Journey to the Middle East

It’s been over a year since our unforgettable honeymoon in Nicaragua and though we have done some traveling in the past year, life has taken over and gotten in the way of our blogging time.  I am excited to get back on the “horse” with tales of my first trip to the Middle East, specifically Dubai.

Drew has been sailing in and around the Arabian/Persian Gulf off and on since December 2015 so when he knew he would be in port in Dubai for a couple of weeks, we decided it was about time for me to fly out and see this part of the world too.  We were lucky enough to have enough miles with Alaska Airlines (with a little help from my parents) to book me on a non-stop flight from SFO to Dubai on the infamous Emirates Airlines.  That’s a 15.5 hour flight, in case you were wondering!  I got to work right away on researching hotels, attractions, and packing suggestions.

I plan to write a post at the end of the trip with pictures of everything I wore and what I packed so you can get an idea of my “Dubai style.”  Packing for this trip was particularly challenging as I had to pack for the hot desert climate while also keeping in mind the religious customs that dictate modest dress in this part of the world.  My usual summer style of short shorts and sun dresses that worked perfectly in Nicaragua just weren’t quite right for this trip.

So last Monday afternoon I headed out on my 20 hour journey from Vallejo, California to Dubai.  I have to admit, I wasn’t able to travel with just my backpack this time around.  My clothes and everything fit in the backpack but I had some gifts and other items to bring to Drew that just couldn’t cut it so I ended up with a suitcase and tote bag instead.  “Love & Suitcases & Totes” doesn’t sound as good as “Love & Backpacks” though so I think we’ll keep the name.  I was glad I was at least aiming for fitting everything in the backpack because my overall load was still very manageable.

Ready to go at the BART station

My good friend, Diedre, picked me up at home and after a quick stop for lunch, dropped me at a BART (the Bay Area’s metro) station in the East Bay.  It was an easy 75-minute train ride to SFO where I was able to walk right up to the counter to check my bag and get my boarding pass.  The security line was a little slower but not as bad as I know it could have been.  I usually get TSA Pre-Check as part of my Global Entry membership but apparently Emirates Airlines doesn’t participate in Pre-Check, so that was a bummer.  While in the security line, I had about 4 people cut through saying their flights were leaving in 20 minutes.  The last guy who did it said his flight was boarding in 20 minutes and when I glanced at his boarding pass I saw that he was on the same flight as me.  He was correct, our flight was to begin boarding in 20 minutes, however they were starting the boarding process 80 minutes before the flight was scheduled to depart.  So unless he was flying first class (he was not), he was not late. I just went along with the line and had just the right amount of the time to stop at the newsstand for some magazines, water, and snacks before getting to the boarding area with plenty of time.

A380 wing viewed from window

This was my first flight on an Airbus A380 plane, which is the huge 2-story one.  It was pretty amazing looking out at the wings and seeing just how massive they are.  I was hoping to catch a glimpse of Emirates’ famous first class cabin but unfortunately I was ushered straight into my economy section.  My window seat was right next to the wing on the left side of the plane, and I was lucky enough to have the whole 3-seat row to myself.  This allowed me to lay down and actually get some sleep.

Lots of room.

This was by far the longest flight I’ve ever taken and I was very nervous beforehand about what I would do the whole time and what I should bring.  Now that it’s over, here is a list of the items I’m glad I had with me:

  • noise-cancelling headphones
  • neck pillow
  • sweater
  • scarf
  • wool blend compression socks (mine are these from Sockwell)
  • 2 liters of water
  • face cleansing wipes

I brought multiple books and magazines, as well as my iPad, but surprisingly didn’t spend much time with any of them.  I mostly watched the movies and TV shows available on the flight’s free on-demand system or slept.  When I first sat down I thought I’d watch at least 5 movies but I ended up only getting through 2 and a half.  I slept a lot more than I thought I would.  The plane was dark through most of the flight which is part of why I didn’t do much reading.  I could have turned on the light above my seat but the people around me were sleeping and those lights are quite bright.

Menu of the day

I had heard wonderful things about the food on Emirates and when I saw the menu I was impressed.  In the end, I would say it was more interesting than the food I’ve had on other airlines but I’m not sure I would say it was better.  For dinner I had a fish curry and some red wine.  That was the best meal of the flight.  Later on there was a cheese pizza snack which was overly salty for me.  For “breakfast” I had scrambled eggs and chicken sausage.  I really didn’t like this meal.  For both the dinner and breakfast, the vegetarian options I saw looked better so I might have to try that on the way back.

Fish Curry

About half way through the flight I looked at the time and couldn’t believe we were only half way there.  At that point I had pretty much slept as much as I could and my ears were tired of wearing headphones.  A guy who was traveling with his family back to India ended up sitting in my row for awhile as it was right behind his sister and we got to talking.  I’m not normally one to enjoy small talk with strangers but it was nice to have someone to talk to during that insanely long flight.

Cabernet Sauvignon

The End of the Honeymoon, Part 1

As we neared the end of our trip to Nicaragua, there were still a handful of places we wanted to visit. We were down to only 3 days though, so we decided to head for Granada because we had heard good things from other travelers we met and it is close enough to Managua that we could get to the airport by taxi on our last day. Granada is a traditional colonial town with beautiful, old architecture and rich culture. We were excited to learn a bit more about Nicaragua.

