A Travellerspoint blog

Monteverde: Flight of the Quetzal

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So by mid-December Tom had left us to fly back to the British winter he was missing so much, and we had left most of the crazies in Puerto Viejo. We first made reservations for Christmas at Jaco's wonderful Buddha House 'Boutique Hostel' where Tom ended his trip with us, and then we headed up to the mountains at Monteverde.

Monteverde is a pleasant little town tucked away in the cloud forest with views of the lush greenery all around. Due to the altitude the climate is a little chillier especially at night and so we felt quite at home once we arrived. Thanks to the cloud forest reserve Monteverde has endless wildlife and thrill-seeking attractions and seems to run almost entirely on tourism. Almost. The town was founded by Quakers who have left their legacy in the Monteverde cheese factory which provides cheese of an acceptable quality for Costa Rica and the neighboring countries (that's high praise considering what else is on offer!)

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The main draw for our trip was the famous Monteverde 'canopy tours', which are supposed to be the best on the continent. Basically, you get strapped into a harness and dangled off a wire so far above the ground that your feet don't touch the treetops... and then they let go. Its about as terrifying as it sounds, at first.

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Then there is the 'Tarzan Swing', they attach a rope to your middle and get you to jump off a tall platform - a pure adrenalin hit. The photographer was taking pictures of us watching when someone's swinging foot came into blunt contact with his cojones!

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At the finale, we got to go tandem along a wire called 'Flight of the Quetzal' that was over a kilometre long (a quetzal is a rarely-spotted but very colourful and symbolic bird in Central America - its the national bird of Guatemala, but I think only because no-one else claimed it first!)

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'

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Straight after the canopy tour, our wobbly legs obliged in taking us as far as the Hummingbird Garden, where we relaxed by watching some of these beauties flitting about.

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Aside from the canopy tour the main attraction in Monteverde is the wildlife. The next day we went on a tour of a butterfly garden where we saw butterflies from the many different habitats provided by the mountainous landscape. Izzie even got to release some butterflies fresh from their cocoons.

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As an added bonus we were shown other creepy crawlies from the local area including scorpions, tarantulas, stick insects and a bug that disguises itself as a leaf to avoid being eaten (even going so far as to look like dead or damaged leaves). Turns out some of them have bad reps for no reason - there's never been a recorded death due to a tarantula, and a cockroach carries no more diseases than an ant. We played spot the stick insect and learned that their 'eggs' are designed to be picked up by leafcutter ants and protected as a part of the fungus they cultivate, disguised by pheremones so they are not detected as a foreign element until the moment they make their escape. We saw a beetle with such a hard shell that you couldn't smash it with a mallet, and learned all about the mating habits of scorpions (quite vicious!)

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Then we went to see more butterflies...

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We were considering a forest hike, but then we spotted the lazy man's option - this ancient little sky tram contraption! You just pootle round the track, pressing a button whenever you want to stop and look at something or step down at a platform and walk around. It turned out to be just the sort of pace we wanted that day!

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The insects on the tree branch above just kind of move as a mass as you watch them - a strange sight.

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Being away from home for Christmas turned out to be one of the more disorienting parts of the trip so far. No amount of decorations in the hotels and restaurants ever really evoked the feeling of Christmas as we were used to it (though seeing a Nicaraguan Santa Claus waving to passers by in the midday sun was a real treat - the woolly costume, like the concept, had probably been imported from the US!) Even so we bought a few decorations and stubbornly cooked up some mulled wine. With the wine and slightly cooler mountain air of Monteverde we enjoyed some Christmas cheer with a Canadian couple who were also disoriented by the lack of cold in Costa Rica.

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Once back in Jaco the heat returned but we had cunningly bought a Christmas cheese board from the Monteverde factory. With cheeseboard secured and listening to Carols From Kings in the pool we kept the mood as Christmassy as possible! We even made more mulled wine which the receptionist at the hotel agreed was tasty though she didn't like how much it made her sweat. We tried to experience a Costa Rican Christmas, we really did, but its very much a one-day only family affair - the receptionist told us that many families go to church on Christmas Day, roast a pig for lunch and then go back to work, and she wasn't troubled by missing the whole thing (didn't sound like Izzie's cup of tea either!)

