Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Se aceptan American Express

And so we arrived back in the land of American Express. I want to like Costa Rica, I really do. I've spent more time there in total over the last few years than any other Central American country, but still, I struggle to gel with the place. On my precious visits I was lucky enough to spend my time in small, out of the way communities, living amongst local people, but wander into tourist areas (which to be fair, is the majority of the country now) and my patience doesn't hold out for very long.

Walk into a restaurant or hostal and immediately you're eyed up by the manager to see how much they think you are willing to pay. One of the cheapest meals we found anywhere in Costa Rica was a not-that-great burger and fries for $7. That was cheap. Really cheap for Costa Rica. Shitty, by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere motels start at $40 a night (no wifi, no hot water) as opposed to $15 outside of Costa Rica and despite obviously being empty the owner will rarely budge on the price.

There's no denying it, Costa Rica is a beautiful country and the wildlife there is hard to beat, but for me it's the people who make a place stand out and when you're made to feel outright unwelcome enough times, it's hard to find a reason to want to stay there any longer than absolutely necessary.

After crossing the border we headed for Puerto Jiminez. I've been there before but I wanted Evan to see the scarlet macaws on the black sand beaches and experience at least the edges of the Osa. First stop was at Omar's place, where he generously opened coconuts for us and we chatted about what was new since I was last there. As he has now planted his garden area he had no space for us to camp but recommended we go and see Adonis, a friend of his who has some land behind one of the waterfront restaurants. It turned out that Adonis had a nice place to camp next to a river...that happened to be full of crocodiles. He assured us that it was quite safe and that they wouldn't bother us, so we set up camp for a surprisingly-small-for-Costa-Rica fee of $8 a night.

We took a walk along the beach, but sadly the parrots that filled almost every macadamia tree two years previously were all but gone. The trees were dry and brown, I can only presume they are suffering from the drought at the moment and the birds have moved further into the jungle to find food. We wandered around the little town and then returned to the restaurants near the water in search of food and coffee. We looked at the menu at the first place we stopped and discovered that the prices were almost double what we'd been paying in Panama, so we cut our losses and just ordered a drink.

Further along we tried another. We sat and waited for someone to come over and twenty minutes later no-one had, despite there being at least six wait staff working. They glanced at us but didn't come over until we made movements to leave. We ordered food and asked for coffee too. Eventually our food came but no coffee. Again, the staff sat chatting amongst themselves by the bar. We were the only people in the place so it wasn't as if it was busy. Eventually Evan got up, walked over to the coffee machine and poured two cups of coffee himself. No-one seemed to care. Now you could say it's nice when things are so laid back, but this wasn't laid back. The staff were well aware that we were there and even looked over once or twice. This was a blatant case of being deliberately ignored and it wasn't the first time. Unfortunately this happened on many occasions throughout Costa Rica. The rule seems to be pay double the money and get half the service.

We decided not to ride the 40km further onwards to Carate as the road was rough and rocky, so the next day we set off to meet a tentspace guy nearby, a Canadian ex-pat who kindly offered us camping space on the plot of land where his house would eventually be built, once he'd figured out a whole host of problems that many ex-pats seem to find themselves with when they buy land and decide to move down here. Darryl's plot of land certainly had an amazing view out over the Pacific Ocean, one that we didn't get to appreciate until the following morning as we arrived and set up after dark. That evening we shared pizza at the restaurant of an Italian friend of Darryl's, followed by talking late into the night over a few beers back at our camp. It was good to spend time with ADV people again, something we haven't managed to do so much since we left the States.

We've met many people who have upped sticks and decided to move to Central America on this trip, some successfully, some less so and we've talked many times about what is necessary to make this work. Firstly, and most importantly, is to make connections with the local community you want to live in. Maybe that sounds obvious, but for many people it doesn't appear to be. Most ex-pats migrate towards other ex-pats, not local people and before you know it a whole new community within a community is created. Or more accurately a community 'on the edge of' the existing community.

In so many places it's obvious that ex-pats just don't mix very well with the locals. Too many people find a town they like the feel of, a plot of land they want to build on and all before they ever try to get to know the local people and make friends there. It sounds crazy but it happens time and again and we can never understand why anyone would want to move somewhere where they're not truly a part of the community. Shouldn't that be your primary reason for wanting to live there? We've seen it in almost every country we've visited – we've met people who have done it right and people who have done it wrong. It has reinforced to us that if we were ever to consider a venture down here we'd want to spend several months in our chosen spot getting to know people before we'd even consider buying anything there.

