Thursday, March 27, 2014

From the quaint town of Granada to sleeping in a jungle tree house!

Heading into Granada, I didn't know what to expect. I had heard mixed reviews. Some people said that I would absolutely love Granada, that it was a cute, quaint town. Others said not to even bother with Granada after Leon since it is only a smaller Leon that is not as fun. I decided that I would go see for myself. Luckily, there were two people from my trip to the volcano who were also traveling to Granada that day, so I was able to have travel buddies. What I have found in traveling alone is that finding travel buddies is very very important for feeling safe. Another great thing about traveling from Leon to Granada is that is it a relatively easy two bus trip.

When we reached Granada, I knew I liked it already. It was so cute! The buildings were many different colors and colonial looking. There were horses and carriages lined up along the center square. The center square had a nice little park with lots of vendadores, a couple outside restaurants and dozens of benches to sit and just enjoy the life happening around you. The only problem, Granada is HOT! Coming from the beach to Leon was hard enough in these extremely hot temperatures and I didn't think it was possible to go somewhere even hotter, but it was. I honestly have to say that I did not see the full extent that I could have because of the heat. However, I did take a beautiful day trip to Laguna Apollo where I tubed, kayaked, and laid on the dock. Had I known the beauty of this place, I would have definitely stayed there a couple of nights! Coming back from Laguna Apollo, I was able to catch the famous break dancing team, made up of the local street kids. They were amazing! Children from what looked like 5 or 6 to 17 or so years old, danced with no protection on their hands on cobblestone streets. This was definitely a sight to see and I'm so glad I was able to catch it!

Poste rojo: life in a tree house

From Granada, I decided to take a small side trip to stay in a tree house in the jungle with howler monkeys and many other animals that I choose not to think about such as tarantulas. Going into this tree house idea, I didn't know anything about it. I did call ahead and see if there was avaliablility, which I decided was a must if I was going to try to find this place. After getting the ok, I set off in the morning to what turned out to be a very crazy adventure. From my hostel in Granada I took a taxi. I was very naive  to think that I would actually be able to get all the way to the hostel with a taxi. As the driver stopped on the side of the road of what looked like the middle of nowhere, he pointed to a dirt road to the side and told me that I had to walk the rest of the way. I started to think to myself, "maybe this isn't such a good idea", but decided to continue on. I paid the driver and off he went, leaving me alone with a bus stop of people and a dirt road that looked as if it led to nowhere. I started walking, holding my things close and looking as confident as I know how, when a tuk tuk driver passed. I stopped him and asked if I was going the right direction and he said yes and offered me a ride. I was hesitant because the taxi driver said these rides could get expensive, but the drive said 2$ and I hopped right in. He drove me through winding dirt paths that cut across fincas (farms) and pulled me up to some stairs. Now it was really time for me to walk! After climbing Telica, I swore to myself the rest of my trip was going to be for relaxing, yet here I am at the bottom of these steps, of which could for all I know be never ending, with my backpack on my back and my two bags in my hand with no other choice but to start climbing and hope for the best. The things I get myself into!

Extremely hot and many many steps up, I hear a friendly excited voice calling from the treehouse above. "Hola, hola, bienvenidos!!", a plump, happy Nicaraguan woman calls as a young Nicaraguan man comes and relieves me of my heavy travel bag. I had made it! Going up into the treehouse lodge, I am very impressed. Lots of hammocks to laze around in, walls full of quirky signs and trinkets and graffiti from fellow travelers. While looking around, I quickly realize that I am the only guest here. Thoughts go through my mind, both of "this might be neat to have this place all to myself" and the other extreme, "isn't this how most horror movies begin". I push all that out of my mind and grab my book and a hammock and go off into my own world while I listen to the sounds of the howler monkeys all around. Just as I am about to drift asleep I hear sounds of other travelers out of breath from the long trip up to the hostel. There are three of them, then a little while later come two more. I decide the comfort of knowing I am not part of the next horror movie beats having the hostel to myself.

