Bocas and Beaches

Bocas is perhaps what you would expect. These beautiful Panamanian islands attract all sort of foreigner, from retired American expats to 20-something backpackers. And for good reason. The laid-back town, array of intriguing food and shopping, and long stretches of generally empty beaches make for a pretty good getaway. Throw in some high quality surfing at the right time of year and you’ve got yet another demographic making its way to Bocas’ becoming golden beaches.

In Bocas Town, you can keep yourself occupied for quite a while. Food options range from budget (solid meal for about $4.25) to high-end, as does the shopping. There are a number of bars that range from quiet and funky, to live music venues to waterfront and packed, with DJs spinning dance tunes.

The real treasures of the island, however, are to be found as you explore. Bikes, motorcycles, and ATVs can be rented at numerous shops in Bocas Town (Bikes run about $5 for half a day) and are a great way of getting around the island. We rented a couple from Rasta Bike Rentals (or something to that effect) and headed out of town towards Bluff Beach. Along the way, there were plenty of places to stop and poke around, take a few photos, and then carry on. When we made it to the beach (about 7 km from town), it was a sight for sore eyes. Bluff is a huge expanse of sand, stretching alongside the road for at probably close to 10 kilometres. The main entrance is what you will come across first, but there are plenty of access paths along the beach, and it is easy to claim your own stretch of deserted sand. The waves are big enough to make for a fun time playing around, and the surf picks up here at other times of the year.

Bocas Beaches

After lounging around on the beach for a couple of hours, we made our way back into town. Our next stop was Panama City. There are two direct buses daily from Almirante to the city, leaving early in the morning and then again in the evening. The trip takes about 10 hours and costs $28. You can purchase bus tickets from the water taxi office. We boarded a 5 p.m. water taxi and then caught a shared taxi to the bus stop ($1 per person), which got us there with plenty of time to spare before our 7:30 p.m. bus left. Yay, overnighters.

My bored-on-the-beach work of art getting washed away by incoming waves.

My bored-on-the-beach work of art getting washed away by incoming waves.

Advertisements

Costa Rica to Panama & Costa Rica By the Books

Or: Getting From San Jose, Costa Rica to Bocas del Toro, Panama
Or: Exit Ticket Entry Requirements for Panama

From La Fortuna, there are frequent buses throughout the day to Ciudad Quesada (which can’t help make me think of a city of cheese), where one can than change for a bus to San Jose. There are several of these throughout the day. There are also a couple of direct buses: at 12:45 and 2:45 p.m. We caught the 12:45 direct bus from La Fortuna, figuring we’d still get in to San Jose at a decent time. Turns out the 4.5 hour journey was closer to 6, as when we hit the edge of the city we also hit traffic, and it took us over an hour to make our way in to the bus terminal. Here, we chose to take a taxi to our nearby hotel, as the bus station area is decidedly dodgy at good hour. Our desire to barter got the best of us and we turned down a fixed-price taxi who wouldn’t lower his price. We ended up in a metered one who, despite his estimate, ended up costing about twice as much. Ah, it happens.

We’d chosen to stay in the area with all of the bus terminals, chiefly for convenience sake. There is little else reason to stay here. We buzzed in to our gated hotel we’d booked online and were greeted by the exceptionally friendly lady running the place. The street below was noisy, dirty, and dodgy, but we felt reasonably secure in our second-floor room behind several locked doors. We ventured out as far as a couple of blocks in search of food, and after finding a cheap and tasty dinner accompanied by the presence of a friendly local who helped translate, we made it swiftly back home.

San Jose has a number of different bus terminals and stops, as they are operated on a company basis as opposed to a destination basis. Our destination was Bocas del Toro, Panama, and there are a couple of different ways to do this.

Getting from San Jose, Costa Rica to Bocas del Toro, Panama:

No buses travel the entire distance between San Jose and Bocas. (Mainly because it’s an island.) There is, however, one daily direct bus from San Jose to Changuinola, which as close as you are going to get on your first form of transport. This Bocatoreños bus leaves San Jose from outside of Hotel Cocori, just off of Calle 14, at 9 a.m. every day. There is no terminal and no office; you buy your tickets on the bus. When we did it, the bus was there at least half an hour before it left, so try to be there early as well to secure a seat. The fare is $14 for the roughly six hour trip. You can also take one of several early buses from the Caribe terminal that go to the border, and then catch further transport on from there.

