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Salty hair and sandy toes – living the beach life in Nicaragua

After spending enough time travelling out of a backpack in the relentless Nicaraguan summer heat, your hair begins to feel like straw and the “sniff test” starts to give you early stage depression. Enjoying the beach life, but not the sand in my underwear, I look back on the three weeks I have spent in this arid land and recall that for the most part of it, I sweltered. And while I also managed to enjoy it, I am also now sporting some pretty special tan lines!
Nicaragua is certainly a place that young people come to party – from “getting weird” at the Treehouse hostel near Grenada, checking out a beach party in Las Peñitas, to the much hyped Sunday Funday pool crawl in San Juan del Sur.
Sunday Funday pool crawl - before things got messy!

Sunday Funday pool crawl – before things got messy!

A little messier, no photos after sunset!

A little messier, no photos after sunset!

It seems to me that the more hype surrounds a particular party, the less impressive it tended to be – I guess the higher your expectations the more likely you are to be disappointed. After paying $30US for entry and a free “shot” (read juice with a tiny amount of alcohol) at three different bars, it is clear that someone’s pocket is getting well and truly lined. The sunset was pretty awesome seen from the Naked Tiger which is on the side of a hill just outside town.
Sunset from the Naked Tiger

Sunset from the Naked Tiger

While León had not felt super safe, the feeling was amplified in Grenada – shops being locked up during the day does not necessarily give you the greatest feeling! We were quickly warned that walking around at night = getting robbed, and that one should leave their smartphone at the hostel rather than take valuables around in the street. A warning duly heeded.
Friends of ours recommended we catch the shuttle to spend a night at the Treehouse hostel. Like the name suggests, it is literally a treehouse built on the side of Volcan Mombacho just outside of Grenada. As we would later find out, the Australian who now owns it had bought it (for a steal) from a crazy Texan lad who had an unfortunate drink driving incident resulting in the death of a local man on a motorcycle (who was also drunk by the way). The case was eventually settled for the largest sum in Nicaraguan history. However by that time the treehouse had been neglected so much that it’s structural integrity was in question. Enter the Aussie who was at the end of his quest to touch the ground in over 60 countries – he went down to the lawyers office with $500 to pay the deposit – and the rest they say is history.
Hammocks at the Treehouse

Hammocks at the Treehouse

A ute pulled up, and they piled our luggage up on the rack while around 12 of us jumped in the tray for the 15 minute ride. I took a seat in the back and hoped that we would arrive in one piece. After trekking up a steep rocky hill with our packs in tow, we found our hammocks for the night – glad to be in the treehouse next to the bar and not having to make the drunken stumble down the treacherous path to the dorm below!
We partied into the night, completing the five flavour infused shot challenge (sadly none of them were any good) and then at some point in the evening it became a good idea to try asking the bartender if we could “get weird” – this involved a mystery shot and a piece of crazy attire handed out from a special collection they keep for these such occasions.
Saying goodbye to Grenada, we made the trip to San Juan del Sur in time for the infamous Sunday Funday pool crawl. San Juan itself is more of a family holiday tourist town an a surf beach, with the surf beaches located to the north and south accessed by shuttle. We chose to take the less beaten path and head north to try and catch some waves. Popoyo is a surf town with a lovely stretch of beach around 2 hours away. Having only two small mini markets, a surf shop, a handful of hotels and hostels, and a laid back atmosphere, the rural town was perfect for a weeks break from the backpacker trail (even though it wasn’t quite planned that way!)
Sunset stroll on Guanacaste

Sunset stroll on Guanacaste

While the others moved on to Ometope a few days later, I had to stay behind and rest my injured foot, spending time with new friends Kenny, Roger and Brian from Florida and the three Norwegian girls, Christina, Gro and Pernille. Days were spent moving between the water and my hammock, trying to cool down in the Nicaraguan heat. We explored the natural rock pools at the north of the beach, got excited when the vegetable truck came past, cooked family dinners, did yoga on the beach at sunset, and spent Saturday night partying at Magnific Rock whch is an amazing hotel jutting out from a cliff overlooking the surf break.
Having spent a couple of months on the Pacific side of the continent and longing for the Carribean, Alex and I decided to make the journey across to experience the Corn Islands. After reading many horror stories we decided to take the easy route and fly, rather than make the two day trek by chicken bus, panga and cargo ship (complete with sandbags to sleep on).
Just prior to boarding the aircraft, we had a brief moment where we didn’t think our hold luggage was going to make it, causing us a little bemused surprise, as of course both of us had packed our bikinis in our backpacks! Fortunately, once on the island our bags had in fact arrived.  We took the small panga (ferry) across to the smaller island, little corn, jammed five wide inside the boat with little room to move.
The eclectic little island did not disappoint – it was full of Carribean charm, and jungle melting into gorgeous white sand beaches. Climbing up the old weather station to see the sunset, you are afforded views of the whole island whilst listening to the beats of local drummers below.
Climbing up the old weather station

