Flores and Tikal Ruins

A long journey north, through the many twisting mountain roads of the Highlands and cramped into many a local shuttle bus, I finally made it to Flores. A small island in Lake Peten Itza joined by a causeway to the mainland, Flores is a peculiar little place with little much going on and some moody shop keepers. There’s a square and a cathedral up on a hill, and some nice places to sit out and eat your lunch looking over the waters, but apart from that there’s little else to do.

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View of lake from Flores

It was interesting to watch a thunder storm brew over the lake though – I caught glimpses of actual veins of electricity darting through the night sky. And the hostel Los Amigos is definitely recommended with a good atmosphere, fairylights, a good many and cocktail list.

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Los Amigos Hostel

The real reason I ventured here was to head to Tikal, one of the finest Mayan civilisations that has been preserved. Tours can be booked across the island for sunrise, though it can be expensive and not always worth it if it’s cloudy. Indeed entrance to the park alone costs 150 Queatzales after 6am.

Tikal literally means “Place where the Gods Speak” and is a vast set of ruins stretching over an area of 26km squared. The main square in the middle has two great temples – you are able to climb up the Temple of the Queen which is little effort and gives you good views.

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King’s Temple at Tikal

Furthermore, if one stands in the plaza and claps, the echo from the pyramid buildings sends of an odd “ca-caw” sound which is peculiarly similar to the national bird the Quetzal which was worshiped by the Mayas.

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View of Central Plaza

Mayas are famous for their human sacrifice and there are many stone circles present at the sight where the sacrifices apparently took place. Mayas also tend to build their temples in pairs facing east to west – the civilization was very astronomical and aligning their holy places with sunrise and sunset was important to them.

Perhaps the most impressive view from the top of a pyramid was from Temple 4, also the furthest away from the park entrance. When at the top, the view is spectacular across Tikal whch is now mainly reclaimed by forest – much of it is green but for the two other peaks of the main plaza peaking through.

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View from Temple 4

Well worth a visit, this set of ruins is a treasure trove for discovery about a once great civilisation that fell to the hands of the Spanish invaders in the late 1400s

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Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala

About 3 hours west of Antigua and you get to Lago de Atitlan, one of the most visited destinations on the Guatemalan backpacking trail. Indeed my guidebook tells me that Aldous Huxley, the author of one of my favourite dystopian novels Brave New World described it as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, and coming down the mountainside on a chicken bus from Solala, it is easy to see why.

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Two of the three volcano peaks on Lake Atitlan

The lake is vast – there are a number of destinations which one could visit. I found a cheap room in Panajachel, but had I had more time I think I would have ventured further – I have heard good things about San Pedro and hippy things about San Marcos.

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Panajachel in all its finery

The lake itself is not the best for swimming – especially around the town it was quite full of rubbish. But I went on a 20min boat ride from the jetty which gave me good views of the three volcanoes the lake is famous for. As it was Easter Sunday, the place was buzzing with locals and the shore side was filled with vendors – people trying to sell tourist items, but also locals frying up tortillas and various pieces of indescript meats on smoky BBQs.

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The jetty at lake Atitlan

Kayaks are available for hire on the lake with the morning being advised as the water is less choppy. I also saw paragliders from the boat – if only I were a billionnaire…

A short stay at the lake, but it was time to head north through the highlands to the ancient centre of the Mayas

Managua, Nicaragua

My last stop in Nicaragua is Managua, the capital city. I am only staying here one night to get the Tica bus to Guatemala tomorrow (I say Guatemala, I’ll actually be passing through Honduras and staying a night in San Salvador – two of the most “dangerous” countries to travel to according to much of the US embassy’s guidelines, more on that later).

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Main street in Managua

Managua really lacks the charm that the colonial cities of Granada and Leon had. For a start it’s much bigger and really hard to navigate. Now, I feel I am pretty good at orientation and I am usually quite ok with just the small guidebook maps for most of the places I go. With grids of streets that look the same, no proper central landmark to orientate yourself and men constantly cat-calling, saying hello or “gringa gringa!” or whistling at you, naturally I ended up getting lost twice.

The first time I was saved by a nice young Nicaraguan engineering student who took me to the one place there really is to go in Managua – Laguna de Tiscapa which is some weird large like next to a hill. The hill gives you a good view and the young man was very pleasant company and I had a great time practicing my Spanish.

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Laguna de Tiscapa

After that, I went to the cinema in the mall, since I’ve been craving watching a movie. I saw a dubbed version of the film “Going in Style” (“Un Golpe con Estilo”) which I have to reccommend – it was very entertaining and quite a sweet story which I much needed to get over my Leon hangover.

