Nicaraguan Surf & Sun

I was sitting in a dark and quiet street of San Salvador at 3:45 in the morning, waiting for the 5am bus coming from Mexico. Just me and my friend and a bunch of fellow backpackers filling out immigration papers, left in the empty streets of a big city in the middle of the night. Gotta love adventures!
 
It was a long ride crossing 3 countries in one day. I really wished we had the time to stop in Honduras but unfortunately it will have to wait until next time. However, we still managed to get the country’s stamp in our passport.
 
20 hours and 3 Latin American countries later, we arrived at Grenada where we set up camp at Hostel Oasis for the night.

Granada

Known has one of the country’s most populous city, Granada has a rich colonial heritage seen in its amazing architecture and stunning structures and is indeed a stop not to be missed.
We boat toured around Las Isletas, an average of 350 small islands formed about 10,000 years ago by the eruption of the Mombacho volcano. We passed by the private island of the owner of Flor de Cana and many other rich business owners. Local families were taking care of the glorious houses and properties.




We skipped swimming in the lake to avoid getting bit by the Nicaraguan sharks that once salmoned their way up the rivers while the ocean still connected to the lake. Although their numbers dropped down after a Japanese company killed a large number of them, the presence of the predators is still there. Diving with sharks in the clear waters of the Caribbean? Hell yeah. But swimming at the surface of a murky lake with sharks roaming underneath? Hell no!
 
After exploring the lake of Nicaragua and wandering around the old streets of Granada, we jumped aboard the Big Foot service shuttle on our way to the Pacific Coast.
 
San Juan del Sur
 
We got to San Juan at night and luckily found an amazing room facing the beach. Casa El Delfin, double occ. 20$/night. Great and safe!
 
As most tourist towns, it is likely not recommended to walk around the beaches at night solo. Keep your valuables at the hostel. Try to blend with locals. Sticking out of the crowd shirtless, loud and with a wallet sticking out of your back pocket is definitely looking out for problemos. So careful gringos!


The bay of San Juan is full of restaurants lined up on the beach. A predominant number of backpackers and surfers are found in the many hostels spread all over the streets. We could sight a few cruise shippers shopping around for souvenirs while visiting the town for a day. If you are looking for a lively place at night to meet fellow young at heart travelers, it is a good place to do so. Although no surf is found at San Juan itself, many shuttles run several times a day to beaches nearby.

One morning we decided to climb to the statue of the Christ, standing strong and tall on a steep hill overlooking the horseshoe bay of SJDS. The hike is recommended in the morning or just before sunset and don’t forget to bring your 2$ or you will be denied the access.

After exploring the dynamic streets of San Juan we packed our bags and drove 20 min north on a dirt road to Playa Maderas.
 
Playa Madera
 
Blond sand beach and refreshing ocean waters. Playa Maderas is known as one of the best surf’s spot in Nicaragua offering waves both for beginners and experts. We beached on the sand, watching surfers playing out at sea. Buses came and go dropping thirsty surfers and picking up tired and satisfied boarders.
 
For the last few days of our trip, we chose to stay at one place and just chill. So we stayed at Casa Maderas Ecolodge located only 10min walk from the surf break. Free Nicaraguan breakfasts, free shuttle to beach and town, wifi, happy hour by the swimming pool. That’s a vacation!
 

Morning surf. Jellyfish stings. Happy Hour by the pool. Sunset surf session. Rum punches. Lobster tails. Fried cheese and plaintain chips. Vino blanco. More vino blanco. Just another day in paradise.

November 7th, 2012. A 7.4 magnitude earthquake struck off the Pacific Coast of Guatemala provoking strong currents and a rise of the tides. A tsunami warning has been placed in Nicaragua. The sea was angry and the waves crashed from everywhere. Daring surfers took the risks and rode the big swells. Even though the warning only lasted a day, the waves were still pretty big and didn’t really agree with my level of surfing.

It was almost the end of our Central American trip so we decided to treat ourselves with a day out at sea sailing. We booked with Nica Sail and Surf through Casa Oro for an afternoon on the waters. Captain Zach and his crew sailed us along the Southern Nicaraguan coast where we admired beautiful landscapes. We anchored at a secluded bay and played Robinson Crusoe on a deserted island. Rum punches were flowing, faces smiling. 





I laid on a hammock hanging on the porch of my colourful bungalow, in the heart of a Nicaraguan jungle. A man scratched his guitar while the monkeys howled. The clouds moved fast in the sky, like everyday of this journey. The moment was real and I embraced every second of it. I come to think about the adventures that I just experienced, the people I met and the inspiration that I gained. Time to get back home to work, to the responsibilities, to the routine. Go back and fill up my pockets so I can go out there once again.


