Friday, 24 December 2010

Costa Rica - Pura Vida

Costa Rica – Pura Vida

Rich coast – pure life. 

Hard to argue with that really. Initial thoughts, well, Costa Rica is wonderful, full of colour, animals, birds and North Americans. It's also noticeably more expensive than any other of the central American countries we've been to. And much more Americanized. American food chains, supermarket, prices in US$ and most people speak to us in English. All a bit of a shock after two months in Central America. There is no doubt that Costa Rica is a beautiful country but I can't help thinking that crossing the border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica I crossed out of Central America and into some sort of Disneyfied, US version of it. (Tracy thinks this statement is a little harsh). All I mean is that Costa Rica has taken the good bits out of Central America, cleaned them up a bit and presented them to the tourist with 4 and 5 star facilities.

Our first stop in Costa Rica was the pacific coast. We stopped at Playa del Coco a chocolate coloured beach resort where we went diving. Two good dives - Poor vizability but lots of fish and some large sting rays. Tracy nearly swam over a sting ray – a la Steve Irwin. She will tell you she saw it, her buddy knows different.
Chocolate sand

Then we moved inland and went to the cloud forest at Monteverde.

By day we went for a unguided walk in the cloud forest and saw, well a few birds and that was it

Bumpy road to Monteverde

Tracy looking for wildlife

By night we went guided walk and saw; sleeping birds, Coatis (Raccoon thing), Orlinga (Lemur type thing), Big rat like thing, frog, crickets, and two orange kneed tarantulas.

Tracy concentrating on the night walk

Orange kneed Tarantula

From Monteverde we headed towards San Jose the capital. (All together now, “Do you know the way to San Jose...”) I didn't really want to go to San Jose but I needed to get the oil changed in the final drive on the bike. It needs to be changed every 12,000 miles and was last done in Idaho. So we stopped in Alajeula, a town just outside San Jose. We went up the local volcano. We were told to get there before 10 a.m. when the clouds role in...

8:30 a.m. - the clouds were early

One hour later.

I went into San Jose to get the oil changed. I found the BMW shop quite easily but they couldn't work on the bike until the following morning so I left the bike with them and headed back to Alajeula. Next morning Tracy and I returned to the BMW dealership to pick the bike up. They'd changed the FD oil and checked and adjusted the valve clearance (as I'd asked them) All for $85. Not bad. The mechanic suggested that the battery was getting a bit flat. I need to do some research into this as a new battery may be needed. Alvaro, the main man I dealt with, was very friendly and helpful and took photos of us and the bike – especially the map of where we've been. I asked him for a sticker for the panniers and now on the back of the bike I have BMW stickers from Chico, California, Big Sky Montana, Motorhaus Mexico and Motorad Costa Rica.

BMW Costa Rica

We then headed 100 miles east to the SLOTHS!

Whenever I've talked to people about my trip, some people have been interested in the biking part but lots of people have been interested in the sloth part. So, here they are...

11Km north of Cahuita on the Costa Rican Caribbean coast we have the worlds only Sloth Sanctuary. Around 80 two-toed and 9 three-toed sloths are housed here. All the sloths have been rescued and,as they cannot be returned to the wild, they are looked after here. Little is really known about these mammals so this sanctuary is also a research and education centre. They take volunteers and along with us there are a couple from France, two Americans and another Brit. Two of the volunteers are Vet. students and there is also a UK vet. here doing research.

Two-fingered Sloths

Three fingered Sloths

So, what do we do? We get up at 5:30 a.m. as we start work at 6. We begin by going into the sloth enclosures (cages) and waking them up by taking there towels off. Yes, they sleep with towels over their heads! We shake the towels down to keep them clean, wipe down the surfaces and move on. We have to record whether there is any poo in the cages. Sloth's poo about once a week and we need to record this on a chart. We also record whether they have eaten all of their dinner over night.

Then we prepare their breakfast. They eat leaves which we have to check for snails (which can kill them). This is probably the most unpleasant job as mozzies buzz around us as we do this and we can't use repellent, obviously, whilst preparing sloth food.

Then we feed them breakfast. Placing a handful of leaves in the cage and encouraging then to get up and eat by hand feeding them a leaf.

