Tag Archives: Central America

Panama

Shannon arrived later that afternoon from Honduras, and her, Pinky & I spent the rest of the day giggling like a gaggle of teenagers. I can’t tell you how sweet it was to hang out with these two beau’ful people again.

We’d only met two months ago in Ometepe, but you form strangely close bonds with some people you meet on the road. You’ll piss yourself laughing with them like you’ve known each other forever. You’ll share your history with them as though they were your new best friend. You’ll heap shit on each other as though you were family. Both Pinky & Shannon were my kind of people. Gregarious, interested, and good humoured.

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We were staying in Casco Viejo, the old falling down part of town which clashes synergistically with the shiny skyscrapers uptown … we spent many hours walking around on uneven streets, poking around in dilapidated buildings, and photographing cool & quirky graf. I really liked Panama City. It’s a very visually stimulating city. And the people are a truly interesting blend of many different cultures. I loved standing in line at the supermarket wedged between little Kuna ladies in their traditional dress and a giant Caribbean man.

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One morning, the three of us visited the Museum of Contemporary Art which is small but definitely worthwhile if you have a couple of spare hours on your hand. Afterwards Shannon & I went and saw the Canal. I’m not sure what I was expecting but to perfectly honest I wasn’t all that impressed.

Look, it was big. And I can see how it’s an ‘engineering marvel’. But watching the Queen Elizabeth (the cruise liner, not the monarch) move through it was a little bit like watching paint dry. We watched the toy tug trains guide the massive cruise liner along the canal. We watched the water drain rapidly from an upper section of the canal into a lower section of the canal. And then we watched the cruise liner ‘sink’ into it.

Riveting. Stuff.

Fortunately there was a little bit of comical relief. We watched from the grandstand and every so often, after some particularly ‘inspiring’ commentary about the Canal and its history – the largely large American crowd would erupt spontaneously into applause. Sending Shannon & I into fits of giggles. Had it not been for her, I think I would have been scraping out the inside of my eyeballs with a toothpick.

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Though English and American respectively – Pinky  and Shannon, inspired by this brilliant piece of YouTube satire, decided to get their bogan on & help me celebrate Australia Day on Wednesday night with lots of drinking & shouting.

Shannon came up with the great idea of modifying a piñata so it resembled a VB can. I diligently went about reproducing the famous logo whilst consuming ½ a dozen of Panama’s finest local brew, the Balboa. Shannon hauled that thing around all night, god bless her.

On the ill-advice of a couple of other Aussies we had met – we found ourselves in a completely empty Irish bar that didn’t sell Guinness or Jamesons: Go figure. We had a shot of tequila and left.

We got lost on our way out & found ourselves in a cinema complex where I spotted a ‘los Muppets’ poster that I simply had to have. The only problem was I didn’t spot a Little Security Guard who was skulking around waiting for his moment of glory. He scampered off to get the Big Security Guard – who would presumably deal with me appropriately. Poor Little Security Guard looked absolutely crestfallen when the Big Security Guard took an instant liking to me, and ended up posing for a photograph with said poster & me. ManananUp.

At the end of the night, we eventually found a place which would let us hang up the piñata for a good old whack. There is a great photo of me doing my best Lucy Lui in Kill Bill impersonation but I think it was Pinky who took out the honours in the end. Happy Straya Day.

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We spent a lot of time trying to organise a boat to take us to Colombia via the San Blas Islands which was a lot harder than it needed to be. There are a lot of uninformed, disorganised and just generally useless ‘travel agents’ representing the various boats / captains who take travellers on this route. Definitely a business opportunity there for someone willing to act as a go-between and aggregate all the information on one user friendly website.

We had somehow managed to get ourselves invited to the re-launch of a sweet lil artsy bistro where musicians and free hors d’oeuvres were circling all night. We did a bit of bar hopping that night and ended up losing each other in a cool pop-up bar underneath an old stone archway. We all got very left-handed that night. Lots of thigh-slapping. Lots of silly photos. Lots of fun.

We eventually booked a boat that was due to depart on the 1st of February. But we had also met a petit lil Austrian by the name of Constance and agreed to try & change our plans so we could join her on a boat she was organising due out on the 29th.

So we spent the 28th legging it (complete with regulation hangovers) to Portabello via Colon. Poor old Pinky was in a right state. Chicken buses are not your friend when you’re feeling unwell.

We arrived into Portabello as the sun was setting. We checked into a cool lil dig with views of the harbour, a place called Captain Jack’s – the namesake of a salty ole seadog. Jack was maybe in his 60s and wore his long greying hair in a ponytail & somehow managed to get away with it. He had a weathered but gentle face and an easygoing nature. I liked the man instantly. He had literally travelled the seven seas and had a trove of tall tales to share. Jack told me about a place called the Cocos Keeling islands which has now been added to my Travel Wish List.

Constance’s boat fell through, so she and a pair of really sound English brothers by the name of Marcus and Guy decided they would hop on ours. We would be joining a group of four crazy assed Dutch boys. One kooky German (are there any other type?) and a serious looking Swiss would complete our crew.

There was very little to do or see in Portabello (apart from some expensive excursions to surrounding islands). So we spent the next 3 days getting to know our fellow passengers. Everyone apart from the German & the Swiss blokes were in their early – mid 20s. And they all liked to party. Hard. It seemed unlikely I was going to sleep until we got to Colombia. (And in all likelihood probably not then, either.)

Pinky, Shannon and I, while preparing in Panama, had acquired ourselves alter egos and more critically, boating attire.

Captain Pinky Pants would be wearing his pretty little hotpants and a Captain’s cap I insisted he buy. Seaman Scartits and my good self (First Mate Vaginamite) would be wearing some fetching wigs in a nuclear orange and a ladyboy purple, with some glittery Elton John-esque sunnies in the shape of cocktail glasses, topped off with some truly sexy Panamanian souvenir fans.

Over the course of the next few days, we bonded with and gave our fellow passengers names also: Longstance Silver (Constance), Stickygangwanker (Guy), Roger the Cabin Boy (Marcus), Major Hornypants (Rick), Swaffel-buster (Jim), Rapey Kiss (Michiel), iPhone (Melvin), Gayscale (Nials) and Bendover (Benjamin).

At the eleventh hour, the original captain of our boat fell so ill, she decided she couldn’t do the job. Captain Jack went on a manic mission to find us another crew in under a day, which is no mean feat. Another female Captain and her husband who was her First Mate came to our rescue.

