Monday, October 20, 2008

Stuck in transit

Last Friday I left San Jose at 3:30 pm for Tamarindo. I was expecting to arrive there six hours later; however, after living in Costa Rica for three months I know that six hours can easily turn into seven depending on unexpected stops or traffic. Pura vida, right? (By the way, "pura vida" is a saying in CR, but it's really more like an attitude/way of life). So, three hours into the bus ride when we were stopped in traffic, I wasn't too concerned.

After 30 minutes of listening to my ipod and ignoring the fact that we hadn't moved, I began to notice the growing restlessness of the other passengers. Due to the many ambulances that had passed us (driving on the wrong side of the road) we knew that there was an accident, but we didn't know where it was or why it was taking so long to clear the road. In fact, nobody seemed to know what was going on, but everyone had something to say about it. Some people said that the equipment to move the cars involved in the accident had broken down. Others explained that the same portion of the highway was closed the night before due to rain, and all the traffic had to turn around and go back to San Jose. Many feared this would happen again, and they weren't happy about it.

For the first hour or so, I was really frustrated and impatient, but finally I just started laughing when I realized how ridiculous the situation was. For as far as I could see, there was a line of cars, all turned off, with people wandering around on the dark two lane highway somewhere in the mountains between San Jose and Liberia. On top of that, some of the other passengers decided to start walking to their final destination, which was obviously a terrible idea. I had never seen anything like this before.

Being the only gringa on the bus, I quickly made friends with the ticos and laughed with them as they bad mouthed their own country (I heard "only in Costa Rica" many times). After being stuck in the same spot for nearly two hours, the bus driver decided to get everyone back on the bus and drive on the wrong side of the road for about a kilometer to reach the closest restaurant. At this point, I had accepted the fact that I would arrive in Tamarindo considerably later than expected.

While killing some time at the restaurant, we heard the road was still closed due to the fact that the people who worked for the morgue never came to pick up the two dead bodies from the crash scene. Well, at least that was the rumor, who knows if this is actually true. Regardless, with this news we were hopeful that we would reach Tamarindo before sunrise.

I was in line for a beer at the restaurant, when the bus driver frantically tapped me on the shoulder to tell me that the road was open and we had to get on the bus immediately. I soon realized that every vehicle that had stopped at the restaurant was trying to get back on the highway, creating a traffic jam spanning both lanes. Then, surprise, surprise cars started coming from the opposite direction so we had to back up to let them through before we could cross to the other lane.

We spent another hour in bad traffic, but at least we were moving. I arrived in Tamarindo after 1 am, nearly ten hours after I left San Jose. Up to this point, this is the best example I have of the crazy things that happen in CR. Pura vida.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Traveling North of the border

Hey all, as you already know I got home from my week vacation in Nicaragua last Sunday. It was a really rewarding week of travel and as much as I would love to tell you every detail I realize that some people probably don't care that in Nicaragua instead of greeting people with something like "buenas tardes" you greet someone by saying "adios". So, I will try to summarize the 7 days and 8 nights as best as I can.

Well, Stephen (co-worker/friend) and I left Saturday and spent a little over 12 hours in transit to reach our first destination, Leon. The 12+ hours included 3 hours spent at the border crossing, roughly 8 hours in the bus from San Jose to Managua, 1 hour in a bus (really a van) from Managua to Leon, and three taxis. Saturday night after dropping our stuff off at the hostel, we wandered around, found a place to eat, and called it an early night.

Sunday after taking advantage of the free coffee, tea and internet at the hostel, we set out to explore Leon. The city is known for its colonial architecture and churches. We didn't come across many tourists, which was a refreshing change from traveling in Costa Rica. Besides visiting churches, we also stumbled upon a museum run by a group of Sandinista war veterans. This "museum" was simply an open room with newspaper clippings, photographs and a few maps lining the walls. For 20 cordobas (about a dollar), we were able to hear the story firsthand from one of the veterans. It was very interesting to hear about the guerilla warfare that took place in Leon.

Monday morning we left our hostel fairly early to make our way to Laguna de Apoyo, a crater lake to the South of Leon. After trudging through the "streets turned rivers" of downtown Leon, we found the bus to Managua and finally got out of the rain. We changed buses in Managua and despite the fact that the van was over capacity (I was standing), the bus attendant continued to yell the destination to anyone we passed on the street, and yes we did pick up a few more people. Also despite the number of passengers, I managed to remove my soaking wet shoes and socks with the help of an old man sitting next to where I was standing. It seems insignificant now, but at the time it was of utmost importance to me.

Eventually we were dropped off on the side of the highway by the road leading to the entrance to the Laguna. Being budget travelers, we opted to walk to the Laguna instead of taking a taxi. After all, it seemed like a good idea considering the travel guide said it was only a 2 kilometer hike. As it turns out, it's more like 6 kilometers from the highway to the hostels that are on the Laguna, but the hour and 45 minute hike was well worth it. We spent the rest of Monday relaxing, swimming, reading and enjoying the local beer, Toña. Tuesday was basically a repeat of Monday with less beer involved. Although it was hard to leave the enticing, friendly atmosphere of the Laguna, we took a bus to Granada late Wednesday morning to keep our trip on schedule.

