The Gulf of Nicoya: Enjoying Costa Rica in its original state

The Nicoya peninsula is still pretty peaceful with lots of farms, happy Costaricans who wave at us while we’re cycling past and not a lot of tourists. We saw literally one shop with Costarican arts and crafts the whole way from Liberia to Playa Naranjo (from where we took the ferry to Puntarenas). That shop was actually super nice and the owner very friendly, he also made the best frappuccino ever!

From Nicoya we cycled down to Playa Naranjo, where we stayed for two nights before we got on the ferry. On the way there we missed a turn, so 5km ahead we realised we weren’t going the right way and tried to get back to the main road via a short cut. That meant we had to cross two small rivers. While Hassan jumped in right at the first one, I was still a little hesitant but at the second one all I wanted to do was float. So awesome!

(I’m actually not as white as it looks in this picture where I seem to reflect the sunlight, I did get a tan haha!)

This was our little paradise near the ferry:

And some shots from the ferry to Puntarenas which takes about one hour. We also saw dolphins but I didn’t manage to get a picture of them.

From Puntarenas we got a bus to Monteverde to check out the cloud forest which was a little bit of a disappointment.

Essentially it was just a lot of clouds and rain, and kinda cold and a little bit miserable. We made the best of it though, but I really don’t think it’s worth the 20$ entrance unless you’re ready into plants.

Trying to find shelter under a big leaf!

The bus from Puntarenas in the morning took 4 hours and the last bus left at 3 pm (of course we didn’t make that one), so we seemed stranded. We didn’t want to stay the night tho so we just started walking and got superlucky as a friendly Costarican stopped and gave us a ride nearly all the way to Puntarenas, which is 70 km away from Monteverde. For the last 10 km we could just catch a bus that brought us back into town.

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Costa Rica: The first week

Our final border crossing went just as smooth as all the other ones.

We cycled into La Cruz where we spent the first night and were pleasantly surprised by the big portion sizes, the cornershops that you could actually walk info (ever since Belize all the small shops were completely closed off and you’d order what you want through a tiny window) , the happy people and the pleasant hotel room we had for the night, even with a hot shower (imagine such luxury!!).

And then we found out our hotel had this amazing view! Arriving after sunset makes for these great surprises haha (we had been so hungry that we stopped at the first restaurant when we got into town). Awesome place for breakfast!

Of course, all of that has its price and Costa Rica really is not cheap. The cheapest hotels/hostels are around 30 $ and groceries are insanely expensive, like 6$ for a packet of cereals. Not easy to get by here when on a budget. One great thing about Costa Rica is that the tap water has drinking water quality, so no more filtering needed! Yay! Our filter has been great throughout though.

From La Cruz we wanted to cycle to Liberia, but we almost didn’t make it, as Hassan had another flat tire and we actually didn’t manage to fix it, but I had to go and get a new tube (of course we only had a spare tube for my tires and our tires have different sizes). We just about made it that day (perhaps we also started cycling a little too late…).

Liberia reminded me a lot of towns in Mexico we passed through on the way from Cancún to Tulum. A more expensive version of Mexico. It was really crazy to see a Walmart like supermarket again, Nicaragua did have Pali supermarkets but there wasn’t such an overflow of everything. We treated ourselves to a good McDonald’s dinner haha, we were starving because we skipped lunch because of a late breakfast. Not the best idea when you’re cycling! Nuts can only keep you going for so long.

And we saw a scorpion on the way home!

In Liberia we got off the Pan-American (soo much traffic, which made it pretty difficult to stop for pictures) and headed towards Nicoya. Such beautiful roadside views, green hills, blue skies, lots of fields. Really beautiful landscape and a fairly strong tailwind that helped us out a little bit.

We stayed a night in Santa Cruz, where we unsuccessfully tried to camp in the stadium but the security guard sent us away. So we got a motel room for 20$ (already hagled) which was not exactly any better than the many 5$ rooms we got in Guatemala.

