Guatemala….a coming of age story!

It would have been sacrilegious to have gotten so close to Guatemala and not seen the impressive Mayan site of Tikal. Since we had a couple of days to kill before catching our flight from San Salvador to Cuba, we decided to embark on our final ambitious couple of days of traveling….and what a couple of days it was!

With our bellies full, clothes washed and day packs ready, we left Lena and family in Ataco to make our way across the border to Guatemala City; to figure out if a trip to Tikal would even be possible.

After negotiating our way through what has to be the ugliest, dirtiest and most dangerous city we had been in, we managed to get to the bus terminal in the heart of the red light district of Guatemala City.

Given our limited time and budget, we decided to take two consecutive night buses to make the round trip to Tikal. The realisation that this amazing journey was coming to an end had suddenly dawned on us both and so our last ever night bus was somewhat of an emotional experience….although this was feeling was short lived and replaced by that of rage due to the pesky family of 4 squashed in behind us!

We arrived in the town of Flores early in the morning to be quickly whisked away to the site of Tikal, deep in the jungle bordering Belize and Mexico.

Arriving at the site before 7am was truly a magical experience with the entire site covered in a dense mist.

The main section of the site spans about a kilometer, with towering pyramids poking above the jungle’s green canopy. At this time of the morning, it is quite literally howling with animal activity.

I managed to climb my way up to temples no. IV; the highest at 64m high, just before the mist began to clear. Unfortunately Dre and I managed to loose each other so I had no body to share the moment with or to take any decent pictures of what was one of my most memorable travel moments 😦

Seeing the other huge temples appear out of the mist surrounded by nothing but dense jungle was just breath taking. Being so high above the canopy, all the noises of the jungle some how seemed to be amplified….I was sure I could hear the sound of the rare puma making a kill.

Of course, when Andre finally made his way up to the top he obviously had to rain on my moment by informing me that is was in fact the sound of a howler monkey :(…the only other thing to ruin the moment was an obnoxious American suffer dude who was insisting that it wasn’t the sun that caused skin cancer but the sun screen and that he only ever put things on his skin that you could eat…clearly a dismal attempt at chatting up the uninterested Australian girl that like me, just wanted him to shut the fuck up so we could enjoy the scenery!

We spent the next couple of hours wondering around the site which although is not as impressive as Machu Picchu from an architectural perspective, does allow for your imagination to run wild, particularly since it’s only 25% excavated!

The shear size of this lost city is totally mind boggling… Walking around brought back a memory of one of my favourite cartoons as a child….”the mysterious cites of gold”…I really did feel like Sebastian that morning.

Tikal is the best understood of any Maya cities and as with the Egyptians, has a long dynastic ruler list; explaining all the tombs, monuments, palaces and temples.

The Maya peoples never disappeared, not even with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors and the subsequent Spanish colonization of the Americas. Today, the Maya and their descendants form sizable populations throughout the Maya area and maintain a distinctive set of traditions and beliefs.

Unlike the Aztec and Inca Empires, there was no single Maya political center that, once overthrown, would hasten the end of collective resistance from the indigenous peoples. Instead, the conquistador forces needed to subdue the numerous independent Maya polities almost one by one, many of which kept up a fierce resistance. Most of the conquistadors were motivated by the prospects of the great wealth to be had from the seizure of precious metal resources such as gold or silver; however, the Maya lands themselves were poor in these resources. This would become another factor in forestalling Spanish designs of conquest, as they instead were initially attracted to the reports of great riches in central Mexico or Peru.

Mayans are noted for the only known fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas, as well as for its art, architecture, and mathematical and astronomical systems.

Since our night bus back wasn’t leaving until 9pm we had more than enough time to explore the town of Flores. It is spectacularly located on an island in Lago de Peten Itza and is what Cuzco is to Peru, in that it is set up to carter for the tourist trade en route to Tikal. It is a charming place that has a 500m causeway that connects it to the lake shore town of Santa Elena.

With so much time to kill, we found ourselves eating copious amounts of the tastiest food (decisively more Mexican than we have had before) along with numerous coffee stops whilst enjoying the beautiful sunset across the lake.

