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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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San Cristóbal de las Casas – A chilly adios to Mexico and crossing the border into Guatemala at Ciudad Cuauhtemoc

The night bus is not one of my favorite activities.  This one, from Oaxaca to San Cristobal de las Casas, is 10 hours and snakes around cliffs on tiny narrow roads.  Narrowly avoiding oncoming traffic, we see bible passage quotations painted on the rocks at each treacherous turn.  We have the front seats.  We can see our narrow escapes accompanied by the various soundtracks courtesy of the drivers.  The first being hard euro dance and the latter having a more authentic mariachi feel.  Eventually, we arrive in San Cristobal.  A small mountain town 2000m up.  The sun is out and we decide to walk to our hostel and to our surprise, we both agree that this is one of the most picturesque scenes we have ever come across.  The mountains that poke through the clouds frame the streets of multi-coloured red tiled houses.  We find ourselves in the main square, and, overcome by the smell of fresh roasted coffee, we are tempted and sit to let the day begin around us.

EZLN still knocking about

View from Iglesia

Belisario Dominguez

Gimme the all the pics!

San Cristobal was only on our list of destinations as a jump off point for Guatemala, and originally planned to not stay in the town and just leave on the next bus south.  We then decided to stay for two nights.  We stayed for five days in the end.  Arriving at the charming hostel ‘Casa El Abuelito’, we were greeted by tranquil courtyard populated mainly by the French.  This really did feel like we had somehow found our way into the Alps.  We relaxed with more coffee for a few hours and after a quick nap went out to explore the town.  Wandering through the streets, we immediately began to relax and found ourselves at a local bar and listened to a busker play until it started to rain.  We decided to treat ourselves, after a month of eating from the street and had some steak and wine at the Argentinian steak house.  It was awesome!  Wandering home in the drizzle we felt quite content.  We booked an extra night when we returned.

Casa El Abuelito Courtyard

Casa El Abuelito Courtyard

The following days were similarly spent, just walking around and taking stock of our month so far in Mexico.  The town has obviously seen some money recently, with boutique shops along the main drag, mainly peddling the local specialty that is Amber.  Not only backpackers swarm here, there are all sorts of tourists who are mainly European.

A night of fine Argentinian Steak

Guitar on Real de Guadalupe

Diego Dougley at night

There is darker side to this little bastion of calm.  The town is surrounded by a poverty-stricken area known colourfully as ‘the belt of misery’.  The occupants of this violent area are mainly ex-inhabitants of nearby Tzotzil villages, such as San Juan Chamula.  Reasons for expulsion are mainly due to politico-religious tensions as the Chamulans, who still preserve some Mayan ways of life, are apparently fiercely independent and follow their own brand of ‘Chamulan Catholicism’ (which I am told heavily involves praying with Pepsi and burping to ward off evil).  The adults fill the streets attempting to sell clothes and handicrafts (many of which are well made and attractive), while children as young as five approach you and ask for money with huge sorrow filled eyes.  The area is also famed for being the base of the EZLN Zapatista movement from 1994.  The town still has a slight hint of rebellion in the air and there are anarchistic slogans painted on walls all around the backstreets.  It may be because of this history that the town attracts many Europeans with dreadlocks, who seem to have stayed to try to make a living out of making jewellery.  Chiapas is one of the poorest states in Mexico and is the most in your face that we have experienced along the way.

Walls full of activism

Handsome blue church

On a lighter note, the place is wonderful and all sorts of activities can be undertaken in the surrounding area.  We did not partake which led to a German from our hostel labelling me ‘the lazy Englishman.’  We explored all the town had to offer, but mainly relaxed.  The weather is beautiful in the morning when the sun is out.  But when it goes away, you are very aware of the temperature, which led to three layers and wooly hats at times.  We were ready to go.  Bus booked to Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, when we had a call from the bus company advising us that due to some kind of protest, we were unable to go.  So we spent another night, this time in the company of a German/Swiss couple who were on a similar mission, drinking red wine and complaining about the temperature.

San Cristobel street 2

The 260 odd step climb to Iglesia de  San Cristobel

San Cristobel Market

Real de Guadalupe towards Cerro de Guadalupe

We finally managed to get on the small transport bus the next morning to take us to the Mexican/Guatemalan border.  The town of Ciudad Cuauhtemoc was a four hour stint, steadily descending as we went in the company of 14 other souls.  The roads were again treacherous, and the driving a touch risky at times, but we made it.  On the way, I was feeling like we had cheated a bit by booking full transport to our final destination and not trying to do wander through the town of La Mesilla on the Guatemalan side and jump on the next chicken bus south.  For a total of M$300 pesos (US$22) each, it was hard not to take the easy option, and also, as we discovered quite quickly at the border, a good thing we had!