The following morning we packed up and headed for Playa Ventanas, a stunning little beach not far from Uvita with cave tunnels heading out to the sea. After a few hours of enjoying the water and the caves, we headed onwards again towards San Isidro. The road wound up through the mountains from Dominical and through some beautiful landscapes totally different to those we'd left behind at the coast. Just before we descended into town we stopped for lunch at a little restaurant up in the mountains and had a great casada plate. Rice, beans, beef, onions, pasta, salad – I'd forgotten how good Costa Rican refried beans are. They have a unique smokey flavour that you don't seem to find anywhere else. I also forgot how beautiful this region is and half wished we'd taken the time to revisit Cloudbridge and San Gerado de Rivas. On the other hand though, I think sometimes good memories should be left as just that and revisiting places often changes how you feel about them. In San Isidro we found a room at the Hotel Chirripo where I used to send so many people when they'd missed the bus to Casa Mariposa.

Our next stop was to be Tamarindo, to re-visit the resort where Evan had stayed a few years ago to see how it had changed. It seems we were a little ambitious in our thought that we'd make it there in one day. The road from San Isidro took us over the Chirripo mountain range to the highest point in Costa Rica at 11,000 feet. As we climbed higher and higher the fog closed in and soon we had gone from almost 40 degrees to somewhere around ten. As the fog got denser in started to rain and for the first time in a very long time I found myself cold, wet and wishing I wasn't wearing only my mesh jacket over a little vest top.

Soon visibility was down to just a couple of metres and I tucked myself in behind a large truck just to be able to stay on the road. Following his tail lights seemed like the most sensible option and for many miles this is what I did, hoping that he knew the road better than I did. Eventually he turned off and I was on my own; Evan was doing much the same but a little way ahead of me. As we reached the top of the pass, to my surprise a guy on a silver VStrom 650 with local plates passed me, beeped and waved and disappeared into the grey. For a moment I thought it was Evan, but it wasn't. It's the only other older 650 we've seen on our entire trip. I'm not sure where it went, but when I caught up with Evan at a buffet place a few miles further along he said it hadn't passed him. It was a little spooky.

After some lunch we continued and it took far longer than we expected to emerge from the grey. Cold, wet and tired we decided to skip our planned stop in Cartago and continue to towards Tamarindo and the warmth of the coast again. San Jose proved to be its usual hellish self and trapped us in its clutches for well over an hour as we struggled to navigate through. Several more hours further on and with darkness falling we admitted defeat and started to look for a cheap motel for the night. We reached a crossroads type of town that appeared to have nothing more than a few motels and a couple of gas stations and stopped to ask for prices. The first - $40 a night. Nope, not negotiable. $40. You want to pitch your tent in my huge, empty grounds instead? Nope, not happening. This summed up our first exchange with an elderly gentleman who didn't smile once or even muster a hello as we rode in. We figured we'd be wasting our breath to try and negotiate any more and to be honest didn't want to stay anyway in a place we were clearly so unwelcome.

We moved a few doors along the road and asked at another place. $40 a night. No, not negotiable. You want to pitch your tent in my huge empty grounds? Nope, not happening. At least this guy smiled slightly. While standing outside debating our very limited options and wondering whether to risk trying to get to a possible iOverlander place (given that our luck with places we've found on that app hasn't been great) the second guy came over and offered to drop to $30. Caught between a rock and a hard place we agreed and took a room, still feeling very much like we couldn't wait to get out of this country and back to places where we at least felt welcome. The room was nice enough and the food at the attached restaurant wasn't bad either, but the wifi was sketchy as is so often the case. In typical Costa Rican style the wildlife was abundant – we shared our bathroom with a scorpion and our bikes shared the outside area with a herd of cows that wandered in from the adjoining laneway, much to the motel owners dismay.