After yet another night sleeping on a bus we arrived in Antigua feeling some what jaded and excited about the thought of resting for a while in an actual bed. Unfortunately we were unable to find a room available until the afternoon and so agreed to freshen up and get some breakfast before cracking on with the day.

Looking at pics below, you can understand why Antigua is Guatemala’s tourism showpiece. A former capital, this town is jam-packed with historically significant buildings and relics and is a place of rare beauty….which surprising considering it has been flattened by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes throughout it’s history.

After a couple of hours we were pretty much done with Antigua and so decided to solider on back to Salvador that afternoon to spend the night at El Tunco and rest by the beach the following day.

In order to avoid ever having to ever go back to Guatemala City, we decided to cross over to El Salvador along the cost and the border crossing of La Hachadura. Given that this isn’t a usual traveler route to take, we found ourselves at the crossing used by all the large cargo lorries. Thankfully we were able to just walk past the insane queues of lorry drivers waiting to clear customs, which given the sketchiness of the place (made even worse by the thought of sunset approaching) was a welcomed bit of luck.

Unfortunately this is where our luck seemed to end since we hand some issues with border control; something we were expecting given the complete lack of any stamp in our passports from our previous crossings into the country. By the time we had explained our route up through Honduras and our quick visit to Guatemala we had missed the last bus to the beach town we had been longing to reach.

After trying to see if there was absolutely any way of getting to El Tunco, we finally gave into the fact that the only bus leaving the border town was to Sonsonate. We were told that this was the place where all the gangs of El Salvador lived and so we were not best pleased about the thought of staying in a dingy, expensive motel for the night only having to leave the next morning.

Since it was beginning to get dark and I was feeling a little on edge anyway, I had taken the smart move of hiding all my credit cards in my shoe and my iPhone down my pants…just in case the bus was robbed en route (something that we hear is very common in El Salvador).

As we drove along the cost we were both frantically looking through the guide books to see if there would be any way to get to the beach….we even toyed with the idea of just getting off at the last junction and hitching a ride for the rest of 40km journey.

We both quickly dismissed the idea as being a ludicrous risk to take, especially so late on in our trip…we had somehow managed to avoid any trouble over the past 6 months and still have all our valuables (I.e camera and iPad); getting mugged just before we were about to leave would be something that would take a while to come to terms with.

As we edged closer and closer to the junction in question we both began rationalising the idea of getting off and standing on the roadside to hitch hike. Since there were another 3 buses due to follow, I thought that it wouldn’t do us any harm trying and then hopping on the last bus to Sonsonate as a last resort.

The more I thought about it the more I wanted to be able to say that I was most defiantly a seasoned traveller, having hitch hiked in one of the most dangerous countries….at night! Within a second of telling Dre that I was game if her was…we found ourselves at the junction of the main road and the pitch black road that continued along the coast line.

Having never done this before in my life, I wasn’t really too sure what to expect; after the first five failed attempts, I began thinking that this was a horrible mistake.

In order to prevent an argument; proportioning blame to either party, I just kept my head down, avoiding eye contact with anyone passing by, praying for someone to actually stop. My prayers were finally answered and an opportunistic ‘thumb out’ to a large cargo lorry was successful!

After climbing up into the lorry, we were delighted to find a young and relatively attractive lorry driver, only too willing to give us a lift. Sitting in the comfy sprung seats of this huge vehicle, speeding along the cost line, I couldn’t help but feel pretty smug with myself for having pulled this off!

The feeling of elation soon turned into a slight panic as the lorry driver pulled over to the side of the road for no apparent reason. No doubt Dre’s feelings were centred around ejaculation where as I reached for anything sharp…just in case he was a complete nut job.

Thankfully there was no ‘job of any kind since he simply stopped to get some water from a tap at the side of the road 🙂

We spent the next hour our so learning all about the export trade and the tough life of a lorry driver on the road; he works for 6 months straight living in the thing. He drives day and night across the county, unable to take the lorry off the route at any time.

We left our new friend over cum with joy about what we had achieved in the last couple of days and more generally the past 6 months. I most definitely feel that I can now say with 100% confidence that I have travelled hard core!

