Saturday, March 24, 2012

Costa Rica

Before we arrived in Costa Rica we only knew two things about it - it's comparatively expensive for Central America, and it has heaps of wildlife - an estimated 6% of the world's plant and animal species may live here.

Hummingbird We stayed in Tamarindo, which turned out to be quite a touristy beach town popular with Americans, especially during Spring Break which it is at the moment - and with prices to match the budgets of people on short luxury breaks, at first we were a bit put off but the room was lovely, it was really great to have a hot shower again (a rarity in Nicaragua) and the wildlife soon started to win us over - just a couple of streets back from the main buzz there are trees full of beautiful birds, large lizards roaming around and choruses of crickets. If you look up at the treetops for long enough, you can spot tiny hummingbirds going about their business, I'd never seen hummingbirds before and they're kind of lovely.

Playa Grande After a few days we realised there was a quieter beach just up the coast so we hopped (or at least stumbled) onto a water taxi and headed just a tiny bit north to Playa Grande, so close but so very far away (at least by road) and quite a mini-paradise. The beach is something quite special, it's a protected area so there's no development along the seafront, just lots of wild trees and bushes. It's part of the Las Baulas national park, an important nesting ground for leatherback turtles - unfortunately we have missed the nesting season by just a couple of weeks, but it does mean we're allowed onto the beach in the evening to watch the waves and beautiful sunsets. We took a surfing lesson, which was good fun but we ended up with raw knees (wetsuits are a great invention) and got quite a lot of the Pacific ocean up our noses.

We went ziplining for my birthday, you can do it in a rainforest but we went for a regular dry forest option with Pura Aventura since it was close by and convenient - we were picked up early and taken to a property a few miles from Tamarindo, then transported into the forest by a very bumpy truck and given helmets, harnesses and basic instructions before being sent off one by one down the first line. It's a little bit scary being so high up suspended by just a couple of metal cables and a bit of canvas, but we had safety lines, good instructions and the instructors made sure we were always attached to something when high up. We saw a tree full of monkeys at one point, and on one of the last zip lines we all went upside down with help from the instructors! It was a fun morning, and at the end of it we got to take away a DVD of pictures and videos from the session (which will be posted as soon as we have access to a DVD drive!)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Nicaraguan Grackle We spent two days on Ometepe which was very pretty, and the residents seemed very friendly, but we weren't too happy with the food and, especially on Sunday when half the stuff was shut, we struggled to eat decently and that won't do. And since Dgym took objection to the colour of the lake (too murky, not blue enough, he's very fussy) we decided to head for the real beach.

We found a tiny beach town on the Pacific coast, El Gigante. It's smaller and less “lively” than the bigger and more popular town of San Juan del Sur, a few miles further south. It's also harder to get to – you can take a bus which drops you off 7km from the town and then hike the rest of the way, or you can do as we did and take a taxi from Rivas or the ferry port.

The scenery on the way there was very pretty – lots of trees and fields and roadside piggies. At first the road was paved but then we took a left, the driver mentioned something about “tierra” and we were on stony dirt track for the next 18km, which made for a fun bumpy ride with lots of tight corners and steep bits thrown in for good measure. We were OK but were also a bit concerned that the taxi might fall apart!

We had an uneventful few days there, apart from the excitement of a helicopter landing on the beach one day (it drew quite a crowd, just stopping to ask directions) and a power cut which lasted all afternoon and well into the evening (not an uncommon occurrence in Nicaragua).

Apart from that it was all very chilled. It's a bit of a surfing hotspot and is inhabited by quite a few American surfers with quite  a lot of English spoken – we devised a little drinking game which helped us stay well hydrated, take a sip of water every time you hear the word “gnarly”.

El Gigante El Gigante has about 6 or 7 restaurants, a handful of hotels and hostels and an internet cafe. It gets some pretty strong winds so walks on the beach were accompanied by a good sandblasting of the legs, and we were mostly coated in a thin layer of grime that week. The food was very nice, the coffee is OK (we've been told, to confirm our suspicions, that Nicaraguans export all the good stuff) and the sunsets are pretty awesome. There were lots of dogs and a couple of cats wandering around the town, scrounging for scraps at dinner time, and we also met a really tiny puppy. We did lots of reading in hammocks, went for a walk up the nearby lookout point of the Giant's foot, climbed on rocks and saw lots of crabs and spiky sea urchins, and watched brown pelicans diving all day.

After a few days, we were starting to feel the smallness of the town and keen to get out for some more food variety (we really do follow our stomachs) so we headed back out to civilization and down to the border.

