Marvelling at Mexico

After eventually making it out of Utila, our next stop was Mexico. With not much time left we had decided to spend our time in Mexico exploring the Quintana Roo region. Our first stop was Tulum but to get there we had to go through four countries, cross three borders and take an unexpected night bus. It took us a full two days and one night of travelling but we eventually arrived in Tulum in the early hours of the morning.

We had arrived earlier than planned after deciding to take the night bus from Belize City so hadn’t found any accommodation. This meant we ended up walking around Tulum at 6.30 in the morning, being turned away from hostel after hostel because they were full. We did eventually find some hostels that had space for us but as they were over $20, more than double what we usually pay for a bed, we decided that we couldn’t afford to stay in Tulum for more than night.

While we were too exhausted after all of our travelling to do much the day we arrived, we made plans to visit the Mayan ruins before taking a bus to Cancun the next day. These were the first ruins I had visited and while they were impressive, there was something even more breathtaking. The ruins at Tulum are right on the coast and it was hands down the most beautiful water I’ve ever seen.

Cancun was our next stop and after the disaster that was trying to find somewhere to stay in Tulum we booked ahead this time. Our stay involved even more beautiful water, another visit to the Mayans and the most expensive night out ever. Do you know it costs $60 to get into a club in Cancun???

I swear it’s impossible to get a photo where all of us are smiling

A major Central American attraction is the Mayan site of Chichen Itza near Cancun. The main temple is on postcards, magnets and souvenirs everywhere you look and despite all the hype, it didn’t actually disappoint. It did take us five hours on a bus to get there just to spend a few hours looking around before enduring the same journey on the way back but it was worth it to see such a well known historical landmark.

A little history about the Mayans seeing as they’re featuring so heavily in this blog. The Maya civilisation spread all the way from the southeastern regions of Mexico, down through Guatemala and Belize to the north of Honduras and El Salvador. The Mayans were around from 2000 BC until the mysterious collapse of Mayan civilistation toward the end of the ninth century that led to the abandonment of their great cities.

After a few days hanging around in Cancun, we weren’t quite ready to leave Mexico so we decided to make a stop on our way back down to the border. We chose Laguna de Bacalar, also known as the lake of seven colours. I thought the water in Tulum and then Cancun couldn’t get any better but Mexico just kept it coming. Bacalar has the clearest, most crystalline water you could imagine and is hard to look away from. 

Yep, this is actually what it looks like
Enjoying the beautiful yet freezing water

Overall we only spent a week in Mexico, partly to try and avoid the departure tax for stays longer than seven days (which we still had to pay by a day), partly out of a desire to get to Guatemala and partly because despite what everyone had told us Mexico was much more expensive than we were prepared for. This may be because we were there in the high season, right over the Christmas holidays, or maybe because we mostly just visited the notoriously touristy places.

Anyway, whatever it was, I feel like I owe Mexico another chance to bowl me over like it has most of the travellers we’ve met but that means giving it much longer than a week – I mean have you seen the size of it? – and visiting places that show off the true Mexican culture. I have a feeling that once I dig past the cities like Cancun and Tulum, Mexico could be a place that I could love.

Christmas – Gap Year Style

It’s finally Christmas! (At least on the blog it is!) After San Juan we spent a couple of days back in León, wondering around the city and visiting a few museums we had missed the first time. From there we had one of the longest days of travelling we’ve ever had, 17 hours from León all the way up to San Pedro Sula. We met up with all the other vols that were coming to Utila and were meant to make it there the next day but we managed to miss the ferry meaning a night in La Ceiba. This mishap meant that that it was Christmas Eve before we arrived in Utila.

The plan for the 10 days we were to spend there was to relax, scuba dive and party! Utila is the perfect little island for all of these activities. It has the laid back charm that suits all Caribbean island, is THE cheapest place in the world to learn to scuba dive as well as being set alongside the second largest barrier reef in the world, and is famous across Central America for hosting the original shot challenge in Skid Row bar. 

Christmas Eve was a very relaxed affair, exploring some of the island and facetiming home to cure a little bout of homesickness I’d been suffering from followed by a night out in the town (and by town I mean the one street that holds all the bars and clubs on Utila). 

Yes we do!

With no set plans for Christmas Day, it was a slow start with most people making the most of the time difference to butt in on Christmas dinner at home. I even got to be guest of honour back in Scotland, propped up on the iPad at the top of the table wearing my cracker hat! 

We had organised a secret Santa between our whole group which led to an amusing half hour. The best presents came from Eilidh, Siobhan and Peter in the form of chocolate, clothes and some well chosen extras but an honourable mention goes out to Tom who spent the day before scouring the island to bring back a pigs foot for Lucy, a life long vegetarian!

