The last few months

Its been two and half months since we left Suzie in Costa Rica.  Two and half months that have flown by, yet the seven months we spent in Central America seem a distant memory.  It is incredible how quickly experiences and moments fade, but the lessons we learned on the road continue to stick with us.  When we decided to return for the summer, we knew it was likely that we would be working in different areas of the country.  After spending seven months in a space the size of an average U.S. bathroom, we have spent the last two and half months over 2,000 miles apart.  Ken is in Alaska captaining a whale watching boat for Juneau Tours and Whale Watching, and I am in Montana working at a local hospital in the beautiful Flathead Valley.  After two more months of lining our pockets with cash, we’ll return to Costa Rica and hit the road south again.  Here are a few pictures of what we’ve both been up to the last few months.

From Costa Rica heat to Montana snow!

From Costa Rica heat to Montana snow!

Just a bit of muddy mountain biking

Just a bit of muddy mountain biking

Montana guard cattle/cattle guard?

Montana guard cattle/cattle guard?

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Breaching orca, Juneau AK

Breaching orca, Juneau AK

 

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Breathtaking Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, AK

Breathtaking Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, AK

 

Captain Ken on the right doing what he does

Captain Ken on the right doing what he does

As much as we are enjoying our time back home, we cannot wait to get back to Suzie and discover what South America has in store for us!

 

 

 

A First World Whirlwind

Beautiful Baja beaches

Beautiful Baja beaches

We left Suzie three and half weeks ago, it feels like two and half months. Being back in the land of overplenty has been overwhelming.  Although life on the road isn’t always easy, its always simple.  Wake up, make breakfast, eat breakfast, pack up and hit the road, drive for a couple of hours, park, set up, laze on the beach, walk up a volcano, hit the local market,  eat dinner, watch an episode of Dexter/Weeds/The Wire, sleep, then repeat.  After over 10,000 miles and 210 days, on the road we have the routine pretty down pat. Within this simplicity lies great complexity.  As amazing at it is to wake up every morning in a new place, finding that new place the night before is often not a walk in the park.  After hours of stressful driving with Ken swerving potholes, dogs, ox-carts, horses, people, and me in the passenger seat occasionally putting in my two cents worth (usually at the most inopportune times) then utilizing my limited spanish to try to explain to a confused  hostel owner why we want to park and sleep in our vehicle and instead of one of their rooms. Does this place have a bathroom, a shower, a kitchen, running water, electricity, and internet are all questions that need to be considered.  One beautiful thing about being back in familiar places (Montana, Alaska) is the ease of decision making.  We have at toilet with a seat that we can throw toilet paper in, a hot water shower that lasts longer then five minutes, and a full kitchen, complete luxury.  I miss the road though.  I miss Suzie and the lessons we learned every day.  I miss Ken and the partnership that we have forged together.  We relish the freedom of our individuality, the ease of making my our decisions in a familiar environment, but we cannot wait to return to that elusive road.

From lazing on a beach to freezing our faces off on the local ski mountain's pond skimming competition

From lazing on a beach to freezing our faces off on the local ski mountain’s pond skimming competition

So happy to see these faces!

So happy to see these faces!

Long Term Costa Rica Parking

Warning, what follows is not interesting unless you are an overlander hoping to park your vehicle in San Jose while you are out of the country.  First, find a government bonded warehouse (almacen fiscal) where you will park your vehicle.  There are many options around the airport, we chose Terminal Unidas (10.00063 N, 84.197067 W), but we really didn’t shop around at all.  At Terminal Unidas at the security gate ask for Alexis and the security guard will let you through.  Drive past the parking lot on your left to an area with lots of large trucks and a huge fenced parking area.  The office is in the far left corner of the warehouse.  Brush up on your Spanish because Alexis doesn’t speak any English although he found a translator to ensure that we understood the process for suspending our permit.  Give Alexis your vehicle import permit, he will make a copy and direct you to the small office at the entrance to the fenced in area where an unofficial looking man will write some numbers on the copied vehicle import permit that should be the same numbers he writes on the key identifier tags.  Return to the office and Alexis will enter some information into a computer, print out a form with all the information needed to suspend your permit including a string of numbers specific to that warehouse.  While I was taking care of all the paperwork they took pictures of every ding, scratch, and dent on the truck as well as inside the camper.  We then drove to a second fenced lot behind the first one parked Suzie where indicated and sadly said our goodbyes.  IMG_2567