On Christmas Day we both got to Skype our families in the morning (their evening), which was fantastic. But we were then left with rather too much time on our hands to drink cheap wine in the pool ('Clos' is the cheapest wine available in Costa Rica at around $3 a litre - and its actually quite drinkable!)

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On Christmas Eve we watched two huge iguanas fight in the garden (totally normal!) We caught one of them sneaking about in the laundry. And on Boxing Day, our first glimpse of some wild scarlet macaws!

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We ended the year back in Puerto Viejo, which we were kind of dreading, but it turns out that around New Year its so busy that the visitors dilute the nutters a bit, and you start to see what the place is actually for. We treated ourselves to a great Caribbean-style curry meal out and then stumbled on a psytrance party with a pretty good DJ. At midnight we watched the fireworks on the beach and then went back to partying! We didn't take any pictures - its generally not a great idea to carry your camera around when drinking (and ours takes poor pics at night anyway, which is why nearly all of those we post are in daylight!) But we had a great night, and Puerto Viejo turned out to be just about the right place for seeing in the new year.

So happy new year everyone (only a month late!)

Posted by gadgetex 08:51 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (0)

Costa Rica: A series of most troubling encounters

A guest entry by Tom!

semi-overcast 25 °C
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Izzie and Jim have been so kind as to let me write this blog entry, which recounts our time together in Costa Rica in December. Given full artistic license, I’d like to warn younger readers that this blog entry contains some foul words and at least two unpleasant descriptions, so your discretion is advised. Indeed, the pleasant photos of monkeys and sandy beaches, which are courtesy of Izzie and Jim, do not allude to the nutcases who surrounded us at every turn. Finally, I should also add that some names and places have been changed, more for our safety than theirs.

It was close to midnight and I was standing in front of House Lin Hostel. With a 17-hour flight to Costa Rica leaving me a sleep-deprived mess, I stood out in the street, eyes’ glazed, trying to figure out whether the taxi driver had overcharged me for the trip.

It had all gone wrong when the taxi driver had swung the conversation round to women. ‘Here in Costa Rica, the women are beautiful’, he announced as we pulled out of the airport, a smile creeping across his face. ‘I don’t know whether it’s because I’m getting older and they younger, but…’, and he trailed off, no doubt recalling some lecherous encounter.

From past experience, indulging such recollections, particularly given taxi drivers' world-wide enthusiasm for the subject tends to end with a systematic, overly detailed account of their last visit to strip club. With 40 years and a pervy grin between us, I thought shifting the conversation to family would be a wise move and suggested jokingly that he – being Nicaraguan – was only saying as much because his wife was from Costa Rica. ‘No’, came the came the emphatic response, ‘what a wreck she is’, and an awkward silence followed. Still grappling with the financial impact of my ill chosen remark, a stocky guy in his early thirties shuffled out of the hostel’s front door, introduced himself as Sam, and beckoned me inside. Clearly American, Sam stood staring at me in the dark before a facial tick crisscrossed his unsmiling face. ‘Don’t worry about locking your bedroom door’, he immediately declared, a cloud of vaporized alcohol fuming from his mouth, “I’ve got a camera fixed right on you’. ‘There, do you see it?’ and pointed at the opposite wall.

Looking past Sam, and pretending to myself that this was a completely normal introduction, I realized – much to my surprise – that everything inside the hostel had a British theme to it. One wall had the Union Jack daubed across its entire length, another Big Ben, and on the one facing my room, the Houses of Parliament with what looked like Marry Poppins buried in a dungeon beneath it.

Curious as to why a guy (who turned out to be from Kansas) would give a hostel a British theme in the middle of San Jose, Costa Rica, I asked him what was up. ‘House Lin’s dedicated to a chick’, Sam muttered, taking a sip from the plastic cup he had been cradling in his hand, ‘but she’s not here anymore. Anymore questions?’ ‘Better not’, I thought to myself, and left it at that.

Over the next few days, I went out to explore San Jose. The country’s capital, San Jose is a busy, car-ridden city that’s speckled with lovely little parks, striking colonial architecture and great places to eat. Food wise, by far the best dish was the casado, which is made up of rice, beans, meat, plantain and varying types of veggies. I loved it!

