Sunday, August 29, 2010

Volcan Arenal to Puntarenas. August 26 - 28, 2010

We decided to take a break and stay in the Volcan Arenal area on Thursday for one more day. We drove to the other side of the volcano and soon realized we were in tourist territory. The volcanic area is well known for it's hot springs and there were some beautiful resorts, all with hot springs and spas. Many very expensive. We checked out 4 of the best and one The Baldi Resort stood out. It was not the most expensive but it was absolutely gorgeous. If you are ever in this area of Costa Rica and want to splurge, this is the place. You can get a room (all face the volcano), breakfast and dinner, full use of resort facilities for $150.00 a night. We would like to splurge and stay there one night with the kids but.. no dogs allowed. We will however bring Danny and Nicole here to use the resort. That cost is $26.00 per person. We had also seen many smaller hotels and lodges and went into one called Carlos Lodge. Perfect. A cabina for us (again all face the volcano), dogs welcomed was $50.00 including breakfast. We talked to the manager and he agreed that when we return with the kids we can get 2 cabinas and they will take care of Winston for us whilst we go to the spa resort. We had thought we would have to take Winston and leave him in the RV, while one of us every hour or so would come out and walk him but now he has a place to stay and people to walk him so he's not cooped up. Excellent. We slept that night in bed with a full view of the volcano, again lots of hissing and smoke, no lava. Friday found us up and ready for what should have been a fairly easy drive to the port of Puntarenas, where we will stay at Danilo and Nidia's home. As we were getting back on the Panamericana there was a huge junction. mcDonalds, KFC, Burger King etc. Tom wants KFC. By now it is pouring with rain so we pull in, walk Winston and decide instead to go to a restaurant and eat and try to wait out the downpour. It was 4pm, when we left to a steady rain but not torrential with about 50 kms (30 mile) to Puntarenas. There by 5:30, Tom predicted. He is definitely not wired in to the psychic network. As we leave the town of Esparza, the traffic comes to a dead stop. We are sandwiched between 2 huge trucks - remember this is the Panamericana, the only truck route between Central America, Costa Rica and Panama. Truckers, people in cars, all are walking around. Probably an accident, it will clear in an hour or so was the verdict, these people are not part of the psychic network either. We sit, eat, sit, walk Winston, sit. It is dark and rainy. Tom reads his book, Winston sleeps, I sit. The idleness is killing me. We chat. Our worry is that the road opens, everyone moves and we do not know where we are going. 9:30pm. We decide to drive forward and at least see what is ahead. Tom puts on our emergency flashers and we take off on the wrong side of the road. Not a mile ahead, we come to cones and police. We are told it was a rockslide and though they are in the process of clearing, there was no time schedule. There was nothing to do but turn around and go back to Esparza. We had seen a Texaco station that looked as though there was plenty of parking. The Texaco gas station on the outskirts of Esparza. Only stay here in an absolute emergency, with zero other options. It is noisy, loud, did I say noisy. There is a bar/discoteque across the highway. They played music at a decibel level equivalent to those of jet engines until the extreme wee hours of the morning. Tom read, I tried to sleep, Tom tried to sleep, I read. Then the music stopped. Thank you God. Ten minutes later as dawn streaks the horizon, the trucks start up. The road is open. Gentleman, start your engines. They idle to warm up, their air brakes squeal, a cacaphony of beeps and horns belt out as they back up. Like I said, stay here only in an emergency. Sleep deprived, I get up and make coffee. We take off and half hour later are in Punarenas, we were so close but so far away. We find the house with no problems. Talk with Francis the housekeeper and get electricity for the RV. That settled, we walk across the street to the beach. Puntarenas is a port town for both ferries and cruise ships. No cruise ships today, so the town is quiet. The ferries transport vehicles and people from here to the Nicoya peninsula and we decide we may try it when the kids arrive to get us back from Tamarindo instead of driving. We get back to the RV and I grab a lounge chair and my book. After yesterday, I am gong to relax. Tom wants to explore more of the town so whilst Winston and I settled on the beach, Tom took off again, in the other direction. I had my eye on the ocean. After about 3 hours, the clouds atarted to form and I could see rain starting on the horizon. I folded my chair, sorted out WInston's leashes and we had just started to cross the road when the downpour began. By the time we got back to the RV, we were drenched and no Tom. I knew he just had on a T shirt so hopefully he can hunker down somewhere until the worst of it is over. After about an hour, the rain had abated and 20 minutes later in walks Tom, also totally drenched. We chat, read and eat dinner at the hotel next door. It was an early night, quiet and peaceful. No disco music, no trucks, just the way I like it.

