Tag Archives: Central America

Something old, something new, some things colonial, something blue

Ah Antigua – you sure know how to churn an old, crumbling city into a delicious buttercream cake. Yes, the city is crowded with tourists and travellers, but this old town is in fact big enough to host a backpacker convention, but also small enough to discover in three days. Or four days…time has this sneaky habit of confusing me.

On how we got to Antigua
It felt like forever. I know that ‘it felt like forever’ is the most used sentence in this blog, but I really consider it important for my readers (i.e. family, friends and the one person from Russia who follows our antics) to grasp the enormity of how long it takes to get anywhere by bus. It takes forever. The border crossing was really non-eventful (just the way I like it), but when we got to Guatemala’s side it was scorching. I can say without a doubt that the sun is indeed a big ball of fire that is much closer to the El Salvador-Guatemala border than anywhere in the world. Expecting to jump on a bus (that’s usually just about to go), we where unfortunately the first passengers to arrive. So we had to wait for an hour. When the bus finally got going, there were only three of us onboard the ol’ Bluebird. This meant that we stopped at every single house at the side of the road for incase someone wanted to go somewhere else. At first, we were enjoying the music the bus driver played, we took selfies and video clips of the passing landscapes and we shared a cola – just like in the movies. That was within the first 15 minutes of departure – after about three hours of going at 40km/h we just surrendered our frustration to the gods of Guatemalan time and stared with pale eyes out the windows.

When we finally got to some town (I’m really not good with names), we had to jump out of the bus like vigilantes and run to another bus, escorted by a guard and his big rifle, and jump onto a much smaller bus that was already moving. I still have no idea what the guard was doing there. Maybe to prevent us from jumping into the arms of a proper vigilante. The smaller bus, with its crew of schoolgirls, church girls, hombres going home and a Chow puppy, was a lot more fun and much faster. So after 10 hours of travelling on four different busses, we got to Antigua.

Whoa, nice bells you’ve got there
I think Antiguans are the most photographed citizens on this planet – their city is super photogenic, and if you walk the streets, you’re bound to be in someone’s holiday snaps. The massive charm of the city lies in its churches and plazas, cobblestones and women in traditional dress, strong coffee and sugary-sweet sweets – all surrounded by three massive volcanos with names similar to that of the three muscateers: Agua, Fuego and Acatenango. It rained a bit while we were there, which was quite nice as the air always had that sweet post-rain Jacaranda fragrance.

As you wander the colonial streets, trying to close your gaping mouth, it’s easy to forget that you’re still smack bang in the middle of Central America. For one, Antigua has an enormous amount of language schools, so all the tourists speak this odd Gringo-Spanish. Also, the city’s layout is very similar to what you’ll find in any other European country, and lastly – the shopkeepers have a very OCD way of packing their shelves (see photo below).

But this is just the creamy froth of the city. Take another gulp of what the crumbling walls have to offer, and you’ll taste the bittersweet beauty of everyday life. An old lady, surrounded by her prized possessions of rags and recyclables, whispering to the saint of prosperity and good health. Two pensioners and neighbors displaying the exact same offering of candied fruits and coconuts on sale to passersby, the fruit vendor allowing her photo to be taken with the purchase of an overripe mango and a soft and round mother selling steamy cups of atol and crunchy rellenitos to the devoted outside the church.

And there’s nothing as delicious as a hot cup of atol when it gets cloudy.

Antigua tastes like…
Cinnamon! And luckily for me, every delicious morsel I had in Antigua had the fragrant goodness of cinnamon. Atol is a steamy hot maize beverage made with corn, sugar and cinnamon. It’s like drinking a liquidised tin of sweetcorn – something I’m definitely going to make for all those who come to visit when we’re back home (so beware…). Rellenitos is a little sausage made of fried plantains, stuffed with black beans, toasted on a grill and dusted with cinnamon sugar and our coffee was strong, bitter and delicious. However, the taste that will always remind me of Antigua is that of marshmallows toasted on a smoldering piece of lava rock.

The story of two South Africans who went up a hill and came down a volcano
When it comes to hiking, I’m always as keen as a salsa band on a Friday night. There’s nothing as exciting as packing a bunch of bananas and peanuts into our stinky backpack and hitting a hill with bright eyes and full hearts. Midway during the hike, while we’re huffing and puffing or soaking wet and can’t see a thing, I’ll be that annoying person who’ll say “Why, isn’t this just nice.” Close to the end, I’m usually bored out of my skull and cursing myself for buying hiking boots that are a tad too small (because they were on sale). At the bottom of the hill I’m my ecstatic self again due to that invigorating sense of accomplishment one gets after a hike. That, and knowing that you’re going to order dessert after dinner as well.

