When I last wrote you, I left off at the point where I was saying farewell
to Central America and heading to the airport for my solo adventure in Peru.
Well, what an adventure it has been so far.
We´ll start with the saga of the guidebook. All travellers know that a
guidebook is essential to any foreign excursion. Especially when you are
doing a ¨DIY¨deal, it is essential to know what there is to do, where you
can stay, how you get to places etc. Without said guidebook, one might say
that you feel somewhat paralyzed, and that’s in a country where you speak the
language, and buses arrive on time, and people tell you the truth when they
are selling a trip. But not Peru. Here, being without a guidebook is
extremely difficult. As I found out on Monday.
On my last night in San Jose, I went searching for a guidebook in several
large bookstores. They had all kinds of books from all of South America but
nothing on Peru. ¨You´ll find one at the airport, they told me¨. No
SO, at the airport, departing San Jose, there were plenty of guidebooks,
hundreds in fact, but they were all for Costa Rica. Not sure why that would
be necessary if you´re leaving Costa Rica, but oh well. I figured the same
would be true in Lima, and I would find myriads of books in the departure
area of the airport. I wasn´t too concerned. However, upon arrival, to my
dismay ‘ I found lots of travel guides but NONE for Peru…for Rome, Athens,
London, Europe, Chile, India, Nepal…anywhere you wanted to go, except the
country YOU HAD JUST ARRIVED IN. When I asked, I discovered that it wasn´t
that they were out of Peruvian guidebooks, they just didn´t carry them!
Ok. Deep breath. I´ll find one. Stela´s family had very generously
offered to let me stay with them in Lima. Her brother, Saviour, met me at
the airport and we walked out to the car. I then saw her father, 76 years
old, Jose ¨Pepe¨ Diaz standing in the heat with his walking frame in the
heat and I just wanted to give him a hug for being so kind.
The Diaz family were wonderful to me and extremely hospitable. It was
also the greatest Spanish lesson of my life, I think I spoke more
Spanish in that one day than I have in the last 10 years. I also
learned, to my horror, that I´ve been saying certain phrases that mean
something completely different than I originally thought. Apparently,
when in the past I have commented to someone ¨Wow, its so hot, and I´m
so tired…but I´m excited to be here¨ I have actually been saying
¨Yeah, I´m hot stuff, and I´m so married….but I´m sexually aroused.¨
I immediately noticed with the Diaz family just how patient everyone
is here with one another. After driving to their family home and
dropping off my luggage, Savior and I sat and chatted for a while. I
asked him what the plan was..and he said that he was waiting for me.
¨Where is your Dad´´ I asked, ¨¨in the car, waiting for us!¨¨ So
bizarre. I was sure that I was waiting for them.
So off we went to find the local tourism office and enquire after
finding an English language guidebook. I couldn´t imagine it to be
too difficult. Well, they sent us to 3 different bookstores, and we
ended up fighting traffic for the next 4 hours, disappointed at each
store that had lots of guidebooks, but none on Peru. I felt so awful
to be wasting their time, not to mention gas for their car, and the
fact that they were all hungry. Pepe kept telling me not to worry,
because if I was a friend of his daughter, then I am also his
daughter. He was so sweet.
This all would be stressful enough, except that, did I mention, Pepe
really can´t drive to save his, and ultimately, our lives. The entire
time we were in the car I was braced for a metal twisting, screeching
brake, people yelling collision. Pepe drove very slow, causing every
car to honk their horn at him, yell angrily, and drive madly around
him. Because he drove so slowly, he kept stalling the car…when he
tried to rev it from 5mph in 3rd gear. We would stall in the middle
of an 8 way intersection, and I would just close my eyes and brace for
impact. I ts a miracle we survived.
At one point, Pepe decided he didn´t want to turn right, and turned
left into oncoming traffic, honking his way through cars, in order to
make a U Turn. It was absolutely terrifying. I asked Savior why he
didn´t drive, and he said that he didn´t want to pass the exam. I
don´t know, I wouldn´t let my dad drive me around if I felt that each
venture out of the house might be my last.
At one point, Pepe just stopped the car dead in the middle of the
street and started to get out of the car. It took him about 10
minutes, after which he stood there and peed. It was
After an exasperating time looking for the damn book, we gave up and
decided to go buy my bus ticket for tomorrow to Pisco, as the lady at
the tourism office had warned us that since it was Holy Week, I MUST
buy tickets today, I couldn´t buy tickets in the morning, and the bus
might be sold out.
