Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Hotel Fund

When we left Reading, our former neighbours and close friends Regan, Paul, Nicky and Rich gave us a present. To help us out when we really needed it, they gave us some money to be spent on a nice place to stay; somewhere to treat ourselves to.

The money has been 'ring-fenced' the whole time, kept in reserve for the time when we thought it could make the biggest difference to us. Well, this week that time finally came.

We're on Roatán at the moment, in the Honduran Bay Islands. The diving here is cheap and fantastically beautiful, so we're thoroughly enjoying ourselves. Accommodation and eating on the islands comes a bit pricey though, especially for shoestring budget travelers like us. We did manage to find a great place to stay that wasn't too expensive, though: one half of a cabaña which shares a kitchen and bathroom with another room - which happened to be empty. This was great for a few days until some rather noisy (one might even say loutish) people moved into the other room and spoiled our peaceful bargain accommodation.

Deciding they really were too much, we asked about moving to another room with no sharing. Fortunately, a fantastic cabaña with a full kitchen, bathroom, living area, one bedroom and terrace was available - but slightly out of our normal budget. Aha, we thought: the Hotel Fund! This is what we've been waiting for!

So, thanks to our fantastic friends back in England, we have a really superb place to stay and enjoy the Caribbean life for a few days. Thanks guys!


Lago de Yojoa

The plan was to get as far into Honduras as possible in one day and we didn't do too badly. A 6am start from northern Nicaragua meant that, after 12 hours and 5 different buses (ranging from quite fancy mini-buses to good old chicken buses) we arrived in Comayagua.

It represented nothing more to us than a convenient place to get some rest before pressing on the next day, but Comayagua was actually a pleasant surprise. Most of the town is nothing too remarkable but the Parque Central was very pretty and a lovely spot to eat breakfast before getting on yet another bus to Lago de Yojoa.

The lake was so beautiful. We've visited some lovely lakes on this trip but what really made Yojoa stand out was its tranquility. There are no motor boats, just small canoes the locals use for fishing, and almost all of the shore line is forest or marsh land so it has very few settlements.

We went on a great tour of the lake with British bird-watching expert Malcolm, a Honduran called Rolando, who rowed the boat for us, and David, a really nice guy from Switzerland. We set off very early, while there was still mist over the water, and we saw loads of different birds.

Above is a Red-winged Blackbird.

Great Egret and one of the many types of Fly-catchers that live around the water.

Malcolm was a really good guide and it's always lovely to see wildlife but, for me, the best thing was just admiring the stunning landscape and taking in the peace and quiet out on the water. A truly beautiful place.

Rachel x

UPDATE: This beautiful Mot-mot was spotted in the garden where we were staying.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Estelí and Reserva Natural Miraflor

Continuing our trip now that my Mum and Dad have gone back home, we're heading up back through Nicaragua towards Honduras and Belize. Last time we were here, we missed out on seeing the Northern highlands because we didn't have time. So this time we've spent a few days in Estelí and the Reserva Natural Miraflor nearby.

Along with León, Estelí has been the centre of support for the left-wing FSLN party since the revolution. This is the heartland of the socialist movement that championed the rights of the campesinos who work the agricultural land around this department. We arrived on Sunday, and just happened to see a small rally of support for the FSLN party.

We're back on the local buses now! It takes a full hour and a half to travel the 28km to Miraflor. It's incredibly dusty and very hot.

We stayed at Finca Neblina del Bosque, a small farm run by a German-Nicaraguan couple. It's totally isolated and very tranquil, as well as being genuinely eco-friendly. They draw their own well water, they have solar power, all the food is vegetarian and the only pig on the farm is a pet. Rachel fed her some mango skins, which she seemed to enjoy!

Tomorrow we head for the border, once again.


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Tortuguero 2

Although we'd visited Tortuguero, Costa Rica already back in September (see blog archive), we felt that it was such an amazing place to see wildlife that my parents couldn't miss it. Fortunately they're well used to packing it in on holiday, so we squeezed a two-day-one-night tour into their itinerary.