The Bearded Wonder however, is a hiker of a different colour. Usually a lighter shade of scarlet with a hint of mud (due to his foolproof ability of always slipping-and-sliding down the path).

When we decided to hike Pacaya, 25km outside Antigua, I was keener than my usual keen. We haven’t hiked for a while, because the Husband had a cough and a chest wheeze that would make a grown man shudder. But this hike seemed simple enough and was only going to take us 3 hours max. It was really easy, a bit steep at times with horse poop everywhere, but nothing my too-small shoes couldn’t take on.
The views were amazing – we saw the three volcano musketeers, the city of Antigua and a hydro-electrical station that provides energy to Honduras. “Politics,” our guide said when I asked him why the much-needed energy doesn’t go the Guatemalans. We shook our heads and walked on.

Pacaya is still a very active volcano – its last eruption was somewhere in the nineties, when a couple of villages were wiped out. So we couldn’t really go up the volcano, but we got pretty close. The areas surrounding the volcano is the greenest green – lush and loaded with shrubs, trees and probably tarantulas. But the volcano itself is as black as its destruction. The lava rock almost feels like coral under your shoes – it’s really light, but strong. And this is where my taste for Guatemala lies. When we got to our destination our guide pulled out a family size bag of mellows, and we used the smoldering rock to toast them till they were puffy. Yes, it’s a very typical tourist thing to do, but I still loved it.

You want to know what’s just as typical touristy? My photos!

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How amazing are these cathedral ruins? After the 1776 earthquake the powers that be decided to give up with all the rebuilding.

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Some Antigua snaps – in the first photo you can see Agua smoldering under its usual blanket of clouds. You can’t actually see it, but it’s there.

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A self-indulgent snap of myself. I really don’t like to pose for photos, as can be seen on my face.

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Just beautiful, don’t you think? If you stare long and hard at any of the ruins, some beautiful details just pop out.

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Miss Guatemala and her niño. I had to buy three peaches from her in order to take a photo.

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A mid-morning snack of corn atole and rellenitos.

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I’ve always been a fan of tailgate picnics. For a dollar we got some chicken, rice and pasta salad. Hello carbs.

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The Little Corner Shop of Perfection.

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Traditional dress in Guatemala is really beautiful – every area is known by its colour.

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Lady with an Overripe Mango, 2014. (And on the right is another dress. If I had backpack space and some extra money, I would have bought a dress for every day of the week.)

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Oh look! It’s the lesser spotted Bearded Hiker, standing proudly in front of Pacaya.

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Lava rock and toasted marshmallows are really a match made in sweet heaven.

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I’ve always been a fan of dark backgrounds and bright pops of colour, but this was just so amazing to see.

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On beds, rice milk and a town called Juayúa

We have slept in at least 40 different beds since the beginning of June. According to the unofficial algorithm of backpackers, the relationship between a.) the price you pay for the bed, b.) the location of the bed, and c.) the amount of beds in one room is equal to, but not limited to the overall sleeping experience of the backpacker. We dealt with bed bugs, too small bed linen that pulls up at the sides (resulting in you waking up and discovering you’re laying on a dirty mattress) and other people’s stinky feet. But for every crappy hostel bed, there’s one good hostel bed. This is the story of one such bed. But we first have to start with the crappy bed before we can go on to the good bed.

The Bates Motel bed
We said goodbye to El Tunco and decided to go to Santa Ana just to see what the town is all about. We travelled for about 5 hours and arrived at dusk. There wasn’t any space available in our hostel of choice, so we had to settle for a hotel around the corner. But don’t let the word ‘hotel’ fool you. The concierge was not only the cleaner but also the nightwatchman who you can buy beer from. There were about 50 rooms, but only 5 were occupied (4 of them probably by the hour) and our door was very similar to the doors they use in jail. It also had that metal-on-metal echo when you shut it.

We were starving by then, just to discover that every food stand already packed up. There wasn’t a single pupusa or torta* in sight, and the neighborhood was about to put on its sketchy cloak. We found one local eatery, but a beggar in a wheelchair ordered the last torta. The only other thing the owner could offer us was leftover reheated chicken with cold tortillas and rice. We took our chances and ordered one plate, but got two.

After eating a reheated chicken drumstick one tends to sleep with one eye open. In this case, the hotel bed was really horrible so we had to force ourselves to keep both eyes closed. The night went by without any major event (like the squirtsies or the silhouette of Norman Bates standing with an axe outside the window), but we were happy to check out and hop on to the first bus to Juayúa.

The bed that was better than the one we have at home
If you want to pronounce ‘Juayúa’ correctly, just imagine having a mouthguard in your mouth. It must sound like something along the lines of ‘Why-jooh-aah’ (after spending almost a week in this little town, we were pros in Salvadorian pronunciation).