Deciding we wanted to make sure we did something with our day, we found a boat to take us out to Water Caye, a tiny island, more like a sandbar really, where we could swim and hang out for the rest of the afternoon. Our hostel, Trudy’s, was hosting a pot luck Christmas dinner for all of its guests and staff in the evening. As we’d only arrived the day before our contribution consisted of a box of wine but that seemed more than good enough for everyone! 

Our main purpose in coming to Utila had been to learn to scuba dive and we started on Boxing Day afternoon at the dive school attached to our hostel, Underwater Vision. Almost everyone had never done it before so were all in the same boat. To start with it was a lot of theory but it wasn’t long before we were doing confined dives by the dock and then the proper open water dives. 

I had been warned in advance by Amy that diving is surreal but it was so much more than I was expecting. In our first dive I was riding a thin line between awe because all of a sudden I could breathe underwater and panic, because I was breathing underwater! But then came the open water dives and the panic was gone because it was like being in a different world. The silence apart from the tickling noise of your bubbles, the laziness of your movements, the coral making fascinating landscapes and the overwhelming vastness of the open ocean. 

Creds to Grace with the GoPro skills

And that’s without the even talking about the animals! Throughout the six open water dives I did I was lucky enough to see an eagle ray, a common octopus, a lobster and massive crab and an absolutely huge barricuda that fortunately had no interest in having divers for lunch! Alongside these were the unbelievable amounts of fish including parrotfish, queen angelfish, fairy basslets and blue tangs (Dory!). 

We finished the course on the 29th and Jesse, Calum and I (with the addition of Lucy and Peter to our stellar team) celebrated by avenging our loss at San Juan’s trivia night by smashing Trudy’s. We got the highest mark in two out of three rounds plus having the best name, Low Pressure Inflator Hoes (the diving pun was sure to win) and while it may not have been free Sunday Funday tickets, we did win 700 lempira to split between us! (Don’t get too excited, that’s only about £20!) 

We had the 30th and 31st to rest up for a big New Years Eve though I still managed to get some paddle boarding in! I must have more balance than I though because I made it the whole way through without falling off… Until climbing back onto the dock when I face planted into the water!

Hogmanay was spent at Trudy’s party up until midnight at which point we transferred to a beach party down the road. While I rung in the new year in Honduras with the family I’ve made here, I had managed to ring it in at home while on the phone to my real family six hours earlier. 

Included in our course were two free fun dives which we had (however wisely) booked for New Years Day, in the afternoon. Something else that was booked for that day was an appointment at the tattoo parlour. Originally I was not one of those this was booked for. However, long story short I came out of that tattoo shop with a permanent reminder of my time in Honduras and I couldn’t be happier with it.

One more day was spent lazing around on what has to be one of the most chilled out islands in the world before it was back to just the six of us and we set off for our next stop – Mexico! 

The whole experience of spending Christmas away from home was as different as I imagined but nowhere near as bad as I feared. While I did suffer from some pretty tough homesickness in the week running up to Christmas it was easily sorted by just seeing my family over video chat. Yes it was weird seeing all our traditions happening without me but we were following our own Project Trust ones and, in my eyes, I was still surrounded by family.

At the end of the day, this has shown me that it really doesn’t matter if you spend your Christmas in the snow or on the beach, how many presents are under the tree or if you get to have turkey and stuffing for dinner. It’s really all about who you spend it with and appreciating what you have. 

Obviously we couldn’t go without the annual Christmas photo
Possibly the only picture of everyone together and even then only Peter’s forehead made it in!

¡Dale Pues!

We did eventually have to leave Costa Rica, to save us breaking the bank or any more bones. We were starting our northward trip back up through Nicaragua that would eventually get us to Honduras, specifically Utila, in time for Christmas. On the way up our main stop was in San Juan del Sur plus a couple more days in León. We rocked up to San Juan late afternoon and were met by a completely stunning sunset and a beer pong competition. Pretty representative of the town and our stay to be honest.

Among travellers, San Juan is one of the ultimate party destinations in Central America mostly due to Sunday Funday, the (in)famous pool crawl – three different hostel bars over 12 hours. Central America is littered with Sunday Funday vests in various colours and they are worn like a badge of honour to show that you survived. 

¡Dale pues!

The town itself however is a haven for ex-pats and the relaxed permanent traveller.  It’s the kind of place you come to for a week and end up staying for the rest of your life. It’s right on the beach which while not the best beach for surfing has the most incredible view of sunset and is also overlooked by the second largest Jesus statue in the world. 

I immediately fell in love. The chilled out vibe, the colourful, cosy streets and the friendly people made it a place I can very easily imagine coming back to for a longer stint. While we were in San Juan we discovered Nicaragua’s signature phrase, akin to pura vida in Costa Rica. ¡Dale pues! means ‘lets do it’ and perfectly suits the people of San Juan.

