A Travellerspoint blog

April 2013

Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Living the lake life

sunny 101 °F

Lake Nicaragua is the largest fresh water lake in Central America. It is so large that it gives the feeling of an ocean, especially when on the little lancha (passenger boat) that we had to ride over the big waves in. Ometepe was formed by two volcanoes that were then joined together by an isthmus and when we stood on the connecting beach we could see both on the horizon.

We hiked the larger of the two volcanoes, Conception, which happens to be considered the most symmetrically formed volcano in all of Central America. To say this was a hard hike is true, but more than the strenuous scrambling on all fours, is the mental stress to not think about slipping down the loose rock incline as it became steeper and steeper towards the top.
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We celebrated our victory against earth wind and fire with the local beer, and some fabulous sunsets over the lake.
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On one evening when we returned home, the whole town was without electricity. Our local restaurant that we had planned to eat at was shut, so we wandered through little shops with candles and gathered up as many vegetables as we could. Our hostel only had one pot, so we had to be a little creative in what we would make in the dark. We basically ended up with veggie/lentil stew seasoned with salad sprinkles. This invention has since been our favorite quick meal to make even when the lights are on!
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The island is small enough that it can be explored in just one day by dirt bike. We finally got to use our motor biking skills to weave in and out of cattle and over rocky dirt roads.
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One of the local legends claims to make you younger after bathing in the mineral-rich water of Ojo de Agua. The water was cool and clear and if you look hard enough, we think you’ll see the shimmer of youth in our eyes!
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 14:56 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (1)

Liberia, Costa Rica

Exploring Costa Rica outside of the rainforest

Liberia is the perfect home base for many different activities because it’s located between the mountains and the beaches of Guanacaste. Although zip lining through the gorge was beautiful, the highlight of our adventures in this area was something that we had never done before: white water tubing down Rio Negro in Rincón de la Vieja National Park. The river gorged an adventure park style rapid suitable for individual tubing in an amazing forest setting. We stitched together a few clips to give you a feel:

We were wishing we had a naturalist with us walking through Tenorio National Park when we reached the magnificent blue waters of Rio Celeste. Apparently a result of sulfur and calcium carbonate mixing together, there is the most amazing place in the park where two crystal clear rivers meet and form this shimmering blue color:
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Most people know the Nicoya Peninsula for its surfing and turtle sanctuaries. We would also like to highlight that there is an awesome cave network in Barra Honda National Park. There is one cave with four or five thousand bats that come flying out after sunset, and another that you can repel into and explore. Unfortunately they are still working out a way to offer tours to see the bats without disrupting them, so we settled for spelunking to the eerie sounds of howler monkey growls.
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As if we didn’t get dirty enough spelunking, we also paid a visit to the volcanic thermal waters and mud spa at Rincón. The hot springs were in an incredible natural setting next to a flowing cool river. The perfect spot to ‘cleanse’ after all the hiking we had done.
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 18:15 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (1)

Santa Elena (Monteverde), Costa Rica

Superman for a day!

sunny 80 °F

Driving to Monteverde from the luscious coast was is a little weird since all our lives we’ve been bombarded by little green red eyed frog advertisements for Costa Rica, so naturally we expected lush green scenery. Although there are abundant forests, it turns out most of the midlands are dusty and dry like a long California drought.
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Monteverde is the zip line capital of Central America, so of course, we looked for the most death defying tour operator and headed for the longest zip line in Latin America (1590 meters flying like superman) and the biggest Tarzan swing in Monteverde. It was an exciting day packed with adrenalin that we’ve tried to highlight in this short video:

The forests here include a type of parasite Strangler Fig Tree that start growing from a seed dropped on top of a host tree by a bird. The Strangler Fig grows down the trunk of the host tree using the host tree for nutrients and eventually suffocating out the host tree. In this particular case, the original host tree had completely dissolved away leaving a 130 foot natural spiral staircase up to the canopy.
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This made for an easy climb all the way to the top where we could watch a Toucan going in and out of his nest!
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As we were walking passed a few guides in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, we over heard one guide say cheerfully “I’ve never seen so many Quetzels at one time!” After they walked off we investigated the area and actually found one! We were so excited to end the game of ‘where’s waldo’ for what seemed like ages of chasing chirping birds through the forest!
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Another of our favorite adventures was exploring the forest at night. We saw sleeping birds, and all sorts of nocturnal creatures including poisonous snakes and tarantulas!
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 06:34 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (1)

