A Travellerspoint blog

Surf's up

Adventures in Nicaragua

semi-overcast -29 °C

After a trans-boarder travelathon comprising of 1. gravel road bus - 2. flag down highway bus - 3. change bus again at station - 4. walk over Costa Rica/Nicaragua boarder - 5. Nicaraguan bus - 6. taxi (we were waiting for bus number 5), we arrived in San Juan del Sur, a beautiful beach town on the South Pacific coast of Nicaragua.

Minutes after arriving in San Juan del Sur, we were treated to a tropical thunderstorm. Fortunately it cleared quickly so we could get some local currency out (the 3rd ATM we tried was the first to have cash in it, apparently this phenomenon isn't limited to Cuba), get some much needed washing done, and explore the surf town. The whole town only had about 3 streets and is very cute, although we were warned not to go on the beach at night.

San Juan del Sur has a population of 15,500 people - a shade larger than Oamaru - but unlike the beaches near Oamaru, the water is tropical and the adjacent beaches are some of the most consistent surf beaches in the world. It is a surfers mecca, and was reasonably touristy, but we really liked it, so we stayed for a week! Our hostel also had everything we needed - a kitchen, half a dozen new friends from Latin America and Europe, and some of the cheapest beds in town. We stayed in US$6 bunk beds for the first two nights and then a shared private room for five nights when we were joined by Ash and Bee who we had met in Costa Rica.

Keen to try this world famous surf, we went surfing three days out of the week. We were too tired and sore to do two days in a row, so we surfed on Tues, Thurs and Sat.

On the first surf day we hired the largest surfboards in the shop (on the basis that they would be the easiest) and got a shuttle to a popular nearby beach, Playa Maderas. We made some Australian and American friends on the shuttle who we sat with on the beach when we weren't in the water.

The waves were a bit big for us, especially with our almost novelty sized surfboards which limited our ability to dive underneath the waves. Fortunately the whitewash traveled a long way along the beach so we used that to learn to surf. In the famously consistent wave conditions and with 9 feet surf boards, nothing but standing up multiple times on our first day would be a success. Laura was the more natural, but we were both able to stand up reasonably often and ride the whitewash into the beach.

Step 1, CHECK. It is possible for us to stand up.
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On our other two surf days Ash and Bee joined us, and we went to the smaller Playa Romanso, with more manageable boards at a little over 7 feet. By our second day at Romanso, Laura and I were standing consistently on our smaller boards, able to turn, and even caught a handful waves before they broke. We are already looking forward to our next planned surfing days in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
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Step 2, CHECK. We are good at standing, and it is possible for us to catch as yet unbroken waves.
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Two interesting parts of our days at Romanso were the contour of the beach and the surf shop dudes who shuttled us there and back.

The beach was heavily sloped and stony in patches, meaning that at high tide you couldn't catch a wave after it breaks, or you'd find yourself dragged through the stones. At high tide I had one terrible run of about half an hour with no waves, followed by a couple of dumpings into the ground. However, the waves were a friendly 3 feet for the whole day, and after the tide went out further we could avoid the stones. I had a dream run right at the end of the day, catching time after time. Laura and Bee even got some videos of me. Yay!

To surf shop dudes apparently pick up "at 3pm" means "3.45pm" the first day we asked, and the second time we asked for pick up "at 3pm" the meaning of this magic phrase changes to "some other dude you don't know will be sitting on the beach at 5pm and you have to go and introduce yourself". Even then, the car was full with some friends of the surf shop guys, so Laura and I handed over our boards and got a ride with an Israeli couple from our hostel, Dee and Lucy, who had a car at the beach that day. Dee even spotted a whole family of monkeys in the trees on our way back.

On one of the days we weren't surfing, we walked with a Swiss friend, Maurice, from our hostel (who has been travelling for a year and a half) to the Jesus of the Mercy statute (26m, the 12th biggest Jesus statue in the world) which overlooks the beach at San Juan.
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On nearly every day in San Juan we visited the local market to buy fruit. Bananas are by far the cheapest in Nicaragua, so we enjoyed Banana and Oreo milkshakes several times (yum). I also spent many hours at the computer at our hostel uploading photos from our cameras and my GoPro knock-off (the SJCam4000 wifi or as I like to call it, "NoGoPro"). We now feel good that (some of) our memories are stored securely in the ethereal, all-knowing "cloud".

On our final full day in San Juan del Sur, the four of us signed up for "Sunday Funday", the infamous weekly pool party shared between a few of the San Juan del Sur hostels. Well. I've got the t-shirt, and I did really appreciate my overpriced hamburger at the second hostel. The first pool was beautiful and right on the main San Juan beach. The sun was blaring as much as the music and the crowd's energy matched the visual atmosphere. The party probably wasn't as crazy as some other weeks as it rained significantly from about 6 or 7pm, but we met a huge number of young people from around the world and saw a fair number of drunkenly dancing (or swimming) travelers.

