Paradisiacal Ometepe at Breakneck Speed

It’s difficult to appreciate an earthly paradise when you’re holding onto the reigns of a rampaging horse. Rampaging is no exaggeration. Negro, perhaps the island’s strongest horse, had been paired with a complete novice, me. As Linda put it: “Your horse just wanted to run.”

First, there were relaxing days.

Volcanoes Maderas and Concepción are the island’s celebrities. A single road loops around the island. Buses are less than regular. Mountain bikes are a good way to visit the sites, as we did to visit El Ojo de Agua natural springs where the water is cool, clean and rejuvenating. Give your bike a good check before riding off: the standard of some of them is criminal.

We ate well at Los Cocos restaurant, which had a striking toilet feature. At first I thought they were stuffed. (Ever thought that in a toilet?) Perched above the toilet, a bamboo stall with a sheet for a door, was a crowd of dozing chickens. Rather the the toilet than the chopping board, I suppose.

Then, drama.

For $10 an hour, we rented horses.

Linda and Daniel had ridden horses before. They understood the collections of ropes in their laps. I mashed them into a big bundle, hoping that it would act as an effective emergency brake. I needed it. Able to extend his action on the padded sand after trotting from the corral, Negro ratcheted up his speed from a trot into a canter and, within seconds, a gallop.

His power was astounding. Over fifty metres we’d outpaced the others and I was bouncing out of the saddle and landing with a heavy bump on the solid leather. I gripped the reins and crop until my muscles were as tense as cables. When my left foot fell free of the stirrup and I slumped to the Negro’s offside, I understood I had a bleak future as a cowboy.

Our young vaquero guide led us across beaches to a paradisaical halfway point. Across a thin ledge of sand fifty metres from the bulk of the beach, was a tiny, tree-covered island. Volcano Concepción rose into the blue dome of the sky, its peak wearing a sombrero of white clouds; Volcano Maderas, squatter and flatter, was to the faraway left. The two neighbours seemed to held in an eternal face-off.

The name Ometepe is derived from two Nahuatl words meaning two mountains. Perhaps because of its isolation, Ometepe celebrates the highest number of cultural festivals in Nicaragua. Petroglyphs are lingering symbols of an ancient Indian population. Those inhabitants regarded Ometepe as a promised land, sacred. Standing ankle-deep in the crashing surf with view of the island’s two volcanoes, a setting sun and our horses cooling in the dappled shade, I could appreciate such a belief.

Ometepe disconnects a traveller from the modern world. Its wildlife and nature can quiet a rebellious soul. I can only imagine this will disappear if the plans for an international airport go ahead. Paradise lost.

Colonial Granada in a Land of Volcanoes

Nicaragua is poor. Its status as one of Latin America’s poorest countries becomes evident as you cross the border from affluent Costa Rica. The poverty doesn’t begin benignly. It is upon you before you’ve got you bearings, a flash flood of desperation. From hawkers trying to earn a living, to beggars in all manner of dismemberment and want, the stress of a disordered border crossing is made all the more harrowing and humbling by the people there jostling for existence.

Nicaragua is poor. But this irrefutable fact doesn’t stop its people from being friendly and compassionate. They’ve endured a history of suffering ranging from the conquistadors to civil war between Leon and Granada, the Samosa dictatorship and the rarely salubrious attention of the United States, and now from Daniel Ortega who’s airbrushed image smiles down from billboards at a population who probably cannot comprehend his enormous, unconstitutional personal wealth. But even to the slew of people who pass through looking for the thrills, the cheap portions of their backpacking adventures, the cultural experience, Nicaraguans remain warm and open.

Much like neighbouring Costa Rica, the most succinct adjective to describe the country and its people is tranquilo. It’s as important as it’s accurate. From the mariachi guitarist who I met on the Central Line coach crossing the border, to the waiter/tour guide/drinking buddy at a Nicaraguan-themed restaurant, they all took their time with their responses to my questions, ruminating and pondering before answering. This leisurely disposition is reflected in the national sport: baseball. To enjoy baseball, to participate in baseball, time spent standing and waiting, and waiting and standing, you need to have a personalidad tranquilo.

The city of Granada is a beauty. A colonial city with personality and flair. My feelings for the city were instantly positive. The buildings are a bright primary colour, a reminder of Caribbean links. (A cousin to Cartagena de Indias in Columbia, perhaps.) The food is cheap and wholesome: lots of different foods plopped on top of each other, almost uniformly served with cabbage. In Granada, happy hour runs from about mid-afternoon to midnight. Happy days, indeed. Toña, the national beer, is good. The national rum, Flor de Caña, is ever better. Aged from 4 to 18 years, the longer aging generates a higher price and a posher bottle. It ‘s deceptive; drinkable, mixable to the point where you don’t realise just how much booze you consuming. Which is useful for loosening you up for the salsa club, Cesar Discobar, at lake Nicaragua’s edge. It gets sketchy toward the lake at night so take a taxi.

