data Bisbocci Abroad
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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Ometepe Island

When the Spanish Conquistadors set their eyes upon Lake Nicaragua for the first time, they named it the Mar Dulce, or Sweet Sea. 

It is not difficult to imagine why the Conquistadors believed the expansive body of water to be a sea, for the lake extend outward into the horizon for miles and miles. 

Lake Nicaragua is 161km long and 72km wide, making it one of the largest lakes in the world and the largest in Central America. In the center of the lake, sits Ometepe Island--the world's largest freshwater island and one of Nicaragua's main tourist attractions. 

Ometepe Island is beautiful. Flanked by two volcanoes on either side and held together by an isthmus, the island rises above the waters of Lake Nicaragua. Ometepe Island contains two towering volcanoes--Maderas and Concepcion--that, on a cloudless day, are impressive reminders of the geological forces at play in the tiny country.



We visited Ometepe Island for two days after spending a bit of time on the rugged beaches of San Juan del Sur.

To be honest, I wasn't sure what to expect of the island and knew very little about what to do there. Yet, it wasn't a particular site or activity that initially drew us to the island and ultimately made it difficult for us to leave. Rather, it was in the Ometepe's rustic and wild nature and its laid-back vibe. Setting foot on Ometepe Island is a bit like stepping back in time. The island has one primary road that circles its exterior and connects visitors and locals to the main towns and sites along the way. On Ometepe Island, cars share the road with horse-drawn buggies and wild animals mix with locals in the towns and countryside. 

We decided to hire a driver to take us around the island for a day and enjoyed exploring various tourist attractions in the shadow of the majestic Volcan Concepcion. 
                
Our tour of Ometepe Island began at the Charco Verde Ecological Reserve. The reserve covers about 20 hectares of tropical dry forest and contains hiking trails that encircle the park's lagoon, providing views of the island's volcanoes and black sand beaches. Walking the trails of Charco Verde brought us face to face with some of the exotic avian species that call Ometepe Island home. 



From Charco Verde, we hopped back into the car and visited the crystalline waters of Ojo de Agua--a spring fed by an underground river that has been turned into an outdoor semi-natural swimming pool. The water was refreshing and we spent about an hour cooling off in Ojo de Agua before continuing around the island to Playa Domingo for lunch along the island's longest and most famous beach. 


After eating a wonderful lunch of fresh seafood at one of the hotels overlooking the water and spending a bit of time walking along the shoreline, we hopped back into the car for a quick visit to the Ometepe Island's main archeological site. 



Ometepe island is famous for its rich pre-Colombian history, which is evidenced in the intricate rock art found throughout the island. The art dates back to around 1000 B.C. and contains motifs of local animals like lizards and monkeys. Considering the age of the carvings, they are incredibly well preserved. 

The Crown Jewel of Ometepe Island's petroglyphs is an elaborate calendar containing 360 days and eighteen months. 

From the rock carvings, we looped back around the island for a sunset stop at our last destination--Punta Jesus Maria. 

Along the way, we chatted with the driver about life on Ometepe island and gathered his impressions and observations about the current state of affairs in Nicaragua and on Ometepe Island in particular. Our driver spoke passionately about life on Ometepe Island and was visibly proud of the community in which he had lived his entire life. 

Yet, when the topic of conversation shifted toward the proposed canal cutting through Lake Nicaragua, we could feel his palpable discontent toward the government. He was adamant that allowing the Chinese to construct a canal would force communities living along the lakeshore to suffer irreparable consequences. And allowing large vessels to cut through the lake's waters would alter the balance of life on Ometepe Island. 

Though the Nicaraguan government believes that the project can help propel Nicaragua out of poverty, our driver believed that the environmental impacts and negative implications for tourism in Lake Nicaragua would dramatically outweigh the benefits. 

Ometepe Island is a major source of drinking water and irrigation for Nicaraguans and its waters house numerous species of freshwater fish and sharks. In communities where fishing is a major source of income and livelihood, the consequences of building a canal and destroying the lake's habitat could be astronomical. 

Our conversation carried us all the way till our final stop of Punta Jesus Maria, where we got out of the car and walked along the strip of black volcanic sand to watch the sunset. 




Punta Jesus Maria afforded us impressive views of the island's twin volcanoes and was a perfect final pit-stop on our wonderful day of sightseeing. 

But as we watched the fiery sun set behind the jet-black sand, I couldn't help but shake off a feeling of sadness. I was thinking about our drivers words. And about the future of this beautiful island. 

