Our Pacific Ocean Passage was A Piece of Cake

Our Pacific Ocean Passage was A Piece of Cake

Later, I told Maya that our Pacific Ocean Passage was “a piece of cake”. One of those fresh delicious vanilla cakes frosted with fluffy cream and glazed strawberries- the one you like so much, only this particular piece had a big fat dead cockroach in the middle. Imagine that you are in a pastry shop and you order a piece of strawberry and vanilla cake, but it comes with one condition: you have to eat the whole huge piece. You can’t just have half a slice and say that’s it, I am full. You got to eat the entire big piece of cake, and everything in it, and chew slowly.

We enjoyed the first half of the passage so much. We savored it with delight. Fresh trades 12-18 knots from southeast carrying us on a broad reach, gentle seas, blue sparkling skies, an occasional tuna or a dorado on the hook, calm starry nights, the boat comfortably running with 6-7 knots directly towards destination. From Isabela Island in the Galapagos to Fatu Hiva in French Polynesia, the distance is almost 3000 nautical miles; it should take us not more than a month. And this is the perfect time of the year- the beginning of May, when the winds are constant and light and nothing bad can happen.

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It was the perfect sail until we got to the middle. The middle of the vastest ocean on Earth, the middle of our longest non-stop passage. And there, a thousand miles from any land, unexpected, unwanted and unpredicted- the big fat dead cockroach in the form of a gale. Remember the deal? You have to swallow the entire thing.

It started with a couple of days of stronger winds 20 to 28 knots, shifting from southeast and northeast, the seas rising  with 4-meter swell, confused square waves, clouds gathering, the boat changing direction, surfing down the huge waves, rocking and rolling. “This is not what we ordered!”, we complained, but there is no going back, no refunds. Day and night and another day and another night, exhausted, we ride the big seas. Then, on the fourteenth day of the passage, at 05:00 a.m. in the morning, 1000 NM to destination, the jib and mainsail fully reefed, a massive gale descends upon us from dark heavy skies- rain and furious winds. Suddenly, 35-40 kt winds sustained for half an hour. With already 4-meter waves and the reefed main up, the boat starts surfing like mad and the autopilot cannot take it. Ivo is hand-steering now, the wind behind us. The sound of an immense profound silence filled with the deaf howling of one hundred invisible powerful dragons. We furl the jib but the waves are huge and sharp, and our speed is very fast to try and heave to (turn the boat towards the wind) in order to drop the main. I am afraid our 38-fooot Leopard catamaran will overturn. A few times, surfing down a giant wave, I think the boat will not make it. I imagine the worst. I remember people telling us to get a sea anchor or a drogue in case of such situation, or at least to have a car tire on a long rope, which when deployed from the stern of the boat will act as a drogue. It will slow down and stabilize the boat, and will prevent uncontrolled surfing. We have none of these.

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The wind drops to 30-35 kts for another half an hour and we manage to heave to and take down the mainsail. Now, with just a bit of the jib sticking out we are safe and ride out the rest of the storm. We chew and we swallow the cockroach Bear Grills style- we survive.

More squalls hit us after this with winds up to 30 kts and much shorter duration, but this time we are prepared and everything is under control. We reef early and we tie to our longest ropes the two large and very sturdy plastic beer crates we bought in Galapagos- now empty- and we use them as drogues during the squalls. They perform famously. The boat is steady, the speed slower, we don’t surf anymore.

The weather finally calms down. The next morning, Maya wakes up and looks at the blue skies. “No storms!”, she smiles.

900 NM to destination, winds 10-15 kts from east, 1-meter swell, boat speed 5-6 kts. We sleep, we fiddle with the spinnaker, we fix the hole that opened up in the jib, we make fresh bread and muffins, we resume fishing, we wash the salt off the boat, we read books, we watch films in the evening. It’s back to normal, the way it should be this time of the year in this part of the ocean. We arrived in Fatu Hiva after 23 days at sea, most of which were perfectly beautiful. Yet, the bitter taste of the nasty surprise in the middle remains at the back of the tongue.

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Carnival in Oruro

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Declared one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001 by UNESCO, the Oruro Carnival is Bolivia’s most celebrated festival taking place for two weeks in February each year. It is a massive event in which more than 150 groups with 30 thousand dancers and 10 thousand musicians take part- an impressive procession of color, sound and movement spanning across the length of a few kilometers.

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We have never heard about nor did we plan to go to Oruro for the carnival, until our new Chilean friends told us about it. Visiting this part of Bolivia in the beginning of February is an example of being on the right place at the right time, we thought. So from Uyuni, we head to Oruro, for the carnival.

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The town of Oruro is a big blunt Bolivian town with not a single tourist attraction, not a single site of interest. Not a single tourist visits it, except in February, when the place becomes suddenly flooded with over half a million people from all over the world, here for this ancient religious festival- a tradition dating back more than 200 years.

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It started with the Uru indigenous people in the area once called Uru Uru- “Sacred Mountain of the Urus”, a place for religious pilgrimage and spiritual center of the Andean world. But soon after the arrival of the Spanish colonizers, the indigenous celebrations were banned and replaced by catholic rituals and iconography. For the conquered Uru people, the only way to survive and to preserve their tradition and culture was to accept the new religion and to blend their old beliefs, symbolism and customs with the new ones. Thus, Christian icons and saints were used to conceal Andean divinities. The Virgin Mary became Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the Devil from Catholic teachings was absorbed into the local idea of Tio Supay (Uncle or God of the Mountains).

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The carnival is a bright example of this tradition-blending in Bolivia. The main character of the event is El Diablo (the devil) and the main event- the Diablada- the leading traditional Dance of the Devil.

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Our bus drops us off in Oruro in the middle of the night a day before the beginning of the carnival, only to realize, that all hotels and hostels are full and their prices are not double but triple, at places quadruple than normal. “It’s because of the carnival”, they tell us shamelessly, and there is nothing to do but to pay the price.

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We check in a cheap hotel, in a room with two beds and we pay only $18.00 for the first night, but we are asked to pay $60.00 for the second (when the carnival officially starts). Luckily, we meet again our Chilean friends from the group in Uyuni, and we “invite“ them in our room to share the cost. The hotel owner agrees to bring two more single mattresses in the already small room, and we somehow manage to place them between our two single beds. This, we sleep seven people in a room for two for $15.00 per person…

We are also shocked to find out that the entrance fee for the carnival is $20.00 per person- a small fortune in Bolivia, and we are told, that if we don’t pay, we would not be able to enter and would not be able to see anything. Well, this is one of those Once-In-A-Lifetime things, so we pay…

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Thousands upon thousands of people in elaborate colorful costumes and masks dancing with unlimited energy to the sounds of traditional music- the Oruro carnival is truly a glorious monumental event.

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But for us, spending so much money for the hotel and for the entrance fee is a BIG MISTAKE!!! Not because you can enter for free and watch the carnival, like half the people do, but because the same groups and the same people dressed in the same costumes perform the same music and the same dances for free in the center of Bolivia’s capital La Paz, a few days after Oruro.

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So we watch the carnival twice- once in Oruro and once in La Paz, where we go after Oruro, and we have much more fun in La Paz.

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In La Paz, after the carnival, groups of local women dressed in their best polleras(traditional skirts and shawls) decorated with their best top hats, gather and occupy the space in front of small corner-stores, furnished with chairs, tables and cases of beer. And begin drinking. I have no idea where the men go.

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If you pass by and smile at them, they will smile back. And if you are in their range, they will pull you in and before you know it, you will have someone’s glass in your hand, full of beer.

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You will have to drink it at once, and they will laugh at you and poor you another shot.

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This is what happened to us in La Paz. More than once. At the end of the street, we are slightly drunk and covered with colorful paper garlands. A very drunk woman tried to kiss Ivo. More than once…

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Now that is a carnival we really enjoyed, and it’s not the one in Oruro…

ORURO CARNIVAL PHOTOS

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Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia

Not far from the Atacama Desert in Chile, we prepare to visit another unique natural site- El Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. At 3,600 m (12,000 feet) above sea level, the world’s largest salt flats are a dry ancient lake part of the Altiplano- a high plateau in South America formed during the uplift of the Andes Mountains.

