Friday, 31 October 2008

Peru - Lima

We flew into Lima from San Jose and as we were flying out again the next morning stayed in a hotel near to the airport. We asked in reception about somewhere to get some dinner and were handed a pile of takeaway pizza menus. We had a wander and found nothing but shops behind bars. In order to buy anything you had to point (in our case) to what you wanted and pay before it was handed through the bars. We decided that this probably indicated that we weren't in the nicest part of town, so we went back to the hotel and ordered takeaway pizza!

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Costa Rica - San Jose (again!)

After another long arduous bus journey, we arrived back in San Jose. At which point I had a stinking headache and had to lie down. Got to the hostel... moaned a lot... got Heather to place a cold flannel on my head... and tried to sleep whilst feeling worse and worse. In the meantime Heather went to get some food. In the ten minutes whilst she was gone I threw up all over myself and all over the laundry room floor (the bathroom was occupied)... and immediately felt fine again, though a little damp! Half an hour later feeling amazingly recovered I went to get take away for myself too!

The next day we wanted to go shopping in the city centre. San Jose is not the prettiest of cities. The 'Lonely Planet' guide book has most of it's San Jose space dedicated to warning you of all the bad areas of the city. It gives advice such as "if at any point you're held at knife or gunpoint, do not resist or fight back". So having taken off all our watches and jewelry and stashed money for the day in secret pockets we venture into town. First thing you notice is how all the local lots have security guards with big guns and large razor wire fences around them! Thankfully the trip went without incident and I even managed to buy some nice new shorts to replace the army camouflaged shorts that I've been advised not to wear in South America! Suffice to say the camera didn't come with us so there are no photos.

Today, our final day in Costa Rica, we've spent the day white water rafting in a national park near San Jose. It was a three hour raft trip over class III and IV rapids. To be fair I didn't know what class IV rapid really meant. Now I know it means you get very wet! Apparently it's one of the top five white water rafting rivers in the world. There were five people in a raft, a guide who would give commands to the other four who would then paddle appropriately. I was at the front of the raft and I realised at one point that I was failing to hear some of the commands when after a particularly vicious rapid that involved me getting drenched and almost falling off, I was wondering why no one else was still paddling. Turning round I noticed everyone else was lying on the bottom of the raft and I had missed the vital "get down" command! It was amazing fun and a great way to end our time in Costa Rica.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Costa Rica - Parque National Rincon de la Vieja

We've left the major tourist trail behind now and have headed into a much more remote national park. There's no town, we're in a lodge a few kilometres from the park entrance, and once again you can''t get anywhere without 4WD. It's a beautiful setting and we've got our own porch, complete with hammock, rocking chairs and dog, from where we can enjoy the view.

Getting here was something of a mission though and in the process we have learned that Ben doesn't really go in for the whole economy travel thing! As we got off our bus I commented "See that wasn't too bad" and Ben's response was "I'm trying to imagine in what way it could have been worse"! Now admittedly I wasn't the one contorted into a strange position, stuck behind a girl who wouldn't move her chair forward or next to an overweight woman who allegedly kept farting (no it wasn't me!) with a ridiculously heavy camera bag in my lap but hey, it REALLY could have been worse!

The environment is completely different from where we've been so far. The forest is much more like woodland that we have at home, but much older and more gnarly-looking. It's like an enchanted wood in a fairytale. I keep expecting one of the trees to start talking to us or a vine or tree root to wrap itself around my ankle and hold me captive! There's spooky things caused by volcanic activity too like pools of boiling mud, multicoloured lakes and smoking holes in the ground that add to the surreal feeling.

Our animal watching was fruitless until we sat down to eat our lunch and the wildlife came bounding out of the forest to try and get a bit! The trees were suddenly filled with whitefaced monkeys (but not close enough for photos - obviously!) and a ridiculously bold coati actually jumped up onto the picnic table and tried to unzip our bags (no we didn't feed it). It looked like it would have been happy for me to give it a little cuddle though but I was just a bit scared of it's huge claws!

More photos here!