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Western Pacific Coast – El Tunco

Many people think of El Salvador as dangerous and chaotic which altogether isn’t too far from the truth however outside of the larger cities/towns the vibe couldn’t be more different.

The western cost line is particularly beautiful with the vast majority of tourists in the country spending the majority of their time here. Since the country isn’t really on the tourist trail at all, the only foreigners you tend to see are surfers and obviously their groupies who come here for the world-famous surf.

Although we have had just about enough of the surfer crowd, the temperature here is just too unbearable not to be by the sea, leaving us no choice but to make the hour bus journey to the portal town of La Libertad.

This place is a typical grimy portal town and not really a place you would want to stay. The only reason to come here is to catch a bus to one of the many beach towns that hug the beautiful coastline that is equally as stunning as the French Rivera in terms of its natural beauty.

La Libertad does however have a great fish market which is ideally located on the pier where the fishermen dock their boats to unload their catch of the day.

And what a catch it is…we have never seen fish this big! There is also a little stall that sells the best ceviche we have had to date.

We found ourselves stuck at Km 42, also called Playa El Tunco which was the perfect combination of cheap hostel, great people and beautiful sunsets.

It’s also where we found some of the best and most healthy ice creme ever!

El Salvador

We arrived in El Salvador after a surprisingly easy journey on what they call ‘chicken buses’ from Leon. The reason they are called ‘chicken buses’ is quite literal… You’re packed in like chickens and very often have live chickens being transported in the seat next to you!

We had arranged to stay with an old uni friend of Dre’s who has been living in El Salvador for the past 6 years having married a Salvadorian. In the interest of time as well as there not being many points of interest in Honduras, we simply drove right through the country to get to the capital of El Salvador, San Salvador….confusing I know!

San Salvador doesn’t really offer much for your average traveler, but we had a lovely time catching up with Lena and her new family, husband Gustavo and adorable 4 month old baby Matias.

The city itself feels very American with wide highways and large shopping malls filled with a growing middle class, striving to live the American dream of fast food and excessive consumption.

El Salvador has the largest proportion of it’s population falling with in the ‘middle class’ bracket in all of Central America. I think this is mainly down to the fact that many Salvadorians live and work outside of the country (usually illegally and in the U.S), sending 1st world wages to a second world economy.

This type of income accounts for a staggering 20% of GDP! With such a large number of the working population abroad, often leaving poor families behind, it is easy to understand why gangs are such an issue here; the kids are left with extended relatives, often substituting the security usually received from the parents by that of the gangs and their leaders.

Within this context, we decided to give the baby some culture by taking him to the Museo de Arte El Salvador.

The last painting of a map of San Salvador, really struck a chord with me, since it depicted the area we were staying in as Disney land…and I can see why. Home to the upper class society this place feels more like LA, with large mansions and apartment blocks employing thousands of ‘locals’ as cleaners, nannies, chefs and armies of security guards.

Although there is a large middle class by Central American standards, there is still a large disparity between the classes, with the ‘locals’ as they are referred to, earning a meagre $150 a month. To put this into perspective, an educated international working for one of the big 5 firms here can command a 6 figure salary; firmly putting them in the super wealthy bracket.

Before you all go looking for work here, security fears really do put ‘a bit of a downer’ on things. Gangs are clearly perceived to be a problem with most people living in fear of muggings and ‘express kidnapping’; often living within the confinements of their gated communities or secure shopping malls.

To be honest I didn’t really feel in danger at all here; with security clearly being a huge and lucrative sector, I am starting to think that it may all simply be scare tactics employed by, of course, the U.S security firms that dominate the market. Interestingly I learnt that a lot of the gangs were actually trained in the U.S by the C.I.A as ‘death squads’, illegally deployed in Mexico for the benefit of (as per usual) ‘U.S National security’.

To be honest I am getting a little board of repeating the same thing regarding the U.S foreign policy in this region, particularly during the Ronald Reagan era so I am not going to spend too much time going into the civil war here that ended in 1992 killing over 70.000 people…hopefully you all get the general idea…

…U.S squash any form of left wing ideas perceived to be in their ‘back yard’ by what ever means possible, playing their hand in any civil war, resulting in the death of hundreds of thousands with U.S interests being victorious, irrespective of the outcome!

