Articles tagged with "central america"

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Do you know the way to San José?

Thursday, September 14th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 10°0' N, 84°13' W
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We had an inauspicious start to the trip. I’d arranged to meet Moh, who I would be travelling with, outside Smith’s on Victoria station, but unfortunately there are two Smith’s on Victoria station and we spent ages waiting for each other. Then we somehow managed to miss two Gatwick trains, for which there was no excuse. We made it to Gatwick in time for the flight, though, and had an untraumatic journey across the Atlantic and down the East coast of North America. Weather delayed us landing in Houston, but with just a little bit of panic and fast running, we made it onto the flight from there to San José, Costa Rica.

I was a bit nervous as we flew south. Far below I could see towns in what must have been Mexico lighting up as darkness fell, and I could hardly begin to imagine what travelling in Central America might be like. My efforts at learning Spanish had not got beyond the appallingly basic, I didn’t really know if we’d got enough money with us, and I had no idea if the place would be crawling with tourists or if I wouldn’t see another foreigner for the next six weeks.

But thankfully, I’d booked our first night’s accommodation. This was the only thing I was not worrying about as we landed in San Jose at a quarter past eight on September 14th. However, there was soon another item on the ‘To Worry About’ list – Moh’s baggage did not appear. On enquiry it turned out it had been sent to San José, California, but they said they’d have it by the next day.

So we gathered what belongings we had and walked out of the airport. The air outside felt like it had just been let out of an oven, and a scrum of taxi drivers fell upon us as soon as we appeared. We waved them aside, though, because José, whose B&B we were going to stay at, was standing there holding a sign which said ‘Welcome to Costa Rica, Roger’.

We got to José’s, in a town called Alajuela, at about 10pm, and met Warren, a crazy American from Nevada. But we had been up for nearly 24 hours and were in no mood for small talk, so we made our excuses and slept.

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Up to Poás

Friday, September 15th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 10°11' N, 84°13' W
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Up to Poás

Day 2, mission 1. Most of the population of Costa Rica live in a fertile valley in the central highlands called the Meseta Central. About 1500m above sea level, it is ringed by towering volcanoes. Some of them are active, and one of these is Volcán Poás. It stands 2704m tall in the middle of Parque Nacional Volcán Poas, and it last erupted in 1994, destroying what park facilities existed at the time. Since then, though, the number of tourists visiting Costa Rica every year has quadrupled to more than a million. Volcán Poás is a prime attraction, so they have rebuilt everything and put a paved road right to the very top.

We went to the bus stop in Alajuela early in the morning, and got the bus to the crater. Our first sight of Costa Rica in the daylight was impressive – the fertile farmlands of the Meseta Central with dramatic cloud-capped peaks rising behind. After an increasingly bumpy two hour bus ride, we were at the top. A short walk led us to the edge of the crater, and far below was Poás’ amazingly turquoise crater lake, surrounded by a barren lunar landscape. The lake was steaming gently, confirming that the volcano has not shut up yet.

After we had taken all the photos we could, we walked through the cloudforest (it’s like a rainforest only at high altitude) to Poás’ other crater, called Laguna del Botos. This one has not erupted for thousands of years, and is a beautiful green colour. Lush forest surrounds it, and it would have felt very remote, but for the families with their picnic lunches sitting around. The name comes from the Botos indians, who inhabited this area before the Spanish arrived.

It had been a beautiful morning, with plenty of sunshine. I’d never been to the tropics before and It had seemed strange to see the sun directly overhead, but now it began to cloud over. We were to learn over the next few weeks that it does this without fail during the rainy season in these parts. By the time we had walked back to the park museum building it was hammering down. We bought a coffee and waited around. The rain didn’t stop, though, and eventually we had to brave it and go and catch our bus. This done we enjoyed the run down. The rain was heavier than I’d ever seen before, and raging torrents were forming by the roadside. Lightening was striking incredibly close by, and the thunder was so awesomely loud it was scary.