The next day Laura and I grabbed a ride with Dee and Lucy who were also going to catch a ferry on Lake Nicaragua to Ometepe Island. The island is home to twin volcanoes.
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On the ferry trip over, we had some stunning views of Ometepe Island, or, as I like to call it, "Tracy Island". To me, the private airport runway makes the island look like something out of Thunderbirds. Can you see it?
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On the island we stayed at an eco-hostel, El Zopilote, which was big on organic, home-grown food. The hostel was on the lower slopes of the smaller volcano, and all of the buildings were spread out in the forest. It was also very very popular, and it was difficult to find a room - when we arrived, we had the choice of hammocks (a very hippy way to sleep!) or a private cabin up in the hills.
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We had a long walk every time we came and went from our cabin to the main cafe/check in area, but it was relaxing sleeping with the animal sounds all around us.
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The cabin consisted of a basic entry room and a loft with a bed, complete with mosquito net - which we definitely needed!
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That night we went for a little explore, buying dinner from a family across the road who had a dozen animals running around in their small front yard with no fences or ropes. We then had a look at another hostel down by the lake edge and enjoyed a swim in the lake in between two quiet fishing dinghies, with the picturesque volcano in the background.
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On our one full day on Ometepe, we both started the day with a yoga class, read our books, did some Spanish homework and even had an hour each of Spanish lessons from a local lady. Laura was keen enough for another yoga class at 4pm before we took part in the pizza night. We didn't make time to climb either of the volcanoes - which we understand were very challenging and beautiful - but we made the most of El Zopilote instead. We would have loved to have had more time on the beautiful island, but we left the next day, after visiting the Ojo de Agua ("Water Eye"), a very pretty swimming hole.
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After the relaxing swim to start our day, the remainder of it contained transport stresses and hot, sticky bus rides, as we made our way to Granada.
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The focus in Granada was its pretty colonial town, which we walked around the next morning before we were to catch another pair of buses, to Leon, where we have planned more surfing and volcano boarding! Unfortunately, we only stayed one night in Granada, although we did find it very pretty.

After our early morning colonial city walk, Laura went to the markets to buy a skirt and I had a cut-throat shave at the barbers. We then climbed the tower of the cathedral right next door to our hostel, giving us a clear view to Lake Nicaragua and of Granada city.
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Posted by nzdora 20:26 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Pura Vida ("Pure Life")

4 days in Costa Rica

rain 24 °C
View Team Dora explores Latin America on nzdora's travel map.

We now bring you a shorter blog to contrast with our recent mammoth effort about Cuba.

Costa Rica is one of the most developed tourist destinations in Central America. We would have loved to explore Costa Rica for more than 4 days, but its beauty and excellent tourist infrastructure are packaged up with a heafty price tag. We decided to fit as much as possible into a few days, to guard against a ballooning budget.

From Cuba, we flew into Costa Rica's capital, San Jose and immediately boarded a bus through the mountainous rainforest to tourist centre La Fortuna. From Fortuna we would be well-placed to visit volcanoes, animal sanctuaries and learn about the rainforest. However, the first priority on the evening of arrival at our hostel was to catch up with the outside world after our "off the grid" adventure in Cuba.

The staff at our hostel were very helpful at offering advice and at booking activities. We weren't totally convinced on the pricing scheme, however. The more activities we booked, there was a larger "discount" to us - but when we asked around later, our final prices were equal to the normal price others had paid. Nonetheless, everyone in the tourist industry was very helpful and the hostel staff suggested excellent tours to experience everything we sought to in the short amount of time. We left out horse tours (we had our full in Cuba), kayaking and white water rafting - looking instead to focus our precious tourist dollars on the uniquely Costa Rican options.

On our first full day we were picked up in a minibus with eight others for the "Two Volcano Tour". The famous Arenal volcano (active from 1968 until 2010) is officially unable to be hiked (although this is not illegal), but there are two other long-incative sister volcanoes nearby, and many people hike Cerro Chato for great views of Arenal.
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Our tour was part hike and part science lesson. Our guide pointed out some of the intense biodiversity in the Costa Rican rainforest, showed us some poisonous plants and animals and explained several medicinal uses of plants including antiseptics, antidotes, nail polish and insect repellent.
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We walked up one side of Cerro Chato, then down into the crater, up the other side of the crater, down the mountain, then to the monitoring station for activity from Arenal.
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The highlight of the day was the opportunity to swim in a volcano!! Cerro Chato has been inactive for 3,500 years, and has since collected a cold lake in its crater. Coming over the ridge of the crater, we were able to see the green water of the volcano lake for the first time.
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Following the visit to the Arenal monitoring station, the tour finished with at a natural hotpool, where we had a version of the full spa treatment - we were served a traditional Rum drink and had our faces replenished with mud from the riverbed! It was a fun way to relax with our new friends after a full day hike.