The best view from above is at La Torre de la Merced. For one dollar you climb up a narrow winding staircase to the bell tower for a panorama of the tiled roofs toward the shimmering Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. Away from the lake the countryside stretches inland, to a volcanic country where those indomitable forms act as signposts on the horizon. Daniel and I climbed to the crater of Mombacho, a volcano just 10km from Granada. From the top you can see Granada’s islets. The crater of the dead volcano is smothered with cloud forest. On your way down keep an eye on the tress flanking the roads: we saw dozens of monkeys.

We stayed at Hostal Oasis for four nights. In my opinion, Oasis is about as good as it can get for a city hostel. Spacious, clean, laden with hammocks, with free breakfast and a pool, all for ten bucks a night! It’s a fantastic place to explore the America’s first European city. The crowd was a good mix. Everyone was chilled. We met some lovely people, including an Austrian beauty, Linda, in whose company we would be heading to Ometepe.

The four o’clock ferry from Granada to Isla de Ometepe is one of the most pleasant journeys one can take in Nicaragua. At four hours, the ferry is in no hurry as it leaves Mombacho volcano behind and heads toward the isthmus island, famous for its two volcanoes, Maderas and Concepción. When you board, you’ll be offered a deckchair from which you can watch the sun set behind Granada. When the stars come out, unimpeded by city-glare, they put on a majestic show. I was reminded of a quote from George Orwell interviewing a homeless street painter in London: “The stars are a free shows; it don’t cost anything to use your eyes.”

Walking the Treetops of Verdant Monteverde

Throughout my four nights in Monteverde, the cold temperatures were accentuated by a battering wind. I could imagine being beside a turbulent ocean rather than perched atop a Costa Rican mountain famed for its cloud forests. The convoluted road to Monteverde is more a wide track. To keep something of the region for themselves, the locals resisted against concreting the road and making it conveniently accessible for the tourists and backpackers amassed in San Jose, itching for rural adventure. (Although many are prepared to take the battering journey: rental cars, 4 x 4’s and shuttle buses wind through Monteverde like so many ants over something sweet dropped on the grass.)

After disembarking the bus at the end of a wearying day, I went looking for my hostel along the dark streets. Plan to visit Monteverde? Bring a jumper. I’d also recommend Vista al Golfo hostel. Roe, an expatriate Italian well-established in Monteverde, will sort you out with whatever you want to do in Monteverde and how you can get out. The hostel is very chilled and, unsurprisingly, has captivating views of the gulf. Admire the scene while you sip the free coffee. Here I met Stephan, Israel and David, and an ever-evolving circle of friends who would reappear on the backpacking circuit throughout Nicaragua and beyond. (Judging by Facebook photographs, those three are still drinking together in Honduras.)

Monteverde is a major ecotourism spot. Here you can tour the Fairtrade coffee and chocolate plantations, go zip-lining and perambulate across the treetops on canopy tours. I enjoyed Monteverde for the people I met, the green beauty and an interesting coffee tour. (I went on the Don Juan tour. The coffee was delicious, and the process behind good, flavourful coffee fascinating. They even wheeled out the old boy Don Juan himself. He appeared as awkward as we were.) You can eat well in Monteverde, especially the typical casado in its minute variations, a meal of rice with finely chopped onions, fried plantains, salad, a choice of either chicken, fish or pork and, of course, the obligatory beans. The nightlife’s a bit lacking, especially the mausoleum that was Bar Amigos. That said, we did have a couple of good nights after heading out into the wild wind, fortified with rum.

Roe booked Daniel and I onto a Central Line coach from La Irma to Granada, Nicaragua. $25 one-way. You have to leave Monteverde before dawn by catching a public bus to La Irma at 4.20 outside the bakery. You spiral off the mountain and wait beside the highway – in daylight as it takes the bus an age to drop down because of commuting locals hopping on and off – and wave when you see the Central Line coach fast approaching.

Four days was enough in Monteverde. The scales have tipped too far in favour of the tourist crowd. There is too much pandering. The unanimous opinion among Costa Ricans is that tourism in their country is out of control. An authentic Costa Rica is often times submerged beneath crowd-pleasing the façade. It’s hard to appreciate a canopy tour when you are shuffling behind an endless line of people taking photographs without actually looking at their subject. The policy seems to be to get as many bodies through the gates as possible. Money talks, gringos walk.