The heat was very intense the following day, so we only cycled to Nicoya, where we couldn’t find a room for less than 40$ which we really weren’t willing to pay. Hence a football pitch became our home for the night instead. Washed off the sweat of the day with a knacker shower in a nearby bar and had some pizza.

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La Isla de Ometepe: Chasing Sunsets

Ometepe is the biggest fresh water island in the world and it has two volcanos, Concepción and Maderas, with the former still being active.

As mentioned in my last post, we got the ferry from Rivas and then stayed the first night in Moyogalpa (because I wasn’t sure when we’d get there and how tough the cycling would be).

Interesting hostel/homestay that was quite adventurous to get to, as it depended on the tide of the lake. Lake Nicaragua is gigantic, the bigger a lake is the more it behaves like an ocean, so that’s why it may seem unusual for a lake to have tides (at least it seemed unusual to me).

When we wanted to go to the supermarket to get some dinner the tide was pretty high, so I was already mentally preparing for walking through the water on the way back, but our hosts had rebuilt the dam with sandbags, so we were lucky.

The location directly at the lake did give us a great view of the sunset though (which was the main reason I had picked that one).

Staying in more of the centre of Moyogalpa would have been nicer and I saw a few guesthouses that just looked a lot better (cleaner, more modern etc). Then we cycled across the island to Balgue.

There we had an airbnb for two nights. Our host was actually one of the nicest people we met in Nicaragua. Foodwise we had both some of the best and some of the worst food of our trip in Nicaragua.

Ometepe in general is not exactly cheap (just by the nature of being stuck on an island choice is limited of course). Renting a scooter is 20-25$ a day, an ATV 50-70$, a kayak 5$ per hour and per person (!), so if you want to get around the island that can quickly add up.

Additionally only half of the island has a paved road (from Moyogalpa to Balgue), the rest is unpaved and not in a good way. We’ve experienced quite decent unpaved roads during the trip but the ones in Ometepe were sadly not part of those.

We got around the island quite a bit chasing views and especially sunsets.

I finally got my sunset shot when we stayed in Santo Domingo.

And finally, we stayed near Merida where we took out a kayak for the sunset and managed to get some nice views.

The next day we cycled back to San Jose del Sur.

Some tough inclines there!

We took the ferry back to the mainland and I have to say I wasn’t sad to leave.

Maybe the island life just isn’t for me or my expectations were too high after everyone we met before who was coming from the South told us how amazing it was.

It was pretty cool but for me just not comparable to places like Lake Atitlan, where you just had such a fantastic view over the lake and the volcanos.

On Ometepe it was a lot more difficult to get a good view. Somehow the island just made me a bit melancholic, so on the ferry back to Rivas I was pretty excited to get back on the bike (although we had of course been cycling on Ometepe) and head towards Costa Rica.

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Volcanos, lagoons and colonial towns: Granada and Masaya

It was a tough cycle from Managua to Masaya, as we had to cycle on the Pan-American, so imagine six lane traffic, heat and hills.

We passed the entrance to the Masaya Volcano National Park but decided to keep going as the sun was setting and we still had to find a place to stay for the night.

Sadly this amazing place was only a bar/restaurant, we would have definitely loved to stay here.

We stayed one night in Masaya, had some delicious Mexican food (Nicaraguan food isn’t exactly the holy grail of food…) and then cycled the next day on a path along the Laguna Apoyo towards Granada. On maps.me the path had one big climb but was pretty flat otherwise. Yeah… Not in real life, that was a really tough way with super steep hills.

We also weren’t actually sure if there was a viewpoint where we hoped to find one, so we kept asking the locals on the way. To be honest, I was ready to give up when the paved way turned into unpaved dirt road and we just had to push, but Hassan was convinced we’d find a viewpoint of the Laguna and we did!

The last 20 kilometers to Granada were quite a breeze. Granada is my favourite ‘urban’ area of the trip. It’s very similar to Antigua and Léon, all colonial cities, but for me Granada really has the best atmosphere and city layout with the Cathedral and the Parque Central. And great food!

The food at the Garden Café was very tasty, not too expensive and it’s just really beautiful there.