During the hike we chatted with the other people on the tour. Everybody was interesting and very fiendly. A Mexican couple gave us some advice for our return to Mexico, and we made friends with Ash and Bee, an English/Australian couple with similar travel plans to us. We have since met up with Ash and Bee again in Nicaragua.

The next day in Fortuna we walked to a mid-sized wildlife sanctuary. On the walk there we crossed this bridge which left our engineer a little concerned (the sign did say "puente mal" meaning "bad bridge").
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Our guide explained their conservation efforts and pointed out the frogs, iguanas, birds, sloths, crocodiles and the Jesus Christ lizard that runs on water. Amazingly, none of the animals have been introcuced (aside from some management of the mating of the butterflies) - all of them have begun to appear since the wildlife park begun to plant local rainforest plants just 15 years ago.
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We heard an iguana fall out of a tree (crash!), saw a tucan and a number of other birds, and learnt about the habits of the locally famous sloths (they only leave the tree once a week - to do their droppings at ground level so that predators are not attracted by the smells if their droppings fall from the tree).
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Sloth snoozing in her tree.

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We decided to not skimp too much on Costa Rica and opted to also visit the "Cloud Forest" at Monteverde. The cloud forest's name comes from the difference from the way in which this forest receives its water. In contrast to rain forests, these forests receive their moisture directly from the clouds - which pass through at forest level, wetting the environment directly.

To get to Monteverde we took the "Jeep Boat Jeep" - in reality much less exciting than its name - consisting of a mini bus to the nearby Lake Arenal, a ferry across the lake, and a minibus to our hostel in Monteverde. The ferry across lake arenal was picturesque.
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During the standard 15 minute food/bathroom break at a tourist centre we found the Argentina v All Blacks world cup rugby game on live TV (once we cheekily changed the channel) - we didn't expect to find it in Central America, let alone during our "Jeep Boat Jeep".

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Once we arrive that afternoon we raced off to the "Extremo" canopy ziplining experience. This consisted of 20 ziplines starting with short trips through to a kilometer long "superman" flight over the cloud forest canopy.

To give us a real adrenalin rush, we also jumped the "Tarzan Swing".

At 6pm that night we had Monteverde's version of the wildlife sanctuary tour - this time a night tour of the cloud forest. Many animals are more active at night time, and in particular at shortly after twighlight. We were a little worried when the first 3 minutes of the tour yielded a poisonous snake in a tree as well as a large tarantula on a log. The guide warned us not to touch anything - and we listened after that!
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The highlight of the night was finding a sloth on the ground doing his business. It was amazing to watch its slow, clumsy movements on the ground transform to an assured (although still slow) climbing technique as he chose a new tree for his home this week.
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We also saw the cat-like relative of the racoon, called the Kinkajou (which was also the tour company's name) and the red-eyed tree frog.
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The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn to take 4 busses and a taxi in order to get to our destination in Nicaragua. The transition was reasonably straightforward, and although the land crossing of the boarder was convoluted and a little confusing, we helpfully made friends with a British girl who knew more Spanish than us (and she received some very helpful tips about the boarder crossing from a local on our final bus in Costa Rica. We found out later that the friendly local wanted to marry her).

We arrived in the early afternoon at our first stop in Nicaragua, the beautiful beach town San Juan del Sur. Now that we are in Nicaragua and have some more time and money (relatively), we'll get into this more in our next blog!

Posted by nzdora 15:39 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (1)

Escape from Guantanamo Bay

(Just kidding. We did escape from other parts of Cuba... But didn't get to the infamous secret prison part)

overcast 30 °C
View Team Dora explores Latin America on nzdora's travel map.

Warning: get your cup of coffee (or rum) ready now as this is a huge post because we have been in outer space for the last 3 weeks (or perhaps merely in Cuba with no Internet access)!!!!

But first, our last few days in Mexico.
Guanajuato was a really beautiful city, and I'm disappointed we only had one day there. We wandered through the steep cobbled streets and climbed to the statue La Pipila which had an amazing view of the town which mirrored the view from our hostel on the opposite hillside.
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We grabbed some cervecas and headed back to our accommodation to watch the sun set over the city.
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It was Saturday night so we played cards and had some more beers with a big group of intentional travellers at the hostel. Disappointingly we didn't seem to be fluent in Spanish at this point, despite our recent 5 day course.

