later, I saw a dolphin quite far on the horizon. Finally, back in the water, we saw a shoal of about 30 manta rays swimming and playing a few meters under us. I saw them from very close range and felt a bit scarred. Charlotte who was helping a little boy to swim, arrived a bit late but saw them from further away. Back on the boat, as we thought the entertainment was over, we saw a manta ray jumping a couple of times out of the water and flying a little while between each jump. Fantastic. Then, we saw a fish jumping out of the water, head straight into the air, and we first thought that it was a big tuna but later realised that we were seeing a group of dolphins jumping in the air, having fun and entertaining us immensely. Unfortunately we couldn't get decent photos of this but this was without a doubt some of the best couple of hours we had spent for a while, and definitely worth the $75! I guess we might have been lucky and in other circumstances this trip would probably have felt like a big rip off!
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Back in Drake, the weather wasn't good. It started raining a little bit and, as we were getting ready to have an early dinner before the night walk that we had organised with a local guide, it started raining heavily and we thought we would have to cancel the walk. Fortunately, the shower only lasted for 2 hours and at 7pm, fully equipped with our rubber boots, we left with Esteban for a 3 hours night walk into his grand father's land, right into the jungle. The objective of the walk was among other things, to spot the famous colourful frogs from Costa Rica. We started off with low expectations. We soon spotted a scorpion, a few spiders, crickets and cockroaches but none of the promissed frogs.
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We were wearing long sleeves and long pants and were sweating all the water from our bodies. The atmosphere was really hot and humid. Perfect for frogs apparently! We then saw a long and thin snake - apparently non-venomous.
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Our guide could spot the wildlife easily but knew little about the species we saw. He was very friendly and took the two of us only for the competitive price of $40 as opposed to the $70 quoted by big tour companies who only operate with groups of at least 4 persons. We really liked our experience with Esteban, especially when he finally saw one specie of poison dart frog, with a spotted red body and dark green legs.
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I got camera crazzy, as did Charlotte, and we probably blinded this poor frog with the flash from our cameras. The frog was no bigger than one of my finger nails but this was amazing to see that in the wild.
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We later saw 2 or 3 more types of frogs, a bit less colourful but still very fun to observe.
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Unfortunately we didn't see the famous Costa Rica leaf frog, the one with orange webs, a green body with yellow and blue colors around the ribs and bulging big red eyes. This closed what I will call, "Super Sunday"! This was the perfect day, the type of day that we will remember for a long time.

On Monday, we left Drake by boat at about 7 in the morning. The 90 minutes boat trip to Sierpe was very scenic as we first sailed at sea before entering a river flowing into the mangrove. We eventually wanted to get to Monteverde in northern Costa Rica but thought we couldn't make the journey in one day so we were prepared to stop overnight somewhere on the pacific coast. We took a combination of taxis and buses, got dropped off on the highway in what looked random places to us but finally made it to Puntarenas at 4pm where we were told that there was no bus to Monteverde until the following morning unless we got to some place 5km out of town where the last bus from san Jose to Monteverde might stop between 4.30 and 5.00. We didn't feel like staying in Puntarenas, which didn't look really nice, so we jumped in an expensive cab that took us to the "junction". We waited there half an hour and luckily got on the last bus to Monteverde but there was no space in the bus so we had to stand for 2 hours while the bus was making its way on really bumpy dirt tracks. We were shattered when we finally arrived in Monteverde after 7pm. At least, we didn't suffer from the heat anymore as Monteverde is at an altitude of about 1500m. We enjoyed our first night in a long time sleeping under heavy blankets!

On our first day in Monteverde we didn't do much. We were still enjoying the cooler weather and recovering from our past week. Charlotte felt like shopping and was pleased to finally use the credit card after months of abstinence. This means that we also had to send a parcel back in England to lighten our bags, which were getting dangerously heavy! Late afternoon, we went to the frog pond where we had a very informative 90 minutes guided visit showing us several species of frogs from Costa rica. We finally saw the famous leaf frog but it feels like cheating to show you this photo of a frog in an aquarium! We do it anyway as it is stunningly beautiful, ... for a frog.
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Monteverde is like a mix of many different places we have visited previously in our trip, but more expensive. We didn't do much here and spent almost 2 days cooking food and relaxing in our nice hostel. We nevertheless attempted to spot some wildlife in the nearby Santa Elena nature reserve. After an early start at 6am, we arrived at the entrance of the reserve where there are about 10km of well marked trails into the cloud forest. It rained quite a bit, was quite cold, and we know from our experience in Mindo in Ecuador that birds don't show up with this type of weather. We walked some 3 frustrating hours in the forest without seeing much at all. Honnestly, I think we might have seen 4 birds in total.. and not even nice ones.
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We were hoping to see the famous Quetzal but we may be luckier somewhere else later.