Just as I was again returning to my relaxation, in walks the craziness. I hear a woman's voice in very loud English panting, huffing, and puffing as she comes up the stairs. An older woman, I figured just a fellow traveler. What I come to find out is that she is the mother of the man who owns the hostel. She explains to us that he is in jail and has been for the last 6 months. Apparently, he was in a car accident where a Nicaraguan man hit him from behind and died. Since this gentleman was American, even though it was not his fault, he was blamed for the mans death and put in jail. I knew that they are not very fond of Americans here but I had no idea how much, and immediately decided I would not drive anything in this country!

Unfortunately, although this woman was very nice and it was her first day trying to take care of the hostel, it did cut into the peace and quiet that I was hoping for. She did not know any Spanish coming into this, so she compensated by speaking English even louder in hopes that it would make them understand. Every once in a while I would look up from my book and translate for her, although it was very entertaining to see their attempt at communication.

That night I spent in the hammock next to the kitchen. They did have a really cool platform attached to the main house by a suspension bridge where I was originally going to stay, but a small black spider with a yellow dot on it's back (I assumed poisonous) falling on top of me, combined with the eeriness of the possibility of me sleeping alone on the platform in the middle of the Nicaraguan jungle creeping in, I opted to sleep near the crazy lady and the guards. It was amazing to sleep outside hearing the howling of the monkeys and the buzzing of the cicadas all around me.

A crazy yet thrilling experience, I am happy that I continued on with this adventure! Now I am off to my next adventure: Isla de Ometepe, an island topped with two massive volcanos.

Monday, March 24, 2014

A night on top of an active volcano!

Volcan Telica

Without thinking too much about it, which is how I do most everything when I travel, Alizee and I booked a two day trek to Volcan Telica. On the trek we hiked up the volcano with about 15 kilos on our backs, set up camp at the top and slept in tents right by the active crater. Having already done quite a long, very hard hike in Guatemala last year up a volcano, I thought nothing of this 4 hour trek up to the top of Telica. What I didn't take into account with this trek was how hot it was going to be. When I am talking hot, I mean hot! We hiked for 4 hours in direct sun on a 90 degree day. I am usually pretty good when it comes to hiking and other exercise, even though I don't do enough of it, but this hike was brutal. The heat was so grueling and I did not want to get sun stroke so I took my time and drank 4 out of my 6 gallons of water before reaching the top.

Once we reached the top, the view was beautiful. I stopped and just breathed in the moment as much as I could. I have been trying to do that a lot on this trip. I continuously remind myself that I am so blessed in my life to have this opportunity to see such beauty all of the time. So blessed to be able to travel and experience different cultures and nature in so many countries including my own. In  my time that I spend with just my thoughts, I take myself back to my life in the states, and even there, the three weeks before leaving for Central America, I went to Mexico for a weekend, camping in Joshua Tree and took a 24 hour road trip moving to Seattle. Being on top of this active volcano really made me think, reflect, and appreciate my life and how amazing I have chosen to make it.

Tired and hot, the group of us dropped all of our things and laid down on the grass for a nap. The feeling after having accomplished something and than being able to relax is beautiful. I think that is why I love yoga so much. To have an intense practice and then lay meditating, still on my mat is a feeling of euphoria. Laying in the shade on the top of the volcano after the days hike was a very similar feeling.

After a little relaxing, we set up our tents and headed to the crater to see the lava during the day. I was really surprised as soon as I saw the crater. I had expected a pool of lava, even a small one, as I had seen in all of the movies. What I saw was much different, three small holes within a small crater with in the large crater were glowing red. Although not the big lava pit I had expected, this was still very very cool. To see the activity that is going on in the very volcano that I am standing on and later sleeping on was incredible and quite scary all at the same time. Then there was the sound, INCREDIBLE! Once we got up to the crater, it sounded like an airport. Like hundreds of planes taking off and landing all at the same time. I have never heard anything like this! And this makes you think, what the heck is going on in there and WHY did I pay to sleep on top of this crazy, yet beautiful gift from Mother Nature! I think to myself, "I'm crazy and I just hope to come out of this alive!" The other thing that happens when you hike close to an active volcano crater is the sulfur. Pockets of sulfur spurted from all sides of the crater, covering the air full of smoke. It is a crazy and very stinky phenomenon.

