Race-less Wilderness

After the hellish Madrid half marathon and the heavenly Flaming June half marathon, I now find myself in a purgatorial passage of running time.

Bakasana aka Crow Pose

Distractions multiply with the arrival of summer. Be it tantalizing barbecues, the FIFA World Cup, or flirtation with other sports, sourcing the desire to lace-up after work rather than heeding the call to the pub for the second half of the five o’clock kick-off is proving difficult. Squash and cycling have reappeared on my sporting landscape. As has the spiritual and physical benefits of yoga, especially my flavour of the month pose, bakasana. (Nothing leaves me feeling as energized and exhausted as a session of yoga.)

I’m a determined person who strives for continual progression. But there’s nothing like a month of football to worry the structure of commitment erected in even the most honest of athletes. Thankfully, England were as abject as ever. So they’ll be less hangovers, less wasted energy and fewer kisses and hugs for my mates down the pub.

Equally detrimental to my training regime was my pride with my time in the Flaming June in warm temperatures. That self-satisfaction is a double-edged sword. It’s easy to rest on your laurels after a good performance. You can convince yourself that you deserve a break. Which is true, to an extent. You kid yourself that your last strong performance is now readily accessible. Over-confidence? Perhaps. But the truly great athletes continue to strive toward even greater achievements, no matter if they’re on the back of a poor or excellent performance. The bar is not raised in jagged movements over time, it’s continually being prodded, poked and thrust skyward.

Thankfully, I’ve made the acquaintance of a couple of sports enthusiasts recently. One lady had just completed a 100-mile cycle race. The other, despite a frantic schedule and injury, trains for marathons. Why are such relationships important? Because research suggests that our friendships affect our own health. In basic terms, if we have unfit friends with poor diets, their deleterious ways will have a negative impact on our health. And the theory works in the reverse. If our social groups contain healthy, sports-minded individuals we are more likely to follow their example.

Two close friends have decided to tackle their first 10k race in November. In my Mr. Miyagi role, I’m spouting all the things that I’ve learnt from years of research. Yet I’m not practicing what I’m preaching at the moment. They are both keen and determined to do well, which I’m certain they will. I need to lead by example, especially when the going gets tough.

SAM_0740

“With that reference point on the horizon there is always something to plan towards…”

Looking forward is vital. Get a race booked while the post-race high, or low, from a race is still strong. With a reference point on the horizon there is always something to plan towards, a new target. Which is why, as soon as pay day hits, the most blessed of days, I’ll be booking myself into a late summer half marathon and aiming for the allusive sub 1:30.

Still, having said all that, I wish our England players weren’t perennial bottlers so that I could look forward to more drunkenness cheering on my national team. Will England win a World Cup in my lifetime? Not bloody likely.

¡Pues, por ahora, vamos Colombia, Costa Rica y Chile!

 

The Flaming June Half Marathon

After the humbling horror of the Asics Madrid Half Marathon – don’t race three weeks after returning from a hedonistic backpacking trip! -, there was redemption in the inaugural Flaming June Half Marathon. Beginning and finishing at Histon & Impington Recreational Ground, the multi-terrain event covers much of glorious green and woodland spaces in north Cambridge and large stretches of the Guided Busway.

The preceding days were wet and cool. But the sun came out strong on the first day of June. (Summers arrival? Not yet. The following day, at the time of writing, is wet and overcast.) Sunday was a scorcher. At the end, my face was the colour of a George Groves’ jaw post-Saturday’s fight. Flaming, indeed! There were moments of shaded respite, especially though the woodland sections that linked the flat, furrowed fields together.

Because of the four timing waves to start the race, the slender track winding beside hedgerows and the absent clatter of running shoes on concrete, there were moments of striking silence, a sensation of suspension in the wilderness. Unusual reflections on a race. So wild and convoluted did it become at times that I lost the runner before me and had to look around madly for the next turning, much to the amusement of a handful of spectators.

Compared to the battle that was running Madrid where the streets clogged with thousands of competitors, the Flaming June was sedater and quieter. A very English affair. The mat of grass and mud was a springy surface to bound along. The aforementioned nature was a beautiful and bountiful distraction from the aches in the race’s latter stages.

