Sunday, June 22, 2014

OMETEPE TO THE CLOUD FORESTS OF COSTA RICA

June 17, 2014

Punta Jesus Maria from the Ferry (Black Line is a Sand Bar)
Getting from Ometepe to my first stop in Costa Rica was quite a process.  I awakened early, but not quite early enough to catch the 7:00 am ferry, which I missed by maybe five minutes.  The next ferry didn’t come until 9:00, so I had plenty of time to eat a nice breakfast and drink a cup of coffee in a restaurant near the ferry dock.  The ferry ride to Ometepe had cost 50 cordobas, but the ride back cost 69.  There was supposed to be a 10 cordoba tax, so maybe they collected it for both directions on the return.  Who knows?  Fares for transportation in Central America were infinitely variable, but always seemed to average out.  A bus to Managua met the ferry, but there was no bus service to the nearest town of Rivas where I needed to go to catch a bus to the border.  I took a taxi for a whopping one dollar.  The taxi driver wanted to take me to the border for $20 and finally dropped his price to $15, but I refused.  I was fully intending to wait the hour until the next bus arrived but another, more desperate, taxi driver named Ernesto offered to take me for $10.  I gave in.  It was nice not to have to wait in the heat and struggle with my luggage on a chicken bus.

Road to Costa Rican Border
Our route from Rivas to the border at Penas Blancas took us along the lake shore, past all the wind generators.  The closer we got to the border, the greener it became.  We were driving through cattle country with lush, green pastures.  There is a river that connects the lake with the Pacific Ocean, but it is small and not navigable.  My driver informed me that the Chinese are scheduled to begin construction on a canal from the Caribbean to the Pacific in November.  I had heard of the scheme, but wasn’t aware it was a done deal.  The canal will traverse one of the prettiest parts of Nicaragua.  I hoped it wouldn’t do too much damage to the environment.  I was sure that it would bring much needed economic development to the region.  It really was the most logical place to build a canal.  I don’t even know that locks would be necessary.  I just hope that the project doesn’t change the level or salinity of the lake.  It took about 40 minutes to reach Penas Blancas where Ernesto dropped me off at the first barrier.

The border with Nicaragua was the usual zoo.  For some crazy reason, Nicaraguan immigration had provided “helpers” with the necessary immigration forms.  It only cost me $2 to exit Nicaragua, but it cost me $20 to get the necessary forms.  There must have been a way around that, but I sure didn’t see it.  All the officials seemed to be in on it.  It also cost me $10 worth of colones to pay my $1 city tax.  The money changer quoted me a fair rate, but then tried to short change me.  Fortunately, I was good at math and called him out.  I got through that process fine.  Costa Rica has dealt with the problem of corruption by not charging a fee to enter and posting signs to that effect all over the border.  They must get their kick-backs from the bus companies, however, since they required me to buy a bus ticket to Panama for $44 that I will probably never use because I want to visit places between San Jose, Costa Rica and Panama City.  At least they didn’t require me to prove my financial solvency, although I needed to go to the bank, anyway, to pay for the bus ticket and had my receipt with bank balance in hand. 

Costa Rican Cattle Country
A convenient trailer was vending bus tickets to Liberia, the first transportation hub in Costa Rica, for about $3.25.  I fought off the taxi drivers who wanted to take me there for $40 and got on the bus.  Costa Rican buses were actually pretty nice.  No chicken buses in sight, except for ones carrying actual school children.  It took about an hour and a half to get to Liberia.  We climbed up into the highlands and I got a momentary glimpse of the coast before we descended into more cattle country.  I had been seeing teak trees here and there since Chiapas, but saw the first serious teak plantations just over the border into Costa Rica.  There were also fields of sugar cane.  Everything looked decidedly tidy.  Even the most humble dwellings were cement block with metal roofs.  It seemed I had arrived in the second world.  A new highway was under construction and we crossed from one temporary roadway to another all the way to Liberia.

Tilaran Central Park
Liberia had an actual bus terminal with actual posted schedules.  Once again, taxi drivers tried to charge me huge fares to take me to Tilaran, but they were nice enough when I refused and even told me how to get there on the bus.  This was welcome because my Lonely Planet Guide was silent on the subject of getting to Tilaran from anywhere except San Jose.  It turned out that I had to take a bus to Canas and change there for a bus to Tilaran.  I only had to wait about 20 minutes for the bus to Canas, which thankfully gave me time to use the pay toilets.  The trip to Canas cost me another $3 or so and took about an hour.  Canas lies at the intersection of the road to San Jose with the highway that leads east up into the mountains.  We arrived in Canas at 3:30.  The schedule said that the buses to Tilaran left at 3:30 and 5:45.  Since there was no bus to Tilaran in sight, I figured I had just missed it and settled in to wait for the last bus.  At 4:05, a bus for Tilaran appeared.  I didn’t know if it was the 3:30 bus or just a random one, but I was very happy to see it.  Forty minutes and $1.20 later, I arrived in Tilaran.  I knew that only one bus per day, at 12:30 pm, left Tilaran for Santa Elena and Monteverde, where I was going.  Tilaran was as far as I could get that day.

Fortunately, I had selected a hotel just around the corner from the bus station.  It was sprinkling when I arrived, but I didn’t have to go far enough to even get wet.  The hotel was kind of a strange affair beneath and behind a strip mall.  The reception was down in what looked like a parking garage, although it was really just an entry to a dirt parking lot.  They didn’t have any rooms with a private bath left, but I did get a room with a bath next door for $12 including hot water, TV and a fan.  The room was tiny and smelled a bit of fresh paint, but it was clean and nice and the temperature up in the highlands was a refreshing 75 degrees.  I was happy.  Costa Rica wasn’t turning out to be as expensive as I feared, at least not so far.  Not having eaten lunch, I was hungry.  I made a quick stop in my room to check in with Scott and then headed out for dinner.  I didn’t want to go far, since I try not to be out by myself after dark.  I chose a restaurant up the block that didn’t look like much, but turned out to be surprisingly good.  The reason that I chose it was that I had been craving ribs and saw them advertised.  The ribs were short ribs with some kind of, no doubt, bottled sauce, but they were adequate and sated my desire.  They were served, however, with some wonderful garlic encrusted potatoes and the best green salad I had had in four months.  The lettuce was actually dark green.  The tomatoes were ripe.  It was even served with good balsamic vinegar.  I devoured that salad.  Prices were maybe a third more than in Nicaragua.  My ribs cost about $8.  Some dishes cost that much in Nicaragua, but I could usually get by for five or six.  Given the quality of the meal, I was happy to pay the price.  I finished my meal and went back to my room to enjoy the fast internet.


