Monday, October 31, 2005

The Best Name for a Capital City, not the Best Capital City

Here I am in Tegucigalpa, passing through waiting for my bus connection. It is indeed a great name, although here they mostly call it Tegu. (Well, can you blame them?...Yeah!) It´s a pretty ugly city, lots of smog and honking, trucks and dirty streets and buildings. It also has a reputation for being dangerous, which is why I didn´t spend the night here last night, and haven´t done any wandering around here today. It wasn´t the most confidence-inspiring experience to have a man with both a nightstick and a machete "guarding" the diner where I had breakfast. (Although he actually spent most of the time I was there inside eating and chatting with the waitresses). On the way through the city from one bus terminal to the other (don´t ask) we drove past a used (perhaps "used" might be the better term) electronics store and a fried chicken restaurant called Pollomundo, Chickenworld, right next to each other. The electronics store was security-free but the Pollomundo had four armed guards standing outside it, two wearing army fatigues. Does that make sense? Not to me, but my taxi driver didn´t seem to find it odd. Just another normal day for a Tegucigalpan.

Also, I added some more photos of Leon. Click here to see them.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Dodging a Hurricane

It´s a good thing I changed my plans for the Corn Islands, because if I had flown there on Thursday I would now be stuck in a Hurricane Beta with no way to get away (the Corn Islands´ airport is closed). I got stalled yesterday trying to figure out the best place to go to avoid it. I read online that the storm was causing heavy rains in Cabo Gracias a Dios, and since my next destination is Gracias a Dios, Honduras, I got confused and thought I couldn´t go there. But it´s a matter of mistaken identity, and plus, I´ve just learned that the storm is headed more or less directly towards where I am now. (Here´s a map). So, now that I´ve established that it´s Thank God Cape which is being rained on, not Thanks to God the town, my path has been cleared and I´m outta here. At the moment, here is Estelí, a city in Northern Nicaragua, fairly near the Honduran border. It´s pretty quiet here, and the nearby National Park requires reservations which I didn´t make, so I don´t have much to do.

I wound up spending six days in León, which is practically a record for me. I made friends with a group of six or so people from my hostel and we had a good time going to the beach, going out and hanging out, mostly at the bar. But it was time to move on, so it looks like I´ll be leaving Nicaragua today or tomorrow, depending on my bus connections.

As for the Hurricane warnings, don´t worry about me, I am following it all on and will be sure to get out of its way.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Colonial Towns

Iglesia San Francisco

¡Adios! I´ve spent the past week in the first two cities established by the Spanish here in Nicaragua. First, I went to Granada, where I spent some lazy days walking around the streets, admiring the colorful buildings and soaking up the ambience. It´s a great place for relaxing, walking and just hanging out. I picked up a book about the Sandinistas and have been trying to educate myself about Nicaragua´s troubled past. At some point I hope to be informed enough to write a little about it here.

On Saturday I met two Costa Rican guys with a car who offered to drop me in Masaya, a local market town, on their way to Managua. In the end we spent the day together, exploring the market and then taking a little driving tour of Managua. The capital was not at all what I expected. It has no real city center and really only one or two tall buildings. It was levelled in 1972 by an earthquake and never really rebuilt. I was really surprised to find it so...boring.

Now I´m in León, Granada´s long-time rival. It was originally the capital of Nicaragua, but the León-Granada feud became too bitter and the capital was moved to Managua to quell the bickering. In the 1850s the two cities were at war, and when León lost to Granada, its government decided it needed help. It invited William Walker, a Tennessean who had already failed in his attempt to annex part of Mexico to the U.S. as a new slave state, to come down and fight against Granada. Walker conquered Granada and set up a government there but was chased out pretty soon. He left, burning the city behind him. He didn´t stop there, though; he tried again to conquer Central America but was eventually executed for his ambitions. (It´s all about manifest destiny. Read more here, if you´re interested.) Anyway, in the long-term, it looks like León might be falling behind. Each of the cities has its own charm, but Granada is a little more lively, a little bit newer and well-maintained, and perhaps a little bit more cosmopolitan. I like León, though, and I´ve met a bunch of really nice people in my hostel. Yesterday we went to the nearby beach, Las Peñitas. Once again, my hopes of learning to surf were dashed, this time by the sheer force of the waves and the strength of the currents, which made it hard enough to stand up in the water, let alone on a surfboard. A beginner like me needs nice calm gentle waves to learn on.

Either tomorrow or the next day I am taking off for the Corn Islands in the Caribbean, and so will be without internet access (or heck, even electricity) for a while. Stay tuned for my next post in a week or so.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Nica (r) Agua

Hummingbird Pigs in Altagracia where were we? Oh yes, last time I posted I was getting ready to visit Arenal Volcano and the cloud forest in Monteverde, Costa Rica. The volcano is really active, so you can't get too close and from the observation point you can actually see rocks tumbling down the sides from its almost constant eruptions. In Monteverde I had a blast swinging far above the treetops on a zipline on my Canopy Tour, a specialty of the region. The town is surrounded by thick forests, but unfortunately I didn't get to enjoy it because it rained torrentially almost the entire time I was there. The sound of pounding rain on the tin roof of my hotel was pleasant for about five minutes but by the end of two days it began to drive me crazy! I will definitely have to go back sometime in dry season to enjoy it properly. After Monteverde it was time to move northwards into Nicaragua. (Click on the hummingbird for photos from Arenal and Monteverde)

So far I absolutely love it here. I feel very safe and there are lots of tourists (including loads of Americans). My first stop was San Juan del Sur, a top surfing spot on the Pacific. I wanted to take some lessons and check out the beach; unfortunately I was foiled by the weather again! The rains had washed out the roads to the best beaches, and instead of hanging out in the small, quiet town hoping it would clear up, I joined Kelly and Jeff, from Alaska, and Jordan, from France, and we all went to Isla Ometepe, a large island on the freshwater Lago Nicaragua. For four days we saw plenty of water, but thankfully this time it wasn't falling from the sky. We kayaked, swam, hiked, walked, lounged in hammocks by the lakeside and enjoyed good food. Jeff and Kelly and I took a bone-crunching three-hour bus ride to the other side of the island where we were the only guests on the Estacion Biologica, a research facility which also rents out cabins. The bus ride was amazing! Buses here are usually retired US school buses, and this one had no cushions on the seats (or shocks, apparently). The roads are incredibly bad. I can't even describe how bouncy the ride was. Thanks to the kilometer markings on the road, I was able to time our progress, and found that we were averaging about 3.5 to 4 miles an hour!

