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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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Lake Yojoa and Copán Ruins – A handsome lake with some top beer, the last of the Mayan ruins and some pretty hard travelling.

Yojoa Canal

An early morning ferry ride took us away from Roatán and back to La Ceiba, where we stayed no longer than required and headed for a local bus to a town called La Guama.  We then changed onto a chicken bus bound for Peña Blanca.  It’s a small market town near Lago de Yojoa, our third stop in Honduras.  It was about a 9 hour journey and certainly not the worst so far.

The bus wasn't this bad...

The bus wasn’t this bad…

To skip straight to the full photo gallery, click here

The journey through the country has given us some incredible views of the unspoilt green vistas that Honduras has to offer.  The bus bounced into this bustling market town along to a reggaeton soundtrack and before we knew it we were at the gates of our humble lodgings for three nights, D&D Brewery. It’s going be tough to talk about the views and not the beer on offer here, but I’ll try.

Green hills of Honduras

Green hills of Honduras

Lago de Yojoa is the largest in Honduras with a surface area of 110 miles and an average depth of 50ft.  It is surrounded by steep green mountains and two National Parks. It is also believed to have around 400 species of bird.

Let me talk about D&D first of all.  The brewery has been there since 2003 (I think?) and has a selection of accommodation from dorm to cabin on offer at pretty good prices.  The food is real tasty and the beer is, well, delightful.  No sooner had we checked in, I found myself with a chilled glass of porter sitting round a fire pit amongst the forest the brewery sits in, with various types of hummingbirds fluttering round my head.  It is certainly a nice spot and a great relief from piss-poor lager since setting foot in Tijuana.

You try and take a photo of a humming bird then!

You try and take a photo of a humming bird then!

Beer and Cat...perfect

Beer and Cat…perfect

There is plenty to do in the area and the brewery is set up to help with guides for both trails and nature.  We didn’t use either and made our own way round the area.  The first day took us to the 43m high Pulhapanzak waterfall where we marveled at the sheer size of it and got pretty wet just looking at it.  The park it sits in is evidently popular with Hondurans, with many swimming in the river above the falls (not too close obviously) and picnics taking place in the green areas surrounding it.  Having a walk around the area and the surrounding hills we are impressed at just how picturesque it all is.  The green hills (that seem to surround everything you look at in the country) at times can seem like a view from the Peak District back in the UK.

Pulhapanzak  Jeep

Looking over the top of Pulhapanzak waterfall

Looking over the top of Pulhapanzak waterfall

Pulhapanzak Watefrall 43m high

Pulhapanzak Watefrall 43m high

Further up stream from Pulhapanzak

Further up stream from Pulhapanzak

Even further upstream

Even further upstream

The second day, we felt we should try and work off some of that beer we indulged in the night before and rented a kayak from the brewery and went out onto the lake.  After spending the first half an hour trying to go a direction other than left, we were out of the canal and onto the lake.  As I have said, the lake is surrounded by a mountainous area, mostly extinct volcanos which, given the size of the lake, can seem to go on endlessly into the distance.  The lake is a great spot for bird watching; of the possibly 400 on offer we saw a big black one, a grey/blue one with big legs, one that looked like a heron and quite a few ducks.  As you can see, we would have benefitted from the bird-watching tour.  There was just no one there apart from a bog snorkeler and a couple of row boat taxis.  It is a great place to spend some time with your thoughts and soak up the scenery.

Kayak on Lake Yojoa

Kayak on Lake Yojoa

Lake Yojoa

Lake Yojoa

After perfecting the art of going forward

After perfecting the art of going forward

sStunning views on the lake

Stunning views on the lake

solid kayaking skills

A pretty amazing three hours spent out on the lake was only beaten when our ride back to the brewery turned up and it was a normal sized mini cab, who proceeded to drive us back with the lion’s share of the  kayak precariously balanced out of the boot.  That night we took full advantage of the beers on offer (well, mainly the porter if I’m honest, the super attentive Walter knew what my usual was and kept ‘em coming) and sat round the fire pit educating a Welsh couple we met on the variety of birds that can be seen on the lake.