We finally made it to Tamarindo the following day, a touristy/surf beach town on the Nicoya Peninsula. From what Evan said it seems it has expanded hugely over the last few years. We ordered fish tacos at a little comedor which turned out to be a fish burrito when it arrived – so many food names have different meanings as you move between countries down here. Tacos are burritos, burritos are empanadas, baleadas are quesadillas, quesadillas are burritos and tacos are tostadas! You rarely know what is going to get served.

The waterside access to the resort was along a dirt road which leads on to a public beach. There are three things that I just do not like having to contend with on this bike. The first is very strong side winds, the second is wet mud and the third is deep sand. I do like to try sometimes though and as Evan took off across the beach (more than likely with the knowledge that if he paused I'd tell him I wasn't going to follow him) I figured it wouldn't hurt to see how far I could get.

The first part wasn't so bad, the bike squirled around but I kept it upright. Halfway across the beach I lost my nerve though as I saw the trucks ahead of me kicking up more and more sand as it got deeper and I decided to turn around and wait for Evan back at the dirt road. I do wish I had more confidence in those situations, and I'm sure if I was capable of picking my bike up if I dropped it I'd feel better about it, but these bikes really are too heavy for things like deep sand. When Evan returned he admitted that he hadn't realised that the sand would be as deep as it was and that he only just made it through.

That night we returned to Cabanas Castillas near the border and camped for our final night in Costa Rica. It was nice being back in such a beautiful place with such reasonable prices and such friendly hosts. As we set up our tent we could hear another family making their dinner in the little kitchen area. Aggravatingly, the parents were shouting at the kids in French and the kids were crying and screaming in return. Great, just what we needed to disturb the peace of what was otherwise one of the quietest places we've stayed on the whole trip.

Later we had the chance to talk to the parents as we made our own dinner and they told us their travel story. They were cycling on push bikes and had a trailer attached to the back of one bike for the two kids. They took it in turns to pull the trailer, two hours at a time, all day. They had started in Mexico and were heading for Patagonia over the course of a year. They apologised for their earlier loudly-expressed frustration. As the father pointed out, they would arrive at a place exhausted after riding all day and then they had to deal with two little girls who had been cooped up in a small trailer with an ipad all day who needed to let off steam. No matter how we looked at it we agreed that there was nothing about their trip that sounded like fun, even if we did admire their determination a tiny bit.

Getting back into Nicaragua was as simple at it gets. You just follow the trail of papers, signatures, stamps and random fees from person to person and eventually when you think you've got enough pieces of paper and enough signatures and paid enough money, you make a break for the next country. It turned out we'd done enough and we were on our way. The only thing we couldn't find was the compulsory insurance, but we still had a few days on our previous policy so we decided to worry about that later.

I've said it before and I'll say it again - borders intrigue me. More accurately it intrigues me how much trouble people with vehicles seem to have at the borders in Central America and how much they complain about them. Fast they certainly aren't, but we've come to the conclusion that the most important part of getting through borders painlessly is your own attitude. Arrive stressed and with an urgent need to get through and you're doomed. The reality is no-one is out to get you, border staff are friendly and helpful for the most part. If you can't understand something it's usually your own fault for not speaking the language. The 'helpers' are sometimes an irritation, but easily dispensed with if you remain firm and clear that you aren't going to pay them anything, not a penny. Maybe we've been extremely lucky, but we've not had any problems anywhere and when I speak to people that do I can't help feeling that in many cases they brought on their bad experiences themselves.

We weren't heading too far the other side of the border, only to Rivas to meet up for dinner with a couple of guys from Jackson Hole, Wyoming who are on a similar trip to us. After a little looking we found a cheap enough hotel in Rivas that involved Evan having to get the bikes up some particularly steep steps and into the lobby (add that to my list of things I don't feel confident doing yet, so thank you for doing it for me!)

From here we decided to go and see what the deal was for getting our bikes over to Isla de Ometepe. We hadn't actually decided that we were going to go but somehow, before we knew it we'd bought tickets, paid taxes along with some other fee that we didn't fully understand and we were loading our bikes on to the boat. I'd been to Ometepe before and didn't really see what the fuss was about, but it did sound like fun to ride around the volcanoes. We met another couple of DR650's on the boat and it turns out it was the same people we'd been having an online conversation with on ADV about border crossings.

