Author Archives: Aron & Linda

High Altitude Adventures

Quito, the highest capital in the world at nearly 10,000ft, was our first big city in South America and the first capital we visited on our trip. We normally steer clear of big cities since they can be a mess to drive in and in general we prefer to explore the outdoors, but cities contain loads of history and show us a part of the country that we otherwise wouldn’t experience.

We were encouraged to visit Quito by Paula and Jeremy of Seventeen by Six, fellow overlanders from England also traveling in a VW van. Although we had not yet met, Paula kindly wrote us and offered up the spare bedroom of their apartment. On a whim we decided to take them up on their offer and are enormously glad that we did. Immediately feeling at home with Paula and Jeremy, we swapped travel stories and they filled us in on the places in Ecuador they had explored.

In the morning Paula and Jeremy took us on a tour of the old center of Quito. We visited the stunning Basilica del Voto Nacional which was so big it was difficult to photograph. The outside of the basilica is decorated with stone gargoyles resembling Ecuadorian animals, such as armadillos, marine iguanas, lizards, and tortoises while inside light shines through hugely ornate stained glass masterpieces.

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We strolled around the bustling old streets and sat in the city’s beautiful, open squares which Quito has no shortage of.

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Around the corner from one of the main squares we visited a church with an interior completely plated in gold. We sat in awe looking at the beautiful patterns along the walls and ceiling and marveled at the insane amount of gold all around us. Imagine what could be done with all that gold! Photos are not allowed but I couldn’t contain myself and managed to successfully sneak one.

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La Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus (Church of the Society of Jesus)

Next we hiked through a bit of a sketchy neighborhood up to El Panecillo, a hill where an angel sits looking over the capital. High above the city, happy families flew kites as we all enjoyed the breathtaking views of Quito, sprawled between mountains as far as we could see.

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Enjoying the views with our kind hosts and new friends

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The basilica towering over the old city center of Quito

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A family flying a kite high above the city

After a couple restful days and lovely evenings of wine, beer, vodka flavored alcohol, and delicious home cooked dinners, we bid Paula and Jeremy farewell with hopes to meet them down the road.

As we made our way southeast to Cotopaxi National Park, the sky turned grey and a light rain began to fall. We drove through pine trees until we rose above the tree line and the scenery changed to shimmering gold and silver high altitude grassland. The dirt roads were rough and rattling but soon enough we made it to Tambopaxi Lodge where we set up camp. Every once in a while a rocky mountain crag or a snowy peak would peek through the thick, grey clouds, but we didn’t really know what we had in store until the next morning we woke up to this:

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The view of Cotopaxi, the second highest active volcano in the world, was breathtaking. We couldn’t look away. Our campground was surrounded by majestic peaks, a setting different from anywhere we have ever been.

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Cotopaxi and the surrounding mountains are very popular with climbers. I spoke to a few who told me they were setting out to summit the peak during the night when there was less threat of avalanches. Wow, scary! Non-climbers like us could hike up to the Refugio, a climbers refuge at 15,950ft, and then continue on a few hundred feet higher until the edge of the glacier after which proper mountain climbing gear was required. That was our plan for the day. We hopped in the van along with a German couple we offered a ride to and slowly made our way up the winding road toward the parking lot at the base of the volcano. We climbed higher and higher, slowly and more slowly, until finally the van couldn’t go any higher. The thin, high altitude air is as hard on the van as it is on people trying to climb the mountain. Being stuck on a steep slope, Aron backed the van down to a turnoff in the road where we parked and left the van to catch it’s breath.

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Although it was only 9:30am, clouds had started to roll in and cloak the volcano. Instead of walking the rest of the way to the parking lot and then hiking an hour up to the Refugio in the clouds, we decided to try again tomorrow with an extra early start when the skies would be perfectly clear. Defeated by the mountain, we cruised the van back down to 12,000ft and did a little stroll around Laguna Limpiopungo, a high altitude lake with high altitude gulls surrounded by pretty grassland with little purple and yellow flowers.

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The next morning we ambitiously woke up at 6am to a thick blanket of fog. When Cotopaxi did momentarily peek through the clouds, we saw that overnight it had been blanketed by a powdery layer of fresh snow. Oh well, we decided to do the hike anyway. It’s not often that you have a chance to climb an ice volcano.

We set out up the road and the van slowly but surely made it all the way to the parking lot this time. With clouds all around us, we bundled up in all the warmth we had and set off. We slowly trudged through the dark sand which made up the slope of the volcano. With every step forward we would sink in and slide half a step back, making for slow progress. After stopping more than a few times to catch our breath in the thin air, we made it to the refuge and warmed up with some cheese sammies and hot chocolate. From there we hit the snow and slowly trudged further up the volcano until we reached the glacier.

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At this point, we were being pricked by cold, wet mist so we snapped a few photos and made our way back down the volcano as fast as we could. Having been at over 16,000ft and as close to mountain climbing as we’ve ever come was a pretty exciting feat for us!

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Since we can’t get enough of volcanos these days, we hopped into the van and headed west to Laguna Quilotoa, a lake in the crater of an old volcano. The road winded through dry mountains covered in a patchwork of fields spotted with grazing sheep.

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The entire day was rainy and grey but when we arrived at the edge of the crater we were surprised by the gorgeous view of the teal lake.

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We saw some tents on the lake shore down below so we packed our packs and hiked down into the crater to camp for the night.

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At night the skies cleared and we popped open a box of the ever-so-classy Clos wine, a staple on this trip, and watched the stars flickering in the sky. In the morning the lake shone brilliant cobalt blue in the sun. After some coffee and granola bars we hiked up and out of the steep crater, enjoying the views of the lake along the way.

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Our campsite on a little hill overlooking the lake

Next, we excitedly head for the coast to search for waves and blue footed boobies!

Categories: Ecuador | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Into the Southern Hemisphere

We arrived in Colombia’s zona cafetera (coffee zone) after a hellish ten hour drive up, across, and down the central mountain chain of the Andes. Although the mountains were gorgeous, the one lane road that sinuosly winded through them was steep, narrow, and crammed with huge, slow trucks. Some of the turns were so tight that we had to stop and wait while oncoming trucks took up both lanes around the turns. Thanks to Aron’s fabulous driving we made it safely to Salento in only ten hours and never wanted to drive again.

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Salento is a cheerful little town in the coffee zone with brightly painted shutters and a friendly vibe. The surrounding green mountains create a beautiful setting and provide a wealth of outdoor opportunities.

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We set up camp at La Serrana, an eco farm in the hills just outside of town and got so comfortable that we stayed for nearly a week. When we weren’t busy just hanging out and enjoying the spectacular views, we went on some nice hikes, did a little mountain biking, and ate $2 trout burgers with pineapple sauce while strolling through the town.

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The highlight of our stay was a hike through the Valley de Cocora in the Nevados National Park. The path traversed rolling green pastures with grazing cows before following a creek through the forest and climbing up the side of the mountain to reveal magnificent views of the valley below. The area is known for its abundance of palmas de cera, or wax palms, that shoot up out of the ground like candles. They are the national tree of Colombia and are supposedly the tallest palm trees in the world.

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Deciding to skip Medellin, one of Colombia’s largest cities, since it would add ten hours to the massive amount of driving we had already done in the country, we headed south for Ecuador. To break up the long drive to the border, we stopped in Popoyan, a pleasant city of white colonial buildings and many churches. We had a nice evening strolling around and shared a lovely dinner with our new friend Ines, a traveler from Belgium we had picked up in Salento.

