A Travellerspoint blog

November 2014


sunny 28 °C

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.


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.



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.



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.




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


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.


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.




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.


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.


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...


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

overcast 24 °C

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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.





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.


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




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!


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.




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


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.




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)


sunny 28 °C

This entry has been particularly difficult to write and upload as we've been so busy the past few days and we haven't had a moment to rest. I'm not complaining, but it's late here on Thursday evening and we're up tomorrow morning at 4.30am to take a coach to Abu Dhabi and from there our flight to Dublin. The three day pit stop is going to be mental busy and on Monday we'll be flying to Costa Rica via New York! Where to start with this entry... well Dubai is a city that doesn't require much of an introduction. Neither of us had been before and it seemed like the perfect place to stop off and finish our ten weeks in Asia. I'll admit I have always been a little cynical of the place, but having visited they've well and truly won me over. First of all, a couple of shots of the city to give you a flavour of what to expect.




On our first day we visited Ski Dubai, an indoor ski resort. It was quite a novelty getting into winter clothes and spending a few hours in the snow park where you can tube, zorb and zipline. You can ski or snowboard too. For a while we almost forgot we were in the middle of a desert! We took a lot of photos on my mobile but I'm having trouble getting wifi on it, so I had to 'borrow' a few from Google Images. I'll upload the others to Facebook when I get a chance.



That evening we met up with my friend Michael who lives here and he has been kind enough to put us up for a few nights and show us around. He brought us for dinner in 'Downtown Dubai', located by the Dubai Mall (one of the largest malls in the world) and the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world). They're also in the process of building a brand new state of the art Opera House which is still under construction. You can see a picture of the Khalifa just below.


During dinner we were able to watch a water, fog, light and music show. It's on every thirty minutes and a new song is played each time.





Yesterday we took the 'Big Bus' tour around the city and stopped off at the Dubai Museum (providing a history from the early settlers to the modern days developments), the zouks (the local markets) and the marina.






We also stopped off at an Egyptian themed mall for lunch. They love their themes here (there's another mall themed after the Renaissance). Check out the ceiling in the second shot, there are no half measures here!



That evening Michael took us out for dinner at the hotel he works at, located at the Palm Jumeirah. It's a Turkish themed hotel called the Zabeel Saray and I think only second to the Burj Al Arab in terms of luxury. We enjoyed a delicious Lebanese meal, and it's the first time I've ever had it. I never thought I would enjoy chick peas! This morning we had an early start to visit the Atlantis Hotel's waterpark called Aquaventure. It's probably the best waterpark I've ever visited and luckily there were no queues.



Aside from the dozen or so slides and an enormous lazy river (with rapids), guest are also able to use the Atlantis' private beach offering a full view of the city including the Burj Al Arab (the self proclaimed seven star hotel) which you can see below.



We visited the Dubai mall for dinner and finished off the evening with a trip to the Aquarium (complete with a ten million litre tank and a dozen sharks) and the Cheesecake Factory. It's considered rude not to visit a Cheesecake Factory when you stumble upon one. We almost had to be rolled back to our hotel after.



There's a lot to be said for working here on a tax free salary and being able to enjoy what is essentially an enormous theme park for adults. Yes there is a severe shortage of culture, historical sites and natural beauty but the government and corporations pull out all the stops to impress you so frequently that it's hard not to fall in love with the place.

Dubai is a very safe city to live and has one of the lowest crime rates you can find. You don't have to be loaded to enjoy it either. I'm not sure if we would be able to stick the forty degree heat during July and August but who knows if the right opportunity came up? Never say never. It was the perfect end to an incredible ten weeks. And we've still four more to look forward to. The next update will coming to you in about a week from San Jose.