Monteverde to Arenal Volcano. 65 miles. August 25th, 2010

This without exception was our most grueling drive to date. We knew we would have to drive the same route out of Monteverde to get to the volcano and the stretch of road between Monteverde and Tilaran is just jaw jarring, not to think about the stress on the RV. Ourfirst stop was a small woodwork shop that we had passed on the way in specializing in rosewood carvings. There was some beautiful wood carvings all done on site by the owner. We settled on purchasing a small bowl, cutting board and a wine holder, all exceptional quality and then it was on to see Danilo at the farm. This was a welcome break from the drive. Danilo has built a fantastic barn for his 4 horses, two of whom are pregnant. This barn looks better than some of the houses that we have seen. Lucky horses! We also checked out the rest of his property. Winston had a great time, running and sniffing everything. The beagle in him comes out so much more in the countryside with it's unique animal smells. We stayed about an hour and it was with reluctance that we set off but we knew we still had a long way to go. After Tilaran we circled Lake Arenal and across the dam towards the volcano. According to one of our guidebooks we would be able to park at the Observatory Lodge. This entailed another off road, bone shaking experience of about 15 kilometers. As we got closer, we could hear the volcano and see clouds of smoke erupting from it. There are 7 active volcanoes in Costa Rica, Arenal is the only one that erupts with molten rocks and lava, 2 others emit gases and smoke and the other 4are currently sleeping. We were looking forward to stopping and getting a break. It was 4:15 when we arrived at the lodge and the guard informed us that no-one but guests could get in after 4pm. We begged and pleaded but he was rudely adamant. We asked for him to call the manager for us and he refused. Perplexed we inquired if there was a restaurant at the lodge and we were told yes, but that is also for guests only after 4pm. We later found out that was not true but for whatever reason, maybe the guard had some bad experience with Rvers (hard to believe) or just didn't want to let us in (we tried to stay polite with him) but the reality was we had no where to go. We had parked just below the gate entrance and decided to cool our tempers, walk Winston and think. Darkness falls around 6pm here and we knew we could not drive back down the road we had come. In addition, I was frustrated because I so wanted to have a good view of the volcano in the hope that we could see a true eruption. Let me tell you, I was wishing evil on the guard as I vented. As we walked down the road just about a block, we came to a small private park operated by 3 men. We chatted with the man at the entrance and explained our our dilemma. No problem, said Lion (his name, no kidding), you can either park where you are or come into our park. We have an observation area and I will light the tiki torches so you can view the volcano. Our faith in the local people restored, we decided to leave the RV, where it was and take hime up on his offer to view the volcano. We walked back to the motorhome, ate, fed Winston and took off again for the reserve. Winston was allowed also. To get to the observation area, we had to cross a very rickety, wooden suspention bridge and follow the lit tiki torches to the viewing area. We sat and sat. The volcano seemed like it was almost within our reach and we listened to it huffing and puffing with intermittant explosions of fumes and smoke. We were fascinated but I really wanted to see molten red rocks and lava. By 9:30, we were tired and stiff from sitting. Manfred, their resident biologist stopped by and so did a young french couple who proceeded to set up their tent. They were going to watch all night. Tom and I decided to call it a night and go to the RV. We settled in, gave Winston a treat and I opened my book to read a little. "BOOM"!! I swear we felt the RV rock a little. "That was the volcano" I said gloomily "and we missed it". Sure enough, if we had only stayed another 30 mins. It was supposedly spectacular with a huge burst and 3 distinct rivers of flowing lava and I missed it. When we come back with Danny and Nicole, I am praying that I will see one. As we slept we could hear the spurts and hisses that the volcano constantly makes, how cool is that!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Las Orquideas Hotel, Santa Elena.

Well, two things are for sure. One, we had certainly ruined a section of the lawn at the hotel and for sure Nidia and Danny are one of the most delightful and charming couples we have met. As we all perused the gouges and ruts that now make up part of their landscape, Danny and Tom came up with a plan to extricate the RV from it's present location and they didn't kick us out. They had already came up with another location for our second night here. As Tom twisted and turned the steering wheel following Danny's instructions, it became obvious to both of them that we would not get out without help. "I'll tow you out" said Danny as he went to get his SUV. He attached a chain to the RV, Tom got into the driver's seat and again following Danny's instructions started slowly steering the RV as Danny towed. "Whoa" he yelled, Tom braked but not in time. Now we had taken out a few flagsones that made up a walkway. Finally, after two more starts and stops, Danny pulled us clear of the garden and had us located in our new spot. Still grassy but with better drainage. Now we could see the extent of the damage in all it's glory or goriness as the case was. "We are so sorry", we kept saying over and over to Danny and Nidia. "We will pay for any repairs or help out". They kept assuring us not too worry. Tom asked if they had a rake. They found one and we spent the next hour or so raking the deep ruts until they were at least flatter and putting the broken flagstones back in place. Just as we were finishing, the rain started again in earnest and we were glad we were on safer ground. We had wanted to go into town for dinner but the rain just kept coming down. Since we have decided to come back here to stay once Danny and Nicole arrive, we knew we would have other oppotunities to see the town so we contented ourselves with a dinner of salami, cheese, barbequed chicken and crackers with a glass of Chilean red wine. As the rain peetered out, I walked Winston and Tom chatted with Nidia. We learned that she is Italian, her father was from Naples and she and Danny have been married 42 years. Besides the hotel, they have other property in Costa Rica, a farm which we had passed on the way here from Tilaran and a house in Puntarenas. Their farm grows the coffee that they serve at breakfast, some cattle and pigs and 4 horses. The next morning we go in to breakfast and Nidia sits with us and chats. A little later, Danny arrives and we talk about their farm and home. Since Danny is going to the farm after breakfast, we agree that we will stop and visit on our way to Lake Arenal and the volcano. Also, after he finds out that we plan to stop in Puntarenas on our way to San Jose, he insists that we make use of their home there. He says we can't get onto the property because our RV is too tall but there is parking to the side and we can hook into power. He gives us the contact information of the housekeeper who lives on site and says we can use the house to shower etc. Their kindness is overwhelming to us, particularly considering our less than auspicius start but if ever you are in the Santa Elena/Monteverde area of Costa Rica, consider a stay at their hotel. It is beautifully maintained with amazing views and extremely reasonable. At present it is $25.00 per person which includes breakfast. As we prepare the RV for moving, I once again visit their mirador that overlooks the canyon. With Santa Elena, the jungle and the three waterfalls clearly visible, it is a stunning view and a reminder of the diversity that makes up Costa Rica.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Samara to Santa Elena/Monteverde. 114 miles. August 23rd, 2010

We had looked at many maps and guidebooks and one thing was clear, the road to Monteverde is without doubt the worst they had ever driven and now both Tom and I concur. First of all, there is no "good" road up here. Whichever route you take, you end up driving the last 25 to 30 kilometers on a rocky, gravelly road. This entails driving at a speed of about 5 - 10 mile an hour, if you're lucky. We elected to come via Tilaran which is supposed to be a little longer than the road direct from the PanAmericana but with less of an incline and mountainous turns. In other words, easier for the RV. It took well over 5 hours to do the journey and we were completely tired of the jarring and bumpiness of the road by the time we arrived into the small connected towns of Santa Elena & Monteverde. We had the name of one hotel located just outside of town that another RV had stayed at and that was going to be our first stop. After a couple of missed turns in town and asking a few different people for directions, we eventually found the hotel. The owners, Nidia and Danny are delightful and suggested we park right on the lawn one one side of the hotel. Also, they have internet and do not charge RVer's for parking, breakfast, if we want it is $5.00 each. Fabulous even though both Tom and I have an agreement that if we use someone's facilities we try to compensate them in some way. As Tom drove, I got out and with Winston, were chatting with Nidia. Suddenly there was a sound of wheels spinning and I saw the RV slipping. I yell and Tom got out. Cripes! Nidia then told us there had been more rain than usual for this time of year. We were stuck and not only stuck but had managed to tear up and put deep gouged ruts into their beautiful lawn. It was getting dark and even though we were not quite lined up properly, decided to deal with it in the morning. We got our power cord and Nidia plugged us in. The hotel is a B & B, with no bar and serves only breakfast. No matter. We got ourselves a couple of beers and walked Winston around the property, trying not to look to closely at the damage we have done. At the back of the hotel is a walkway that bridges out over a canyon. Although we can't see anything due to the clouds, we can hear a waterfall and river in the background. As night comes, we see the town lit up as it spreads into the surrounding hills. It is a beautiful sight. We discuss dinner and decide to keep it simple and microwave some taco meat we had done a few nights before, chop up avocado, grate cheese and with salsa make our now famous "gringo tacos". As we chat and get back into the RV, we grimace at our parking job and the lawn and hope our hosts, Nidia and Danny will be as delightful and friendly in the morning.

