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Due South – 3 Days in Costa Rica with some time to reflect.

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When you are on a jungle clad volcano island in the middle of a lake so big that you feel like you are at sea (Lake Nicaragua is so big in fact that at some points you can’t see the shores of the mainland and also it has freshwater sharks!), staying at a cheap eco-lodge that has a pizza night three times a week, with a price tag of $14 a night for a private cabin, it is very hard to leave of your own accord (Smug alert).  But alas, we had a flight booked so we had decided to journey from Ometepe to Liberia, just across the border in Costa Rica in a day.

A bus to the town of Moyogalpa, 29 km away from Santa Cruz managed to take 2.15 hours, standing all of the way of course.  A creakier and rockier lancha than our journey to the island with seats raided from a chicken bus, ferried us back to the mainland in 1.5 hours, where four of us crammed into a cab to Rivas.  There we were to get our last chicken bus in Central America to the border of Peñas Blancas.  Not really feeling misty-eyed about saying goodbye to this mode of transport yet as this last bus was a killer.  The Sunday service to the border took 50 minutes and was crammed full as we squeezed in the back, but then more got on, cramming me against the reggaeton speaker, door latch and a sweaty/obese/intoxicated/bad tempered/smelly specimen who was so drunk he kept dropping his bootleg porno DVD’s on the floor.  I noticed he squirrelled them away quickly enough when he met his wife at the other end!  The border was slightly confusing, but safe and relatively hassle free, we soon found our way crossing into our 7th country.  The whole journey cost us $8.50 each in total.

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Costa Rica is unreasonably expensive.  We only had three days there in one place and felt ‘robbed’ every time we bought something.  It’s not just us comparing prices from Central America and being stingy backpackers.  The prices are almost a match for the UK’s when in the supermarket buying basic food stuffs.  It also didn’t help matters that we stayed in a hostel that was run by a psychologist who had a distinct lack of people skills and proceeded to rub me up the wrong way at every available opportunity.  This added to my general dislike for the country.  Avoid.

Liberia International Airport is a fantastically clean and shiny new place that is basically a place to ship the sunburnt Yanks back home by Delta, JetBlue, United and American Airlines.  It’s a final shake-down spot.  $29 each to leave the country is the first little slap in the face until of course you get to the other side.  Two beers cost us the best part of $20. Now these were not fine imported Belgian beer or some kind of locally produced draught ale. These were two tins of $1 local piss water poured into plastic mugs.  A bag of Doritos and a bottle of water would have set us back $19 but we couldn’t bring ourselves to spend that.  Avoid also!

How much?

How much?

But why Rich?  Why didn’t you do the San Blas island tour from Panama straight to Cartagena?  Why fly from a country you didn’t plan on going to, to another country you didn’t plan on going to?

Three reasons.  Firstly, money!  The cheapest flight from Central America to South America that we found was Liberia to Quito at around $400 each which is equal to/cheaper than some of the boats.  Secondly, I get terribly sea sick, and four days open water sailing just sounds awful.  Third reason: why not?!  Ecuador sounds awesome!

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On board the tiny plane bound for San Salvador it felt strange to be moving somewhere without someone trying to sell me mango strips, parasite medication or duct tape from the aisle.  The only thing coming from there was a free sandwich!   It did give me a chance to see six weeks of hard work on chicken buses being undone in 90 minutes as we flew along the coast back to El Salvador.  From the plane I could see the two peaks of Ometepe clearly, then following north to the rest of Nicaragua’s line of volcanoes to the Golfo de Fonseca.  Then, El Salvador’s Volcan San Miguel was clearly visible and soon, we were on the ground, eating a pupusa in the airport terminal.

If you squint, you can see the peaks of Ometepe

If you squint, you can see the peaks of Ometepe

The flight to Quito was painless and is the only flight I have been on in a long time where the majority of passengers clapped on touchdown.  Local time was around 1am when we walked through to the terminal and we were soon in a taxi bound for Quito’s Old Town, just shy of an hour away.  The Secret Garden Hostal, which is neither secret nor has a garden was our destination.  We dumped our bags then summited the 5 flights of stairs to the terrace where the effects of being 2850m high started to take their toll.  Regardless, we had made it.  Our first sight of South America was indeed an unforgettable one.  Quito’s Old Town was lit up in front of us, seeming to climb the mountains behind it.  To our left stood the Panecillo statue shrouded in the creeping fog and to the right the Basilica Cathedral stuck out in all of its gothic glory.  It is one helluva fine spot.