At the Costa Rican-Panamanian border, you must stop at four different points before the crossing is complete. You disembark your bus before the first at re-board after the last. The first point is to pay the $8 (apparently $7 in the bank) departure tax from Costa Rica and obtain a receipt. Then you stop in to have your passport stamped out of Costa Rica (this is just before the bridge on your right). Then, in the strangest border crossing I’ve seen in a while, you travel by foot over a sketchy old railway bridge, which has more than a few significant gaps and spaces, over to the Panamanian side of the border crossing. There will likely be some local kids playing around on and jumping off of the bridge as you cross. On your left will be where you pay the $3 entry tax into Panama and receive a small sticker in your passport. Then, down the stairs on your left, across the street, and behind the duty-free shop you will find Panamanian immigration where you will be required to show an exit ticket out of the country. Panama is strict on this, and I haven not heard of anyone who managed to talk their way out of this one. As a huge number of people entering Panama do not actually have exit tickets, as they plan to travel by boat (to Colombia) or overland (to Costa Rica), this tends to cause some panicked backpackers.

Border Crossings

Crossings

Solutions to the Exit Ticket Requirement:

  • Buy a bus ticket at the border. This is probably the most legitimate and easiest way to supply an exit ticket: just buy one. A bus ticket out of Panama will cost you between $10 and $15.
  • Purchase a fully refundable Spirit Airlines flight. At the moment, the American airline Spirit will allow you to buy a ticket online and cancel it with a full refund, so long as the cancellation is done within 24 hours of purchase and the departure date is at least 7 days away. Spirit flies out of Panama to destinations such as Fort Lauderdale, often for less than $300. This is what we did, and we supplied our itinerary on a smart phone, as we hadn’t had a chance to print it, which was satisfactory.
  • Create a fake airline ticket. This goes untested by yours truly, but apparently if you Google “fake airline ticket” a result will pop up that allows you to fill in the appropriate information and give yourself a departure flight from your chosen country. I know people who have done this and had no problems, but I am also unaware of what consequences may exist if they did want to check out your information and find that it is falsified.
  • Use Copa Airlines “hold reservation” function. Along the same lines as the previous suggestion, but seemingly slightly more legitimate, is the function that Copa Airlines has to hold a reservation without paying for it. If you make as though to purchase a flight online, create an account, and click hold reservation, you will be given a confirmation page with your name and details on it. This page will state the requirement that you pay for your reservation to make it complete, but this could (a) potentially be missed by your friendly Panamanian border control guy or (b) be edited out with any word processor and then printed.

Panama

After you have successfully navigated your border crossing, you will be approached by a swarm of people offering you transport directly to Almirante, the town where water taxis to Bocas leave from. This is where you have to weigh your options. Initially, regardless of what you want to do, say no to these people, as they tend to start at the exorbitant price of $10 per person for the ride, and you should pay nowhere near this much.

Ignore what they are telling you about the fact that you will miss the last water taxi, that the last one leaves at 5, about the time difference, and about the driving distances. We were lucky enough to be completing this journey alongside an American expat who had been living in Bocas for six years, so we were comfortable that he, at least, knew what he was doing.

The facts:

  • Your initial travel plan would take you from San Jose, through the border, to the town of Changuinola. Here you would need to transfer to a new bus or to a taxi/shuttle/collective to take you the remainder of the way to Almirante. This taxi should not cost more than $5 per person, or potentially as low as $15 for the entire car.
  • The last water taxi leaves for Bocas from Almirante at 6:00 p.m.
  • There is a one-hour time difference between Costa Rica and Panama. If you have arrived at the border at 2:00 p.m. Costa Rican time, it is 3:00 p.m. Panamanian time. You still have plenty of time to catch your water taxi.
  • It takes about 45 minutes to drive direct from the border to Almirante, and about an extra 20 or 30 minutes to go via Changuinola. (Not including any time you may spend waiting for a bus.)

The conclusion? Jump on if your bus was late and you are worried about making it to the islands. You don’t want to spend a night in any of these towns, really, on the mainland. It’s worth it for the extra $5 – $10.

Do not spend more than $5 per person if you want to get the collectivo from the border, unless you are really running late. Just wait it out, and the prices should drop lower and lower. Four of us ended up getting offered the ride for $3 a person, which I think is rare: I’m pretty sure they just needed to get back and thought they’d make a few bucks on the way.

The bus driver will more likely than not be on the “side” of the collective drivers. You have already paid the full fare to Changuinola so it matters little to him how you get there, and it appears they have a healthy working relationship with one another.

If you are on a shuttle or in a taxi, they will drop you directly at the wharf. We went over with Taxi 25 for $6 per person. You will arrive on Isla Colon, the main island of the Bocas del Toro archipelago. From here, you have the option to stay on the main island or travel out to one of the other islands in the archipelago. We opted to stay on Isla Colon, at the lovely Hostal Heike, for a few nights. Bienvenidos a Panama!

Bocas Taxi

Bocas Taxi

And finally, for the budget numbers of Costa Rica. You’ll hear up and down Central America that Costa Rica will rob you of your money, and this is quite likely to be true. There are just a lot of activities to do in the country, and the vast majority of them require you pay for them. Everything from park fees ($10 a pop, plus) to accommodation to camping is more expensive, but we managed to not blow out our budget too badly in Costa Rica.

