A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: mattld

They think it's all over? It is (for) now...

I've been back in Dublin just over a week now and after a few days it almost feels like I've never been away. Picking highlights from the trip is difficult as there are many. If we had to pick one stand out country we'd both agree that China wins hands down. It has so much to offer... the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Terracotta Warriors, Shanghai, the Rice Fields in Guilin, Hong Kong etc. It's a fascinating place to visit.

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Whether you've read one of our entries or most of them, thank you for taking the time to follow us on our three and half month trip. We had a truly amazing experience. The blog was always written a bit 'tongue in cheek' and I hope you didn't take any of my moaning or slagging too seriously. Hopefully we've inspired you to do some travelling of your own. The world is a big place, and life's too short. Get out there and do it.

I also want to thank Alberto for being my photographer, travel companion and loving partner. The trip wouldn't have been half as enjoyable without him. And a big shout out to our friends (both old and new) who shared part of the adventure with us. Love you guys.

It's not all fun and games when you travel though. Mosquitos and deet, air conditioning on full blast, dodgy food, language dramas, buses breaking down, your bank card not working, losing things, the humidity and heat, being stuck at derelect bus stations, god awful rooms you have to sleep in, people trying to rip you off constantly... And don't forget the planning, travelling and money involved!

This little montage of photos (new to the blog) will remind me why it's all worthwhile.

China:

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Thailand:

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Malaysia:

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Indonesia:

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Dubai:

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Costa Rica:

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Nicaragua:

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Honduras:

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Guatemala:

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And last but not least, the award for best 'Lost in Translation' goes to:

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This blog entry is my 60th since I first went backpacking four years ago and it's my last for the time being. We move to Australia this Sunday and that's a whole other adventure. But I'm sure we'll get itchy feet in the future, it's just a question of when... perhaps India will be next? Until then, take care and happy travels!

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Posted by mattld 07:03 Archived in Ireland Comments (2)

Guatemala

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Our trip through Central America is now complete! You can see our final few stops below.

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I’m starting to sound like a broken record with the phrase ‘we had a long day’, referring to our travels from one point to another. Well, I’m afraid I can’t change my tune today as last Saturday was one of our longest trips in one day. And as with most of our bus excursions, the air con has apparently been 'broken', resulting in a permanent condition of what I like to call artic blast. Unfortunately we had to endure this in Asia as well and if you've backpacked you'll probably relate to it. Worry no more my friends, for I have found the solution. And it involves dressing up as the modern day offspring of Mother Teresa and Bin Laden.

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We left Honduras just before midday and we didn’t reach our destination in Flores until 2am. We were so unsure of whether we’d make it that far we didn’t even book a place to stay. A taxi driver had the honour of driving us from hotel to guesthouse and hostel at silly o’clock, in search for a bed. ‘Is there any room at the Inn?’ we pleaded, to which we were told ‘At this time? Absolutely not. Come back tomorrow’. Or something to that effect in Spanish. I was starting to consider the possibility of a night on the streets. Flores is considered quite safe, and it would only be hours before dawn. It could be do-able? Thankfully that reality never came to fruition and we managed to find a room. A room not even fit for a dog that is. Run down, dirty, mosquito central. Say no more. Alberto slept with his clothes on and I closed my eyes, thinking of a happy place. The next morning we couldn’t log onto Booking.com quick enough to arrange new accomodation. And off we went. Flores is a little island linked via a bridge and situated in Northern Guatemala. It’s a beautiful spot and with Petén Lake in full view it’s a great place to stop by and visit for a couple of days.

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Flores also provides access to Tikal, labelled as the superstar Maya attraction. We spent Monday at Tikal. The site towers above the rainforest and is dominated by six giant temples and steep-sided pyramids that rise up to 64 metres from the forest floor. There are thousands of other structures, many covered by giant roots still hidden beneath mounds of earth. Tikal is also home to all sorts of wildlife, including the toucan (the national bird of Belize). If you’re in Guatemala, I would strongly recommend taking the time to visit. A tour guide is a must. Unfortunately ours was rude and obnoxious, but we had a really cool group and that evening we went out together for dinner and drinks.

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The next day we took a bus back down south and stopped off at a little town called Rio Dulce for one night. Our guidebook informed us it’s ‘not a place you’ll want to hang around long’ and I couldn’t agree more. When I think of Rio Dulce the first two things that will come to mind are trucks, and fried chicken. There isn’t a large motorway nearby which results in an endless amount of congestion caused by trucks travelling through. And regarding the fried chicken… well I’ve never seen so many stalls that just sold fried chicken (and chips). And all the locals are eating it. I hope the town will re-educate itself regarding healthy eating or they could end up like Tonga. You can see some fruit and veg in the shot below, but most of it is exposed to constant CO2 emissions.