After dinner and watching the sunset (there were many many clouds in the sky so the sunset left much to be desired, but still on a volcano so very cool), we went to see the crater at night! This is what everyone had been waiting for. The moment that made hiking up in the heat totally worth it. Looking over into the crater was amazing. The lava showed itself in an almost solar system form. The three larger dots we had seen during the day we glowing more red than ever before, then surrounded by hundreds of tiny dots making spiraled, patterned shapes. It was beautiful! Standing there in awe, covering my mouth from all of the sulfur, all I could think about is how beautiful the world is and how crazy it is that I am able to do this in my life.

A fire and roasted marshmallows followed, then aside from the rock under my head I slept like a baby waking for the sunset the next morning. The sunset was everything I could have hoped it to be. The best part about the sunset was seeing the crater of the volcano full with smoke looking large and majestic. Thus the trip was over aside from the hike down, which was much easier than the hike up. What an amazing time :)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Leon- show me what you got!

From the beach I took the shuttle to Leon. There are three ways that I could have gotten to Nicaragua from El Salvador. I could have taken a boat for $75 that would have dropped me at Potosi and then a chicken bus from Potosi to Leon, a shuttle bus from the beach straight to Leon for $45 or a total of 6 chicken buses for probably around $10. I choose the bus, simply for convince. I liked that it dropped me off right at Leon. We also had a good group from the beach hostel that I could travel with. Unfortunately I had decided to have an overly fun night the last evening at the beach, so the 8 hour squished bus trip was far from pleasant, but it was definitely worth it!

The bus trip started at the beach in El Salvador, crossed through Honduras for a total of two hours, then crossed the border of Nicaragua, and finally dropped us off in Leon. In line with the expectation in Central America for everything to be late and take twice as long as it is scheduled to, we arrived in Leon after 10 pm. I have to say I was quite concerned when I didn't yet book a hostel and it was the weekend during the busy season, and not only that, but most of the bus didn't book a hostel yet either. Right when we got to Leon, we tried to book the nearest hostel to the bus, but it was full so a couple of us checked the one down the street. With the name on the sign of hostel laundry, we didn't expect much. For 5 dollars a night we got a clean bed, plenty of fans, and filtered water so I was happy. Outside the room there was really no area to hang out, only a small tv where the children of the Nicaraguan family running the hostel watched sponge bob, but that worked out ok because there was a nice bar across the street. With a place to lay our heads solidified, we all gathered to try the Nicaraguan beers and have a chat with great new friends!

The next day was spent wondering the streets of Leon and getting a taste for the city. The market, although much smaller than the one in San Salvador, still had rows and rows if vendadores selling anything and everything you could possible need or ask for. We did a little souvenir shopping and organized a volcano tour for the next day. I was actually not planning on doing a two day trek in Leon, in fact, I was not planning on staying there for more than 2 nights, and before finding out that Leon was where the bus dropped us off, I was not planning on going to Leon unless I had some extra time at the end. But, that is the beauty of travel. Plans can change in seconds, you can meet great people and change your trip all together for great company. It is amazing how fluid you can be with your time when you are traveling, something that is much harder to do once you return to the daily grind of life.

That night, Alizee, a girl from Luxenberg and I, met with another friend we had met at Playa Esteron, and we all went out for dinner and drinks. It is funny how there are many people you meet along the way; some you don't get past surface questions of where are you from, how long have you been traveling, etc, some who are great for fun at the moment, some whom you can have a really nice conversation with, and then some who you connect with right away and feel as if you have known them for a long time. For me these girls were the latter case. That night, we had wonderful conversations of fears, feelings, and the processes of re-finding oneself. The human connection is such an amazing thing, and if you open yourself up, the possibilities are endless.