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Just before crossing the border into Ecuador, we stopped at the Las Lajas Sanctuary, a spectacular church built into the side of a mountain to commemorate the apparition of the Virgin Mary. The story supposedly says that in 1754, a mother and her mute daughter saw the Virgin Mary between the mountains and the daughter began to speak. Since then, the location has become a popular pilgrimage spot. People from around the world visit the site to ask for miracles and the stone walls along the path to the church are lined with messages of thanks from those that have been healed by the Virgen of Las Lajas.

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Fifteen minutes down the road we crossed the border into Ecuador without any hassle and weaved through the Andes mountains to Otavalo, a city famous for it’s market selling everything from live animals to fruits and vegetables to fake alpaca wool blankets. After driving through the patchwork created by farms reaching up the mountainsides, we found a lovely place to camp above the city which provided spectacular views of the surrounding volcanoes and the city below. We wandered down to the Saturday market where we bought fresh veggies and sacks of sweet strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries for a dollar.

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Camping at Rose Cottage with Volcan Imbabura in the background

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Fruit, veggie, and food market in Otavalo

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Central square in Otavalo

After our visit to town, we drove up a rough dirt road to the top of the surrounding mountains to visit Laguna de Mojanda, a gorgeously blue lake in the crater of an old volcano. We struggled to take a full breath at the extreme altitude of 13,000 ft as we walked the trail through the paramo, or high altitude grasslands, around the lake while and marveled at yet another majestic setting.

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The chilly high altitude temperature created the perfect opportunity to cook up some hot soup with fresh vegetables from the market. Overlooking the distant glow of the city below, we enjoyed a cozy night of dinner and a movie in the van.

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South America has revealed itself as a continent filled to the brim with endless mountains, lakes, and rivers, so naturally we visited another lake in the vicinity the next day. Laguna de Cuicocha is another beautiful crater lake nestled in an old volcano. The name means Lago de Cuy in the old Kichwa indigenous language which translates to Guinea Pig Lake in English, supposedly due to the shape of the two islands in the center of the lake. We hiked up along the rim of the volcano and enjoyed beautiful views of the surrounding volcanoes and the valley below.

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Next, we headed south toward Quito, crossing the equator into the southern hemisphere! A first for both of us. A different sky, new latitudes, water swirling in the opposite direction… it’s a whole new world down here! We felt like silly tourists when we stopped at the Mitad del Mundo (middle of the world), a landmark with a monument at the equator, but of course we had to take some pictures of this historical moment of our lives.

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Already loving Ecuador, we are excited to explore another amazing country! What lies ahead could be anything: beaches, volcanoes, and maybe even the Galapagos Islands…

Categories: Colombia, Ecuador | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Beautiful Colombia

After thirty hours rocking at sea, we awoke to the sunrise in Cartagena. We disembarked and hopped in a cab that took us to Hotel Villa Colonial where we stayed during our five days in Cartagena. Located in the travel friendly Getsemani neighborhood in walking distance to the sights, it was a wonderful place to stay at nearly half the price of the other hotels and even hostels around but was just as nice.

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The view from our balcony

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The terrace

After a little rest and recovery, we wandered around the old city and marveled at the beautiful old buildings along the cobblestone streets, each a different, sunny color with wooden balconies spilling over with bright bougainvilleas. Colombia immediately felt different from Central America somehow. I cant really put my finger on it, but the colors, the heat, the music, the people, the whole vibe was new to us and we loved it.

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The next day began the arduous process of getting the van out of the port. Luckily, our shipping partners, Johnny and Patricia, were staying in a hostel just around the corner from us. Aron and Johnny spent three entire days running around to various offices at the two shipping yards, paying fees, getting papers signed and stamped, and trying to navigate through the extremely convoluted process. In the meantime, Patty and I strolled around Cartagena and dreamed as we browsed jewelry shops featuring Colombia’s famous emeralds.

When Aron and Johnny finally succeeded in getting the cars out of the port, we celebreated by enjoying our last day in Cartagena together. We walked around and sampled all the streetfood we could find: fresh squeezed orange and mandarine juice, various ceviches, a soft fried bread stick sort of like a donut with cheese in the middle, and Colombias’s famous arepas- a fried corn patty filled with egg, meat, or cheese.

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Once our appetites were fulfilled, we visited the Castillo San Filipe, a huge stone fortress lined with canons overlooking Cartagena. Along with an immense stone wall surrounding the entire old city, the fortress was built to fend off pirates and to store gold. We heard that gold was found stashed in some of the historic buildings of the city during their recent renovations.

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Strolling one last time through the old city, we enjoyed the warm breeze and the beautifully lit up night.

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We parted ways with our new friends as they headed to big city life in Medellin while we headed southeast to do some camping and enjoy the outdoors in the Andes mountains of Colombia.

Colombia is enormous compared to the countries we traveled through in Central America. We set out feeling a little lost but headed in the direction of San Gil, a town known as a base for outdoor adventure sports like kayaking, paragliding, and mountain biking. While it looked like a short distance on the map, it took us an entire two days of driving to make it there.

In the middle of our second day of driving, the scenery changed from flat, green farmland to magnificent mountains. We drove through the stunning Chicamocha Canyon and winded up the sides of the mountain while enjoying spectacular views.

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San Gil turned out to be a good choice and is a small town nestled in the mountains surrounded by a plethora of outdoor opportunities. Of all the options, we decided to check out Cascadas Juan Curi, a series of beautiful waterfalls that more adventurous folks rappel down. We camped at a finca (farm) along a creek fed by the waterfalls. The farm was run by a sweet little elderly señora who invited us in for agua de panela, a Colombian specialty which is sort of like hot sugar water with cinnamon. Panela is a natural sugar that is everywhere and in everything in Colombia.

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In the evening we hiked twenty minutes up the lush canyon until we reached the first waterfall. A series of ladders and climbing ropes led to more waterfalls up the way. The scenery and the waterfalls themselves were absolutely stunning and miraculously we had them all to ourselves.

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The next day after some van maintenance we packed up to visit the quaint little colonial village of Barichara, a place preserved 300 years in time. Rows of white buildings with terra cotta roofs lined the little cobblestone streets of the sleepy village surrounded by rolling hills. The area kind of reminded us of a small, old version of Santa Barbara in California.

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Church in Barichara

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Barichara

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From Barichara we walked to the nearby even smaller colonial village of Guane via the Camino Real, a famous old stone path that passed by farms and goat herders.

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El Camino Real

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Hanging moss tree hair along the Camino Real

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Church in the central plaza of Guane

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Guane

Our next stop deeper in the mountains and at a higher elevation was Villa de Leyva, another beautiful old colonial village. With similar architecture and style as Barichara but larger and more populated, Villa de Leyva was a wonderful place to be for a few days. There are so many outdoor activities to do in the area one could easily spend two weeks here.

We camped at Hostal Renacer, a beautiful spot just outside of town with lovely views and a huge fire pit which we sat around each evening with fellow travelers drinking beer, sharing stories, and making pizzas.

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Here we slowed down a bit and spent a lot of time relaxing and cooking at the hostal. I had a bit of a cold with a relentless cough so we took it easy and did a little hike at Paso de Angel (Angel’s Pass), a walk along a narrow mountain ridge with beautiful views of the valleys below.

