Last week we celebrated our ‘300 days of travel’ milestone and reflected on the last 100 days, which we spent in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Here’s where talk about the best and the worst things to happen to us in the last 100 days. It’s not all suntans and glamour (although, most of it actually was this time!)
Top travel moments
The Central American isthmus is located on what’s known as the Ring of Fire – a chain of volcanoes which stretches down the pacific side of each country. The volcanoes, some active and some dormant, can often be climbed, and in the last 100 days we climbed two volcanoes. First Dani conquered Pacaya, the popular active volcano outside of Antigua. She saw glowing lava and amazing views of other volcanoes after the intense climb.
Two countries later, in Leon, Nicaragua, the both of us climbed Cerro Negro volcano. Twice. In a row. We signed up to go Volcano Boarding with Quetzaltrekkers, a non-profit organization who offer two runs for $30. We took the ‘deal’, but didn’t realize that volcano boarding down twice would mean climbing up the steep black giant twice in the blazing ninety degree sun (35 Celcius). The heat, the climb, the speeding down a volcano on toboggans we schlepped up the volcano was an intense, but one-of-a-kind experience.
Going on vacation
This part might confuse those readers who think we are on a permanent vacation…but we took a week-long vacation during the last 100 days. Traveling and working full time can be exhausting, and especially after speeding through Eastern Guatemala and Honduras, we were in need of some rest and relaxation when we arrived to Leon, Nicaragua. So we went to a good old-fashioned travel agency and booked two hand-written tickets to the Corn Islands, off of Nicaragua’s Moskito Coast in the Caribbean. We spent a week on these tiny remote islands in the Caribbean, doing nothing but relaxing in a hammock, exploring the islands and swimming in the ocean (and worked a little bit, we have to admit, but really only a little…each day).
Cooking Indio Viejo with Doña Ana
While in Leon, we signed up to learn to cook a traditional Nicaraguan dish, Indio Viejo (veggie version minus the chicken). We went to the market and bought those strange ingredients we never know what they are for (little bags of red powder, for example, which turn out to perfectly flavor and color the dish we made). We learned next how to make tortillas at a very busy but basic tortilleria in Leon’s indigenous neighborhood before bringing the tortillas up the street to the welcoming Dona Aña’s house. We had a great time not only learning to prepare and cook the dish, but also spending quality time chatting away with her and her daughter while enjoying the fruits of our labor.
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
More than once we have proclaimed our love for Lake Atitlan, the most beautiful lake in Central America. We have see many of the lakes in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, but hands down, Lake Atitlan is the most beautiful and peaceful lake of all.
Leon, Nicaragua is not only one of our favorite places in all of Central America, but on our trip so far. The second biggest city in Nicaragua after Managua, Leon has all the mod-cons you would expect from a city of nearly 200,000, but you could easily forget what century you are in when joining the Nicas in their circle of rocking chairs watching the sunset behind the constant stream of horse and buggy transportation galloping by. The spirit of the Sandinista revolution still can be felt among the people and from the bullet holes in buildings, the murals around town, and the fact that this city has completely blocked out any big American fast food chains.
San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
A little town on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast just over the border to Costa Rica, San Juan del Sur’s wide streets, clean well-constructed beach promenade, colorful little beach houses plus a mix of blonde-haired surfer boys and dark-skinned locals make San Juan del Sur feel like a Nicaraguan version of Venice Beach. Gringo ex-pats who love that California feelin’ have stayed to open several breakfast spots, restaurants and bars. The locally-owned, most seafood, eateries are geared toward Costa Rican weekend tourists. The vast beach in town is set within a large cove, which keeps waves to a minimum for easy dips into the water while sunbathing, and the string of beaches outside of San Juan are even more stunning with perfect surfing. The sunsets on all the beaches are heaven.
Samara Beach, Costa Rica
Looking back, we have spent time on quite a few beaches over the last 100 days – the Corn Islands off Nicaragua’s Caribbean, Poneloya and San Juan del Sur on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast, and a stint on Honduras’ stretch of the Caribbean, but the best has been the beaches of Costa Rica. Our personal favorite, so far, is Samara Beach, located on the Nicoya Peninsula on the Pacific Ocean. While the ex-pat community has moved in, the relaxed small village feeling remains. Samara beach is set in a picture perfect bay, with its sprawling white sand lined with palm trees stretching for miles so you can walk for hours. This is a great spot to play in the waves and to relax for a few days.
According to our 2009 guide book, Omoa is a cute little fishing village off the tourist track with perfect, deserted Caribbean beaches. Sounds right up our alley, and shortly after crossing the border from Guatemala, we arrived with high expectations. Beach? What beach? Due to construction of the oil and gas company nearby, the beaches in town were completely eroded, with water coming right up to the edge of beachside restaurants. Beaches outside of town down ‘lush, secluded paths’ actually wind through shady, litter-strewn neighborhoods. The beaches here are deserted, but this is due to the piles of garbage all over the beach. After a 10-minute rest and water re-fueling, we left without dunking so much as a toe in the water, back into town.
Granada is almost always referred to as the prettiest town in Nicaragua – and its well-manicured town center, freshly painted cathedral and colonial houses are certainly the best maintained in the country. Taking all this in takes, at most, two hours – stroll through the park and up the Calle La Calzada restaurant strip, around some of the nicer hotels. Other than that, we couldn’t find anything special about Granada. Gone was the authentic charm of Leon, filled with passion and enjoyment of life. With everything in Granada geared at impressing tourists, we found tons of over-priced tourist traps, supersize tour groups and harassing, greedy street vendors. Had we known what to expect in Granada, we probably would have spent more time in Leon.