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Costa Rica - Monteverde

We travelled to Monteverde via 'Jeep-Boat-Jeep' and despite Ben's excitement that doesn't mean we came here by transformer! Just a jeep, a boat and then another jeep. Bless him! It was more than exciting enough for me though as the roads are unsurfaced and we were sliding all over the place even in a 4WD trying to get through the mud without getting stuck. We made it though and are now in a little town surrounded by tropical cloudforest. Not being an ecologist I can't tell the difference between the cloudforests and the rainforests but I guess it's to do with being higher and the clouds tend to settle in the forest giving it something of an eery quality.

We've been doing lots more hiking and a little bit of tree hugging - the trees are incredible and definitely worth hugging :0) In parts of the forest there are hanging-bridges set up so you can actually walk through, and above, the cloudforest canopy, which is pretty special. It feels totally different walking through the canopy than on the forest floor. As you look down you can't see the ground as the plants are so dense and beingamong the tops of the trees gives you a much better understanding of the symbiotic relationships going on around you (and some not so symbiotic but I'm sticking with my romantic vision). Each tree has so many other plants growing on it and is obviously supporting loads of insects, and birds, and other animals, each tree is an ecosystem in it's own right.

We're still wildlife spotting and keep finding that as we walk quietly for miles in the forest, looking up, trying hard to spot things we don't actually see much in the way of animals, yet as we get back to the ranger station, and Ben packs his camera away, wild animals seem to practically dance through the car park!!! We've spotted quite a few fury friends right by the road. We saw a grey fox and some coatis (Ben even managed to get some photos - I take it all back!). Also, in one spot someone has set up lots of bird feeders filled with sugar water and so there are literally hundreds of beautiful multicoloured humming birds flying around. They were hovering so close it felt like I could have just reached over and picked one straight out of the sky.

My special reward for being so incredibly patient whilst Ben takes all his photos (!) was to go zip-lining. When I signed up for it I thought it was going to be one of those 'death-slide' things you see atassault courses, but there were actually fifteen of them and the longest one was 600 metres! It was so exciting! I had to wear a climbing harness thing then was attached to a metal cable right upamong the tallest trees and then just zipped along from platform to platform. Some of the runs were really fast and scary and some of them you could just enjoy the views below whilst hanging in mid-air. I loved it apart from thisTarzan swing thing they got us to do, which basically involved falling off one of the very high up platforms and then swinging around in the air until one of the (young buff!) instructors jumped up and hung off your feet and dragged you back down to earth. It was all a bit too much like a mini bungee jump for my liking. (Sorry there's no photos so you'll just have to take my word for it. Ben was off photographing more things that will stay still for him!)

More photos here!

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Costa Rica - La Fortuna

La Fortuna is our first real stop and it's a small town pretty much entirely dedicated to providing services to the tourists (mostly American) of Costa Rica, and it does so very well. It's built up at the foot of a volcano called ARENAL, which believe it or not is still active. So one of the most popular activities here is to watch the lava which constantly flows down it and lights up at night. It's pretty amazing to see, well actually it's not all that impressive - not like in the pictures in the postcards with flames spewing out the top - but pretty amazing in a if-you-think-about-it sort of way. In reality it looks a bit like a few rubbish fireworks going off in the distance! But doesn't that seem a bit unwise to you? Building a town at the foot of an active volcano I mean?! There are big eruptions every now and again, so there's certain things you have to do to make sure there will be as few casualties as possible in the next one, one of which is to always park your car facing away from the volcano. I've got to say, I'm not entirely convinced that that's going to be all that effective in the event. But then who am I say?!

