Saturday, September 7, 2013

My Buddy Got Stung By A Stingray & All We Did was Drink Beer: Nicaraguan Tales – San Juan del Sur version

San Juan del Sur prior to wealthy, yacht people invasion
Why go to Nicaragua? Seemingly very random spot, safety of debate, best known for Contras (if only Oliver North knew about UUDDLRBAS). Some friends suggested I visit this Central American country for a handful of reasons: everything's cheap, great for surfing, there's a volcano you can board down, but most importantly again - it's cheap. As in beers cost $1 cheap – at least Tonas do, the Nicaraguan beer that tastes like water but is surprisingly refreshing when ice cold. Coincidentally, the New York Times recently listed Nicaragua as the 3rd best visit place in 2013 ( Ahead of the game NYT! By the way, there's supposed to be a tilde over the "n" in Tonas, but I never know how to add those when typing.
I don't know those people. What a creeper.
Five of us traveled to Nica for about a week – staying the first few days in an eco-friendly residential neighborhood called Balcones de Majagual, about 15 minutes from the southwestern coastal town of San Juan del Sur and a 10-minute drive from beaches like Playa Maderas and Playa Majagual -- then staying the last few nights in Leon, located more centrally in the country.
Eco-friendly community = no flushing toilet paper
Pool in the trees! (Spiders not shown) 
Our lovely pad.
After reading about options to stay in a tree in Nicaragua, my heart was set. Balcones de Majagual was filled with vacation rental homes for ridiculously affordable prices. We stayed in a two-bedroom, two-bath treehouse with a pool, for around $120 each… for five days! For the mathematically-inclined, that’s $24 per person each day. The house wasn’t exactly Swiss Family Robinson either; we had a full kitchen, wifi (which was surprisingly abundant throughout the country), Boggle, and an awesome selection of blockbuster DVD titles like “Behind Enemy Lines 2” and “The Wiffler.” Needless to say, we were set.

Living room, aka "Starsky & Hutch" viewing room
View from our patio. Feet come with rental.
What was an interesting discovery for us spoiled American tourists, was that the plumbing is suspect in much of Central America. While the toilets worked, we were informed we could not flush toilet paper down the toilet. Instead we had to throw used toiled paper into a trash bin. This is the case for much of the country and certainly in San Juan del Sur. Of course, this led to much fear of the impending aroma, so as a result we played a point system of Chinese poker to determine who would have to take out the trash if the scent became overwhelming. Lose five times – earn five points, and you’re on trash detail! The threat of earning points loomed heavily over our trip, and as it were – no one had to ever take out the trash because we had cleaners. But believe you me – that fear was palpable.

Smiles are misleading. Petrified here.

Playa Remanso is behind the 900 sq feet of longboards here.

If you’re not surfing in San Juan del Sur, chances are you might get bored. The beaches in the area aren't Cancun-style - it's relatively isolated and quiet, there aren't many huge resorts (although eco-tourism is rising). If you're looking to rage like in your college days, there are better places to serve you than Nicaragua. Our concierge, Mandy, a friendly woman from North Carolinas, said she had to open a bar (Republika) to keep herself occupied in the lazy town. Most of the tourist attractions are geared for the more physically active – surfing, yoga, horseback riding – and the collegiate – booze cruises and pub crawls. Per the suggestion of a few locals, we went on the pub crawl which hit five bars and included seven free drinks for the price of $7 US. Have I mentioned how cheap Nicaragua is??? That being said, those free drinks at each bar tasted like the wrong side of an airplane cushion. The first spot we visited had a tiny pool in the corner of the bar, which seemed phenomenal but lacked execution. I can’t tell you the name of said bar because I jotted down the notes in my iPhone, which was destroyed a couple days later in the surf when my Lifeproof case proved to not be life proof. In addition to a pool, flip cup and limbo tournaments were featured on this crawl, which ended at Henry’s Iguana, a two-story bar that was the closest thing you’ll see to Cancun in Nicaragua.

Mitch enjoying bar pool.

