Date: 11th May – 15th May 2012
Where: Ciudad Neily (Costa Rica) – David (Panama) – Panama City – Puerto Lindo
Distance: 2505 to 2595 miles
Our trip through Panama is best summed up by ten words and a few photos:
‘Dangerous road, took bus, impressive canal, explored city, booked boat’
Date: 4th May – 10th May 2012
Where: Jaco – Londres (Quepos) – Dominical – Uvita – Piedras Blancas – Ciudad Neily
Distance: 2330 to 2505 miles
The short answer to the question, ‘Could we continue doing Costa Rica on the cheap?’ is ‘No’! Gone was the visually exciting mountain scenery and slightly cooler temperatures, replaced instead by grove upon grove of Oil Palm trees. A particularly boring stretch, albeit blessed with silky smooth tarmac led to a dirt track of doom to another warm showers host at Finca Amanecer. On reflection this place did give us an opportunity to relax and unwind for a day after hilly endeavours of the previous fortnight. All too soon though we were off for Dominical and a meeting with Emilien & Xinhan again. Here we treated ourselves to the most expensive room of the trip, but given that it was only $5 more than other options, but 5 stars better, it was worthwhile staying at the Montanas de Agua hotel. A lazy morning chatting to our friends was followed by the cycle to Uvita, improved by a few hills and a midway stop by the sea to appreciate the power of the Pacific as storms rolled over. One of the storms soon hit us, and rather bedraggled we eventually rolled into a small well-run hostel called Flutterby House where we were able to camp (not before the rain soaked us again though). This hostel has the advantage of allowing free entry to the National Park Marino Ballena, and a day spent walking the beach here topped up our relaxation bank, plus our tan (sunburn?).
After 2 days at the Flutterby House, during which time we both learnt to slack-line and ate a million mangoes and coconuts, it was time to move on and head back out on the Costanera Sur highway for the final Central American stretch to Panama City.
In all honesty we’re not looking forward to riding through Panama!
Date: 26th April – 3rd th May 2012
Where: Peñas Blancas – Liberia – Las Cañas – Arenal – Fortuna – San Ramon – Atenas – Jacό
Distance: 2095 to 2330 miles
Our first few days in Costa Rica, our 7th country so far, took a little more getting used to than all the others. The Costa Rica currency, the beautiful Colon, is surprisingly weak and so we found ourselves dealing in thousands for the first time this trip. This by no means meant everything was cheap. Prices more than doubled as soon as we crossed from Nicaragua and our mid-morning brunch was shockingly expensive. We knew at that point that our time in Costa Rica had to be different to all the other countries and that our cycle touring honeymoon (delicious cheap meals and cheap clean hotels) was temporarily on hold. It would be back to basics, camping every night, cooking/preparing all our own meals and generally limiting any activity that cost a penny, in order to stick to our daily budget of $30 for the two of us. Luckily it turns out Costa Ricans are the nicest most generous people we’ve encountered in Central America which made all money saving tactics a lot easier.
Arriving at the outskirts of Liberia on our first day we cheekily asked a nice looking hotel if we could camp in their back garden, and use their shower facilities and internet for $10. The man at the hotel called George agreed, pocketed the cash, and we were soon cooking spaghetti and enjoying the beautiful hot showers and fast internet. The next morning we went straight to the nearby supermarket to buy food for our lunches, dinners and snacks and ate our breakfast of cereal in the car park still in shock at the cost of individual items. Sarah finally persuaded Geoff to give Nutella a go (costing $6 a pot). Bread and Nutella soon became our favourite nourishment. (three pots and counting so far in Costa Rica…) The second evening we once again found ourselves hosted by a George, this time a Swiss/Costa Rican running a restaurant and rafting business. The country is blessed with thousands of rivers, many of which we cycled over (and down to and up from) so rafting is a popular activity. George offered us free camping and use of toilets/showers in return for purchasing a meal in their restaurant. This is our favourite combo since we’d rather pay for a nice cooked meal than to pay for accommodation (and cook a rather boring meal on the stove). Importantly we also found out that we could drink the tap water saving us yet more money.
Having decided that we were going to have enough of the Pan-American further down in Panama, we took a detour up into the hills around Volcan Arenal and didn’t regret it. Cycling along quiet, beautifully paved roads bordered with hibiscus hedges, through small villages and along cattle farms (complete with cowboys) we felt like we were on holiday somewhere in Europe (except for the cowboys). No one was shouting ‘gringo’ at us, as we cycled peacefully along, and there were no noisy, polluting chicken buses screeching to a halt in front of us. To our delight there were plenty of potential safe camp spots. In Nuevo Arenal we camped down by the lake in a park and got chatting to a German couple touring in their custom-modified Land Rover. They told us about the cheap tasty sandwiches at the ‘Muswani’ bakery which was a very good tip. The next morning we watched otters hunting fish and kingfishers getting in on the act too: Our own mini ‘sardine run’! We didn’t get far that day as we were enjoying the view of the lake so much and had to stop to see various birds along the way. We had our Muswani sandwiches across the road from a rather random Swiss village (chalets, Swiss mountain railway, panoramic rotating restaurant, Swiss cows and small chapel) and given it was a beautiful sunny afternoon and these would soon be rarities given the impending rainy season we asked to camp in the Swiss village and enjoy an afternoon of wildlife watching in the area. To our surprise we were offered a free room in the hotel for the night (worth $55), were helped to take our bags up and were then given a ride up the mountain on the railway to see the fantastic view across to Volcan Arenal. We spent the afternoon pretty gobsmacked at this generosity. That evening we enjoyed a schnitzel, rosti and a beer in their restaurant and helped out a little by offering our head torch to the staff during a black out. We took advantage of the hot shower and did a whole lot of our washing, hanging it to dry on our bikes and along fences during breaks the next day.
