Travel Blog for Fredrik and Gunnhild

2014/2015 Galapagos and Central America

Galapagos and Central America 2014/2015

In only 1 week it’s time for this year’s big adventure. We both have a month vacation in December and got one month off (unpaid leave) in January, so we will be traveling for two months. We will start in Quito, Ecuador and continue to the Galapagos islands.

On the Galapagos we have signed up to take the PADI Open water course and certificate at TipTop diving and then go on a cruise for 7 nights visiting Isabela, Fernandina and Floreana on Angelito I.

After a short stopover in Guayaquil, we fly north to Nicaragaua and have almost 7 weeks to travel around Central America before our flight home from Panama. So far we only have one thing booked in this period, and that is to spend Christmas at Hotel Villa Amarilla in Tamarindo, Costa Rica like we did two years ago.

In addition to Nicaragua and Costa Rica, we will probably visit Honduras, Guatemala and Panama, but with no itinerary planned we don’t really know until we’re there.

Destination Arrival
1 Quito, Ecuador 29 November, 2014
2 Puerto Ayora, Ecuador 2 December, 2014
3 Playa Las Bachas, Ecuador 7 December, 2014
4 Mosquera Islet, Ecuador 8 December, 2014
5 Dragon Hill, Ecuador 8 December, 2014
6 Rabida Island, Ecuador 8 December, 2014
7 Tagus Cove, Ecuador 9 December, 2014
8 Punta Espindza, Ecuador 9 December, 2014
9 Urbina bay, Ecuador 10 December, 2014
10 Elizabeth bay, Ecuador 10 December, 2014
11 Punta Moreno, Ecuador 11 December, 2014
12 Puerto Villamil, Ecuador 12 December, 2014
13 Punta Cormorant, Ecuador 13 December, 2014
14 Devil's Crown, Ecuador 13 December, 2014
15 Post Office Bay, Ecuador 13 December, 2014
16 Puerto Ayora, Ecuador 13 December, 2014
17 Daphne Mayor, Ecuador 14 December, 2014
18 Guayaquil, Ecuador 15 December, 2014
19 Leon, Nicaragua 15 December, 2014
20 Granada, Nicaragua 18 December, 2014
21 Tamarindo, Costa Rica 23 December, 2014
22 Ometepe, Nicaragua 27 December, 2014
23 Roatan, Honduras 30 December, 2014
24 Antigua, Guatemala 7 January, 2015
25 Lake Atitlán, Guatemala 12 January, 2015
26 Flores, Guatemala 14 January, 2015
27 Caye Caulker, Belize 16 January, 2015
28 San Pedro, Belize 20 January, 2015
29 Portobelo, Panama 24 January, 2015
30 Panama City, Panama 26 January, 2015
31 San Blas, Panama 27 January, 2015
32 Panama City, Panama 30 January, 2015

 

Quito

P1080739Our trip from Norway, via Amsterdam to Quito was smooth and without delays. But after getting up in the middle of the night, travelling for 20 hours and with a 6 hour time difference, we did not have a lot of energy left when we arrived at Minka Hostel in the old town. We had a short walk around the neighbourhood, had a light meal at the hotel and went to bed early.

We had two full days two explore Quito, the capital of Equador. The city is located at 2800 meters at the foot of the Pichincha volcano (4794 m), and is the highest official capital city in the world (or second if counting La Paz). It was very simple to navigate the city with easy recognizable mountains and hills surrounding the city, but walking around was in the beginning a bit tiring, with steep roads and high altitude.

The old town was the first World cultural heritage site declared by UNESCO (together with IMG_1703Krakow) in 1978, and has one of the largest, least-altered and best-preserved historic centers in the Americas. Steep and narrow cobbled streets, colonial buildings, beautiful churches everywhere, statues, parks and plazas. The Fiestas de Quito (a week long festival celebrating the foundation of Quito December 6th 1534) was just starting when we arrived, and there were lots of people in the streets and dancing and music in the plazas and parks.

El PanecilloEl Panecillo is a 200 meter high hill located close to the old town, and from the top the 45-meter high “Virgin of Quito” statue is overlooking the city. The statue can be seen from most parts of the city centre, and is a great reference point. It is possible to take a taxi up the steep hill to see the views from there, but it’s not really worth the trip. There are better viewpoints available and the statue is better viewed from the city below.

The heart of Quito’s new town is the La Mariscal area, with lots of restaurants, bars, clubs, souvenir shops and even a few micro breweries, which were our main focus when visiting the area. The beers were not amazing, but definitely a lot better than the standard local pilsners. Skip the stouts though, and try the ambers and pale ales instead.

Mitad del MundoAbout 45 minutes by taxi from the city centre is Mitad del Mundo, the middle of the world. This is a very touristic family park built around the equator monument. There are some small museums, playgrounds, expensive cafes and loads of souvenir shops, but mainly people come here to take their photo with one foot on each side of the equator line, even though the equator actually lies about 240 meters north of the marked line.

We also brought some gifts from Gunnhild’s aunt in Norway to family friends (former host family of cousin Janne) in Quito. They did not know we were visiting, so they got very exited when we contacted them. We met Ruth and her son Oscar at their house, a short drive from the city centre. Very welcoming and sweet people. Oscar took us for a sightsseing trip to Itchimbia park while Ruth was preparing lunch. This was a quiet and peaceful park, with amazing views over the old town with the “Virgin of Quito” in the background. Oscar spoke very good English, and told us a lot about the city, the culture and everything we wanted to know. Back at the house we got a traditional Equadorian lunch (rice soup, chicken, corn, potatoes, cheese sauce etc.) and had Norwegian milk chocolate for dessert. Ruth’s son Itchimbia park Albaro also joined us, and showed us his painting studio upstairs. They were all very happy that we visited, but a bit disappointed that we couldn’t stay longer. Next time we or any from our family come to Quito, we are invited to stay at their house.

The next morning we had booked a taxi to the airport at 7 am, but just as we were getting up someone knocked at the door to tell us the driver was there, and we should go early because of heavy traffic. We packed our bags and checked out in ten minutes, and drove as fast as possible to the airport. When we got there the flight was delayed, so we had plenty of time for all the extra security checks, forms and fees needed before going to Galapagos.

Ruth & Famely

Puerto Ayora

PanchoThe 3,5 hour flight from Quito via Guaiaquil to Galapagos took a bit longer than planned, and with the delayed departure we arrived in Galapagos around 1 pm, 1,5 hours late. The airport was quite efficient, except for the very manual baggage system. In addition dogs were checking every suitcase for biological contents, so it took some time. Outside our pre booked taxi driver, Pancho, was waiting. He secured us good seats on the bus to the canal, carried both our suitcases onto the first and fastest boat and into his taxi that was parked on the other side (all taxis are white pickup trucks). In total it took about 1 hour from the airport to Puerto Ayora where we were staying. The trip was a good introduction to Galapagos, with sea lions at the canal, a few large turtles along the road and the outskirts of town, and several totally different landscapes/micro climates on the trip across the island of Santa Cruz. Pancho provided a lot of information and took us on a short sightseeing in the city to show us what we needed to know.

WildlifeWe stayed at the Galapagos cottages, the former location of Tip Top Diving. The first night we were the only guests and had the pool and the backyard all to ourselves. The cottage itself had two floors including a kitchen, a livingroom, two bathrooms, a bedroom and a balcony with a table, chairs and a hammock. Luxury! It is located a few minutes walk from the main street on the quiet road to Tortuga Bay.

Puerto Ayora is not a very good looking city, but it has a laid-back charm. Opening hours etc was a bit confusing, and our conclusion was that they were open when it suited them. Most stores sold a little bit of everything. Beer, chocolate and Panama hats was a normal combination. Also the pizzeria served fresh lobster, and the fish restaurant offered hamburgers and taco.

Fish MarkedYou could expect to see wild animals anywhere in the city, mainly iguanas on the sidewalk, smaller lizards on fences and walls, sea lions on piers and rocks, and pelicans and other birds all along the shore. The most fascinating spot was probably the fish market, where boats delivered live lobsters and fresh fish all day. The fish was prepared on site, and several sea lions, pelicans and other birds were begging for leftovers.

