Granada, the jewel of Nicaragua

Granada has been a godsend. My days here have saved my Nicaragua experience. I am incredibly glad that past-Erin and past-Nick had the foresight to change plans and allocate more time to this beautiful city. And it is quite beautiful. Finally, FINALLY I have found my place in Nicaragua with surroundings that make my heart sing, cheap and varied street food, and excellent company.

Granada claims to be the first European city in mainland America, founded in 1524 by Francisco Cordoba. Filled with brightly colored churches and buildings, it is a candy-colored treat of a colonial city.

The cathedral.

Rainy Parque Central during one of the brief afternoon downpours.

The main bar street that is always bustling at night.

Iglesia de Xalteva.

Iglesia de la Merced.

View from Iglesia de la Merced bell tower, looking west.

Me, up in the tower, looking east towards the cathedral.

The lobby of my gorgeous Granada hostel, the aptly named Oasis.
An awesome place to stay, they had it all, including a killer free pancake breakfast.

Time for a day trip, chicken busing it to Masaya to check out the market.
Promenade to the shore of Lake Nicaragua.

Cemetery walk! Inspired by fourth of July conversations and reminders about myself.
Strolling amongst the gravestones.

Another mark to me of a city I will love? Finding a top-notch bookstore. In Granada, the best by far is Lucha Libro, kitty-corner from the Garden Cafe. They have a shelf of mostly classics that are 3 for $10 that completely destroyed my current pack weight. Headed for some long travel days and a week on an island, I bought eight.

“Best Bookstore in Central America”
Lucho Libro from the street. Painting credit Joe Kaknes, via Lucha Libro’s facebook page.

And of course, my favorite, the food. I only ate in a restaurant once in Granada because the street food with so good, cheap, and plentiful. Lots of fried little tidbits with cheese, chicken, beans, or rice with the canonical Nicaraguan cabbage slaw on top.

These things don’t look like much but they are awesome. About fifty cents for like an empanada stuffed with rice, beans, and chicken with slaw and hot sauce. One of my faves from the street.

Hot masa and cheese pancakes for $0.20 each.

Lunch at the Masaya market. This plate–with steak–cost about $1.50, plus $0.20 for an avocado.

Nicaraguan version of an enchilada, with a side of fried cheese, $1.

Time for a little dulce… is piña really supposed to be red though?

Quesillos: thin slices of queso fresco heated in a tortilla then topped with cream and hot sauce. 

Munchin’ a quesillo. Que rico!

Looking all “travely”, lunching in Parque Central with multiple books in hand.
Ten minutes later the sky opened up and it pissed rain.

$2 lunch close up! Pork, rice and beans, slaw, pickled veg, and tortillas.
I still have no idea what type of fruit that juice is from…

My one restaurant meal: travel buddy date night. 🙂 Piña coladas and DNMs ensued.

I took a final day walk around town with two of my bestest–and also fantastically most frequent–travel buddies Nick (Lake Atitlan, Lanquin, Utila, San Pedro Sula, Leon, Ometepe, Granada) and Joanne (Xela, Antigua, Lanquin, Caye Caulker, Punta Gorda, La Ceiba, Utila, Leon, Granada). Just coming up with this list made me realize: EVERY PLACE I have been over the past three and a half months–save two combined weeks in Flores, Ambergris Caye, San Ignacio, and Roatan–I have seen one of the two of them! It is a small, small gringo trail. Luckily I’m in good company.

Picking up strays along the lakefront.

An offer of ice cream; sharing is a very important quality in a travel buddy.

*HEART.* May our paths cross another another adventure soon!

And with that, I wish Nicaragua a fond farewell. I will miss Granada and you guys! Much love! ❤

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My fourth of July and getting into the American spirit

Boston, in my mind the heart and soul of the fourth of July. Photo credit scullingfool.

I am a lover of holidays and pageantry, things the fourth of July does in spades.  It is one of my very favorite holidays. Growing up, it was a time for the whole neighborhood to come together in the street just outside my house and set off fireworks together. This year the fourth was a travel day from Ometepe to Granada and the whole time I was dreaming of being back in Boston, while searching for festivities here. When I lived in Boston, I adored the incredible bang-out spectacle put on along the Charles River. Can any other place really rival the Bostonian spirit on the fourth? I miss the crackling energy and excitement of the crowds, big band music being played by the Boston Pops, the visual explosions of a mad fireworks show over the Charles, and over-the-top Americana and patriotism. America–and I say this with complete sincerity on the fourth–FUCK YEAH.

