Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Central America February 2010

Pictures are available at the following website:

We started by flying (flight 1) to San Diego on Jan 28 where my sister was having her 60th birthday party 12 days early. Great night, restaurant followed by a comedy show. We also went to Torrey Pines Golf Course where the PGA was holding an annual tournament. Highlight of the day was a plane flying around over the crowd towing a banner saying “Tiger, we miss you, San Diego Strippers.”

We (Wendy, Vivienne and I) then flew to San Jose, Costa Rica via Phoenix (flights 2&3) where we stayed next to the Airport and got up the next morning to back track to Guatemala City (Flight 4). We then took a taxi to Antigua where, when we arrived, the taxi driver said (they must all be linked to ask this question) where is the hotel? I mentioned that as I was living in Australia and that this was the first time I was in Guatemala I did not have a clue. (In my weak Spanish) Nevertheless We found it. Antigua has the deserved reputation of being the best preserved Spanish Colonial City in Central America. Surrounded by 3 volcanoes, no building is more than 2 stories high with very thick walls due to the repeated earthquates. Indeed we learned the architectural style is known as Earthquake Baroque. We ate at the Sabor de Tiemp (great atmosphere and good value), Las Atinoches (great service –we were the only clients), The Tartines (great balcony view) and Bistro Cinq (again very buzzy and where I had my first of many glasses of Rum Zapaca, a 23 year old rum which is superb.)

We attended a great lecture by Elizabeth Bell, the queen of Antigua on Friday night and the next morning did her city tour. She is terrific and had organised our Guatemalan leg. Antigua should be on everyone’s bucket list.

The second night we got up at 4am to catch a minibus back to Guatemala City where we bypassed the airport and ended up in an empty hangar at 5:30am. Gradually people started appearing and at 6:30am we got into a small plane and flew to Flores (flight 5) in Northern Guatemala to catch another bus which took us to Tikal, home of the Mayas and totally spectacular. There we saw our first howler and spider monkeys.

Tikal is another place you have to have on your bucket list.

Two nights at the Jungle lodge combined with two tours by Antonio Cortiz, whose father was the native guide who discovered one of the Tikal temples. It was again an unbelievable experience. We also drank the hotel dry of wine.

We then flew back to Guatemala City (flight 6) where we overnighted at the Biltmore Express which is a 3.5 star hotel twinned with the 5 star Westin (sort of like Jetstar and Qantas). You enter the Westin through a magic portal and can charge meals etc as if you are staying there. We had a very sumptuous 3 course Italian meal, with 3 different bottles of wine (total cost $100) at Quo Vadis on the basis the next 13 days would not be full gastronomic highlights. This was a correct forecast.

The next morning I had to go buy replacement walking shoes as my beloved Timberland Walkers which had lasted 10 years and around 20 major trips finally collapsed. The 0.5km walk from the hotel to the main (and very heavily guarded) shopping centre was interesting for the number of people who you saw who you were sure were going to mug you. Probably the scariest walk in our lives. That evening we flew (flight 7) back to San Jose to meet with the rest of our touring party, our guide Osvaldo (known as Ozzie) and our driver, Julio. There were 10 other people doing the tour, 4 couples and two single women.

Our first Sunday in Costa Rica was fascinating it was the National Elections which are held every 4 years. There was a terrific party atmosphere and surrounding the schools (which were the polling booths) were gaggles of supporters wearing T-Shirts and waving flags. There are 7 major parties in Costa Rica and to be elected the front runner has to get at least 40% of the vote in the first round, or otherwise there is a two person run-off the following week. Laura Chinchilla was elected the first female president of Costa Rica in the first round.

After visiting the mandatory coffee plantation (Vivienne now has an addiction to chocolate covered coffee beans) We set off for to the north eastern side of Costa Rica, namely the Sarapiqui Rain Forest Lodge. There we did white water rafting, followed by a jungle canopy walk on hanging bridges the next day. We ticked off our first sloth and toucans plus an unbelievable variety of birds. We were also introduced to the mandatory ingredients of every Costa Rican meal: Gallo Pinto, the national dish of fried rice and black beans.

Then we went to Casa Luna Lodge, in La Fortuna, near the Arenal volcano in the centre of Costa Rica. where we spent another two days visiting a local school and having a local lunch with a family and then another family learning how to make empanadas. Everyone was meant to bring gifts such as crayons and workbooks. Vivienne and I went top of the pops because having brought nothing with us we went out and bought a big piƱata which we stuffed with candies. We also visited some hot springs at Baldi and then went to see if Arenal volcano was flowing lava. We were very lucky and caught an eruption. Unforgettable sight.

Then we headed due north to Cano Negro Lodge, near the Nicaraguan border. Nicaraguans are the main source of cheap labour in Costa Rica and there are many illegal immigrants. While at the Lodge we did our first boat cruise in the morning which was a spectacular 3 hour trip seeing an unbelievable variety of bird and animal life. On the way to Cano Negro we visited an aboriginal Costa Rican village where Wendy had another birthday party. Our Indian guide was holding a walking stick shaped like a snake which had red,black,yellow, and black bands. I asked Ozzie what sort of snake it was and he said a coral snake, the most poisonous snake in Costa Rica. In Costa Rica the saying is RANA es muerto which means RANA (rojo, amarillo, negro, amarillo) is death. In English the saying is red and yellow, kill a fellow.

We then headed over the mountains to the Buena Vista Lodge in Guancanaste. There we did our first zip lining and did a horse ride to more hot springs followed later by another canopy jungle walk. More toucans, more howler monkeys, more sloths. Walking back to our lodge from dinner on the first night Vivenne and Wendy were walking ahead and suddenly Vivienne let out a blood curdling scream. She had nearly stepped on a snake. Wendy suggested I pick it up an throw it into a bush. I demurred point out the red, yellow and black bands, saying this was the most venomous snake in Costa Rica and I did not think it would a good idea to pick it up.
That night Vivienne kept getting up checking to see if the snake had got it. As it is so warm the snakes are nocturnal.

Our penultimate two days were spent in Jaco on the Central Pacific Coast. Jaco is a surfing and game fishing town. We did another boat ride on the Tarcoles estuary (38 different birds in 2 hours, crocs, howler monkeys and this time we saw Scarlet Macaws. We also visited the Manual Antonio Park which has spectacular beaches and saw more sloths and scarlet macaws. The area is home to a large number of American immigrants and is quite rich.

We returned to San Jose and had our farewell dinner. Costa Rica is a great country and it was pleasure to travel with experienced American travellers. Ozzie was a terrific guide, really knew his nature and was an unbelievable spotter. The comparison with Guatemala in terms of the people and security was stark. On the other hand the cultural part of Guatemala makes it well worth a visit.

We returned to Los Angeles and stayed overnight at The Huntley Hotel in Santa Monica Beach. I saw more beggars in one day in Santa Monica than I did in two weeks in Costa Rica. On the other hand if you want to say in LA overnight I can recommend The Huntley. Great boutique hotel, only a $30 taxi ride from LAX, (don’t be stupid like us and take the recommended Super Shuttle). The Penthouse restaurant is fantastic although Vivienne and I doubled the average age on entry. The next day you can spend wandering up and down Third Street Promenade telling the panhandlers to get a job. We had brunch at the Brooklyn Deli and a happy hour meal at Locanda del Lago. Both were excellent value.

Chris Golis
Australia's expert on practical emotional intelligence
mobile: +61-418-222219

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