On the boat we discovered that despite all the charges we'd already paid, we hadn't paid for our bikes and a man was now standing in front of us demanding another fee. It's frustrating, but at the end of the day it's only because we're so used to paying for tickets back home that often comprise of fees from several agencies all rolled into one. In these countries they don't have the means to collect it all in one place so you end up paying the personal ticket, ticket for your bike, road tax for the roads on the island and port fees to each organisations representative. It can feel a bit like you're being charged for the same thing more than once, but it all makes sense when you ask for an explanation.

Ometepe was as I remembered it. Two volcanoes, some roads around them and some tourists scattered in between. We set off to ride around Volcan Conception and it wasn't long before the road turned to loose volcanic rock and we found ourselves weaving through herds of cows and trying to avoid random pigs jumping out into the road.

Having circumnavigated the largest volcano, we decided against riding around the other. I've had a problem with my brakes for some time now (warped front brake rotor) that makes it hard to brake smoothly, especially on loose surfaces and it just didn't seem worth the risk. I'd also developed an intermittent problem with my headlights too so we were trying to avoid riding near dusk. On the advice of a couple we met at the crossroads we ended up camping for the night at El Porvenir, a lodge at the trailhead to Volcan Maderas, whose grounds are covered with petroglyph carvings. They don't actually offer tent camping but agreed it'd be ok after some thoughtful consideration.

We decided that one night was enough on Ometepe and headed back to the mainland the following day. We didn't really have a plan at this point and ended up heading towards Masaya as it was somewhere we had only passed through on the way south. First we tried the Volcan Masaya National Park again but the guard confirmed it was still closed because the volcano had recently started erupting. I think we were both having a bit of an off day, exacerbated by not really having a plan as to what else we wanted to do in Nicaragua, and upon reaching the city of Masaya we found ourselves struggling to find a place to stay.

After turning down a one way street the wrong way for a second time and having to turn around in the middle of a line of annoyed locals, tempers frayed on both sides and we ended up heading back out of town towards Managua. It was my suggestion to go there, but as soon as we left I realised that was a terrible idea. Unfortunately there was no chance of us having a civil conversation by that point and soon we found ourselves in horrendous rush hour traffic heading into Managua. Exactly where we didn't want to be. As it happens the main offices for the insurance company that issues visitor insurance was on the road we were on so we stopped in there and I renewed my policy. We now had little daylight left, my lights had decided to stop working altogether and we had to make a decision.

We headed back to a tacky auto-hotel that I'd spotted earlier on the outskirts of Masaya that just so happened to be opposite a little 'Taller de Motos' where I hoped I'd be able to get my dodgy brake rotor removed the following day. We arrived just as darkness fell. It was one of the seedier versions of these places. When the lady showed me to the room there were two towels on the bed alongside a bar of soap and half a dozen condoms. When I returned a few minutes later with my bags she'd obviously reassessed the situation and removed the condoms and replaced them with a bed sheet. In the meantime Evan investigated and fixed my headlight issue with a bypass wire and we ended the evening eating fried chicken and fries at a Pollo Estrella on a roundabout as it was the only place we could find that was open for food. Not what you'd consider one of our best days.

Our tempers and frustrations subsided, we decided to head for the mountains the following day. We'd seen a lot of Nica on our way through before so we planned to head roughly in the direction of the border back into Honduras, although we were in no particular hurry. We spent the next couple of days in Matagalpa where we met some really lovely people, the friendliest we'd met in weeks. We realised as we moved south through Nicaragua that the Costa Rican attitude is slowly creeping northwards. In San Juan del Sur tourists are openly despised and it wasn't until we reached the north that we felt truly comfortable again.

Here we met a great guy in a local bike shop who put my (failing) battery on charge overnight for me to see if it would make any difference. It didn't and thus it became another thing added to my growing list of 'must find' items. These bikes really have been almost faultless, but you can't escape basic maintenance and wear and it seemed that this was the latest thing to become troublesome, especially if my bike has been standing for a couple of days. We also met James, a very helpful young waiter at a fast food restaurant who, like the girl at the Pollo Estrella the day before, did his job with such incredible enthusiasm, serving us as though we were in a five star restaurant and even gave us his phone number, telling us to not hesitate to call him if we needed to know anything at all while we were in town. He made us smile. That guy will go far.