Difficult to capture but you get the idea. The best thing though was that we found a Palestinian shawarma place!!! OMG, it was soo delicious. I had been craving Arab food so much!

I really love the architecture and the colourful houses in Granada! We really enjoyed our time there, had a lovely airbnb with a beautiful garden and climbed up the churches for great views over the city.

Some chill time was very needed as well!

These cool leafcutter ants were working very hard in the garden of our Airbnb. Aren’t they fascinating?

Chasing sunsets, as usual!

We still wanted to see the volcano Masaya, so we booked a tour from Granada. And that’s where we fell deep into the tourist trap!

We just had really different expectations from reading other people’s blogs. Their hikes, how they watched the sunset and the parrots flying home and the bats, all that. So we wanted that as well. Turns out that the access to the national park is very restricted at the moment due to increased activity of the volcano. The park is also closed from 4.30 – 5.30 pm (because you pay 3$ during the day and 10$ at night as you can’t see the lava as well during the day).

Thus, all we wanted and had asked for wasn’t possible but the guy who we bought the tour from conveniently forgot to mention that. So we were really stressed hoping that we would make the sunset (of course we didn’t), then we got to the park, queued up in our van and then drove up to the crater. There was also a guide on the bus, but we don’t really know what her purpose was because she didn’t give us any information or guided us in any other way. Seeing the lava was super impressive but there were a lot of other people trying to get a picture of it and after 15 min a park ranger started blowing a whistle to get us all back into our cars. Like in a prison when you have to go back into your cell…

The car column went down and the next one went up. That was it. We felt really cheated because we had just had really different expectations, but seeing the lava was pretty cool. If you want to see an active volcano without any effort involved, Masaya is the perfect place! 😉

What was worse actually is that we also asked the tour guy about a ferry from Granada to Ometepe, which according to him was operating on Mondays and Thursdays. Turns out that company went bankrupt two years ago… The only way to get to Ometepe is to take the ferry from Rivas (San Jorge). As cycling with cramps isn’t too great, we got a chicken bus to Rivas and took the ferry to Moyogalpa. More about our island time on Ometepe in the next post!

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Roadside views in Nicaragua: Chinandega, Léon, Managua

Leaving our little paradise in Jiquilillo meant also leaving the peace and quiet and returning to the constant blaring of reggaeton. It’s been pretty much the same ten songs since Mexico and somehow people seem to like to play five of them on loop. Don’t get me wrong, I like reggaeton but there’s a time and a place for it and 6 am is definitely not that time haha.

The road to Chinandega was a bit hilly and very scenic.

We stopped in Chinandega for lunch (17 chicken nuggets are a decent lunch, no?) and then got into some pretty heavy rain on the way to Léon, but at least it cooled down a little bit due to the rain.

Léon is very similar to Antigua, Guatemala, just a bit bigger and with more locals. We really liked the chill vibe of it. Whereas in many places on the road, nobody seems to go out after dark, in Léon there’s actually still stuff going on and you can still find restaurants and shops open at 8/9 pm.

(I didn’t take a lot of pictures in Léon.)

We really enjoyed our breakfast at “El Desayunazo.” Great food, big portions for a decent price plus many locals went there as well which is usually a good sign.

Apart from at Rancho Esperanza in Jiquilillo, where the food was good and actually nutritious, and Léon, we’ve really struggled with finding decent food in Nicaragua. For me, that has made the cycling pretty difficult too because it’s already very hot and then having “disappointing” lunchbreaks with shitty food (fried chicken and soggy fries don’t give you much energy) is not very motivating. Even finding rice and beans hasn’t been easy, most places on the way to Managua had only fries. We even had a day where we felt too tired to cook or head out and struggle to find something decent. In Managua, we then had the worst of all meals, possibly of all times, when we tried to have steak. New York steak they said…

While we have our beloved MSR Whisperlite International, which we use for breakfast and dinner on most days, for lunch we have to find something on the road because we don’t have time to get the stove out and start cooking. And that lunch meal really determines how you cycle during the afternoon, so that has been quite tricky.