The next morning we headed to an old silver mine, the original source of Guanajuato's wealth. In classic Mexico style, no one turned up until 30 minutes after it was due to open, at which point we were regarded suspiciously for loitering at the entrance. The tour was...... interesting, our guide didn't speak any English so we did our best to get the gist of what he was saying but also did a fair bit of nodding while not understanding everything! The mine had a 200m drop at one location which naturally we dropped rocks down to listen for the splash. The whole thing was very casual, with our guide bashing pieces of rock from the walls for us to take. Unfortunately none of these souvineers had obvious silver deposits.
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That afternoon we caught a bus to San Miguel de Allende, a similarly beautiful colonial town where we stayed with a family friend of David's, Jackie. She was an energetic and fun host, and we rushed off to see a museum about the history of the town as soon as we arrived.
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After that we got some enormous margaritas, had a beer on her balcony, then headed to her place where a chance encounter ended up with us spending a pleasant evening at her neighbours'.
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The next morning we headed to a cactus garden, which was very pretty and David got a haircut and a shave for only $5 (not at the cactus garden - at Jackie's neighbours front room in San Miguel)!
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Then we had to dash to catch a bus to Mexico City before flying out to Cuba!!!!

Customs and immigration were a breeze and we were soon listening to some banging Cuban beats with a friendly taxi driver on our way to our accommodation in Havana, where we were greeted with a mojito. What a fantastic first impression!!!! The place we stayed was so nice we came back there for our final day in Cuba, and the lady who ran it was really friendly and helped us book accommodation at local houses ("casas particolares") at each of the towns for the rest of our stay. Our accommodation was on the 11th floor and had quite a spectacular view as not many other buildings were as tall.
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In Cuba we had nothing but time, and everything is at a slow pace - on island time. We made sure we maintained our exercise regime! And here's the view from our lovely place in Havana itself (after a run on day two):
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On our first day in Havana we met Rosina, yet another one of David's family friends who was visiting Cuba with her Cuban husband (local insight!) and 7 year old son. They kindly helped us find somewhere to use the internet (to load money on our credit cards) and gave us invaluable advice. We went to an amazing beach with white sand and clear blue water, where we paid $4 for a bottle of Havana club (Cubans drink it straight but we added mango juice) and generally had a great time.

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That evening Rosina took us to a local restaurant in someone's front room where coffee was 4 cents and meals were $1!!!
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The next day we got an open air bus around Havana which was a nice easy way to see the city. We met Rosina and her family for dinner, where there was a really good band playing. A few of the patrons danced salsa to a couple of songs, including Rosina and her husband (they are dance teachers back in NZ). We went to a salsa club they recommended to try out the basic steps they had taught us the day before. The other dancers were excellent, and we were shockingly bad but it was fun people-watching anyway.
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We spent quite a bit of time wandering through old Havana, tried delicious Cuban chocolate, and went to the Museum of the Revolution. While it was very pro-Fidel Castro and glossed over some areas such as the effects of the embargo, it told the story reasonably accurately.
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Our next stop was a tiny town called Viñales in a beautiful valley. The valley has sheer cliffs on a number of nearby sudden mountains, visable from our dinner stop:
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It was like stepping back in time, with most transport via horses, and chickens and pigs in the backyard of a lot of places. The town was also paradoxically, extremely touristy, with 80% (honestly, I am not exaggerating) of houses in the town centre advertising accommodation. Here was our casa and family:
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The funniest thing we saw was a guy with a house and cart who had been pulled over by a policeman.
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The chickens look very different to the fattened versions we are used to.
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We did a horseback riding tour of the valley, which included a cave tour, and a visit to tobacco and coffee farms. It was good fun, even if neither of us was very comfortable on horseback and it wasn't the right season to see either crop growing. On the way back we must have been a little late because our guide kept getting our horses to start trotting which was at the upper limit of our horsemanship. The guide would slap our horses and yell their names in a high, stereotypical Latin American voice for my horse Mojito (moHEEEto), and David's Palomu (PalooMUU), which would get them to race along out of our control. Particularly funny to see each other bouncing out of our saddles to the soundtrack of "moHEEEto... moHEEEto... PalooMUU".

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Tobacco farmer explained the cigar process.

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Cave tour - a bear rock. David translated from Spanish for the Germans whose English was much better than Spanish.

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View of impressive sudden mountains after the cave tour, and then back on the horses.
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As part of the horse trek we also went for a swim in a small lake to cool off.

The next day we were pretty sore so got a taxi ride with a couple of Germans (who we met the previous day, all four of us clinging desperately to our horses) to see rum and tobacco factories and a science museum in the nearby town of Pinar del Rio. The rum factory turned out to be a shed where they infused guava flavour into rum and the science museum consisted of some stuffed animals and a t-rex statue. At least the tobacco factory tour was good. Rows of workers rolled cigars, with each worker being expected to produce a minimum of 100 cigars per day. Each cigar is tested for air flow through the cigar, length and weight before it is allowed to be sold as an official Cuban cigar. We weren't allowed to take photos in the tobacco factory but here is one which is plagiarised from a Google image search.

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Seahorses outside the science museum were the most exciting part aside from the t-rex statue.

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The rum factory.