We arrived after dark via the aforementioned Tica Bus without a hotel reservation for the night. On the bus ride, I had called a couple of places and, doing the best I could in Spanish, tried to arrange a room. The first place I called offered a rate that was more than double what we saw online so we decided to keep looking. It turned out that the online rate was per person, despite the fact that it was for a “double room.” That is something to watch out for when traveling internationally; hotel prices often vary depending on the number of people. The next place I called looked really nice and the man on the phone, who spoke no English at all, was able to tell me that they did have rooms available but he needed to call the manager to make the reservation. After a rather stilted conversation I figured out that he was going to call the manager to actually come in and meet us at the hotel when we arrived.

When we got off the Tica Bus we were on a fairly dark, mostly residential, street. We were soon greeted by an American who introduced himself and explained that he ran a hostel down the road. We told him we had arranged for a room at a hotel, Casa Lucia, and he helped us with directions and assured us that it was safe to walk around town at night. He also told us that he ran day trips from his hostel to various attractions just outside town, including Laguna Apoyo which we had planned to visit. He invited us to just let him know if we wanted to participate and he would arrange space in the van. We quickly went from feeling a bit disconcerted about where we were and what we were doing to feeling confident and excited to be in this new place.

We made our way to Casa Lucia which was situated on a quiet, residential street just outside the busier city center. The face of the hotel is a simple blue wall with a gate and a small sign to let you know where you are. When we arrived, the man I spoke with on the phone was there to greet us and let us in. He said the manager would be there soon and he showed us around the property a bit. We were in awe at how beautiful, and large, the property was. The quaint facade did not portray what we found inside. When you first walk in you are greeted with a welcoming seating area and a bar hosting local beer and cocktails. As you continue down the narrow path, you pass an on-site rented apartment on one side and a guest room on the other. Then you step out into an open area which contains a stunning pool, an outdoor yoga studio, a kitchen, and multiple seating areas. From here you can look up and see the rest of the guest rooms as well as a rooftop patio complete with hammock.

Casa Lucia from roof top patio
Casa Lucia from roof top patio


Casa Lucia pool
Casa Lucia pool

Needless to say, we were glad we made the extra effort to find this place. When the manager arrived, she showed us two available rooms and we picked one which had a king-size bed and was big and open with vaulted ceilings. It was truly luxurious. After the necessary paperwork, we put our stuff down, freshened up a bit, and headed out for a late dinner. El Zaguan is a steakhouse which was recommended to us and we were pleased to find a great atmosphere and a mix of locals and tourists. We ordered a pitcher of sangria, which was delicious, and each of us ordered a steak. The food was divine. We both agreed it was definitely the best steak we’d had in Central America and even some of the best anywhere. We came home to Casa Lucia that night happy and ready for a good night’s rest.

The next morning we woke up feeling great, ready for another exciting day. We went downstairs where there was fresh coffee and a cook in the kitchen ready to make us breakfast. We both ordered the classic Nicaraguan breakfast: Gallo pinto and eggs. It was also served with fresh fruit, juice, bread, and jam. Everything was delicious and we both thought it was the best gallo pinto we’d had. The cook was actually from the Corn Islands so we got to talking about our visit there and it turns out he knows Ike, the owner of the inn we stayed at on Big Corn Island. It goes to show what a small island it really is.

After breakfast we spent the day just wandering around the town, admiring the beautiful architecture. We stopped and had lunch at a food stand in the center of town but were a bit under impressed. A little later, after we took a walk along the shore of Lake Nicaragua, we stopped for afternoon drinks and a snack at a restaurant that has the reputation of having the best Macuás in town. The macuá is Nicaragua’s official cocktail and contains Flor de Caña (the national rum), guava juice, and lemon or lime juice. They were very good and it was very easy to drink too many of them without noticing. We walked around some more and then headed back to the hotel to enjoy the pool. Later that night we went back into town for dinner where we sat outside and watched the people go by.

Walking around Granada
Walking around Granada

The next day, our last full day in Nicaragua, we headed to GM Granada hostel where we had arranged to meet the van heading to Laguna Apoyo. While we waited there for the van, we got a tour of the hostel which was really very nice. Had we been more focused on sticking to a budget, we definitely would have been happy to stay there. It was clean and comfortable and even had a pool. Finally, the van came and we squeezed in with a bunch of other people. We stopped at one or two more places before heading out of town for the lake. The van was completely full at that point, mostly of people from the US. There were a few girls who were in Nicaragua volunteering at an orphanage, some other backpackers, and a couple from Baltimore who had recently gotten engaged.

We arrived at Laguna Apoyo and were shown around the hostel resort which was really cool. It had multiple levels, leading down to the shore of the lake. There was a bar and restaurant and they made it easy with a system where you just order food and drinks all day and pay at the end. The use of kayaks and inner tubes was included. Laguna Apoyo is a lake in the crater of a volcano. The water is clear and refreshing and apparently is extremely deep in the center. We made use of the kayaks and inner tubes and really enjoyed the lake. We spent the day hanging out with the couple from Baltimore, Blayne and Elizabeth. We had a lot in common and it was only too bad that we didn’t meet before our last day.