Climbing up the old weather station

View from the top

View from the top

Known by the locals as Islita or Isla pequeña del maiz, it is small enough to walk across the entire island in around half an hour. Impressivlely, the town water supply is filtered and can be drunk from the tap, and visitors are reminded to kindly take their plastics off the island with them – due to of the environmental sensitivity of a small ‘off the grid’ place all garbage has to be removed and this becomes somewhat of a problem.
Although the food was really good, eating out was expensive, so we chose to make our own food in the hostel kitchen most days, although anything left in the fridge was subject to inspection by the local food thief. Fresh fruit, vegetables and other supplies arrive by cargo ship each Saturday, so by the end of the week stocks run low and you have to work with what you can get. However, mangoes and starfruit were plentiful around the island, and free!
Enjoying a brownie at Cafe Desideri

Enjoying a brownie at Cafe Desideri

The Greenhouse Hostel had two extra special “guests” – a puppy named Lobo and a kitten “pinto gallo” who was so small she would just fit in my hand. By the end of the week the two seemed to have made friends, with the kitty retreating to the safety of sleeping in someone’s shoe anytime Lobo got too excited.
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Can I keep Her?

I decided to try scuba diving for the very first time, and was treated to seeing a Grey Nurse shark and a Stingray as big as me on my Discovery dive. Needless to say, I fell in love with exploring this new underwater world and completed my Open Water diver certification, even doing a night dive which was a special experience – at one point we were in complete darkness under the water looking at the bioluminescenece whch was pretty cool!
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Returning to Big Corn to a much bigger island with cars, cheaper food and even an ATM (though it was always out of money – that USD I was carrying came in handy!) Locals were busily preparing their craypots for the lobster season – stacked high in every flat cleared piece of land on the island. Unfortunately we were around three weeks early – I did manage to try the local dish ‘Rundown’ (lobster and fish in a spicy Carribean coconut sauce) which was tasty but I can only imagine how amazing it would have been with fresh lobster!
Blowing Rock

Blowing Rock

We did a two tank dive to Blowing Rock which was a rock formation seemingly in the middle of the ocean, waves slapping against the rocks at the surface. Circumnavigating the dive site in the boat it did strike me that this would be perfect shark territory, but asides from a single grey nurse shark, we didn’t see any. Swimming in and out around the rocks, we saw barracuda, angel fish, lobster, and plenty of parrotfish.
Running out of time on my visa, it’s time to move on to beautiful Costa Rica!

Achieving the “impossible”

Today I achieved something that I never considered possible.

I became a certified Open Water diver!

It may not sound like much but after having childhood asthma since I was three years old, which I suffered with for most of my life, it’s amazing that I’ve finally managed to “grow out of it” and be physically able to breathe underwater.

I must say I felt pretty distressed the first time I had to take my regulator out of my mouth underwater, but the fear soon passed and I realised that the calmer I am the easier it is.

My dive buddy Iona (look her up at ionacamera@wordpress.com) and I took the course over the three days, tackling our challeges and celebrating our achievements together.

We were treated to Grey Nurse sharks, Moray eels, slippery dicks (yes that’s their name), stingrays as bug as me and all kinds of crazy colourful fish on our first series of dives here on Little Corn Island, Nicaragua.

I’ll admit to having the Mario Bros song in my head from the underwater scene as we swam amongst the coral, an almost surreal feeling at first. But right now I’m stoked that I’ve been able to explore this underwater world 🙂

A slice of island paradise – Caye Caulker, Belize

Belize, as the locals say, is absolutely unbeliezeable! Hearing how expensive it was, I had considered cutting it out of my itenerary and heading into Guatemala overland via Palenque instead. I’m very glad I stuck to the original plan!

