Saturday, October 13, 2012

Nica/Tica 2012 part 3/3: Nicaragua

Conscious of the fact that Costa Rica is not really representative of Central America in general, we decided to spend a few days in Nicaragua. Although the distance between Liberia and our destination in Nicaragua was only about 55 miles as the vulture flies it took us a fairly harrowing complete day to get there. 

First, we took a bus up to the border, which is essentially a chaotic mishmash of vendors and scalpers and official offices arrayed haphazardly around a full mile of dusty road. There are no signs, the Nicaraguan officials don't regularly wear uniforms [and some of the unofficials do], and there's no order whatsoever. We were exhausted from carrying all our luggage through the area, nearly heat-stroked and a bit frantic with confusion. But at the same time we knew we finally had a chance to see some non-sanitized Central America, which is what we wanted.

We finally just paid a random impatient Nicaraguan teenager to just show us the ropes. He took us to the fee booths, customs, inspections, etc. There's no way we could have done that without him; the customs building, for example, was an unmarked and decrepit old building hidden behind a giant opaque fence. Anyway, you get the picture--it was chaos. And we proudly made it through. 

We took a taxi straight from the border San Jorge, on the coast of Lake Nicaragua, where we bought tickets for the "Ferry Che" [complete with the iconic mural] which would take us to Ometepe.

Here's a map centered on Ometepe. It is made up of two large volcanoes connected by a very low shoulder. Ferry Che slowly motored us to Moyogalpa, a nifty little town with considerable backpacker influence, on the northwestern edge of the island. We proceeded by 4x4 taxi over a formidably rutted dirt/mud road all the way to the southern edge of the island, near the tiny town of San Ramon.

View Larger Map

Ferry Che, with Ometepe in the background. 

Near San Ramon is a strange facility operated by the Maderas Rainforest Conservancy. It's a field school for biologists and a laboratory for field studies, mostly for primate researchers. They own a large tract of intact rainforest butting up against Volcan Maderas and up to the high cloud forest. We stayed for three nights and saw basically nobody there--occasionally running across staff and once a researcher. Otherwise we seemed to have the whole facility to ourselves besides the occasional backpacker walking through.

Behind the facility is a a dirt track/trail that leads up toward a well-known waterfall on the volcano. Somehow this waterfall has become a mainstay on the Central American backpacker's trail. So even though we were at the most remote location of the whole trip, we saw more foreign [Canadian and French, mostly] travelers here than the rest of the trip combined by at least a factor of three. We started up in the late-morning blistering heat:

The trail was marked as 4km long, and was actually a pretty grueling hike, especially for Littler. Eventually a Nicaraguan guide who saw us picked Littler up and carried her the last few hundred steep meters.

It's hard to overstate the contrast between the suffocating heat of the trail and the downright chilly shade of the waterfall:

So there we were, playing around in the waterfall and enjoying ourselves. We heard a loud group of backpackers come near us on the trail. It turned out to be a large group of twentysomething deeply-tanned athletic Australian guys. They were loudly congratulating themselves about how awesome they were for climbing all the way up. Lots of machismo and back-slapping, which quickly turned a bit chagrined when they turned the corner and saw our kids. [what they didn't know was that we walked from the very bottom and they drove half-way up. That fact alone might have ruined their entire day].

A small group of white-collared swifts played endlessly in the upper reaches of the waterfall. It was hard to escape the impression that they were just having a blast:

We stayed for several hours before reluctantly heading back down. We lucked out and saw a Senticolis triapsis [green rat snake] foraging in the canopy above us. Although not a terribly rare snake in the neotropics it ended up being the first record on Ometepe and one of only a handful officially recorded in an arboreal habitat.

By this point we were pretty much completely out of Nicaraguan money [cordobas]. We hadn't trusted the currency hustlers at the border and we were an hour by 4x4 taxi from the nearest bank. On the way down from the volcano we persuaded a New Brunswickian and a Quebecois to exchange some of our Costa Rican colones for their cordobas at a rate favorable to them. This is the only way we managed to eat for the next couple days and make it back to Costa Rica. It probably would have been a good idea to just take the exchange rate at the border...

We found a small pulperia run out of a rural house about 1km from our place. We ate multiple meals there a day throughout our stay and became quite familiar with the family. Littler and Bud chased chickens in and out of the house, played in the hammock and generally got into lots of wild mischief. Here's what we normally had:

Desayuno: Eggs laid that morning, beans/rice and 3 preparations of plantain.
Cena: Fried chicken, beans/rice and 4 preparations of plantain.

The chicken was often little fatty corners, giblets, etc. All vegetables and animal products were directly from their garden and animals. It wasn't high cuisine but there was something very right about it.

Little had a quite loose tooth that she was determined to lose in Nicaragua:

We walked out to a secluded spot along Lake Nicaragua and played around in the water for a bit. This is just what we do.

The faint white towers on the far shore is the Amayo wind farm, the largest wind power facility in Central America.

Back at our favorite little pulperia.

The walk from the pulperia back to our place.