Playa Samara, Costa Rica. August 23rd, 2010

Samara worked out just fine for us. There is a reef offshore which made for some nice breaks for Tom to boogie board in. In addition, it is not crowded so he doesn't have to compete for waves with surfers and other boarders. Winston was allowed to roam free and made good use of his time by wading through the swamp area, playing on the beach with other dogs and digging in the sand to find the perfect spot to take his naps. It's a dog's life! I walked the beach and caught up on my reading. The only drawback is no internet, hopefully at the next stop. We hung out in Samara for four days mainly because of the weekend and driving anywhere in Central America on Sunday is awful. Everyone, it seems, takes to the road and goes to the playas. On Monday we have decided to go inland to the rain and cloud forest area of Santa Elena/Monteverde. We have eliminated this spot for bringing the kids. There is cabinas but I don't think even Winston would sleep on the beds, it is just too rundown. Too bad because we love places where we are right on the beach wih an unobstructed view of the horizon. However both Tom and I agree, we would come back only for those reasons. It was fitting that our last morning here ended the way it began when we arrived. The group of wild horses came through our camp, grazed, hung out and we got to admire them up close as both them and us checked out the view.

Tamarindo to Samara. 59 miles. August 19th, 2010

Our second day in Tamarindo was great. We relaxed, played at the ocean and the maid/cleaner at the cabinas did all of our laundry for us. After filling our RV with water, we bid Johann (the manager) adios with the possibilty that we will be back in a couple of weeks with Danny and Nicole in tow. Samara is another beach town headed south towards the gulf and once again there were no references in any of our literature of places to stay. The driving was uneventful but a couple of notes. The roads are terrible, full of potholes, cattle and other hazards. However, the countryside is clean and free of trash. After Mexico and the rest of Central America, this was easy on the eye. It is plain to see that Costa Rica and the Ticos take the eco (as in ecology) very seriously. There are plenty of trash cans around for disposing of garbage and even, in some places, recycling containers requiring you to separate recyclables from trash. Being Californians this is a welcome sight. Samara is bustling with tourists when we arrive but the streets are narrow. We head out of town towards the north. Cross a river and drive towards what looks like small cove. But, nowhere to park the RV. As we turn around and go back down the street, we pass an American couple walking their lab. They wave us down. "Did you come all the way from California?", they ask, checking out our license plate. "Yes and we are going all the way to Argentina". This always invokes similar responses of mostly enviousness at our adventure. We ask about a place for the RV and they direct us back the way we came, cross the river, take the first right and at a fork in the road, turn right again. They said there was a campsite there. As we approached the campgrounds we thought they were closed. Huge piles of dirt were piled on both sides of the road but as we pulled up on the beach, we saw a restaurant area, albeit closed and two men in their twenties. We chatted with them and they were open but not the restaurant and directed us to an area where we were able to park the RV so our door opened towards the ocean and still able to hook into power. This was all we needed. The campsite itself was seedy and a little trashy but with our unobstructed views of the water and beach, we knew we would be happy. As we settled in a group of horses appeared on the beach and as the sun was setting they looked as though they were enjoying the view as much as us. Tomorrow Tom is going into the water to board.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Playa del Coco to Playa Tamarindo. 49 miles. August 17th, 2010

As we were getting ready to leave the soccer field area, there was a knock on the door. Police. Not the usual but some government agents. Seems things were ok but they wanted to check our vehicle permit and passports. After they checked them, they said they would fill oout a form which both they and us would sign. We would keep the form with the permit and if we are stopped in the future to show the form and it would be understood that a check was made and should save us some time. They also said to be careful where we park as petty theft is an ongoing problem. They had no suggestions on places to stay in Tamarindo but since it is a famous surf beach, Tom wants to check it out. The drive is uneventful but the countryside is lush and vibrant. Tamarindo is indeed a beach town but as we drove through town, we realized that parking was going to be a problem. The streets are narrow and most of the entrances have low arches making it impossible to pass under with the RV. We get to the end, make the loop and decide to go through the village one more time. We stop at two hotels but neither would give us permission to park. As Tom went to ask a third hotel, he noticed a narrow driveway leading to Tsunami's Surf School and Cabinas. The hotel also turned us down, so he went to chat with the surf school people. We were pointed to a small area in the back that seemed ideal to us, particularly since our options were growing smaller by the minute. For $20.00, we could park, get electricity and water for the motorhome, also hot showers and WiFi were available and the beach is right across the road. Perfect. We settle in and discover that there is a communal kitchen for cooking and checked out the cabinas. The town is minutes away, same for a grocery store and both Tom and I agree, that this is one of the places we will put on the list for possibly bringing Nicole and Danny. This is a hip, young, surf town and would be ideal for the kids as there is some nightlife plus plenty to do during the day. After we park, Tom grabs his boogie board and with Winston we head to the beach. To get to the beach, we follow a wooden bridge across mangrove swamps. Crocodiles! With a lot of rain recently, the crocodiles have headed downstream and have been sighted on the beach. We are assured that as there is plenty for them to eat, they don't bother with people or dogs. Hmm. I am not convinced and pledge to keep an eye on Winston. Don't want to do the rest of the trip with a three-legged dog. As Tom was enjoying the wave action, Winston and I were content to play on the beach and then back to the RV to prepare dinner. We had steaks marinating. Our last two from Costco in Acapulco. The beef so far has been pretty dismal. The cattle are thin and I suspect that they are slaughtered and eaten immediately, no aging process here. Just as Tom is preparing the grill, a tour bus pulls in and off come about 20 Italians. It turns out they are on a 3 week tour of Costa Rica and Panama and it is with a lot of shouting and yelling that they get settled into rooms and cabinas for the night. They watch enviously as Tom cooks the potatoes and eye our steaks. Smells good, was the general comment, envy prevalent in their voices. We smile and agree. Yes, once again good fortune was with us. We have managed to find a great place to stay, safe and secure. The owner/manager is delightful and we look forward to a good meal with a nice Chilean red wine. We decide we will stay one more night just to relax and play. Starting to get that Tico feeling.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Liberia to Playa del Coco, 31 mile. August 16th, 2010