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From San Pedro de Atacama, we hitchhike to the town of Calama- a big regional city near the Chilean-Bolivian border, where we look for the cheapest bus to Uyuni. But there is a problem. There are no buses going from Chile to Bolivia, because of the roadblocks. The truckers and transportation workers in Bolivia are on strike demanding better pay and working conditions, and have blocked the major routes and border-crossing points to the country. All buses have been canceled until further notice. Apparently, this is a normal routine event for Bolivia (like volcanoes erupting in Nicaragua) and we are the only surprised people without a plan B. We walk from one bus company to another in desperation, until we find a company selling tickets for a bus leaving after two days, when the roadblock is expected to be lifted. Not many seats left. We buy three tickets and look for a hostel. Then we meet again the two young backpackers from Chile, whom we first met in San Pedro hitchhiking on the same spot like us. They tell us, that one bus is leaving tomorrow and will be crossing the border through a checkpoint, where the roadblock has already been lifted. But this bus is full, no places left, and we already have tickets for another bus… Yet, we plead with the woman at the terminal to sell us “passillo” tickets- no seats, we will be standing up. She refuses at first, but then tell us to show up at 06:00 a.m. the next morning, when the bus is leaving, and promise to get us in. We hurry back to the other bus company to try to return the tickets we already got. We can return them, but there is some 20% penalty fee, so instead we sit in the waiting room and sell our tickets directly to passengers. Within one hour, we sell our three tickets for the full price. Now we worry that we might not be able to get on the 6 o’clock bus the next morning, and we don’t have our tickets for the day after.

We sleep in a cheap hostel disturbed by a group of Chilean students on vacation high on marijuana who party in the room next door all night (we remember how much better is on the boat), and early in the morning we show up for the bus to Bolivia. We are not the only ones without tickets who hope to ride this bus. Our two backpacker friends and four more tourists are hoping to get on it too. The woman from the agency collects some extra cash from all extra passengers right there on the street, and everyone is off! Standing up or sitting, in seats or on the floor, we are all heading to Bolivia! Nine hours…

There are no cars on a road winding through land with no nature. We are climbing higher and higher across the barren dusty mountains of the Altiplano. It’s getting colder. We spot families of lamas on the side of the road and pink flamingoes in distant lakes. We reach the border- a couple of trailer-like buildings next to an abandoned train station with a rusty dead locomotive. There is no roadblock. All bus passengers line up for customs and immigration. After about an hour, we board another bus. The one from Chile has to return in Chile and a Bolivian bus is picking us up for the rest of the trip.

a lama on the road

a lama on the road

We begin seeing the first Bolivian villages, like scenes from the past, or the apocalyptic future: poor huts made of clay and salt bricks, dirty streets without pavement, very few old cars, large stray dogs scavenging for scraps of food in piles of garbage, women with long black braids with top hats and long skirts carrying huge bundles on their backs, men chewing coca leaves sitting in corners.

Bolivia

Bolivia

We arrive in Uyuni. The driver of the Bolivian bus tries to extort all extra “passillo” passengers for some extra cash (as we paid half price), but we all refuse to pay and are ready to call the police if he refuses to give us back our luggage. Thanks to this little episode, we make new friends with the passillo-passengers from the bus- mostly 19-year-old Chilean students on vacation, and we find a great deal as a group of 12 people: one night in a hostel with breakfast included plus tour of the Salt Flats with lunch included for $22.00 per person. We are all set for tonight and for tomorrow.

The tour takes all day. We split in two groups riding in big 4×4 jeeps. We meet Domingo- a 50-year-old super friendly and funny guy. He is our driver and guide and we are lucky to have him. The other group gets the boring quiet type, who skips one of the sites- the Incahuasi island.

First, we visit the train cemetery, about 3 km outside of the city. Built by British engineers in the end of the 19th century, the train system, used by mining companies to transport minerals to the Pacific Ocean ports, collapsed in the 1940s and was abandoned.

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Train Cemetery

From there, we drive to a village with houses made with bricks of salt where we have lunch- tasty lama-steaks with quinoa and steamed vegetables.

Lama chops with quinoa

Lama chops with quinoa

 

From there, we head for the main attraction- El Salar de Uyuni, with a first short stop at the “salt mountains”- small stacks left to drain and dry before harvesting the salt.

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Maya’s Bubba at Uyuni salt flats. He is coming everywhere with us since Maya was a baby

Formed by the transformation of a few prehistoric lakes some 30-40,000 years ago, surrounded by mountains with no drainage outlets, El Salar is today a vast dried lake covered by a flat salt crust thick several meters at places, spreading over more than 10,000 sq. km (4,000 sq. mi)- 100 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. This flattest white region on the planet is so big, it’s visible from space, and contains the largest deposits of lithium on Earth.

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We drive for an hour on top of a thick layer of salt further and further in the interior of the Salt Flats. At first, this lifeless monotonous landscape is dry, but then a thin layer of water filtering through the salt transforms this vast white field into the biggest most beautiful mirror in the world, in which the gods to contemplate themselves.

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The world transforms into an endless heavenly blue liquid sky, above and below us. We walk on a sky of water!

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From here, we head even further towards the center of the lake. Our guide is slowing down and is very cautious, as splashing in the salty water is not good for the vehicle. We reach the Incahuasi Island covered by giant cacti- the remains of the top of an ancient volcano submerged in the lake.

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The next stop on our tour is El Palacio de Sal- a hotel built in 1995 entirely from salt in the middle of the Salar. Due to sanitation problems, the hotel no longer accepts guests and has been transformed into a museum. There, we find the Rally Dakar monument also made from salt.

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We watch the sunset reflected over a shallow pool of salty water before we head back to the city to catch another overnight bus to another extraordinary place.

Salar de Uyuni Photo Gallery

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Atacama Desert in Chile

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Atacama Desert, Chile

We leave the boat at anchor in font of marina Puerto Amistad in Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador. For $5.00 per day while we are away, the marina staff will watch over Fata Morgana, clean the green vegetation and logs floating downriver catching on the chain, and provide a 24/7 security service. They will contact us if anything comes up, and will deal with any issue while we are miles away. It is important to know that the boat will be OK while we are backpacking in Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador for about two months; to have peace of mind, even if it costs us a little something.

We take the bus to Guayaquil in Ecuador, then the bus to Lima in Peru, then the bus to Arica in Chile and then the bus to San Pedro de Atacama. A total of four endless days and nights, riding the cheapest possible busses, waiting hours in bus terminals or walking kilometers from one terminal to another with heavy backpacks, sleeping in bus seats, listening to terrible music and watching horrible films, wearing the same stinky clothes, shoes and socks, no shower, using pubic and bus bathrooms, eating whatever we can find around the terminals as long as it’s cheap and not too suspicious…

It’s a long trip- over 4,000 km. The plan is to get to the farthest point of our trajectory as fast as possible and then slowly to start returning towards the boat. This is Ivo’s plan and he doesn’t care if it sounds more like torture than a trip.

As soon as we cross the border from Ecuador to Peru, the landscape becomes monotonous arid desert unchanged for thousands of kilometers.

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On our right is the blue of the Pacific Ocean, on our left is the ochre of the rocky desert sprinkled with small poor villages of tiny straw houses and big dusty cities with unfinished brick buildings. Nature remains dry and lifeless all the way to Chile.

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Hungry, dirty and exhausted, we arrive in San Pedro de Atacama- a town made of red clay in the middle of the desert, dominated by the Licancabur volcano.

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Licancabur Volcano

The town, which begun as an oasis in the high plateau of Bolivia at about 8,000 feet (or 2,400 m), is today part of Chile (after the War of the Pacific), and is constantly invaded by tourists and backpackers; there are more hotels and hostels than private homes and everything is extremely expensive. We find a hostel on the outskirts of town- $40.00 per night is the cheapest option!!! We get a nice room with private bathroom and hot water. We feel like spoiled kings. First thing’s first- we collapse on the beds. We haven’t been in a lying position since over 100 hours. Next- we take off our shoes and toxic socks, we remove our clothes which smell of lamas, and one by one we hit the shower. There, in the shower, we find paradise…

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Maya enjoying her comfy bed in Hostal Licancabur

But we have no time to loose. It’s still morning and even though we are super tired, we cannot afford to spend more than one night in this expensive place, so a soon as we check in the hostel and after a short rest, we walk to town to decide which of the many tourist attractions to visit before we continue on to Bolivia- a much poorer country, where everything is much cheaper.