We arrived on a Thursday night, giving us a perfect amount of time to assimilate before Sunday Funday arrived. We explored the town, went out to one of the nearby beaches to watch a surfing competition, ate bagels at El Gato Negro for almost all our meals and were completely robbed of free Sunday Funday tickets at trivia night (Jesse, Calum and I were anyway. It’s a corrupt system).

El Gato Negro – best bagels in Nicaragua and our regular breakfast spot

Our hostel, Pachamama’s, was one of the participating bars which not only meant that we were in a great position to sneak into the front of the line but also that we got half price tickets. Ours was the first stop which meant that our party started a bit early than most people’s as we waited for everyone else to arrive, though we were kept company by the 2-4-1 mojitos.

To summarise probably the best 12 hours of my life, at least of this trip, we started off at Pacha’s which involved a game of giant jenga, then to another hostel called Anamar that had a super cool pool (in both senses of the word). Third stop was the well known Naked Tiger hostel just outside of town where we had the perfect view of sunset over the bay before finishing the day/night in a club called Arribas back in town.  

There was glitter everywhere for weeks

I’m glad to say that everyone made it through the day (and the following morning) intact. We tried to fend off the Monday blues with a trip to visit Jesus (literally, not spiritually) but unfortunately he was already closed up for the day by the time we got it together enough to get out the door. 

It was here in San Juan that we met the best people and made the best friends that we have so far while travelling. Our hostel was one of the most sociable places we’ve been and we ended up with quite a little crew by the end of it. There were the two American college students who we affectionately nicknamed ‘the frat boys’; Juan and Tito, two Nicaraguan guys that worked at Pacha’s; Miguel, Tatum and the rest of their group of expat American teenagers (who were actually younger than us! Hard to find out here!); our old friend Stephen who we first met in Treehouse in Granada; and last but not least Litz and Vale, the German/Chilean travelling buddies who we adopted into our exclusive group and would have loved to have kept. However they were heading down to Panama so we’ll just have to settle for reuniting at Oktoberfest, right Litz? 

It was hard to leave even though we were going back to León to discover more of the city and then on to Utila to see everyone and we are already trying to plan how to fit in a return visit with a visa run to Costa Rica! As we’ve been going along, one of the big factors that helps me decide how much I like a place is if I can imagine myself living there long term. Suspects so far are Manuel Antonio, of course, but also León and San Juan easily joins them. ¡Dale pues!

I Can’t Seem to Stay Away

After all the drama of Montezuma and San Jose, our next stop was the relaxed town of Manuel Antonio. This is a little, semi-touristy town on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. This is the town where I spent a month last summer, volunteering for the organisation GVI and I was thrilled to be able to come back.

Our first few days were spent lazing around on some of the beaches in the area, watching incredible sunsets from our hostel and fighting off a jellyfish (that one was just me). 

Our hostel Serena Vista certainly delivered on it’s promise
Beautiful views of a beautiful beach

One evening I went into the neighbouring town of Quepos to visit the host family I stayed with for the first week of my trip last year. It was lovely to see them again and I’m pretty sure they remembered who I am! I was also able to communicate so much more with them this year as well after so much Spanish practice in Honduras. I was invited to stay for dinner and Olga’s food is just as delicious as I remembered.

With my Olga and Willy, my host parents, and Kelly, another volunteer and my roommate, in summer 2015

The project I worked on last year was in a school called Roncador and while GVI no longer work there I was given the opportunity to meet with the Country Director and visit the project they are focusing on this year, El Cocal. I’m afraid I don’t have many pictures to show from the visit – I was far too busy asking hundreds of questions!

Calum and Tom came with me and we were shown around the community centre where GVI work and where the majority of their programmes are run in El Cocal. Their work is so incredible, ranging from English lessons to daycare to after school clubs. It’s exactly the kind of thing I want to do with the rest of my life and who knows, I may even end up doing it in Manuel Antonio. 

I enjoyed my time in Manuel Antonio just as much as last time, visiting old haunts and imagining coming back here the next time and the next and the next. This was our last stop and the perfect way for me to remember Costa Rica… At least until I’m back!

Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls… Or Jumping Off Them

I don’t know how many of my avid readers know already but Costa Rica wasn’t all sunshine and smiles for us. We faced a situation that we never would have imagined we were going to. I won’t give away any spoilers right now otherwise there would be no reason for you to read on but know that there is a happy ending. 

We left Monteverde bright and early to catch a bus, a ferry and another bus in order to get to Montezuma, a small beach town on the Peninsula de Nicoya. The town has a lovely feel to it, one that you could easily imagine losing yourself in for a few weeks. Our hostel, Luna Llena, was also one of the the most relaxed places we’ve stayed in. 
We spent a total of three days in Montezuma and the first consisted of very little. We visited the supermarket, took turns cooking for each other and visited the beach.