Another thing that has made it difficult for me to enjoy Nicaragua as much as the other countries we’ve visited is the constant staring. I feel like I’m in the Middle East. And there are lots of other white women here and we’ve seen local women on bicycles, so what’s this about? I talked to other European girls about this and they’ve had exactly the same experience. I didn’t have that in any other country, we’ve cycled through.

Also on the road, there has been a lot less encouragement compared to the other countries, here it’s really been rather exceptional that somebody waved. Even children have been shouting swear words at us, which we didn’t have anywhere so far. In general, people have been a lot less kind than for example in El Salvador. Maybe my expectations were too high because everyone we met who was coming from the South told us that “Nicaragua is soo amazing, soo cheap, people are soo kind and it’s just wow.” Maybe it is very cheap if you’re coming from Costa Rica, but it’s not much cheaper than El Salvador and definitely a lot more expensive than Guatemala and Mexico.

The landscape has been quite stunning. On the way from Léon to Managua we saw a smoking volcano, which was pretty cool.

A little girl on a horse

And some more volcanos:

The locals also reaaallly load their bikes here.

I guess the kid wasn’t too happy about me taking a picture but I didn’t really have a chance to ask him. Sorry!

Hassan had his first flat tire but we actually fixed it ourselves, yay!

And some shots of Managua:

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The cycle touring gear

Let’s talk about the gear, there are of course many options depending on your budget and how long you’re planning to cycle and how willing you are to fix things on the road.

We opted for a cheaper setup as we wanted to try out this way of travelling before fully committing but we still looked for decent quality.

Most of our gear is either from Sportsdirect, Mountain Warehouse or Amazon.

All you really need a bicycle, everything else can be improvised. 😉

Bike and camping stuff

  • Our bikes are standard mountain bikes that we bought in Cancún and fitted with steel racks. There are special touring bikes, but essentially it depends on the terrain you’re going through.
  • A bike repair kit and some extra tubes etc. You can get by relying on mechanics in more populated areas but the more remote the places are that you’re cycling in the better should be your repair skills. I still haven’t changed a tube or tire but I think I could. 😀 I just always get my flats in the vicinity of mechanics.
  • An adjustable wrench has been a life-saver, as it allows you to tighten all the bolts on the bike (think front- and backrack, saddle, etc)
  • You should get Schwalbe Marathon tires, as those are unanimously the best tires out there. We don’t have them (and wish we would have bought them) and I’ve had three flat tires, we met a French cyclist who had 13 flats over the same distance. You see, you can make due without them but they are very handy and lift a big worry off you.
  • Get a good saddle!!! By ‘good’ I mean good for you. We met men with women’s saddles and vice versa so it really is about you. Try it out, cycle a few hours in it, find what is comfortable!
  • We opted not to have panniers and just strap our backpacks on the racks which works as well, but panniers are just a lot more practical and you have less annoying business with bungees. Ortlieb is the best brand for panniers, they’re waterproof and robust.
  • We love our M-wave Ottawa waterproof handlebar bags, they’re just really great. You can easily unclip them and carry them on your shoulder, so we like to keep our valuables in there, passport, phone, camera and some snacks. Snacks are always good haha.
  • Our water filter, the Sawyer Mini, allows us to drink any tap water anywhere without having to worry.
  • For our clothes we have dry bags which we have strapped to the front rack, as you can see in the picture. Mine is light green (and slightly bigger) and Hassan’s is dark green.
  • You can never have enough bungees, they break or get loose or you need to restrap some of your stuff. They’re just really handy.
  • We have a three-man-tent, the Vango Ark 300. It’s perfect for two and if we’re already only hanging out with eachother for three months, you don’t want to be squished in the tent.
  • Bringing your own stove makes you a lot more independent, so in my opinion it’s absolutely worth it. We usually only use it for dinner and sometimes for breakfast but it just gives you more of a homey feeling on the road. We have an MSR Whisperlite International which is very small, works with pretty much anything from alcohol to fuel and is hence a really brilliant piece of kit.
  • Two pots, cups, bowls. We had these cool spoon-fork-knife in one plastic thingies but I broke mine in the first week and Hassan’s broke recently as well. So I had to ‘organise’ a spoon and a fork.
  • I have just a normal self-inflating sleeping mat from Mountain warehouse and Hassan has a very light-weight inflatable one. If you’re willing to spend a little more than us, you should get a Therm-a-rest. I also have a small travel pillow which definitely increases the quality of my sleep.
  • We did bring our sleeping bags but rarely used them. Most of the time it’s just too hot. What we use all the time are our sleeping bag liners, you can either sleep in them or use them as a cover.
  • A Swiss army knife or a leatherman.
  • Headtorches are very useful, make sure to have some spare batteries.
  • Asspads from Karrimor are nice if you’re sitting outside your tent and make concrete a bit more comfortable.