We had some of our best Central American memories in Juayúa. It’s a town small enough to fit into your pocket, but big enough to keep you busy and easy-going at the same time.

The hostel we stayed at was one of the best so far. Every room is decorated by a Salvadorian artist, the garden is humming with happiness and the people are super nice. The linen is white and crisp, the ensuite shower is nice and toasty and the towels are white and fluffy. For a stinky backpacker who just spend the night at the Bates Motel, this was something to write home about (as I’m doing now.)

Our first Juayúan experience saw us taking on the Seven Waterfalls hike with Douglas, our very charming guide (with a smile big enough to put behind his ears), his puppy dog Bonita (all legs and one very long tail) and Michael (a very friendly New Yorker with an uncanny ability to take the most amazing photos). The company was good, but the hike even better. We walked through coffee plantations, carefully shuffled past small waterfalls and went down big waterfalls with a rope, a strong hand and a will not slip and make a fool of yourself. We’ve done a couple of hikes since our arrival in Central America, but this was by far my favourite.

With post-hike lazy legs and waterfall hair, we decided to take a peak at the neighboring towns. Apaneca, the town next door, is the second highest town in El Salvador according to our trusty Lonely Planet. Apparently they also produce really good coffee due to the altitude. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a barista or something that resembles a coffee shop insight. So we had ice cream instead.

Ataco, the town next to Apaneca was a real treat. We arrived at 5pm, and got to see the town going home after a long day at work. The sun was lazy, the church choir sang and the town square was humming with the soul of a Friday afternoon. We saw a whole crowd of people dancing with gym clothes in one of the halls opposite the park. We saw a brass band practicing in one of the streets on the other side of the park. We saw nuns, children and happy street dogs. What I saw, made me happy – I wanted that moment to never end.

On our bus ride back to Juayúa, I also noticed for the first time in Central America, a man getting up from his seat and offering it to a woman. At that moment I was so in love with El Salvador I was actually blushing.

The day of the food festival
The actual reason for our stay in Juayúa was to eat our weight in local food during the town’s weekly gastronomy festival. We heard you can sample iguana, frogs and things. I wasn’t really up for the iguana or the frog, but I was first in line for all the things. Our friends Kristina and Saskia came from El Tunco to visit, and brought a happy Canadian called Kenneth with them. I was beyond myself with excitement.

90% of the food on offer was different types of barbecued meat/fish/prawns/chicken with rice, tortillas, salad, potatoes and onions. It wasn’t as exotic as we thought it would be, but we did see a frog on a stick. Here’s a list of things we devoured:

Tortilla soup: A smokey bean version of its crunchy cousin. A neatly souped up version of everything that you would expect in a big plate of nachos – tomatoes, cilantro, runny avo, cheese and thick tortilla chips.

Nahotes: Unfortunately, I cannot decipher my own handwriting, but I’m sure it’s called nahotes – deep-fried yucca with cane-sugar syrup. It’s almost like mini donuts with a more rooty, vegetable flavour. Yum.

Riguas con coco: My goodness, did I enjoy these little pockets of heaven. It tasted like sweet corn bread with coconut, fried in banana leaves and served with a salty, chewy cheese.

Horchata: Horchata is as delicious as rice milk with cinnamon can get. It’s really delicious, and I had liters of it.

Michelada: I’m not too sure about Michelada – it’s just like a Bloody Mary, but with beer. I love a Mary in the morning, but I’m not really a fan of its zingy Latin American cousin.

We weighed ourselves yesterday – the Bearded Wonder lost 10kg, and I gained 3kg. Now I know why…

On how we couldn’t leave El Tunco
We planned to cross the border to Guatemala the following day, but 5min after we woke up, we discovered that some clever (but rude) bloke cloned the Husband’s bank card and stole around $2400. So we had 2 admin days from hell – trying to explain to the policeman in our broken Spanish that the internet robbed us and not a gun swinging coyote, was impossible.
So the policeman phoned our hostel and asked the lovely Sala to explain to him what happened to the two flustered gringos sitting in his office. After 40 minutes of us trying to string 2 Spanish sentences together, the matter was cleared up in 2 minutes.

We left El Salvador a week later than planned. But we left with new friends, a better understanding of Salvadorian history and the prospect of visiting the most colourful country in the whole of Central America: Guatemala.

Picture time:

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This gothic church in Santa Ana came as a surprise, as we haven’t really seen a lot of this type of architecture.

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Exhibit A: The dodgy hotel bed. Exhibit B: The Husband in our new room.

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There was an old guy selling all types of antiques in Ataco. He even had an armadillo. But I don’t think it was for sale.

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One of the many little churches in Ataco.

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Life is simple and beautiful. That’s really it.