I got a little bit fond of Nicaragua in the couple of weeks we spent there – prices are affordable, the locals are friendly and the hammocks were awesome. Admittedly, most of the food was nothing to write home about (even if we are) - when we got back from Thailand, we just wanted to eat Thai food, but you're not going to catch us trying to smuggle a suitcase full of plantains back to the UK.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Nicaragua has a long history of cocoa consumption, so what better way to celebrate the local culture than to go on a chocolate making course? It is very important to be a polite and considerate visitor after all.

The museum in Granada is very small being just a couple of rooms with lots of information and pictures on the walls, some beans and nibs you can touch and smell, and an inner courtyard with a couple of cocoa trees. You can look around for free or stop and get something at the cafe (the chocolate milk is excellent) but the area is quite thick with midges as these are kept to fertilise the trees.

The main attraction is a chocolate making course which lasts a couple of hours and is run several times a day. There are quite a few steps involved in the processing starting with the fermentation of the beans to develop their flavour, followed by drying them. This takes up to a week so the course starts with already dried beans which we took over to a stone wok for roasting over a fire.

Roasting beans
The roasting is done at about 70 degrees C and takes 5 minutes or so, during which time the beans tend to jump around quite a bit and even out of the large wok we were using. You can tell when they are done when they start to smell all chocolatey, after which we let them cool for a few minutes before breaking the shells open by hand to extract the nibs which are already quite nice to eat.

We ground the nibs using a pestle and mortar which turns them into a thick paste called cocoa liquor which can be used directly in several drinks. We made a Mayan drink using water and cinnamon, and an Aztec drink with added vanilla and chilli which was churned until it was frothy. Finally we made a Spanish drink which is like the Aztec drink but uses milk instead of water. These were all quite delicious.

To make chocolate bars the liquor is refined (further ground) and then churned for 10 hours with sugar, before being tempered to give it a nice shine when it sets. That would have been a long wait so we took some pre-churned chocolate and added some ingredients before pouring it into molds. I added chili powder and Helen chose almond flakes. That marked the end of the course, and we were asked to come back a couple of hours later to pick up the bars once they had set in the fridge.

We had a lot of fun making the drinks and working with the cocoa, well worth doing if you ever get the chance.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Nicaragua, so far

So far Nicaragua has been pretty good to us, and considerably easier on the wallet.

We stayed in Granada for a few days, travelling from the airport at night along dimly lit roads lined with piles of coconuts and tiny busy food stands everywhere, warm air blowing in through the taxi window and we even saw a tuk tuk or two - it was clear that we'd landed in the right kind of place. It was still a bit of a shock to the system, everything seemed so dark in comparison to the bright lights of San Juan and the US and all of a sudden we were finding very little English spoken and having to resort to our extremely rusty and limited Spanish.

Still, we made it to the hotel and out to dinner that night, where we sat on the main tourist street and had fried cheese, beans, rice and other goodies. I was very happy to find that Nicaraguan fried cheese is a lot like halloumi, and you can't go too far wrong with halloumi.

Granada marketOf course it didn't seem so dimly lit the next day. Hotel breakfast was a bit confusing, we arrived towards the end of the sitting so they'd put the buffet away, and when confronted with a flurry of Spanish which was probably offering us various food items, I think I accidentally said no to breakfast. I managed to recover this a bit by asking for some desayuno and cafe con leche (yay, we know some words) and nodding when offered frutas. So we had something at least!

A short wander into town yielded some quesillos for lunch - these are tortillas with a thin slice of cheese, salsa, a little salt and a dollop of sour cream. Quite messy and only little, but very tasty and the tortillas were quite pancakey. It was nice to be getting some street food again!

We spent the next few days chilling out and enjoying the very pretty and peaceful hotel garden as well as really important stuff such as visiting Chocomuseo to make some chocolate (which really deserves a post all of its own!) It's fun to be back in the kind of place where people ride in the back of trucks, it's considered extravagant to have only one person per bicycle (unless you're carrying an enormous bottle of gas or something) and, although we haven't seen any entire families on mopeds yet, we have learned that it is possible to transport three toddlers in a single pushchair if you stash two of them side by side in the bottom section.

Concepcion We were going to visit the crater lake nearby but made a change of plan and decided to move on from Granada to visit the double-volcano island of Ometepe. So tonight we are sleeping at the foot of an active volcano - as a child I was terrified of volcanoes and, despite being quite relieved to learn that I didn't live near any, that didn't stop me having lots of scary dreams about them. As an adult I feel a bit more informed about the relative risks involved, but I'd still rather Concepcion didn't do any erupting over the next few days. Dgym, on the other hand, had bad dreams about lava last night.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

San Juan

Green My first instinct as the plane descended over the green vegetation around San Juan airport was to dive onto its lush grassiness, we were both so happy to see any kind of green stuff. Unfortunately we were still on a plane, also unfortunate was the fact that most of the green stuff turned out to be bone dry. Oh well – it was lovely to breathe in the humid tropical air – I'd picked up some kind of chest bug and was really struggling with the cold northern dryness so a change of climate was very welcome.