I think Costa Rica is a fantastic country. But a worrying Americanisation is taking place in plain sight. (For some peculiar reason second-hand American clothes are more expensive than locally manufactured apparel, which seems pretty f***** up.) There are plenty of American symbols on the streets, gaudy fast food restaurants that only offer uniformity and blandness through tasteless, deleterious foods; an especially galling fact in a country with a wealth of resources. If you’re going to adopt a culture, why pick the worst parts? But the maybe the question is: what can one small country do against the ruthless advance of consumerism?

So I was heading toward the Nicaraguan border and excited about it.

What would Nicaragua, hardly a country riding the ecotourism wave, have to offer?

R&R in San Gerardo de Rivas

 

The day following the climbing of a mountain can be anticlimactic. While eating breakfast, I considered the empty day ahead. Fortunately, but unsurprisingly for such a beautiful part of the earth, San Gerardo’s qualities exist beyond the perimeter of Chirripó national park. These qualities are more subtle, yet captivating in their own way, and act as a perfect balm to the blister-inducing excess of vigorous trekking. Surprised to be feeling strong and supple, but knew I should get moving before the DOMS caught up with me.

When I left the Roca Dura around mid-morning, a sweltering day had already pinned the town into submission. The dusty streets holding airless heat were empty except for a few sun-drunk gringos. Clouds had settled on distant mountain tops like halos. They seemed fleecy and movable. But they were fixed in place, too indolent to drift in front of the blistering sun. A trip to the aguas termales seemed like a sensible way to pass some time, both for recovery and as a way to cope with the heat. Take the road out of town, turn right at the bridge, and after a trek up through jungle, two pools surrounding by drooping tree limbs are your reward. The cleansing, sun-heated water in the verdant setting: an all-natural Radox bath.

After the soothing pools you can visit Jardines Secretos, the not-so-secret gardens close to the park ranger’s office. Paradise for my mums everywhere. You can chat with either the expatriate German or his Costa Rican colleague, and stroll around a deceptively large space that made me, someone ignorant to most flora, stop, admire and photograph the exotic plants patiently and carefully reared for the last twenty years in tough conditions by the two men. I have no idea what the plants were, but for anyone with an interest in horticulture, los jardines would be a paradise.

Late afternoon held a mountain road run. Past the town’s football pitch and church, and along roads fit only for 4×4 vehicles and robust hiking boots. Blood pounded through me like the river water. The altitude caused me to stop and heave oxygen into my lungs at the top of every hill.  Angry, snarling, dogs – a plague to the runner in Central America – got me moving again. The track is up and down. But it’s always moving up as you head toward the park entrance, and down back toward the village. An athlete spending an extended time in San Gerardo could get superfit.

In the day’s waning light, I read Wait Until the Spring, Bandini on a large rock in the river behind Roca Dura. The water was piercingly cold, electrifying, purifying, perfect for a post-run ice bath, and a perfect complement to the genius of John Fante, whose sentences are as perfectly formed as the water-rounded stones in the river bed. With rejuvenated legs, I headed to bar and fell into conversation with the owner about Monteverde, a destination to the west of San Jose that had piqued my curiosity.

Monteverde, it seemed, was well worth the trouble of two back-to-back bus journeys. Plus it was tantalisingly close to the Costa Rica/Nicaragua border. The decision was made.

The buses to San Isidro leave at 5:15 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 4:00 p.m. from the church. They journey takes an hour and a half. I left the following morning after saying goodbye to my friends and to a place that has so much natural beauty it almost seems indecent.

Climbing Mount Chirripó

At four o’clock in the morning in the forest of Chirripó National Park, it is cold and coffin-dark. The higher I ascend, the less the companiable sound of the river below quashes the squawks, grunts and snapping branches that sound out from the convoluted forest mass. The obscured moon offers no aid, and the white pool of my flashlight is shrinking, barely lighting the muddy track through the cloud forest.

At a break in the forest wall I see an faraway city bright as a fire’s embers. This knot of civilisation delivers me a fleeting reprieve from the abounding spookiness. Back into the subterranean cool of the forest, a bat swooshes past me, close enough so that I feel its vibrations. My heart is as heavy as a sledgehammer as the flashlight fades and dies. Then there is a funereal silence.

A guttural shout nearby is followed by a thud. I call into the darkness, and there is a response: a man calls hola. I wait. From below, a torchlight dances across tree trunks. A porter leading a spindly, heavily-laden horse approaches. I ask in Spanish if I can follow. “Claro,” he replies.

In Alonso, I chanced upon a knowledgeable guide. He asks what time I left San Gerardo. I tell him 3.am., and that I hope to reach the peak and return in a day. He challenges me to climb with him. “I’ll try my best,” I reply. We talk of our disparate lives and football. When a faint light has brought shape to the immediate surroundings, he alerts me to the call of a Resplendent Quetzal. He informs me that the city of embers was San Isidro, and that I will see no monkeys here – one kilometre section of the cloud forest is named los monos – as they have long since moved away from the man-made pathway into their domain.

