Sunday, November 30, 2008

Ometepe; paradise on Earth

This photo tells you most of what you need to know about Isla de Ometepe. We have never been to a place better suited to doing nothing.

Sitting in the middle of the enormous Lake Nicaragua, two volcanoes form a figure-of-eight shaped island which is revered as a special place by Nicaraguans. Its existence is actually the reason that the early indigenous peoples inhabited what is now Nicaragua, on the strength of a prophecy that they would settle in a place where they found a lake around two volcanoes. A small isthmus joins Volcán La Concepción to the smaller Volcán Maderas, and we stayed on the western edge of the latter where the slope meets the lake. The whole island is pretty much stunning wherever you look. From our hostel, one volcano loomed behind while the other looked magnificent whether bathed in dusk sunlight or shrouded in fluffy white cloud.

That´s not to say that we were completely lazy. One of the best things to do is to kayak around the lake.

You can see what I mean about the volcano. There really isn´t anywhere to look that´s not beautiful. Heading inland up the river gets tricky though, where some rather thawny trees make it hard to get around. Your scratched arms are rewarded though, with a view of one volcano on each side.

We also took a (rather long and strenuous) walk up to a waterfall. The reward for that was a dip in the icy water and some water from a man who had a handy water-purifying pump.

Rach ´enjoyed´ the water standing under the cascade. I just paddled in the pool.

There are hundreds of beautiful butterflies on the island. We don´t know the names of any except the incredible Menelaus Blue Morpho. This may be a type of Morpho, but it isn´t as dramatic as the Menelaus, which we often see flying by while walking.

The people of the island are very friendly, partly a result of the fact that the civil war never reached Ometepe. The children especially are very inquisitive (read cheeky!).

It´s not just butterflies on Ometepe. Late one night as we were relaxing with a few beers Rach spotted this female Elephant Beetle trying to get into our room. I should point out that the hands of Lee, the American guy who was brave enough to pick her up and was able to identify her, are pretty huge. The beetle herself was about 5 inches long! I didn´t have a 50 pence piece to hand to show the scale, unfortunately.

Ultimately, the best thing to do on the island is watch the sunset. We were treated to spectacular displays each night, perfect for a swim in the lake followed by a few pre-dinner beers. Bliss...

This guy puts it pretty well. It doesn´t look like much has changed since 1867:

"Out of the midst of the beautiful Lake Nicaragua spring two magnificent pyramids, clad in the softest and richest green, all flecked with shadow and sunshine, whose summits pierce the billowy clouds. They look so isolated from the world and its turmoil - so tranquil, so dreamy, so steeped in slumber and eternal repose."
Mark Twain


Monday, November 24, 2008

Adventures of the spade #5

Relaxing in the shady parque central is a must on a hot Granada afternoon, so we decided to take the spade along to soak up the atmosphere. Got a funny look from a Nicaraguan boy, though.

Rachel x

Thursday, November 20, 2008


So we've made it to Nicaragua. We were sad to leave Panama after having so much fun in Boquete, but were ready to move on. So, we hit the road last Thursday, breaking the journey in David (enough time to catch the new Bond film) and arriving back in San Jose for the third time on Friday. We rested there on Saturday and were luckily able to catch an early 6.00am bus on Sunday for Granada, Nicaragua (the Chinese president visited Costa Rica on Sunday, and some roads were blocked off for a procession). 8 hours later we were in Granada.

In contrast with everywhere we've been so far, Granada has retained its beautiful colonial architecture. In actual fact, almost all of it has been rebuilt after the city was burned down by William Walker in the nineteenth century, but they kept true to the original style.

The best way to enjoy Granada is simply to wander around the city, soaking in the architecture and the friendly atmosphere. Until now, we haven't really been able to enjoy a city like this, so it's a welcome change. All too often, we have to be very careful when in big cities (see post "Police & Thieves"); it's much safer and friendlier here.