The wildlife in Costa Rica really is abundant. Even on the journey to Tortuguero, we saw the Three-toed Sloth at the top of this post and the beautiful Blue Jeans Dart Frog above. To give you an idea of how tiny he is, I should point out that he's perched on our guide Mauricio's thumb in the photo. Watch out though! Despite his size, he's pretty poisonous.

We stopped on the way there at a banana plantation in the tropical lowlands of the Caribbean slope. Another great place to spot wildlife as it turned out; here's an amazing male Elephant Beetle. They're among the biggest beetles in the world.

Mum decided to get some refreshment in the form of a fresh coconut. The guy selling them took a bit of a shine to her, and I think she got more than her $1 worth!

The main event though is touring the Tortuguero canals. Here are Mum and Dad enjoying the ride, and a run-down of some of the wildlife we saw follows.

Caiman. Differentiated from crocodiles by the ability to lift their head. Seems like a minor difference but it means they can sit in the water with just their head poking out, while crocodiles must have their body protruding. You never see both in the same place, as they're rivals.

Tiger Heron. When young, they have yellow and black striped plumage around the neck, hence the name. This one is spreading its wings out to catch the sun.

Green Iguana. You can tell this one's a female because she has less of a 'dewlap' under her chin than the male has.

Red Brocket Deer. We didn't expect to see deer in the tropical Caribbean rainforest. Apparently they're rarely spotted.

White-faced Capuchin Monkeys. Look closely; there's a baby in there!

Anhinga. Aka Piano Bird, owing to the black and white plumage.

Pit Viper. Deadly poisonous!

We stayed at a lodge in what was basically a clearing in the forest. As a result, we saw wildlife when we weren't even trying! From the (turtle-shaped) pool, we saw toucans.

Oh, and there were, of course turtles. Last time, we saw Green Sea Turtles nesting, which was pretty amazing. This time, the Leatherback turtles were in nesting season. However, we soon realised they'd be harder to spot. In fact, we managed to arrange a tour but were told by the guide (after we'd paid) that there was a "99%" chance of being disappointed. Well, we decided a 1% chance of seeing a Leatherback was worth the effort. So, after walking up the beach in the dark for an hour, then walking back down for another hour and almost giving up, we came across a turtle digging her nest just 5 minutes away from the town of Tortuguero. At around 2m in length, they're the largest sea turtles in the world. The largest specimen ever found was in fact over 3m in length and almost 1000 kg in weight. We were incredibly lucky to see her. Normally just one turtle per night comes ashore to nest and the nesting sites are up to 20 miles apart. Tortuguero is an immensely important area for these amazingly beautiful (and critically endangered) creatures. We couldn't have hoped for better highlight to the trip.


Friday, April 17, 2009

Adventures of the spade #10

Like us, the spade really enjoyed a taste of luxury during Liz and Greg's stay. Here he is enjoying the delicious breakfast at Pura Vida Hotel. Unfortunately we've come back down to earth with a bump and our current hostel room has an incredibly bumpy bed and the paper-thin walls only go half way up to the ceiling! Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.

Rachel x

Monday, April 13, 2009

Monteverde and Santa Elena

The cloud forests of the Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde and Reserva Santa Elena, in the Western central part of Costa Rica, contain a huge range of biodiversity and some amazing plant and animal life. Most of the year the cloud forest lives up to its name and the abundance of thick cloud, along with the dense forest, makes it hard to see the wildlife. To get a better view, it's necessary to get up into the forest canopy, which is made possible by some handy aerial walkways.

There are great views from the different perspective on the high bridges. Spotting the wildlife still takes a lot of patience though!

We spent a couple of days walking the trails, staring up into the trees on the lookout for the Three-wattled Bellbird, monkeys and, of course, the famous Resplendent Quetzal. We did get a glimpse of the bellbird from one of the walkways on the distant horizon, but nowhere near close enough to get a photograph.