Alonso’s pace is rapid. Climbing with him has increased my speed dramatically. For the first time that morning I feel confident of reaching the point where a park ranger told me to be before midday, otherwise I should give up returning from Mount Chirripó in daylight. A permiso is needed to sleep at base camp, something I don’t have. Instead, I have a fourteen hour round trip that is almost the distance of a marathon.

I match his pace for ninety minutes. Around the morning’s eighth kilometre, I call my surrender and gratitude to Alonso, and allow him to continue without me slowing him and his horse. “Hasta pronto,” he calls, waving. He whips his horse with a vine and they press upward.

Dawn arrives and I’m still deep in cloud forest. The park ranger’s words repeat through my mind. I check my map. The lighter it gets while I remain in the forest, the more my doubt builds. I drink and eat on the go. When I finally break free of the forest, it seems as though nature is in commune with my beleaguered mind: a view of incredible beauty lifts me, makes the morning struggle all worthwhile. Morning shards of sunlight project into the valleys. An array of soft colours and textured peaks exist for miles underneath an enormous blue sky. For the first time this day I get out my camera – it will not be the last. I listen to some music for further motivation. When I remove my headphones after twenty minutes, the silence is staggering. The sun has pulled from from the mountains ranges and I enter los quemados.

Hours later, but ahead of schedule, I reach base camp. Alonso is inside drinking coffee. He waves at me form his seat. I ask how long he’s been here. “Una hora,” he says; I don’t believe him. After a documentation check, I push on. The going is flatter now, but I’m still seven kilometres away from Cerro Chirripó. But I now know that I’m going to make it in good time. I can relax into the trek rather then pressing forward with blinkered obstinacy. I pass trekkers who’ve witnessed the sunrise atop Central America’s highest mountain. They are all smiling, enthused, heady from seeing both the oceans buffeting Costa Rica in the dawning sun.

Perhaps two hours later, I spy Chirripó peak. To my left are deep blue lakes resting in the lap of the mountains. Fortified by a nutrient-dense breakfast with a hospitable Costa Rican family, I begin the final climb. It’s the steepest slope so far, vertical in places. I’m pressed into the rockface by a forceful, swollen sun, contrasted to its benign version of itself that lit the mountains and valleys in gentle tones when I’d left the cloud forest. Blood hammers at my temples. An altitude headache has long since set in, and my sun-heated water doesn’t quench my thirst.

When I reach the top, six hours after leaving the Roca Dura (Hard Rock) hotel in San Gerardo, the most noticeable thing at 3,820 metres is the absence of sound. It’s as though I’m in a vacuum. For some reason, this surprises me. I stagger around the mountain top, dizzy from the altitude and from the achievement. The panorama is stupendous, momentarily overwhelming. The jagged path back down disappears over a distance ridge. In all directions the clouds billow over mountain tops and valleys like purposeful cigar smoke. The surfaces of the navy lakes that are set in the valley below are as still and reflective as mirrors. The contrast to the jungle over five hours before is striking. I am alone except for two tiny birds. I listen to a song to inextricably link it to the place and time. “Move on Up” by Curtis Mayfield. I dance, aware that I’m the only human being for miles and miles and miles.

Returning to the cloud forest is hard work. The scenery is beautiful, but every step jars my knees. I level with the clouds that are billowing over signposts and seating areas. It’s cooler once I reach the canopied forest, and the wildlife has woken up, filling the air with song. Hours later, I exit the forest and the sun beats down, lighting up the agricultural valleys. I’m reminding of shots from the Lord of the Rings films.

12 hours and thirty-five minutes later I arrive back in San Gerardo.

Climbing Mount Chirripó: You can climb and regress in a day. It’s challenging. I’d recommend obtaining a permiso in advance to be able to enjoy every moment of what is an unforgettable journey. But if you can’t, and you want to see the views from the top, set out early – around 3 a.m. – with ample supplies (extra batteries! sun cream!). Either way, it’s well worth the effort.

San Isidro de El General, Costa Rica

Dominical’s bus schedule is more a suggestion of when a bus may pass through, rather than a concrete time. They depart for San Isidro, an inland city, at around 12.45 and 4.45; but if you’re running late for the bus, there is no need to run. Chances are it’ll still be chugging along the Costanera as you shake the sand from your towel and shove it in your backpack. My bus to San Isidro de El General, or as it’s also know Pérez Zeledón, arrived thirty minutes late into Dominical. Not bad for Latin America!