June 18, 2014

I had every intention of sleeping in, but my neighbor started blasting the TV at 6:00 am.  I got up before
7:00.  I took a blissfully hot shower (the first I had had in a month) and then went out to look for breakfast.  I was snooping around Tilaran, looking for espresso, when it occurred to me that I ought to go to the bus station and confirm that the bus to Santa Elena was still at 12:30.  When I got there, I saw a lone, American looking, man standing there.  As soon as he saw me, he asked if I was American.  When I said I was, he let out a big sigh of relief.  It seemed that he had just arrived and was supposed to meet someone in Arenal, but couldn’t get into his email to get the address and directions.  I agreed to try to help him and he insisted on buying me breakfast, first.  I had a humongous breakfast of three eggs, two pieces of actually browned toast, and more bacon than even I (who adore bacon) could eat.  The problem seemed to be that Hotmail had detected that he was in a strange country and wouldn’t let him into his account without a rather large hassle.  I suggested that he just message his friend on Facebook.  He friend told him the name of the place he wanted to meet and, after I suggested he Google it to find directions, he was good to go.  I got breakfast and my good deed for the day out of the way before 9:00.

My bus didn’t leave until 12:30 and check out wasn’t until noon, so I took a walk around Tilaran (not a lot to see, although the view was nice) and then went back to my room to chat with Scott and watch Netflix until it was time to go.  I left just before noon and walked over to the bus station, which was just around the corner.  I waited there for half an hour until the bus arrived and then waited on the bus for another half an hour before we left.  It was not actually all that far to Santa Elena (38 km, I think), but it took over two hours.  We wound our way through mountain villages on a barely two lane road that very quickly became dirt.  It was a much better dirt road than the ones in Nicaragua, but was still a bumpy ride.  The bus company had assigned their worst bus to that route for good reason.  We drove through cattle country, higher and higher.  Soon, we could see the Central Valley in the distance with tall mountains on the other side.  About an hour in, it started to rain and we slithered along at an even slower pace.  It was raining when I got to Santa Elena, so I ducked into the nearest hostel, which turned out to be Backpackers Vista al Golfo.  I got a private room with bath across the hall (once again the rooms with baths were all taken) for $15 a night, including hot water, Wi-Fi, and breakfast. They had a full service travel agency staffed by a fellow who spoke extremely rapid Spanish, but somehow managed to remain understandable.  Before I even got to my room, I had booked activities for the next two days.  I believe the hostel rents rooms cheaply to get customers for the travel agency, much as Vegas (used to) offer cheap rooms just to bring in gamblers.
Vista al Golfo Hostel


The rain quickly cleared up and I went out in search of food.  I got a tasty burrito with a divine virgin pina colada, for which I had to pay more than I’d paid for my lovely dinner the night before.  Food in Santa Elena was clearly not going to be cheap.  After lunch, I went for a walk around the town.  Santa Elena is on the side of a steep hill.  The central part of the town is triangular, with the base of the triangle at the top.  My hostel was on the horizontal street.  The town, and indeed the entire Monteverde region, was extremely developed for tourism.  Everywhere I looked there were billboards advertising some form of adventure tour.  There was an orchid garden, a reptile house, a frog pond and butterfly garden.  Every other storefront was a travel agent.  I no longer felt like I was in the second world.  I could have been in a tourist town in mountain America.  I walked up to the supermarket and bought some water, juice and bananas and then headed back to my room to get ready for my night tour of the cloud forest.

Cloud Forest
A cloud forest, for the uninitiated, is a sort of coolish, high altitude, not quite rainforest that spends a lot of time buried in clouds.  They tend to be wet and muddy, but hold an incredible diversity of wildlife.  The tour was at the Kinkajou Preserve, which is a private property with a maze of trails through the woods.  We started our tour just at dusk.  Our guide, Donald, was very enthusiastic.  There were several groups stomping around and when one guide saw something interesting, he would radio the others to let them know.  It was a big surprise to me to discover that dusk is actually a great time for bird spotting.  The birds weren’t active.  They were roosting, but hadn’t yet tucked their heads under their wings.  I learned that they do that primarily for balance.  I don’t know how the poor toucans can balance at all with those huge bills.  We saw a redstart, two motionless hummingbirds, a grey necked wood rail, a toucan and a blue crested motmot (the national bird of Nicaragua.)  We also saw a couple of green pit vipers and an eyelash viper.  Most of the snakes (well, almost everything in the cloud forest) were arboreal.

The mammals were the coolest things of all.  We saw a two-toed sloth hanging in a tree, slowly stuffing leaves into his or her mouth.  Sloths have very slow metabolisms.  Their body temperatures are very low and they have four stomachs.  Their gestation period is 11.5 months.  They can’t actually walk on the ground.  The only reason they come down out of the trees is to defecate, which they only do once a week.  They come down to do so because they want to bury their excrement to prevent predators from knowing where they live.  At the end of the tour, we were watching a porcupine with a prehensile tail when, all of a sudden, two kinkajous appeared in the same tree.  A kinkajou is a kind of a cross between a monkey and a raccoon.  They also have prehensile tails and are very agile.  One of them got annoyed with our guide shining a light on him and tried to run down the branch to jump to another tree, but round his way blocked by the porcupine.  He turned around pretty quickly.  We got to watch them for several minutes.  We also saw some interesting insects like a Hercules beetle, a 7-inch long stick bug, and an orange kneed tarantula.