•Church of San Pedro, National Monument, built with adobe, a building material used in the colonial times

Church of San Pedro, National Monument, built with adobe

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Adobe houses in San Pedro

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San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro de Atacama is strategically located near various sites in the Atacama Desert but for most you have to join an expensive tour, as there is no public transportation. A visit to Chaxas Lagoon in Los Flamencos National Reserve, Salar de Atacama, home of pink flamingoes, or El Tatio geyser field with over 80 active geysers are very attractive places but will ruin our budget. The cheapest option is to rent bikes – $6.00 per person per day and bike to the Valley of the Moon- El Valle de la Luna, 13 kilometers (8 mi) west of San Pedro.

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In the heat and salty dust (the exhaustion continues), we ride our rental bikes to one of the strangest most desolate places on the planet, with such an otherworldly appearance, it actually reminds us of another planet- inhospitable, burning, red.

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Situated in the two-sided rain shadow of the Andes and the Chilean Coastal Range, which prevent the arrival of moisture from the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, Atacama is the oldest driest desert on Earth, stretching for over 1,000 km (600 mi), west of the Andes Mountains. Rain is the rarest of occurrences here, and some parts of the desert have never ever seen it at all! This vast stretch of dry land has been covered with nothing but rocks, salt, lava and sand for the last 200 million years- a phenomenon called hyperaridity, making it the oldest continuously arid region in the world, rivaled only by Africa’s Namib Desert.

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The Salt Caves

We enter the Moon Valley National Park. Stone and sand formations, salt caves and dunes colored in yellow orange and red, carved and shaped by wind and ancient water. Not a blade of grass, not a single flower, not a bird, not one tiny creature can survive in such alien environment. In fact, the driest parts of the Atacama Desert, one of which is The Valley of the Moon, have been used by NASA to test instruments for future Mars missions and the location has been used by Hollywood for filming Mars scenes in films like Space Odyssey and others.

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And there, amidst this dry hot lunar landscape devoid of any life form- the loneliest saddest of places on Earth- we suddenly hear a familiar language! A group of tourists walking on the road are speaking BULGARIAN! Now, this is impossible! How often you meet Bulgarians? In the desert? Twenty of them! A group of adventure-travelers from the Adventure Club in Sofia touring Chile, Peru and Bolivia. Our reaction to this miracle, as well as to any other sudden unexpected wonderful miracle, is utter surprise and happiness. We lough, we scream, we hug each other like old friends. Some of the guys in the group recognize us as “the Bulgarian family who lives on a boat” and we make plans to meet with them for dinner.

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An unexpected meeting with 20 Bulgarian travelers from the Adventure Club

And even though we dream about the moment when we will hit the beds for the first time in five days, as soon as we return from the bike trip- we find our compatriots’ hotel and they take us to a nice restaurant in town where we celebrate with delicious local meals and beers the most surprising of meetings in the Atacama Desert. Thank you friends!

 

Sites of interest near San Pedro de Atacama:

  • Church of San Pedro, National Monument, built with adobe, a building material used in the colonial times.

  • Chaxas Lagoon, part of Los Flamencos National Reserve in the Salar de Atacama, inhabited by pink flamingos.

  • El Tatio, a geyser field with over 80 active geysers.

  • Llano de Chajnantor Observatory, a radio-telescope site, home of “ALMA”, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array.

  • Laguna Miscanti (Miscanti Lagoon) and Laguna Miñiques (Miñiques Lagoon), two neighbouring altiplanic lagoons at the altitude of 4,200 m (13,500 ft).

  • Licancabur, a notable volcano near San Pedro de Atacama.

  • Pukará de Quitor (Fort Quitor). A fortification built by the Atacameño people in the 12th century.

  • Puritama Hot Springs

  • Salar de Atacama, a giant salt area (3,000 km² / 1,864.11 mi²) in the middle of the Atacama Desert.

  • Valle de la Luna (“Valley of the Moon”), a moon-like landscape with ruins of old Chilean salt mines, and worker huts.

  • Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley): a valley where gigantic dunes and rocks abound.

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Passage from Panama to Ecuador

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After cruising for many months all over the Caribbean Sea, visiting hundreds of tropical islands and beautiful beaches, we passed through the Panama Canal and found ourselves on the Pacific Ocean side with its extreme tides and calm seas. We spent a few months in Panama and went backpacking in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Then, we sailed again. From Panama, south to Ecuador, we covered over 650 nautical miles and we crossed the equator! It was an epic record-fast passage complete with a small crossing-the-line celebration. (YouTube video available Sailing from Panama to Ecuador

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Before you sail, and especially when you are planning a big ocean passage, you have to prepare the boat and stock up provisions. We haul out Fata Morgana to do a quick bottom job. This means- to clean and sand the hulls and then paint them with a fresh coat of anti-fouling paint. It is a requirement when you are visiting the Galapagos Islands, which we are planning to visit, and it has to be done anyways every 2-3 years.

We found a haul-out facility near Panama at Puerto Viequez and based on Eric Bauhaus Panama Cruising guide’s information, we thought this would be the cheapest option to do the bottom job. BIG MISTAKE! It turned out this is the most expensive option, where you pay separately for the haul-out, for the preparation of the platform, plus per day and electricity fees; there is a fish and shrimp processing plant inside the boatyard, which stinks of rotten fish, thousands of feral dogs and no showers; as well as no access to town. To go there you have to go through all the process of obtaining zarpe, visiting the port captain, the customs and immigration (all in different far-away locations), paying port fees and the whole thing is just a big screw-up. We regret we didn’t research better before we showed up there, based on old information in the Panama cruising guide… It is much cheaper with way better facilities to haul out at the fancy Flamenco Marina on Amador, and for smaller boats even cheaper option would be the Balboa Yacht club.

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Ivo during the haul-out

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Fata Morgana haul-out at Puerto Viequez, Panama

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Maya taking a “shower” in the botyard

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Painting the hulls

After the paint job, we go shopping. Panama City is great for stocking up, with so many shopping malls, stores and markets filled with cheap good quality merchandise, thanks to all the ships arriving here from all over the world to transit the Panama Canal, bringing goodies. Our friends living in Panama help us enormously driving us around the city and bringing all the stuff back to our boat. We get tons of long-lasting food provisions and fresh fruits and vegetables for the journey south.

On January 15th 2016, we say good-by to Panama City and sail 34 nautical miles south, where the Gulf of Panama is dotted by over 200 mostly uninhabited islands of extraordinary beauty, named Islas de las Perlas (The Pearl Islands).

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Sailing in the Gulf of Panama

In Las Perlas, we meet our Canadian friends on yacht Daybreak, who were our neighbors for a while in Panama! Maya and Lea are good friends and they spend the next day playing together!

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Fata at anchor in Las Perlas

Maya and Lea, reading at Las Perlas

Maya and Lea, reading at Las Perlas

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Maya and Lea

On January 17th, we sail again starting in the evening- 600 nautical miles ahead of us. The north winds pick up a lot behind us as soon as we get out of the Gulf of Panama and the sea rises. Ivo reefs the sails and still Fata is running with 10-11 knots. The waves are big and we feet seasick. We keep a course south and south west, well away from the Colombian cost. The second day of the passage, January 18, the wind gets even stronger- 30-35 knots behind us- and the waves are as big as hills and foamy. With reefed sails Fata is surfing with up to 16 knots- a speed record for us! It is scary, but with time we get used to it. By day 3 we are all pretty used to this fast downwind sailing and even start to enjoy it. We prepare quick meals, which can be a challenge in a moving boat.