Days in Costa Rica: 10
Total USD Spent:
$452
Approximate Daily Average (USD):
$45

Bliss on Little Corn Island

There’s a place that will steal your heart. It certainly did mine. I would say it kept my soul, as well, but I think maybe it was already there.

Paradise

Little Corn Island is, unquestionably, a slice of paradise. It encompasses the attractive melding so common on the Caribbean Coast of Central America, a mix of Afro-Caribbean and Spanish descendants. You’re never sure whether to greet someone with “hola” or “hello”, and too often the thick Caribbean accents make you unsure of what is being said anyways. Coconut milk, oil, or water feature in almost every dish on the island. There are no cars; the only engines exist in the boats docked offshore, always at the ready to take curious tourists out for snorkelling or diving excursions. Most power is shut off during the day, and comes on only as the sun sets; it shuts off again at some point before sunrise. And the beauty of the whole thing is that you don’t need it. You don’t need a car or a motorbike to get around, and when the waves are muffled by the thick growth of palms, once you are a few metres from the beach, there is a quiet unheard in much of Central America. The power? You realize how little you need it – the restaurants have power throughout the day to keep things cool and prepare food. As a tourist on a beautiful Caribbean island? This literal disconnect only makes it easier to relax and embrace the beauty and the vibe of the place you have come to. (As a write this, the laptop is showing an angry red bar and 12% battery. It’s our last day on the island, and I will have no access to power until we fly back to Managua. Plans of sorting through photos and finishing blog posts will have to be put on hold. Ahh, the beauty of it. 11%.)

Boats

Little Corn has next to none of airs often associated with idyllic Caribbean destinations. This is mainly because it’s simply not a luxury destination, and it’s also not particularly easy to get to. No cruise ships can dock here, there are no charter flights to the area, it doesn’t have an airport, and I think there’s one place on the island you can spend a couple of hundred dollars a night – if you like – but the vast majority of the accommodation sits in the $20 – $50 / night range. To get to Little Corn Island, one must begin their journey in Managua and take a small, La Costeña flight to Big Corn (often stopping in the town of Bluefields on the way). From Big Corn, it’s a rather long and hot walk, or a $1/person taxi ride to the muelle, or dock, where a twice-daily ferry leaves for Little Corn Island. The crossing can be a bit bumpy, and there’s a chance your things will get soaked, though most of them are stored in a hold at the stern of the crowded boat. The boat takes about an hour, and will deposit you at the dock on the west side of Little Corn. Here, if you’ve booked a room at some of the hotels offering “pick-ups,” a dude with a strong Caribbean accent will toss your bags into a wheelbarrow and head off on foot towards your destination. The village offers several accommodation options at a range of price points. The east side of the island, easily accessible by a few different tracks, has a line of beach bungalows and cabins that sit right on the beach. This is where we stayed. The north side of the island is a bit more of a trek (about 20 or so minutes from the edge of town) and offers a few of the nicest places to stay, as well as the nicest stretch of beach. The flight costs $165 round-trip. There is also an option to travel overland (and water) by bus and boat, which takes a couple of days and will run approximately $40 each way, including transport and accommodation.

Fly

Grace's

The days were filled with what days are filled with when you’re on an island such as this: sun, swimming, spending the better part of an afternoon fetching and breaking open coconuts, eating, drinking, reading in hammocks, sleeping in hammocks, dealing with obnoxious parrots, wandering beaches, killing mosquitos, etc., etc. And it all sounds lovely, yes, but perhaps not entirely unique or extraordinary. And it probably isn’t. But this island has such an amazing feeling to it, from the soft sand underfoot, to the reggae music, to the fresh sea breeze, to the delicious food, to the ever-present smile on most peoples’ faces…. For such a small place, it seems remarkably uncrowded – doubtless the lack of vehicles contributes to this relaxed feeling. You can walk along the seaweed-strewn beaches, for example, of the eastern side of the island for a solid half hour at any given time of day, and not see another soul. Save for perhaps a kite surfer skimming along the water. Despite constant shortages of supply, the food is remarkably good, with a focus on fresh seafood (lobster, when in season) and the ever-present coconut. Wandering through the village in the day, the smell of baking coconut wafts through the air, as it forms the pillowy, delicious loaves of coconut bread that make their way onto every breakfast plate. (Coconut bread French toast. Amazing.) The diving and snorkelling around Little Corn is meant to be quite good, with a fair amount of bigger-ticket marine life making regular appearances, such as rays and nurse sharks. We didn’t partake in either, but had friends who did and quite enjoyed their experiences.

Our neighbourhood parrot.

Fetching coconuts.

Coconuts

Enjoying said coconuts.

Lobster Traps

The Dream

As I wandered around on our final morning, taking snapshots of things I’d been admiring for days yet hadn’t yet captured, I felt such a longing to stay. The only things preventing me from ringing up our airline to try to change our tickets was the imminent arrival (as in tomorrow) of two of my very dearest and nearest friends in Costa Rica.