Excellent kayak transportation...faultless

Excellent kayak transportation…faultless

It was a hard place to leave.

Our next stop, Copán Ruinas, was 78 miles as the crow flies, but due to our pledge to travel by public bus only from now on (mainly because it’s really cheap) and the lack of connecting roads, this journey took 10 hours, two of which were spent eating poor-quality fried chicken in the delightfully strange place that it San Pedro Sula bus station.  However, the journey cost a total of $18 for the both of us and the dancehall soundtrack on the first chicken bus was certainly entertaining, and offset the worry about the hole in the floor of the aisle.  The weather was poor all the way, as Honduras is having a cold and rainy snap at present.  However, we got to see more impressive scenery, from mountain ranges, lush verdant hills, foggy moor-like areas, and generally more shades of green than I knew existed.  At the same time we rolled through some pretty poor areas.  Attached to every post and board you pass is a flyer for the recent presidential election.  All the candidates offer enormous grins and a generic slogan for some kind of change, but how much change will they bring for the people of these areas?  However, everyone we encountered was friendly enough and we only attracted the occasional stares of curious locals, well Ollie did more than me!

Copan Ruinas town panorama

Copan Ruinas town panorama

Copán Ruinas, is a small cobbled street town with a hint of colonial charm, and is pleasant place to spend a day or two.  The reason for stopping by is to visit the Mayan ruins of Copán, whose construction dates back to around 100AD.  It was the southernmost part of the Maya world, one we have dipped in an out of since southern Mexico.

After a delicious baleada (Honduras’ version of tortilla and beans with other stuff, kind of like a kebab burrito I suppose) we walked the 1km out of the town to the archeological site.  The visitor centre is not even a month old after a renovation project with the Spanish, and as such seems completely alien to the rest of the country.  A short walk into the park and we come across the first collection of ruins.  Some people have said that this site doesn’t compare with other such as Palenque or Tikal, but I disagree.  Although Tikal is impressive in its sheer size, Copán has its well preserved hieroglyphs and various intricate rock carvings that have stood the test of time against the elements.  It’s set in a forested area, framed by the impressive hills I have previously spoken of that quite literally cover the west of Honduras.

Copan Ruins

The macaws that welcomes you to Copan

The macaws that welcomes you to Copan

Base of Temple 16

Base of Temple 16

Copan Skulls

Copan Skulls

West court of Copan Ruins

West court of Copan Ruins

We spent three hours hopping around the site, scaling the large steps and admiring the pre-classic Mayan carvings and stele (carved blocks). There is a particularly handsome hieroglyphic stairway of 72 stone step levels made up of 2200 glyph blocks forming the longest known Mayan hieroglyphic text. We pretty much had the site to ourselves which was surprising seeing as it is the real main draw to the Honduran mainland for tourists.  The second most visited site in the country after the Bay Islands!

Temple 11, overlooking the Plaza central, Copan Ruins

Temple 11, overlooking the Plaza central, Copan Ruins

Pretty impressive scenery all around

Pretty impressive scenery all around

Cemetary Group of Copan Ruins

Cemetary Group of Copan Ruins

Temple 22 Copan Ruins

Temple 22 Copan Ruins

Ollies favorite, the cheeky dancing Jaguar carving

Ollies favorite, the cheeky dancing Jaguar carving

At peace...on top of structure 9

Close up of carvings on the stairway

Close up of carvings on the stairway

Don't Mock the Mayans Rich!

Don’t Mock the Mayans Rich!

A great treat were the red macaws that inhabit the site, some of whom are exhibitionists happy to pose for pics, and others positioning themselves above you in the trees for reasons I’m sure you can guess.