Granada is a colonial city in Nicaragua and it is well known by tourists and expats alike. Wednesday we explored the city a bit, had dinner at a popular pizza restaurant, visited a Nica wine bar, and then met up with our friend Andrew, who joined us for the rest of the trip. We spent Thursday morning visiting churches and museums and we even climbed a couple bell towers. After a late lunch, we walked to the Lago (lake) de Nicaragua and decided to take a tour of the isletas (small islands). Being low season, we were the only three on the boat. It was a well needed break from all the walking we had done that day.

Early Friday morning, we set off for our final destination, Isla de Ometepe on Lake Nicaragua. To get there, we took a bus to a town called Rivas, then a taxi to San Jorge, and finally a ferry to the island (fully equipped with music videos from the 80s for your entertainment). Once on the island, we shared a taxi with a few other travelers to go to Playa Santo Domingo. The "beach" was pretty much nonexistent, but it was a good location for hiking either volcano, which was the whole purpose of coming to the island. The two volcanoes on the island are Concepcion, which is still active, and Maderas, which is not active.

We spent a lot of time on Friday trying to decide which volcano to climb and if we needed to use a guide or not. Our travel guide recommended using a guide and the locals tried to convince us that there was a "ecological military zone" that made a guide a necessity; however, after talking to other travelers, we discovered that it was possible to do it on your own. So, Friday night after carb-loading on pasta at dinner, we decided that we would hike Concepcion without a guide. Our only concern was the weather; around 9 pm Friday night it started storming, and by "storming" I mean that we could see lightning hitting the water in front of our hostel. Still hopeful that our Saturday wouldn't go to waste, we went to bed early.

To our surprise, Saturday morning we woke to clear conditions and started the hike at 6 am, expecting it to take about ten hours. The summit of the volcano is roughly 1610 meters (5300 feet) above sea level, and the hike itself is around 7 kilometers each way. In the beginning, we had to walk through a banana plantation and then a forest before reaching an area where we could view the rest of the island. The climb to the top was far from easy, especially considering the abundant number of rocks on the trail, but I really enjoyed the challenge. The trail basically ends before reaching the summit (guides won't take you beyond this point). At this elevation, there is far less vegetation and the vegetation that does exist is wilting and covered in ash. The last part of the hike was a little trickier due to the loose sand and rocks, but we all made it to the edge of the crater at the top.

As I sat on the hot sand/rock surface admiring the view of the entire island (we were fortunate that the summit wasn't covered in clouds), I began to realize that I had to climb back down this steep, rocky volcano in my old puma tennis shoes (not exactly hiking quality). Briefly, I was struck by panic and the fact that I was sitting next to the crater of a volcano that had it's last (small) eruption in 2007 didn't help my state of mind. After a few minutes of taking pictures, resting, and for me mentally preparing myself, we carefully began our descent.

Although I spent a good amount of time basically sliding down the volcano, my anxiety dissipated within the first few minutes of climbing down. I was feeling great for the first half of the way down; then, we realized that we were out of water, which is really the last thing you want to happen. For the last two hours or so of the hike, we were all becoming dehydrated (and we were obviously tired). Luckily, we made it down and found water without any serious problems. We arrived back to the main road around 4:30 pm (right before it started raining) and waited about an hour for the bus back to Playa Santo Domingo. For out last night in Nicaragua, we went to the nicest restaurant we could find, which still only cost around $45 for three people (including drinks, an appetizer, 3 meals, and dessert).

Our long day of travel back to San Jose began at 5 am Sunday morning. We waited for the bus in front of our hostel, wondering if we should have spent a few extra dollars and called a taxi. The bus was only 15 minutes late, so we were hopeful that we would still make it back to Rivas in time to catch our 9 am bus to San Jose. The bus ride was longer than expected and we barely caught the 7 am ferry back to the mainland. I have to mention that while riding the bus I saw a Nicaraguan man wearing a KU First shirt. Rock Chalk! Unfortunately, he got off the bus before I could get to my camera.

After a short taxi ride from the ferry port to Rivas, we arrived at the bus station with time to spare. At this point, I was actually looking forward to getting on the bus and hopefully going back to sleep, but once we were on the bus we reached the border faster than I expected. Getting our exit stamps was as simple as giving our passports to the bus attendant and waiting 15 minutes; however, getting our entrance stamps to Costa Rica was a little more complicated because the "system" was down and they were supposedly calling in every passport for verification. To tell you the truth, I'm still not really sure what happened, but what I do know is that normally we would have had to wait in line but instead we gave our passports and customs forms back to the bus attendant who miraculously got each and every passport stamped within an hour.

The sketchiest part of the border crossing was when they told all of us that we had to take our luggage off the bus for inspection. First, everyone lined the luggage up on a few benches outside the immigration office. Then, a customs officer walked by the line of luggage and handed each bag back to its rightful owner. I think I saw him open one bag. So, after getting our laugh for the day, we got back on the bus and left the border only 2 hours after arriving. The remainder of the bus ride seemed to take forever, but I was back at home in San Pedro around 5 pm.

Well, this wasn't exactly the "summary" that I intended it to be, but adding details makes it more interesting. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.