Propane, it is the primary need of the day. We get into the town of Liberia. McDonalds, Burger King, Cinnabon, Church's Chicken etc. It is fast food paradise for junkies. After a few false starts, we found propane at a gas staion called Total. there are quite a few in Cost Rica, so I am going to mark them on our map so we don't need to look as hard the next time. Then it is on to the playas. Our first choice had been Paya Hermosa but when we arrived there, it was a very built up, upscale resort town which had no room to accomodate the RV, which was ok with us. We are going through a kind of reverse culture type of shock. The resorts, the shops and the restaurants are all geared up for the tourists. It is more expensive than we have gotten accustomed to and we start to yearn for the tranquility and beauty of Nicaragua. We head for the next beach town of Playa del Coco. A little better. There is again no place for the RV but as we drive a long the beach we think that it would be a good place to boondock. Not so. A local gentlemen came by and told us that at night the beach is unsafe and a drug dealing hangout. He led us to an area, just one block from the beach, we could still see it, and showed us a soccer field that is lit and guarded at night. Perfect. Also, the field is completely fenced and once inside with the gate closed just like a huge dog park so WInston got to run off leash and play in the grass. We decide to try one of the many restaurants that line the main street in town. It was good. The fish was very fresh and Ton tried their Chicken Parmesan which was also good. However, we decide to stay here for just the day and tomorrow will head to another beach and see if we can get into the Costa Rican (Tico, as the locals call it) mood.

Nicaragua to Costa Rica. August 15th 2010

Border crossing day and once again, true to form we arrive at the border at 1pm, just in time for the after lunch crowds of locals who cross on the weekend to visit. Nicaragua was a little confusing leaving. We had to get the RV inspected first of all by a customs official and then by the police. the 2 signatures were required before Aduana would process our exit. After a time searching, we finally had the required signatures and then waited in the long line at immigration to get stamped out. After that, Winston was the easiest at Cuarencena. The requirements for the RV permit in Cosat Rica again took the longest. Surprisingly, they didn't care about Winston. No stamp was needed and they looked at his USDA form with all of the stamps we have accumulated thus far with interest. No, they assured us we didn't need a stamp and we would have no problems leaving into Panama. Thinking we were done we headed for the exit. Not so fast. The official at the gate told us we needed another form fr the RV., so it was back to the official at the bank for another round of paperwork and some photocopies. That completed we went again to the exit. No, one more signature. This time the offiial jumped onto the side of the RV and took us to another office for a final stamp! By the time we drove to the exit for the third time, everyone was laughing. Finally, we are through with everything and again it toook that magical two hours for the exit of one country and the entrance to another. Costa Rica. We had not seen this much development in a while and it was obvious from the beginning that the country is much more geared to tourists and their needs. Our first stop was going to be overnight at an old trailer park in Liberia (pronounced Lee-be-reea) before going to the coast. Also, we are in urgent need of propane for our main RV tank and we hope we can find a place in the morning. For now, our first night was spent trying to keep dry from the torrential rain that started just before dark and went through the night.

Monday, August 16, 2010

San Jorge to San Juan del Sur. 22 mile. August 14th & 15th, 2010

Our next stop is San Juan del Sur on the Pacific Coast. Again we are branching out. There is no reference in our books of a place to stay so hopefully we can find a spot. On arrival, we are stopped on the edge of town by the police, the usual check but we have found they are very helpful with information to possible parking. They gave us two places but one was not close to the beach and didn't interest us and the second had an overhang so the RV was too tall. the guard there recommended e drive to the end of the road and try to park at the port authority builing. Success! No problems. We were charged $7.50 to park with electricity. Perfect. There is a lot of activity and people and not many boats. As we walked around we were told that the show Survivor is filming in Nicaragua for next year and that the activity is all of the set building and whatever else the show needs. Tom is more fascinated by the boat activity and is soon chatting to several Americans who are hee repairing and rebuilding their boats for trips to Ecuador and the Pacific. We had thought we would stay until Monday but the guards told us that Sunday was the better day for crossing the border. There is only one border into Costa Rica so it is really busy. Trucks are the biggest problem so they figure Sunday is the best day. That only gives us 2 days in San Juan so we walked the beach and went to town. We had dinner the last night here, Saturday, at a fabulous restaurant owned by an Italian lady with her English husband. Both Tom and I agreed it was he best meal we had eaten on the road so far. After a slow walk back to the RV, we contemplated how much we had enjoyed Nicaragua and of how blown out of proportion the reports back in the States are of the area. Yes, there are problems especially in the under developed areas on the east coast but that is fairly centralized and so no-one ventures there. We feel perfectly safe wandering the streets after dark and are so glad we had ventured as much as we had in the country. Tomorrow, the border.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Isla de Ometepe and back