That takes about two hours and we return to the volunteer house for our own breakfast. At 9 we return to the enclosures to “walk the babies”. The young sloths need to get out of their cages and see and smell the jungle so we each take one (they happily cling to you) and we go for a walk. If there is a cruise ship in (yesterday 200 tourists arrived) we can't do that as they pay to see the baby sloths, so we sit by the wi-fi spot by the river.

Wi-Fi spot by the river in the sanctuary

At 11 it's time to prepare lunch. We peel and cut up hundreds of carrots and other veges. This takes an hour by which time our own lunch (rice, beans, plantain, etc) has been prepared for us in the volunteer house. At 2 p.m. we return to the sloths to feed them lunch. And by 3 p.m. we're done for the day. We can take a boat out onto the river, which we haven't done yet but will.

Tracy's idea of heaven. Cute cuddly animals that can't escape

Lazy good for nothing animal

Very different from riding a motorbike every day. And, so far we're loving it. What's not to like? We're here until January 6th so I guess next week I'll upload even more photos and video of Sloths.

In the back of my mind, however, I've got to decide what to do once we get to Panama. The original plan was to ship the bike to South Africa. I'll fly back to the UK for a month whilst the bike takes two months to get to Cape Town. I'll then fly to Cape Town and do a months voluntary teaching whilst the bike arrives. Then I'll ride up through Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya into Ethiopia from where I'll fly the bike to Europe. I still want to do this but have heard that shipping the bike to South Africa may be a lot more expensive than I had originally expected.

Plan B would be to fly the bike to Venezuela and ride through the “three Guyanas” to Brazil, then fly from Buenos Aires to Cape Town. I'm really keen to go the “Three Guyanas” but not really so keen to spend a month (or more) getting through Brazil – it's HUGE.

Plan C would be to ship the bike from Panama to the UK. Then from spring spend 4/5 months travelling around Europe/Middle East by bike. I'll have to leave the whole Africa thing until later. No doubt the cheapest option but I do want to go the southern Africa.

I've got a few weeks to decide what to do... Anyway, I've had a fantastic time so far and have not, EVER, regretted doing this. Even if it were to end here it's been a wonderful experience and worth every penny. I want to keep it going but need to balance that against the cost. I've spent more money than I thought I would by this stage and need to work out what I really want to do next. Obviously I've asked Tracy and her advice has been “Decide what it is you want to do and then do it.” It's that kind of attitude that got us where we are today!

Happy new year... No doubt I'll have hundreds of photos of sloths soon and will put a few more up next week.

Saturday, 18 December 2010


Christmas special bumper edition - A lot can happen in two weeks – and it's ALL good :)

Tikal was spectacular. Set in quite dense tropical jungle Tikal's iconic pyramids soar above the jungle canopy. (Tracy helped me with that bit!) Again, I could write quite a lot about them or you could just look at the photos.

Tikals pyramids rise about the jungle - impressive

Tracy ALWAYS has to go the edge.

Dom doesn't like heights.

No idea why they built them so steep

When we got back to the bike an American came over eager to meet the fellow Alaskan who had ridden down on a BMW. He was disappointed to find out that I was British, although he hid it well. We had two nights in Flores and met a (some might say yet another) Canadian on a BMW Dakar. He was from Victoria, Vancouver Island and had lived in Rye, East Sussex. We had a good old chat with him, swapped a few stories and pieces of advice and then went our separate ways. He was heading down to Guatemala City and we were just going three hours down the road to Rio Dulce.

Rio Dulce was nothing special in itself but nearby were two attractions that we both got really quite excited about. (You must remember I've a History teacher and have just been in the US for two months). Three miles down an excellent new road from Rio Dulce is, presumably, Guatemalas only Castle. Castlion San Felipe was build in the 17th Century to ward off nasty pirates (who over powered it in 1686). Really it's more of a fort than a castle but it was quite exciting to find this in the middle of Guatemala. Tracy says it's like a little Toy Zorro castle (whilst doing Zorro style swishes with her arm – I have no idea what she is going on about; I think it might be malaria)

The History teacher happy to see a Castle - sad I know.

Toy Zorro???

