It’s been 3 incredible whirlwind months since we packed up our lives in Amsterdam and took the plunge to travel Central America without a plan or purpose before moving to Australia. As we flew back to NL to say quick goodbyes to our loved ones, it was with a great sense of accomplishment in my heart. I have ticked something off my bucket list, and reminded myself that putting my heart and soul into a difficult decision sometimes make that seemingly impossible dream spring to life with such apparent ease it makes me wonder why I waited so long.

With something ticked off though, I am immediately curious about the next chapter and where it will lead us.

I am still trying to get up that hill of hope for a destination…

Ever since I was a child I suffered from undiagnosed and unfulfilled wanderlust. I knew that elsewhere was for me, but didn’t know I would spend a decade meeting inspiring (as well as a few irritating) people, discovering different cultures and a unifying human condition. I didn’t expect to feel lonely in Athens, to dream in Paris, to smile in Thailand, to eat in America, to live in Amsterdam. To discover how unromantic quitting stability, family and comfort to pursue love actually is. To try to memorise landscapes no camera can entrap, to learn a new language and communicate with my hands in many more, to make and break friendships. I didn’t know how hard adventure pulled at my heart. I could never have believed that this life was waiting for me to take it, to face it and to embrace it.

But the biggest thing I’ve learned is the sound of my own heart beat. In going every where else, I’ve discovered something fully that I started to get an inkling of as my feet first left Australian soil. Discovering the world is a fabulous thing, a luxury that should never be taken for granted, but discovering yourself in the process is priceless. My heart beats loud at the thought of feeling Sydney’s sand between my toes and my family in my arms. When sun kisses my face I feel free. I know who I am elsewhere, I’m good with who that person is. Now I need to meet the girl I left in Oz a decade ago. I am going to home to be free and to be me.

Thanks to our families who love us unconditionally and support our adventurous souls, to our friends who manage to keep smiling through the heart-bursting hellos and heart-breaking goodbyes, and to these strangers who made us feel like best friends for a night or two: Ian, Yaniv, Eric, Dan, Jenn, Verena, Marloes, Daryll, Brittney, Sophie, Ruth, Vicky, Emma, Sapphire, Vilda, Angelica, Corey, Juan Ardillo, Chris, Jutta, Ianine, and Jash.

Back in the Big Smoke

We very deliberately stayed away from cities for most of our travels. Central American cities on a whole seem to be mostly renowned for crime rates more than fantastic museums, impressive architecture or haute cuisine. And aside from a sketchy night or two behind barbed wire in Belize City and San Jose whilst in transit we’ve managed to avoid the capitals completely.

2 exceptions

Mexico City’s heady mix of colour, life, death and passion was a fabulously intense introduction to our travels. And Panama City is now having a good crack at bidding us a vibrant farewell. The latter can by no means truly compete with Mexico’s established greatness. It simply doesn’t have the numbers. Less people, less tourism, less money. There’s a lot of dangerously low hanging electrical wires and cavities in the pavement. You hold on to your wallet tight as Panamanians bash into you from each side. And finding those little gold foodie nuggets amidst a plethora of cheap ceviche and sausages on sticks is not easy.

But there is a ripple of the fabulous here.

The skyscrapers yell at you to admire the ambition of this city. The Casco Viejo village is Central America’s next big colonial tourism dream (although we much prefer the “real” El Canjero/Bella Vista neighbourhoods). The Canal entertains with bobbing container ships looking like toy boats. And good food from internationally minded chefs can be sniffed out.

As much as nature was a highlight on this trip, after 3 months it’s so nice not to have gekkos and spiders beating me to a cold shower each morning. We’re staying in the lap of luxury for the last 4 days and wandering down to a breakfast buffet and hot coffee is a continuation of my dreams had in a bed that seems to be made of clouds. I could never afford this in Europe, or at least never be willing to shell out the astronomical price tag that comes with it. It’s nice to have the odd taste of how some people live.

I’d take the crystal blue Carribbean beach shack or the comfortable mountain guesthouse/hostel any day. Any day except for today. Today is the day to revel in all of Panama’s delights, to soak up a little bit of luxury before a long haul flight, to dance with the boisterous Panamanians at Carnaval and to indulge in more than chicken, rice and beans for once.

It’s our last day and if we have to have one Panama City is making it a little bit easier to endure.

A game changer

Ask me 1 week ago where Costa Rica ranked out of all Central American countries and I would have said a close second… Behind Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua that is (who all tied first place more of less).