To conclude our Costa Rican adventures, we headed towards La Fortuna and the famous Arenal volcano. The trip involved a nice boat journey on a lake amid some nice mountain scenery.
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At the moment, the active volcano is unfortunately not throwing out lava as you see on all photos and as usual the summit is always in the clouds.
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We have a room with a window facing the volcano so we might be lucky and see it tomorrow before heading towards Nicaragua!
In the afternoon we went to the Baldi hot springs, a big rip off. The site is nice but we weren't that impressed by the various pools and we still don't understand why we had to pay US$22 each to get in and also US$11 for a rerturn trip by taxi... and I forgot the US$6 for the locker! Crazy.

On the whole our Costa Rica trip was pleasant and we absolutely loved the Corcovado National Park and its surroundings. The rest of the country wasn't particularly different from other places we have been to previously but it was definitely a lot more expensive and tourist-oriented without any soul. This is without regret that we are leaving tomorrow for Nicaragua.

Ciao

Posted by lebrunfo 17:50 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (2)

Central America - End of Week 24

Panama

sunny 40 °C

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Just after posting the previous blog we went for a swim and we started talking to one of the hotel guests, an American guy, who told us he was going to the Feria in the evening and that we were welcome to share a taxi with him. Having nothing else to do we accepted the offer. The feria is a 2 weeks international fair that takes place in March every year. People there exhibit cattles, horses and tractors! In the evening things heat up a lot with numerous open air bars and clubs playing extremly loud music and masses of people go out to have a good time. This was a very genuine experience of Panamean culture as we haven't met any tourist for the whole night - something very rare in Panama which has been colonized by Canadians and Americans.
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We had quite a few drinks and, on the following day I wasn't really up to travel to Costa Rica... We then decided to leave our main backpacks at the hotel in David, take a lighter day pack with us and travel for 4 days on the coast South of David and give Panama another chance to surprise us.

We headed towards the small island of Boca Chica about 1h30 from David. There is nothing on the island except jungle, two fairly expensive resorts and a backpacker's hostel with two rooms in the middle of the forest. We stayed with Julio, the german owner of the hostel who settled here about 15 years ago. In the afternoon we went to the beach of grey sand and I wasn't very impressed with it. We then left to walk for a couple of hours into the jungle. We unexpectedly saw a lot of howler monkeys and watched them for a long while. This was very special to observe wild animals in their habitat.
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In the evening, since their was no cooking facilities where we stayed, we walked 20-25min to the Boca Brava resort to get our dinner. The view of the sunset was nice and probably explained why the food was a bit overpriced.
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After dinner we had to hike back to our hostel, through the jungle, at night with our torchlight. That was again very interesting as we could hear a lot of animals and we also managed to see an armadillo as well as some kind of big rodent who ran off very quickly.
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On the next day, we went on a boat trip around the Chiriqui nature reserve, a set of islands surrounded by coral reef. We saw some nice fishes while snorkelling and we also spent 3 hours on a white sand beach surrounded by palm trees. Really nice.
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We were then looking forward to walking into the jungle to spot some howler monkeys and other wild animals. We indeed saw a family having some dinner up in the trees. The next morning was the best breakfast we ever had as we watched monkeys jumping from one tree to another. The babies were holding to their mums and seemed undisturbed by our presence.
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We then left to the beach of Las Lajas, about 90 minutes away, and spent one night there. There are basically a few cabins by the beach and a long stretch of at least 20km of white sand and palm trees on the pacific ocean.
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The weather was a bit overcast but it cleared up for some amazing sunset views, one of the best we have seen during that trip with the one in Huanchaco, Peru, last January.
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We stayed in a small hostal owned by an italian couple who settled there before they installed electricity and before roads were even built. In the evening we talked to a Swiss-Italian guy who had spent 3 years here enjoying the tranquility of the place. We would have probably killed ourselves after a week! We have met some incredible characters on that trip e.g. a French man cycling from Vancouver to Brazil, a french familly driving around South and Central America for 2 years in a camper van with their 4 year old son, a German couple taking their car from Germany and driving from the East coast of Canada to Ushuaia, ... or this guy stuck on the beach in Las Lajas for 3 years! This made us realise that almost everything can be achieved travelling wise and this will surely inspire us for our next adventures. George, if you are reading this, we're thinking about your plan to drive from London to Cape town... We should do it one day.. and take some mechanics courses first!

After an early morning swim at the beach we left to go back to David were the temperature was close to 40 degrees in the middle of the day. We enjoyed the swimming pool one last time before going for sure to Costa Rica tomorrow.
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Posted by lebrunfo 18:37 Archived in Panama Comments (0)

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