Part of the reserve covers the "continental divide", which runs all the way from Canada to Argentina down the 'spine' of the Americas. Water on the Western side of the divide runs to the Pacific ocean; water on the Eastern side runs to the Atlantic. In a few breaks in the cloud, we could see the Pacific ocean to the West, around the Nicoya peninsula.

The cloud forest is teeming with plant and animal life. Amongst the most beautiful are the 30 kinds of hummingbirds that live there. This one is a Violet Sabrewing.

So did we see a Resplendent Quetzal? Yes we did. We saw several! Best of all was a mating couple, spotted together in the Reserva Santa Elena. We had to wait very quietly for a rather long time (a familiar story to any birdwatchers reading this blog, I'm sure), but we were rewarded with a fantastic close-up (about 4m) view of the male who obediently posed for a good 15 minutes or so for us to photograph him. Here's the result (and our proudest wildlife shot to date):

There has also been some unexpected, though no less exciting, wildlife. This chap is a Central American Bark Scorpion, found crawling around in our bathroom. Apparently they're not venomous enough to kill, but their sting can certainly cause a lot of pain. Kudos to Mum for carefully removing him with nothing more than a wine glass and a piece of paper!


Volcán Arenal

Rob's parents, Liz and Greg, have been with us for a week now and we're having a great time exploring some of Costa Rica's sights. Our first stop (after a couple of days relaxing at the lovely Pura Vida hotel- by far the nicest place we've stayed since we left the UK!) was La Fortuna, in the shadow of Volcán Arenal. This was the amazing view from our hotel balcony!

It's notoriously misty around the volcano and roughly 50% of visitors leave La Fortuna without seeing it so we were delighted when we had such clear weather. Here are Liz and Greg on the old lava flows. The sign in the right-hand corner reads "Danger; area of high volcanic activity. No trespassing."

While we were having our picnic on the volcano, a very cheeky coatimundi (related to a racoon) came along to beg for some of our sandwiches.

Here he's doing his best "I'm so cute" pose.

Despite my best efforts, he actually managed to grab the bag with the last sandwiches in straight out of my hand (his claws looked a bit too long for me to argue with!). Thinking that a plastic bag might not be good for a coatimundi, Greg left in pursuit...

He cleverly managed to distract him with a spare bit of crust and whisk the bag away. It certainly made our peanut butter sandwiches a lot more eventful!

We were also lucky enough to see the volcano in action at night, with a red glow around the two craters and a trickle of lava down the side.

Of course, I'm always keen to spend a day lounging in volcanic hot springs and Baldi Termae must be the poshest I've ever been to with over 30 hot and cold pools. It has lots of pretty waterfalls and features such as a mock Mayan temple (a bit weird!) all set in lovely tropical gardens. Delightful!

Rachel x

Sunday, April 5, 2009

From Guate to Costa Rica

As soon as we'd dusted off the lava rock from Pacaya, we began an enormously long journey down to Costa Rica. Day 1 involved a relatively simple 6 hours to San Salvador, El Salvador, but it was the second leg that was the real killer. We started at 3am and, with just one short stop and three borders to cross, we arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica at 9pm, 18 hours later. Altogether a full 24 hours on a bus! Mind you, we can't really complain too much; the bus was really comfortable with big reclining seats, movies to watch (mostly pretty poor ones in Spanish but it passes the time!) and meals brought round at regular intervals. Better than most flights, we think! Here's Rob at the Nicaragua - Costa Rica border.

So, the reason for our speedy transit through 5 countries? We're excitedly expecting the arrival of Rob's parents tomorrow! They're flying in for a couple of weeks to explore Costa Rica. It's come at a great time. Although we've made some great friends along the way, we're definitely missing everyone from home, too. Let's hope they enjoy their time in Central America as much as we have!

Rachel x