Despite the pain, the ride was fun. We passed little houses amongst the banana trees, watched local people going about their business and got a feeling for life on the island. On the way back, we met Jordan again and we all decided to walk along the road and try to catch a ride instead of waiting for the bus. As it turned out, nobody passed us for a couple of hours so we just got the bus further down the road, but it was a pleasant ride (despite carrying our heavy backpacks in the stifling humidity!). All along the way people waved to us from their houses, kids shouted hello and everyone was smiling and extremely friendly. That's been the best part of Nicaragua so far. The Nicas are really welcoming and very nice. One amusing thing is that they sometimes use "adios" to mean hello, so the inevitable folks who try to speak English to me in the street sometimes shout out "bye bye!" as I walk past.

Yesterday I left the island with Jeff and Kelly and we came to Granada, a really pretty old colonial town with colorful buildings, lots of nice restaurants and a lively market. I'll be here for another day or two, then pass through the capital on the way north, hoping to have better luck at my next attempt to hit the beach.

(Click on the pigs for photos from Isla Ometepe).

Monday, October 10, 2005

Pura Vida, Maje

Since my last entry, I've had a great time, met lots of people, and crisscrossed Costa Rica on its mountain highways. I crossed into Southwestern Costa Rica last Tuesday and spent a couple of days on the Peninsula de Osa. The National Park there is closed right now; the roads are washed out due to rainy season floods. But I got to go for a walk in the woods and see lots of wildlife...including a group of monkeys which had killed a toucan and were eating it, dropping entrails onto the path below. I met three American guys there--two live on the peninsula and one is looking into buying land--and got a ride with them to San Jose. The roads go up and up and around the mountains, through clouds and the inevitable downpour or three. It was a hair-raising ride, especially at the hands of Will, who I think was warming up for the Indy 500. The roads are filled with potholes, and despite all our dodging and weaving to avoid them, just an hour outside of San Jose we slammed into one and got a flat tire...only to change it and discover that the spare was also flat! But the gas station nearby had clearly seen its share of flat tires and we were on our way in no time.

In San Jose I caught up with my friend Marco, a former colleague from Lucerne who now lives in Mexico City but who was back for a week of work. It was great to see him, meet his friends, go out, and basically see a different side of San Jose, through a local's eyes. But we were back on the road for Saturday night; one of his friends had rented a house for the weekend in Puerto Viejo, so we drove all the way back down to the far Southeast of the country. The house was great, fairly secluded and right in the woods (We were all awakened in the morning by extremely loud howler monkeys right outside the house) and with easy access to the beach. Yesterday we stopped off in Limon, also on the Caribbean, to check out the Carnival happening there and have a delicious homecooked Caribbean meal prepared by the mother of one of Marco's friends. Chicken in coconut milk & tomato sauce, rice & beans, fried plantains...yum! And thankfully Marco is a much more sane driver than Will, so I was able to relax and enjoy the scenery.

Now I'm up in the north, at La Fortuna, the jumping-off place for visits to Arenal Volcano, which I'll see tomorrow, followed by a soak in the hot springs. The volcano looms over this little town, and as it is active, supposedly at night you can see it glowing, and occasionally spouting lava. But for the moment, it's raining and I can see nothing through the clouds.

I've got some great photos from the last few days; hopefully I'll get to upload them soon.

Monday, October 03, 2005


Panama City Bus

I spent a couple of days in Panama City, which is basically just another big city, but I met nice people there and liked the city--especially their buses, which are souped-up US schoolbuses like you see above. Panama City is one of the most Americanized places I´ve been to down here. This shouldn´t have come as a surprise, considering that the US withdrew from the Canal Zone less than 6 years ago. The troops may be gone but they left behind a surprising taste for American food products, and the supermarkets here are full of cake mixes, Velveeta cheese, peanut butter, Otis Spunkmeyer muffins and Campbell´s soup. I went out to the canal and watched the locks in (very slow) action as giant shipping vessels moved through. I also watched a great video about the canal´s history, including men in fake moustaches dressed up as the French surveying team which first tried to build a canal in the 1800s. The man behind everybody´s favorite palindrome ("A man, a plan, a canal: Panama") was Ferdinand de Lesseps--also the man with a plan behind the Suez canal. Unfortunately thousands of his men were killed by Yellow Fever and Malaria, and the digging was stopped.
Panama Canal in Action

From Panama City I moved west to the Azueros Peninsula, which is much quieter and less touristy than the capital. I was just beginning to yawn after a couple of very quiet days when suddenly I found myself drinking rum and dancing in the streets at a fiesta in the small town of Pedasí with a rowdy and hilarious group of surfers. We had a great time at the fiesta and continued the party on into the night at somebody´s beach house, finally sleeping in tents by the beach to catch some early waves. Unfortunately they turned out to be really small the next day so I didn´t learn to surf. But I am determined to learn before this trip is over.