Laguna Apoyo
Laguna Apoyo

It turned out it was their last day too and we quickly learned that we were on the same flight from Managua to Houston the next day. We had already arranged a taxi to take us from Granada to Managua so we invited them to join us and split the fare. When we got back to Granada from Laguna Apoyo, we invited them over to our hotel for a couple of mojitos. Made by the hotel manager, they were probably the best mojitos any of us had ever had. After drinks, we arranged to meet later on for our last dinner in Nicaragua.

We met up at Ciudad Lounge, a hip restaurant owned and run by a couple from San Diego. When we arrived we were seated in a comfortable outdoor “lounge” area. We ordered drinks and appetizers and just sat and enjoyed the relaxed ambiance. Everything we ordered was delicious. Drew and Blayne had a locally-made microbrew which we had not seen anywhere else. Elizabeth and I had an Italian white wine that was quite good. All of the food was great as well. We would definitely recommend Ciudad Lounge to any visitors of Granada. It was not as cheap as most food in Nicaragua but it was as good as anywhere you might go in San Francisco or San Diego where the prices for the same thing would have probably been double.

After a fun last night out in Nicaragua, we woke up the next morning to have one last delicious breakfast of Gallo pinto before heading to the airport. We were there with plenty of time and our flight was delayed so we had a long wait. While waiting, Drew was chatting with his sister who was to be graduating medical school the coming Monday. We would have planned to go but she was sure she couldn’t get us tickets to the ceremony. So when she mentioned to Drew that she now could get tickets, she jokingly suggested that we come to London. Well seeing as we were heading home and feeling kind of bummed that our vacation was coming to a close, Drew took this as an opportunity to extend our travels a bit longer. By the time we were boarding our plane in Houston for San Francisco, we had plane tickets for four days later to London. The adventure continues!

As One Adventure Ends…

Another begins, or so the story goes. As many of you know we are now back in the United States from our amazing honeymoon in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. However, we decided that wasn’t enough and we are off to London in the morning to participate in my sister’s medical school graduation festivities in London. From there we will be off to the mainland of Europe to visit our friend Alouette whom we met in Nicaragua and then on to Munich to see one of my groomsmen, Michael. From there we will be off to Edinburgh, to see my favorite city in the world.

We have not yet finished writing about our adventures in Central America and will continue to write them as we travel and keep you up to date on our new adventures on the other side of the Atlantic, so stay tuned for more from Love and Backpacks!

Is This The Border Crossing?

Crossing the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica was probably the most stressful part of our entire trip. The buildings and signs do not look official at all so it is hard to tell whether anything is real. We’ve heard stories about tourists being ripped off by people telling hem they need to pay this or that fee or tax, and the people aren’t government officials. During the whole experience we really didn’t know what was what so we never felt comfortable.

We left La Isla de Ometepe on a Sunday afternoon ferry to San Jorge where we had to say our good-byes to Ryan, Alouette, Bruce, and Ian.  Ryan and Alouette were headed up to Granada for a couple of days before flying home (to Canada and The Netherlands, respectively).  Bruce and Ian were returning to Playa Popoyo where they are spending the rest of their summer vacation.  Drew and I were on our way to Costa Rica to find some volcanic hot springs to relax in.

From Left: Ryan, Bruce, Drew, Ian, Laura, Alouette.  On our way from Ometepe (in background) to San Jorge.
From Left: Ryan, Bruce, Drew, Ian, Laura, Alouette. On our way from Ometepe (in background) to San Jorge.

We arranged a taxi to drive us from San Jorge to Peñas Blancas, the border town on the Nicaragua side.  It was about a 40 minute drive and we negotiated the cost down to $20.  When we got to the border, the driver got us as close as he could and dropped us off.  There were no signs or anything indicating where we were supposed to go.  There was a long fence and some small houses scattered around but that was about it.  We started walking along the fence, looking for the entrance but came to a dead-end.  There was a woman near us so we asked her, in Spanish, “where is Costa Rica?”  It seemed the clearest way to get our point across.  She pointed back down the fence a ways and we saw an overhang where there was in fact a gate.  Somehow we had walked right past it without even noticing.

We went back to the gate, showed our passports, and walked through.  Now we were walking in a large open area where there were trucks and cars in line to go through.  We started walking one way, probably looking quite lost, when a truck driver got our attention and waved us another way.  We crossed the lines of cars and headed toward some buildings that were at least starting to look a little more official.  As we were walking, a man in a TransNica polo shirt came up to us and asked us where were headed.  When we told him, “Liberia, Costa Rica” he told us that we could take the TransNica bus there for $12 each.  That sounded good to us so we told him we would do that and he pointed us in the direction of the Customs & Immigration building where we needed to go fill out some forms and pay a fee.  We walked into the building and a woman, not in any uniform, said we need to pay her $1 each but wasn’t able to explain to us in English what it was for.  Drew was skeptical and refused to pay so we proceeded up to the windows where the uniformed officials were working.  The lady came up behind us and told him that we hadn’t paid the $1 and he said he couldn’t help us until we paid her.  Still not sure it was official, we went ahead and paid her, showed him our passports, paid him some more, and we were on our way.

