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From Costa Rica to Nicaragua and back again

View Scott's Great Expedition on CunninghamScott's travel map.

Well we're now onto our last 2 weeks in Central America and things are just about starting to feel more normal. Our mixture of poor Spanish and sign language is being met with more success, the heat is either becoming more bearable or we've just stopped noticing the constant layer of sweat and we're embracing the slower if more unpredictable pace of life. So much so that as I write this with just a couple more days until we fly to New York, we're feeling pretty sad about the prospect of leaving it behind us and are already talking about where we would like to go on our next Latin America trip.

Our last couple of weeks have been really wonderful, finishing off Costa Rica before traveling into Nicaragua for our final week. The final stop in the Costa Rica leg was the small town of Montezuma, situated on the tip of a peninsula, making it a complete pain in the ass to get to but also gloriously chilled and laid back. We decided to spend New Year's there having been told that any beach town was sure to show us a good time and choosing Montezuma for its laid back, hippy reputation. And laid back it most certainly was. They were probably 3 of the most uneventful but relaxing days of our whole trip, spending our time reading in a hammock, lying on the beach drinking beer and eating delicious sea food (1 great thing about Costa Rica, beer is cheaper than water. It is is however pretty much the only cheap thing in Costa Rica). We also made our now standard trip to the local waterfall, this one featuring the most exciting public footpath yet. Round here they weren't so keen on bridges and boardwalks but preferred to simply attach a rope to a rock face and allow you to bolder the rocks that way. How the locals were getting up there with babies, I have no idea!

New Years Eve itself was spent on the beach with a few bottles of wine, chatting through the year's ups and downs and more than anything reflecting on how extremely glad we were that we decided to do this trip. At midnight (or near enough, I think everyone got a bit prematurely excited) everyone set off their own fireworks directly out their hands (!?!). After this the street party got well underway, which was everything you would expect from a Central American street party. Lots of music, lots of people and lots of really, really good dancing, Mark even agreed to a bit of a boogie - thankfully we we weren't the only westerners there so we didn't look too atrocious! Perhaps the most impressive thing though was the state of the town and beach the morning after. No empty booze bottles, no piles of vom, and from what I could tell no clean up team. A million miles from NYE in a uk city.

From Montezuma we headed north to the Nicaraguan border. We had decided to fit in a week in Nicaragua because we had heard Costa Rica could be quite western and expensive and didn't want to leave Central America feeling like we hadn't really experienced Central America...if that makes sense. And we are so glad we did! Because what we had anticipated was to some extent true. Costa Rica is extremely geared up to tourism and whilst we had actively avoided the areas most visited and lived in by US tourists, the whole country has I think been influenced quite heavily by North America in the last 20 years. It's not that it's unpleasant in any way, quite the opposite in fact, it's just that it feels a little unauthentic. And yes Costa Rica is also extremely expensive!

Before we could reach Nicaragua, we had the small matter of crossing the border. The Costa Rica-Nicaragua border is an extremely busy one because there's a high level of labour exchange but that doesn't mean it is a particularly organised one. There is really only one place you can cross and it has a bit of a reputation for not being particularly easy to negotiate due to the lack of a clear system, the many steps involved, and almost non existent sign posting. So it's fair to say that we felt some trepidation in overcoming this hurdle with our limited Spanish. Of course we could have paid a lot of money to go over on a coach tour who would have sorted the while thing out for us, but where's the fun in that?

As it turned out, a major blessing came our way in the form of a Canadian we befriended on the bus who not only had crossed the border once before but could speak excellent Spanish. That's not to say we didn't go wrong, we did numerous times. The border crossing is about a kilometre long in total and at no point along that kilometre of dirt track does it tell you which building or which path you should be taking next or even which direction is Nicaragua and which direction is Costa Rica! At one point we discovered that we had just walked back into Costa rica whilst trying to find Nicaragua! There are 4 different steps with 3 different charges that you have to pass through and just to put the cat among the pigeons there's seemingly no regulation on allowing touts to roam the area, who try to get oblivious travellers to pay for information or papers, which very often turn out to be incorrect anyway. It's not just us tourists who face this maze of confusion though, the locals look as puzzled as anyone creating a kind of no-mans land of headless chickens not knowing which way to turn next. One thing we did give thinks for was that we weren't going the opposite direction where there was a mile long queue (genuinely, 1 mile) of Nicaraguans trying to get back into Costa Rica for work after the Christmas holidays. All stood in the baking sun.