Apart from the active volcano there's loads of dormant ones, so we climbed up the one next to Arenal. It was very, and I mean VERY, hard. Practically straight up! My legs have hurt ever since. It was pretty amazing though because we had to climb up through rainforest. At the top there was a lake in the crater and I was just paddling and contemplating a swim when I pointed out the "little Ely things" to someone who informed me they were leeches (everyone seen 'Stand by me'?) and that put an end to that idea! It did look impressive though and really green. Also we got some really good views (and therefore photos of course) of the top of Arenal, which doesn't often reveal itself from behind the clouds. We were a little disappointed though not to spot any monkeys in the rainforest (I imagine my heavy-breathing may have put them off), that is until we were on the way down and could hear the loudest, angriest sounding monkey noises ever and imagined huge ferocious gorillas would appear at any moment to rip us limb from limb, at which point we were very relieved not to have seen them! (We've since learned that tiny cute little howler monkeys were responsible for the racket!)

Our more successful rainforest wildlife spotting endeavours have meant we've seen deadly snakes and frogs (cute tiny little bright red tree-frogs), tonnes of birds, most of which I have no idea what they are (apologise to both Ben's Dad and Karen!) but do include toucans, humming birds and some sort of special heron (sorry!!!!), hundreds of butterflies, lizards and iguanas (massive ones in trees, sitting on branches that look like they might give way at any moment), black squirrels, a howler monkey and most excitingly as far as I'm concerned... Sloths! (Now this might be a good time to warn you not to get too excited about seeing photos of most of the afore mentioned species, this is for two reasons, the first being that rather annoyingly the animals do not pose attractively waiting to be snapped, and in fact the sloths mostly looked like balls of fur wedged in the trees! Also secondly, those of you who have experience being photographed by Ben - standing with a stiff smile for an inordinate amount of time whilst he twiddles camera dials, will not be surprised to learn; a wildlife photographer he is not! So expect to see photos of things that don't move!)

There are more pictures of immobile objects here!

Friday, 17 October 2008

Costa Rica - San Jose

I can't actually tell you about San Jose as although we spent our first night in Costa Rica there we didn't actually see it! We were so excited by the novelty of all the luxuries of modern living and so put off by the rain, not to mention all the tales of how hideous and unsafe the city is, that we didn't venture out of our (scarily reminiscent of a youth club) hostel. We are flying out from there too so maybe we'll make it out the front door next time!

I must admit that despite the fact we knew it was rainy season the relentless torrential rain that greeted us did catch us a bit off guard. We weren't comforted to be told it had been that way all day, every day for the previous nine days, or by the terrible forecast (we've got WiFi of course we can check the forecast). However, I am very pleased (and a little bit smug) to say that since then it's been pretty good. I mean it does rain, we're in the rainforest (the clue's in the name) but we've had lots of sun and only brief showers most of the time. The 'showers' do result in an absolute drenching when you get caught in one though!

Costa Rica

After three weeks in Cuba it's been something of a culture shock arriving in Costa Rica. It feels like the two hour plane journey didn't just bring us to another country, but also shot us forward in time several generations! Suddenly the roads are filled with cars, with not an animal-drawn vehicle of any kind to be seen. There are people cutting the vegetation with strimmers instead of huge macheties. Suddenly the billboards displaying Communist slogans are replaced by blinding adverts for all kinds of tempting crap we don't really need. The American pollution (did I say 'pollution'? Maybe influence is more polite) is everywhere in the form of Dennys, Burger King, Wendys and of course the evil Mc Donalds. Prices are all in dollars, the locals all speak perfect English (if you can call American English 'perfect'!) and refer to us as "guys" and our counterparts are all teenagers who appear to have stepped straight out of an episode of 'Beverly Hills 90219' - aaagggghhhh!!!!

However, the up side of all this of course is... The food is fantastic. Everything runs ultra-efficiently. You know exactly what you're going to get when you hand your cash over. The facilities are astonishing; WiFi internet access in your room? Swimming pools? Roof-top bars? Hammocks? Cable TV? Folks that arrange everything for you? Pick ups from the door? Whoever said this travelling lark was hard?!

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Cuba - Havana (again)

Unfortuntely our time in Cuba is now over. We're back in Havana for the night as we fly out early in the morning. We really have had a fantastic time though and have learned loads about a country which is no doubt going to change dramatically over the coming years. There are still a lot of things that remain something of a mystery to me, such as how a government can call itself Communist then have regions of it's own country where only foreign tourists are allowed to go, or introduce a second currency that can't fail to increase the divide between those that have and those that don't. And I certainly won't miss the bloody awful food, not being able to access the internet or constantly being asked if I want to buy cigars!

