Tag Archives: gringos in Latin America

Do You Know The Way To San Jose?

view from the Cultura de PlazaThe capital city of Costa Rica, San José, gets very little press in the guidebooks and, like most travelers, we had used the city as a place mainly to get from here to there as it is located in the center of the country.   This was our fifth trip to the city and, aside from the Tica Bus station and some quick food restaurants around our hotel, we didn’t know doodley about the capital except that it was big and hectic with traffic and pedestrians scurrying about.  Like all of our previous visits the weather was chill and gloomy; gray, overcast and frequently raining regardless of whether the rest of the nation was in the wet or the dry season.   However, unexpectedly, we found ourselves with a full day to see a bit of the city as our bus for Panama City did not leave until midnight of the following day.Rosa del Paseo

We did know a good deal about our lodging as, despite our travels, we can be creatures of habit and kept returning to a charming little hotel we had discovered during our first visit. The Rosa del Paseo is housed in a turn-of-the-century Victorian private home and was built 115 years ago by the Montealgre family who made their fortune exporting coffee. Rosa del Paseo It is reputed to be one of San José’s most charming stucco homes and is located near the heart of the city on Paseo Colón. The Rosa has kept pace with the times, undergoing regular upkeep and upgrades yet is nevertheless surprisingly evocative of 19th-century Costa Rica.another staircase It has the traditional central courtyard and is graced with period furniture and oil paintings. Beautiful details are spread throughout the hotel, including transoms, ornate stucco door frames, original tile floors, polished hardwood and parquet floors, gleaming wainscoting and a collection of antique sewing machines on original tables scattered here and there.  In the midst of the frenetic movement of the modern capital city of San José, the Rosa del Paseo retains its dignity and composure.

The Ticos with whom we had spoken had highly endorsed both the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) and the Museo de Jade.  Our map was a bit sketchy as to the exact location of the museums so we opted for the most obvious solution and hailed a cab to the Plaza del Cultura.the Gold Museum below Pigeon Plaza

And there, residing below the Teatro Nacional (National Theater) was our goal. But to get to the museum we needed to navigate our way through a plaza full of pigeons which refused to be flustered by our passing. Indeed, they moved leisurely out of our way delaying just long enough to make certain we were not bearing gifts of food.view from the Plaze de Cultura

The gold museum contained an amazing assemblage of Pre-Columbian gold pieces ranging from raptor broaches and clasps to warrior breast plates and collars and included numerous animal figurines for ceremonial use.Gold ornaments

Maybe subconsciously we’d assumed that, after the depredations of the Spanish and the centuries of interminable grave-robbing and looting, the pieces remaining would not be so numerous or would be of lesser quality. Fortunately we were proven wrong and we were astonished and impressed by the quantity and wealth of treasures assembled in one place.gallery

Coming back into daylight brought us to the National Theater, a magnificent building that is a monument by, for and to the 19th century coffee barons. Performance room in the National Theater

The theater was modeled after and imitative of only the best of European architecture and was built with European marble, windows and chandeliers and decorated with European paintings, silks, brocades and crystals. The barons lobbied the government agreeing to assist financially in its construction but, in the end, 94% of the costs were raised by a general tax overwhelmingly borne by the common population, the non-coffee barons.  And, without a doubt, the masses might have appreciated the century old Steinway and Sons baby grand piano which the maestro graciously limbered up for our enjoyment.San Jose pedestrian walk

As the afternoon waned, we hoofed it a few blocks over to the Jade Museum, a five-story building of modern design tastefully filled with a wealth of multi-colored jade objet d’ art.  Again we marveled that this quantity of masterful work had survived the last centuries of pillage and plunder. We were well pleased with the museum even before we encountered the overwhelming and astoundingcouples coupling collection of ceramics, a massive number of pottery pieces in pristine condition. Tucked away on the fourth floor was an unexpectedly large exhibition of ceramics and sculptures of Pre-Columbian indigenous erotica  which displayed an avid interest in sex, sexual roles and childbirth.  Our close examination was interrupted by the announced closure of the museum which led to our hurriedly breezing through the remaining floor before exiting into the tumult of the city and ending our cultural expedition.

We can’t say that we are a great deal wiser about San José but we learned that beneath the exterior of hurried consumerism and anonymous architecture there are true jewels to be found. The beauty contained in the museums and National Theater made us glad that we had spent a little more time exploring San José.

By Richard and Anita

Housesitting: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Tineke sTwice a day flocks of brilliant green parrots flew by overhead, sometimes alighting here and there among the verdant trees on the property and sometimes continuing on to the neighboring trees.   They screeched and gabbled and the air reverberated with their riotous cacophony. Like clockwork, at dawn and dusk, the air was also filled with the guttural calls of the howler monkeys.  A few iguanas lived on the property including one dignified male who measured at least two feet long from head to tail.  Butterflies, in a profusion of patterns and hues, alighted briefly on the flowers and we rushed to take pictures before they fluttered away.Magpie jays

A variety of other birds visited us from time to time including the beautiful and regal Magpie Jays who squawked like shrewish crows in a deafening shriek.  And hummingbirds, always there were hummingbirds flitting among the flowers.  Tiny frogs hopped about along with enormous toads, both of which occasionally wandered into the house and had to be scooted back outside gently. variegated squirrel

During the day, one of our favorite visitors, the variegated squirrels, would climb down from the trees, sprint in a funny little run-hop a few feet to another tree and climb back to a safe perch.  And at night there were a multitude of stars spread across the firmament, lightning bugs blinked randomly about and, to the north and east heat lightening arced in brilliant flashes.Tineke s house

We housesat for several weeks on a property six miles outside of Tamarindo, Costa Rica on a parcel of land approximately one hectare (2.5 acres) located at the end of a long dirt road that branched here and there as it delved into the countryside.road to Tineke s

The homestead had a variety of palm, banana, mango, lemon and bamboo trees, as well as several enormous trees which spread broadly providing welcome shade. Flowering plants and bushes were scattered about the property which was fenced all around and secured with a gate half of which hung drunkenly, twisted and totally useless.

And here begins the first story, this one about the marauding cows and horses, who visited several times over the course of the first few weeks, trying their best to graze on the thick grass and delectable, flowering edibles.edible grazing for cows

We would tramp about, with Yippy barking enthusiastically but ineffectively in his unaccustomed role as a cowherding dog, and finally funnel  them back out onto the road.  Not especially fun during the day but a whole different game when this had to be done two times in the dead of night with only the light of the stars and a couple of travel flashlights.  We would peer around the property here and there at looming shapes that would suddenly break into slow trots, urged on by Yippy’s hysterical barking, in any direction but where we wanted them to go! A couple of nocturnal bouts of this entertainment led us to the inelegant but practical idea of closing the working side of the gate and driving the car into the breach left by the inoperative side of the gate.  And once again, our nights were undisturbed and the problem was temporarily solved.Yippy I-O

And the car…we had agreed to rent the car for a nominal sum so that we could run errands, grocery shop and visit the beautiful beaches around Tamarindo.  We were looking forward to the experience as we hadn’t driven a car since we left the States in September of 2012.  It was a nice looking Nissan with 4-wheel drive and … two totally bald rear tires.  In Costa Rica the roads are in notoriously bad shape:  paved roads have no shoulders, abrupt drop-offs and deep potholes.  And the dirt roads?  They are washboarded, rutted, and fissured with fractured stones working their way up to the road surface. Tire life expectancy of a tire is none too long in this part of the world and so, you guessed it … a flat tire.   Jorst, a highly esteemed German expat and tire fixer extraordinaire, arrived within fifteen minutes of our distress call – we were told later that this was not common – but we were duly impressed! He performed the requisite tasks for the nominal fee of $20, an astonishing price for roadside assistance.  Of course, we were a little leery of driving unnecessarily as we still had one American Bald Eagle on the driver’s rear. So, after some back and forth with the homeowner we sprang for two new tires ($175).  Problem solved.

Our housesitting gig included looking after the property and house, maintaining the swimming pool (which started out a bit murky but which we coaxed into a sparkling blue) and the animals.  The four pets were friendly, well-natured and very mellow. 3 outta 4Yippy, the inept cow dog and wanna-be watchdog (also not a successful occupation), was the alpha animal. There were two cats; the younger cat, who we nicknamed Queen Calico, was regal and rather stand-offish except with Yippy with whom she had a rather strange fixation;Strange bedfellows! flirting and rubbing herself sinuously around his legs, curling herself around him seductively when napping and lavishing his face with licks and laps.  Actually, we enjoyed watching this strange affair! The second cat was a tabby we called Fat Cat or Big Mama and she would scold us with long plaintive meows first thing in the morning and throughout the day if her food dish was empty.

And the last player in the ensemble was Dolly, a sweet, golden-colored medium-sized matron with a cataract clouding her left eye and comical ears that flopped over at half-mast. Dorrie - Dolly

It was easy to imagine her in a nursing home, inching her way behind a wheeled walker in a confused daze, peering about with no clue as to where she had been going. It was not her age but her hygiene that created the initial issue; to put it mildly, she was highly odoriferous!  We looked at each other the first night of our arrival with a “How are we going to make it through five weeks with this reeking creature?” expression on our faces.  And, to further add to her unimpressive introduction, the next morning we found out she was incontinent as well. The following week we ended up taking her on the first of four visits to the vet after the hair around her tail and rear end fell out in big clumps almost overnight and the skin became angry-looking and inflamed.  She received a giant dose of antibiotics ($100) to treat a massive ear and skin infection, parasites and the ticks that she had hosted.  And (oh praise Jesus!) an antibacterial bath!   We were instructed to bathe her twice a week with the medicinal shampoo, a ritual that transformed her into a soft and sweet-smelling critter.  As for the incontinence problem?  Since the house was open aired with only grills and gates that covered the doors and windows we moved her bedding (freshly laundered) about ten feet to the covered porch so that her ancient bladder could awaken her at night and she could totter off into the darkness to relieve herself.  Another problem solved.

butterflyAnd so, we finished the last days of our home and pet caretaking gig sitting on the covered patio, watching the birds, listening to and enjoying the fresh scent of the rains with Dolly stretched out dozing on one side of the big work table, Yippy underneath at our feet and the two cats curled on pillows napping on the chairs; our little adopted family.  We’d had a Costa Rican rocky road this housesit and solved even more problems than the ones we wrote about here but we’ll miss this place with all its downsides because, it turns out, there were a lot of upsides, too.Bananas flowering and growing

Note:  The homeowner, a lovely Dutch lady, reimbursed us fully for all expenses incurred during our stay.