Cheeky Macaws

After the a day at the sight we headed back to Copán town for some refreshment at Twisted Tanya’s in the form of 2-4-1 margaritas followed by a return visit to the Balaeada Inn (one block SW of Parque Central, next to ViaVia) for some more amazing cheap eats, and an early night.

Next stop El Salvador. Honduras seems to have flown by.  I will not miss the random men holding shotguns (“oh, he has some kind of logo on his hat, that’s fine then”). Even the bacon delivery van in this country is accompanied by a chap with a pump-action shotgun in his hand. Apparently it’s because they only do transactions in cash so by the end of his round the delivery man has a few thousand dollars on him and would be too much of a target. Hondurans seem to have little faith in law enforcement so take their own precautions. I also won’t miss the wet and sometimes gloomy weather we have had and the need to continuously back track on ourselves to travel through.  Still, a pretty handsome place!

Thanks for reading!

For the full photo album, click here!


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Roatán – an Island Christmas

Beer of the Day - a Port Royal by the beach

Beer of the Day – a Port Royal by the beach

After the delights of La Ceiba it was with great enthusiasm that we got up at the crack of dawn three days before Christmas and jumped in a taxi over to the ferry terminal to head over to the largest of the Bay Islands, Roatán. There is a well-organised ferry over there that leaves twice a day, the Galaxy Wave II; or as it’s known to everyone who has sailed on it, ‘The Vomit Comet’. Staggeringly for Central America, the boat left half an hour early, so by 10am, after the ferry staff had valiantly handed out a large number of plastic bags and catering-sized wads of kitchen roll to our fellow green-faced passengers, we slowed and approached the turquoise waters than line the island. Thankfully our sea legs held.

If you’d like to head straight to the pictures, click here!

Roatán is around 48 miles in length, but only 5 miles wide at the widest point. It has a fascinating history, having been claimed by both the Spanish and the British at various different times during its history. Before the Spanish arrived there had been French buccaneers there at one point during the 16th century, which apparently gave one the island’s main settlements, French Harbour, its name. No trace remains of the indigenous population, instead today the island’s inhabitants are a mix of Hondurans from the mainland, particularly the younger population, and older islanders, many of whom speak English as a first language. There are also a large number of people of Garífuna descent who speak a kind of Creole English. As such it was impossible to know whether to speak English or Spanish on the island; in practice most people seemed to speak some of both!

Two local lads fishing - successfully!

Two local lads fishing – successfully!

On arrival we took a taxi from the ferry terminal which is on the south side of the island around half way along, to West End (unsurprisingly, all the way over on the west side of the island). As the taxi slowly meandered along the road through the town, with the beach, blue waters and swaying palm trees just feet away we agreed that we’d made a pretty solid choice for a spot to kick back over the festive period.

Half Moon Bay, West End

Half Moon Bay, West End

One of West End's picturesque bars

One of West End’s picturesque bars

Our lodgings were a brightly painted wooden cabin with a hammock on the terrace and a little kitchen of our own and for the first time in a long while, we actually unpacked! Perfect. Until around 3pm. At this point the sound system at the newly opened bar/club/restaurant complex next door started up. We’re not ones to complain about a little music but as the evening wore on the volume reached the point where the cabin floor was shaking and we couldn’t hold a conversation indoors. We decided there was nothing for it but to head out for a few cold ones to send us to sleep later and hope it had stopped. No such luck. The same thing happened the next day so the choice was to either find some other lodgings or ship out. Luckily, another spot a little walk away had a cabin to spare so on Christmas Eve with a number of apologies to the lovely owners of the previous place, who were very understanding and driven mad themselves by the noise, we moved to our new spot at Hillside Garden Cabins in a secluded spot among the trees.

