Cuenca: Middle of the Program

AHHHH I’ve gotten so bad at posting on this blog. But that just means i’m keeping busy and having fun :)

So the day after the last blog post that I wrote, we headed off to Yanayacu Biological Station for our Biology class academic trip for a week. The biological station we went to was in a cloud forest in the Napo River Valley on the slopes of one of the many volcanoes in Ecuador. It was an incredibly beautiful cloud forest and was also incredibly biodiverse.. In fact, they came in first in the world for highest bird diversity in the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, so that was really fun. The station was owned by an american entomologist and ornithologist who specialized in caterpillar parasitoid predation and Andean bird nests so we learned a lot about those two subjects.

Every day had about the same structure. We usually had a lecture in the morning and another short one in the afternoon broken up by lunch and either a hike to see the biodiversity of the area (since that’s what our bio class focuses on) or some sort of project focused on whatever topic we learned about. So for example, one day we learned about hummingbird behaviors and then our project was to see if hummingbirds in different areas of the station were more attracted to some colors of flowers than others.

On the same hummingbird day, we also probably did my favorite activity of the trip which was observing all of the hummingbirds of the area at a set of feeders at a retreat nearby. Although there’s around 30 species of hummingbirds that live around the cloud forest, only 7 come to feeders, 6 of which I got to see. One of them, the Long Tailed Sylph, was SO beautiful and was the first hummingbird I’ve seen with a super long tail.

longtailedlancefeeder

Another day of the trip we woke up really early and took a bus into the actual Amazon rainforest. We went to a little Amazonian bioparque and then went further into the forest to another biological station where we went on a really long hike through the Amazon. I have to say, I’ve never been so sweaty so easily. Just standing in the Amazon for 10 minutes got me drenched in sweat because it was so so incredibly humid and hot on top of that. The hike was really cool and we saw some monkeys, and got lost for a little while. Then at the end of the day we hiked down to the Napo River, which is one of the 3 main tributaries that become the Amazon River and went swimming in it. I went in fully clothed because I hadn’t brought a bathing suit, which was a little miserable for the bus ride home, but how often do you get the chance to swim in the Amazon.

naporiver

A few of our other hikes were really beautiful as well, including a nice little night hike. We also got to go into the little village nearby and learn how to milk cows. Another day we had a really fun soccer game in the street (true Ecuadorian style), although I didn’t have any athletic shoes at the time and was in my pajamas so I was just the super enthusiastic soccer mom screaming from the sidelines. We also spent the entire trip playing card games in all of our free time, which was of course very much fun.

We got back from the Cloud/Rain Forest on Sunday and I immediately had to do homework. This past week was pretty filled with homework in general because we had a bunch of spanish reading due on Wednesday and a test on Thursday. We also had our weekly Salsa class on Tuesday and then a cooking class on Wednesday. Thursday, in our biology class thats at the zoo, we got to watch them feed the lions live chickens. They hid them all over their cage and then let the lions out and it was really intense. All of their instinctual responses came out and it was pretty clear what the territorial hierarchy was. Not to mention, it was kindof depressing watching them almost torture the chickens while they devoured them.

The next week was the beginning of Carnaval, and Ecuador is one of the many South American countries where Carnaval is a pretty big thing. Basically, as soon as Carnaval starts, everyone starts throwing water balloons, buckets of water, cornstarch, confetti, and Carioca (the main thing that they throw), which is this scented/colored foam slightly reminiscent of shaving cream but slightly less globby. So Thursday night after the zoo, we went to a sort of ¨Carnaval opening ceremony¨ at the main plaza in the city. It started off pretty calm with a little bit of foam spraying and then all of a sudden it blew up and we all just started attacking each other and any kids of any age (from young children to people in their late 20s) with the foam. Our group seemed to be the main target by a lot of people and we were so crazy with our foam spraying and kept getting sprayed by so many passerby that we got our photo on the front page of one of the 2 major newspapers in Cuenca. Heres a link to the online copy of the article. I’m the one in the middle in the black jacket with my back to the camera covered in foam. (http://www.eltiempo.com.ec/noticias-cuenca/138507-compadres-abren-el-carnaval-en-cuenca/)

It was so so much fun but I literally did not have one dry patch of clothing after that and my clothes got pretty disgusting and my hair was completely filled with foam, to the point where people were scooping it off of my head to throw on other people. Oh also, faces are one of the main targets so I got a lot of it in my ears, mouth, and eyes, the latter of which actually really hurts.

carnavaldollsdancing groupespuma

Then we headed off to Ayampe, a tiny town on the beach north of Montanita, one of Ecuador’s beach party towns, to spend the rest of Carnaval hanging out on the beach in super warm weather since we had the whole week off. We were in Ayampe from Saturday until Thursday. It was pretty chill since its such a small town, so there weren’t too many ¨Carnaval¨ festivities, but the beach was really nice and relaxing and we have a big enough group that we made it really fun. Our hostel was super nice and had lots of hammocks and relaxing space and we got to cook for ourselves for the whole week which was actually really great.

The first few days we just lazed around the beach, enjoying having zero obligations. Unfortunately, the second day everyone except me got sunburned (thank you Italian genes for the less-burnable skin!). The fourth day we went to Isla de la Plata, which is essentially the ¨Poor Mans Galapagos¨, since they have a lot of the same fauna (multiple types of boobies, frigate birds, other birds, and lots of similar sealife). We went on a hike there, which was BEAUTIFUL and then we went snorkeling. The snorkeling was really great except for the minor detail that there were millions of tiny jellyfish at the surface of the water so we were all covered in little stings which was pretty uncomfortable. Also we saw tons of dolphins. Unfortunately, I forgot my camera, but I snagged a couple photos off of my friend Emilie’s facebook so that you could at least somewhat see how it was!

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We finished that night with a tasty dinner in Puerto Lopez. The next day most people hung around the hostel in Ayampe but I took a bus with a couple friends to a town a little bit south of Ayampe called Olon. It had a really nice beach and was a little bigger than Ayampe. We rented a cabana tent thing with lounge chairs for only $4 for the whole day and relaxed in the shade with occasional dips in the ocean.

Finally, our last day in Ayampe we took the bus north to Marchalilla National Park which is the same national park that includes Isla de la Plata but is on the mainland. We went to 2 different beaches within the park. First we went to Los Frailes, the main beach, which was supposely a white sand beach, but isn’t actually. However, it was still really pretty and the water was really nice and clear and the sand very soft.

christianfrailes

The second ¨beach¨ we went to was not for swimming but was a beach covered with shells and coral. It was amazing because I found a lot of really cool shells that were whole, like the kind you usually find fragments of but these were whole because the beach is so isolated.

coralbeach

That evening we got back, grabbed our stuff and immediately took a bus south to Montanita, Ecuador’s party town. We got a hostel almost immediately, which was small and very hot, but fit all of us and was in an excellent location and very cheap. The night was really really fun, since Montanita is essentially made up of beach discotecas that stay open almost all night. The main one had an open bar with really cheap cover charge for woman and had a pool in it so we spent most of the night there. It was a very fun night and I didn’t end up going to sleep until 6 in the morning. Then we slept most of the next day and went out again the next night.

Saturday we got up early and took a bus back to Cuenca, where I collapsed and slept the rest of the day and the next day too, with breaks in my sleep only to do homework.

The next week was pretty basic, lots of reading because I had to finish a 400 page book in spanish by Thursday.

The following weekend we went on another trip, this time academic and a bit closer. We went to this town in the mountains a little north of Cuenca called Cañar. The population there is almost entirely indigenous Cañari, so the trip was intended to give up some perspective into the large contrasts between the indigenous and spanish populations in Ecuador, since such a large percent of the population is indigenous.

buildingscanar

We got there Friday morning and immediately went on a little walk around the city, stopping first at Mama Michi’s clinica. Mama Michi is a local indigenous woman who does spiritual healing, like limpias with herbs and reading energy in eggs and candles. She explained what she does as a healer and then did an example healing on one of my classmates.

evamamamichi2

Then we walked a bit more, stopping to see the first indigenous run photo studio (since our guide was a photographer) and again to see the local jail where there is still some traditional weaving done. We watched the weaving for a bit and went on a tour of the jail (which had 3 times the maximum capacity of inmates).

In the evening, we went to our host, Judy’s house. Its a really beautiful house that she and her husband built a while ago in the traditional style but with some modern touches. Her story of her house was actually featured in the New York Times design section. The craziest thing is that this beautiful house was built for only $75,000 including all labor costs, land costs, everything. Makes me want to move to Ecuador.

Saturday we took a bus to Ingapirca, the Incan ruins nearby. These are the second biggest ruins after Machu Picchu and are actually a mix of Incan ruins and old Cañari ruins, since the Cañaris are one of the few tribes that managed to somewhat resist the Inca. They were nice, but not spectacular like I imagine Machu Picchu is.

ingapirca

After the ruins, we went on a hike to see some more little ruins and scenery. Then we came back into town, ate a quick dinner, and went to our host’s house again where she set up a special musical performance. She had a group of musicians that play the traditional Cañari music come and play music for us all night. It was quite fun and was a night full of dancing and Canelazo, the traditional alcoholic drink made from aguardiente and apple cider.