We hopped on a chicken bus and made our way to Managua where we stayed in a guesthouse for the night. We found a food stall where I spent my last currency with the best meal of my trip: potato cake, fried cheese, rice and beans, huge slices of avocados and a freshly squeezed guava juice. Simply the best.
 
Belly full, well-rested, memories made and pictures to share, it is time to fly home.
Pura Vida!

Living Like a Local in El Salvador

The  night bus from Flores to Guatemala City was cold and uncomfortable. AC blowing out from every possible slots and very tightly fit seats made it impossible to sleep. However, we made it to the city at 5am where we transferred by taxi to another bus terminal. The streets were already busy with working chapins who got ready for another long day of hard work. Our Tica bus was already more spacious and less crowded. We drove through beautiful scenery filled with volcanoes and lush forests. After crossing the Guatemala-El Salvador boarder and a couple more hours on the bus, we transfered in a cab and, 45 min later we finally arrived on the Salvadorian coast.

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El Salvador History

El Salvador is known among different perceptions. Some will highlight the natural beauty of the country, from the mix of lush mountains, world-class surfing and hikes to amazing volcanic crater lakes. Some others will remember the ravage of the civil war of the 1980′s and the succession of natural disasters that left a country in many years of recovery.

The 1979-1992 civil war was a conflict of inequality between the government and guerrillas leaving more than 75,000 dead. Not long after the country had begun to recover, after the peace agreement in 1992, that it was hit by a series of natural disasters like Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and several earthquakes in 2001 leaving 1,200 people dead and more than a million others homeless. Unfortunately, with the addition of international news talking about gangs, violence and crime most tourists still consider the small Central American country a dangerous place to travel.

El Zonte

The black sand beach welcomes crashing waves that surfers enjoy catching at the break. It is calm, tranquil and beautiful. El Zonte is a little village accessible by a dirt road going down towards the ocean. The mouth of the river flowing through it forms a right point break with rocky bottom which comes popular with both native and foreign surfers looking for a non-crowded wave. This is where we set camp, at El Dorado surf lodge.