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We spent a morning wandering through the cobblestone streets of Villa de Leyva and visited the Saturday market. It was hard not to buy everything, the rows of stands with fresh, colorful produce were magnetizing: sweet mountain blackberries, freshly shelled beans, baby papayas, and all kinds of other local fruits and veggies.

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The main square in Villa de Leyva, supposedly the largest in South America.

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Saturday market

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Enjoying corn, arepas, and coffee at the market

After a few mellow days, we headed three hours east to Lago de Tota, Colombia’s largest lake. Along the way we passed by a variety of little mountain villages, each with a beautiful church peeking out over the buildings.

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At 10,000 feet elevation, Lago de Tota was icy cold and was surrounded by small farms growing onions, potatoes, and other crops, creating a pretty patchwork of greens and purples all around the shore. Fuzzy sheep and cows grazed on the hillsides and all the locals wore warm woolen ponchos to keep out the chilly mountain air. I really think this was one of the most beautiful, scenic places we have visited on our trip.

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We camped under the full moon at Playa Blanca, a white sand beach on the shores of the lake. Although the setting was gorgeous, we were driven away by the icy wind that blew across the lake in the morning.

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Near the lake, we visited Mongui, another beautiful, quaint, colonial town. The mountain setting and the locals walking around in traditional woolen ponchos and sombreros added to the tranquil beauty. We strolled around and shared a local specialty of fresh trout in mandarin sauce at a cozy little restaurant.

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So far, Colombia has been one amazingly beautiful place after another. So much so that we are getting accustomed to waking up in new, breathtaking places. Not to mention, the Colombians we have met are some of the kindest, friendliest, most helpful, and most enthusiastic people of our entire trip. They love their beautiful country and are proud to share it with travelers.

Only halfway through the country, next we cross the Andes mountains to visit the Zona Cafetera, Colombia’s coffee zone.

Categories: Colombia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Panamania

After an adventurous three weeks in Costa Rica, we crossed into the rolling green, jungle hills of Panama. Aron and I traveled to Panama together three years ago for two weeks and visited Bocas del Toro (the islands off the Carribean coast), Panama City, the canal, and spent a few days in the Pacific beach town Santa Catalina. On this trip, we had more time to explore the mountains and beaches of the Pacific coast which were wonderful and we really enjoyed.

A few hours after the border we came to our first stop, Boquete, the Napa Valley of coffee. Up in the mountains, Boquete is beautiful, cool, and green and was refreshed by rain nearly every afternoon. We enjoyed a little bit of everything that Boquete has to offer including hiking, hot springs, and coffee farms. We started off by hiking the sendero los quetzales (quetzal trail), a steep seven mile trail through cloud forest where the elusive resplendent quetzal likes to hang out.

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Getting a late start in the afternoon, we decided to hike to the Cerro Punta ranger station at the end of the trail, camp for the night, and then head back in the morning. As we walked along we enjoyed the beautiful cloud forest scenery until it started raining halfway to our destination. Deciding to press on, we pulled out our tent fly and held it over us as we walked the last two hours of the hike in the downpour like a nylon caterpillar. We literally hiked through the storm with thunder and lightning all around us, sloshing through mud puddles wondering if the trail was ever going to end. When we made it soaking wet to the empty ranger station at Cerro Punta, we were happy to find a little covered shelter where we could camp for the night, ring out our clothes, and not get struck by lightning or freeze.

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In the morning we awoke to birds chirping and were treated to gorgeous views of the mountains and valleys around us. It made braving the storm all worth it.

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After hiking back to civilization in sopping wet shoes and recovering from our near hypothermic experience, we took a tour of Finca Dos Jefes, an organic coffee farm in the hills of Boquete. The owners are originally from Berkeley, California and bought the farm ten years ago when the farm had been abandoned due to low coffee prices. Being on the coffee farm was similar to being at a vineyard with sloping hillsides, beautiful blue skies, and rows of dark green coffee plants.

DSCN6568 (640x480)The red coffee cherries are picked and dried, then the pulp is removed to reveal the coffee bean which is then roasted. We picked some red coffee cherries, roasted our own coffee, and did a tasting of light, medium, and dark roasted coffee.

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The classic coffee aroma shot

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Roasting our own batch of coffee

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After about 10 cups of coffee we took advantage of the cool mountain weather to visit the Caldera Hot Springs, a twenty minute drive and a ten minute hike from Boquete. The scenery was beautiful and the cool river next to the hot springs was perfect for cooling off after cooking ourselves in the steaming hot natural pools.

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Hotter than it looks

Aron spent the last day in Boquete looking over the van since it had been making some strange noises. He re-greased the front wheel bearings and did some maintenance in hopes that it would solve the problem. Coincidentally, that day another couple, Jonathan and Jennifer of Drive Chuck Drive who are traveling in a Vanagon from Oklahoma, pulled into Pension Topas where we were camping. As luck would have it, Jonathan is a mechanical engineer and has an extensive knowledge of VWs. He and Aron spent hours talking about the vans and showing each other stuff and he gave Aron some great advice and ideas.

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Van camp

From Boquete we drove six hours to Santa Catalina, a beach with nice waves that we had visited on our last trip and really enjoyed. We found a great spot to camp at Surfer’s Paradise Hostel up above the waves and had such a nice time with everyone there that we stayed for nearly a week. The owner, Italo, has been surfing here for over 20 years and gave us tons of information and helped us make ourselves at home. Sandra let us use her kitchen where she taught us how to make patacones (fried plantain patties) and where we cooked huge family style dinners with the other guests.

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“The Point”

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At Surfer’s Paradise we became good friends with two Swiss guys, three Aussies, and two Puerto Ricans and we all set out to visit some of Panama’s other surf breaks together. Before we made it very far, the rubbing noise that the van had been making in Boquete started getting worse so we stopped in the town of Santiago to figure things out. It was looking like the wheel bearings needed to be replaced and we started worrying that we might need to have some shipped from the states since we imagined they would be difficult to find in Panama. Aron wrote to Jonathan and Jennifer for advice and it turned out that they were going to be passing through Santiago the next morning and offered to stop by to take a look. To make things even more amazing, Jonathan ended up having a spare set of wheel bearings that he graciously gave us in addition to giving Aron a useful mechanical lesson in replacing them. What luck! Thanks Jonathan and Jennifer!

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The guys hard at work in the hot Panama sun

After the van was taken care of, we blissfully headed to Playa Morrillo to meet the rest of our traveling friends. Playa Morrillo is just starting to become known as a surf spot and is still pretty remote. There currently isn’t any lodging in Morrillo so we stayed in the nearby town of Torio and camped next to the cabinas where our friends rented rooms.

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View from Ludwig’s place where we camped

Playa Morrillo was just ten minutes down the highway and a stretch of muddy road. The guys enjoyed two mornings surfing some fun barreling beach break while I went for a run, collected shells, and explored the coast line. We also met Daniel and Oswald,  two super nice surfers who run cool hostels in Panama City that we ended up staying at.

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Our Aussie friend, Jack, rippin

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After two days in Morrillo we drove up and around to Playa Venao, a beautiful but expensive tourist beach with a nice mellow beach break that even I could surf. We planned to continue onto Playa Cambutal, another fun surf beach, but the rains hit hard and didn’t let up the entire time we were at Playa Venao so we decided to head to Panama City and get started on shipping the car to Colombia.

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Our Panama traveling family

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Camping in the rain at Playa Venao

Our Swiss friends, Patrick and Tobi, joined us on the long ride to Panama City. After navigating through crazy Friday evening traffic, we managed to find our hostels and take a brief rest before heading out for some fun.