Sunday morning we woke up early to go to the main market. There were fruits and vegetables galore, and some gruesome looking meat stands as well. Then it was back on the bus to Cuenca, and time for homework.

fruitmarketcanar

The following week was another pretty boring and homework-filled week, with a fun Wednesday night at the salsa discoteca. Thursday we had homemade macaroni and cheese at our professor’s apartment. And then Friday at volunteering at the zoo, we got chased around by a vicious capybara who was trying to either bite us, bite the hose we were using to clean its pond, or mark his territory on us.

Saturday was Dia del Campo, which was basically a big day of games in the countryside with everyone’s host family. All of the students were divided up into 3 teams of 5, based on what class you were in, and then each student’s host families were part of their team as well. A madrina and padrino (basically the captains of the team) were chosen from each team and I was chosen to be the madrina. Our team was called Los Pintones, which literally means the speckled semi-ripe fruit. Pintón is the word for bananas that are somewhat yellow and somewhat green.

pintoneswithyolanda

Then we all got changed into matching team uniforms and competed in games all day. The games included things like 3-legged races, various relays, beer chugging contests, etc. My team ended up winning overall and I won my fair share of games so I was pretty happy about that!

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Saturday night we went to a lackluster restaurant/bar with awful service, but then found a nice new discoteca that has free cover charge, which is quite an exciting thing to find here.

Sunday, I went to a brunch restaurant with a couple of my classmates which was so tasty. Its a gringo-owned cafe in a really cute park that has such amazing and very american breakfast options. I got a California breakfast burrito, which came with bacon, eggs, avocado, basil aoli, tomatoes, onions, and a mix of mozzarella and cheddar cheese. It was so so good.

sansebasbreakfast

Then I spent the afternoon wandering around the centro taking photos of graffiti because that is my topic for my major culture class project. Its actually a really fun topic because I can do it almost entirely through photography, and Cuenca has some really amazing street art.

graffitialongsteps

The next week was another brutal work filled week since we had more spanish reading due and a test on Thursday. Wednesday was really fun though, because we all went to an elementary school instead of regular class and painted murals on the walls for the kids. It was actually super fun and relaxing to spend the day painting (and getting completely covered in paint).

Then Friday, we left on another academic trip, this time to Zaruma, a small mining town in Southern Ecuador. It was a fairly long drive, but we stopped along the way to see a really amazing waterfall. It was humongous and had so much water flowing through it that we all got completely soaked standing even somewhat near it to take photos of it.

gironwaterfall2

gironwaterfall1

Once we got to our hotel in Zaruma, we went straight into the very large swimming pool and hung out there for most of the afternoon, before having a very relaxed evening in our hotel.

Saturday, we went into town to this little museum/mine that this man and many generations of his family have been running. The museum was really amazing and was filled with all sorts of rocks that he and his family have been collecting for generations. There were also tons of old antiques throughout the museum, including numerous typewriters, cameras, and other things that used to be manual that are now electronic.

After that museum, we went to another mine, called el Sexmo, once one of the major mines in the area. We walked for a while through the old mine chambers which was really cool, but definitely not for those who are claustrophobic.

minetunnel

Then we had an interesting lunch in Zaruma where we ate a traditional dish of the area which I found very unpleasant. It was just a scramble of plantains, eggs, and cheese, but the traditional cheese used for it has a very odd flavor. Then we spent the afternoon taking photos around the town as a sort of exposé on life in Zaruma.

zarumabuildings2 zarumabuildings

Saturday was also the 21st birthday of one of my other classmates so we spent all evening and night celebrating it with her, which is always very fun.

Then the next day it was back on the bus to Cuenca, with me getting home just in time for family bingo night at my house. It was fun but unfortunately i’m sick now, so I felt a bit out of it all evening.

Today I’m feeling very sick, lots of coughing, no voice, and a large amount of congestion in all of my sinus-areas. So i’m descansa-ing (resting) at home for the day, hoping my condition will improve, but hey its a good time to finally get around to posting on my blog..

Also, its crazy but we only have two weeks left on the program. Doesn’t mean i’m anywhere near done traveling, but the next leg of my journey will be over. Kind-of sad actually, time passed so so rapidly here and I really love it here… but i still have a couple more weeks of fun before its over.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cuenca: first month

Ok, I’m very sorry about how overdue this post is. I’ve just been so busy between lots of classwork and trying to see as much of this country as possible in the short time I’m here, so sitting for hours editing photos (which takes forever on this computer) and writing up little things has just plummeted on my priority list. Also this post is going to be a lot less detailed than the past ones and from now on they will probably be less detailed like this one, since many of my days are essentially the same… 3 hours of class in the morning, going home for lunch in the middle of the day and then afternoon class (either Biodiversity or Culture) every Monday-Thursday, and then a big pile of homework and studying in the evening.

To start off with, I got wifi finally! I’ve had it for a couple weeks now and its so convenient. You never know how much you’ll miss something until you no longer have it. Also, I just want to reiterate again how much I love my study abroad group, everyone is just the best.

 Oh also, this is going to probably be kindof out of order chronologically, but oh well.

Ok so since my last post, i’ve had 4 different volunteer shifts at the zoo. The first week we just followed the zookeepers around and watched them feed animals so that we would know how to do it. It wasn’t the most exciting thing honestly, but it was still kindof cool.

hungryandeanbear

The second shift was much more eventful. We got there and chopped up all the fruit for all of the fruit eating animals (its a lot of fruit). Then we got to play with the tapirs because the tapirs are in an enclosure right next to zookeeper/nutrition area, so they’re essentially like little zoo pets because we can go in their cage and play with them. It was really fun and they’re super sweet animals. When you rub their bellies they roll over like a doggy…but i got covered in tapir snot and slobber.Then we split into groups to feed the animals in different areas of the zoo. My partner and I got to feed all of the monkeys, some of the macaws, and the turtles. It was really fun because we got to go into all of the cages and the monkeys were so sweet and interactive. The third day of our volunteering was when we cleaned cages. It was a little gross, not going to lie. We had to go into the fox cage, while the foxes were still in there and pick up all of the rotten meat that they don’t eat. These foxes are really picky eaters, so there was TONS of rotten meat from months ago. All the meat was covered in weird beetles and maggots, oh and I had to pick up a full dead cat that they refused to eat. It was still cool to be inside of the fox cage with the foxes running around us. Then we had to scrub out all of the duck ponds and the pond in the llama cage, but it was worth it because we got to play with a little deer.

 Today was our 4th volunteer shift. It was disgusting. We cleaned out the pond in the alligator cage (with the alligators crawling around the cage). Then we washed and chopped up rotten fish and horse for the carnivorous animals. There were blood and guts everywhere… It was so gross.

So awhile ago, the first weekend after my last post, was really great. We went to Baños de Cuenca, the same area that I had previously gone to with my host family, but we paid $3 each and got to spend the whole day by pools. They had 2 different hot spring pools that were different temperatures and then one cold pool that had 2 water slides going into it. So we played around on the waterslides for the day and soaked in the sulfurous but very warm water.

 banosslide

Then Sunday, I went to the countryside with my family again, but this time we went to a different countryside, where they have a house right by a little town, and their son has a horse. It was really nice and tranquil. Then in the evening, I went with my host mom to her sisters house where they were having a big family gathering/family bingo night (which they do once a month). It was super fun, particularly since one of the other students is living with one of my host moms sisters, so she was there too. I even won a little necklace in the bingo games.

 leoniebingo

A couple weeks ago was alright. We had to cook a traditional ecuadorian dish that we were assigned to. I got assigned Bolones con verde y queso (which is balls of ground up cheese and green plantains fried) and Aji (basically Ecuadorian salsa). The aji turned out delicious, but the bolones were very dry. It was fun though because everyone brought food and there was even Cuy (guinea pig), which I actually tried and its wasn’t too terrible.

 foodpartay

mayrawithcuy

On Wednesday night, we went to a salsa club at a discoteca and salsa danced a bit. That was fun.

We also got to go into the Quarantine area at the zoo with our biology class. It was really amazing because there were lions inside, as one of the females recently has a baby. So she, the dad, and the cub were inside the quarantine area. The cages here are much more intimate and the lions were literally right against the gate so we got to touch the mane of the daddy lion through the cage and play with the baby through the cage for a little bit. It was crazy to be so close to a lion.

cubondaddysback ciarralion

The weekend then was pretty chill and relaxed. We intended to go to Cajas, but that didn’t work out. So instead we climbed to the top of the bell tower on the main cathedral in Cuenca and saw all of Cuenca. Then we went to the river and relaxed along the river next to this group of  (very portland-like) youngsters who had a slackline and aerial silks and one of my classmates played around on the aerial silks.

aerialciarra2

Last week I was pretty stressed because I had to finish an entire spanish novel, write a paper about it in spanish, and I had my first spanish exam. So we didn’t really do much until Thursday and then we just went out to a pretty nice but cheap bar in the center.

Last Friday evening, we went to the opening night of a brand new discoteca. It really felt like a discoteca from the movies. You entered through a fancied up airplane that had bars and low seating inside, and then once you were past that, you got to these two huge dance floors that were different heights, but one looked down on the other. The ground was also lit up in different colors and the music was quite good.