Not to be confused w/One Republika - Nica's hottest boy band.
They advocate piano freestyling at Big Wave Dave's.
Playing some Left, Right, Center #2ndBestDiceGameEver
I lost a $5 exacta on that slow white pony.
Beach at SJDS. There's a mini Rio-esque Cristo statue on the hilltop.
Whether you’re a novice or Kelly Slater, Nicaragua has a manageable wave for your skill set. Our crew was certainly closer to the Shia LeBeouf-voiced penguin in the beginning of “Surf’s Up” – as opposed to the end when he was crushing waves like a legend. What? Nobody saw “Surf’s Up”? Totes good, yo. The first beach we hit up was Playa Remanso, which had mostly smaller waves. Aside from two small beach huts that serve food and drink, the beach is completely isolated. The rain started to dump when we there, but the water was comfortable so we stayed out on our boards, which cost just $15 to rent for the entire day.  They’re not great, but what’s it matter for us – we suck! My friends were able to get a private lesson for several hours at just $30, as well.
You see, because there are rocks. 
Playa Remanso 2
I don't know what they're doing. They're your friends.
Pete showing the ocean who's boss.
Why are people w/boards compelled to give hang loose signs?
Another beach to surf is Playa Maderas, aka Otter Head Beach (self-dubbed). Interesting name, you say? Well, it’s not a compliment. When we arrived in the afternoon, it was crowded, with lots of stray dogs running around. Maderas is a smaller beach, but it feels like more tourists camp out here. Surf companies usually decide which beach to take you to solely based on the day’s currents. Anyway, when we set our towels down, dogs hounded us like panhandlers in San Francisco. I noticed one dog was very territorial over some chew toy in his mouth. It was an f’n otter head! One might be inclined to ask, how do you know it was an otter head? Well, rest assured, you can tell! This trampy dog dropped the otter head very close to me, then started playing with another dog who grabbed the otter head, much to the dismay of the new dog’s owner who begrudgingly had to grab the head out of her dog’s mouth and toss it aside. That’s a run-on sentence I hope I never have to write again. That’s Otter Head Beach. We weren’t there very long.
This is the most photogenic thing at Otter Head Beach.
Just a 5-minute drive away from Maderas is Playa Majagual, a very isolated beach that you have to walk by private property to get to -- private property with a rather intimidating skull and cross bones sign that says not to trespass. Majagual is open with lush greenery, but didn’t seem like a very swell surf beach. Swell?!!! Oh puns.
Playa Majagual. Yo vivo feo.
The true beach gem of San Juan del Sur, is the fittingly titled Playa Hermosa. We were the first to arrive at this beach, and as Dirk Nowitzki would say, we shut it down and went home! There’s a summer camp vibe here, with volleyball court, bars, and hotel right in front of the beach, which is big enough that you don’t have to worry about surfing into anyone if that’s a concern (and the way we surf, it is a concern). The waves started strong, but died quickly when we were there, but there are nice, rolling waves ideal for longboarding.

Hermosa. I regret we didn't play Top Gun volleyball here.
Stretching time 'cuz we're old.
The waves disappeared for several hours.
Stingray attacks are common at Hermosa, and it’s imperative that you shuffle or stomp your feet when entering the water… as my friend, Stu, learned. After catching a wave – who am I kidding – after getting demolished trying to catch a wave, he stood up and got shanked by a stingray in the big toe. Bastards! When we got back to the bar, there were already people sitting nursing stings. The anecdote is hot water, which apparently burns out whatever it is stingrays do to you. (I’m not Wikipedia, go over there for accurate, verified info!) The bartender could not be more indifferent to Stu’s plight. He slowly grabbed a bucket of hot water, as Stu’s faced started looking like the Japanese dude at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Some Australian guys we hung out with the previous night likened the pain from a stingray sting to a bullet wound, and his friend apparently had that experience to compare. The friend was Russell Crowe. That’s a lie. Anyway, after Stu got stung, there was a lot of sitting around drinking Tonas as we took turns heading back out to surf.

Unnecessary CU of Stu's sting.
Post-sting Stu. He's fine.

When I did head back out, I basked in one of the greatest, most exhilarating rides of my life. As I paddled back out, I decided to capture the moment with my Lifeproof-cased phone, which was zipped up in my side pocket. When I took it out, the latch was hanging open as water oozed out – akin to a recent situation when I went surfing with a waterproof camera in Puerto Rico. So why did I take my phone/camera out surfing in the first place? Glad you asked, first, my GoPro randomly stopped working days before the Nica trip, so I didn’t have an alternative waterproof device… and I’m always compelled to capture the moment. Second, my memory is so lousy that I need to take pics to document what I’ve done, otherwise I wouldn’t remember anything! (Partially the reason for this blog, actually.) Third, I love taking pictures and assumed that my Lifeproof case would be life proof. Whatever mom! Get off my back, I don’t have to explain myself!  When I returned to the bar to show everyone what happened to my phone, the bartender immediately asked if I needed rice and grabbed a bag for me to soak my iPhone. It didn’t work, but I appreciated it on two levels – one for the obvious assistance, but two – for the urgency he showed me compared to Stu and his girly little sting. Poison? Whatever, I’ve got Angry Birds to save!