June 19, 2014

I had no reason to get up early, but the three young men in the room next door found it necessary to both argue loudly and hog both bathrooms from 6:00 am on.  Given that they had argued until midnight the night before and the quiet fellow on the other side of me had, nevertheless, awakened me with his alarm at 5:00 am, I didn’t get a lot of sleep.  I got up at 7:00, once the arguing boys finally got into their car.  I showered and then had breakfast and coffee upstairs in the kitchen.  The internet was down all morning, but I had time to go to the bank and buy a map of Costa Rica to help me in planning the rest of my trip before my shuttle arrived at 10:30 to take me to my zip lining adventure.  The Extremo zip lining park was formerly the most exciting of the many canopy tours offered in Monteverde, but a new park called 100% Aventura now boasts the longest zip line in Latin America at just under a mile in length.  For $45, I got transportation to the park, 10 regular zip lines (including the massive one across an entire valley), 2 “Superman” zip lines where you went head first in a prone position, one rappel, and a the 148 foot (45 meter) high Tarzan swing. 

Mile Long Zip Line
A van picked us up at the hostel and took us to the park, where we were outfitted with harnesses, gloves with rubber palms for braking, and helmets.  We descended a series of nine increasingly long and fast zip lines.  After the ninth line, we sort of rappelled down from the platform.  I say, “Sort of rappelled,” because we weren’t allowed to control our own descent.  They just sort of dropped us down the line, which seemed particularly pointless to me, since we then had to climb right back up to the same platform for the last zip line.  The last zip line was a real winner.  It stretched for 1590 meters (10 meters shy of a mile) across a valley of cloud forest.  The view was spectacular and I almost had time to enjoy it.  The wind was strong enough that it wanted to spin me around and I had to keep myself from revolving without braking and stranding myself mid-way along the cable.  I managed pretty well and only had to pull myself hand over hand the last little way.  No one had to rescue me.  Those of us who were doing the “Superman” zip lines then had to climb up to the top of the ridge so that we could “fly” back across the valley.  On that long line, we were instructed to keep our arms crossed over our chests, lest our arms slow us down and strand us. 


The “Superman” zip lines proved to be very uncomfortable for the women, myself included.  Given our anatomy, the chest strap was fastened lower on the women and it pressed so hard on our lower ribs that we were hardly able to breathe and felt like our ribs were going to snap.  It was cool being able to look straight down like that, but the long line back across the valley was torture.  The second “Superman” line was shorter and we were encouraged to stretch our arms out like Superman.  That one was more fun, since it didn’t involve holding my breath for an entire minute or more.  After that, we climbed up another hill and then walked out onto a hanging bridge that just ended in midair 148 feet above the ground.  This was the launch point for the “Tarzan” swing.  I love swings, but this one commenced with a huge drop.  I had to step off the platform and fall until I hit the end of the line.  I then swung back and forth a few times, being lowered a bit on each swing before they stopped me and lowered me down.  I didn’t much like the weightless moments at the top of the arcs, but it was fun otherwise.  My only regret about the whole experience was that I was moving too fast to see any wildlife, but I would have a chance to do that the following day.
"Tarzan" Swing Launch Point

Body Leaping Off the Platform


                                                                                                                            We waited around for quite a while (I think they were hoping we’d buy something in the gift shop.) before the van brought us back to the hostel.  I did buy some photographs on a CD, but then realized that I don’t have an optical drive on my computer, so couldn’t upload them to my blog.  It was after 2:00 when we got back and I was starving.  I went down the hill and ate a hamburger for lunch.

Uruguay was busy slaughtering England in the World Cup match on the TV.  After lunch, I went back to the hotel and finished watching the game in the TV room.  Then I spent the rest of the afternoon plotting my path through Costa Rica and starting to research Panama.  I splurged and ate dinner at Mar y Tierra, a pretty upstairs restaurant next to the hostel.  I had the Costa Rican equivalent of shrimp fried rice with a lovely green salad and lots of whole shrimp.  I washed it down with a nice glass of red wine.  The meal cost me $15, which seemed exorbitant, although probably would have seemed reasonable for the same thing at home.  After a month and a half of one dollar (or less) beers, $6 for a (quite substantial) glass of wine seemed like a lot, but I really enjoyed it on a cool, rainy evening.  I sat in the window and watched the lighting in the distance, hoping it wouldn’t rain too much the following day for my explorations of the Santa Elena and Monteverde National Parks.

Rene and the "Beanstalk"
June 20, 2014

Continuing in the theme of rising much too early, I got up in time to catch the 6:30 bus to the Reserva Santa Elena.  I got there in time to join the 7:30 guided walk with two other Americans.  It was raining lightly and very cloudy.  All the animals seemed to be hiding.  Our guide tried very hard and was excellent at making bird calls, but nothing answered him.  Quetzals remained elusive.  I did, however, see some beautiful forest, dripping with vines and moss.  The trees were very tall.  Most of them were avocados, although not the type that are raised for human consumption.  Quetzals prefer the tiny sort, no bigger than the first joint of my pinky finger.  There were also a lot of fig trees and a giant tree from the bean family called the frijolito.  That tree might well have given rise to the story of Jack and the Beanstalk.
Reserva Santa Elena



The Reserva Santa Elena is operated for the benefit of high school students.  It was a lovely park.  Not as large as the Monteverde preserve, it was nevertheless better maintained.  Cloud forests are wet places and the trails tend to be muddy.  Of the nearly four meters of precipitation that falls there, 20% comes in the form of mist from clouds.  The Santa Elena Reserve had some trails paved in concrete and others set with concrete blocks and nail studded sections of tree trunks such that there were very few places where we actually had to walk in the mud.  We all wanted to see a quetzal, so our guide, John, took us to the lower reaches of the park, but we still didn’t see any.  They had nested there the month before, but had migrated down slope.  Apparently, they are easy to see when they are nesting.  They actually like to nest near the trails because humans scare away predators.

Impromptu Victory Parade in Santa Elena
We walked for a couple of hours, but then had to get back to the cafeteria by 10:00 for the beginning of the World Cup match between Italy and Costa Rica.  Everyone expected Costa Rica to lose, but they scored a goal in the first half.  All of the park employees were in the cafeteria watching and they went crazy.  I had to catch the 11:00 bus back to town, so I finished watching the game with my travel agent.  Italy never scored, so Costa Rica won.  The whole town went crazy.  People drove around in circles honking horns and waving flags for an hour.  They were wearing soccer jerseys and crazy hats and organizing impromptu bands.  It continued to be noisy all day and the TV never stopped replaying that goal.