We met Debbie and Wayne on the afternoon of the 31st and our hearts sank a little when they informed us our departure would be postponed until the 2nd. She needed to take Ilean out for a test drive. She wanted to get to know the boat and any little quirks she might have. It seemed fair enough, but we were all now super keen to get south. I had originally thought I might get to Colombia by the end of July!

We saw Debbie and Wayne mid-morning the next day, and they said they were happy to get the boat packed up & have us stay on board that night for an early morning start the next day.

Colombia, here I come!

 

Up until Thursday 2 Feb

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(welcome to the) Hotel California

After another long day on the road, I arrived in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca all hot & sweaty. I fell straight off the bus into the nearest hostel. It was totally lacking in personality but it was cheap. And convenient.

I had a few happy hour beers, a feed & a jibber with the cute bartender at the local reggae bar. Later, back at the hostel I met a few fun Aussie lads who were leaving the next day & were playing a drinking game with dice called ‘Chase The Ace’. Yes: I know I’m probably too old for drinking games. No: I don’t give a rat’s. Shits & giggles!

The next day, I had a chat to the local dive operator (shit visibility & not really worth going out). Still, I quite liked the feel of this place so I decided I’d stay on for maybe a week anyway… party a bit, explore a bit, chill a bit.

I went to check out Rocking J’s – a hostel recommended by LP, but to be perfectly honest – it was just a big backpacker’s barn. At the bar, I ran into someone I had met on Little Corn. A nice enough Aussie who was (motorbike) riding from Canada to Argentina with a couple of mates. I made plans to come back later for beers and maybe dinner.

A group of us went to a beautiful Japanese restaurant which promised “edible art”. All you can eat sushi for $20. Expensive feed in Central America but I was super excited. Turns out, some of the best sushi I’ve had.

However the meal was almost ruined for me by two of Easy Rider’s yobbo mates. They got hammered, spent the whole time swearing like they were at a cage fight, and complaining really loudly about the food. They’d never had sushi before. They didn’t know how to use chopsticks. Which is fine. But they were just stupid ignorant fucks about it.

These were the sort of boys for whom Japan = snowboarding & pussy. And Central America = cocaine & pussy. And I don’t have a problem with that if it’s coupled with an open, inquisitive mind that wants to learn something about a different culture. But I don’t believe these imbeciles had the capacity for learning anything. To my mind – these are the sorts of Australians who shouldn’t be allowed passports. They give us a bad rep.

It made me miss Todd & Piers (the lovely smart Aussie men that Pinky brought to Little Corn with him). Anyways, needless to say I paid up quick & got the hell out of there as soon as dinner was over. I over-tipped by way of compensation.

The next day I went to look for a different hotel – having been subjected to listening to a couple having sex in our dorm. It just wasn’t worth saving a lousy $4. I wound up at the Hotel Puerto Viejo, on the recommendation of the dive shop owner.

Kurt the owner, was a quietly charismatic Californian. He was tall & fit with dark moppish hair and a strong jaw line (which I’m always a bit of a sucker for). He was aging well for a man in his early 50s. Think Richard Gere meets Kurt Russell.

Evidently, he’s the nephew of a pioneering big wave rider and has surfed Pipeline, himself. I asked him if he’d ever surfed in Australia. He told me when he was ready to die – he’d come & give Shipsterns Bluff a crack.

The place was teeming with half-naked men. Men waxing boards in the yard. Men rolling Jamaican goodness. Men getting into Jeeps to go ride the legendary Salsa Brava. A mix of Caribbean men, Ticos, and imports. All of them with those perfect surfer boy backs. And beautiful brown skin. Man that stuff is addictive. I felt like a kid in a candy store!

The rooms were pretty basic and a bit dark truth be told, but the place had a good ambience about it. And besides, a private room with a fan for $10 was a deal in this town.

I came back with my pack and watched in amusement as four men & a teenage boy tried to check me in. It was a shit show. I think largely because they so stoned (except the lil tacker). And probably because they had better things to do (see above).

Kurt told me he was one of the first foreign business owners in Puerto Viejo, having arrived some 24 years ago. He’d built the place himself. It was a huge rabbit warren of a place – 70 odd rooms cobbled together with lots of mismatching pieces of timber.

It amused me how he answered the phone with the almost arrogant, “Hotel”. As though he was the only one, still.

When he found out I was travelling solo, he reassured me they would take care of me there. And taken care of I was. Morning, noon & night 😉

Puerto Viejo reminded me a bit of Byron Bay 15 years ago. Just a whole lot blacker. And a whole lot cooler. Great waves. Perfect weather. Good reggae. I felt like I was on set of a TVC for an über cool beer.

One day, I hired a bicycletta & rode 15ks to Manzanillo on a nice flat road with the jungle rising up on one side and pretty beaches all the way on the other. I stopped for a swim at the picture perfect Punta Uva. A pretty lil cove with some amazing snorkelling.

I also took some surf lessons with a Rasta, who failed to get me up surfing, but did manage to put me on my arse with some seriously good hashish. Smoking is just a way of life here. People were wrapping up on the bar & smoking openly in the calle. I literally saw a bloke wave to a cop as he sparked up a spliff. Now you don’t see that everyday.

I would have stayed a lot longer had everything not been damn so expensive. And besides – Ometepe Shannon & I had transgressed from just chatting about meeting up with Pinky who was in Panama, to sail to Colombia – to actually making proper plans. Well, one of us made proper plans.

I left Puerto Viejo to catch a bus across the border in the vague hope I could buy a ticket for the plane trip from a one horse town called Changuinola to Panama City. Of course there were no more seats left. And so I ended up on a 10 hour overnight bus trip instead.

I arrived at 330am with no reservations for a room. I was lucky to get a decent taxi driver (not quite ready to take back everything I’ve ever said about taxi drivers yet though) who drove me around town to 4 different places before i found one that would stick me in a hammock until a bed became available. They made one up for me, and at 5 in the morning i crashed out absolutely filthy & absolutely spent.

By mid-morning, I had linked up with Pinky & was having the first beer of the day in a new country. Hello Panama!

A little less conversation, a little more action

So, I arrived in Playa Del Cocos, which is in the north of Costa Rica on the Pacific Coast, after a long day of travel and got clean. Like hot shower clean. And then I ambled down the main street to find some grub.