Mexican immigration was a quick process, having already paid the M$295 pesos on our arrival in Baja at a bank, they wanted no more cash from us and stamped us through.  Walking through the Mexican side was ‘an experience’ that I will never forget.  Markets selling everything and nothing, offering last chances to buy that crap you could have bought everywhere else in the country with a cacophony of sounds and smells attacking us as we gingerly followed the driver through.  There were some desperate looking people lining the road begging for money, that were at times heart breaking and far too much to take in all at once.  “Dude, did you see that guy with his skull exposed?” asked the Aussie I had been chatting to.  Unfortunately I had, and it’s something I am going to find hard to forget.  We were taken to Guatemalan customs by the bus driver, who left us after we all got stamped through (without any hint of bribes from the officials I may add).  We then all squeezed (I can’t emphasize that word enough) into a smaller van, once the driver had done a DIY wheel change, and off we went into the rugged jungle hills of country number 3,Guatemala….

Guatemala border in La Mesilla

Guatemala border in La Mesilla

If your reading this and thinking about fighting your way through this border and finding transport in Guatemala to ‘keep it real’, I can only suggest you take the easy option as it is a hectic and confusing place.  Pay the few bucks more and save your chicken bus adventures for later on!

The journey is tough.  The road is poor, the bumps many and the five hours punishingly slow, yet hectic as the driver nearly kills us at least three times by racing chicken buses along the passes.   All around however, the terrain is majestic.  Jungle-clad hills cover as far as the eye can see, as we snake through following a river upstream to our destination.  After we let passengers off near Xela, the bus sighed with relief and we shuffled a bit, but then two more came on board, including a giant jolly Swedish guy, who oblivious to our struggle and pained expressions wanted to talk about his adventures.  “You know in zee caves, zere are zese blind shrimp, zat will clean your teeth.  But if you pick zee wrong shrimp, zey will start to strip your mouth.  So far, I have only had ze good shrimp”.  (Not mocking the dudes language skills as they were much better than my own, but the comedy accent made it even better!) With chat like that, I slowly warmed and the time passed a bit quicker.

Lake Atitlan from the shores of Panajachel - Aldous Huxley was right!

Lake Atitlan from the shores of Panajachel – Aldous Huxley was right!

We got there.  Panajachel on the shores of Lake Atitlan.  11 hours later and the lake slowly revealed itself to us as we descended.  At first only seeing the peaks of the three volcanos that surrounded it with quick peep here and there of the lake itself.  After finding a room, it was too dark to see, so we settled for some beers and grub to toast our new country.  The next morning, we awoke to see the lake in all its glory.

Lake Atitan Selfie

Lake Atitan Selfie

We may stay here for a while….

For all the snaps from our time in San Cris, click here!


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Oaxaca City – Chocolate box beauty, a big tree and some stunning scenery.

Hierve el agua pool 2We tackled the DF subway system one last time, this time with our packs, after visiting the tasty bakery Ols had previously championed for some Mexican cheese, ham and jalapeño pasties for the journey.  We were moving on to Oaxaca City, and it is something we had both been looking forward to.  It is in Oaxaca State, which in itself is the same size as Portugal.  As always, we were not sure how long we were going to stay in the city, and also, if we would adventure further into the state and visit the much talked-up coast of Puerto Escondido and surrounding beaches.   A 7 hour bus ride later took us through some excellent scenery, this time the seemingly endless hills were dotted with various cacti as we snaked round the passes.  The driver warned us of delays of the ‘environmental kind’.  We thought it was just a mis-translation, but when the storms came and parts of the surrounding hills were falling into the road, I was confident Ollie’s Spanish was still up to scratch.

Had enough of this waffle? Click here for the pictures.