Mastatal, Costa Rica

Chocolate straight from the bean

sunny

We found a family farm called La Iguana Chocolate tucked in the mountains between Monteverde and Quepos. Lucky for us, our micro-machine rental 4x4 dominated the long and bumpy road with only one minor issue… when we got out of the car, the passenger side panel was hanging on by a thread!
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Juan and his family have been living and working on the farm for over 40 years, and is one of the last farms in the area that didn’t switch his cacao for other standard cash crops. They have a small operation that focused on providing enough sustenance for the family and their equipment is all handmade… for example, their cacao butter press is an adapted car jack!
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We spent the morning learning about the entire cacao process turning the harvest into edible chocolate. We probably ate more chocolate before noon than we have ever have in one day! Along with the delicious chocolates we made, we also ate chocolate cake, chocolate milk, and roasted cacao beans (cacao nibs)!
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For those interested, here is a short summary of the process we went through to create our very own chocolate:

1. Harvesting - Pods are harvested from the trees and the cacao beans are taken out of the pods with the sticky fruit still surrounding the seeds.
2. Fermenting - Beans with the fruit are fermented over about 3-4 days so the sticky fruit comes off of the beans.
3. Drying - Beans are dried in the sun.
4. Roasting - Beans are pan roasted or stored for future roasting.
5. De-shelling - After roasting, a fine shell is removed from the beans.
6. Grinding - Beans are then put through a grinder and crushed into “cacao liquor”
7. Pressing - Cacao liquor is pressed to separate the cacao butter
8. Grinding again – the pressed stuff is then put through a fine grind and turned into what we usually call “cocao powder”
9. Making Chocolate - Chocolate is made from three ingredients: cacao powder, cacao butter, and sugar!
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 19:03 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (0)

Manual Antonio, Costa Rica

Where the rainforest meets the ocean

sunny 92 °F

Manual Antonio National Park may be the smallest National Park in Costa Rica, but it really packs in the beauty with jungle facades creeping all the way down to stunning beaches. We saw numerous sloths, monkeys, and birds all within easy viewing along the trails. On the main beach there are capuchin monkeys looking to rummage through tourist backpacks, so it was quite the site for people watching.
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For a real adventure, we rented Stand Up Paddleboards from a local and after telling him the route we planned, he was a bit worried about the epic scale of our paddle and decided to come out with us. Turns out, we paddled about 10km, down the coast through all sorts of waves and water terrains, yet the only monster wipe out was trying to ride these puppies through the waves to the beach!
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This was our first stop in Costa Rica and we learned two important things:
1. The refried black beans in a bag are perfect for picnic lunches!
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2. Everything in Costa Rica is open air and there are tons of butterflies (even in the grocery store)!
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 19:34 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (0)

Boquete, Panama

Mountain Fresh Coffee

sunny 75 °F

We headed for the hills of Boquete where high in the mountains the air is fresh and the city is surrounded by the elusive quetzal birds! We hiked the infamous Quetzal Trail, which had a grueling 300 meter accent up a natural staircase and a few river crossings. In the cloud forest we enjoyed a full serenade of bird calls.
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Among many other hikes in the area we enjoyed our trip to Cangilones de Gualaca where the river carved out a gorge creating a perfect spot for practicing rock climbing over deep water and swimming against the current in a natural fresh water flume.
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Boquete has the perfect climate and altitude for growing coffee and is famous for its many coffee farms (finca de café). We paid a visit to Finca Dos Jefes which is now owned by a fellow ex-Berkeley resident. On our tour we learned a whole lot about growing and harvesting the cherries according to the lunar cycle.
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 19:33 Archived in Panama Comments (0)