Half an hour further down the road we came to Finca El Paraiso. A wide hot waterfall drops 12 m into a cool pool. Neither of us had been in a hot spring waterfall before and it was great to get such a warm power shower. We stopped for the night across the road in a farm next to the lake. The farmer had built a few cabins by the water and we were made to feel at home. We told them we were vegetarians and they cooked us up some lovely tortillas, with eggs, re-fried beans, cheese and sour cream. Washed down with Guatemalan beer. Great end to a great day.

Hot spring waterfall

Our accommodation near the hot spring waterfall

Total gridlock - Guatemala

New day – new country. Having spent three months in just two countries it seemed a little weird to be leaving Guatemala having just arrived but countries in this part of the world are small and we're on a
bit of a tight schedule to make it to Costa Rica and the Sloths by December 21st. So, we moved on to Honduras.

I've been reading several bikers blogs and they all complain about the central American border crossings. Chaos, bribery, heat/rain and three to four hours to cross. I think they all chose the wrong crossing points. We crossed into Honduras at Copan and it took an hour. Absolutely no hassle or bribery and as no one else was crossing we had the place to ourselves. The Honduran border people were friendly and helpful, even if I were interrupting the Champions League football match that was on the telly – another pleasant crossing. (The thing is, most bikers stick to the Pan-American highway. Its the shortest route through Central America and they are in a hurry to get to South America. So they cross at major borders points with lots and lots of other people, and hence big queues. Bad move.)

Honduran border - not exactly busy

First stop in Honduras was Copan Ruinas. The third and final Mayan ruins we would visit. Whilst Palenque and Tikal might fight it out for splendour and architectural supremacy (and Palenque wins on cost) Copan has sculptures and hieroglyphics. It is also the least visited of the three and although there weren't many people at Palenque or Tikal we pretty much had Copan to ourselves.

Dom in the "Ball court"

The famous Hieroglyphic stairway

This is what it used to look like

The ruins are a short walk from the pretty town of the same name which was home for two days. The town, with its red tiled roofed buildings and steep cobbled streets was very picturesque and that along with some excellent coffee shops and restaurant makes it a travellers mecca. (One cafĂ© even had banoffee pie on the menu and I was well miffed when they said they didn't actually have any) Honduras is famous for its cigars and bananas (its the original Banana Republic after all) and every little shop was stocked to the rafters with cigars. They also had some lovely Mayan masks for sale. We've seen these all the way from Mexico City to here and Tracy is getting a little fed up with not being able to buy any – the joy of motorbike travel – no souvenirs.

Honduras hit the news late last year when a revolution ousted the president and tourism just died. Things seem to be picking up again now and we were made to feel very welcome. It's a little ironic really that Honduras should be the one central American country to be rocked by revolution recentl,y as in the 80s it was the bastion of stability and USA backed capitalism as El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua all experienced uprisings and coups. The USA, and Reagan in particular, bolstered Honduras democracy and aided anti-left groups from El Salvador and Nicaragua (the infamous Contra affair – remember Oliver North?) from bases in Honduras.

Therefore Honduras has much more of an “American” feel to it. There are Wendy's. McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts etc. Slightly weird to see these again having left the land of fast food two months ago. Is this why Hondurans seem a little larger than Guatemalans? Perhaps not as although there are lots of these fast food places they are certainly not cheap and few Hondurans frequent them.

Isn't the Lonely Planet fantastic. What on earth would we do without it? When we left Copan we had one aim in mind for that day. Beer. An American beer enthusiast has built a brewery and hotel in the middle of the jungle near a lake. So, six hours after leaving Copan we were booking into D and D brewery. We were shown into one room which had a jacuzzi. We were asked if we wanted to see a cheaper room. I said yes and then looked at Tracy and realised that the right answer was no. We took the jacuzzi room! (£25)

That night we had Apricot beer with hops bought from Stowe Market England. 

A bike and a brewery

Apricot beer - interesting

So, Honduras isn't massively different to Guatemala. Still lots of happy people, animals on the road and jungle everywhere. The roads in Honduras seem OK so far, but occasionally there are some HUGE potholes that would really put an end to the trip. Frustratingly one of the highlights of Honduras are the Bay islands – fantastic diving but its currently rainy season up there so we have a reason to return...