But I think my Spanish is improving, and I'm definately understanding more and getting better at interacting with people, whereas Ben seems to have advanced from saying "Si" to everything to answering any question that he's asked with "Cerveza" (beer), not always that helpful in practice!And I will miss the scenery, the relaxed lifestyle, the sunshine and most of all the people, who are so friendly and have a real sense of community.

Still tommorrow... Costa Rica!

There's some bonus photos from Cuba taken on the small camera that can be found here!

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Cuba - Bens little bit on Politics

After writing all the blog entries for cuba Heather has told me that I have to write something too! So I thought I'd write a bit about my polical observations of Cuba!

Being in Cuba it's hard not to form opinions on the political system here and to speculate on where it's going. Back in my Swansea university days people selling Socialist Worker papers would wear che t-shirts and would idolise cuba as a how revolution can work. I don't doubt that after the revolution first happened there were good intentions within the new regime. This is shown through Cuba's health and education services, both of which we are told are very good (though thankfully we never had to put this to the test). Though che's efforts to encourage moral incentives to work rather than materials was never sustainable. The buildings are crumbling, the streets are full of potholes, the shops are empty, the food is rationed and many people each year try to "escape" to the states.

Over the years Fidel has blamed USA for all of it's problems (this can be seen in Havana's very biased Musea de Revolucion!), and to be fair there is some truth in this. The trade embargo from cuba's closest and largest neighbour has made the importing and exporting of goods expensive. Until the late eighties Cuba's economy was mainly held up by their close ally Russia. But when the Berlin Wall fell in Europe Cuba lost trade and credit of $5 billion dollars overnight. This resulted in a five year spiral of poverty. To stop the riots in the streets the government was forced to legalise the US dollar and promote tourism. Ploughing the money made from tourism to eleviate poverty. This has created the cuba we see today. Two economic systems running side by side, the national communist peso and the more capitilist tourist money (the dollar was taken out of circulation in 2004 to be replaced by this second cuban currency of equivelent value). This of course is creating a divide that the initial revolution was trying to stop. Now beggars and touts on the street collecting foreign tourist money can earn more in a day than a doctor on a government salary can in a month. This double economy is not sustainable and will eventually have to change. I cannot see communism lasting in Cuba and I imagine as the government changes power over the next few years we'll see more capitilism coming back into Cuba. Hopefully, though, change won't come too quickly so that the country won't lose it's culture, identity and sense of community.

Cuba - Trinidad

Our time in Cuba has carried on getting better and better :0) We spent most of our last week in Trinidad, and haven't wanted to leave as we've made ourselves well and truly at home in another 'casa', headed by Ramonita, a wonderful tiny energetic little old Cuban lady.

Our initial arrival didn't quite go according to plan though as we were whisked off the bus (which had broken down on the way) by a guy pretending to be from the casa we were looking for. He dumped us on the back of a bicycle rickshaw, that didn't cope too well with carrying me, Ben and all our luggage and promptly broke! This led to some comedy antics as we were dragged around town by a second rickshaw, with our driver holding on to the back. The streets are pretty hilly, so every time they got up some momentum there was no way they were going to stop at junctions, regardless of whether or not there were motorbikes headed straight for us!

We realised pretty sharpish that we'd been taken to the wrong place and sought out the right house (on the same street) where we found Ramonita. We then hid behind her, as she let rip at the dodgy guy, despite the fact she was too small to reach his doorbell! Then took us home to her beautiful house, complete with peacock in the garden.

Since then it's been all plain sailing. We've explored Trinidad, which is a pretty, biggish town, with cobbled streets and multicoloured houses. There are lots of great bars, with all manner of rum-based beverages, and fantastic music and dancing. Even I can recognise some Cuban tunes now but still haven't learned to salsa.