Back at our hostel in Granada, we started the evening out fairly normally, gathering in the hostel common room eating guacamole and drinking Flor de Caña seven-year rum. Nick fancied things up for the occasion with smoothies instead of the usual rum and (imho) crap Coke.

What says “America” more than mango-banana-rum liquados? I switched to beer later. 😛

Captain Social holding court.

After a while of usual raucousness, the Americans in the group started to get restless. The table split based on nationality and we rocked out. Immediately, I found my partner in crime: Trent, an amazing guy from Utah who it turns out I have so much in common it is freaky, or, as he put it, awesome. He was also feeling the need to celebrate and do something quintessentially American. We both missed the celebrations happening at home. One tradition of his is to read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution every year on the fourth, which I loved and may need to add to my life. He had actually spent a good chunk of the day searching for fireworks but unfortunately to no end. The two of us broke away from the crowd (really people, ladies night shots at some bar? I sooo need better festivities than that on the fourth!!) and headed to Parque Central for late night hot dogs and to brainstorm some Americana mischief. What could we do?

Inspiration struck: find some tea and dump it in a body of water. Concrete, simple, silly, and perfectly on theme. The Bostonian in me loved it. Initially I was thinking as a purist and assumed we could track down some real-ish tea in a teabag. But, after three tries, the first tea we came across was premade sweetened Nescafe iced tea. It was too hilarious to pass up. We got some in a to-go plastic cup with a straw and slice of lime. Just like Paul Revere used to make.

Now for the body of water. We noted a few dingy half-filled fountains as backups, but headed due west towards Lake Nicaragua. Along the walk, Trent started drinking our prop. 😛 I hadn’t been to the promenade along the lake shore yet, and in fact didn’t even know it existed. Turns out it was the perfect spot. We hopped the parapet and trudged through the marshy grass to the water’s edge.

At 11:30 p.m., just in time for it to still be the fourth of July, we ceremoniously poured our cup of iced tea into Lake Nicaragua while singing “America the Beautiful”, whose lyrics were written by Katharine Lee Bates, Wellesley class of 1884. I threw in a loud chorus of “SISTERhood” as is Wellesley tradition. After we finished our song, Trent chucked in the lime round as well, just for good measure. It was utterly delightful. I was in stitches.

Lake Nicaragua shore in daylight.

Who knew this combo plus a couple of Toña litros would be quite so awesome?

Lady at a cock fight

WARNING: This post contains images of animal violence and blood some may find disturbing. 

Day one in Leon was a blank page. A day for city exploring or a mystery activity. On the night I arrived, the obvious choice was laid out: some friends were going on a tour to the once-a-week local cock fight. NicAsi tour company easily connects tourists with the local Sunday cock fighting culture by providing transport, introductions, and a little insight into what is apparently a favorite Nicaraguan pastime. The next afternoon, with gambling money stuffed in my bra, I hopped in the back of our sweet ride and headed for the fight.

Our chariot.

Our tour group disembarked and began the afternoon with a baby shot of truly terrible cheap-ass rum. As the tour includes an open bar, everyone then moved on to Toña beer, which is the beer of choice in Nicaragua. After a first night in Leon filled with too many mojitos, I stuck with mineral water instead. Or I thought I did. I refilled my water bottle from the normal looking jug, but what I thought was bottled water was actually tap water. Whoops… since, I have learned that much of Nicaraguan tap water (at least in the places I visited) is from springs and considered safe to drink. Who knew?

Learning the finer points of the “best” crap cheap rum. Still made by Flor de Caña, so it must be ok, right? Ick!

Feeling mischievous eating an arroz con pollo pasty. Delish.

A true local haunt, the Gallera takes place every Sunday on family farm grounds fifteen minutes outside of Leon. The owners open up this private space on their farm to friends, then take a 10% commission on all winnings. A small wooden ring with seating provided the main venue. Before the fights started, men played a roulette-like game, watched soccer, or just stood around shooting the shit. This is a small-time community arena. Apparently there are much bigger cock fights elsewhere and if a gallo does particularly well here his owner will bump him up to the big leagues. We were an obvious group of gringos, but I felt welcomed. Everyone I spoke to was friendly, in a good mood, and happy to chat.

The contenders. Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.

The arena. Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.