The upscale dream.

Beauty

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

So for now, it was adios to my little slice of paradise.

These are the places you hope to find, when you do something like this.

 

Ometepe & Volcán Maderas

So, we knew we wanted to leave San Juan, but we were running into one little problem. We were halfway into Semana Santa, or Holy Week, a massive holiday in most Latin countries. I’d been living in Sevilla, Spain for Semana Santa a few years ago, and the entire city essentially shut down as it hosts some of the most serious and elaborate events and processions in the world. In San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, Semana Santa means something completely different.

It is one of the most popular destinations for domestic travel, but any of the religious and traditional undertones of the week seem entirely absent. As the rum and beer trucks rolled into town and stages were constructed for beachfront concerts, it began to (further) contribute to the party atmosphere in the air. Apparently Semana Santa in San Juan is an excuse for a long weekend (Thursday through Sunday) of complete debauchery, with increased rates of obnoxious drinking, illicit drugs, and crime. The more stories I heard about the beach town over the course of my week there, the more I wanted to leave. It was tricky, as the pumping music in beachside bars and the throngs of people made it seem a bit appealing, but the gist of what we got was it’s basically a mess and we were better off escaping.

Okay, but to where? A national holiday means, of course, that all of the popular holiday destinations tend to be booked up well in advance and/or the prices skyrocket. We decided we’d like to go to the Corn Islands, off of the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. Little Corn sounds like a slice of Caribbean paradise and, though I’m sure I’ll get my fill on this trip, still made the wish list. Unfortunately, when we went to book the flight we’d inquired about the previous day, it had been entirely booked up (for four days) due, of course, to the holiday weekend.

We returned to our original plan, which we had altered due to the seismic activity. We decided to visit Ometepe, an island in Lake Nicaragua, which happens to be home to two large volcanoes. We asked around, kept an eye on the news, and decided that we should be reasonably secure on the island, despite the earthquakes shaking ground around Managua.

We got an early start in San Juan and hopped on an express minibus that took us to Rivas for 20 cordobas each. In Rivas, we flagged a taxi that took us the remaining distance to the lake edge, the ferry terminal in San Jorge, for 125 C total. There, we had the good luck to arrive shortly before the departure of the 7 a.m. ferry, which cost us 50 C each. There are ferries and lanchas that make the crossing from San Jorge to Ometepe (arriving in either Moyogalpa or San José del Sur). The crossing can be rough, and the lanchas aren’t known for their steady crossings, but they certainly offer a slightly more exciting experience than the ferries. In Moyogalpa, we jumped on a bus headed to Altragracia (16 C), where we then transferred for one that would take us to our destination, Zopilote (17 C). There are buses in Moyogalpa that will take you all of the way to Balgüe and will drop you off anywhere along the way, but they leave much less frequently. This had been one of our most hassle-free travel days to date, as there were little mistakes or long wait times, and we arrived in Zopilote feeling good, if a bit tired from the 5:30 a.m. start.

Ometepe

We hadn’t been able to make a reservation, as Zopilote, as well as many of the other accommodation options on the island, don’t accept them except for long-term stays. As we planned to camp, this luckily didn’t turn out to be an issue. Zopilote is a working finca, or farm, and produces the majority of the food on offer at the restaurant. It’s a beautiful, sprawling, permaculture design that is integrated exceptionally well into the hillside with lush Volcán Maderas rising in the distance. From a vantage point, one can see the vastness of Lake Nicaragua stretching out into the distance, with no shoreline visible. While on the island, it certainly feels more like you are alongside the sea rather than a lake.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Zopilote is a pretty solid budget option, with camping and hammocks running $3 per person, and dorms about $5. Meals cost $2.50 for a basic veggie tipicá option and up to $9 for the (rather miss-able) lasagne. It is chockers full of the hippiest breed of travellers, and it caters to them. A re-purposed school bus at the entrance boasts a wide selection of hippie goodies and exchangeable books, there are free yoga sessions on offer in the mornings, and thrice-weekly pizza nights attract guests from miles around.

Ometepe has a lot on offer, and we only sampled a sprinkling of it in our five days there. Many accommodation options hire out bikes, motorcycles, and horses for reasonable rates ($5/day for a bike, $25 for a motorcycle), which aid in exploration of the island. There are two volcanoes on Ometepe, Conceptión and Maderas. Volcán Conceptión, still active, is the monster of the two and is located on the north side of the island, close to the main docking point of Moyogalpa. We stayed on the south side of the island, close to Volcán Maderas.