We then walked to the airport, playing Frogger across the busy San Jose interstate, I would suggest taking a taxi because it is about a 2 mile walk to the customs office.  The customs office (Aduana SantaMaria) is not at the airport it is about 1 km further down the road (9.99788 N, 84.2115 W) in a large white building.  Present your original vehicle import permit, driver’s passport, and paperwork received from the almacen fiscal and after typing a bunch of information into a computer you will be given a new suspended permit.  The top will say suspender and the permit will also say how many days you have left on your permit once you return to Costa Rica.  The official kept our original permit and stated we would be issued a new one when we returned.  This process wasn’t too difficult for us, hopefully when we return it will be just as simple to reinstate the permit and collect Suzie!

Headed Home

As many of our blog and facebook followers know, we have decided to return to the States for the summer to work and visit family and friends in order to extend our travel time in South America and experience Patagonia during the summer months (November through February).  But before we left Costa Rica we had one more major goal to accomplish, spot the extremely elusive resplendent quetzal.  We had been diligently scanning dense cloud forest foliage since Mexico without a single sighting.  Saying goodbye to the beach knowing we were headed back to a grey Montana spring was difficult, but we were eager to escape the unrelenting heat and humidity.  We also wanted to check out a purported free campsite on Lake Arenal with great views of the volcano.

Lake and Volcano Arenal

Lake and Volcano Arenal

The free campsite was incredible, but unfortunately the wind was whipping and putting the top up was not an option.  As we bumped along the dirt road around the lake we spotted what looked like a shortcut through the mountains to Santa Elana on the GPS.  Eventually we found inching down a narrow rutted two-tracked ‘road’ that disappeared into a river.  Clearly, Garmin had misled us and we resigned ourselves to a further two hours of driving time around the lake.  IMG_2516Rolling lush hills dotted with dairy cows coupled with the two Swiss chalet restaurants along the highway made us feel as if we really were in little Switzerland, as Costa Rica is sometimes called.  It had been a long day of travel and we were overjoyed when we saw a sign for the Volcano Brewing Company and stopped for a few of their delicious brews.

Beer...don't mind if I do!

Beer…don’t mind if I do!

We were exhausted and it was dark and the Brewery graciously allowed us to camp in the parking lot for free, even offering up the use of their incredible pool and hot tub.  IMG_2510The next few days were spent enjoying the misty beauty of the cloud forests of Monteverde.  Tromping through Curi-Cancha Reserve we were confident.  Every single person we had talked to had seen a quetzal.  Our quetzal spotting skills are deficient because after two hours we had not seen even a single tail feather.

Monteverde

Monteverde

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As we were exiting, Fabio the park caretaker, was aghast that we had not seen the famous birds.  Armed with his detailed instructions to the precise location we marched back into the park.  After 20 minutes of unsuccessful tree scanning we were about to leave when Fabio ran up the trail, pulled us behind a roped off area onto a faint trail and within 30 seconds pointed up into the tree.  Finally we saw the bright green and red feathers of the quetzal and not only were we lucky enough to see two females but also the even more brightly colored male.

Female quetzal

Female quetzal

Male quetzal

Male quetzal

 

High adrenaline we traipsed back down the trail unaware of the huge black and red coral snake sunning itself ahead of us.  Again my piercing scream alerted the rest of the tourists in the reserve that a deadly predator was on the move, and I’m sure I saved at least a few lives.  IMG_2565

Leaving Santa Elana we went against the flow of Semana Santa traffic and holed up in San Jose for a few days to prepare Suzie for five months of parking.  We successfully parked her bid her a tearful goodbye and tried to mentally prepare ourselves for the culture shock we knew was awaiting us.

