New blog design, new trips planned…come on 2013!

My poor neglected blog. Back from Nicaragua for only 7 months and I’ve been a total slacker in posting anything on here but there are reasons for that, namely:



Everybody everybody! It’s happening!

Most of my interwebs time has been spent researching destinations, visas, ticket prices, innoculations, colorful Hawaiian shirts to wear…the essentials of course. SE Asia will be the first area to feel my wrath (and by wrath I mean excitement and domination of their street food carts and beaches) and I cannot wait to step off the plane in Bangkok. I should probably get a ticket first though as they tend to refuse entry at airport security if you don’t have one…bastards. However before the big trip there are plans for Vegas, and a couple week jaunt to Costa Rica in May.

Secondly I’m working on a complete redesign of the blog. It’s going to look sexy. You will want to make copious amounts of love to it….in the form of Facebook likes and retweets, and loads of comments. Seriously though it’s taking a decent amount of work to get the new blog hosted, designed just the way I want and working on content so when that thing goes live you can jump on it, like Charlie Sheen on a giant bed of cocaine. I’ve got a lot to learn about the travel blogging process, taking/editing good photos and all of the other things that make a travel blog visually appealing and entertaining.

I’ll be sure to hassle let you know when the new Travels Without Pants is ready to be unveiled and I sincerely hope that you check it out, pass it on if you like it and ask me as many questions on my entries as you desire.

One more thing.


Welcome to El Castillo……you can check out anytime you like but you can never leave

Firstly I’ve got to say it’s very peaceful right now, it’s 8 am and I’m sitting on a deck at the Hotel Victoria looking right over the Río San Juan with a splendid view of the fort of El Castillo on the hill that overlooks the town. I’ve gotten a decent shower for the first time in four days and slept in air conditioning, breakfast is included in our room price so things are looking pretty good.

My view from the deck at Hotel Victoria, the Fort of El Castillo top left

The Rìo San Juan was one of the original locations looked at for a route between the Pacific and Carribean and was used for awhile as a major trade route. When the Panama Canal opened all major shipping operations moved there and the towns along the river went into decline. El Castillo has started to promote tourism however of the people still make their living fishing and doing other agricultural work.

An old map from the museum display at the fort

Our boat ride here took just over three hours due to the boat stopping at whatever dock along the river that someone needed to get off at. These boats are like the buses of the river so to speak. When we arrived we were told that all the rooms in the town were full. All of them. It turns out we were in this very small town the same weekend as a binational festival between Nicaraugua and Costa Rica was taking place. To celebrate and endangered green parrot. Apparently 200 additional people flood the town until Sunday. We decided to try our luck and ask anyway and luckily found a place that had a room open……for one night. For $70. While still only under $20 pp it hurts the pocketbook knowing that the places could be had for less if the occupancy rate wasn’t at, oh, 100%! The two ladies who run the Hotel Victoria are very cool, very friendly and the place is clean, nice and has AC.

A view of El Castilo from the river

So now our real dilemma begins, the ferry back to Ometepe leaves on Tuesday from San Carlos not on Monday like we thought which would get us to the island at midnight on Tuesday with only Wednesday to check things out before having to to roll directly to Managua the next morning. Our next option is to catch a flight from San Carlos to Managua and then from there perhaps head to León. There are however no available flights. On any of the days we need. So now it looks like we need to catch the 5 am boat from El Castillo to San Carlos and then catch a 6 hour chicken bus ride to Managua and then from there the plan is on to León for the last few days of the trip. It’s going to be another long day of travel ahead of us.

Luckily for us the ladies at our hotel talked to the place right next door and got us rooms for the night somehow, $16 a night for a private room with its own bathroom. Beats sleeping in a hammock like we had planned.

We spent the early park of the day walking around town and then went to the main landmark, the fort of El Castillo. The fort was constructed in 1675 to resist the pirate incursions that we’re taking place at the time. El Castillo was attacked several times while pirates were on the way to loot Granada. Both Sir Francis Drake and Captain Henry Morgan were said to have tried taking the town.