The one thing I will mention is a unique series of events surrounding the murder of 6 Jesuit priests and the rape of 4 American nuns at a nearby university.

These murders, which were committed by the Salvadorian army (funded by the Regan administration) were an attempt to frame the guerrillas (or revolutionaries, depending on what way you look at it), to turn public opinion against them. Ironically it all back fired with the C.I.A involvement in the mission being exposed. Although there has been a huge cover up effort and many of the criminals in question still at large, it at least saw an end to the war and the beginning of the peace process here.

There is a really graphic museum in the grounds of the U.C.A university where the murders took place. Not for the faint hearted, it provides detailed forensic report of the murders with horrible photos of the crime scene!

On a more lighter note we did manage to get out of the city for a lovely afternoon driving along a beautiful mountain route known as the Routa del Flores. Unlike the name suggests, this route climbs through the key coffee producing region with not a single flower to be seen! It doesn’t however take in some delightful towns along the way…

The highlight of us was a charming little colonial town called Ataco which seemed to have murals depicting traditional indigenous life on every wall.

Its also the place where I found my new favourite breakfast…there version of eggs benedict!

Leon – A fight for true independence

Having scratched the surface of this country’s civil war and revolution in Ernesto’s library, I was keen to get to the most liberal city of Nicaragua, Leon, to learn more.

Since this is a university town, this place is and has always been intensely political, with its inhabitants playing a vital role in its revolution. We stumbled across a really interesting museum just off the main square which our guide-book completely omitted. A former post office, this grand, albeit decrepit building houses two rooms of memorabilia and information from the beginning of the civil war in the 30s to it most euphoric and bloody era of the 70s; which finally saw the fall of a dynasty of dictators known as the Somoza family.

The museum is run by ex soldiers who insist on providing you with a guided tour, although interesting these guys are quite hard to follow and are not really interested in answering your questions, preferring to simply bang on about the old days like most veterans do.

Since there is over 100 years worth of history to document I am going to save you all from my usual endless waffle and opt for some bullets of the highlights in chronological order. Those of you not interested skip straight to the pics of Leon which is full of political murals that help explain the history of the revolution:)