Electronics

  • A kindle is the best thing to have on a trip like this. There are loads of free books and whenever you have WiFi you can also buy new ones.
  • For navigation we use our smartphones with the apps Maps.me and sometimes Komoot, but mainly Maps.me. Maps.me has been really great in Mexico and Belize, but then in Guatemala it sometimes led us to rivers we couldn’t cross and since El Salvador the bicycle route is always with random detours. We also have a GPS device, a Garmin etrex 20, that we really like. You can download free maps for any part of the world and it looks like a big old Nokia, which doesnt attract any attention.
  • A solar panel comes in pretty handy but is optional in my opinion. If you’re gonna be in very remote areas, it may be worth considering.
  • I have a Nikon D50, an older DSLR, that I take pictures with when it seems okay to take out. Often I also just use my phone as it attracts less attention.

Clothes and cosmetics

  • First-aid-kit and Leukotape (brilliant for blisters or overscratched mosquito bites)
  • Sunscreen (the higher the better, you will get a funny tan anyways but skin protection is super important)
  • Insect repellent (mosquitos have been our constant companions)
  • Lip balm (ideally with LSF as your lips might burn too)
  • If you have long hair it’s a good idea to bring some conditioner.
  • We each have two Merino t-shirts and we really couldn’t do without them. Wool in the heat? Yes, merino is simply the best, it doesn’t smell (you still stink but your t-shirt doesn’t), it dries very quickly and absorbs sweat much better. Read more about why merino shirts are the ultimate travel shirts here. Btw there are also merino dress shirts that don’t wrinkle! Definitely worth the money!
  • Cycling gloves (maybe even a spare pair because you might lose them somewhere or yours might fall apart)
  • Comfortable shorts to cycle in (one or two)
  • A dress or a dress shirt (quick way to dress up a little bit)
  • I have flip flops and some walking shoes which means I also need lots of socks, while Hassan has cycling shoes (from Merrell) which have holes in them so your feet don’t get too hot or smelly. In that case you can ditch the socks. Beware of stones, sand or ants getting into the shoe though! 😉
  • Lots of underwear (the more you have the less you have to wash)
  • Rain jacket or poncho

Food

  • Usually tea and oats (milk powder and water works great) for breakfast, if we’re motivated enough to start the stove. Otherwise we’ll just find a place and then it’s usually eggs with rice and beans.
  • We get lunch on the road. It’s definitely not easy to always find decent food (17 chicken nuggets are sort of nutritious, right? Lots of protein…)
  • We do make dinner ourselves quite often. It’s usually pasta with tomato sauce and eggs (either boiled or in with the pasta like shakshuka). Sometimes we add lentils or cheese. Or we make some dhaal and rice.
  • Nuts and dried fruit makes for great snacks on the road and it’s really what keeps us going (apart from a cold Coca-Cola sometimes, although we usually don’t really drink soft drinks, on the road it really helps!)

Let me know if you have any suggestions or comments, what your setup looks like or if I have left out anything important!

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A small paradise in Nicaragua

Our boat ride to Nicaragua turned out better than planned. We thought we’d go with one of these boats:

They look pretty nice like this but I’m not so sure about loading them with two fully loaded bicycles. Also, as we watched people get onto these they had to walk through the water to get into the boat as those boats weren’t using the pier.