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In the morning on the third day, January 19, about 200 miles from the Columbian coast, 2oo miles from Panama and 300 miles from Ecuador we approach Malpelo Island- a sinister and forbidding rock formation plunging vertically into the depths of the Pacific Ocean, renowned for its abundance of sharks. But there is no anchorage here as it is very deep close to the island and in rough weather conditions the uninhabited rock is unattainable. So we sail by it adjusting our course south-southeast, direction Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador.

In the late afternoon that same day, the wind starts dropping down and we can finally relax. The fast part of the passage is over, 160 NM to destination and two more fishes in the fridge. That day, we have an anniversary- 23 years since Ivo and Mira met and we make a mountain of sushi to celebrate.

Ivo and Mira 23 years anniversary

Ivo and Mira 23 years anniversary

About 80 miles before the equator, we reach the doldrums- a no wind zone, where the winds kind of switch from north to south with periods of total calms. This is weird. Suddenly the wind stops completely and rain starts pouring vertically down in total silence. It washes the boat and we collect rainwater in buckets. We take down the sails and we drift for a few hours waiting for the wind to comeback. But the north winds never came back. Instead, winds from south gently pick up in the evening and we are on our way again!

On the fifth day, January 21st 2016, at about 8:00 o’clock in the morning, we are slowly approaching the equator. The sky is covered with clouds.

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Crossing the equator for the first time by boat is a big deal. Until then, you are a Slimy Pollywog but as soon as you cross the equator you transform into a Trusty Shellback. And so we organize a small Crossing-the-Line ceremony to celebrate this unique event. As soon as all the numbers of our latitude become zeros, we offer Neptune a pineapple (and if he wants to, he can share it with Sponge Bob under the sea) and Maya gives him some of her goldfishes thanking Neptune for the fishes he has given us. We make a toast, we drink seawater, and we danced. We organize a little dancing challenge- who is going to fall down first! It is strange dancing in the cockpit of a moving boat and it is not easy at all to keep your balance while the boat is dancing on the waves too.

We imagine the equator as a bright red line, about two meters wide, shining on the surface of the water, or a sort of an ocean underwater rainbow. But we don’t see any line and nothing really changes when we pass from the North Pacific Ocean into the South Pacific Ocean. Except later, we feel the heavy sea-turtle shells growing on our backs. We are now officially Trusty Shellbacks!

We see the western shores of South America for the first time shortly after we cross the equator. We arrive in Ecuador in the evening of the fifth day of this passage, after exactly four days of sailing and we drop anchor outside the bay, at the entrance of a river delta. For the entire passage, we never turned on the engines, including when we picked up and dropped anchor, zero fuel was spent.

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In the morning, instead of contacting the port via the VHF radio and requesting a pilot boat to lead us through the shallows and reefs for a $20 charge, two fishermen passing by in a small motor boat agree to lead us, for a few dollars and a couple of beers. We motor up river, where all the other sailboats are moored, protected from the ocean waves. This is going to be Fata’s new temporary home for the next couple of months. It is one of the most protected anchorages, were the wind rarely jumps above 5 kts, there are no squalls, no lightning storms and the marina Puerto Amistad provides 24/7 security, dinghy dock, bar and restaurant, fresh water, fast wi-fi internet, clean hot water showers and a wonderful atmosphere. The city of Bahia de Caraquez itself is a small tranquil place on the shore of the ocean, of friendly welcoming people, cruisers and ex-pats. We have a good feeling about it and we are ready to leave the boat here for a couple of months, and visit the many wonders of Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador by land.

Watch our YouTube video  Sailing from Panama to Ecuador.

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Making a deal with the fishermen

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The fishermen leading us through the shallows of the river delta to the anchorage in Bahia

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Lighthouse in Bahia de Caraquez

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Anchorage in Bahia

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Mira with the Galapagos turtle- a resident in the local school

 

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Kitesurfing in Nicaragua

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Kitesurfing is an extreme, dangerous and rather addictive sport, so some people who practice it tend to become incurable kitesurfing maniacs. Nothing is more important for such people than kitesurfing. Their jobs, their families, their lives away from the shore don’t matter much and the only thing that really moves them is the wind. The most extreme kitesurfing maniac we have ever met is our friend Rado, who hosted us in Nicaragua. He would go kiting anytime, day or night, as long as there is good wind, sometimes driving for hours to get to a spot, and it doesn’t matter if a meteor strikes Earth and everything explodes… as long as there is water and the wind blows- he is happy!

Rado

Rado

Well, there is a lot of wind on the shores of lake Nicaragua most days, and most days, Rado is there flying in the air, alone or with some of his kitesurfing buddies. One of them is Dinko- another awesome Bulgarian living in Managua, and while in Nicaragua, Ivo joins in.

Dinko

Dinko

Ivo, Rado and Dinko ktesurfing in Nicaragua

Ivo, Rado and Dinko ktesurfing in Nicaragua

We arrive in Managua and spread our tent in Rado’s backyard. This is going to be our main campground while visiting Nicaragua for two weeks. The very next morning, we pack the kites. Rado has a bunch of different sizes kites and boards and he is always planing to get some more. We drive direction Granada for about an hour and then some more to a special place on the lake, where the beach is wide and the waves are big, driven by the easterly winds blowing west to the Pacific Ocean. The road becomes sand among cow pastures. We pass through a tiny village with poor houses. Dogs, chickens and barefoot kids roam in the dust. Giant spiderwebs have invaded bushes and trees, suffocating fences, climbing on roofs. And then we drive on the beach.

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We get to The Place. I love tagging along with Ivo and Rado just because these special hard-to-get-to kitesurfing places Rado takes us to are unbelievably beautiful and unpopular with the tourists. The beach is deserted except for a lonely white egret patiently staring in the water; the lake is dark and agitated by the wind. On the horizon, the perfect cones of Maderas and Concepcion Volcanos are perched on top of Ometepe Island.

Lake Nicaragua

Lake Nicaragua

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Lago Cocibolca (Mar Dulce- Sweet Sea) or Lake Nicaragua is a navigable tectonic lake with an area of over 8,000 km2. It is the largest lake in Central America and the 19th largest in the world, slightly smaller than Lake Titicaca. Even though it is much closer to the Pacific Ocean, the San Juan river joins the lake with the Caribbean Sea, and thus has provided access for pirates to Granada in previous centuries. A project to build a canal linking the Atlantic with the Pacific similar to the Panama Canal exists since over one hundred years now, but for various reasons (mainly financial) the project remains on paper only.

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The lake is a windy place, with a reputation for powerful storms, excellent for kitesurfing all year round.

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But kitesurfing is not an easy-breezy business… It involves a lot of equipment repairs, as the inflatable part of the kites tends to break and deflate, and the fabric tends to tear. Especially if you are a newbie, like Ivo. The first couple of times on the lake, he kitesurfs mostly around, on top and inside of trees…

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Practice makes a difference, though, and with time, even Ivo starts enjoying the ride.

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Ivo ktesurfing in Nicaragua

While Ivo, Rado and Dinko are flying around, Maya and her friend Cathy (Rado’s daughter) are playing in the lake, running among waves, making sand sculptures and drawings.

Cathy and Maya

Cathy and Maya, Lake Nicaragua

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And while the girls are having fun, I am negotiating with a local man for a couple of watermelons. He takes me to the watermelon field so I can pick the melons I want and he doesn’t charge me for the ones we break right there and then to try if there are red and juicy. Yes, they are.

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Mira and the watermelon man

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PHOTOS FROM THE LAKE

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KITESURFING AND SAFETY (from Wikipedia)

Kiteboarding is a surface water sport combining aspects of wakeboarding, snowboarding, windsurfing, surfing, paragliding, skateboarding and gymnastics into one extreme sport. A kiteboarder harnesses the power of the wind with a large controllable power kite to be propelled across the water on a kiteboard similar to a wakeboard or a small surfboard, with or without footstraps or bindings.

Any location with consistent, steady side-onshore winds (10 to 35+ knots), large open bodies of water and good launch areas is suitable for kitesurfing. Controlled flying is possible and is one of the biggest attractions of the sport.