We meandered on to Fortuna, a town built for tourists to enjoy Volcan Arenal’s nightly lava flows and hot springs, unfortunately a few years ago the name of half the town’s establishments became redundant when the volcano fell asleep, and became dormant. We only passed through for a night, checked out the feasibility of our planned route the next day (given our terrible reputation of ending up on bad dirt roads up mountains in the rain) and headed further up into the Costa Rican mountains. The scenery was spectacular and once again we asked to camp in a family run restaurant in the midst of the cloud forest area. The family was hugely generous and offered us their ‘casita’ (room) for free at the back of their restaurant. We enjoyed Anna’s cooking and offered her daughter Julie an English lesson as a thank you. They saved us from a night of camping in the torrential rain. It was still raining as we set off the next morning further up the mountains, misty rainforest all around, with the guabas (delicious, long, green fruit with soft white fleshy bits inside) Anna and her family had given us tied to the back of our bikes. The road steeply descended and ascended river valley after river valley, both of us dripping in so much sweat we could wring our t-shirts out! Despite this, we were enjoying these days more than any on the trip so far. This trend continued, as we headed South towards Atenas and camped in a farm where Miguel and his family kindly offered us a shower in their house.
More mountains the next day before a steep descent back to sea level and the hot hot coastal heat once again. Our decision not to pay and go to a national park famous for its rare Scarlet Macaws was rewarded by spotting a number of them in the trees by the side of the main road. It’s at times like these we are glad to be on a bike as none of the cars rushing by had a clue they were there. Just round the corner over a bridge numerous monstrous crocodiles bathed in the sunlight. Costa Rica truly is a wildlife paradise.
It turns out this leg of Costa Rica cost us $20 a day, the question is can we keep it up?
Date: 20th April – 25th April 2012
Where: Granada – Isla de Ometepe – Playa Madera – San Juan Del Sur – Penas Blancas
Distance: 1996 to 2099 miles
Our last day in Granada arrived quickly, our week at school passing in a blur. Armed with the past tense and a ‘map of everything’ from Lloyd we set off for Isla de Ometepe(Omelette). (Lloyd was a volunteer at the Casa Xalteva Spanish school, now on his own cycle tour to Mexico with buckets as panniers …no excuses, remember). Later that day in the market, Geoff had acquainted himself with a random tandem and one of its owners, who assured him that there were actually two of them, and also told of plans to catch the identical ferry to us across Lago Nicaragua.
It turned out that Emilien was the founder of the facebook group we are all using to help each other whilst going Southwards. He and Xiahan are planning to be in Ushuaia at a similar time to us. We would have loved to share resources, but we are all but hopeless at planning, whereas they are fantastic. The exchange of goodies was informational from one side and food-orientated (our ferry-watermelon) from the other.
Isla de Ometepe comprises two volcanoes, one extinct (Maderas) and one ready to blow (Concepción). Amazing views of both of them and smooth seas (bar a few unruly waves which soaked us) led to the island at dusk and we quickly got ourselves unloaded. Suddenly, a pleasant surprise as Nico popped up on our boat having boarded for the border without seeing us. We headed off into the darkness following our tandem plus trailer friends, buoyed by the lone figure waving from the boat.
The next day we set off for somewhere armed with the ‘map of everything’. After a delightful ride along the quiet island road, we came across the first ‘x’ on the map, the ojo de agua! This man-made pool is constantly refilled from a nearby mineral-rich spring. Think about emptying 50,000 bottles of ‘Volvic’ mineral water into a hollow in the jungle, and then jumping in off a rope swing, and you’re somewhere close. Refreshed we headed off for a place to stay for the night called Finca Magdalena. A steep climb up the hill to the farm and spectacular sunset views to the sound of howler monkeys.
Some Nicaraguan chcocolate (first chocolate since Guatemala!) powered us up some pretty steep stony hills the next day to the other side of the island to San Ramon. Here we stayed at another Finca on Lloyd’s map called Finca Mystique, primarily because it had Chicken Coconut Curry on the menu for dinner. A guided toddle up to the waterfall through avocado plantations led to the San Ramon waterfall. It was nice to do exercise other than cycling! A cool shower was followed by a beautiful hike back in the evening light and a lovely hospitality for the night (the curry was goooooood!).
Slow, relaxed progress the next day took us to near the morning ferry where we camped swimming in the warm lake waters as the sun went down. Isla de Ometepe truly was a place for the cyclist to rest and recuperate. Here we said our goodbyes to Emilien and Xiahan who we had bumped into throughout our stay on the island. Maybe we will see them again in Costa Rica. We hope so.
We took the rest and recuperation to another level though by catching the bumpy ferry to the mainland the next day and cycling the short distance to Playa Madera for some beach-time (Cyclists be warned! There is a hill just before the beach that cars can’t navigate, let alone bikes!). A beautiful beach setting was complemented by a very quiet evening atmosphere on the beach. The following morning we rented a surfboard at 7 o’clock and hit the waves, or rather they hit us. It was a perfect beach to learn to surf with warm sea, sandy bottom and nicely spaced waves. We shared the early morning waves with only a dozen other surfers and both improved our surfing ability beyond that which the cold UK waves have allowed us thus far. That evening we cycled back to San Juan Del Sur.
The Pan-American beckoned and we duly returned to our Southward path the next day and headed for the border, staying at the one hotel available to us, which was surprisingly cheap, and surprisingly pleasant (for the price). We’ll need that money as we head into the US-priced Costa Rica where everything apparently costa mucha moolah!