There were a shitload of rich retirees from the US, loads of tacky souvenir vendors on the street, and far too many burger / pizza / rib joints for my liking. I could tell straight away, this place was not for me. I discovered a lil ‘soda’ & hoovered a couple of tacos. I then wandered into a bar, managed to avert the attention of a couple of local men & caught up with a few friends online.

The next day was just gorgeous. 30-something degrees, a light breeze, and bugger all humidity. I booked myself in for a dive and got in a bit of beach time. The playa consists of fine volcanic sand and is the colour of chocolate – hence its name.

Sparkly yachts & cruisers bobbed around in a cove that was surrounded by arid yet majestic mountains. It reminded me a little of Greece or Turkey. It was clear to me this was quite different from most parts of Central America I had seen so far.

On Tuesday I went diving in the archipelago (isn’t that a great word?!) of the Catalina Islands.

Visibility wasn’t so great, maybe 10m (due mostly to the amount of plankton). The reefs were neither interesting or pretty. Sea temps were a lot colder than in the Caribbean (I had to wear a wettie for the first time since leaving home). And we had to deal with quite a bit of surge & current.

But Oh-My-God: the sealife was Simply Spectacular. On the way out, we saw dozens of jumping devil rays, we got a birds-eye view of a humpback whale & her calf. I also spotted two huge turtles bob bob bobbin along.

Underwater there were just schools & schools of oversized tropical fish. We saw snapper, yellowtail, angelfish, triggerfish, barracuda and a big assed spotted eagle ray as well as some massive southern rays. I also saw my first scorpionfish, a cornetfish & a Tiger snake eel which would have made my day right there. But then, it got better and entering  into a channel, we came up against five hooge white tipped reef sharks – no further than 2 or 3 metres away. Totally wicked shit. The stuff you live for when you dive. I surfaced, whooping for joy!

I celebrated with a couple of beers and a big big lunch. I later had a nap and then went to see the sun set from a dock down by the boulevard. I’d call that a good day.

The next day I made my way to Monteverde which ended up being quite the mission. Around 2 in the afternoon, I got dropped off on the highway in the middle of nowhere with the Spanish reassurance (I think) that this was the point where a connecting bus would pick me up.

There was a kiosk selling tired looking fried tacos, a random lotteria and a gas station, where a bunch of Costa Rican cowboys were waiting for a tourist to chop up into little pieces. There wasn’t quite tumbleweed blowing down the highway but there were certainly a lot of big dust gusts added for FX.

I asked at the kiosk and yes, there was definitely a connecting bus at 330. A few locals showed up and I checked with them and they all had different views on what time the bus for Monteverde would come, if at all.

At 430, I checked again with Kiosk Girl who acknowledged that there may not have been a 330 bus after all. But there was definitely a 530 bus.

I didn’t really have a Plan B and started to think about the time I fucked up reading Polish train timetables, and had to spend the night sleeping on a bench in an open train station in a small Baltic village in the middle of October. Note to self: Always have a Plan B (And, Yes I do realise this means I need a Plan A first.)

And then the 530 bus came. At 530!

A couple of hours later I was ensconced in a cozy hostel. I really liked it here. The township of Saint Elena reminded me a bit of Berrima: quiet & quaint. Lots of little coffee shops and art galleries all set against a dramatic green landscape in a crisp, cool clima. The hostel proffered nice vistas, soft lounges, freshly brewed coffee, and good company.

Monteverde is some 1,440m (4,660ft) above sea level and is famous for its cloud forests and rich biodiversity. A bit of googling & I learn there’s more than 100 types of mammals, 400 kinds of birds, tens of thousands of insect species, and over 2,500 varieties of plants (420 of which are orchids alone). I think that’s technically a fuck-load of nature.

Next afternoon, I went horse-riding for a few hours with a proper cowboy who had claimed to be in his mother’s belly when he first started riding. i should say here & now, I was never a pony kind of girl. I’ve only been riding a few times in my life. The last time I was on a horse, I was still a teenager. And I fell off.

Anyways, this was lovely. And largely incident-free. But I remember why I don’t ride horses. I could barely walk the next day.

So of course, not wanting to push myself too hard – I spent it doing sweet FA. Actually, that’s not true: I managed to fit in a manicure & pedicure. And, I am pleased to report my toes are an infection-free zone.

I went zip-lining the next morning. Apparently if you’re going to go zip-lining – Monteverde is the place to do it. I have to say, though, from the get-go – I was a bit iffy about the whole concept. Don’t get me wrong, I love my maximo – extremo – adrenalin-pumping activities as much as the next gal. It just reeked of tourist factory to me. Anyways, I kinda got talked into it by the chica at the front desk, and the next thing you know I’m getting harnessed up (and not in a sexy way), and flying el rapido down a series of 15 highly suspended cables, and of course (!) taking the optional Tarzan swing at the end. Look: It was a pretty cool way to see the cloud forest. And I think I enjoyed imagining I was a big-assed bird flying through the trees but I dunno … Maybe I woulda enjoyed it more if it was in or on or over the water. Anyways: Tick.

I think for me the highlight of Monteverde was a night walk I did through the noisy forest. There was lots of squawking, buzzing, clicking, scurrying & slithering.

In the space of just a couple of hours our guide showed us not one, but two, two-toed sloths; a bright green poisonous snake; an armadillo (Did you know that armadillos (and I think dolphins also) are among the few mammals that have sex in the missionary position?); and i saw my first Toucan Sam!

At one point, we stood in a clearing, switched off our flashlights, and just gazed at the stars. The sound of the wild winds whooshing through the forest sounded just like crashing waves to my ears.

But the best part was the bioluminescent mushrooms. Dunno ’bout you, but i’ve never seen such things! Our guide had us turn off our torches and these organisms start glowing a bright radioactive green in the night forest. How have I not known about this before?! Reckon Gav, Richard, Derek & I could have spent hours tripping out on that shit during our acid-taking days.

We were just about to get in the car and then our guide showed us a massive hairy nasty looking tarantula. The cynic in me suspected that said spider may have been on the payroll. Because it was way too close the office. And in an easily located hole. That the guide then coerced out with nothing more than a stick.

Cynicism aside – this was definitely the coolest thing I had done in Monteverde.