Power kites are powerful enough to pull the rider like a boat in wakeboarding and to lift their users to diving heights. But a kite could become uncontrolled and that situation can be very dangerous; especially within a difficult environment. A kite can get out of control after the rider falling or in a sudden wind gust, which can happen more frequently due to excessively strong winds from squalls or storms (“collard”).

It is possible to be seriously injured after being lofted, dragged, carried off, blown downwind or dashed, resulting in a collision with hard objects including sand, buildings, terrain or power lines or even by hitting the water surface with sufficient speed or height (“kitemare”, a portmanteau of kite and nightmare). Adequate quality professional kiteboarding training, careful development of experience and consistent use of good judgement and safety gear should result in fewer problems in kiteboarding.

Kiteboarding can pose hazards to surfers, beachgoers, bystanders and others on the water. Many problems and dangers that may be encountered while learning kiting can be avoided or minimized by taking professional instruction through lesson centers. Kitesurfing schools provide courses and lessons to teach skills including kite launching, flying, landing, usage of the bar, lines and safety devices.

Accidents can generate serious injuries or even be deadly. 105 accidents were reported in the Kiteboarding Safety Information Database between 2000 and September 2003, with 14 fatalities.

Kitesurfing safety rules

Kite High Rule – A kiter who is upwind (closest to the wind) must keep their kite high to avoid their lines crossing those of downwind kiters. Similarly, the downwind kiter must keep their kite low to avoid their lines crossing upwind kites. This applies regardless of whether kiters are on the same, or opposing courses.

Clearance Rule – A kiter while jumping must have a clear safety zone of at least 50m downwind because they will move downwind during the jump. A rider must also have a clear safety zone of 30m upwind to jump as his lines could touch the kite or the lines of another rider kiteboarding close by (see Kite High rule). It’s important to also consider potential hazards downwind and crosswind of the rider such as people, buildings, trees and other fixed obstacles.

Kiters are also considered as sailing vessels – so some standard sailing rules apply such as:

Starboard Rule When kiters approach from opposite directions the kiter who has the wind on the starboard (right side, right leg/arm leads in direction of travel) has right of way. The kiter who has the wind on the port side (left side, left leg/arm are leads in direction of travel) shall keep out of the way of the other. In simple terms, this means “keep right” with the kiter coming in the opposite direction passing on the left.

In sailing terms, a sailor or kiter with right of way is entitled to “insist” on exercising that right (warning opposing kiters) by shouting “starboard” very clearly and in good time.

Other boating rules such as no-go zones, distance from shore and swimmers also apply.

Similar articles from the blog:

Kitesurfing in Aruba

Kitesurfing in San Blas

Kitesurfing in Panama

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The Old Hermit And His Dream Mountain

The Old Hermit And His Dream Mountain

Don Alberto

Don Alberto

We are sitting on the terrace of a small restaurant in front of the big white cathedral in Leon glowing in the permanent tropical heat. We are eating tacos and drinking beer with our friend Katia Angelova, whom we met only a few days ago.

– Have you heard about this old guy who lives alone in the forest and all he does since many years now is carving the stones of the mountain, I ask Katia.

And even though she lives and works in Nicaragua since many years, Katia has never heard about Don Alberto. It seams that he and his mountain are not very famous; not your typical tourist attraction. Maybe, it’s not worth it? But for us and for Katia, an old stone-carving hermit sounds intriguing.

– Lets’s go and check him out, she proposes excitedly.

– He lives up north, near the border with Honduras, in Esteli. We need two days to get there and back! When do you want to go, we ask.

– Now, she is not joking. In two days I have to fly to Florida, so it’s now or never!

We can’t believe it! There is someone who is even more spontaneous than us! Let’s go!

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Katia Angelova in front of her hotel in Managua

Next, we drive back to Managua with Katia’s car, prepare our stuff for the journey and start driving north. It takes hours on a narrow road winding through hills and small villages. The entire time, Katia who owns and manages a few hotels in Nicaragua, is telling us the funniest stories. I mean, these are some hilarious hotel-stories that can easily become scenarios for the next most popular TV series. The one about the forty refugees from India stuck in her hotel without papers for a few months is my favorite. Crammed in just a few rooms to save on money, they founded a small Hindu community with its intense exotic sounds and smells, washing and drying their turbans on the balconies, starting small businesses within the confines of the hotel lobby, like facial hair epilation for example, smuggling prostitutes now and then, and finally, one of the guys married the hotel receptionist!

In the evening, we get to Esteli, not far from Don Alberto’s mountain, and thanks to Katia and her hotel business, we gat a nice discount in a nice hotel.

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Hotel in Esteli

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After breakfast, we meet Joconda, Katia’s friend who lives in the same town and is also interested to visit Don Alberto- a local legend. Together we head for the forest.

Finding Don Alberto’s place proves to be very tricky and this might be the reason why not many get to visit him. We drive on narrow roads, paved at first, then covered with dirt and rocks, through tiny communities and vast forests, and everywhere we see people we stop and ask them which way to go. In this forgotten part of the world, everyone knows Don Alberto and they explain to us how to get there, first driving to the end of the dirt road and then walking through pastures and farmland. I am worried that after this long journey, the old man might not be home, that we might not meet him.

On the way to Don Alberto's

On the way to Don Alberto’s

– Is he there, I ask a woman working in the field as we get closer.

– He is always there, she replies almost offended by my pointless question.

Don Alberto was born in Nicaragua 77 years ago and for the past 37 years has never gone further than the village church which he visits on Sundays and holidays. He spends his days in the forest and up on the hills overlooking the valley. His home and shelter for the night is a miniature wooden shack with large religious drawings on the outer walls, smaller than an elf’s house.

Don Alberto in front of his home

Don Alberto in front of his home

We find the place empty. He is not there…

A narrow path leads us through the shadows of old trees, and on the side of the path, and in the shadows of the old trees, are scattered grey rocks- big and small, and each rock has been shaped into an animal or an icon of a saint. These shy stone sculptures slowly appear one after another- the most extraordinary forest gallery.

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And then, like a ghost from an enchanted world- small and almost transparent, an old man emerges from the darkness of the forest and floats towards me. I don’t know what to say; I am afraid my words or my presence might scare him away, such a delicate white butterfly he is. The others have gone up the hill and there is no one to share this magical moment with me. I meet Don Alberto.

Don Alberto and his art award

Don Alberto and his art award

He is smiling with the sad smile of an angel, his hair is shining white, his skin is the color and texture of tree bark.

Immediately, he starts explaining about his rocks, his forest, the animals, the plants. He sounds like a recording. I am sure he repeats the exact same things to all his visitors and I wonder if he likes to have foreigners disturbing his peace.

 

– Have you gone up the hill, he asks me?

– Not yet, I explain.

– Go, go up the hill and then come back. I will be here.

I go up the hill. There, suddenly, looming above me, a few meters tall and many meters long- the vertical stone face of the mountain covered in carved figures of buildings and animals, Egyptian motives and religious scenes. An elephant, a tiger, a whale, even a helicopter are facing the vast open view of the valley to the east. The colossal scale of the artwork is totally unexpected, stunning and unbelievable. The work of a lifetime, secluded at the end of the world. Birds and sunrises are this gallery’s only regular spectators.

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It is hard to conceive that this little, humble person who has never seen the world beyond his forest, who has never studied art or carving, who has never been to school at all, has brought the world to him in such glorious proportions, and only using some basic tools. A world of dreams and imagined images, captured in rock for eternity.

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– I wake up around 3 o’clock in the morning and I say my prayers. Then I go and I shape the rocks. Later in the day, many people come to see me from all corners of the world. I like when people come to see me and my stonework. They take pictures and more people come every time! One woman who works in university brought me notebooks and I ask everyone who visits me to write their names in these notebooks and the country they are coming from. I have 15 notebooks already full with names. I am teaching myself to read and write now, and I read the names in my notebooks. If you are coming back, please bring me more notebooks, this is my last one. I don’t ask the people who visit me to pay. They can give me a gift if their hearth wishes. Here, look what people have given me.