The dreamy beach in Montezuma

Then came Tuesday 6th December. The fateful day. The moment I tell you our plans for the day I’m sure you might be able to figure out what happens but hopefully you’ll stick with it. Our plans for that day were to visit the Montezuma Falls. 

It was a bit of a hike up the river to get there but you are rewarded when you reach the first towering fall with a refreshing break from the heat as the spray mists in the air. There are two more falls above and if you clamber up a steep hill face you can swim in the pool between the second and third falls. The last bit was a tough scramble so we were straight in the water. A few others and I decided to jump off the third waterfall after swimming around a bit. Before anyone starts to panic, this is the smallest! It’s no more than five metres high so just like jumping off a diving board. 

The daredevils of the group decided that wasn’t good enough so were looking at the second one, a much more intimidating 15m high. This is where things start to go downhill. Tom and Mac jumped off and were all fine but when Jesse jumped off (she would like me to point out that she actually jumped first!) she went in at a funny angle and came up with a sore back. We didn’t have too much time to consider this because when Amy was climbing back up after jumping, she fell back into the water and injured her ankle badly. 

I won’t go into the details of everything that happened over the next few hours but basically we split into two groups. Jesse, Lucy and I hiked back down to get Jesse some medical care because while she could still walk, she was in a lot of pain. You may be surprised that I didn’t stay with Amy as she is my partner but I would have been no use. It distressed me too much to see her in so much pain but I knew I could still help Jesse. 

The boys stayed with Amy and over several hours and with the help from an American couple from our hostel and the rescue team that turned up they got Amy out of the waterfall. Meanwhile at the bottom of the trail we waited for an ambulance that never came before I had to run back to the hostel, pack up some things and get picked up to meet Amy at the clinic because she was going to need to be flown to San Jose for treatment. 

Possibly one of my favourite pictures of the whole holiday (zoom in to see her smile, laughing gas is great)

It was a lot to take in but overnight bags were thrown together, plans made to contact all the relevant people and fingers crossed that everyone would be okay. Jesse and Lucy also need to fly to San Jose because of concerns over Jesse’s back so that night the four of us took our own personal planes over Costa Rica to the capital. Silver linings right? 

Still smiling (though I think the morphine might have been helping a few people in this picture!)

We spent that night in a private hospital in San Jose where Jesse was told she had fractured her T8 vertebrate (for those that that will mean something too) but thankfully it wasn’t displaced which would have meant surgery while Amy got away with a sprained ankle. 

They were given an attractive corset/brace thing, a boot and enough pain medication to let us start our own Central American drug smuggling ring and then both our invalids were discharged at the same time the following afternoon. The boys were amazing and managed to get all the bags for the seven of us from Montezuma to San Jose and were there to meet us at a hotel once we left the hospital. 

We spent three nights in San Jose, with our days spent at a mall doing some retail therapy, catching some films at the cinema and going out for a nice meal courtesy of Amy’s parents (thanks Paul and Penny, it was delicious! Also thanks to Hugo and Cathy Tristram, Jesse’s parents, for the meal they bought us a few days later!) 

This year’s Christmas card

Lessons learned from this experience – maybe jumping off a waterfall isn’t the best idea. Also, good medical cover is absolutely essential. The planes to San Jose alone would have cost $10,000, as Mac, our resident pilot-in-training told us. 

While everyone is fine now, it was a scary and overwhelming time for us, even the ones without broken backs and sprained ankles, and one we’re not likely to forget soon! 

Hitchhiking and Badger Monkeys – Not As Dangerous As You Think

Once again this blog comes to you from a bus, my second one of the day and it’s only 9.20! We are heading back up to the Nicaraguan border after a whirlwind two weeks in Costa Rica but this post will take us back to when we arrived. 

As the month went from November to December we went from Nicaragua to Costa Rica, more specifically to the town of Santa Elena, famous for cloud forests and cheese. Interesting combination, I know. Before we got there we had a border crossing which is obviously our favourite part of travelling, especially when we get conned into spending $10 on an immigration form and then ripped off when we had $20 of change stolen from us. Good times.

Very happy to be back!

Costa Rica is a richer and therefore more expensive country than either Nicaragua or Honduras. It has a much stabler and stronger economy resulting in higher employment and higher living standards. Ticos (the Costa Rican people) are some of the happiest people in the world to the extent that their army was abolished in 1948. You can’t go anywhere without hearing the phrase ‘pura vida‘ (literally pure life). It’s used as hello, goodbye, thank you, you’re welcome and in a hundred other ways and is the best way to summarise and understand the tico view of life. 