Ken prepping for culture shock.

Ken prepping for culture shock.

In a Costa Rica Minute

Costa Rica the birthplace of mass marketed eco-tourism, the two-week vacationers’ cloud forest dream, the overlander’s nightmare.  After a week and half here, we are still unsure how we feel about the tourist beast that is Costa Rica.

Rancho Santana luxury

Rancho Santana luxury

Overlanding best buds

Overlanding best buds

Reluctantly tearing ourselves away from the luxury of Rancho Santana and our fellow overlanders, we made our way across the tedious border at Penas Blancas spending our first night in the very uninspiring town of Liberia.  Our first few days in Costa Rica were spent nailing down the procedure for parking the car in San Jose.  We then escaped to the Orosi Valley and cool mountain breezes.  Here we found the beauty of Costa Rica in its lush green mountains blanketed with rolling fog, crowned with narrow, windy roads.  IMG_2369As we made our way through San Jose and Cartago to Orosi, we felt as if we were in any city USA with a McDonald’s on every other corner, manicured lawns, well-maintained houses, and hordes of bicyclists and runners lining the road.  Seriously, Costa Ricans love to exercise!  It wasn’t until we pulled into Flutterbye Hostel in Uvita on the Pacific Coast that we remembered we were still in Latin America surrounded by 10 feet high concrete walls topped with razor wire.

Truchas Selva Madre

Truchas Selva Madre

From the incredible heat and humidity in Uvita we high-tailed back into the mountains and to one of our top ten campsites of the trip, Truchas Selva Madre.  We enjoyed the cool mountain temperatures parked next to the babbling brook and shire-esque picnic shelters.  Forgive the cliches, but they are applicable to this place.

The Shire of Costa Rica

The Shire of Costa Rica

Ken said he would jump into the first waterfall if I jumped into the second.

Ken said he would jump into the first waterfall if I jumped into the second.

Lucky for me, not possible.

Lucky for me, not possible.

The coolest temperatures we had experienced thus far on the trip prompted us to head back to the beaches and heat, to the Caribbean coast and the town of Cahuita.  Up and over two mountain ranges through coffee fields, the land flattened out into miles up on miles of banana plantations.  Since it was my birthday we splurged on a hotel, La Piscina Natural, complete with some of the most beautiful, lush gardens we have seen to date and a natural pool filled by tidal fluctuations.

La Piscina Natural

La Piscina Natural

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The next day we joined the crowds of Tico’s in Parque Nacional Cahuita meandering down the seaside trail spotting thousands of hermit crabs and a few monkeys.  We had intended to through hike the 7 km trail, but tales and picture evidence of a very large, very yellow, reported deadly snake on the trail ahead and my subsequent hyperventilation prevented us from finishing.

Parque Nacional Cahuita

Parque Nacional Cahuita

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Instead we played in palm trees and soaked in clear Caribbean water.

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We still have a week left in Costa Rica and continue to be unsure of how we feel about the country.  It is a place of profound natural beauty, mobs of gringo tourists, and overpriced amenities, yet it is still possible to get off the beaten path.  Costa Rica lacks the authenticity that we loved in Mexico and Guatemala.  It feels as if the Tica culture here has become so tied to tourism that it has lost touch with its roots, but along the windy mountain roads we have driven we still spotted gauchos on horseback, farmers tilling fields with handmade hoes, and tiny roadside stands selling the 20 melons grown on their family plot.  The roots are still there, you just might have to dig a bit deeper to see them.

Beaches and Bands

As the all too familiar bass line of Bob Marley’s “One Love” filled the evening air, the young woman immediately to my right, head crowned with brown dreadlocks, raised her arms into the air undulating like snakes, hips and feet moving in smooth opposition.  The surfer to my left with his sun-bleached blonde hair offset by a deep, golden tan, fist pumped yelling, “I f****** love this jam,” and began his own version of the hippy shuffle.  Welcome to PitayaFest, a unique blend of tatter-clothed hippies and scantily clad surfers, and the beginning of our two weeks beaches and bands on the Nicaraguan Pacific coast.