Sweet dreams

I was welcomed back to Little Morgan’s with wide open arms. It was a good feeling to come back to somewhere I’d been before, have new friends smile with recognition, and not have to go through The Standard Questions again (where are you from? how long you been on the road for? headed for central or south america? yadda yadda yadda

One of the reasons I came back to Little Morgan’s was because the girls who worked there were all leaving the following week and because Morgan had said if I came back, he’d throw me a party. Actually it might have been his sister who had said that. But same same.

I am luckyluckylucky to have a ridiculously good bunch of people back home who I call friends, who I would normally celebrate my birthday with. i knew I would be missing them all sorely. So I really liked the idea of partying in a trippy pretty place with loveable mad hatters I had already met and had shared some seriously fun times with. Morgan had to pick up his little boy on the day of my birthday, so we decided to have to the party on the Thursday night.

Before I had left the girls had decided it would be an 80s theme night. Back home this would be a simple trip to Vinnies on Hall St and the local $2 Shop. Bit harder to coordinate when you’re on a tiny island in the middle of a lake in Nicaragua. But I had miraculously found a party shop in Managua and had picked up a few bits & pieces including a couple of wigs. My wig-wearing friends back home would have been proud.

Just before things kicked off I jumped on the one computer they have there with dodgy internet connection and checked my emails. Because of the time difference, it was already my birthday back home so messages were beginning to filter through. The best of them though, almost brought me to my knees.

My besties Andrea and Scott had produced a 2 min Youtube photo collage of friends from all over the world holding up signs with “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CHELLE” or variations of (i particularly loved the “felic cumpleanos” by the Rollstons!) I started weeping as it commenced and was a blubbering mess by the end of it. The thought & energy that would have gone into making it happen. All the happy faces of people I love. I was floored that someone would do something like that for me. I felt a bit honoured and pretty fucking loved. Just the ticket when you’re miles away from those who know you, love you anyway, and make you laugh like a 5 year old.

My other birthday present was word from Steph that John had given the okay for me to come work at Tranquilo, back on Little Corn Island. She would move into the manager’s room at the back of the bar. And I would take over her house-sitting gig. It was just for a month. Starting on Monday.

I didn’t really need the work – for me this would be more about just having the experience. (What a luxury to be able to say that, hey?) I had always fancied the idea of working in a bar. And what better place to do it than on a Caribbean island. I also really liked Steph & just knew we would have a bunch of seriously fun times working together.

I loathe to admit that Island Boy might have had something to do with my excitement as well.

We partied hard that night. There was a talent show. Which most of us weren’t prepared for. But fun all the same. Morgan & Kate’s mum took on the role of Dicko (from Australian Idol) in terms of being a harsh judge. A few guests made the effort to make something from nothing and give a nod of the head to the 80s theme. There was a lot of bad music. And much singing and dancing. At one point Morgan had me in a headlock and was bellowing at me about how great my nipples were. I’d call that a good night.

The next day – my actual birthday – was a quiet one. I watched the multitudes of butterflies do their opening act for what would be a very peaceful, tranquil day. I thought a bit about what had transpired over the last year. The year leading up to my 40th birthday had been a sad one for me. I was sad for a lot of reasons. Things I didn’t have. Things I couldn’t control. Love. Children. The White Picket Fence. And Roger, still.

The year leading up to my 41st birthday had been quite the opposite. All those things I didn’t have became the reasons I was able to take this opportunity. I don’t know if it’s part of my destiny to have those things. In my heart of hearts, I really hope so. In the meantime, travelling around Central and South America sure does make for a damn fine distraction.

I went for a swim in the lake with its amazing view of Concepcion & its cloudy mushroom top. Never in a million years, would have I imagined this was how I would spend any of my birthdays. I was thankful for the way things had panned out, and the choices I had made. I sat around & drank endless cups of black coffee with shots of dark Nicaraguan rum (Skye: I am now officially a rum drinker!) and I made plans.

I climbed into a bed that night which was tucked away in the corner of a treehouse with a thatched roof, and watched the gheckos do their pushups from under my mosquito net. I listened to the ‘waves’ lapping the lake’s edge and gave thanks for the cool night breeze. I was one very happy birthday girl.

All the ladies were leaving the following day (Saturday). Shannon & Queso were heading to a place on the coast called Gigante to rent a house for a month & do some volunteer work. Kate & her mum were going to Costa Rica for a border run. While Sabine was headed back to Germany for good. So we had a lovely farewell dinner that night, at one of the little comedors in Santa Domingo. Which incidentally comes with a free motorbike ride home. (Yes, I know I said i’d never get on the back of a bike again, but you know. Hot young Nicaraguan boy. What’s a hot blooded woman to do?)

Kate, Queso and Shannon had all said they would come visit me on Little Corn Island around New Year’s, so it was a bye for now, rather than a bye for ever. It was weird after they left. I spent the rest of the day just chilling out with Richard, Kiara Morgan and Morgan-cito. I bid them farewell the next morning.

The last image I have of the place, is Morgan and his son waving wildly at me from their porch as my taxi climbed the steep long rocky driveway. I was sad to be leaving Ometepe. But on the other hand I was very excited about going back to Little Corn. From one island to another. My chicken bus ride back to Managua was filled with island dreaming.

(we’re never gunna survive unless we get a little) Crazy

Ometepe is a decent-sized island which was formed by two striking volcanoes: Concepción (1,610m) and Maderas (1,394m). This is the largest volcanic island inside a fresh water lake in the world. The two volcanoes are joined by a low isthmus to form one island in what some say looks like the shape of an hourglass. When you look at a map – it looks more look like 2 fried eggs to me. Or boobies.

After a 2-hour bus ride, mas o menos to Rivas from Granada, it was a bumpy old ferry ride across to the island. And then an even bumpier one hour taxi ride to Little Morgan’s.

I had read you could see the volcanoes from your bed this ‘backpacker’s resort’, which was right on the lake. We were met by the owner, Morgan – a rough & ready Dubliner with a shaved head, a gravelly voice and a devilish grin. He was decidedly unlittle.

(Turns out, the place was named after his now 3 year old son, “Morgan-cito”. A beautiful blonde bush-boy with dirty feet, a delightful sense of humour, and a talent for drawing.)

He showed us into a beautiful casita featuring beautifully polished twisted trees throughout. It had a gorgeous open-ceiling bathroom off to the side.