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Our hotel in Rio Dulce also left a lot to be desired. There are only a couple of places to stay so we were limited on options. We had another dirty room and a number of cockroaches paid us a visit from the ceiling, dropping onto our bed! I kid you not. The staff reacted with little emotion and unfortunately with nowhere better to go we accepted a room exchange. It was in slightly better condition and thankfully no cockroaches. So you might be thinking, why stay at Rio Dulce at all? Well, it mitigated the need for another day of 12+ hours of travel, and the town is also home to Izabal Lake. Before we left on Wednesday, we had an early 5am start to take a trip through the lake, past the Rio Dulce gorge and down to Livingston. The town is primarily inhabited by the Garifuna (the native Caribbeans). Therefore it’s a really interesting place to visit, if only for an hour or two.

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That brings us to our final destination on our fourteen weeks of travel, Antigua. We read great reviews about the town during our research and opted for four nights (cutting out Guatemala City as a destination as reports are poor and it's deemed unsafe by many). We also booked a really nice boutique hotel to compensate for previous mistakes and to finish our trip on a high. Antigua is nestled in a valley between three volcanoes and has a very strong colonial vibe to it (similar to Grenada in Nicaragua). There are plenty of trips you can take to the volcanoes, or nearby lakes or villages but after all our sightseeing we’ve been happy to just wander around the town, visit some of the many old cathedrals and enjoy the facilities at our hotel.

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As with Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras, we've had a great time in Guatemala and it may even be our favourite country of the four. Guatemala is loaded with natural, historical and cultural interest. Tomorrow morning we’ll take a shuttle to Guatemala City, and from there our flight back to Dublin via Washington D.C. It’s been hard not to get sentimental about the entire fourteen weeks and wonder where the time has gone since we arrived in Beijing on the 3rd September. I’m not going to talk about highlights just yet. I have one more blog post left to write.

Posted by mattld 18:19 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

Honduras

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We were a little bit apprehensive about travelling by bus from San José to Guatemala City in only four weeks. Thankfully we're on track and below you can see our progress so far. You can take flights but they’re incredibly expensive and you also miss out on the views. You could spend twice the amount of time we have covering the same ground. We’re really only getting to see a few of the highlights this region has to offer.

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Honduras, El Salvador and Belize are the three most violent countries in Central America and there’s a disturbingly high homicide ratio in all of them. We ruled Belize out pretty early on due to its geographical location and two weeks ago we agreed to leave out El Salvador due to some pretty grim stories we’ve heard from locals in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. We decided to pay Honduras a visit because you’ve got to travel through it in order to reach Guatemala and there are only two cities in particular you need to be really cautious about, the capital Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, which is the most violent city in the world. Yes, in the world!

Unfortunately, due to the distance involved in travelling from Managua to Tegucigalpa, it’s very hard not to spend at least one night here. It was another long day of travel with four mini chicken buses and two taxis. Transport (unlike food) is really cheap in Central America so we've been saving a lot in this department in comparison with Asia. If the NCT was a dead person, he would be rolling in his grave at the condition of some of these vehicles. Each chicken bus we took became progressively worse (sight, comfort and smell). After I saw our third vehicle I couldn't help but wonder if our final mode of transport would have a roof or seats still attached. We also briefly hired a gentleman on what I could only describe as a wooden pushcart to briefly transport us and our bags. Don't laugh, I promise you it's essential for the 1km walk in the heat between the Nicaraguan and Honduras borders. I thought he was a lovely fella until he attempted to increase the agreed price by four times the original amount at the very end. 'No deal'. Instead we gave him a small tip.

We took a gamble and stayed two nights in Tegucigalpa but were very selective in picking a hotel in a 'safe-ish area' with positive reviews from fellow travellers regarding safety. We also agreed that we would minimise our time out at night. On our first night we literally just ventured around the corner to grab a quick dinner and head back. I must admit it didn’t feel particularly safe. There were definitely a few unsavoury characters shall we say floating about. We left any valuables in our hotel, brought just enough cash for the meal and kept our heads down. And all was well. The day time in Tegucigalpa is a different story, it's generally considered safe. You just need to err on the side of caution. The city itself hasn’t a lot to offer unfortunately. There are a few museums and art galleries we planned on visiting but all tourist attractions are closed on a Monday. It’s a shame but we still enjoyed wandering around the main square and town. I think we saw only one other foreigner about but thankfully unlike China or Indonesia the locals couldn’t care less that you’re there.