1821 – Nicaragua gains independence from Spain creating a split in two governing powers, the Liberals (Leon) and the Conservatives (Granada).
1838 – Both Britain and the U.S become interested in Nicaragua and it’s strategically important passage to build an Interoceanic canal through Central America.
1848 – British seized control of Caribbean port of San Juan del Norte renaming it Greytown whilst the U.S gold rush in California added fire to the quest for an Atlantic – Pacific passage.
1857 – Liberals disgraced after inviting William Walker into the country and became a vagabond President. (A Tennessee-born opportunist, he initially came to prominence as a newspaper editor speaking out against slavery and the interventionist policies of the U.S however after he was employed by the Liberals to taking care of their pesky rivals in Granada, he decided to make himself President, reinstating slavery confiscating huge areas of land with close ties to the U.S.
1860 – William Walker was killed and Liberals lose power for the next 36 years after losing the trust of the people.
1893-1909 – Liberal general Jose Zeleya became dictator, antagonising the U.S by seeking a canal deal with Germany and Japan, killing two U.S missionaries in the process.
1909 – U.S begin two decades of political intervention, installing presidents it favoured, ousting those it didn’t via coercive measures employed by U.S marines.
1930s – Augusto C Sandino takes lead of the Liberal rebels fighting against U.S involvement and the U.S backed dictatorship of Somoza who developed a National Guard (Guardia Nacional) trained by the U.S.
1934 – Sandino assassinated by Guardia Nacional, beginning a 42 year era known as ‘U.S surrogate regimes.’
1956 – Despite the assignation of Somoza by Libelist rebel in Leon, Lopes Perez, Somoza dynasty continues with his son resuming power.
1960s -70s – Guerilla groups inspired by the Cuban revolution and united by the opposition to the Somozas combine to create what is now known as the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN)
1972 – A devastating earthquake hits capital of Managua, killing over 6000, leaving 300,000 homeless. The Somoza family embezzles international relief funds, fomenting discontentment with the dictatorship across social classes, thus supporting the rise of the FSLN struggle.
1972 -79 – 7 years of guerilla warfare and 52 days of all out battle sees the fall of the Somoza dynasty and on July 17 1979 the revolution is victorious.
1980s – Trying to salvage what it could of its influence over the country, the U.S authorised $75m in aid to the Sandinista government. By late 80s, U.S becomes concerned about increasing numbers of Soviet and Cuban advisers in Nicaragua with allegations that Nicaragua were supplying arms to leftist rebels in El Salvador.
1981 – Ronald Reagan comes to power and Nicaragua, like many other central American countries, gets sucked into the Cold War. Former Guardia Nacional soldiers form a military group known as the Contras were believed to have been funded by the U.S, threatening invasion of Nicaragua from Honduras. Saninista respond by building an army of 95,000 supported by Soviet and Cuban aid.
1984 – U.S covert operations revealed publicly, resulting in a judgement against the U.S by the international court of justice.
1985 – U.S puts a trade embargo on Nicaragua, persuading other countries to do the same, crippling the economy. U.S congress reject further aid to the Contras, however Regan secretly continued funding them by illegally selling weapons to Iran and diverted proceeds to the Contra. When details were leaked the infamous Iran-Contra affair blew up.
1990 – With the economy in a desperate position, the population became disillusioned with the Sandinsta revolution and opposing party (UNO) backed by the U.S came to power after the ill-fated election of 1990.
Current Political situation – after 16 years in opposition and the usual amount of corruption the FSLN (sadinista) returned to political power in 2007. With some dubious dealings with Chavez and historical enemies like the Catholic church and big business (I.e the U.S) things are still somewhat uncertain in Nicaragua with many people wondering if all the revolutionary hype has any substance at all.

Only time will tell how this story will play out and whether the amount of bloodshed was all worth while…provided U.S foreign policy and internal corruption doesn’t play a hand this country may finally do right by its people and sustain a diversified economy where all Nicaraguans can live in prosperity and safety.

Leon is surrounded by several volcanos which provided a beautiful back drop for this city which as you can see below has some beautiful old buildings.

I leave this country an Leon with fond memories and a true respect for the local man on the street who has fought so hard for things we simply take for granted.

Isla de Ometepe

After spending some of the most chilled out days on the Islas Solentiname, the day had finally come to continue on with our travels across the lake to our next stop, Isla de Ometepe.

It was an early 6am departure back to San Carlos to catch the afternoon ferry which would take us over 9 hours to cross the width of the lake. Thankfully we had enough time to stuff our faces on not just one breakfast but two, at our favourite food joint before boarding.

We had expected that the slow-moving ferry wasn’t going to be one of the most comfortable experiences, but to our surprise, it was to be one of the highlights of our stay in Nicaragua. Having scored some comfy deck chairs we spent the day tanning on the top deck enjoying a good read.

Given the number of beautiful sunsets we have seen, I hadn’t expected to be impressed by one ever again. Yet again this ‘transit day’ was full of surprises, with a perfect uninterrupted sphere being swallowed by the sea against the backdrop of a fiery mist.

After falling asleep under the stars and a moon that was equally as stunning as the sun set, we were woken to the smashing of the waves against the boat as we approached the Isla de Ometepe at about midnight.

Arriving by moonlight just made this place even more magical. The port was a hive of activity with locals loading thousands of bananas, no doubt to be sold at the ferries next stop, Granada.

With only a handful of fellow gringos on board this felt like a truly authentic experience, made even more special by the ride we managed to score to the capital of the Isla, Altagracia; an open top jeep with only standing spaces to make way for the crates of cheese imported from the mainland.

Speeding through the thick jungle of endless banana plantations, with wind through my now quite feminine hair, and the most perfectly formed moonlit outline of an imposing volcano ahead, I could see why the Aztecs called this place the Promised Land.