We made it back to Alajuela safely, though, and spent the evening waiting for Moh’s backpack to be delivered. Warren was there as well, waiting for a fried chicken that he had ordered to arrive, and as we all waited, we found out what Warren was doing in Costa Rica. It turned out that he had driven down from Nevada. He was about 65 and retired, but somehow he had got himself employed to drive a car containing seven Chihuahuas from Nevada to Costa Rica (what for, we never discovered). Despite knowing no Spanish at all, except for ‘No Espanol’ and ‘Shervaza’, which was his poor attempt at saying cerveza (beer), Warren had done OK, driving through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, crossing the borders without trouble.

It began to go wrong for him when he entered Nicaragua. The Chihuahuas had been getting their documents stamped all the way down, but somehow one was overlooked at the Nicaraguan border. Unaware of this, Warren drove on, but when he got to Costa Rica, the border guards naturally asked where he’d got the other Chihuahua from, and when he couldn’t answer, they impounded his car. In the confusion, Warren didn’t get his passport stamped. He had made his way to Alajuela and was trying to get in touch with the owner of the Chihuahuas, who had not yet paid him, and seemed to have mysteriously disappeared. So Warren was now illegally resident in Costa Rica, with no money and no car. Despite this, he was quite a cheerful fellow, but he was also a complete lunatic. Just as he began to talk about his wolf spirit guide, Moh’s backpack thankfully arrived.

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Irazú (ovavu)

Sunday, September 17th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 9°59' N, 83°51' W
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Irazú (ovavu)

We had intended to depart for San Jose early the next day, but Jose said there was a great fruit market in Alajuela, so we went to that. It was a vibrant, colourful affair, with a beer tent and live music, and we had a great time buying lots of weird tropical fruits. I got horrifically sunburnt for the first time on the trip, but it had been a fun day so I didn’t mind. Eventually at about 4pm we left for San José.

This meant we arrived just after dark, and it was raining. This is not really a sensible time to arrive in a big bustling Latin American capital, and it wasn’t long before we attracted unwanted attention. ‘Where you going?’ said a shifty looking character. ‘We’re looking for the Tica Linda hostel’ we said. He strode off purposefully, beckoning to us to follow him. Having no better plan, we did just that. He introduced himself as Patrick Fernandez, and said he hoped we’d enjoy Costa Rica. Friendly enough, but when he began walking down very dodgy looking streets, we began to worry. Then he walked into a dark unlit park, and we began to really worry. We made it out the other side unscathed, though, and saw a sign saying ‘Hotel Rialto’. We sent Patrick on his way and checked in. Only much later did we realise that ‘Tica Linda’ means ‘pretty Costa Rican’, and we could then guess where Patrick might have been leading us.

We managed to avoid any further dodgy situations that evening, and after a very noisy night at the Hotel Rialto, which had paper-thin walls, we got a bus the next morning to Volcán Irazú. At 3432m, it is the highest active volcano in Costa Rica, and like Poás, is a well-developed tourist attraction. However, unlike Poás, we found that the summit was cloaked in thick cloud when we got there. We walked to the edge of the crater, but we could see nothing, so we went and ate a rice and beans breakfast in the food shack near the top. However, about an hour later, things were brightening a bit, and we walked back to the crater edge. The cloud was thinning rapidly, and suddenly we could see green far below, and a few moments later the view was clear.

Irazú erupted last in 1965, but has been quiet since then. It is less lunar than Poás, and the lake is green, but otherwise it’s much the same – a rather safe, touristy, and unadventurous destination. Impressive, but we were eager to get on to more remote areas, so the next day, we got a bus over the mountainous spine of Costa Rica to Volcán Arenal.