Our main reason for staying in Puerta Ayora was to get our PADI Open Water certification. We had completed the theory before we arrived using eLearning, and had booked the training with Tip Top Diving. Our instructor, Jorge, met us at our place and we walked to their new facility. After some paperwork and a theory quiz we found the equipment we needed, had a short briefing and assembled our own scuba kits. We spent about two hours in the pool going through all the tasks needed. Since we had some experience from previous introduction dives, we mastered the skills quickly, even though a lot of them were new to us. Jorge were very pleased and we had a great time.

DivingOn the second day we were ready to practice our skills in open water. We drove to the dock, and took a small boat to Punta Estrada, our training site for the day. We had two dives to 11 meters, in total about 70 minutes. In addition we practised some skills in the surface. We saw a 1,5 metre white tipped reef shark, lots of barracuda and other fish and had a sea lion circling around us. The visibility wasn’t great, but all in all two amazing dives. We really felt that the training in the pool and the fine tuning of the weights/trim had a huge impact. We felt very much in control, moved very easily and used very little air compared to previous dives. On the way back to shore we saw Angelito I (our boat for the Galapagos cruise), and loads of sea lions.

HooveringOn the 3rd and final day of our training, we took the same boat to Caamaño Islet, where we had two dives to 18 meters. This day Jorge mainly observed, and we handled all the equipment ourselves. He still gave us some advice on small things to improve though. We also had some final skills to practice, like navigation and emergency ascent. We were diving with a big group of sea lions, saw a stingray and hundreds of colorful fish. Jorge was more than satisfied and we were officially certified divers! We celebrated with a glass of Norwegian aquavit. ☺

We had the afternoons off after scuba training, and also one extra day before starting our cruise. We spent some of this time relaxing in the back yard, had some excursions and walked around most of the city centre. We tasted local chocolate, ice cream and coffe, bought sun hats and other things we needed for the cruise, watched a dance parade in the main street, kids enjoying the city “train” and sea lion families sleeping at the pier. One afternoon we walked by a burning house. Half the city was there, and the hospital across the street had gurney ready on the sidewalk. People were moving shelves and anything of value from the closest stores into the the street while waiting for the fire trucks. Everyone were helping with the hoses and the fire were put out without anyone being hurt as far as we could see.

Tortuga BayWe had a short visit at the Charles Darwin Research Station. It had a couple of museums, several tortoise enclosures and lots of local vegetation. Other sights are more interesting. We also walked the 3 km trail to Tortuga bay, where there’s a long sandy beach with strong currents (not suited for swimming, but popular among surfers) and a shorter, more protected beach for swimming. There were lots of marine iguanas, crabs and large sea birds and we also saw a few sea lions. The beach was full of tracks from hatching turtles, but the bay is closed in the night when they come ashore. The trail was very nice, but longer than expected.

TortoiseOne afternoon we booked Pancho for a trip to the highlands, where we visited Los Gemelos, which looked like volcano craters, but are actually sinkholes. Our next stop was the lava tubes, tunnels formed  by the solidifying of the outside of the lava flow. We walked from one end to the other, more than a kilometer. In some parts they were huge and in other parts we had to crawl. Very cool experience! At El Chato Tortoise Reserve, wild giant tortoises were wandering around, most of them in the area available to tourists, but we also saw several of them in other areas, and even had to stop for one crossing the road. Beautiful animals that it was really nice to see up close like this. Before going back we had a beer at the ranch, and Fredrik bought some Galapagos coffee to bring back to Norway.

Galapagos cruise day 1-2

20141204-1It was finally time for the “real” Galapagos, the uninhabited islands and the areas that can only be reached by boat. We met the rest of our group (12 in total) at the airport, and travelled by bus to the harbour, where our home for the next week were anchored. Angelito I has 8 passenger cabins, a crew of 8, a social/dinner/bar area on the second deck and a large sun deck on top. Our cabin was quite large with several cabinets and a surprisingly big bathroom. We were very lucky with our group, and quickly became friends. Dave and Jan, Alex and Catherine were from England, Rosemary and Tony from Australia, Max from Germany, Ann from France (but living in Australia) and Ashley (US) and Yuri (Spain) both lived in Ecuador.

The Galapagos are an isolated group of volcanic islands about 1000 km from the Ecuador mainland on and close to the equator. The earliest islands visible today were formed 4 to 5 million years ago by underwater volcanoes erupting. Until the discovery of the islands in 1535, the flora and fauna evolved in isolation, producing unique species not found anywhere else in the world. Charles Darwin visited the islands in 1835, and his observations here are a big part of his theory of evolution.

Day 1:

Blue Footed BoobiesBlue footed Boobies

We had one landing the first day on Playa Las Bachas, located in the north of Santa Cruz island. We were welcomed ashore by blue-footed boobies and pelicans, and on the walk along the beach we saw several marine iguanas, a couple of flamingos, frigatebirds, hundreds of crabs, yellow warbler and several other birds. Most of the passengers went for a swim before heading back to the boat. We anchored for the night outside the island Baltra, and had a great evening on the sundeck getting to know the rest of the group, while around 20 large frigatebirds were circling over the boat.

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Day 2:

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Before lunch we visited Mosquera Islet, where there was a large sea-lion colony, and several of them were circling the boat when we arrived. We saw hundreds of sea lions here, one was only about a week old and several were still nursed by their mothers. I think we all could have watched the young ones play in the water and on the beach all day. So cute! A large whale skeleton was laying on the beach (parts gathered by the guides) and there were plenty of birds and lizards.

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Back on the boat we got our wet suites and snorkelling equipment while watching sharks swim around the boat. We were snorkelling along the shore of North Seymore, and finally remembered to bring our GoPro. That was smart because we saw 3 white-tipped sharks, sea lions, a fur seal and plenty of fish. Amazing! We had some time before the next landing, and spent most of it on the sun deck watching for wildlife. This time several frigatebirds were hitch-hiking on top of antennas and ropes to the next island while we were watching sea turtles around the boat.

In the afternoon we went to Dragon Hill, where we saw several marine iguanas at the beach, and stilts and other birds in a lagoon on the way to a viewpoint. The sand here was very red, and it looked like we all had sun burned feet, but luckily the “sunburn” washed off easily. We walked through a cactus forest and saw a few large land iguanas partly hidden, but on the way back one of them was nice enough to cross the path right in front of us, and even take a break so that we could all take a few photos of it.

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We stopped for dinner outside Rabida Island, and spent the evening on deck whale watching (without seeing any whales), talking, laughing, watching a beautiful moon rise and sharing some Norwegian aquavite in the dark. What an amazing day! We fell asleep to the sound of the engine, since we had 12 hours of sailing to do before breakfast. We crossed the equator twice during the night.

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Galapagos cruise day 3-4

Day 3:

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Our first landing was in Tagus Cove on Isabela Island, where the landing area was covered in old graffiti (name and year) from before it was declared a national park. We walked past Darwin Lake, a beautiful but dead brackish lake. We walked up to a viewpoint, but there was not much to see on the way. The island was very dry, and we mainly saw small birds, a few lizards and some grasshoppers. On the way back to the boat we sailed along the shore, and saw several golden rays, two sea turtles mating a meter from the boat, a sea-lion and several large birds. The penguins that lives there was nowhere to be found though. A bit later we snorkelled in the same area, and we could definitly feel the cold stream the penguins like. The visibility was not very good, but we still saw a couple of sea turtles and quite a bit of fish.

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In the afternoon we went ashore at Punta Espindza on Fernandina Island. We were welcomed by a lot of jumping fish and a Galapagos hawk. This place was above all expectations. We knew there was a colony of marine iguanas, but didn’t expect thousands of them. They were literary everywhere, often in large groups very close to and often on top of each other. You really needed to watch your step here. In between all the iguanas, there were also a few sea lions, some lizards, sea turtles, birds (Galapagos dove, Oyster catcher etc) and another whale skeleton. We spent a lot of time watching three young sea lions play around in the sand and shallow waters, rolling in the sand and doing acrobatics in the water. On the way back we saw two more hawks, and the first one had bitten the head off a baby iguana and was flying around holding it in his claws. Probably the best site visited so far!

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In the evening there was a lot of activity around the boat, but it was difficult to see anything in the dark. Several people found flashlights, which seemed to attract even more sea life. Since the flashlights worked best close to the water, we ended the evening hanging out of our cabin windows watching huge turtles, squids, fish and even a sea-lion catching and eating a sea snake. Really fun!