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
I had wanted to travel from Santa Elena to Arenal on horseback, but another person to fulfill the two person minimum never materialized, so I had to settle for booking a jeep-boat-jeep transit.  That would prevent me from having to take an 8 hour bus ride back to Tilaran and then on to Arenal.  I had lunch at the restaurant next door and watched the Costa Ricans parade around the town center while I ate an eleven dollar quesadilla.  At 1:30, I took the bus to The Monteverde Cloud Forest Wildlife Biological Reserve.  As I was walking out of the gift shop after buying my ticket, I ran into two couples I knew from the El Salvador Rally.  It was great to see them.  They had sailed as far as Marina Papagallo and then rented a car for the day.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get to spend much time with them, because I only had two hours to see the park before the last bus left.  They were headed back to the boats for the night, so we said goodbye and hoped we might meet again further down the coast.

            The Monteverde Reserve is very large.  While the park covers over 4,000 hectares, only 3% of it is open to visitors.  The elevation ranges from 860 to 1840 meters above sea level.  Cloud forests cover only 0.4% of the earth’s surface, but they are home to 20% of plant species and 16% of vertebrate species.  Everything was seething with life.  Lianas were so covered with air plants and orchids that they appeared to be as thick as trees.  Trees were covered with other plant and fungus life.  I even saw bamboo growing out of a tree trunk.  Most of the animals live up in the canopy and seldom come to the forest floor.  The park boats 100 species of mammals, 400 of birds, 120 of reptiles and amphibians, 3000 of plants and thousands of insects, although I thankfully didn’t see many of them. The Monteverde Reserve had also done a fairly good job of making their very wet trails walkable.  Most of them were raised beds of rocks that offered excellent drainage. There were, however, some very muddy spots.  Monteverde wasn’t quite as wet as Santa Elena and so wasn’t quite as spectacular, but was much larger and better for serious hiking.  There were a couple of very nice overlooks where you could really grasp the magnitude of the place and look down into the clouds.  I got back just in time to catch the last bus to town at 4:00. 

A Liana
When we got back to Santa Elena, I stopped for an ice cream and then went to Amigo’s bar to drink a beer and watch the Honduras vs. Ecuador match.  Poor Honduras, they were slaughtered again.  The Ecuadoran goalie was a huge man and they just couldn’t get a shot past him.  It was dinnertime when the game ended, so I picked up a huge chicken empanada and a big green salad at a hole in the wall roasted chicken place for under three dollars.  Both were excellent.  I wished I had discovered that place before my last meal in Santa Elena. 









June 21, 2014

Route to Arenal
Lake Arenal
Rain poured down and woke me before my alarm could even go off.  I was already mostly packed, so I had plenty of time to have a leisurely breakfast and was ready when my ride arrived ten minutes early.  The “Jeep-Boat-Jeep” route from Monteverde to Arenal no longer involves a jeep.  Jeeps can only handle four passengers and would just be too expensive.  These days, they use minibuses.  I was the only person headed from Monteverde to Arenal, so I had the bus to myself.  I sat up front and chatted with the driver all the way.  The road was dirt, but was in amazingly good condition given how much rain regularly falls in the area.  In places, it was very steep.  The bus did not have four wheel drive, but did have a very low first gear.  We descended from Monteverde and then climbed over another ridge before following the Rio Chiquito down to the Arenal Reservoir.  We were early and had to wait for half and hour or so for the boat to come.  Several other buses full of people arrived.  The water in the lake was very low and there was no dock.  I had to carry my back across the muddy shore.  Soon, the boats arrived.  I was also the only one on the boat.  We would have been the first to leave except that the propeller fell off when we tried to back away from the shore.  The captain didn’t have an anchor, so we were helpless.  A big wave knocked us sideways and we slammed into the next boat, damaging the roofs on both boats.  Eventually, he gave up on going anywhere and sent me with a different boat.

Another empty van was waiting for me on the Arenal side.  The driver took me to the Arenal Backpacker’s Resort.  I arrived before noon.  The hostel didn’t accept reservations, so I was relieved when I managed to get accommodations, since I had a reservation for a shuttle to pick me up there to take me to Quepos a couple of days later.  The hostel has a very nice restaurant/bar/lobby area and a pool with a swim up bar.  It looks like it was once a motel.  Most of the rooms now have four dorm beds in them.  Private rooms with air conditioning run $60, which was a little steep for my budget, especially since it wasn’t hot enough to need the air.  They also had a huge metal roofed shed with about ten tent cabins under it.  I rented one of those for $25.  I had to use the communal toilets and showers, but there were a lot of them and they were very clean.  The tent had lights and electricity and a real bed.  For a $10 deposit, then lent me a lock to secure the flaps zippered closed.  Everything was really quite pleasant and comfortable except that the music was very loud in the evening and all the guests were young and partied hard.  I had to wait until 2:00 for my room to be ready, so I ordered an Asian chicken salad for lunch and watched the Ghana vs. Germany game.  Ghana won. 

Tent at Arenal Backpacker's Resort
Once my tent was ready, I moved in, dropped my laundry off to be washed, and went for a walk to locate the bus station where I would need to catch the bus to go to the volcano in the morning.  It was pretty warm.  I walked to the other end of La Fortuna, but never did find the bus terminal.  I came back and took a short nap while it rained heavily.  After it stopped raining, I looked up where to find the bus terminal and went back out to try to find it once again.  Having the address wasn’t much help, since the street names on the signs didn’t correspond to the names on the addresses, but at least I knew I was looking for a shopping center.  There were only three avenues and I had already searched the main one, so I walked down one to the end of town and then came back via the third.  I finally found the bus terminal a block towards the river from the church.  Then I went to dinner at an Italian restaurant called Anch’io (Me, Too, in Italian.)  The waiter thought I was from Europe because I spoke Spanish.  He found it very odd that I was American.  He was very nice to me and brought me a piece of tiramisu on the house.  It poured down rain while I was there and there was thunder and lightning.  At one point, a gecko fell off the ceiling onto my head.  Shortly thereafter, a bat collided with the ceiling fan and hit the floor.  It was raining wildlife, as well.  I managed to walk back to my tent before the next rain shower and spent the evening in my tent, while the music was blaring in the bar and the crowd got louder and louder.  It rained hard again.  I liked it when the rain was pelting down on the metal roof because it drowned out the other noise.  I put in my headphones and watched Netflix.