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Daniel invited all of us to his friends birthday party on the roof of the Hard Rock Hotel so we shined our sandals and put on our best clothes. The live band was rockin and the views of the city were gorgeous.

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We spent the weekend exploring the city before all the chaos of trying to ship the van to Colombia would begin on Monday. We discovered the Mercado de Mariscos (seafood market) near the water and enjoyed some of the freshest and the greatest variety of ceviche we have ever seen in one place. Being Saturday, the place was popping and the tables filled with locals eating fresh seafood and drinking beer spilled from the sidewalk into the parking lot.

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From there we strolled on over to Casco Viejo, the oldest and most beautiful part of Panama City.

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Lured in by the sunset and the beautiful boardwalk along the ocean, we decided to walk the hour back to our hostel.

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Monday rolled around and the dreaded process of getting the car shipped began. We found another couple of travelers, Johnny and Patty from Wandaroundtheworld, to share the shipping container with to decrease the exorbitant cost a little. Our shipping agent held our hands along the way: they  made all of the shipping arrangements, led us through the crazy streets of the big city to the police yard where the vehicles would be inspected, helped us get our paperwork in order, and led us to the loading area in Colon where we drove the cars into the container and kissed them farewell. The whole process wasn’t nearly as much of a hassle as we thought it would be.

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The next day, we hopped onto a sailboat that would take us to Colombia via the beautiful San Blas islands. Our home for the next five days along with thirty other people was an 85 foot sailboat named The Independence. The waters around the islands were calm and clear and perfect for snorkeling. The crew cooked us three amazing meals each day that included fresh lobster and fish caught by the local Kuna Yala that would row up in their canoes alongside the sailboat to sell their fresh catches.

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The first three days of the trip were spent cruising through the archipelago, snorkeling, diving off of the boat, hanging out with the other travelers, and all out relaxing. Then came the thirty hour open ocean crossing to Colombia. As soon as we hit the open ocean the sailboat started rocking up and down over the swells and didn’t stop for the rest of the trip. We took Dramamine every couple of hours to avoid seasickness and concluded that it must have some sort of tranquilizer in it because we basically slept on and off for the entire thirty hour crossing. We arrived in Colombia in the middle of the night and woke up to the sun rising over Cartagena. When we deliriously got off the ship the entire world kept rocking back and forth and it took us two days to get our land legs back.

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It’s hard to believe that after seven months of traveling, we made it to South America!! It all seems like a dream…

Categories: Panama | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Pura Vida

Throughout our travels we had heard about how expensive and overrun by tourists Costa Rica is, but nevertheless we found it to be a beautiful country. True, there are a lot of tourists, nearly everyone speaks English, and things are about three times more expensive than in the other countries we have visited, but Costa Rica is still gorgeous. Immediately as we crossed the border from Nicaragua, the landscape changed from brown and dry to a lush, tropical green. Costa Rica is in general wetter, greener, and in turn, buggier than all the other countries we visited.

Our first stop in the country was Playa Grande, a beautiful, protected stretch of flat, sandy beach with the most seashells we have ever seen. It was there that we happily discovered that free camping is allowed on nearly every beach in Costa Rica. Two friendly policemen on motorcycles dropped by and confirmed that we could camp wherever we pleased as long as we didn’t walk on the beach at night because of nesting turtles.

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After one night of relaxation at Playa Grande we set out to find some waves. We made our way south along the coast to Playa Avellanas, a beautiful beach lined with mangroves and a number of surf spots. Aron and I had been to Costa Rica together four years ago and spent a week in Playa Avellanas at Cabinas las Olas, a surf lodge that Aron and his family have been visiting for many years. We decided to stop by although we had a feeling the rates would be out of our current budget. We figured we could at least ask about places to camp and maybe see if we could afford to stay a night or two. When we arrived and mentioned Aron’s mom and stepdad, Linda and Jim, the owner generously insisted that we enjoy a free night in their guest cabana. We were absolutely thrilled! Jim owns an awesome stand up paddle company called Uli Boards (www.uliboards.com) and has been visiting Cabinas las Olas regularly with Linda for years.

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To top it off, we woke up the next morning to find out that Linda and Jim had emailed the owner and were treating us to three days and nights at the cabinas. After living in the van for all these months and barely shelling out $20 here and there for a room in a hostel, we were overwhelmed with happiness and gratitude. It was so nice that it actually brought tears to my eyes. And here we were, with three days and nights of luxury to sit back and enjoy. Our time in the cabinas also coincided with the start of the rainy season which hit Costa Rica like an open floodgate. It rained every evening and night for our entire stay and we were happy to be cozy in a nice cabina instead of stuck in the van. We spent the days surfing, lounging, and enjoying delicious, rich food. Thanks again Linda and Jim!

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We thought it would be tough to go back to the van after living in such luxury, but we got back in the groove pretty quickly. We set out to take our chances on exploring the rest of the Nicoya peninsula, famous for its beautiful beaches but also its terrible roads that become impassable during the rainy season. Unfortunately, during this time it rained every day and night making the weather less than ideal for enjoying the beaches. We made it as far south as Samara and Playa Guiones where we enjoyed some free beach camping before we got tired of the rain and driving on rattling, muddy, pothole filled roads. Deciding to skip out on Montezuma and Santa Theresa, two little beach towns that we had wanted to visit but required a few more hours of bad roads, we found our way back onto the pavement and made our way south.

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We stopped at Playa Hermosa, a dark sand beach with beautiful palm trees, scarlet macaws, and barreling waves. We spent two days enjoying the sun that had finally broken through the rain and Aron surfed some fun waves.

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Further down the coast we set up camp at Playa Dominical, a mellow beach town along a pretty strand of beach. The waves were small but we enjoyed the location for a few days before continuing on.

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Since a swell was coming in, we blew through the rest of Costa Rica and drove straight to Pavones at the southern end of Costa Rica, a beach famous for having one of the longest left waves in the world. A few people we spoke with in Dominical warned us that the road to Pavones was bad and that we might not make it in the van, but we decided to go for it anyway. The road turned out to be a little rough and very potholed, but nothing compared to the roads we tackled in Guatemala. Our standards of what constitutes a good road have definitely changed on this trip. Anyhow, we arrived in Pavones after five hours of driving. Aron headed straight for the water while I explored the coastline. After confirming with some residents that we could camp along the beach, we found the perfect secluded spot on the top of the point overlooking the waves rolling in.

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The waves were consistently a good size for the first two or three days in Pavones and then peaked at maybe around ten feet on our last day in town. The waves peel all the way down the point and go for so long that three different people can catch sections of them. There were barrels all over the place! It was a little scary to watch because there were so many people in the water, getting in eachothers way and cutting people off. Despite the crowd, Aron caught some of the best waves of his life.

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After a fun couple of days in Pavones, we backtracked four hours to Puerto Jimenez, the gateway town to Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica. The park is 105,000 acres of wild jungle lined by 20km of uninterrupted beach and has been called one of the most biologically intense places on earth by National Geographic. We planned to hike a 12 mile trail through the park, which would traverse both the beach and the jungle and involved river crossings and climbing over rocky beach points all while carrying all of our own supplies. We would then camp at a ranger station in the center of the park for two nights before heading back.

At the park headquarters in Puerto Jimenez, we made reservations to hike and camp in the park and then settled into a hotel room to prepare for the adventure. We sorted out food for three days and organized our packs in preparation for our early morning departure. We woke up at 5am and drove nearly two hours on a rough dirt road to the tiny town of Carate, the closest point to the entrance of the park reachable by car. And that is where the wildest adventure of the trip began.