Beers with the Germans at the end of a long day (during the afternoon rainstorm).
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Each afternoon at around 3 it started raining heavily in the microclimate of Viñales, with thunder and lightening. We located ourselves safely in a bar for the afternoon. Unfortunately it soon cleared so we felt obliged to go for a walk through the valley, where a stray dog adopted us. We couldn't get rid of him so we went back home and hid in a bar until he left.
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The next day we went on to Cienfuegos. It is yet another colonial town, this time built on the wealth from sugar plantations. The old centre of town was very grand, but we were disappointed to be told that the water in the bay, although picturesque, was not clean enough to swim in.

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Having had a look at the old town Square, the next day we tried to see some attractions. It was a Wednesday, so the Dolphin Park was closed. The ferry across the bay to the old fort ruins was broken, but at least the naval history museum was open, although only the external displays - the buildings were closed! Also the archaeological museum was undergoing renovations... To top the day off when we got a pizza there were two options: cheese or onion - but they were out of onion. At this point we cut our losses and sought reprieve from the afternoon heat poolside at a local hotel.

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Naval museum exterior.

In tourist areas such as town centers, a lot of people would start conversations with us which was a good way for us to practice our Spanish but inevitably led to a request for soap, clothes, money or taxis. That evening we explored the Peninsula near our casa and saw the sunset through the clouds.
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I realise this makes Cienfuegos sound like an awful city but I think we just had some bad luck, which admittedly happens more often in Cuba than elsewhere. It has a lot of parks and shoreline, which were so nice we went for runs both mornings. It was also a lot less touristy than the other cities we went to and so it felt more authentic.

Next we took a short bus ride to Trinidad. There are no words too positive to describe our hosts at our casa, Pedro and Carmen. They spoke very little English, but spoke Spanish slowly which was a godsend and we spent a lot of time talking with them. Pedro was a real joker and he and David really hit it off.

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The centre of town was stunning, with most of the town's architecture dated from the 1800's. We looked through a couple of museums (no photos of the displays as that doubled the entrance price), one of which had a tower with great views of the town - we did get photos up there!
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The next day we got a bus to the beach on a nearby peninsular (Playa Ancon). The beach was nice, but the water was so warm it wasn't much of a relief from the heat. Unfortunately yet again I wasn't particularly impressed - NZ beaches spoil us I know. This beach had seaweed all through the water, and much of the peninsula was the territory of hotels. It did look great as someone had obviously raked up the seaweed deposited from the previous high tide so the beach looked like just white sandy shores.
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David aims to do a beer commercial in each country.

That night we went to a bar ("Casa de La Musical") with a live band and tried the traditional Trinidad cocktail which is rum, honey and lime.
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Casa de La Musica during the day (at night these steps are full of people enjoying outdoor salsa and cocktails.

Suckers for punishment, we went horseriding again the next day. This put our first attempt in Viñales to shame, as this time we spent a whole day on horseback. We rode through a valley to a beautiful waterfall and pool for swimming where the water was actually cold which was a first for Cuba. On our way we stopped at a country house for lunch and tried juice squeezed fresh from the sugar cane. No one liked it much, it had a bit of an earthy taste.

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The waterfall swim, and our guide Jorje.

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Sugarcane being squeezed, and our juice.

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Despite it being a lovely day out, horses are an unlikely feature in our future - it's just not an efficient way to get around.

The next day we tried to use different muscles by going on a bike ride instead. We went on a round trip of about 30 kms to a valley where there used to be a lot of sugar mills, powered by slave labour. We climbed a massive tower which had some stunning views of the area.
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Feeling the heat after biking up the hill.
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Climbing the tower and the view from the top
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That afternoon we recovered in our room, reading and studying Spanish, more washing (we have less than 10kg of gear each so there is a regular cycle of wearing and washing our four ish outfits), and some solid work on the blog.

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Our gear (aka what Laura took on holiday).

That night we ate dinner cooked by our hosts. Laura got the lobster which was outstanding, although the entire meal was delicious, probably the best meal we had in Cuba.
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Our next stop was Varadero, a 20km peninsular which is a major tourist hot spot. We had heard it was extremely touristy and so only had allowed two nights there. Our accommodation was really nice, although it was more like a hotel than a casa which made us appreciate the lovely people we stayed with throughout Cuba all the more. We headed straight to the beach which was definitely one of the nicest beaches I've ever been to. White sand, and bright blue clear water with no one trying to sell you anything. The beach had a very gentle slope and eventually gave way to the deep blue of the ocean. This water was a welcome temperature, a nice refreshing cool to relieve us from the hot days we've had through the entire trip. I think this might be the best beach I've ever been to! Hopefully we'll see many more like it.

We continued our tradition of looking for what are called "peso places" to eat - Rosina had shown us right at the start the kinds of places serving food at local prices and in local currency. We hadn't expected Varadero to turn these up, being a resort haven, but we found huge plates of meat, rice, beans and avocado just a block from our place.
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Some peso places sold pizzas for $0.30.
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We had also toyed with the idea of paying extra for an all-inclusive resort stay but couldn't find a room at any of the (relatively) cheap all-inclusive places. Instead we treated ourselves to cocktails with our dinners in Varadero, and took some beers with us on our full day in town.