Tomorrow, we will hike an active volcano!

Monday, March 17, 2014

To truly relax; playa esteron

My two days and three nights a Tortuga Verde in Playa Esteron were magical. If anyone knows me well, they know that the one thing I have a very hard time doing is relaxing. Even when I am relaxing, I am getting up and down, mind is going in every direction, and I am usually trying to find some excursion or another to go on. From the moment I arrived at the Tortuga Verde hostel, I felt as if I had not a care in the world.

Immediately after putting my stuff down I met a girl from El Salvador. Although my Spanish is very broken, I was about to have a really nice conversation (all In Spanish) with her over two beers and a walk towards the sunset. We talked about jobs, education, and travel and even got into a little bit about the politics of education. I knew that how I was saying things was not always correct and I didn't always use the correct tense, but it was so fulfilling to know that I was able to speak and understand enough to talk to and really get to know this person. After the sunset we sat for dinner and two others joined us. That is when things got a lot more difficult for me. It takes a great deal of concentration to keep up with one person, but adding two more Spanish speakers into the mix (and of course a couple more beers) made me quite tired. After trying to keep up with conversation for an hour or so, I was exhausted!

There are so many things that I want to say about this beach, as I am spilling over with love for the place. It was such an amazing feeling to walk down the beach and be seemingly the only one on the beach for miles. Even though there were many people in the hostel, if I wanted to be alone to reflect or relax, it felt as if no one else existed in that place at that time. On my beach walks, I could look at the waves as they unearthed dozens of sea snails and watch as each snail rushed to dig themselves back into the sand, just to be uncovered once again by the incoming wave. I watched as the sea slugs slowly made their pathways in the sand in a meandering route much like that of mine at the beach, a route you only have the ability to make if you have all the time in the world with nowhere to be. What a wonderful feeling!

On the other hand, the times that I wanted to be social, there were many amazing people to get to know. What is so wonderful about traveling is the sense of openness I have within myself as well as the openness and connections I receive from others. At Tortuga Verde I was lucky enough to make some wonderful friendships and to find many people to continue on with when traveling to my next stop, Leon!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Eniey, meany, miney, mo: Playa Esteron, El Salvador

Before going to bed I looked at what I could do the next day; the options are of course endless, but the places I was looking at was ruta del Flores (a beautiful winding bus ride which would stop at quaint towns along the way), parque national de imposible (a protected park with great hiking to a nearby volcano) and playa esteron (a beautiful white sand beach with very little travelers and a hostel with great reviews). I decided to sleep on it and choose in the morning. Either way come tomorrow I would be on a bus off to somewhere. After enduring another sleepless night with the big snoring man, I woke to enjoy some coffee. The hostel had a great area where everyone could gather and I struck up a conversation with one of the other travelers who had just come from el tunco (a beach I visited about 3 years ago) and before that enjoyed 2 weeks in playa esteron at the hostel tortuga verde. This was perfect because that was one of the places I was thinking about going next. He said it was beautiful and the hostel was clean, nice, right on the beach and you get a lot for the little you pay. I was sold! Not to mention it is close to the Nicaraguan border and that is where I am headed next.

One thing that I had forgot, but quickly remembered about traveling in El Salvador is that there are not many itineraries designed for tourists. When you want to get around El Salvador, you have to for the most part, travel as a Salvadorian would; taking chicken bus after chicken bus from town to town until you reach your destination. This does leave the lone traveler with a hard task of finding out where to get off and catch the next bus, all the while trying to look as much like you know where you are going as you can.

Another, although very interesting, problem I ran into right away was that the streets by the hostel that are the normal bus route I needed, we're blocked off because of the political turmoil from the recent election. In the day and a half that I was in San Salvador I really got to see the very political side of the city. The recent presidential election left the candidates so close that one side is pushing for a recount of the votes. I was able to witness large, peaceful protests and political propaganda of both sides spread around the city.