A little something to pass the time before the real action begins. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

I flitted around chatting with local men, learning a little about cock fighting from them and how to select a fuerte gallo to bet on. Men continued to arrive in a slow but steady stream, more often than not bringing a rooster cradled in their arms. They were affectionate with their roosters; our guide said that roosters are the closest thing in Nicaragua to a pet and are greatly valued and cared for. Dogs are protectors, cats are pest control, roosters are loved. One man I was talking to insisted on bringing his gallo out of its cage and plopped it in my arms for a photo.

Think I’ve got myself a winner!

One of the proud papas. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

There are very detailed mechanics and procedures for a cock fight, but in this casual neighborhood environment they are all self-managed. Gallos are weighed to ensure a fair fight, like weight classes in boxing. Owners then agree on matching up, select a peer referee, and determine betting odds. Each owner must put up whatever total amount they decide to bet, but they do not have to put it up all by themselves. This is where everyone else comes in. Members of the crowd are then able to join the betting by huddling around the owners and kicking in money.

Into the weighing cone. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.

Once the details are out of the way, gallos are prepared for the fight. They are armed with sharp hooked razors attached to their leg. These are indeed weapons, but meant only to maim, not kill, as these gallos do no actually fight until the death. The winner is determined once the looser runs away or lays on the ground in submission.

Suiting up. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

Ready to fight. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

Next step: get the gallos in the ring and riled up. A harnessed gallo hung from a post just off the ring and was waved in front of the competitors to ignite their fighting spirit. I likened his role to a “fluffer”. My friend Julie, who is a clothing designer, got inspired to make chicken-shaped handbags. Sounds pretty super hip to me.

The harnessed “fluffer” rooster, used to excite the gallos during their warm up.

Getting ready in the ring. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.
.
The fluffer in action.

Once everyone is ready to go, the gallos are placed opposite each other with a board in between. The ref lifted the board and the fight began.

Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.

Gallos confront each other. The beak seemed to be a more effective weapon than the leg razor. Pecks to the neck result in bleeding quickly. This shows up especially well on white-feathered birds. I don’t know why I didn’t expect it, but the sight of blood spatter on the dirt floor of the arena surprised me.

A standoff. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

Gallos square off, then flap, peck, scratch, and dance. The owners remain in the ring with the gallos and the ref, goading on their contended if the action ever slowed. The crowd cheered obscenities, enthralled.

The fight in action.

Spectators. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

The involved crowd. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

If one gallo has not submitted within a few minutes, a break is taken for owners to clean, rest, and rouse their rooster. Afterwards, back into the ring they go, repeating until a victor has emerged or a draw is called if the fight goes on for fifteen minutes.

In between sets, the serious men of the ring. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

Sucking blood from the injured gallo during a break. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

The fight resumes with a final attack. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

Winner or loser? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

Paying up. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

I usually turned away before the bitter end of the fight. (After all, there was also soccer happening and snacks to be eaten.) Eventually, both bloodied around the neck and under the wings, one gallo always submitted. After, everyone gathered around the owners to collect their winnings or contribute to the pot. While supposedly these fights are not fatal, the damage to both gallos is bloody and gruesome. What happens to the losers? Are they actually nursed back to health or turned into soup?

Child holding a winner. Photo courtesy of Juliet Jones.

Overall, it was a fascinating peek into a Nicaraguan cultural phenomenon. However, upon posting the photo of me holding the rooster on Facebook, I heard a small uproar from a few friends who objected to me participating in such an event on the basis of animal cruelty. Totally a valid argument and I can understand them being upset. However, from a cultural perspective, it is the third most popular sport in Nicaragua. I found connecting with the people at the event, not the actual fight part, to be an incredible opportunity. Talking with the locals in their off-time was a treat and a glimpse into their real lives.

I know people may not be happy when I say this as it is not politically correct, but animal rights is not a passion for me. I greatly respect others’ strong views on this issue, but personally I eat meat, don’t have pets, and going to a cock fight does not get my blood boiling. I would NEVER hurt an animal directly, but I view visiting this cock fight less as supporting cruelty and more as trying to understand an aspect of my fellow human beings’ culture. I felt like this was one of the most real interactions I had with Nicaraguans the whole time I was in the country. I enjoyed the experience as a whole and given the same situation I would go again. To all the animal lovers out there, I hope we can still be friends.