Last Saturday was probably one of the best days yet. I went with 4 other students to Cajas National Park. We had tried going the previous weekend but it ended up being a disaster because we hadn’t quite planned it early enough and our guide was not being helpful, and none of the buses wanted to stop in Cajas because the buses that go to Cajas actually go to Guayaquil and you just get off in the middle, but they make a quarter of the amount of money. So we didn’t make it the previous week. But for some reason, last Saturday it was super easy to get on a bus and get to Cajas. Then we spent the day hiking among gorgeous native grasslands and lakes and a forest of paper trees (which look just like more papery manzanitas). It was so so beautiful, and so peaceful and fun.

 cajaslake papertreeforest emchristiancajas cajaspanorama

Last Sunday, we went to a Deportiva Cuenca soccer game. Cuenca tied Olmedo 1-1, but it was still super fun. People at soccer games here are quite vocal, so there was lots of yelling of malas palabras. I have a new celeb crush, as one of the players on the Cuenca team was pretty attractive and a good sport. I think they should also be getting better as currently they’re missing players since a few of their players got switched to other teams and new players from other countries are arriving soon.

soccerfield groupsoccergame

Wednesday we went on a very long walk all over the city for our Spanish class, which was exhausting but interesting because we got to see a lot of historical and cultural sites within the city. In the afternoon, we also went out to a museum for my culture class. I wish we could have gone through the museum a little more slowly, but it was still interesting. It was also one of my classmate, Christian’s, 21′st birthday. So we kindof went all out and spent the whole day celebrating. At lunch we went back to the Panama hat factory so he could buy a panama hat. Then, after class finished, we celebrated with a nice guitar shaped piñata.

 christianguitarbday

Then we had happy hour and dinner at our favorite restaurant, La Cigale. It was super fun but/and the drinks were incredibly strong, which I guess was appropriate since it was his 21st bday (even though it was already legal here for all of us to drink). Then we went to another bar that we knew had a very fancy massive cocktail that we all pitched in to get for Christian. Then we ended the evening at salsa dancing night at the same discoteca as before, where we put our salsa dancing skills to the test (because we’ve been taking a weekly salsa class).

Yesterday we woke up exhausted because of the festivities the night before. My group had a very long presentation during spanish class that I think we did pretty well on and the entire spanish school celebrated Christian’s birthday again. In the afternoon, we went back to the zoo for our Thursday bio class and began designing the refuges (enclosures) for our endangered species at the zoo, since thats a major part of our final project. I’m actually pretty excited about my groups refuge. Our endangered Marsupial Frogs are going to have the nicest little home.

Now, I’m just packing up stuff and washing clothes because we’re leaving tomorrow super early to go to the rainforest (actually we’re going to a cloud forest, but its right by the Amazon area). Lots to do before heading off..

Oh and happy valentines day to anyone who reads this :)

Cuenca: Days 9-12

To start off with here are a few photos of Banos that I didn’t post on the last post because I got internet before the photos were on my computer and wifi is so rare for me that I was eager to post rather than wait for the photos to download.

Theres a couple of Banos and then a couple of me and my host parents with traditional food (spumilla, the ice cream looking stuff, and banos empanadas

banoschurch banosdancerschurch meandhostmomspumilla hostparentsbanos

Also heres a couple photos of my family.. the first is (from the left), my host brother-in-law, my host sister, my host neice (6 yr old), my host neice (10 yr old), host sister-in-law, host mom, and host brother. missing from the photo are my other host brother and sister-in-law, their 9 yr old daughter, my host dad, and my host sister’s 1.5 year old daughter.

hostfamilyelcampo

and the second is 2 of my host-nieces (the 1.5 yr old and 6 yr old)

neicesrunningcampo

Day 9 was our first day of Spanish school when we finally learned what level we got placed in. I got placed in the highest level! Super proud of myself for that :) But its going to be pretty hard, on the first day we got the syllabus and basically its going to be rapid grammar practice and then we’re going to spend most of the time reading books in spanish and discussing them and discussing other topics so that we can get fluent with conversation. Our class is super great, its just 3 of us, me max and ciarra, and so its really nice to have such 1 on 1 learning. The teacher is difficult and a bit strict and we get little punishments for speaking english, but she’s also really sweet. After morning class, we went and bought our spanish novels that we have to read and school supplies. It was really weird because you enter a bookstore and can’t actually look around, you just say the name of a book you want and they go and get it for you and then i asked for notebooks and had no choice in what kind I got and they gave me Barbie ones. Don’t know how I feel about that. Then I looked a bit through our first book and it is SO DIFFICULT, and its supposed to be the easiest of the books that we are going to read. Oh joy.

Then I went home for a tasty lunch and then returned to our school, Amauta, in the afternoon for a little tour of the city. We started out at the main square of Cuenca that has the old cathedral on one side and the new cathedral on the other.

newcathedralcuenca

Our guide talked a bit about the cathedrals, and while he was super sweet, he was also incredibly quiet so I cannot remember anything he said about the cathedrals besides the fact that the new cathedral (in the photo above) is actually not very old at all even though it looks old.Then we walked around the new cathedral a bit.

After that we went around through some marketplaces, including a pretty flower market, where we got some nice views of Cuenca and talked a bit more about the history of the city, which I also didn’t hear.

topofbluecuencachurch colorfuldollfaces

Finally, we finished the tour at the Panama hat museum. Panama hats are actually made in Ecuador, even though they’re called Panama hats. They’re just called that because the workers on the construction of the Panama Canal wore the hats from Ecuador so they got that name. We learned about how they are made and then played around a bit trying on different hats and taking photos.

groupphotopanamahats

After the tour I headed back home for dinner. In the evening, I went over to one of my classmates who lives nearby’s house to use her wifi and chitchat.

Day 10, we had another morning of Spanish class which was fun but difficult (its 2.5 hours of class every morning). In the afternoon, we had our first Biology class. It wasn’t terribly exciting that day because we were just reviewing what we would eventually be doing and introducing ourselves but our professor is super friendly and knowledgeable so that will be fun.

Biology class finished early and so we hung around the top floor of our spanish school which had a nice rooftop sort of view.

viewfromamauta

After than we had icecream and then I headed home for dinner. I was so exhausted that I ended up falling asleep as soon as I got home around 7 and only woke up once for dinner before falling back asleep.

Day 11, another morning of Spanish class. Then I went home for lunch and then in the afternoon we had an orientation of how to get by bus/taxi to our volunteering job. I am working at the zoo with 5 other people so we headed that way. We took 2 taxis there and our taxi made it there easily because we had the student guide in our car. We waited around in the parking lot (which was all dirt road, not paved, and very small, not at all like the US zoos) on top of the mountain that the zoo is on and looked at the view.

viewfromamaru

Thankfully the view was beautiful because the other taxi ended up getting very lost and took almost an hour to find it. When they finally arrived, it was pouring rain so we couldn’t tour around much but the orientation was mostly on just how to get to the zoo. Then we turned around (with garbage bags as raincoats because some of us didn’t have raincoats), and hiked/took the bus back into town.

Once we got back much later than we were supposed to, the entire group of us went to happy hour at the same bar, Wunderbar, that we had gone to a few nights prior. It was very fun and drinks were nice and cheap. Then we all headed to our professors apartment for “family night” and we basically just all cooked together and made spaghetti with 2 homemade sauces, pesto and bolognese and a nice salad and then hung around for a long while and talked and caught up. It was really really nice and we’re going to do a “family night” every Wednesday night from now on. I’m so happy with our group of students, everyone is just fitting so nicely together.

Then we were planning on going to Salsa night at a discoteca but by the time we finally left the house, it was so late that I just headed home because I still had a bit of homework.

Day 12, we had another morning of Spanish class. We did almost no grammar and spent most of the time just talking in Spanish which is super helpful. Our professor also brought us really tasty plums from her house, which was really sweet. We didn’t have a break and instead finished class a little early and had a huge icebreaker with all the people who work at amauta, all of us students, and a bunch more university students from the local university that are studying to be spanish teachers. Then we all ate homemade tamales together for lunch and talked amongst big groups of us. The university students at our table were so so sweet and friendly and eager to tell us all the bars and discotecas we had to go to, and one of them works at a discoteca so he offered that we could go there for free if we called him beforehand. Then instead of going home for lunch, I stayed back with a few other students, bought cheap galoshes for working at the zoo and wandered around the center of the city a bit.

Then we all met up and took a bus to the zoo because biology class on Thursday afternoons is at the zoo. We finally got to actually tour around the zoo since it was sunny and our teacher spent the whole day just showing us around the zoo since he technically owns/manages/lives at the zoo with his wife. It really is incredibly different than zoos in the US. First off its on the side of a pretty steep mountain and the entire thing is vertical. There really isn’t a single trail around the zoo that is flat, the entire thing just goes up the side of the mountain. Second off, its not crazy tourist-y, like in the US. The entire time we were there, there was only one other couple with a kid (although we were also visiting late on a Thursday). Its more of a conservation center. Basically they get animals that are confiscated by police, taken from other zoos because they were sick or treated badly, taken from circuses, or called in by people who found them on their property. They get 350 animals a year brought in and the zoo has 2 parts. Theres one half that is all the animals that are either too badly injured to survive in the wild or are too accustomed to humans to survive in the wild and this is the part that people get to visit. Its huge and all the animals are so fun and interesting. Then theres the second half that is all the conservation part that people can’t see, where a lot of the animals are and these are the ones that have a chance to be returned to the wild or are being evaluated. This day we just got to see the normal part. It was crazy, at the lion part, they have 6 lions (4 female, 2 male) and at one point they all got territorial and active at once and all stood at the edges of their respective cliffs and starting roaring all together. We saw lots more animals too. It was a fun biology class.