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Day 4:

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After an early breakfast we went to Urbina bay at Isabela Island, and finally we found lots of penguins. They were swimming around the boat and a few were standing on land drying in the wind. We went for a walk and passed a young tortoise laying in the middle of the path. It had 14 “rings” on it’s carapace (shell), which means it was 14 years old. We also saw a carapace of a dead tortoise about the same size in addition to several large land iguanas, lots of birds as always and another tortoise eating poisonous (not to them) apples from a tree.

We were quite eager to get back to the beach to snorkle, hoping the penguins were still there. Luckily they were, and they were swimming all around us when we got in the water. We were really surprised by how fast they were moving in the water. One of the videos we recorded looks like fast forward. Crazy! We also saw a gigantic sea turtle. Gunnhild was swimming above it, and was clearly the shortest one of the two. Out in the deeper parts of the bay we found more sea turtles, and a very curious sea-lion also came to check us out (or just to show off it’s swimming skills). On the way back to shore we saw two large lobsters and even more penguins. What a great experience!

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In the afternoon we did some more whale watching while sailing to Elizabeth bay (Isabela island). Still no whales, but plenty of turtles. After lunch we took a dingy ride into the mangrove forest. Some of the mangroves are actually like big trees, close to 10 meters high. Never seen anything like it! There were penguins, turtles, fish and sea lions swimming around, and large pelicans and other birds sitting in the mangroves. In this area the sea lions actually sleep in trees, on large branches in the mangrove forest. Lots of penguins and cormorants were relaxing on a tiny islet we passed on our way back. In the evening we gathered on the sun deck to see the beautiful sunset.

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Galapagos cruise day 5-8

Day 5:

We started extra early this morning, to finish our walk at Punta Moreno before the sun got too strong. We started with another visit to a mangrove forest and in addition to turtles and birds we saw lots of golden rays and eagle rays. Cool! The 2,5 km walk was entirely on 500 years old lava from an eruption from the Sierra Negra volcano (25 km away). We could also see another volcano from the path. In some areas the lava had collapsed after earthquakes, and in some of these holes there were water and vegetation. In one of them we saw 4 flamingoes and in another one several sharks were swimming around. On the lava itself there were not much animal life except lava lizards, but we saw one of them catching and eating a cricket which was quite cool. Also a Galapagos hawk flew just a couple of meters above our heads.

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As soon as we got back to the boat, we got ready to go snorkeling. Again we saw several large sea turtles, and a few tiny sharks (possibly babies). We searched the sea weed for sea horses, but only found fish everywhere. Also a single penguin was swimming around in the area. We were back at the boat at 1030, and since we had no more activities this day, we decided it was beer o’clock. We relaxed on the sun deck watching the spectacular landscape and hundreds of birds diving into the sea to catch fish. We had an early lunch before reaching the rough waters on the south side of Isabela island. After lunch most of the group took a siesta in the room, while a few stayed on the sun deck watching for wildlife in the strong wind and rough sea.

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At 1730 we arrived in Puerto Villamil, a small port where most of Isabela’s almost 3000 inhabitants live. It was strange to be this close to civilisation again, but we stayed on the boat the entire evening. The water was really clear, so while waiting for dinner we stayed on the sundeck watching turtles, sea lions and several Galapagos sharks swim by. We even saw 4 male sea turtles mating with one female just a few meters from the boat. Felix, the chef, brought us some popcorn, since it was longer than normal between lunch and dinner. After dinner we showed the edited GoPro videos to the rest of the group, before going down to the swimming platform in the back. We brought torches and could see hundreds of small fish flocking around the light. Even more sharks swam by, and several sea lions were playing around, sometime so close that we could have touched them. Even though we have seen hundreds of them, we’re still fascinated.

Day 6:

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We went ashore in Puerto Villamil where a minivan was waiting for us. It took us to a Giant tortoise breeding center, where we arrived just in time for feeding. There are 10 different tortoise spieces on Isabela, but several of them are almost extinct. In the past both pirates and whalers took thousands of tortoises on board their ships. Since they can survive for a long time without water and food, they were a source of fresh meat. Additionally introduced animals like dogs, cats, donkeys and goats destroy nests, kill baby tortoises and eat the same food. Tortoises born in the breeding center are protected there until they are 8 years old, before they are released into the wild again. It was fun to see the newborn tortoises and the different spieces, but the museum was outdated.

We had a short stop at a flamingo lake on our way to Sierra Negra Volcano (the second largest in the world). It was raining when we arrived, and the visibility was very bad. After walking on a muddy path for 40 minutes, we arrived at the viewpoint, where we could only see a few meters. Back in the van we ate our box lunch, and went back to the city, where we had more than 3 hours to do whatever we wanted. Some went swimming or snorkeling, and a couple rented bikes. We walked around the in the city center, did some shopping (we were almost out of sunscreen) and had a couple of beers in a local bar. At the pier there were several marine iguanas, sea lions laying on benches and anywhere in the shadow and we also saw a few eagle rays swimming by.

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Back at the boat a few went for a swim and jumping from the dingy, and in the evening we enjoyed another wildlife show behind the boat. Several reef sharks, a sea turtle and three sea lions chasing and catching fish. It’s amazing how fast they can move!

Day 7:

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During the night we had sailed to Floreana island and our first landing was at Punta Cormorant. We started at a brown sand beach with green olivine crystals. There were several sea lions on the beach and playing in the water, and even a couple of penguins. Several birds were sitting on a cliff, among them a young and fluffy blue footed boobie. We stopped at a lagoon where several flamingos where walking around, making a lot of noise. They even walked on land so that we could really see their long legs. On the other side there was a beautiful white sand beach with lots of turtle nests, and a sea-lion relaxing in one of them. A few turtles were relaxing in the shallow waters, along with several stingrays looking for food.

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After a short stop back at the boat we were ready for the famous Devil’s Crown, the best snorkeling spot in the Galapagos according to lonely planet. It’s 3 small islets surrounded by coral reefs and millions of fish. The currents are quite strong so most of us needed a lift in the dingy (or behind it holding a rope) between the islets. The water was really clear, and there were fish in all sizes and colors wherever you looked. A few sea lions were playing around, and we saw a couple of gigantic stingrays in addition to a smaller eagle ray. The crew could hardly get us out of the water. Spectacular!

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We had one more short stop in Post Office Bay, only 20 minutes away, where whalers used to leave mail in a barrel for other boats to pick up if they were headed in the right direction. The barrel is now used by tourists, and we picked up a card to be delivered in Asker, only a kilometer from where Fredrik lives. A bit higher up the ruins of a Norwegian fish canning factory is found. It was very successful for a short time until the dry period when there was no food or water available for the workers.

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After lunch we started our 4 hour journey to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island. Shortly after we were joined by a group of large dolphins swimming and jumping around the boat. We also saw several albatrosses flying close to the boat. We arrived in Puerto Ayora at 4 pm, walked through the main street before sitting down at one of our favourite bars for a couple of drinks with a few of the other passengers. Back at the boat the crew had prepared for a farewell dinner. They were all dressed up, the table was decorated with vegetables formed as Galapagos animals, the owners of the boat were visiting and Wilma served farewell cocktails. We had another amazing dinner, shared contact information, took some group photos and ate way too much cake. After packing our bags we rounded off the evening with a couple of beers on the sun deck while discussing the highlights of the trip.

Day 8:

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We got up at 6 am to watch the bird life while sailing around the island Daphne Mayor. Finally everyone got pictures of blue footed boobies, and lots of Nazca boobies were also sitting on the cliffs. We went to the airport at 8 am where we said goodbye to everyone, and left for Guayaquil at 10 am.

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In summary, the cruise was above and beyond all our expectations. Even though we had read about the large number of animals and how close you could get to them, we were amazed every single day. We learned so much about them, from the guide of course, but also by watching them from the boat and on land. We were never hungry during the cruise. Chef Felix made 3 meals per day, often 2 or 3 courses. We had a new egg dish for breakfast every day, and whenever we got back from landings/snorkeling we were served a juice or a hot drink (also different every day) and some sort of snack (from pizza to Yucca bread with honey). The entire crews were amazing, attending our every need, but at the same time laughing and having fun. And the passengers worked really well together, looking after each other, sharing stories and knowledge, laughing a lot and having the time of our lives!

