Tag Archives | Central America

Three months of Central America and Mexico in photos

Playa Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

Starting out a trip through Central America with six weeks of learning to surf on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica was a good beginning. From there on it just got better: road tripping around the bumpy roads of Costa Rica in a Suzuki Jimny, exploring Monteverde Cloud Forest, hiking up volcanoes and staying in a self-sustainable carbon-neutral organic farm where we did yoga classes in an open air forest studio.

Playa Guiones, Nosara, Costa RicaMonteverde Cloud Forest, Costa RicaSarah Duff Costa Rica-1

It was hard to leave Costa Rica, but Joe had already overstayed his visa (strangely enough, the airport immigration officers didn’t seem to notice when we flew out) and we couldn’t just stay in one country without seeing anything else in Central America. We decided to do a quick plane hop to Guatemala (rather than several days of bussing across Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador).

A country I knew barely nothing about before I got there, Guatemala turned out to be one of my favourites of the whole trip so far. I loved Antigua, a tranquillo historic town of cobbled streets and great street food and ruins from an earthquake 300 years ago and lovely little courtyard restaurants, and I could easily have spent a month or two there, brushing up on my Spanish with some lessons, hanging out in courtyards of coffee shops and eating a lot of dark chocolate, which Antigua has in abundance, thanks to the Mayans.

Sarah Duff Antigua
 Sarah Duff Guatemala-5Sarah Duff Guatemala-3
From Antigua we drove up to the beautiful Lake Atitlan – a shimmering mass of water surrounded by towering conical volcanoes and stayed in the most hippieish place I’ve ever been to – a tiny lakeside village called San Marcos inhabited almost exclusively with alternative healers and shamans offering everything from cacao reiking healing workshops to tantric sex retreats. Even the pizza restaurants have Mayan astrological readings. If I ever need to rebirth in the future, I’ll know where to go.
Sarah Duff Lake Atitlan
I preferred the Maya ruins of Tikal, in the jungles of northeastern Guatemala, which were once home to a massive population of people with complex astrological knowledge and amazing architectural skills and a bloody culture of human sacrifice. The ruins were truly magical – we saw them first before dawn, in the dark of the jungle – massive temples surrounded by mist and a sea of forest alive with squawking and screeching.

Sarah Duff Tikal
From Tikal we hopped over the border to Belize, a tiny pocked of English-speaking Latin America. We only had four days in Belize on a tiny island called Caye Caulker, which you can walk around in less than an hour. All the buildings are wooden Caribbean-style painted fruit sorbet colours and there are no cars on the island – just bicycles and golf carts. Everyone speaks English with a rad Caribbean accent and there are a lot of Rastas smoking joints and selling things made out of shells, and at night grills are set up on the island’s perimeter, where people braai seafood and fish, which they serve with sweet rum punch and coconut rice. We were only in Belize to dive, which we did, and which was amazing – clear waters, beautiful coral reefs, eagle rays, turtles, sharks and technicolour fish.

Sarah Duff Belize Caye CaulkerSarah Duff Belize-1
From Belize we travelled by boat back to North America, to Mexico, to the beaches of the Yucatan peninsula, the most visited part of the country, and totally overrun with cruise ship crowds and resort packaged groups. It was a bit of a shock for us after being in low key Guatemala and Belize to suddenly be surrounded by such mass tourism, but we did some cool stuff that made up for the Margaritavilles and the Hooters  – mainly diving and swimming in crystal-clear cenotes near Tulum, exploring the ruins of Chichenitza and doing our best dives so far on the reefs around Isla Cozumel, where we had visibility of 50 metres.
Sarah Duff Tulum, Mexico
Sarah Duff ChichenitzaDiving Isla Cozumel
As soon as we moved away from the coast (transported by Mexico’s wonderful first class buses of arctic air conditioning and huge seats) the foreign tourists pretty much disappeared. People have this idea of Mexico being extremely dangerous outside of the beach resorts, which means most tourists tend to avoid the rest of the country, sticking to Cancun the Yucatan peninsula. Everywhere we went in Mexico felt totally safe, and Mexicans are some of the most helpful, polite, unaggressive people I’ve ever come across. There are certainly some places in Mexico you wouldn’t want to visit, but the idea that the whole country is unsafe based of what you see on the news of the country’s drug trafficking problems is wrong.