A runner must take care over the softer, uneven surfaces. The mind is liable to wander during long road runs. But over less predictable terrain you have to remain engaged in every step, otherwise you’ll stumble into twisted ankle territory. Unstable trails demand attention. Since transforming into a front foot striker, among the lessons from the Madrid half was the knowledge that I needed to strengthen my lower leg muscles. I spent over half of my training miles on off-road tracks and along and around Coldham’s Common in Cambridge. The unpredictable surface strengthens the leg muscles, particularly the stabilisers in the lower leg.

The route wound through small villages where the residents cheered the runners through. Some kind souls offered extra water. Kids cheered us through their suburbs. A man watering his lawn turned his hose on passing runners, an invigorating cold burst at mile twelve that helped me speed up over the race’s final convolutions.

I imagine that the Flaming June, a race organised by The Friends of Histon & Impington Recreation Ground, the same collective that offers the excellent Bonfire Burn 10K, will become an annual fixture in Cambridgeshire running calendar. The final half-a-mile was a tad annoying: switchbacks on the playing field. But a few kinks in an inaugural race are to be expected. As I crossed the line at a creditable 01:34:39, the 34th person to finish, I knew I would definitely run the race again, and that cross-country races are the way to go.

Lost & Found in Panamá’s Cloud Forest

The plan was to spend my final Central American days drinking rum, adding a final layer to my tan while enjoying views of the Caribbean Ocean from the sands of Bocas del Toro. A poster taped to a toilet door in Hostel Bambu, David, altered the design of those final days. A traveller’s plans can and should change on the whim.

On the road from David to Almirante – where you take the boat to Bocas -, high in the mountains of the Chiriquí province, there is a hostel of such integrity and character that any lingering doubts about being mountain-bound rather than a beach bum were dispelled within minutes of arrival. An hour from David you pass through a yellow toll booth. Keep you eyes peeled: when you see the sign for Lost & Found Hostel alert the young attendant crouching by the sliding door that you want to get off, leaving the other gringos to wonder why.

It’s a fifteen minute walk through the cloud forest to the hostel sprawl. Signposts encourage you that you’re getting nearer. The emerald canopy keeps the atmosphere cool. Once you reach the hostel, greeted by a rescued Honey Bear and a communal area overlooking the mountains and valleys, you’ll know that this will not be your typical backpacking experience. From the warm welcome by the staff to the white-faced monkey that appears and works the crowd around dinnertime, the Lost & Found is a gem.

The hostel gives out free maps of the trails throughout the mountainside. The first one to take is a steep climb to the Continental Lookout. The track to the Rio del Oro winds down through the cloud forest to a boulder-strewn river of the purest water that reminded me of the stunning San Gerardo de Rivas. You scramble upriver over the rocks. Other viewpoints like Pink Panther Canyon and Shadow Falls can be reached along man-made pathways through the forest. (Sign-up for dinner before you head off on a hike. The good, wholesome meals will be needed after a day of muscle-disintegrating climbs and descents.)

Lost & Found is very much involved with the local community. It’s a harmonious union, not detrimental or exploitative. An example being the hostel’s relationship with Don Cune, the owner of an organic farm a few miles along the road back toward David, “part wise grandpa, part mad scientist and drinking buddy”. For $25 you get a tour of his farm that has more character than vainglorious tours offered by companies obsessed with their brand image. His acres are wild, sprawling and sumptuous, a haven for wildlife, wild fruit and flora, a pesticide-free zone, as atypical of grand, greedy agricultural practices as possible. All of it ringed by forest-cloaked mountains. You learn about the coffee-making process, past and present. You get lunch, enjoy a taste of sugar cane juice, peculiar and commonplace fruits including sweet lemons, shots of palm wine. And, of course, the coffee is delicious.

On the tour I got chatting to a fellow runner, a young Dane. I invited him to join me that afternoon for a run. It began well. The depth of the scenery in the  Chiriquí’s region is spectacular. As we ran down a pine-trail beside the road the fabled end of a rainbow seemed no more ten metres metres away amongst the pencil-straight tree trunks. That illusory and colourful arc will remain a memory for many years.

Elation gave way to physical despair: there’s nothing more dispiriting than running with a twenty-something national runner at high-altitude up steep hills and rapid descents. He told me ran eight times a week. I hadn’t laced-up since San Gerardo. The sadist who looked liked he’d never shaved would double back and jog alongside me to ask how I was. “Fine,” I’d say, trying to remain calm and composed even though I was daydreaming about flinging him off the mountain. “You go on.”  And off he went like a fucking gazelle. That I would be running the Madrid Half Marathon in under three weeks was a very sobering thought. I decided to have a few post-dinner drinks to forget about the race until I was back in grey ol’ England.