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Guayaquil

20141214-1We arrived in Guayaquil in the afternoon and had to stay the night before continuing to Nicaragua. We had a terrible taxi driver from the airport (luckily it’s a very short drive), and he dropped us off about a block from where we were staying (Re bed and breakfast). We had a little trouble finding it, since it was located in a normal apartment building, but when we got up we were very pleased. We had been upgraded to a large room with 3 beds and a private balcony, and a lot of space (especially compared to our cabin on the boat).

We had a walk on the Malecon, a wide pedestrian area along the river. We hardly saw any tourists, but lots of local families were enjoying the play grounds, Tivoli rides, christmas decorations and concerts. In Las Peñas (where the city was founded) most of the city’s colonial buildings are found. This was a peaceful and beautiful area, with renovated and colorful buildings (most of them built in wood), and in the background Santa Ana and El Carmen hills, with more colorful houses and a lighthouse at the top.

20141214-1-2We tried to find a micro brewery or at least a pub selling something more interesting than industrial pilsners, but most bars and restaurants were closed. After dinner we went back to Re, where they had craft beer in the fridge and stable internet. Just what we needed. We had decided on where to go next on the flight, and booked a hostel in León. When we left for the airport at 6 am, we found breakfast bags waiting for us in the reception. Nice touch!

León

20141216-1After a short stop in Panama we arrived in Managua, Nicaragua where a driver was waiting for us. It took about two hours to get to Colibri hostal in the center of León, a tranquil place with a hummingbird garden and several hammocks to relax in. León is one of the oldest cities in Nicaragua, and is known for it’s colonial architecture. It was founded in 1524, but was moved in 1610 after being ruined by a volcano eruption. It is an important university city, and the tourist industry is still young here, so the city felt very authentic. They had some noisy traditions including church bells and drums, but the strangest was probably the air-siren going off at 7 am and noon every day. Our hostel was a few blocks away, so it didn’t wake us up (but we heard it), but we were close to the main square at noon one day, and it was so loud that it hurt. Strange tradition.

The temperature got really high in the middle of the day, so we often had a siesta in the hammocks during this time. We went on a couple of afternoon tours and enjoyed the city in the mornings and evenings. The central square is in front of the cathedral. There were market stalls and street food (very good!) in the side streets, lots of people selling everything from blinking toys to hammocks and ice cream (and most of them had a bell or similar to get attention). Two gigantic traditional dolls (La Gigantona) and several Christmas cribs were set up on the square, and there were kids and families everywhere. The first evening there was also fireworks and a group of kids were allowed to ring the cathedral bells before performing La Gigantona over and over again for hours. This was really fascinating the first night, but after that we stayed away in the evenings. Too much noise!

20141218-1-3“La Gigantona” is a street play that combines drums, folk verses and dancing performed by young boys. La Gigantona is a 3 meter high tree doll in a colorful dress, representing the elegant Spanish woman. El Enano Cabezon is a small man with a big head, whose intelligence is underestimated by the Spanish colonialists. El Coplero resites the folk verses and Tamborilero plays the drums enthusiasticly.

León Cathedral is the biggest cathedral in Central America and is declared a UNESCO world heritage site. From the rooftop we had great views of the city and the surrounding volcanoes, but it was being renovated, so parts of the roof were closed and some were so white, that we were almost blinded. Still a nice experience. The local market was also fascinating. It seemed that the locals did most of their shopping here, and you could buy pretty much everything. It was stretching through several buildings and into the streets, with different areas for food, shoes, toys, clothes etc.

We often like to sit outdoors when eating or drinking in warm countries, so that we can watch everything happening in the streets. Except for the city’s oldest restaurant in the plaza in front of the cathedral (noisy), we didn’t really find any, but we soon learned that instead of having tables on the sidewalk, most restaurants had large courtyards in the back. From the street they looked dull and with no people, but in the back there were lots of people and often fountains, trees and flowers. It was hard to find the good ones though, so we used Tripadvisor a lot. But addresses in León is not easy either. 2,5 blocks from the plaza, down the road from the travel agent etc was the closest we got. Yavoy was one of our favourites, popular among the locals, good music, good food and a few craft beers available.

20141217-1One afternoon we went on the Telica twilight hike with Tierra Tours. The drive to the Telica volcano took about 1,5 hours, most of it on a crazy dirt road, where it felt like the car would tip over several times. The road is only a few years old and is maintained by the local farmers. It certainly gave us an experience, and saved us for a long hike. It took us about 45 minutes to walk from 600 meters above sea level to the lower side of the crater at 1000 meters (the highest is 1061). Two locals were sitting close to the crater selling beer and soda from a cooler, and we enjoyed a beautiful sunset and a beer before climbing the last 20141217-1-2few meters. There was a lot of smoke coming from the crater, the sulfur smell was quite strong, and between the smoke we could see lava glowing 120 meters below. The release of gasses in the crater made a loud sound, almost like a jet plane taking off. We walked back down in the dark using flashlights, and stopped along the way to watch the stars. No light pollution and really clear skies made it a magical experience.

20141218-1We also spent an afternoon volcano boarding down Cerro Negro volcano. The drive there was shorter and easier, but the climb to the top was a bit harder. The black lava, strong sun, loose rocks and heavy volcano boards didn’t help, but we reached the top in less than an hour. The volcano consist of two craters, we hiked up the smalest crater where some smoke were coming out. At the top we walked over to look at the big crater, here the ground was so hot that we could actualy burn our fingers when we removed the top soil (or is it ash?). The entire group were sledding down (sitting), except the two of us (nicknamed “the mental Norwegians” 20141218-1-2by the rest of the group) who went for the home made snowboards. When standing on top we saw a couple of very small cars at the bottom, but the slope itself was so steep we didn’t really see it. Definitely (and literally) a black slope! We have sandboarded before, but this was much more difficult. We kind of got a hang of it in the lower part, but by then our feet were cramping up, so we needed some breaks. We were chewing lava all the way home and probably still have some lava in our ears… A great experience, but the next time we will probably do the sledding as well. More speed and less work.

Granada

20141220-1Our shuttle from León to Granada took about 3 hours, and we arrived just after noon. We went for some “luxury” this time, a cheap hotel (Case de Alto) in the outer part of the city centre, with hot water, air condition and a balcony. The air condition was a good choice, because Granada seems to be even warmer than León. Granada was founded by the Spanish colonialists in 1524 and was the first European city in mainland America. It’s the national tourism hub, and it’s popularity has led to a large-scale restoration of the old colonial buildings.

20141219-1There’s not a lot of attractions in the city, but it’s nice to walk around in the colorful streets, with loads of tourist-friendly restaurants and bars. Parque Central in front of the cathedral looks very touristic at first, with horse carriages, market stalls and expensive cafès, but there are also street food stalls with plastic chairs popular among the locals. The main tourist street is Calle La Calzada, a pedestrian area with bars, restaurants, travel agencies and a few shops. It stretches all the way to the docks at the shore of Lago de Nicaragua. This part of the street is mostly empty, and the area by the lake is not much developed either. But with the growing rate of the tourist industry, I’m sure it won’t take long.

20141219-1-2We didn’t have too many excursions while in Granada. We enjoyed the amazing breakfast at Kathy’s Waffle House (twice), tasted the craft beer (lemongrass ginger wit) at Espressonista, relaxed in the many beautiful courtyards, watched several Christmas parades and something we think was a celebration of the Nicaragua canal, had a great time talking to a Canadian couple at a way to warm pub terrace, had some Nico Libre at our hotel balcony and a Nico Mule (local rum and home-brewed ginger beer) at Casa San Francisco, visited some churches (got a sneak peak of a wedding and a graduation) and watched some live music at Imagine.

20141220-1-2One afternoon we climbed the tower of Iglesia La Merced to enjoy the view of the city, the surrounding volcanoes and a beautiful sunset. We stopped by the tiny Doña Elba cigar factory, where we were shown the entire process and got the final result as a gift. We also bought some cigars for Christmas and New year’s eve. And on our last day in Granada we went on a canopy tour to Miravelle at the base of Mombacho volcano. It had 17 platforms, 3 hanging bridges and 11 zip lines, the longest 300 meters. Zip lines are always fun, but on this tour we also got to go upside down and superman style. On the last one the guides bounced the line while we were going down. Really fun!!