Two days later (and after a lot of casado) and Izzie and Jim had joined me. Soon… perhaps too soon, they were acquainted with House Lin’s lodgers, most of whom would have made excellent characters in The Shining. First, there was “Steel”. An old, lanky black guy from somewhere in the States, he seemed to subside on a diet of fruit and cannabis. Like most of the lodgers, Steel had been living in House Lin for a very long time. He had a disagreeable habit of walking up behind me, punching me in the back, and shouting “What up B?” before skulking off to his room. He turned out to be the most normal lodger there.

When Steel wasn’t around, Charlie usually was. Similar age, but of much more corpulent build, Charlie, unlike Steel, was completely up front about his long-term residency at House Lin. ‘I’m mostly here for the young men’, he declared when I asked (prostitution is legal in Costa Rica).

Last but not least, there was Khan. Another American, Khan ran – so he claimed – a vibrant import-export business fuelled from the proceeds of a strip club he sold in the area. Why he ran such a profitable business from a bedroom in a crappy British themed hostel remained unclear, but he’s worth mentioning if only to solve the mystery behind owner’s bizarre choice of décor. ‘Shit bro, didn’t you figure it out from the website’, Khan exclaimed, putting away the box of Miami-bound cigars he had been showing us. ‘Sam got his white trash ass dumped by some English chick and the whole hostel was a dumbass attempt to get her back. Here name was Linda, that’s why it’s called House Lin, bro.’

Suddenly, it was all so clear. Sam’s drinking, the ridiculous room names (The Realm, MI6, Bakerloo), the dungeon-bound Marry Poppins buried beneath the Houses of Parliament… and good God, Sam’s decision to sleep in Izzie and Jim's dorm room the previous night. It was most certainly time to move on. Originally, our plan was to head to Limón, but Costa Ricans repeatedly told us that we might as well go to the morgue. Smack bang in the middle of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, Limón is a major drug transit point and has become increasingly violent in recent years. As a result, we bypassed the city altogether and headed on to Puerto Viejo in the southeast.

Puerto Viejo, like Limón, is ethnically distinct from the rest of Costa Rica insofar as the population is predominately black, descendents of workers brought over from Jamaica in the late 19th century by the American Railway magnate, Minor Keith. Puerto Viejo, however, showed no sign of industry and was entirely devoted to tourism, fueled largely by sandy beaches and easy access to drugs.

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With the odd exception, we found that Puerto Viejo had two types of tourist. The first type was the young hippie-surfer who was there to get in touch with his or herself by experiencing moderate, but not too intense poverty.

The byword amongst the Puerto Viejo hippie-surfers was ‘energy’, but it never correlated with physically doing anything. Instead, it was closely tied to personal enlightenment. How personal enlightenment was to be achieved varied from idiotic surfer to idiotic surfer. For example, working on a local farm turned out to be a no-no, but watching local fishermen haul in their nets proved a riotous success. In any case, we were fortunate enough to have an energy expert sleeping in the same dorm room.

The spitting image of Kurt Cobain, this guy would drawl away to anyone in a five-meter radius about where energy could be obtained. Sources ranged from chess to playing the guitar, but all could be achieved from a stationary position. When girls were around, the creative energy stories would get extremely elaborate: “spirituality lost its way with the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.”, he would state, somehow connecting this with, ‘so that’s when I told my church pastor I’d never cut my hair’ before concluding that ‘the only way out, was to become a Shamblabla energy monk and live in Costa Rica’.

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It was too much. However, when we moved to a different hostel, we merely discovered the second type of Puerto Viejo tourist/resident, namely the burnt-out, ex-pat hippie. Fortunately, this doddering cohort of grumpy and jaded individuals largely kept to themselves. Their debatable decision to retire to a tiny town, hours away from a major city, and populated by locals whose favorite pastime was throwing fireworks at them partly explained their withdrawn nature, though their love of conspiracy theories may have exacerbated the situation. Nonetheless, we weren’t entirely left alone.