By Anita and Richard

 

The Panacea: Do Nothing, Just B-e-e-e-e-e….

Panacea de la MontañaJust down the road from where we’re housesitting is a nondescript sign on the side of the highway announcing “Panacea de la Montaña” which leads onto a rutted dirt road of dubious worth.  After the initial slog you arrive at a junction on a level flat. A quick glance at the road ahead informs you that this is the time for four-wheel drive for the final push up the steep grade.  Panacea de la Montaña

The discreet sign alongside the highway and the pitch of the daunting road may be inadvertent but no one arrives at Panacea de la Montaña unintentionally. It is, in fact, an end destination of repute; a boutique yoga retreat and spa visited by individuals, groups and aficionados intent on participating in a sublime physical and spiritual experience set inside the forested canopy of the coastal mountains of Costa Rica.Panacea de la Montaña

And when you reach the crest near the top of the mountain there is a vista of a lush and fertile valley below and mountains in the distance all swathed in variegated hues of green.  Panacea de la MontañaAn infinity pool seems to drop into the valley so that the vast expanse spread out before you can be admired and contemplated, a hypnotic and mesmerizing view. Panacea de la Montaña

Once you leave the common area of the pool, patio and cocina (kitchen) and pass by the yoga pavilion you enter the more private space of the cacitas, the individual residences for the guests.  The little dwellings, seemingly set down on the mountainside randomly, offer private views of spectacular scenery from the covered porches.Panacea de la Montaña

Trails meander around the mountaintop and slopes, spread with white rock for easy visibility and edged with larger river stones.  There’s a feeling of discovery as one wanders about this little bit of paradise; every turn reveals something new such as a totally unexpected labyrinth amid the trees or benches here and there for contemplation. Panacea de la Montaña

And interspersed throughout the walk are signs painted by guests with meaningful bits of wisdom or river rocks decorated with pithy expressions of inspiration and insight.Panacea de la Montaña

Upon our arrival in Tamarindo we were introduced to the three owners of the yoga retreat by Tineke, for whom we were housesitting.  Mary leads the yoga classes and Debbie, who is also a yoga instructor, acts as gourmet chef extraordinaire while Peter deals with the business side of living in nirvana as well as teaching aqua fitness classes and providing reflexology treatments.  We signed up for four weeks of classes and, from our novice perspectives, were  bent sideways, forwards and backwards, stretched out and relaxed within an inch of our lives. Here, amid the greenery of the coastal forest and accompanied by the twittering of birds, the flitting of multi-hued butterflies and the baleful calling of the howler monkeys, we slowly stretched and breathed to the measured and calming cadence of Mary’s expert instruction.   Each class was unique and had the successful goal of making us feel refreshed both mentally and physically. One of our favorite sessions (no effort involved!) was a restorative yoga class that focused on us moving our bodies into a variety of comfortable positions fully supported by various pillows and cushions and concentrating completely on doing nothing, breathing deeply in and out and just b-e-i-n-g.  And, at the end of every class, when the cymbal would chime softly, the realization would slowly creep into our minds, “But, surely that wasn’t ninety minutes already?”Panacea de la Montaña

And all too soon our time, not just for the day, but for Panacea de la Montaña had come to an end.   But we gained, with the aid of Mary’s classes and instructional materials, the ability to continue with our practices as we decamp again for parts further south.Panacea de la Montaña

By Anita and Richard

The Road To Cahuita

Riding the Tika Bus again we could tell within a few miles that we had left Nicaragua and were now in Costa Rica.  The shanties alongside the Pan American Highway looked a little less shabby and the rusted corrugated structures used as shelters were not in evidence.  The cars looked a little newer and, it took a while to notice what was lacking, there were no horses or cattle pulling carts or families walking beside the road.  Overall, within just a few miles of the border, Costa Rica felt more prosperous.Ferns & Forest

The feeling of Costa Rica having more continued into the next day as we set off early in the morning from the capital city of San Jose to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica.  We wound our way on a two-lane road through hills and low mountains driving through rain forests; the damp mists and clouds clung to the vehicle and traffic turned on their lights and slowed to a crawl to navigate through dense, cool fog.  Alongside the road were giant ferns, plants with huge leaves at least eighteen inches across and, in some places, the trees from either side of the road touched overhead and formed a living tunnel.  Occasionally we could see the valleys far below filled with hazy clouds and there were brilliant greens in every imaginable shade wherever one looked. For a while we followed a truck carrying mangoes and tomatoes and then other trucks filled with pineapples and bananas.  We glimpsed numerous rivers and streams as we passed, some with round, water-smoothed rocks scattered about the riverbeds and the trees lining the banks were flowering with exotic blossoms of purple, reds, yellows and oranges.  Everywhere the earth was populated by some thriving, living plant and the impression of abundance and fertility seemed to envelope us.Headed towards Jadin Glorioso

We arrived at our destination, Cahuita, about noon and were met by our American hosts, Edward and Julie, who led us down a dirt road about two hundred yards to the little casita on their gated property.  We were compelled to walk slowly as we were valiantly dragging our hard-shell, 24-inch suitcases with state-of-the-art spinner wheels through ruts and over pebbles along-side us; yet, again, another reminder of how inappropriate our luggage is for the out-of-the-way places in which we keep finding ourselves!El Jardin GoriosoSo, anyway, on to another piece of heaven, El Jardin Glorioso – the glorious garden. The grounds are a natural, park-like setting populated by royal palms reaching forty feet towards the sky, fan palms, triangle palms, lipstick palms and a profusion of numerous extraordinary and colorful plants, flowers and trees. This includes our new favorite, the ylang-ylang tree, which grows the most amazing flower with an intoxicating fragrance (rumored to be one of the ingredients for Chanel No. 5).The coral pool

Coral poolWe took advantage of the property’s crown jewel, a natural coral pool that one climbed down into carefully, avoiding the sharp walls to swim in tranquil privacy; watching the waves form and crash through the pool’s opening, the sea water flowing into the enclosure and ebbing out.

And so we found ourselves spending over a week Cahuita, waking to a chorus of birds early each morning (and not a rooster crow to be heard!) and finishing our day sitting out on our porch enjoying the night sounds or at the nearby coral beach watching both the night sky and the waves.El Jardin Glorioso

Next post – There’s much, much more to the Cahuita area including the Cahuita National Park and The Jaguar Sanctuary.

El Jardin Glorioso

By Anita and Richard, May, 2014

Selva Negra: Nicaragua’s Black Forest

Our bungalowAfter a short drive from Matagalpa along windy roads and climbing to an elevation above 3,000 feet we arrived at the Selva Negra Mountain Resort in the late afternoon.  Almost immediately we felt that we had taken a step back into both another time and another country.  Picture a little bit of Germany set down in the highlands of northern Nicaragua.  Quaint Bavarian-style bungalows and chalets, each with a few rocking chairs in front, were scattered along the road or set near a pond that reflected the deep greens of the cloud forest that surrounded the little valley.  Although the mists had burned away earlier in the day the weather was noticeably cooler and damper and fresher when compared to the lower elevations of the country. The European style architecture and geese wandering around did little to ground us in Nicaragua; if a German milkmaid had come around the corner with a pail of sloshing milk we wouldn’t have been too surprised.Bavarian style chalet

So, how did this bit of transplanted Germany wind up here in Nicaragua?  Wikipedia says that, “In the 1850s, when gold was discovered in California, many American and European passengers made their way to California crossing the Isthmus of Central America through Nicaragua”.  Among those seeking their fortunes was a German couple, Ludwig Elster and Katharina Braun.   Evidently the northern highlands of Nicaragua reminded them of the region they were from and, travel-weary, they chose to remain in the area they later called Selva Negra, the Black Forest, rather than continue to San Francisco.  They planted the first coffee beans in the area and were joined later in their farming community by other Europeans and Americans.

Solar water heater

Solar water heater

The Ecolodge was built in 1976 by Eddy and Mausi Kuhl, descendants of the original settlers who are the current owners of the 400 acre property.  Daily tours of the historic coffee farm, observing some of the methods currently practiced for living green, horseback riding, hiking and bird and wildlife watching are a few of the things that can be done while visiting.  Of course there’s always just relaxing, rocking in a chair, reading or chatting with new friends.

Anita says, “I decided to go on a hike with a couple of friends to see the panoramic view from the mountain top. Jungle Hike After talking to the woman behind the counter about our plans and being assured that we were in for a real treat we set off with a map (which we lost halfway through the hike) and spent about three hours climbing steep, seemingly vertical trails, slipping and sliding around the paths.  When we finally arrived at the promised panoramic viewpoint the riotous overgrowth and foliage from the trees almost totally obscured the view.  And then we had to go D.O.W.N…         

Richard says, “I read a good book, napped and took pictures of the gardener dredging algae from the pond”.Algae removal

Obviously, some choices in how to spend one’s leisure time are better than others at Selva Negra.