June 22, 2014

Got up early, of course.  People were stirring and I had an 8:00 bus to catch.  The restaurant in the hostel wasn’t open yet, so I left and stopped into a cafĂ© near the bus station for a plate of eggs and fruit.  I ordered coffee with milk and ended up with a cappuccino with a spider’s web drawn in chocolate syrup on top of the foam.  It was almost worth what they charged me for it.  Still, it was cheaper than the $7 continental breakfast at the hostel.  I was concerned that the one and only bus to the Arenal Volcano National Park might be crowded, but it was pouring rain and there were only a few people headed in that direction.  I had no trouble getting a seat.  The fare was 2,000 colones, or about four dollars.  The bus trip retraced the route we had taken into La Fortuna.  The turnoff for the park was about 12km outside of town.

Bumble Bee Hummingbird
The bus let us down at the intersection of the highway and the dirt road that led to the national park.  The other group that got off was actually going to a lodge further up the road.  I walked the two kilometers to the National Park in a big hurry because I needed to use the restroom.  There is nothing worse than needing to use the restroom when it is pouring rain and there is running water everywhere.  After using the restroom, I waited at the ranger station for half an hour or so for the rain to abate somewhat.  It was really pouring down.  There were some salvia-like flowers bordering the porch and I saw several hummingbirds coming to visit them.  One of them was the scintillant hummingbird, a tiny thing smaller than some of the insects I have seen flying around.  The scintillant hummingbird is also called the bumble bee hummingbird because it is not much bigger than a bumble bee.  They weigh about 2 grams.

Heliconia
When the rain calmed down to a sprinkle, I took off for the Heliconia trail.  True to its name, the trail was bordered by a profusion of wild heliconias of different types.  It seemed so strange to see them growing wild, outside the confines of a florist or botanical garden.  I heard howler monkeys, but didn’t see any.  The Heliconia trail eventually intersected the road and, after crossing the road, I took the Lava Flow trail that lead slightly uphill, along the flank of the volcano, to an old lava flow.  Most of the trail led through a stand of cane.  Along the way, I saw a large game bird that I believe was a crested guan.  It was about the size of a turkey and acted like one, too, although it wasn’t nearly as ugly.  The lava flow was just the usual jumble of black boulders (I don’t know why I always expect to see smooth stone in a lava flow.), but it offered a beautiful view of the lake and the rain forest below.  From the lava flow, I took the El Ceibo trail back down through the rain forest to the road.  It was raining fairly heavily.  I figured I was getting an authentic rain forest experience.  There was a large Ceiba tree next to the trail.  Just past that, I saw a coati mundi rooting in the leaves.  He wasn’t at all disturbed by my presence and I watched him for some time.  Hiking alone on a rainy day when no one else was around was a great way to see wildlife.  Just past the coati, two reddish shapes dashed across the path in front of me.  From the way they were running, I deduced that they had been coyotes.

View from the Lava Flow
I got back to the park headquarters around 11:30.  The return bus didn’t come until after 2:00, so I took a walk a couple of kilometers further up the road.  The road led through a cane forest and then into the trees after about a kilometer.  I walked until 12:30 and then turned around.  On the way back, I saw an anteater cross the road.  He wasn’t much bothered by me and I got to watch him climb over some branches and then slip into the cane.  I walked down the road, past the park and out to the bus shelter on the highway, arriving there about 1:30.  It was nice to sit down in a dry place.  I waited for the bus until 2:20 or so, enjoying the scenery and watching the swallow who had built her nest inside the bus shelter 
Crested Guan
and wasn’t at all happy that I was there.  True to Central American form, the fare back to La Fortuna was different than the outbound fare.  I only had to pay 1100 colones to get back, or about $2.  La Fortuna is an unattractive town centered around a tidy park and a modern catholic church with pretty, Frank Lloyd Wright-esque stained glass windows with louvers in them.  The town is three streets wide and about a mile long.  It sprung up suddenly when the volcano erupted in 1968 and spawned a tourism boom.  It was very first world and seemed more like somewhere outside of Yosemite than a town in Costa Rica.  It was mostly comprised of cheap motels, overpriced restaurants, tour operators, and souvenir stands.  Having seen the National Park, I was ready to get out of there.
Coati Mund

Ceiba
I got back to the hostel just in time for the USA vs. Portugal World Cup soccer match.  For some reason, the bar and restaurant in the hostel was closed.  I was starving.  I watched the first half of the game at the hostel, but let at halftime to go in search of food.  I watched the second half in a restaurant down the road, where I got some nachos and beer.  The game got off to an inauspicious beginning when Portugal scored a goal in the first five minutes.  USA managed to tie the game before the end of the first half and then scored a second goal in the second half.  It looked like they were going to win until 10 seconds before the end of the game when Portugal managed to tie the game 2 to 2.  It was very disappointing.  I returned to the hostel to work on my blog and try to dry my clothes so I could pack them in the morning.

Monday, June 16, 2014

GRANADA TO OMETEPE

June 13, 2014

My Teacher, Arleen
Parade for Feast Day of San Antonio
Leticia
                                                                                                                              It was sad to say good-bye to Bernarda and Fatima and to the girls who had stayed in their house with me.  We stood around, chatting, in the kitchen so long that I was a couple of minutes late for class.  Friday was my last day of Spanish class and I was really sorry to be leaving so soon, although I didn’t mind leaving Granada.  We spent the morning working on the subjunctive tenses, a subject that I could have reviewed for several weeks without fully grasping all of the subtleties.  It was the feast day of San Antonio and we had to take a break to watch a procession of students from the San Antonio Catholic School pass by.  There were dancing girls and a drum corps.  The morning passed very quickly and soon it was time to say goodbye.  I went up to the pool area because I had heard that Leticia was up there.  There were four very cute ducks begging at the bar.  I stopped to take a picture of them and they attacked me.  One of the males bit my foot several times.  Everyone at the bar was laughing because he really had it in for me.  I finally had to leave.  I found Leticia back inside the hotel and we said our goodbyes.  Then I rushed back to the house to eat one last meal, grab my luggage and set off across Granada to the Tierra Tours office where I met my shuttle to San Jorge.

