Sunday, September 11, 2016

Being Tourists

Nicaragua has a couple of high seasons, times when tourists flock to the country and guides have plenty of work. August is the peak of high season, so our work on Ometepe was more of a strain for the guides than a help. It was the perfect time to take off for a couple of weeks to see some other tourism hotspots in the region, to learn about how they work - and to have fun, of course!

We have a long list of places in Nicaragua that we have yet to see, and Rio San Juan was one. It is a river that feeds from the southeast side of Lago Cocibolca, the lake our island is in (but we're on the western side of the lake), to the Caribbean coast. Nicaraguans take a special pride in Rio San Juan - those who have been tell of its beauty, those who have not generally want to go. It's on the border of Costa Rica, and is strategically important, so I'm sure politics have something to do with the pride.

The trip starts in San Carlos. It is less of a tourist town and more of a hub for transport, especially for produce, as evidenced by these plantains recently arrived from our island.

We grabbed a seat on a fast boat to El Castillo, a famed tourist town on the river, known for its nearly 350 year old fort.

Town is quite pretty, and the fort above makes for an impressive arrival.
We got there late, but were immediately impressed by the calm and beauty of the town - and its sunsets.

Not a bad place to work for a bit.
Our original plan was to stay one night, check out the fort, and be on our way. But El Castillo captured us and kept us for three nights, so we could enjoy the place a little more.

Our guide for the tour of the fort, Holga, has been guiding for twenty or thirty years, most of those in El Castillo, so she really knows her stuff.

She is also quite aware that a lot of her job consists of taking photos of tourists :-)

The fort has incredible views of the river and town.

It has quite a nice little museum, as well.

Town isn't exactly huge, with perhaps a couple thousand residents, but we could just walk around for hours. One reason it's so walkable is that there are no vehicles at all - you boat in, then you walk. Period.
No exceptions.

Main Street.
But the main attraction of Rio San Juan is the huge tracts of untouched rainforest, including the Indio Maiz reserve. It's not somewhere you can just walk to, however. You have to take a boat to get there, and that means hiring someone. The rules in many Central American national parks and reserves are very different than what we're used to in the US - you can't just go anywhere you like. You must have a guide with you (it's illegal not to), and you must stay to very specific trails. Most of the reserve is completely off limits to the public, only open to biologists by permit and the native people who have always lived there.
The red dot on the map is where the open trails were.
The dark green is the reserve - it's bigger than Yosemite.

The two trails, for a total of 3.5 miles.
So, we found a guide and booked a tour. Jeff chanced upon Juan Ardilla, who turned out to be one of the best guides in town.

Juan was excited that Jeff wanted to look for birds, and planned a tour for us leaving at 6 am. Oh goody! We took a relaxing float down the river in a canoe, looking for birds along the banks and enjoying the early-morning quiet. When we arrived at the reserve, we found armed military soldiers protecting the trailhead - also a little different than our US parks, but whatever works. They apparently practice their skills at their camp in the reserve, as there were several pits dug around the place for them to lay in and shoot from.
Not expected, but interesting.
We put on our rented mudboots and got going on the trail. Mudboots are a good thing, let me tell you.

As any of you who have hiked with birdwatchers know, you don't work up much of a sweat. We stopped a lot to look up, and to look things up.

But looking down was important, too. Juan found a bullet ant nest, and a few wandering bullet ants, who are famous for their unbelievably painful sting - and he made sure to display a little of the Latin machismo by getting one to walk on his arm for a photo op.

There were other poisonous critters about, this being the jungle and all, but some were awfully pretty.
Poison dart frogs!

Nicknamed Rana Jeans (jeans frog) because it looks like it's wearing blue pants.
Spikey plants should be avoided, as well.

But some critters that looked dangerous weren't at all - although this lady was at least the size of a US quarter.

There were suprisingly few flowers, for how Hollywood likes to depict the rainforest, but this one was abundant.
"Labios calientes" - hot lips. No kidding!
By far more abundant were the fungi, which I found fascinating.