By Anita and Richard, May, 2014

 

Howlers At The Green Puddle

Lagoon with Volcano ConcepcionWe exited the ferry onto Ometepe, an island comprised of two volcanoes rising above Lake Nicaragua’s choppy surface which are connected by a low isthmus giving it an hour-glass shape. The northernmost volcano, Concepcion, is active while the southern, Madera, lies dormant with a caldera and lagoon crowning its heights.Lake Nicaragua The island is large and sparsely populated for its size with a population somewhat in excess of 40,000 inhabitants. Ometepe is still primarily devoted to livestock and agriculture although tourism and eco-tourism are rapidly growing economic sectors. There are two small ports, Moyogalpa on the northwest coast of Concepcion, where our ferry docked, and Altagracia on its northeastern shore, with a newly paved road connecting them. A paved road also runs the length of the isthmus then abruptly ends on the northern slopes of Madera and the ride rapidly deteriorates. Clench your teeth because, if you want to go anywhere off this semi-circular road, you’re in for a bite-your-tongue, slow and bumpy journey.Petroglyph The island has an interesting archeological history whichs appear to have begun with migrants from Mexico as the initial inhabitants perhaps around 2000 BC. By happenstance, we stumbled upon Jorge Luis who was knowledgeable and who served as both chauffeur and guide during our stay.Statuary He shepherded us around the island starting with Museo de Ceibo at the end of a dirt road near a small village with the unusual name of Tel Aviv. The museum, devoted to the artifacts of the island, was much more than we had expected and showcased household and ceremonial pottery, kitchen and agricultural implements, weapons for hunting and war and burial urns. The influence of the Mayan culture in certain polychromatic ceremonial pieces was obvious.  We also visited Altagracia to view the few pieces of statuary left on the island (most have been moved to Managua and Granada) and many of the numerous and sizeable petroglyphs located on the lower slopes of the volcano Madera, among the most ancient of the relics on the island. Ojo de AguaAfter a tasty lunch of fresh grilled fish from the lake we headed for a swim to Ojo de Agua, the Eye of the Water, a mineral spring marginally developed by an encasement of the basin in a tiered pool, situated at the end of, yet another, rutted, bumpy road. The water, crystal clear, mirrored the surrounding colors of blues and greens and the sun’s rays slanting down through the leafy cover overhead reflected mystically off the water.  After a hot and dusty day the cool water was divine and the atmosphere of the spring was extraordinary and surreal. Butterflies hatching On the third day of our visit we discovered the newly opened Butterfly Paradise, obviously intended for butterflies but it could also have been called that for us humans as well.  A recently built, enclosed, mammoth-sized enclosure was beautifully and artistically Butterflieslandscaped which allowed our flying friends to live in an environment without predators. Fresh fruit was cut and strategically placed throughout the enormous space as a supply of fructose and colorful flowers offering nectar as a food sources in abounded in well-tended garden beds. For us, the only visitors at the time, it was simply an oasis of tranquility and a place to marvel at the delightful creatures.

the green puddleWe lodged at the Charco Verde Hotel, literally translated as the Green Puddle, so named due to its association with a small nature preserve of that name, found at the terminus of (yet again!) a dusty dirt road.Water bird The setting was quiet and relaxed, nestled on the water’s edge in a cove on the south shore of Concepcion. The lagoon itself, the “puddle”, was fed by a fresh water spring and was lined with trees, forbs and shrubs. But the most appealing were the troupes of howler monkeys which we found could be witnessed each afternoon, high overhead, around dusk. The dry season provided the perfect viewing with the sparse vegetation allowing us to observe these clever acrobats and listen to their deep and reverberating warnings.  All in all, a few days delightfully spent in the somnambulant life of Charco Verde serenaded by our hosts, the howlers.Howler on Ometepe

By Anita and Richard, April, 2014

Competing For Candy

DancersWe were not certain what to expect as we walked into the auditorium of Casa de Tres Mundo in the heart of Granada on a Friday morning. We knew that we were attending a scholarship contest for Priscila, the 10 year-old daughter of Yanni, whose family has graciously lent a portion of their home to the school where we had volunteered for the last three months. In fact, we had supervised our older class the previous day in making posters to raise and wave supporting Priscila’s effort in competing for the prize. And we knew that some of the volunteers had been working closely with Priscila the last couple of weeks on the academic portion of the match, rehearsing answers to the questions that might be asked. We also understood that of the eight participants, only one would advance to the final competition in the capital city, Managua.

Contestant # 1Now we were prepared to operate on SOTB (South of the Border) time; we’ve pretty much acclimated to that aspect of life in Latin America. So we knew that we might have a bit of a wait when we arrived on time at 9:00 AM.  But we had our friends and volunteers from the school there, Priscila’s immediate family, the directors of the NGO and a small contingent of students from the Pantanal school.  The minutes ticked by slowly and, when the event finally began, it was not fashionably late, it wasn’t SOTB late, it was an hour and forty minutes late. Even the locals were beginning to despair.

CompetitionWe used some of the long wait profitably, however, and learned a bit about our hosts, MILAVF and La Fundacion Casa de Tres Mundos. The former, known also as Movimiento Infantil or the Children’s Movement, is a nationwide organization that, for 34 years, has worked to enact and enforce child protection laws. They work in communities with at-risk children and adolescents, organizing them into dance troupes, sports clubs, performing and visual arts classes and ecological projects. La Fundacion Casa de Tres Mundo, which began in 1987, was founded by an Austrian artist and author and a Nicaraguan poet, priest and politician.  It has steadily expanded to include classes in the arts, dance and theater for the children of Granada, an art gallery with rotating exhibits for the public, a free, communal radio station and an arts program to encourage youngsters in the poorer barrios of the city and beyond.All the contestants

When the competition finally began it was with each of the girls coming down the makeshift runway in sports attire:  a tennis outfit with a racket, a cheerleader with pom-poms, a soccer player with ball and so forth. It was a bit un-nerving to see these young girls striking semi-seductive poses during their introductions and sauntering flirtatiously. Following this was a segment with the girls in their colorful, traditional dresses of Nicaragua, which included a short introduction to the judges and a brief Q and A for the academic portion. Interspersed with the program presentations by the eight young contestants were dance numbers by various ensembles; these were highly entertaining.The dance troupe

Finally, the results of the judges were announced. Our contestant, Priscila, came in third. Of course this was not what we had hoped for, but as she was competing with girls from the more affluent, private schools in Granada we were pleased with her showing. As third-place winner she received three gaily decorated bags with packages of sugared confections. The winner of the competition won a chance at a scholarship and was crowned with a tiara and draped with a sash in true Miss America style.  She also received a beautifully decorated cake and three flowered bags filled with sugared confections. As Jim, our school’s director drily observed, “Hey, they’re kids. They like candy.”

Priscila with the loot

Priscila with the loot

By Anita and Richard, April, 2014

VolunTOURISM Versus Volunteering

One of our goals as long-term travelers is to volunteer two or three months at a time while we are in a locale for a longer stay.  Before we left the US we researched various countries, organizations and types of volunteer positions available overseas.  This led us, a few months later, to the option of joining an international volunteer agency and paying for the volunteer experience.  Following that, we discovered the in-country approach: arrive at a destination and start making personal inquiries of the locals and expats to find out what opportunities are available.

Toothbrush dayWhat we discovered in the process of our volunteer experiences is that we unwittingly became part of the “voluntourism” boom.   Voluntourism, or volunteering as a tourist, is promoted as a way to have an authentic and meaningful cultural experience (a sort of working vacation, if you will) while providing needed benefits to local individuals or communities. It provides nervous travelers to third-world countries with a hand-holding experience: contacts and a safety net with new, built-in friends.  However, it’s also an unregulated business sector which attracts huge amounts of money, advertises appealing good-works projects and draws in hoards of people wanting to do their part to improve the world. And all of this is with little or no oversight. It is both a buyer’s and a seller’s market. Almost any volunteer assignment can be found on the internet for a price and the old Latin injunction, caveat emptor, should be kept in mind.

Teaching English in GuatamalaOur first volunteer experience in Antigua, Guatemala was secured through a New Zealand agency with whom we felt relatively comfortable due to their transparent accounting profile. The time volunteering in the Antonio Escobar y Castro School was a phenomenal experience. However, the costs proved to be another matter. School girls in AntiguaThe fees ostensibly covered the room-and-board for a home-stay (which proved to be much less than satisfactory), the materials needed for the work at the school (which proved to be woefully inadequate) and the administrative costs of the company (which appeared to be more than generously staffed and housed). In our Antigua sojourn we discovered that the typical volunteer was a younger, predominantly white client who spent two weeks or less in the assignment minus the time for three or four day week-end jaunts to tourist destinations arranged by the local agency.

Activity dayWhen we started looking for our second volunteer gig, having gained some insight from our Antigua adventure, (fool me once shame on you, ….) we spoke with a trusted friend who told us about Education Plus Nicaragua and supplied an email address.  We contacted them, discussed our qualifications and their needs, met the directors of the NGO and found out they’d be delighted to have certified English teachers.Coloring  We signed on for a three month commitment and we’ve approached this experience as we would any job paid or not; we come on time prepared to work and do our best to make sure the kids learn. ColoringWe’ve discovered that there are a myriad of NGO’s worthy of our personal support and we need not pay an intermediary to perform our due diligence or secure our lodging. The current organization is small but growing.  It hires – to the extent possible – local, Nicaraguan personnel and is supported by the immediate community. In those respects it has a decent chance of becoming self-sustaining with secured capital funding from abroad.