We then went and waited by the bus we were going to be taking to Liberia.  We weren’t allowed to wait on the bus so we had to stand out front for awhile.  A large group of people had gathered around and then a TransNica employee showed up with a pile of passports and began calling names.  I realized that these people had already been on the bus, probably from Managua, and TransNica had taken care of the border-crossing logistics and now they were re-loading the bus.  After all the names were called, we were allowed on the bus as well and found a pair of seats in an exit row, which just like on an airplane gave us some extra leg room.  When everyone was on, we were on our way…for about 2 minutes.  Then it was time to stop and get off the bus again, with all of our stuff, to go through the Costa Rica Customs & Immigration office.  We had to go through a security checkpoint, just like at the airport, then go into the office to fill out another form and have our passports stamped.  At the same time, Costa Rica was playing Greece in the World Cup and the game was on TV behind the counter so the workers were being especially slow at helping us as they kept turning around to watch the game.  Finally we made it through and we were back on the bus.

The bus ride was surprisingly comfortable with free wi-fi and coffee service.  In about an hour we arrived in Liberia and were dropped off on the side of the highway in front of a gas station, McDonalds, Burger King, and Papa Johns.  The second I set my foot off the bus, the entire population around me burst out in cheers.  As exciting as my arrival was, they were in fact cheering because Costa Rica had won the game against Greece.  “Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé, Tico, Tico!” was being chanted all around, everyone was wearing red, white, and blue, and Costa Rican flags were being flown from every car and building in the street.

Inside the Burger King and Papa Johns food court right after the game ended.
Inside the Burger King and Papa Johns food court right after the game ended.


The spontaneous parade in Liberia, celebrating Costa Rica's victory.
The spontaneous parade in Liberia, celebrating Costa Rica’s victory.
The parade continued.
The parade continued.

After a delicious lunch of Papa Johns pizza, we walked down the main street of Liberia and witnessed a remarkable spontaneous parade of cars that appeared to go on for miles.  We had planned to walk around to check out a couple of hotels in town but soon realized it was going to be difficult to get anywhere, not to mention it would be difficult to sleep with the party going on.  We decided to head out to the Hilton Garden Inn by the Liberia airport for a little bit of US comfort before renting a car the next morning and heading inland to Volcan Arenal.  More to come on that adventure in another post.

Five days later we were back at the Hilton Garden Inn for the Fourth of July to spend the night before trekking back to Nicaragua the following day.  When we arrived in Liberia on the Fourth we went to McDonalds as it seemed a fitting place to celebrate the USA.  After lunch we went into town to buy tickets for the TicaBus to Granada, Nicaragua for the next day.  I felt like we were on Amazing Race as I was running around looking for this small hotel where I was to buy the tickets and we were on a time crunch because we had to return the rental car in less than 30 minutes.  I finally found it and purchased two tickets for $27 each for the late afternoon bus.  Unfortunately they didn’t have availability any earlier than that, as we had hoped to get into Granada with at least half a day to spare.  We got the rental car back in time and enjoyed a relaxing evening by the pool.

The next day, we headed into town to wait for the TicaBus which would pick up in front of a hotel right next to the McDonalds.  The hotel had a restaurant so we sat down and had lunch while we waited for the bus.  Coincidentally, the Costa Rica vs. Netherlands game was going on at this time and unfortunately that game didn’t turn out so well for Costa Rica.  When the bus finally came a little after 4:00 (we were originally told they would come at 3:30), we hopped on and made our way toward the back to find a pair of seats.  It was looking like we would have to separate but then a man got up and, gesturing to a row of seats, was asking us something in Spanish.  It seemed as if he was offering the seats so we thanked him and sat down.  Another guy kept asking us something though and there was a lot of confusion before he walked away muttering, “gringos!”  Finally a couple of girls from Texas told us that our tickets had seat numbers on them and they had been asking us whether those were our assigned seats.  It was all so clear, now!  I looked at our tickets and sure enough, we were in the correct seats!  What a relief!

We were on our way north back to the Nicaraguan border, in the correct seats, though not quite as comfy as on the way down as we had much less room and no free wi-fi or coffee.  At some point along the way, a TicaBus employee handed us the Customs & Immigration forms we would need to fill out and then collected the entrance fee for Nicaragua.  From what we could tell, the fee is actually $10 but they charged us $14, probably as some sort of service fee.  At this point we thought we were all set for a smooth border crossing, as TicaBus was supposed to take care of everything for us.

When we arrived to the border, we got out on the Costa Rica side and went up to the counter with our forms all filled out and ready to go.  The man at the counter asked for our receipt and we said we had paid on the TicaBus.  We went back and forth, clearly confused, before he finally just walked us back out to the TicaBus guy to help us out.  The TicaBus employee explained that we needed to pay a $7 exit tax first and pointed us off in the opposite direction toward some old houses on the side of the road and said to go to the yellow one.  We hustled over there and went inside where there was yet another very unofficial looking counter and a woman asked for our passports and $8 each.  We said, “isn’t it $7?” and she said there was a $1 service fee.  We were so sick of this, we just paid it and rushed back to the other building.  We seemed to be the only ones who had to go pay this tax and everyone else was already lining back up to get on the bus.  We got back to the first counter, showed our receipts, and got our passports stamped.