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We have done a lot of backpacking in California but hiking through a hot, humid jungle and through soft sand on a slanted beach slope was pretty difficult. Not to mention that we miscalculated the conversion from kilometers to miles so we initially thought the hike was only 8 miles instead of 12 miles. Oops. 12 miles is definitely the longest we have ever hiked in one day with a full pack. Anyhow, it was one of the most amazing things we have ever done in our lives. It was thrilling, challenging, and even a little scary. The full adventure is recounted in our Corcovado blog post Welcome to the Jungle.

Categories: Costa Rica | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Welcome to the Jungle

Wild pigs. There are loads of them in Corcovado and as we entered the jungle they were my worst fear. I had read that herds of up to one hundred pigs roam the park and can be aggressive. You know you’re in trouble when they start cracking their sharp bone crunching teeth together, a warning sign meaning they are angry and about to attack. I even had a nightmare about these pigs after reading about visiting the park a week before getting to Corcovado. That’s how scared I am of these things.

Corcovado National Park is a very remote stretch of jungle on the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica. The entrance to the park can only be reached by a two mile hike following an hour and a half drive down a rough dirt road. For that reason, among others, Corcovado is perhaps one of the most bio diverse areas on the planet with populations of tapirs, jaguars, pumas, ocelots, crocodiles, various species of monkeys, snakes, frogs, birds- the list goes on and on. The park is also known for its population of wild pigs, more formally known as peccaries. There are two types of peccaries: the larger, more aggressive, and dangerous white lipped peccary and the smaller, harmless collared peccary.

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Pretty scary right

As we drove down the muddy road to the tiny town of Carate, the closest point to the park entrance, it felt as if the jungle were swallowing us whole. We were both nervous and excited for what lay ahead. We planned to hike the park’s 12 mile trail along the beach and through the jungle until we reached the main ranger station in the middle of the jungle where we would camp for two nights before heading back. Many people choose to hire a guide for their hike to ensure they don’t get lost and also that they spot the wildlife they come to see- in particular, the elusive tapir, a shy hippopotamus like animal that is infamously difficult to see. Us on the other hand, being the do-it-our-self types and the $100 a day for a guide is too expensive types, decided to try our luck and do the hike on our own. We would rely on Aron’s eagle eyes and pure luck to encounter wildlife.

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We excitedly began the hike, although both a little nervous about bugs and poisonous snakes (and those infamous wild pigs of course). Walking through the dense jungle was a sensory overload. You want to scan the ground for snakes and peer through the tangle of trees and vines for larger animals, while at the same time your eyes are drawn to the canopy above by  the rustling of birds and monkeys.

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There were scarlet macaws and monkeys in nearly every tree and blue morpho butterflies fluttering around all over the place. We saw a huge family of coatamundies happily eating fruit off of trees until a troop of monkeys came swinging down and started pulling their tails and scared them off.

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Further down the trail we passed by a group with a guide all staring intently into the trees. The guide invited us to look through his telescope and we got a close up look at a bright yellow extremley poisonous eyelash viper sitting in a bunch of bananas. What a sight!

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Next we saw an anteater strolling around the forest floor and climbing up little trees. None of the animals we saw seemed frightened of us at all, they were all just doing their thing like it was no big deal that we were there.

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Green vine snake, almost impossible to see

After four hours of hot, sweaty hiking, we started to get tired but didnt want to stop because a section of the trail along a rocky point on the beach could only be passed at low tide.

As we pressed on we encountered a section of jungle where the trail was covered with leaves and was easy to veer off of. We were starting to think that we were lost when all of a sudden Aron yelled “Pigs!“. Without even trying to see the pigs, I immediately looked around for a tree to climb should the need arise. “And they’re chomping their teeth!!“. As Aron said it, I heard the scary cracking and growling noises the pigs were making all around us. I tried to climb into the tree I had designated as my safe haven but my pack was too heavy and I couldn’t pull myself up. I frantically unstrapped my pack and tried to scramble up into the tree again while I yelled at Aron to climb a tree as well. Before I knew what was happening the pigs had decided to retreat, lucky for me because I had never made it into that tree. Aron had bravely stood his ground, yelling and hitting his walking stick against some trees which perhaps scared them off. I never even saw the pigs because I was scared for my life and busy trying to unsuccessfully climb a tree.

After regaining my composure, we continued on while I couldn’t stop thinking about how my worst nightmare had come true. Every time Aron stopped quickly on the trail I thought it would be a mob of angry pigs ready to charge. Eventually, we made it to a river that we were supposed to cross at low tide due to bull sharks and crocodiles (yes, bullsharks and crocodiles) but we arrived at exactly high tide instead. We decided it would be a good idea to wait until the tide started going back out but after an hour and a half the sun was going down and we still had a ways to go. As we sat watching the river, Aron said “Look a tapir!“. I thought he was joking but I looked across the river and there was the shy, elusive tapir that every visitor wants so badly to see. He was coming out after the heat of the day to have a nice drink of water and an afternoon stroll by the river. What luck!

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At that point we decided to try the river crossing. It was just a narrow section of river and we hadn’t seen anything to be worried about so we decided to go for it. Aron went first of course and I stood by with his walking stick in hand so I could come to his rescue if the need arose. Needless to say, we both made it through the waist deep water safely. However, as we were putting on dry clothes on the other side of the river, we saw a large crocodile sneaking around in the lagoon, just a ways down from where we crossed the river. Holy moly. We decided we would plan our hike back to coincide better with low tide at the time of river crossing.

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Crocodile river crossing

And the adventure’s not over yet.

We still had a ways to go to get to the ranger station and the sun was quickly setting. We hurried along the darkening jungle trail trying to keep an eye out for deadly snakes and hand size spiders while hoping we would make it before dark. We had heard that many animals come out in the evening so I was of course worrying about the usual pack of wild pigs and started thinking about jaguars, pumas, snakes, and other dangerous jungle creatures. As we rushed along the trail all of a sudden Aron quickly stopped and said “Whoa!“. Of course my initial though was “Pigs!”, but as I looked up I saw a huge, black tapir on the side of the trail, literally three feet away from Aron, just happily munching on some green leaves. Aron backed up over to me, neither of us being sure of the temperament of wild tapirs. But the tapir just stood there and calmly kept on eating his leaves. As I fumbled for my camera he walked across the trail and then ran off into the dense jungle. Here is the blurry photo I snapped before he ran away.

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When we reached the ranger station a few minutes later, we spoke with some other hikers who told us that all their guides had been following tapir tracks to no avail for the last few days and hadn’t been able to find them. We were super lucky to have seen two and to have practically ran into one. We also spoke to a guide about the white lipped peccaries we encountered and he confirmed that they can be seriously dangerous and have attacked people! Let’s just say we were happy to be safe at camp after our wild adventure in the jungle.

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Categories: Costa Rica | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Land of the Offshore

Nicaragua is a beautiful country that we both took an immediate liking to. While plagued with a dark past of dictators, civil war, and the Iran-Contra affair that the U.S. was involved in, Nicaragua has bloomed into a safe, welcoming country full of culture, volcanoes, lakes, waves, amazing beaches, and much more.