Playa Mahajual

Playa Mahajual

 

Playa Maderas

Playa Maderas

The previous evening camped at Matildas on Playa Maderas watching the sun set and enjoying an ice-cold Tona, we were thinking a day or two lazing in the sun here wouldn’t be horrible.  Playa Maderas appealed to us with its two hotels and restaraunts lacking the overdevelopment and masses of people found in San Juan del Sur.  The empty beach with its crashing waves and hordes of hermit crabs scuttling about was perfection.  We ended up staying for a week.  After meeting the managers of the neighboring Castaway Hotel, Daniel and Megan, a couple from Florida who are leasing the property for the next five years and truly living the dream, we moved Suzie to their property.

Beachfront baby!

Beachfront baby!

They convinced us to extend our stay to not only attend PitayaFest, but also to attend their respective 29th and 30th birthday bash extravaganza.  Here we were introduced to a mysterious yet deadly concoction know as Hunch Punch, an addicting game dubbed Corn Hole, and generally behaved as if we were not 30 something year olds, zipping down the Nicaraguan version of a slip and slide directly into the surging ocean. IMG_2135

 

Megan and Daniel showing us how its done

Megan and Daniel showing us how its done

After a brief hiatus from the beach on Isla Ometepe, we turned slightly north to Playa Gigante where our long lost overlanding buddies Joe and Kylee (Patagonia or Bust), had found employment for the next few months.

Reunited!

Reunited!

Jeff and Monica (Overland the World) and Gayla and Tad (Overland Now) were also in Playa Gigante living it up in a rental house with an amazing ocean view, air conditioning, and hot water showers!  Camping outside of the hostel Campo de Gigante, we were equal parts excited and horrified to hear that the biggest reggae band in Nicaragua, Bluefield Sound System, was scheduled for a concert the next night.  We had missed out on hearing them at PitayaFest because we had left too early and heard they played an incredible set.  Given the fact that Suzie was parked 20 feet from the bar we were assured of a reggae lullaby lulling us to sleep in the wee hours of the morning.  Soon the bar was packed, the bonfires were lit, and hippy and surfer alike were swaying to rhythm.  IMG_2224

The rest of our time in was spent relaxing on the beach and at the pool, attempting  surfing, and getting together with our fellow overlanders that we had lured to Gigante.  IMG_2264

Paved with Good Intentions

I realize that I talk about roads a lot in our blog, but when half our time is spent driving transporting our home from location to location, roads become a very important part of our everyday life.  Since leaving Alaska, we have encountered roads in a variety of conditions and populated by drivers of all talents.  The roads in Nicaragua are by far the best since we left the states.  Well paved with few potholes, painted lines, clear signage, and drivers obeying those lines and signs equals road heaven.

Although walking at the moment, still enjoying the great Nica roads

Although walking at the moment, still enjoying the great Nica roads

Our joy was magnified even more by the knowledge that we had left the pot-holed roads of doom in Honduras behind us.  That is until we realized the plethora of obstacles that Nicaragua would throw our way, maybe just to keep our driving skills sharp, probably to remind us that we were still in a third-world country.  Instead of pothole dodging, Suzie now had to improve her oxen and horse cart, and cow and goat herd dodging skills.

Typical Nica horse cart

Typical Nica horse cart

As we later learned, the United States government and the European Union had given Nicaragua the funds necessary to repair, maintain, and fix their roads with the caveat that the next election held would be transparent.  In 2012, Daniel Ortega was re-elected in an election rife with corruption and the U.S. and E.U. withdrew their monetary support.  As we drove a horrific 20 mile stretch of road between Leon and Granada with some of the largest potholes to date, we decided that this stretch was where the money had run out.IMG_1990

After successfully navigating through the Los Manos border, we made our way to Canon de Somoto, Nicaragua’s equivalent of the Grand Canyon.  While attempting to find the entrance, we were cornered by a very helpful local, Louis, who not only hunted us down an incredible campsite, but also took us on a tour down the Rio Coco through the canyon.