The Zocola Plaza OaxacaThe colonial center of the city promised us beautiful tree-shaded plazas, colorful scenery and a bustling artisan crafts scene where Ols could dispatch some pesos.  On arriving at the bus terminal we joined up with a Canadian called Lee and he came with us to Hostel Pochón.   Soon we were out of the door and eating tortas the size of our heads on the recommendation of the French contingent at the hostel.  We all settled in for the night at Pochón, and exchanged stories round the table with the many other residents.  Really nice place…

The first day and we were out of the door, walking round admiring just how pretty the town is.  But my god…it’s a tourist trap.   Being sort of prepared for that, it didn’t bother me as much so we just joined in the natural flow, past the churches, boldly coloured buildings and into the Zócalo (main square).  Being in Mexico over a month now has given us only a tiny insight into the local way of life for many people.  What I have been impressed with is the quality and use of communal spaces.  The local squares or plazas are places where people come to sit and just be.  With their family or friends.  They may have an ice-cream, play the trumpet, practice a dance routine or have their shoes shined.  Unlike the UK, there are no urine soaked Tennants drinkers growling at passersby with tobacco stained whiskers.   We found ourselves just sitting enjoying a fizzy pop, watching the world go by.

Bold colours of Oaxaca And some more bold colour

Onto the local food market, we walked around admiring the selections of chillies, Oaxaca-style cheese, meat and mole Sauces.  Mole described very simply is like Mexican curry sauce, and Oaxaca is known as the land of the seven moles, with the main one, mole negro, including locally grown chocolate.  After doing some grocery shopping and picking up some chapulines (grasshoppers) we headed back for a chilled day and a rest.  Even though Lee was a vegetarian, he still enjoyed the tasty little garlic and chili roasted insects.

Oaxacan's take ther meat seriously The Mole catalogue Standsard dried chilli selectionGarlic and Chilli Chapulines, or crickets to me and you

The next day, we took a tour of the local area and found ourselves with two older Colombian couples.  The first stop was a tree.  Not just any tree, but the 1500-2000 year old tree of Tule.  It’s huge and dwarfs the surrounding buildings.  The second stop took us to the village of Teotitlán del Valle, where they are famous for weaving, using natural dye made from a base of Cochineal bugs that live in cacti.  The bug is squashed, then mixed with things like chalk, lemon or leaves to achieve different colours.  After, we headed for the Don Agave Mezcal distillery, where after a short tour, the Colombians helped us along, trying various tipples and eating more chapulines which cleanse your pallet after a harsh sip of mezcal, like a sorbet might during a meal.  Now the worm: most people have heard of the worm in tequila.  The worm is never in tequila, only mezcal and is just a marketing gimmick.  I downed the worm from the bottle and can confirm, with some disappointment, that it does not get you impressively drunk/high.  It’s just a worm…

2000 Year old tree of Tule.  It's fookin massive! Natural Dyed wool and the ingredients used Weaving Apprentice Mezcal and Chapulines with some Colombians at the Don Agave factory 55% Mezcal, made from 100% Horsepower

The frozen falls of Hierve El Agua..or a massive outdoor stalactite

After Ols was told some dirty jokes in Spanish by an increasingly intoxicated Colombian lady, we jumped in the van and headed to Hierve El Agua; two large white rock formations similar to stalactites look like waterfalls cascading down the cliffs.    Hierve El Agua, meaning “the water boils” in Spanish, has naturally bubbling (but cold) mineral pools, that appear to disappear over the cliff.  A beautiful spot, where we sat to soak it all up until a chap called Manuel (or Manny Pacquiao as he styled himself) arrived and spoke at us in a friendly, yet aggressive manner.  After some nonsensical conversation with our new-found fried we headed back to Mitla, a town with Zapotec  ruins.  These were pretty impressive structures, with a chance to go into some burial chambers.  The whole day was a great little tour, and for a value of M$150 per person it was incredible value for money.

At the edge of the Infinty Pool at Hierve El Agua A starjump on the edge of the pool

Hierve El Agua

The Zapotec Ruins of Mitla Cheeky spanish church right next to the ruins

Our last day was similar to the first, idling around the markets and admiring the town and square.  Oaxaca city centre is an extremely beautiful place, which it would be easy for some to spend lots of time in.  For me it was far too touristy, being a well-established must see place in Mexico.  Ols was also disappointed by the lack of ‘local crafts’ promised, as the markets we visited yielded only clothes mainly.  There may have been another market somewhere, but we didn’t find it.  We decided not to go to the coast, but everyone else we met was heading there.  We decided to start our descent into Guatemala instead, by travelling to San Cristóbal de las Casas via night bus.

Ollies moustash envy becomes worrying