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Poor frog. Having two toothpicks stuck in your bum mid can-can can’t be fun. The picture below señor frog is of my riguas de coco. Yum yum.

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Meaty goodness and the Husband tucking into a plate of fried yucca.

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The beginning of our Seven Waterfall hike.

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Bonita – The Ultimate Hiking Puppy

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Saying goodbye to our favourite Salvadorians, Douglas and Maria. Sala was still fast asleep, hence him missing out on this photo op.

Whatever you do, don’t skip El Salvador

Whenever we discuss the route through Central America with our fellow travellers, most of them say they’re going to skip El Salvador. Mostly it’s because the country is so small, and that there are other bigger and more exciting countries to explore. To be brutally honest, we also considered to head straight into Guatemala and hop over El Salvador. Luckily, we are very competitive when it comes to the number of stamps in our passports, so we decided to give it a bash for a week. As always, we ended up staying for longer.

I won’t bore you with the story of how we crossed the border from Honduras to El Salvador (our border crossings are always the same – click here for details), but I can tell you that El Salvador’s migration officials are the friendliest we’ve come across – ever. Even when I went back to ask why our passports weren’t stamped*, they happily explained the reason without growling at me for pushing through the line of people with my gigantic backpack and slight musty odor. I even growled at myself for trying to jump the queue.

Dear El Salvador, I think I like you
This little country, wedged between Honduras and Guatemala is perfect for a city-slicking-surf-catching-countryside-cruising kinda traveller. We travelled all they way by chicken bus, and they were even more colourful than the ones we’ve encountered in Nicaragua. For less than $2, you don’t just get to San Salvador, you also get a free demonstration for an ointment promising to cure everything from cracked heels to baldness, a free sermon from a very spirited preacher, another demonstration of more miraculous medicines and a boy selling candied nuts for a quarter. But that’s not all – you also get to enjoy the soothing Latino dance tracks of DJ Burrito Mix played at full volume. Now, if that’s not value for money, I don’t know what is.

We ended up staying for three nights in San Salvador. To many it’s just another pollution filled Central American city with way too many cars and fast food chains. After travelling through small towns and beaches for just over two months, I was beyond myself when I saw a Zara in one of the shopping streets. Sometimes, a bit of familiarity can do wonders to an over-travelled pair of eyes.

To us, the capitol of El Salvador felt just like our hometown Johannesburg. When you stop your car at a traffic light, someone jumps out behind a tree and wash your window with a squeegee and dirty water. Or they try to sell you roses. There are also more potholes than actual street, and every building (including the hairdresser) is decorated with barb wire and a guard armed with a M16 rifle. However, in Johannesburg, we don’t have heavily armed men standing in front of beauty parlours. And we only have one Burger King.

Our walkabout through the city was more or less what we’ve grown accustomed to – beautiful old churches, busy markets selling everything from earbuds to peaches, and an oddly placed Art Deco surprise around every corner. But the biggest surprise, and certainly one of the most beautiful churches I’ve been in, was the Iglesia El Rosario. Designed by the Salvadorian sculptor Ruben Martinez, El Rosario beautifully captures the spirit of devotion without any frills or fuss. This brutalist structure was completed in 1971 and almost looks like a giant concrete turtle. But when you peek inside its unassuming shell it’s quite impossible not to go “Oh wow.” A steady rhythm of stained glass and thin slabs of concrete make up this barrel-vaulted structure and fill the entire church with light and colour. The Bearded Wonder, who used to be an architect before he swapped his desk for the open road, also pointed out that the exaggerated overlapping of concrete elements provides passive ventilation and reflected lighting. To us mere mortals, this basically means that the church is always cool and always filled with light. Beautiful.

San Salvador by night
Wearing my Sunday best (i.e. a clean pair of pants and earrings), we hopped on a chicken bus for a night out in Santa Tecla – a going-out-for-beer-and-a-boogie kinda town that’s located about 15km from San Salvador. Just as we were about to get off the bus, a rainstorm of Biblical proportions broke loose. Drenched and mouldy, we were very far removed from the Salvadorian chic that reigns this neighborhood. So we ordered the second cheapest beer (suitably called ‘Golden’), to lift the spirits a bit. It was nice. A bit on the light side, but nice. So we had another one and another one. Feeling a bit lightheaded, we went for a bite to eat. And what we’ve encountered was as comforting as the arms of an Italian grandmother.

