Friday, February 24, 2012

Nicaragua by the Numbers

Hello loyal readers from sunny Costa Rica!!! We have arrived in the land of friendly American retirees, pristine golf courses, and sandy beaches. Needless to say we have completely blown the budget and all we did was cook spaghetti for dinner. A quick update on the math behind Nicaragua. Looks like we left the country with $68 after entering with $90, so we spent $22 there. We also withdrew $723 from various ATMs. Total spend $745 across 16 days. This averages out to $46.56 per day, a bit below estimates, although so far we spent about $90 today and we are not living well. Hopefully we can live off wild nuts and berries for a bit to save on costs as Costa Rica appears to be quite expensive. Anyways, back to the continuing adventure, this morning we shared a taxi with a couple from Canada to the border with Costa Rica. This border crossing is a joke, it's overrun with "helpers" charging anywhere from $2 to $50 for help with paperwork, etc. Basically, there are two forms to fill out and mysteriously nobody in the actual office has the forms, only the "helpers". So we ended up giving one of these fellows a little less than a dollar for the forms and we filles them out on our own. We had heard of people having to wait 3-5 hours to cross this border, however we managed to cross in about an hour, although it was clear that neither side was especially organized and we probably could have just walked across, although that may have lead to some issues upon exit. We got on a bus to Liberia where we had a quick and very expensive lunch and then caught the bus to Tamarindo beach. On the way there had been an accident involving a bus and three vehicles coming the other way. It didn't look very serious, but the bus was blocking the road and there were some pretty steep gutters on the sides. Our daring bus driver decided to risk it, and a few passengers felt it was too dangerous and got off. We managed to make it to the beach and found a place to stay. So here we are, tired after a day of travel, luckily there's a pool here so if we can't make the three minute walk to the beach we can hang out at the pool. ¡Hasta Luego!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Granada and San Juan del Sur

Good afternoon, dear readers!  When you last heard from Matt, I was wrist deep in my chocolate-making class!  I got to see a raw cacao pod, which is bigger than a soft ball but not as big as a football and usually has up to 60 cacoa beans inside.  I ate a raw bean, which is covered in a sweet white fluff that tastes like mango, the raw bean itself is purple and VERY bitter!  The raw beans are usually fermented about 5 days then dried in the sun another 2-5 days until they are completely dry - I didn't do this, obviously.  We did get to toast/roast the dried beans in a traditional clay bowl over open heat, stirring constantly and then we de-husked each bean for a pound of cacao.  At this point, the beans were a deep brown, still bitter, and extrmely aromatic.  Then, we hand ground the beans with a mortar and pestle into a fine paste to be used in three traditonal chocolate drinks: the Mayan, which was made of cacao, hot water, and cinnamon, the Aztec, which added honey and hot chilli to the Mayan drink, and the Spanish, which was cacao, hot milk, sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla.  We then got to make our own chocolate bars out of 70% chocolate (meaning 70% chocolate, 30% sugar in the mix) which had already been mixed and refined (a process called conching).  I made an almond-coffee chocolate bar.  Unfortunately, we did not temper our own chocolate, so we had to return in two hours to get our refridgerated bar.  Of course, since it wasn't tempered and León is extremely hot, we just HAD to eat the whole bar right away so it wouldn't melt.  It was delish!

The next day we took a boat tour of Laka Nicaragua, locally known as Cocibolca.  We had met a lovely British couple on their honeymoon at the chocolate class and we decided to go together with them, which proved a useful bargaining tool in price.  The tour took us past several of the small islands, many of which are privately owned and home to beautiful houses.  We stopped at the island that housed the former Spanish fort which protected the city of Granada from French and British Pirates, who could access the lake from the river which connects to the Carribean.  That's right, the fort protected the city from the Pirates of the Carribean.  After the fort, we visited Monkey Island, home to Spider Monkeys and white faced Cappuchino Monkeys.  One monkey, Lola, is well known by the tour guides and spoiled with crackers as a treat for coming to say hello to tourists.  Lola scavenged for bugs in one woman's hair, gave Matt a little lap dance, then decided to cozy up on my lap before returning to her island.  We finished up at another island where we did some bird-watching.