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Tamarindo

We had decided that we wanted to spend Christmas with our friends at Hotel Villa 20141227-1Amarilla in Tamarindo, Costa Rica (as we did two years ago). We had booked a shared shuttle all the way from Granada to Tamarindo, but we were the only passengers. Nice! We arrived at the border earlier than expected, but after crossing on foot we had to wait more than an hour before our Costa Rican shuttle turned up, so it took us 6 hours in total.

When we arrived we got a very warm welcome from TJ, Cinde and their family, guests and dogs. We bought some beer 20141223-1and got ready for a hotel tradition; watching the sunset together by the gate to the beach. Beautiful as always! The hotel itself looked even better than we remembered it; colorful, charming and fun with quite a few upgrades, better furniture, more hammocks, bananas and coconuts growing in the garden and new and beautiful paintings on the walls.

As planned we spent most of our time here in the garden, relaxing in the hammocks, 20141227-1-2talking to other guests, going for a swim or two, watching the surfers, having a massage, playing with the dogs and of course watching the sunset every night. After a week in warm cities this was truly paradise! A micro brewery (Volcano Brewing) had opened since our last visit, and of course we went there a couple of times. We also found a few other craft beers in stores and restaurants.

On Christmas eve we gathered in the garden to watch a couple of Christmas movies. We both called home using Skype, and it was nice to be able to say Merry Christmas to our families “face to face“. It was a very windy Christmas in Tamarindo, so the best surfers had a blast20141224-1 in the big waves. Great fun to watch as well. The Christmas dinner was a bit different from what we’re used to. We ordered pizza for everyone, and gathered around the ping pong table. We brought some Norwegian Aquavit from home, that we shared with everyone, thought them “God jul” and “Skål” and had a great evening. We smoked a couple of cigars bought at the factory in Nicaragua and Cinde had bought some sky lanterns where we all wrote some wishes and later went to the beach to release them in to the sky. Quite beautiful. We ended the evening in a local bar/night club at the beach.

On our last full day in Tamarindo we went on a scuba diving trip to Catalina Island (one of the best sites in the world for manta rays and other large rays). We were 5 people and an Italian instructor driving from Tamarindo to Playa Flamingo (25 minutes) where the boat was located. It turned out that they were renting space on a boat from another company, and there were several other groups joining us as well. Since everyone in our group were certified divers, we even ended up with a guide instead of the instructor. The skill level turned out to vary a lot though, so there was quite a bit of waiting involved. We actually “lost” a diver in both dives (it was rough conditions with wind and strong currents), and had to wait for the guide bringing them back to the group. We were diving in a thin, short wetsuit (not thick, full wetsuit as in the Galapagos), so the amount of weights needed was a guess, and Gunnhild didn’t have enough on the first dive. This was still the best dive of the day with a large group of huge stingrays swimming just below us, and some large eagle rays just above.

No manta rays though, since the season for them was just getting started. Too bad! On the second dive Fredrik and another diver spent most of their air trying to secure the anchor, so we didn’t have much time to explore. The boat trip back to the shore was really rough and the boat was not really built for waves like that, so heavy equipment started to move around. We spent the entire trip back holding scuba sylinders and other stuff in place while constantly getting showered by waves going over the boat. Not our best dives, but our first as certified divers, and a good confirmation that we have been trained well and can handle rough conditions.

20141224-1-2The next morning we packed our bags so that we where ready for our next adventure. The trip to Tamarindo was a small detour, but we were both glad that we went back to Villa Amarilla. It’s still one of the few places where we can truly relax, and the location and the people are still superb. We were picked up at 11 am. It was sad to say goodbye, but we know that we are always welcome back, and of course it helps to have one more month of travelling to look forward to.

Ometepe

Based on our previous experience with crossing the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, we booked a private car to the border, and planned on just finding a taxi on the other side to avoid waiting. But when we got to the border the lines were incredibly long, and the only way to get through faster was to be part of a bigger group. Too bad, so we waited in line for two hours. We teamed up with a Dutch couple and shared a taxi with them to San Jorge dock. We planned on arriving there in time for the 2.30 pm ferry to Moyogalpa, Ometepe, but just made the second 20141227-1-3to last ferry at 5 pm. This was going to San Jose instead of Moyogalpa, but San Jorge was dirty and full of annoying flies, do we just wanted to get out of there. The sun set just as we left the dock, so the ferry ride was very dark. We didn’t know how long the journey was, and didn’t really see any lights from Ometepe until we were basically at the dock. We took a taxi to Moyogalpa in the dark, and were looking forward to some light the next morning.

In the evening we walked the quite short main street in Moyogalpa (the second biggest city on Ometepe with around 3000 inhabitants), booked a trip for the next day, had a couple of beers, waited a long time for a small, reheated lasagne, watched another Christmas parade and had a short chat with two Norwegian travellers sitting on the table next us.

20141228-1-2Ometepe is an island formed by two volcanoes (Concepción and Madras) rising from Lake Nicaragua. We have climbed enough volcanoes this year (but will probably be ready for a few more next year), so we visited four easily accessible sites instead. In the Ecological Reserve of Charco Verde we had a nice 1 hour walk in a tropical forest surrounding a lagoon. There were lots of lizards everywhere, and butterflies in all kinds of colours. We heard a lot of birds in the trees and between the reeds in the lagoon, but mainly saw stilts and several orakas (blue jay family). Our next stop was at Al ojo de aqua, a natural spring where we went for a refreshing swim and enjoyed a beer while watching the kids (and some adults) jumping from a rope swing. After a lunch break we had another swim at Playa Santo Domingo, a beautiful 4 km long sand beach, popular among tourists, locals and domestic 20141228-1-3animals (a herd of cows were drinking from the lake when we arrived!). It was a special feeling to have sand bottom and waves and in a fresh water lake. Really nice! On our way back to Moyogalpa we stopped at Punta Jesús María, a narrow spit of land formed by water currents and sediments. We walked along the sand bank a few hundred meters, and got great views towards the two volcanos of Ometepe Island.

In the evening we booked a shuttle for the next day and walked around the city a bit more. We found a lovely pizza place a block away from the main street hassle, so we had dinner and a couple of drinks there. On our last day we enjoyed a slow morning, had a large breakfast, did 20141229-1some shopping (running out of sunscreen again!) and had plenty of time before the 12.30 pm ferry. We were picked up by our driver Francisco at the San Jorge dock, and had a nice (but warm, no AC) 2 hour drive to Managua. We even had a quite long conversation with him in our tourist Spanish, discussing our travels so far, where to go next and things we saw along the road.

Since we have a very early flight out of Nicaragua, we booked the hotel solely based on the distance to the airport. We didn’t expect anything very fancy based on the price, but when we arrived it turned out to be a 5 star hotel with tennis courts, a spa and a swimming pool, and our room was very large with two double beds. The biggest luxury was the shower though, hot water AND good pressure! Haven’t had both at the same time in a month! We got a free welcome drink and after some blogging (best internet in a month as well) we had a great dinner and went early to bed.

Roatán

20150106-1We got up at 4 am, checked out and took a taxi (5 minutes) to the airport. After a short stop in San Salvador, we arrived in Roatan (Honduras) around 10 am, and were picked up by our prebooked driver. Based on recommendations from travel friends we had decided to stay in West End, a small, laid-back beach town which is the island’s center for diving. Originally we planned to stay for 4 days, but we kind of fell in love with the place and the people and ended up spending 10 wonderful days here. It was also nice to be able to speak English again. Because of the island’s past as a British colony, this is the first language here.

20150104-120150107-1Roatán is the largest of The Bay Islands, and is located on the edge of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the 2nd largest in the world. This makes it a great place for diving, with numerous great dive sites to choose from, just a few minutes from the dock. We were diving with a company called Reef Gliders, where we quickly became regulars, doing two dives most days. We also ended up doing our Advanced Open Water certification here, including peak performance buoyancy, navigation, deep dive, wreck dive and drift dive. So much fun (except the theory we had to read in the evenings)!

DCIM100GOPROEspecially the peak performance buoyancy where we learned to swim through hoops and really be in control under water made a huge difference on the rest of our dives. Navigation was also fun, and made us pay more attention to where we were going. We went diving with several different instructors, dive masters and DMT’s, and probably had the most fun with Kim, Hagn and Brian. Everyone at the shop were great though, giving us tips and tricks, suggesting dive sites and even changed the schedule for us a couple of times. Our favourite dives where probably the Aquila wreck (32 meter) combined with Pillar coral and Hole in the wall (34 meter), a cool swimtrough where we drifted to another site to see a very rare frogfish at the end of the dive. We had several other good dives with nice corals, king crabs, parrotfish, lionfish, trumpetfish, lobsters, large groupers, different moray eels, sting rays, flounders, a few sea turtles and so much more!