We dumped our bags and followed him down a rocky path. The night garden was magically lighting up with fireflies. The path opened up to the bar with a dirt floor and glimpses of the lake. There we were warmly welcomed by the rest of the staff and quickly got settled in.
We had a few drinks, a feed & a couple of games of pool & sang Scottish Steve (who we had picked up in Granada) a happy birthday.

The next morning I woke up early to the sight of Maderas and a blue bird with a pretty long tail feather, by my window. I walked down to the cocina to get a coffee and was greeted by dozens and dozens of brightly coloured butterflies, bouncing about – all excited about the day.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was lucky to score some rare photos of Concepción sans its usual cloud cover that morning. The photos were taken from the ‘Mirador’, which was a treehouse that had been purpose built to enjoy the views.

Over breakfast, we were lucky enough to catch wind of a ride with one of the other travellers to a nearby waterfall. Pierce was an unruly-looking engineer from England who was driving from Canada to Argentina in a Honda CRV which was just like mine back home but a whole lot more battered. He was an articulate string bean of a man with moppish hair, a gentle soul & a bunch of interesting travel tales. He was a very unlikely candidate for someone who had spent a night in a Mexican jail. I instantly took to him.

The walk was very do-able for me. A little harder for Skye. The waterfall was suitably impressive at 40m tall but strangely, it had an extremely shallow pool forming at the bottom. I stripped down to my togs and went for a wade anyways. It was bracing, so it was just an in-and-out job.

The next day was Halloween and the staff at Morgan’s had decided to have a dress up party.

Morgan’s gregarious sister, Kate reminded me of Cameron Diaz. With a multiple personality disorder. And I mean that in a nice way. I think she may be a compulsive liar. I mean that in a nice way, too. She is definitely one of the funniest women I have ever met in my life. We girl crushed instantaneously – as her serene mother, who I had met earlier in the day had predicted. We discussed potential costumes for the night with the fervour of a pair of teenagers. She would go as a lil sex kitten. I would be Eve. Minus an apple. But what the hey. She was a make-up artist from LA, and generously offered to do mine. I was well excited. I missed my dress-up antics with my good friend Andrea and her crew of wig-wearing friends (who had become mine) via many a crazy night back home in Sydney.

It gets dark here early, and as such – the party got started early. A good number of people – a mix of the locals and guests made a cracking effort to come up with something that resembled an outfit for the party. We had a little adventure race to kick things off. The pot of gold being a very generous bar tab for the winning team.

I think Morgan had originally the sound business idea of charging folk a couple of Cords for some of his industrial strength party juice, but that intent got lost somewhere along the line and the party became a bit of a rum free for all. 4 barrels later, the party was a bit of a shit show. There was a lot of dancing. A lot of banter. And a lot of hooking up going down.

That night, I laughed until I was doubled over, nearly peeing my pants. And I cannot for the life of me even remember what was so funny. It was definitely one of those loose nights where you had to take the attitude of, “Well, if you can’t beat ‘em, you may as well join ‘em.”

I do recall clocking more than one guest looking a bit like a deer in headlights. To be fair, one of the staff members was at one point, doing an impersonation of a drag queen gyrating on the bar. I was totally vibing off the good energy of these mad hatters. It was a big fun night.

The next morning, there were a lot of sore heads and hasty departures. It seemed we had scared off a lot of people. I, on the other hand, had fallen in love with the whole fucken lot of ‘em:
Sabine the little pocket rocket from Germany, bouncing around like a kid on a pogo stick; Richard who would have to be the tallest Asian I have ever met, who had impeccable taste in music; Shannon the Californian surfer chick who was an introvert trapped in an extrovert’s body; and ‘Queso’, the wild woman from WA, with more energy than the Energiser Bunny. And at the heart of it all was “mad-dog Morgan” who despite looking like someone you wouldn’t want to cross in prison, clearly had a Heart of Gold.

I think it was me who started the post-party craziness the next day. What can I say? I like a beer buzz early in the morning. No better way to sort out a hangover, right? And at some point that one innocent hair of the dog turned into the whole goddamn dog. The staff have rubber arms; it was decided by Morgan that it a day off for everyone in the country (or at least the part he ruled); and before you knew it – it was all well & truly sideways again.

A few hapless potential guests did walk in to the utter freakin chaos that was reigning sometime around 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon. People dancing on tables, drinking direct from wine / rum bottles, near-naked receptionists, and snooker-table gymnastics.
There was a lot of dirt, smeared make-up and left-over glitter in amongst the mess they walked into. I must admit despite my own drunken haze, I could tell it was a scene that would have deterred even the most foolhardy of partiers. Two of them decided they were up for it. One turned around & walked out. Probably for the best.

It was a long day. Most people had put in a hard day’s work of drinking & people started sneaking off to bed. Not Morgan & his intrepid team. These guys were pro-fucking-Fessionals. I did my own sneaking & slept like a log that night.

Next day Shannon (who was on her day off) & I were invited to go riding around the islands with a motley crew of backpackers. Quiet Aussie Tom told me as I was getting on the back of his bike, that he didn’t have travel insurance. So therefore he would be taking it easy. And he would get me back in one piece. I’m not convinced he had shedloads of motorbiking experience, but I believed him on both accounts.

The roads on Ometepe range from okay, to shithouse, to are-we-still-even-on-a-road?

I think I’ve mentioned in a previous post about the time I broke my foot in Greece on a moped. I felt more than a little stiff everytime we slipped in the mud / hit loose gravel / came across an unpredictable animal (eg, chickens, pigs, dogs, cows).
Turns out cows win the crown for Most Likely to Cause A Motorcycle Accident.

So naturally the whole Greece ordeal flashes back to me in the split seconds before we hit said cow. Fucker was walking one direction one second, then decided to REVERSE out of his herd, and then cross to the other side of the road right in front of our path as we tried to avoid them.

The bike and both of us on it, fell to the side of the road in slow-mo. And all I could think was, ‘thank Christ, we’re not in India’. I do recall at some point, also wondering how much a cow would cost to replace. And if my travel insurance would cover it.

We had hit the cow with considerable force, but he didn’t seem hurt. I do recall him kinda looking back at us with a bit of cow-ish disdain, and hurumphing back off in the direction the herd was going.