Move over mac & cheese, there’s a new comfort food in town
I know I can get quite lyrical about food, but I really found a friend in pupusas. Take a nice handful of maize meal, stuff it with cheese and zucchini (ór chicken ór pork ór jalapeño ór garlic ór all of the ingredients mentioned) and roll it into a ball of goodness. Flatten said ball with the palm of a well-trained hand, and cook it on a grill until crispy. Serve with salsa and cabbage and eat until your belly resembles the shape of the pupusa before it was flattened. The biggest danger in eating pupusas is not stuffing yourself like a turkey, but burning your fingers to shreds. Every pupusa is freshly-made, so you have to wait a while for the good stuff. The moment the Pupusa Goddess presents this gift to mankind on a plate, one tends to go at it like an unsupervised child at a carnival. Piping hot and oozing with a wild-tasting cheese, I’ll happily lose my fingers to the art of eating a hot pupusa. They are yum.

But wait, there’s more. We also managed to stuff our bellies with dessert: freshly deep-fried churros, dusted with a blush of sugar and drenched in condensed milk. As you can see, heart palpitations and frizzy hair are just some of the perks of being a hungry, curious and beer-loving traveller.

With sticky fingers and condensed milk in my hair, I was ready to go home. While the snappy dressers of San Salvador were doing the salsa, we were drunk on food, sugar and the idea of another brand new country at our feet.

*It turns out that your passport doesn’t get stamped when you enter or exit El Salvador. It’s okay, we’ll go stampless again and again.

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The Iglesia El Rosario – it’s impossible to capture the presence of the building with a camera.

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The belly of the church – such a simple shape, but with such a grand effect.

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The streets of San Salvador.

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Two warm, inviting and delicious little pupusas laying side by side, just waiting to be ripped apart with my bare hands.

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Cholesterol county – plantain chips, corn on a grill and the twirly twirl of freshly-fried churros.

The island of yellow submarines and golf carts

To many a Beatles-loving-19th-hole-cruising individual, the island of Utila in Honduras might just be heaven on earth. Although I haven’t seen any golf courses on the island, I did see, and was almost run over on a daily basis by, a million golf carts. In Utila, you don’t walk to where you want to be. Oh no. You navigate the narrow streets with a very wide golf cart. Or a scooter, four-wheeler or tuk-tuk. When you do decide to walk, and you find yourself in the unfortunate position of having to cross the road, one tends to stay on the same side of the road. It’s just not worth it, risking your life to get a smoothie.

We arrived late in the afternoon, after travelling 10 odd hours on various buses and one very choppy ferry. Walking down the main street from the ferry dock was such a crazy experience – everything was new, wild and frantic. Bunting spun across the street flapped like mad in the wind, while the golf cart traffic was hooting and uprooting a would-be lazy afternoon. I really just wanted to stick my head in a soundless white box for 5 seconds. But as the saying goes, no man’s an island and this was our home for a week. So we had a beer and immersed ourselves in the craziness. And it was fun.

As far as Caribbean islands go (and this is only my second one), Utila is as colourful as the inside of a piñata. Brightly painted wooden clapboard houses are almost as cheery and bold as its inhabitants and the language they speak. Utila carries its heritage of British colonialism, African ancestry, Jamaican soul and Central American influences with the swagger of a child wearing a pair of shiny new shoes. Eavesdropping on conversations spoken in a Caribbean Creole-English was my favourite pastime. I could barely understand a word (The Husband said it’s like listening to drunk people having a conversation while you are in fact, stone cold sober – some words sound familiar, but for the rest, you just nod your head and pretend you know what they’re talking about).

For most of the time, I hanged around on my own, trying to blend in (and staying on the same side of the road). The Husband did his open water diving course at Utila Dive Centre, so while he was learning to breathe under water (*shudder*), I blogged, wrote an article and eavesdropped. At night, we would drink beer and eat baleadas – another highlight on my list of Central American culinary delights.

An ode to baleadas
There are more ways to eat a baleada than to skin a cat. Horrible expression, I know, but it’s the only one I could think of now. Baleadas are flour tortillas stuffed with beans and spice and everything nice. The standard baleada features mashed up black beans, boiled eggs, fried onion and if you’re lucky, a slice of avo. We also had baleadas with lion fish – these spiky little fellows aren’t welcome in Utila, as they bully and eat the other fish. So in turn, we eat them. And they are yum! The best baleadas we had was at Big Mama’s Restaurant. They are known as Super Baleadas and they feature everything mentioned above, with extra lettuce, tomato and fried chicken. They are also nice and cheap, so we had our fair share.

On how I stumbled upon the world’s biggest spider nest and a cheerful carnival
We’ve been in Central America for 3 months now, and I still haven’t seen a scary looking spider >touch wood<. So the one fateful day I was walking through the hostel’s gardens on my way to buy peanutbutter. What I initially thought was the smokey haze of the restaurant next door’s pizza oven, turned out to be a spider nest the size of a small car, housing a whole population of archaic looking creatures with stripy yellow legs. Needless to say, I took a detour back to our room. When The Bearded Diver came back from his morning session, he counted at least 50 big ones, with bunches of little ones hanging about while they followed me with their eight beady eyes. So in total, about 600 eyes were observing me every single day as I passed the hazy web. *Gulp*

But life always rewards you after pulling a nasty like that on an unsuspecting arachnophobe. In this case, my reward was being able to witness a Caribbean carnival! It wasn’t as big as Rio, considering that Utila is only 13km long, 5km wide and with one main street. But it had pirates, loads of dancing women dressed in feathers, a Garifuna ensemble with drums and a group of cyclists merrily protesting the use of golf carts on an island that small. They also handed out strings of colourful beads and sweets. What more could anyone ask for?