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Top of the hill in Managua

I got lost again on the way back, quite badly lost because a guy on a bike came and told me I was about to go into a really dangerous neighbourhood. He took me back to a play park where it suddenly transpired he had a wife and kids – I thought he was my age up until then. The kids were really sweet there, they kept asking me if I was a gringa (for those of you who don’t know, gringo or gringa is the Central American term for Americans and other foreigners, you get it a lot if you’re blonde and pale af)

Back to the hostel for a chilled night writing and reading. Up at 3:45 for the Tica Bus.

Leon, Las Penitas and Volcano Boarding down Cerros Negros

A bus journey, a quick change in Managua and I arrived in the lovely north eastern town of Leon. Leon was once the capital of Nicargua until 1857. Home to Nicaragua’s national university, the atmosphere here is healthy and buzzing.

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The Cathedral in Leon

A lot of tourists pass through this town, many of them hearing about the activity of volcano boarding.

Going down a steep, ashy volcano on a plank of wood at speeds of up to 90 km/h? Naturally I had to try.

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Hiking up Cerros Negros – if you touch the floor you can actually feel the heat of this very active volcano

First of all it is necessary to get up the volcano in order to come down from it. This involves about an hour of walking carrying your board which I was perfectly ok with, apart from when the wind tried to steal my board!

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Me jumping very strangely…

Some people did struggle however, but there were people there to help you with your board if you needed it. The paths were sometimes a bit unsteady too – good trainers or hiking boots are definitely needed.

 

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Sliding down a volcano in an orange jumpsuit anyone?

The ride down looked scary at first, but it was so fun! Even if you do end up falling off the board when the tour guide is taking a photo of you…

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My dramatic fall

All in all, it was a fun occasion and I am very glad I got up the guts to do it.

The activity is – like most others in the tourist industry – quite expensive. Most places offer the package for around $30, giving you a snack, a beer and a t-shirt to remember the occasion. Since I have been pretty scrupulous so far, I figured one splurge wouldn’t hurt too bad. Furthermore, the activity is partaken at one’s own risk, and some people have mentioned how it is dangerous. In my opinion, risk elements are there, but I felt entirely in control for the majority of the time…

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Me posing on a Pacific beach

Afterwards I took the shuttle to Las Penitas, a quiet beach town on the Pacific coast with huge waves. A sunset and some rum and cokes topped off a beautiful day, and it was back to the hostel bar for a much needed dance.

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Sunset at Las Penitas

I’ve been out two nights in a row dancing to reggaeton and even trying to salsa. I’ve also made friends with two Nicargauans and met some really interesting people at the hostel.

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One of my new best friends

Leon has been one of my favourite towns so far, but the east wind is blowing and it’s necessary for me to move on. Vaminos!

 

Granada on Lake Managua

The city of Granada set directly on the banks of the enormous Lake Managua is actually named after the city in Spain – Francisco Fernandez de Cordoba named it after his Spanish hometown when he first arrived in 1524. Much of the city’s buildings, however, date to the nineteenth century when the American William Walker gained control. He was promptly overthrown, with much of the original city being destroyed in the process.

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View from the Cathedral tower in Granada

Today the town is a pleasant place to take a breather. There are plenty of churches to see – I climbed up the cathedral tower for a good view of the city and the neighbouring volcano. Parque Central is also a pleasant place to sit, although I would consider it more a square than a park, but it is becoming a theme that anywhere I go to sit, the Nicaraguans come up and talk to me. In this case it was Mario, Jose and Frank who were three very friendly old men drinking the liquer cacique at about two in the afternoon. I had a good chat with them, practised my Spanish, but promptly left when one of them started getting creepy and going on about how beautiful I was.

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One of the many churches of the city

I stayed at the hostel De Boca de Boca which was very relaxed with plenty of hammocks, bean bags and comfy seats to sit on. Breakfast was included – we were provided with pancake mix and had to set about cooking using frying  pans. Very fun!

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Parque Central in Granada

Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua

The name Ometepe derives from the Aztec language of Nahauatl’s words for two mountains. This it has – two volcanoes in fact, and this is probably what makes the island so striking.