I thought I'd just write a little bit on what our average day on the road is like. Hopefully we're up and on the road by 9 a.m. Tracy doesn't do breakfast so I usually have to try to find a cup of coffee somewhere. Unless we're going slow when we sometimes have breakfast. A typical “local” breakfast would involve eggs. Usually scrambled with tomatoes, chillies and onion. In Mexico this is called Huevos Mexicana, (colours of the Mexican flag – green, red, white) Coffee in Mexico and Honduras has been good, Guatemala tended to be of the Nescafe variety.

We usually try to cover 200 miles or there abouts in a day. This can take between 4 and 7 hours in this part of the world. We don't stop for lunch as such but we do stop a few times, usually at petrol stations (there are no lay-bys here!) Therefore we arrive at out destination between 2 and 5. Have a look around if there is anything to see and then have a rest in our room – write blog, read book, plan next day, wash socks, use internet if we have it, sometimes I even look at the bike and check the wheels are still there or something technical like that. I've particularly got into BBC podcasts on this trip and subscribe to about five of them, Today we listened to “In our time” and learnt about Cleopatra; 30 minutes of BBC news from Newspod, and I sneaked in half an hour of football news from Radio 5 live whilst Tracy was snoozing :)

Early evening we go out to eat. Easy in touristy places as vegetarians are catered for, not so easy in other places, and especially hard in coastal villages where its seafood or nothing. We've had one total no show and ended up buying some bread and cheese and taking it back to our room. The cheese was horrible. And as I type this we've just had a disappointing pizza that took an hour to arrive and, well, it'll be a blessing if it stays down.

Then it's back to our room. I downloaded series one and two of Six Feet Under before I left the UK and we're working our way through it. I can't believe I missed this first time round, it's great. Of course most rooms we stay in have TV and occasionally we watch CNN or some average US comedy. We're both reading the third Stieg Larsson book at the moment as well and at 700 pages it's taking some doing.

So, that's our average day. Thought you'd like to know.

I've not mentioned the bike recently and that's a good thing! She's running well and the new tyres are fantastic. The final drive oil needs changing every 12,000 miles and that's due soon so I'll have to decide whether to get it done in Costa Rica or wait for Panama but apart from that everything is great with the bike. I must also report too that I'm getting some money back from Alaska Rider. I wrote to them a while ago explaining that I was a little unhappy with the problems I'd had with the bike and that really they shouldn't have happened (New drive, triple clamp) Phil replied and we had a little chat and he has sent me a cheque to cover part of the costs. Decent of him, as he could have just ignored my email. So, thanks Phil.

I remember buying lots of expensive Sandinista friendly Nicaraguan coffee when I was a student and donating to “War on Want”. Now I was going to Nicaragua to see what they'd done with my money...

Crossing the border with our Kiwi friends

Oh, you should be guarding the bikes!

Saturday 11th December we crossed into Nicaragua – with friends! When we got to the Honduran border town we met a Kiwi couple on two motorbikes. Following day we rode across the border with them. And it was yet another easy border crossing. Busier than the previous ones and we did get a little hassle from some “helpers” but there being four of us we soon sorted it all out ourselves. Chris, Alan and I went off to exit Honduras and enter Nicaragua whilst Tracy guarded the bikes (and got her boots cleaned). In all it took just over an hour and a half on a sunny saturday morning and then we were on our way riding through Nicaragua – first stop the Sandinista stronghold town on Esteli.

Little did we know that Esteli was holding some sort of fiesta that night and finding somewhere to stay wasn't easy. One place was full and another only had one room. Eventually we found another place and although it was OK it was probably the least nice place we've slept. (Tracy felt the need to sleep in her sleeping bag liner the bed was that bad – no warm water – noisy neighbours enjoying there Saturday night out if you catch my drift) and at $15 a night it wasn't that good a deal either. Nevermind we made up for it a few nights later as you'll see.

Now, like most people from the UK my age I'm sure, I associate Nicaragua more than any other country in this part of the world with revolution, class struggle and protest. As far as countries go I remember it as the cause celeb of 1980s UK protest. I was a student in the late 1980s and Nicaragua was one of those places left wing British students banged on about. Now I've got a much better understanding of why and it just makes me wish I'd banged on about it a bit more back then. I'm afraid I'm going to go off on one now...