Does all of this mean that going through an agency to volunteer is a less than worthwhile endeavor? Not necessarily. It can be quite costly. It can be a non-productive or even counter-productive experience when there is a mismatch between the volunteer and the work. And there is some evidence to support the notion that “voluntourism” has become one more commodity in the western world’s list of conspicuous consumption items. But if there is a good fit between the individual and the project and the program is reputable then wonderful experiences can await. But as always, “Let the buyer beware.”Angel smiling

By Anita and Richard, March, 2014

 

Teaching English And Volunteering In Pantanal

It’s hot in Granada during the dry season and, according to the weather forecasters, it’s going to get even hotter next month. This February the temperature has averaged in the mid-to-upper eighties.  In the neighborhood where we volunteer for Education Plus Nicaragua, Pantanal, the temperature seems to be amplified by several degrees.  The corrugated tin roof that covers the classroom at the school seems to intensify the heat. When the breeze makes an unexpected appearance it picks up the fine grit from the bare dirt yards and unpaved roads and deposits a fresh layer that sifts across and down over everything.   

PantanalFew tourists visit Pantanal and taxi drivers are reluctant to drive us to the neighborhood because of the distance from city center, the unpaved roads in much of the barrio and the detours caused by sewer extension construction. Some days, if we don’t have our usual taxi driver, Nestor, we’ll  have to ask over and over “Barrio Pantanal, por favor?” before we receive an affirmative response; most simply give a brusque shake of the head as they continue on their way.

Edu-Plus, Yanni's houseWe arrive each morning about 11:30 at the home owned by Yanni and her family where the school is currently located.  We set up the low tables and chairs which serve double duty as dining tables for those children receiving lunch or dinner and desks for the seventy or so students in one of the four classes.  lunch timeServing lunch to the youngest of the students is one of our favorite times.  The little ones, of pre-school and kindergarten age, line up with their bowls, spoons and glasses that they bring from home and wait patiently.  For some, this might be their only meal for the day.  Only a few weeks ago, when they first enrolled in the school at the beginning of January, it was a madhouse with children shouting, pushing and shoving to be first in line. Now they wait. They know there will be food for all.

HandwashingFollowing hand washing, we take turns with the other volunteers alternating between pouring the reconstituted milk into their glasses and dishing up the day’s offerings which might includeWaiting for lunch rice, beans, soy patties, cabbage slaw salad or fried plantains.  The children begin the meal time with a prayer in Spanish, hands steepled together, occasionally peeking out at one another from under their brows.   Towards the end of the meal the kids will share the food they don’t want with others and there’s always a stray dog or two from the street winding their way under the tables hopefully waiting for the scraps.

lunch time at the schoolWhen lunch is over we team up with the newly hired Nicaraguan college student, Johanna, to teach English to three classes daily, every Monday through Thursday from 12:30 to 3:00.  We divide the children into small groups to facilitate both learning and control.  The materials are a mishmash of donated educational items and home-made flash cards and posters. There is a portable white board at the front of the classroom area for the teacher and students to use. Each weekend we plan out ways to introduce new vocabulary, activities and songs to make the learning fun for all of us.

group workAt the end of the afternoon, we catch a taxi home, sometimes buoyed and smiling by a day that went as we had planned with games and learning proceeding as envisioned.  Other days we leave a little disheartened or frustrated by one or another of the classes that was disruptive or uncooperative.  We’re enervated by the cacophony that surrounds the little open school room in Pantanal; the children, the barking dogs and the booming loud music and Spanish talk radio from the house next door.  We return to our area of town where the temperature seems to be not so intense, the streets are paved and we can walk in our bare feet across the cool, clean tile floors of our apartment.

But when the taxi arrives the next morning at Yanni’s house, there will be a few early arrivals waiting with smiles and eager bright-eyed faces, arms outstretched for a hug and ready to help us haul out the tables and chairs for another day.

Jumping rope - Education Plus at Pantanal, Granada, NIC 2014

Jumping rope – Education Plus at Pantanal, Granada, NIC 2014

By Anita and Richard, March, 2014

 

The Cafe Of Smiles

Although Nicaragua is the largest nation in Central America, it is the most sparsely populated and second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.  Hardship is a looming shadow over this country with an estimated 45% of the population living below the poverty line which, needless to say, has a much lower threshold than in the United States or other “first-world” countries.  Add high unemployment and under-employment levels for able-bodied citizens and guess what happens to people with disabilities?

There are few services or opportunities for people with disabilities in Nicaragua’s countryside and so Granada, which has a special education school and some educational options and NGO programs, is a gathering place for families with members who are disabled.

The cafe of smiles and Smiles CoffeeWhich brings us to el Cafe de las Sonrisas, the Cafe of Smiles.  With a little digging we found that it is the first coffee shop in the Americas and the 4th in the world to be run entirely by people who are deaf and mute.  Big things behind little doors-Cafe SonrisaThe home of Smiles Coffee is located behind an unassuming entrance on Calle Real Xalteva in a large colonial building with a beautiful interior garden courtyard filled with a variety of plants and a central fountain.  Surrounding the courtyard are tables on one side, walls covered with images of the international sign language and an adjacent hammock workshop and showroom.A hammock to lounge by the garden  After ordering one’s coffee or a simple Nicaraguan-style meal from the menu and cards, which are designed to assist customers in communicating with the staff, you can wander over to the workshop areas.  The numerous large and open-air work stations create a pleasant and interesting waiting experience where one can watch employees weave brilliantly colored hammocks.

Weaving hammocks at Cafe Sonrisa   The signature quality product, called The Never Ending Hammock, symbolizes the goals of:  1) providing employment for the disabled of Nicaragua and, 2) highlighting an environmental focus on recycling plastic bags, the raw material from which the hammocks are made.

Weaving hammocksThe cafe is the latest addition to the Social Center Tio Antonio and is an inclusive educational and employment center for persons with disabilities.  The founder, Hector Ruiz, is a Spanish emigrant who has made his home in Nicaragua following a foray in Costa Rica as a restaurateur.  Early in his time in Nicaragua he met a man who was deaf and mute and began to help him by locating a teacher.

Just beginning the weavingSoon he was introduced to several other persons with similar disabilities and his efforts to assist with their education grew until he required a funding source to continue.  Aided by a local hotel, he opened a business to teach job skills and employ persons with various disabilities to make and sell beautifully crafted hammocks which has subsequently morphed into Tio Antonio Centro Social. The non-profit business, within the context of a community center, offers support to the hearing and visually impaired population in the areas of education, health care and dignified employment

weaving a hammock chairThe goal of Tio Antonio is nearing fruition: building self-sustaining businesses that flourish based upon product excellence and first-rate service. Customers return and bring their friends and recommend the shop to others because of the beauty, quality and value of the hammocks, the tasty fresh fruit drinks, satisfying, typical-style Nicaraguan meals and the whole-bodied flavor of the coffee.  In addition to the above, the knowledge that one is supporting a truly worthy endeavor nearly guarantees a smile pasted on the mug of the customers as they leave el Cafe de Sonrisas.Hammock factory next to cafe Sonrisa

By Anita and Richard, February, 2014

 

An American Napoleon In Nicaragua: The Little Generalisimo

Never heard of William Walker?  Don’t be alarmed: we hadn’t either until we reached Granada.  September 15th might be Independence Day in Nicaragua but September 14th is considered even more important to Nicaraguans as it celebrates the day that William Walker fled the country.

One of the few original houses in the city not destroyed by William Walker

One of the few original houses in the city not destroyed by William Walker

The United States in the first half of the 19th century was in the grip Manifest Destiny – the notion that we, as a nation, should spread across the continent and as far north and south as the flag was able to carry our young democracy. That these lands were occupied and governed by other sovereignties was of little importance. The prevailing thought was that it was, after all, the God-given destiny of the United States to control these lands and peoples.

WilliamWalker

Walker, a man of big dreams but small stature (5’2”), began his filibustering – the old definition meant unauthorized attempts to encourage foreign rebellions versus the new definition of legislative stalling – career in Mexico in 1853. After initial victories by his tiny volunteer army he was routed and skedaddled back to California. In San Francisco he was charged and tried for “conducting an illegal war” but a jury of his peers found him not guilty after a speedy deliberation of eight minutes. The country was ready for citizens with expansionistic ideas!

Nicaragua, like most of Latin America, won its independence from Spain in 1821. Freedom however brought its own strife. The country was divided by two power centers: Leon, the Liberal Party’s power base, and Granada, the Conservative Party’s bastion. A low-level and intermittent civil war between the two power centers continued throughout the 1840’s and 1850’s. In 1855, with the dispute escalating, Leon requested foreign assistance in its ongoing conflict with Granada and who should heed the call but our freebooter and filibuster, William Walker.

With a small force of American and foreign adventurers, Walker landed in Nicaragua and, with the aid of the Liberal’s military forces, advanced on Granada. The conflict ended with Walker’s victory. His next move astounded even his Conservative supporters. In 1856, following a rigged election which Walker orchestrated, he had himself declared President of Nicaragua and presided from 1856-7. He went so far as to call for Nicaragua to be annexed to the United States and recognized as a slave-holding state.

William Walker's Presidential Palace

William Walker’s Presidential Palace

All this lethal tomfoolery had the unintended effect of unifying Leon and Granada, the once implacable foes. And Walker’s expansionistic language threatened Nicaragua’s neighbors; Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador. Counter attacks were launched, Walker’s forces were defeated and with Granada, his capital, under attack Walker struck his colors and retreated. His spleen was not yet empty.  In the wake of the retreat an aide-de-camp ordered the burning of the city.  At the outskirts a sign was posted “Here was Granada”.