Our first stop in the country was Leon, the former capital of Nicaragua. With an amazing history, Leon was and still is a university town and the nexus of artistic, poetic, liberal Nicaraguans and this could be felt throughout the streets. A highlight of our stay here was a visit to the revolutionary museum, which at first glance was just a large room in an old building with pictures scattered along the walls- until Franco Zapato brought it all to life. Franco was involved in the Nicaraguan Revolution in which he lost a brother and many friends. Now his life work is to share the tragic and heroic past with others and to keep the presence of the revolutionaries alive. We had read a little about the history of Nicaragua and it’s difficult past, but hearing about it from someone who lived it took it to another level. Franco took us on a tour of the museum while we learned about the Somoza family dictatorship which kept Nicaragua under their rule for nearly fifty years, the revolution of 1978 when the Sandinistas successfully rebelled against the conservative government, and the Iran-Contra affair in which the U.S. illegally sold weapons to Iran and used the profits to fund the Nicaraguan contras enabling continued fighting and severe human rights abuses. There is much more to the story than this but we wont go into all of the details here.

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Sandinista martyrs

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Aron and Franco next to murals of Latin American heroes

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Revolutionaries and heroes of the FSLN- the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional

On a lighter note, the roof of the revolutionary museum has a beautiful view of the cathedral and central square of Leon.

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We spent the rest of our time in Leon wandering the cobbled streets, sampling food and Toña, the national beer, and checking out the beautiful old churches and cathedrals.

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Real e Insigne Basilica Catedral de Leon Nicaragua

After our visit to Leon we headed out to explore Nicaragua’s northern beaches with our first traveling guest, Vanessa, a new friend from Germany who we met at our hostel in Leon. After making our way through a few traffic jams (i.e. cows being herded down the main highway) and driving past a string of Nicaragua’s spectacular volcanoes, we arrived in the little beach town of Asseradores.

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We made our way to Rancho de Pedro at the recommendation of some fellow Californian travelers and found a cozy outdoor palapa restaurant run by one of the kindest families we have ever met. Not only did they have enormous one dollar smoothies, delicious fresh plates of typical Nicaraguan cuisine, and a parrot named Rosita, but Pedro and his family warmly welcomed us to town and helped us find a place to camp. We spent a lot of time hanging out at Rancho de Pedro drinking smoothies, watching futbol games, and hanging out with the locals.

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After school drawing session with the sweetest local girls

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Rosita the parrot. She likes to eat tortillas.

Pedro led us to a gorgeous ranch property with a large palapa house in the middle of avocado, cashew, and mango trees. It was a beautiful, tranquil place to call home for a few days while we explored the surrounding beaches and lounged. We spent the evenings cooking lovely dinners and even had a cashew roast.

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Our German friend Vanessa

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We gathered cashews from the surrounding trees and Aron bravely roasted them over a fire where they turned black and crackled and shot flames into the air. Then we peeled off the shells and lo and behold we had a tiny little bowl of freshly roasted cashews. It was a lot of work!

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Cashew tree. The red fruit can be eaten and the raw cashews on the bottom of the fruit are roasted.

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Raw cashews in their shells, ready to be roasted

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Flame roasting the cashews

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The fruits of labor

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The beaches of Asseradores are beautiful and remote. We were some of the only foreigners in town and got to know many of the friendly locals who showed us around and gave us enormous mangos fresh from the trees.

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Asseradores has many waves that are less crowded than the waves of the popular southern Nicaraguan beaches. From our camp the closest wave was a beach break named “The Boom” that was huge, closing out, and fully un-surfable for the first two days. Pedro’s young son, Pedrito, showed us to a point that was slightly sheltered from the massive swell where we surfed while waiting for the swell to diminish. On the third day the swell was backing off and the beach break out front was perfect. There were barreling peaks up and down the long stretch of sand with only a handful of surfers in the water.

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Our friend Brian from San Diego

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After a wonderful stay in Asseradores we made our way east toward Matagalpa, a town surrounded by verdant mountains known to be a good starting point for hiking and other outdoor adventures. After a four hour drive we soon realized our bad timing. Being the end of the dry season we found Matagalpa to be a busy working city surrounded by crispy brown mountains, dry waterfalls, and empty riverbeds. Locals explained that it was the driest it’s been in nearly 20 years, so we changed plans and spent a night in the town sharing a bottle of rum and travel stories at a local bar with our exceptionally savvy world traveling friends Vanessa and Michael. Our stories were nothing compared to Vanessa getting leeches in her eyes in Asia and Michael living with a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea for five weeks.

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We said goodbye to our traveling friends and headed south toward Granada, a wealthy, conservative town on Lago de Nicaragua. We camped at the nearby Laguna de Apoyo, a beautiful clear blue lake in the crater of an old volcano. We spent the day reading, lounging, and swimming in the cool water.

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Our private swimming dock

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Enjoying breakfast with a view

After a quick stop for a night in Granada, we made our way south to catch a ferry to Ometepe, an island of two volcanos in the middle of Lago de Nicaragua.

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Central Granada

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Capitan Romero

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On Ometepe, we camped at Finca Magdalena, a beautiful ranch and coffee farm at the base of Volcan Maderas, the smaller, greener, inactive volcano of the two. Volcan Conception, a perfect cone, could be seen smoking in the distance.

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Volcan Conception

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Volcan Maderas

During our stay we rode horses through the jungle where we say howler monkeys and a number of birds on the way to a viewpoint of Volcan Conception where we watched the sunset- pretty spectacular!

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Don’t we make cute tourists

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The next morning we ambitiously decided to hike up Volcan Maderas, a sweaty four hour hike straight up followed by a four hour descent. It was hot and humid and we were drenched in sweat the entire time but the trail through the jungle at least shielded us from the intense sun. In the volcano’s crater, we enjoyed a nice lunch beside a lagoon before the trek back down.

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View from halfway up the volcano

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Lounging in the crater

With two more weeks left in the country, we headed west to spend our remaining time at the beach. We found a perfect place to call home at Camping Luna, a new campground on the beach run by Erol, an awesome local surfer, and his girlfriend Isabelle from Belgium. It’s probably a good thing that Nicaragua only allows foreign vehicles to be in the country for 30 days, or we might have never left. The beaches we visited around Las Salinas and Popoyo were absolutely amazing and we experienced why Nicaragua is referred to by local surfers as “the land of the offshore”. Offshore winds blew all day long, helping to shape perfect waves and making surfing fun all day long.  There were waves all over the place, with four or five different spots within walking distance and even more beyond. Aron surfed at least three times a day since the waves and wind were always perfect. There was even a perfect learning wave for me that peeled off of a rocky point and Aron took me out for lessons each day.

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We met so many awesome people at Camping Luna that became like family. We cooked together, surfed together, and drank Toñas and Flor de Caña (the local beer and rum) together. We never wanted to leave!

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Over the weekend there was a surf contest at Santana’s, a barreling beach break just down the way. We watched the heats and bbqd with new friends that lived nearby. Every person we met in Nicaragua was awesome.

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As our time to Nicaragua drew to an end, we made one last stop in San Juan del Sur, the famed beach town in southern Nicaragua. Although filled to the brim with tourists, it was a cool, mellow town and by luck we happened to meet a local named Luis who offered us a room for our two night stay. It ended up being a beautiful private master bedroom with a large balcony. We visited the nearby Playa Maderas, known for it’s waves, but our timing must not have been right because there weren’t much of them during our short visit. On our last night in Nicaragua we cooked a huge feast with Luis and all our housemates and new friends. What a perfect ending to a wonderful time in Nicaragua. We definitely plan on being back soon!