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That evening we decided to take a professional coach for the eight hour trip to Copan, our second and final stop in Honduras. You’re paying about three times the price of public transport, but taking into account crime and safety warnings this was a no brainer. We also knew this trip would involve passing through San Pedro Sula (remember: THE most violent city in the world). Thankfully there was only a one hour layover and we were very happy being locked away in a bus terminal with a security policy almost as tight as an international airport. We arrived in Copan that evening, and the contrast couldn’t be greater. Copan is a charming and safe little town filled with steep cobbled streets and red-tiled roofs set among green hills. The locals are extremely friendly. And the public transport is a Tuk Tuk! No matter how bad the smell or the discomfort, I’ll always reminisce of Tuk Tuks with fond memories. Thankfully the Tuk Tuks in Copan are modern day versions of what you’d find in Thailand and they’re in excellent condition. Honestly. The drivers charge a very cheap price so no haggling is required. I’d compare Copan to Andorra, albeit without the snow. The town is home to Honduras’ most famous Mayan Ruins which was the main reason for our visit (more on that shortly).

We spent our first day walking around the town, we visited a local museum and in the afternoon we took a trip to the Luna Jaguar Hot Springs. The Springs are a great place to relax and unwind. There are plenty of hot and cold thermal pools for you to get into and its Mayan theme makes the setting even more enjoyable. We also took the liberty of having our first ever mud bath. Naturally, we now look and feel ten years younger.

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Today we took a Tuk Tuk out to the Mayan Ruins of Copan. The Maya people constitute a diverse range of Native Americans in southern Mexico and northern Central America (primarily Guatemala). The indigenous folks left behind ruins which date back to 100AD. Copan is smaller than some of the other Mayan attractions you can visit but features some really cool sculptures and carvings.

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You can see an artist's depiction below of what Mayan life would have looked like. There's also a museum by the ruins which houses many of the artifacts which have been excavated and also includes a stunning recreation of one temple.

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Our time in Honduras has been brief. We didn’t care much for Tegucigalpa but would highly recommend visiting Copan if you can. If we had more time and hadn’t gone scuba diving in Asia we’d have travelled north to the Bay Islands for three nights. The area is famous for it coral reefs and cheap diving and is the #1 tourist destination in Honduras. Unfortunately the islands will have to wait for another time. Tomorrow we take a bus west for eight nights in our final country (!), Guatemala.

Posted by mattld 17:05 Archived in Honduras Comments (2)

Nicaragua

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Hola amigos! Apologies if you’ve been frantically hitting the refresh button in work to find out the latest from Central America but I’m probably going to stick with just the one update per country as we enter the final stretch of the trip. However I do have a chunky sized edition for you to chew on today. l'll let you decide if that's a good or a bad thing...

Our journey from Costa Rica into Nicaragua was a long day involving four buses, two taxis and a border control with three separate check-in stations. We had the pleasure of standing for almost three hours on one bus as there were no seats available. We also had our first taste of Central America's 'chicken buses'. These are converted American & Canadian school buses from the 1980s which the locals use religiously. They're so cheap they're almost free of charge but you wouldn't want to be in a hurry as they'll happily stop for every person on the street who sticks their thumb up. And just when you think the bus couldn't get anymore full.. well you get the idea. There's no concept of personal space over here. It's all part of the experience though so we're loving it of course (insert happy face emoticon)! When we reached the border we were screened for Ebola, three times. A medical officer asked us which countries we had visited in the past two weeks. Let me see… Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates, Ireland, North America and Costa Rica. As you can imagine they were frantically trying to work out whether we were considered a high risk or not. After lots of questions, hand waving and explanations we eventually made it through. Crossing a land border… honestly I’ll never complain about flying again (that includes Ryanair).

Of all the countries we're visiting, Nicaragua is the one we knew the least amount about. We’re not alone because even though it’s the largest nation in Central America it’s also the least visited. I can tell you it’s a beautiful country, and home to many a volcano. In fact there’s a volcanic symbol right in the centre of their national flag. And within minutes of crossing the border we could spot a volcano straight away. And plenty of wind generators (kudos to the Nicaraguans). Nicaragua is part of the ‘ring of fire’, an area where a large number of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have occurred in the basin of the Pacific Ocean.

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Our first stop was Granada, a city that was once considered a ‘jewel’ in Central America and one of the richest areas you could visit. Unfortunately due to war most of the city was burnt to the ground. Thankfully the government have been restoring many of the old colonial buildings making it a very pleasant town to explore. At its centre you can find Parque Central and with it many locals and their stalls. Next to the park you can find an 18th century cathedral which stands proudly over the square.

