Nicaragua: My First Love

After five years of globe-trotting, I finally made it back to visit my first love; the country which started me on my journey: Nicaragua. Life in the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes had really changed in some ways, but in most it was exactly as I remembered. I was quite pleased to find there were still mango slices on every corner, the majestic volcanoes still give you a slight sense of impending doom, the sand on the beach still gives 2nd degree burns on your feet, and the rum is still magnificent. Ahh Nica – how I’ve missed you. Despite your mosquitoes, your poorly mannered young men, and your lack of cuisine, you still hold the spot at the top of my list. It was good to be back.

When I found myself with three weeks to fill before returning to a snow-filled Alaska, it wasn’t a hard decision to pop down for a visit. My friend Rachel, who also was confronted with snow-filled Alaska (and rain-filled Oregon) decided to join. Some traveling buddies from Mexico were still on the road and were keen to tag along as well – so off we went.

We spent the first week Doris’s house. Doris and her family live in Tepeyac, a little, rural suburb of Granada. Doris and I became friends when I first moved to Nicaragua, and have stayed in touch over the years. It was great to visit and catch up. The kids were certainly a handful (where does all of that energy come from??) but they did make it interesting and kick-started Rachel’s Spanish.

Around Tepeyac

Escuela Juan Diego

Rachel made a friend (kind of)

Picking avocados was a family event

Taking a walk

After stops in Laguna de Apoyo and Ometepe, we were off to Leon. Other than everyone accepting US Dollars (weird, right?) and some of my favorite places having closed down (Chameleon, Siesta Perdida) it was pretty much the same. Veronie and Stijn, the delightful Dutchies who own Via Via were right where I left them, though Veronie does now have a one-year-old on her hip. When she first told me Sebastian was napping, I asked her if she had a new puppy (which was thankfully met with laughter). And Harrie, tour operator extraordinaire, was never far off and frequently popped in. It was great to visit.

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We took a self-guided tour of Volcano Telica while in Leon – I used to guide treks and was pretty confident I still knew the way. Turns out the trail has greatly changed due to eruptions since I’ve visited (locals confirmed!), so we did get slightly lost in cornfields. Oops. But it was an adventure! Even though Telica was too smokey to see lava, it was just as amazing as I remembered. And – we saw tons of wildlife on the way down after dark, including two tarantulas and a scorpion.

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After Leon followed an obligatory trip to Las Penitas (the beach!!), then Matagalpa before beginning our trip south to Rio San Juan. We spent almost a week in the jungle along the border of Costa Rica which was absolutely stunning. We spent a few nights in a very remote (like, a two-hour boat ride from the closest town) eco lodge in the middle of the jungle where macaws flew overhead, sloths clung to trees and poisonous frogs were underfoot. It was magical.

The jungle

How to make chocolate

Favorite shots

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It was over as quickly as it started, and I suddenly found myself back in freezing Pennsylvania. And after two feet of snow, canceled flights, sprinting through airports, a little mechanical trouble at 5,000 feet, and two more feet of snow, I’m currently settling into a slowly-thawing Alaska (though it is doing more snowing as I sit here typing this). And once the snow melts just a little bit more (or my friends come back to town, whichever happens first) I’ll report back with more adventures. Stay tuned!

A Week in Tulum

Tulum was everything I wanted it to be and more. In addition to having zero travel issues for the first time in a long time, Tulum had the pristine beaches with crystal clear water – like something straight out of a dream. The week that I spent here, the majority of my time was spent either laying on the beach or frolicking in the waves.

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I did explore a little bit – only when the beach was too windy. Connected to the public beach is Tulum National Park, which contains ancient Mayan ruins and stories of the once great empire. It was fun to explore and had pretty views…and tons of iguanas!

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One of the highlights of my time in Tulum was a day trip to Sian Ka’an Natural Reserve. Only about 8km outside of Tulum, Sian Ka’an is seeping with wildlife, and is home to the second-largest coral reef in the world. We saw alligators, sea turtles, iguanas, and manatees, in addition to the thousands and thousands of birds. Osprey, pelicans, roseate spoonbills, great blue heron, ibis, and so many others. I began to see why people get into birding – that was really cool! After checking out the birds in the lagoon, we had lunch and headed out to the Caribbean for some top-notch snorkeling. Fun fact of the day: coconut trees aren’t native to the Caribbean – they’re actually an invasive species! Who knew!?!

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The excursions were cool, but I mostly enjoyed hanging around town. My comfortable routine of eating breakfast at the hotel, taking 20 minutes to apply sunscreen to my own back (Do you know how hard this is?) and biking to the beach was the epitome of relaxation. When I got hungry, I would bike into town. My goal was to try a new place each day…but I ended up finding a little French bistro that I adored. The owners are delightful Belgian couple that kept me supplied in delicious food and the smoothest tequila I’ve ever tasted. The tequila comes from their friend’s basement across the street, though, so unfortunately there won’t be any coming home. You guys will just have to take my word for it.