Julie went for an early morning surf session. I sat at the local restaurant next door to our lodge and, feet in the sand and cafe con leche at hand, I glimpsed at her trying to catch some waves. The ocean was rough and the swell big. She was definitely having a workout out there.
We took the afternoon to explore the town of La Libertad. Aboard a chicken bus, we made our way to the busy coastal town.
La Libertad
La Libertad is a dynamic port town and a popular tourist attraction only 20min bus ride from El Zonte. We walked along the Malecón and found a farmers market, hosting souvenir tables and multiple ceviche stations. Mariachis searched for audience and niñas desperately wanted to sell their bracelets. School girls treated themselves with flavoured ice cones and fútbol enthusiasts played on the beach while the sun sat over the horizon.
We went back to El Zonte where we spent a couple of days of pure tranquility. Rare is the electricity at night, so dinners are candle light. No Internet either, so good old ways: grab a book and read a story in a hammock or share travel stories with fellow vagabond. On our last night, between a sip of Sauvignon Blanc and a bite of fish ceviche, we got the chance to watch a turtle lay her eggs on the black sand beach.
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El Tunco
After a few relaxing days, we packed our bags and hopped on a chicken bus toward to El Tunco. El Tunco (”The Pig”) is a little gem located on the Salvadorian coast. Named after the big rock standing tall like a pig in the ocean, the beach is growing to become a popular surf town for both locals and international surfers travelling off the beaten path. The place is known as El Salvador’s classic surf town, a long-time surf mecca with its 3 attractive breaks, sun bleached hair surfers and travellers like us that easily get stuck. With quality waves, good local food, dynamic nightlife, seductive smiles and inspiring sunsets, it is hard to give El Tunco a brief visit. The locals call it the Tunco effect: ”once you come to El Tunco you never want to leave again”.
We located ourselves at La Guitarra, a laid back backpacker hostel with warm and cozy bungalows a few steps from the beach. Whether the need is to read a book by the pool, update the travel diary swinging in a sun-warmed hammock or even bet on a game of billiards with fellow wanderers, La Guitarra is a comfortable and safe option to stay for a short or long stay.
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The sun beamed in the sky and the waves crashed on the sand. I looked at the ocean, my board leashed to my ankle, telling myself:” I guess it’s not that bad. Just massive swells erupting from the ocean. I should totally be fine.” I took the little courage I could find and the non-existent surf knowledge that I had and dove into the agitated sea. Lyz and I paddled pass the break and I felt great. I looked at Julie that stayed closer to the shore and waved with a proud smile. Julie didn’t wave back. Instead, she signaled us to come back. Soon enough we realized that we went too far out and were stuck in a rip tide. I got a little worried as I found myself getting closer and closer to the rock. There were no waves to ride back in and paddling back to the starting point was unsuccessful. At the time of confusion and at the edge of concern, we saw 2 surfers paddling towards us. ”You ladies need a hitch?” So there we were, 2 gringas getting rescued by 2 locals. Classic! But this fine picture is a genuine example of hospitality and altruism that the locals grant to tourists. Feet back to shore, I kissed the hot black sand and postponed the surf session. Instead, I sat back on the rocky beach and watched the pros showcase how it’s done.
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After a surf session (whether your session was in the water or on the beach working on your skin colour), you might want to put some food in your belly. There is a diversity of laid-back open-air restaurants offering both local and fusion cuisine. Skip the traditional American burger and try the famous fish tacos, or grab a pupusa from a local stand.
Sit down and embrace the local life. As for the nightlife, you can’t miss it on weekends. Start with some peanut butter sushi at Raoul’s and then hit one of the open-aired bars.
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D’rocas throw good parties on weekends with live bands. Be part of the celebration and dance the night away, feet in the sand, at the rhythm of a salsa, a rock or a reggaeton. The after party is usually spread on the beach and in the streets. Grab a late night broccoli burrito and perhaps an other beverage at one of the night stand. And this is just one hot night in El Tunco.
A few days went by and I already felt like home. The village is so small that you end up knowing everyone: from the old man renting surfboards, to the fish taco lady, to the Smirnoff server (Julie and I don’t drink beer, but found out that Smirnoff only cost $2. Heaven!), to the henna tattoo artist, to the jewlerly guy to the smoothie lady, to the local surfers.
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We spent afternoons just hanging loose, watching the world go by. The boys challenged themselves on their board, carving strong turns and cutbacks, riding on top of the breaking curls. I captured the moments on my camera as they propelled off the waves. If one got tired of surfing, he climbed up El Tunco and showed off a perfect dive. Or perhaps took the paddleboard and exercised his balance pass the break. There possibly might be a volleyball game going on further on the beach.
There is no need to stress. No place to go. No one to meet. Just be there, in a sun ray of light absorbing every moment of life. The sunsets were absolutely amazing, but the last one was the best. I reflected on my last days spent in the surf town and as the sun retired behind El Tunco. I watched the surfers catch a last wave home as the stars came to appear in the sky. The ocean was melodic, the breeze was nice. I felt just fine. I could stay here forever…
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Despite the reputation it might have through the years, El Salvador is in all a destination for all avid travellers. Surfing is a natural tourism industry that has grown in recent years as the government focuses on this sector. Local government has invested in the infrastructure like the improvements of the roads, available drinking water supply and security at the beaches and in towns. El Salvador now sees a growing number of international surfers enjoying quality and not-yet crowded waves. Whether it is a stop while travelling through Central America, a surfing adventure, or just an overall sighting of the country, you’ll find that this tiny little piece of land is a pure hidden gem of natural beauties, Salvadorian genuine smiles and pure warm hearts. So if you feel adventurous and want to escape the hustle and bustle of your busy life, buy a ticket to El Salvador, get a tan on your surfboard, fall in love with the ocean curls… you might never return ;)
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Land of the Maya in Guatemala

Guatemala is home to 2 mountain ranges, a multitude of rivers, tropical jungles, lakes and 33 volcanoes (3 still active). The country offers a rich and distinctive culture due to a millennium of Mayan civilization and 3 centuries of Spanish colonial rule. Along with the diverse history, the economy, politics, crafts, architecture, natural beauty of the land, languages and religions, Guatemala is a rich destination to discover.

After 4 hours on a bus driving through coastal plains and rolling limestone plateau, we arrived to the beautiful island of Flores.
 
We settled in at la Casa Lacandon located right in front of the Peten Itza Lake. $12US a night gave us 2 beds, private bathroom with shower and a lake view. The balcony enveloped by flowers and climbing plants was a great rest area to share travel tips and stories amongst fellow travellers.
 
Flores
 
Flores is a very small and quiet island situated on Lake Peten Itza. Geared towards tourists that come to visit Tikal, it is a peaceful stop to make before exploring the Mayan ruins.
 