San Isidro is a furnace of commerce, an excellent town to stock-up on supplies while experiencing a thriving Latin American town. (I stayed at the good value Hotel Chirripó, which is located at the central plaza. Ask for Marenco’s restaurant if the hotel’s name rings no bells for taxistas.) While having a beer and watching the Champions League football, I could see a plethora of shop signs from my balcony view, even with my short-sightedness: Soda Comida Criolla Precios Bajos, Telas Al Por Mayor y Detalle, Centro de Pituras, Bar Rest. 506, to list a few. It’s a mystery how so many shops, many offering the same products, can survive.

In San Isidro I caught up my reading and gave shape and order the disjointed mixture of notes and drawings spread across notebooks and A4 pads. For my money, there is no better café in San Isidro for a would-be writer or coffee aficionado than Kafe de la Casa. Situated in an old Tico house, the café’s cool interior is an elegant respite from the heat and commerce of San Isidro’s bustling streets. There is a pleasant patio area where the region’s winged-wildlife come to feed on stray pinto and hanging banana bunches. Jazz flows from high speakers. The batidos are lovely.

My first evening in San Isidro contained one of those travelling episodes when events just work out pretty damn well. After a late lunch and few Imperials with Courtney, a lovely and engaging Southern Belle holidaying with friends, we headed to a casino for drinks and decided to hit the computerised roulette table. Courtney put some Colones on 25 Red. Incredibly, the jiggling ball slotted into 25 Red.

Flush with funds, Courtney and I met the caretaker family who maintained the Dominical house where her group of friends were staying and they extended an invitation to me to go to an annual exposición that was the cause of great excitement in San Isidro. The exposición was a travelling show with small businesses offering and displaying their wares. Cattle and motorbikes auctions took place near the entrance, while an amusement park and an array of world foods were situated toward the rear. In between, a determined Axl Rose wannabe belted out Guns N’ Roses’ numbers. Courtney and I headed into the snake house where all the incredible reptiles that could kill us were coiled up inside their respective environments. I asked if we could touch one and was told no. Seconds later the same man was lowering a two-metre long albino Boa constrictor atop my shoulders. Within seconds, I was sober. The Boa kept attempting to look me in the eye, only for the handler to deftly and quickly turn its face away. Perhaps it was paranoia, but its heavy, implausible powerful body seemed to contract muscle around my neck. I waved my submission, and the handler lifted the beautiful creature from my shoulders.

Courtney and I made our way around the park. I ate some of the best Argentine parrilla I’d tasted since the real thing in Argentina. We looked at some bloody massive livestock and returned to the bar to get fresh Imperials where we were subjected to “Welcome to the Jungle”. True to form, the Costa Rican family were a hospitable delight. We took their children on the bumper cars and through the mansión del horror, satiating their adrenaline needs for the evening.

The following morning held was a two hour journey to San Gerardo de Rivas and Parque Nacional Chirripó, where I would endeavour to scale Mount Chirripó. For travellers, San Isidro is a temporary stop to more glamorous locations – the main one being Parque Nacional Chirripó – but I feel it offers a lot more than its stepping stone role.

I took the 9.30 bus from the bus station two blocks from the main plaza. After leaving San Isidro, the bus dropped onto the notoriously bad Costa Rican roads. We clattered through lovely small villagers where school kids were playing on sunlit grass in their white and navy blue uniforms. They were smiling, totally contended, not an iPhone in sight. The ravines and cliffs at the side of the barrier-less roads looked upon a valley profuse with insuppressible jungle.

When you arrive into San Gerardo you’ll have travelled about 11km in an hour and half for a couple of dollars, more if you have luggage. And probably a little bit more if you’re a bloke. And if you’re tall like me you’ll have had your knees tucked under your chin. But it’s a lovely journey, and when you arrive at San Gerardo you’ll be in one of Costa Rica’s most inspiring locations.

Pura Vida in Dominical, Costa Rica

I’ve never owned a Lonely Planet guidebook. It’s not any form of rebellion, but I just fear that if we all read the same book we’ll all be funnelled into the same towns and hostels, travelling on a route predetermined for us by a stranger (the author/s) who passed through years before, selecting their destinations by caprice. I prefer to ask a knowledgeable local for suggestions. David from Hostel Van Gogh, mentioned in my San Jose post, suggested Dominical, a beach town on the Pacific coast, a three hour bus journey from San Jose. He promised surf, sun and parties.

Backpackers say that Costa Rica is expensive. It’s not; they’re idiots. What they mean to say is that by comparison with Nicaragua, it’s more expensive. Compared to Europe and North America it’s very cheap. The bus from San Jose to Dominical costs a few dollars. You drop onto the Costanera Highway that runs parallel to the Pacific, a road flanked by palms trees and banana plantations, lush, green walls that remind you why this country was named the rich coast. When I found Cool Vibes hostel and paid my $20 for two nights (cheap enough for you?), I realised that the price was a bargain and that I’d found the perfect spot to relax and recharge after San Jose, to do some barefoot beach running, to surf and experience pura vida in full flow. It’s just $10 to rent a surfboard for the day at Cool Vibes. The waves are your night-time soundtrack and a scrambling iguana above you head could be the wake-up call. And the free coffee is great.