The battle of San Jacinto-Walker's resounding defeat had him fleeing for his life

The battle of San  Jacinto – Walker’s resounding defeat had him fleeing for his life

Little remains of the original colonial city of Granada; the Catedral Merced, the Casa Gran Francia and a colonial home near the cathedral. The remainder was destroyed in the conflagration or subsequently lost to renovation and expansion.

La Merced - still standing

La Merced – still standing

And our old friend Walker? He survived and made his way back to the United States. However, not one to admit defeat, he regrouped, refortified and returned to Latin America in 1860 to aid a disgruntled faction of English colonists on the Honduras Bay Island of Roatan. He sailed from the island intent upon attack but was intercepted by the British navy, who deemed him hostile to their interests in the region.  The Brits turned him over to the Honduran authorities in Trujillo, Honduras and he was executed by firing squad on September 12, 1860. An inglorious but fitting end for a freebooter, filibuster, and would be king.

By Richard and Anita, February, 2014

Slow Traveling: Putting Down Shallow Roots

Boy with a stick & tire We like to travel slowly.  When we came back from Big Corn Island to Granada at Christmas we almost felt like we were coming home. Neighborhood Kids  True, this was our third trip back in as many months and there was that warm, fuzzy feeling of the familiar.  True, it was great to return to a city we knew and nod again at familiar people on the streets.  True, it was so much easier to know already which direction to go to find the shops and visit favorite restaurants than to set off on the initial exploration of a new city.  And true, it was wonderful to see and talk to friends we had met previously.

Our initial plan in December was to spend Christmas in Granada and, at the beginning of the New Year, make our way through Costa Rica with a visit to the Caribbean side and head to Panama.A smile and a wave  But… we couldn’t get excited, even as we stared at the map at places that had previously stirred our imagination.  We felt kind of fizzless.  When we looked at bed-and-breakfast places, hostels and hotels all we could see were the hefty dollar signs attached and we lacked the enthusiasm to dig a little further for places to stay that were more reasonable.  Our act of procrastination and deciding to not decide on the next step presented a third option:  Why not stay a couple of months in Granada?

Pigs in a poke (kind of)And so, we reached out to the expat community.  During our previous visits we’d heard that there was a monthly meet and greet of expats who were establishing and reinforcing business contacts but then we learned there was also an informal gathering every Friday in front of the Grill House on Calle Calzado.  A few people, foreigners who now lived in Granada, both permanently and for shorter stays, and also people passing through would get together around 5:00.

Catching a bite to eatWe almost missed our first meeting. A rainstorm had us waiting in the inner courtyard with no group of expats in sight  When we gave up and came outside, though, there were a couple of tables pushed together and a few people sitting at them conversing.  We boldly walked up to the table (we never would do this in the US) and asked, “Is this the expat get-together?”.  In short order we had new acquaintances, an appointment to see an apartment, a list of places to inquire about volunteer opportunities and an invitation to lunch the next day.

A working familyThat is one of the beauties of slow travel. Since there is seldom a fixed itinerary there is no reason not to extemporize on the travel agenda. We have great latitude in deciding to extend a stay in places that please us, settle a bit more into a community and explore previously undiscovered places.  The only requirement of slow travel is that the roots must, of necessity, be shallow. For at some point we will pack up and be moving on again.

La fiesta - Granada, NIC 2013

La fiesta – Granada, NIC 2013

By Anita and Richard, January, 2014

 

A Year’s Accounting or…We Spent What?

money-stream roadA pox upon budgets We’ve never budgeted in our lives. The whole notion of a budget was antithetical to our concept of being. Yet, when we first started planning our great adventure one of our foremost questions was “How Much”?  We diligently researched destinations across the globe and avidly read travel blogs and how-to books on retirement in various countries that broke down costs.  Some articles boasted that expat couples were living in Ecuador and Nicaragua for as little as $800 per month Chiapas Mexicowhile others said $2500 a month would entitle one to a lifestyle one could only dream of back in the States. When we hit the road in September of 2012 we started tracking our daily expenses and charted it in a monthly spreadsheet.  This was basically to give us a baseline and to anticipate future costs. We also had to learn and adopt a lifestyle that was both commensurate with our desires and our bank book. Lodging is the largest single cost and our criteria have remained consistent: safe, clean, affordable. When possible we look for weekly or monthly rental bargains. Caveats Medical costs are excluded; these are too idiosyncratic. All costs associated with life back in the states are excluded such as costs associated with our house that we are currently leasing (and plan to sell this year), charitable and Christmas gifts, etc.

Mean Monthly Costs by Category for Calendar Year 2013 in Dollars per Month

ITEM                                 MEAN            MAX             MIN

Clothing                  44          115            5

Food                      368          632          77

Classes                   164          400           0

Meals                     407          587        202

Misc.                      190          383          80

Rent                       875        1697          22

Tours                      136          511            0

Transp.                    240           503          13

Total                     2367           N/A         N/A

What’s Included:

Clothing: Clothing covers everything from rain ponchos, sunglasses and second-hand shirts to Teva sandals shipped in from the states.

Fruit and VeggiesFood: Includes consumable items as well as household products (shampoo, soap, paper goods, garbage bags, etc.). Many times we buy gringo foods at gringo prices and, obviously, this would be a perfect place to economize!

Lessons: Spanish lessons and, most recently, the services of a professional trainer. These are intermittent costs. We don’t incur them every month.

Traditional Mayan FishMeals Out: Any meals eaten outside the home including drinks and snacks. The figure is a real eye-opener!

Miscellaneous:  A sampling of expenditures reveals moneys that were spent for laundry, haircuts, massages, entertainment, a travel alarm clock, housekeeper gratuities, baby, graduation and quinceanera gifts, volunteer supplies, replacement computer mouse (mice?), fees to use public bathrooms and handouts to street beggars.

Online: This includes fees paid online for e-books, I-tunes, Netflix, Hot Spot (our virtual private network), Dropbox, Skype membership, etc.

Vista MombachoRent:  This year we paid for lodging in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Our most common lodging is at B&B’s but this also covers homestays and housesitting and includes any utility costs when paid.

Tours/Excursions: Entrance fees for museums, archeological sites, historic sites such as cathedrals, National parks, guided tours and the like.  Also included are entrance or exit fees at border crossings between countries.

Tuk-Tuks Santa Elena, GTMTransportation: If it moves and we’re on board it’s included. That means tuk-tuk, taxi, bus, shuttle, panga, launcha, ferry and airplane fees. We’re not absolutely convinced that this budgetary spreadsheet is necessary or advisable. But we’re finding it interesting to see how we spend our money and tracking our expenses has become a habit. So, we reckon we’ll keep at it for another year and see what changes in our spending behavior…

Through the roof!

Through the roof!

By Richard and Anita, January, 2014          

Chillin’ In San Juan Del Sur

SJdS Welcome SignComing into the beach town of San Juan del Sur we were greeted by a vibrant psychedelic sign that announced that, yes indeed, we had arrived at our destination on the Pacific coast.

The beach at SJdSThe half-moon bay was ringed by golden sands and had sailboats, pleasure boats and local fishing vessels scattered across its surface.  Christ of the Mercy statueThe statue of Christ of the Mercy, the second largest statue of Jesus in the world, presided over the bay from the towering cliffs at the north end benignly gazing down upon the water and blessing the fishermen.  The street was lined from one end to the other with restaurants, bars and hotels.  It was easy to see that the once peaceful fishing town, now consisting of roughly 18,000 residents, had become a popular vacation place attracting both Nicaraguan vacationers and foreign tourists.  This beach was a beautiful place for those who wanted to walk along the shore, swim or splash in the waves and just chill. Other beaches to the north and south offer surfing and lessons for those so inclined.South view

Over the last few years the picturesque and colorful town has begun to attract a fair-sized expat and foreign retirement community who came to visit and decided to stay for the laid-back beach vibe, low-cost of living and gorgeous scenery.  Entrepreneurs are building small retirement developments and condos, owning and operating surf shops, fishing tours, restaurants and hotels.Street scene and construction

Expats are always a varied lot and one eccentric resident immediately caught our attention as we were walking down the street.  the Monkey ladyDressed entirely in a leopard print ensemble complete with a flapped hat and matching scooter the deeply tanned, shoe-leather-skinned woman was walking two golden-haired spider monkeys.  We asked her if we could take a picture of the monkeys (but really she was the prize!) and for a charge of 20 Cordoba which she justified as food money for her companions, she allowed us to take a few photos.  When asked about the monkeys she explained  that they were “rescue monkeys” saved after their mother had been shot and killed.

One afternoon during our visit we climbed into the back of a pick-up and took seats upon the benches lining the cargo bed. The boards of the surfing students were strapped on the top rack. We, sans boards, brought water, sun screen and our anticipation of a lovely afternoon and headed for Playa Hermosa, a secluded beach a few kilometers south of town. After driving a short distance we turned off the highway and passed, for a fee, through a locked gate and down a rocky, rutted, shaded and densely forested road, which was scraped into the hillsides that led to the beach. It was easy to imagine that during a downpour it could become a quagmire of mud.  This hard-scrabble track had been punched in by the developers of the hit television series Survivor a few years earlier. There was a comfortable little camp at the end of the road equipped with a restaurant, hostel and several palapas. We had arrived at a backpacker destination and the hard-bodies, beer and rum were all on display in relaxed and convivial abundance. Even the fact that one of our party stepped on a small stingray and received a nasty sting did not dampen the mood the afternoon.