We went on a bus tour of the narrow strip of hotels and Beach, taking photos and enjoying the drinks we had brought. We hopped off to see a small but well-known cave which is home to drawings up to 2,000 years old, as well as different types of bats and cockroaches.
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Our time in Cuba was almost at an end but we were sent off in true rainy season style with two huge thunderstorms in Varadero, one during our second-to-last supper, and a lightening storm in Havana the night before our flight to Costa Rica.
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Overall Cuba was a fascinating and amazing but also frustrating and contradictory country to visit. I think the best way to outline this is by giving a number of examples, such as:
Lack of machinery meaning people cut grass, turn fields etc via manual labour,

Propaganda posters, while not as widespread as I expected, are definitely present and the people are very patriotic, making street art and graffiti such as this:
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Supermarkets are often sold out of basic items such as water, and are entirely devoid of fruit, vegetables and snack foods. The first time we entered a Cuban supermarket we were starving but walked out empty handed as there was NOTHING to eat. We even contemplated a sachet of something like raro. They always have an extremely comprehensive and well stocked spirits section though.
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Customer service was consistently bad outside of tourist industries. State employees are paid next to nothing and given no incentive to do a good job.
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The double currency system here means that tourist dollars are highly sought after. As an example, accommodation for both of us in a casa was typically around $25 CUC (fixed as equivalent to $25USD) per night, which is almost 1 month's salary in a government job. Therefore, a crazy number of people would compete for our patronage which got very tiring after a while. Hopefully it balances out soon, but housekeepers and taxi drivers are currently earning more than doctors.

In the picture below, casa owners trying to win the patronage of any wary travelers who didn't book ahead, or even who were silly enough to call out "casa Nancy" (to which four or five casas would say together "I'm casa Nancy, you've booked with me")
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Taxis are often shared. Taxi drivers will pull over to pick up more passengers and some drive set routes and would just drop us off the closest they came to our destination. There may have been a system but we never figured it out.

Also, between towns we almost always paid a tiny bit extra for door to door taxis from one casa to our next. You generally add $3 per person to the bus price to get this - and we made some tourist friends that shared our rides in between towns. One taxi driver had this odd seatbelt/handbrake system:

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While Central American fashion is generally quite conservative, in Cuba anything goes. Nothing is too short, too brighr or too tight - and that's just the boys!

All in all, Cuba is definitely a country which I'd recommend as a travel destination. It was the biggest break from technology of my life, and the high cost of imported food meant that packaged and processed foods are rare. The extra time meant we swam wherever possible, read a lot of books, drank a lot of mojitos and restarted our morning runs, which had slipped of the radar in Mexico.

Posted by nzdora 05:57 Archived in Cuba Comments (1)

Bienvenido a Latinoamerica

Mexico Part I - Centro

overcast 25 °C
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Our introduction to Mexico has been a shock to the system, but a good one. Our ear is beginning to tune to Spanish (very slowly) - with the majority of the last 10 days so far dedicated to improving our understanding of the language. These 10 days can be split roughly into: arrive in Mexico City, relax in Ajijic, and improve our Spanish in Guadalajara.

Arrival - Travel & Mexico City

After a problem-free three weeks in Japan, we had our first travel mix-up on our final morning. On our way to the airport we had to change trains a couple of times. After exiting one, we crossed the platform to see if the next train we wanted was immediately opposite - but only one of us boarded! The train door rudely ended our conversation and the bemused look on Laura's face told the whole story as the train accelerated out of the station. Luckily we met up down the line and arrived at the airport with no problems.

We had expected much much less from budget airline Aero Mexico. In fact, we saved our last Yen to buy up a stock of Japanese food to last the 13 hour direct flight to Mexico. We were pleasantly surprised. Check in was very easy (and trilingual), the plan was a tidy dreamliner, the free movie and entertainment selection more than adequate, and the food and drink free and very good. Now we had a large pile of Japanese food...

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We allowed just one night and one day in Mexico City - speaking bits and pieces of Spanish, getting used to food with some spice (we found no spicy food in Japan), and exploring the central city. Our focus fell on the area surrounding the central square known as "Zócalo". We took a quick look at the parlimentary grounds, which included some historical displays on the first president of Mexico at the time of the adoption of their current constitution and republic, Benito Juarez (the airport is also named after him).
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The square is of particular significance as its location essentially replaced the main square for the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. Immediately behind the current colonial Spanish square there lies a sigificant ruin comprising nine iterations of a large temple dating back 900 years, Templo Mayor (I say "nine iterations" because every hundred years or so the existing temple would be built over by a new iteration - I guess it is really a nine-layered onion temple). This location was the centre of the Aztec universe. Today it has an interesting museum comprising both outdoor excavated ruins and an indoor museum containing artifacts and explanations. We stayed several well-spent at the Templo Mayor area.
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The huge square is also home to the largest Cathedral in the Americas - no big deal (I"m kidding - it was impressive to find so much so close) and to a massive Mexican flag. On the day we were there, they were also erecting a stage for a music concert.
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After exploring Zocalo, we walked to the nearby Palacio de Bellas Artes for a look at the beautiful building housing art displays and opera performances alike. We also wandered through an amazing crafts market.
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We booked a secure taxi to take us to the Bus Terminal late that evening so that we could catch an overnight, first class bus to Guadalajara. We managed to do so without incident (other than our Spanish) and the trip included food and movies etc, although we tried to sleep as much as possible.