Now it was time to get back on the bus to make the 2 minute drive over to the Nicaraguan side.  As we boarded the bus, the TicaBus employees collected one of the forms we filled out along with our passports.  They would be taking care of having everyone’s passport checked on the Nicaragua side.  Once there, we got off the bus again with all of our stuff and followed some other people up to where there was an extremely long table on which people were putting all of their bags.  We followed suit and put our backpacks on the table where we stood next to them and waited.  Apparently this is Nicaragua’s version of a security checkpoint.  Someone came by, collecting one of the many forms we filled out, looked at our bags, and gave us the nod of approval to go back and stand by the door to the bus.  We stood there for a very long time until finally the TicaBus personnel were back and began calling us by name, returning our passports to us as we boarded the bus.  We were finally on our way to Granada.  The drive was almost 2 hours and it was dark when we arrived, but we made it.  We were exhausted and so happy to be off the bus, ready to experience our last few days in Nicaragua.

The TicaBus at the border.
The TicaBus at the border.


All of the TicaBus passengers with their belongings lined up on the table.
All of the TicaBus passengers with their belongings lined up on the table.


"The Border"
“The Border”


Border crossing.
Border crossing.

Ojo de Agua: The Recovery

After our hike up Mt. Maderas the entire group was sore and in need of recovery. We’d heard rumor of a lake of healing water on the island filled by a natural spring: Ojo de Agua. Our guide from the mountain had told us it was a short one kilometer walk up the road. We should have known, based on his time estimates from the hike, that this was likely a much longer distance. We set off walking with directions from the front desk: “it’s on the other side of the river on the left.”

We started walking and almost immediately a herd of horses came running down the middle of the street. We dodged to the side and watched this spectacle block traffic as the horses tried to sneak a bite to eat before the farmer shooed them along. We held still and attempted to stay out of the way to avoid being trampled.


As we were walking, one of our waiters from Villa Paraiso caught up with us as he was walking to catch the bus home and we asked him about Ojo de Agua and said that we’d been told it was only 15-20 minutes away; he started laughing, hard, and told us that might be true, if you ran quickly. We all realized we’d fallen victim one more time to Bismark’s “15 more minutes” line, being that we wanted to see the healing waters and swim to help loosen our sore muscles. We pushed on, simply enjoying the lush scenery of Ometepe. We were enjoying the walk and talking about conquering the volcano the day before when our waiter stopped us quickly and pointed out a group of spider monkeys feasting on food refuse by the side of the road, including a mother with a baby on her back. The wild monkeys let us get up close and personal, clearly being well adjusted to their human companions on the island.

A mother and her baby.

Two more spider monkeys resting in the shade.

After another 45 minutes of walking through the hills of Ometepe we finally reached the river, with cattle drinking on one side and families doing their laundry on the other. It was here that I realized what a simple life most residents on the island lead. This simplicity was part of the charm of Ometepe; the scenery was beautiful, the people out of their way friendly, and life just moved at a slower pace.

Families doing their laundry in the river, they wanted a dollar to take the picture.

About 100 meters past the river we finally came to the sign for Ojo de Agua; only another 500 meters to go and we would be able to soak in the healing waters and stretch our sore muscles. We reached the entrance, paid our three dollars and walked into this beautifully shrouded mineral spring lagoon. We all quickly changed and jumped in, eager to cool off. While the mineral spring did not heal all of our pains, the walk there combined with the swim helped eliminate most of our pains and the mineral balance of the water left us feeling clean and refreshed. Ojo de Agua is definitely a must see if you come to Ometepe.

Ojo de Agua, a sight for sore eyes.

On the hike the previous day we had heard howler monkeys throughout the day and caught glimpses towards the end of the day but nothing up close. As we were finishing up at Ojo de Agua we were greeted by the familiar grunts and howls of the howler monkeys’ approach, and we’re pleasantly surprised to see them in the trees above the spring, apparently incensed that we had invaded their space. It was the perfect end to our time on Ometepe, and though we were sad to leave and part with our new friends, we move on to adventures in Costa Rica, knowing we will be back.

A howler monkey in the trees above Ojo de Agua.

The dirt path as we leave Ojo de Agua at the end of a long day.

The Climb Up Volcan Maderas

We arrived at La Isla de Ometepe on Thursday evening on a ferry that was, let’s just say, a bit out of date. The ferry ride was a bit windy and seemed to go on forever, but was nothing compared to the boat adventure we had between the Corn Islands. We had traveled by taxi from San Juan del Sur to San Jorge with our friends Ryan and Alouette. Upon arrival in San Jorge we were quickly greeted with information and offers for tours, taxis, and hotels on Ometepe. With some difficulty, we were able to decline their offers and go have a quick lunch in peace before boarding the next ferry. While eating, we started talking to a father and son from Santa Barbara who were planning to take the next small boat to the island. Drew convinced them it would be worth it to wait the half hour for the larger ferry boat and we had increased our group to six. Bruce and Ian were interested in hiking one of the volcanoes on the island, as we were, so we all decided to look for a place to stay together so we could arrange a hike for the following morning.