Sarah Duff Palenque
Our favourite places in Mexico were the jungle Maya ruins of Palenque (not as mystical and remote and undervisited as Tikal, but nevertheless pretty spectacular), the highlands town of San Cristobal, home to Argentinian hippies, Mexican bohemian artist types and revolutionaries, Oaxaca – a beautiful small town that is Mexico’s gourmet heartland – where we tried mezcal for the first time, ate chilli-and-lime crickets, learned to cook a mole sauce and celebrated Semana Santa (Easter week) with processions and concerts in the street, and finally, Mexico City. Mexico City is really underrated – it’s not as unsafe as it’s made out to be, and it has loads of great restaurants, amazing museums (my favourites were Frida Kahlo’s house and the Museum of Anthropology, which packed with Aztec and Maya treasures), huge street art murals, and friendly village-like neighbourhoods that make you forget you’re in one of the biggest cities in the world.

Oaxaca Oaxaca
Sarah Duff Mexico-11

What I love about Costa Rica

Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica

On my second visit to Costa Rica, I grew to love this tiny country even more than I did before.

I experienced what it’s like to live in a beach community, learned to surf, practised yoga surrounded by jungle, drove around winding roads in a 4×4, hiked through a forest at night to find sleeping hummingbirds, a bright orange tarantula and a kinkajou, walked on suspension bridges and ziplined through the canopy in Monteverde Cloud Forest, hiked up the steep and muddy slopes of Cerro Chato Volcano to get glimpses of a cloud-free, smoking Arenal Volcano and milked cows at an organic, carbon-neutral, self-sustainable farm surrounded by rainforest.

What I admire most about Costa Rica is not its beaches, volcanoes, forests, adventure activities or even the “pura vida” life philosophy that suffuses every interaction you have with a Costa Rican with warmth and friendliness – it’s the country’s commitment to conservation. In the last 30 years, Costa Rica has reforested 26% of its lost forest areas and now more than a quarter of the country is protected, with new parks and reserves being established, and the plan is for the whole country to be carbon neutral by 2021. The rest of the world has a lot to learn from this tiny Central American country.

Nosara, Costa RicaPlaya Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

Playa Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

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Sarah Duff - Costa Rica-2

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Finding surf and yoga zen in Nosara

Playa Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

Nosara is one of those places that you arrive in and on your first day you think “I could live here”. It’s the kind of place that makes people change their flights, cancel other travel plans, or, in many cases – decide to relocate.

On the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, Nosara is a small low-key village of yoga studios, juice bars, laidback restaurants, surf shops and small hotels surrounded by trees and flanked by Playa Guiones, a wide, gently curving stretch of golden sand with a legendary surf break. There are strict rules on development, so there are no buildings near the beach, and there are no big resorts, tourist touts or rowdy bars.When parties do happen, they’re usually over by 10.30pm – everyone goes to bed early to get up for surfing. The tiny grocery store sells homemade hummus, raw chocolate spread, vegan chocolate bread and French cheese.  The notice boards around the village advertise drawing classes, yoga workshops, massages and reggae band gigs. People get around by quad bike, bicycle, golf cart and tuk tuk, and everyone you pass walking on the streets (which are sprayed with molasses and smell like sugary treats) greets you with a friendly Hola! Each day, just before sunset, everyone in Nosara – including all the dogs in town – gathers on the beach to watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean together.

Nosara is the kind of beach paradise I’ve always fantasised about living in. I’m not the only one – many people who live in Nosara are expats who either live there full time, or for a few months over the northern hemisphere winter. Many are people who came to Nosara on holiday and just never went home.

I could see why after just the few days it took to get into a Nosara routine: waking up early to the rasping growls of howler monkeys, walking on jungle paths to a yoga studio set in the treetops, drinking a coconut water and eating a bowlful of delicious tropical fruit for breakfast, sitting under a ceiling fan writing stories during the heat of the day, and then heading out to the beach in the late afternoon. After a couple of failed attempts at surfing in Cape Town, I decided to give it another go in the warm ocean in Nosara, so I added surfing lessons to my routine after the first week there.