20150106-1-220141230-1Another important reason for us hanging around this long was the wonderful place we were staying, and the great friends we made there. Roatan Bed & Breakfast is located in a charming house on top of a small hill 5-10 minutes walk from the main street. The owner, Barbara, is one of the sweetest people we have ever met, and she really spoiled us with large breakfasts, lots of margaritas and great company. Together with Blaine (a divemaster from the US) we found our home away from home, had loads of fun and pretty much turned into one big happy family (including Pepperoni the cat). We started each day drinking coffee in the balcony, had breakfast together in the kitchen and met again in the balcony in the afternoon to share photos and videos from our dives. A few other guests also joined us from time to time, and especially Kelley fit right in from the moment we met. Too bad she couldn’t stay longer.

20150105-1-2We went out a few nights, having drinks at Blue Marlin, listening to talented local musicians at Monkey Island, singing karaoke (mainly Blaine and Hagn) and dancing at Lands end, drinking beer with dive friends at Sundowners, eating street food and jamming with the locals by the fire at the beach. But most nights we went home after diving to see the sunset from the roof terrace, sharing some beers, margaritas and Cuba Libre, laying on our backs watching the stars, sharing travel stories while waiting for the moon to rise, playing music and just having a great time.

On new year’s eve Blaine (who had some local friends from previous visits) told us that the party would be at Sundowners and that we should join him, which of course we did. We arrived fairly early, after a few strong margaritas with Barbara. A few beers later one of us found out that we had not eaten anything, so we went out for some street food (tacos). 20150101-1When we came back the party had really started with live bands and loads of people and we had a lot of fun. At midnight we were standing at the beach watching the fireworks, having a sigar and a lot of hugs going around. At 2 am the party and we started to be a little slower so we desided to go skinny dipping. We found a small beach by Reef Gliders, but the water was so shallow that we could barely swim. Still refreshing and fun though! We ended the party back home on the first floor balcony.

20150107-1-2The last full day Barbara and Fredrik left the Bed & Breakfast for a haircut at 0930 (payment for wide angle photos of the guest rooms). This became a full day of driving taxi back and forth between the supermarket, bank and funiture shop trying to get a new mattress for one of the rooms. They came home with all the ingrediences for a great omelet breakfast our last day, locally produced organic chocolates, delicious ice cream and everything needed to make Bloody Mary’s. We really made the most of the rest of our time there, and even managed to convince Barbara to join us to the Blue Marlin in the evening. Lots of our dive friends were there, so we got to say goodbye to pretty much everyone. 20150109-1Our flight was leaving at 1215 pm, and we delayed the departure to the airport as long as possible so that we had time for one last “family breakfast” with these amazing people. It was really sad to say goodbye, but we have already made plans to meet everyone again. Can’t wait!

Antigua

20150111-1The owner of our hotel picked us up at the airport in Guatemala City, and we arrived in Antigua just before dusk. This is a small city (population around 35000) in the central highlands of Guatemala. It has an elevation of 1530 meters, which makes it quite a bit colder than where we came from. During the days it got pretty warm in the sun though, so after getting over the initial shock we enjoyed it a lot.

20150111-1-2Antigua is famous for it’s well-preserved Spanish Baroque influenced architecture, cobbled streets and several ruins of colonial churches destroyed by earthquakes. It has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1979. The city is surrounded by mountains and 3 large volcanoes (Volcán de Aqua – 3766 m, Acatenango – 3976 m, Volcán de Fuego – 3763 m). Fuego had its last eruption in 2012 and is still issuing steam and gas several times a day.

We did a lot of sightseeing in the city center on foot, and had a 2 hour Segway tour where we also visited Santa Ana and San Christobal El Bajo, two small villages outside of Antigua.

20150110-1Parque Central is the heart of the city, with a nice fountain, benches, street vendors and a mix between tourists and locals. It is surrounded by nice buildings like Palacio de los Capitanes and the cathedral. Catedral de San Josè used to be one of the largest in Central America, but was seriously damaged by an earthquake in 1773, and only parts of it has been rebuilt/restored. The Church and Convent of Capuchinas was well restored and we could see the church, gardens, bathing halls and private cells of the nuns. Santo Domingo Monastery was destroyed in the 1773 earthquake, and part of the ruins are now elegantly integrated into Hotel Casa Santo Domingo. La Merced Church is built in low height with wider arches and columns designed to withstand20150111-1-3 earthquakes. It has a barroque facade and the biggest fountain in Antigua. Arco de Santa Catalina is a famous landmark in Antigua. It was originally built to allow nuns to cross the street unnoticed, but now it’s a popular spot for tourists to take photos with Volcán de Aqua in the background. San Francisco Church was also badly damaged by earthquakes but is actually still in use.

20150110-1-2We visited several nice restaurants and bars, but kept going back to two places. Kafka had a great roof terrace with spectacular views towards the three volcanoes, and we loved hanging out here during the day. The evenings we spent at Hops & Tales, a wonderful little bar specialising in craft beer. We talked a lot to the owners, Marco and Ellie, and several of the other guests and enjoyed Salvadoran craft beer on tap (Cadejo). They also had beer from two local micro breweries and some other imported craft beers. As the beer geeks we are we asked a lot of questions, and during our first evening there one of the local brewers actually came down to share information about his brewery (Hops & Barley) and beers with us. 20150110-1-3Since we didn’t really want to leave, we ordered food from the amazing Argentinian steakhouse next door and ate at the bar. The next evening we had been through most of the beers, but the other local brewer (Belgian Brasserie) had brought 4 new ones for us to taste. What’s amazing place!

Lake Atitlán

20150112-1Again we were a bit late deciding where to go next, so we booked our entire trip to the lake the night before we left. That made it impossible to find space on a shuttle, and we had a fast, comfortable and slightly expensive private car (Carlos from our hotel) taking us here instead. We arrived at the pier in Panajachel, the most developed (and quite touristy) town by the lake at 1230 pm, and instead of waiting for the ferry we took a private boat the short ride to Santa Cruz la Laguna. Most of the village is built on a shelf 100 meters above the water, but our hotel (La Iguana Perdida) is located just by the dock, with beautiful views over the water and the surrounding volcanoes.

20150113-120150113-1-3La Iguana Perdida is a relaxed, social and fun place with beautiful gardens, houses painted in bright colours, great staff, a 3 course family style dinner every night and it also houses the only PADI dive shop on the lake (ATI divers). We did two freshwater altitude dives here, and both were amazing. Earthquakes, tropical storms and landslides has made the lake rise, flooding several hotels, houses and piers, and we were able to dive on a few of them.

20150113-1-420150113-1-5Together with our dive instructor, Oli, we were hanging out on balconies, swimming through windows, under piers and through trees, stopping at a garden fence watching fish swim by and crabs run into hiding, had a break at an underwater bar, washed our hands in a still working tap, and even went in to a small sauna with an air pocket on top and a dripping shower. Very cool! We were fascinated by the green algae forming small towers at the bottom, trying to keep air from escaping. We felt the heat in the sand and from the hot springs in a volcanic rift, and even tried to boil an egg on one of them. Very different and a lot of fun!

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We planned to visit a few other villages around the lake, but we met so many wonderful people at the hotel that we never got around to it. With only one full day there and focus on the diving, we didn’t really have the time for it either. If we hadn’t booked a flight, we would definitely have extended our stay.20150112-1-2 The day after our dives we left at 8 am, and travelled by shuttle to Antigua (again we were lucky enough to be the only passengers). We went back to the hotel we had been staying at there, left our bags and had time for lunch and internet (no wi-fi in Santa Cruz) before Carlos drove us to the airport.

Flores

20150115-1We arrived in the tiny airport in Flores/Santa Elena at 1830 and took a taxi (3 km) to Isla de Flores, a tiny island in Lago de Petén connected to the shore by a 500 m causeway. We were welcomed by lots of men in women’s clothing, most of them quite drunk and wet after swimming in the lake. We stayed at Hotel Isla de Flores, a very nice hotel in the middle of town. Shortly after we checked in a lot of noise started outside, and the reception called to apologize. It turned out to be The festival of the Black Christ, a celebration of a holy statue in Esquipulas combined with a lot of Mayan traditions. 20150115-1-2This included several parades, marching bands, firecrackers, fireworks, conserts, markets, street food and somehow the men in drag, and a big part of it happened on the central square just a few meters from our hotel. Luckily the double windows were reducing the noise a lot, because they kept going most of the night and started again early in the morning.