Relaxing - Ajijic & Lake Chapala

As preperation for the mentally intense week with a Mexican homestay family during our Spanish course we did the exact opposite - relaxing courtesy of a friend of David's parents at a lakeside "Gringo" town full of ritirees from USA and Canada. It was difficult to see whether the main language in shops and restaurants here was Spanish or English (or Spanglish).

Our family friend Ceri was very helpful and generous and arranged for an appartment in the complex where he lives - and picked us up from the bus. We had a spacious two-bedroom appartment to call our own, use of the pool, and as much avocado as we could eat (I was particularly excited by this, although Laura rolled her eyes at my enthusiasm). Ceri was also kind enough to stock the fridge with breakfast supplies.
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Our time in Ajijic forced us to relax - read a book, take a swim, and look at the hummingbirds.
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Ceri enjoyed showing us around the townships of Ajijic and Chapala, two of a rolling series of lakeside towns filled with Americans and Candians. We ate out most of the time and for more than reasonable prices on the whole. The fare was more American than Mexican, although there were more local options available on the menu.
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Ceri and friends out at same restaurant.
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Ceri very helpfully answered all our questions and gave us tips on survival in Mexico as a foreigner. All three of us enjoyed it immensely and at least two of us (I can't vouch for Ceri) came out of the three days much more relaxed.

Improving our Spanish

After Ajijic, we took a 45 minute bus back up to Mexico's second largest city, Guadalajara. Our five days in this cultural metropolis consisted of staying with a local Mexican family, four hours of one-on-one Spanish classes at the language school in the mornings, returning to our family for "lunch" at 2pm, and then activities in the afternoon.

Typically Mexicans take a large breakfast and a late lunch which serves as the main meal. They then have the afternoon at their leisure for performing daily tasks, seeing friends or cultural events. There is no evening "meal" - instead the large lunch gets them through until an hour before bed, when they have a small snack including a hot drink, fruit and sweet breads at around 10pm. Our host family were really nice, as was their house.
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Each afternoon we had a different activity:

Monday - arsenal were playing liverpool just after our course finished, so we watched the game. Guess whose idea that was! We also had a look around Tlaquepaque, the part of Guadalajara we were staying in. It is a nice and safe part of the city and we had no issues with safety.
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Tuesday - a trip into Guadalajara for a look at an old orphanage with art exhibitions and Sistene Chapel - style painted rooves.
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After the orphanage we induged in an ice cream and some traditional local food with one of our Spanish teachers, before making our way to the Mexican wrestling show Lucha Libre. It was quite an experience, very contrived but still requiring a lot of athleticism and the crowd taught us a few choice Spanish swearwords!

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Wednesday - we went on a free walking tour of tlaquepaque. We were the only ones on the tour so our guide took it in english. He was really nice and told us a lot about the history of the town, so after the tour we bought him a beer. It turns out he is a lawyer in the mornings but that doesn't pay enough so he works in the information centre in the afternoons.

Thursday - a hike down a canyon which Laura described as "the grand canyon with trees" to a (very dirty) river and an impressive bridge. The hike back up was understandably much more difficult, but we rewarded ourselves with a sweet drink of milk, honey and banana. Our guide for the walk was the owner of the language school - a Dutchman who has been in Mexico for a decade and a half. We were also accompanied by a young (and obsenely fit) Mexican lad from a local school and a middle-aged Mexican friend of our guide's.
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Friday - back to Guadalajara for the Mariachi festival. We had scouted some free concerts in one of the main squares of Guadalajara and we sat in the shade listening to the music, reading our books and eating icecream.
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Posted by nzdora 22:05 Archived in Mexico Comments (1)

Farewell to Japan

rain 28 °C
View Team Dora explores Latin America on nzdora's travel map.

Our final Japan blog post begins with one of those moments which is hilariously funny in the light of day, but at the time it was devastating.