In fact one of the many ways HH and I pass 10 hours on a chicken bus is by ranking and remembering things. Top-5 meals, is one of our favourites. How many pancakes has HH eaten and which were the best, is another category. Or which country had the best food, beaches, hostels, hikes or overall good vibes. The lists of lists goes on and on, and has a delightful fluidity to it. Just because Mexico was topping the charts for food when I was sick of beans and rice yesterday does not guarantee it top place when I’ve eaten corn tacos on a hike 3 days running, for example.

I guess it’s a kind of premature nostalgia. In rehashing and rearranging parts of our trip it refreshes and crystallises each precious memory. This has also been part of the joy in travelling with a brand new husband. We both remind each other of little details the other has overlooked, or shine new light and perspective on recent events, cementing memories I’m sure will be retold a million times over throughout our lives.

So, CR was stunning to be sure, but it was a little too easy, a little too westernised and touristy and a lot too expensive to beat some other serious competitors. Until we met Cahuita.

Most people visit this sleepy town on a day trip from Peurto Viejo, but we decided to do it the other way round. Peurot Viejo sounded like another party town, attracting party hardy 20-years folk more than the 30-something newly weds. We don’t really know first hand if this is true, but I’m standing by our decision. I have no FOMO for once, because what followed were 3 blissful days of trekking through more stunning jungle packed to the brim with monkeys, toucans, caimans, sloths and a cute little family of badgers. Making this natural gem even more paradisical is its Carribbean blue view, bright sunshine, chilled locals and tourists, cheap digs and a French bakery serving more than decent treats and coffee.

Yup, Cahuita was a game changer for Costa Rica. Saving its best hand til last could well have won them the game. Or at least for this round.

What’s the deal with Corcovado?

If I look a bit over it in this photo, I was.

So way back in Flores, the first place we went to in Guatemala, we asked a dreadlocked Dutchie who’d been living for some time in Costa Rica, where the most animals could be spotted. Corcovado National Park, she told us confidently, was the only place to go. Free from all but the most dedicated tourists due to its remote location, and packed to the brim with monkeys, sloths, birds and even wild big cats.

Flicking open Lonely Planet gives you a one paragraph summary outlining one hike and the company which runs a 10-hour bus to the jumping off spot from San Jose. We know how to get there, sure, but what is it? Is it just this walk? Can we roam free? What about food and water? The questions were piling up.

A bit (OK a lot!) of internet research revealed that since last year you now needed a guide to even enter the park and permits needed to be obtained, international bank transfers needed to be completed. The pressure was mounting and we still weren’t even sure if it would be worth it. But by this stage too much effort and hours had been expended and Corcovado had been elevated to the penultimate destination of the trip. It loomed for weeks on the horizon, but still we were not entirely sure of what we would find. Surely however, a place so mysterious, with so little information, which was costing double our daily budget had to be something special, right off the beaten track, right?

So what was Corcovado? I’m still not sure.

To get there we had to spend a night in San Jose before braving a 10-hour bus ride to Puerto Jiminez, where we were met by our guide in the hostel we had booked. He then tells us we need water purification tablets or we will spend an outrageous $20 on water at base camp, we’ll also need gas to cook our food which we’ll be carrying in. We couldn’t find either of these. We were also told our room wasn’t available anymore at our booked hostel and we moved twice more to the other end of town to the hottest (I’m talking centigrade people) hostel room around. Now we have 1 hour to fly around the over-priced grocery store to buy everything we’ll need for the next 3 days. We pack and repack our packs and drop off loads of left-over gear back at the luggage storage at our original hostel. These all sound like trifles but combined with serious heat, a 10-hour bus trip and the pressure for this to be the best-thing-ever we were snappy and anxious as we fell into a deep sleep.

5am rolled around and thankfully the local bakery does its best trade supplying eager tourists and their sleepy (and hungover) guides with fresh bread and coffee at this time. We meet our French companions who resemble Erkle, but have kind, quiet and friendly souls. We take a look around with caffeinated eyes and realise we’re not the only ones entering the jungle today.

As we slogged out 25 kms of sand carrying 20 kilos each in supplies we saw flocks of scarlet macaws, giant electric blue butterflies, monkeys and the coolest stick bird ever! They weren’t kidding about this being the most ecologically diverse place in the world. I wish they had been kidding about the crocodile. 3 metres long and calmly swimming up the river we had to wade waist-deep through to complete our walk. Terrified tears evaporated on my hot cheeks as headlines of another dumb tourist caught in powerful jaws flashed through my mind. The whole thing was stunning, was hot, was extremely challenging and as Sirena station rose out of the steamy jungle HH and I have never collapsed into a bigger heap of accomplishment. I have to admit my heart swelled when HH took my sweaty, stinky self in and told me he was proud of me. I was proud of myself…

But off the beaten track we were not.