Attack Ducks
Bus on the Beach at San Jorge
I met a father and son from South Florida on the shuttle bus.  They had been having a wild time in the bars of Granada.  When we got to San Jorge, they headed straight for the nearest beach bar.  After having spent a week without beer, I was quite willing to join them.  The view from San Jorge was fabulous.  “Ometepe,” comes from a Nahuatl word meaning, “two mountains.”  As we drove down the road towards the ferry dock, we suddenly saw the Volcano Concepcion rising out of the water, its crown obscured by clouds.  San Jorge was a pleasant surprise.  There was a wide beach with a scattering of bars and restaurants.  Perhaps even more surprising that the gorgeous view were the numerous wind generators strung along the shore between San Jorge and the far end of the lake.  Lake Nicaragua is one of the low spots in Central America where the wind howls through when there is a difference in pressure between the Caribbean and the Pacific.  These winds are called Papagallo winds.  Sailors have to time their crossings of the Gulf of Papagallo (on the Pacific side of the strip of land between the lake and the ocean) to avoid periods when the winds are strong.  It is a perfect spot to harvest wind energy.

Wind Generators on Lake Nicaragua

The Che Guevara
The day we crossed over to Ometepe would not have been a good day to sail across the Gulf of Papagallo.  It was fairly rough on the 80 minute crossing to Ometepe on the Che Guevara.   We went up to the top deck and were treated with constantly changing views of the two volcanos and their associated clouds.  Unfortunately, towards the end of the crossing, I dropped my camera in the toilet.  I managed to salvage the SD card, but the camera failed to work, even though it was inside its case and didn’t get terribly wet.  When we got to Moyogalpa, the village on Ometepe where the ferry lands, we all disembarked and headed up the street towards where the hotels were.  I left my friends and went to the Hostel Escuela Teosintal, where I got a triple room with air conditioning for $25 per night.  It would have been $15 a night if I hadn’t turned on the air, but the inn keeper didn’t tell me it would be an extra $10 per night until after I had turned it on.  As hot as I had been for some time, I decided it was worth the money to be able to sleep soundly.  I ate an authentic Italian style pizza Margherita and then went back to my hotel for the evening.  Loudspeakers mounted on the top of cars had been a common form of advertising ever since we reached Mexico, but Moyogalpa was the first place I had ever heard an upcoming funeral being announced in that manner.  Nicaraguans use horse drawn hearses, some of which featured pretty etched glass sides.  You could tell which carriages were hearses because the horses were draped in black, crocheted netting.


June 14, 2014

While hotel breakfasts are rarely exciting, they are awfully
Volcan Concepcion
convenient.  As my hostel did not offer one, I had to get up early and go in search of food.  I met up with my friends from Florida at the door to one of the few places that looked open, so we all ate breakfast together.  I had a nice breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast with very tasty coffee mixed with hot evaporated milk.  The place where we ate breakfast also rented scooters and my two friends decided to rent scooters for the day.  I left them there and went off to see what my options might be.  Moyogalpa has numerous tour operators, but most of them were closed during the rainy season.  I did find one called “Little Nathaly” that rented scooters and bicycles and also offered tours to climb the volcanoes and visit other places on the island.  I arranged to go to several places on a scooter with a guide the following day and also talked about climbing volcanoes.  I really wanted to climb Maderas, the smaller peak, but it was a $50 cab ride to the trailhead.  Concepcion was convenient to climb from Moyogalpa, but was a 1600 meter climb.  I agreed to come back and talk about it again the following day, since she needed to gather a group, anyway.  It was also possible to climb just half way up, which sounded like a sensible alternative, although I had never been good at climbing only part way up a mountain.


Church in Moyogalpa
I wanted to spend the day acquainting myself with the island.  I took a bus to Altagracia, the other sizeable village on Ometepe.  I assumed we would circle the north end of the island, which would have been the shortest distance, but instead we headed south and then crossed over the isthmus between the two volcanoes.  The views were pretty spectacular.  Both peaks were shrouded in clouds on the way there.  The highway crossed the air strip, which had temporary rope barriers strung across it to keep vehicles off.  There were gates on either side such as one would find on a drawbridge.  Apparently, the highway is closed when a plane is landing.  That must require advance planning. We passed a couple of the attractions I would be visiting the following day and picked up some backpackers from a finca that included guest accommodations.  
Ox Cart in Altagracia


Altagracia was kind of a disappointment.  While it is the largest town on the island, it was much quieter than Moyogalpa and offered even less in the way of functioning restaurants.  I walked around the town and finally stopped at the only one that had any patrons (two) and had a tasty lunch of a fried chicken quarter with rice, salad, and tostones (deep fried plantain patties.)  Two hungry dogs sat beside my table and stared at my food with big, sad eyes.  The mother dogs are the saddest ones because I know they have hungry puppies somewhere, too.  After lunch, I went inside the restaurant to pay and ended up staying to watch the World Cup match between Uruguay and Costa Rica.  I was happy to see Costa Rica win.  I took the bus back to Moyogalpa after the game.  I was hoping the bus would continue on around the island, but it went back the way it had come.