My introduction to Nicaragua: León

It’s been a while since I explored a new place, let alone a new country. My first stop in Nicaragua was León. I looked forward to the return to a city, new street food other than baleadas, and rock bottom prices. I realized upon crossing the border that this is the last new country I intend to visit on my trip.

León is a small-feeling city, with surprisingly chill energy. I stayed at Bigfoot Hostel in the center of town, and most of hostel life revolved around novel day trips like cock fighting and volcano boarding followed by partying at night. While fun, it feels cliche and a little silly, very gringo path again. I found it somewhat difficult to connect with the city. I spent a few hours a day wandering the city core but never felt like I got the spirit. One thing I have been disappointed in is my lack of learning about Latin American history. I had hoped to do some of that here in León but failed miserably due to museum closures and late returns from day trips.

The city has elements of pretty, but I wouldn’t call it beautiful so far. I am actually a little surprised that I am not more enchanted. My experience in León has felt fragmented… I think I am going through a bit of Utila detox and having a little trouble bonding with new things and adjusting expectations.

Parque Central. Lions are (unsurprisingly, I suppose) EVERYWHERE in this city!

Iglesia de San Francisco, dusted by volcanic ash.
Another view on a clearer day. Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.
The cathedral. Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.

My first night I went out in search of street food for dinner. I was surprised by how difficult it was to track down anything that was not a hamburger, hot dog, or pizza. Frustration! During the day I found chicken plates (C$90/$3.75USD) served up outside the main market and flavored shave ice (C$12/$0.50USD) off Parque Central easily.

Now that’s what I’m talking about…

 

I wondered what she had in her cart… turns out it was a block of ice, waiting to be shaved.

 

Excited to dig in!
Shave ice with dulce de leche sauce. Mmm….

Nicaragua is known to be quite safe, and I do feel secure here. However, it is also just behind Belize in the frequency of cat calls and attention noises (whistles, clicking, etc) I receive walking down the street. It is noticeable and not my favorite. It doesn’t make me feel unsafe, but it is a bother.

Physical goods are indeed quite cheap! I’ve already stocked up on a few replacement items and some new beachy dresses for Mexico.

Something I did not anticipate: the beginning of the rainy season. This put a damper on overnight volcano trekking plans, which was a huge shame. Oh well, there are other volcanoes to climb, and I’m sure we’ll find one to tackle!

Unfolding Utila

I spent four days in Utila getting settled, choosing a dive shop, taking care of some life admin, and getting a few more fun dives under my belt before starting my Advanced Open Water course. My energy and inspiration level was low and I wasn’t digging what Utila was selling.

If you haven’t read it, I suggest you improve your life and do so.
Source: Google Images

Sometimes you need someone else’s love of a place to open your eyes. Like how Bill Bryson’s deeply affectionate account In a Sunburned Country *completely* turned around my interest in Australia 180 degrees.

My guide in Utila became my fellow diver (and, though not made official with a log book autograph, I counted him as my buddy), Edwin. A native of Honduras’ capital city Tegucigalpa visiting from his now-home in Miami to surprise his family for Mother’s Day, he was a bright ray of sunshine. Utila was his place. A place he had been coming for years, first learned to dive, knew people, had some of his fondest memories, and deeply loved. He was purely happy to be back and it showed. And he was kind enough to share his island and his company with me. When experiencing it through his enthusiastic eyes it was impossible to not be affected.

I like piña liquados…

My regular readers may have noticed a pattern in my travels: the way to this girl’s heart is through her stomach. After our second day of diving together, we grabbed lunch of super baleadas and fried plantains covered with ground pork, cabbage, and other typical taco toppings. When I asked him about must-eats around the island the day quickly snowballed. First, we went to Reef Cinema (also the site of a kick ass book shop!) for the best smoothies in town. Even though we just finished eating, we then had get some sopa de caracol (conch soup), *the* dish he emphatically said I must try. Diving is hungry work!

He tracked some down and I learned that sopa de caracol is also the name of a breakout hit 90s Honduran punta/pop song akin to the Macarena, the video of which is FANTASTIC! Look at those outfits… Our soup was cooked fresh especially for us for by a Garifuna woman, who left her restaurant to purchase the conch immediately after we ordered it. Laced with curry, lime, cilantro, and hot sauce with huge hunks of conch, plantains, carrot, and mazapan fruit, it was incredible.

Sopa de caracol, wow!