You can’t help but marvel in the sight of this place; twin volcanic peaks seem to just rise out of the lake, creating the most fertile volcanic soil with rich black beaches.

Days were spent roaming around the island on bikes along the one road that circles the perimeter of the larger of the two volcanos, Conception, which is still active.

Given that the waters are not the best for swimming in thanks to the threat of the famous Bull sharks in these waters, we took refuge in a natural pool called La Presa Ojo de Agua.

I can’t begin to explain how amazing it was to swim in this crystal clear, natural water with jungle all around. As well as sharing this place with all the nature we also stumbled across Father Christmas! Obviously taking some time out from Lap land in this tropical paradise.

There isn’t a whole lot to do of an evening, irrespective of what part of the island you stay in. We spent most evenings wandering around grabbing a bite to eat, trying to avoid the local transvestite who for some apparent reason took a liking to me…with my hair as it is right now the worrying thing is that might have thought I was one of them!

The town of Moyogalpa on the eastern side is home to a fairly large contingent of retired alcoholic expats counting down their last days here, no doubt keeping the trannies busy! This part if town really did feel more like Thailand than Nicaragua.

Cock fighting is also popular here, adding to the felling that you are in Thailand. We unfortunately saw a training game whilst taking a stroll on the beach…not really my cup of tea to be honest!

Islas Solentiname

This archipelago in the southern part of Largo de Nicaragua is most definitely ‘off the beaten track’, with thousands of backpackers simply sailing right past it on their way to Granada or Ometepe. It’s not surprising that these islands aren’t really on many people’s radar, since they were quite literally forgotten about for over 500 years; only appearing on maps since the 60’s and nearly destroyed in a single day during a revolution that saw the third community being burnt to the ground, forcing them to leave only to return in the 60s.

The lake in which these islands sit in is a wonder in itself; the largest fresh water lake in Central America at over 3000 sq miles it is the 9th largest in the Americas, feeling more like an ocean than a lake.

The lake drains into the Caribbean via the Rio San Juan and has had an interesting history with pirates using it as a connection to Granada, which in those times was growing wealthier by the year. It was also a route that the Aztec traders had been using since the 13th century, so it should come as no surprise to hear that it also became strategically important to the U.S around the turn of the last century for the very same reasons.

Before construction of the Panama Canal, plans were made to take advantage of an already existing route connecting the Caribbean to the Pacific (across the lake) and build an inter-oceanic canal; the Nicaragua Canal, but the Panama Canal was built instead.

In order to quell competition with the Panama Canal, the U.S. secured all rights to a canal along this route in the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty of 1916. Being so connected with the U.S (as are both Panama and Costa Rica) I was surprised with how different Nicaragua has felt, mainly because of the complete lack of American influence and the strong national identity its people have.

Arriving at the Islas Solentiname, I soon realised that there was a huge gaping hole in my knowledge regarding Nicaragua’s modern history; namely its revolution against the U.S backed dictatorship of the Somoza family in the 70’s which due to its success led to the termination of this treaty and so the overbearing influence the U.S can have.

This particular period in this country’s history has captivated me, so much so that I intend on doing an entirely separate post on it. What I will mention now however, is that a key figure in this revolution was a former priest called Ernesto Cardenal.

Born in Granada, Ernesto was a keen poet, sculptor and theologian that turned from being a Trappist monk committed to non violence, to a fully fledge supporter of the revolution led by a group known as the Sandinista who appointed him as the countries minister of culture following their rise to power. Unsurprisingly he was chastised, publicly, by Pope John Paul II in 1983.

Ernesto is somewhat of a legend in these parts, since he really founded the all but forgotten community here on the islands. He came to Solentiname in the late 60s to find an impoverished and poorly educated community, helping to erect their first simple adobe church where he gave mass. Throughout his life, Ernesto published countless poems and books in addition to an entire Gospel, known as the Gospel of Solentiname which was made up of interpretations of the Bible by the local community through their own eyes and lives; having allowed them to take centre stage during mass. In addition to educating the community he helped to launch Nicaragua’s art movement after receiving an elaborately decorated shell from a grateful islander and seeing the potential of the people.