The island is in Lake Nicaragua and is made up of two volcanoes, Concepcion and Maderas. Concepcion is an active volcano and Maderas is inactive. Maderas is also slightly smaller than Concepcion so we had all decided to hike that one. When we arrived on the island, we hopped in a “colectivo” van, which is basically a taxi you take with a bunch of other people to make it cheaper per person. We had a total of 13 people in the van and it worked out to be $4 per person for the approximately 45 minute drive across the island. Since the 6 of us were planning the hike for the morning, we decided to check out a place we had heard about that was right at the base of the trail. After dropping off the other 7 passengers at various hotels and hostels, we made our way up a muddy dirt road to Finca Magdalena.

A view of Ometepe from the ferry.

As we pulled up to the main building, my first thought was “this can’t be it.” In front of us was an old farm house that even from the outside looked like it was lacking in comfort and security. Drew tells me to go in first to make sure we can get a private room so I walk up the steps and find a girl who works there. I asked for a “habitacion privado” and after confirming that she had some, she proceeded to show us the shared bathroom and showers. I wasn’t thrilled about that but I figured I could deal with it for a day or two. When she showed us the rooms, I really started to have doubts. We walked down a dark, drafty hallway to a series of private rooms that were locked with padlocks and with doors that appeared to be made of nothing more than plywood. Inside each room was a simple bed with a worn mosquito net that had at least a few holes. The walls of the rooms did not meet the ceiling. No one looked terribly excited about the place but for $12 a night, no one could think of a reason to go elsewhere. Until Bruce asked if they take credit cards and the girl said, “no.” Bruce literally ran down the steps to see if Maximo, our driver, was still there. He was and we all heaved sighs of relief as we grabbed our stuff and jumped back in the van.

With the help of Maximo, TripAdvisor, and Bruce’s fluency in Spanish, we landed at Villa Paraiso, a very nice hotel, for a reasonable rate. We each had our own Cabana with private bathroom, AC, hot water, and even TV. The hotel is right on the lake and has its own restaurant and pool. The service was excellent and the place was really comfortable. After we had settled in, we all agreed that the other place made us feel like we were entering a horror movie and we were all so glad to be at Villa Paraiso. Before he left, we arranged for Maximo to pick us up at 6:00 AM, along with a guide, for our hike up Volcan Maderas.

Ryan hanging out in front of Villa Paraiso.

After a comfortable night under the cool air of the AC, we awoke shortly after 5:00 AM to get ready for the hike. We dressed, packed a bag, and met in the lobby at 5:45 for coffee. The hotel had prepared bagged lunches and bottled water for us. Maximo arrived with our guide, Bismark, and we all piled back in the van. We made our way back up the dirt road to Finca Magdalena and the head of the trail. After dividing up the food and water among everyone’s bags, we were on our way.

Starting out on our journey!

Bismark took off at a fast pace that left some of us a bit out of breath but we mostly kept up at first. The trail started off just a little slippery and uphill but nothing too difficult. The higher we got though, the steeper and wetter we got. Bruce and Ian did not bring backpacks and at one point offered to carry mine and Alouette’s. That turned out to be a life saver as I don’t think I could have made it with that pack on. Big shout out to both of them, but especially Ian who kept up with Bismark all the way up and down with my backpack on his back! As we got higher up the mountain, our pace slowed and it seemed every time we asked Bismark how much longer to the top, the answer was 40 minutes. The first time I fell I felt like giving up but I was determined to keep going. The next time I fell I landed right in a puddle of mud and I was ready to cry. I pushed through the tears though and kept following the group. I think having Ian up front with my backpack full of food helped motivate me like a dog following its owner with a pocket full of treats.

View from a lookout point on the way up.

We managed to make our way to the top after a brief encounter with a poisonous snake, a bee sting, and a few scrapes and bruises in about 4 hours. When we got to the top, I was a bit underwhelmed. There was just a small clearing but we were still mostly under the cover of trees and it was cloudy so there was no view. I have never enjoyed a ham sandwich like I did that day though. We were all famished. The hotel had packed us 2 sandwiches each, crackers, fruit cups, and bananas and we ate it all. There is a lagoon in the center of the mountain that I was really looking forward to all the way up, but it was actually quite cold at the top of the mountain and I had no desire to go swimming at that point. Bismark said the lagoon was another 5 minutes down the trail and that he would stay there with our stuff if we wanted to go check it out. We started off but Drew and Ryan very quickly decided to stay behind. A little further down, there was a pretty big jump down that I wasn’t so sure I’d be able to get back up so Alouette and I turned around as well. A few minutes later, Ian and Bruce were back as well. Apparently there was an even bigger jump, into a large mud pit, and they decided to turn back as well. Perhaps there was a reason Bismark was going to stay behind all along.

Alouette, Bruce, Ryan, and I starting out for the lagoon.

We didn’t get to rest for long before it was time to start making our way back down. Bismark was concerned it might start raining, hard, which would make the descent more difficult and more dangerous. The “trail” was actually more of a stream bed so I get the feeling we would have needed a raft had it started pouring. The way down turned out to be much more difficult for the most part. It was slippery and hard on our knees. I fell at least 8 times and my wrists were starting to hurt from catching myself. Everyone was worse for wear and we were all ready to just be done with the whole thing. It was the thought of a shower and a hot meal that got us all safely down the mountain. Safely might not be the most accurate word, but we were all alive and still able to stand at the end so that’s something. Bismark and Ian were literally running down the mountain at times and apparently at one point Bismark slipped and caught himself just before flying off a cliff.