Over all the tastiness of the day, we talked non-stop about careers, management, family, environmentalism, education, San Francisco and Miami, food, diving, and his dreams to improve Honduras. His bright and optimistic, yet realistic and grounded, outlook was inspiring.

On tap for the evening was a triple header at the soccer field, a community fundraiser and all around happening good time. Travel pro tip: If there are handwritten fliers plastered all over town advertising any special local event, GO! The posters said festivities went from 4-9pm, which apparently meant 6-11pm. We showed up just after 5pm (even when I’m late I’m early!) and while waiting outside the field (we beat the players there!) nibbled on mangoes dressed with chili, salt, and vinegar purchased from the basket of a woman’s bike.

Sour and sweet mangos!


The game was a gathering event for the whole town; the stands were full and it was a super fun localesque experience. There were three matches: two teenage exhibition matches (one girls, one boys), and the equivalent of a minor league Honduran team, the Utila Pirates taking on a rival from the mainland.

I kept accidentally cheering for the wrong team…

We met up with some other friends there and enjoyed the lovely spectacle of the match together. The teenage teams ran about semi-chaotically the pitch. A DJ played dance music. Over the far fence, spectators without tickets–who were later scolded publicly by the DJ–watched, cheered, and threw fireworks onto the field. The announcer for the professional match called the opposing goalie names and said with gusto all sorts of other ridiculousness, as a minor league announcer always should. A travel show/documentary team filmed the scene for a pilot project they are putting together on the Bay Islands. (If they cut it right, you should be able to see me in the stands!) Small children were everywhere climbing over and under spectators. One cutie gave her mom/aunt/grandma a particularly focused and forceful hair brushing right in front of us; I couldn’t stop laughing. We ate–you knew this was coming!–a dinner of bbq chicken, tortillas, beans, and coleslaw, then topped it off with a helping of tres leches. Mmm… The Pirates won and everyone left happy.

Happy fans. Go Pirates!

From there, we took to the town. First Tranquilo, which has become my favorite night spot on the island, where I drank the coldest beer of my life on the second story of their dock and we left minus one pair of sunglasses. Next we hit the iconic Treetanic where Edwin reconnected with old Utila buddies and I took in the unusually bedazzled and beautiful atmosphere. And what late night would be complete without a post-midnight snack at the baleada stand smack in the center of town off the main the dock? Up far too late for a morning dive.

A detail of steps leading into Treetanic during the daytime, only a glimpse of the art that covers this enormous bar.

Since that lovely day, I have more whole-heartedly embraced the Utila spirit (minus the drug culture). I have opened my eyes to the emerald green hummingbirds that inhabit the island (and actually LAND on branches and perches!), let go of my frustrations about street traffic, thrown myself into diving, built more social connections with cool people, ran into old friends from previous stops on my trip, discovered a rockin’ book shop, and been happy giving the food scene a closer look. Expect blog posts on all of these topics soon. Now, when the dive boat is headed back to shore and the coastline of Utila town comes into sight, I smile.

Unexpectedly luxurious Roatan

*Heart* Roatan!

WARNING: this post may come across as braggy and contains a far too many pictures of sunsets, tasty food, and me smiling in a bikini. I blame Roatan, because it is pretty awesome.

Roatan, the largest of the Honduran Bay Islands, felt like a holiday from my trip. Serious tourist vibe here, in a good way! I detoured there for a few days before heading to the more backpacking-diver-centric island of Utila. It was sooo nice! Roatan was immediately classy. Walking off the ferry dock, tourists are greeted by manicured palm trees and a fleet of brand new sparkling white taxis. I was surprised how much it reminded me of Hawaii. English is so widely spoken and I never knew whether to attempt my crap Spanish (a month in Belize has made me regress) or not.

Roatan is 37 miles long and filled with resorts and vacation properties. I spent my entire time there on the western tip between the friendly Roatan Backpackers Hostel in Sandy Bay, town in West End, and beach sunsets in West Bay. Transport on the island was easy; taxis can either be hired privately or on a collectivo basis (20 Lm from Sandy Bay to West End) and water taxis are a pleasure to ride to West Bay (60 Lm).

I was accompanied by the perpetually nomadic bibliophile and linguist, Doron. A pleasure to chat with about virtually everything from the get-go, I now have far too many book recommendations (not that there really is such a thing!) to take with me. His literary addiction was infectious. I dropped three books from my pack (Wizard’s First Rule, Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass, and The Short Stories of Vladamir Nabokov) but picked up four (Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut, The More Than Complete Hitchhikers Guide by Douglas Adams, After Dark by Haruki Murakami, and The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver). So many stories ahead of me!