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Someone has given him a pocket knife he never uses, he keeps it hidden in his shack, like treasure, together with a small pin with the Canadian flag, a plastic Jesus on the cross wrapped in foil, and a pair of black leather boots.

– These are good hiking boots to go up the mountain, why don’t you use them, I look at his old broken shoes he wears instead of the new black leather boots.

– I only wear them when I go to church on holidays, he smiles.

 

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The Three Capitals of Nicaragua

The Three Capitals

While in Nicaragua, we visit three of the country’s biggest and most famous cities: Managua, León, and Granada which have all alternately held the title of The Capital at some point in history.

Cathedral in Granada

Cathedral in Granada

León had been the capital of Nicaragua since colonial times, so when Nicaragua withdrew from the United Provinces of Central America in 1839, León became the capital of the new nation. But for some years the capital shifted back and forth between León and Granada, with Liberal regimes preferring León and Conservative ones Granada, until as a compromise Managua was agreed upon to be the permanent capital in 1858. These three cities- The Three Capitals of Nicaragua- have seduced us with their unique vibe and character, and getting to know them has been a pleasant and beautiful experience.

Maya, Ivo and Mira in Leon, Nicaragua

Maya, Ivo and Mira in Leon, Nicaragua

Managua

Managua is our greatest surprise. Based on what we have read and heard, we expected to be robbed and killed there immediately. Instead, we discover a nice big city decorated with hundreds of permanent colorful light sculptures and even more grandiose temporary decorations for Christmas. Nicaragua’s capital turned out to have very little gang violence and to be much safer than its neighbors to the north- the capitals of Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala, and even safer than Costa Rica‘s capital San Jose, where we had the scariest experience on our way back from this trip.

Light Trees in Managua and the Hugo Chavez monument

Light Trees in Managua and the Hugo Chavez monument

Managua is the largest city in Nicaragua and the second most populous city in Central America, after Guatemala City, located on the southwestern shore of Lake Xolotlán (Lake Managua), declared the national capital in 1852. In 1972 Managua was completely destroyed by a violent earthquake and most of its colonial buildings and cathedrals were reduced to dust. The Nicaraguan Civil War which followed in 1979 aiming to overthrow the Somoza regime, as well as the 11-year-long Contra War of the 1980s further devastated the city and its economy. To make matters worse, a series of natural disasters severely disrupted and stunted Managua’s growth. It was not until the mid-1990s Managua began to see a resurgence in investment and infrastructural development. Today, Managua’s downtown has been partially rebuilt and new governmental buildings, galleries, museums, apartment buildings, squares, promenades, monuments, boat tours in Lake Xolotlan, restaurants, night entertainment, and broad avenues have resurrected part of Managua’s downtown former vitality.

Managua lake promenade

Managua lake promenade

Downtown Managua is decorated with hundreds of permanent Light Tree sculptures

One building that barely survived earthquakes, disasters and civil wars, is the Old St James Cathedral, designed and shipped from Belgium in 1920 by Belgian architect residing in Managua Pablo Dambach who got the inspiration from St Sulspice in Paris. Santiago became the first cathedral in the Western Hemisphere to be built entirely of concrete on a metal frame. Santiago was extremely damaged during the 1972 earthquake, but in recent years, the restoration of the old cathedral of Santiago has appeared to be possible and is currently awaiting renovation.

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The Old Cathedral of Managua

The earthquake damaged cathedral in Managua

The earthquake damaged cathedral in Managua

In the evening, we stroll around the promenade on the shores of the lake illuminated by colorful lights and the central plaza where the old earthquake damaged cathedral sits heavy and silent and wrinkled in the company of giant Christmas light statues. It is full of people and the breeze agitates the evergreen tops of the palm trees. Managua is charming and we feel a bit guilty for thinking so bad of her before getting to know her.

Plaza Managua

Plaza Managua

León

León is the second largest city in Nicaragua, after Managua, located along the Río Chiquito, 90 kilometres (56 miles) northwest of Managua, and 18 km (11 miles) east of the Pacific Ocean coast. It has long been the political and intellectual center of the nation and its National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN) was founded in 1813, making it the second oldest university in Central America. León is also an important industrial, agricultural, and commercial center for Nicaragua, exporting sugar cane, cattle, peanut, plantain, and sorghum. The city has been home to many of Nicaragua’s most noteworthy poets including Rubén Darío, Alfonso Cortés and Salomón de la Selva.

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Church in Leon

León is rich in both architectural monuments and historical places. Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of León is a colonial baroque building built between 1747 and 1814 and the largest cathedral in Central America, as well as one of the oldest dioceses in the Americas. Because of its solid, anti-seismic construction its walls have endured earthquakes, volcanic eruptions of Cerro Negro volcano, and bombings during civil wars. In the cathedral’s crypts are buried several illustrious figures such as poet and diplomat Rubén Dario- the leading figure of the Modernism Poetic Movement of the late 1800s to early 1900s declared the Prince of Spanish Letters by literary figures of the Spanish speaking world.

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Cathedral of Leon

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Leon, Nicaragua

The market, where the mini-bus from Managua drops us off in León, like many other markets in the world, is a noisy crowded place, alive with local colors, sounds and smells. As if all people have gathered here and everything is happening; the streets are buzzing with vendors, buyers and merchandise, small covered three-wheel taxis (capuneras) and horse carts. Giant papayas, leather saddles and boots, furniture, meat, candy. Strange mixtures of smells: fish and oranges, fried pork and ice cream. Thus greets us the madness of Leon, before we find the more peaceful plazas and narrow streets with colorful colonial two-story buildings and cathedrals at every corner.

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The market in Leon

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Big papayas

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Love is in the air

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Cathedral in Leon

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Leon, Nicaragua

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Ivo and Maya in Leon

Granada

Granada, with its rich colonial heritage, seen in its architecture, is much more popular and touristy than Leon with even more beautiful freshly painted colonial buildings housing some world renowned restaurants and luxurious hotels with square inner yards. One evening, we gather with many of our Bulgarian friends living in Nicaragua in one of the restaurants lined along the streets. As everywhere else in the Latin American world, orders takes ages to arrive. In the meantime, we drink beer and exchange stories and wisdoms, while mariachi, beggars and street vendors offering sunglasses and local arts and crafts, constantly stop by our table to torment us, and is hard to get rid of them.

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Cathedral in Granada

Granada, founded in 1524, is historically one of Nicaragua’s most important cities, economically and politically, and one of the most visited sites in Central America. During the colonial period, Granada maintained a flourishing level of commerce with ports on the Atlantic Ocean, through Lake Nicaragua (a.k.a. Cocibolca) and the San Juan River. The city has been witness and victim to many of the battles with and invasions from English, French and Dutch pirates trying to take control of Nicaragua.

Granada’s economy continues to grow as it is becoming the national tourism hub. Though Granada remains Nicaragua’s sixth largest city, it is widely known for preserving some of the finest colonial-era architecture in the country.

Granada’s restaurants have received international recognition by newspapers like the New York Times. In recent years, the city of Granada’s evolving culinary scene mixes local and international flavors, as well as supporting farm to table sustainability of local growers and producers. Granada’s economy continues to grow in big part because it is fast becoming a tourist attraction for its colonial architecture, as well as its ecological beauty and now as a food destination.

 

(with information from Wikipedia)

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Granada, Nicaragua

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  • Next: The Hermit and The Mountain

 

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Volcanos of Nicaragua

Volcanos of Nicaragua

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Rado, Maya and Ivo on the edge of a crater

Nicaragua- a small Central American country of 6 million inhabitants, has an impressive collection of volcanos- a chain of more than fifty volcanic cones of which 19 are full size volcanos, of which seven are active. Rising off a flat coastal plain just above sea level, they are striking to look at and more accessible for climbers and hikers. These fiery creatures of immense power and beauty- some sleeping peacefully, others rumbling, smoking, exploding- are one of Earth’s most awesome natural powers, and in Nicaragua we have the unique chance to get up close and personal with a few of those sleeping, rumbling and smoking giants with enchanted “M” names: Momotombo, Masaya, Maderas; to go for a swim in a crater lake, and to do some volcano boarding.