Not only did he find us a campsite and guide us down the river, Louis also found us water!

Not only did he find us a campsite and guide us down the river, Louis also found us water!

Equal parts hiking, swimming, cliff jumping, and wading through the river with cliffs towering overhead on either side the Rio Coco reminded us of the Zion Narrows and the Smith River in Montana. P1020014

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From Canon de Somoto we headed to the Pacific for the first time in almost 3 months.  The last time we had dipped our toes in the Pacific Ocean was Puerto Escondido, Mexico.  Playa Penitas was a very sleepy surf town with not much happening except spectacular sunsets. IMG_1969

Sunset and rum and coke on the beach....paradise!

Sunset and rum and coke on the beach….paradise!

After a two days lazing on the beach, we decided we needed a little bit of city culture not to mention a shower.  Leon had not impressed us as we drove through and so we drove onto Granada.  As we rolled up to our first police checkpoint in Nicaragua, we were confident.  I mean, we had just spent three weeks in Honduras, the country supposedly with the most corrupt police in Central America, without a single bribe attempt.  Pride does go before fall and I couldn’t believe my ears as the officer looked through our paperwork and sadly shook his head. “Where is your vehicle inspection paperwork?”  He asked sorrowfully as if it pained him to bring it up.  I pointed to the signature of the customs official on our vehicle import permit who had given Suzie a cursory glance.  “No,” he said, “you need a mechanical inspection, it is a yellow piece of paper.  I am very sorry, but I am going to have to keep your license while you go to the bank and pay for the ticket.”  Ken and I looked at each other in horror mixed with a little bit of glee.  Finally, we were going to put into use our practiced bribe evasion strategy.  In all reality, the officer’s grubby little fingers were only holding onto Ken’s international driver’s license, a document not vital for us to continue our journey, but we didn’t want to give it up without a fight.  Forgetting the Spanish I had been using to converse with the officer previously, I put a confused look on my face and spoke the phrase every overlander memorizes before leaving home, “no entiendo?”  The officer began speaking slowly in broken sentences, “banque, pagar, regresar manana,” all the while clutching Ken’s driver’s license to his chest.  We kept insisting we did not understand what he was saying as well as the fact that there was no possible way that Ken could drive to the bank without his driver’s license.  We continued on this back and forth debate for about 10 minutes until the officer made his fatal mistake and handed the license back to Ken.  Immediately, he realized his error and asked for it back.  When we refused, he gave up and waved us on.  High on our adrenaline rush we didn’t even notice the entrance to Volcano Masaya until we had passed it.  No worries, the next break in the concrete barrier Ken pulled a U-turn through the painted yellow lines and right into the eager arms of the officer at the next police checkpoint who could not believe his good luck.  This time we knew we had violated a legitimate traffic regulation.  The exact same song and dance ensued that we had been through only 20 minutes prior.  This officer kindly offered to let us pay him a mere $40 instead of driving all the way to the bank to pay the $20 ticket.  We figured we’d try to play the dumb gringo card again and to our surprise succeeded!

After our victory over the corrupt (or not) Nicaraguan police, we continued on with our day of doing things that we would never be allowed to do in the U.S and drove to the top of an active volcano.

If I conquered the Nicaraguan police, I can conquer this active volcano!

If I conquered the Nicaraguan police, I can conquer this active volcano!

Volcano Masaya last erupted in April 2012, yet tourists are still allowed to drive their vehicles to the edge of the still smoking crater, breathing in noxious fumes and wearing hard hats, and parking their vehicles pointed towards the exit just in case there is another eruption.  Luckily for us, but much to Ken’s chagrin, Masaya did not erupt and we survived another unique day on the PanAmerican. IMG_1996