Of note was the old, emaciated-looking guy who approached us while we were sitting in the hostel garden. ‘I’d like to share some literature’, he announced, handing us some computer printouts and fixing us with his sharp grey eyes. ‘What I’m about to tell you’, he began ‘is going to be the most important thing you’ve ever heard’. His eyes were now as big as saucers, though judging from Izzie’s murderous countenance, they were very close to being plucked out. ‘It’s called…’, he breathed in, ‘… COLLOIDIAL SILVER and you can insert it anally, vaginally, or huff it as a vapor. It cures EVERYTHING, but big pharma don’t want you to know, man’!

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Just been eaten by a bigger crab? Colloidal silver cures that too bro!

Leaving the gorgeous, loony ridden beaches of Puerto Viejo behind us, we traveled by bus across the country to the west coast, stopping first in Quepos, then in Manuel Antonio. The beach at Manuel Antonio was absolutely stunning, as was the National Park that enclosed it. There we saw some amazing animals including Costa Rica’s cutest animal, the perezoso (a sloth!).

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If the sloth picture on the left is too difficult to make out our resident sloth impersonation expert Tom has provided a handy reference.

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We hadn’t lost the weirdos though. Coming back from the beach at Manuel Antonio later at night, we saw an extremely long trail of red ants scurrying along the side of the road. It was a amazing site; thousands of tiny little ants carrying leaves and sticks, marching in an unbroken line stretching for at least 20 meters. But as we knelt down to get a better look, we heard a voice from behind us. ‘What you dudes looking at?’, shouted an American guy, scrambling down onto the road next us. ‘Whoa, fucking ants, man! Yo, yo, yo, yo, I wonder what would happen…’, he paused, as if to underline the gravity of what he was about to say, ‘if I stuck my dick right in front of them?’, and proceeded to pull down his trousers.

We protested. We probably shouldn’t have. Eagerly, the fool lowed himself to the ground, manhood in hand, but at the last moment, seeing that everyone was leaving, he withdrew. Pulling his trousers up, he declared in a hurt voice that he ‘wouldn’t have done it anyway’, and he marched after us, asking if we were from ‘HampSHIRE, or CheSHIRE’.

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Once again, it was time to move on and we headed north by bus to the town of Jacó. We all liked Jacó a lot. Sure, there were crazy tourists there too, but they were more moderate in their crazy behaviour. Moreover, Jacó had a great fish taco restaurant where Izzie and Jim were kind enough to treat me to a delicious meal as a goodbye present. And indeed, it was time to go our separate ways.

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Looking back, what struck me most about my time in Costa Rica (A-grade nutter tourist population aside) was its incredible natural beauty. Izzie and Jim’s excellent pictures more than tell this side of the story (save the one of me doing my sloth impression). However, what the photos can’t show and what I can’t elaborately explain (albeit, without sounding cheesy), is the national pride Costa Ricans’ place in these gorgeous landscapes. Time and again, this was reflected in the everyday conversations we had with locals and I think anyone who has the chance to visit Costa Rica will readily see why.

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What is this? I don't even know what this is. This didn't even happen.

Posted by gadgetex 08:42 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (0)

The legend of El Macho and La Macha

sunny 34 °C
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After Esteli we stayed in Leon, Nicaragua - one of the most brutally hot locations of the trip so far. Most of the city closes from 12 until 3 in the afternoon and we found ourselves hiding out anywhere we could get a cold drink in the afternoons until we realised what a siesta is for.

On one of our afternoons out we visited the Museum of Legends and Traditions. Here is a selection of what we saw there:

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This creepy wagon is the Carreta Nagua. This Indian folk tale is apparently based on the Spanish caravans which conquered Nicaragua in the 16th century. The caravans would plunder native settlements and enslave the people. The legend of the Carreta Nagua tells of an ox cart which stalks through the streets in the middle of the night keeping to the darkest parts. It is said that the cart brings death and that if a person looks at it they will die.

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This mural shows two legends. The first is the headless father. This legend is based on the death of Fray Antonio de Valdivieso, a Catholic bishop who was a defender of the Indians in Nicaragua. He was murdered outside the cathedral in Leon in 1550. According to legend after this crime the father of the church in Leon was beheaded. His head rolled into the lake where it caused a huge wave over the city. Later the Indians reported sightings of the headless father wandering the city praying and searching for his head.