20150115-1-5Our main reason for visiting Flores was Tikal, one of the biggest Mayan sites in the world (60 km2). The site is dominated by six giant pyramid-shaped temples up to 64 meters tall. In addition thousands of other structures, many not yet excavated, are found in the jungle of the Parque Nacional Tikal. The oldest buildings are from the 4th century BC and the city kept growing almost until it was abandoned in the 10th century. It wasn’t discovered until the 1940s, and declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979. The Great Plaza lays in the center of the site, surrounded by two of the largest temples, the palace complex Central Acropolis and North Acropolis where the city’s royals were buried. The Plaza of the seven temples has seven almost identical temples on one side, a triple ballcourt and several palaces. We were able to walk into the courtyard of Palacio de las Acanaladuras, 20150115-1-4climb the Talud-Tablero temple, and see the amazing view from the top of Temple IV (new stairs built on the side of the temple). We were also lucky enough to see several spider monkeys, and an entire family of white-nosed coatis crossed the path right in front of us. Howler monkeys could be heard in the distance and birds were constantly flying over our heads.

We had plenty of time to explore the city of Flores, even though we were only staying two nights. The city has only a few blocks in both directions, and walking around the entire island doesn’t take more than 15 minutes. It’s a very charming city with narrow and steep streets, 20150115-1-3well-maintained colonial buildings in nice colors, people swimming in the lake all around and plenty of restaurants and bars. On our last evening, we ended up at a nice roof terrace (Sky bar) with a view towards the main plaza. This was the last day of the festival, and it ended with an amazing firework show lasting for at least 20 minutes. Great way to end our visit here!

Caye Caulker

20150116-1We had an early flight from Flores to Belize City. The plane had space for 12 passengers, but we were only 9. We took a taxi to the dock, and arrived just a few minutes before the ferry/water taxi was leaving. Another hour and we arrived at Caye Caulker, a beautiful limestone coral island (8 x 1,6 km) surrounded by turquoise water. It has become a popular destination for backpackers, and is a good base for dive trips to the Belize Barrier Reef.

20150116-1-2There’s pretty much just two streets on the island, the one by the beach which is full of restaurants, bars, hotels, dive shops and tour companies, and the one in the middle, which is more residential but with a few restaurants and the local bank and ATM. The main means of transport was golf carts, bicycles or just walking, since nothing was far away anyway. The motto off the island was “Go slow”, and we quickly adjusted to the relaxed pace. People were in general very friendly and often stopped to talk on the street. We did sometimes have a little trouble understanding their charming Carib-English dialect though.

20150117-1We went on two dive trips while we were here. The owner of our hotel (Ocean Pearl Royal) was married to the owner of the closest dive shop (Frenchie’s), and since they also had great reviews we decided to go with them. The most famous dive site in the area is by far The Blue Hole, a perfectly circular limestone sinkhole, dark blue in the middle of all the turquoise. We heard that this dive was a bit overrated, but Frenchie’s offered two other highly rated dive sites on the same trip, so we agreed to go. The boat ride there started at 6 am and took two hours. We were split into groups based on experience, and since we are certified as advanced open water divers we got to be in the group going deep. 20150117-1-2We jumped in close to the reef surrounding the hole and the middle seemed like a huge bottomless pit (it’s 124 meters deep and 300 meters across). The deeper we got the more we could see that this once was air-filled caves, with massive limestone stalactites hanging down from what was once the cave ceiling. It was quite cool to swim under the enormous overhangs and zig-zag between the stalactites, but we could only stay 8 minutes at this depth (40 meters) before working our way up the wall again, and in that part there was not much to see at all. 20150117-1-3Our second dive of the day was at Half Moon Wall, which was worth the 2 hour boat ride alone. The coral reef was amazing with lots and lots of fish, and in the deeper part there were plenty of large reef sharks swimming around. A few of them came really close to check us out. We also came across three dolphins playing around and blowing bubbles on the bottom. Amazing dive site! We stopped for lunch on Half Moon Caye, 20150117-1-4a small island declared a national park. We walked to a watch tower to watch birds, but did not at all expect the view we got. There were birds everywhere, mainly red-footed boobies and frigatebirds. The closest ones were so close that we could touch them. It also seemed to be mating season, since most of the male frigatebirds had inflated their bright red gular pouch. On the walk back we saw a few lizards and hundreds of hermit crabs. Our final dive of the day should have been at a dive site named The Aquarium, but we had some 20150117-1-5snorkelers in the boat and the conditions were too rough. Instead we went to Lion’s Den on the other side of Long Caye. We had another great dive there with eagle rays and turtles as the highlights. On the way back to Caye Caulker the crew served fruit, crackers and as much rum punch as we could drink. We were all pretty happy when we arrived there.

 

Our second dive trip from Caye Caulker was a bit further south at two sites named Spanish bay and Gallows point. We were in a small group, and had two great dives. 20150119-1We touched a sea cucumber, saw several eagle rays, a moray eel, a barracuda, a juvenile spotted drum and a few lion fish. On the way back we stopped at St. George’s Cuay, where a local family were running an aquarium. They had several local spieces that are almost impossible to spot while diving, and they were also rescuing marine animals and releasing them when they were strong enough to survive. And as always plenty of rum punch on the way back.

20150118-1We decided to move to an island a bit closer to the dive sites, so the rest of our time at Caye Caulker we mainly relaxed and checked out the local restaurants and bars. The split is where most people go for a swim, and the local bar (Lazy lizard) is full of people in swimsuits showing off, flirting and hooking up. We had fun watching the madness for a couple of hours, while enjoying some live reggae music. We were hanging out in the back yard with our German neighbours, drinking local rum and planning where to go next. We watched the beautiful sunset from the pier behind our hotel and had cheap drinks during happy hour. 20150119-1-2On our last evening we went to the restaurant next door (Wish Willy) with the Germans, and the owner, Maurice, sat down with us. We soon felt very much at home, went to get our own beers, brought the rest of the rum from our hotel and Maurice was pouring us vodka shots. He took us to a Jamaican nightclub, where we were literally hanging in the bar (wooden swings) and had a great night with the locals.

San Pedro – Ambergris Caye

20150124-1The former fishing village of San Pedro is the biggest city on the islands of Belize, located on the largest caye. The city have a population of more than 9000 and even paved roads and cars. 🙂 The main reason for us to go here was that the dive sites were a lot closer, instead of one hour on a boat it is maximum fifteen minutes. We stayed at Hotel del Rio, a little bit out of the city center, quiet but right on the beach. We had two bedrooms and a big balcony. Luxury! Two days we got up early and went out for two dives with the dive shop Chuck & Robbie’s. 20150122-1Since the dive sites were so close we went back to the shop between the dives for some fruit and snacks. Professional, fun and laid back people! The visibility was great on all dives and we saw several turtles, moray eels, groupers, nurse sharks, eagle rays, stingrays, dolphins, lobsters and lion fish. The reefs were also really nice with narrow channels, canyons and steep walls.

DCIM100GOPROThe third day we went snorkeling in the famous Hol Chan Marine Reserve in the morning. It’s on the southern tip of Ambergris Caye, and means “little channel” in Mayan. The site was nice, but we really regretted that we were snorkeling instead of diving, especially since we were with an unexperienced group and had to wait a lot. We also stopped at Shark-Ray Alley, where they were throwing food in the water to attract nurse sharks and stingrays. Not sure we like that, but have to admit it was interesting to see sharks pile up for food, and actually touching a stingray. 20150123-1-3In the evening we went back to Hol Chan for a night dive, and that was a completely different experience! We were a small group of six people where only one had tried night diving before. And we got kind of a challenge. Not only was it pitch dark, but we also had a very strong current. In the beginning it was quite narrow and everyone were staying close to the instructor, so we crashed into eachother a bit when trying to avoid hitting the reef. We all got a hang of it very quickly though, spread out a bit more and had an amazing dive. 20150123-1-2We saw hundreds of stingrays hiding in the sand, several moray eels (both green and spotted), sharks, eagle rays, large lobsters out walking, large groupers and snappers out hunting, a turtle and so much more. We ended the dive by kneeling at the bottom close to the boat and turn off all flashlights. We waved our hands around to make bioluminescence plankton light up. Really fun!