Soon, entire families worked together as a community painting and sculpting, producing some fine works of art that really do capture this tropical paradise. These days their works are internationally recognised. We were fortunate enough to see hundreds of paintings whilst on the island, with local women painting on their front porches.

We spent the first couple of days on the smaller, less inhabited Isla San Fernando, that has only a handful of families living on it. The only places to eat where either in the only restaurant on the island or a local woman’s house which turned into a shop come dinner.

With supplies relatively scarce, you had to order your food way in advance; to allow for the local people to cater for you. Given that we arrived in the late afternoon unaware of this situation, as well as the fact that most of the women on the island were in San Carlos shopping for weekly supplies, we were left hungry our first night, having to make do with crackers and tin tuna for dinner.

Thankfully the next day everybody on the island knew that the only two grinos there would need to eat!

We stayed in a very basic but but wonderful shack right on the lake.

Given that there is nothing to do apart from visiting a small museum and art gallery (which can be done in an hour) I used the time to revive my A Level in Design & Technology and begin drawing up some designs for our renovation project in Berlin.

I only really left the desk to go to the toilet and grab some food, although I would be lying if I said that this was only because I was too engrossed in my work. Whilst a beautiful place, it was overrun with wildlife. In normal circumstances this wouldn’t bother me since most of the time the dangerous creepy crawlies tend to stay away from well trodden paths. Given the lack if human activity on this islands for hundreds of years, you quite literally come into contact with snakes, scorpions, tarantula, and huge iguanas!

…and that’s not to mention the thousands of toads that engulf the only path at night! You may be laughing at what a pussy I may sound like at the moment, but trust me if you were walking in the pitch back with only a torch as a light, with the images of the above encounters engrained in your mind, you too would have screamed like a girl when feeling something move over your foot!

On the flip side we did see some beautiful creatures that made being on edge most of the time worthwhile.

Our final couple of days were spent on the larger island, Mancarron. Although not as wild as San Fernando it is equally as pretty with more refined housing.

We got to see the new church that was built by the community in the 70s as well as Ernesto’s house on the top of the hill.

Unfortunately he was not there since he spends most of his time in the capital these days. We did however spend pretty much two days in the local library which was full of the most interesting books, including an entire collection by the man himself.

Given he was a Marxist and revolutionary, you can imagine the type of books on offer here. With this library as the community’s only source of literature and learning, the people here have a slightly different outlook on life that I find hard to explain in words.

The time spent here has most certainly had a profound effect on me, making me even more excited about my impending visit to Cuba.

Costa Rica En route to Nicaragua

Since we’ve already had enough exposure to surfer dudes and dudettes to last a life time, we decided to give Costa Rica a complete miss given that the majority of this sub-culture tend to head along the coast from Bocas via Costa Rica to ultimately get to Cancun.

We literally drove straight through the country in a day, only really touching its lands for the border crossings. We have done some mammoth bus journeys, covering vast distances in South America and thought that this relatively short distance would be done in no time.

The one thing we didn’t quite count on was the antiquated system used at the border crossings! We crossed the border at a small town in the middle of the jungle which required us to leave the bus to stand in line with what seemed to be just about every other gringo in the country.

If the mid-day heat wasn’t enough to kill me, listening to the amount of shit being discussed both in front and behind by exactly the surfer types I had been attempting to avoid, nearly sent me over the edge. After 2 hours in the second of three separate queues, we had made it to the front of a kiosk type window with one official actually ‘working’ and everyone else chatting. Taking nearly 15 minutes to type in a few letters in his computer, the long-awaited stamp was in and we were free to walk across the border, over a bridge that has seen better days.

Of course once on the other side there was yet another queue to go through Costa Rican immigration. It was the first time I had been thankful that the Americans have left such a stamp on a country, since this was an organised and efficient immigration office with people actually working. The only problem was them being too good at their job and giving us trouble since we had no documents showing our flight out of the country. After explaining that we didn’t even want to stay in their expensive, KFC ridden country, but simply wanted to drive through, we were allowed in with a mere 3 day visa.