The view of Quito Old Town from our lodgings on the first morning.

The view of Quito Old Town from our lodgings on the first morning.

4 months down and we have crossed through 7 countries in North and Central America successfully and without incident.  That is to say, no physical incident; having three cards cloned and accounts emptied was indeed an incident, but one that was relatively painless due to the helpfulness of the UK banks.

Mexico and Central America has been an incredible journey for the both of us.  We have travelled from the border of Tijuana all the way to Costa Rica by bus and boat.  Total time spent travelling of 213.5 hours.  That’s just a few hours short of 9 days.  I could reel off more facts and figures, but you get the gist and I don’t want to reveal just how truly geeky I have been about recording stuff just yet.  A long bloody time basically.  However, my point is, is that all modes of transport have been public (with the exception of Guatemala where we used the tourist shuttles, it would have been silly not too due to price and convenience) and they have all been safe.  Pretty stressful and hot at times, but still safe!  No issues to report, with the exception of course of one stolen baseball cap in Mexico, which I am still not over.

^^Our journey so far through North and Central America^^

There is much fear mongering by the US which rolls over the pond to the UK, warning us not to visit these places.  I know that when you log onto some world news site, you are bound to see a news story about some kind of Mexican cartel war, or possibly a kind of political protest at a Guatemalan border, or maybe the BBC deciding what the most dangerous place outside of a war zone today.  Is it Honduras or El Salvador now?   It could even be some kind of natural disaster like the common deadly hurricanes that relentlessly battered Mexico’s west coast last year or even Volcan San Miguel in El Salvador blowing its unpredictable top.  These things are all true.  But…see above.  No problems.  The closest I have come to confrontation with anyone was a local ‘borracho’ in El Salvador who took a fancy to my Zippo lighter.  Apart from that, the majority of encounters with locals have been pleasant ones.  Always keen to help, and in the more rural parts of the less travelled areas we ventured in, mainly curious.  The only area that we faced anything other than friendly (but still, no worse that uninterested really) was Honduras, but they’ve got bigger problems to worry about than the gringo backpacker tourist trade.

Yes there ARE drug cartels in Mexico, but you would have to be extremely unlucky or a drug dealer to ever meet any of them and then have them want to kill you.  There are protests every week somewhere in Central America, but it’s got nothing to do with us and they are doing it for a good reason, mostly.  San Pedro Sula in Honduras is an extremely dangerous place as are the eastern barrios of San Salvador in El Salvador.  But you wouldn’t go walking through the middle of high rise housing estate in Hackney or a housing project in Baltimore in the middle of the night using your new iPad as a camera, so why do it here? (If you did of course, you deserve everything you get) The natural disasters…yeah, I’ve got no argument with that one.  If it happens while you’re there, you’re in trouble.  Same goes for wildlife.  Lots of nasty stuff over there.

My point is, if it happens, it happens. If you’re thinking about going to any of the places we have visited and are worried about the US state department/FCO’s warnings, then take my advice instead. Wing it!  That’s what we did and we had an amazing four months and came through it in one piece with incredible memories.  Something just as bad can happen to you at home, so you might as well be in the sun when it does right?

Anyway, roll on Ecuador and the rest of South America.

Thanks for reading!

Any questions about anywhere we have been, please feel free to email us.

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Crossing through the Golfo de Fonseca to Nicaragua, the gritty beauty of Leon and the tiresome gringo streets of Granada.