Then I headed back home to rest a bit because my tummy wasn’t feeling too great. It was a nice tranquil evening and my 6 yr old host neice made me play dolls with her… needless to say, i’m not very good at playing with dolls in spanish. Not only because its hard to speak spanish so normally but also because I cannot remember for the life of me how to play with dolls. Then she had a sleepover at our house which she was very excited about.

Ecuador: Days 1-9

This is going to be such a huge post because I haven’t had down time yet until just recently and my house here doesn’t have wifi and the wifi at our spanish school only sometimes works so basically heres 1.5 weeks worth of stuff…

So getting through security and all the normal airline processes were very simple in Managua.. There was a brief point where the person giving me my boarding passes said I either needed a visa or plane ticket out of Ecuador in order to get into Ecuador, but I explained how I was getting a student visa once I got there and it was all sorted out. Security was a breeze as the only thing they make you take off is your shoes and you have to put your computer in the same bucket as your shoes but thats it. They didn’t have any restrictions on liquids or need to have them in a ziplock bag in a container to go through security. Unfortunately, my day got kindof filled with layovers. Because security was such a breeze, I sat around in the airport with no wifi. Then I had a 3+ hour layover in Panama city where there was very spotty wifi which I eventually just deemed useless. The flight to Quito was very quick and easy though and they even had complimentary alcoholic beverages (multiple types of wine and hard alcohol). I guess only in south america! I arrived about 45 minutes before everyone else so once they got in we all loaded into a bus to drive all the way from the airport to the city center (about an hour). It was a pretty winding road and bumpy but from what little I could see from the bus, it seemed quite pretty. It was fun to be in a big group of students all together again. Theres only 15 of us and everyone is super friendly so it will be really great. We got to the hotel super late and wandered around it, checking out everyone’s rooms. It is such a beautiful hotel. Its a remodeled old house and all the rooms have different themes in terms of how the walls are painted and the painting are beautiful and they’re all super spacious rooms with very plush bedding. So then we crashed because it was 2 in the morning.

So day 1 in Ecuador!! It seemed like I had a continuous headache for the first few days because the elevation is so high (>9000 ft) and I was feeling fairly lightheaded and physically exhausted, but that seems to be passing now that i’m aclimating a bit. I woke up in the morning thinking that my roommate in our hotel was taking a shower. Turns out she was still asleep and that actually the ceiling above our bathroom was leaking MASSIVE amounts of water, basically enough to sound like a continuous shower. I went to breakfast and alerted someone who said we could change rooms and while we were eating in the kitchen right below our room, little drips started coming down from the ceiling there. Within 15 minutes, it was like a shower coming down from that ceiling too. But they switched us into an even nicer room and eventually got the water leakage under control. Still don’t know what happened, but it wasn’t a big deal. Then we went to an Ecuadorian history museum that was filled with pottery and artifacts from era after era of ecuadorian civilizations.

 quitoculturemuseum

After lunch we wandered around 2 different handicraft markets that were filled with beautifully colored textiles and souvenirs and other art things. I made a mental list of all the things I may want to go back and get and I bought (and bartered for!) a pair of overalls that are made out of the traditional textile fabric which I’m pretty happy about.quitomarket

Then we had a bit of a siesta time, so I sat in the room and listened to the hummingbirds outside my window. After some researching, because I didn’t have a birdbook yet, I decided it was a Sparkling Violetear. There was also a dove on its nest literally 2 feet away from our window so that was quite cute.

In the evening after dinner we sat around the lounge area and played a pictionary/illustration type game but using spanish only and realized how much we really needed to improve our spanish. It was really fun though and I love being in a group of students who all seem to enjoy playing games because I feel like usually I really want to play a game and no one else does so its sad, but here everyone wants to play games and its just so fun.

We woke up day 2 in Ecuador and went on a city tour, part walking part bus, of Quito. We started off by going to the enormous church that Quito is so famous for. It was so so beautiful inside. My camera could not capture even remotely how beautiful it was. There were stained glass windows everywhere and there was colorful light everywhere and it was huge and incredible.

 outsideofquitogothicchurch

insidequitogothicchurch

Then we drove around through the old part of town (the part that got Quito designated a UNESCO world heritage site) and stopped by the political square area of town. Supposedly in the old part of Quito there is a cathedral/iglesia on every block and that is so true and for a long stretch we went in all of them. They were all so different and pretty in their own way. There was one that is considered to be the most beautiful church in all of south america. It is huge and all of the surfaces are covered in gold/gold plate so that was pretty remarkable. I got one photo before I was notified that cameras were not allowed so this photo does not necessarily do the church justice.

insidegoldchurch

We walked around some more of the old part of town, visiting a few more squares and churches and went by the presidents office where he normally comes out to say hello to passerby but currently he is traveling around the country campaigning for other politicians in his party because elections here are coming up.

 viewfromchurch

Then we got in the bus and drove up to the top of this very tall hill in Quito that has a massive statue of the virgin Mary looking over the city (kindof like the one of Jesus in Rio). We got to climb up to the top of the statue and look out at the view. It was really incredible, you could see Quito in all directions.

virginmaryoverquito panoramicviewfromvirginmary

Then we went back to the hotel and after lunch I went on a hunt for a birdbook. It was actually quite difficult. The first bookstore didn’t have one, the second bookstore had one for $72 and so I finally found a used bookstore that had one for $20 so I got that one. It was smaller though and not quite as detailed but at least it wasn’t $72. Then I took a nice drowsy nap. Right after I woke up we had a 2 hour lecture from this American-turned-Ecuadorian activist. It was really great and WOW I learned a lot. Basically she is a radical super liberal left-y who is not at all afraid to be “objective” in terms of her political opinions. She essentially went through Ecuador’s entire modern history while simultaneously teaching us about other countries histories as well. It was fascinating and made me really skeptical of their current president. Actually she was so liberal that it made me skeptical of politics in general and every politician I’ve ever heard about. But it was really great and definitely got the wheels in my head turning and she was so crazy and enthusiastic that it kept us all on our toes. At night we all went out together to a bar to celebrate being in Ecuador and then came back to the hotel to play more games. So much fun.

Day 3 here we piled into a bus and went to a museum at the house of Guayasamin, a famous artist who is very renowned especially in Ecuador. We took a tour and watched a movie to learn about his life and art. His art is really really incredible and a really interesting style, kindof Pablo Picasso-esque.

Next we headed off to the “middle of the world”. Basically its just the equator, but its the highest and most accessible point on the equator and I missed the part where the guide explained exactly why that spot got to be called the middle of the world rather than other points on the Equator. Our guide here did a bunch of demonstrations of how water spins a different direction depending on whether you’re north or south of the equator, even by just a tiny bit. Then we did a demonstration showing how hard it is to balance on the equatorial line. And then we did a demonstration showing how much weaker we are when we’re on the equatorial line versus just a couple feet north/south of it.

 equatorline

Then we drove to this place called El Crater, which was a really beautiful restaurant looking over this valley that was really pretty. They also had alpacas grazing on their lawn which was quite cute.

alpacaelcrater viewfromelcrater

Then we drove a couple hours over to Mindo, a cloud forest with wonderful birds and butterflies. We stayed at this cute little hosteria that had a ton of hummingbird feeders so that was really exciting for me. But they were all really hard to identify because theres so many hummingbird species in Ecuador and so many of them look really alike.

friendlyhummermindo

We went on an evening walk and then went into their butterfly preserve where they’re breeding butterflies to put back in the wild. There were so many species of butterflies and they were landing all over everyone.

ciarrabutterfly

Day 4 I woke up early to go watch birdies and then they didn’t come out until it was time to head off on a hike so that was sad. We started a hike that was supposed to be only a couple miles to a waterfall but a lot of the hike relied on little pully zipline carts to pull you across valleys and rivers. The first little pully cart across a river worked just fine.

ziplinepullycart

However, the second pully cart, which went over a massive valley was broken so we either had the option of waiting 1.5 hours for the cart to be fixed or hiking 1.5 hours into the waterfall. We didn’t trust that it would actually only take 1.5 hours for it to be fixed so we decided to hike. It was a really tough hike, with lots of huge hikes up and then down and then up and then down. But it was really beautiful and really a fun hike too. We got to the waterfall and swam around in a little swimming hole slightly down river from it. It was really fun but freezing cold. When we finally decided to head back, the pully cart still wasn’t working so we had to hike the 1.5 hrs back too. Needless to say, it was a lot harder going back and it started raining too but we eventually made it back (3 hours later than planned) and had a nice tasty lunch.

everyonebridgewaterfallhike

Then we piled back into the bus and went back to our hotel in Quito. I took a really nice bath and we spent the evening and night playing more games and packing up our stuff to leave the next morning.