Dominical is where I really began to understand the idea of pura vida, and the Costa Rican’s relaxed approach to life, the avoidance of stress, negative energy and impatience. The temperatures are a big factor in their chilled attitude, but deep down I don’t think they understand why in our modernised, technology-savvy countries we are so dementedly determined to careen into stress-related illnesses and early graves. I realised that once here you cannot fight against the chilled wave. To do so would be counter productive to the experience.

Dominical is a surf town, and its proximity to the capital means it’s not exactly an untouched paradise. But it definitely has its charms. The ceviche costs pennies and is simply delicious. The beaches, populated by surfers and Tico families, stretch long and litter-free into the distance. The sunsets are beautiful. As is the Rio Baru. The surf is good and constant. You can camp on the beach. Fires burn on the beach at night, drawing attention to the darkness. One evening, my drinking buddy and I stumbled toward one. A talented young violinist was playing to a mongrel mix of travellers while a tall German fed the fire. Beers in hand, we sat in contemplation, and talked of our mutual trips between Chopin pieces and Michael Jackson’s number. Up above, the stars blinked in unpredictable sequence.

Dominical has a popular yoga studio. A mid-morning yoga class seemed a good idea in the paradisaical setting. I dropped-in at the Bamboo Studio. For thirty minutes I was fine. But the class become tough as everyone around me was a seasoned yogi. I acquitted myself well, but in the heat of the open air studio I was sweating as though I’d been for a run along the smouldering Costanera to Dominical. Then a strimmer began ripping through the weeds nearby, which did affect the meditative side of things. But that was the only negative, and not Becky’s fault by any means. As always after a yoga class, I came out of feeling exhausted yet energised. I smashed a few papaya batidos (Costa Rica’s divine milkshakes) for recovery and then lolled in a hammock.

Then I went for my daily sunset run along Playa Dominical. Barefoot running heaven. Green land to one side and the metal-cold Pacific on the other, perfect for a post-run dip.

I dined with my yoga instructor and had, strangely in a one-road Central American town, the best sushi of my life at Dominical SUSHI. Over dinner she told me, but promised me to confidence, about a couple of tough treks to vantage points above Dominical, where there were views of the coastline and the surrounding mountainsides. I set off early the next morning. As I’m prone to do, I took the wrong turn off the highway and ended up high in thick jungle. The higher I rose – now aware I was going the wrong way but being drawn in by a mad energy – the noise of the insects and animal world become as ravelled and loud as a jet’s engine, a piercing orchestra. I returned to highway and found the correct part, the concreted path, to the top of the mountain. It was tough going. All good preparation for the Madrid Half Marathon, I told myself. When I kid sauntered past me without a bead of sweat on his face while I was collapsed on the roadside barrier, I resisted the urge to throw him off the mountain. Once at the top, the view was stunning.

I dropped off the mountain and downed a few litres of water gifted to me by a kind barman in a posh resort. I walked to the nearby Roco Verde where a cross had been placed atop a large rock facing the ocean. I sat in the surf and looked around, taking it all in. My thoughts turned to Columbus and the Conquistadors who arrived in Central America looking for passage to Indian and believing that the isthmus run of countries was merely an island. I imagined what it’d be like sailing toward that incredible green coast and then venturing through a land of such staggering beauty. One can understand how they went mad for the the place. As another purple, pink and red sunset began, I realised that I was, too.

Returning to the New World: San Jose, Costa Rica

After descending through the clouds, Costa Rica was spread out below like a heavy green blanket whipped into the air and instantly formed in that undulating state. Marked like so many scratches on that verdant mass were scraggly dusty roads. They traversed even the very ridges of each peak, extending into the mountains to fincas ensconced in woodland or jungle. I finished another beer and reflected upon the sun-dappled lands below. Pangs of excitement like electric currents ran through me. I was twenty minutes away my overdue return to lavish Latin America.

My pre-trip excitement remains stable during the weeks before I depart England. It’s during the flight and in those moments as the ground rapidly approaches, when the landscape takes shape and colour, when you can follow the progress of a single vehicle along one of the country’s poor roads, that I know I’m entering something ‘new’.

Once on the ground, I realised – thought it was no great surprise – that San Jose is about as clogged and rampant as any other metropolis. It’s noticeably less high-rise ridden; it seems that grand hotel chains stake claim upon the panorama, with the encircling mountains acting as a tempting backdrop and a reminder of the country’s volcanic fame, namely Volcán Arenal, 90km from San Jose. Though it is a capital city marked with the occasional deep tropical ravine and palm trees lining the dusty, congested freeway into a city that was in the rush hour frenzy when I exited the airport and took a taxi to Van Gogh Hostel in downtown San Jose.