The Bay of SJdS from the maleconBack in San Juan del Sur, while talking with a couple of expats who are financially involved in the community, there seemed to be an agreement that this small village was quite likely on a trajectory that would take it to a level of development similar to Jaco, Costa Rica. The pronouncement was neither laudatory nor derogatory, it was simply the educated guess of two longer term residents who had watched development in other Latin American countries. Change is a constant and the haunts of the backpackers do not remain their exclusive domain for long. This retreat is fast becoming a fixture on the gringo trail as word of this sea-side paradise spreads.San Juan del Sur bus

By Richard and Anita, January, 2014

 

La Bomba: A Not So Silent Night

Fireworks-A rocket is launchedGranada took on a new personality for Christmas Eve.  Rather than a handful of people sitting on their stoops to chit-chat while taking in the sights and sounds of the city’s night life, the doors and windows of the colonial homes on block after block were open displaying their Christmas decorations and lights for all to see. People congregated in groups, large and small, in front of the homes. Generations of families and friends greeted the strollers with “Feliz Navidad”.  Kids vied for space in the streets with the adults to shoot off fireworks or launch the numerous types “bombas”,  the explosives and sky rockets.Lighting a bomba The truly awe-inspiring missiles were those which were constructed locally using dynamite with prima-cord fuses. These brutes were wrapped in brown paper twists, placed into an upright, steel pipe-stand on the street and then lit with a long taper. The wee children, of course, were relegated to the curbs and steps to play with sparklers and ladyfingers.

Girls & SparklersAs we were walking by the home of the Arana family we stopped to admire the multitude of lights and glimpsed a beautifully decorated tree in the back of the living room.Decorated for Christmas The matriarch, Fatima, invited us to come inside to better appreciate their efforts. The home, built in the Spanish colonial style around an interior courtyard, was a lavish display of twinkling lights and ribbon wrapped columns.  We were given a tour of the home by one of the daughters and admired each room festively decorated for the season. Later that evening, when  we passed by the home again as we were walking to our house, we greeted the patriarch of the family, Emilio, sitting at the entry way overseeing  his grandchildren setting off their firecrackers in the street.

Casa de FamiliasThe fireworks had been building towards a crescendo all day. In the early part of the day the reports were sporadic and tentative. By mid-afternoon they were reliably steady and increased hourly as the night progressed. It was not a coordinated effort; it was thousands of households independently and simultaneously asserting their right to celebrate in the loudest, most frenetic manner possible. At midnight, the culmination of the evening, the cacophony was majestic. From every side, on all the streets and walkways in the barrio, from over the garden walls fireworks exploded with abandon; the skyline a strobe, pulsating, white glow.  The occasional colored skyrocket only accentuated the bright flash of gunpowder with its resounding report. The angels would know that Granada was joyously paying homage to the Christ child.

We awakened on Christmas morning to a neighborhood disturbed only intermittently by the occasional sound of fireworks. When we left our home at mid-morning Christmas day, the city was quiet for Christmas is a day to be with the family. The only evidence of the assault on the senses that had transpired only hours before were the neat piles of paper residue left behind by the street sweepers to be hauled away later that morning. The city, its energy spent, had returned to normalcy.girl with a sparkler

By Richard and Anita, December, 2013

 

Out of Touch: Blissfully Unaware of the Christmas Ballyhoo

Nativity scene on Big CornThis is our second Christmas on the road and, as we return to Granada for the third time in as many months from our sojourn in the Corn Islands, we realize how out of touch with the holiday season we are. This is the week before Christmas and we’ve been happily removed from the Christmas hoopla. 

Minimalist decorThe weather’s hot, there are no television advertisements (indeed, no TV where we’ve been staying), no canned and cheesy Christmas carols blaring from store speakers urging us to Buy! Buy! Buy!  Ads that assail (and, I have to admit) entice us everywhere we turn.  Aside from the flood of email ads hawking holiday wares and specials which we delete each day we can choose to ignore the frantic commercial frenzy and preparations for the big day almost totally.

A Miskita church

A Miskita church

Which, and we apologize beforehand to all you Christmas season lovers, is exactly what we want.  No pushing and shoving crowds, no traffic snarls, no obligatory Christmas parties where overly exuberant drinking leads to unintended consequences.

A tipsy SantaInstead, we’ll spend a quiet Christmas with a friend we met in Merida, Mexico last year and new friends we’ve met in Granada.    We’ll call family to catch up on the news and activities of the day and, except for online gift cards, congratulate ourselves on our wise spending while trying hard not to miss those we love most dearly.

Seasons Greetings to all of you who read our blog.  If you are a Christmas lover enjoy the holiday.  If you’re not, get through it!  And to all of you, our wishes for a safe and sane New Year.A different Christmas tree

By Anita and Richard, December 2013

 

Off The Gringo Trail: Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Municipal WharfBig Corn Island, just a smidgen off the gringo trail, is a conundrum. It has more than three times the land mass of its sister, Little Corn Island. It has five times the population (approximately 6500 versus 1200); it has the only airport and pier for transporting goods, services and tourists from the mainland. It even has the higher land form; Pleasant Hill (371 feet) as opposed to the stunted Lookout Point (125 feet). Yet a full 75% of the tourists who arrive on Big Corn Island depart almost immediately for Little Corn Island. The larger ferries even coordinate their departure times to coincide with the arrival of the twice daily La Costena Air flights from Managua to facilitate this exodus.

Brig BayOne result of this out-flux of tourists is that the service industry, which only tentatively began in the 1970’s and was stunted by the government’s disregard for the area until recently, is still in its infancy. This fact became obvious later when we realized that the largest hotel on the island boasted only twenty – count em’, twenty – cabanas. Little Corn has done a much better job of recruiting the tourist dollar with the hostels and hotels, SCUBA, snorkeling and sport fishing segments.  Tourism plays a small part in Big Corn’s economy with fishing –  shrimp, lobster and a variety of commercial fish – as the major economic engine of the island.Brig Bay Big Corn Island

Market near the commisary This reality was impressed upon us immediately when we went to pick up a few groceries in the late afternoon following our arrival on the island. Our host, Don, had advised us to go to the Commissary and the vegetable stand nearby to purchase some basic provisions for meals.  Once in the Commissary we observed dismally that half of the shelves were filled with cleaning supplies, paper goods, toiletries and the other half a random collection of canned and packaged foods.  To our questions of “Do you have any ground coffee, eggs, and butter the answer was an unapologetic “No, not today”.  The coffee was instant, the cheese American Singles, the bread a few odds and ends of older rolls and pastries.  We walked out with a small bag of oatmeal, pasta, some salad dressing (in the hopeful event that we’d find lettuce or vegetables) and a can of tuna.  No beans; none, not red beans, not black beans, not refried beans, not even bulk beans!  If possible, the vegetable shop a few buildings down was even less promising:  meager sunlight filtered through spaces in the roof to dimly illuminate boxes of limp, bruised, overripe and moldy offerings that we sifted through hoping that some strange insect wasn’t hiding in the box along with the food.  We arrived back at our abode dejectedly wondering just what we were going to do for grits for the next month.

Melody's Fortunately, Helen, the cook and housekeeper for our hosts, escorted us around the island the following morning. We went to Melody’s, a store with no outside advertisement for the uninitiated visitor, which had a fairly large assortment of groceries. Helen then showed us the Wharf Store, across the street from the municipal wharf, which was best stocked on Friday and Saturday after the ferry arrived with fresh provisions.

vegetable store by Nick'sShe showed us a restaurant where we could purchase freshly made tortillas. And we subsequently discovered other little tiendas where we could find foods that worked into our daily diet. It turned out that shopping was not all that complex, it just took some social interaction, a few stops and a bit of south of the border patience.The wharf store

By Richard and Anita, December, 2013

 

Two Cats, Two Chickens: Living The Life In Costa Rica

The best weather in the world

Everyday, there's a friendly game of checkers to be found near the park

Everyday, there’s a friendly game of checkers to be found near the park

“Vivir la vida” means living the life and that’s what we figured we were doing as we headed for Atenas, Costa Rica and a new housesitting gig we had arranged a few months beforeThe picturesque town of Atenas, reputedly named by a National Geographic writer as having the “best climate in the world”, is surrounded by mountains and coffee plantations. It’s a popular place for North American retirees who are drawn to the area by the climate, the area’s beauty and its proximity to the Pacific coast and  San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica.  Also high on the list of things to like about Atenas is the genuine friendliness of the people.  And, although it’s a small town, (approximately 27,000) it has numerous westernized amenities.