The whole way up was lush and green.

A petroglyph we found on the way down.

The highlight on the way down was a group of howler monkeys in the trees. Ryan had stopped and turned around to wait for those of us who were behind him and looked up at just the right time. There was even a little baby monkey. I had been hoping to see monkeys this whole trip so I was so excited to finally see some. By this time the trail was starting to flatten out and we were on the home stretch. We got down to Finca Magdalena and Drew got a round of beers to celebrate our success. We cleaned off our shoes with a hose, drank our beers, and truly enjoyed being able to just sit down for a bit. Maximo’s wife had come to pick us up but couldn’t make it up the dirt road in her truck so we walked down a bit to meet her. Bismark, Drew, Ian, Ryan, and Alouette hopped in the bed and Bruce and I sat in the cab.

A howler monkey in a tree.

That morning, Drew had asked Maximo if there was somewhere on the island to get Nacatamales, Nicaragua’s version of tamales, and he said we could get them on Sundays. On our ride home though, Bismark pointed out a house that had been making them and had them available right now, so we had to stop. We picked up one for everyone, at less than a dollar each, and headed back to Villa Paraiso. When we got there we gathered around a table and savored those Nacatamales. Nacatamales are larger than Mexican tamales, with the same corn meal but also rice and potatoes. They are filled with fatty pork and onions and are wrapped in a banana leaf. They were the perfect after-hike snack.

After getting cleaned up and resting for a bit, we all met up for dinner at the hotel restaurant and discussed our day. We were all hurting and exhausted but I think everyone was proud that we completed the hike. I know I am.

Ometepe: Lakeside Paradise

Laura and I have moved on from San Juan del Sur to the lush island paradise of Ometepe. Since arriving three days ago we have hiked the smaller of the two volcanos on the island, Maderas, a 1400 meter high volcano that at times involved us scrambling on hands and knees to go up. The trek took a total of 7 1/2 hours. The four hours up were difficult and our traveling companions helped urge us along and without them I doubt we would have summited the mountain. After our lunch on the mountain top we were feeling energized and ready to begin our descent, only to discover that the descent was harder then the climb, we were on our butts and scrambling through the mud all the way down the mountain. It was only at the bottom that I found out that the guide and Ian one of our traveling friends had been racing and running down the hill and nearly killed themselves running off a cliff. When we got to bottom we had a celebratory beer and the endorphins started flowing, we were all happy to be done with the mountain, but proud of our accomplishment.


The group before the climb; left to right Laura, Alouette, Bruce, Ian, Ryan and Drew.


Foliage on the hike from a vantage point looking down the slope.


Mist drifting down the mountain.


Laura and I at the halfway point of the hike, and the best vantage on the mountain.


The summit party, all smiles after conquering the mountain. Little did we know what came next.


Bruce, Ian and our guide, Bismark, in the moss forest.

It was a difficult day, but definitely an accomplishment to remember for years to come!

Maderas from the beach on Ometepe.

Día de San Juan Bautista: La Fiesta Patronales

We arrived in San Juan del Sur with a bang, literally. Fireworks were being set off all over town with thunderous booms from early in the morning to late into the night. We spent our first 24 hours trying to figure out what on earth was going on in this seemingly sleepy seaside town, or if this was just normal; it wasn’t until after we followed a parade featuring a hewn tree trunk through the streets of San Juan del Sur that we got our answer: the birthday of St. John, the patron saint of San Juan del Sur. The weekend marked the start of festivities in the lead up to the saint’s birthday. It included everything from potato sack races to celebrations of the saint’s baptism of Jesus to firework-laced ‘bull’ icons racing through the crowd. The celebrations continued with each day seemingly getting larger as more and more businesses around town closed down for the celebration and the streets got more and more crowded. We were fortunate to get to see this celebration first hand, despite being startled out of bed at all hours of the night by fireworks and church bells.


The whole community came out for the celebration. There were bouncy castles for children, concert stages setup through the town square constantly blasting popular local dance music. This was clearly the community event of the year. Residents set up chairs all over the church plaza and talked, ate, laughed, and drank; and my did they drink. Flor de Caña sponsored the entire event! The square was packed from late morning till early morning (the last firework show of the night went off at 4:30 in the morning). Everyone was incredibly friendly and inviting and it almost made us feel as if we were part of the community. It makes you realize how in different parts of the world, patron saint’s are still very much a large part of the community and the celebration brings people together.


Bull efficacies chasing the crowd with fireworks.

May pole celebration in front of the Catholic Church in San Juan del Sur.

Jesus being paraded through the crowd in celebration of John the Baptist.
The sunset from our hostel above the church where all of the celebrations were.

San Juan del Sur: Haven for Surfers, Yogis, and Catholics

Where can you surf, practice yoga, and visit one of the largest statues of Jesus Christ in the world? San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua is home to all of these things and more. A town with an eclectic mix of local and ex-pats, San Juan del Sur has quickly become one of the most interesting places Drew or I have ever visited. As I write this, I am sitting in a restaurant right on the beach, drinking a cappuccino, being solicited for sunglasses (which is probably a cover for the drugs he’s really selling), watching pelicans float on the waves in the rain, with a large statue of Jesus Christ on the hilltop overlooking the whole town.