We both had a penchant towards fine dining and splurged on fantastic food. Even though it seemed at times like “hemorrhaging money”, it actually wasn’t that bad: a three course meal with drinks, tax, and tip consistently came in at $20-25USD per person. Totally doable every now and then. Or every day on Roatan. 😛 I just learned a new term for the type of traveler I may be: a flashpacker!

The first night, a search for sushi (which sadly never did come to fruition) instead led to Entre Pisco & Nazc, a Peruvian restaurant where we dined on seafood salad with real green (no iceberg to be found here!), creamy lobster lasagna, and chocolate cheesecake topped with mint and a blackberry. It set the tone for four days of top notch food.

On the first full day we ventured into town and discovered the peacefully perfect Half Moon Bay in West End. We happily split the day between snorkeling the reef, finding the sunken mini-submarine, lounging and reading, eating lobster and shrimp at the Crazy Mango, and playing on the water slide. I had absolutely no hang time and truly attempted not to flash anyone but despite my best efforts cannot claim success.

Lunching decadently and loving it. *
Lobster slathered in garlic butter. *

After a day of playing in the water and reading on the beach, I was ready to find some night life. And there were rumors flying around about crab races happening that very night. I got the scoop: Bananarama in West Bay was THE place to be. Done and done! We popped on a water taxi and went hunting for action.

The water taxi pulled right up to the shore and let us off. West Bay is an long resorty and relaxed beach; it is land of the sandy boulevard, waterfront lounges, wealthy families on vacation, and the most playful bulldog puppy ever.

Beautiful West End shore near sunset.

I love how on this trip, especially in beachy locals, attending to the sunset becomes an imperative. Back in the states, I rarely ever left my house simply to go view a sunset. In the Caribbean it is a must do event every day. And life is more beautiful for the habit.

Beauty to end the day. *

Bananarama actually was in fact the place to be. It was filled with white people excited about crab races, myself included. Unfortunately, they did little to publicize how to buy a crab because they didn’t need to; they sold out before I could get my hands on one. For the race, they dumped a bucket of tiny crabs in the center of a circle drawn in the sand and the first crab to reach the edge won. It was over remarkably quickly. After, we ate pizza, drank beer, talked, and laughed. We never did hear “Do You Like Pina Coladas?” from the house band… I really should have made that happen. Ah, regrets.

Crab race! And me kissing one plucked from the winner’s circle.

Earlier in the day I had been disappointed when the one ice cream stand in West End was closed, but this was about to be rectified with avengence. So much about this ice cream experience blew my mind. From the square (!!!) ice cream scroop to the confusing pricing structure to the deliciousness, all made it rather mystical. We ended up with six scoops of three flavors in a waffle cone for $2.50. What’s that? I think it’s a cone full of awesome.

Ice cream astonishment!
It’s my birthday and anniversary!

On day two I encountered the biggest bummer of the trip: dealing with identity theft. I spent a downer morning on the phone with multiple financial institutions listening to crappy hold music trying to get everything straight. In the end, it all got sorted but it was unpleasant to feel violated like that.

After that sucky morning, I was walking down the main drag looking for my friends who were already out and about and I passed numerous dive shops. I stepped into one to check the time and instead got the skinny on how easy it was to sign up to dive that day: $40 and I’d be out in the reef within the hour. It is so bizarre to me that now I can, on a whim, say hmm, yes, I believe I would like to spend an hour breathing underwater this afternoon. Diving is so amazing! After finding my peeps (including the newly arrived Hunter and Nikki who I would really enjoy hanging with later), I ditched them for an hour and dove Moonlight. Only 3 minutes by boat from shore, the site was beautiful, a turtle swam right up to my face, and I had my picture taken for the first time underwater.

Checking out the Moonlight reef. Photo courtesy of a My Little Pony riding a Carebear.
Sunset off of West Bay, post my afternoon under the sea. *

I linked back up with the group for dinner and we were deliciously responsible. You may not know this, but the gorgeous and deadly lionfish are a scourge on the reef and there is a effort by environmentalists to encourage local people here to catch and eat them to decrease the population. Let me say, this is a tasty way to help the reef. My lionfish tacos at the Cannibal Cafe were KILLER.