Day 5, we left the hotel early in the morning to head to the airport. Airport security in Ecuador is even more relaxed, and you didn’t have to take off your shoes or take your computer out…very different than the US. The flight was fast but with lots of turbulence. We arrive in Cuenca and were immediately paired with our families and whisked away. My host family is really just the sweetest family. My host mom was at the airport with her sister, whose family is also hosting an LC student, and they drove us home. She showed me my room, which is really nice and I started unpacking. While I was unpacking, it was almost lunch time and so the entire family came over for lunch, because in Ecuador its a tradition to spend lunch with your family because its the most important meal here. My host mom’s grandchildren immediately ran into my room and were so eager to talk to me and meet me and all gave me hugs. They are all so adorable. Theres a 9 year old girl, a 7 year old girl, and a 1.5 year old girl (and a 10 year old who I haven’t met yet). At lunch, my host dad got home and was so eager to learn about me and my life. I technically only live with my host mom and dad but they have 3 older children who all live in the area and all 3 children have kids. Since my host parents don’t work during the day, the youngest granddaughter stays with them until the other grandchildren are out of school and then they come over too, so they are always around which is really fun. Then in the evening me, my host parents, and their grandchildren (so I guess technically my host-nieces?) went on a little drive around the city so they could show me Cuenca and then we went to a Mirador (view point) that looked down on the entire city. It was so beautiful but I unfortunately forgot my camera at home.

Then it was back to the house to sleep and chit chat. Really, my host family is so wonderful. They make really wonderful food (which I was really scared about), and they’re super friendly and open about everything and are constantly eager to make sure I’m happy about everything, all while not being overbearing and giving me my independence. Its perfect.

Then Day 6, my host dad drove me to the school I’m going to, Amauta, in the morning. We all took placement tests to see which of the four levels of Spanish classes we should take. It was a really really difficult test, mostly because the grammar part was so hard. There were basically 15 pages of grammar stuff, half of which I hadn’t ever learned, and another quarter of which I’ve completely forgot. Then we went to a phone store as a group and some of us got some funky ecuadorian phones. I tried to get a SIM card for my iphone, but unfortunately all US phones are locked here and they can’t unlock them so I had to just buy the cheapest phone they had. Then I went back home for lunch with my whole family.

After lunch we went back to school and got paired up with university students who showed us how to take the buses to and from our host family’s houses and how to walk there as well. My house is really far from the school, and right next to a bus stop for a bus that takes you right into the center of town so I’ll probably take the bus every day (especially since its only 25 cents). My house is also right by 3 other students houses, so its very convenient. The university student who showed me and one of my friends who lives by my house around was really sweet. She told us all the best places to go in the city. It was surprising though because she was already married with a 3 year old daughter and it seemed like it was perfectly normal.

Then those who had phones walked around a little bit while everyone who hadn’t gotten a phone got one. Cuenca is SUCH a beautiful city. The buildings are beautiful, everything is very clean, transportation is easy, and there are 4 rivers that go throughout the city.

In the evening, I met up with the other 3 students who live right by me and we took a taxi into the city center to our professors apartment where we met up with everyone else. Then we all went out to the main nightlife street, Calle Larga, and relaxed at a bar there. We were planning on going to another bar but it got pretty late and it started raining so we just took a cab back home. Taking cabs here is so simple and really cheap ($3 max, which is even less when you’re splitting it 4 ways).

Day 7, I finally got to sleep in a little bit. I had a simple, typical breakfast of bread, juice and instant coffee. The coffee here is so weird. Basically they heat up milk, pour you a cup of hot milk (which is also unpasteurized) and then you put a spoonful of coffee powder in it. I don’t even drink coffee ususally, but my family keeps serving me it, so I keep drinking it and when I do drink coffee I like it with a lot of milk so I guess its perfect. Then I met up with Emilie, the girl who lives right by me and we took the bus into the center of town where we met up with another student. We wandered around a bit, while it was unfortunately raining (but not cold), and went in a couple churches and markets and then walked along the river. I wanted to take photos but my camera battery was dead :(

Then I headed back home for lunch with my family which was particularly delicious. After lunch my family took me for a drive all over the place. We went to Banos Cuenca which is a little town outside of Cuenca that has volcanic hot springs and so there are lots of little hotel type places that have built a tourist industry around the hotsprings. We didn’t go in any, but my family toured me around them and showed me where the best one is and told me that this was where I had to return with my classmates. Then we went up into the town of Banos, where they were having a religious festival. There was lots and lots of dancing in traditional outfits and my host mom bought me all the typical kinds of street food that Banos has and chose the best kinds for me to try, and they were all very very delicious.

In the evening, first I watched a movie with my host parents in spanish that I had already seen in english. It was very cute and I think watching movies is going to be the way to go. Then I met up with a few of the other students and we went to a very cute bar in the center of town where we met up with one of their university student tour guides who is from Cuenca and he showed us a couple other good cheap bars and told us about Cuenca and whatnot. It was a really nice and calm evening.

Day 8, I woke up very tired because they were having a huge multi-day birthday party on the street one street over from my house alllll night and then I was woken up by fireworks right outside of my house at 6 in the morning and honking cars for the current political campaigns. Then the entire family met up, so I got to meet the only grandchild who I haven’t met yet who was very sweet and very intelligent. Then we all went out to el Campo (the countryside). Basically, its kind of a part of the culture here to have a house in the city and a house in the country where you go on weekends. This weekend we went to a little town 1.5 hours south of Cuenca where my host sister recently bought land to build a house and we went there to survey the land and hire people to begin cleaning it up so they can build their house. It was a little boring because it was multiple hours sitting in the sun while everyone argued in very rapid spanish about how to best go about constructing a house/pool. Then we went to the house that they already have there, which was only 1 km away, and ate mangos and yucca and bread while everyone spoke in more rapid spanish.

We eventually got home and watched another movie and then I passed out because my brain was so exhausted from being bombarded with rapid spanish all day.

I have to say, its really really hard not having wifi, particularly since I’m the only student who doesn’t have it and since using phones here is pretty expensive, everyones been communicating on the internet. But, I think it will be good for me to only get on at internet cafes when I really need it. Also my host family is so amazing, that it makes up for it in so many ways and my mom calls me mija (mi hija= my daughter) which is really cute, so that makes me happy too.

Nicaragua: Final days (16-20)

So day 16 after internet-cafe-ing, we went back to the finca and there was another little hatched baby chickie.

threelittlechickies

The rest of the evening was pretty uneventful and involved me getting more mosquito bites and reading guidebook stuff for my upcoming adventures.

Day 17, we woke up early and drove out to the same lake as I have photos of from a week ago, Lake Apoyo. But this time we continued down a long winding road to the basin of it where we’re staying at a little biological research station/hostel called The Peace Project. Its very cute and everyone staying there was really just great, super friendly, super eager to learn about eachother so that was really fun. They had wifi and lots of nice seating and hammocks looking out at the lake so we spent all day just getting back online and chitchatting with everyone. In the evening, my mom and I went on a nice walk around the neighborhood, where we were unfortunately accosted by a very very drunk stumbling slurring local. But the walk was still nice and we saw some little birdies. ALso we walked along the lake and dipped our toes in and since its a volcanic lake with fumeroles, the water is 85 degrees so that was impressive. We would have gone swimming, but there wasn’t really a sandy part of the beach so that was a little uninviting.

lakeapoyofrombeach

I awoke Day 18 with a cute little monkey sitting right outside my window. Then we spent most of the day just hanging out around the hostel talking to everyone. For the most part, they are all working/volunteering there to develop various different programs (educational program, biological ones, etc.). In the afternoon we went on this really nice hike around the rim of the lake and I saw another new species of hummingbird and a couple other new bird species. The view was quite impressive.

apoyofromhike

There was also a huge pack of howler monkeys right next to the trail. There were 4 little babies in the pack and they were so adorable crawling all over the trees. And there was some really cool rock graffiti along the trail.

catfacegraffiti cooleyegraffiti

We did some more relaxing and chatting in the evening while I was working on arranging all my future travels.

Day 19 we left the hostel and headed into Granada to spend our last couple days here. Our new hotel seemed pretty nice at first, especially since it has excellent internet (these opinions changed later). We spent the day wandering around Granada doing some touristy shopping. Granada has lots of pretty churches and, like all parts of Ecuador, the houses and buildings are painted such pretty colors.

oldchurchgranada

streetofgranada

We got some tasty smoothies at a really cute cafe and I got a nice new wallet from a local leather goods company where they even had a person making purses in the back. Then we stopped by a bakery that smelled so heavenly and got some fresh baked goods. Later, we had a lovely dinner at a brand new tapas bar and got some really exceptional cocktails that were all fairly original and the food was really delicious.

granadacocktails

Unfortunately, we woke up yesterday (day 20) to realize that this hotel situation was not so great. Because it turned out that in the middle of the night my parents found bedbugs in their bed biting them (though thankfully not in my bed). First time my parents have ever had that happen to them. It was very not fun. Fortunately, the hotel got on it immediately and gave us a new room far from the old one. After that, we got some more pastries from the tasty bakery and headed up to volcan masaya. Its one of the 2 currently erupting volcanos in Nicaragua. Unfortunately, you can’t see the lava because its deep down in the crater but you can get right on the edge of the crater and look down in it. Your view however is blocked by huge amounts of sulfuric acid gas (Vog) spewing out of the crater. It was crazy. I’ve seen that a lot before (on Kilauea in Hawaii), but in the US they don’t let you get anywhere close to the crater because the gases that come out of volcanoes (vog) is so unhealthy and its so dangerous to go right up to the edge of crater so that was kinda crazy. It was funny because they even provided hard hats if you wanted them since the last time that the volcano erupted, it spewed huge boulders that came down and really hurt a lot of tourists and cars.

 sittingonedgeofcrater wholeviewofcrater

Then we headed back to Granada, stopping by our previous hostel on the way so I could pick up the beloved rubiks cube which I unfortunately had left there. Then it was time for some rearranging of my things because I’m headed to Ecuador today and I really wanted to get my suitcase more compact and not have the extension part extended.