On Sunday, the poetry festival ended and all the artisans that had made the central park so festive packed up; we decided it was time for us to head out as well.  We grabbed a chicken bus to Rivas, which was overcrowded as usual, then from Rivas another chicken bus to San Juan del Sur, a famed beach attraction.  While the scenery is quite idyllic, the water here is surprisingly cold, especially since Poneloya up the coast was so warm.  It has also been quite windy, so while it's nice to have a cool breeze on a hot day, the sand gets everywhere and even a tree branch or two falls over daily.  Today, we took a walk to the top of a cliff that over looks the cove.  

We've had a lovely time hanging out and enjoying the warm weather, but haven't spent as much time on the beach as we'd like.  We did make friends with some Canadians, one French-Canadian from Quebec who made an amazing Nicaraguan spin on a classic French dish, Poutin, with yucca fries, quesillo, and a gravy of onions, beer, and aunt jemima!  The other Canadians were a couple from Toronto, one of Indian heritage and the other of Pakistani, who had just eloped and were on their honeymoon!  We had a fun night, drinking Cabellito, the local aguardiente we learned to love in León, and Shaler Kola, a local and delicious cream soda.  

Due to the adverse weather, we've decided to head to Costa Rica a little early, that is, tomorrow.  While our first planned destination was Puntarenas, we're going to head to Playa Tamarindo, on the Nicoya Penninsula, to make up some beach time.  We are a little ahead of schedule, almost two weeks, so we figure we have some time.  Costa Rica is looking like it will be the most expensive place yet.  The hostels in Tamarindo, and all the beaches, are $15 a person, making costs $30 and up for us.  The most expensive place we've stayed to date was $24 at the Tica Bus Hotel in San Salvador, and that was for necessity.  However, the hostels all appear to have kitchens, so we should be able to save some money by preparing out own food, which means I may get to practice some of my newly learned recipes as well as some old favorites!

Nicaragua has been great, very vibrant, artistic, and friendly, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a Central American destination.  

Friday, February 17, 2012


You don't want to mess with that gangster holding her Mombacho! Here we are in Granada. We have been lucky enough to arrive during a week of celebrations for a poetry reading festival. There have been poetry readings in the central park and other areas in the city ranging from poets that live around the corner to poets from Japan and Slovenia. Granada reminds us quite a bit of Antigua, Guatemala, however there are actually locals that live here instead of just tourists. We arrived on Wednesday and after finding an appropriate hotel we did our usual wandering tour of the city, wrapping it up at O'Shea's pub, where we had the best fish and chips in Central America. Well, at least we had some local food for lunch. Yesterday we had a light breakfast at a bookstore appropriately titled Lucha Libro, and checked out the central market where we smelled some raw cacao beans and had light refreshments. It is very hot here in Nicaragua. After that we wandered to the Mombacho cigar factory. We got to observe the process from the planting of the seeds to the rolling of the tabacco leaves. It's interesting that these cigars really only have tabacco leaves in them and nothing else, the outer wrapping (which is itself a tabacco leaf) is held together by something of a puree of a local vegetable. The cigars are then compressed, individually tested to see how much airflow they have, and then placed in the walk-in humidor to age. We smoked one in their lounge while reading Cigar Aficionado and pretending to be high rollers. Needless to say this company had put some serious money into this tour and lounge setup, the lounge had a very nice little pool and comfortable chairs, and our tour guide spoke Spanish, English, and German. After a brief siesta we ended up getting burritos at El Centralito for dinner, not the greatest burrito and it actually left us a little hungry. We headed to the central park for some more international poetry reading and snacked on some fruits we purchased there. At the moment Sarah is doing a chocolate workshop at the Cacao Musuem and tomorrow we are planning to visit the nearby isletas in Lake Nicaragua. We will keep you posted!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Nicaragua Así

Our Dutch friend, Harrie, also runs a tour company here in León called "NicAsí" which basically means "Nicaragua As Is".  The main idea behind his company is to give no-frills tours of real life in Nicaragua.  Matt has originally heard of this through Wiki-Travel and had planned on doing a cooking class with him here in León, but we also discovered many other tours and activities he runs and decided to do something else.