The day of traveling was grueling and difficult. I found my first city bus (20 cents) that would bring me to terminal oriente, where I would then need to catch another chicken bus to a small town called San Miguel. At the terminal (a large dirt patch with about 20 buses, a few vendadores, and many locals walking up and down the isles of each bus selling fruit, candy, coconut water and pretty much anything else you can imagine. Very hungry and mind set on one thing, a papusa (which I still have yet to have), I found my bus and walked to the nearest vendador, it was after breakfast and a little before lunch, but I was crossing my fingers and going to try any way. Much to my dismay, no papusas so I settled for a sandwich of some unknown ingredients and got on my bus. Although I was looking to take a chicken bus for about $1.25  they shuffled me to a macro bus for $5 and I was glad I did! Not having my large backpack on my lap, a reclining seat, and air conditioning for the 3.5 hour ride was well worth the extra $3.75! When I arrived in San Miguel there were many people getting off on each street. I figured that the bus terminal would look much like it did in San Salvador so I waited. Luckily the man who collected the fair came to my seat to tell me when to get off because the terminal turned out to be a store front on a little side street. Alone and hoping to not give off too much of a look that I don't know where I am going, I asked the man in the store where to catch the bus to El Cuco. He of course whistled out to his friend outside and they discussed very loudly so everyone could hear and decided that the bus came to the same place I was, so I waited. About twenty minutes later a the bus passed almost passing by. I yelled and literally ran on and sat squished against a woman with a chicken and to my right a young Salvadorian couple. We rode like that for about 1.5 hours. Finally, two chicken buses a macro bus and one cab later, I had reached playa esteron and what would be my home for the next three days, Hotel Tortuga Verde. Immediately I was in love with the endless stretch of sandy beach and the countless hammocks spread around the hostel. I had definitely chosen the right place!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A day exploring San Salvador

  The following day I decided to see some of the city. I had chosen a few places to try to get to but mainly my love for cities in other counteries is in their markets. Rows and rows of vendadores that stretch for many many city blocks, enough to easily get lost in, and boy did I! When I got up in the morning, I asked the man who ran the hostel how to get down to the market. A Californian, yet very knowledgable about the city. He went on to tell me a good route if I wanted to walk and good museums and parks to check out. Not knowing the city, I left everything but $20 at the hostel. San Salvador is a very large city and I knew I could get lost very easily so I figured I could just take in the experience and save taking pictures for the smaller, safer cities beaches and towns I would soon travel to.

My day was an adventure to say the least. I decided to walk to market which was 1.5 hours, yet mostly down hill. I could then take the bus back uphill to the hostel for 0.20 cents if I got too tired. The walk down was long but interesting. I would say San Salvador is most similar to NYC, but not as built up. The recent civil war has left much of the city in shambles. Walking from Zona Rosa to the City center, I was really able to see the differences. After the war Zona Rosa became the new center of attention. Businesses, hotels and restaurants began building there and leaving the city center to not much more than the markets, which even they took over old barracks. On my walk I enjoyed some delicious fruta with papaya, watermelon and pineapple covered in lime, salt and chili, sipped fresh water out of a small bag for 25cents, and drank a yummy strawberry liquado (smoothie) for a dollar. It was too hot to think about eating anything besides fruit, being that I was walking for what will end up being a total of 7 hours in 95 degree weather!

Some interesting sights along my walk included:
*burger kings in trailer homes (you wouldn't believe the amount of American fast food places there are and all of them the same price as in the US! I can't imagine who would want to spend $6 on a burger and fries when there are delicious papusas, liquados, and so many other cheap salvadorian fares)
*the park was colorful yet looked very dangerous for any child. The slides consisted of a ladder to the top and two poles coming down off the other side. I'm not sure exactly how it works
*boys and men alike peeing on the side of the street (if you have to go, you have to go. Luckily I was sweating out all the liquids I was taking in so I didn't have to pee once the entire day, since bathrooms are few and far between)
*an adorable little boy sleeping on the bottom of a cart selling goods at the market
*a store called So Cal that sells Vans and Hurley gear
* a juicer that is usually 100$ in the US was $219 in San Salvador
*an entire 2 blocks of tiendas de pampers (stores that sell nothing but pampers)