I kid you not, it took another hour and a half just to crawl through
traffic MADNESS to get to the bus station, then another hour waiting
in line to talk to an incompetent sales agent who moved at the speed
of tortoise on valium. The bus company had been recommended to me..it
was called Ormeno‘ it was supposed to be the nicest of the companies,
and the safest. However, I really think they should change their
slogan from ¨´We are the people who help people travel´….to ´´We are
the people who make it as difficult as possible for you to give us
The following morning, I arrived, early. The bus was an hour late and
wait for it…there were only 2 passengers on board. We had to spend
5 hours arranging tickets for THAT. I don´t understand why people
can´t just make bookings on the phone or the Internet, especially
since it is a city clogged to a full stop with traffic. Apparently,
as I´ve discovered over the past few days, you can ONLY change your
ticket IN PERSON, AT THE BUS STATION, even if that means you have to
spend an entire afternoon and taxi fare going back and forth.
That evening the family and I went to have Chinese food, which was a
little odd for my first day in Peru. However, I did try a Peruvian
staple of Inca Kola…the Peruvian soft drink of choice which is
bright yellow and tastes of bubble gum. By the time we finished
eating it was 11pm, and I still had to go to the Internet to print AT
LEAST one chapter of the Lonely Planet,…which ended up taking
another two hours to print, no laser printers here!
Needless to say, I was extremely sleep deprived in the morning, but
caught my bus to Pisco and felt quite relieved to be leaving the dirty
metropolis. I loved staying with the Diaz family, I only wish I had
had the time to watch them teach in their local folk ´´Marinera¨dance
The bus itself was very comfortable and despite being tired, I
couldn´t resist watching Marley and Me even though it was dubbed in
Spanish. These Ormeno Spanish movies have been really improving my
language skills. I arrived in Pisco having balled my eyes out after
Marley had died, and then nearly started crying when I looked at the
city I was entering for the night.
It looked like what I imagine war torn rural Iraq to look like.
The roads were dusty, buildings completely destroyed, thousands of
makeshift homes made from mud and clay….The earthquake of 2007
clearly had very visible remnants of its impact, and rebuilding has
only just begun.
I was beginning to wonder what my hotel would look like, but I was
extremely pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful, clean, courtyard,
with restaurant, and very welcoming room with breakfast for 16 bucks!
I have to end there…to be continued! I am currently in the Colca
Canyon, so I might not be able to write again for a couple of days…
Hope you enjoy!
Our guides (who were delightful eye candy) picked us up at 7:30am and kitted us out with harnesses, helmets and gloves. We were warned that we were going to get wet, so I just had on my quick dry shirt and shorts with a swimsuit underneath. We were going to be traversing through the jungle, through a canyon called ¨The Lost Canyon” because, apparently, it doesn´t exist on a map. The scenery was lush and spectacular. After a safety briefing we started our first rappel down through the river, holding tightly to our safety ropes, lowering ourselves stepping carefully on the slippery rock, while our guides kicked water all over us.
The entire experience was a thrill, especially the 300 foot rappel down the main waterfall. I had to not look down and just trust that the guides were going to keep the rope taught should I lose my grip on my “speed controlling” rope. We also got the chance to jump, swim, immerse, plunge, traverse and get heavily doused in water for the entire morning…and we were spent by the time the tour came to an end and we had to climb back up to the top of the canyon.
After a quick shower and change into dry clothes, we were delighted by a fantastic home cooked meal of stewed pork, rice, mango pico de gallo, avocados, coleslaw, black beans, and tortilla chips. Yum!
Arriving back to our hotel we all disappeared for a couple hours´ of nap. Then I decided that there is no rest for the wicked and set out to rent a couple of bikes for a ride up to La Fortuna waterfall, which I was assured was an “easy, 7km, 30 minute” ride to the waterfall. Lies. All of them.
Greetings from Costa Rica!
Let me start by saying a big thank you to those of you who so kindly wrote to me offering words of encouragement and support. It really means a lot to me. I have decided to keep travelling…(what the hell?) since I don’t know when I’ll get another opportunity like this! And I really need to time to heal, regroup, figure out what is next in my life. On Tuesday, this part of the Central American adventure will end and I will be flying to Lima in Peru!! I’m going to spend about a month travelling through Peru and then end up in Bolivia, flying back to San Jose in Costa Rica (where my original flight home was from) on April 28. SO: if any of you would like to meet me in Costa Rica for a week or so at the end of my adventures….PLEASE LET ME KNOW!! Right now, I’ve changed my flight home to Seattle to May 13…..!
SO! I have the CRAZIEST day today! We are currently staying in the cloud forest reserve town of Monteverde in Costa Rica. This afternoon I reluctantly agreed to partake in a canopy tour of the cloud rain forest, which basically involves hurtling yourself at high speeds across mountainous chasms (at least 1500 feet up in the air) attached to a steel zip line and a hip harness. Some of the “crossings” were over 2600 metres in length, taking a full 2 minutes to cross. It was the closest thing to flying that I’ve ever experienced in my life and it was both exhilarating and utterly terrifying. They give you a lot of tips to help prevent you from starting to spin out of control, or worse yet, braking so much that you end up suspended in the middle of the cable, dangling over the canyon…as the only way out of that situation is literally pulling yourself hand over hand upside down to the other side….CRAZY!