Upon leaving Matagalpa we decided to head further into the mountains, our first stop Jinotega. Here we found a new battery for my bike, a little bike shop that helped us find and put together that parts needed to raise my handlebars further and also a welder who welded Evan's new highway pegs on to his crash bars for just a few dollars. There really is very little that you can't get done, usually immediately, in these countries and for next to no cost.

Onwards again and several hours later we came up behind a parade of motorbikes, horses and people walking. Unsure what it was all about we passed and then stopped in the next town to find out. It turns out it was a pilgrimage in honour of the 100th anniversary of the birth of a local priest. We decided to break the cardinal rule of not riding in the dark and stuck around to wait for the parade to arrive. It really was quite an extraordinary show, more horses than we'd ever seen in one place and extremely well bred ones at that, all decked out in their finest.

We figured that we'd have to ride for the last hour, maybe two in the dark to get to the next town that we'd be likely to find accommodation in. The roads had been good though and mostly free from large wandering animals. We figured if we took it slow and were careful we'd be fine. What we didn't bank on was google pulling one of its stunts and marking a particularly rough dirt road as yellow on the map. Soon after leaving town we found ourselves on a not-very-nice dirt road heading into the middle of nowhere. We decided that we'd come far enough for going back to not be an option and estimated that it was about 30km to the main road again; it was actually 50km as it happened. We had no real choice but to continue. As the last rays of daylight faded the track became increasingly worse. Big dips, ruts and rocks combined with steep up and down hill sections. We pressed on and soon it was pitch black, only our headlights picking out the path ahead and a million stars above. In places it was hard to see which way the path went and more than once we had to stop and check.
At the first river crossing we came to we'd still had a little daylight, but I didn't feel confident in riding across so Evan took my bike across for me. At the second river crossing, much deeper and wider than the first and now in full darkness, I lost it and didn't want to go any further. Just before the crossing was a small house and we'd asked the man there if we could please camp there but he refused and insisted that the road wasn't far away. We're not sure whether he just didn't want us there or he was trying to tell us it wasn't safe to do so. There are certainly times when a little more Spanish would be useful. By now I was hysterical, exhausted and angry that we couldn't stop. Evan again wrestled both bikes across and now soaked up our knees and running out of energy we pressed on. The last few kilometres were the worst, not knowing when the road was ever going to end. I'd had enough, I didn't want to be doing this anymore. I was totally spent and I hated my bike. I wanted to get on the first plane home. We dodged horses, struggled with slippery, unexpected gravel sections and finally, some two hours after dark we emerged on to the paved road again. I can't begin to describe the relief I felt.

It turned out that we were closest to Esteli when we rejoined the road so that is where we headed. We went back to the same hotel, dumped our bikes and our stuff and went in search of food. Unfortunately we were too late for food, so instead we enjoyed a few well earned drinks. Sitting at a table next to us outside the bar was a girl and two guys and we soon became aware of their conversation. After hearing a mention of 'touratech' we finally cut in and asked if they were also travelling by bike. Meet Andrew, Jenni and Adam. Andrew is Canadian and travelling on his F800GS with Jenni, who is British and was backpacking until she met Andrew. Now they're now riding in a generally southern direction along with their cat, Maya, whom they adopted in Mexico when he was a tiny kitten. Maya rides in a bag slung over Jenni's shoulder.

Adam is from Iowa and riding a Vstar cruiser and had randomly met the other two the day before. Eventually we got kicked out of the bar at closing and arranged to meet the next day for breakfast. We had planned on leaving the following day, but breakfast turned into an all day thing and we talked right through to late evening when we finally parted company. It's great how sometimes you cross paths with people who are on exactly the same wavelength as you. It's spooky too how it seems to happen just when your spirits are a little low and you're in most need of some positive motivation. These guys were exactly what I needed.

We decided at this point that we were ready for something new and the following day headed for the border. It was a Sunday, always a good day to ride anywhere with far fewer people on the road and towns comparatively quiet. Although we'd been dreading the Honduran border paperwork, this time we crossed at a much smaller crossing and there was no pantomime performance with helpers and photocopies, just a very friendly and helpful woman at the aduana, only three copies and we were good to go. It is bizarre how different the processes can be for the same country depending on where you enter. Riding into Honduras I had a sudden feeling of excitement, that we were about to discover something very special. I wasn't wrong.

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