I took a string of three Collectivos (shared vans) to get to Chetumal which is the ferry departure point. I can’t say that I’ve ever entered another country by ferry before!

Leaving Mexico

After a short walk (about 1km) from the collectivo stop, I arrived at the ferry terminal a little hot and bothered. It was there that I first met Ben, the rather tall amd extremely funny Englishman that I would end up travelling with for the next few weeks. Going through the departure process was an experience – was caught up by the mexican ferry departure tax scam – although annoying, there’s little one can do but pay the money when the guy won’t stamp your passport 🙁

   
Bags were placed on the ground outside while we waited for the 3pm ferry, secruity was water tight here. Snacking on a sandwich as we hadn’t eaten all day, 3:30 arrived and so did the armed police who carried out the drug search. We all stood in a line behind our bags while the canines circled around, all clear, by 4pm we had set sail for Belize. 

My first impression of Belize was cemeted when we arrived at the customs hall in San Pedro. After a convoluted process of standing in lines to get passports stamped, we had officially entered the country. Taking a moment to savour the flavour of our first Belikin, we quickly realised that nowhere else in the world had we had a beer at a customs hall! I only wish we got a photo.

   

Every little thing… is gonna to be alright!

Another short ferry ride later and we touched down at Caye Caulker which would be the start of many friendships. Arriving at Dirty McNasty’s (it’s really not that bad) I sauntered nervously up to the bar as I didn’t know anyone, and started chatting with the Italian bartender. Then I saw some people playing cards outside and thought one guy in a aussie akubra hat looked friendly enough, so I approached and met Will, who turned out to be a brother from another mother.  No, completely seriously, he lives in the area where I grew up just a few streets away from my parents (and later busted out the Beder football jersey – those who know the area will know the significance!)
 

Sunset in paradise

 

The next few days invloved plenty of swimming, snorkelling, exploring, socialising and of course the nightly dose of free rum which always ended up in a procession to the sports bar, and then the ‘reggae bar’ – which while I was there only seemed to play the classics, such as Justin Bieber. At least that seemed a safe enough place to hide from the American girl who brought along her Tazer for reasons unknown – which she also took great delight in firing off the hostel balcony in a misguided bid to impress the lads. How did she even get that into the country?

 

A hurricane divided the island in two in the 1960s and the spit is a popular place to swim, with a cool little bar and a laid back vibe. One of the days we decided to make the crossing, swimming across the lake only to find disappointment on the other side – seemingly now only inhabited by creepy animals and some local housing. 

 

Swimming across the spit

 
The laid back feel of the island is such that you will be yelled at by the locals for walking too fast – shouts of “go slooooow!” were not uncommon. However, it should be noted that while the rasta vibe is prevalent, the police tolerance for drugs was not, and one of the Mexicans in our crew was unfortunate enough to be caught red handed which resulted in an unfortunate night in the police cell followed by an unplanned boat trip to the court in San Pedro. No major issue, but I’m sure it wasn’t the most pleasant experience!

Bendict was the local man about town – a very laid back rasta kind of character. We would often see him wondering about the hostel trying to charm all the ladies. His aura seems to work for him, as most of the people we know arranged their tours through him, the clever guy picking up a tidy commission. 

   
 
We were lucky enough to arrange an absolutely amazing day tour through him, snorkelling with sharks and sting rays in the marine reserve and then in the afternoon spearfishing which resulted in a very, very tasty fish stew dinner!

 

Diving for some dinner

 
He also took us down to the local dock to have the tarpins (big fish!) take the bait fish from right out of our hands!

 

Feeding the tarpins

 
On the last night we met an interesting English lass named Willow who had invested £150,000 to buy a local Belizean Island – Virginia Caye. Needless to say she hadnt had company in weeks and was eager to share a few drinks with us. While Ben and I were super keen to visit and check out what life is like on your very own island, it wasn’t to be as Willow had rented it out for the weekend on AirBnB to a nudist hippy couple… Maybe best to leave that one right alone!
So to sum it all up on the day we were meant to leave for ‘Hopkins’ on the mainland (more on that in my next post), we ended up missing our ferry, and the next one, and the one after that… After a brilliant few days in paradise, I can completely see why it is such a favourite on the gringo trail.