Learning to surf is challenging and scary (read more about my surfing learning curve here) but so much fun – and the best thing about it is seeing the synergies between riding the waves and practising yoga (breath, focus, connection with nature, meditation), and realising that within surfing you can find a lot of life’s great lessons.

It didn’t take long to feel part of a community, getting to know restaurant owners and surf instructors and yoga teachers and the Argentinian guy who sells empanadas from a picnic basket, and the ever-friendly Warner, who sells his jewellery at a little stand right by the beach. I even got to know Nosara’s dogs, greeting my favourite ones with a hug on the beach every sunset.

Travelling is about seeing new places, but it’s also about getting into the rhythm of a place. After four months of traversing South America, stopping for awhile in Nosara and getting a taste of a simple beachside life, was just what I needed.

Playa Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

Playa Pelada, Nosara, Costa Rica

My guide to Nosara

My favourite places and things to eat in Nosara.

La Creperie, a 10-minute walk from Playa Guiones, serves up proper French crepes and delicious casados. My favourites were the caramelised leek and zucchini savoury crepe and the number six – homemade dark chocolate, shredded coconut, hazelnuts and vanilla ice cream.

La Luna is the only restaurant in Nosara with a beachside setting, right above Playa Pelada. It’s a pricey spot, but you’re paying for the glorious view (go just before sunset) and the tasty food – paper-thin pizzas, Middle Eastern platters (the baba ganoush and hummus are amazing) and the delicious cocktails.

La Luna Restaurant, Playa Pelada, Nosara, Costa Rica

Dee’s is a small, well-priced Vietnamese restaurant close to Guiones Beach with great veggie pad thai, summer rolls and fish curry.

Rosi’s Soda is one of the only Costa Rican restaurants in Nosara, and a great one it is too. The casados, packed with fresh salad, fried plantains, avocado and delicious beans, topped with homemade salsa piccante, were the best I’ve had anywhere in Costa Rica.

Go Juice is a colourful little food truck parked just by the northern end of Playa Guiones which serves up delicious juices and smoothies (love the coconut water with lime and watermelon) and iced coffee (the one with banana was my favourite) which are great right after a morning surf. On Wednesdays they also offer a Costa Rican take on Hawaiian poke, with fresh raw tuna in sesame oil with spring onions and avocado.

I cooked a lot of my own food while I was in Nosara, and loved shopping for organic fruit and veggies (and amazing vegan pesto) at the weekly market which took place on Saturday afternoons at the skate park.

I tried a couple of different yoga studios and classes while I was in Nosara, but the Nosara Yoga Institute was my favourite (especially Yali’s classes).

I rented my surf board from Juan Surfo’s surf shop, a short walk away from Playa Guiones.

Juan Surfo's surf shop, Nosara

Where to stay in Nosara

Most people stay in rental houses or apartments in Nosara, and there are loads to choose from, but they’re all pretty pricey.

I stayed in the 4You Hostel, which was the nicest backpackers hostel I’ve ever been to, and one of my favourite places to stay on my whole eight-month trip so far. It has a sleek Bali-esque design, a huge communal kitchen, airy bungalows and a big outside couch under a ceiling fan for afternoon naps. The immensely lovely Swiss couple who run the hostel (and live on the property) became like family after my six weeks there.

4You Hostel, Nosara, Costa Rica

If you’ve got the cash to splurge, Harmony Hotel is Nosara’s best luxury boutique hotel, with immaculate palm tree-shaded grounds, a big swimming pool, stylish rooms, a beautiful open-air yoga studio and a great juice bar.

Harmony Hotel, Nosara, Costa Rica

How to get to Nosara

Flying to Nosara on Nature Air

There are direct international flights to Liberia airport, which is two hours from Nosara.

If you’re coming from Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, the quickest and easiest way to get to Nosara is to fly on the carbon-neutral airline, Nature Air. Flights are around $60 one day and take about an hour – a beautiful flight in a tiny plane with huge windows to make the most of the aerial scenery.

There’s a bus from San Jose to Nosara, which takes five hours, or you could drive yourself in a rental car.