Humid, much?

Lunch was to be provided by the river - with a little effort put in.
One of Juan's catches.

Fellow tourist Lieve caught one, too,
although she was a little creeped out by it.

Jeff had less luck, but fed a lot of worms to the fish, so someone scored.
Alas, the weather had other plans. While fishing, a true jungle downpour dumped on us. We were fishing, bailing out the boat, laughing, and just sitting and watching it all.

Our ride home, a motorboat, showed up, so we hitched the canoe to the back, climbed in, and took a "cold" ride home. Juan was cold, anyway, and Jeff was getting there. Kate was finally feeling comfortable.

Then, it was off to Costa Rica, the more famous, more visited, and economically better-off southern neighbor of Nicaragua. Eight years ago, we visited Costa Rica for a short vacation, back when we had "real" jobs with only two weeks' vacation time per year. We were the typical tourists from the US, wanting to see everything in a short time, speaking almost no Spanish, and amazed by palm trees. (The palm tree thing hasn't changed, actually.)

We remembered from our first trip the tiny town of Tortuguero, another place with no vehicles and a small-town vibe. As the name implies, turtles come to lay eggs there every year, which brings in a lot of tourism in turtle season. The first time we went, it was off season, so there was hardly anyone there. This time, however, there were a lot more tourists - partially because of the season, partially because tourism has grown.

We went in the way we came out last time, considered the "back way," and then only used by locals. Things have changed...

It was cool to be in Tortuguero to see the turtle nests. The beach looked like it had been dug up by excavating equipment, complete with tractor tracks.

We did see one turtle - dead, unfortunately, but dang, it was big.

The one we saw was a green - but the really big ones are the leatherbacks:


We didn't go out on a night tour to watch the turtles nesting. Something seemed a little strange about standing around in a group while some poor turtle laid her eggs. But we did go on a canoe tour one morning, again with a lot of birding.

It was lovely out there, so peaceful in the canoe, except when we came upon a caiman. Just like in the Everglades, they were easy to find - just look for crowds of tourists:

Again, like Nicaragua's Indio Maiz reserve, there was just one walking trail tourists were permitted on, and it was a bit short. But we did go. Jeff got a bit muddy in the process (Kate used her rented mudboots).

There was only a little wildlife on the trail, since it was so close to town, but we did get a good look at a Golden Orb Weaver.

We got better looks at wildlife at our hotel, as it turns out. The owner came around one evening to bring everyone back by the laundry station to see the famous Red Eyed Tree Frogs, which happened to be en flagrante at the time.

We also found this little guy on the wall of our room - never did figure out his species, but he's big for a tree frog!

We spent a fair amount of our time on this trip discussing training with the guides we toured with and other guides we met along the way. The difference between Nicaragua and Costa Rica was distinct - there are no real regulations for the guides in Nicaragua, but training was mandatory in Costa Rica. The Costa Rican government requires two years' training, but makes it relatively easy by bringing teachers to each place to train the local guides. Several years ago they had been to Tortuguero, where they stayed for two years. This is quite a surprise to me, as Tortuguero is pretty out of the way, and there are about 150 guides there. But Costa Rica takes its tourism economy very seriously.

Now that we are home, we are taking some of the lessons we learned from the guides and community in Tortuguero (and in Ostional, where we visited the projects of Paso Pacifico in July) to the guides of Ometepe and seeing what we can do to adapt them to the realities of guiding here. It is unlikely that we could (or would need to) require so much training time from our guides, as they are already guiding and have families to support. But hopefully we can create some in-between solution that will provide enough training to bring Ometepe's visitor service standards up, while acknowledging what our guides already know from experience.

Our last month here is during the slow season for tourism, which means we have a schedule packed with workshops and meetings. Birds and rocks and first aid, oh my! Look for blogs soon detailing the work side of our work - we don't just travel, we promise :-)

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