As Costa Rica is expensive and we are extreme cheapskates we were looking for as many free activities in the area as possible especially if we were going to spend $20 on entrance to the Monteverde cloud forest. This lead to what we ended up doing on our first afternoon. 

A bit of cultural trivia for you here. Before I arrived in Honduras I was a hitchhiking virgin. However in Honduras and Central America hitchhiking is much more common and possibly even safer than it is in the UK. To be fair it’s much harder to be kidnapped when you’re in the open bed of a truck, all you need to do is jump out at a red light. Anyway, back on topic, hitchhiking is something we’ve come to do more and more in effort to save money wherever we can. 

On this particular afternoon we decided we wanted to go to Monteverde’s famous cheese factory, set up by the Quakers that first founded the settlement. According to our bible (Lonely Planet’s Guide to Central America on a Shoestring) it was a bit of a walk away from where we were staying so why not hitchhike? The only problem was that with six of us and the fact that the trucks from Nicaragua and Honduras had been swapped for bulky 4x4s most people are usually put off straight away. So we decided to make it more interesting – two teams and a race to see who got there first. Winner gets eternal bragging rights. 

My team was Amy, Lucy and me and we decided to keep walking so that even if it took ages to get picked up at least we were making progress. What actually happened though is that after a while this car passed us with a speccy face and a head of curly hair peering out the back. Jesse, Tom and Calum had passed us. We got picked up a minute later though and not two hundred metres up the road we saw them where they’d been unceremoniously dumped on the pavement. 

In case you’re interested, these are what winners look like…

We made it the whole way to the cheese factory in our ride and had time for a celebratory selfie, to peruse the cheeses on offer and pick out ice cream as a prize. The others eventually made it with their new friend Jeff in tow. Jeff had followed them from where their second ride picked them up, running alongside the car and barking away. 

We got another ride back, all of us together this time and got talking to the American lady whose car it was. She was even nice enough to show us something free we could do the next day on the way back. That evening we were joined by Lucy’s friend Mac who was going to spend about 10 days slumming it in Costa Rica with us. 

Initiating Mac into the traveller lifestyle in the best way we know

It’s hard to top a hitchhiking race to a cheese factory but we tried the next day with a trip to the Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso de Monteverde. We wanted to see some animals but were told it was unlikely because of the time of day. We must be the next David Attenboroughs though because we saw a monkey badger thing! Yeah I don’t know what it is either… If anyone does please let me know! 

Here we see what is professionally known as a monkey badger… thing…
The view across the cloud forest

In the afternoon we set off to find the free sight we’d been told about yesterday – the ficus tree. There were actually several within ten metres or so of each other and they were like something out of a fairytale. It reminded me of reading the Faraway Tree, this massive spiral leading the way into what could be another world. In reality it just got tight, damp and dark at the top but I can still pretend. 

That pretty much concluded our stay in Monteverde. We left the next morning for Montezuma, a beach town on the Peninsula de Nicoya on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Santa Elena was a charming town that reminded us a lot of a European ski resort and at the end of our short but sweet stay we were enamoured with it. 

Both of the hostels we stayed in in Monteverde were covered in murals as was the whole town.

Nicaragua, You’ve Treated Us Well

After being chased away from Isla de Ometepe by the threat of hurricane Otto (a threat that never manifested, for us a least) we were back in Granada but for more than a night this time. The hostel we wanted to stay in was now open but as it is actually a bit outside Granada we had part of our first day to hang around the city until the free shuttle arrived. We found a place to leave our bags and off we went to explore León’s sister city! 

The iconic view of Granada’s iconic cathedral
We found an Irish pub!!!

After being a bit let down by León, I had high hopes for Granada. We spent that first afternoon wandering around the Central Park and taking in the stalls and the impressive cathedral on one side. Eventually it was time for the shuttle to our treehouse hostel on the side of Volcán Mombacho! 

I’d heard many things about Treehouse, one that it knows how to throw a party and another that by the end of your stay the staff feels like family. By the end of my stay I’d seen both of these to be true. We spent a whole day just chilling in treehouse and three nights partying away and when it came time to say goodbye to all the people who had looked after us, it was hugs and Facebook requests all round.

The view from our Treehouse

Despite not actually staying in Granada versus being right in the centre of León I felt like I got a better feel for Granada. It is definitely the more touristy of the two and you can tell – cleaner streets, a fresher facade, and gringos everywhere. Saying this, there is a surprising lack of tourist activities in the city. You can of course visit the gorgeous mustard yellow and burnt red cathedral or climb the tower at Iglesias de la Merced to get incredible views over the city but otherwise you mostly have to look to the surrounding area – Las Isletas in Lago de Nicaragua, Volcán Mombacho or Laguna de Apoyo. Overall I enjoyed my visit to Granada more than to León.