Panama City, Panama

Peligroso

sunny 90 °F

Besides the initial excitement of stepping foot into North America, we found Panama City to be one of the most dangerous feeling cities so far on our travels. It also didn’t help that on our first day while walking out of Casco Antiguo we unknowingly strayed just two blocks into the red zone of San Filipe and were luckily told off in Spanish by a local to turn around immediately (aka get da frak outta here). This put quit a damper on how we usually enjoy exploring a city (walking or running through the neighborhoods). Once back on track we couldn’t help but notice that everywhere we went there was about a 2:1 ratio of heavily armed tourist police to tourists. It’s a shame because even though panama’s skyline is growing fancy, almost every other building is abandoned and in rubles.
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Luckily, we were more than impressed by our visit to the Miraflores Locks and the Panama Canal Museum. We really enjoyed the interactive displays in the museum and the live commentary on the viewing platform that gave us a blow by blow of what was going on with boats passing through the canal. In the museum we took a virtual voyage through the canal in muy rapido speed.
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Fortunately, our hotel was located near a pedestrian walkway along the Balboa street waterfront that appeared to be safe (based on the tourist police at every cabana and the ATV patrols). Everyday we’d stop in the Marcodo de Mariscos for the most delicious ceviche we’ve ever had (aka only)! One adventurous morning we veered from the path and managed to run up to Ancon Hill for an amazing view of the city on one side and the canal on the other.
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We planned on being in Panama for the Easter celebrations because of the huge number of followers and events that we read about. We didn’t end up finding a church that performed a sun rise service; however we did make it to a Good Friday candlelight procession that carried around different stages of the cross.
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 17:34 Archived in Panama Comments (3)

To budget or not to budget…

…that is the question

People we meet tend to ask about how we afford traveling for so long and how we budget and manage our money. While we wish we could give a magical answer or some sort of amazing spreadsheet but the truth is, unlike most other travelers, we don’t actually budget. Our philosophy on this trip (and for most of our lives) has been that if you really want to do it, then do it… but if you can do something cheaper without sacrificing much, then do it cheaper!

Saving daily on the small stuff, allows us to go big on the adventure. We didn’t ever worry about saving for expensive must do’s like Carnival, Tour de France, Oktoberfest, the Galapagos or the Olympics because we are automatically saving on a daily basis. Below is a small list of a few things that we do at home and while on our trip to consistently save money. Some only save small amounts, but when you consider how many times we have saved… well, the numbers add up. So, without further ado…

K&R’s Top Money Savers:

1. Never go out for Breakfast! In our opinion, eating out for breakfast yields the least value (and nutrition) for money. Instead, we carry a gallon Ziploc full of homemade muesli and a smaller Ziploc of instant coffee. To complete the meal we pick up a yogurt and some fruit from a local shop. Tip: try dry soy/milk powder when shops aren’t available and adding cinnamon or coconut flakes to spice it up.
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2. Drink Tap Water! In some restaurants bottled water can be more expensive than beer or soda! On average we see 500ml being sold at newsstands for $1-$2. If you find a grocery store you can get a 1.5L for about the same price. Between the two of us we usually drink between 5 and 6 liters a day… so being conservative we’ve easily saved over $2,000 so far on this trip alone. Tip: Carry around an empty bottle and fill it where ever you can.
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3. Wash Your Own Laundry! We’ve met travelers who waste a day of vacation because they have to pick up their laundry at a certain time. We estimate that over the course of traveling through Europe and Asia, the conservative average of a typical load of laundry would be about $5. We wash out our drawers at least four times a week, so we’ve already saved upwards of $1000 on laundry fees on this trip alone.
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4. BYOB! Buying alcohol at bars or restaurants is always at a premium, so this is an easy fix. We buy roadies from the grocery store and take ‘em to the park, or enjoy homemade cocktails before heading out to eat. We once watched how a bartender made a $12 cocktail, and then went to the store and bought a $6 bottle of the same liquor and had cocktails all night!
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5. Pack a Lunch! We limit the amount of times we eat out by booking accommodation that includes kitchen access, and if we don’t have a kitchen we prepare simple and easy meals. Remember, food vendors at events sell crap food with enormous mark ups so try preparing something healthy and pack it in! Tip: This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the local delights; instead try eating OUT for lunch and eating IN for dinner.
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6. Use Local and Alternative Transportation! It’s easy to drop cash on a Taxi, and even more when they rip you off. We would rather spend a little time planning to save a lot of money using public or alternative transportation our bicycles! Example: Lots of cities have expensive hop on hop off bus tours that take you around to all the sights, however some cities have local buses or trams that do the same thing at a fraction of the cost. Instead of a €19 bus tour in Lisbon, Portugal we used city tram 28 to go on the exact same route for only €2.85.
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7. Shop Around for Accommodation! We don’t sacrifice safety or cleanliness when looking for a place to stay. However, we modify our accommodation spending to beat the market rate for each city. We do this by doing a quick compare of hostel sites, hotel sites and home away sites like airbnb. Tip: hostels aren’t always the cheapest option, and booking on line is usually more expensive.
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8. Tour It Yourself! We avoid paying a premium for tour packages. We have found that local knowledge can easily be found through a multitude of channels on the internet whether it be from suggested itineraries on travel blogs to actually emailing our questions to local people through community sites like couchsurfing. Here is an example of how to save big by doing it yourself (we will spare the bad advertising for the tour companies we compared with by keeping their names off the blog, but by all means please ask us for the links).
Tour package: 10 days, 9 nights, 4 islands: $4,5001
Do it yourself: 10 days, 9 nights, 4 islands: $13782