Sunday evening, we went to a Gallera, a rooster fight.  Let me be clear that I am against cruelty to animals and think that forced animal competition for entertainment is wrong.  On the other hand, this is part of Nicaraguan culture - this rooster fight happens every Sunday whether the tourists show up or not.  Our tour group had 16 people, but there were easily a hundred locals (mostly men) there who didnt pay much attention to us.  Since we want to experience the local culture, we decided to go.  There are actually quite strict rules for the rooster fights and the animal owners take the care of their fighting roosters very seriously.  When two roosters fight, they must weigh the same and their nail is taped over and a small artificial nail is attached.  The idea here is that everything should be equal in the fight - the nails are measured to be the same length so neither rooster has a natural advantage.  The match lasts 15 minutes or until a rooster goes down.  This is not a fight to the death.  If a rooster goes beak down or runs away, they are given a 20 second break; if the same rooster goes beak down or runs away again, the match is over.  If there is no winner after 15 minutes, it is a draw.  The two rooster owners will talk to, or "coach" the rooster during the match and during the breaks, will wipe blood from their eyes and body.  One owner even did mouth-to-mouth on his ailing rooster. The roosters fight as a result from natural male aggression.   There is a reason why a farm usually has many chickens and only one rooster.  In nature, if two males encountered each other, they would also fight for dominance.    

Betting rules are as follows:  the two owners bet against each other (let's say 1000 cordobas) then they take bets from others for their rooster.  There are no side bets - that is considered black market.  If rooster A wins, owner B has to pay him the 1000 but Owner A has to pay back 90% return to all those who bet him.  So if you bet 10 and won, you'd get 19.  If you lose, younlose your 10.  If it's a draw, the owner gives back the money less 10%.  So if you're an owner who bets 1000 and takes 200 in bets and wins - you get 1000 form your opponent but have to pay 380 back to betters, making a profit of 820.  If you lose, you lose your 1000 but at least get to keep the 200 from betters.  In a draw, you'd make 20 from the 10% fee. 

This is where many local men come to relax on their one day free from work.  Aside from the gringos with the tour, there were only a few women - maybe 5 or 6 - who all appeared to be with a man who was there.  Alcohol and snacks are sold and consumed liberally.  During the fight, Many people are calling out to their rooster or just yelling obsenities.  Both before and after fights, owners show off their roosters.  Harrie explained that while you cannot train a rooster to fight, the roosters are "trained" in two ways: the owners will tie a leash around their foot and "walk" them or take them running to improve over all physical fitness and there are "rooster boxing gloves" which they will tie over the rooster's nail so they can spar without cutting each other.  It was interesting how much the rooster fight mimicked boxing - the roosters would spend a lot of time with their necks entwinded just sort of pecking at each other and then they'd make big moves, like flapping their wings to get some height and striking with their nail.  While the evening was fun as far as atmosphere goes, we only watched a few matches and the truth is, its kind of gross.   Once again, the idea was to see Nicaraguan culture, as is.

On Monday, we did our cooking tour.  Along with the two of us, there were two travellers from New Jersey.  Matt and I would be making the Iguana while they chose to make Indio Viejo, a different traditional Nicaraguan dish.  We started by heading to the central market to buy all of our ingredients.  Along the way, we saw a vendor who was selling turtle eggs, a traditinal delicacy that is now illegal.  Here is another Nicaragua "as is" moment.  There are many modern laws here, including a ban on talking on the cell phone while driving and rules against selling turtle eggs.  The problem is: none of the rules are enforced.  It's all well and good to have speed limits and stop signs, but as there are no officers giving tickets, no one seems to follow the laws.  