Iglesia de la Merced – best views over Granada

However, if asked which city I would prefer to live in my answer would be León. For me it has a more lived in feel and was made for the people rather than the tourists. As tourism has increased in Nicaragua León has stayed true to its roots as a political hub, full of pride and energy and has a lot more to it than meets the eye. 

We did León in a bit of a rush, with only one morning to actually just wander around the city with the rest of our time taken up by going to the beach or volcano boarding. Our plan now is to go back for a few days on our way to Utila in Honduras for Christmas and I’m excited to have another chance to dig through the surface and see more of León, something I think is part of the city’s charm. 

After Granada we headed to near by Laguna de Apoyo, a crater lake where we planned to stay just one night. However in our usual flexible style we ended up staying four nights, partly because we loved it there so much and partly because Lucy managed to get her volcano boarding wound infected and needed an extra day to recover. 

Laguna de Apoyo

Our hostel at Apoyo was called Paradiso and that basically sums up my feelings about it. Lazy days of swimming, kayaking, watching incredible sunrises and sunsets and enjoying good food at their restaurant – I’m actually surprised we left at all!

One night we ventured over to Volcán Masaya, the only place in the world where you can get as close to actual lava. Yep, actual lava. You can’t see too much because of the angle of the crater and the pictures definitely don’t do it justice but it’s one of those experience you don’t need pictures for. It was incredible.

The depths of hell – just kidding but it is real life lava!

When we could finally drag ourselves away from Laguna de Apoyo and Hotel Paradiso I couldn’t be sad for long because our next stop was… COSTA RICA!!! I feel like we definitely ended our time in Nicaragua on a high, with one of our favourite places so far. Nicaragua has treated us (and our bank accounts) very well and we will definitely be back – Sunday Funday in San Juan del Sur and León round 2 await us!

An Island of Fire

Picking up from where I left off last time on a bus to Isla de Ometepe, we arrived after possibly the most magnificent ferry ride I’ve ever had, watching two volcanoes get bigger and bigger as we got closer and closer. The name Ometepe comes from the words ome meaning two and tepetl meaning mountains in Nahuatl, the language of the Nahua people, an indigenous group found in Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. The two volcanoes that the island is composed of are Concepción and Maderas. Concepción is the higher of the two at 1610m and is active. It is also considered the most perfectly formed volcano cone on Central America! Maderas is slightly smaller at 1394m and is dormant, although it does host a crater lake at it’s peak and supports a diverse rainforest ecosystem.

Approaching the island on the ferry – Concepción in the foreground, Maderas further back

When we arrived we were taken to a hostel that was recommended to us, El Zopilote, which doubles as a working farm. At first we thought it was extremely cool, right in the forest, very rustic and laid back. Then we went on the hike to our dorm. I’m not kidding when I say hike, it took a good 5/10 minutes to get there and wasn’t fun in the dark. Then we saw the bathrooms. Apparently compost toilets are a bit of a thing in Nicaragua, who knew? We lasted two nights in El Zopilote before moving to a more convenient hostel but we don’t regret our time there and we definitely got some stories out of it!

On our first full day on the island we decided to rent bicycles and visit the ojo de agua, which translates to ‘eye of water’ though it is actually just a natural spring that has had a swimming pool built around it. It was a hot ride but really fun and we had the perfect way to cool off waiting for us at the end!

The morning we left El Zopilote, Amy and I decided to get up to watch the sunrise from one of the miradors (lookout points) before taking advantage of the free yoga classes guests were offered. The sunrise was a bit disappointing but yoga was excellent. As a bit of a yoga pro (I’ve done it once before) I obviously knew exactly what I was doing… It was good to get a bit of a stretch and ended up being so relaxing that I actually fell asleep!

A reminder from the hippies

The hostel we changed to was called Hospedaje Buena Vista and was right on the beach in the next town over, Santa Domingo. The beach had a great view of Volcán Maderas and was just the right temperature for a swim.

Our most interesting day was definitely when we decided to rent mopeds and drive to the San Ramón waterfall. Have any of you driven mopeds before, I hear you ask? No we had not. All was going smoothly until we left the paved road and it was not five minutes until we had our first crash. More like a topple to be honest but of course it was our beloved yet accident prone Lucy that was driving with Jesse on the back. A quick patch up and reshuffle of drivers and we were off again with nothing but a minor mechanical issue before we reached the start of the hike to the waterfall.

However when we arrived there it was to find out that we didn’t actually have enough time to hike to it and get back in time to return the mopeds. We decided we would ride back around the island and go for a swim instead but even that didn’t go to plan.