After lunch I’d typically head back to the beach until I was hungry for dinner, when I’d bike back into town. I did manage to try a new dinner place every night – no repeats. The first night, I almost ended up in tears after dousing my taco with a salsa that was wayyyy hotter than expected. But I got it together just in time and only ended up with some hiccups. On the next night, I learned that Tulum loves happy hour – for the first (but not the last) time, I ordered a margarita only to find out that they were on special: two for one! Gotta love vacation!

It was on the bike rides home after dinner that I discovered the truly horrifying part of the city: how many spiders were lying, waiting, all around me. My headlamp was reflected off of each set of eyes, like a small piece of glitter lying in the grass. It looked like someone had just cracked open a piñata over top of the bike path – glitter everywhere. I stayed safely on my bike until reaching the hotel.

Spiders and all, I made it out and onto the airplane. Next up – Oaxaca. Bring on the skulls, parades, and festivities. And – Happy Halloween! 🙂

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A Weekend in Wayanad

This past weekend I had some vacation days for Dasara, so I went with my friend Vidhya to her family’s home in Wayanad – a town in the state of Kerala. Wayanad is not far over the Karnataka border, about 6-7 hours by bus southwest of Bangalore.

I traveled on Friday and arrived in the early evening. I was greeted by many members of her extended family who had all gathered to see the foreigner in their small town. Wayanad is a fairly rural area in the hills of Kerala. It is completely green – everywhere you look you are surrounded by fields of rice, ginger, tumeric, black pepper, bananas, papayas, and so many other crops. Most of all, there is tea. Tea bushes require a very specific, moist climate to grow and Wayanad is the perfect home filled with hills and mist. Especially in the morning you see women walking along the road with big sacks of freshly plucked tea leaves on their backs, and many more in the fields yet to come down. It is a pretty cool sight.

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On Saturday, we went on a hike with some of her friends to a nearby peak and then visited a waterfall as well – they were absolutely beautiful. Pictures below. Mostly, though, we spent time at her home chatting with her family, drinking coffee on the veranda and eating lots and lots of food. Her mom is one of those moms who wants you to eat. A lot. I quickly learned that saying thank you after being served food to indicate that was enough did not translate into her language of Malayalam – instead it meant keep going! Once I fixed my mistake and said mahdi (enough, no more), she would be quick to scold me in Malayalam, which I did not understand, but it always resulted in everyone else laughing and me getting more food on my plate. But, it was delicious, so I always obliged 🙂

I don’t think I have ever been met with such hospitality. At one point, after eating more rice and curry than I thought I could ever do, Vidhya’s brother-in-law said Don’t think all of your travels in India will be like this. Our family is the most hospitable and we have the best cooks. If you want better, you’ll have to leave India. And I’m pretty sure he is right, though I’m not sure it could be found out of India, either (except in Muncy, of course). Kerala food uses a lot of coconut (which I love) and has a different variety of spices, or maybe its just that the spices are freshly plucked from the ground so they taste better. They also have many plantain dishes which aren’t found in other parts of the country – again, huge fan. Vidhya’s mother and sister cooked some awesome meals, but on Sunday afternoon they prepared an extra-grand feast for a cousin’s birthday. I’m not exactly sure what we ate, but it involved ghee rice, a special mutton curry and coconut mint chutney all served on banana leaves. It was easily the best meal I’ve had since arriving in India, no competition.

Her family also gave me a traditional Kerala sari – my first sari! I need to take it to a tailor – a sari consists of a top which looks like a belly shirt and another piece of 3 meter-long fabric wrapped and draped in a particular manner. Typically the fabric to sew the top is included in the sari, and you take it to a tailor to sew a custom-fit top. I can’t wait to get mine sewn! I couldn’t believe how sweet their gesture was, and I am so lucky to have met such wonderful people here in India.

We have already started planning adventures for our next trip, and I am trying to figure out what gifts to bring. I cannot wait! Check out some of my favorite pics from the weekend below.

Vidhya and her cousins. They were so excited to take a selfie with the American 🙂

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Vidhya’s parents and her niece seeing us off at the bus station in Wayanad

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Cutting the birthday cake

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Check out the storage going on in this guy’s cheeks – watermelon for days!

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Checking out the view from the top of Chembra Peak

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Heart-shaped lake on the climb up.

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The girls – photography by Arun

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On top of the world!

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That view though…

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Soochipara Falls – the place to be on a long, holiday weekend. The water was actually pretty warm!

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All swimming is done fully clothed. No bathing suits here.

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