Ometepe was fantastic. This was our first time leaving the RV, with all our stuff and going for an overnight hotel visit. We parked at the ferry building to the side of the main building. The whole area is patrolled day and night by armed employees and the gate is kept closed and guarded 24 hrs, so we expected no problems. Winston was a little hesitant at first, getting onto the boat but with some encouragement, he walked the gang plank, we got some coffee and settled in. The ride to the island takes about 1 hr. and we are in awe at the size of this lake. It is huge with the Isle de Ometepe at it's southern end. Ometepe is a volcanic island made up of 2 volcanoes. The largest is Volcan Concepcion and the smaller Maderas. As we approach for landing we can see that the "port" is little more than a dock at the end of a dirt road. Thank God we didn't bring the RV. Everyone diaembarks. Locals, tourists, supplies for the island, and Winston. Terra firma - he is happy. We are inundated with tour guides. These are local people who happen to have an auto that runs. A man with a pickup said he could take us to Santa Domingo for $20.00. $20.00! We tell him no and say we are going to walk up the road with the dog. He follows - $15.00. We smile and shake our heads. At the top of the road is the main street and a group of Nicaraguans are milling around. "Is there a bus to Santa Domingo?" I ask them. "Sure, just stand on the other side of the road and one will be along at some point". From the maps we had seen of the island, Playa Santa Domingo looked one of the nicest and the Hotel Villa Paraiso was the most upscale. We were hoping to get a room or cabana for the night and that they allow pets. Almost immediately the bus came. A chicken bus but we are used to them and the cost 20 cordobas each. 40 cordobas or $2.00. $20.00 we snort. We have been travelling enough now that we are not intimidated by buses or over-priced taxi drivers. The bus ride took about 45 minutes and again we are struck by the sheer size of the place. We get off at Santa Domingo with another lady. She is a Canadian from Toronto, a teacher travelling by herself via buses. She also says she has had no problems being alone and has been met with only friendly smiles and a warm-hearted people. We ask a passerby for the hotel. Just up the road a little. "Do you think they will let us stay with a dog"? Like everyone else he looks puzzled. "I don't see why, they have dogs themselves". We start up the hill for the short walk to the hotel and part company with the lady from Toronto. She is staying at another place about 2 km. up the road. We go into the hotel. They have a room for $29.00 and cabanas for $73.00. Hmm. Winston is not a problem, in fact no-one even mentioned him except to ask his name and pet him. We check out 3 different cabanas and settle on one with a price of $60.00. It has a lake view, private bathroom, A/C and 2 beds. One for us and one for the dog, they say, smiling. Fantastic. We settle in and go to the restaurant for lunch. Fresh fish is on the menu and that's it. After lunch, we go down to their private beach. Tom can't resist but go into the water. Unlike Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, the lake side is clean without a scrap of trash. "Whoa", I hear Tom. "Hey, I can feel the fish biting and nibbling at me, my legs and back". Be careful, I tell him. Lake Nicaragua is the only landlocked lake that boasts fresh water sharks. That's all we need. Tom bit by a shark. He comes out of the water and asks if I want to go in! I think not. Instead I play with Winston, who also runs in and out of the water and sit and enjoy the views of this beautiful place. After a while we go back up and sit outside with a beer, chatting about our good fortune of finding this place and how fabulous it is. Then the rain starts. We go to the room and Tom rests while I sit outside on our patio, reading and watching the lake. I think of the motorhome and say a little prayer that it will be okay. But since there is nothing more to be done, decide I can't worry about it and doze to the sound of the rain. The hotel is busy. We chat with people from Germany, Canada and a young couple from the States. Everyone loves it here and have nothing but praise for the country and the people. In addition of course to the prices. Forget the dollar, the euro is getting the Europeans a great deal. We get up in the morning and I walk Winston. He is greeted by everyone we meet. He is happy, they all know his name and he lets them pet and stroke him. Then it's time to pack up and take the bus to the ferry port. We are leaving from a different port, Moyogalpa and it takes two buses to get there. The ride back was uneventful and with great relief found our RV safe and sound. The guard came up to check us out. No tip was expected. It was their pleasure. We drive the short distance to the Hotel California where we will spend one more night and reflect, once again, on our good fortune.

Masaya to San Jorge on Lago de Nicaragua. 68 miles

This is supposed to be the busiest of the national parks so we got to the visitors center at 9am to try to beat the tour buses from the cities. The center is very informative with information about this particular volcano and the formation of volcanoes in general in both Spanish and English. By the time we headed up to the steaming, active crater, the day was partly sunny and the 4 mile drive was filled with spectaular views. The crater was already busy but since there are warning signs everywhere that you shouldn't spend more than 20 minutes breathing in the gases, we took some photographs, walked up the side of the volcano, 300 or so steps for better views and then went back to the center to fill the RV with water before leaving. We have been studying our maps to come up with a route that keeps us headed to Costa Rica but with some time for sight-seeing. So we have decided to go through Granada but not stop and drive to San Jorge on the shore of Lake Nicaragua. We will go to Granada on our way north. Granada, on the map, looked navigable for the RV but once again we got lost. On this occasion, we lost no time. We flagged down a taxi driver and asked him to show us the road to San Jorge. No problem. He took us down main streets and narrow side streets, around the central park and past the cathedral. We debated how much to give him and agreed we would let him settle the price and only argue if it seemed outrageous. Tom had thought 100 cordobas ($5.00). Finally he pulled over and pointed the way. We asked how much we owed. 30 cordobas he said. $1.50!! Taxis through the cities is the only way to go. We arrived at San Jorge with no more problems and scoped out the places to park. There was the beach itself and the secured parking area in the ferry building but we settled on the Hotel California as we could plug into power, water and they have WiFi. We walk to a local restaurant. It is owned by Dario, a transplanted Italian who lives on the Island of Ometepe. As we chat we decide to visit the island but not with the motorhome. Even though the ferry could accomodate it, we were unsure of how we would handle those island roads. After talking with a few people, it is agreed that we can park in a secure area of the ferry building for 90 cordobas a day and take the ferry across. We are going to try to find a hotel for the night but if not, we will come back. Everyone assures us Winston will not be a problem. In fact, whenever we asked if he was allowed, in the restaurants, on the ferry or as it turned out, in a hotel, we were looked at quizzically as though they didn't understand our worries. The dog is fine. No problemo. We decide on taking the 9:30 ferry and go back to the RV to pack and get some sleep.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Las Pinetas to Parque Nacional de Volcan Masaya. 110 miles