We chose Puerto Rico because it was in the right bit of the world, has a reputation for good street food and also maybe a little bit because San Juan and Puerto Rico are two of our favourite games. I'm pleased to report that the locations are not a lot like the board and card games: we didn't sell any coffee or tobacco, build any harbours or ship any slaves, for which I am sure the locals are thankful.

Colours Unfortunately it wasn't all we had hoped for. Whereas the island of Puerto Rico quite possibly does have very good street food, its availability is rather limited in the city of San Juan – we encountered a couple of pizza vans, hot dog stands and one van selling native savoury pastry snacks but our quest for something a bit healthier and less stodgy went unanswered outside of the restaurants, which were not particularly cheap ($10 per dish is typical) and overall we found the city to be quite a tourist trap, not entirely surprising consider the number of cruise ships stopping there.

Oh well. We had hoped to hire a car and explore the island a bit, which probably would have been hugely worthwhile, unfortunately Dgym developed the same chest bug and temperature that I'd had, only in extra virulent manly form so he was too feverish and disoriented to be driving around in Puerto Rican traffic. So we stuck with the city and made the most of it – we found a good coffee & sandwich cafe (Aromas) and the cafe over the road (Los Pinos) turned out to do nice soups, grilled meat and pina coladas. We also found a couple of small beaches and enjoyed the pleasant views from the hotel roof.

La Perla I spent an afternoon exploring the impressive forts of San Cristobal and El Morro and slightly fascinated by the brightly coloured slum area of La Perla which is sandwiched between the two, just outside the city walls. One of the first things you read in any tourist info about San Juan is that you don't go into La Perla unless you have (mostly drug-related) business there or really want trouble, and I was happy to stay inside the city walls – but it's so close to the rest of the mostly tame and civilized city and there are a lot of places where you can get quite a good view.

More changes of pace

We had certainly been kept busy in Chicago, and I'm glad we didn't have a moment to stop because being lazy is so very addictive. The unexpected highlight for me was the roller disco, I opted for roller blades as I hadn't tried them before and they are very good. It felt a lot like ice skating but the roller blades were more forgiving and it was nice to know the ground wasn't quite so hard. It was a shame I didn't get the hang of stopping though, I had to let friction take care of that in its own good time.

The worst part of the week had to be that stupid sky deck. Being on the 103rd floor was pleasant enough, you could see the city even if the never ending grid pattern was a bit unnerving. There was a gift shop with some nice minuments (Hel has added to her collection) and everything was very civilized but obviously someone wasn't happy with all of that and had had a few windows taken out to be replaced with an extra room sticking out from the building made entirely from glass. I know that industrial strength glass is extremely strong and not at all prone to shattering, a fact made abundantly clear as people jumped and down on it, but that didn't stop me from cringing every time they did. I managed to step out briefly, but standing on glass and looking 103 floors straight down with nothing to hold on to is just nasty.

After Chicago we flew to San Juan in Puerto Rico, and we finally got to kick back and relax with some good weather and some down time. Unfortunately there were a few problems. San Juan is a cruise port and tourist trap and we found it difficult to find any authentic local cuisine, most restaurants were just typical USA chains. When we did find local fare it was still at USA prices and seemed rather lacking in nutrition. Plantains feature quite a lot and are a starchy and tough form of banana that I really could not stomach. We did eventually find some nice soups but I'm still sad to say that the best place to eat was Subway as you could get some fresh vegetables and it was the only place you could feed two people for under $10.

I think that we really missed out by staying in San Juan, it probably would have been worth hiring a car and getting out of the city but unfortunately we both got a bit ill and I was in no state to drive with quite a horrible fever and suffering from dehydration. By the time I recovered it was time to leave anyway and we were both looking forward to Nicaragua as by all accounts it was more our sort of place.

Sunday, March 04, 2012


It was a long time since we'd seen our friend Nora - it's kind of silly how life keeps getting in the way and all of a sudden it's been thirteen years and there's husbands and kids and jobs and stuff. But give it a couple of days getting reacquainted and everybody's having fun like they're nineteen again!

We spent a very busy and fun week staying with Nora and her family just outside Chicago - activities including (but not limited to):
  • skating at the local roller rink on Teens night, during which I skated a bit too hard and split my trousers.
  • a trip to the bowling alley which involved bowling (of course), pizza and darts
  • indoor blacklight space-themed mini golf which just might have overtaken Thai dinosaur golf in our rankings of best mini golf ever.
  • completely rocking the keytar and drums in Rockband
  • a trip up the Willis (formerly Sears) tower and visit to the scary glass platform where you can look down on 103 storeys of nothingness beneath your feet.
  • a trip to the planetarium, since we missed out in Rochester.
  • giving tummy rubs to the two soppiest cats in the world
  • lots and lots of eating
Oh yes, the eating. We've struggled a bit with the food in America - things are sweeter, fattier, larger and with more additives. One of the things that mystified us at the BBQ places in Rochester was the serving of a sweet cornbread muffin on the side of the main courses. Now I like cornbread, maybe cheesy with a bit of jalapeno - but this was honey flavoured. It tasted good, but I can't get my head around caesar salad served with a side of cake.