If that wasn’t bad enough- the last canopy “ride” was a Tarzan style swing which was kind of like zip line meets a bungee jump. It was insane, and I don’t know how I did it! I literally held my breath and let the guide push me off the ledge where I was standing, where I proceeded to free fall for about 35 feet before the rope held taught and I was flying screaming over the treetops. Exhilarating.
I was so exhausted by the end, and it was mostly because of all the built up adrenaline from the afternoon.
I left off my last email in the beautiful colonial town of Granada in southern Nicaragua…the poorest country in Central America. On the first afternoon a few of us took a boat trip on Lake Nicaragua to several of the thousands of islands that dot this second largest freshwater lake in all of South America (after Lake Titicaca). Our guide gave us the history of the area as well as some pretty grim statistics of current affairs- 62% unemployment, 71% of the nation is under age 30, and the average wage is $1,000 a year. He said that having a job here is like owning treasure…you cherish it. Gave me a lot of food for thought and helped to explain the events that took place over dinner that evening that I described in my last email. People pushed to the edge just to survive are capable of doing anything.
It has been difficult not to notice the extreme poverty in Nicaragua. It was bad in Honduras too…but not quite as evident. A lot more people are begging on the street, many of them young children, and there are plenty of hawkers trying to sell anything they can to those who will part with cash. Many homes for multiple family members are single room abodes with dirt floors and little furniture or creature comforts. For the most part though, everyone I´ve met seems happy- because the one thing that stands out here as being available in an extremely plentiful fashion is…community. Everyone here knows their neighbors, they acknowledge each other and linger in conversation, they offer rides to one another as they drive by, and in the smaller towns, everyone knows each other. Family seems very important too, so it appears that despite the hardships of life, the people have one another and therefore find joy in their day to day lives. That is at least my impression.
The next day I went on a tour of the active Masaya Volcano. Unfortunately (felt like cheating) you could drive to the top and then peer over the edge into the steaming cauldron of sulphurous gases. I thought it was funny that there were miles of hiking trails, some of which we did, and also signs stating that you had to park backed into a spot, just in case the area had to be evacuated in a hurry!
Afterwards we visited a craft market, had a delicious hearty lunch, and visited a ceramic factory where we could try our hands at clay pottery. I was dismal unfortunately- the foot-eye coordination that spinning the wheel and simultaneously molding the clay required was beyond me. 😦
That evening we had the worst meal of the trip in this nasty local restaurant lit with blindingly bright fluorescent lights. ugh. Couldn´t complain though…it cost $2 for a plate of chicken, rice, and beans.
Though it has improved somewhat, I was still having a very hard time getting along with my group who seem to have simply excluded me from their conversations. I am looking forward to being with new people come Peru…I´m beginning to wonder if its just me and that I make an awful travel companion?
I committed to moving on to doing my own thing, and meeting more locals. Which I did.
After a gruelling 12 hour travel day, which began at 5am, we arrived in Isla Ometepe, which is a Volcanic island created by the molten lava flowing between two volcanoes in Southern Nicaragua: Concepcion and Madera. The heat was astronomical here. It was well over 100 ´F by 10am..and we had most of the journey on HOT, STICKY, I AM NOW AT ONE WITH MY SEAT, chicken buses. We had the added pleasure of riding on the chicken ferry that afternoon too! Don´t ask me what made it chicken. I threw up.
Our hotel was located another hour´s bumpy unpaved road away on the beach of Lake Nicaragua. It was a charming little spot…lots of pink cabins cooled only with fans, and lots of hammocks dotted around the grounds and beach front. We were in the middle of nowhere. Lovely. It was so hot, that after I´d ordered my lunch….I got up from the table, walked into the lake (fully clothed), submerged, got up, walked back to the table, and sat down. Sleeping was very hard these two nights….especially when the power went out and the only relief from the fans was cut off. My roommate and I just kept getting up in the night, taking a cold shower, then lying back on the bed sopping wet…giggling at the situation. It was quite funny.