One of our days involved hiring bicycles and exploring a little ways back the way we had come. Our main destination was El Ojo de Agua, a recommended natural mineral pool. I was envisioning small, natural stone pools hidden away in the trees. When we arrived, paid our $3 entry, and entered the small park, however, we were greeted by the masses. El Ojo de Agua is essentially a large swimming pool that harnesses the flowing mineral waters. Water is constantly streaming in and out, and the natural bottom does make for a rather earthy feel. I don’t know if it is because we were visiting on Semana Santa weekend or whether it always so busy (I’m guessing the former), but the place was packed. Families clearly came and camped out for the day, toting picnic lunches, inflatable water mattresses, and ­– in the kids’ cases – endless energy for cannonballing into the pool. We had a great time playing around for a bit, even when the back of Tim’s head accidentally cracked directly into my nose. After checking several times to make sure that my nose hadn’t actually broken, we tracked down some ice and spent some time just watching it all unfold.

El Ojo de Agua

On the way back, we stopped for lunch along Playa Santa Domingo, Ometepe’s most popular beach. It’s windswept and has a few too many beached fish, but the rising hills and long expanse of sand that plays host to pick-up football games is a lovely place to spend a few hours.

Our other main activity during our time on the island was to scale Volcán Maderas. Guides can be hired for $20-25 total for a couple of people or, for a larger group, $10 per person. We spoke with Tao, a French guy who had basically been making it a mission to scale as many volcanoes as possible down the Pacific line of Central America. He said it was easy enough to climb Maderas without a guide, directly from Zopilote. (Go up to the second Mirador, turn left through the boulders, hop over the fence, turn left, and follow the path. You will reach a house where you need to pay $1 entrance per person. Veer left through banana fields, and then keep going up.)

We left at about 8 a.m., which we thought was a bit late but actually ended up being perfect. As we did it as a day hike, we (ahem, Tim) carried only water (3L each was plenty), a camera, and lunch. This was a welcome break to the overnight camping hikes we’d been doing. I was gloriously pack free! It took us a bit shy of 3.5 hours to reach the top. There is a fair amount of up and down along the track, and we questioned a couple of times if we were going in the right direction; it felt as though we were circling round the crater rather than climbing up to it. Finally, we reached a peak and then started descending (again, questioning, but yes, this is the right way). We reached the base of the crater wall and the slightly murky, greenish lake that now rests in the dormant volcano’s crater greeted us. We stopped for a picnic alongside a couple of other groups, and the heavy cloud cover clearing moments after we arrived. We then set off and explored the opposite side of the crater (there’s a path through the trees there that Tim discovered seems to take you down the opposite side of the volcano along a very sketchy path, though it does happen to be littered with howler monkeys), and finally followed another group up an alternate exit. From the point where you arrive in the crater, take the path slightly to the right that is beside a large wooden bench (looking at the bench, it’s the path to the left). This steep, scrambley path took us up to a vantage point with amazing views of the crater and the lake. The air was a bit hazy beyond the volcano, and there was no definitive horizon. The lake sitting in the crater, with only blue sky visible beyond, gave the impression of sitting at the end of the world, or upon some floating mountain, the ground too far below to see

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

I’d had some apprehensions, as I noted the terrain that we were crossing, on the way up about the ease of coming back down. My knees have always been a bit less than average, and the semi-recent smashing my right knee got in Australia hasn’t helped. Already twinging on the way up, it wasn’t long before my knees had a deep, burning pain shooting through them with every step I took on the way down. Tim tirelessly found and shaped sticks for me to use as walking poles, which I then proceeded to break at least five of. Finally, we had traversed the worst of it, and had only about 45 minutes of gentle decline left before we were home, where my plans included a thorough shower and some ice for my knees. Turns out the ice was not to be had, so I settled for rum instead. We had a nice, final dinner at Zopilote and planned to head out the following day.

Almost home at the end of the gruelling hike down.

Almost home at the end of the gruelling hike down.

I haven’t been home in Canada for about a year and a half, and have not seen any of my close friends from home since then, or even earlier. Grand hopes of Central American reunions are happily coming true, and three friends are coming down to meet Tim and I in Costa Rica. With their dates confirmed for the 28th of April, we decided we had just enough time to squeeze in a trip to the Corn Islands off of the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. The Corn Islands are somewhere we’d been tossing up going, the major debateable factor the $165 cost of the round trip airline ticket to get there. (Or, alternatively, about two days and $40 each way to do it overland.) Finally, we decided that as we’d want to visit someday, it only made sense to do it now, as we’re a lot closer than we’ll be again for a long time. With that decided, we made some last minute phone calls to La Costeña to book flights for the following day, and to Nicaragua Guest House hostel in Managua to confirm a room and the ability to store luggage, and began to the trek back north to Managua.