However we've had some good food - the meat was very nice around Rochester, especially the pulled pork, but it was a little hard to eat healthily and even salads were soaked in dressing and/or served with a cake. We ate very well in Chicago and it was good to be with someone who is at least as enthusiastic about tasty food as we are, not afraid of the more adventurous options and knows where to find the good stuff. Highlights included:
  • Lao Sze Chuan restaurant in Chinatown, at which we tried duck tongue for the first time. Duck tongue is quite tasty and tender, although a little fiddly as it, quite surprisingly, contains a bone and a small bit of cartilage. However, it's best not to think too much about what you're eating. Thoughts may range from "it's kind of like I'm kissing a duck" (we do like ducks, but not in that way) to the realisation that each tongue belonged to one duck, and that's a lot of ducks. (I'm sure they used the rest of it too). Other highlights at Lao Sze Chuan included a beautiful plate of bright purple fried egg plant, and delicious three chilli chicken.
Duck tongueFried eggplant
  • G-in Sushi & Grill, run by a friend of Nora's in Tinley Park near where we were staying. We went here twice, it was beautifully served and was some of the best sushi Dgym and I have had anywhere.
SashimiSushi bombs
  • Triple Crown where we ate dim sum with some more friends of Nora's. We shared several plates including deep fried baby octopuses, tasty little rice pancakes, steamed buns and chicken feet. Dgym declined the feet but I feel he was deeply mistaken as they were very tasty and surprisingly succulent. The US exports about 300,000 tons of feet to China every year - American chickens are bred big and juicy for lots of breast meat, which also makes for fleshy feet: a couple of decades ago these would have gone to waste but they're extremely popular in China.
Fried baby octopusChicken foot
  • Original Triple Crown, a late night authentic Chinese restaurant. We were accompanied by Nora's Chinese-speaking friend Cindy who was able to help us choose some good dishes and also order an off-menu dish of conch salad, which is very thinly sliced snail served with bean sprouts and a dressing. The snail slices were kind of rubbery - interesting and not bad although I'm not sure I'd choose it again! We also had fried smelt fish, congee, greens and more duck tongue which were all very good.
You may have noticed a slight Asian bias, however we did also visit some very good Mexican restaurants, made ourselves slightly sick on enormous ice creams and Nora made us some very tasty homecooked meals of tacos and Sloppy Joes!

We had a really lovely week and were very sad to leave, although somewhat less sad to be leaving behind the coldness of the northern winter for the warm humidity of Puerto Rico!

Saturday, March 03, 2012


Amid all the wedding-related rush in Rochester, I managed to spend a day wandering around the city, seeing the sights. Despite being mostly car-dominated, Rochester does have a decent, cheap and punctual bus service (even if the timetable is a little sparse) so I was able to make the half hour journey from our edge-of-town hotel to "Downtown" for $1.

I wandered into the Strong Museum of Play which, in retrospect may not have been the best choice for me - the ground floor is dominated by mini supermarkets, mini trains and other fun toy stuff which might have been good if I were a couple of feet shorter. However, the upstairs was more interesting and full of toy history - doll houses, old gaming consoles and several cabinets full of freaky dolls. Killed a couple of hours but not worth the $13 entry fee for that alone.

High Falls After that I took a long and progressively freezier walk around town, visiting High Falls which is a huge waterfall in the town centre and is pretty impressive - there's a footbridge which affords an excellent view. I also passed by the Kodak HQ which is one of the more attractive buildings in the town. I was cold enough to head back to the hotel after that!

Dgym and I spent some time in the town a couple of days later - we watched a film at a tiny cinema which cost a huge $3 each and satisfied our craving for buttered popcorn. We then managed to see the planetarium, science museum and Kodak museum, but since it was so late in the day we didn't actually get to look around any of them.

We Amtrakked onwards to Chicago - having taken the luxury of business class at only a few dollars extra on our previous journey, we declined the roomettes on board the sleeper train at a $250 markup above the basic ticket price and slept in our seats. It was darker and quieter than a lot of sleeper recliners I've been on but the seats weren't a great experience - whereas they're equipped with a generous amount of recline, they're also designed to tip you right out onto the floor so it wasn't the most comfortable of nights and we were glad to get to our destination.