Momotombo

The news, as we arrive in the country, is that one of Nicaragua most picturesque volcanos- Momotombo has just erupted. A symmetrical stratovolcano rising 1300 meters above sea level towering over the shores of Lake Managua, Momotombo is Nicaragua most famous volcano emitting only ash for the past century, until now. A strong explosion followed by incandescent ejecta and spectacular lava flow occurred in early December, 2015 and a few more times while we are in the country with more explosions and ash emissions in January 2016. For us, the most incredible part of this event is that for the local people it is almost like something normal. Their reaction to the volcano spewing lava and ashes right next to their backyards is like that of people in other countries reacting to a minor snowstorm: not a big deal, it will pass.

Lava flows from the Momotombo volcano during an eruption as seen from Papalonal village, Nicaragua, December 2, 2015. According to the National System for Prevention, Mitigation and Attention to Disasters (SINAPRED), they will assess the situation constantly and will give their recommendations according to how the phenomenon develops. The Momotombo volcano last erupted 110 years ago, local media reported. REUTERS/Stringer EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE

Lava flows from the Momotombo volcano during an eruption as seen from Papalonal village, Nicaragua, December 2, 2015. According to the National System for Prevention, Mitigation and Attention to Disasters (SINAPRED), they will assess the situation constantly and will give their recommendations according to how the phenomenon develops. The Momotombo volcano last erupted 110 years ago, local media reported. REUTERS

Masaya

Only 25 km southeast of Managua, another volcano is constantly smoking, creating a white dense cloud over Nicaragua’s capital. This is one of the easiest volcanos to access on the planet. Our friend Rado takes us there driving on an asphalt road- right to the rim of the huge Santiago crater from where we can peek inside the depths of the earth. Surprisingly, in this toxic environment of sulfuric gazes live crater dwelling parakeets!

The Masaya Volcano National Park features a few cones and a crater lake. We hike to the rim of anther crater from where we can see the smoke of Santiago obscuring the sun- a mighty dramatic vista. Recently, the volcano has erupted in 2001 and in 2008 throwing huge rocks on the park’s parking lot and damaging a few cars. Strolling on the edge of an active volcano, bending over and looking inside a smoking rumbling crater is a unique almost spiritual experience, a bit scary and extremely exciting.

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Masaya

Maderas

Of course, we also visit Ometepe island formed by two volcanoes- Concepcion and Maderas- rising from Lake Nicaragua, and we climb one of them. In the ancient Nahuatl language of the Nahua Indians who first inhabited these lands, Ometepe means “two mountains” from ome (two) and tepetl (mountain).

The two volcanoes of Concepción and Maderas are joined by a low isthmus to form one island in the shape of a peanut with extremely fertile soil and an area of 276 km2, where coffee and plantains are produced for export. The two volcanos rise to 1400 and 1600 meters above the lake making Ometepe the highest freshwater lake island in the world, considered one of the Seven Wonders. But this is not the only reason why you should not miss it while visiting Nicaragua. Ometepe has a few friendly very tranquil and authentic little villages, where backpackers and tourists are welcome, excellent beaches and some fantastic kitesurfing spots, many hiking trails, rivers, waterfalls, thermal pools, various sleeping accommodations from hostels to luxurious eco-lodges situated among organic coffee plantations, and more.

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Concepcion volcano on Ometepe Island

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Coffee

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A man from Ometepe

We spend an entire day getting there, changing 4 crowded chicken buses from Managua to Granada to San Jorge and one last one to the ferry pier, from where we take the ferry.

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On the ferry

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Plantains for export from Ometepe

The ferry takes about one hour and a half and then- two more busses to get to our hostel near Maderas trailhead- El Jardín Del Buho, on the southeast half of Ometepe. It is a charming little hostel very secluded and picturesque, owned by an artist who has painted the large volcanic rocks in the garden, and his wife who is an anthropologist. We recommend this place to anyone who really wants to get away and relax undisturbed by the rest of the world on one of Nicaragua’s most beautiful and most appreciated by the tourists places- Ometepe Island. Only a dear, like a miraculous vision, may float out of the forest and sniff you while you are chilling in one of the hammocks on the porch, drinking coconut water in the shadow of two volcanoes…

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Our room

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A hairless Inca dog

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A deer

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A fearless deer

Early the next morning, we meet our guide and head to Maderas At 1400 m, as Concepción is active and considered very difficult and dangerous for hiking. Maderas is a medium difficult hike, where the difficulty comes mainly from the fact that it is always extremely muddy and slippery, walking through a dripping wet rainforest home of howler monkeys and many tropical birds. By the time we get to the top we are covered with mud from head to toes. It takes about 3 hours to climb the volcano and then descend in the crater, where the small crater lake is enveloped in dense mist. The trail is straight forward and we regret bitterly that we took a guide, after everyone told us, that people got lost and died and that guides are extremely strongly recommended. With our experience climbing mountains and volcanos, with a trail that has no alternatives, and with so many groups hiking Maderas every day, it is absolutely impossible to lose your way. Our guide, who is a good person and we have nothing personal against him, was completely useless, and most of the time just walked ahead of us in silence.

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The hike begins among plantain farms and volcanic rocks

 

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Maya found a giant dead bug

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Scrumptious

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Ivo used it as a hat

 

Apoyo Lagoon

 

Our next volcano experience is not with the volcano itself but the crater lake it created 20 000 years ago. Laguna de Apoyo is filled with beautiful blue ocean water (semi-salty) and is the biggest of the fourteen crater lakes throughout Nicaragua, situated near Granada. It is also a nature reserve and a popular weekend destination for the locals who like to swim, kayak, chill and organize picnics and BBQs on the shores and beaches around the laguna. One of those “locals” is our new friend Dinko Iliev who invites us to spend a day with his charming family and a few German friends at a private site on the lake owned by a friend of his. This becomes our most gourmet experience while in Nicaragua. When Dinko told us “We will BBQ some stuff and drink some beer” we didn’t realize he meant “a lot of stuff and lots of beer”. There are 4 or 5 different kinds of sausages, burgers, smoked chicken, and beef on the grill, plus salads and extras and a big cooler full of beer. And desserts. For many days after, we could still savor in our memory the exquisite meats prepared by Dinko by the lake…

While Dinko and Ivo are BBQing stuff with a beer in hand, Maya is playing with Dinko’s two blue-eyed super smart and cute sons, and I am chatting with the German guests and with Dinko’s beautiful Nicaraguan wife who turns out is a very adventurous person. And when it gets too hot we all chill in the strange volcanic waters of the Apoyo lagoon. Unforgettable.

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Apoyo lagoon

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Dinko’s family

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Cerro Negro

Last but not least, ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you about Cerro Negro Volcano! Near the colonial city of Leon, in the middle of the Maribios Volcano Mountain Range, the small yet incredibly active Cerro Negro measuring only 450 meters continues to erupt with ferocity. It is Central America’s youngest volcano born in April 1850 with eleven heavy eruptions in the 20th century. But what Cerro Negro is even most famous for is its black volcanic ash slopes which have become the only place in the world where you can go volcano boarding!

We wake up early in the morning and pile up in Katia’s car- another new Bulgarian friend in Nicaragua. Katia owns and manages a few hotels in Managua and invites us for breakfast in one of her hotels before we head for Leon on our way to Cerro Negro. She is the funnest person you will ever meet and we have a blast listening to her hotel-stories while driving for an hour and a half to our destination. With us is another car- Rado and his older daughter Sophie (17) will be volcano boarding with us too! In Leon, we change vehicles. The agency organizing the Cerro Negro tours has 4×4 jeeps and we all fit in one of those, together with the driver and the guide. After another hour on a dusty dirt road, we arrive at the foot of a small black hill. The guide explains the rules, distributes small backpacks containing jumpsuits, protector glasses and construction gloves, and awards us with a long laminated board each. We start climbing up the black hill and the hike turns out to be the much more difficult and longer experience than the sliding down the slope. The black volcanic ash is soft beneath our feet and the wind as we go up becomes like a hurricane. We are climbing with the boards on our backs walking on the edge of a beautiful, smoking, mysterious crater. At times it is dangerous and impossible to continue. It is also super tiring and heavy. But we all make it to the top in less than two hours! From there we look down the western slope and the scary part begins. From up there the drop looks vertical and Maya is unsure if she is brave enough to actually sit on the board and slide down. I am terrified too, and our friend Katia, exhausted from the climb up is 100% sure she will not risk it. But Ivo, Rado and Sophie are here for action, ready to go! Somehow, Rado fits in the jumpsuit, Ivo installs a GoPro camera on his head, and Sophie is the first one to disappear down the black mountain! The guide convinces Maya and me that there is nothing really dangerous and explains once again how to control the thing, how to turn and how to slow down: “Just press your shoes down; your feet are your breaks!”