We caught buses back to Moyogalpa on Ometepe, and proceeded to wait about two and a half hours for a ferry. We’d just missed the 12:30 one, and both of the schedules we had consulted with ferry times appeared to be incorrect, as the next lancha didn’t leave until 3 p.m. (despite promises of 1 and 2 p.m. ferries). Once we got on the lancha, it was about 75 minutes to the mainland, with a fair amount of slightly unsettling rocking. From the port at San Jorge, we got on the waiting express bus to Managua (80 C each), took a taxi to our nearby accommodation (125 C total) and were greeted by the friendly proprietor of Nicaragua Guest House, who welcomed us with cold bottled water, showed us where to keep our bags, and called us a taxi for the ungodly hour of 4:30 in the morning. Next stop, the Corn Islands!

Photo Credit: Tim Binks Where your blog posts are coming from (and why they're late). Trying to get close to the wifi at the top of a tower in Zopilote.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks
Where your blog posts are coming from (and why they’re late). Trying to get close to the wifi at the top of a tower in Zopilote.

 

A Day in the Life of a Student

Somehow my week of student life seemed to disappear, even as the days seemed long.

Tim and I had a few (too many) mojitos the night before I was to begin class and he was to take off for his surf beach. At 2 for 1 for 50 cordobas ($2) mojito happy hour, how could this realistically not happen? (I know you can probably do the math on that, but that’s $1 for a mojito. How much did you pay for your last mojito? And they aren’t even made with bad rum. Nicaragua’s national rum, which then equals house rum, is the delicious and excellent Flor de Caña, of which I will most certainly be smuggling several bottles into Costa Rica [just in case they have some weird vendetta against Nicaraguan rum and you can’t get it there] and then also to Canada [provided I can get it at duty free in Brazil]. Tell me you aren’t looking at flights to Nicaragua right now…)

Anyways, there was an evening of rum and mint and lime, dancing to an excellent blues band at Big Wave Dave’s, meeting a handful of random middle-aged Canadians from Saskatchewan, and not nearly enough sleep before I woke up to begin my serious life as a student. I will tell you this now: 4 hours of intensive Spanish study hung-over is no fun. No fun at all.

My teacher was a heavy-set woman named Flor, who had one of the trademark voices of Latin American women. A voice that has, somehow, genetically evolved to be able to yell out “pan de coco” or “hay tortilla” consistently for hours on end without losing intensity or volume. If one’s profession doesn’t require it, it does not mean it doesn’t exist, it simply may most often be employed to get a friend’s attention or haggle with merchants in the market. I heard it in true form as Flor yelled after the agua de coco guy as he pushed his cart down the street. Booming is the wrong word, but it’s close.

She dove right in, and my mind felt like it was alternately contracting into a tiny ball, reminiscent of a ball of elastic bands, and then exploding as I tried to process, comprehend, and regurgitate all of the information being flung at me. I will do my best not to rant on about the difficulties of trying to learn a language, but I will tell you this: Flor has what she refers to as her Bible, which is a book, several hundred pages long, with the hateful title 501 Spanish Verbs. Unlike in English (but similar to French and Italian), the verbs themselves change in Spanish – what is known as conjugating verbs. In Spanish, there are six different subjects/ways to conjugate each verb. Latin America (vs. Spain) uses five of them (for me, you, he/her, our, their). Then there are 14 tenses that require different conjugations for all of these subjects. Math again? 501 verbs x 5 subjects x 14 tenses? Just over 35,000 verb conjugations in Flor’s hateful book. And that’s just the verbs. Of course, you start off learning one tense (present) and move on to the next (past) and in theory, on to the next. I didn’t get past past.

The Devil's Bible

So, a day in my life this week? Wake up around 7 a.m. and make my presence known to my host family, who seem to take awhile to get breakfast going in the morning. Eat a standard meal – gallo pinto (rice and beans mixed together), eggs, a bit of bread, and coffee. Head to class, less than a 10-minute walk through town away, and arrive for an 8 a.m. start. Sit down with Flor and learn verbs, practice conjugations, write stories, etc. for two hours before a 10 a.m. break, during which I’d pop over to the café next door to alternately have a smoothie or simply lurk outside and steal wifi. Back to class, where it was conversation time. Two hours of struggling through basic Spanish conversation, asking as many questions as my battered mind could come up with, and trying to articulate answers to questions I was being asked. This was the hardest but most interesting part, as I got a little peak into Nicaraguan life. Flor and I chatted (and I use that term loosely) about our lives, Semana Santa, divorce, the environment, drugs, contraception, healthcare, kids, travel, gender roles, food … After class, I returned home for lunch (generally along the lines of gallo pinto, chicken, plantains) and spent a while just relaxing. I read a lot, watched a lot of movies, wrote a lot. Once the heat backed off a bit, I’d wander down to the beach and stroll up and down, waiting to catch the sunset. One afternoon I went to salsa lessons – great fun! Then it was dinner (gallo pinto – see a theme? – tacos or meat or eggs, salad), and the day was done. A couple of evenings I met up with some friends for a few drinks; my favourite bar being The Loose Moose Canadian Bar. This tiny, friendly bar has in stock everything a travelling Canadian may be craving. Namely: Caesars, poutine,* and sushi. I unfortunately broke down and gave into my cravings on Sunday, only to find out that they were closing that afternoon for the entirety of Semana Santa and I would get to eat neither sushi nor poutine for God knows how long to come. I know you’ll appreciate how shattering this was.