Volcano Model in Altagracia Park
When I got back to Moyogalpa, I rented a bicycle for a couple of hours to ride around the north end of the island to see what was there.    Moyogalpa consists of a couple of major streets running east from the water about six blocks up to the highway.  It was small enough that some giant speakers mounted on the back of a truck at the top of the hill could be heard throughout the entire town.  Who needs radio?  Moyogalpa had its own soundtrack.  It was a fairly steep slope.  I rode up the main drag and then headed north on the highway.  I climbed up a fairly large hill.  There was a lot of bicycle and motorcycle traffic, but not much in the way of cars, which was nice for cycling.  The road was paved with concrete pavers, like we would use for a driveway in the USA.  After about half an hour, the pavement ended and the road quickly degenerated into a rocky and sometimes muddy track.  I could see why the buses didn’t go that way.  Pigs were rooting in the leaves to the side of the road and bicycles, motorcycles and cars wove all over the road, trying to find the smoothest bits.  There was quite a bit of traffic, despite the condition of the road.  The weather had cleared and I had spectacular vistas of Concepcion.  I was heading downhill and, after about 20 minutes, I started to question the advisability of riding further down a terrible road into a remote area during the late afternoon.  I turned around and headed back.  At one point, I stopped to take a picture and two teenage boys tried to charge me a toll.  I told them I didn’t think so and we all smiled at their teasing me as I rode off.  One of them lost his chain shortly thereafter.  I figured it was his comeuppance.


Piggy Rooting by the Side of the Road
Riding back up the dirt road was easier than I had feared and I made it without further incident.  I then had to ride a little further uphill on the paved road, but most of that was downhill and I covered it quite rapidly.  I was actually going about as fast as possible on those pavers and was passing most of the locals.  I found it hard to believe I had ridden that far uphill without wearing myself out because I hadn’t ridden a bicycle in months.  This was especially true since the first five gears didn’t work on my rental bike.  I got back about 5:00 and had time to catch the second half of the World Cup game between England and Italy back at my hostel.  After the game, I went out for dinner and ate a fish filet in garlic with salad.  It was nice to finally have a meal without rice or beans.

June 15, 2014

I got up early because I needed to meet my guide at 8:00.  I had my last Lara bar for breakfast, since nothing was open at that hour.  The tour company wasn’t really open at that hour, either.  The girl wh
Beach on the Maderas Side of Ometepe
o operated the desk looked like she had just awakened and my guide arrived on time, but then had to eat breakfast before we could leave.  My guide’s name was Jonathan.  He had grown up in Managua and then gone to live in Costa Rica with his sister who had married an American.  He learned English while living with them and then moved to Ometepe, where he had family, to work as a guide.  He was a nice young man who clearly enjoyed nature and history.  We traveled on a 200cc motorcycle that was more of a dirt bike than anything else.  That turned out to be necessary because the second half of our journey to the San Ramon Waterfall was on a tremendously bad dirt road.  It took us a couple of hours to get there.  We followed the same road the bus had taken to Altagracia and then turned off to head onto the Maderas Volcano half of the island.  Jonathon turned off the road and rode along the beach for a good part of the way across the isthmus.  We saw some trippy black and white striped birds that looked kind of like a cross between a bald eagle and a turkey.  Jonathon said they migrated to Nicaragua from Canada.  Someday, I will figure out what they were.  The paved portion ended soon after we reentered the road and we continued on a rocky, rutted track that was muddy in places, but still carried a fair amount of traffic.  At one point we passed an intrepid Blue Bird school bus which actually provided the area with public transportation.   I no longer have as much padding on my rear as I once did and my poor butt was in mortal pain by the time we arrived.  Just about the time I thought I couldn’t take it any longer, we stopped to watch a troop of howler monkeys.  Jonathon was very good at imitating them and the alpha male had to come over to see who was invading his territory.

San Ramon Waterfall
Jonathon with a Crab
The San Ramon Cascada Park charged a 75 cordoba (about $3) admission and I paid an extra 50 cordobas for permission to bring the bike in.  There is a 5km walk up to the falls and we were able to ride about half of it.  Jonathon, however, was a very good driver.  Most of the people with rental motorcycles abandoned them somewhere along the way.  It was extremely steep and rocky.  Eventually, we were forced to leave the bike in a parking area and continue on foot.  We weren’t headed for the top, but we were actually climbing a good ways up the Maderas Volcano.  It was shady, but hot and humid and my shirt was soon soaked through.  My bottle of water had bounced out of the side pocket of my pack somewhere along the way.  We climbed through the forest and Jonathon pointed out lots of creepy crawlies like carnivorous black beetles and millipedes.  We also saw lots of lizards and a troop of capuchin monkeys.  We climbed a couple of kilometers up a steep, rocky path and finally arrived at the foot of a tall, mossy waterfall.  There was a small pool at the base and I waded in and cooled off a bit.  The water was very cold and it was shady there, so I didn’t immerse myself.  There were numerous crabs living in the pool, some of which were quite large.  It was weird to see crabs in fresh water at what must have been 1500 feet above sea level.  Jonathon caught a couple and we had fun taking pictures with them.  


Me with a Big Crab
The hike back down was a bit slippery, but much easier.  I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of getting back on that motorcycle, but I made the best of it.  Jonathon dodged around rocks and wove back and forth across the road, looking for the smoothest parts.  One ill placed mango or cow pie could have been the end of us, but we survived, despite a near miss with a large hog and a close brush with a heifer who changed her direction just as we were about to pass her as we threaded through a herd of cattle.  I got a kick out of a group of horses being herded by a man on a bicycle.  After we had reached the paved part of the road again, Jonathon suddenly pulled over because there was a troop of howler monkeys in the trees right by the road.  We even saw one run across the highway.  Apparently, they don’t usually approach the road, so our sighting them there was unusual.

Sinai Restaurant
Beach at Charco Verde (Volcan Maderas in Rear)
We stopped for lunch at a hotel and restaurant called Sinai.  I had roasted pork, salad, and plantains with pineapple juice.  The only thing I could get Jonathon to let me buy him was a glass of melon juice.  After lunch, our next stop was Charco Verde.  “Charco,” in Nahuatl mean, “puddle.”  Charco Verde was a nature preserve centered around a green pond close to a pretty beach.  The water was very low, despite it being the rainy season, because it has been unseasonably dry this year.  We walked through the forest and observed a very lazy troop of monkeys dangling limply over tree branches, taking a siesta while the babies swung through the branches and, yes, hung from their tails.  There were small green iguana and blue tailed lizards absolutely everywhere.  Black headed trogons flitted through the branches.  It was a pretty spot.  The beach was attractive, also.  Large trees shaded the sand.  It would have been a nice place to swim and laze about in the shade if we had had more time.  As it was, we walked along the beach to the edge of the cove and back, checking out the birds.  We returned via the opposite side of the pond, having taken a circular route.