Concentration or avoiding getting flies stuck in her teeth? You decide
The view of Concepción from almost the other end of the island

The minor mechanical fault from before turned major and we had to fetch a mechanic and wait for it to be fixed. This meant that despite turning around with hours to spare we only just made it back in time! Once we got back on to smooth roads I had a turn at driving and I was pretty good, as in I had no crashes unlike some of our other drivers…

Our last day was nowhere near as interesting, for me anyway. Amy and Tom left at 5.30am to climb Volcán Maderas while the rest of us lay around and then went to find some petroglyphs. Petroglyphs are drawings carved into stone and many of Ometepe’s contain spiral designs, leading to archeologists calling it the Island of Circles and Spirals. Relatively little is known about the history of the petroglyphs on Ometepe though it is estimated that they could be up to 3000 years old.

A spiral? A monkey? An modernist portrait?

I think we were all a little disappointed by them, maybe because we were expecting something more like the Mayan ruins in Copán. It was still worth the trip though as they are part of what the island is known for. 

We ended up being chased off Ometepe by the threat of Hurricane Otto. For those of you that don’t know, Hurricane Otto touched down in the very south of Nicaragua on the 22nd November and continued down into Costa Rica, doing a lot more damage there than here. The worst weather we had this weekend was half an hour of semi-heavy rain. 

After Isla de Ometepe we chicken bussed our way back up to Granada – watch this space for the next blog! 

The view from part way up Maderas, shamelessly stolen from Amy

Plans? What Plans?

We are now one week in to many of travelling around Central America. So far we have seen five places and are on our way to the next. Despite having planned how we were going to spend our time in Nicaragua, nothing has actually happened the way we though it would. Everything from buses that don’t exist to trekking through a national park in search for a random old man to awkward hostel opening times has meant that we are having to be very flexible with our plans – something that pre-Honduras Sara would have struggled a lot with but I have managed to keep any worrying (mostly) under the surface. 

Our first stop last Saturday was Yamaranguila where there are other Project Trust volunteers (shoutout to Grace and Hannah for putting up with us!) and where we were going to meet up with Jesse and Lucy from Tomalá and Calum and Tom from Roatán, our travelling buddies for the next few months. After cramming 8 people into their two single beds for a night we left for Tegucigalpa the next afternoon. We arrived in the dark but I wasn’t very taken by Teguc and was glad we were leaving at 6.30 the next morning.

We love you Yam!
In La Esperanza, minus Grace and the boys

Enter the bus that doesn’t exist. We got driven to where it was supposed to leave and it had already left at 5am. Cue a lot of improvising and four buses instead of one but we got where we wanted to be, Estelí in the north of Nicaragua.

Tom and Calum are obviously thrilled to be with us for the next three months

Our plan had been just to stay a night in Estelí but we were all exhausted so decided to add an extra night (a luxury we have because we haven’t booked anywhere to stay until Utila at Christmas so we can kind of just wing it until then). There was only one thing we wanted to do in Estelí anyway – find the stone man. 

The stone man is Alberto Gutierrez who lives on the side of a mountain in the national park next to Estelí and carves amazing drawings into the rock face. We set off with the vaguest of directions and took a taxi for almost an hour to get to the area before wondering around blindly for a while. Eventually we found the sign we needed that pointed to Alberto’s (having already walked past it) and found the stone man. 

In every picture that his visitors take of him, Alberto raises his right hand in a symbol of peace

He was very welcoming and had us sign his visitors book before he took us to his carvings. He’s been doing this for 38 years and has over 3,500 drawings. They were absolutely incredible. Hitchhiking back turned into a two hour walk before a car actually picked us up! Overall I really enjoyed the few days we spent in Estelí, surprisingly as its not usually a must see traveller’s spot, but the city is nice, we had a great hostel, Hospedaje Luna, and the stone man was definitely worth a trip.

Alberto and his elephant. His favourite drawing is a large depiction of Jesus’ birth.
Spreading the peace – thanks Alberto

The next morning it was up at 4.30am to head to León. This is in an area populated by lots of volcanos and we saw our first two on the bus on the way in. After being up so early our thoughts went to one place – the beach. 

There are two beaches by León and we chose Las Peñitas to relax on. We hung out at a hostel/bar/restaurant called Oasis and spent six hours battling the huge waves, relaxing with a cold drink, treating ourselves to some expensive food ($8 is expensive for us!) and watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean. Pretty magical. 

Sunset at Las Peñitas

One of things León is famous for, apart from its gorgeous white cathedral, is the fact that it’s close to Cerro Negro, the only active volcano in the world that you can board down. That was where we headed on Thursday with the social charity Quetzaltrekkers. Cerro Negro is the smallest volcano in Nicaragua at 728m but the most active. It erupts every 15 years or so and last erupted in 1999 so it could happen any day now! 