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In the jungle

Wednesday, September 20th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 10°29' N, 84°39' W
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In the jungle

It was a spectacular run through misty mountain forests and small villages, with an awesome thunderstorm erupting overhead as we passed through Ciudad Quesada. We arrived at the small town of Fortuna late in the evening, and checked into a cheap hospedaje. We noticed for the first time how quickly night falls in the tropics when we walked outside 20 minutes later to find it was completely dark. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and we could see no sign of Volcán Arenal, which was the reason we’d come here.

Volcán Arenal had caused no-one any bother until 1968, when it suddenly erupted violently, destroying a village and killing 78 people. Ever since then, though, it has been erupting constantly, with lava flowing constantly out of its crater. Occasionally larger eruptions take place – just three weeks before we arrived, three people had been killed by an unexpected explosion. We were pretty much certain of seeing eruptions here, if only the weather would clear up.

The next morning was cloudy, though, so we got essentials like washing done, then went for a walk towards the volcano. No sign of eruptions, though, and we had not yet even seen the summit. We turned back as the afternoon rains began, and hoped for better weather the next day.

It was sunny the next morning, but still the volcano’s summit was covered in cloud. Eruption watching was clearly out, so we decided to hike to a nearby waterfall. We set off early in the day, but it was still phenomenally hot, and it was an exhausting walk up a rough track for a couple of hours. Then thankfully the path went into the forest, where it was a lot cooler, and half an hour later we emerged from the jungle to find a beautiful cascade of water plunging 25m into a lovely blue pool. We cooled our feet for a while before wandering off down river. It was amazing to be right in the jungle, and the noise of all the animals (none of which we could see) was fantastic. After several hours exploring, we decided to head back to Fortuna. When we emerged from the jungle we were startled to see that the clouds had lifted and the top of the volcano was visible, a plume of steam rising from the top.

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Crazy exploding volcanoes

Wednesday, September 20th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 10°27' N, 84°42' W
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This photo on flickr
Crazy exploding volcanoes

We had met two Germans, Colom and Sylvia, down by the falls. Colom had a pickup truck, and when we saw that the volcano was visible, he said he would drive out towards it after nightfall, and invited us along. We gladly accepted.

When darkness fell, a distinct orange glow could be seen over the volcano, and when Colom called around with his truck, we leapt keenly aboard. It was a spectacular drive out along the road past the volcano, with the wind in our hair, fireflies flashing around, and the volcano glowing high in the sky. However, as we watched, the clouds began to lower, and the volcano disappeared from view. Soon it was pelting down with rain. We sat inside the cab of the pickup until it had eased off, and then drove on.

It was not long before the top of the volcano emerged again, and we decided to stop and watch it. All the rivers which run off the volcano are heated by the magma, and several places along the road here channel streams into pools. We stopped at one of these and sat in the thermal waters, watching the truly awesome sight of the volcano erupting.

Eventually we had to leave. We stopped at a café by the roadside for a bite to eat and watched the volcano from there, but now we were round the other side from the eruptions, and all we could see was the glow. It had been an amazing sight, and we hoped we would see it again.

The next day, we planned to hike back along the road, and make our way to a viewpoint we had seen signposted the day before. We were going to watch the eruptions from there as the sun set. We bought food and drink and were all set to go, when suddenly Moh was afflicted by what they call Montezuma’s Revenge in these parts. We had to give the walk a miss, but later on when it was dark, the eruptions could be seen again, so we went for a walk around town, and took some photos.


Much later, I learned a painful lesson from the photo here. Someone asked me if they could publish it in a book. I was very excited by this and agreed. Sadly, the person concerned never paid me as promised, and also lost the slide. So, all I have now is the poor-quality highly compressed JPEG from a budget scanner that you see above. Ah well – I’ll just have to go back to Arenal some time.

