Mars bars and tic tacs

Have you ever wondered what leaf cutter ants do with all of those leaves? They always carry giant pieces of leaf and sometimes the pieces are so big they keep falling over and yet they persist. Apparently this leaf carrying happens all day and all night long, they only stop when it’s raining. They carry the leaves back to camp and other ants take charge of the leaves, they tear it into smaller pieces and mix it with their saliva and the mixture is left in one of their underground tunnels until a mould/fungus grows and all the ants eat that. That’s right, leaf cutter ants are vegetarians! Also if you watch the leaf cutters carefully you will see smaller ants on some leaves, these guys are the quality control ants they make sure only clean leaves are collected so no bird poop or other rubbish get into their fungus and kill it. And finally there are the giant ants, they are almost twice the size of the leaf carrying ants and you see them patrolling the path the ants are taking. These guys make sure everyone is doing their job and if a twig falls on the path a couple of them will rush in and move the twig out of the way. These ants are so cool!

Animals, they’re the best thing about Costa Rica, there are literally animals everywhere. You don’t even have to look very hard to see toucans, sloths, monkeys and hummingbirds. Driving along you just need to keep an eye on the trees and you will find see monkeys lounging on the branches. Sloths on the other hand are much harder to find, they are fairly common but they don’t move very much and just hang upside down in the tree sleeping. But luckily we got to see them up close at the Jaguar rescue centre.

We went to several different national parks and reserves while in Cost Rica and took a couple of guided walks with a naturalist. One was a night time walk where we saw the leaf cutter ants as well as snakes, tarantulas, foxes, sloths, bats and lots of sleeping birds. Did you know that toucans sleep with their beaks on their back? It seems so unnatural. The next day we had a private tour with the same guide, he carried a telescope with him and hunted out birds and other animals for us to see. It was amazing how the slightest noise or rustles would be enough for him to pinpoint the animal. Once he found the animal he would set the telescope up so we can see it up close, we saw so many many colourful birds and a couple of Quetzal. This is the famous bird that many people travel to Costa Rica just to see. It was the most colourful bird we saw.Quetzalvulture-turkeyg-pig-costa-ricaHowever my favourite animal in Costa Rica is definitely the hummingbird, they are so tiny and move so quick. And when they fly past you you can hear the buzz of their wings. The first time it happened I thought a really big fly or mosquito was swooping on me and freaked out haha. Hummingbirds are everywhere and it was not uncommon to see sugar water feeders hung around gardens to lure hummingbirds. While they are feeding they hover in the same position with their wings a blur and you can see how colourful they are. I’ve seen ones with red, green, purple, blue, white, yellow and all the colours in between. They are much smaller than I expected, about the size of a fun-sized mars bar. And their eggs are the size of a tic tacs.

Jaguar rescue centre

Ok, firstly there are no jaguars involved so don’t get too excited. There was a baby jaguar there once….the Jaguar rescue centre is an animal rescue centre on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, close to the Panama border.  All the animals there are rescue animals, the rescue centre rehabilitate the animals and gets them back out into the wild, although sometimes the the animal can no longer survive in the wild and they live at the rescue centre permanently.. As we walked through the park the guide shared the stories of the animals we met.

There was a toucan called Tequila who had a broken beak and a damaged wing from flying directly into a tree. It can no longer eat insects as they escape from its broken beak so it’s been trained to pick up fruit sideways with its beak. There were baby crab-eating raccoons that people found wandering around by themselves, too young to fend for themselves. And a number of birds kept as illegal pets, they had had their wings clipped so the staff at the rescue centre are waiting to see if they will be able to fly again (apparently if you clip their wing correctly then they can recover and fly again, if you do it wrong then there’s no hope).The saddest story was a baby owl which had been abandoned by its mother due to sickness. As it was getting better and growing up it fell in love an older male owl that couldn’t fly so was a permanent resident. Owls mate for life so as a result when this owl was ready to be released she wouldn’t leave because its mate lived there. A few weeks before our visit the old male owl died and the girl owl stopped eating. They have been hand feeding the owl and hope that eventually she will start hunting for herself and they can try and release her again.On a brighter note we saw lots of baby sloths which were extremely cute, one of them kept climbing onto the ground to explore…it gives a new meaning to the phrase ‘slowly getting away…’. The sloths have to learn not to sleep on the ground before they are released in the wild. It is not safe for them there, they move so slowly and walk like their legs have been broken when they are on the ground. It is really quite unnatural.slothLastly I just have to say that toucans are the fakest looking birds I have ever seen, they are so colourful and plush they look like expert stuffed animals.More photos here.

¡Viva Mexico!

We were originally planning to spend two weeks in Mexico before moving on. A week at Playa Del Carmen to learn Spanish and a week exploring the Yucatan and then we were heading down into Central America. When we first arrived in Mexico we both liked it immediately and joked that we may not leave until it was time to go home. Well in the end we spent 5 weeks in Mexico (minus 3 days in Cuba) and what can I say? We love Mexico!