Looking back, my overall impression of Nicaragua was really wonderful! Supposedly it is the poorest country currently in central america, but it really didn’t seem like it. And everyone here is so unbelievably friendly and eager to chit chat and be helpful. I also really love how colorful it is, they really know how to make their buildings look pretty. And the nature here was also really nice, lots of birds everywhere, and geckos. Its quite fun to me to have geckos crawling all over your walls all the time (even if they’re not the native kind of gecko).

Since I’m leaving today and then will be in Quito meeting up with everyone else in the group and hanging out with them and going all over Quito for a while, I might not be posting for a bit. We shall see!

Nicaragua: Days 10-15

We haven’t really had any wifi and when we had it briefly it wasn’t good enough to be able to upload photos, so apologies for having such a jam-packed post now… even now, we’re at an internet cafe, and I only have a few minutes left of my wifi time, so the edits here may be bad…

Also, wow, the bugs here are pretty bad. I really haven’t seen many, if any, mosquitos, but there are so many other biting bugs, that it seems like a mosquito ridden place. I think that there are 5 kinds of bites that I am getting.. maybe more. Theres the obvious mosquito bite which everyone knows about, then theres the chigger bite which is pretty bad. Chiggers are in the grass and are little mites that crawl up your legs until they hit a band of some sort (sock band, underwear band, waistband, etc.) and then they burrow in. Their bites are bad and super itchy and last a while. Then there are this seed ticks, which are little and will bite in and release and then humans get an allergic reaction within 12 hours, I think that these are the worst bites I have. I try to resist scratching them, but while I can resist other bites, I absolutely cannot ignore these ones. They also get SUPER swollen and are more like a lump than a bite. miserable. Ok, then theres the fleas. Theres so many dogs around here that I’ve gotten a couple of flea bites, however these aren’t terrible and go away quickly. Then theres the fire ant and army ant bites/stings. These are awful at first, since if you’re wearing sandals, you usually get a whole bunch at once. For about an hour your feet hurt so so much and feel swollen and miserable, but for me they go away quickly and don’t leave any sort of welt behind. There are honestly probably more too, like biting flies and spiders or whatnot, but this is all I can think of now…but basically my feet are covered in bites.. on my right lower leg and foot alone I have around 20 bites.

So, on a different note, as blissful as the hammock bed at our hotel in Leon was, I have to say that I don’t think its the city for me… Its supposed to be the hottest city in the country, and even though we were visiting in the cold season, it was still in the low 90s. While its been that hot in other places, theres been wind too, and this was just super stuffy and stagnant with no wind whatsoever and lots of humidity. Day 10 was probably my least favorite day of the trip so far. I felt kindof ill all day, like there was some sort of microbial upset in my body. We spent the day doing a sort of walking tour of the city, and it was just so incredibly hot. Its also a very crowded city and theres no trees or anything on the streets so it feels a little dirty, so since I was feeling a bit off health-wise, it didn’t please me much. We started off with the massive cathedral right in the center of town where we were staying. We paid a dollar and got to go up a secret staircase around a bunch of side areas and go onto the roof. It was quite cool although a tad bit scary because there wasn’t much in the way of touring or security or guardrails, there were just old concrete stairs going around various parts and we had to climb across areas that didn’t have any stairs too. But it also had a really lovely view of the city and because it was above all the buildings, there was a tad bit of wind, so it was a little cooler temperature-wise.

 roofofcathedral

panoramatopofroof

We went by two other cathedrals too. One was big and yellow and was quite cool looking and the other was pinkish and had fake painted bricks.. it was odd. Both were unfortunately not open to the public but still cool to look at. Leon actually has 16 really old cathedrals, so they are trying to become officially named the “city of churches”.

pinkcathedral yellowcathedral

We then tried to go to the entomological museum but it was unfortunately closed, so we went to the botanical gardens. It was a longer walk into a very odd little neighborhood so we weren’t sure if we were in the right place but we came around the corner and there it was. The botanical gardens were not terribly exciting, but they had lots of potential and the guy running it was extremely nice and very enthusiastic about his gardens and the wildlife that came through them. So while we were walking through the garden, we finally found a guarabarranco! Its the Nicaraguan word for Motmot, which is a type of bird that is extremely beautiful and is actually the national bird. We had been looking for them since our trip started and we finally found one and it was the most perfect view of it.

motmot

In the evening, it was New Years Eve, so we went and had a nicer dinner since it was also supposed to be my aunt and uncle’s last day. But besides that, it was a really uneventful New Years. We drank a bit too early in the evening, so by 10 PM I was exhausted and irritable, and since I was already feeling sick all day, I felt pretty awful too. Plus they didn’t do a countdown, and they celebrated the new year 5 minutes early.. I don’t know what was up with that. It was odd. Soooo, yea. not the greatest welcome into the new year, but I guess its nice to spend your first day of the new year with your family since they’re the people you love the most :)

We woke up the next day (Day 11), and I was still physically exhausted in a sick sort of way, tummy-achy, overheated, and crabby, but fortunately we were leaving Leon that day. We took our time and made our way out to the coast where we stayed at a little cabana on the beach. Because it was New Years day, the downtown area of Las Penitas (the fishing beach town outside of Leon) was packed, so that was a little crazy. But once we got to our beach cabana area, it got much more relaxing. The day was pretty uneventful. My aunt and uncle left so that was sad. Then my parents and I just kindof unwound for a bit, which was much needed.

 playaolazul

Day 12, we took a boat tour out through a mangrove forest/swamp along this island that is a nature preserve. It was a really incredible tour. Our two guides knew so much, and they had the most incredible spotting eyes. They literally spotted so many things that any normal person would never have been able to see. We also did the boat tour with two french women who were so incredibly friendly and fun, so that just made it even better.

 boatride

The tour took half of the day and along the way I added so so many new birds to my birdlist. As we went along the river through the mangroves there were birds flying out everywhere. There were tons of different kinds of herons, common and uncommon. We saw lots and lots of these beautiful little mangrove swallows (of course one of my favorites) that were irridescent violet and green on their back. There were also lots of these very adorable little kingfishers zipping around.

 littlekingfisher

Then we stopped the boat on the island and went on a little walk and saw a sleeping porcupine in the bush very close to the path. Our guide told us she was pregnant.

 sleepingporcupine

On that stop, we also went to this sea turtle egg hatching area where they buy turtle eggs from poachers who steal them to sell to eat and then bring the eggs back to this island and put them in these sandy enclosures so that they can safely hatch. We got to hold a turtle egg too. Then we got back on the boat and continued down the river.

Along the trip, we ended up seeing 4 crocodiles. Two were babies, and two were medium sized. The guide said that farther up the river where it is super isolated and protected more from poachers, the crocodiles can get up to 16 feet long, if not longer, but unfortunately we didn’t see any that big.

 crocodilo

We also saw lots and lots of iguanas. A couple small ones and a couple medium sized ones and one really huge one. Once the guide spotted the huge one and we went up close to it, he got really freaked out, but iguanas are so ungraceful that this guy just kindof crashed through the trees. It was interesting because they’re all different colors. I couldn’t completely understand the guide, but I think he said that there are a couple different subspecies of iguana, but also at different ages, the iguanas are different colors and that it also depends on the color of the habitat they are living in.

After the tour, we had a really nice lunch with the french women and then we walked back to our hotel and went swimming in the ocean. It was a bit tough because the waves were breaking so strongly since the tide was so far in by that point, but it was still nice to cool off.

In the morning of Day 13 we had a nice relaxing breakfast before driving south. We ended up at my parent’s old friend’s house. This is a friend who my parents went to grad school with and haven’t seen in over 20 years, so thats fun for them.They live south of Managua near Masatepe on a really nice finca. They took us on a tour of their finca and they have around 70 different types of fruit trees. Its really impressive. We saw another type of guarrabaranco (Motmot, the national bird here). It was bigger than our previous type and was just as beautiful. The weather here is really great, since it is fairly cool. Also they have geckos all over their house. They climb all over the cielings and walls.

ceilinggecko

They have the most adorable daughter. She is almost 6 years old and the most outgoing, friendly, and enthusiastic little girl. We brought her a coloring book and a jigsaw puzzle, so I spent all afternoon and evening doing those with her while intermittently having little tea parties. She speaks some english and its really cute when she does and I like her Spanish because it is easier for me to understand since she uses simpler words and grammar and talks a bit slower. We spent all evening playing together, and I actually feel like my spanish is a lot better.

Day 14 I was woken up by my parent’s friend’s daughter running into my room yelling levanta, levanta! So I got up and then she immediately presented me with a coloring book and said lets go to paint! So we colored for a bit and then my parents and I and the young daughter packed into the backseat of my parent’s friend’s truck and we drove up north. We stopped at this place that they knew about where you can hike up a river bed (which is filled with mosquitos) up to these rock walls that are covered in old petroglyphs.

 petroglyphs

There’s a lot of petroglyphs in the area, but these are some of the better ones and are quite extensive and theres no infrastructure around these particular ones because they’re hard to get to, so there are no tourists, although a few have been painted in so they are easier to see that just carvings into the rock. And its really interesting because as much as anthropologists have looked at all the petroglyphs in the area, no one can figure out why they are there and who did them and how old they are, but they’re estimated to be quite old.