Talking of which, here's a boy from whom we bought a rather charming ceramic chicken (it's prettier than I just made it sound - you can see from his display of wares in the photo). We think his name is Ale (short for Alejandro?), but can't be sure. His conversation was pitched exactly at our level of Spanish competence, so we had quite a long chat. He warned us of a man with a big nose - "like yours" - who speaks English; apparently he's a ladrón (theif). Now no-one in Granada with a larger than average nose and some English can hope to speak to us without us running away!

We took a day trip to Masaya, a nearby town that hosts the biggest and best artesanía markets in Nicaragua. We thought about buying some ceramic pots and sending them back, but the DHL lady said it would cost US$80 per pot! Perhaps not. On the way back we stopped off in Catarina, a pueblo blanco (white village) which mysteriously lacked any sign of white buildings whatsoever. It does, however, have a breathtaking viewpoint at the top of the village overlooking the Laguna de Apoyo, a lake formed in the collapsed crater of a volcano. I couldn't get it into the photo, but you can see all the way across the plain to Granada, with a huge volcano looming over.

From the top of the belltower of one of the churches, there is a fantastic view of Granada and its cathedral. In the distance, you can see Lake Nicaragua, a vast inland sea home to a unique ecosystem that includes freshwater sharks.

There is a thriving local arts & crafts scene. We visited an arts centre (where you can see some artists in the photo below making linocuts) and picked up a silk-screen print (now in the post - fingers crossed!).

It's great!


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Adventures of the spade # 4

Here´s the spade with a couple of real Panama hats. The type everyone thinks of as Panamas are actually from Ecuador and you pretty much never see them here. I believe they only got their name because they were worn by Ecuadorians working on the construction of the canal. Or something like that! Anyway, these are much more typical of the hats worn by Panamanians.

Rachel x

Monday, November 10, 2008

Birthday zip-line tour

I knew it would be a bit strange to be so far away from home for my birthday and that I would miss my friends and family a lot, but it actually turned out to be great fun! The weekend was very active with a long trek on Saturday followed by dinner and drinks with friends and Friday was a real adrenaline fix! We went with Kary and David from our class on a canopy tour up in the mountains around Boquete. As you can see from the video it was a series of very high, very long and, at times, very fast zip-lines!

I somehow ended up being the first to set off on the first line and I was pretty terrified, but as soon as I left the first platform, I loved it! As well as being totally exhilarating, it was very beautiful.

The platforms are incredibly high and the forest is stunning with huge old trees and sparkling rivers and waterfalls, so the views are spectacular.

One of the final lines is 400m long and crosses the valley you can see above. It was definitely the best part and is the one that you can see in the video.

Here´s me waiting for Rob to complete the final gentle descent to the end of the tour. We had a fantastic time and it was certainly a birthday I won´t forget!

Rachel x

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Boquete 2

We´ve been in Boquete for 3 weeks now. We´ve really enjoyed being settled in one place for a good while, and we´ve made some real friends here. Obviously our Spanish lessons have taken up a lot of our time, but we´ve found time to do plenty of other stuff. So here we present a roundup of our time in Boquete. The most exciting thing we did though deserves a post of its own, which is coming up from Rachel soon.

Last weekend was the festival of independence - from Columbia. There´s an even bigger celebration for the indepence from Spain later in the month on the 28th November, making it a busy time for fiesta. Unfortunately, it rained pretty heavily for the parades, but they carried on regardless (including Antonio, from our host family) .

We took a trip to an open garden, "mi jardin es su jardin", just up the road from where our host family live. It´s full of interesting plant life and questionable sculpture.

Possibly Rach´s favourite activity from the last few days was a visit to a local wildlife rescue centre. They receive exotic animals from all over the place: some are left on the doorstep after the owner no longer wants them as a pet; some are seized (they are licensed to do so by the Panamanian government) from mistreatment or illegal sale. They currently have a baby sloth:

I think Rach wanted to take her home!

There are lots of rescued birds, including a pair of Toucans. When they came to the centre, they were babies. Their beaks were bigger than their bodies, apparently! Interestingly, toucans prefer to hop than fly. They will hopefully be released into the wild soon.