I’ll help take the lionfish down a notch any day.

After discussions of favorite trivia questions with Doron the night before at Bananarama, I had made finding a pub quiz a priority. They really are my favorite! And find one I did: Music trivia Mondays with Scott C at La Buena Vida. All the cool kids in town were there including friends from the hostel and my dive buddies. They formed rival teams and I threatened them all with big talk of our trivia prowess. I found the trivia format very very fun. Our very chill (I’m going to guess Hawaiian) quiz master led us through 42 pop song name and artist identifications. Unfortunately there was no classical music for me to impress everyone with my knowledge of! There were a mix of good songs I knew and could sing along to, puzzlers that drew controversy within the team, and new-to-me stuff I liked including Everclear’s AM Radio which I was still bopping to the next morning. Oh, and did I mention the rum? I did a LOT of sit-dancing.

Never Trust a Lyin’ Fish, #3 in trivia but #1 in fun. *
My contribution to the team was to trash talk and sit-dance lots. It added to the fun factor. *
The boys’ singing made Nikki plug her ears and me giggle. (jk, we were both doing each of those things anyways!)

On day three, the last day, we went used book shopping, got my diving log book signed and stamped (documentation is very important!), and then out to West Bay for snorkeling. It was a beautiful day for a swim and out in the reef there were glorious things to see: large chum right at the shore, a gorgeous reef with tons of fish, a pink sea anemone, a spotted eel, and the biggest lobster I have ever seen.

Happily heading back to West End. *
Finding our perfect snorkel spot. *
My final lovely, lovely Roatan sunset.

To me, there is no better way to cap a trip off than a splendid last meal. This we had in spades: fantastic bruschetta (pronounced with a sharp “sch”, naturally), brie and caramelized onion crepes, Indian shrimp curry, Thai beef noodles, a multitude of desserts, and a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon at Nice n’ Spicy, a place Doron and I had walked by before and been intoxicated by the smell. It lived up to everything we hoped — an amazing meal and end to the visit to Roatan!

Mmm, curry! I got distracted by condiments.
Delectable and ready to dive in. *
After already eating three desserts, the owner sent us free pistachio ice cream crepes. Excellent friends and food–who could ask for more? *

* Photos courtesy of Doron Klemer. 

Belizian food might be my favorite

Even tastier eaten off a dock!

The cuisine is Belize has been awesome. My mouth and stomach are in heaven every time I eat their Sunday supper standard: stew chicken, rice & beans, and coleslaw. Totally my favorite and I ate a plate (or two!) of it every day. Because hey, I’m on holiday! I have already given accolades to the cuisine in previous posts–taking my first bites of Belizian food with my friend Maggie and exploring the Caye Caulker food scene–but I must devote some attention to some of the fundamentals of my perfect Belizian meal.

Rice & beans is the base of most plate dishes and it is something I plan to incorporate into my cooking repertoire when I have a kitchen again. It isn’t just rice mixed with beans. Oh, no, it is far more than that. White rice and kidney beans are actually cooked together along with spices, sometimes meat, sometimes coconut, giving the rice a red tinge and more full flavor profile. It is hearty and delish! Along with some spicy chicken, coleslaw, and a Belikin… magnifique!

Pretty much the perfect lunch.

A ubiquitous condiment on all Belizian tables is Marie Sharp’s habanero hot sauce. Made in Belize, it is a delicious and all-natural sauce with a base of carrots instead of tomatoes. But the number one ingredient is always habanero mash. I developed an addiction.

And you cannot come to Belize without going crazy for Belikin. The beer of a nation, there is no choice. I am a huge fan of the Belikin stout, in the same heavy brown bottle as the beer but identifiable by the bright blue bottle cap. Interestingly, Guinness Stout is also brewed here in Belize, but a different recipe than other brews of Guinness available in the US or Europe. It has the silky mouthfeel as normal Guinness, but a decidedly sharp taste that I found weird. Only ordered it once, then switched back to good ol’ Belikin stout.

As an addendum, I must say that inland Latin American flavors shine as well. In San Ignacio, I ate killer El Salvadorean papusas stuffed with a pork-bean paste at the Saturday market and drank the best horchata of my life at a little Mexican hole-in-the-wall in town. The horchata was like imbibing manna; every sip made me shiver. It was that good. Oh Belize, how are you so wonderfully delicious? Good thing I am coming back later in the summer. 🙂

Papusa!