We went together with Harrie and his trainee, Luis, to buy our Iguanas, a type called Gorobo which is different from the Iguana Iguana (Green Iguana) that Matt had as a pet.  We bought two LIVE iguanas, decently sized, whose hands, feet, and mouth were all bound.  Then we all went to buy the beef for the Indo Viejo.  Harrie then handed the two couples a shopping list and said, now you go get the rest.  The fun is, he said, watching you try to find some ingredients you've never heard of, especially when you don't speak Spanish.  He was disappointed that Matt and I were able to maneuver our way so fluently.  However, I did learn that "frijoles en vara" are string beans and that "chimote" (I think) is baby corn.  We also bought some oil in a unique fashion.  Everything for the locals here is about saving money, so merchants will buy large, costco-sized jars of condiments, such as ketchup, mustard, mayonaise, and oil, then make custom plastic bags for customers.  Buy buying bulk and having no packaging, people can get exactly how much they want for less.  We bought a bag with a liter of vegetable oil.  

After we had all our ingredients, we took some local transportation to the family who would be instructing us.  What was that transport?  A pick-up truck with a metsl frame and a tarp that serves as local busses here.  There were about 12 people sitting on the benches along the sides and another 10 crammed in between.  As we were standing, I was barely able to reach the overhead bar and almost knocked a woman in the face with my grocery bag! 

Our first stop was a tortilleria, where we learned how they make the masa and then we got to make our own tortillas,  by hand.  Of course, they were nowhere near as good as the professional ones, as far as shape goes, but they suited our needs just fine.  We then headed to the home of a local family who would show us how they prepare their traditonal food.  We began with the Iguana soup.  You may recall that we had bought two LIVE iguanas.  The time came for their life to end.  The father of the family handed me a large knife and instructed me to saw off the head.  I was afraid that I wouldn't be strong enough and would just cause the Iguana a lot of suffering, which I couldnt't bear, so Matt cut off the heads of both Iguanas.  Then we each cut off the hands, feet, and tail.  Now, when you cut the tail, at some point, you cut through a nerve and even though the iguana is dead - he has no head - the tail begins twitching violently.  It was extremely freaky.  We then pulled off the skin and the father cleaned out the organs and cut each iguana into about 6 pieces, similar to a chicken: leg and thigh, arms (instead of wings), breast and upper back, upper tail and lower back.  We learned some interesting things about these iguanas, such as: they have TWO penises!  We also took some video of the heart still beating after the iguanas head had been cut off for more than 5 minutes.  

Once the butchery was done, the four of us did the rest of the prep - cutting and slicing all the vegetables we had bought and squeezing the juice from about 2 dozen sour oranges.  The rest of the soup was easy:  throw the iguana into some chicken broth with veggies and let cook/boil until done.  We then watched as the other couple prepared the Indio Viejo, which involves dissolving corn dough in water to make a thick stew.  While everything cooked, we sat down to enjoy some Nicaraguan salad with our tortillas, which is a lot like Israeli salad with pita, except spicier.  The Iguana soup was ready first.  It was a lot like chicken soup, except with Iguana.  In fact, at the risk of being cliché, the iguana really did taste like chicken!  The big difference is that the bones were more like fish bones - thin and sticky.  But it was white meat and delicious.  Then we all partook of the Indio Viejo, a thick stew with meat and vegetables.   By the time we were done, we were all stuffed and happy.  It was really a remarkable and memorable experience!

As we ate, we learned the myth behind the name of the dish, which means "Old Indian".  It goes as follows: before the Spanish arrived here, it was the tradition of the local people to offer lunch or dinner too any traveller who passed through their village.  When the Spanish arrived, they would travel in large parties.  One village saw the approach of the Spaniards and was worried, becuase they knew they did not have enough food to feed the travellers but could not neglect their custom.  One villager told eveyone to trust him, as he had a plan.  When then Spanish arrived, he went to meet them and said, "Welcome to our village.  It is nearly lunch time and it is our tradition to invite you to eat with us.  Will you join us?". The whole village was in fear at this invitation!  What was this guy doing?  Didn't he remember there wasn't enough food?  The Spanish accepted, but asked what they would be dining upon.  "Well," explained the villager, "yesterday, an old man died in our village. Since we are very poor and cannot waste any meat, we have been preparing and tenderizing the old indian body since yesterday and now he should be ready to eat." The Spanish thanked the villager for his kind invitation, but being averse to cannabalism, decided to continue on their way.  With this simple fabrication, the village was able to maintain their tradition without losing all their food. Pictures of the cooking and eating process will be on facebook shortly. 