Still we got through eventually. The Nicaraguan border official who took my passport gave it back with a flirtatious smile and a 'let's go baby', which left me utterly bemused and unsure whether I should be pleased or concerned at what this said about Nicaragua. Feeling relief at having got through though, we then faced a new confusion, getting a bus. Nicaraguan buses are more commonly called chicken buses, because they will carry pretty much anything including chickens! They are old USA school buses, but jazzed up with tinsel and the like to hide the fact that they are actually falling apart. Getting one can be a bit confusing though because whilst the drivers are very friendly, they are also a little over enthusiastic about getting people on their bus, so much so that they will just shout the names of destinations at you regardless of whether that's where they're going or not. Helpful.

When we did get on the right bus though, I can honestly say it was one of the most bizarre but entertaining bus rides of our life. It started off normal enough, everyone packed on like sardines, lots of honking from the bus driver, standard Central American bus service. But then a man got up and started giving a speech from the front of the bus. Next thing we know there are hands in the air and 'Amens' coming from all over the place. It was early on a Sunday morning, and yes we had unwittingly got on what I have decided to call a bible bus. It was impressive. The journey was about 45 minutes and the preacher spoke the whole time, despite continuous interruptions from the odd village drunk and yells from passengers for the bus to pullover. We later learnt there's a pretty big evangelical movement in Nicaragua which perhaps explains a lot.

Our first stop in Nicaragua was Ometepe, an island made up of two volcanos in the middle of lake Nicaragua, which is the second biggest lake in Latin America. It was idyllic and without a doubt one of our highlights of the whole trip. The island is mostly still populated by indigenous families and it's a real taste of the old life. To get there you have to take what they call a ferry but is really a slightly unsafe looking fishing boat. There are few cars, most people go around by bike or motorbike, and cows, horses, pigs, cats, dogs and chickens all roam the roads freely. Seeing oxen and horses pulling along carts of bananas is also a really common sight. Not surprisingly the pace of life is slow and you can't help but simply sit back and watch the world go by. Then to top it all off you are constantly surrounded by amazing scenery. In one direction there's the dramatic backdrop of two volcanoes and in the other there's the lake which stretches out to yet more distant volcanoes. Keen to make the most of it, we hired a scooter from which you can see pretty much the whole island in one day. Mark drove of course (safety first!) and whilst it was a slightly wobbly start, we were soon zooming, having the most fun and feeling just like a local (with perhaps less people balanced on our bike). We finished off the day on a sandy tidal peninsula, which locals boast has one of the best sunsets in the world. They weren't lying, it was pretty spectacular. One of those skylines where you can see more colours than you thought possible, where the sun seems to be sucking the clouds in and where the world seems to be moving before your very eyes.

Our final activity in Ometepe was a volcano hike. Hiking a volcano is one of those 'must do' activities in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, which we had thus far avoided because, well in all honesty we could think of plenty more enjoyable things to do! But as we neared the end of our time in Central America we decide now was the time. Volcan Concepcion is the 2nd highest volcano in Nicaragua and so we didn't take on the whole hike -that's for serious hikers - but we did hike to the 1000m point which I was pretty darned pleased with seeing as you're hiking from sea level and there's not much in the way of a path. It was a killer on the calf muscles but the views at the top, which stretched across the whole lake were of course fantastic.

