San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua - “This Is Nicaragua”.
The way I lived in Nica was the way I was meant to live.
The last time I felt this pure, this peaceful… I can’t say. I was me. Truly mindful of my surroundings and the goodness that I felt. I felt like I had been lifted to another level.
San Juan had everything I love about an oceanside backpacker destination. Rickety, bohemian beach hostels, delicious fresh food, friendly locals and a stunning, curvy coastline. But it had a lot more, too.
It was one of the most wild and rustic places I’ve been; a feast for the senses. The endless jungle was unkempt, dripping in exotic foliage and full of life. Howler monkeys pierced the silence with their eerie calls and the wind whipped through the trees at seemingly mach speeds. Low, rolling peaks grazed the clouds on the horizon. From our cliff top house, we could hear the waves surging into the sandy bottom bay. We spent hours just sitting on the deck and admiring the scenery.
But it was the surf that really, really got to me. This is what made SJDS so incredibly hard to leave. We are always able to seek out beauty in our travels. Beautiful destinations are not rare. Perfectly rideable sets of waves that roll into a nearly empty beach… this is a rarity.
Our motivation to surf on this trip was absolutely insatiable. Our whole group of six (some learners, some experienced) got to feel the amazing feeling that is catching a wave. Vaughan and I became particularly obsessed, chasing the feeling on a daily basis, until our skin was raw with board burn and our knees swollen and torn up. I was amazed at how far my body would allow me to go. After each session, I was ringing with the best kind of satisfying pain, along with a permanent smile stretched across my face. It was the surf that had me lifted, had me feeling oh so good and … feeling like myself again.
Everyone should chase this feeling. We all deserve it. Nicaragua has heaps of good vibes on offer and if you like beautiful scenery, endless ocean and real people, you should go.
Nica gave me the forward momentum I needed to get through the rest of the semester. And a light at the end of the tunnel called ‘Bali’ does not hurt either.
Tobacco Caye, Belize: Easy Livin’.
I admit that I throw around the word ‘paradise’ quite a bit on this blog. I’ve said before that I’ve found it. The thing is, paradise is a fluid term for me, ever changing as I discover different versions of it around the world. Traveling, for me, is a constant search for paradise, for beauty, for a place that gives you a certain feeling. Currently, Tobacco Caye is my paradise, the place that I allow my mind to wander to, just to feel like I am back there.
This tiny five acre mound of sand is nestled on top of the barrier reef, making it an absolute dream for any ocean lover. I have never felt so close to the sea before, as Tobacco Caye is not only surrounded, but consumed by it. You might only feel closer to the ocean if you were stranded on a lifeboat.
We stayed at Tobacco Caye Paradise, a set of five tiny white cabins on stilts, hovering above the water. From our verandah, we could see bright orange and red cushion sea stars, sting rays floating by and massive frigate birds fishing alongside pelicans. The giant swell from the Caribbean sea was crashing into the reef break just outside our cabin. All you smell is the salty air, all you hear is the surf breaking and you could not escape the views of the crystal clear turquoise water if you tried. Tobacco Caye is just that small. The surrounding reef was teeming with sea life and we were spoiled with the luxury of being able to snorkel right off of our porch. We got up close with massive eagle rays, tons of ‘cudas as well as some elusive scorpionfish and eels.
There is little to do on this island apart from napping on your hammock and snorkeling or scuba diving. You have to truly slow down your body and mind to the pace of the island. This is not as easy as it seems; life in Canada is fast and our minds work accordingly. However, Tobacco Caye is an island that naturally eases you in to a slower pace. There is nowhere you have to be. Nowhere to go but one thatched-roof bar. Nothing to do but hang out with your underwater friends. The only thing to do is let your concerns dissolve and get carried away by the sea breeze so that you can focus on the beauty around you. It’s something we talk about a lot, something people say that they always do, ‘living in the moment’. On Tobacco Caye, I got as close to the true meaning of this cliche as I ever have before.
I could not think of a better place to truly slow down.
Ringtail Village, Cayo District, Belize: Breaking a sweat in the Belizean interior.
After slowing down to island pace in Caye Caulker, our trip took an intense turn as we headed into the interior for an adventure in the jungle.
We hopped on a water taxi and then a chicken bus (old Blue Bird school buses from the United States) to make our way into the Cayo District of Belize. It felt like we were entering a different country as the smell of sea air disappeared and the landscape slowly filled in with lush green foliage and giant limestone cliffs.