We wandered around the charming cobbled-stone streets and colourful alleys in search of souvenirs to bring home. There are plenty of handy-craft stores to be found, full of local hard-wood carvings, colorful blankets, paintings and kitnats arts. Julie chose to bring back to the Canadian North a blanket, a hammock and 2 ponchos. I got myself a stone carved Mayan calendar and 2 seed-carved pipes.







 
We continued our walk around the island, getting lost in the narrow streets, stumbling upon red-roofed buildings, a historic church and a Spanish plaza. For lunch, you can choose from many restaurants offering international or Guatemalan cuisine. We opted for a local eatery and said ”hell yes” to the special of the day having no clue what we just ordered. On the table came 2 full plates of what seemed to be an egg crepe filled with meat, veggies, beans and cheese topped with a home-made tomato sauce and served with some rice. Oh deliciousness!
 
At night, we sat back and relaxed at El Thelmo, a little cozy terrasse facing the lake. Sipping on refreshing mojitos and devouring a massive vegetarian sandwich, we contemplated at the sun setting over the lake. We glimpsed at lovers romancing on a bench and sighted an old man watching the time pass by.








Tikal
 
4am. The town was asleep and darkness covered the streets. No sunrise to wake up to, just the voice of our tour guide yelling ”Tikal” at the bottom of our balcony. Slipped on walking shoes and rain jacket and we hopped on our bus to visit the most spectacular ruins in Guatemala.
 
We travelled back in pre-Columbian time, somewhere from the 6th century B.C. to the 10th century A.D. We wandered around the archeological remains of the Maya civilization, learnt about their culture and admired temples and palaces. Toucans and spider monkeys curiously followed our steps through the jungle while howler monkeys growlled as the sun rose. I felt like it was already noon as the sun provided an abundance of heat and light, but it was only 8! Tikal is a scenic site in Guatemala that is surely not to be missed. 


On our last day in Flores, we decided to take it easy. We snacked on boiled eggs for breakfast, feet hanging above the water on the dock admiring the view of the lake while locals splished and splashed to cool off the morning heat. As the day went by, we snapped some more pictures and embraced the ambiance of beautiful Flores. In the evening, we embarked an old wooden craft and rowed ourselves across the lake. We were the entertaining sight of 2 girls in pink and red dresses attacking waves on an unstable boat in a middle of a big lake. It was the local’s turns to take their phone out and take pictures of us with a laugh.

It was 9:30pm when our taxi arrived. We were all packed up and ready for departure. Direction El Salvador!

Simply unBELIZEable

YVR-LAX-IAH-BZE

I naively thought that with all those years of travelling I somewhat got immune to the traveller’s bug. Well apparently not: I got poisoned in my own country with some old Chinese food that was surviving the day in the chaffers at the airport’s food court. It was a battle of all travels, between body and mind that I thankfully conquered after 20 hours of voyaging.

Travelling in transit is a pain in the butt (no kidding), but time goes by fast when you’re in good company. My girlfriend Julie and I have teamed up for this trip as we were reminding ourselves of the blast we had in Hawaii together 4 years ago. We were also joining our friend Lyz who was already travelling solo.

After 4 airports, 3 flights, no sleep and a food poisoned stomach, we arrived to our first destination: Belize.

Belize: Stay calm and dive

Slow down. You are in the Caribbean and you should relax and breathe for a moment. ”Everything is gonna be all right” like Bob Marley would say. This country predominantly mixed of Creoles, Mestizos and Maya people will genuily welcome you to its land with courtesy, respect and the warmest smiles.

After our taxi from Belize Airport dropped us at the San Pedro Water Taxi station (US$20), we purchased return tickets to Caye Caulker. Sitting in the seat of the captain, we admired our first Belizean sunset over the sea, watching dolphins playing in the last rays of light. The friendly crew convinced us to get dropped at Ambergris Caye first.

Ambergris

Calm, serene, and sand under my feet. The Caribbean music is playing in my ears, a sound that I truly missed.

Ambergris is a famous tourist location in Belize and the most developed of the Cays. We stayed in San Pedro,  the main town at the South of the island. We found a very cheap guesthouse called ”Ruby’s” for US$20 a night, double occ., fan and shared showers.

There are few ways to travel around the Cayes: you can walk, bike or rent a golf cart. We opted for the last option, and played tourists for a day. We explored the town, venturing on dirt roads and along mangroves. We stopped at different docks where we jumped off to cool off.