And while I was grateful that I was able to look out over the lake's waters without massive cargo ships obstructing my view, I couldn't quite shake off the image of congestion and large vessels encroaching on the lake's pristine habitat in the future.
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Thursday, June 4, 2015

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

            When the wind and rain nearly blew us off the mountaintop in Monteverde, we reluctantly decided to pack our bags a day early and head down to the beach for a few days of soaking up the sun on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua.
               Leaving Costa Rica without zip-lining or walking above the cloud forest canopies was a difficult decision to make but, with no end to the stormy weather in sight, I decided to succumb to the elements and save my highly anticipated bucket-list activities for a time that I could fully enjoy them.
                So, after a day of hiking in the Santa Elena Reserve and debating our onward plans, we woke up early the next morning and lumbered down the mountainside by public bus--passing by picturesque villages and lush vegetation along the way--from Santa Elena to Tilaran, from Tilaran to Canas, from Canas across the border to Rivas and then one last time from Rivas to the beachside village of San Juan del Sur.
                Once a sleepy fishing village on the Pacific Ocean, San Juan del Sur has been made popular in recent years as a surfing mecca for young backpackers. Its colorful clapboard houses line an expansive crescent of silvery sand and sit in the shadow of rolling mountains. Perched top one of the mountains and overlooking the city's public beach, sits the world's second largest statue of Christ (second only to Cristo Redentor in Brazil). 
                 Backpackers and surfers are changing the face of San Juan del Sur. The popular tourist destination houses an eclectic mix of locals and bleached-blonde surfers. Fancy fish restaurants line the city's beach and streets are replete with surf rental shops and stores selling swimwear. Even the city's prices are higher than those in the rest of Nicaragua. 
               A quick visit to the beachside town made it immediately apparent that Nicaragua is no longer off the beaten tourist trail. Young travelers from around the world have caught on to the country's low prices and abundant outdoor activities and are flocking to San Juan del Sur for the opportunity to catch the perfect wave. 



              Most tourists visiting San Juan del Sur visit the nearby beaches during the day, since the city's main stretch of sand does not offer the prime waves and seclusion that can be found in the beaches further afield. 
              Since we were not interested in crowds or partying, we heeded the advice of the hostel and booked transport to the nearby Playa Hermosa in order to enjoy a day of beaches, hammocks and strawberry daiquiris. 
                 Playa Hermosa is famous for its long expanse of sand and its perfect surfing waves. The beach lies about half an hour away from San Juan del Sur and to reach it, we had to travel roughly twenty minutes down a dirt road, away from the heavily trafficked main thoroughfare. We found Playa Hermosa to be relatively deserted and perfectly peaceful. 
             The area around Playa Hermosa is completely undeveloped. There are no towering resorts or luxury beachfront properties as of yet but, with the volume of tourists we had seen in San Juan del Sur, we agreed that it would only be a matter of time before developers tapped into the prime real estate. 
              We agreed that Playa Hermosa beach should be enjoyed while the seclusion lasts. 


                 Our shuttle back from Playa Hermosa to San Juan del Sur was scheduled to leave at 6pm--giving us just enough time to enjoy the sunset before heading back to town. We swung in our hammocks, sipped on our fruity drinks and watched the sky slowly illuminate into a palette of yellows and oranges. 
                As the colors of the sky began to intensify, I saw a crowd of people gather at the water's edge. I ignored the crowd at first, thinking that they had likely gathered together to take pictures of the orange sky. 
                Yet, when the crowd began to grow larger and seemingly unrelated people joined in the mix, my curiosity got the best of me. 
               So, I moved toward the crowd and then saw it--a baby turtle--scampering across the sand and into the sea!


            The beaches around San Juan del Sur are nesting grounds for Olive Ridley turtles. The Olive Ridleys are the world's smallest sea turtles--reaching a mere 60-70 centimeters in their adulthood. Olive Ridley turtles are known for their synchronized nesting called arribadas that occur once a year. During the arribadas, sea turtles populate beaches in the thousands and nearly blanket the sand in what is described as a spectacular sight. 
            We had decided to forego a tour to the famous nesting beach near San Juan del Sur at the advice of our hostel staff, since the nesting season had reached its end and most of the turtles had already left the beaches. 
               Thus, I could not believe my luck when we stumbled upon a baby Olive Ridley attempting to make its way out to sea for the first time. 
               I took out my camera and snapped a few pictures. 
           A few minutes later, another baby turtle came out of the woodwork and waddled out to sea. Its brothers and sisters followed soon after. 
         Within minutes, we were witnessing the journey of dozens of baby turtles as they braced themselves for their first foray into the ocean. 