Ah hostel life, the curious stripping down of all of homes comforts. The joy of eight-bunk dorm rooms, tepid showers, temperamental toilets, early-morning leavers who to spend their final moments sifting through a supermarket’s supply of plastic bags, the keyboards where the key punctuation marks seemed to have been nonsensically swapped around. Still, it’s the best way to end up amongst a wide mix of like-minded people. And the proprietor of Van Gogh, David, is a welcoming and erudite presence. A one-man business, he works at the hostel 24/7, 365 days a year. (His friend helps with the cleaning.)

Over a breakfast of scrambled eggs and coffee (no gallo pinto that morning but there would be plenty to come) David filled me in on Costa Rica’s post pre-Columbian history. Any pre-conquistador inhabitants were promptly eradicated by the gold-crazed, God-fearing Spaniards. Due to the lack of an indigenous population to enslave, the Spaniards pretty much discarding Costa Rica from their evolving plans. The country remained under Spanish rule until themselves and the rest of Central America declared independence, thus creating one huge country dividing into states. Then, like a singer in a successful group with dreams of solo act superstardom, Costa Rica decided it wanted to go out on its own and declared independence. Costa Rica declared war on and repelled William Walker (more on him in later Nicaragua posts.) There have been periods of violence on the twentieth century democratic road, one of which led José Figueres Ferrer to abolish the army. But compared to its Latin American neighbours, Costa Rica has risen from a country shunned by the Spaniards to a – perhaps excessively – touristic and agricultural powerhouse in the Americas. Now Costa Rica is one of the top three richest countries in Central and Southern America, Uruguay and Chile being the others.

Time for a few generalisations. Costa Ricans enjoy a drink but rarely get drunk. Smokers are rare. They are helpful, slightly timid, warm people. Tranquilo is their favoured adjective for describing their country and their preferred emotional state. They eat well – the portions of the local grub are huge – but are neither obese nor stick-thin. The available fruits are delicious. English is widely spoke, but if you desire to have a conversation that extends past pleasantries and hits upon the important stuff, like Costa Rica versus England in the World Cup, you’ll need to learn some Spanish. If you’re travelling to Spanish-speaking country, why wouldn’t you?  Pura vida is a national mantra, a call toward enjoyment of life from an ethical standpoint. The understanding of their responsibility toward their environment is a pleasant change from the countries that are so lucky to have a wealth of diverse nature but, primarily through a lack of education, show little respect towards it. Costa Ricans’ refreshing attitude toward conservationism and eco-tourism was constantly reinforced through my trip through a tiny yet bountiful country.

Now, San Jose, el capital. People visit Costa Rica for its nature, not the chaos of San Jose. But I enjoy a stint in a big, sprawling, dirty city. The undercurrent of menace, the awkwardness of getting around, the search for good bars and food, master those elements and nothing on the trip will overwhelm you. But San Jose under whelmed me. I went drinking with some interesting people, founds good bars, fell in love with Imperial - La Cerveza de Costa Rica – and tried my first tico meals. Big, heavy helpings of rice, pinto beans, meats, fresh vegetables and a couple of compulsory potato chips. And Flauta Chorotega: A fried flour tortilla filled with chicken, topped with lettuce, tomato, avocado and sour cream. There a couple of good museums that I’ll cover in later posts, but for things to do, history, beauty spots, were all lacking. This did seem to be a concurrent opinion among backpackers. Thankfully, all that would follow in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama would more than compensate for San Jose’s mediocrity. *

* Before any San Jose admirers take offence, my opinion on San Jose would greatly alter six weeks later when I returned.

On The Road Again

It must be such an upheaval. If I were going on a voyage, I think I should like to make written notes of every aspects of my character before leaving, so that on my return I could compare what I used to be and what I have become. I’ve read that there are travellers who have changed physically and mentally to such an extent that their closet relatives didn’t recognize them when they came back.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

A runner travels, as the title suggests, was intended to be dedicated to both running and travel, two passions of mine that, on the surface, share few similarities. Over the past six months, however, this blog became decidedly running-heavy while I worked and lived in Cambridge to built up a war chest to fund trips to new lands, only journeying as far as Cornwall to drink beer and surf badly. I’m not being self-critical; money talks, even in the wanderlust land of backpacking!

As much as I enjoy Cambridge life, its learned atmosphere, its cosmopolitan mix, the lovely running routes, my friends and family, I felt the grind of repetition wearing me down. Post after post about running – some good and insightful, others tenuous and as subtle as the allegories in Animal Farm – began to frustrate me. Like a troubled painter seeking a muse, I sought inspiration and adventure.