Then we piled back into the truck and drove further north up into this area thats a higher elevation pine forest, and they are some of the southernmost pines around. It was weird to see the area because it was a mix of pines and oaks so it felt like back at home rather than Nicaragua but it was quite cool. We did a little hike out to this pretty viewpoint and then headed further up the mountain to this ecolodge type place at the top.

 pineforestlookout

Unfortunately, the ecolodge was having a visit by a huge religious group of 70 people and so all the cabins were completely booked but they had an area a little further away that had camping and they would put up the tents and mattresses and stuff so thats what we did. It was alright, but I think I got some more insect bites. Also, my parent’s friend is a biologist and was looking for this one really particular moth so he used a blacklighting technique which is where you put up white sheets around black lights and the moths and beetles will swarm the lights and just hang around on the sheets. While he didn’t find the one he was looking for he showed us lots of other really cool types of moths.

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Day 15, we woke up and did a little bit of birding. There was this section of a little path that was covered in tubular flowers, so it was perfect for hummingbirds. And there were tons of hummingbirds there. I think there were maybe 5 or 6 different species buzzing around. But my find of the day was that after everyone else went to pack up the tents, I stayed watching and turned around and there was this really cool and different looking hummingbird. It looked unlike any other hummingbird I’ve ever seen and floated around rather than flying. It ended up being this rare and endemic species called the Sparkling-tailed Woodstar and when I told my parents and their friend about it once I went back to the truck, he was shocked because he had never seen one before and when we looked it up in the birdbook, hadn’t really even heard of it. So that was special.

Then we got back in the car and drove all the way up to the Honduras/Nicaragua border (but unfortunately didn’t cross over so I can’t add Honduras to my country list :( ) to a slot canyon there. We did a little hike in along the river and then took a boat further up the river. Then, once it really became a canyon rather than a riverbed, we rented inner tubes and paddled further up the river. It was so so beautiful. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any photos because I couldn’t take my camera since we were in water the entire time, but it was called Somoto Canyon and here is a link to what it looked like (http://www.nicaragua-magazine.com/best-of-northern-nicaragua-somoto-canyon/). The water wasn’t really flowing quickly, so we paddled way up the river and then floated very slowly back down. Then we hiked back out, got in the car and drove 4 hours back to Masatepe.

Today, Day 16, we’re just having a relaxing, sitting-around sort of day. One of my parent’s friend’s chickens had two of her eggs hatch overnight so now theres 2 really adorable little baby chickies. Plus they have 4 baby guinea pigs and 3 adults that I plan on playing with. We’re in town now at an internet cafe while they run errands and we’re going to do laundry and eat and just relax.

Nicaragua: Days 8-9

Well to say we were covered in mud after Day 8 is an understatement. So after breakfast, we decided to go on a search for the elusive Quetzal up through the rainforest. Our search was unproductive, but we had quite the day anyways. We went all the way up through a rainforest up a mountain to the cloud forest on top of it. Because its a high elevation rainforest turned cloud forest, it is much colder and rainier than the areas we have been previously so the ground was very wet. Also, apparently the trail builders around here aren’t big on switchbacks so the hike up this VERY STEEP mountain was straight up. Basically we were slipping and sliding all over both up and down.

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My pants and shoes were coated in thick thick layers of mud and my mom managed to get her raincoat pretty coated too. But it was still good exercise and I saw a few new birdie species. The find of the hike was 2 emerald toucanettes, which are relatives of toucans and have the same sort of beak but they are a bit smaller and green instead of black. They were very cute and kept calling back and forth to eachother. There were also lots and lots of butterflies and interesting insects along the trail.

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After the fairly long and up and down hike, I spend a while wandering through the gardens between the different cabanas. I could hear lots of hummingbirds, and so I followed the sounds around until I came upon a bush that had one very beautiful hummingbird guarding it. It was called a Violet Saberwing Hummingbird.

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They are much bigger than the typical hummingbird you see, so that was especially neat. There were a couple of them in the area but this particular guy let me get really close to him and was very defensive of his flowering bush. This other little hummer, a Rufous Tailed Hummingbird, kept aggressively dive bombing him for the longest time. It was quite a fabulous scene.

 Then I continued walking around and found a few separate agoutis, which are little rodentia, they look either like mini capybaras or supersized guinea pigs. They are quite cute and were nibbling fruit from the surrounding fruit trees.

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Yesterday (Day 9) we went on a finca/farm tour. The place we were staying, Selva Negra, is a huge sustainable farm and so they offer tours to show you how they produce all the things they produce and how it is sustainable and how they run the farm and what not. It was really an impressive tour. Our guide was really knowledgeable. To process their coffee, they remove the outer skin (the red skin) and treat it with ground bone from their slaughterhouse so that it isn’t too acidified and then they turn it into compost with worms in a vermiculture area. They reuse the worms and put the compost (worm casings) on their crops as fertilizer. Then to get rid of the second mushy layer of the coffee, they put the beans in water and wash the beans and then filter the water through ground volcanic rock. They use the water to irrigate the fields and then they take methanogenic bacteria from the stomachs of cows in their slaughterhouse and put methanogenic bacteria on the mushy stuff that is filtered out of the water. They chew this layer up and release lots of methane which is used as fuel for the houses of their 250 permanent coffee pickers. There are all sorts of other things they do considering they grow all the food for their workers on site and most of the food for the hotel part of their ranch on site and they have multiple types of animals that they slaughter at the on-site slaughterhouse (very sad), and they produce around 10 types of cheese.

We also got to go look at the houses and living areas of their workers. They house 250 permanent workers, and they get very cute little houses. They also provide them with schools for their children and an onsite clinic. They also have dormitories for their 700 seasonal workers.

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ranchhouses

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After the tour we drove to Leon, which is where we are staying now. Our hotel is very cute and very tasteful. Its right off the main street by the main cathedral, but its tucked away off the street so its really quiet. Its very modern and minimalist but quite relaxing. I spent all evening sitting on this massive circular hanging bed. Its so comfortable and looks out onto a very pretty pool and you can even see the main street through the front doorway but its so tranquil.

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We did a little walking around in the evening, its quite an interesting scene. There is this really old (1700’s) cathedral right by our hotel and the main square right in front of it, so we sat on a bench there and did some people watching. Because its almost New Years, they had lots of these massive paper mache and fabric giant lady puppet type things that people were using to dance around with.

Tonight might be quite the scene since it will be New Years Eve… we shall see!

 

 

Nicaragua: Days 5-7

I’ll start this off by just saying, if you are ever thinking about getting a chromebook, don’t do it. This is turning out to be the most frustrating thing ever. The graphics card is basically shit, and so a set of 135 photos that I have to go through and decide which ones to edit and then edit would usually take about 15 minutes on a macbook, but on this computer each photo was so slow to load that it took about 5 or 6 hours in total. Plus, during the editing process, the application shut down at least 10-15 times. Which, for a brand new computer, is just ridiculous. Also, the color and contrast and stuff is so week and the colors are so muted that now i’m afraid that my edits will appear to be over-edits on normal computers viewing my pictures. But I guess thats what you get for a 200 dollar laptop..

oh also, the touchpad is so hypersensitive that while i was trying to edit my photos it kept zooming waaayyy in and then wayyyy out and back and forth without my intending of it whatsoever.

Ok so on day 5, we woke up after a lovely christmas evening and decided to go to the next beach over because we heard it was even nicer and had a bit more going on. Of course no one let us know how crazy the road getting there was so after stalling out and sliding down a hill mutliple times before finally cresting it, we get to the top and look down the road and it was so terrible and so steep that there was no way we would ever be able to get back up it. It was even too steep with too loose of gravel to walk it, so instead we hitchhiked a ride down to the beach (with my grandma!). The beach was a very happening place and was very beautiful.

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The sand was super duper soft and the water was perfectly clear and shallow way way out which was perfect. There were lots of beginning surfers and it was filled with young hippie types. There were multiple little open beach shacks with cheap drinks (I got a tasty mojito) and loud reggae music. There was a yoga studio and a hacienda hostel type place with a hammock covered deck. It was super fun. Also, apparently living in Portland has deprived my skin of its much desired color, because just a couple hours in the sun and i was already over-tanned.

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After a while at the beach, we hitchhiked back up the hill to our car and headed back to our hotel to spend some time in the pool.

Before dinner we had a sunset yoga class. It was vinyasa yoga, which is definitely a more demanding form of yoga and although I used to do yoga regularly, I’ve been far too busy lately to do it so I was incredibly out of shape and I’m still sore from some of the strength poses now. But despite that, it was really really relaxing because we were on the top floor of our multi-story cliffside hotel and in front of us was the ocean and on either sides of us was the jungle so with the sun setting during our practice, the view was amazing. After that for dinner our hotel happened to be hosting an all you can eat pasta night, and they had homemade raviolis and they were so tasty.