            I thought about when I went to Sur, Oman in 2011 and was fortunate enough to have witnessed giant turtles nesting at night. And about what our guide had told us when he answered our questions about the baby turtles' chances of surviving. 
                  Less than one percent makes it to adulthood, I remember him saying. 
                 I looked back at the turtles. They were visibly exhausted from being tossed so relentlessly by the waves and some were giving up. 
                  I found one turtle that lay limp in the sand and guided it back to the ocean, watching its little legs tread water as it fought to join its brothers and sisters. 
                   One by one, we attempted to guide all the struggling baby turtles to the sea. 

                The turtles had made it to the water, but their perilous journey to adulthood had only just begun. As with the newborn turtles that I had seen in Oman, I hoped that these baby Olive Ridleys could be counted amongst the lucky survivors and that, on day, they'd be able to return to Playa Hermosa to lay their own eggs and continue the circle of life. 
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Monday, May 25, 2015

Wind and Rain in Monteverde

                 Monteverde is the Costa Rica of travel brochures.
             It conjures images synonymous with cloud-shrouded forests, swinging skybridges and elusive quetzals. It is the Costa Rica that has drawn millions of tourists to its rainforest canopies for wildlife viewing and zip-lining.
               I'd heard nothing but rave reviews about zip-lining above the canopies of Monteverde and I, too, was hoping to partake in one of Costa Rica's most sought-after activities. I couldn't wait to observe life high above the treetops.
                But, as much as we can plan every meticulous detail and attempt to take control of our surroundings while traveling, there are always forces out of our control. In Monteverde, it was the unexpected inclement weather that nearly blew me off the mountaintop and chased me down the mountain and across the border into Nicaragua.


                     It did not always appear that we would lose the battle with adverse weather.
                  The ride to Monteverde was pleasant and scenic--giving no indication of the fierce winds and rains we were to meet at the top of the mountain. We stopped at numerous spots to take in the views of the rolling green mountains and pulled over to watch the sun set over the Bay of Nicoya. We thought nothing of the light mountain breeze the rest of the way to our hostel and I was beginning to have the sensation that I would love the little town of Santa Elena that sat along a gravel road, among the remote and tropical green hills of Costa Rica's North.
                 But when we reached the town and stepped out of the car, we were greeted by a fierce wind that nearly knocked us to the ground.
                    And through the night and all the next day, the relentless wind did not give up.
                  It turns out that we visited the Monteverde Reserve right as a hurricane-like storm began brewing over the Atlantic and the winds carried the inclement weather right to the ridge of the Costa Rican mountains.


                   Despite the weather, we were optimistic and ambitious the evening we arrived, so we decided to spend the next day hiking among the dense greenery of the Santa Elena Cloud Forest.
               We tried to make the best of the weather and bundled up in rain gear to hike the muddy paths of the Santa Elena Cloud Forest. We bought ponchos, rented rain boots and trudged through the mud.
               As I walked among the green vines dripping with water and admired the colorful flowers that contrasted with the varying shades of green around me, I felt as though I had stepped into a fairy tale. The dense forest was spectacular, but enjoying our surroundings became more tedious as the cold water seeped through the holes in our boots and soaked our socks. The trees in the cloud forest shielded us somewhat from the strong winds, though the rain still found ways of creeping through our layers of rain gear.
                  After a few hours of hiking along the paths of the reserve, we returned to the hostel and reevaluated our plans. 
                   We could have waited for the hurricane-like conditions to let up so that we could partake in the activities that drew us to Monteverde in the first place, but there was no knowing how long it would be.
                In the end, I reluctantly agreed to leave Monteverde prematurely in search of sunnier skies. 
                   

             It was not easy for me to leave Monteverde without exploring the area to a greater extent. And if I had had more time in Monteverde, I probably would have waited stubbornly for the storm to subside. After all, as an Oregonian, I have no issue putting up with a little rain.
                 But what we experienced in Monteverde was more than just "a little rain" and so, given the adverse conditions we encountered, we let the relentless winds defeat us--sending us running down the mountain and to warm beaches of Nicaragua's San Juan del Sur instead.