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Onwards and upwards

Saturday, September 23rd, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 10°49' N, 85°22' W
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Onwards and upwards

We had spent enough time around Arenal, so the next day, we moved on to our next destination, Rincón de la Vieja. Situated in north western Costa Rica, this is another active volcano, which last erupted in 1998. We hoped to climb to the top and camp the night there. We made our way to Liberia, via the towns of Tilaran and Cañas. During the three-leg journey, the weather got ever hotter. As well as talking to a crazy young Costa Rican called Jorge, who would occasionally lean out the window and do tarzan whoops as we passed through the forest, we met two Austrian travellers, Andi and Eva, who also wanted to go to Rincón de la Vieja. We decided we’d all go up together, and decided to try and find a way there the next day.

There is no public transport to Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja, but the owner of the hotel Moh and I were staying at had a 4WD, and said he’d take us to the park and pick us up the next day for $10 each. We hired him, and after we’d bought food and fuel, we set off.

It was an awesomely bumpy but beautiful drive up to the park. We arrived at about 11am, and after paying our park fees, we decided to go hiking. We left our backpacks by the ranger station and set out for Catarata de Cangreja (Crab falls), which the park ranger told us was the best of the many waterfalls in the park. It was a marvellous walk through the tropical dry forest (it’s a technical name – it really isn’t dry at all), and after about three hours we arrived. Much like the waterfall we visited near Fortuna, it was a perfect tropical cascade plunging into a shimmering blue pool.

We gladly swam, as it had been a hot and exhausting walk. By the time we set out for the return leg, the afternoon rains were approaching. The rains turned out to be light, but there was thunder so loud it made me duck. But we made it back to the ranger station OK, only to find that disaster had struck. Before we had left for the falls, a friendly racoon had wandered right up to us. He was quite an endearing little fellow, we thought, but when we got back, we found that he had opened Eva’s backpack, eaten all her bread, and just for a laugh, thrown her dried pasta everywhere.

Fortunately, Moh and I were unusually well prepared, and our contingency stocks were more than sufficient to feed us all well. We set up camp a few hundred yards into the woods, and as it got dark we cooked a marvellous meal of dried pasta and vegetables. Simple food, but when you cook it over a tiny stove in a jungle wilderness on a volcano in Costa Rica, it seems like the best food in the world.

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Around the mountain

Sunday, September 24th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 10°50' N, 85°19' W
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Around the mountain

The next morning, we set out to explore the mountain. Rincón de la Vieja is at the centre of a region of great geothermal activity, and the evidence for subterranean heat is everywhere. A well-trodden trail winds past many geothermal features, and we set out along it. Before long we were temporarily out of the forest, and all around could see steam rising from the ground. It was quite a sight, and we set off in search of what was steaming.

Over the next three hours or so, we passed hot pools of water, gently simmering and glooping pools of mud, warm streams, and a steaming hole in the ground which was rumbling and groaning ominously. We also saw a fearsomely boiling pool of mud known as Volcancito. It was quite a sight, and we couldn’t help but wonder just how far below us the magma here was.

After seeing all that we could on the trail, we returned to our tents and had a magnificent pasta, tomato and tuna meal, before breaking camp. We had arranged to be picked up at the park’s other ranger station, 8km away, and we had four hours to do it in. We wanted to stop at some hot springs on the way, so we thought we’d leave plenty of time.

It was pretty hard going, though, with the first four kilometres being almost entirely uphill. Moh at one point complained that his legs weren’t working, and promptly fell over. However, we were making very reasonable time. With about an hour and a half left before our driver was to pick us up, we arrived at the trail which led to the springs. A quick kilometre and we were there, and it was truly wonderful. Hot water emerges from beneath some rocks, and flows into a cool stream, and where they mix is pure heaven. I sat with my feet in the cool water and the rest of me in the hot, and relaxed.

But all too soon we had to be on our way, and we set off renewed for the final 3km. We set a blistering pace, and arrived at the ranger station at the same time as our lift, although Moh was looking somewhat the worse for wear. ‘Bue…nos…di…as’, he said to our driver, wheezing terribly. ‘You look terrible’ replied our scrupulously honest driver. We had a great run back to Liberia in the fading light of day, and on arrival back at our hospedaje, we drank about a gallon of water each and I had the best shower ever.