But the main reason why I came to Belize was predominately to dive. I had been diving almost everyday while on my long term stay in the Cayman Islands and I missed the underwater wonders. So we booked a tour with AquaScuba to dive the shallow site of Ho Chan and snorkel the Shark Ray Alley. The dive was mellow and pleasant and offered us a good assortment of diverse marine life: 4 large moray eels, a multitude of stingrays, a 3-legged turtle called I-Lean and massive groupers. My favourite stop was at the Shark Ray Alley where we swam with a dozen of docile nurse sharks.

#62. Swim with sharks √

 
 

At night we had taco purchased from a street stand. We met a few locals that brought us to a local hangout where we had few happy hour rum punches. They also introduced us to their weekly “Chicken Drop”.

 
Diving the Great Blue Hole 

It was 5am. The early workers were already breaking the silence of the night. I grabbed my pre-packed bag, put on a bikini and made my way to the dock.

The warm colors of the sun reflected gradually on the water as it rose up in the sky. I snacked on some fresh cut pineapple and waited for the rest of our crew before jumping aboard our charter.

Located at about 62 miles off the coast rests a large underwater sinkhole: the Great Blue Hole of Belize. It is known as a world-class destination for divers, those ones that have that kind of list of things to check before you die. You know? Well, I am one of them. The Blue Hole has been on my list for a while now and I am about to check off that impressive point.

I went back in times and imagined myself as Jacque Cousteau, ripping the Caribbean waters in search of a new aquatic adventure. Although I was alone (Julie decided to stay on island and cruise around), I had no problem enjoying the salty wind in my hair and spotting turtles and dolphins. After 3 hours of scenic ride, pondering on life and its amazing beauties, we arrived to destination.

 It is a deep blue indigo circle. About 1,000ft diameter across, 500ft deep. I had butterflies in my stomach. Neither from stress nor nervosity, but from excitement and pure happiness. 

The snorkelers hit the reefs around the hole. As for divers, we slowly descended into the hole…

It was deep. It was dark. 60ft, 100ft, 120ft, 130ft… And there they were, those impressive stalactites and stalagmites forged out of solid rock as caverns hundred of thousands of years ago during the last ice age. I was Jacque Cousteau exploring the wonder of the seas. So I grabbed my GoPro and intended to photograph those marks of old age. And then, as I turned around to have a glimpse at the interior of the hole, came a shark. And another one. Next thing I know, there were 20 of them curiously swimming around me. I was so excited that I dropped 10ft until my Dive Master grabbed me and brought me back to a stable level. I have been diving Cayman everyday while I lived there and I have never seen a shark. And then I was in the Blue Hole of Belize swimming with schools of Caribbean reef sharks and Blacktips. I couldn’t be more amazed!

#47: Dive the Great Blue Hole of Belize √

I boarded the boat with the greatest smile. The butterflies were high and alive and I was in a far heaven. This was a unique experience and I am so thankful to life to have created such amazing pieces.

We navigated to our second dive site, the Aquarium, where we spent about an hour under the crystal-clear waters spotting a diverse marine life. Our lunch made of rice, beans and veggies was then offered on a deserted island where the sand is white and the palm trees grow high in the sky. A natural trail invited us to have a closer look at the white Boobies, only found on this piece of sand.

 

We put sails up and cruised to our last dive, the aquarium where tropical fishes, turtles and moray eels followed us along.

When 5pm came, we put the compass direction San Pedro. As the rum punches and life conversations amongst fellow dreamers aboard flowed around, I watched the sun colour the sky as it sets over the Caribbean, and I tell myself: ”Pura Vida”.

Caye Caulker
We left San Pedro the next day and made a stop at Caye Caulker where we spent a night. Caye Caulker is a very small and quiet island full of colourful houses and golf carts. It didn’t take long to walk around the small piece of sand. It was a rainy day and potholes covered the white sand streets and palm tree fronds flapped violently in the wind. No shoes was a trend that day, or is it everyday? But despite the weather, the streets were still active. Artists had their kiosks set-up under thin tarps. The coconut guy found a shelter for his stand under, well, a coco palm. Tourists refuged in a cafe, connecting with the world on their iphones and ipads, sipping on warm cups of Belizean coffee.



From diving its beautiful clear waters to enjoying its melting pot of cultures, Belize has been nothing less than an amazing adventure. It is time to pack up and hit the road again. We will catch a ferry to Caye Caulker and stop there for a night. Then ferry our way back to Belize City where we will catch a bus all the way to Flores, Guatemala.