All roads lead to Managua so we will have to negotiate our way through the capital. As a rule the large cities are not RV friendly and Tom does not relish the thought. True to form, we got lost. The problem is that we have maps but the streets do not have signs, so although on the map the streets have names, with no signage we don't know where we are! And also, the rain has started once again which only adds to our anxiety and dilemma. Fortunately we see a stadium and a fire station. We park by the stadium, I walk Winston and Tom heads across the street to the fire house. Someone speaks English and Tom was able to get some exact directions to get out of town. As we follow them, we realize that we would never have gotten out of the city without help and we make a decision that from now on, if we get lost we will immediately hire a taxi to lead us to the road we need to be on. As we get ourselves situated on the road to Masaya, we heave a sigh of relief. It has taken us over 2 hours to get through Managua and now time is not on our side. We need to be at the national park no later than 4:30pm, closing time as this is where we are hoping to spend the night. We pull in at about 4:40 and talk to the ranger at the gate. He calls ahead to the visitor's center to ask permission for us to park there overnight. No problem and we pull into the park. As we drive the mile or so to the visitor's center, we pass huge boulders of lava, reminders of a time when the volcano was active. It actually still does have an active steaming crater which we hope to see in the morning. The ranger told us that the crater had been closed all afternoon because of the rain. It seems that when it rains, the gases are held in and it is too dangerous to be breathing them in. As it usually doesn't start to rain until late afternoon or evening, we hope that the weathr will hold and the crater will be open. Aa we pull up to the center, another ranger points out a beautiful grassy area for us to park. We have amazing views over the valley and can see Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua from our vantage point. As the rangers begin to leave, three armed military vigilantes arrive, they will be the guards for the night. Pretty soon, we have the park to ourselves and we feel completely safe. It is so peaceful. I give Winston a final walk of the night, passing the guards. We chat, the stars are out and I can't help but think that this is very unique. For this night, we have our own personal park with guards. We sleep with the door amd windows open to enjoy the night air.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Playa Roca, Las Pinatas.

We have been here since Friday and it has been wonderful. Saturday and Sunday were quite busy with people driving from Leon to spend the day at the beach. We have chatted with Americans, Dutch, Austrian and Germans in addition to Nicaraguan locals. Leon is a university town and considered liberal - rather like our Berkeley campus and attracts a lot of young idealistic foreigners who come to study and help with social working. They teach, counsel and help build homes, new water systems, whatever is needed. As a rule, they seem to stay about 6 months and all have told us that they have had great experiences and enjoyed their stay. Nicaragua does appear to be quite stable and foreigner friendly. We will be able to judge more as we travel through the country. We have seen some beautiful sunsets here and enjoyed the beach and the local beer, Tona which is similar to a pilsner. We have also sampled Nicaraguan rum, which is a gold rum and rather tasty! Today, we are leaving to head inland to the National Park and Volcanoes of Masaya and then on to Granada, update to follow.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Leon to Poneloya/Las Pinatas. 14 mile. August 6th.

We know from our travels that many RVers stay at truckstops overnight, particularly at the huge Pemex stations in Mexico but this was our first. Wow. We have gotten used to the sounds of the ocean, the storms which vary in intensity, the crowing of roosters and hens at a variety of parks and the bucolic lowing of cattle at others but nothing except for maybe camping at the pit stop for the Indy 500 prepares you for the noise of 30 or more commercial trucks firing up their diesel engines at 5 o'clock in the morning. They then they idle and idle until finally their air pumps or whatever kick in with a huge whooshing sound and they rev their engines! Then it is the sound of the emergency beeps as some back up and with much honking, the day has started. I can't help but start to giggle which soon turns into laughter. "Dear God, that was horrible", I say to Tom who surely had to be awake or maybe the diesel fumes had sent him comatose. No, he was definitely awake. "We should really stay here more often". He groans. "That was horrible" and tries to go back to sleep. I'm fully awake and get up to start my morning ritual of coffee and reading a guidebook for whichever country we happen to be in. By the time Tom gets up, I have a plan. "Let's go to the cathedral and then to this beach town, Poneloya. It's only about 14 mile and we might find a place to stay for one night". With no other backup plan, Tom agrees. To get to Poneloya, we must drive through Leon and I was hoping to see the Catedral de la Ascuncion, which is supposedly the largest cathedral in Central America and on the main plaza. Naturally we get lost, miss the cathedral but manage to find the road to the beach. Tom assures me we will see the cathedral when we come back through town. As we approach the beach access road, we are stopped by the police. They ask for the usual paperwork and we chat. They advise us not to go to Poneloya but instead turn left at the playa and go to Las Pinatas about 1 mile up the road. Then find Hotel Playa Roca, which they assure us will be able to let us park for the night. We take their advise and find Playa Roca with no problem. Surprise. The hotel and restaurant is owned by Americans, Cookie is from Colorado and Mike is from California. There is a nice restaurant, oceanfront property with waves that are definitely boogie board worthy (Tom's eyes light up), WiFi and we can park and hook into electricity. Now if only we could find a place to dump our tanks! We get set up and it is still not even noon. Tom gets his board and fins and I, a book and with Winston we all head to the beach. I settle under a palapa with a beach chair while Tom prepares to join a group of about 6 surfers and Winston frolics in the surf. The tension of border crossing slips away as we decide we couldn't find a better spot for our first full day in Nicaragua

Choluteca, Honduras to Leon, Nicaragua. 97 miles.