The USA has always seen Central and South America as it's sphere of influence, (known as the Monroe Doctrine after the US President). Nicaragua has been no exception to this and throughout the 20th Century America has had a hand in guiding (and selecting) Nicaraguan governments. In the 1920s and 30s in particular the USA dominated Nicaraguan politics installing and ousting governments as it saw fit. In 1933 the US marines headed home from Nicaragua having handed over power to the US trained Conservative Guardia Nacional led by Somoza. The following year Somoza engineered the assassination of his Liberal opponent, Augusto C Sandino; this resulted in Somoza becoming President and de facto dictator by 1937.

Thus began two decades of oppression. Somoza became an internationally recognised and notorious dictator amassing huge person wealth whilst the people of Nicaragua remained poor. Somoza supported the USA (the CIA used Nicaragua as a launchpad for missions in Guatemala and the failed invasion of Cuba in 1961 (Bay of Pigs). In return successive US Governments supported Somoza. Somoza was assassinated in 1956 but succeeded by his elder son (Luis Somoza Debayle) who was himself succeeded by his younger brother (Anastasio Somoza Debayle).

Opposition to the Somoza dynasty grew in Nicaragua in the 1960s and various groups merged to form the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional. FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front). Led by Lopez and old fighting partner of Sandino. Poverty, inequality and the corruption and embezzlement of the Somoza family fuelled support for the FSLN. Then a massive earthquake struck Managua in 1972. Over 6000 people died and 300,000 were made homeless. International aid poured in and Anastasio Somoza stole it! This was the last straw for Nicaragua and even the small but influential middle classes and business people turned against the corrupt regime. By 1974 opposition was widespread. The assassination of one of the leaders of the opposition, Chamorro in 1978 led to a general strike and the FSLN occupied the National Palace. By early 1979 the Sandinistas were ready for their final offensive and Somoza knew it. On July 17th 1979 as the Sandinistas entered Managua Somoza resigned and fled the country. (He was assassinated the following year in Paraguay). 1979 was a busy year for America as it was also in this year that Pinochet, backed by the CIA, assassinated Allende in Chile, but that's a whole other kettle of fish.
In 1980 Daniel Ortega Saavedra became effective leader of Nicaragua and the Sandinista set about righting the wrongs of the Somoza years. I will not pretend the Sandinista were perfect. They ruled by decree and committed human rights abuses themselves but they did at least spend some of the countries money on health care and education.
Unbelievably (unless you are familiar with the way US policy works in Latin America), the Carter administration, in 1979, tried to salvage its influence in Nicaragua by offering aid to the Sandinistas. However, by 1980 America was becoming concerned with the increasing number of Cuban and Soviet advisers in Nicaragua and allegations that the Sandinistas were beginning to provide arms to leftist rebels in El Salvador.

And, of course, 1980 means President Reagan. In short Reagan funded the anti-Sandinistas (known as Contras – based in Honduras). The CIA planned to mine Nicaraguan harbours – revealed in 1984 and declared illegal by the International Court of Justice. America initiated a Cuban style embargo of Nicaragua in 1985. All this, of course, played into Ortega's hands and he and the Sandinistas became quite popular in Nicaragua (Hadn't the US learnt ANYTHING from the way it had tried to deal with Castro and Cuba?). Reagan certainly hadn't and even wanted to go further (After all he had just invaded the British protectorate( and HUGELY threatening island) of Granada in 1985. Even the US Congress thought Reagan was going too far and rejected further military aid for the Contras in 1985. Story over? No! Reagan (oops sorry Reagan didn't know about this did he!) Oliver North orchestrated an ambitious plan where by the CIA illegally sold weapons to IRAN (so they could keep fighting Iraq who America was also selling weapons too) and diverted the proceeds to the Contras. The infamous Iran-Contra affair. Still makes my blood boil. America tries to Impeach Clinton for having an affair but nothing happened to Reagan over this! Reagan makes George W Bush look like an amateur.

Rant over... Thank you for indulging me

So, what have they done to the country since the 1980s?

They seem to have spent lots of money on the roads. They are excellent. I'm sure off the beaten track they aren't so good but the main road from Esteli to Granada (which becomes the Pan-Americana – the first time we've come across this road) is excellent. 