La Fortaleza de El Castillo

Harmony walking up the path to the fort

Harms and I on the fort – El Castillo in the back

El Río San Juan. – flowing from Lake Nicaragua to the Carribean

The fort itself is at the top of the hill overlooking the town and the river, unlike other forts we’ve seen on other trips not too much reconstructive work has been done here. It costs $2 entrance fee and $1 if you want to take pictures. I didn’t see any staff the entire time we were there, nor any other tourists. You can get a 360° view from the top of the town and river stretching in both directions.

We found a pepper bush growing at the top of the fort and being a pirate myself, liberated a pepper to share among the few of us who love the spice. This turned out to be kind of a bad idea and our lips were burning for about 15 minutes after biting into it.

The mighty pepper bush

What we are about to do, let no man repeat

By boat and taxi and chicken bus

The day yesterday began at 4:30 am with a few sharp knocks on our door. We had decided the day before to leave El Castillo and settle in for the remainder of the trip in León. As was our luck all flights from San Carlos were booked up and we had a long travel day ahead of us.

Sunrise in El Castillo

With bleary eyes I grabbed my backpack and we headed down the darkened street toward the port to begin our first leg of the journey on the 5 am boat from El Castillo to San Carlos. Luckily we got there slightly early as the boat began to quickly fill up and as the trip went on people were stuck standing. The normally three hour trip took longer due to the fact that we again stopped at every dock or bank along the way to pick up or drop off passengers. I slept off and on while the day grew hotter.

Clark & Lam – super psyched about the boat ride

We arrived in San Carlos around 8:30 am just missing the early bus to Managua, the next one wasn’t leaving until 12. Getting a ticket at the bus station was slightly confusing but in hindsight here’s how it works: After getting off the boat the ayudantes (drivers’ helpers) are calling out the bus destinations and the time they leave. You can pre purchase a ticket which will then reserve a seat for you, otherwise you can take your chances buying on board and maybe standing up for the ride. The buses aren’t parked in the bays that they leave from because there isn’t enough room for all the buses, so what looks like an empty bay is actually where you board about 10 minutes before departure.

Bus figured out – on to León!

So we purchased our tickets for the chicken bus to Managua (150 cordobas, roughly $6.50) and had a few hours to kill. San Carlos doesn’t have much to it, and even less on a Sunday. The mercado only had a few stalls open and the vegetable vendors were not out in force as they were when we first passed through. We took a walk up to the central park slightly up the hill, and then a bit further up to the remains of the fort of San Carlos. The “fort” as it was would not have been recognized as a fort had they not put a sign up near the two remaining walls telling you what had been there. We did manage to get a good view of the town layout though. With our time dwindling we had breakfast and then boarded the bus.

Bus snack – they sell all kinds of food on the bus. You may be uncomfortable but you won’t starve

I had never been in a chicken bus before but had a read a bit to get the impression that the ride would not be first class. The buses are just old American or Canadian school buses, often repainted with designs and the destination/origination of the bus route. There is no AC and the windows need to be down to get decent air flowing through the bus. Even then it’s still hot. Every time the bus stops, which can be three times in as many minutes, the hot air stalls and settles on your skin. People get jammed in as tight as they can pack them in so you may, as I did, end up with someone’s butt half in your seat.

The upside to this is being able to be part of what is daily life for people in Nicaragua. The scenes out of the bus window were a view into how the rural and small town Nicaraguans live. Corrugated tin roofs are the norm, block walls or wood planks loosely nailed to framing constitute walls. There were chickens, stray dogs and pigs everywhere, our bus had to honk and slow down to get a few cows out of the road once. Most people are by our definition poor, and not in the they can’t afford to shop at Walmart kind of poor, they’re a probably have dirt floors kind of poor.

Once our 6.5 hour bus ride dropped us off in Managua we had to take a taxi roughly 30 min to the other bus station where the mini buses were which would take us to León. The taxi driver I’m pretty sure overcharged us but at only $4 a person was still not bad. We got dropped off halfway across town just in time to take the last four available seats in the mini bus to León. The 1.5 hour ride cost 46 cordobas ($2) a person, and was like the chicken bus only smaller and with windows that wouldn’t open on my side. The mini bus dropped us off in a sketchy looking part of town, or at least it appeared that way in the dark. We caught a cab for $4 to the hostel we had read about and luckily they had a room available for the four of us.