If you wake at night in Panama to the sound of feet on your tin roof, it´s probably a kinkajou. Don´t be scared - just look how cute they are! This one was very sleepy, after a group of schoolchildren had been visiting earlier in the day.

There are also a pair of ocelot cubs, one of whom is named Amador, after he was rescued from the Amador causeway, a shopping centre (formerly the Fort Amador US army base) in Panama City where someone was offering him for sale as a Jaguar cub. They´re being looked after with the minimum of human contact, with the hope that they can be released into the wild when they´re ready.

The best bit for us was this beatiful margay called Lottie. She´s very tame (too much so to be released, unfortunately). She was kept in a tiny cage by a family who bought her as a cub but tired of her when she started biting and scratching. You can see her tail is kinked from the confinement, which is not normal for a margay. She loves fishing, so the chap who runs the centre (a master stonemason by trade) built a river into her enclosure for her to catch fish herself.

The largest birds being cared for are the incredible (and endangered) Hyacinth Macaws. This one, Precious, is absolutely stunning. She´s a good 30 inches from head to tail!

This is the view of Boquete from a viewpoint above the town.

Lots of strawberries are farmed around the area. There are special strawberry dessert places around selling homemade ice cream and milkshakes. Here I am enjoying a sundae.

One of the nicest things to do around Boquete is to walk the Quetzal Trail. The (rather muddy) route runs through national park where the Resplendant Quetzal is protected. We didn´t get to see any, but we heard their flute-like call several times.

We went with our classmates, David and Kary. It was tough-going, very slippery and steep in places with a river to ford. We set off soon after dawn to give us the best chance of avoiding the rain. As it happened, it was dry all day (something of a minor miracle for Boquete)!

Our early start was rewarded with some beautiful weather to show off the amazing scenery at its best.


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

La familia Bell-Miranda

As promised, here is some info on our lovely Panamanian family. We´ve been staying with them for 2 and a half weeks now and they´ve been fantastic; helping us out with our rudimentary Spanish and making us feel at home right from the start.

Guillermo and Nivia are our host parents. Nivia is really patient with us, speaking slowly and clearly and has a great sense of humour. We´ve spent some fun evenings watching films with her while she laughs her socks off! Guillermo is really kind and helpful. He runs a farm up in the mountains which grows prize-winning coffee (the best in Panama!) and vegetables. Also in this picture is their cute little dog (you´d love her, Hayley!) Fergie.

This is the abuela (grandma) of the family, Doña Tomasa. She is incredible, working from the crack of dawn until everyone else has gone to bed. She never stops cleaning or cooking and she always goes out of her way to help us out. Her husband, Guillermo senior, also lives with us. He´s 94 but still enjoys talking to us about our life back in England. Here they are together:

This is Nivia with her daughter Stephanie (18). She is at university in David and also works at a local hotel. She´s very nice and lively.

Antonio is the youngest of the three children at 16. He is such a lovely boy, always really polite and an excellent cook! He´s very creative is doing really well at school.

This photo was taken on a night out a couple of weeks ago with Mitchell, the oldest of the family. We had a lot of fun with him and his friends and it turns out he speaks really good English! Of course it´s strictly back to Spanish in the house. This holiday weekend he´s been out 4 or 5 nights in a row so he´s certainly showing us how to celebrate Panamanian style!

Last week Guillermo took us up to his farm. It was a pretty steep journey in his pick-up, bumping over pot holes in the road as we climbed up to the highest farm in Panama! It´s about 1600m above sea level so the views are stunning. Here he is in amongst the green pepper plants.

We were lucky enough to visit on a day when they were harvesting some of the peppers and taking them to market. Although we had to leave home at about 6.30 in the morning, we just about managed to gather enough energy to help out with the cleaning process!

Here are some of the peppers cleaned, packed and ready to go!

A large part of why we´ve enjoyed Boquete so much is due to the Bell Miranda family. They´ve given us a home and made us feel like part of the family. I´ll be here with them for my birthday, which will be great. It´ll be hard to leave!

Rachel x