I was full of nervous anticipation that was mounting as we drove further and further from the coast. On the islands, I am in my element. I am me. In the jungle, I feel like I am on edge, constantly being challenged by enlarged insects and rocky landscapes. Furthermore, Vaughan had planned this segment of the trip and booked us in to an adventure tour with a local company who owned a massive plot of jungle. I knew little of this tour and what it entailed, except for that waterfalls and a cave were involved. I guess that would explain why I was feeling jittery.
About two hours inland, we came to our stop on the side of the Hummingbird Highway - Ringtail Village. There on the side of the road was our Bed and Breakfast, situated on Primita’s organic fruit farm. We were greeted by the owners, Manuella and Patrick, who own the B&B/farm property. Their welcome was warm and we felt right at home, despite finding ourselves in our most basic accommodations to date. Patrick directed us to the nearby Blue Hole national park which contains a fresh water swimming hole, reminding us to be back in time for dinner.
We hit the Hummingbird Highway by foot to check out the Blue Hole. This highway isn’t exactly pedestrian friendly. As transport trucks and buses whipped by us, we had to stand in knee-high jungle grass to avoid being squished like the bird-sized dragonflies cast on to the side of the road. Eventually, an expatriate local flagged us down and insisted we hop in to his truck for a ride to our destination. Though it was not a far walk, we were thankful.
Having been beaten down by the oppressive heat on the way there, the fresh water spring was like an oasis when we arrived. It was ice cold; diving in was the most incredible shock to the senses. An instant cleanse from a day of traveling in the Central American heat, we were free of salt and sweat. The spring itself was beautiful. A milky blue colour surrounded by columns of lush old growth jungle. We felt refreshed and ready for what awaited us the next day.
When we returned to Primita’s, we were invited up into the couple’s flat for a delicious home cooked meal by Manuella, the perfect fuel for a jungle adventure. We chatted with the family and soaked up all of Patrick’s stories and knowledge of fruits while sipping on fresh squeezed lime juice from their own trees. It was one of those special experiences while traveling; to be invited into the home of a local and after a little conversation, allow the designation of ‘stranger’ to dissolve. We returned to our bedroom where I had a sleepness night. There was a symphony of sounds coming from the jungle outside all night; insects, monkeys, Patrick’s dogs. And on top of that, I was anticipating the following day.
It turned out that our trek into the jungle was easily the most unique experience of my life.
We arrived at Caves Branch, the jungle lodge that hosted the adventure tours. Our tour guides, Chico and Pablo, introduced themselves and explained the Waterfall Expedition. Before we left, they urged me to change from my keens into heavy hiking boots, since the tour was too rugged for sandals. We headed towards the limestone cliff formations in an old short school bus and then hiked through the thick jungle to the mouth of a sinister looking cave, complete with fruit and insect eating bats sleeping inside. We made our way through the cave, a terrain of anything from boulders to knee deep water to uneven rockiness. It’s no wonder Vaughan calls me baby giraffe, I was knocking my head and twisting my ankles on a regular basis! A true fish out of water.
We came to a stop and it was announced that it was time to climb six waterfalls. We strapped on our lifejackets, strapped in to our climbing harnesses and proceeded to conquer a series of waterfalls, a serious task, as the water was rushing so quickly over the limestone riverbed. It was an exhilarating challenge, dragging yourself vertically while being pounded with gallons of fast-flowing water. As we stomped on to the top of the final waterfall, we realized that the only way downstream was to jump into the water below. We plunged in one by one into the inky black pools below each cascade. The last one was the most daunting. We rappelled down the first half of the falls and then stood on a small step. Water surged over our ankles; all we could see below was a sheer rock face and pitch black water, lit only by our head lamps. Chico leaned in and said, “it’s OK if you don’t want to jump, I’ll push you!” The only thing to do was go for it.
I screamed out in a mixture of joy and slight terror as I leaped in. The entire trip was so invigorating, so challenging, it was just pure fun. I was reminded that it is always a good idea to step outside of your comfort zone.
After another delicious meal and lovely conversation with Patrick and Manuella at Primita’s, I was absolutely wiped. Needless to say, I had no trouble sleeping that night.
Caye Caulker, Belize: Go Slow.
I have been to a fair few islands. What I love most in an island is simple, rustic beauty; unkempt palm trees, coconuts strewn across the beach, hand-painted signs. Caye Caulker has this in spades.