In the evening, the temperature in the cloud forest plummets. Every one would head to the bar for happy hour. Jumpers were sought from the depths of swollen backpacks.  The bar is a rickety structure lit by a plethora of fairy lights. The atmosphere was warm and communal. Itineraries past and present are exchanged to sound of collapsing Jenga statues and the Fussball clatter. Because of its rurality, the Lost & Found draws a particular type of travel, less the “like”-afflicted, WiFi obsessed numbers, more the genuine adventure seekers, the ones who want to engage with their surroundings and its people.

Best of all, if you stay for two nights you get a third free.

From the road below you see no brick of the hostel in the forest above. Waiting for the shuttle bus on that fourth morning, it had left an indelible mark on my memory.

The Chicken and the Tica to Panama City

“For the first time in many years, since I had been over-saturated by air travel to Africa, Malaya and Vietnam, I felt again a certain sense of adventure. Why otherwise would I have made trivial notes in a diary from the moment I arrived in Amsterdam?”
Graham Greene, Getting to Know the General

Trust Greene to hit the nail on the head.

Despite a six wake-up in San Juan while the boys slept on, I was still optimistic, charged. With minimal effort I pushed the imminent hangover and the long journey I had before me to the back of my mind. In two days’ time I’d be waking up in Panama City. The last time I’d been so eager to cross a frontier was to reach fabled Columbia at the end of the South American line. I dressed, ran downstairs and jumped on the chicken bus heading to Rivas.

I’ve been saturated – to use Greene’s word – with enough coach travel for a lifetime. So many listless hours. It’s the cheapest wayespecially on the chicken bus. There’s also the opportunity to mix with some wild characters, to enjoy the scenery and for calamity to strike. To Rivas, dozens of people stuffed onto an American school bus, thigh to thigh on the frayed seats, shoulder to shoulder along the isle.

The Tica bus to border should’ve been  more comfortable. And it was until I found out I was on the wrong bus. Luckily we were going to same way. An ancient but sweet lady next to me wanted to chat. The hangover was closing in, making the world dark and distant. Politeness compelled me to oblige. She asked whether I was single and started telling me about her granddaughter. We reached the Costa Rican border before she could arrange anything.

After boarding the right coach on Costa Rican territory, we departed for San Jose where I would have a seven hours wait for my connecting bus. In the capital’s Tica bus terminal two American evangelical Christians made an attempt to convert me. I told them I was fine. God must have more pressing matters. Syria? All those droughts everywhere?

An overnight bus. We arrived at the Costa Rica/Panama border before dawn. Which was the apotheosis of stupid because we had to wait for hours for the border to open. Why cross a border when the border is closed? Rogier and I, a friendly Dutch guy and only other gringo, sat and waited on the concrete. (With all the waiting, it would’ve been a very lonely journey if not for Rogier.) At daybreak, the office opened. In Europe, open revolt would’ve began hours ago with the inopportune timing, and rightly so. The Latin Americans simply rubbed the sleep their eyes and formed a line. After some baffling bag searches we began the seven-hour run to Panama City. *

With only a few hours left on the coach, there was a thunderous bang followed by a loud rolling clatter for fifty metres. If you’re going to break down there are opportune spots and the not so opportune. Ours was the not so. There was only scrub on one side, a rampant stretch of highway on the other. Only the shade of the coach, no breeze. More hours of waiting. Not a bar for miles.

I met an ex-boxer who was heading to Panama city to train hopefuls for a few months. We talked about Ricky Hatton, women and booze. He adored all three. He was a big guy with an even bigger personality, accentuated by a face that all symmetry had been punched out of years ago. The driver somehow fixed the shattered air-conditioning unit with a wedge of wood whittled-down from a roadside branch. We were moving again.

Waking from a hazy reverie, skyscrapers appeared on the horizon like upright pencil cases. We were crossing a bridge. To the right the Gulf of Panama, the body of water that funnels inland to the famous Canal.

After that journey thirty-sex hour journey, don’t let me down Panama City!