On our way back from the carnival, a crazy guy with a slur said the Bearded Wonder looks like Abraham Lincoln. In Utila, anything is possible…

And then we ended up doing the Macarena
After the carnival, we had baleadas (of course), and then went to a party at the dive centre. Oh what fun we had, dancing on the docks with our hands in the air and the cool Caribbean breeze messing up my already messed up hair. We told one of the dive instructors that if you combine our first names (Marc and Carina), you get the Macarena. Within 5 minutes the whole party was doing the Macarena while holding on to cups of cheap rum for dear life.
I also realised then that the Macarena is in fact a very lengthy track. It felt like forever, and after a while it felt a bit awkward. Not that the other people minded – everyone was dancing away like it was 1995.

Photo time!

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The main street at night and a Golf Carter carting around.

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Okay fine, it’s not exactly a submarine, but it is yellow and perky. As a non-diver and non-swimmer, I was beyond myself and super excited to see loads of fish swimming next to the pier every day.

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The Bearded Diver doing all types of diving things – like checking his gear and going out with his fellow divers to check out some fish, coral and Caribbean treasures.

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Isn’t it pretty?

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See those little specs on the right? It’s spiders. They were EVERYWHERE.

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No one can escape the carnival spirit. No man, nor dog.

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Some snaps of kids handing our sweets, a Garifuna drummer and a marching band. That’s also one of the many things I love about Central America – there’s always a marching band playing in somewhere.

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Birds of a feather.

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More carnival snaps – the cyclists happily protesting the use of golf carts and scooters and a tourist dressed as Superwoman.

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The real Pirates of the Caribbean.

Costa Rica – Part 3 (The adventures of Montezuma and the Zumazelas)

‘Montezuma and the Zumazelas’ is not only on the list of possible band names for when Natasha and I start our band, but I always wanted to use the word ‘Zumazelas’ somewhere and I finally found the perfect place for it.

During my days in advertising (hmm, which was about 3months ago, but being unemployed makes one quite nostalgic), there was an upbeat fellow with shiny shoes who always directed some of the voiceover artists during recordings. During one of our many sitting around and waiting conversations, he used ‘Zumazelas’ to describe our president’s (many) children. I took that description, put it in my pocket and saved it for a rainy day. Which is today. It’s raining, I’m feeling a bad case of writer’s block coming up and I need every word I can get.

‘Montezuma’ on the other hand has no direct connections to our political landscape (however, it makes for a dashing new name for the president’s multi-million rand homestead). Montezuma is in fact a small hippie town on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, and was also our very last Costa Rican destination. And it was perfect. The town centers around one shortish street, and all the hippies centre in the centre of the street. The Husband and I centered ourselves on the beach. Nice.

Our hostel (which was more a one star hotel) was right on the beach, which made our backpacker breakfast of stale bread and pineapple jam taste like brioche and brie. Some light entertainment consisting of iguanas going for their morning stroll on the grass in front of our hotel added to the delight of not having to rush anywhere. Due to my sub-standard bird watching capabilities, we also might have seen the following birds:

– Loads of hummingbirds, incl. the coppery-headed emerald
– Bananaquit
– Great-tailed grackle (they are everywhere, and they have the most beautiful call)
– Orange-chinned parakeet
– Crimson-fronted parakeet
– Slaty-tailed trogon
– Glossy ibis
– Bare-throated tiger-heron
– Swallow-tailed kite

I tried to take photos of them, but all you can see is the wrath of an unsteady shutter and the scorn of premature zooming. I’ll get into birding one day…

Between the birding and the beaching we also went hiking. More strolling than hiking. We pottered around from secluded beaches to greener pastures and waterfalls. It was so pretty that I actually felt guilty about being smack bang in the middle of nature on a Monday. Mondays were made for meetings, schedules and three cups of coffee before 10am, not swaying palm trees.

We spent about 5 days in Montezuma – we ate papaya on the beach, shared beer from 1l bottles and were nostalgic together. We also met up with Canadian friends we made in Monteverde and made friends with a really cool couple from Austria. Traveling started to make sense in Montezuma – it wasn’t about seeing and doing and exploring, it was more about being. And sometimes, that’s the best thing to do.