And that was San Juan del Sur. Oh, except for the earthquakes.

So, I’ve learnt that the capital city, Managua, is built at the intersection of five major fault lines. If that ain’t poor city planning, I’m not sure what is. And remember all of those volcanoes I was talking about? Yeah, there’s basically a line of them down the pacific side of Nicaragua. In not as many days, three major earthquakes, and dozens of aftershocks and small quakes, shook Nicaragua. Various scholars and experts fear that this seismic activity could awaken (a) Momotombo Volcano, close to Managua and/or (b) the chain of volcanoes throughout Nicaragua. Obviously, both of these scenarios are incredibly frightening. One of the quakes struck near Rivas, which is only about 30 minutes from San Juan, and the majority of San Juan felt the tremor.

It felt as though the bed I was sitting on had turned into a washing machine and I literally looked around for some kind of huge appliance that could be making it happen. I’d never felt such a thing before. I caught the eye of my host mother through my open bedroom window, and her look of reserved fear made it click for me: earthquake. I shot up and left the room. The rest of the family was congregating in the front drive, but I followed the young girl in the pink shirt who, with a look of terror on her face, had darted back inside. I found her cowering in the doorway of a closet, crying. I stood there with her for a moment, to be sure the tremor had stopped, and then walked her outside to join the rest of the family. “My first time.” I told them, and they looked surprised. I took a moment to be thankful that where I grew up in Canada, though perhaps lacking the dramatic skyline of volcano-rich countries, had little to be worried about in the sense of natural disasters. Tornadoes (which is met with a resounding “Cool!” when mentioned abroad) is about as bad as it gets. And, at home, they are small and tend to cause little damage and less loss of life. The country and the people of Nicaragua are on high alert as they wait for any further activity.

And pretty much with that, it was time to leave San Juan del Sur.

* For my Canadian friends, I don’t have to ask – I know you appreciate the glory of poutine. For everyone who is wondering what the hell I am talking about, poutine is basically the only food, aside from maple syrup, that Canada can claim as its own. Basically, poutine is an outstanding invention from the French Canadians that consists of French fries (chips), covered in a special type of cheese called cheese curds (entirely delicious despite the weird-sounding name) and then smothered with gravy. No! I know what you’re going to say – “Yeah, we have that too, it’s called chips, cheese and gravy.” – You’re wrong. Describing poutine as chips, cheese, and gravy is akin to describing pizza as dough, sauce, and cheese. Technically, yes, those are the ingredients, but it somehow manages to become much, much more than the sum of those products. So unless you’ve had proper poutine, with cheese curds, in Canada, you will simply not understand.

San Juan Surf

We left Hotel Chancletas early, to catch the last bus leaving the town of Asseradores that bizarrely leaves at 6:50 a.m. This was one of the most friendly and lively chicken buses we’d been on, as it was full of market-goers from a small town of people who all knew one another. We took the bus first to Chinandega, where we took a taxi to the other terminal, and finally an express bus to Managua. The difference between an ordinary and express bus, as far as I can tell, is mainly the price. Express buses cost more, and as a function of this, they attract less people. This then makes for less frequent stops and quicker journeys. They also take fewer detours into smaller towns. This express bus to Managua was well worth the extra 20 or so cordoba. In Managua, we took a taxi from our terminal of arrival to the terminal we needed to depart from, Huembles. We then knew we needed to jump on one of the infrequent direct buses to San Juan del Sur, or get any bus to Rivas and get to SJDS from there. I wandered around asking a number of people about a bus to San Juan del Sur, and when two men pointed to a bus that was pulling out, I hesitated briefly. I then decided to go with what they were telling me, and rushed back to Tim to get our bags and load up onto the bus in a hurry. I knew Tim hated rushing around the buses like that, for good reason, as it much more likely to get scammed/robbed/taken advantage of when trying to run around. I asked a guy sitting next to us if the bus was heading all of the way to San Juan or only to Rivas, and learnt that it was indeed only heading as far as Rivas. I knew I’d made a bad call, as we could have found an express bus to Rivas or potentially San Juan, or at least not needed to rush, but we ended up getting there without any dramas and finding another bus to take us the remaining 40 minutes or so to the beach. We arrived in San Juan del Sur pretty tired after a long day of travelling, and set off to find somewhere to sleep.

Chicken Bus

The town doesn’t come cheap, with most private rooms being offered at 20 USD or more, and dorms not offering significant savings when the room is split between two. Finally, we found Hospedaje Soya, a small and rather average place, offering us a room for 16 USD. We took it, as we knew that we’d likely be moving out soon anyways. The place was fine – save for a couple of hours spent hunting mosquitos – and offered a central base from which to explore the small town.