It didn’t. A good hotel to make a change from the dorm rooms. A lovely dinner with Linda at a restaurant on the Amador Causeway, fresh fish, clams and cold beer. An exploratory trip around Casco Viejo: Panama City’s old town and a UNESCO Heritage Site. A total gringo tourist searching for my legit Panama hat, hecho a mano, 100% paja toquilla. Drinks with Linda and Rogier on the rooftop bar of the Hard Rock Hotel.

* The Tica bus company operates routes all over Central America. If you’re planning to travel with Tica bus you’ll have to buy the tickets in advance. If you’re crossing into Panama and you’ve researched the border requirements, you’ll be aware that you must show a return ticket or proof of an onward flight from Panama. I’d only found this out in San Jose – as error on my part – so with growing trepidation that I approached the window without a return ticket, just an itinerary that said I planned to flight out of San Jose in ten days. How must is this going to cost me and how long with the bureaucracy hold things? Is my Tica bus going to speed off without me?  Nothing, seconds. And no, I’d be on the bus. The border official pretended to read my itinerary before stamping my passport and handing it back to me, confusing me even further. I’d been preparing a script of earnest  ignorance. The truth of whether you need a return ticket depends on the whim of the person behind the glass at the frontier. It is effectively a bribe. I’d have another go with just an itinerary. Maybe lightning will strike twice. Most importantly if you’re travelling overnight by Tica bus: wear trousers and pack a jumper!

The Weird and Wonderful in San Juan del Sur

I’ll never forget my five wild days and nights in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

Weird and wonderful things took place in San Juan. Stefan’s friends had an impromptu sunset wedding on the beach. After weeks spent AWOL in Costa Rica, Ariel, our lyrical, mystical friend, appeared as if by magic through a cloud of marijuana smoke. I ate some of the best food of my trip, perhaps of my life: pizza, tacos, fresh fish, ice cream. (Food so good that I become one of those weirdos who take photos of their meals.) The warm strum of a ukulele was omnipresent. Memorable sunsets, the sun a blood-red ball igniting the Pacific Ocean. Every night there was quality live music at the Black Whale bar. Around midnight everyone was half-cut on Flor de Caña. To add an unusual element, transsexuals stalked the beach, chasing men down like in wolf-like packs. Those “ladies” could only fool the very drunk. I’m sure for some inebriated men adventure became regrettable misadventure.

When Daniel and I reached San Juan, we’d swapped views of Ometepe’s volcanoes for an inlet filled with fishing boats, flanking cliffs at the end of the crescent beach, a Jesus statue atop one of those cliffs, and a blisteringly hot, malevolent sun.

San Juan is a surf town. Until you start drinking there isn’t much else to do. We passed a day at playa Marsella, drinking beers, body boarding and playing beach football. Actually, you can make an event of a meal. Restaurant Cha Cha Cha is fantastic. Delicious spicy meals at Nicaraguan prices. It’s well worth checking out! Any of the restaurants should serve good fish. The fillets I had were amongst some of the best of my life. Simply cooked, simply served, enjoyed with view of the bay, the palms trees, the surf and sand. Casa de Oro is an excellent value for money hostel; Hostel Esperanza is not, and, according to rumour, plagued by petty thievery.

Despite it reopening the friction wounds from horse riding on Isla Ometepe, I would join the lads for beach football…with torn strips of a t-shirt for ankle bandages. I dived out of tackles with the panache of Ashley Young; I didn’t want a Nicaraguan digging his heel into my seeping wound. I realised how unfit I’d become despite the occasional trek or swim. With half-an-eye on the upcoming Madrid Half Marathon, I went for a run along the sand, fine-tuning my barefoot running technique on a forgiving surface. Rum, ice cream and partying were taking their toll.

It didn’t matter, I told myself. Panama was the next destination. I would head into Panama’s mountainous for high-altitude training. For now, the cheer of a simple and spontaneous wedding was in the air and I was in the company of three guys who had each left an indelible mark on my trip. During the rum-induced hazes there was excited talk of future reunions. And therein lies some of the magic of travel, and a small part of the answer to the question I keep hearing: why do you travel? Because when’s it’s good – sitting on Nicaraguan beach at sunset with a beer in hand beside a Norwegian, an Israeli and a Dutchman trading jokes about the night before and the night to come as surfer girls stroll past to the sounds of a salsa band covering The Beatles being an example of good – what more could you ask of life?

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.