I wandered around the market searching for all that I forgot to bring from home; shampoo, conditioner, soap and sunscreen. I know, what a list to forget, but like usual I decided hanging out with friend is way more important than preparing myself for a 3 week trip :)

The market was amazing, rows upon endless rows of stalls that sell everything you could ever need. Everything that is, besides sunscreen. If I can give any advice to a future traveler going to a place where the locals skin is darker than yours, bring your own sunscreen! After searching for hours, getting told there isn't any sunscreen by every pharmacy and store, I finally found some very overpriced sunscreen at the supermarcado, but by this time my shoulders and face were both bright red with a very large sunburn.

After applying the much needed sunscreen and enjoying a refreshing liquido, I decided that being lost in the market for 4 hours was enough fun for the day and I began my journey up the hill toward my hostel. I planned on walking until I saw the bus I needed pass by, but when it finally did I was far enough that I just kept going. Crossing the street is always a difficult task in San Salvador since pedestrians never have the right of way. I got to a busy street where I thought it was going to be completely impossible to get across, but then I followed a spunky old man in a nice suit, around 60 years old, who led me across and then stayed ahead of me for the next 5 blocks uphill! I finally made it back to my hostel too tired to do anything but shower and relax and call it a night.

El Salvador, we meet again

Heading into the airport in Seattle I had the same daunting feeling in the pit of my stomach. No matter how many times I travel alone and how many foreign countries I conquer the same nervous feeling gets me every time. I so easily press the purchase button when looking for the flight, sure why not go to El Salvador and Nicaragua for 3 weeks by myself! I click buy and don't think much about it until the day I leave. That day as I head towards the airport my mind is loud with, "Danielle, you are crazy!", and "why didn't you just ask someone to go with you". Quieting my thoughts, I kiss my girlfriend goodbye and thus there was no turning back.

Upon arrival in San Salvador the sun had already set and all the busses/shuttles had long since stopped so I had to take a taxi. Unfortunately this means the difference between $2.50 and $25. Since San Salvador is about 50 km away from the airport, the taxi should be somewhere between $20-30 and on the higher side since it was dark. Immediately as I stepped out of the airport the familiar overwhelming men shouted "taxi, taxi" and pulled me towards their direction. The man who pulled me his way was asking $28 and when I countered with $25 he simply said "ok" and whistled over his friend. I got in the pick up truck aka taxi and we started off. When I told the driver the other man agreed on $25 for the trip he said some choice words and sped off. I think because he only had me as a passenger and we had established a lower price he wanted to get rid of me as soon as possible! Weaving in and out past every car, truck, and bicycle, we surely broke a record. The whole way I gripped tightly onto my "oh shit bar" but was just as distracted by the scenery that I was able to not care too much.

The hostel I booked before coming, thanks to the request of my girlfriend to not arrive with the first night stay unplanned (thank you baby), is called Hostel Cumbres del Volcan. For 10$ a night I stayed in a dorm room with 4 others, with a bathroom the size of a locker room. I really couldn't ask for anything better. The water was hot, the staff was friendly and helpful and there was a nice large community room, kitchen to use as we like, and front porch. That night, since I arrived at my hostel around 7:30 pm, it was too late and too dark to go out anywhere so I showered, relaxed and read my book.
My only complaint of my experience there was that I was stuck in a dorm with a man who snored so loud it woke the whole room up several times throughout the middle of the night. He was one of those people who will all the sudden not be able to breathe so they choke and then snore uncontrollably for about 5 minutes, then stop for just long enough to think you are safe to sleep, and then they can't breathe and choke and start the whole process over again. I don't wish this experience upon anyone! The whole night, all I could think about were the bags of ear plugs I have in the drawer next to my bed in Seattle and kick myself for not bringing any!