               I wish I could say that I experienced the Costa Rica of travel brochures while walking along the sky bridges of the Monteverde Cloud Forest. I wish I could have zipped through the canopy at 70 miles an hour and experienced the thrill of flying above the treetops.
                   Things may have not gone according to plan, but at least I now have a reason to return to Monteverde in the future. 
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Monday, May 18, 2015

The Most Biologically Intense Place on Earth

            Deemed by National Geographic as the most biologically intense place on Earth in terms of biodiversity, Costa Rica’s Corcovado National Park is home to 2.5% of the species found on the planet. The park houses thirteen major ecosystems, including cloud forest, lowland rainforest, palm forest, mangrove swamps and coastal and underwater habitats. It is due to the park's diversity of habitats, that tourists visiting Corcovado can view animals ranging from playful monkeys and elusive tapirs, to deadly fer-de-lance snakes, radiant macaws and elegant angelfish. The 424 square kilometer park on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula is the largest in the country and everything I imagined it would be—raw, wild and teaming with life. 
          The pages of our Lonely Planet guide made Corcovado seem so remote and impenetrable, that it could only be reached by either the wealthiest or the most intrepid of travelers. It described that there were no roads leading into the interior of the park and that, to reach the ranger stations, one must either fly in on a bush plane or embark on a daunting and perilous trek into the park's wild interior.
       Reading about the park had us so intimidated, that we almost decided to forego visiting Corcovado altogether--until we spotted a flyer in our Manuel Antonio hostel that advertised a three day excursion with the Corcovado Adventure Tent Camp. 
           The $400 price tag of the tour was a bit steep for our budgets, but after some discussion and number crunching, we decided to splurge and booked the tour regardless. 



               Corcovado Adventure Tent Camp is paradise. It is remote, wild and completely uncontaminated by eyesore resorts and concrete hotel chains. 
             The camp sits on its own stretch of gold-sand beaches that are speckled with jet-black volcanic rocks and flanked on one side by lush green foliage and on the other by the blue waters of the mighty Pacific. 
                 The tent camp was our home base during the three days we spent in the Osa Peninsula and the price tag on the accommodation included boat transfers from Sierpe, accommodation, meals, a guided hike into the heart of Corcovado National Park, a snorkel trip to Cano Island and access to the kayaks, hammocks and wilderness trails from the camp. 
                   Though the tent camp we stayed at is not within the boundaries of Corcovado National Park, it may very well have been. The area around our fancy tents was rugged, wild and completely awe-inspiring. As with the luxury camps that I had often come across in Africa but never stayed at, nature was everywhere. 
                   During our first day at the camp, we spent the afternoon walking along the trails that led from our accommodation to Rio Claro. We traversed tawny crescents of beach and, along the way, stopped to admire groups of mischievous capuchins swinging in trees and dazzling scarlet macaws flying overhead. 
               I felt as though I had just entered the glossy pages of National Geographic's latest issue. 

Scarlet Macaws
              The next morning we woke up promptly at 6:00am and headed out for the jungle shortly after breakfast. The camp had organized a boat transfer to the national park and a guided hike for us that would bring us face to face with a variety of animals that inhabit the rainforest at Corcovado.
               We began our walk at the Sirena Ranger Station and headed into the jungle. Layers of green foliage were so dense that it was difficult to spot animals on our own, though all around us we could hear singing birds and howling monkeys. Along the way, our guide pointed out the animals we would have never spotted on our own--adorable spider monkeys, lethal fer-de-lance snakes, coatis, peccaries, lizards, spiders, anteaters and birds. We even had the privilege of sneaking upon the hidden lair of the elusive and nocturnal Baird's Tapir.

Tiny Squirrel Monkey
Coati Hiding in the Shrubbery
         Though I often had good views of the wildlife with my naked eye, the dense shrubbery and branches made it difficult to capture unobstructed photos of the animals. As a result, the photos I have of our hike do no justice to what we saw at Corcovado National Park. 

                                                                                 ***
              The next day, I embarked on a snorkel tour to Cano Island and caught a glimpse of the underwater wonderland that contributes to the Osa Peninsula's vast biodiversity.
              Cano Island is a biological preserve located 10 miles off the coast of the Osa Peninsula. Its waters house a diverse array of marine life, including colorful tropical fish, rays, dolphins and whales.
              The visibility was excellent and I swam among schools of colorful parrotfish and angelfish, following them around outcrops of volcanic rock. 
              To cap off another excellent day of wildlife viewing, we witnessed a pod of dolphins darting playfully in our wake as we made our way back to the camp. 


                  What made our stay at the Corcovado Adventure Tent Camp truly special, is that our animal sightings were not limited to the hours we spent within the confines of Corcovado National Park. In fact, some of our best interactions with animals occurred within the boundaries of our tent camp itself. On numerous occasions, we saw the frisky capuchins swinging in the trees above our tents. We spotted hermit crabs scuttling along the beach and little leaf-cutter ants hard at work on the forest floor. We witnessed eagles and colorful macaws flying overhead. 