Celebrating our arrival with El Comandante – the mural on a wall of our hostel room

After what ended up being a 17 hour travel day from door to do ended on a high note. Bigfoot Hostel is only $6 pp for our room, and when we got in it was pizza night at the adjoining cafe (large pizza and two mojitos for $7) so after dropping our bags in the room it was dinner time and then much deserved sleep.

The perfect end to an arduous day


A Quick Note on Granada and Nica Safety

Initially we had heard and I had written that Granada might not be a safe place to walk around at night. This proved to be unfounded and had we followed that advice would have spent all our time lounging at the hostel pool drinking. Don’t get me wrong, we did our fair share of that to be sure but each night we ventured out around town and never felt unsafe.

The perception that Nicaragua, and for that matter Latin America, is a dangerous place to avoid traveling in is to be taken with a grain of salt. This is definitely the least developed of any of the countries that I’ve been too but safety and getting around hasn’t been a problem. True, things take awhile longer here but honestly what’s the rush anyway (and I say that even as someone with limited time in country). You can enjoy being in the moment more when you accept the pace of where you’re at and go with the flow even if you don’t like the pace. One piece of advice I can give based on the 5 days we’ve been here is don’t put yourself in a position where feel you need to be rushing to catch your boat, taxi, etc. The taxi will wait, the boats rarely leave exactly on time and the buses…..well I’m sure we’ll end up on one at some point.

All of our interactions with any of the local folks haven’t been negative and the few people we spent a longer time speaking with (Robinson, who rented us our motos, and Jorge who drove us to the port at Altagracia) were very friendly and extremely helpful. It does help tons to have a decent grasp of Spanish because the further you get outside of the cities the percent of people who may know how to speak some English decrease….a lot. The women who owned the hotel we stayed at in El Castillo were extremely friendly and even said we could use the Internet in their lobby and hang out on their deck even after we checked out. They even went to a hotel next door and found us a room because they were booked completely full the second night we were there and knew we needed a place to stay.

A smile will get you one in return most of the time, if you don’t expect things to be like they are at home then you’ll get along a lot easier here. It’s hot, people share the roads and sidewalks with bikes, cars, stalls, buses, dogs, scooters and food vendors. The smells can be potent. Be agile and not afraid to jaywalk. The transportation can be limited and the schedule inconvenient and subject to change. Take the same precautions you would at home, don’t flash money, don’t wander drunk alone at 3 am, be friendly. If you’re here to enjoy yourself don’t let preconceived notions of what may happen prevent you from experiencing the best that can happen.

I’m not looking forward to the 12 hours of traveling we’re going to have to undertake to get to León, I doubt very much that what we’re doing is what most people would consider “vacation”. There is no swim up bar, no fruity tropical drinks or spa treatments. Our spa is a lake in the middle of a volcano crater, our fruity tropical drink is our bottle of rum mixed the whatever soda we decide to grab. We signed up for adventure, for something different and we’re definitely getting it. The fish comes fried whole, you have to ask for or buy ice for drinks, air conditioning is at a premium.

What we consider roughing it is how people live here, we get to go back to air conditioned homes and Mad Men. We get to have food whenever we want it and hot water and electricity are reliable. The third world is no place to complain about your first world problems. There are pigs and chickens everywhere, there are barefoot kids and shabby looking schools. Yet…..I haven’t seen anyone who looks unhappy or angry. In Latvia almost everyone we saw on the street looked surly and mean, here I don’t know what it is, but something is different and I like it.

Anyhow, the sun is about to set and I need to fill my glass with more rum and fresca. The group is walking around and the festival is still going on so it’s time to see what’s going down on the one main street here in El Castillo.

14 hours and counting

We officially started our trip from Isla de Ometepe to El Castillo via San Carlos at about 4:30 yesterday afternoon. Our taxi driver Jorge picked us up in Moyagalpa in front of the shop we rented scooters from earlier. The drive to the port at Altagracia took about 45 minutes, most of it on paved roads but once we got on the road to the port it was gravel, rocks and potholes. We waited for about an hour before boarding the ferry that would take us to San Carlos and from there we needed to catch a riverboat up the San Juan River.