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I didn’t mention this in my previous update but San José and Monteverde surprised me in that they lacked a kind of Mexican vibe I was looking forward to seeing in Central America. It’s not a complaint but I guess I was a little disappointed. Granada goes some way towards filling that void. You can see many a colourful colonial building as you wander through the streets and it’s really interesting from an architectural point of view.

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We spent three nights in Granada, and on our second day we booked a tour to visit Mombacho, an extinct volcano and home to a cloud forest. The tour offers a nice hiking trail and some of the best views of Lake Nicaragua and the city of Granada.

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Alberto also snapped an up close and personal shot of a green caterpillar. He's becoming a good oul photographer.

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On Thursday we travelled back a little south in order to take a boat over to Lake Nicaragua and stay on Ometepe Island. After much research, we felt this would be an ideal spot to spend some time. It’s one of the largest freshwater lakes in the Americas. Ometepe is an island formed by two volcanoes and as you’d expect it’s visually a stunning place to visit. Below you can see the view from the boat of one of the volcanoes.

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They say the world is small, and I was reminded of this fact when I very randomly ran into an old friend of mine from Ireland! My friend Kevin has been living in the Cayman Islands for the past three years and was here on a two week holiday with his partner David. We were on different boats heading to the island but agreed to meet up at a later date. We arrived late Thursday evening so all we only had enough time to have dinner and book ourselves on a hike up Maderas, the smaller of the two volcanoes. At 1,394 metres it ain’t too small though. It’s a four hour steep climb to the top, followed by another three hours down. Unfortunately due to the rain the previous night, we were advised by our guide not to walk any further once we had reached the halfway point (about two hours in). The trail had become increasingly more difficult to climb due to the mud. Rather than risk injury, we accepted defeat. Walking back down was more difficult in some respects as it’s very easy to fall on your ass. An American walking in front gave us a live demonstration of this (ouch). Climbing a volcano therefore remains on our bucket list for another time. In the shot below you can see volcanic rock from Maderas' last eruption which was thousands of years ago.

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Our legs were pretty sore and our shoes were completely covered in muck so we decided to reward ourselves with a day at the beach on the island on Saturday. It looks and feels the same as any other beach but you're actually swimming in freshwater so it’s a really cool experience. I'm not a fan of saltwater so I really enjoyed swimming here. It’s been windier than Craggy Island during our stay so it’s easy to sunbathe in the heat but even easier to get sunburnt. My stomach is as red as a lobster.

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Kevin and David moved over to our hotel for their final night and that evening we went for dinner in one of the three local restaurants available within walking distance (it’s party central here), followed by a late night at the unofficial ‘residence bar’ back at our hotel. This involved two smuggled in bottles of white rum (rude not to in Central America), mixers and as much ice as the hotel could supply us with. We had a great night catching up and generally talking s*ite, as one does.

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We got up late on Sunday and spent the afternoon travelling north to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua which is located just above Grenada. When you take a bus you'll always be greeted by randomers who will jump on to sell you whatever they have in their pocket. It's generally a fried yellow snack (which is usually unidentifiable). On this particular trip we had a man give a ten minute sales pitch for, wait for it... kidney tablets. I couldn't help but take a sneaky photo on my phone to give you a visual. The phrase 'absolutely not' couldn't have crossed my mind any quicker. Mind you, after all that rum the previous night...

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We stopped off at Managua just for one night. It gets a lot of bad press from the guide books and with little to interest tourists its only real purpose is to serve as a transport hub. Thank you Nicaragua, you've been great! Next stop, Honduras.

Posted by mattld 21:16 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (2)

Costa Rica

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I forgot the all important map update in my last post. You can see our route from Kota Kinabalu in Borneo down to Bali and over to Java via a flight from Lombok.

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The flight home from Dubai was tiring and in hindsight I wish we had an extra day in Ireland to relax. Neither of us had a minute and Alberto especially had a difficult time trying to see all of his friends as he has only one day left in Dublin in December before the big move to Sydney. Having said all that, we had a fantastic weekend. It was also great to hear that many of our friends and family are reading this. It's good to know I haven’t just been talking to myself these past eleven weeks! The second map below shows our route via Dubai, returning briefly home to Dublin and then over to New Jersey, followed by a brief stop in Texas and down to Costa Rica. I’m knackered just looking at it.