Why he felt the need to be a goddamn individual at that particular point in time – I will never know. We both (Tom & I, not the cow & I) had a few scrapes and bumps and things. I had a big trickle of blood streaming down my left leg but it was a surface scratch only. I was a bit shakey but think it had more to do with Greece, than anything else. The bike had lost a mirror but that seemed to be the extent of the damage, there.

We dusted ourselves off, continued on, and landed in a beau’ful place called La Presa Ojo de Agua, where natural springs were the centrepiece for a lil haven … just what the doctor ordered. The locals had built a pretty decking sympathetic to the natural environs, and had laid out a few sunchairs by a simple comedor, where we grabbed a bite to eat. We lazed around in the waters, had a couple of beers, and then moved on.

As we made our way home, Tom & I ran into another problem when the bike wouldn’t change gears. Foley the Kiwi and Shannon came back to look for us because we had been missing for quite some time. Shannon has much better Spanish than I, so she asked one of the neighbours if we could use their phone to call the rental place (I fortunately had the foresight to obtain their number in the likelihood of something like this happening.)

The owner of the bike shop came back with a piece of rope and a screwdriver. Men over here are real handymen. They have to be. They simply don’t have the money to pay plumbers, electricians and mechanics to come fix their broken shit.

Despite having a boyfriend who did nothing but smoke bongs and bang on about car engines for the entire 18 months that we dated – I know amazingly little about gearboxes. But I do know that not even MacGyver could fix a broken gearbox with just a rope and screwdriver.

It was not long off getting dark and we were on one of those are-we-still-even-on-a-road? roads. So I asked Latin MacGyver how we were going to get back to the shop. He pointed at his bike. A spanking new big red thing with a real comfortable looking seat and a massive engine. I could tell Tom was well excited to be riding a real bike. I silently had a mild panic attack. It looked expensive.

We made it back. I was I admit, surprised when the Nicas didn’t overcharge us for the cost of damages to the bike. The lot of us had some dinner & beers across the road. I thanked Tom for getting me back in one piece. And swore I’d never get on the back of a bike again. Then Shannon told me she’d organised a free ride home for us all. On the back of a bike.

I do think in all reality, that’s me & bikes done. Now let’s just hope the Love Of My Life doesn’t turn out to be the Easy Rider.

Skye left for Little Corn Island the day after the Cow Incident. I spent the next couple of days chilling out at Little Morgan’s getting to know the guys there a little bit better. One thing is for certain, none of them had lived an ordinary life. And especially not Morgan himself. Man that guy’s got some wild fucking stories. A chapter unto themselves, methinks.

And so I left them with a promise of returning to share a week of celebrations… the girls are all leaving. And there are a couple of birthdays to be had (including mine). I left my big bag there, chucked a few things in my day pack and took off to Little Corn Island for a week.

Thursday 3 November

Black in black

We arrived back into León and went straight back to ViaVia. The recent good weather had made it possible for us to reconsider volcano boarding. So we got settled in & went across the road to book ourselves in for the next day. I was excited but secretly terrified.

The next morning, while I waited for Skye – a muscular dude with silky skin; clean, neat dreads and an amiable demeanour came over to introduce himself in Spanish. I told him what I tell everyone else, “Mi Español is terrible!” We switched to English & got chatting. I learnt he was part-Nicaraguan and had spent the better part of his life in NYC. He was an articulate documentary-maker with some interesting things to say. One of his films was about the Black Christ and the other was on the subject of young Nicaraguan baseball players who get screwed over financially for their talent.

Anthony told me he would be our guide for the day. We met the others in our group as we climbed up into a bright orange army truck. There was a weekend warrior from Melbourne, who was travelling around Central America at breakneck speed (basically collecting passport stamps). I think he said he’d done 6 countries in 2 weeks. And 2 friendly and fit-looking snowboarding Canadian girls. The three of them were all in their mid 20s.

Cerro Negro is only 400m high but the ascent is steep and tough, especially on a stinking hot day. It is one of the most active volcanoes in Nicaragua. The latest eruption happened in 1999. Since its birth in 1850, it has erupted approximately 23 times. It’s approximately a 45 minute hike up black chunky volcanic rocks which degenerate into a fine black sand, making it trickier to climb the higher you go.

Skye and I had to make several stops on the way up. She has a heart condition which means she needs to take it easy and ensure her heart rate doesn’t escalate too high, too fast. Me? Well, since my last bootcamp session with Tobes just before my 40th birthday nearly a year ago – I must confess I’ve done very little strenuous exercise, so I’m a little out of shape.

Anthony was carrying Skye’s board and offered on many occasions to carry mine as well. But I had challenged myself to the whole shebang. And as tempting as it was, I was bloody determined to do it unassisted. We made it up. Quite a ways behind the others. But we did it!

Nicaragua really has stolen my heart in a very short space of time. Not least for the diversity in its geography. It’s just gorgeous. From the jewel-like Caribbean, sweeping tropical plains rise up to meet a chain of 13 volcanoes on the Pacific coast – making for a truly majestic landscape. And here I was, standing on top of one of those volcanoes.

About to do something that can only be described as Stupid.

We hopped into our big bright orange jumpsuits and put on out goggles. Anthony gave us a little bit of a background of how this stupidity all began.

Needless to say, it was an Aussie who came up with the bright idea. A Queenslander by the name of Darryn Webb who apparently tested a variety of methods of boarding the mountain: boogie boards, mattresses and even a fridge door.

Anthony briefed us on how to control the speed and the direction of the board. Which was really just a piece of MDF with a couple of strips of Formica on the underside, a little strip of timber acrossways to rest our feet upon, and a waterski rope handle.

Bigfoot uses a police speed gun to clock people’s speeds as they’re coming down the slippery sandy slope. The record is 82km / hour and is held by an English girl. The slowest person took 15 minutes to get down the hill. I personally wasn’t about speed. I just wanted to get down in one piece.

Given my inclination to fall over non-existent cracks in the footpath – I really am not the sort of person who should be hurtling herself off the side of a volcano on a tiny plank of wood. Don’t ask me why I keep putting myself in these situations. It’s probably got something to do with that other character who insists on getting riotously drunk before having to travel somewhere for 12 hours.

One of the gutsy little Canadian girls went down first and she was gunning it! From our vantage point it looked as though she had made it all the way down without a stack. The other Canadian girl went next and we saw her crash & burn several times.