Charco Verde

Another quick, thankfully fairly smooth, ride brought us to Punta Jesus Maria, our last stop for the day.  Punta Jesus Maria is a long sand spit that forms every year during the dry season at the point where the currents coming around the two sides of the island meet.  We walked out to the point where it was so narrow that I could have stood with a foot in the water on each side.  It must have stretched for at least a quarter of a mile.  One side was choppy, with white caps, and the other side was calm.  The spit acted as a natural breakwater.  According to Jonathon, the two sides are often reversed, depending on the wind and the tide.  Lake Nicaragua is immense.  It is connected to both the Caribbean and the Pacific by rivers.  During the 19th century, one of the reasons that the U.S. Government sent marines to Nicaragua during their civil war was that we were interested in building a canal across Nicaragua.  I still don’t see why the canal was eventually built in Panama.  During the gold rush in California, Cornelius Vanderbilt brought people across Nicaragua via this route, charging them large fees to take this short cut to the gold fields.  Lake Nicaragua has some notable marine life.  It is inhabited by fresh water sharks and prehistoric looking alligator fish with snouts and teeth like alligators and tails and fins like fish.  I saw a skull of one on the beach at Charco Verde.  The sharks used to be more numerous, but were hunted almost to extinction for their fins. 

Jonathon brought me back to Moyogalpa by 4:30 and I had time to rest a bit before going out for dinner.  We agreed to meet the next morning at 6:45 for a climb up the side of Concepcion.  I decided not to try to make it to the top.  A 5000’ climb up a 45 degree scree slope in worn out running shoes seemed like a bad idea.  We decided to scale it back a bit and just do 3000’, making a loop up and over the old lava flows.  We agreed that if the two of us went alone, we could travel at my pace.

June 16, 2014

I almost overslept, since I forgot that my phone was still on California time and my alarm would have gone off an hour late.  Fortunately, I woke up, anyway.  It was hard to sleep once the birds started hopping around on the tin roof.  Jonathon picked me up at 6:45 and together we walked down to the office where he picked up three liters of water and ran out to get a loaf of bread and a bag of beans for his breakfast.  I had gone out for pizza the night before and had had a couple of slices left over for breakfast.

Climbing Through Pastures
We started our climb from Moyogalpa itself, dispelling any hopes I might have had that I wouldn’t have to climb the entire 1,000 meters.  We walked up to the Central Park and then headed up a dirt road behind the church.  We followed the road through plantain plantations until the road became a trail and then gave out altogether.  From that point, we walked along barbed wire fences through pastures, unfastening and refastening the barbed wire as we went.  Finally, we ascended beyond the fenced pastures, through dry forest, although we did continue to see cattle almost all the way.  On Ometepe, at least, they fed two types of cane to cattle instead of hay.  The green kind made the cows fat and the purple kind increased their milk production.  Cattle were often fed a combination of the two.  Many of them looked like they needed more of the green kind.  I often saw cows and even sometime pigs and goats with forked branches secured around their throats.  This was to keep the incorrigible ones from going through wire fences.
Alpine Cows
View Towards Punta Jesus Maria

View from 1,000 Meters
                                                                                                                                                                  From the ferry, we saw huge, eroded ravines in the side of Concepcion.  Once we left the pastures at the halfway point, we climbed up a rocky spine alongside one of these ravines.  It was very steep.  Jonathon said it was a 30 degree slope.  It was at least that steep.  There was no path.  The wind was absolutely howling.  This kept us cool, but nearly caused me to lose my balance several times as I picked my way up the slope.  Clouds were pouring down the mountain.  We climbed up and up.  There was a tremendous view of all the places we had been the day before.  We climbed until we passed a cliff in the forested part of the mountain and then we traversed a bit in that direction.  Finally, about 10:30, we reached the 1,000 meter point.  Clouds were swirling around us, obscuring the view at times.  It looked like rain.  We saw another group who had taken a shorter, steeper route and reached the 1,000 meter point just before us.  They were continuing up the remaining 600 meters to the crater.  Their route looked at least as steep as the way we had just come.  Jonathon wondered why they were taking the trouble, since there would be no view at the top due to the clouds.  I felt fine and was sure I could have made it to the top, but was just as glad not to be going since it looked like it was going to get wet.  We stopped for a few minutes to catch our breaths and eat something and then headed down when we started to get chilly.


Forest of Plantains
We descended via the path the other group had taken upwards.  It was a very steep, direct path through the jungle to the bottom.  The path was wet and covered with leaves.  It looked treacherous, but wasn’t really so bad because there was almost always a tree, vine or root to hold onto.  We saw lots and lots of both howler and capuchin monkeys in the trees.  At one point near the bottom, we came across a ceiba tree that had been buried in a landslide during Hurricane Mitch.  Ceiba trees are immense and usually have no branches for the first 100 feet or so.  This one had been buried in 30 meters of debris and its branches were at ground level.  It still appeared to be thriving, although everything around it was new growth.  After a while, the path passed through plantain trees and eventually became a dirt road.  The dirt road intersected the paved road near where the pavement had given out on my bicycle ride a couple of days earlier.  Jonathon and I walked along the road to the nearest bus shelter and waited for a bus.  We never did see one, but caught a ride back to Moyogalpa in the back of a pickup truck with about 10 other people. 
Concepcion from the Bottom


I said goodbye to Jonathon after giving him a hefty tip, went to the grocery store for some Gatorade, and retired to my room for the afternoon.  I intended to nap, but never actually did.  I ended up watching Netflix on my phone, a great invention for traveling.  The night before, I had realized that I had access to at least some of my music via Amazon’s Cloud Player, which came in handy since my iPod had died back in Mexico.  I downloaded the Prince Royce album that was playing absolutely everywhere in Central America.  Music doesn’t take up much space and makes a great souvenir.  Around 5:15, I went out for one last plate of roasted chicken and then returned to my room to pack and finish up my blog before leaving for Costa Rica the next morning.