Day 6, we left our hotel in San Juan del Sur and tried to head into the center of town to get gelato, but it was unfortunately closed, so we started the long drive back to managua. Along the way, we stopped at Lake Appoyo, which is essentially the crater lake of nicaragua. Its a very round, very blue, lake that was a crater and filled up with water. We ate lunch at the lookout point while being hasseled by all sorts of vendors.

lakeappoyo

After that we headed to managua, took a wrong turn, and ended up going the extra long way to the hotel. THen we got to the hotel and something had gone wrong and they only had a reservation for 1 room instead of 3 and they were completely full, and we are 7 people so there was no way that would work out. Fortunately, there was another hotel nearby, and so we gave my grandparents that room since it had a free shuttle to the airport and we were in Managua because they were flying back to the states. So we spent the evening playing around in the hotel pool, drinking pina coladas and chowing down on foods so that we could all hang out together before the grandparents left.

Then yesterday morning (Day 7) we packed up again and drove north through coffee country. It seems like they grow the coffee in the highland rainforests and then bring it down to the lowlands to dry it out. So as we were driving north through the dry areas, there were fields and fields of black tarps covered in drying coffee beans.

We stopped in this little down that had lots and lots of roadside fruit and veggie stands. Really, they had basically every vegetable or fruit I could ever want, it was incredible. It was also so cheap! We got 12 huge passionfruits for the equivalent of 1 dollar, while in the us its 1.50 for an itty bitty single passionfruit. If you can’t tell, passionfruits are my favorite fruit, and thankfully theyre extremely plentiful here!

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Slowly we moved out of the dry areas and into the higher elevation cloud forests and stopped for lunch in Matagalpa. It was a really nice city. Its pretty big, but it doesn’t feel overwhelming like Managua and its really nicely tucked into these hillsides and a valley. We walked around Matagalpa for a bit and went in a church that was completely decorated in Bromeliads, which was quite pretty.

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Finally we finished our journey as we went out of Matagalpa into the mountains above it. The road was super steep and went up and up until we got to our current hotel, Selva Negra, which is tucked into the rainforest in the mountains above Matagalpa. Its a humongous organic farm/ranch that is ⅓ coffee growing plantation, ⅓ mixed fruit trees, and ⅓ rainforest preserve. THey have lots of little cabanas and haciendas surrounded by rainforest and organic farms and there are multiple lakes and gardens on the property. Its extremely lovely. In the rainforest part, they have a huge network of trails that go up the mountain through the rainforest. We went on one of the loops this evening and it was quite nice.

 selvanegra

After the forest there was an old little church. It was so pretty. It had a completely green roof which was covered entirely with moss and bromeliads. A lot of the windows had fallen out but the view that were still there were beautiful stained glass. It was quite lovely and peaceful.

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egretstainedglass

We added a couple of birds to the bird list and saw lots of pretty little plants. Unfortunately it got dark pretty quickly because of the cloud forest-ness and being under so much canopy so we had to head back. Oh and we got extremely muddy. But I think we’re planning on doing some more of that rainforest hiking today.

Nicaragua: Days 1-4

I’ll preface this post with the fact that up until now our internet has been TERRIBLE and unusable, so in the future if I don’t post for a while, its likely because my internet is either not present or unusable.

So my trip has finally begun! Unfortunately posting on a blog might not be quite as easy as I had hoped. It turns out that this new little computer that I got for my trip, a chromebook, only really works on line.. you can’t even type in any sort of word document without being connected to the internet since it all gets stored on the google drive [a cloud sort of thing], and then once you’ve gotten past that, you also can’t download photos onto it without being connected to the internet, and thennnn you can’t edit photos without downloading another app (which you have to use with the internet as well). And the internet here is very sketch. At this particular place, you only get it in one particular corner of the entire ranch and it takes about 10 minutes to open each link that you click.

On top of which, there is no software on it for ARW files (a raw file format) and I was planning on shooting all my photos in raw format since its better quality, and so I did that all of the first day and now I can’t open this files (so unfortunately I won’t have any photos to post of day one). And all the photos from then on are compressed jpegs so they’re not as good of quality.

But besides that its been mostly lovely here!

My mom and I got in to Managua Sunday and I was immediately hit by total culture shock and confusion. First off its so humid and hot here that my hair and skin are just permanently greasy, but my mom claims that I will adjust. Also, apparently my “proficient” Spanish does not seem to sound right because no one understands me and everyone here speaks so quickly with their words almost slurred together that I can’t understand them. Once we picked up our very rickety rental car from the airport in Managua we had to make our way 2 hours south to Rivas, a town on the south-west side of Lake Nicaragua. It was certainly an adventure. To start off, there are ZERO street signs or numbers on any of the roads here. We were relying on directions we had printed off from google which told us the directions entirely based on street names so once we had no street signs, we immediately got lost. Basically we got lost about every 5 minutes, ended up in some crazy areas, and asked multiple people how to get towards Rivas. We made it after lots of hectic and crazy driving thankfully and got on a ferry there to Omatepe, an island made up of 2 volcanos in Lake Nicaragua. The ferry was quite long and slow but beautiful and we got to the island right at dark. The rest of the family was supposed to meet us at the dock and guide us to our finca (the word for farm, which usually also serve as hotel retreats of sorts), but they weren’t there so we had to try and get to our finca ourselves. It’s not a terribly huge island but somehow we managed to drive past this finca 4 different times and ask probably 15 different people for directions before we FINALLY, after 1.5 hrs of driving back and forth, we found it.

So day 2 we woke up nice and decompressed and got to see our finca in the daylight. It was so beautiful there. There are lots of little hacienda places with big patios covered in chairs and lounge chairs and hammocks. On one side of the lodging parts of the finca is Lake Nicaragua (which is so big that it looks like the ocean) and on the other side is a wetlands area filled with birds. The patio of our hacienda faces the wetlands.

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We sat on the patio and watched birds all morning and added bunches of new species to our bird lists. There was a cinnamon hummingbird (my favorite), these beautiful jays with little head bobbing things and long flowy tails, parakeets, and lots more.

DSC00080Then we took a nice long walk on the very narrow strip of beach, which has incredibly soft sand and fairly warm water (although its so incredibly hot and humid here that cold water might be pretty refreshing).

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Then we sat in little lounge chairs on the beach and all caught up. Its so nice to spend the holidays with family.

DSC00120In the late afternoon, we went on this 3 kilometer hike through the jungle here. It was so great and so beautiful! We saw lots and lots of white faced capuchins (they look like fuzzy little monkeys) and howler monkeys and there were parakeets and other birdies flying all around the canopy. The sounds were just beautiful, and the howler monkey’s calls are so intense. It was great. I got a couple photos of the capuchins and monkeys but they’re pretty low quality.

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Finally we ended the day with a night hike. It wasn’t terribly exciting but we sure saw lots of spiders. There are tons of these massive Goliath spiders and other big spider species as well. We also saw a couple baby snakes, a HUGE bullfrog, and tons of bats, so that was fun.

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Yesterday we woke up early to rain and wind (but it was still hot). But, as I was told would happen, the rain only lasted 5 minutes before it was hot and sunny again. Then we went on this crazy hike up to a HUGE and tall waterfall. It started off with a long drive over very volcanic and rough road. There was a very cute turtle crawling along the road too.

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Then we went up and up and up on a road and parked there right off the road. Supposedly from the “parking area” to the waterfall, it was a flat hike, but this was NOT the case. It was a fairly pleasant and mildly uphill hike up to a gorge with rainforest on either side and then once we reached a gorge it turned terribly strenuous and was almost vertical for a long ways. However, the waterfall was incredibly worth it! It was really huge, much bigger than I was expecting. But I forgot a bathing suit so I had to go in essentially naked but that was ok. It was super refreshing seeing as I was covered in sweat from the hike up.

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Then on the way back to our finca, our little car’s tire popped. I guess the rough road and my dads driving were too much for it. It was a quick fix and we got back to a nice restaurant on the beach in time for late lunch.

DSC00267After late lunch we got dressed in nicer clothing and spent the evening drinking Pina Coladas and watching little xmas parades. The town of Altagracia where all the parades were was covered in Christmas lights, really even moreso than in the US.

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The main parade was later in the evening and it ended in the main church on the island. It was a very interesting cultural experience with lots of kids singing and acting out the roles of Mary and Joseph. We came back and I worked on my Rubiks Cube skills and now I can successfully complete it in 3 minutes and 13 seconds :)

Woke up this morning very early to pack. I was very tired seeing as I was kept up all night by a group of very loud Howler monkeys right outside of our hacienda. As we were pulling out of the driveway, the monkeys that kept me awake decided to appear. There were tons and tons of them leaping around in the trees outside of our room and a lot of them had little babies on their back.

DSC00324We took the ferry back across to Rivas and drove over to San Juan del Sur, a city on the beach. We’re staying in a very nice casita that’s part of a local hotel. Its beautiful and on a cliff overlooking the Pacific ocean, with a view of the tropical dry forest as well, and is covered in lounge chairs and hammocks. We were even greeted by howler monkeys here too.

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We walked down the 100 meters to the beach for lunch and it is very very nice. Nice soft sand and beautiful water and no rough waves, so its good for swimming.

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We returned again to the beach to watch the sunset which was wonderful and then sit around the beach and watch terns dive into the water catching fish. Finally we sat around our casita and did Christmas-y things like opening gifts :)

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Also, theres excellent internet here at the new hotel so far! Feliz Navidad!