The ferry itself was pretty nice, 2nd class (Planta Baja- lower level) tickets were just over $3 however we decided to splurge and go for the $7 tickets (Planta Alta – upper level) which was definitely the right move. The upper level had a large deck area to hang out on and to sweeten the pot there was an air conditioned room with padded benches and a tv showing movies, much better than the wooden bench seats below decks. We had planned to have drinks and play cards however drinking booze on board was forbidden so my huge bottle of rum will have to wait for El Castillo. They were selling food and sodas on board so it’s nice to know that we wouldn’t be lacking for refreshment if we needed it.



The ferry from Puerto de Gracia to San Carlos leaves twice a week and we chose the overnight ferry to save money on a hostel and so we wouldn’t burn daylight traveling. I knew Lago de Nicaragua was huge (fun fact, only fresh water lake to have sharks in it, bull sharks. Oh, and shark in Spanish is tiburòn) but didn’t fully grasp that fact until the realization that a ten hour ferry ride was ahead of us…it took more like 12 hours from port to port. Luckily the stars were out which made for some good skyward entertainment, and even luckier, we had claimed a couple of benches with our backpacks so when it became too dark to see anything but the stars we headed inside the AC to stretch out and watch American movies dubbed into Spanish.


I eventually crashed out for awhile but woke up at 10:30 to realize that time goes very slowly on a ferry when you’ve got a lot of it ahead of you. Luckily for me they were showing a little movie called….John Rambo. I eventually got back to sleep off and on until the sun started rising around 5 am as we neared the port at San Carlos.


The first small boat up the river leaving at 6:30 was already full so we had a couple of hours to kill until the 8 am boat. San Carlos is a small town so we decided to take a walk around and find somewhere to eat breakfast. The local market was in full swing and we spied a pretty busy outdoor cafeteria at the local bus station and opted for food there. Both Harmony and Laura got Gallo Pinto, a tortilla and coffee for the princely sum of $1.50. Having finished breakfast with an hour to kill we walked around a bit eyeballing the stalls and stopping at the outside market to buy some fresh produce for later. Guacamole made with fresh avocado, tomato and limes is amazing, just saying.





I’m currently writing this as we’re heading up river to the town of El Castillo, three hours up from San Carlos. We don’t think the ferry leaves until Monday so we’ve got about three days to see what this area of Nicaragua is like. All I know is that there’s a fort, giant river shrimp to eat, and there’s no ATM and none of the hotels appear to take credit cards so….hope we brought enough cash!





Moto Time!

One of the things we all had a blast doing in Panama last year was renting scooters in Boquete and if there was a way to get the freedom of two wheels on Ometepe it was going to happen! One of the issues with the island is the limited public transportation. The fact that gas costs about $8 a gallon makes taxi fare pretty pricey. I had heard of a guy that people on Trip Advisor used to rent motorbikes and as luck would have it his shop was a block or so from our hostel. It was a $50 deposit and cost $25 from 8 am – 6 pm for a 150cc scooter, however for $5 more you could go with a 200cc dirt bike. I of course wanted to go fast, and being the more experienced rider wasn’t too worried about shifting or falling so 200cc it was.

It’s moto time!

After brief instruction on use and a quick lesson we set off on the one paved road on Ometepe that runs from Moyagalpa to Altagracia with a little spur heading toward Santa Cruz and passing our first stop along the way, Ojo de Agua. The ride took about 45 minutes and we passed through small pueblos along the way. Before getting on the road toward Santa Cruz we did have to stop at some sort of checkpoint where our bike registration and our drivers licenses were looked at and written down. The transit officer was pretty funny and made fun of both Clark and Harmony’s license pictures.


Clark and Laura – ready to roll

Harmony – scooter action Nica style

The actual road down to Ojo de Agua is mostly gravel and at the bottom Harmony’s steering column locked up and the bike took a spill. Luckily no one was injured but the steering column was locked and no amount of fooling with it could unlock it, this unfortunately resulted in us having to have a replacement scooter brought out and even though it was a scooter malfunction they still charged $25 extra so that was a bit of a bummer. In this situation what do you do, if it was America where the customer is always right we could have made a big deal out of it but being that no one wanted to argue with the rental guy and the fact he had all our $50 deposits we had to roll with it.