Be safe - Buckle up - A sticker on the front, probably from the days before it trundled along the coast of El Salvador

Be safe – Buckle up – A sticker on the front, probably from the days before it trundled along the coast of El Salvador

It’s time to leave the beach.  Not because we want to you understand, but because all good things must come to an end.  Also we have a boat booked to cross the Golfo de Fonseca into Nicaragua the next day with Ruta del Golfo (but it is cheaper to do it through Tortuga Verde in El Cuco if you get there, and probably a much better experience before!).  After some hard farewells, we take a bus back to La Libertad, then back into San Salvador where then get a #304 all the way to La Union.  The Journey takes 7 hours, not tough by any means, but it is sad to see the rest of El Salvador zip past us; through the sun kissed fields of the east along the Pan-American Highway.  Views at all times framed with fierce looking volcanoes, including the recently erupted and still smoking San Miguel.

Laters El Salvador!

“Business or pleasure sir?”  I am asked this by an undercover store detective (not very undercover with gun and radio) whilst I browse the selection of sun screen at a supermarket in the port town of La Union.  An ominous tone accompanies the irrelevant question asked by this plastic official whose sole purpose was, I assume, to try and intimidate me for no good reason.  He then follows us from a distance and inserts himself into a conversation Ollie and I are having about cheese and ham, whilst his uniformed collegue (also with gun) looms further up the aisle, partially hidden by a stack of Doritos.  Sums up the feeling of suspicion we encountered in this shady/sketchy port town.  We retreat to our ‘hotel’ (that we assume is usually charged by the hour, complete with wipe clean faux-leather mattress and foul smelling bathroom) where we drink our beers and eat cream cheese sandwiches in the driveway, whilst wishing the night away.  La Union does not have the charm of the rest of El Salvador, but we were determined not to let that be our last memory of this enchanting little country.

Want the pictures without the waffle? Click here

La Union Migration

Bright and early we find the migration office at the port attached to the police station (the local ‘bobby’ we asked didn’t know it existed by the way) where we met our man Mario, who got us stamped out of El Salvador and then led us to the ‘waters-edge’.  There was no water…the tide was out, but as we pondered the fate of our footwear, a huge man showed up pulling a cart and instructed us all to climb aboard so he could pull us through the sludge-filled water towards our boat.  My aversion to being carted around like a prince was put to one side as I realised that this was how this guy makes his living, so we obliged…weird!

Being carted to the lancha through the shallows - Odd

Being carted to the lancha through the shallows – Odd

The Golfo de Fonseca is a body of water that is partially claimed by El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, which has been responsible for many disagreements between these friendly neighbours in the past.  The gulf is dotted with a variety of volcanic islands, some larger than others, but all captivatingly beautiful.  One of the islands is rumoured to be where Sir Frances Drake buried some gold and another (I am told) has locals with blonde hair and blue eyes who are descendants of pirates who used to sail these waters. We zip through these waters for 2 hours and before we know it, we are wading through the shallows onto Nicaraguan soil.

First view of the Gulf de Fronseca

One of the Islands of the Gulf

It wasn't as calm as this the whole way

We get stamped into the country in a small dirty building just up from the shore and then we pile into the back of a Jeep bound for León along with  passengers from another boat who came via Tortuga Verde.  I mention this place again, in the hope that it comes up in a google search about Ruta del Golfo.  We paid $100 each for the same service that cost a total of $55 for other passengers who were offered our same transport ride at a cut down price.  We also didn’t get our stop on an island as we paid for!  Pissed off, does not begin to describe it!

The bumpy road takes us back into civilization and into León in around 2.5 hours where we find lodgings at the tranquil Colibri Hostal.   To our surprise we find Will, Sarah and Holly from the beach staying there as well, so we head out with some others to some live salsa and several mojitos in at the Via Via which is filled with locals and backpackers alike.

Leon es Culture

Another country, another colonial city.  León is a fully functioning colonial city; much Like Santa Ana in El Salvador, except this has a larger expat community and more appealing vibe in general.  A history of rebellion runs through Nicaragua so we dive straight into the city to see what we can learn about the Sandinista (FSLN) movement at the Heroes and Martyrs gallery.  A small room, partially used as a diabetes clinic, houses boards filled with pictures of rebels who lost their lives for León during the fighting, many of which have the stories of how they gave their lives.