Posted by mattld 10:29 Archived in United Arab Emirates Comments (3)

Java - Yogyakarta and Jakarta

semi-overcast 32 °C

Yogjakarta is a relatively small city not too far from Solo. It only took us an hour to get here by car. We booked ourselves in for two nights. The city is home to Borobudur, the famous Buddhist temple built in the 9th century. It’s an astounding sight given its age and the only religious attraction I’ve been more impressed with so far is Angkor Wat in Cambodia.






During our trip we were asked a number of times by the female locals if they could have their photograph taken with us. Naturally we were loving all the attention but we were brought back down to earth when our tour guide explained why. Most of them just want to compare their skin colour to ours, and to check how much whiter their skin has gotten since the last time they had their photo taken with another pale tourist! If you haven’t been to Asia you may not know that white = wealth and beauty. You can find skin whitening products everywhere. Many locals laugh when I explain how many of us in the west want to be tanned (or orange in the case of some people).


One word of caution for those of you visiting… be prepared for ‘sales hell’ as soon as you leave the temple. The sales touts aren’t allowed to badger you on holy ground, but they more than make up for it as soon as you’re back on capitalist soil. Within seconds a dozen touts surrounded us, insisting we buy every piece of Buddha related merchandise they could carry with their two hands. After several minutes of telling them ‘no thanks’ and ‘no money', most of them left us alone. Except two that is, who followed us for the long walk back to the car park. I’m ashamed to say we bought four Borobudur themed postcards and a Buddha head in the end. Offer no more than a third of what they ask for.


Thursday arrived and it was time to take a short one hour flight to Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia and home to more than nine million Indonesians. I hinted in my last update that I had set my expectations to low, and if you’ve read my posts on Kuala Lumpur and Surabaya you’ll know I’m not a big fan of these types of cities. I somehow let Bangkok away with it for the fun factor and sheer craziness of the place. So what are my thoughts on Jakarta? Well, it’s exactly as I expected. Imagine London without any underground metro. There are traffic jams all the time, everywhere. The place is huge. And poor old Jakarta has a pollution problem in league with Beijing. Today was the first day we were able to see the sky.

A photo from our hotel room. The Gili Islands feel like a distant memory now.


The view from one of our taxi trips. It's the only way to get around but thankfully they're cheap.


We knew we weren't going to be able to traverse most of the city in a few days like Shanghai. Instead we booked ourselves into a hotel that is attached to a shopping mall the size of a small city. It’s so big in fact we got lost several times. So we’ve had a great time these past few days wandering around the shops, visiting the arcade, eating good food and enjoying the cinema at just €3.50 a pop. In the last three days we saw Heroes 6 and Instellar, the latter of which we saw twice (it's that good).

It hasn’t all been shopping malls though and on Saturday we visited the Taman Mini Indonesia park. The park is filled with famous buildings from all parts of Indonesia and what they describe as ‘an authentic example of the various cultures through Indonesia’. Ok it’s tacky and theme park-esque but it’s fun. And the locals made a fuss of us. We're getting used to being the only Caucasians in town. The park is huge and you need a motorbike to get around all of it. Alternatively you can pick a few spots and take a cable car from one end to another.





During the day we ran into a cobra who ate Alberto. He wasn't happy.


We also got up close and personal with the Komodo dragon. We were hoping to visit the Komodo islands on the eastern part of Indonesia a few weeks ago to see them in the flesh but the trip was too expensive. This was a welcome alternative.



Today we took a trip to Jakarta’s Old Town for lunch. It’s run down, crowded but it was good to see a bit more of the ‘real Jakarta’. There was a festival on for kids which was great to see. There's meant to be an excellent night market here too. There's a massive divide between rich and poor. The rich tend to stick to the hundreds of malls in the city and the poorer folks stay outdoors.



I'm not sure I'd recommend Jakarta but Java is well worth a trip for Borobudur and Mount Bromo. A couple of nights in Jakarta is fine as it serves as a popular transport hub to the rest of the world. We stayed for four but we had the mall to entertain us. And so that's it for Indonesia, we've really enjoyed the variety of sights and experiences over the past eighteen days. Tomorrow afternoon we take a longer flight than usual to our final stop in Asia, Dubai. Central America is just around the corner.