(A note on this new bar – it’s called El Boské, and is apparently owned by a guy with no ties to the island and large quantities of cash who doesn’t give two hoots that he’s destroying local business and the community. At the request of the owner of our former lodgings I went to speak to him to explain the effect that the noise levels and lack of respect are causing but I got a rather empty apology and a few platitudes saying he would turn the music down but this was a total lie. It just carried on. They have a website and a facebook page with comments sections if anyone who lives there or has been there wants to share their views…)

After this slightly stressful start, things got better from there. We had a lazy day on the beach and working out which bar had the coldest/cheapest beer. Christmas Day dawned, our first away from home and what’s more in the Caribbean…..and it was raining!! Not to be defeated we headed out in our raincoats in search of a bar (just for the wifi, honest) to Skype our families back at home who told us to stop complaining about the rain as Britain was more or less underwater… We rounded the day off with a lovely fish/steak dinner and bottle of red. What more could you want.

Christmas Dinner 2014

Christmas Dinner 2014

It was time though to take advantage of Roatán’s main draw- the excellent scuba diving. The island is surrounded by coral reef, clear waters and a whole host of sea life. My PADI certification was 10 years old so I sought out a refresher session and some fun dives at Reef Gliders. On advice from one of their Divemasters Rich decided that due to his issues with his ears (essentially he can’t equalize them when there’s changes in pressure) diving was out. With credit to the guys at Reef Gliders – they are not in for the hard sell and genuinely want everyone to be safe and enjoy it so don’t encourage people to do it if it wouldn’t be a good idea. The next day I was back in (and under) the water, and for 5 more days after that. The diving truly was fantastic. I saw moray eels, groupers, trumpet fish, giant lobsters and crabs, big shoals of shimmering blue fish, eagle rays and best of all, turtles. So many of them and I could swim just feet alongside them – fantastic stuff. Best of all on the last day I dived with Jason McAnear, one of their Divemasters and an Underwater Videographer who filmed the dive and pulled out some stills for me which are the dive shots on here – check out his series of videos here!

Rocking a wetsuit...

Rocking a wetsuit…

Trumpet fish doing a bad job of hiding

Trumpet fish doing a bad job of hiding

Me and my turtle friend

Me and my turtle friend

We did take a day away from the tourist bubble of West End for a day on New Year’s Eve, hiring a moped and setting off up through the island. The main road is a little hectic but once we got past the main towns of Coxen Hole and French Harbour the traffic thinned and the road climbed up to the highest point from where we could see out over the north coast of the island and see the reef out at sea. French Harbour itself was fascinating – a working town, mainly centered on fishing, where most of the houses are traditional Caribbean painted wooden boards, often on stilts. We wound on and on down a dirt track with the promise of a little bar/restaurant called La Sirena at the easternmost point called Camp Bay, passing though remote settlements where life on the island looks as if it’s barely changed for 50 years or more. We finally arrived at La Sirena and were not disappointed, a perfect spot for a cold beer while we chatted to a big El Salvadorean family on holiday on the island. Sadly we had to start back for West End – attempting a 100 mile round trip on a moped was a little ambitious perhaps, and both of us on a scooter is not entirely comfortable for that long!

Houses in French Harbour

Houses in French Harbour

Traditional houses and the reef

Traditional houses and the reef

On our return we started to prepare some dinner at around 6pm when the power went out. Luckily they had a gas hob… After dinner by candlelight we set out into the town with a torch headed for a New Year’s shingdig at our favourite beach bar Sundowners along with half the rest of the town it seemed. The power came back on but went out twice more that night which seemed to entertain everyone, especially after several $1 rum and cokes. An excellent evening all round.

NYE 2013!

NYE 2013!

Our cabin home for 10 days

Our cabin home for 10 days

So that more or less sums up our time in Roatán – diving, beach time, a bit more rain than we’d have liked and a few more rum and cokes that is advisable but it is a great spot. We left a day later than planned due to our taxi not showing up to take us to the ferry at 6am which is the type of thing we’ve been learning to get used to in Central America. Ultimately we’ve got nothing but time!

Waiting to get in the water!

Waiting to get in the water!

Yep, this'll do

Yep, this’ll do