From Ometepe we headed to Granada. Wow, what a beautiful city! If you had any preconceptions that Nicaragua is all run down or undeveloped, they are completely knocked on their head when you see Granada. It's an old colonial town and it has been preserved extremely well. Street after street is filled with expansive pastel coloured stone buildings, all of which open up into beautiful pillared courtyards when you walk through the front door. Even our hostel had one, which had been filled with hammocks and plush garden furniture. Very fancy! Such beautiful buildings have nurtured a fantastic cafe culture where you can either enjoy the tranquility and peace of the cool courtyards or people watch from the street seating. It's all very Mediterranean! The best thing though is that the prices aren't. Nicaragua is still a very cheap country to visit and so for a grand total of £11 we were able to enjoy 6 cocktails, a mountain of nachos and some enchiladas in what was really quite a posh restaurant. It's been a while since I've seen Mark so satisfied!

By now we were also getting more of a taste for Nicaragua and Nicaraguans, and there really was a lot to like. Nicaraguans are very direct and very open people. They will stare at you quite openly in the street and they are so direct in their conversation that it can seem blasé or even rude. But when you say hello or smile at a stranger, you will receive eye contact and the most open and genuine smile in return. I really don't think I've seen so many proper, open mouthed smiles before. And when you make conversation, even in a faltering combination of English and Spanish, you'll get more than just a one word answer. Yes, we had some of the worst customer service we've ever experienced in Nicaragua, but we also felt relaxed and welcomed in a way we rarely had when travelling before. It was particularly interesting as a comparison against Costa Rica, which much as it provided a perfect holiday destination could at times feel quite impersonal. Nicaragua is anything but impersonal! Yes, you'll get swamped by every man and his dog trying to sell you a product or service whenever you turn a street corner but you'll have a great time in the process. It's also worth noting that whilst Nicaragua is still relatively poor, with many people leading very basic lives, you also get the sense that it is a country on the move. Tourism and business is slowly growing there and from the conversations we had with locals, they are really enjoying and embracing this change. So there you have it, our holiday top tip, visit Nicaragua, and do it soon before it becomes too busy and expensive!

We had one final stop before returning to Costa Rica for our flight back to the USA. San Juan del Sur is on the coast not far from the Costa Rican border and is most famous for its plethora of perfect surf beaches. Unfortunately it has also been discovered by the North American holiday home market and so it is starting to become a little westernised in the way that parts of Costa Rica have been. (Think the British effect on the Costa del Sol, but not quite so bad!). Having said that if you focus on the thing it's famous for, the surf, you'll have a great time. We booked a day's lesson for both of us and in between getting battered by waves and scraping away layers of skin on our boards we had a fantastic time surfing in perfectly warm, wavey water! I say surf, Mark surfed, I largely just fell off or simply surfed on my knees but it was fun all the same.

And that was the end of our time in Central America, happy, content and wishing we had booked in at least one more week in Nicaragua. We crossed the border back into Costa Rica successfully and all on our own too! As we did so, I couldn't help but reflect that maybe the complete lack of control you have when travelling places like this had made me a more relaxed traveller. I'm not saying there weren't continually days that it drove us both insane. On one particular shocker of a day we discovered that the one atm in the town we were in had ran out of money in a place where no one accepted credit card leaving us with $3 to get ourselves across the country, our hostel staff decided to go awol meaning we couldn't get a $20 key deposit back, which had been our back up safety money (in case we should find ourselves in a situation where we didn't have any cash...which we had), the cash machines in the next town we reached decided to reject all our credit cards, and as usual the busses ran to whichever schedule they liked. At this point I was ready to scream and jump on the next flight I could find to the USA. But you get through these scenarios and feel that bit more confident, accomplished and pretty damn well proud of yourself for it. And I guess eventually you come to realise that when things are so completely out of your hands the best thing to do is just relax and go with it. You'll get there at some point.

Having said that, I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little bit excited about returning to hot showers, indoor living and a fully functioning public transport schedule. New York and it's sub zero temperatures, here we come!

Posted by CunninghamScott 05:54 Archived in Nicaragua

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