We’ve seen a lot of the different sides of Mexico; the tourist friendly, English speaking Yucatan Peninsula; the almost non-English speaking but lovely San Cristobal de Las Casas; the craziness that is Mexico City; the laid back life at Puerto Escondido and a blend of the country and the city at Oaxaca. Everywhere we go the people are friendly and the food is amazing. It’s just a great place!corn-in-mexicoBelow are some unexpected things we’ve learned about Mexico while we were there:

  • Mexican eat a lot of corn and not just in tortilla form, the most common type of street food around is grilled corn and esquite (corn kernels served with chili, lime, cheese and mayo). But sadly for Mat the corn they eat here is not sweet corn, it is a white corn which is chewier and drier and not really sweet. For me it is delicious.
  • The whole world should have Laundromats like in Mexico. Mexican laundromats wash, dry and fold your laundry for you. All you have to do is drop it off in the morning and in the afternoon you pick up a bag of sweet smelling clean clothes. It is so convenient and cheap too, they charge $1 per kilo of dirty clothes.
  • There are speed bumps all over the country, but they are not normal speed bumps. Mexican speed bumps are called topes and they are made up of little metal bumps embedded in the road and they are a bitch to go over.  And on some roads there are literally topes every five or ten metres.
  • Frijoles aka refried beans are delicious and are found in many types of Mexican food. Neither Mat nor I are huge fans of beans or legumes but we both really like frijoles and we’re looking forwards to making them at home.
  • There are a lot of police around in Mexico than in other countries and they carry giant guns. It was a bit disconcerting the first few times we saw them.
  • Mexicans are obsessed with clowns. We have seen many many clowns in Mexico. It is mystery.
  • Chilli sauce and lime are served with everything, including popcorn, potato chips and fruit. Mango with chilli sauce/chilli powder and lime is delicious.

We are already planning on coming back in the near future for the Day of the Dead celebrations.

Oaxaca

Oaxaca was our last stop in Mexico, a place with loads of good food and lots of street art and little galleries everywhere.
We were there for the Mexican Independence day celebrations. They strapped fireworks to scaffolding and lit them. This lead to spinning wheels of fire. It was insane.We saw the world’s oldest tree. Not as tall as expected but the trunk was freaking huge. It’s 2000 years old and the trunk has a 14 metre diameter and a 42 metre circumference….giant-old-tree-oaxacatule-tree-oaxaca12000-year-old-tree1world-oldest-treetule-tree

Steve’s house

We were supposed to go to Colombia after Mexico City, we had a flight and accommodation in Bogotá and everything. But after two cold high altitude cities we were not really looking forwards to going somewhere where their motto is ‘Bogotá, 2600 metres closer to the stars’. Plus it was going to be raining there and the cost of flying back to Central America after Colombia was ridiculous. So we decided to stay in Mexico.

More specifically we decide to go somewhere that was hot and had a beach. We headed to the Pacific Coast to the little town of Puerto Escondido. I found a small B&B just outside of town run by a long-haired tattoo-covered ex-pat called Steve. He greeted us at the door with no shirt on, apologised for the mess in the kitchen and told us he’d been up all night with the previous guests drinking and said he usually welcomed people with more class. Followed by ‘not really, who am I kidding’. Then he showed us to our room and offered to take us out to breakfast after we settled in.

We ended up walking to the market and having breakfast with Steve and the other guests, Sharn and Sebastian. We went to this great little eatery that made delicious, cheap, fresh food, it was so good we ended up going back there practically every day. After breakfast we walked around town for a bit before heading back for a day of napping and relaxing by the pool. Then for dinner we had our first home-cooked meal since leaving Belize, we made fish tacos with the fresh fish and vege we picked up from the market, I need to learn how to cook fish properly because Sebastian grilled the fish to perfection. It was a delicious end to the best day ever.

Steve’s house was great; we felt most at home there compared to anywhere else since we left London, it was like staying with a friend. It was a nice change. We didn’t do too much, Mat took some surfing lessons and I cooked a few meals. The rest of the time was spent hanging out with Steve, enjoying the pool or just relaxing. The best thing was Steve had a sweet little kitten called Grey which he adopted. Apparently the kitten showed up one day and was pretty much just skin and bones and was trying to catch bugs to eat. It took him a week of luring her with food before he could even pat her. Eventually he tamed her enough to take her to the vet for shots etc and now she sleeps with him every night. Amazingly that was only three weeks before we arrived, the kitten we saw was healthy and even had a bit of a fat belly. It was the cutest little thing ever and even Mat liked to hold it.grey-the-kittenSadly after 3 days in Puerto Escondido the rain started and after it rained continuously for the second day straight we decided it was time to move on. Being rained in at a beach town is not much fun. So we ran away to Oaxaca…on a tiny little airplane. I was disturbed that I was taller than parts of the plane. But it was either this for an hour or 7 hours in a van where there is a 50% chance that someone will throw up because the roads are so windy. No thank you! The flight was fine and kind of exciting but I did get a little bit queasy when we started flying through the clouds, small plane + clouds = lots of shaking up and down. It was kind of being on a small roller coaster, my stomach dropped a few times.tiny-plane