Lost my phone here. CU would show anger.
Lost phone remedy.
No filter. Looks like the backdrop in "Three Amigos."
Eat: El Colibri – best food in town, Mediterranean cuisine, run by English expats – (my boy Stu asked where they learned English… oh Stuart!); Big Wave’s Dave – good breakfast, ridiculously slow service; Bad Ass Eats – fast, cheap tacos; Taco Shop – street tacos; El Pollito Pescador – recommended chicken place that ran out of chicken, decent; El Timon – seafood, excellent ceviche, good value, beachfront.
El Timon sunset.
Seafood casserole. #FoodPorn
Lobster ceviche. #MoreFoodPorn

Drink: Republika (we played a game of Jenga here and the only reason I mention it is because it was the worst game in the history of Jenga – 5 people were playing, and after 3 people went, the game was already over… 2 peeps didn’t even play!!! Pathetic); Henry Iguana’s.

Jessica is the worst Jenga player ever... and two hands is cheating!

Sunset from the treehouse
Sunset at Hermosa.

Next: Volcano sledding in Leon.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

4 Days in May - Adventures in Puerto Rico

In my 32+ years of travel, I’ve never booked a plane ticket the day before going on a trip. Despite what I thought was myriad independent travel, I’ve never really gone on a vacation by myself. I can now check those off my proverbial list. Time will tell if I do it again...

There was not enough of this
I recently had four days off from work and felt propelled to travel somewhere memorable. Thanks to Priceline, I booked a flight, hotel, and rental car for Puerto Rico the day before flying out. I chose PR for a combination of reasons: price, exoticness (is that a word?), sun, surf, and caves. Yep – caves – google: Angel Caves Puerto Rico. There’s rappelling/ziplining/river floating. I originally attached the link but it was the size of a Joyce novel so I removed it.

I checked and it showed me a nice, sun icon that practically offered me two scoops of raisins. Temperatures in the high 80s with 70% chance of scattered showers. Whatever, big smiling sun was good enough for me. Little did I know, Raisin Bran Sun had plans of disappearing like the Angels pitching staff.
Optimus Prime pooped this out

It was already raining when I landed. Whatever, I’m sure RBS will come back later, so I rented my economy G-ride, the Scion IQ, slightly more spacious than a Hot Wheel, and it was adventure time.

When driving the poorly labeled highways of PR, you can’t help but wonder if they followed the right lane fast, left lane slow rule. After driving through much of the island and logging nearly 500 miles, I still don't know. Everybody was passing everybody everywhere, much of the time to avoid potholes bigger than the one in Springfield that was never fixed because the citizens wanted a monorail. What’s the general global consensus of right lane fast/left lane slow? If you drive on the left side of the road, do you still pass people on the left? I have no joke. I really want to know. I think the answer is yes, but am not worldly enough to know.

If you've read this blog before, you know in general I'm pretty optimistic. That being said, this trip made me wonder if I had to reevaluate myself karmically. So many things went off the tracks it felt like the universe was telling me I shouldn't have taken the trip. Much of it is because I didn't do the requisite research I'm accustomed to before traveling. I've come to the realization that I'm a finicky enough traveler that I'll get frustrated if I feel like I'm not squeezing every drop of juice out of the orange. I now present…

What Went Awry

1.) Stark Caving Sad

The caving excursion – all the rappelling, all the zipling – was only available Fri thru Sun. I pleaded and bargained with Adventuras PR, not happening. This is completely my fault as I didn't properly research beforehand, and coupled with the poor weather conditions, there were not going to be any exceptions.

2.) Cold Clocked

My intention for my first full day was to check out Culebra, a gorgeous, undeveloped, white-sand beached island off the territory’s eastern coast. The only way to get there is via flight or ferry. If you’re only looking to do a day trip, ferry departure times are 9am or 1pm. That’s it. The ferry has limited capacity, so it’s advised you arrive at least an hour early during the non-busy time of year. Camping out is suggested for the busy season. 
View from Howard Johnson. 2x Silver Slugger Winner.