Mural for the 4 students who lost their lives in 1959

Mural for the 4 students who lost their lives in 1959

Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs

Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs

We then move onto the Parque Central and the UNESCO site of ‘Real e Insigne Basilica’ Cathedral which is the largest in Central America.  Its enormous dirty white façade casts a shadow in which locals sit and chat next to a memorial for the heroes and martyrs.  After this we decided we needed more culture so headed to Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián.  The cool air con and peaceful setting was just a cheeky bonus and sweet relief from the oppressive heat of the city streets.  The collection ranged from modern installations, religious portraits, a couple of Picasso sketches and a huge collection of modern Latin American paintings.  A belly full of culture was all we had digested so we sought out a French bakery for some sustenance.

Whaaa

Real e Insigne Basilica Cathedral

Real e Insigne Basilica Cathedral

Locals seeking shade

Locals seeking shade

Something unusual on a lot of corners in Leon

Titled 'The Burden' - 10 points to anyone who can tell us who the two jokers are.  We all know whos getting a piggy back - Found in a little lace called 'casa de culture'

Titled ‘The Burden’ – 10 points to anyone who can tell us who the two jokers are. We all know whos getting a piggy back – Found in a little lace called ‘casa de culture’

]

Cheeky snap of some abstract art from Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián

Cheeky snap of some abstract art from Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián

Around the Catedral

Some people don’t get on with this city, but I, someone who dislikes cities in general, found it homely.  I enjoy the juxtaposition of modern day life working around crumbling old churches that peek out above the cobbled red-roofed colouful buildings.  The local ways of life do not seem to have altered too much too accommodate tourism.  It’s a bit grubby, a bit hectic, but it feels safe.  I like it there!

Mural on bb court

The next day, we head for the irritable little Volcano of Cerro Negro with the intention of chucking ourselves down it on speed on a piece of wood.  The volcano is the youngest in Central America, very active and is way overdue an eruption.    The sport of Volcano Boarding was invented by an Australian who tried to snowboard down it, but ended up melting his board. It is a dark, hot and steamy bastard.  A slow hike to the top took an hour when carrying large wooden boards and jumpsuits, but was relatively easy.  Going down takes about 45 seconds.  The record being 92kph, Ollie trounced us by getting 62 kph, with me falling behind at 53kph and Will with a gentleman’s 23kph.  I did fall off mine at the end and manage to fill my eyes with grit and smash my camera.  It hurt.  But only for a short while.  There were a few backpackers walking around town with very visible injuries that I assume are from activities on volcanoes.  An interesting day, topped off with our introduction to American Football and us losing $5 on the Superbowl.  Damn Seahawks!

Ollie sporting the latest in Volcano boarding gear

Ollie sporting the latest in Volcano boarding gear

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In case of eruption...erm, this way!

In case of eruption…erm, this way!

Some of the nearby volcanoes that line through the country visible from the top

Some of the nearby volcanoes that line through the country visible from the top

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For some perspective as to how steep that is, the little orange dot at the bottom is the truck

For some perspective as to how steep that is, the little orange dot at the bottom is the truck

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Will ready!

Will ready!

No pictures of our own as i smashed my camera.  This one if from the bigfoot guide.  Borrowed from the FB page.  Nice shot though!

No pictures of our own as I smashed my camera. This one if from the bigfoot guide from that day. Borrowed from the FB page. Nice shot though!

It was time to make a move to Granada and see what all the fuss was about!  We were aware that it is the main tourism hub for Nicaragua, and being the oldest colonial city in the Americas dating back to 1524, would offer much in the way of architecture.   Two buses, changing at Managua, took us into the market area around the main Parque Central on a blazing hot afternoon.

Horse drawn carts of Granada

Horse drawn carts of Granada

My personal opinion on Granada is that I don’t like it.  I just don’t, sorry.  It is indeed one of the more picturesque colonial cities.  Its buildings are magnificently restored around the Parque Central, leading to Calle la Calzada (gringo street), with its endless supply of expensive (for gypsies like us) restaurants leading past the TWO Irish bars down to the shores of Lake Nicaragua.  Milling around are hundreds of tourists, all snapping away at the fronts of the handsomely restored expensive restaurants and privately owned holiday homes.  It is just not my thing.  It’s pretty yes, but it’s too busy and too plastic.  Take it for what it is and you will enjoy it.  Come expecting a snap of rustic colonial charm, you won’t find much.  The local market two blocks from the square was a swift remedy for the hordes of tourists swarming through the main square.  But, like I have said, it was pretty, so here are some pretty pictures of it.