It seems that, more than anything, surfing is what brings people from all over the world to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. So, Drew and I decided it was time to take a lesson. We ran into a guy from Colorado who we had met on Big Corn Island and he told us about One Love Surf School through which he had just taken a lesson. We went down the next day and signed up for a lesson. The guy, when he asked where we were from, was surprised to learn a couple of Californians had never been surfing before!

The next day we showed up at the shop, ready to hit the waves. We hopped in their truck with the boards in the back and headed for Playa Remanso, South of town. Apparently, the best beach for learning to surf is Playa Hermosa but it is closed through September because the next season of Survivor is being filmed here. Playa Remanso was beautiful though, and not too busy which made it just that much better for learning.

The lesson began with our teacher talking to us about the nature of surfing. It requires patience and being able to relax and just go with the flow. He said you’ll spend 80-90% of your time waiting or paddling and only 10-20% actually surfing. After this brief talk, we got to practicing on land. We learned how and where to lay on the board, how to move our arms for paddling, and finally, how to actually stand up. We practiced over and over until we showed that we had the motions down.

Finally it was time to try it out in the water. We attached the boards to our ankles and walked out into the waves. When it got a bit deeper we hopped on the boards and started paddling out. This proved to be the hardest part for me as I am not a very good swimmer and my arms are not terribly strong. Finally we got out far enough and it was time to try to catch a wave. The first time I basically just stayed down on the board and felt what it was like to just ride the wave. The next time I was able to get up into position 1, which is basically Cobra pose in yoga. For the next 2 hours or so we kept trying, again and again. We were both able to stand up for at least a few seconds by the end of it all.


Overall it was a lot of fun and something I might try again but I wouldn’t call it my new hobby. I can see how it requires the ability to relax and just stay focused on where you are. In this way it is very much like yoga, which is something I really enjoy. The day after our surfing lesson, in fact, I found a yoga studio and joined a class. My body was a little stiff and in need of some good stretching. It turned out that most of the people in the class are here for a surf camp and so the class would be focusing on restorative poses for surfing. Perfect!

Now one of the things I love about yoga is the quiet relaxation it brings. This class turned out to be far from quiet. Imagine you are on a serene rooftop with soft music and birds chirping. Now throw in a live band, amplified for miles, and cannons and fireworks going off every 30 seconds or so. The entire building shakes every time the cannon sounds. So much for peaceful yoga class, right? It actually turned out to be pretty amazing how class was able to go on and we could stay focused despite the uncontrollable distractions.

You will read more about these “distractions” in Drew’s post, but in short, we happen to be in San Juan del Sur during the festival of San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist). This is a huge celebration in this heavily Catholic town. As I mentioned earlier, a huge statue of Jesus overlooks the town. We decided to hike up there, along with our new friend from the Netherlands, Alouette. We headed out, with directions from the owner of our hostel. He said it would take about 50 minutes…not too bad.

We started off along the beach and then began to wind our way up through the streets leading up the hill. We rounded a corner and the road just got steeper. We were beginning to question our desire to go all the way when a guy with a pickup showed up and offered us a ride. We gratefully hopped in the bed of the truck with another guy and his bike and rode up the rest of the hill. At the top we still had a steep set of stairs to climb and a $2 entrance fee to pay but finally we arrived.

The view from the statue was incredible. We could see all the way south to Costa Rica. The hills are scattered with huge houses that would cost tens of millions of dollars in the Bay Area but probably come in under a million here. The statue itself is quite impressive though is not as large as the famous statue of Jesus in Rio de Janeiro.

Having surfed, stretched, and hiked throughout San Juan del Sur, I find myself still intrigued by this town. We have already extended our stay here by a couple of days as we continue to explore the great culture, great food, and great people that populate San Juan del Sur.

Little Corn: A Photo Essay

Included in this post are a few of the pictures Laura and I got on Little Corn. This post will be updated when we get home with properly edited and much higher quality copies. I chose not to travel with a laptop and instead have been doing all of my photo editing on an Android tablet. Needless to say this work process has been cramped and difficult to manage, but I will get into that in a ‘nerd out’ post later.


Little Corn is full of isolated beaches which goes with Beach and Bungalow’s almost Robinson Crusoe theme.


The fastest form of transport on the island.


Lola, Little Corn Beach and Bungalow’s local rescue parot.


Your marker to let you know you’d arrived.


The island is not particularly high, so to get a 360 view required a bit of climbing up an abandoned lighthouse.



The view was definitely worth the climb.


American College volunteer groups frequently come to the islands to help teach English and repair and build people’s homes, there was a group that arrived about halfway into our stay.

World cup

And of course everyone needs their world cup fix, Los Delfinos is the only bar on the island with a public TV for the games.


But even there you get a fantastic view.

More pictures to come when we get home! Laura and I are celebrating the festival of San Juan Bautista here in San Juan del Sur, the concerts and fireworks went till 4:00 am and picked up around 9:00, hopefully we make it all night tonight!