Anyway, it should take me around an hour to get to the launching area in Fajardo, so I set my phone alarm at 6am (by the way, did you know Puerto Rico is on Central time? Wacky!) and went to sleep with it charging. I didn’t have a back-up because the hotel alarm clock didn’t work, which is amazing because it was a Sony Dream Machine, which are like cockroaches and never die. Also, I didn’t call the front desk for a wake up – don’t have an excuse other than laziness. 

When I woke up in the morning, I was tired but felt rested. Not good. Checked my phone; it was completely off, which is peculiar because that’s not normally what happens when you charge it overnight. The battery was completely cashed. More importantly, the time was nearly 7:30am. As I rushed out of the hotel, the lobby receptionist noted that it’s very unlikely I would make it – and it might not even be worth it since the weather is poor. About two minutes into my drive, I decided to roll with the punches, redirect my plans. Driving an hour out of the way is to far to end up with bubkes (I don’t know why I just wrote that word. I don’t use it and haven’t heard it in 20 years. Weird.), so I decided I’d head to the western part of the island instead; check out the world famous surfing beaches of Rincon, about 2.5 hours the opposite direction. Culebra ain’t going anywhere, I’ll just hit that up the next day. Rerouting.

3. Landslides: The Art of Congestion

After enduring a good amount of traffic on the way to Rincon, according to my cartoon map of Puerto Rico provided by the Howard Johnson (the hotel, not the ex-Met – I know you’re confused), I was about 10 minutes away when the highway became the parking lot after a Lakers game. No one was moving and the grandma with a walker from “Office Space” even passed me. I debated whether to wait it out because I’m so close, or to reroute again and find another surfing spot. As I continued to sit in my Scion – now feeling like the hole that Andy Dufresne had to endure after crossing the warden – I toggled between my cartoon map and a Frommer’s Guide for the best surf spots on the island. Apparently there’s a nearby spot that’s not as famous as Rincon, but well-known called Aguadilla. Rerouting again. 
Salitre restaurant so fresh, they serve merman.

Finding the ocean is not difficult when navigating PR, finding a beach when you’re using cartoon maps is more of a challenge. The rain starts to dump and after driving for around 3.5 hrs total, I stumble across a tiny surf shop and hidden surfer’s beach creatively called Surfer’s Beach. The surf shop clerk is from Rincon and tells me the reason for the traffic was a landslide, and it backed up travelers and commuters for hours. A mother loving landslide? C’mon man.

4.  Camera Oops

So what if I couldn’t make it to Rincon. I was at Surfer’s Beach now, a perfectly hidden gem where I could attempt to surf but really just-get-my-ass-kicked-by-the-current-and-paddle-around-for-hours. My goal was to surf in PR; and I was doing it. After a couple hours, I was hungry and headed to another suggested spot – Jobos Beach in Isabella.

By the time I found it, the sun had miraculously popped up, and after a quick bite, I headed back into the liquid. The waves here were better for beginner/intermediate surfers and more my style, but ultimately I sucked here, too!
One of greatest pina coladas ever. Ever.

Now prior to making this trip, I bought a shockproof/waterproof/freezeproof Fujifilm digital camera from Costco. To open the latch and insert the SD card or battery, it’s a two-tier process. You have to push a button, rotate a dial 360 degrees, then the latch pops open. Two-tier. Seems reliable.

I put my snazzy new camera in my zipped-up board short pockets and paddled out in Jobos. When I finished and got back to the car – in rain, of course, the camera’s latch was hanging open. Somehow the ocean was able to work in conjunction with the surfboard and my shorts, to open the latch... in my pocket! The Knicks wish they had this teamwork. As I inspected the camera, about 4 gallons of water rushed out. The camera is slightly larger than an i-Phone, so how 4 gallons of water came out is indeed, quite mysterious. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle should get on it. The milky-white battery fluid oozed everywhere like when the droid in "Alien" got waxed. Anyway, cue up the Jack Johnson: gone, going, gone, everything, gone. New camera – gone. Pics/SD card – later.

5. Ferry Bust

Cats and dogs, yo. Cats and dogs.
When I got back to the hotel after driving through the same storm Noah built an Ark for, I chatted with another frustrated weather-goer, who mentioned she was disappointed about the ferry to Culebra. Considering my plan was to head out there tomorrow, I inquired further. She said the ferry was not going to run because the weather was too poor. Holy feces! The hotel corroborated the info. Culebra? More like Cruel-ebra. 