Let’s rather look at pictures before I get too philosophical. It must be the rain.

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A bird, a beach and Mr Crab. All in a day’s work for a stroller.

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The police station, a hotel and a map of Montezuma.

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Scenes from our hotel featuring Mr Iguana on his morning stroll.

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Life is beachy. Horrible pun, but I did warn you about the writer’s block.

Oh wait! I forgot to tell you about Liberia! We decided to stay over at this little border town before we cross over to Nicaragua. As far as border towns go, Liberia was really nice for two reasons – the area we stayed in looked like a scene from a Gabriela Garcia Marquez novel, and we had the best cooked meat at a local eatery run by a women’s collective. It really doesn’t take a lot to make me fall in love with a place.

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Above: Casa de Papel – a beautiful building covered with paper and newspaper articles. Below: My Marquez moment.

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Above: A tile on the sidewalk marks the entrance to each house. Below: Every single town in Central America has a park in the centre of town. At night, the air is filled with the aroma of street food being prepared – corn, meat and tortillas. Teenagers skate and flirt, little amigos run around and around and around and people just sit around, taking it all in.

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Yum! Fried plantains with sour cream and stewed beef served with coleslaw and tortilla.

Costa Rica – Part 2 (In which our blogger apologises for being way overdue on this blog post)

The first rule about blogging is not to apologise when you haven’t blogged for a while. Because the only person who is annoyed by the absence of posts, is the blogger. As you’re reading this, you might think “What? She hasn’t blogged for a while? I didn’t even notice it!” So now, I just made you aware that I’ve become very lazy and would rather drink a beer with the Bearded Wonder, than blog.

Excuses and ramblings aside, here’s why I think every person on earth should visit Costa Rica:

You will experience the ultimate in jelly legs after hiking a volcano
Our first stop after San Jose was La Fortuna. Our hostel was a bit crap (and smelled like it too), but we took to this tourist town’s main attractions with guns blazing. And with guns, I mean biceps and other important muscles. La Fortuna is popular for three things – the volcano, hot springs and hordes of people offering expensive tours to busloads of tourists.

Not wanting to partake in the third tourist activity mentioned, we decided to navigate our own way to the hot springs. Now, you can visit one of the hot spring resorts for $50 a pop, or just go where the locals go – for free. Not wanting to pay for a taxi (big mistake), we rented two bicycles and cycled there. It was a steady uphill a la Tour de France for 11km, under the blistering Costa Rican sun. With jelly legs and pools of sweat to rival the hot springs itself, we discovered a hidden little oasis of fresh volcano water – warm, inviting and surrounded by forest. Thank goodness it was downhill back home, because our lukewarm jelly muscles were really good for nothing after a couple of hours hot springing.

Our next adventure was hiking Cerro Chato – the volcano crater right next to Volcán Arenal (the main attraction at La Fortuna). After 400 years of dormancy, Arenal violently erupted in 1968 and until 2010, showed off its ash clouds and steamy molten rock, making it quite the tourist attraction.

Our hike produced very similar post-eruption byproducts. Ash clouds erupted from our lazy and dormant muscles as we huffed and puffed our way up. Covered in mud and insect residue, we finally made it to the crater lake, where the husband had a good swim. I had a banana, which suited me just fine. First of all, I can’t swim. And crater lakes are deep and ominous. >gulp<

The best part of the whole excursion was watching the birds returning to their nests after a busy day of being a bird. We saw the most amazing feathered creatures, like parakeets, loads of hummingbirds and swallow-tailed kites. Without any binoculars or bird-watching know-how (and a good dose of involuntary leg wobbles), we just took it for what it was. And it was magical.

You’ll hear a song in your head that will cure traveler’s fatigue
En route to our next Costa Rican destination, we had a 2-hour stopover in Tilarán – a windy town with squeaking shop signs. We had been traveling (in the pouring rain) since 5.30 that morning, so when we got to Tilarán, the husband and I were both grumpy at life. Until we walked past a couple of sabaneros* having a beer at a bar with crochet curtains. And then this song started to play in my head. With a good song, one can travel for miles and miles.

You’ll see a sloth just hanging about
Yes! This is the coolest story ever. After a looooooong bus ride from La Fortuna, we finally got to Monteverde – a little town made out of hilltops and cheese (see, I told you it’s a good story). We stayed at a really nice hostel (on Santa Elena’s side) with banana-bread breakfasts and good coffee. On our first night, while chomping away on hostel-made bruschetta and tomatoes, the manager told us there’s a sloth in the tree right next to the hostel. I love bruschetta, but I love sloths even more, so we ran outside and saw Misses Sloth just hanging out. But it gets better – she had a little sloth baby clinging to her for dear life, and they gave each other sloth kisses! I squealed and tugged at the husband’s arm until it almost broke off. Today, which is almost a month later, my eyes still glaze over when I think of that moment.