The following morning I set out at 6:30am to climb Volcano Masaya. I was feeling very brave as it was a 4586 foot mountain, and we were at sea level….that’s quite a day hike, especially in the heat. And I was the only one who wanted to go! I managed to find a guide who was taking another few people from the hotel next door, and joined his group. I hiked with a lovely gay couple from England, and a married couple from Toronto. Our guide, Daniel, was charming and asked for help when struggling with his English (he also let me sing Beatles songs to him all the way down which gave him extra bonus points in my book). Thankfully, most of the hike was in forest canopy, so we were shielded from the unforgiving sun. It was a challenging climb, about a 1-4 of the way up, our English friends said they were headed down to get a couple of Margaritas and sit it out… I was undeterred. I felt SO HAPPY finally hiking again, doing something active, and was so excited to see the cloud forest at the top and the giant crater. It was the first time my surroundings really penetrated deeply, taking me far far away from my life back home, from my relentlessly painful heartbreak, from my job loss, from Seattle…and I surrendered to the wild cat like sounds of the howler monkeys, the heat of the jungle, the hum of the cicadas, and the steady sound of my heart as it burst from my chest with exertion.
By the time we summited, after a 4 1-2 hour uphill slog, I was covered head to foot in mud, cuts, scrapes, not to mention sweat. We descended then into the crater which had a lush green floor and beautiful lake. I immediately wanted to swim, and my guide warned me against it saying it was muddy. How bad could it be? In I went, only to discover when I stood up, that I sank, as if in quicksand, UP TO MY CHEST!! Holy crap. Literally. Luckily I had brought an extra litre of drinking water as I had to use it just to get the muck off of my flesh. he he.
Upon reaching the car on the way back, we were all completely spent and filthy. Our guide was kind enough to drive us straight to Ojo de Agua…a freshwater swimming hole in the forest, where we all gladly collapsed into the cool, refreshing, water. By the time our cold Capirinhas and chicken tacos arrived (this water hole had a restaurant next to it!!) I was in ecstasy. I met a man by the name of James there, who happened to be from Oregon. Since he was travelling alone, (and kind of cute), I invited him to come have dinner with me later at the hotel. I was pleasantly surprised when he turned up!
We had a wonderful 3 hour conversation, and it was exactly what I needed after having felt such a lack of relating to my fellow travellers. About life, travelling, being American, culture shock (when returning to the States), love, family, etc, etc. One of those conversations that are as delicious as a good meal. Then came a shocking coincidence. James lived NEXT DOOR to Korey´s father in the little town of Jacksonville, Oregon. How bizarre is that? To say its a small world after all would be an understatement.
I was sad to leave Nicaragua yesterday, and upon arriving in Costa Rica, you could immediately sense an economic and social shift. What do you mean I have to pay more than a dollar for a beer??!!!! Yes, goodbye to unreal prices…hello burgeoning western style tourism.
There have been many long travel days on this trip thus far. I haven´t minded them so much as I am about 600 pages into my 1000 page English Middle Age novel ¨”World without End¨”. Its weird to be taken away from my Central American “world” into my Gothic English “world” on every bus trip, but it adds an interesting dynamic which I´m repeating after having read this novel´s prequel “Pillars of the Earth” last year in Chile. The only thing that is really bothersome (and I think of you, Monica, when I say this!!) is that you have to exercise supreme bladder control…because we can be leaving at 6am and not stopping for the bathroom for 4-6 hours at a time. Which is really difficult when you take into account trying to stay hydrated because of the heat.
All adds to the experience, I guess.
Actually, we were quite relieved when we arrived in Monteverde yesterday as the climate is much cooler here…since we are in a cloud rain forest, about 1800 feet above sea level.
Before going on the insane canopy tour this afternoon, we actually had another adventure this morning, a description of which I will end this email with…as it is already insane in its length. We got up at 5:30am (I know, I don´t know why I find it so easy on vacation!!) to catch the bus to the Biological Reserve in the Monteverde Cloud Forest National Park. We hired a naturalist to take us on a guided walk into the forest in search of the diverse wildlife of Costa Rica. Costa Rica, apparently, has more species per square kilometre than anywhere else on earth. By the end of our 3 hour hike, the number of species we saw (some up close and personal) was extremely impressive…and I´m so glad that we had the guide, as there is no way I would have spotted half of these birds-creatures had we just gone the route of many of the tourists there in taking a self guided walk. We saw:
At least 7 varieties of hummingbird
The VERY RARE Quetzal, both male and female (we were so lucky)
A Coati (like a cross between a raccoon and an anteater)
A Tarantula (got a great pic!)
A baby sloth asleep in the canopy
A variety of Toucans
Countless other vibrantly colored birds including one called “Car Alarm” bird because of the sound it makes!!
It was beautiful. I was very impressed and also enjoyed learning about the plant life, especially the two almost identical plants with giant leaves…one of which is pleasantly scented and called “Toilet Paper” plant, and the other being a member of the stinging nettle family. I felt it might be important to be able to distinguish the difference!
Anyway…tomorrow we have a half travel day and are spending the night in La Fortuna. I will write again soon!.