What Went Right

1. Ziplining (La Bestia) the Beast at Toro Verde in Orocovis

Advertised as the world’s tallest zipline (but who knows if that’s really true) at 853 feet, it’s also one of the longest at 4, 745 feet. It’s a quick ride, less than two minutes, but it’s a thrill to fly, although you’re supposed to keep all your limbs really tight to your body otherwise the wind will stop you in the middle and you’ll just dangle above the forest… which is what I did. High five! Toro Verde Adventure Park, just an hour outside of San Juan, has several other attractions that certainly seem worth experiencing.

2.  La Comida

I feel like I made up for all the inclement weather by eating like the dudes in the KFC commercials. I ate the bones, for sure. Restaurants to visit: 
PR beer = Medalla = Michelob = One-time thing
- La Ropa Viega (Condado/San Juan) – Puerto Rican/Cuban cuisine; everything’s good.
Salitre Meson Costero (Arecibo) – Puerto Rican/seafood; oceanfront; incredibly fresh; try the grilled octopus; pina coladas are registered amazeballs. 
 El Jefe Burger Shack (Loquillo) – located with a strip of food kiosks off the highway like a row of Austin food trucks; one of the best burgers I’ve EVER had in my life – ½-pound fresh chuck steak stuffed with Spanish chorizo (beer-braised short ribs was another option), and topped with all fresh ingredients, including fried egg. 
Perurrican (Condado/San Juan) – Peru/Puerto Rican; more trendy/touristy; beachfront.

3. Checklists
I list these here because the events were not exactly what I would label “worthwhile,” but I wanted to brag that I crammed more crap into this trip and can say “I did that” when conversing with fellow pretentious world travelers.
I went on a bioluminescence kayak tour in Laguna Grande in Fajardo. Sounds cool; my tour book said it was a bucket list experience. Turns out, the tour book meant “bucket list of shit that’s not worth it.” It was supposed to look like this: ( Wrong. You could hardly see any glowing of anything in the water. I was expecting aurora borealis beneath my board shorts. #Disappointing.
This place makes me wish I was 006
I also checked out the Arecibo Observatory, the world’s largest radiotelescope. I don’t know what that is, and I didn’t sit around for the talkie film that would’ve explained it to me. I did recognize it from the end of “GoldenEye.” In case you haven’t seen that Bond movie, it’s where Pierce Brosnan kills Sean Bean. Yeah, I specifically ruined the end for you – just like how that experience ruined 45 minutes of my day (43 of which were spent getting there).
Maybe those should’ve been listed in the What Went Awry category. I sound angry. I need an Eskimo Pie.

4. I’m still on vacation

As crappy a surfer as I am, I still got to get back in the ocean on a board, and the bottom line was, I was still able to go to PR for a few days.

I’ve been asked having experienced the comedy of errors that occurred over the course of my 4-day jaunt (just two full days though), would I do it again? I have to admit, I would not. At least not like this. As previously mentioned, I’ve never gone on a trip this spontaneously, and certainly never alone. I imagine my impulses will likely test the spur-of-the-moment travel again, and I may end up in a similar situation. If so, I guarantee I will do more research than checking out a tour book from the library less than 10 hours before flying out. My need to maximize my vacation as oppose to relaxing during it, is not conducive to ill-prepared travel. I like to have my carefree time, but sometimes that’s got to be scheduled!
Me and my IQ enjoying the rare sunset

On the traveling alone aspect, I find it gets boring at a certain point, especially at night. The people I met in PR I guarantee I will not talk to again. Some of the conversations I had at the bars and casinos were not exactly winners – and I’m not saying I’m not to blame, but while I’m smiling and conversing on the outside; in my mind it’s like that scene in “What Women Want” when Marisa Tomei is boffing Mel Gibson and wondering if Britney Spears is on Leno. Of course, if this was re-shot today, Tomei would be wondering when Gibson will start burning crosses, but I digress. (And don’t act like you haven’t seen “What Women Want.”)

Some of my family and friends can handle solo travel far better than I – check out my buddy’s better written and more entertaining blog for an example: ( For me, I’d rather share the travel experience with someone I care about, as opposed to finding new people to care about them with. That being said, I’m glad I finally did something like this, even if it’s taken more than 3 decades. One of the best things about travel, alone or with others, is that it’s always a process of self discovery. While spontaneous travel can be incredible, sometimes you need to slow down and breathe. Like highway driving, you have to know your lane. In this instance, I’ll stick to the right.
85% Goose/15% grapefruit. Think they valued the fresh juice more

There was an alien abduction shortly after this

Plaza del Mercado, where the locals hang

I don't know what the F this is

What??? VIDEO? Bless America!