We walked this stretch of road many times and it always made us feel spectacularly out of place, but also in a fascinating alternate universe [not to mention a little freaked out by walking past the single mansion with fortifications in true Latin-American strongman style]. This is literally the only road on the whole half of the island and vehicles come by maybe once every 30 minutes. Pigs wallow in puddles in the street. Chickens, goats, dogs and horses have free reign over everything. About those horses...

[First bear in mind that the nearest hospital was probably 3-4 hours of travel away from us]

On one particular night [the one previous to the picture above, but in that exact location] there were a couple of run-down looking horses wandering around tied to each other side-by-side. As we walked slowly, we started to hear hooves coming up behind us. We quickly realized that the tied-up horses were heading straight for Littler from behind. We shouted, but Mommy was too far away and Daddy had Bud on his shoulders, so all we could do was watch as the following scene happened in an agonizingly slow moment:

The horses didn't deviate from their path as they bore down on Littler from behind. One horse lifted its hoof and kneed Littler in the back in-stride. She sprawled out onto the ground and rolled face-up. The next hoof came down straight for her face. As it neared her, it appeared to hitch a little bit, catching her on the temple instead. This contact had enough force to push her face out of the way and the hoof landed on dirt.

But that was just the first two hooves. The horses continued at a steady trot directly over our little girl as she had limbs sprawled out all over the place. The next hoof appeared aimed at her arm but similarly seemed to bat it out of the way at the last moment. The last hoof found a single footprint-sized hole in the array of body parts and utilized it.

Little had a single moment of pure terror looking up at the giants bearing down on her, one second of confusion, one minute of tears and then she was good to go. Totally pumped up and ready to roll with life. She had a few scrapes and bruises but that's it. It still boggles our mind that she got out of that without unspeakable consequences.

Our last night, you'd think we'd be absolutely beat. We were, but...

This is the night Little literally tore her tooth out. She had to do it in Nicaragua, but she didn't trust the Nicaraguan tooth fairy [maybe she wasn't a big fan of the current exchange rate?], so she kept her tooth until we got home.

Our last day was just travel back to Liberia. We took a moment to explore around a preserved lagoon, but Littler wasn't too enthused about it:

Budsto peeking out of the upper deck of the Ferry Che.

This sequence needs explanation. Putting back to shore on the Ferry Che, we were broiling and tired, and Little was pretty lethargic. Then she started talking with Mommy about something. And she got super animated. And demonstrative. And enthusiastic. Daddy took about 40 pictures of this exchange but he could have taken 4000--Little was engrossed for almost the entire trip. What is she describing here?

She's instructing Mommy exactly how to make the ice cream cake they would make together when they got home. Sweet Little gets excited by nothing more than the promise of excellent food!

Here's Little's account of the trip, written on our last day at Ometepe [translation below]:

[Ella: A note from Estacion Biologico de Ometepe, Nicaragua. 20 June 2012]
La Selva: We found a caiman and his name was Raymond.  Me and Dad got to hold a frog. I found a really cool bird at night with his eye shine. it's a paurauque. We found lots of cane toads! We saw lots of frogs there mating they are red eyed tree frogs.
Tortuguero:  I [went] zip lining. I also got to go on a big swing. I got to go on lots of boats. I saw cool things on those boats. I saw more caimans and we even saw a crocodile. I made Mount Everest.
Ometepe: We did a long hike to a water fall. I went swimming in Lake Nicaragua. They make yummy food!
From Ella.

Couldn't have said it better ourselves.

We deeply loved our time in Nicaragua, but decided that it was probably not a place to bring the girls regularly [horses notwithstanding]. Daddy got perspective of this one night when we were at the pulperia. He went a couple hundred meters away to take pictures, on the far side of the road from the rest of the family. A flatbed farm truck drove slowly between, overloaded with restless local youth yelling slogans and chants over a loudspeaker and looking like they owned the place. They didn't bother us, but it reminded Daddy of the thin line between tranquility and chaos in a place with the political history of rural Nicaragua where security is nonexistent.

Otherwise, the greatest gift Nicaragua gave us was an intimate feeling for life in a place radically removed from our own life. Subsistence living, genuine but stable poverty. Groundskeepers who use machetes to mow the lawn. Plus... we saw a pair of bat falcons careening over the road one night--that is certainly not something we see at home every day!

This trip had a very different color than our 2009 Costa Rica trip. It was much less... momentous. This time the busing, taxis, food ordering, etc. were just so much less intimidating. We were more relaxed overall but still more productive. Certainly some of the magic of novelty was missing, but it's an inherently magical place and we loved it. It was especially sweet to see the girls gaining experiences that they'll actually remember. Both girls come up with random surprising details from this trip that we doubt will ever fade completely.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Nica/Tica 2012 part 2/3: Tortuguero

This is Part 2 [here's Part 1] of our early-summer trip to Costa Rica/Nicaragua. This segment's destination: Tortuguero, a little not-road-accessible town on the Caribbean coast.