The second legend depicted is the golden crab. It is said that twice a year during holy week and August the golden crab, the spirit of a hidden treasure, emerges from spa Poneloya and runs through the streets. Anyone who catches the crab will be able to find the treasure but the crab is too fast and crafty to be caught. The legend was born after the conquistadors hung Cacique Adiac from a Tamarind tree for defending the freedom of the indigenous. It is said that the treasure represents the identity of the indigenous people with the crab representing themselves and their rebellious and cunning nature

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This mural shows La Gigantona and Pepe Cabezon (Pepe Bighead). La Gigantona satirically represents the ideal of beauty brought by the Spanish conquerors while Pepe Cabezon represents the indigenous people. The characters dance to traditional drum music and Pepe Cabezon sings songs for La Gigantona in this traditional dance. Every December Leon has a Gigantona festival and during our stay there were groups of children roaming the streets with their costumes and drums practicing for the festivities. Below are full sized examples of the costumes.

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Here another traditional dance is shown. El Viejo y La Vieja (the old man and the old woman) is a dance in which El Viejo and La Vieja dance to traditional instruments such as the marimba while flirting with the audience members. Once one of them catches the other the pair begin to argue and fight. Check it out.
In the background is another dance which involves whipping a dome shaped bull. I haven't been able to find any information on that though...

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This final mural states: No more Somozas! The museum is located in the buildings that once were the notorious prison 'the 21' which housed political prisoners during the Somoza family's dictatorship. Depictions of the tortures used by the national guard can be seen on the outside walls of the museum. You can even go up onto the walls and stand in the guard posts, a very eerie experience.

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This tank is displayed at the entrance to the museum and was used to defend Leon against the Somoza forces during the rebellion.

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We also visited Leon's Iglesia La Merced which is one of the nicest churches we've seen during our trip (though they do list as a requirement to visit that you 'genuflect before the tabernacle' which we declined to do).

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Leon boasts an excellent bar called Via Via where we sampled a breakfast named 'El Macho'. For around 65p you will be served a black coffee, a cigarette and a large shot of disgusting rum. A very healthy way to start the day. Iz wasn't macho enough for the cigarette!

Having enjoyed Nicaragua we set off to Costa Rica to meet up with our friend and first Spanish teacher Tom. Our next post will be a special edition written by a mystery guest writer...

Posted by gadgetex 17:52 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (1)

Cigars and Sandinistas

- touring a cigar factory and public murals in Esteli

sunny 24 °C
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The Nicaraguan town of Esteli was one of the unexpected highlights of our trip - a place we only intended to stop for a night but just had to stay longer. One morning we took a tour of a cigar factory with Uriel, a fantastic guide from the Treehuggers tour office, and then continued with him for a tour of the city's amazing public murals and graffiti.

A big bale of tobacco leaves fermenting (the sharp smell in this room is almost unbearable), and women sorting the leaves by hand ready for cigar production.

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We got to roll our own cigars!

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And to smoke one.

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Iz, who doesn't know how to smoke a cigar, and Uriel, who definitely does!

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After lunch we set off to see the murals. Many of them relate to the Sandinista revolution of 1979 which overthrew the Somoza dynasty's military dictatorship, and the following war with the US-backed Contras (leading to the Iran-Contra affair, when Reagan's National Security Dept passed funds from already dubious arms sales to Iran on to the Contras, illegal because Congress had made a law prohibiting it following reports of Contra violence).

Esteli suffered badly during the war, since it was close to the Honduran border where the Contras had their camps. They would attack transport convoys to rural areas, killing civilians and kidnapping boys and men to train as Contras. Reagan called them "the moral equivalent of our founding fathers."

Below, a Sandinista, with his distinctive mask, guards the farmers from Contra attacks. The second mural represents the large-scale literacy programme that the Sandinista government introduced following the revolution, since illiteracy in rural areas was high at the time.

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This one celebrates 'Radio Liberacion', a public station which was also used by Sandinistas across the country to communicate news about the war - the speech bubbles are the various programmes that ran on the station.