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On Monday we flew from Dublin to Newark where we had a six hour wait to enjoy. Thankfully I had Roy Keane's second autobiography to keep me company and I finished it in two days. It took me a while to realise I was actually in New Jersey and not New York given our flight details told us it was the latter and they’re selling New York merchandise here like it’s going out of fashion. We flew with United Airlines. We discovered they have a reputation for overbooking flights and we were told just before we were about to board that up to fifteen people would not be able to fly. To appease the crowd they offered volunteers a free night’s stay in a hotel in Newark, dinner and more importantly, a $700 flight voucher per person. The last thing I wanted was to be stuck for a night in Newark but with that offer we couldn’t get out of our seats quick enough to volunteer! It was a no brainer. We had good craic that night with another group of lads who also volunteered, and although we had to touch down for an hour in Texas (as opposed to flying direct) we were in San Jose by Tuesday afternoon.

San José is the capital of Costa Rica, and it made sense to start our month in Central America here. Panama is located just below but it seems we’re not missing a lot by skipping it and we just didn’t have the time. We had a really enjoyable three nights here and we spent most of it with one of Alberto’s friends from Spain called Celso and his Costa Rican partner Sergio. It made such a difference being able to hang out with locals who can show you around, fill you in on the history etc. I would describe San José as an American and Spanish hybrid, although it’s not as wealthy as either. They’ve adopted the American fast food culture and you can find Taco Bell, Wendys, McDonalds etc. around the city. Food portions are as large as you’ll find in the United States but thankfully they don’t seem to suffer from the same obesity issues (at least not yet). You’ll find Spanish colonial architecture dotted throughout the city and this has been quite a novelty for Alberto as you’d expect, in addition to being able to fluently converse with the Costa Ricans. Most of the locals don’t speak English so I’m very lucky and thankful that Alberto has been able to ask for directions, negotiate prices and find out any information we need. I am practicing my Spanish though!

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The main city centre is bustling with people and there’s a real energy and buzz to this city. There are plenty of modern and luxurious cars to be seen driving around, and food, clothes etc. are almost as expensive as back in Dublin. Wages aren’t as high however so I don’t know how so many people can afford these prices. The city is surrounded by mountains which serve as a very nice backdrop. It’s not dissimilar to Queenstown in New Zealand. It was quite cloudy when we took the shot below but you can get an idea of the greenery encompassing the city.

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It's a very peaceful country and they were even able to abolish their own army in 1948. They're also Christmas mad over here. There are enough decorations on display to give Ireland a run for its money. Even the petrol stations are kitted out.

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I've waffled on for a while now so I'll try and keep the rest of this update concise. On Thursday we took a walk around the city, spotted a newly built China Town and we visited the Museo Nacional (the national museum). It's housed in an old fortress showcasing some of the country's most important archaeological pieces and depictions of the indigenous people.

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That evening the four of us went out for dinner. A glass of Sangria was ordered and naturally we ended up partying for the night.

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We even tried a local shot made with chili and tobasco. It's an acquired taste...

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Hangovers aside, the next day we had lunch at a Costa Rican themed restaurant. I'm a big fan of Mexican cuisine and Costa Rican food isn't too dissimilar. Rice and beans are served with most dishes, including breakfast and I ain't complaining!

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Afterwards we visited the Jade Museum. It was only opened recently and you can tell as it's a very well thought out interactive museum where you can view jade (a very rare and expensive ornamental rock), in addition to pre-Columbus artifacts and a floor showcasing their way of life.

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You can even partake in some archaeological digging. Myself and Sergio discovered a skeleton. I should have asked for a reward.

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We originally planned to stay in San José for two nights but we had such a good time we extended it to three. We travelled north to Monteverde on Saturday. The trip took around four and a half hours. Monteverde is a mountainous region and I'd compare it to Chiang Mai in terms of scenery and activities (hiking, white water rafting, ziplining). We booked ourselves in for two nights and the following day we were up early to visit the Reserva Biologica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde, aka a high altitude forest packed full of nature and wildlife. We got a nice three hour brisk walk in.

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The town itself is really small, and they're set up purely for tourism. Most visitors are fellow backpackers and there's an enjoyably calm and chilled out vibe to the place. We would have stayed longer if we hadn't done similar activities that they offer here previously in Asia and we're conscious of time as there's a lot of ground to cover over the next three weeks.

We've had a wonderful time in Costa Rica and the best thing about the country has been the people. You don’t need to understand them fluently when their smiles, warm gestures and effort to help you are constantly evident. If the rest of Central America offers the same level of hospitality we’ll be very happy. We're going to be travelling by bus for most, if not through all of Central America and tomorrow we have the unenviable task of getting up at 5am and taking at least three separate buses plus a border crossing as we head north to our second country in Central America, Nicaragua. It's going to be an interesting day.

Posted by mattld 21:26 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (0)

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