Montezuma, Costa Rica
The year is 1999 and Montezuma is a tiny hippie town at the very base of the Nicoya peninsula with roughly ten hotels, a string of beaches each totally different and equally beautiful, and an average visitor/local age of 25. Fast forward to 2011, and the hippie factor has doubled, but the old American geezers in socks and sandals factor has gone from 0 to in the dozens. There is a supermarket with German chocolate, American chips, Italian wine, even two different kinds of tofu. Hotels, of which there must now be 50, have room rates reaching well into the hundreds, and the once tranquil town is now choked with rental SUVs and 4x4s. The long walk along all the beaches is still gorgeous, and we had the best beach day swimming in the waves, but the bliss was bittersweet.
In addition to Samara, Leon and San Juan del Sur, we recommend the following places which we visited during our last 100 days:
Only reachable by boat, Livingston is home to Guatemala’s Caribbean culture, a world away from the Maya culture prevalent throughout the rest of the country. Combined with a boat ride from Rio Dulce along a lush, animal filled jungle scenery, followed by impressive white cliffs of the Cueva de la Vaca gorge and finally reaching the estuary to the Caribbean sea Livingston makes a great trip, even though it doesn’t have any spectacular beaches (though there are some nicer beaches a half hour boat ride north of town).
Corn Islands, Nicaragua
If you are looking to combine an affordable Caribbean island vacation with a trip to an off-the-beaten track destination, the Corn Islands are the perfect place. Located about 70 km off Nicaraguan’s Caribbean coast, the two tiny islands of Big Corn and Little Corn offer endless, empty white-sand beaches, adequate snorkeling, hundreds of palm trees and friendly locals who hook you up with fresh coconuts or fish fresh out of the ocean.
Getting sick in the Honduran fishing village, Omoa
Omoa (see ‘Most disappointing places’ above) is so tiny, it doesn’t have a supermarket, or even a bank. It was a Sunday when Dani began to suffer the wrath of tourist sickness, which meant that if there was a pharmacy, it certainly wasn’t open on a Sunday. Plus, we were about to run out of money, already depleting our limited emergency supply of dollars. Luckily, after two days, Dani was able to take the bus, and we left for Copan, where we knew there would be a clinic, but it sucked being stuck in a place like Omoa when sick.
Bugs love me (Jess). You name it, and if it bites or stings, that bug is aimed at me and my ‘sweet blood’. In Granada, mosquitoes ate me, more specifically my legs, alive. The mosquitoes are so bad in this city on a lake that some of the restaurants keep Off! bug spray on hand for diners. During my time in the city, however, I would imagine incidence of bites for everyone else was at an all-time low as these little vampire sucked my blood exclusively. Especially after the Dengue incident in Guatemala, I am especially spiteful toward mosquitoes. Luckily I dodged dengue this time around, but the scars on my legs will long remain.
Bad planning: Stranded in Tegucigalpa on New Year’s Day
On 1 January we packed our stuff and left the beautiful lake Yojoa at 9am in hopes of reaching Esteli, Nicaragua by nightfall. An ambitious journey, but doable in a day. Not on a Holi-day however. First we waited an hour on the side of a highway for a bus to take us to Tegucigulpa. From there, we jumped in a taxi to where the buses to the border leave – but not on holidays. After all the to-ing and fro-ing, and re-planning, and locals telling us without a doubt that we couldn’t make it before dark, we accepted our fate of spending the night in Central America’s least safe capital. The first budget option in our guide book was shut down and the second one may have been a by-the-hour type place. We ended up overpaying for a mid-range hotel and an over-priced pizza as we comfort-ate a Pizza Hut and waiting for trip to Nicaragua to start again in the morning. The next morning we headed out to grab a coffee and have a look around the city center, and Tegucigalpa turned out not to be as scary as we thought (aside from all the gun shots and subsequent police sirens all night).
This dish of rice and beans, cooked together with peppers, onions and Salsa Lizano, is the typical dish of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. It is mostly eaten for breakfast but can also come with lunch or dinner. We both cannot get enough of it, no matter what time of day it is!
Baleadas are traditional Honduran food – a big flour tortilla, filled with eggs, refried beans, cream and sometimes avocado, it is usually eaten for breakfast and actually very similar to a breakfast burrito. Dani loved baleadas, but they didn’t do much for me.
Pizzeria Monna Lisa in Granada, Nicaragua
Spoiler alert: This is not street food, it’s not cheap, and it’s not even local. However, Monna Lisa serves the best pizza in all of Central America. Dani, in her love-induced post-pizza haze, would even go as far as saying the best pizza outside of Italy. The pizzas are thin crust with mouth-watering dough, baked in a real Italian stone oven. Monna Lisa also invented to-die-for dessert: Chocolate Calzones. Sure, they call it the Monna Lisa special or something, but it is pizza dough formed into a long parcel, filled with nearly an entire bar of melted chocolate and served with more chocolate sauce on top. Dani would have stayed in Granada just for this dish!
El Desayunazo in Leon, Nicaragua
This little breakfast place is a hot spot in Leon, especially at the weekends you have to come early to secure a table. Equally loved by locals, expats and tourists, El Desayunazo deserves the crown for Leon’s (or even Nicaragua’s) best breakfast place. You can choose between a large variety of Nica breakfasts (gallo pinto, eggs, cheese) and ‘Gringo’ breakfasts such as pancakes or waffles. And the best: bottomless coffee!