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Into Nicaragua

Monday, September 25th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 11°31' N, 85°41' W
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Into Nicaragua

The next day we headed out of Costa Rica. Our next stop was to be Ometepe Island, in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. It’s the largest island in a freshwater lake in the world, and Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake in Central America. The island itself is made up of two volcanoes, one active, joined together by ancient lava flows. It can be seen from far away, the twin peaks rising from the waters of the lake. Before the Spanish arrived, the area was inhabited by the Nicarao tribe, who spoke Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. After a civil war in Mexico, the Nicarao people had fled south, and, on consulting their idols, were told that they should continue until they came to a huge expanse of fresh water with two mountains in the middle. Thus they settled on Ometepe and around the shores of the lake. The name Ometepe comes from the words Ome Tepetl, meaning ‘two hills’ in Nahuatl.

Latin American border officials have never had the best reputation in the world, so we were a little daunted as we got the bus to Peñas Blancas for our first border of the journey. However, in the event the border officials weren’t a problem. We crossed without paying bribes or having drugs planted on us. The main problem was the bank, who spent a good half hour stamping, scratching, marking and variously defiling our travellers cheques, before giving us Nicaraguan córdobas at an abysmal rate, counting them out four times.

But soon enough we were across the border. Some taxi drivers told us there were no buses onwards from the border and we’d have to take their taxi if we wanted to get anywhere. We were too streetwise for them, though, and hopped aboard a nearby bus, which was going to Rivas, from where we would continue our journey. As we drove off, we could see Lago de Nicaragua and the towering peaks of Ometepe Island on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other.

The first thing we noticed when we entered Nicaragua was that the people looked very different to Costa Ricans. Straight away we could see that the people are mestizo, a mix of Spanish and indigenous. In Costa Rica, disease and cruelty very nearly wiped out the indigenous people within about 50 years of the Spanish arriving, so no intermixing took place. But in Nicaragua, the Spanish were a little bit less brutal in their treatment of the natives, and the mixed descent is clear to see.

As we arrived in Rivas, we found that despite 10 days of learning, our Spanish still wasn’t very good. We never worked out what the old man was trying to tell us when we asked him where the San Jorge bus stop was. We wandered off up the road trying not to look abysmally stupid, and down the deserted street towards us came a battered old taxi. It said ‘Pablo Garcia’ in the window, and Señor Garcia leaped out when we glanced in his direction, cheerfully hustled us in and drove us to San Jorge, from where we were going to get a ferry to Ometepe Island.

On arrival at San Jorge, we bought tickets for the Señora del Lago, a beaten up old ferry which plieD the waters between San Jorge and the island. The sun was setting over the lake as we crossed, and we arrived at the village of Moyogalpa just after dark. Here we got another bus, to Altagracia, where we would stay. This was a great ride, on an absolutely packed bus, with loud music on the radio, fireflies flickering outside the window, and people carrying chickens and fruit and vegetables home from the market. It was almost disappointing to arrive at Altagracia just after 7pm.

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Ometepe

Tuesday, September 26th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 11°33' N, 85°34' W
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Ometepe

Before I left, whenever I told people I would be going through Nicaragua, a look somewhere between pity and horror would cross their face. People seemed to have the idea that it was a war-torn smoking wreck of a country.  What everyone remembered was the infamous Contra war which raged throughout the 1980s. Nicaragua had been run autocratically by various members of the Somoza family for more than 40 years, from 1937 to 1979. In that year, after many years of struggle, the people finally succeeded in toppling the regime. A junta was formed to run the country while new institutions were formed, and at first it had both hardline and moderate members. Soon, though, the hardliners, the famous Sandinistas, moved to take total control. As the Sandinistas promoted communist ideals, and were receiving aid from Cuba and the Soviet Union, the US president, Ronald Reagan, decided to intervene in the region. He began funding counter-revolutionary insurgents, known as the Contras, who attacked Nicaraguan territory from bases in Honduras.