Before I get too glazy-eyed, let’s talk about cheese. Monteverde’s cheese heritage kicked off in the 1950’s, when eleven Quaker** families settled in the area. After buying a big chunk of land to cultivate, they allocated a wedge of the land to opening a cheese farm. We were way overdue on a good mouthful of cheese, so it made perfect sense to hike to the cheese farm instead of the cloud forest the area is most famous for. A stray dog joined us for the hike and life was good. The cheese was also good. Their Parmesan is nutty and sweet and they have a Baby Swiss that tastes exactly like you think a Baby Swiss should taste like.

Moving swiftly along, we also had adventures of the sporty kind. The husband went zip lining and finally realised his childhood dream of gliding through the fresh forest air like a bearded Superman in cargo shorts. I wanted to see a toucan, so I went for a suspension bridge walk through the cloud forest. The husband had an awesome time. I, on the other hand, only saw a wild turkey. I however had a really nice conversation with a fellow traveler called Vicky.

The next day we did the Cerro Amigos hike. You basically walk vertically for a good hour or so, and the view is (according to the Lonely Planet) amazing. Our luck had us hiking for what felt like hours, just to discover that it is overcast and you can’t see a thing. So we had bananas in the mist, and went back down in the rain.

The thing about nature is that it doesn’t really care about two hikers sliding down a vertical mountain pass. Or hiding its toucans when you pay $25 to see them. Nope. Nature shows what she wants, when she wants to. I guess it keeps things exciting. Like the day I stumbled upon the world’s biggest spider nest in Honduras. But that my dear friends, is a story for another day.

Photo time!

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The Husband, a volcano and a guy on a bike selling tacos – La Fortuna.

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One of many volcano selfies. Seeing that all our adventures involve just the two of us, we don’t have other people to include in our photos. So I included a flamboyant bird we spotted to break the monotony of our selfie faces.

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The lesser spotted Bearded Cratergator – Cerro Chato crater lake.

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Hot springing in the rain – La Fortuna.

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The stray dog and a happy Husband in Monteverde. He loves dogs, so we decided to give it a name. We called him Perro.

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Cheese!

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Things I saw during my Cloud Forest hike: a wild turkey, loads of suspension bridges and a wormy fellow.

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We watched the Costa Rica – Italy game in Santa Elena. Oh what fun we had! We had beer at 10 in the morning, and high-fived strangers when Costa Rica won.

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There’s always that one photo that doesn’t make sense, but that I love. That’s why I included the top photo. We were at the pharmacy trying to figure out whether we should chew, dissolve or swallow the Vit C tablets we bought. I got bored so I took photos through the pharmacy’s window of Santa Elena’s main street.

*Costa Rican cowboy

**Coming from South Africa, I had no idea who the Quakers were. Here’s a nifty article about them.

#lostintranslation

Feeling stupid in another language is much, much worse than in your mother tongue. Herewith some frustrated examples of not getting what you want (or going where you want to).

Me: “Tienes cajetas?” (Do you have those fruit sweets that I read about in the Lonely Planet? You know, the ones that are unique to Diriomo?)
Girl behind the counter: “?…Ahh! Cajetas! Sí! Con queso?” (She gives me a packet of cheese flavoured crackers).

Me (trying another vendor): “Tienes cajetas?”
Old lady behind the counter: “>smiles<”

Me: “Dónde está la oficina de correos?” (Where is the post office?)
Guy on bike: “Turn right when you get to aunt Mildred’s shop – while you’re there you should really buy a couple empanadas, it’s amazing. I think she got the recipe from her great-grandmother, the one who was married to the dentist with the lazy eye. What a fellow! When he used to play the harmonica, the three legged dog from down the road used to howl for hours. Go straight for three blocks, tap your ankles twice, and turn right at the tree next to the house that’s been on the market for months now. It’s such a sunny property, I can’t imagine why nobody wants to buy it. But they say it’s not a buyers’ market now, but that’s just a story, I think. Go straight for two more blocks, then you’ll see the post office on the left.”*
Me: “Ah! Sí! Gracias!”

Me: “Qué es esto?” (What do you call the filling in the bread roll I just ordered?)
Girl behind the counter: “Queso a chiquito.” (Cheese and a young child**)

The people here are super friendly, always willing to help or stop for a chat. And that’s why it’s so frustrating being lost in translation the whole time. When we get to Honduras, I’m going to go on a language course. Sometimes, an app is just not (h)appening.***

*That wasn’t what he said, but to my untrained Spanish ear it might as well have been.

**The roll did contain cheese, but no children. I blame my Spanish translator app for not getting it right.

***Horrible pun alert! Quelle horreur!