It is with the best of intentions, that on days we cross the border our plan is to get going early, so far this has not happened and today was no exception. We got up, ate and discussed... the generator. It seems to be laboring a little and when we start it up, it splutters. So Tom gets the owner's manual and starts to read. We decide to take advantage of the internet and order the parts needed to give it what amounts to a tune-up. Something else for Danny and Nicole to bring. This took up the better part of the morning and it was almost noon before we started the drive to the border, about 28 miles with 2 more checkpoints. The second was the worst and the police were just looking for an excuse to get money. They checked the vehicle, all the paperwork, our fire extinguishers, emergency triangles, etc. Finally, after wandering around the RV, they noticed our laminated rear license plate. Ah ha! "Fine or a ticket", they said. No, said Tom and I. We have the original but people try to steal it. For about 15 minutes we are at in impasse. Tom gets a scredriver and puts on the true license plate. Now we are not in violation. With much grumbling they hand us back all our documentation and we drive off. We will both be glad to be out of Honduras. The country is nice, the people seem friendly but the police and all the hassles make it all hard to enjoy. We exit Honduras with no further problems and get to the Nicaraguan border. Here an official stopped us, checked our vehicle exit stamp and then smiling broadly and shaking Tom's hand, welcomed us to Nicaragua. He pointed us in the direction of immigration and customs. A very polite young lady approached us. She had a clipboard, an official looking shirt and a badge. "Aduana?" I ask. "Si" she said. Passports, vehicle paperwork (license, title, registration) and Winston's paperwork. "That will be $40.00" she said. Lights should have gone off in my head but with all the frustrations, I wasn't thinking. Neither, apparently was Tom. We handed over $40.00. As she walked away, I grabbed Winston's leash to walk him. After a couple of minutes, I hurried back to Tom. "Go after her, she has all our original paperwork and we always have to find customs, immigration etc., they don;t look for us. We had broken a cardinal rule. Never, never give up your original paperwork to anyone unless it is in an office of a bona fide official. Fortunately, Tom finds here and she is processing our paperwork but he also realises that she works for a well organized tramitadore agency. Our costs without her would have been $30.00, so they made $10.00. By the time they returned, it was about 3 pm and all our paperwork appeared to be in order. We were not happy with ourselves for being suckered in but we let it go, smiled, high-fived and considered t another successful border crossing. We knew we wanted to make Leon our first stop, which is about 70 mile from the border but we didn't know the road conditions or stop points. As it turned out, the roads are better maintained than Honduras but not as well as El Salvador and we were stopped three times. We were asked for our vehicle permit and Tom's license (we are now using the laminated, fake one like it was legal issuance) and sent on our way. Just like at the border, the police were polite and courteous and treated us with an ease and friendliness that was lacking in Honduras. However it is now 5pm and in these parts darkness falls at 6 and dark, ominous clouds are starting to form. Within 5 minutes we are in a dluge of rain, thunder and lightening and Tom is having a difficult time seeing anything. In addition, because this is a border road, there is a lot of traffic of both trucks and cars. In fact our overnight stop in Leon is an Esso gas station that is a truck stop. Suddenly the traffic comes to a dead stop. Accident. The traffic slowly starts to ease forward, past the emergency vehicles and police cars. We are still about 20 mile from Leon and losing whatever light there is. We push on and finally see, on the outskirts of town, our stop. Esso Gas. We pull in and see that there is still plenty of room although trucks are pulling in quickly. We have learned that no-one really wants to be driving after dark. We had read that the place is safe and secure and sure enough, within the space of an hour, our small RV was sandwiched between huge trucks and anyone would have been hard pressed to find us. Truckers also turn in for the night early and so after some fast food chicken and a burger at the on site cafe, we to went to bed. Exhausted. Two crossings in two days. Give me a week to chill!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

August 4th, 2010. El Salvador to Honduras, Choluteca, 81 miles.

We were up and making good use of the internet at the Comfort Inn, ordering items that we need, that Danny and Nicole can bring with them when they visit. Naturally more stuff for the RV and a few items for Winston. His retractable leash is wearing out, his water bottle got dropped and broke and he needs new LED lights for his collar so we can see him in the dark. We will add to that list in the next few weeks. It is only 26 mile to the border and we get there just before noon. We breeze through the exit from El Salvador. The routine is pretty much the same. Immigration, Cuarancena (for Winston) and turning in the vehicle permit. We then drive a short distance and do the same at the new country to enter. The vehicle permit at Customs is always the most involved and Honduran cuarancena wanted to inspect Winston. They checked his coat and ears and pronounced him okay to enter. This is while the most mangiest of dogs prowl around the outside of the buildings. Anyone who has been to Mexico will know what I mean. But, we just smile and with handshakes and thank-you's we say nothing. It is bureaucracy and there is nothing to be done. I actually try to treat it as part of the fun of travelling and gaining knowledge. With every border we cross, we are becoming more confident at getting through the system. The biggest problem for me are the "tramitordores" at every border. These are groups of enthusiastic men who jump on the sides of the vehicle, bang on the windows and attempt to get us to hire them to deal with the officials and paperwork. I find them rude, aggressive, obnoxious and they really grate on my nerves. Tom insists I go through a metamorphic change when they appear. I think it's shrew-like, but I don't care. I just wish I could twitch my nose and turn them all into cat litter. We finally finish with Aduana. The total time spent was about 2 hours, but seems much longer and we get on the road. Well Toto, we are definitely not in Kansas - make that El Salvador - anymore. The road, which is the main CA1 (the Pan Americana) is riddled with potholes which Tom tries to avoid, turning the drive into something resembling a slalom course. Also, in the 55 miles from the border to Choluteca we are stopped 4 times by the police. They are always polite and ask for a variety of paperwork, passports, vehicle permit and registration, Tom's license (he gives his color copied, laminated fake), Winston's papers etc. One looked inside the RV from the driver's side door but I think that is more curiousity than anything else. All paperwork was eventually returned to us and we went on our way. More importantly, unlike everything we had heard, not one of the officers even intimated that a bribe was expected. We can't help but reflect that in the 3000 or so miles we drove in Mexico we were only stopped 5 times. We arrive at the toan of Choluteca and find the Hacienda Gualiqueme Hotel with no problem. We pull up to the gate and the omnipresent armed guard assured us that we could park for the night with no problem. As a side note, armed guards are everywhere. Gas stations, parking lots, banks, stores, even delivery trucks. Unlike Mexico, where security carry semi automatic weapons, all of these guards have sawed off shotguns which only serves to make them appear more lawless! But we are safe and with the added bonuses of a swimming pool, a decent restaurant and WiFi. Counting our blessings, we have an early dinner, Skype with Mom & Jeanne until a storm passed overhead and called it a night. Tomorrow, Thursday we will cross the border into Nicaragua.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

El Cuco to La Union. 38 mile

The drive was easy to La Union and this will be our final stop before the Honduran border. La Union is a port town that is at once bustling but still retains a small town atmosphere. As we ate dinner tonight, Tom and I reflect on the fact that we had almost skipped this remarkable country. If we had listened to those we had met before us, we would never have come here. But, the reality is that in the time we have been here, we have not felt threatened nor scared nor seen anything that would make us feel unsafe. Instead, we have been greeted by everyone with smiles and courtesy and such expressions of pleasure that we are well.. smitten. I personally like the smallness of the country. The beaches are truly phenomonal but at the same time, San Salvador or San Migual (the second largest city) are within driving distance if you want theatre, ballet or just a night on the town. The waves (for surfing or boogie boarding) are considered some of the best in the world, so Tom is enraptured. We know we have a long way still to go but we both agree that we would purchase property here. El Salvador did manage to sneak into our hearts. And to think we almost didn't come. What a pity that would have been. Tomorrow we will tackle the Honduran border. It is considered to be the most difficult and corrupt. We will see. But.. if things go bad we can always return to El Salvador!