With a number of other minor set backs, we arrived in Los Chiles (the next border crossing) at 10pm, forcing us to spend the night in a sleazy cheap hostel that in addition to being a one hour motel, had a drainage pipe running past the window that my bed just happened to be beneath. The next morning we had to wait until 1pm for our “colectivo” boat which would to take us across the border through dense jungle along the Rio San Juan to our first stop in Nicaragua, San Carlos.

Having dealt with all the shit of yesterday’s border crossing, this whole experience couldn’t have been more pleasant. For starters, we managed to score free WIFI in a cafe for the morning which allowed for some long overdue admin; resulting in the confirmation that we would be able to start our renovation project in Berlin a lot sooner than expected; although this was good news, it does mean that we would now only have about a week in London to catch up with friends before heading out to Berlin 😦

Once on board the local collective boat, we knew we had made the right choice to wait around, since we were the only gringos on the thing; always a sign that you have managed to do as the locals do, which is very often the cheapest option. The boat ride lasted a good 2 hours, passing through some dense jungle on either side of the river, providing some great wildlife watching (monkeys, kingfishers, cormorants, eagles as well as a whole bunch of other birds I wouldn’t possibly be able to name). We too were subjects, since many of the locals seemed to stare at us in amazement, particularly two girls that clearly took a liking to us…if only they knew!

We arrived just as our connecting ferry (one of only two that leave every week) to the Archipelago de Solentiname was leaving! Given our refusal to take tourist specific transport, we were quite literally stranded in San Carlos for 3 nights.

The Lonely Planet describes San Carlos “as less of a tourist destination and more a place to wait for your ship to come in.” Whilst you couldn’t disagree with the comment given that there is pretty much nothing to do here, we actually had a really enjoyable stay.

San Carlos is an archetypal port town, with hard drinking sailors, commercial fishers and herds of people in transit. Since most gringos are only there for a couple of hours, they very rarely leave the lakefront. Given that we were there for a considerable amount of time (by usual standards) we obviously walked around the entire town (multiple times) and began integrating into the community a lot more than usual. Our integration really had a lot to do with the amount of food we consumed over the three days! Andres particular love affair with the local desayuno, which is their typical breakfast, earned him a small following since he seemed to eat it three times a day!

Whilst we didn’t make any life long friends, we did become very fond of the owners of the three establishments we spent most of our time in; the Internet cafe, the restaurant, run by father and son duo ( Carlos Senior and Carlos junior) as well as the mother and daughter duo who ran a nightly Fritanga, which is basically a make shift BBQ on the street just outside their house. These two were a hilarious team that reminded me of the ‘Two Fat ladies’, Nicaraguan style.

Nicaragua is dirt cheap; we have been living very comfortably for less than £30 a day for the both of us, eating three substantial meals a day, accommodation with cable TV and hours upon hours of Internet time. Ironically, although our hostel had cable TV and free WIFI, we were forced to learn how to live with only bucket showers…trust me after a while this just became too much to handle…you never quite feel clean.

Although cheap by Western standards, the majority of people here are very poor, with entire families often living in self-made wooden shacks with little more than a room, bed and multiple rocking chairs where people tend to just sit all day long. There is however, a strong sense of community here with church playing an important role in society. What I did find quite strange was the number of different types of churches around, there is everything from Christian to Evangelical as well as a strong Jehovah community which to my mind is more of a cult than a religion.

After watching the town go by for hours at a time, it finally dawned on me that all the old Americans I had seen walking around in groups of three, dressed in chinos and shirts were not tourists but missionaries; helping to explain all the churches.

Whilst I am sure that they do some good in such poor countries, I can’t help but think there is somewhat of a sinister hidden agenda. Particularly when you come across one of the locals, who at first simply appears to be interested in speaking with a foreigner; one would think to open ones mind to what lies outside their borders. Only to realise that they are not in the slightest bit interested in what the world has to offer but instead are only concerned with how they can convert you to their ignorant and narrow-minded beliefs.

The one good thing I can say about these missionaries is that they have clearly donated a lot of clothing over the years. Luckily for us it is then sold on in second-hand stores that can rival the best vintage shops found in London – for a fraction of the price! If our backpacks weren’t already massively overweight they most definitely are now.