Both of the above options include the exact same itinerary (i.e snorkeling tours, hikes, places of interest, etc...) To be fair, the more popular way to tour the Galapagos is on a cruise ship that comes in at anywhere between $150 and $400 per person per day. Our trip cost us $50 per person per day and covered the same itinerary as the budget cruise ships.
1 for 2 people without dinner and only some lunches
2 for 2 people including all meals (with the option to add an all-inclusive 5 day volunteer stint for only $285)

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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 07:57 Comments (3)

Cuenca, Ecuador

A breadth of fresh air

One thing that we have come to realize on our “endless summer” of traveling is that we both prefer mountain air to heat and humidity. We met some folks who had moved from California to Cuenca and they suggested we go for a visit… so we did! This beautiful safe mountain town sits over 8,000 feet high with a blend of Ecuadorian old town feeling mixed with a growing expat community. We instantly fell in love.
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We ‘bandited‘ a free 6.8k family run not expecting it to be that popular but we were shocked to find 8,000 Ecuadorians running alongside us. It was a tough run at altitude after being at sea level for the past few weeks, but it was soooo much fun to have a tour of the city by running through its streets!
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We headed out of the city near the Ecuadorian part of the Inca trail for a half day horseback ride with Carlos. We must have fooled him with our riding skills, because he had no problem cantering us around the steep mountainsides. Note to male beginners who want to someday start a family: never, ever, ever try to ride western with boxer shorts!
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After the running race and holding on for dear life to a horse, our muscles were in need of some serious rejuvenation! So, we rented bicycles and headed to some natural hot springs in an adjacent town called Baños. We spend the day relaxing in 40C (104F) swimming pools and stretching out our beaten muscles.
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Cuenca has a growing number of Americans who have retired and now call Cuenca their home. We can feel the lure and can actually imagine ourselves living there one day (you heard it here first). There are endless numbers of free activities put on by the city. One night, we even went to listen to an orchestra and choir in the Sucre Theater. Nice work Cuenca, we heart you.
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 20:03 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Santa Cruz, Galapagos

Nonstop nature

sunny 93 °F

Santa Cruz is the most inhabited island of the Galapagos, so our initial thought was that it would be the least desirable. However, it turns out that there is a ton of fun activities to do, so much that we changed our flights to add more days on the island! The thing that made Santa Cruz so nice was that we could do a lot of day trips on our own. For example, walking to Las Grietas for some cliff jumping…
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…or Tortuga Bay for some body surfing! Each destination had a well-defined path which made for nice nature walks full of Darwin’s finches and crazy looking cactuses that live on the water’s edge.
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Our day trip to the ‘uninhabited’ North Seymour Island turned out to be inhabited by an enormous population of frigate birds, land iguanas, and blue footed boobies! All of which weren’t the slightest afraid of our group walking around their nests. It was a unique experience to get so close to the strange males who puff up their red pelican like throats to attract females.
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One of our most memorable snorkels was near the Canal del Amor by Punta Estrada, where we snorkeled for ages with a family of sea lions who were just as curious about us, as we were about them! It was quite the experience to swim so close to creatures twice our size.

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 20:01 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

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