Costa Del Sol to El Cuco. 95 mile

We leave Tesoro Beach with just a little regret. It is beautiful but the next stretch of beach beckons. We are heading to the southern end of El Salvador to a string of remote beaches and we have chosen Playa El Cuco. El Espino beach is the most popular here and had been written about in some guidebooks but we have decided to strike out on our own. Luck was with us. We got to Playa El Cuco with no difficulties and on arriving in town started to look for prospective places to park the RV. There were plenty but suddenly an older gemtleman approached us. "The gringo lives down the beach" he tells us. Huh! "The gringo" he said. "Just drive down this road and go to La Tortuga, that's where the gringo lives". Not knowing what else to do we follow his directions and arrive at La Tortuga Verde. There is a narrow entrance, not tall enough for the RV to pass under, so we park. I get out and go inside the gates. Hmmm! "El gringo", I say to the first person I encounter. He looks at me. Emboldened I say louder "El Gringo esta aqui?" (Is the Gringo here?) He smiles. Yes, wait. All of a sudden, this man appears, a New Yorker ( deja vu, hadn't we just met people from New York? Was there some thing I had missed about the relationship between New York and here?) but I had no further time to reflect as I was embraced in a handshake and hug combined. "What in the world brings you here?" he said. I was laughing as I retorted "And what brings you all the way here". I walk him to the motorhome as I tell him about our journey and intent. He is amazed. Shakes Tom's hand, pets Winston and indeed does reflect that we can cannot stay at La Tortuga because we don't fit under the entrance. "No matter", he said "I own most of the property on the beach, so go further down and there are two spots which you will definitely be able to stay. I will come down later to check on you but be sure to tell them Tom said it's ok". We drive about a half mile further to the end of the road, more of Tom's property. Again we won't fit. They volunteer to chop down a tree so we can pass. "It's ok, we will try the other place". We head back down the road and with a little help from a pole to lift the sign up, we were able to slide in the RV. We are in a grassy area, next to the swimming pool and very close to the ocean. There is a power hookup and we are set. Later that afternoon, Tom and his girlfriend come visit and we become more aquainted. Tom is from Manhattan, a real estate person there, who liquidated some assets and bought property in El Salvador. He now owns more oceanfront property in this area than anyone else. An old surfer, he and Tom have a lot in common. I had talked to the caretakers of the propety and arranged for us to have a fresh fish dinner. Whole barbequed fish with rice and salad. Perfect. New York Tom points out land which seems just across the sea, more like an island. "That's Nicaragua," he says. Wow! As the sun sets and we part company we agree to meet the next day. Tom and I have already agreed we will stay here at least 2 more days. I need to get laundry done and this place is great. I negotiate with the caretakers, Olga and her husband Juan to get our laundry taken care of. Dinner will be served at 5:30pm, fresh fish again and the day is our own. We run Winston on the beach. Tom (the owner) comes to eat lunch and we hang out and chat. How he came to be here. He's a surfer and had been to Mexico, then Guatemala and eventually 5 yrs ago to El Salvador. Had lost his heart to the coastline and surfing here and had come back and bought land and then more land and well, the rest was history. He asks Tom if he'd like to boogie board. Duh! 7am he will pick us up. The next day, Tom took us up the coast a mile or so to a famous surf break. The morning is gorgeous and Winston is having fun too. Tom takes to the waves and they stay out for the next couple of hours, whilst I have a one on one, personal tutor Spanish time with Tom's girlfriend. The rest of the day is spent lazing, swimming in the pool and reading. Olga again brings us dinner at 5:30pm, - I could get used to this! But, tomorrow is a road day to get us closer to the border. We are going to leave El Cuco with regrets. This is one place that Tom & I agree that we would like to look at property to purchase.

San Blas to Costa del Sol. 98 miles

After saying goodbye to our guard and Bianca, we set off for the middle section of coast and supposedly one of the most pretty. This should have been a short 1 and a half hour drive but we are learning. We stop at La Libertad, a large port to shop. There is a very nice supermarket here, full of fresh produce, items we need and clean. As Tom packs away the groceries, I give Winston a quick walk and we tell him today is a short trip. Ha!! Once again God is tracking us and laughing. About 20 minutes out of La Libertad there is a detour. No problem. We ask the guard if our RV can handle the side streets. No problem. We follow a bus with no problems until... a rushing river! Uh oh, huge problem. Part of the bridge has collapsed and there is no temporary or repair in progress. We look at each other. There is absolutely no way we can get through. Not only is the river flowing quite deep and rapidly but there is no exit point on the other side. Some of the village poeple urge us to try it - I think they are bored for entertainment! and the others are telling us it is not possible. Tom and I agree. We back out and head back through the village. Now what? We find a place to park and check our maps. The only other road down the coast is to go north through San Salvador. Again, something we don't want. A trip through a capital which has no circle route, so all driving has to go through the city centre. Tom groans. I tell him it may not be too bad, while in my heart of hearts I know I am not telling the truth. Well, suffice to say we survived it. It wasn't pretty but we manouvered our way through the city center and somehow managed to get on the right road for the beaches. Again, the quality of the roads are far superior to Mexico and Guatemala and less pothole avoidance does help the shattered nerves. After that it was clean sailing to the Costa del Sol. After a 70 mile, 3 hour detour we arrive. The Costa Del Sol is actually a peninsula. You drive in and out on the same road and we had decided to drive to the end, turn around and head back after scouting out places to stay. Our first stop was a Comfort Inn which is closed Monday through Wednesday but the vigilante guard and his wife assured us there was no problem and we could park for the night. We had the hotel grounds to ourselves. Gorgeous, sparkling pool, great beach and Winston was happy. And we were able to hook into power. The next day (Thursday) we drove a little further and stopped at the Tesoro Beach Hotel. If we had known about the place, we would have stayed here the night before. The Tesero is a Spanish ranch style hotel which is gorgeous, with beautiful grounds. We were allowed to park next to the pool, plug into power and... because this is the off season, had the place to ourselves. Winston roamed, Tom played in the ocean and I lazed by the pool. We eat in the restaurant that night under stars and it is remarkable. We reflect on the complete beauty of the place and are utterly sated by the food, the view and the fact...that we really do have it all to ourselves!