Atenas street scene

Home maintenanceWe met the homeowners, Mario and Christina.  Their abode, behind a traditional privacy wall, was large and comfortable and located in a “Tica” (local) neighborhood. Inside it had many original paintings and mosaics that Christina, an artist, had created. And, oh joy! hot water in both the kitchen and bathroom.  The tap water was potable so, not only could we wash our fruits and vegetables in it, we could drink it as well.  We spent a couple of days with Mario and Christina learning the idiosyncrasies of their home and the basic layout of Atenas.  Our responsibilities included caring for two cats (Miles and Chunche) and two chickens (Blue and Dixie).  Additionally, there was swimming pool maintenance and composting of organic food and yard wastes, cleaning the patio and sidewalk, picking up the mail from the post office, vehicle checks and emailing our hosts every few days to discuss any problems or assure them that we were caring for all they loved diligently.Miles & Chunche

And then…one of the chickens died.  Our worse fear as house and pet sitters is of a pet death or some home catastrophe that we might have prevented.  Granted, Blue was limping around the yard in the days before our hosts left but… We alerted Mario and Christina a couple of days after they left that Blue was ailing and did not want to leave the chicken coop and that we had placed her feed near her.  A couple of days went by with her continuing to eat but, one morning she was dead. How to tell someone their pet had died?  Tough but we just had to suck up being the bearers of bad news and figure out where to bury her…

La FeriaOther than poor Blue…the rest of our house and pet sitting job went smoothly with us enjoying the run of a well-equipped home, cable television, fast internet and, such luxury, a pool.  Each Friday we’d walk to the local feria (farmers’ market) and join a throng of smiling shoppers looking at the artful arrangements of fruits and vegetables, flowers, breads and baked goods and a small selection of handmade crafts. Eventually we’d make our purchases and take our tasty acquisitions back to our abode to enjoy over the next few days. It seems that vivir la vida is really what it could be all about…

La feria

By Richard and Anita, November, 2103

 

“Don’t Know Much About History”…Leon, Politics And The Civil War

1786 La Iglesia Recoleccion

1786 –  La Iglesia Recoleccion

Our guide, Juan, joined at age 14 and fought in the revolution in 1979

Our guide, Juan, joined at age 14 and fought in the revolution in 1979

As travelers we prepare for each new location or country by breaking out the maps and researching the history.  The theme of “La Revolucion” is present in most of the Latin American nations where we have been, harkening back to the battles of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But Nicaragua has its own unique perspective. For, unlike Guatemala which fought a civil war for thirty-six years only to arrive at an armistice, Nicaragua experienced a real and successful revolution in 1979 with the overthrow of the  Somoza regime by the Sandinistas.

A street mural

A street mural

Leon, being the intellectual capital of the nation, has a special relationship with that historical period. It has always been the city favored by the more liberal of the country’s political class. The city figured heavily in the revolution, led by the FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional or the Sandinista National Liberation Front]. There was fierce street by street fighting as each side sought the upper hand. In a desperate move, the Somoza government resorted to bombing the city. The Sandinistas eventually gained the advantage and held the city until the ultimate defeat of the Somoza regime.

FSLN Banner

The Museo de la Revolucion, housed fittingly in the Palacio del Gubierno which belonged to the deposed Anastasia Somoza, is staffed by veterans of the conflict and contains a small collection of memorabilia. The residence still bears many the scars of the fighting including bullet pocked  walls.  Elsewhere in Leon is the old 21st Garrison, the prison used by the Somoza government at the time of the revolution, which depicts many of the brutal interrogation tactics of the discredited regime. Near the city center there are a number of street murals, some covering extensive portions of city blocks, honoring the martyrs of the revolution.

Pulling a cart

With Leon’s history – it was the capital city founded by Francisco Cordoba in 1524 and a major colonial center –  and the recent revolutionary events, the city comes down on the proletarian side of the equation. It is a nitty-gritty sort of place and does not display the grandeur of Managua or Granada. Over-laying the ancient churches and the colonial architecture there is a glimpse of the working class nature of the city. Pedi-cabs replace tuk-tuks for cheap personal transportation. Horse drawn and human-powered wagons provide a means of moving goods within the city as well as from farm to market.

Homemade cart pulled by a horse

Adding to the impression of the proletarian nature of the city is the number of shops given over to the sale of used clothing. This feeling was further underscored by the dearth of restaurants; even the “tipico” eateries which cater to the local population were not in abundance around the city center. It appeared that whether buying or selling, money was in short supply.

Despite its relative humbleness, the good will of the people was obvious and abundant. It did not appear that hospitality was a casualty of the conflict.

By Richard and Anita, October, 2013

What We Fear Most or … Danger: Sidewalks Ahead!

Pick left or pick right...

Left or right?

Extensions for more obstructions

Extensions for more obstructions

Drug cartels, kidnapping, bribery, robbery, extortion, murder! These were all concerns expressed by our friends and relatives when we broached the subject of extended travel SOTB [south of the border]. Now admittedly, these are all legitimate worries. But, being the fuddy-duddies that we are we do not loiter in bars and cafes or parks much after 9:00 PM, pull out rolls of cash, flash lots of bling or explore neighborhoods that look sketchy or that we’ve been cautioned to avoid.

Makes sense to us...we think?

Going up?  Going down?

Watch your step!

Watch your step!

But honestly, no one warned us of the sidewalks. These pedestrian pathways designed to promote safety have caused us as much physical damage as Montezuma’s Revenge or the mosquitoes and sand flies. The sidewalks have been the cause of trips, slips, stubs and dings far out of proportion to their posted hazard. And this little talked about and unreported evil is nearly universal both in large cities and small towns throughout Latin America. No place we’ve visited has been exempt from the ravages of broken, uneven, malformed concrete, bricks or cobblestones, twisted and narrow steps, curbing that can be grotesquely elevated or nearly non-existent. It may be glossed over in the newest and trendiest of neighborhoods, but walk a few blocks and the scourge returns.

Around or about or through?

Around or about or through?

Now, there are sidewalks that are tastefully, even artfully, done and meticulously maintained. While we appreciate and celebrate their existence we don’t take them for granted as they are conspicuously uncommon.  They are usually associated with buildings that are well-maintained such as the central park, up-scale housing developments or fronting ritzy buildings.

But, as in the US, they are primarily bread-and-butter, utilitarian and functional except when they ain’t. And when they ain’t they can be accidents waiting to happen, annoying or, occasionally, amusing.

Squeeze through the opening and then walk at a slant!

Squeeze through the opening and then walk a little crooked

Watch your feet and head

Watch your feet and head

So next time someone you know or love proposes to venture SOTB be sure to warn them of the unknown dangers lurking under their feet.  Oh yeah, and while they’re gawking at the beautiful parks and churches ahead or  looking sideways into various businesses and stores remember to tell them to check occasionally for obstacles jutting out of buildings at shoulder and head level too!

By Richard and Anita, October, 2013

City workers improving (?) the pedestrian walkways

City workers improving (?) the pedestrian walkways

Tourist Trees, Jesus Lizards, Chirping Geckos And Other Island Oddities

A view from Pumpkin Hill

A view from Pumpkin Hill

the "Tourist Tree"

the “Tourist Tree”

A few days ago we donned long pants – very difficult to do when it feels like 300% humidity and 200 degree heat – and set off with our guide on a horseback ride to Pumpkin Hill, the highest point on the island of Utila at 243 feet.   Sterling, whose ancestors emigrated from Arkansas to Utila in the late nineteenth century, was a fount of information on the flora and fauna of the island.  He pointed out the blue land crabs as they scurried across our path, the numerous reddish-hued trees called “tourist trees” by the locals (because they are red and always peeling) and the Jesus lizards, which run upright on two legs and can sprint across water, hence the name. 

Happy trails

Happy trails

 It was a quiet morning, riding through the dense, green growth of the island’s interior with the creaking of saddle leather providing the accompanying sound to the clopping of our horses’ unshod hoofs, culminating in a panoramic view of the island and the turquoise waters of the Caribbean.

Mini-golf balancing act

Mini-golf balancing act

Now, horseback riding is only one of many activities in which we’ve engaged during our stay on the island.  There’s Ed’s Reptile Gardens Mini Golf, an original and very quirky exercise in chasing one’s golf ball across rocks, holes (intended and not), next to sculptures complete with swim fins and reposing dummies, into caves and onto balancing-act greens.   On many of the holes, the assigned par score seemed merely a suggestion as we’d add up scores of eight, nine and ten strokes, search for our balls in the ground’s nooks and crannies all the while hoping we wouldn’t encounter a scorpion or tarantula and laughing with evil glee when we came in with the low score on a hole. 

Our guide on the way to Pumpkin Beach

Our guide on the way to Pumpkin Beach

Another day we amused ourselves by borrowing a friend’s ATV and, with a couple of adventurous cohorts, explored the deeply rutted paths through mud and deep puddles while trying to find Pumpkin Beach (coincidentally next to Pumpkin Hill).   A local boy on a bike answered our question of “which way to Pumpkin Beach?” and, with a brilliant and genuinely friendly smile, rode his bike as fast as he could to lead us back to the meandering track on the way to a rocky and coral strewn shoreline with the far off smudge of Honduras on the horizon.

We’ve spent many mornings snorkeling and afternoons lying in hammocks reading as well as sitting on deeply shaded porches waiting for a stray puff of wind with new friends talking, trading histories, funny tales and sharing laughs.  The conclusion to many days is a ritual of doing “sunset”  which takes place at the watering holes with names like Tranquila, Driftwood and Babalu’s located on the bay front. Here the locals, divers, expats and tourists gather to watch the sun descend prior to heading out to the numerous restaurants or home.

Sunset view reflected in the  water from Tranquila

Sunset view reflected in the water from Tranquila

A chirping gecko clinging to the ceiling

A chirping gecko traipsing across the ceiling upside down

Some evenings we’ll return to our third floor apartment and sit on the deck while the night brings a little relief to the day’s sweltering humidity and watch the bats swoop by the trees and eaves eating their fill of the little biting varmints (mosquitoes and sand flies).  Inside our home there are little geckos ranging in size from one to three or four inches clinging to our walls and vaulted ceilings or scampering across our shelves as self-appointed house pets, also doing their share of controlling the biting hordes.  Many nights we drift off to sleep or awaken during the night to hear them chirping and clicking to each other as another island day ends.

By Anita and Richard, September, 2013

Honduran Independence Day on Utila

A rainy beginning to Independence Day celebrations

A rainy beginning to Independence Day ceremonies

Everyone has a part in the celebration

Everyone has a part in the festivities

Exuberance – that’s the word that came to mind watching the young people as they practiced in the school yards and lanes, as they waited for their chance to strut their stuff before the packed bleachers at the soccer stadium, as they played before the crowd of applauding parents, relatives and friends. Independence Day on Utila was indeed an occasion for celebration.