We reluctantly departed La Selva and caught a series of buses to a fairly remote town called Cariari, seedy by Costa Rican standards but legitimately Latin American without any tourist influences at all. So it was cool that way. We had to wait for a couple hours for our bus but entertained ourselves by watching the drama as a pigeon got run over by a bus and lots of well-meaning people tried to help it out. That story ended with a big "crunch!"

From Cariari we caught another bus to Pavona which is where the boats to Tortuguero launch off from. The first boat we were in was overloaded and started to sink, so we got off that one. The next one was superior.

The boat ride took us through dozens of miles of jungle rivers. We were going too fast for much birding, but it's hard to miss guys like this:

Budsto really loved the boat ride and tried to see birds. He saw Mommy and Daddy birding so much that he just became infatuated with seeing birds. He even spotted some that we didn't see. His ID skills leave much to be desired [though he's got "duck" down pretty well], but the passion is there.

Tortuguero is a little Caribbean town that's also a popular tourist spot. It maintains quite a bit of charm due to the fact that it is only accessible by boat. The kids heard there was a beach, so before long that's where we ended up. This whole part of the trip, with the boats and beach, were aimed at pleasing the kids. It can't all be obscure birds and tiny frogs before the kids just get tired of it all.

Enough beach photos? There will be more later.

The kids felt free to just wander about at will in Tortuguero. The "streets" are dirt and have only foot and bicycle traffic, and the people are very warm. Once when we were eating lunch indoors we peeked outside and found Budsto dancing like crazy in the middle of the street to reggae wafting out of a nearby bar. Locals were gathered around egging him on. Another time the girls met and played with a local girl and set up a foot race in the street. We have no idea how they communicated the rules to their games but everybody seemed to know what was going on.

We took a 3-hour long private boat tour around Tortuguero National Park. It was quite an adventure for the kids and we had an expert birder/boatsman named Roberto.

Green iguana.

Anhinga. This is the species of bird that pooped on Mommy during our honeymoon [this was not the part of our honeymoon that we spent looking for birds in a giant landfill--that trip was full of romance].

Mangrove swallow.

Northern jacana. We spent a lot of time watching these great little guys from a few feet away.

They were walking on floating water hyacinth gleaning tiny bugs from the leaves.

Giant toes help a ton.

Black river turtle. The kids especially loved the turtles...

...but not nearly as much as the two caimans we saw at close range, dubbed "Damon" and "Laman" by Little. We told stories of the three brother caimans Raymond, Damon and Laman for months afterwords.

Spider monkeys.

Highlights include two snowy cotingas that Daddy spotted and a gray-headed kite. All the kids were intrigued by the spider monkeys. Overall it was a blast... fun, in fact, that when we got back Daddy took the Fellins out in a canoe around the canals and lagoons of Tortuguero.

Switching gears for a moment... several months before the trip, Daddy showed Little a video of somebody zip-lining through the canopy in Costa Rica. She was instantly obsessed. Like, she was so possessed with the vision of zip-lining in CR that she basically didn't stop talking about it. So:

Littler, Budsto and Daddy got to wait for the big girls in a mosquito-infested swamp. Littler thought it was so much fun.

Little's favorite part--and she still talks about this weekly three months later--was a free-swinging tree rope, probably 40 feet long and 60 feet off the ground. To hear her tell it, that was pretty much the coolest thing ever.

And more canoeing.

This picture needs some explanation. Budsto doe this really cute thing every day. He'll turn around and see Mommy or Daddy and decide he wants to run to our arms. So he leans forward, sticks his arms back in an anime running posture and sprints towards us with a huge grin. This picture hardly does it justice, but we think the arms-back thing was an innovation on the arms-wide-for-a-hug idea. He did this a ton on our trip since he was always wandering off exploring then running back to us.

Little and Littler both like to wait for waves to crash into them. It's the thing to do. But Littler has a degree of fearlessness that is downright terrifying for anybody watching.

She just thinks it's a blast. When a giant undertow comes and pulls her in deep and shoves her under she just thinks it's hilarious.

This is one of Daddy's favorite pictures. Little and Littler love to try to jump over waves, here they are doing it with Mommy. Bud wants to be doing the same thing but is scared of the water, so he's standing a good 30 feet behind them and just jumping whenever he wants. He's not even close to the water. It's super-cute, and... well, look at those hops!

Little and Littler made "Mount Everest" on the beach and waited for much of the afternoon for the waves to demolish it.

After getting back from the beach, we all took turns getting showers and getting the grit off. Budsto was first, and we let him loose in the room while we got the girls bathed. When we found him again he was running around the room squishing ants with his penis. Boys...

Overall we saw 20 new species of birds on this part of the trip despite never setting foot inside a primary forest. And nothing was more fabulous than an espresso-colored black-collared hawk sitting on a low branch in the river as we boated back to Pavona. Really stunning bird!

After boating back to Pavona we caught ride with a great guy named Eric all the way back to San Jose, which trimmed about 3 hours of bus rides out of our day. The kids and Mommy piled in the back seat, with Budsto jamming out to the music on the radio. Little boy loves to dance.

Next stop: Nicaragua!