We organised the trip with Mario after Hassan found an email address in someone else’s blog. Mario seems to be the only person operating these boats from La Union, El Salvador, to Potosi, Nicaragua. You can reach him on WhatsApp (503) – 7282 4362 or via email (golfo_fonseca@hotmail.com), we paid 55 US $ per person after bargaining a little. Without the bikes he might have agreed to 50 $ per person. His son ferried us over in a really nice boat (it takes about 1,5 h), they loaded our bikes (and us) from the pier and even had a protective cover for the bikes. Definitely the most enjoyable boat ride on this trip.

Adios, La Union!

Adios El Salvador! #dontskipelsalvador #itsawesomethere

These are part of Honduras!

The first view of Nicaragua! First border crossed by boat, check! Imigration in Potosi was pretty easy as Mario had already sent the border guard pictures of our passports, so we were expected.

From there we cycled on dirt road for about 15 km with a little break for lunch as it was very hot. Since we reached the Pacific coast we haven’t had any rain and it’s been very hot, usually around 30-35 C which makes long lunchbreaks even more necessary.

We (and mostly our asses) were very glad when we reached the better road (where the red star is marked on the map) in the direction of Chinandega. Cows as well as horses seem to roam around here freely.

As it was still very hot in the afternoon and we had only been able to start cycling around 11 am because of the boat ride and immigration, we realised that we wouldn’t be able to reach Chinandega. Therefore we decided to turn towards the beach and spend the night near Jiquilillo. It was just another six kilometers but on the worst dirt road we have encountered so far and our bums were already in quite some pain before we got on it. Once on it there was no turning back and we made it to the beach just in time for sunset.

Fortunately we met a Dutch guy at the beach who told us it would be possible to stay at the hostel he was staying at, that it wasn’t too far and that Nate, the owner, was a really nice guy. And that’s how we got to Rancho Esperanza.

Tired, in pain and just searching for a place to pitch our tent for a night.

We certainly didn’t expect to find the small (surfer’s) paradise that we found there. So we stayed a little bit longer!

At Rancho Esperanza, there is no WiFi, so quite naturally you start talking to the other guests. 😉 We’ve gotten to know such lovely people there, it’s really been the best hostel I’ve been at. No crazy party people, but lots of like-minded travellers. Some of them mentioned that at the beach in Jiquilillo was an American guy who was buying turtle eggs from the poachers and then released the baby turtles into the ocean, every day at this time of the year around sunset, so naturally we wanted to see that.

We didn’t find the American guy, but we found Simone instead.

She’s a German lady and spend three months every year in Jiquilillo buying the turtle eggs, putting them into the sand, waiting for the babies to hatch and then releasing them into the ocean.

She works voluntarily for the German non-profit organisation Meeresschildkrötenschutzverein Nicaragua (sea turtle protection organisation Nicaragua) that collects donations in order to buy the turtle eggs and protect the Olive Ridley turtle. Check them out on Facebook, maybe even consider a donation! They’re also always looking for volunteers! In the last seven years they have released over 60 000 baby turtles, how cool is that?

You might wonder why they buy the eggs from the poachers, as this supports the poachers’ business, right? Jiquilillo is a small fishing village in a pretty poor area and poaching turtle eggs provides some kind of income for the people. As long as they have no other economic opportunities, telling them it’s wrong won’t make them stop poaching, so the more realistic approach is indeed to buy the eggs from them and hence simultaneously protect the turtles and support the locals. Additionally, poaching turtle eggs isn’t illegal in Nicaragua yet unfortunately.

We watched the turtle release one sunset and then came back at sunrise to see the nests, the freshly hatched babies and to release some more babies.

It’s just such an amazing feeling to watch them crawl into the ocean for the first time!

The rest of our time at Rancho Esperanza was spent reading in a hammock, walking at the beach or chatting with other travellers about their experiences. If you’re ever in the vicinity, I can only recommend Rancho Esperanza to you. It felt a lot more like a community centre than a hostel and it’s doing a lot for the local community by providing education and activities, such as English and computer classes or surf lessons for local kids. They are also always looking for Spanish-speaking volunteers!

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