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Categories: Nicaragua | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

El Salvador- Land of Surf and Pupusas

We entered El Salvador waringly, with thoughts of gangs and crime on our minds after all the reading we had done. Making a beeline for the beach, we found nothing but friendly, welcoming people smiling and waving as we passed. Once again the stereotype of being a dangerous country was broken, at least from our experience at the tranquil beach towns. Perhaps one could find trouble elsewhere if one went looking for it, but that’s the same with anywhere isn’t it? El Salvador seems to be pretty well off in general compared to some of the other places we’ve visited. The roads are good, fancy surf resorts and private houses line the coast, and people apparently enjoy the highest minimum wage in Central America.

El Salvador’s south facing coast is lined with surf spots: point breaks, beach breaks, rights, and lefts, they’ve got it all. The first stretch of coastline we encountered, La Costa de Balsamo, is a spectacular stretch of black sand beaches with dark, rocky cliffs separating each. We stopped in El Zonte, a small, tranquil beach town with a fun right point break and a left beach break. We set up camp beside banana trees and coconut palms at Hostel Canegue for 4 dollars a night, a super mellow place run by a friendly local surfer. It turned out to be the central hang out for all the local guys and we had a great time getting to know everyone. Aron spent the week surfing multiple times a day and even went night surfing when some Canadians set up a huge spotlight to do some filming.

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In El Zonte we had our first taste of traditional pupusas, a corn patty sort of like a thick tortilla filled with beans and cheese. They are simple and delicious and are served in pupuserias all over the country with a cole slaw of pickled carrots. We also enjoyed an amazing beachfront El Salvadorean breakfast that we liked so much we had to have it twice. Scrambled eggs with tomato and onion, beans, cheese, handmade tortillas, and carmelized bananas. Mmm mmm mmm!

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We explored the popular beach town of El Tunco just down the road, named after the famous rocks in the picture below which apparently look like a pig (According to a guy at a juice bar). Larger and more touristy than El Zonte, El Tunco is known for it’s surf and party vibe.

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We also ventured into the main port town of La Libertad to check out Punta Roca, said to be one of the best waves in Central America. The swell was small and the wind was up but Aron and our new friend from El Zonte had a lot of fun. We read that the rocky point where the wave is accessed from was dangerous because robbers would frequent the area. Our friends in El Zonte casually confirmed that it’s safe now because the person who was doing the robbing had been killed by means of rocks and a machete. Well, guess that’s good news!

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Moving on down the road after some recommendations from the locals of where to go next, we drove two and a half hours to the eastern beaches of San Miguel. After spending an hour trying to find another surf spot called Punta Mango but only finding a dirt road in bad condition and some not so friendly looking ranchers, we turned back to Las Flores, a much easier accessible beach. Playa Las Flores has only a few places to stay, most are swanky ‘”surf-lodges” for $150 a night and at the other end of the spectrum are two hostels that offer simple concrete rooms for $25 a night. The family running one of the concrete hostels said we could camp right on the beach in a dried up riverbed for free, but to watch out if it rains because we could get washed away. The van moved into action: pop-topped, surf boards out, awning up, and we headed straight for the ocean for a sunset surf. The wave right out front of our camp is a peeling sand bottom right similar to Scorpion Bay in Baja California but not as long, more consistent, and less crowded.

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After enjoying the waves and the wide sandy beach at Las Flores, we made our way to Nicaragua. This involved traversing Honduras, which was not a very pleasant experience. The three hours it took us to pass through were spent constantly dodging humongous potholes and denying shady police officers looking for bribes. Getting stopped by the “law” five times we figured out that the trick is to only give the police officers copies when asked for a license or registration or anything for that matter, never the originals. Once they have a hold of something that you need, you won’t be leaving until you have paid them to get it back. Unfortunately, before we had a chance to wise up to this, we got pulled over within 20 meters of crossing into Honduras. Aron handed over his license to the police officer who proceeded to make up something we had done wrong and we had to pay him a $5 “propina” (tip) to get the license back. Long story short, our three hours in Honduras were extremely frustrating. As we gratefully crossed into Nicaragua, the military guys that took a look in our car at the border laughed because they could see how happy and relieved we were to be out of there.

Categories: El Salvador | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments

Guatemala

Guatemala is a country with a violent, tragic history, both during the Spanish conquest in the 1500’s and more recently in a civil war that lasted from 1960-1996. Despite it’s brutal past and the fact that many people still live in poverty today, Guatemala is a beautiful country to visit with wonderful, friendly people.

After crossing the border from Mexico into Guatemala, we drove through the highland mountains to Lago Atitlan, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. The lake is enormous and is rimmed by three volcanoes, one of which is still active. We camped on the lake just outside of Panajachel, the main tourist town, but unfortunately it was cloudy so we were not able to see the volcanoes that make the lake so picturesque. Actually, during our entire visit, Guatemala was enveloped in a low, grey blanket of clouds, hiding the country’s magnificent volcanic landscape from our view.

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Just imagine majestic volcanos on the horizon instead of grey clouds

We made our way to Antigua, the old capital city of Guatemala. The capital was moved to Guatemala City after a series of earthquakes shook Antigua, the effects of which can be seen in crumbled colonial churches throughout the city. A handful of the old churches have been beautifully restored or rebuilt.

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The grounds of the tourist police in Antigua kindly allow free camping and although not the most picturesque campground, it’s safe, central location and the fact that we could stay for nothing made it well worth it . From our home base in what looked like the rubble of a bombed stone building, we explored the city’s streets and contemplated taking cheap Spanish lessons which Antigua is famous for. Spanish lessons didn’t happen but we are hoping to find a nice coastal location where we can surf and learn Spanish at the same time.

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From Antigua we drove north to visit the famed emerald green pools of Semuc Champey. The pools lie deep in a dense jungle canyon that required traversing a rocky, dirt road with extreme uphill climbs and steep drops. While most people leave their vehicles in town and take a 4×4 shuttle into the canyon, we decided to drive the van. Bouncing over rocks and bucking up the steepest hills it has ever seen, the van valiantly earned the name “The Golden Stallion”. After about an hour of being pushed to its limits, the Golden Stallion couldn’t go any farther. We found ourselves stuck on a little dirt road in the middle of a jungle canyon with nothing around and dusk quickly approaching. After trying to start the van back up to no avail, Aron demoted the van’s name to “The Golden Pony”. Luckily, after resting for an hour, the van was able to gather enough strength to give one final push to our destination. We only hoped that the Golden Pony would be able to get us back up out of the remote jungle canyon and prayed that it wouldn’t rain which would make the road impassable and strand us for an indefinite amount of time.

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We camped under chocolate trees (dreams do come true!) at Hostal el Portal where we met lots of other travelers and took a tour of the area in which we did every imaginable activity in one day. We hiked up to the mirador (view point), swam in every emerald pool, visited waterfalls, climbed through underground caves, and went tubing on the river.

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Semuc Champey has been declared a natural monument due to it’s extraordinary natural beauty and uniqueness. The Cahabon river enters the ground, passing under a natural limestone bridge and forming a series of clear pools above before it exits the ground as a waterfall. The photos below show where the river enters the ground as well as a view of the pools from the mirador.