Many people had taken the easier route and flew in for day trips or had braved the hike alongside us. The word was out, and flocks of humans mingled with the monkeys and tapirs. And although it didn’t seem to diminish the number of animals sighted it did somewhat diminish our hope for the unchartered paradise we had envisioned.

This story may not help others get to know the real Corcovado, but it’s helped me get to understand my experience of it better and myself a little better too. Upon reflection the only thing that I would adjust would probably be our expectations.

Tip of a Lifetime

After quite a few early disappointments, we decided upon using our Lonely Planet for getting around, rather than lackluster restaurant and accommodation tips. For these we started to rely most heavily on local knowledge or recommendations from other travellers we meet.

It can be a tricky process however, as the recommender must meet a series of criteria. What kind of budget are they on? What other things do they like? But, most importantly, do they seem like us?

In our favourite place so far, El Castillo, we hit the jackpot with a 30-something English couple who I’m sure had we not been crossing paths would have become firm friends. Instead of friendship we got something almost as good, fantastic true and tested tips for Costa Rica. Better yet they were fellow coffee lovers!

Some background. With the exception of one fantastic (ok I had 2) cappaccinos in Americanised Antigua, me caffeine addiction has had to eat some humble pie and struggle to rely on watery insant coffee for survival. While many may have seen this as a wonderful opportunity to kick the habit once and for all. I’m in love with my reliance on that sweet stuff. Spoken like a true addict, I would not give in to external pressure to quit.

There’s so much joy in coffee. In fact, I believe I was an addict before I even tasted the stuff. As a child I would save my pocket money to sit in a cafe with a school mate and share a piece of cake paid for in 2 0cent pieces. At 15 I battled trough my first cappuccino, piling in the sugar until that last victorious sip. Backpacking at 19, I started enjoying espressos in France, capaccinos in Italy, black muddy little cups of the Greek stuff. My obsession had just started, but I knew it would last a life time.

And here were 2 people sitting across me with information I badly needed. Where would I get my next fix?

As they casually mentioned coffee companies that led plantation tours, picked, dried and roasted beans, allowed tastings and had an in-house champion barrista, my caffeine deprived heart sped up. I needed a pen and paper and I needed them now. Desperately scribbling names and directions down on the back of a Yahtzee score sheet, I was so glad we had chosen this restaurant, at this time, on this table – and so had they!

So here I am. Me and my addiction. And our desires are more than fulfilled. I have met more knowledgable and passionate coffee aficionados than ever before. I can now detect acidity, burned beans, after notes or honey sweetness. I can distinguish different roasts. In short, I probably sound like a bit of a hipster wanker. But I don’t care, because at the end of the day my heart is beating a little faster to a coffee fueled rhythm.

Note: When in Monteverde check out the following.

Besso Espresso – they serve 10 Costa Rican and Panama beans roasted in house including the $10 cup of Geisha!
Monteverde Coffee Centre – a couple a crazily passionate guys and an in-house world champion barista.
Don Juan coffee and night life tour. Combines my two favourite things – sloths and coffee!

Don’t Go To Costa Rica, They Said

“Who said?”, you ask.

Well, to be frank, everyone who we met who were doing the Central America trip the other way around from us.

“Stay longer in Nicaragua”, they warned us, “it’s cheaper and waaaay less touristy.”

And we listened. We listened carefully. And that included listening to the disclaimer they made. After extolling the virtues of 50 cent Nicaraguan beers compared to $2 in Costa Rica, almost everyone then showed us the photos of sloths, toucans and a million other variety of wildlife they’d taken from the window of their minivan.

“Well, the wildlife is kinda amazing though.”

So, we took a gamble and risked paying $10 for a meal in the hopes of the million dollar sloth sighting. Bingo! In one day, before even entering a wildlife reserve, we’ve seen toucans, monkeys and our much-hoped-for sloth.

Yes, it’s touristy. Yes, eating and drinking costs double. But, I just saw a sloth. A sloth in the wild. A freaking sloth.

I’m more excited than I’ve been in ages, and that, my friends, is priceless.