Beutifully restored colonial stuff everywhere

Beutifully restored colonial stuff everywhere

A goat, a bike, and a Canadian

A goat, a bike, and a Canadian

Further down Gringo street

Rubén Darío - And some other moody peops

Rubén Darío – And some other moody peops

Cordoba - The citys founder and the currencys namesake

Cordoba – The citys founder and the currencys namesake

Granada street

Granada street

Ok, it is actually quite nice

Ok, it is actually quite nice

Ron delivery

Ron delivery

For all its faults, we met some great people there and had a couple of nice meals (yes we went to the Irish bars, you can’t really avoid it, but I did have fish and chips!).   One of the days we spent at Lake Apoyo which is a pretty crater lake near to the city, but again, this is set up for tourism where we found ourselves shuttled to a lake side hostel, and then shuttled back.  Pretty scenery, but not much wiggle room to explore in the time given.

Lake Apoyo- Sorry about the nipple shot

Lake Apoyo- Sorry about the nipple shot

Feeling the need to escape, we decided to head over Lake Nicaragua to the shores of Isla de Ometepe in search of a quiet spot.

Thanks for reading if you have managed to wade through it!  If you ant the full photo gallery, click here


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Playa El Zonte – A warning to all travellers!

Playa El Zonte

Playa El Zonte

“I’m pretty sure all we need is a couple of days there, you know, just to say that we have seen the legendary coast of El Salvador.  Honestly, I don’t think it can be that great, I mean, we don’t even surf right?  That is roughly what I said to Ols when we decided to head for Playa El Zonte on the western shores of El Salvador.

We left Juayua early and took part in a bus epic through the capital city of San Salvador, not surprisingly, the journey was long and there were four buses. I’m not going to talk about it.   For anyone who wants to bus from Juayua to the coast, it can be done very easily by taking the #249 to Sonsonate and another bus (I forget the number, but your hostal can tell you) direct to Zonte, all the way along to La Libertad. Note, the bus only goes once a day at around 3pm from Sonsonate.  We chose the hard way as we had a tedious errand to run.

Just want some pretty pictures?  Click here! 

Finally we got dropped off to at the side of a random road, and walked down a dirt track without signs in the faith that it was in the direction of the sea.  Soon, we were on one of the most impressive stretches of beach I have ever seen.  To our left lay a lagoon framed with palm trees and rickety looking shacks and to our right an expansive windswept beach that was pretty much empty.  We had obviously come the wrong way, but we were on a beach, so we kept walking, the wrong way, with packs, along the sea front until we find out we have to cross the lagoon to get to our desired lodgings.  We wade through and find ‘the town’ and the hostal of Esencia Nativa, along with a couple of well-earned and frosty cold Pilsners.

Arriving at the beach...boots n' all

Arriving at the beach…boots n’ all

Lagoon out let that divides Zonte beach

Lagoon outlet that divides Zonte beach

“I know a great place for sunset, follow me!” An invitation from another guest that we decline by telling her we want to check out ‘the town’.  She knowingly smirked and tottered off along down the beach.  After 2 minutes, we had seen the town of El Zonte, which consists of three small comedors, two shops well stocked in crisps, smokes and water, and a couple of hostals.  We decided to find the sunset straight away at Olas Permanentes along the front.  Wow…

Checking out the town

Checking out the town

Like you would try and cycle through there!

Black (greyish) sand sunset

Black (greyish) sand sunset

Zonte Sunset

We returned in the dark, to find Rob and Will who we met briefly in Tacuba, who had also just arrived.  After a few beers and some damn fine pizza at the hostal we made a plan to go and surf in the morning.  They had surfed more than I had.  I have never surfed.  They had a couple of experiences between them, and some confidence everything will be ok.  Teco, the local longboard legend rented us some boards the next morning and we headed into the surf.  Let’s just say I have a new found respect for surfers. I was awful and came away with many cuts and scrapes from stupidly spending most of my time in the rocky area.  Board rash is an evil thing!   Ollie gave it a good go in the evening, but had a similar experience to me.  Good fun, and we did the same the day after, but we conceded our surfing careers would end there for a while. Like looking at volcanos rather than summiting them, watching surfers is much more entertaining than giving it a go yourself.