The water is the prettiest I have ever seen. As we drove up in the water taxi I was in awe of it. Imagine all of the richest, most beautiful shades of blue, marbled across the surface of the ocean as far as you can see. The water is so clear and still that it resembles stained glass. To make it even more of a postcard, a pod of dolphins popped up around our boat to check us out, bobbing their smiley heads out of the water as if to welcome us to their humble abode.
I could see from the shore that this island ticked all of the boxes under ‘Paradise’. A nice breeze was rustling the palm fronds and the sand was white and it was underdeveloped, charming, beautiful. As our time on Caye Caulker progressed, it became more and more beautiful in my eyes. But it wasn’t necessarily because of how this island looks but rather, the people that inhabit it and the vibe that they radiate that makes this place so unique. As soon as we got off of the boat, locals were there to welcome us. ‘Welcome to paradise, mon,’ ‘Welcome to my beautiful home.’ These were not touts to get our attention and sell snorkeling or fishing trips. These were genuine gestures, the soul of the island. As we walked down the sandy strip to our little beach hut at Mara’s Place, a local man said ‘hey guys, just remember to go slow.’ This is the mantra of Caye Caulker. Our strides became smaller and just like that, we snapped into island time, enjoying every little thing around us.
I quickly became taken with the locals of Caye Caulker. There was one in particular, whose backyard we stumbled in to on our first night. We were attracted first by Maurice’s sign for his BBQ and drinks joint (which was really just his house), called Wish Willy’s. He advertised BZ$2 mixed drinks and after we placed an order with him, he disappeared into his kitchen and returned with two rum and cokes with fresh lime. We got to know the guy, showing up to his place to have a few, chat him up and play with his small pack of dogs.
Our days were spent getting to know the place. The island seemed to move as one each night. Everyone gathered for sunsets at the split, a small channel between the two parts of the island, to enjoy some beers in the sunken patio and watch the world turn. The crowd would dissipate to various BBQ restaurants for dinner and then congregate at I&I, a smokey little reggae bar with the best music pumping out of it. When that shut down, the crowd followed the beat, moving their bodies to the island’s ‘nightclub,’ called Oceanside. The expression on everyone’s face that night was one of pure freedom and fun, not a worry in the world, as if Caye Caulker was immune from being penetrated by any problems.
We did spend one amazing day out on the water, on a tour of some snorkeling spots with a local guide named Rene. He took us out to Hol Chan marine reserve, a coral garden, and a place called shark and ray alley. Our guide put in a huge effort to make sure we had a perfect day, even taking us to a manatee hang out at the start and the end of the day so we could get a glimpse of those lazy giants. For ocean enthusiasts, you can’t get a day much better than that one. We saw massive schools of jacks, two giant moray eels, dozens of nurse sharks and stingrays, huge tarpon and hundreds of beautifully colourful reef dwelling fishes. We were in awe.
On our last night I realized how quickly I had become attached to this island. As we sat with Maurice and some of his friends in a circle on the last night, exchanging stories about our respective realities, I knew I wanted to return. Now Vaughan always swears he won’t go to a place twice. That was his second time on Caye Caulker. I doubt it would be hard to convince him to go for a third.
Mayan Riviera (bonus post): Mexican cuisine, eating well on the cheap.
I can’t write about my time in Mexico without mentioning how well and for how cheap we ate. We stayed in a resort that did not include food and was ridiculously expensive, not to mention that the food did not look like it was worth the exorbitant prices. In keeping with our mission of seeing Mexico outside the walls of the resort, we made a point to seek out restaurants in Playa del Carmen and our surrounding destinations that were overflowing with locals. We never went wrong.
The thing that really inspired me about Mexican food is the simplicity. Of course, everyone eats and prepares tacos, quesadillas and fajitas at home on a regular basis. But if you choose not to think about these dishes as quick weeknight meals to clear out the fridge and instead as something more, it changes everything. Every taqueria we entered treated Mexican food with a higher regard than we are used to, of course. The ingredients were fresh and so, so flavourful. Each meal came with everything you needed to make it perfect: salsa verde, pico de gallo, guacamole, corn tortillas…. best of all, we ate very cheap and very healthy, though the health aspect may have been offset by a few beers or margaritas.
One night after dinner in Playa, we stumbled upon a Mexican restaurant serving two-for-one margaritas and thought we would stop in for one. I ordered mango and Vaughan ordered strawberry. When the waiter returned with four massive frozen drinks, I could not believe they were all for us! I guess two-for-one was more literal than we thought. Mexicans really know how to treat their guests right.
Mexican night at our place will never be the same, now that we know how it’s done.