San Juan

Our initial impressions were mixed. It’s a sweet town, it’s on the beach, and there seemed to be lots of funky shops and restaurants. There also seemed to be an excessive amount of tourists bordering on obnoxious, who had clearly come here strictly to party, all day and every day. Nevertheless, I knew that if I didn’t make a commitment to study Spanish somewhere soon, I wouldn’t end up doing it on this trip. And I desperately needed some instruction. I wandered around to a couple of Spanish schools and found one, located in the Cultural Centre beside Hotel Esperanza, just opposite the beach, that seemed like it would work for me. It was offering 20 hours of class and a week of accommodation (including 3 meals a day) with a homestay family for 195 USD. This is a bit cheaper than most of the competition in town, and the local vibe of the cultural centre put me at ease. I signed up to start the following day. We were, however, not too far away from Semana Santa, a massive holiday in most Latin countries. I was told that as of Thursday, travel would be difficult and most places to stay would be booked. I figured we should leave on Wednesday, to avoid too many problems on the road. San Juan del Sur is a huge destination for domestic travel, and the majority of what I’ve heard makes it sound like somewhere I wouldn’t want to be during that particular weekend. I ended up signing up for the 20 hours of lessons and 6 nights accommodation (at the slightly discounted price of 180 USD), and I was to start the following day.

Tim, meanwhile, was organizing a trip to Playa Hermosa, a short way down the coast, where he hoped to catch some good waves. It was going to be a weird experience spending even a few days apart, as we’d basically been joined at the hip for the last few months. Nevertheless, I thought it would be good, and knew it would help me concentrate a bit more on Spanish.

I Never Thought I’d Find a Beach I Didn’t Love.

After sweating it out up and down volcanoes and along the colonial streets of León, we headed back out towards the coast. Tim had found an area he wanted to surf, Playa Asseradores. The beach is famous for The Boom, one of the better-known waves in Nicaragua. We booked a couple of nights at Hotel Chancletas, one of the few options for accommodation along the beach. The area is also home to a number of surf camps that offer packages in the neighbourhood of 1500 USD a week. A good friend of ours spent some time at Rise Up and it comes highly recommended.

It took us the better part of a day to get to Asseradores, but it could have been significantly quicker if we hadn’t missed one of our buses. From the León bus station, take any bus headed toward Chinandega. Here, you arrive at the main bus terminal, and you will need to transfer to the mercadito area. Ask for buses headed to Asseradores. The taxi drivers and locals should point you in the right direction. There are buses leaving for Asseradores at 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. The first bus came and went and, even with several surrounding locals knowing where we were headed, we managed to miss it as it said the name of a different town, as opposed to Asseradores. When we’d realized our mistake, we took a bus the short distance to El Viejo, a smaller centre, where we waited until 3 p.m. for the next bus to the playa. We arrived at the gates of Chancletas at around 4:30, where we were let in and a truck from the hotel came to collect us. Chancletas operates on a tab system during your stay, so our $25/night room as well as all of our food and drinks would be charged and then paid for at the end. The food at the hotel was great, if a bit pricey for the budget backpacker. Breakfasts were around 6, lunches 6-8, and dinners 8-10 USD.

Shortly upon arriving, we met a crew of Americans who were down for a two-week long surf trip. They’d all spent a lot of time in British Colombia, Canada, and were able to offer some great advice, more importantly, and get us psyched for our pending move to that area at the end of our trip. Tim had a great time surfing with them and I enjoyed the easy banter over meals and in hammocks. A trip to Seattle is definitely on the horizon, I think.

Surfboards

Tim loved the surf, but for me Asseradores was distinctly average. It felt like we were paying a lot to be there and better times had been had in cheaper locations, such as El Tunco in El Salvador. If you are going to surf, I think it’s an awesome destination. If you are going just to go (which not many people do) I’d recommend skipping it. There’s really not much on offer other than the surf. I tried to throw more energy into yoga, which felt nice, but there was just something missing for me. There’s not much of a town, and what is there doesn’t have much of a vibe. It’s basically a lot of time spent hanging out at the hotel or on the beach in front of crashing waves that make it tricky to swim. Quite likely, the four or five months of budget-minded travel were catching up with me, and I just needed to chill out a bit as well. Still, the brown-sugar beach that becomes a soft, fiery highway in the mid-day sun is a beautiful spot, and sunset walks to a more swimmable beach made for enjoyable outings. We met a handful of really great people there, and many of them felt Chancletas and the area had something special going on. It was many people’s return trip to the hotel. The biggest factor is the surf, and the lack of love for it on my part. I was looking forward to the next part of the trip, where I planned to take a week of Spanish classes in another beach-side town, San Juan del Sur.

Boom