Entrance to the road to Ojo de Agua

The swimming hole at Ojo de Agua

That aside the day was fun, we spent an hour or so at Ojo de Agua (Eye of Water) which is a spring fed with what they said was mineral water that had all sorts of homeopathic benefits. I don’t know about all of that but they had Toña’s and a rope swing so I was happy, side benefits to my skin or no. After the swimming hole we did a quick circuit through Altagracia (2nd biggest town on the island) before having to call it quits with the bikes. Given that we had to catch our cab early evening to take the overnight ferry our time was cut shorter than desired. On the way back Laura and Harmony both seemed comfortable enough that they were leading the way going pretty damn fast.


Clark and Laura lounging at Ojo de Agua

Taking in the healthy benefits to the skin allegedly attested to the waters


The moto crew – check the volcano in the back

I was initially unsure of how quickly I’d get used to shifting with the feet a opposed to shifting with the hands like I’m used to with the Stella scooter or manual shift car. Turns out it took me half a mile maybe before I was foot shifting like I was made for it. Now I really want a motorcycle…..

Well satisfied with my my ride

León…..let’s slide down a volcano!

We had read about volcano boarding before we came to Nica but didn’t plan on ending up in León so once here we decided to check it out. Apparently this is also on CNN’s list of 50 death defying things to do before you die. Our hostel was giving a deal, $30 for the tour, a beer and two mojitos at the end and free breakfast if you booked another night, considering we were going to stay another night anyway this was a great deal.

Lounging before breakfast

I woke at 7 am and headed to the cafe to get some coffee and breakfast. Clark and Laura decided to do there own thing so Harmony and I had a quick breakfast and jumped in the giant orange truck that would be taking us up to Cerro Negro for the volcano boarding. What volcano boarding essentially is, is sitting down on a sled fashioned of plywood with a strip of formica on the bottom that allows you to slide down the volcanic pebbles on one side of the volcano. Some people have gotten up to upper 80+ km per hour.

Cerro Negro – see if you can spot the track we’d be sliding down

We took a bumpy 45 minute ride outside of León on gravel roads twisting through farmland and ranches. As we passed a school some children waved and yelled ‘hola’ at us, and the men on horseback who had to move out of the way of our truck waved at us as well. As Cerro Negro loomed in the distance and the track we were going to slide down was pointed out I started to wonder what we had gotten ourselves into, the volcano looked STEEP.

Parked at the base of Cerro Negro

We parked at the base of the volcano to begin our trek up the hill, it was slightly slow going for. It as the volcanic rocks slipped and slid on each other. Normally I don’t advocate for certain types of travel gear, but the Adidas Approach shoes I brought as my everyday wear had amazing grip, especially for this type of climb. We took a break halfway up, and then another before we reached the summit where we’d begin our descent. Our guide pointed out to us the line of about seven volcanoes, including the one we were standing on, which happened to be the youngest at 161 years old and also the most recently active. Nice to know at any moment we could be in the middle of an eruption, no wonder they didn’t make us sign any waivers, ha.


Starting the trek up the volcano

A much deserved break halfway up


At the top of Cerro Negro

On top of a volcano….that’s right, a VOLCANO!

The views from the top were amazing, you could see smoke wafting out of some crevices and smell the sulfur. If you scraped off an inch or two of the upper surface rocks the area under was super hot to the touch. Our guide explained how we were supposed to sit, steer, break et and it was time to head down the volcano. Harmony was the first to go down and looked to be hitting s pretty decent speed, I wish I could say the same for me.


Suited up


Let’s do this!

Harms getting ready for her speedy ride down

Volcano boarding is harder than it looks, or it least it was for me. Ideally you want to tighten your core, lift your legs off the ground while leaning back and let gravity do its work. Apparently easier to write than perform as I could not do any of the above with any sort of skill or regularity. I ended up sliding to a halt w couple of times coming down and arrived at the bottom slightly disappointed and with an embarrassing radar reading that I’ll not share.


Ida from Denmark and Harmony – first ones down the volcano

My volcano boarding skills were below my expectations

All in all it was a fun experience and I definitely recommend it if you’re coming to León, if anything for the hike, the company and if it suits your, for the cold beer they give you an the ride back and the two mojitos waiting at the hostel. For $30 including a nights stay and free breakfast, totally a deal. Another win for Bigfoot Hostel.


So the worst beer we’ve had here has another variation – equally as gross

Harms savoring the victory of her second place finish