WP_20140123_006After a dreary, wet morning, strong sunlight is falling on my garden. I like the view from my bedroom window. But when I peel up my blind every morning, a pang of disappointment runs through me. Nothing has changed. All is the same. As pleasant as the view is, it suffers from its own equanimity. A departure day countdown ticks incessantly in the recesses of my mind, my excitement simmers, barely tempered with each day’s commitments. I long for warm weather and Spanish conversation.

Central America, the slender strip of nations linking the indomitable masses of Southern and Northern America, is my chosen destination. I backpacked through South America in 2011. It was a momentous experience, and as I type these words I understand that I’m still processing the lessons learnt in the southern bulk of the New World. Daily, through conversation or the internal machinations of my perpetually wandering mind, I relive memories from Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Boliva, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, the mad, the bad, the dangerous, the sexy, the excessive, the wonderful, the ordinary. (I see no reason why this sun-dappled nostalgia will ever dim.) As a result of those memories, I decided to visit the lands above. Though tiny when compared with the aforementioned countries, Central America seems less trodden by the footsteps of so many before.

So, Costa Rica-bound and knowing little about what makes the average Costa Rican tick, I’m sorting the final pre-trip errands, arranging a sublet, socialising and running, mostly at night.

With the Madrid half marathon a few days after the end of my Central America trip, I’ll need to maintain my fitness. Trekking, surfing and dancing will help. I’ve run in some special places, but despite appreciating how exciting it is to take exploratory runs, I do struggle with the lack of structure. Sad, I know. Yet change and challenges are good. And finding my own little of corner in San Jose for an interval session – camera in tow – does hold more appeal than laps of Coldham’s Common.

To me, running and travel share themes of exploration, sacrifice and, pompous as it sounds, self discovery. Like the stress of a races’ latter stages or an unplanned stranding in a disconnected town, comfort zones are forgotten and coping mechanisms emerge like ever-present buildings in the dispersing mist. The runner and the traveller share a single-minded yet open-minded personality, a liberalism, they are unaffected yet aware of what can affect. Rational dreamers. An interesting, oxymoron-addled bunch. And it seems no coincidence to me that I’ve met many people in hostels who are keen runners.

SAM_0913Whether I’ll be able to harmonise both passions on this trip remains to be seen. Spain and Portugal last year were successes in this respect. But the wilds of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama offer a different proposition. The certainty is that when I peel back a blind in two weeks’ time the view will have changed. It may be a row of houses, gardens, a blue sky, indolent cats, but that’s just the surface. A  mad, bad, dangerous, sexy, excessive, wonderful, ordinary world exists beneath.

Night Runs and Feelings of Invincibility

It’s no great revelation that night runs are a less enticing prospect than a mid-summer session. (The trick to actually racking up some miles, is to put on your gear as soon as you step through the door. You are done for if you allow yourself a moment to unwind.) But something has to be said for how alive it makes you feel. Imagine all those January gym-going saps stumbling from one piece of equipment to another as you tear through the glacial air, carbon dioxide billowing from your mouth, sweat pouring down your face despite the single digit temperatures.

There is always the option to double back on yourself and head homeward. After all, you can make up the miles in kinder climes. But when was anything meaningful achieved when the easy option was taken? Forget talk of minimal gains, sticking through a night run in winter turns you into a tougher, stronger athlete with an indomitable mindset.

I’ve noticed you can feel more engaged in the run. The mind is liable to wonder during distance sessions on sunny days. That meditative state is sought after. But remaining aware of everything around you, from lurking potholes to idiotic cyclists without bike lights (a plague in Cambridge), and stealthy traffic to camouflaged bollards, means that you have to invest your attention in every single moment. It’s more challenging, but that’s a good thing.

A city shows its other side at night, its meaner yet more seductive side. Suddenly, strangely, your normal routes doesn’t resemble your normal routes. With a suitable playlist there can be a cinematic element to your run. Shapes moving in the dark. Animals bolts for cover. The underpass is a striking burst of unnatural lights. Inviting scenes inside homely pubs. The hypnotic scent of burning fires. A cheeky peek inside comfortable living rooms. Yelps from a gang of marauding youths. The curiosity of an empty car park on a Sunday evening. Sprinting through streets that are congested in the day but are now your personal 100-metre track.  A moon in suspense. The light from the rowing houses reflect upon the river’ surface. Rowing boats sluicing through the black water, just the sounds of the oars and the coxswain’s calls. A six mile loop through the city, a sensory overload.

And then you’re home, light-headed from the endorphins and the disorientating  jolt from the dark and cold to warmth and light. You feel as though you’ve achieved much more than six miles for the weekly quota. After having each of your senses fully engaged, the feeling coursing through you is one of invincibility, and you wonder why you ever considered not going in the first place.