Teco's place

ToNar

Checking out the damage

Checking out the damage

A nervous giggle

A nervous giggle

Ollie showing us how its not done

Ollie showing us how its not done

Success...ish

Two days effortlessly turned into five and then melted away to ten.  The guys are good people (even though Rob is from Sidcup) and we spent plenty of time collectively doing not much apart from ping-pong, cards, frisbee and drinking.  Serious surfers Josh and Michelle joined us when they were not ripping it up out in the surf.  It became an easy routine.  Breakfast at Teco’s for $3 each while we watched the surfers was almost compulsory on a daily basis.  Beers at the sunset bar was a given.  Bottles of Flor de Caña rum were imbibed alarmingly rapidly between us over pizza some nights that resulted in ill-advised acrobatics and questionable dance moves.  Joined by some more fellow Brits, Sarah and Glen, we had some great nights.

This is what rum makes you do

This is what rum makes you do

A walking advert...I know

El Zonte's eastern beach

El Zonte’s eastern beach

Looking out from the cave

Looking out from the cave

Kids fish with wire attached to wood while dad casts his line out

Kids fish with wire attached to wood while dad casts his line out

 

Coffee at Teco's watching the point break surfers

Coffee at Teco’s watching the point break surfers

The need for cash took us to the ‘party town’ of El Tunco one day, where many travelers stay a while and learn to surf in the day and drink hard by night.  We had to leave by 6pm (which was unfortunately when the craft beer house opened its doors) as the last bus back along the front ran at that time.  Chicken buses are named so because people pack onto them like battery farm chickens.  There is also a strong possibility that you will be taking your journey along with some actual chickens (twice so far for us).  This bus offered both, and we had to squeeze on at the front, where some were hanging out the door and I nearly in the drivers lap.

Playa El Tunco

Playa El Tunco

The Tunco rock...could be a beers advert really!

The Tunco rock…could be a beer advert really!

On recommendation we headed west to the end of the beach and up a dark pathway then onto the coastal road for five minutes until we came found a great little restaurant run by Aldo and his wife.  There is no name yet, but ‘Cuidemos El Agua’ is painted on the front.  Lobster was on offer at $10 a throw as well as the fishy option of ‘Sopa de Mariscada’ which had so much fishy goodness in it, it was overflowing.  Aldo has only just opened and they serve up some fine cuisine (the same fare as where his wife works at a fancy hotel up the road, but for cut down prices) along with welcoming service.  Not having a name for the place yet, he is debating whether to call it ‘Carisa Café’ after his daughter or ‘Tube Café’ after his love for surfing.  Aldo is soon to be offering accommodation and also runs some tours.  He is top bloke and passionate about his business.  On our second visit and last meal in Zonte he arranged for a cake to be taxied in from La Libertad for the birthday girl at Will’s request.  Support this guy’s business if you go there.  Make the effort.  It’s worth it just for the nighttime walk along the beach back to your lodgings while you dodge crabs and waves under the stars.

Farewell dinner at Aldos restaurant

We are not ‘beach people’, but we found it hard to leave.  You could spend months along this stretch of coastline and not get a lot else done.  Ollie partook in the surfer geared yoga some days while I got to know some hammocks better.  One day, spotting whales breaching the surface just past the surf was a special moment that I won’t forget soon.

hoponthegootfoot

 

Surfs up

 

Rock pools of El Zonte

 

I've taken to wearing a bandana...don't judge me too harshly

I’ve taken to wearing a bandana…don’t judge me too harshly

Zonte point break

Zonte point break

So, take heed of this warning.  El Zonte is not conducive to a productive travel experience!  Luckily (or unluckily as we felt) we had a boat booked to Nicaragua, so had to leave….

Playa El Zonte

Playa El Zonte

Thanks for reading.For the full photo gallery, click here