We walked into the city center a couple of times, but normally ended up in one of the beach bars instead. Too much people, cars and noise around the main square. Our favourite bar was probably Hurricane which was located over the water with great views, 20150131-1had good food, great drinks and often live music. It was the kind of place where they remembered your name and people kept coming back. We also bought fresh breakfast from the local bakery, and food in the evening from the Chinese fast-food place. This we enjoyed on our balcony while looking at the palm trees, the sand and the ocean. Wonderful!

Portobelo

20150126-1Getting from Belize to Panama was a lot harder than we expected it to be. We looked into several different options and routes (via Rio Dulce, via Roatan etc), but finally decided on just flying directly and take a few more dives in Panama instead. For some reason the flight tickets we booked online kept being cancelled. On the third try we booked from Belize City instead of San Pedro, and we finally received a confirmation a couple of days later. It was a long day of travelling though. The water taxi actually left on time at 1 pm (rare). We took a taxi to the airport and had 2,5 hours there before our flight. We had another 2,5 hours between flights in San Salvador, and when we finally got out of the airport in Panama City it was passed midnight (1 hour time difference). Our dive instructor from Golden Frog Diving, Rey, was there to pick us up and drive us to our hotel (Coco Plum) in Portobelo. Checked in and ready for bed around 2 am. Long day!

 

We did 4 dives in two days in Portobelo. Golden Frog Diving was located just 30 meters from our room, so it was very convenient. Rey and the other people working there were great, and we were diving in small groups. The first day we visited the two most famous dive sites in the area, El Avion and Drake Island. The first one is a sunken C-45 aircraft, 20150125-1-3a small two-engine military transport plane. Quite cool, but the visibility wasn’t great. We continued over the reef, had some fun swimtroughs and even went into a small cave and out a very narrow opening in the cave ceiling. Drake Island is where divers are still searching for Sir Francis Drake’s coffin which was cast out to sea here. We were more interested in the beautiful coral reefs (very different in both shape and color compared to what we have seen before) and all the colorful fish found there. The second day we had two dives around Salmedina Reef. Our dive master was great at showing us small details and letting us touch what could be touched without harm (like a strange sticky coral). Other highlights was a huge barracuda, and helping to find and capture lion fish which do not belong here (native to the Indo-Pacific) and are now threatening the reef ecosystems. We also had lunch in a beautiful bay with white sand and crystal clear water.

Since we had not arranged our trip from Portobelo to San Blas and back to Panama City, we didn’t have too much time to explore the city. 20150125-1Portobelo is a lazy harbour town and the starting port for many boats going via San Blas to Columbia. It used to be an important trading port for plundered treasures for the Spanish, and several forts were built to keep the pirates away. We walked from our hotel to the city centre and passed the well-preserved Santiago Battery, which still has 14 of the original cannons in place. Other famous buildings are Casa Real de la Aduana (The restored royal customs house, now housing a small museum) and Iglesia de San Felipe (a church housing Panama’s most important religious icon, the Black Christ), but we didn’t go into any of them. We went to Captain Jack’s to see if it was possible to go by boat from Portobelo to San Blas, 20150125-1-2but ended up booking a hotel in Panama City before and after instead. That way we can leave our suitcases there and just bring what we need. With all travel arrangements taken care of we just enjoyed the social part of Captain Jack’s. Had some great curry, a couple of beers and a few drinks and talked to a lot of great people from all over the world.

Panama City and San Blas/Guna Yala

20150126-1-2Our divemaster drove us to Panama City after our second dive. We were allowed to keep our room until then, so we had time for a quick shower. We checked in to our hotel (Doubletree by Hilton), went out to get cash for our shuttle and sailtrip, and spent the rest of the evening in Istmo brewpub, which was located just a few blocks away. Really nice with some craft beer again! We went home early to repack and try to get a few hours sleep before our pickup at 5.15 am.

We left our suitcases at the hotel, and travelled only with small backpacks. Our shuttle was 45 minutes late, not at all comfortable and with too many people. The last part of the trip to Carti was on crazy steep, winding roads with quite a few potholes. 20150127-1-2And when we finally arrived, we had to wait more than an hour for the lancha (small boat) to take us to Banedup, where our home for the next three days was waiting for us. The lancha had several stops, delivering groceries and dropping off people on different boats. We were welcomed to our boat, Perle (Bavaria 41 ft), by captain Miro (Polish) and the two other passengers, Debora and Stefan (Argentinian). We had a small breakfast and a quick swim before sailing to Green Island. Debora and Stefan are sailing regattas back home, so they did most of the work and we could just sit back and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Small paradise islands everywhere, palm trees, perfect white beaches and crystal clear water.

The San Blas Islands consists of nearly 400 small and large islands (only 40 are inhabited) on Panama’s Caribbean coast. They are home to the indigenous Guna Indians, who since the Tule Revolution in 1925 have controlled the islands and a narrow band of the mainland and have named their territory Guna Yala. No non-Gunas are allowed to live in this area, and they check passports of everyone going in or out. They have their own tribal laws, traditions and culture, and the 55000 Gunas are organized within a strict hierarchy of tribal leaders. Their main income is from coconuts, even though tourism is getting more and more important.

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We spent more than 24 hours anchored outside Green Island or Kanlildup as it is called in the local language. It is surrounded by reefs and sandbanks, so navigation to the island is a bit difficult, but once you are there the waters are calm and the views amazing. We took the dinghy to shore a few times or just swam from the sail boat. It took around 20 minutes to walk around the entire island, and most of the time we were the only ones there. A few other boats were anchored close by, and some Gunas stopped there during the day to cook some lunch on the beach. We did some snorkeling in the area, but it was very shallow, so it was a bit difficult. We did see lots of small fish though, and even an eagle ray when we found a deeper area. On one side of the island there were hundreds of starfish close to the beach. Local fishermen stopped by the boat several times a day to sell fish, lobsters or fruit, and the first day we ended up buying 5 small lobsters, and had a great evening with wine and good food.

20150128-1Our first night on the boat was very warm, so we started the day with a refreshing swim. Some of us went to the island to try some windsurfing, while others relaxed in the hammock or went snorkeling. We also took the dinghy to an even smaller island (Waisaladup) close by. Paradise! We sailed to Western Holandes Cays, where we anchored outside another island named Waisaladup and the neighbouring Acuakargana. On the way there we saw several of the tiny Guna boats, where one person was holding the sail and the other one was struggling to keep the boat from filling up with water. 20150129-1And when we arrived we were met by a small cruise ship planning to visit the same island as us. Too bad! But while they built a small resort on the beach for a couple of hours, we went snorkeling from the boat, and they soon left so we had the island all to ourselves. The reefs here were much better, with loads of fish, a cool flounder, a barracuda and a trumpet fish. We bought some fish from a local fisherman and had another great dinner on the boat.

20150130-1On our last day we sailed back to Banedup where the lanchas where leaving from. Banedup is a tiny island with a bar, two docks and a few cottages for rent. We said goodbye to the others who were continuing to Portobelo (around 8 hours sailing), and relaxed on the beach with a cold beer while waiting for a lancha. Fredrik made a deal with some locals that not only got us safely back to the mainland, but also had a car waiting for us to take us back to Panama City. And we paid less than half of what we paid when booking through the hotel!

20150130-1-2We arrived at our hotel around 6 pm, and enjoyed the luxury of having internet and a real shower again. We took a taxi (3 dollars) to the old town, and had a light dinner and some craft beer at La Rana Dorada, a brew pub we knew from our trip 2 years ago. We were not really used to staying up late with lots of people everywhere after San Blas, so we went for a walk around the old town before heading back to the hotel. Our flight home was at 6 pm, so we had one last day in Panama City. We walked around in familiar streets, had one last craft beer at La Rana Dorada, did some last minute shopping, stocked up on snacks for the flight and tried to take in that our 2 month adventure was over. After 15 hours travelling, we arrived in cold Norway Sunday afternoon and were picked up by Fredrik’s mother, who not just got us safely home, but had prepared an evening meal for each of us to bring home. So sweet!