Ramonita has kept us well fed, but always gets upset when we're not able to finish the mountains of food she lays on for us every night, but to be honest I could probably do without the microwaved cheese sandwiches she gives us for breakfast!

There's a beach (PLAYA ANCON) near-by, so we hired bikes and cycled there (resulting in sore bums but surprisingly no strops) and spent a couple of days lounging around occasionally venturing out of the shade to work on the tans (I've got a bit of a peely belly) and went snorkelling on a near-by coral reef. The best bit for me was sailing out to it on a tiny catamaran, hanging on to the side as the waves splashed over our heads (not quite so health and safety mad over here!).

I'd say the highlights though have involved hiking in the near-by mountains (TOPES DE COLLANTES and RANCHON EL CUBANO) where we walked through incredible tropical vegetation (again generally with a mangy dog or two at our heels!) to reach waterfalls where we could swim. And as if that wasn't cool enough already... at one we swam right through the waterfall into a cave which was full of bats! Amazing.

You can see some more photos here.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Cuba - Vinales

Havana was hectic and Playa Del Esta was deserted, we're now in Vinales, which is tranquil. It really is lovely. We're properly in the country, with chickens and pigs snuffelling past and the farmers going about their business with Ox-pulled ploughs. We also seem to constantly have a mangy dog at our heels (and I don't encourage them and really don't need Ben to keep shouting "Don't look at it! Don't give it eye contact!").

The scenery is fantastic; with these huge imposing limestone mountain things (I can't really describe them, have a look at the photos) all around and all kinds of crops growing including tobacco, coffee, sugar cane and tropical fruit (finally fruit!!) among the palm trees. We've done loads of walking (and I mean LOADS, even though it's like a million degrees and we're bright red with sunburn). We've also seen lots of evidence of the major hurricane (Gusto) that hit here about a month a go.

Instead of being in a hotel we're renting a room in a 'casa', the home of a local family (it's the main form of accommodation for tourists in Cuba away from the big resorts). The family were recommended to us by some Americans we met (one of whom, bizzarely, is the nanny for Eddie Vedder from Perl Jam's kids - cool hey?!) It's been such a positive experience, the family (and in fact the whole town) have been so warm and welcoming. Also, finally, we've had some good food, as the Gran of the family has cooked a feast for us every night (still no fresh veg though and I seem to be on a four eggs a day diet, which I'm not entirely convinced is good for me!).

One of the neighbours took us on a guided hike and we met some of the local farmers who showed us how to roll cigars, fed us pinapple straight from the plant and gave us sugar-cane drinks (with rum - obviously!). After this our guide (having drank a LOT of rum) proceeded to strip off down to his pants and jump in the nearest river. He semed confused by our refusal to join him in the muddy water!

Being here has definately won Cuba over for us. We're starting to love the place and the people and are excited about moving-on tomorrow to continue our explorations :0)

You can see some more photos here!

Friday, 3 October 2008

Cuba - Playa del Este (part 2)

The rain did clear, but not until we'd had some fantastic storms. The lightening was so close I was sure it was going to hit and I was torn between wanting to watch and wanting to run and hide when the thunder rolled around us, especially when all the power went off. It was all worth it though because what followed was perfect beach weather. We're both looking browner and blonder now (Ben looks even more like a German!) and it feels a bit more like we're actually on holiday.

The whole food fiasco continues though. We have both actually been dreaming about fruit and veg and even pizza has deserted me now. Last night the restaurant we ate in had no milk or bread and I was served a pizza base covered in tinned tomato soup and cheese! Other memorable low lights include for Ben a plate of various tinned meats arranged neatly on a plate (everyone loves spam, right?!) and for me the local speciality dessert that I naively believed couldn't actually be what it sounded like, but no sure enough was a saucer full of marmalade covered in grated cheese! After nearly 20 years of vegetarianism following a week long diet of white rice and raw grated white cabbage (as yet the only veg not from a tin we've eaten in this town) I've been driven to eating fish! I'm also developing quite a taste for mojitos :0)

There are some photos here.