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Two volcano peaks of Ometepe as viewed from the ferry

In order to get to Ometepe you need to take a 50 cordoba ($1.7) ferry from San Jose which is accessible by a taxi from the nearby Rivas. The ferry is about an hour and dropped me off in Moyogalpa near the largest of the two volcanoes; Concepcion. Moyogalpa is probably the largest town on the island, but even this is small without much going on – my visit here was a lot more subdued compared to San Juan del Sur. That said, I did enjoy the restaurant Picante right near the port and next to the hostel I was staying at. I went here with an American pilot I met at the hostel who was also travelling around alone, and both our meals and drinks – mine was a cheese quesadilla – cost under $20. The place is also owned by a very nice Swahili man who it was good to converse with,

I would recommend hiring a motorcycle if you can ride one – which I can’t. But with quiet and relatively alright roads, this is probably the best way to travel the island.

I took a bus to El Ojo de Agua, an inland cold Spring which was very refreshing and even had a Tarzan swing which was very fun.

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Ojo de Agua, a pleasant spring on the Isla de Ometepe

Tours to hike the volcanoes – and you need a tour guide – costs around $20, but be warned, it is hard!

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Sign for the volcano

All in all, I am a little underwhelmed with Ometepe. If it is trekking you want, do stopover, but otherwise I am not so sure I would return.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

San Juan del Sur and the Nicaraguan Border Crossing (Penas Blancas), Nicaragua – including the story of the missing dolphin…

The journey from Tamarindo to the Nicaraguan border isn’t too bad – only one connection in Liberia and costing under $4 in total. The border crossing itself is a bit more strenuous. First you have to pay an exit tax which at the time of writing was $7, and this has to be bought from a dodgy looking stall on the Costa Rican side. A 300m walk, during which I almost got taken out by a careless truck driver, and you reach the Nicaraguan customs, the entry tax being $12.

The little shanty town just through the border is interesting. Bustling with food stalls, money exchangers shoving wads of cordobas in your face and people yelling “taxi” and occasionally “guapa”.

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Crossing to Nicaragua

I eventually located a chicken bus which would take me to Rivas. If you’ve never been to Central America, you’ll have no idea what these are, and trust me, the concept itself is quite baffling. Essentially this is the public bus service here, but they are run in old US school buses, the classic yellow ones which you see in the movies. Your luggage might well be chucked on top of the bus, as my backpack was, so keep valuables in a separate pack. Music blares loudly, vendors walk the cramped aisles selling fast-food such as corn. I have heard that they are called chicken buses because livestock are very much welcome aboard, though I haven’t seen any myself.

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A chicken bus in Ometepe
Having told the “conductor” (a guy who opens the door whilst the bus is still moving at speed and constantly whistles to the driver to let him know when to go again) that I was heading to San Juan del Sur, he promptly dropped me off at a junction in the middle of nowhere and I was left to fend by myself. Luckily, another chicken bus heading to San Juan del Sur came in good time and I made it there safe and sound having had a nice chat with an old French-Candian couple on board.

San Juan del Sur is another paradisaical location only just being discovered by travelers. A glorious bay with a sweeping sand beach, a great vibe with latino music constantly blaring as you walk through the streets, this place is well worth a visit.

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San Juan del Sur

The beach at San Juan del Sur isn’t quite as equipped for surfing as Tamarindo, but this small Pacific coast town is well worth a visit. Many hostels do shuttles to beaches better equipped for surfing. Prices are noticeably cheaper than Costa Rica, with some of the Happy Hour offers at the beachside bars offering decent cocktails for $2 or less.

Good places to go for nightlife include Lost in Translation and Iguana, but there are plenty of great bars in the town. It’s small too, so it’s easy to get between them.

 

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My sunset mojito costing just £2 or 60 cordobasT

The whole town sits underneath a statue of Jesus atop a hill. It isn’t too strenuous to climb and there’s a great view over the town.

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Statue of Jesus on the hill overlooking San Juan del Sure

Once more, there was an absolutely fantastic sunset, and San Juan del Sur marks the first place I have swam in the ocean at sunrise and sunset in the same day.

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Sunset at San Juan del Sur, perfect time for swimming

I had a complete disaster when my dolphin mascot toy – one that I have had for 12 years and has survived trips to both Egypt and Russia and therefore is very hardy – went missing.

I was actually almost in tears; I had placed him down next to my bed, but the next day (when I was supremely hungover might I add) he was gone!

What monster would take such a ratty, dog-eared little toy?

This monster, after several hours of worrying and being hastled by an odd Nicaraguan and Argentinian sitting on the steps by the beach volleyball courts, turned out to be in the shape of a puppy.

Yes, somehow the hostel owner’s dog had managed to get a hold of my beloved dolphin and the poor thing required many emergency stitches. He’s doing great now – in recovery – and he’s very proud of his scars and being able to tell everyone that he fought a pitbull puppy and won.

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My tough dolphin sporting his battle scars

I am in Moyagolpa, Ometepe now, more detailed most tomorrow!