                I look back on the three days I spent days I spent in Corcovado as time spent in a raw, wild and untamed paradise. It is just how I imagine the world must have been like before humans set out to destroy many natural habitats by clear-cutting forests and transforming them into concrete jungles. 
               Some places--especially those that are remote and difficult to access--can come with a hefty price tag for visitors. But splurging is sometimes necessary, even when traveling on a budget. And I reckon there are not many places that merit a splurge as much as the Osa Peninsula--with its crescents of gold sand beaches and its pristine habitats. 
          I guess if I am going to empty my wallet anywhere, I may as well do it with a visit to the most biologically intense place on Earth. 
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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Manuel Antonio National Park

                     “Pura vida!”
                    We heard it as we stepped off the plane. And again when we entered the cab. And again at the bus stop and again at the hostel. And again when we ordered food. And again and again from strangers on the street. 
               Costa Rica's motto—pura vida—permeates every aspect of life in the country and is embedded into the very fabric of the small nation’s character. Translated into English as “pure life," pura vida is the law of the land in Costa Rica. It is at once a greeting, a welcome and a simple statement that we would come to hear countless times throughout our week in the country. Costa Ricans (Ticos) and tourists alike have used pura vida as their mottos to express living life 100% to the fullest.
                But looking around, it becomes apparent that pura vida is not only a lifestyle, but also a slogan highlighting the natural environment in the country--an environment so raw, that it has drawn tourists from around the globe to its wild interiors and pristine landscapes.
                    
                  Costa Rica's expansive national parks system and abundant natural diversity is, in part, thanks to the aggressive stance the country has taken to ensure that its unique ecosystem can be enjoyed for future generations. Twenty-six percent of the land in Costa Rica is protected in an extensive patchwork of national parks.
                       We began our trip to Costa Rica at the smallest, yet most famous of Costa Rica's parks--Manuel Antonio. Manuel Antonio can be easily reached from the country's capital, San Jose, and is known for its pretty beaches and large concentration of monkeys and sloths.
                Since we were exhausted after having arrived in Costa Rica early in the morning on a red-eye flight from Los Angeles, we decided to save a park visit for our second day and spend our first day in the country recovering in hammocks on our hostel balcony and sitting by the expansive public beach to watch the evening sunset display. 
               
Sunset in Manuel Antonio
Public Beach, Manuel Antonio
           The next day, we ventured down to Manuel Antonio National Park for a full day of beach bumming and wildlife viewing. 
               In contrast to the grey sands outside the park, the beaches of Manuel Antonio are rimmmed with crescents of white sand. We spent quite a bit of time lounging around on the beach, splashing in the water and interacting with the resident iguanas that dotted the rock outcrops 


                The national park has a string of pretty beaches lining the peninsula and we decided to plop down on the famous Playa Manuel Antonio for a bit, before heading out in search of monkeys and sloths. 

Jesus Christ Lizard
Iguana

                  In contrast to the national parks in Southern Africa, where the wide open spaces and concentrated watering holes made independent animal viewing easy, we found it difficult to spot animals on our own in Manuel Antonio. It became immediately evident that a guide would be necessary in order to enjoy the park's offerings to the fullest.
                 Yet, since we had decided to visit Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park--the country's premier biodiversity hotspot--in a few days, we chose to scrimp on a guide at Manuel Antonio and do our best at detecting the shapes in the trees on our own.

White Faced Capuchin Monkey in Manuel Antonio
                 Manuel Antonio National Park is home to all four of Costa Rica's monkey species. By walking down the well-maintained paths and stopping wherever we saw tour groups gathered, we were able to see two of the species--the roaring howler monkeys and the frisky white-faced capuchins, in addition to an array of other birds and reptiles. 
                  The highlight of my day in Manuel Antonio, however, came just as we were about to exit the park and head back to the hostel. I was just reiterating my desire to see a sloth and expressing disappointment that I had never gotten a good look at one, when we walked by two people pointing into a trees near the park's exit. 
              I looked at where the two tourists were pointing, trying to differentiate between animals, leaves and clumps of dirt. At first, I didn't see anything. Then I let my eyes focus on the little brown lump in one of the trees and, there I saw it. A nearly motionless creature, turning its head slowly toward us as if stuck in molasses.
                 I was thrilled. I finally got to see the adorable animal that I had tried tirelessly to get a good glimpse of while in Panama.
              
A Sloth!
                     This is it, I thought as I watched the sloth slowly chew on a clump of leaves and turn toward us with its perpetual slothy grin. This is it what Costa Rica is all about. Pure life. Pura vida. 
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