Cerro Negro looking otherwordly

Volcano boarding was an interesting experience. The trek up was hot and heavy with the boards and jumpsuits but thankfully not long. I have to say though that I didn’t enjoy the first run down. I didn’t chicken out and I went extremely fast from the start but however steep Cerro Negro looks (which is very) it’s actually even steeper. This meant I was getting sprayed in the face by the volcanic rocks, in my eyes, nose, mouth, even my ears! And then I went over a bump at the bottom came flying off and rolled down the last bit! I was fine, nothing wrong except a bruised bum and bruised pride. 

With Quetzaltrekkers there’s the option of boarding down a second time which most people actually didn’t take but I was determined that I would enjoy it so braved the trek a second time and took it a lot slower on the way down. Much better and no crashes! An absolutely incredible experience and even if you don’t like the actual boarding the views from the top are still worth it.

Action shot of me shredding my trainers!

Yesterday we took the morning to look around León and finally made it up to the roof of the Cathedral which is just as beautiful as it looks in all of the pictures. We took a late afternoon bus to Granada which was meant to be our next stop but timing issues with the particular hostel we want to stay means that we decided to change plans again. We found a hostel for the night and are currently on a bus to Isla de Ometepe which promises to be amazing. We’ll be there for four days so will probably get its own blog post written on the bus as we leave! 

It’s been such a fast and furious start to travelling, it’s hard to believe I only left Candelaria a week ago today! If this is how the rest of our time is going to go, it’s going to be pretty fantastic. 

The stunning rooftop of León’s cathedral

Un-Belize-able… In Every Way

First off I apologise both for the pun in the title (it had to be done!) and for the wait for this blog. I’ve been quite ill over the last week hence the delay, but you’ll find out more about that later on!

Our two-day journey to Belize started on Saturday 1st October with a 4.30am bus to Gracias and then another to Santa Rosa. Here we met up with the girls from Tomalà and had a quick Subway pit stop before another bus to Copan and then the border. Eventually, about 14 hours after setting off, we made it to our stop for the night in Chiquimulas in Guatemala. I think overall I can say that our first border crossing was a success, even with having to go back and forth between Honduran immigration and Guatemalan immigration to get all the necessary stamps but nobody got deported, so that’s good right?

Bienvenidos a Guatemala

The next day went like this – bus, boat, bus, boat. While most of our travelling was pretty stress free we did cut it fine to get the last water taxi to our final destination in Belize, a caye-like town called Placencia. When we did eventually get there, a short walk took us to where we would be staying for the next five nights. Had we arrived in paradise? Not quite, just the Sailfish resort but close enough.

Day 2 here we come!
Readying ourselves for country no. 3
Passing by paradise

The four of us were joined the next day by Beth and Ellie, the two volunteers from Siguatepeque, and it was just the six of us until the rest of the group arrived on Wednesday evening.

Those first few days consisted of late breakfasts, beachy mornings, poolside afternoons and nights spent at Tipsy Tuna, a beachside sports bar. One day we rented kayaks to take out into the sea, which was very fun despite the fact I didn’t see a single wave the whole time we were there! When everyone else arrived on Wednesday night we ventured to Barefoot, a neighbouring bar that was reopening after renovation works. Must say, much better atmosphere there than at Tipsy’s and a wider and cheaper cocktail selection!

Our favourite breakfast spot – The Shak. The best smoothies!
Coconuts on the beach – we kind of had to didn’t we?
Caribbean views
Vibes in Tipsy Tuna
Barefoot Bar next door

While it was absolutely great to have a holiday, a bit of R&R, and to see everyone else and catch up with those we hadn’t seen since arriving in Honduras two long months ago, it was unfortunately spoiled a bit for me when I started to feel ill on the Wednesday. It completely knocked me for six and made travelling home over Friday and Saturday (which involved another boat and four buses as well as an overnight stay in San Pedro Sula, murder capital of the world) very difficult.

Once we eventually got home I was bed ridden for a few days before we had a visit from the legends that are Vegas, our in-country rep for PT, and John Fraser, Overseas Director for PT who is based on Coll. I was able to rouse myself a bit for their visit though Vegas, who we had met up with on our way home from Belize in San Pedro thanks to fortunate timing, was still concerned and organised for me to be taken for a blood test the next day.

Being ill is obviously very hard when you are this far away from home. You don’t have the same foods that you crave, the heat makes everything much more difficult and, hardest of all, there’s no cuddles from your mum. I have managed to make through however and am back to fighting fitness. I think it was mostly just the flu but the blood test showed I am a little anaemic too so they have sorted me out with a mountain of pills!

Anyway, everything is back to normal now. We spent this weekend paying football with some fifth graders, making more tomato soup (for our hosts this time) and going down to the river for a swim. This coming weekend we are heading to Santa Rosa to meet with 8 other volunteers to celebrate three birthdays that are coming up. And then it’s the very quick countdown to when we go travelling for 10 weeks over Christmas starting in the middle of November!