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After the van miraculously got us out of the remote jungle, we made the trek north to “El Peten”, the flat, hot, steamy jungle region of Guatemala. Unfortunately, the Peten region of Guatemala is experiencing rapid deforestation due to families trying to make a living off of the land. Using the “slash and burn” technique, farmers cut down the forest, burn it, and grow crops on the land until the nutrients are depleted within a few years, after which they move on to a new plot of forest and do it all over again. Deforested land is also used for cattle grazing to meet the demand for cheap burgers in the US and other countries. Below is a drive by photo of a newly deforested land, now a tree graveyard burned to cinders.

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The temperatures in the lowland jungle of Guatemala were extremely hot and muggy, making it nearly impossible to camp in the van without killing each other. We stopped in Flores, a little island town on Lago Peten Itza, for two nights of luxury in a hotel with air conditioning. Taking a vacation from our travels, we sipped ice cold jamaica and agua de sandia as we walked around the island and indulged in a fancy dinner of white fish (a type of local perch) that is only found in Lago Peten Itza.

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After dragging ourselves out of our nice air conditioned hotel room, we drove an hour north through the jungle to Tikal, the largest and most extravagant excavated Mayan ruins to date.

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Jaguar crossing

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Tikal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the national park it is in hosts a variety of wildlife. As we camped in the park just outside the entrance to the ruins, we were awoken in the middle of the night by an immensely loud noise that sounded like screaming aliens. We had been told about the eerie sound of howler monkeys but not in our wildest imagination could we have anticipated what we heard. Here is a sound clip Aron recorded so you can see what I mean:

http://yourlisten.com/channel/content/16976734/Howler_Monkey

The ruins of Tikal were spectacular. We paid a little extra to enter the park before it opened and were escorted through the pitch black jungle night by a shotgun wielding guard. As we watched the dawn approach from the top of the tallest temple, the jungle came alive with the sounds of its inhabitants. We had the park to ourselves as we walked around and explored the ancient Mayan city in the misty jungle morning. As we wandered we saw spider and howler monkeys, black scorpions, coatamundis, toucans, parrots, and other colorful birds.

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Apparently, there are ruins even bigger than Tikal in the remote Guatemalan jungle to the north. El Mirador has been hidden in the jungle for centuries and has not yet been excavated. It’s main temple, La Danta, is said to be even bigger than the pyramids of Egypt. To get there requires a six day trek through the wild, steaming jungle with a guide. Perhaps one day we’ll return for another adventure when it’s not the hottest month of the year.Mirador (889x410)

After nearly a month away from the beach, we happily made our way south to the coast of El Salvador.

Categories: Guatemala | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

La Ruta Maya

After driving up a steep, misty grade lined with pine trees on red clay  mountainsides, we arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas. San Cristobal is an old  colonial town surrounded by pine forest with a large indigenous Mayan population  in and around the city. The city is also known as the nexus of the Zapatistas who fight for indigenous rights and fair land ownership. It was the first day of  Semana Santa, the holy week ending on Easter Sunday and a huge holiday for Mexico. Our campground in the brisk pines just outside the city was tranquil aside from the chorus of roosters, birds, and what sounded like hundreds of dogs barking from miles around day and night.

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San Cristobal is a beautifully colorful, clean city with cobblestone streets and many churches. We spent a week strolling around the streets to museums, through markets, and other interesting historical sights.

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A visit to the city’s textile museum turned out to be far more spectacular than we could have imagined. The museum houses a collection of intricately detailed textiles, hand woven by indigenous women of the Chiapas region of Mexico as well as Guatemala. The art of weaving is one of the few traditional Mayan crafts women have kept alive for perhaps thousands of years. They spin sheep wool into thread, dye the thread using natural leaves and berries, and then weave each individual string into a beautiful, one of a kind creation.

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On Good Friday, we saw the reenactment of the crucifixion of Jesus in the city streets. Dressed up Roman soldiers on horses led the procession, followed by a man playing the role of Jesus, struggling under the weight of a large wooden cross. Roman soldiers walking alongside Jesus would whip him and the other captives in the procession to add to the intensity of the event.

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Easter Sunday also happened to be the beginning of the weeklong Feria de la Primavera y la Paz (Festival of Spring and Peace). After the Queen of the Festival was crowned by the Governor of Chiapas, we watched the queen and her princesses parade through town on brightly colored floats. The floats were built in the back of pickup trucks and in classic Mexican style, one truck float stalled during the parade and had to be pushed and jump started by the onlookers. We love Mexico.

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On our last day in San Cristobal, we joined some friends from our campground for a bull fight as part of the Feria de la Primavera y la Paz. San Cristobal’s small bull ring was filled to the brim for the event. Vendors tiptoed between the isles of spectators cheering “Ole!” selling beer, peanuts, and chips while the matadors performed their dance with the toros. It was thrilling to see a huge, immensely strong, one ton bull charge at the matadors but the entire ritual killing of the bull is not our cup of tea. I had to hold my breath during a few close calls when two of the matadors fell and escaped being trampled and gored by mere centimeters. One matador was nearly speared in his rear but luckily escaped with just a rip in his pants (see the picture below).

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Leaving San Cristobal we set out towards our first Mayan ruins. On the road to the ruins of Palenque, we stopped at Agua Azul and Misol-Ha, two beautiful waterfalls nestled in the jungle. Agua Azul is a section of wide, turquoise blue river with multiple cascades and clear pools perfect for swimming, a great way to break up the long, hot drive.

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Misol Ha, about an hour down the road was less spectacular but still beautiful. The tall waterfall filled a large, dark pool and hid a cave behind it’s façade.

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We descended through the pine filled mountains into the heavy, humid air of the lowland jungle. From our campsite just meters outside the entrance to the Palenque ruins we could hear the whooping calls of howler monkeys in distant trees while in the evening fireflies sparkled around our camp like diamonds in the grass.

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Palenque was first inhabited around 100 BC and flourished from around AD 630-740 when many of it’s buildings were erected. The site consists of a labyrinthine palace with a celestial viewing tower surrounded by temples and outlying structures all deeply imbedded in the dense jungle. The most famous of the temples, the Temple of Inscriptions, serves as the tomb of Pacal (meaning “shield”), the king that Palenque flourished most under. The temple has nine tiers each representing a level into the Mayan underworld, at the time of discovery in the lowest level sat the sarcophagus of the ancient king, Pacal, along with the skeletons of others who accompanied him to the afterlife . The city was largely abandoned by AD 900, possibly due to overpopulation and the depletion of local resources.

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From Palenque we drove a few hours through the dense Lacandon jungle that borders Mexico and Guatemala until we came to Lacanja, a small, native Lacandon village alongside the Rio Umascinta. We camped and swam in the cool river with our new friends, Henrick and Karen, travelers from Colorado.

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Smaller than Palenque, the ruins of Bonampak are famous for intricate hand painted murals from the Classic period that have miraculously survived for thousands of years. The colored murals really spurred the imagination and provided a window into the life of the ancient Mayans. The murals each tell a story open to different interpretations but the theme is clear. The first mural shows the ruling family presenting a baby, the heir to the throne to 14 lords.

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Below there’s a musical precession entertaining the ordeal, some of the musicians are human while others are masked creatures of the land and water.

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The second mural shows men wearing jaguar skins leaping, dodging, and grasping enemies by their hair while plunging spears through them.

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The third room shows the ruling family involved in a sacrifice of shedding blood by piercing their tongues with a stingray spine as well as the sacrifice of the prisoners captured in the previous mural. It was quite spectacular.

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Our exploration of the ancient Mayan culture, as well as the Mayan culture still alive today, continues as we travel through Guatemala.

Categories: Mexico | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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