Posted by mattld 01:26 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Java - Surabaya & Solo

sunny 34 °C

We arrived into Surabaya on Thursday evening and first impressions were not great. It’s a large enough city with many run down areas and traffic is everywhere. Oh horse and cart, we dare not mock you now. Spend time in Java and you can't help but notice a few differences to life back home.

- First of all, seatbelts... it's not that they haven't been fitted to save on cost. It's that car manufacturers or dealers have gone to the trouble of removing them. In many cases you’ll have the belt but not the buckle, or vice versa. We can't figure out the logic.
- There's an evil love affair going on with cigarette advertising. Words like ‘confidence, leadership, power, taste, pleasure’ etc. are billboarded on every street with the local Indonesian brands. And cigarettes are almost free of charge here. The local kids have little hope in avoiding a 20 a day addiction unfortunately.
- The staring we encountered in Beijing is back with a vengeance. You wouldn’t want to be paranoid about yourself because the locals will whisper to their friends and family as they stare at you. I’ve started saying Salam (hello) to them which generally results in a warm reaction. To be fair we’ve seen only a couple of Westerners on Java so they’re probably more curious than anything else. If you make the effort to speak any other lingo like thanks or goodbye they love it. And many have been helpful providing directions.
- Retail outlets are really overstaffed. This is a common theme in Asia but even with cheap labour costs I’m not sure how businesses can afford to have so many people standing around doing so little. One evening we had five people greet us for dinner as we walked into a restaurant. Our waitress stood over our table as we read through the menu. The same five staff stared at us in silence while we ate and our plates were snatched off the table the very second we put our knives and forks down. Java my friend, sometimes less is more!

Ok rant over let me tell you what we’ve been up to the past five days. There are only two reasons to visit Surabaya as a tourist. It provides a transport hub for you to reach the rest of Java and it’s relatively close to Mount Bromo (more on this shortly). On Friday we had time to spare so we visited the famous Majapahit hotel for lunch. It’s a luxurious Dutch colonial-style hotel and worth a visit if you're here.


After we took a trip to the House of Sampoerna, highly recommended by Trip Advisor (thanks guys). It’s a museum dedicated to Indonesia’s most ‘prestigious hand-rolled’ cigarette. I couldn't help but wonder if children are brought here on their school tour. You can see the old factory floor below where the cigarettes were rolled. Thrilling stuff.


The next day we had an early start for Mount Bromo, the most well known active volcano in Indonesia. We took an organised jeep tour which was a lot of fun.



There is a temple located at the base but unfortunately it was closed.


There's a lot of volcanic ash lying around so don't forget your Michael Jackson style mask!




We had a one hour steep ascent to the top, with 250 steps waiting for us at the end. With the heat and high altitude I couldn't finish the last few steps quick enough. We were rewarded with an amazing view, and an overpowering smell of boiled eggs (my worst nightmare).


Surprisingly, there's also plenty of green and natural vegetation on the volcano.


On Sunday we took a train four hours west to Solo (aka Surakarta). Solo is a much smaller town but we were happy to be somewhere a bit quieter. We stopped off at Solo to visit two temples, the first was Candi Sukuh, a 15th century Javanese-Hindu Temple.



The second temple we visited is called Candi Ceto (again Javanese-Hindu and built in the 15th century). The first photo was taken in painting mode. Nice eh?




We noticed at the back of the temple, there are a few independent alters. There's a statue in each one and locals have donated gifts like drinks, fruit or money (insert cynical remark here). The most popular statue was, well take a look below.


Yep, it's a well girthed stumpy penis! Next up, Yogyakarta and the boiling pot that is said to be Jakarta. Say a prayer for me.

Posted by mattld 04:00 Archived in Indonesia Comments (3)

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