On Why I Should Be Vegetarian

Many years ago I worked with this wild hunter guy who insisted that to live in harmony with Earth it was necessary to be capable of killing and butchering your own meat. Every few days he’d head out into the bush with bow and arrow, kill a wild goat or pig, eat or give away the meat, and tan the hides. He said all meat eaters should do this, be capable of this, or stop being hypocrites and start being vegetarian.

I saw his point, but how many of us really have access to such methods of gathering food?

My chance came in a small part, while hiking through part of the Indio Maiz reserve in Nicaragua. This pristine, gigantic and mostly untouched rainforest houses a plethora of Central America’s colourful and interesting wildlife. It’s extremely difficult to access. There’s an overnight boat twice a week from island Ometepe (we “slept” in deck chairs in the freezing rain on the deck for 10 hours), followed by another 3-hour long boat ride down the Río San Juan to El Castillo, and from there you’ll need to hire a local guide to take you the rest of the way. This isolation was the area’s biggest drawcard for us, not much in the way of tourism here, just nature as it was thousands of years ago and a chance to be part of it.

Interestingly, the small border crossing to Costa Rica also takes place on the adjoining waters of Río Frio. Another torturous 14-hours to travel 66km means you’re again on the boat with mostly locals. This time I noticed that most of the Nicaraguans were paying to have their immigration forms filled out and then signing their names ever so carefully using very basic initials. It’s easy to fall into the emotional trap of patronising feelings akin to sympathy or pity at these humble moments. It was a nice reminder of how very glad I am for the outstanding public education system in Australia and the Netherlands, however, any pitiful thoughts were nipped in the proverbial bud when I remembered what we’d experienced the day before.

Our guide, Juan “Ardillo”, was a gold-toothed filo-fax on the region. In self-tought English, he pointed out hawks, iguanas, every type of monkey, woodpeckers, poisonous dart frogs, rubber plants, a plant that numbed your tongue entirely with a drop of sap, the list went on and on. Without his eyes, we would have only seen trees. For lunch we paused on a river bank, and while he lit a fire, we were given a cup of worms and some basic fishing equipment to try and catch (you guessed it) some fish. We had zero success. In fact I struggled to even put a worm on a hook. It turns out they bleed and just keep on wriggling, which I found upsetting, which HH and Juan found amusing. In fact, Juan found our ineptitude so very amusing so within 2 minutes of taking over he plucked 2 fish from the river. In that moment it was clear who deserved the sympathy. These poor gringos can’t even catch lunch.

This is not an announcement of a radical life change. I try to live my life as ethically as I can within my western world. But it was a wonderful illustration of how we can learn from each other, understand better where food comes from and start filling in a few blanks. I’ve learnt what a pineapple plant looks like for example. As a coffee addict, I loved finally knowing the process of coffee berries: from fresh red, to drying green, before the nicely aromatic, roasted brown beans we “freshly” grind. I’ve tasted raw hammered cocoa combined with sugar, which tastes sweeter bought from the small children in the centre of Guatemala, than from supermarket shelves.

And I’ve never been stopped being appreciative of the education and wealth my birth in a first world country gave me, that allows me the privilege to be one of the lucky few to gather such knowledge, and to recognise what I don’t know as well.

In Good Taste

It has to be written about. It cannot go un-said. We found it! That little gem of a local place, that place where you are the only Gringos and you smile nervously, aware that tourists are only tolerated here and certainly not encouraged. You order, you pay, you shut-up, wait and salivate. Because although after a day travelling smushed in my backpack wrapped in tinfoil it doesn’t look like much, this is still some of the best damn cake you’ve ever tasted.
It’s uncannily close to the recipe I created for our wedding cake (a torturous 2 day ordeal). All goey chocolateness, divided by thick ribbons of caramel. Oh my I want another piece! But I can’t, I never can again. It’s probably a good thing considering I’m an adherent usually to the sugar free way of life. But Granada you found your way to our hearts through our stomachs. We won’t tell anyone where this life changing bakery is, because the surly bakery ladies scared the crap out of us. And I’m pretty sure they like to keep their popularity local. But you’ve set the bar one notch higher for all future cake experiences. Every sweet thing will now beg the question, “but was it as good as that cake in Granada…”

Push it

HH and I had a rather intense conversation as we carried our 20 kilo packs along a dusty, hot road, fitting for conjuring deep thoughts. Right before we managed to hitch our first Nicaraguan ride with biker Bob, the topic of conversation had meandered to what limits one should push oneself in order to live a fulfilling life. On the one hand I have pushed myself way beyond the comfort zone in the past with rather catastrophic consequences and have learned to value self-protection, assertiveness and when to call it quits. On the other, the fact that I often don’t recognise my own limits means I achieve things I never before considered myself capable of. A marathon, a writing career, a loving husband, life in 3 different countries. All of these involved varying degrees of discomfort and a stubbornness/ignorance to how close to breaking point I am.