Return to Tokyo
Ambitiously, we decided to forego the usual comforts of privacy, space and a bed with the hopeful prize of a spot at the fish auction held at the Tsukiji Fish Market early on Saturday morning. The famous markets hold two fast-paced, confusing auctions in the early hours of the day, earlier than public transport runs in Tokyo, and to get a seat you must arrive at around 5am. In order to get there in time, we would have to find accomodation nearby - something which we discovered a fortnight ago was sparce or expensive on all of our Tokyo dates. Laura decided we should stay at a Manga cafe - a kind of library comprised of comic books and cubbyholes fitted with computers and desk chairs.

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Laura had around 90 minutes sleep and I had none (I gave up due to the cramped space, the loud classical music and the odd noises from other cubicles - as well as the availability of internet), before we packed up at 4am and walked around the corner to the markets.

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Unfortunately, they were closed for Obon week and we were in downtown Tokyo at 5am with no transport, all our gear and exhausted. We took an early breakfast at the world's busiest intersection (nearly empty at 6.30am on a Saturday). Fortunately we did get back to this intersection at Shibuya later in our trip!

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The rest of Saturday comprised of recovery and people watching. We went to Yoyogi park for a nap, some yoga, and to see any crazy locals. We did see three groups of keen locals acting out role play battles, practising for West Side Story (we think), and chanting in unison. We then took a walk through the Meiji Temple - nothing special after everything in Kyoto - and a look at the Harajuku area (where we did spot a few crazily dressed young girls as well as a lot of high end fashion shops).

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Torii gate to Meiji temple

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Harajuku district

Ninja Sunday
To kick off on Sunday we took a trip to an entertainment complex downtown, taking a single ride on their 130km/h roller coaster and having some more people watching.

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Laura found a moomin cafe. What isa moomin?

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We took a good long look at the one quarter of the Imperial Palace open to the public - the East Gardens. The gardens were themselves beautiful and very large but the day was very hot. We had plenty of time before our next destination so we enjoyed reading in the leafy gardens and Laura even tried a spot of shopping on the way (nb she didn't mention the shopping she did in Yokohama but she does seem to enjoy even just browsing).

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We had booked a dinner and show as a belated birthday celebration for Laura. Ninja Akasaka was a premium offering of fine food served over eight courses, waiting staff dressed as Ninjas and a private magic show during the meal, all housed in an underground not-so-secret Ninja dungeon. It was easily our most expensive meal but it was well worth it as a birthday treat as we were wowed by both the cuisine and the very imprseeive magic show, culminating in the Ninga folding the 1000 yen tip I gave him and the unfolding to reveal a 10,000 yen note instead (which he kept). This followed impressive card tricks and slight of hand involving cups and appearing/disappearing rubber balls. The Ninja Master was trained well. We definately enjoyed the night out and returned home late, full and satisfied.

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Odaiba
The weather forecast was poor, so we set out for the man made entertainment island of Odaiba, containing shopping, entertainment, the statue of liberty and Joypolis, and connected to the mainland by the rainbow bridge.

We took a special train line over the rainbow bridge (not lit up for us) and drank in the views of Tokyo and Odaiba afforded by the 270 degree turn the train makes to climb to the level of the bridge. On arrival the lines for the indoor arcade style theme park, Joypolis, went well out the door, down the steps and onto the street. The weather had given everyone the same idea.

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As the other immediate attractions were all busy (legoland, an illusion museum and a Madame Tussauds) so we explored the district, taking a look at the Statue of Liberty, a giant Gundam anime robot which probably means something to someone (Kushant? Alice?) , the informative and attractive National Museum of Emerging Science, and the Toyota "Mega Web" (historic cars, showroom, test driving and technology display).

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In the evening we returned to Shibuya to view in full bloom what we had seen as a deserted crosswalk. We met Laura's former colleague there for dinner at the famous dog statue - a common meeting point.

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Yomiuri
The weather forecast having slightly bettered for our final full day in Tokyo, we elected to see the theme park side of Tokyo. Instead of lining up all day at one of the disney parks (we will come back in the off season one day), we tried a bit of everything at Yomiuriland - including a Sealion show, a handul of roller coasters, and a water park. The water park was packed due to the heat of summer, but the theme park was relatively free - we took a ride on the headline coaster four times over the day, and tried most rides once.

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In the evening we had standing tickets to Japan's biggest sport - and its biggest rivalry in that sport: baseball at the Tokyo Dome between the Giants and the Tigers. The house was packed and the crowd passionate, with the supporters knowing ten or twelve unique chants.

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We also much preferred this than the American sports we had seen live - there being no booing or disrespect for the opposition. The chants were incredible and I was glad to be wearing orange (the colour worn by the home crowd - the Yomiuri Giants (somehow linked to the suburb the theme park is based in). Despite being on our feet all day (and in reality all month), we caught our final train home to the AirBnB accomodation we have been staying at to tidy up and plan our next stop - Mexico (Part 1 of 2 Mexico adventures).

Up next
The next blog will be brought to you from Guadalajara, Mexico, where we are having a langauge school to improve our Spanish for the remainder of our trip.

Posted by nzdora 07:27 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

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