Today, we headed down to the beach, Poneloya and Las Playitas.  The tide here is very strong so we didn't stay in the water too long.  Tomorrow we leave León, which we have enjoyed very much, and head to Granada.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


This is the church in León, the largest in Central America. Let me catch you up on recent eventa, loyal readers of ShapiroAdventures. After an evening of sleepless sleeping in our hotel in Managua, we decided to head out early. Turned out our baño privado was actually shared by way of a second door with a few other rooms of the hotel, so we decided not to be repeat customers. We flagged down a taxi and went to the Huellas de Acahualinca. According to their website they open at 8:00 in the morning, however upon arrival we were informed by the security guard that the opening time is at 9:00. We had decided to take a cab because Acahualinca is a bad neiborhood by Managuan standards, which means that we were happy to share some leftover snacks wih the security guard since he opened the heavy metal gate and let us hang out inside the musuem before everyone showed up. The musuem is very small, but pretty unique. The scientists believe that some Asian nomads were travelling through that area towards a water source when a nearby volcano erupted, spewing ash everywhere. Chance would have it that it would rain shortly thereafter causing this group of nomads' footprints to harden and remain until their discovery about 6000 years later. There are footprints from about a dozen humans and a number of animals. Throughout all the other strata, there aren't really any other indications of humans until about 800 years ago, most likely because the same combo of volcanic ash and subsequent rain did not occur with great frequency. This project also has international support, our tour guide mentioned the governments of Japan and Spain especially. It was a quick tour and afterwards we first encountered what we had heard was Nicaraguan kindness. We explained to our guide that we were going up to León via the UCA station, pronounced ooka, and he was kind enough to walk us down to the bus station (basically an unmarked corner) and explain that we shouldn't pay more than 5 cordobas in total for the two of us (about 22¢). After waiting for a few minutes we ended up just taking a cab since we had all our backpacks with us, but we appreciated his help nonetheless.
Here in León it is hot, the heat is everywhere, even taxi drivers buy little bags of cold water from street venders. There is a part of town where three or four hotels are located so we went there first, they were all basically full, but we managed to snag two dorm beds and set about a self-guided walking tour of the city. We came upon another hotel on the other side of the catedral which we ended up moving into since they had a private room with private bathroom as well as all the other amenities for the same price we were paying on the other side of town. We had a delicious lunch at Comedor Lucia, and dinner at the more expensice ViaVia cafe, not sure if it was worth the higher price. Yesterday we took a rooftop tour of the cathedral where we were specifically prohibited from ringing the bells. We also went to the musuem of myths and legends. Oddly enough this musuem is housed in an old prison, and there are prison murals all over. There is a slightly disturbing amount of pride in the manners of torture and prisoner treatment, especiallu considering that it was so recent and many of these people are still around. Across the street from the musuem is what looks like ancient ruins, but is actually a church that was bombed in the 1970's.
This morning we went to the Ruben Dario musuem, Dario is Nicaragua's most famous poet. We also went to Fundación Ortiz, a local art musuem with many signed Picassos and so forth. Tonight here is an opera being performed in the central park which we managed to catch a bit of the rehearsal last night, we will probably head over in a little bit. We have also signed up to see a rooster fight tomorrow, we will let you know who wins.
The hotstel we are staying in now is owned by a Dutchman, named Harrie, who says he travelled the whole world and never felt at home anywhere more than in León. He and his wife, also Dutch, are expecting their first child and he told us all about life here and how he plans to raise his child Nica, "with a touch European". Apparently there are many Europeans living here, some who send their children back to their home country to live with grandparents or other relatives half the year to keep up with language and other schooling. While life here isn't a retiree's paradise, "You don't come here to save money," Harrie said, its a nice city and a good life. He warned us that if we didn't have a specific time table and spent more than six days here, we might never leave. He could tell from my passport on check-in I had a Dutch (maiden) name, but I told him I spoke little dutch - just some words (mostly food items) and a children's song. I sang him "Klap in je hanjes" to teach his unborn child.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