I covered the 110 miles in two hours. Finding somewhere to stay in Granada was much harder. We have the Lonely Planets “Central America on a shoestring” and whilst it is excellent it only mentions cheap places to stay. Nothing wrong with that, except cheap places seldom have secure parking. Leaving Tracy to guard the bike again I headed off around town to look for somewhere suitable, with little luck. I found some cheap ($15-20) places but no parking and some expensive hotels ($80-100), but nothing in between. After our experience at Esteli we opted to upgrade and stay in an expensive place but only for one night, not the two nights we had originally pencilled in for Granada. The place we stayed in was connected to a small Chocolate Museum and made some really wonderful hot chocolate by the way! Our room ($79) included an all you can eat breakfast, use of the pool and a free massage. So, we used the pool in the afternoon, got up early for a big breakfast and then had a massage before checking out. And, boy did we need a massage. We both came out saying that was great and how the masseur had spent ages on our backs. Riding the bike had taken its toll and I felt so much better for having had some bloke beat me up a little (No comments please)

Then I asked if I could put my bike in the secure parking lot (one of the reasons we'd booked in). They couldn't find the key and I had to leave the bike on the street - breaking the first rule in biking through the Americas. NEVER leave your bike on the street. I did (having put it's invisibilty cloak on) and it was still there in the morning.

Although Granada was a very pretty colonial town we wanted to “get away from it” a little so headed 10 miles up the road to Laguna de Apoyo, a Volcanic crater lake. The LP mentioned the “Monkey Hut” as a cool place to stay and I'd even phoned them the previous day to check that they had space. We arrived at midday to find they were full (except for the dorm beds but we've reached that age when...). Luckily there was a new place next door. The owner was still painting the “Dive Centre” sign on the front wall. He'd got as far as “DIVE CENT” and I introduced myself by suggesting he put the R before the E. (I had established that he was North American first). He said we could stay although they weren't really open and no one else was staying and he offered up the lake side master room, usually $50 for $30. We were going to stay just one night, we opted for two. And ended up there for three nights. Tim (the owner was super friendly and helpful. He made us feel right at home, gave us bowls of fruit, and took us on a little trip to a secret hot spring he knows. Tracy had fun playing in the hot mud. Tim's place (Apoyo Dive Centre – he's not open for diving but when he is it would be quite something to dive a fresh water crater lake) is new and therefore not in the guide books yet. I'm sure it will be and if anyone is reading this blog and in the area. Go stay with Tim – all in all it's the best place we've stayed in the whole of Central America. 

Tim - our host at Laguna Apoyo

In the evening we went on a night tour up a volcano. Quite good fun and although we had been promised that we would see the glow of the lava and we didn't we did get to walk through a lava tunnel and see hundreds of fruit bats as they emerged from their cave at dusk.

On one of our days in Nicaragua Tracy went ziplining.....

Thursday 16th December we left Tim and Nicaragua and crossed into Costa Rica. This turned out to be the quite a frustrating crossing and certainly our worst. It wasn't exactly hell on earth but there were no signs and the place was huge. In the end it was so much easier to get a helper although I hate doing it. On the Nicaraguan side it took almost two hours to exit the country and on the Costa Rican side just over half an hour to get us and the bike sin. Costa Rica has been the first country that has insisted on Tracy actually standing in a queue and handing her passport over. Every other border I've gone in with two passports and Tracy could have been anyone. Costa Rica was going to be different....

Having crossed we took the Pan American highway (nothing more than a single lane asphalt road with little traffic) an hour to Liberia and then split off West to Playa de Coco. That's where we are now. On the pacific coast for the first time since picking Tracy up a month ago. Today we went diving (very large Sting Rays, lots and lots of Puffer Fish) and tomorrow we head for the hills to see some Costa Rican wildlife. Costa Rica, so far, looks exactly like you'd expect it and is much more Americanized and expensive than the rest of Central America.A bit of a shock after the last month. People speak English here and prices are often in $s.

Stats. - When we got to Granada I crossed into my 20th week and passed the 20,000 mile mark. That's the distance from the UK to Australia and back! Another 5000 miles and I'll have circumnavigated the equator.

Sorry this blog was so long – little wi-fi in Honduras/Nicaragua. Next week we'll be with the Sloths and I post our initial thoughts just before Christmas.

Happy holidays...