I got on my board, sat down, and off I went! I could hear Anthony yelling at me, his voice fading fast, “LIFT YOUR FEET!” I think I literally went down braking the whole way. Every time I tried to lift my feet, in an attempt to pick up speed, I felt myself lose control of the board. I’d get scared and drop them back down again. I was collecting massive amounts of ash (not hot, thank fuck) between the board and under my legs and this was slowing me down even more. The rate I was going, there was no way on earth I was going to be falling off. That being said, volcanic sand was still flying everywhere and it was still a complete head rush.

I knew I was erring on the side of caution but I was still surprised when I got to the bottom and they told me i had clocked a god-almighty speed of 15km / hour. Just call me Speedy freakin Gonzales. I just laughed. It seriously felt like I was going at least 3 times that. There was a part of me that wanted to go back and do it all over again, this time really throwing caution to the wind.

Skye came down next. A wee bit faster and with a few tumbles thrown in for good measure.

Then it was the Weekend Warrior’s turn. He looked to be a moving at a pretty decent speed, when he had a nice looking stack about ½ way down. His board was a good few metres up the hill from where he had landed and so he started scrambling his way back up to retrieve it.

Meanwhile, Anthony had already started his mission and was tearing down the mountain at a rate of knots. He was heading straight for WW and we all stood at the bottom, thinking surely he had seen the WW and would divert his course any second now. Surely.

He didn’t. And he launched straight into the WW at full throttle. His board flew into the air. He somehow managed to somersaulted over the top of him, and collect him all at once. I saw a board fly into the air.

At the bottom there was a collective gasp, yelp, and cringe. The pair of them stood up almost immediately, so we figured it couldn’t have been too bad. They made it down without further incident. There was some blood but nothing was broken.

We got back to the hostel and celebrated our speeds and stacks with many many mojitos. So many in fact, that I was in bed by 7 o’clock that night. Note to self: Water not cocktails after strenuous exercise.

I woke up the next day feeling very bruised in more ways than one and so not up for a day of travel to the colonial town of Granada, where we would spend the next few days.

I came down a little ill for a couple of days, which may have tainted my views on the place. But to be honest, Granada has been one of my least favourite places. It’s a big dirty city, there’s a lot beggars and insofar as colonial cities go it hasn’t got a patch on my pretty Antigua, as far as I’m concerned.

The highlights for me included catching up with Dave & Suze. Skye & I had a few delicious healthy meals at a place called The Garden Cafe. I visited the museum and a few boutique galleries and talked with some local artists, which was cool. But that was about the size of it.

I was dead keen to get to Isla de Ometepe, which LP described as something out of a fairytale… an island set between “two volcanic peaks which rise from the hazy blue expanse of Cocibolca, ‘the Sweet Sea’ (Lago de Nicaragua), and form an hourglass of beaches and jungles cinched to a sinuous isthmus between them.”

Just what the doctor ordered.

Friday 28 October

Paradise by the dashboard lights

It wasn’t that far to where we wanted to go on the Peninsula, but it’s a little off the beaten path, so it ended up being a day for all types of transport to get there.

First, we caught your standard chicken bus back to León. These big old yellow US school buses still all have the original (read, un-serviced) parts including ridiculously uncomfortable seats which were designed for 7 year olds. Their one redeeming feature is truly godawful 80s music blaring from tinny sound systems.

We left our big packs at the Quetzal Trekkers base & grabbed a late brekky. We then jumped on the back of a truck with a tarp-covered tray & two bench seats. It reminded me of hanging off the back of a cable car in San Fran except there were A LOT more people and the driver was clearly starring in his own reality version of Grand Theft Auto. It’s a cheap thrill at just 3 cords (12 cents).

After that, we caught a microbus to Chinandega. These are just like your regular collectivos elsewhere in Central America except they do not stop every few miles to pick up twice as many people as the bus can fit. I have seen 9 people squished up into the front bit of one of these vehicles which normally seats 4. Nine. Sheer luxury to have just one person to a seat and no crotches or arses in our faces to deal with.

We then jumped in a ‘pedi cab’ which is a bicycle-driven tuk-tuk – except instead of sitting in a covered bench seat up the back, you sit in an uncovered bench seat up the front. For better clarity on your imminent death, I presume.

And finally we got on another chicken bus, which was delayed for quite a time while dozens of hawkers filed in through the front, and out through the back – selling all manner of things. Fried food. Cool drinks. Gum. Batteries. Phone chargers. Kitchen utensils. Machetes. Bras. I kid you not.

On the way back, we heard what sounded like a pig squealing in extreme pain. I thought we must have run over a stray one in the street but, no. The pig was on the roof of the bus and they were just belaying him down the ladder. As you do.

I love public transport here. It’s fucking mental.

So, the bus dropped us off to a place Skye had sourced, called Rancho Tranquilo in the tiny fishing village called Jiquillio, which is on the Cosigüina Peninsula (in the North West). Only a few hundred families live here in thatched roof huts with dirt floors. They do have electricity and cell service, but there’s no wifi or hot water. In fact, I haven’t had a hot shower since I left Guatemala a month ago.

It was a very simple set-up at Rancho Tranquilo: a couple of bamboo huts and a very basic dorm room, which Skye and I would have to ourselves. At the top end of the yard, there was a bar with picnic tables & benches and a raft of lie-down and sit-up hammocks.

The weather had come good for our arrival, and Skye & I were a bit excited about the prospect of doing more of what we’d been doing down south, but this time in the sunshine! The clean black beach was absolutely deserted. We set down our bags and immediately went for a body bash. The waves were just perfect. The sun was perfect. The water temperature was perfect. It was all perfect.

Back at the Rancho, we met one of the two other guests – both of whom had separately been there for two months.

Simone was an eccentric German with a sense of humour (!) I put her in her late 30s. A petite lady with a big-heart, she was taking a 3 month sabbatical to volunteer on a Tortuga rescue project. Evidently, she was a keen animal lover as when we met her she was wiping the secreting vagina of one of the many dogs who lived there. Most of the dogs seemed to have a medical issue of some sort. One appeared to have a goitre on the side of his neck. Another had a tongue that was permanently stuck out to the side. And apparently the dog Simone was tending to, had an infection. I love dogs but how one discovers this sort of thing unless they’re a vet, is beyond me.

That night, we enjoyed a simple vegetarian curry made by ‘Mummy’ and then went out walking with Simone on the beach to look for nesting turtles.