The outcome of our conversation was that it is important to push yourself, hard. To learn to recognise when you’re approaching the edge of your limits, to break sometimes and rebuild stronger than ever, and to sometimes get lucky and achieve things which even in retrospect seem unlikely.

Bueno, our conversation moved on and I gave this intense tete-a-tete little further thought. Until the next day, when I was 1/4 of the way up the 1400m monster mountain Maderas and already I was thinking I’d reached my limit. We’ve done a lot of challenging walking on this tour. But, this 10 hour mission was as hard as I’ve ever pushed my body. Swinging swearing down steep descents, hanging on for dear life to vines, scrabbling over fallen trees, scaling rocky cliff faces. Not only was every step a good 1 meter grunt upwards for 5 hours straight- no breaks with our surly guide- but each footstep came with the threat of a deadly fall. Numerous times our feet sank out of visibility into squelchy mud. Against our guide’s judgement we plowed on through the dense and cold mist at the summit to even tricker trekking to reach the sheltered oasis of a crater lake. 80% of me was trying to stay alive, 15% of me was thankful for all those yoga moves as my legs split painfully and unexpectantly or I bent double through a wedged tree and rock trap. 5% of me didnt know what to think. I like to push myself to the limit. But this was pain. Was I really enjoying this?

The answer today, as I sit waterside listening to INXS, watching local ladies wash their clothes on rocks in the lake and wild horses troop past, as I hear children giggle, pigs snuffle and wind rustle in the tree tops, as I have eaten enough eggs to restore energy levels, as the pain in every part of my body has dulled to extreme stiffness, today I can say I’m glad to have done it. I’m glad my body and mind was capable of it. But, mostly I’m glad that I can do absolutely nothing more than sit here without my usual guilty inclination that I should be doing something. I have done enough for once.

Identity Crisis

Leon. The name immediately brings to mind to film by the same name, about an orphan girl who’s friendship opens up a hardened hitman to a gentler side of his personality. How fitting then that the first city we entered in Nicaragua had this name and seemed to be going through an identity crisis of its own.

Leon. A heady mixture of rough and tender, it had much in common with Gautemala’s Xela where we had undertaken our last multi-day hike. Except with a little less friendliness and a whole bunch more discernible tourists. Our hostel for the night seemed to have been cleaned with mud and creepily we were the only residents for the night, and yet we slept 10 hours like babies. The place where we ate was one of the friendliest and most beautiful restaurants, yet HH did his best to plow through a plate of mushy potatos and cream and my chorizo (which has been so amazing everywhere else so far) could only kindly be described as spam. the waiter wrung his hands and smiled and nodded throughout, emploring us to tell other unsuspecting patrons how fine his kitchen was. We awoke from our coma-like sleep still not sure what to make of the place, but super excited about our planned 2-day hike up the Volcano El Hoyo.

Leon. The place where anyone can volunteer to be a guide. Even hard-partying girls with no experience. Maybe i should stick to the facts here. They brought gasoline to light our fire for the evening and next morning. We would need the fire for light, warmth and cooking our food. After forgetting what time the sun set, and leaving us shivering atop the volcano for over an hour (no warm clothes needed, they assured us), the couple of 19-year old girl guides headed down to start the fire. Their choosen technique was holding the match to the neck of the bottle and squeezing, thus lighting the entire bottle and, consequently, the dry grassy hill alight. I have to admit this made for quite a fun spectacle as they scrabbled for dust to dampen the flames. But didn’t leave us instilled with faith.

Leon. Luckily, is a city which attracts serious hikers. In juxtoposition with our incompetant leaders, we scored again with an awesome group of trekkers ranging in ages, but all with a level head on their shoulders and scintillating conversation. Surprisingly we’re finding this kind of company a little harder to come by in Central America where a lot of people are coming down south for a cheap, easy holiday. But, hardcore hiking seems to always produce results and this trip was no exception.

Leon. One thing that is uncompromised is the stunning natural surroundings. Volcano’s studded with sink holes and sulfur vents, rises out of pristine lakes. Sunrises which make you feel like its the first day on Earth. Birds, mammals, butterflies that remind you they need protecting. Nature therapy, which cures you of your own identity crisis and reassures you that you are exactly who you should be and exactly in the right place and moment in your life.