El Salvador by the Numbers

Hello again loyal followers of Shapiroadventures! We are in Managua, Nicaragua, in a very questionable neighborhood, in an even more questionable hotel. We left San Salvador bright and early this morning at 4:45 and after crossing two borders, collecting a few more stamps on the passport, and eating a boatload of "healthy" snacks we made it just before seven tonight. Maybe the neighborhood will look a little better in the morning, but at night it appears to be a little sketchy. Regardless, we are most likely going to head to a musuem tomorrow morning and then head to Leon barring a dramatic improvement in our current perception of Managua. As far as the numbers go for El Salvador, it would appear that we left the country with about $90, $25 more than when we entered. We withdrew $720 from the checking account, meaning we spent about $695 during the 14 days we were in the country. This includes the $50 we spent on transportation today. Our average daily spend was $49.64, not too shabby. It's interesting to note that the cost of a hotel or dorm was a bit more than in other countries we have visited without necessarily a corresponding change in quality. Hot water was a little harder to come by, and A/C would greatly increase the cost of lodging. Despite that, the cost of food and especially economic transportation are extremely affordable. We could have saved a lot more money by cooking while staying in El Tunco instead of going to restaurants for every meal. A couple we met had said that $20 in groceries lasted them almost 2 weeks! That said, we had a good time, stayed in budget, and are looking forward to keeping it up here in Nicaragua!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Santa Ana to El Tunco

You will have to pardon the delay in updating our loyal readers as we have been very busy avoiding aggressive iguanas and frogs that attack you by peeing in your direction. We spent a few days in Santa Ana, managed to eat some pupusas and try the local firewater, El Chamaco(goes well with coke). We also visited the Teatro, where Sarah explained to me why the seats were set up the way they were. We checked out the Mayan ruins in nearby Tazumal for a day. These are pretty heavily excavated as can be seen by the well cornered cement sides of the pyramid. They did have a neat musuem with a lot of pottery and a very interesting statue (pictures to be on facebook soon). We had also wanted to go to another musuem where a boulder with an Olmec head carved into it is on display(legends of the hidden temple, anyone?), however that musuem was closed for renovation until May. Looks like we will have to come back. We had heard about a very famous sorbet place in Santa Ana, Sorbetes Sin Rival. In speaking to some locals we learned that this business was originally started by two brothers who have since parted ways. Now there is a poor brother who sells sorbet from a push cart and makes everything by hand, and a rich brother who has a shop near they central park. We first found the poor brother with his push cart, and both agreed it was delicious. The next day we went to the rich brother's shop, and I don't think I have ever had a chocolate product that tasted so unlike chocolate. So, should you find yourself in Santa Ana, find the poor brother's push cart and buy some sorbet. After a few days in Santa Ana we decided to go up to Júayua, a small town that has a food festival every weekend. We dined on delicious rabbit and handmade sausage. Additionally they have something of a reptlie zoo/rescue, Reptilandia, where the above picture was taken. The rabbit at the festival was really delicious, and quite filling. After the food festival on Sunday we caught a ride with some other travellers to Suchitoto, an older colonial town and hiked up the river to some secret waterfalls, apparently they weren't a secret to the bats that lived underneath!
After spending the night in Suchitoto we took a quadruple chicken bus voyage to get to El Tunco, a small, somewhat touristy, surfer beach near La Libertad. We have basically been relaxing, earing burritos and ceviche, and occasionally waking up before 9:00AM. Anyways, check facebook later today, I am going to try and upload a bunch of pictures from El Salvador and some from Copan, tomorrow we head to San Salvador to buy tickets to Nicaragua later this week.