We didn’t find any. What we did find was an empty turtle’s nest and no sign of her tracks back to the beach. A sure sign that poachers had taken her. Very sad indeed.

It was just inspiring to meet someone so impassioned and learn a little more about these mesmerising creatures. 6 of the world’s 7 kinds of turtles live in Latin America. 3 have been found nesting on this one stretch of beach. A typical ‘clutch’ will range from 80-120 eggs. The obstacles are so numerous (eg, poachers, dogs, birds) for baby turtles that only about one in 1,000 will survive to become a grown-up turtle.

Turtles have existed for over 100 million years. All are in grave danger of extinction. I think sometimes, we forget that extinction means forever.

If you’ve never seen a turtle up close & personal, then I truly hope one day you do. These guys really know how to make a day feel super special. I can’t explain why. Maybe it’s their gentle ways. Maybe it’s their ancient faces. Don’t know. Don’t care. I just know this features somewhere on the scale of Important Stuff.

What was also interesting to see was the beach transform from an undiscovered piece of paradise into something far more sinister. The moment it gets dark – this small community of people who would know each other very intimately, suddenly become suspicious strangers in the night.

The people on the beach at night can be divided into those who are hunting eggs to eat or sell on the black market. Or even worse, those who are after the turtles themselves for their meat and / or shells. Then there are those who are seeking out eggs to save and hand over to the rescue projects for a better chance of survival.
But who can tell the difference? Flashlights are quickly snapped off, and distances widen. Everyone is hesitant to talk to anyone in case they might recognise the voice, or the motive behind the voice. In the dark, I tried to guess who the good guys were & who the bad guys were.

The next day we were up early for another swim in that perfect sea, and we then we went & met Marlon and his daughter down by the river. I had read we could hire a dugout canoe & a local guide for a trip through the surrounding bird-filled estuaries and mangroves. I drowned myself in DEET (my new best friend since The Sandlfy Incident) and we set off in one very leaky dugout canoe made from one very old tree.

We were treated to spectacular views of the Volcán Cosigüina, which used to be the tallest volcano in Nicaragua until an eruption wiped out the apex. At one point, we stopped for a small hot climb to the top of a hill that afforded us amazing vistas of the surrounding waterways, the local villages and faraway volcanoes.

We were back in time for a pre-lunch swim and then more of Mummy’s delicious cooking. She had invited us to her home for a fish dinner that night which I was well excited about.

That afternoon we got to know the other guest: a gay boy who had changed his name from Michael to Sky (note, the absence of an ‘e’ for easy distinction from my travelling mate Skye). He was an Indian (feathers, not dots) who was just one year older than me but had clearly lived a far ‘richer’ life than I, in so many ways. He had been travelling through Latin America for 8 years. I asked him if he was an heiress. He told me his family owned a “small corporation”.

He arranged for a lady up the road to come & give us both manicures & pedicures. It cost just AUD$6. It became very clear to me during this time that the boy had ADHD. He just for the life of him, could not sit still.

He later told me he had spent more than ½ million dollars on rehab. Money that was NOT well spent, given he said he still liked a drink & whatnot. He was clearly keen for some drinking partners and generously offered to shout us our first bottle of rum. Who were we to say no. Sky was a big child, a bit scarred & scatty – but just gorgeous & loads of fun. He was one of those rare people who never have a bad word to say of anyone.

Tina, the trippy owner of the place came back in from town, with a bunch of big hippy hugs. She was from San Fran, in her late 40s, and I think it would be a fair guess to say she had probably spent a good portion of her life alternately smoking pot and doing lots of yoga. She immediately started drinking for Nicaragua and playing DJ from her little perch behind the bar. I must say, she had brilliant taste in music. She was a bit out there, but I instantly took a liking to her.

Her friend from up the road, an older man with the best bushranger’s beard I’ve seen in a long time, stopped in for a quick hello and to collect some stuff that Tina had picked up in town for him. Dennis looked as though he could have been a wanted man – but if he was, he certainly wasn’t worried anyone finding him. He was a still shining light in amongst all the mayhem that was starting to bubble up. He wisely left after just one drink.

Then young Elizabeth rolled in on her bicycle. She was working as a volunteer English teacher up the road. She was a bright bubbly thang and I have no idea what the fuck she was doing in this far-flung corner of Nicaragua.

Simone, the two Sky(e)s and I went to Mummy’s for dinner. We were followed by at least 4 of the dogs from Rancho Tranquilo, and were met by at least another 6 at Mummy’s. We were quickly introduced to the four girls of the family ranging from 11 months in age to 14 years old. They were a rambunctious lot, who took great interest in seeing the photos of themselves on my digital camera.

They had set up a plastic table for us in the dirt, turning Mummy’s open kitchen into a pop-up cafe. ½ dozen odd little piglets were noisily clamouring around their mother for some milk just metres away. I looked over just in time to see one little pig pissing in the dirt right in front of us. Noone else batted an eyelid. I was screaming with laughter.

The meal was one of the best I’ve had in Nicaragua (fancy Japanese not withstanding). A whole fish caught that very morning by Marlon, served with pinto gallo and a salsa-type salad. Sometimes simple is best, si?

We went back to the Rancho to find the girls totally trashed. I’m not sure what had happened in the short time we were away having dinner but we came home to carnage. Tina believed she had broken her toe (she hadn’t) and was crying. Elizabeth could barely stand. She was demanding we walked her home NOW. Sky thought there might have been a local party we could go to on the way home. And so off we all traipsed, with dogs in tow. Elizabeth ended up living miles away. The walk took us ages because she was all over the shop, we also had a bike and an incoming tide to contend with. We got there in the end. We decided to take the road back and had no joy in finding the party. We also got road-blocked by a big muddy pool. Luckily a truck passed us by. Skye flagged them down and we hopped in the back. They took us back to the Rancho.

By that time, i was absolutely knackered from all the excitement & was ready to call it a night. We had a little nightcap with Sky before hitting the hay.

The next morning over breakfast, Tina pulled out all stops to encourage us to stay another night, another week. Mummy even got in on the act. It was hard to leave as the weather was so damn good & the beach was so damn perfect… it’s so rare to get a little piece of paradise all to yourself. But on the other hand, Rancho Tranquilo was actually a bit of a madhouse & I could see myself getting sucked into its vortex & living out the rest of my days drinking myself into a an empty turtle’s nest and wiping dog vaginas.

It was definitely time to leave.