Independence Day in Honduras - Marching bands with drums and glockenspiels

Independence Day in Honduras – Marching bands with drums and glockenspiels

The school bands, and each school possesses its own band, practiced  in earnest for several weeks before Flag Day on September 6 and Independence Day on September 15. The bands began practice before the school day, sometimes well before 7:00 AM and continued with unflagging energy after school and well into the evening, often until 10:00 PM.

Waiting their turn to perform

Waiting their turn to perform

These marching bands, consisting exclusively of percussion instruments – snare drums, base drums, glockenspiels, cymbals, shakers – epitomize the economic reality of the nation. The instruments are relatively low-cost and low maintenance; they can be mastered in a reasonable amount of time by enthusiastic students of various ages, can be carried individually in marching bands and do not require auditoriums for practice or public performances.

Preparing to present the colors

Preparing to present the colors

Much like in the US, there was a passing nod to history during the day’s parades, picnics, boxing matches and the greased pole climbing competition. The context for Independence Day, September 15th, is rather convoluted and in addition to Honduras, includes El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. On this day in 1821 these four colonies of Spain declared independence in their Congress of Central America. Reading between the lines, it appears that these countries piggy-backed off the success of the twenty plus years of freedom fighting that was just concluding at the time in Mexico. Following independence, there was a brief alliance with Mexico, under the Federal Republic of Central America, which ended in mutual rancor in 1838.

Bird's eye view of the festivities

Bird’s eye view of the parades & hoopla

At the end of a long day of festivities, when all the Independence Day marchers had gone home and all the instruments were put away, the night was quiet.  What was surprising to us was the extent to which we missed the sound of the percussion instruments that same evening when we retired. We were accustomed to dropping off to sleep to the sound of the rhythms. Nothing like a soothing glockenspiel to bring on the nods…

Parade Rest

Parade Rest

By Richard and Anita, September, 2013

 

A Place For Dr. Seuss

Shade and respite for Seuss lovers

Shade and respite for Seuss lovers

Okay, here’s the question?  Who isn’t a big Dr. Seuss fan?  Who doesn’t have his thirty life-changing quotes as their computer screen saver?  Hey, this guy’s a home-grown philosophizer!

The Jade Seahorse

Entering The Jade Seahorse

Our usual inquiry about places to visit brought several responses, one of which was to visit The Jade Seahorse, a short ten minute walk from our apartment. It was recommended that we visit it at least twice, once during the day and once at night, to fully appreciate its uniqueness. In other words, to paraphrase Dr. Seuss, “…this place is Fun and Fun is Good”.

A conglomeration

Art using old circuit boards, computer discs, broken glass, you name it!

As we walked through the gates onto the grounds our smiles stretched wide.  Everywhere we looked was a  colorful assortment of mosaics forming underwater corals, marine life flashing and shining; broken mirrors, tiles, marbles, glass bottles arranged into new and ever more pleasing walkways and walls representative of, well, anything you wanted!

Mosaic designs

Colorful whimsy – mosaic designs with tiles, marbles, glass and conch shells

Color and light shifted, refracted and reflected from amazing conglomerations and hanging art as we walked into little spaces and gazebos, climbed onto platforms, ascended and descended winding stairways and bridges into the artist’s vision, laughing and pointing out various discoveries to each other along the way.

An arch inviting us to make more discoveries

An arch inviting us to make more discoveries

A whatchamacallit

A whatchamacallit !

The Jade Seahorse is the ever-evolving design begun at least twenty years ago by a former LA school teacher and artist, Neil, and his chef wife, Julia.   Neil worked on it part-time during winter and summer vacations using flea market finds, other people’s rejects and recyclables from LA and other objects from trips to Guatemala and Honduras. Julia tended to the restaurant and growing the business on Utila on a full time basis.

Elevated walkways, sitting areas and views

Elevated walkways, sitting areas and views

following the path

Meandering paths and beckoning archways

The grounds are occupied by Neil and Julia’s home, the Treetanic Bar, built as a shipwreck high off the ground in three mango trees, the restaurant and a few independently standing little bungalows which are for rent.   And the space in between the buildings, above and below too, is a fantastic carnival celebrating life and the pursuit of happiness.

Habitats for rents too!

Habitats for rent, too!

P.S. If the original guest register existed, I’m rather certain you would find a familiar signature: Theodore Geisel.

By Anita and Richard, September, 2013

The Utopian Island Of Utila

Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras

Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras

Main Street - Airport Road

Main Street – the “business loop”

Before we boarded the ferry from La Ceiba, Honduras to the Bay Island of Utila we knew who Darrell was. The tall, very tan and very blond man in his forties or fifties walked into the sheltered area that served as the ferry station and we heard, “Hey, Darrell”, “Good to see you Darrell” and “Where ya’ been, Darrell?” with handshakes dispensed all around. When we arrived on the island, after a rough fifty minute crossing, we heard an English couple asking “Where’s Darrell?” So, we were able to establish our bona fides as friendly newcomers right away by turning around and gesturing towards Darrell. This seems to have set the tone for our visit to Utila as the island is an incredibly friendly community with few pretensions and a large, open and welcoming community of both locals and expats. Utila is a kick off your shoes and set-a-spell kind of place!

Our third floor apartment

Our third floor apartment

We’ve rented a quaint little apartment for a few weeks on the third floor of a clapboard residence (kind of like being in a tree house) named Jericho Gardens. We’d planned on practicing our Spanish but, once again, our sloth has been rewarded because, even though Spanish is the official language of Honduras, English seems to be the preferred language on Utila which was once a British colony.

Airport Road

Airport Road

The island itself seems like a small American town from the 1950’s (think Mayberry) with very narrow streets, many paved but some dirt, most suitable for pedestrians or various forms of transportation such as bikes, scooters, ATVs, and golf carts. There are few cars or trucks on the island which is easily explained once you see how difficult it can be for them to maneuver around the narrow streets. The houses that line the winding roads vary from large and picturesque two and three-story wood frame homes (many divided into apartments or housing businesses) to smaller, more modest dwellings. The lanes and paths that branch off the roads are, for the most part, trash and garbage free. Vacant land is readily filled to capacity with native growth in this moist and humid tropical climate.

Utila businesses along the shoreline

Utila businesses along the shoreline

Surrounding Utila are the warm, inviting crystal clear waters of the Caribbean and many smaller cays, some occupied but many uninhabited (although they may be privately owned). The island is known internationally as one of the best and cheapest places to learn how to SCUBA dive as well as possessing many easily accessible places for amazing snorkeling among the coral reefs that are part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the second-largest in the world.

View from Water Cay- an uninhabited island

View from Water Cay- an uninhabited island

Now admittedly, utopian may be a bit of a stretch as a label for Utila but it’s an awesomely beautiful island that has quickly claimed a space on our list of favorite places. And, once visited, it might beckon as a safe haven to which one returns.

Paradise by any definition...

Paradise by any definition…

By Anita and Richard, September, 2013

 

The Manatee Whisperer At Lago Izabel

Lago IzabelWe caught the 6:00 AM collectivo to El Estor from Rio Dulce and met Don Benjamin at his boat at 6:45. He liked to be on the lake early in the morning. It was just the two of us this morning so there was no disagreement when he asked us why we had come to the lake; we had come to see the fresh water sea manatee that live in Lago Izabal. We agreed that the monkeys, water birds and any other critters would be great but we were there for the manatee.

A happy man -Capitan Benjamin at Lago Izabel near El Estor

A happy man -Capitan Benjamin at Lago Izabel near El Estor

El Estor is a quiet village that sits at the northwest end of Lago Izabal, the largest lake in Guatemala. And Don Benjamin had come recommended as a sort of “Whisperer” to the manatee. He had lived on the lake all his life and was reputed to be knowledgeable about their habits. He explained where we would go in the search for the manatee and where, in his judgment, we would be most likely to see them.Still Waters

The Boca de Pilochic Bio-reserve was established at the western end of the lake where the largest river, the Rio Pilochic feeds in from the highlands. In this warm, shallow end, with marshy fingers extending into the jungles, the fresh water sea manatee make their home. In this protected area, along with a handful of other sites, this endangered species breeds and preserves the population in the wild.

We slowly motored along the perimeter of the bays, among water lilies and aquatic plants that are the manatee’s food. We were the only craft on the lake as far I as could see.On the south shore of a bay we drifted into an inlet and tied off for coffee and a light snack. “Paciencia” was not a problem for us we told Don Benjamin – we would be patient. We had anticipated this trip for some time.

Cormorants

Cormorants

While looking for the manatee we saw and heard the deep growl of the howler monkeys; several families were in the trees adjacent to the lake. Some were feeding, some at rest. There were the water birds as well: egrets, herons, cormorants, perhaps kingfisher, all feeding in the shallows of the lake.

Manatees in a line at Lago Izabel

Manatees in a line at Lago Izabel

As the morning wore on and the sun rose in the sky Don Benjamin was smiling, saying the manatee liked the sun. Shortly after that we began to encounter the manatee in groups of a dozen or more. We would follow them as they swam in a line, just below the surface. It was not the cresting of the whales, but it was amazing to be within a few feet of this massive, timid and endangered species. As one group dove to deeper water we would swing around and pick up another group in short order.

Manatee below the lake surface

Manatee below the lake surface

The morning had been very tranquil, followed by a flourish of joy and activity with sightings of the manatee. It was close to noon when we returned to the dock and time to catch the bus back to Rio Dulce for the next leg of our trip to the Caribbean coast.Water front at Lago Izabel

By Richard and Anita, August, 2013

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