In 1984 the US Congress passed a law banning further funding of the Contras, but the Reagan administration carried on covertly. They began selling arms at vastly inflated prices to Iran, using the proceeds to keep the Contra war going. The affair was discovered, and much controversy ensued, but the war in Nicaragua continued.

The Sandinistas had resoundingly won the general elections held in 1984, and under the new constitution elections were required every 6 years. So in 1990 the country went to the polls again, and the Sandinistas were confident of victory. But the people were sick of war, and knew that peace was only likely if the Sandinistas weren’t in power. Violeta Chamorro, one of the moderates on the post-revolution Junta, was elected president.

When we arrived, there had been ten years of democracy and, more or less, peace. In remote mountain areas, factions who wouldn’t put down their weapons still fought sporadically, but where we were going was well away from trouble spots. The Sandinistas were still a major political force, but had not recaptured the presidency. However, a Sandinista had just been elected Mayor of Managua, the capital, and expectations were high for the elections due in 2001.

We spent our first morning on Ometepe exploring around Altagracia. The contrast between the peaceful, stable and relatively prosperous Costa Rica and Nicaragua was sharp. Nicaragua was visibly poorer than Costa Rica – most of the houses were tumbledown shacks, and while every third house seemed to be a shop of some sort, they usually had pretty limited stock, and were dark inside. The shopkeeper would turn the light on when a customer came in, to save electricity.

I could have passed through Costa Rica entirely ignorant of the politics of that country, but it would be impossible to do the same in Nicaragua. Walls everywhere were covered in political graffiti, supporting one or other of the Sandinistas, the PLC (Partido Liberal Constitucional) or the PC (Partido Conservador), and people wore t-shirts and caps proclaiming their allegiances. According to my guidebook, Ometepe was relatively untouched by the revolution, so I wondered what the mainland would be like.

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Concepción

Wednesday, September 27th, 2000 | Central America 2000 | 11°31' N, 85°37' W
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Concepción

Ometepe was certainly fascinating just in terms of its recent history. But it’s also a very beautiful place. Though their tops were invariably covered in cloud while we were on the island, the two volcanoes make for a great setting. The larger of the two, the active Volcán Concepción, looms right behind Altagracia, while the smaller, Maderas, can be seen far away to the south-west. Early on our second day, we set out to see what we could do about climbing Volcán Concepción.

We set out along the road south from Altagracia, looking, as our guidebook told us to, for a cemetary on the right after a mile and a half, past which ran a trail up the volcano. We walked for a good three miles before deciding we’d gone too far, and headed back. Fortunately our Spanish (well, mine at least – Moh was still trying to master the phrase for ‘I don’t speak Spanish’) was up to asking for directions, and we found the path. It was about 7am, but already I was dripping with sweat. We headed up the path, first crossing some plantations, before getting out of the cultivated land and into the forest. We climbed for about an hour and a half, occasionally getting a good view over the island, but mostly being in thick jungle. Unfortunately we hadn’t been able to buy any food, and having not eaten breakfast we were forced by hunger to turn back at about 8.30am. We were back in town by 10am, and ate a hearty breakfast.

We were staying at the Hotel Castillo, mentioned in all the guidebooks as being a great place to stay. We had good rooms for only £3 a night. The reason the hotel was so recommended was that the family who run it were said to be exceptionally accommodating, sharing their wealth of knowledge about the island with anyone who asked them. Sadly the legendary Señor Castillo, who had lived on the island for eighty-odd years, was not around when we were staying, but instead there was a friendly guy called Neftali, who worked on a banana plantation during the day, but came to the hotel most evenings to chat to the guests, practising his English and sharing his knowledge of the island. We spent a long while that evening chatting to him about the island and Nicaragua in general.