Here we go! Eventually, we all make it down alive. Rado, Sophie and Maya have perfect uneventful rides, Ivo manages to accelerate too much and turns over at the end (a fun GoPro video to watch), my board gets damaged right at the beginning and barley moves, so I am so slow, I have to push with hands and feet instead of stopping myself. Last arrives Katia WALKING! down the slope. The Walk of Shame, we joke.

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Cerro Negro

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Maya

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The Walk of Shame

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Maya did it! Volcano boarding in Cerro Negro, Nicaragua

The volcanos of Nicaragua are what defines our visit to this beautiful friendly country. But there are a few other places and adventures to tell about, which are not less interesting: our visit to the colonial sites of Leon, Granada and Managua; a road trip to the north of the country, where we met an old hermit and a stone-artist; and kitesurfing on the great Lake Nicaragua.

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Welcome to Nicaragua

Welcome to Nicaragua

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The Nomadiks in Nicaragua

There are lots and lots of fantastic parks is Costa Rica with rich green forests, lakes and waterfalls, mountains and volcanos, beaches and lagoons. But after only a couple of weeks we start feeling claustrophobic in this small Central American country and a sort of quiet panic creeps in. Our wallets are getting progressively thinner, even if we avoid all the expensive activities and try to go for the cheapest or the free ones. Not only Nature has a pricy entrance fee in Costa Rica, but the cost of life in general is significantly higher than the rest of its Central American neighbors. The expensive food, transportation and accommodation is what is bothering us most. We soon feel like prisoners who want to escape, and head north.

After La Fortuna, we take the bus to Liberia, hoping to stay there for a couple of days and visit the famous park Rincon de la Vieja. But all cheap hostels are full, and all the other sleeping options are way too expensive. We learn this after spending the entire afternoon walking with our heavy backpacks from hostel to hostel all over town personally checking each and every one of them. We are faced with a dilemma:spend over $40 for a shitty room in a shitty hostel (in a shitty town by the way), and then join a tour to the park for $100 per person or more (it turns out there is no way to get to the park which is many kilometers away, unless you join a tourist group, and the fees once again are ridiculous) OR get the hell out of Costa Rica!

We jump in the bus to the last city before the border with Nicaragua and after a couple of hours we are in La Cruz. There, we meet a few hundred Cubans, who like us want to get the hell out of Costa Rica, but can’t! They are all over the place- in schoolyards and churches specially equipped with portable toilets, sleeping on mattresses on the ground, getting free emergency food from Red Cross trucks, and begging for money at the border crossing points. On the Nicaragua side,entire army battalions are stationed armed with AK47 making sure no one gets through. No one from the Cubans, that is, there is no problem for the rest of us.

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Red Cross truck distributing emergency foor to Cuban refugees in Costa Rica

It turns out, that thousands of Cubans are desperately fleeing Cuba and trying to get to the USA, after the warming up of the two neighboring countries’ relations. I thought, Cubans would be happy that the ridiculous embargo situation is about to end, but instead, they are terrified, that this will also mean new Cuban Refugee Policies in USA. Until now, Cuban citizens escaping Cuba and landing on United Stated soil were immediately granted special refugee status, USA citizenship and a handsome amount of dollars (10 thousand per person). But, as this is about to end because of all the positive changes, thousands of Cubans have fled to South America trying to reach USA by land as a last minute opportunity To get the immigration privileges before they change. For them, the only way to get to the USA by land and fast is to fly to Ecuador (thousands of miles away) and from there to take the bus to the States, crossing many borders by land: Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and finally- United Stated of America! That is the plan, and most countries have granted them right of transit passages, except of course Nicaragua, which is politically friendly with the Cuban government. So, as soon as the refugees showed up on the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border sometime in November 2015, they were stopped and turned around by force. Today, many months later, they are still stuck in Costa Rica, waiting.

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The Nicaraguan army is guarding the border with Costa Rica

It’s late when we clear the border without any problems. We pay an EXIT fee to Costa Rica ($8 per person) as one last nasty surprise, and an entry fee for Nicaragua ($12 per person, if I remember correctly). We bargain for a taxi ride to the first city 20-30 km away and we get the first room in the first hostel for $25 a night.

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Mama Sara’s Hostel in San Juan

The morning finds us in the most charming picturesque beach-town in Nicaragua- San Juan del Sur. Suddenly- a new country! New people, a bit different than the previous ones, new money and new prices, much better than the previous ones, new food and new beer, not much more different or better than the previous ones but cheeper, and a new feeling of freedom and happiness. We roam the streets full of backpackers and surfers mostly from the States, we chill on the beach populated by locals and tourists, we climb the hill overlooking the vast bay home of many fishing boats and visiting yachts and we watch the sunset, eating ice cream, waiting for our friend Rado to come and pick us up.

Images from San Juan del Sur

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Street in San Juan

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View of San Juan Bay

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Calabash trees are everywhere in San Juan

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Lots of luxurious homes are in the San Juan area

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Rado is the same dude, who took us kitesurfing many times in Panama. He lives in Nicaragua since more than 30 years now, but because of his job, he is sometimes based in Panama for long time. His parents live in Managua in a nice house in a nice neighborhood, and Rado occupies a small apartment on the same property when he is Nicaragua. They invited us to pitch our tent in their backyard, as they don’t have room for us inside the house, but a lot of space under the big mango tree in the backyard, and this is perfect for us!

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For the next two weeks we sleep free of charge in our tent under the shade of the mango tree enjoying the company of our friend who drives us around and shows us many of Nicaragua’s best places. We also enjoy enormously Rado’s parents company- Sneja and Dimitar Barzevi, who spoil us constantly with tasty homemade dishes- Bulgarian style.

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Breakfast with Barzev family

We are extremely happy and grateful to have the pleasure and privilege to spend Christmas and New Year with the Barzev family, in a very homy and traditional atmosphere- something we, the constant travelers away from home and parents miss a lot, especially during the holidays. And Maya finds here another “best friend forever”- Cathy is Rado’s 10-years-old charming daughter. The two girls are inseparable  in Nicaragua.

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Cathy and Maya in the tent

While in Nicaragua, we also meet many of Rado’s friends- other Bulgarians who live in the country since many years, and with them we share some unforgettable adventures.

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Meeting the Bulgarians of Nicaragua

Thanks to their hospitality and thanks to the country’s beautiful nature, biological diversity, and many interesting sites, Nicaragua beame one of our favorite destinations and we didn’t want to leave.

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Nicaragua, with 130,000 square kilometers territory and 6 million population, is the biggest country on the Central American isthmus. Famous for its many active volcanoes, the biggest island in a lake which has two volcanos on it (Ometepe Island), and one of the most beautiful colonial cities in the region (Granada), Nicaragua receives more and more tourists from around the world each year. It is much cheaper than neighboring Costa Rica and much safer than most of the countries in the region, with virtually no organized crime.

More photos from Nicaragua

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Ivo with Joro- a legendary soldier from the French Legion

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Christmas presents for everyone!

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Celebrating Christmas with barzev Family

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Rado

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New Year with Barzev Family

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Beer, music and dance with Barzev family- Happy New 2016!

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Road trip with Katia Angelova

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Kitesurfing with Rado and Dinko

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BBQ on the volcano lagoon with Dinco and his family

More stroies with details about our visit to Nicaragua are coming up! Stay tuned!

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Support us on Patreon @The Life Nomadik
Watch us on YouTube @Fata Morgana

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