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On the left above is Augusto César Sandino, a national hero who fought against US imperialism in the 1930s. A Nicaraguan government dominated by the US signed treaties granting the US rights to occupy Nicaragua, intervening when it felt its interests were threatened, and the permanent right to build an interoceanic canal whenever they chose and to profit from it. They also took out a large loan, which had to come from American banks, to repay the gold-mining company that supplied the funds to put the conservative government in place. This helped to prompt a civil war in which Sandino led forces that pledged to make Nicaragua independent. Sandino was eventually assassinated, on his way home from signing a peace treaty with the opposition, by the conservative National Guard. The US had installed Anastasio Somoza García as head of the National Guard - he went on to seize power and his family were the brutal authoritarian rulers of Nicaragua for 40 years until the Sandinistas, named for Sandino, of course, overthrew them in 1979.

There's a prize for telling us who the guy on the right is, since we can't remember! But no prizes for the one in the middle!

Below, the current left-wing President Daniel Ortega (a revolutionary who was elected as a compromise for a period after the war,, and re-elected in 2006) rides into Esteli on a horse as part of an annual festival that still takes place - the mural is repainted every year. While his health and education policies have been popular, his personal popularity is now falling - criticisms include that he seized land for himself at the end of his last term, and that his religion is too prominent in policy (e.g. abortion is illegal in all circumstances in Nicaragua).

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There's a strong focus on protecting the environment in Nicaraguan education, which is reflected in many of the murals. We noticed the effects in the amount of litter on the streets, a lot less than in neighbouring countries (particularly bad in Honduras and Panama).

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This rather wonky panorama (trippy face where I wobbled the camera!) shows another mural about caring for the environment - the black & white section represents what happens when you don't.

There were colourful murals and graffiti about Mayan and indigenous culture.

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There remains a problem with children working instead of being in school but there's a drive to ensure access to free education for everyone - this series of murals drawn by children shows kids selling food to passengers on the buses (we did see this happen), versus them being in school, and the last one shows a special school, an attempt to counteract prejudice against disability. The one below left is a mural for peace, apparently done by older children! (many learn to paint early, it is possible to make a living from it). The final one is about human trafficking.

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Posted by gadgetex 11:05 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Rainy days in Lago Yojoa

rain 15 °C
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Trying to leave Belize and get to where we were going in Honduras turned into an epic mission (you can skip this para if you've already heard the story from us!) We turned up for the Honduran ferry that was supposed to go once a week on a Friday - after waiting a while we had to run around the village to find out it had been moved to 6am the next day because that is when the Honduran national youth football team wanted to go. At about 5.30am with a slight rum hangover we had to dodge a pack of snarling dogs, but we made it to the boat... and then we were kicked off it at the immigration point in favour of the (obnoxious) footballers. The gringos staged a 2 hour occupation of the boat until they brought us another one - this was a tiny little lancha that they took out into the Atlantic Ocean in the rain. Totally drenched, we arrived in Honduras and had to make our way to and through San Pedro Sula, which is officially the most dangerous city in the world. Then we got a bus to our hostel in the countryside and they forgot to drop us off. Finally, we found ourselves in a brewery/hostel with fantastic homebrewed ale, the first proper beer we've had in months... Iz tipped the first glass over Jim's trousers.

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After eventually arriving, we spent a very rainy week in the middle of nowhere! Lago Yojoa is a paradise for birdwatchers, and there were many of these at D&D Brewery where we stayed. It was great to see hummingbirds fluttering round the garden during the day. Our walk round the nearby nature reserve was a highlight (it stopped raining for a couple of hours), but of course we forgot to take the camera!

Honduras wasn't our favourite country, mostly because we failed at nearly everything we tried to do. Our bank cards wouldn't work, the only bus to the capital city didn't show up, and it tipped it down most days (I know, poor us, deprived of Caribbean beaches for a few days!) What rescued it from disaster was the eternal cheerfulness and welcoming nature of the people we met, who certainly seemed some of the friendliest on the continent. The town of El Paraiso on the Nicaraguan border gets a special mention for this - we turned up there by accident but were really glad we did, and a few people really went out of their way to help us. It seems that where few travellers stay, local people are more curious to talk to us - they have fewer preconceptions about us, and we have fewer preconceptions about what life is like in places that are a bit off the map.

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In between missions to various local towns to try to get money out, we did manage to visit a stunning waterfall, which was better for all the rain we had been having!

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Posted by gadgetex 10:44 Archived in Honduras Comments (0)

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