Andorran lightning

No electrical bolts struck anywhere within earshot of us Thursday, nor did it rain more than a few sprinkles. The lightning instead was the speed with which we toured Andorra, stop #1 on Steve’s and my Grand European Microstate Tour. Barely 60 hours passed from the time we pulled into the underground parking lot of our hotel in Andorra la Vella (the capital) Wednesday afternoon (9/8) to when we sped out of town shortly before dawn two days later. However, we crammed more interesting activities in it than I had thought would be possible.

Before going to Andorra, I’d never given much thought to why France and Spain are two separate countries. Leaving the broad flat planes of southwestern France, then weaving first through verdant foothills, then into one hairpin turn after another was an aha! moment for me. Thickly wooded, the Pyrenees are beyond rugged — rocky and vertiginous as any mountains I’ve seen anywhere. It was suddenly easy to understand why, once Catalonians had staked out this enclave and gotten recognized as an independent fiefdom (in 839), neither France nor Spain lusted for it enough to fight a war over. Isolation has advantages. The Andorran borders have been more stable over the centuries than any other country in Europe.

Happily, the French tollways and all the Andorran roads we traveled on are in superb condition. From the border it took us less than 45 minutes to reach Andorra la Vella. It fills a narrow valley; the mountains surrounding it rise up high and press in close.

Around 77,000 Andorran citizens inhabit the whole country. They welcome roughly 10 million tourists per year, which makes the ratio between residents and visitors the highest in the world. Mostly the tourists come from two reasons: to take advantage of all the mountains (skiing in winter and hiking in the summertime) and/or shop. Andorra’s like a great big duty-free store. I bought nothing except for a stamp (to stick on my notebook), but window-shopping on Andorra la Vella’s main shopping street was entertaining in itself: a parade of storefronts flaunting pricy watches, perfume and cosmetics, running shoes, guns (and Samurai swords!), jewelry, booze, designer clothes… and, of yes, tobacco products. For some reason, tobacco grows well in Andorra; locals have cultivated and exported the noxious leaves since the 1800s. In the lobby of our hotel, I gaped at the first cigarette-vending machine I’d seen in decades. People vape in Paris, but in Andorra, they smoke the old-fashioned way and sell the old-fashioned brands.

Steve and I rambled through the twisty passages in the old town, and popped into the tourist office down by the river, where a helpful staffer gave us maps and brochures. Thanks to her, we learned that hiking trails overlook the town on both sides of the valley. We originally had wanted to spend the day hiking in the countryside but the stormy forecast made us shelve that plan. It felt like a gift to instead be able to do a mini-hike. We easily ascended from our hotel to one of the paths and followed it for about two miles.

One of the countless community gardens

Among other sights, it led us through the most extensive complex of communal garden plots we’ve ever seen. Roosters crowed and hens clucked while apartment complexes covered the distant hillsides. It was an extraordinary contrast.

Eventually we left the path and descended to one of Andorra la Vella’s tourist wonders: a glass-walled, 18-story structure housing the Caldea spa, said to be one of the largest in Europe.

The glass tower in the distance is part of the Caldea spa.

Sadly, we couldn’t bring in our phones (because we had nothing with which to waterproof them) so we have no photos of the wonders within it. Imagine, if you can, a chlorinated theme park, containing at its heart an enormous lagoon filled with warm, chest-deep water. Several gigantic bowls were set within it: aerial jacuzzis accessible by staircases. Off the central area, we wandered into saunas and steam baths and other piscine variations: one room with jets of water that massaged you, an “Icelandic pool” where you could walk through adjoining basins filled with icy and and very warm water. On one outdoor balcony we paddled in a “panoramic pool” and enjoyed more watery jets. On another we swam into a circular track through which a strong current coursed. We spent almost three hours in the complex, marveling at all the weird aquatic pleasures. (One soggy irritant: the fact that cloth face masks provided by the facility were mandatory throughout.)

Because of all its tourists and duty-free shoppers, Andorra ranks among the more prosperous countries in Europe. Andorrans live longer than the citizens of almost every other place on earth (around 83 years, on average). Crime is almost non-existent, and stress is minimal.

The mellow nature of life here was palpable in the plaza that’s been at the heart of Andorran life for centuries. A large, stone three-story structure dominates one side of it.Built more than 500 years ago as a noble family’s home, it was later acquired to be the seat of Andorra’s government. We toured it and chuckled at its coziness — the large kitchen where the councilors would sit around a large hearth to warm up……the wooden cabinet with seven separate (old-fashioned) locks in which Andorra’s founding document is stored. (Today it still requires an official from each of Andorra’s seven political districts to use his key in order to open it.)

Only in 2011 did the country build a big modern parliament building; this austere concrete edifice stands on another side of the plaza. It’s the equivalent of the US Capitol. “Where are the guys with machine guns?” Steve wondered aloud when we approached it. At the Elysee Palace in Paris, every corner bristles with military muscle. I haven’t been to the White House for a while, but I assume it’s at least as aggressively intimidating. Andorra has no military, but even a watchful policeman would have made this heart of Andorran political life look more governmental. There was none.

We pulled open the front door and walked in, looking for someone who might direct us to the tourist office; braced for being stopped and questioned. Not a soul was in sight. I was too shy to knock on one of the closed office doors, but no one would have stopped me had I tried.

We walked out of the building and gazed at the nearby sculptural installation, a bevy of statues saluting poets.If you want to live long and prosper, they seemed to whisper, moving to Andorra and reading poetry isn’t a bad formula. But we’ve bade goodbye to this and pressed on to Luxembourg, an administrative center for the European Union, where the memory of those statues feels like a dream.

Weather wonderland

I love to travel, in part, because it reminds me how unsophisticated I am about weather. Living in San Diego for as long as I have has dulled my weather wits; made me stupid about preparing for what’s to come. Most of San Diego’s weather ranges from glorious to blah (in cloudy May and June), but it’s all good enough you don’t have to plan your activities around it. Stormy weather rolls in only rarely, but when it does, it’s usually relentless and intense. It can last for days. You cancel outdoor plans.

When I’m in a foreign country and my phone’s weather app shows rain in the upcoming days, I tend to freak out. I assume the rain will screw up my plans. I’m often pleasantly surprised.

Weather didn’t impact the three days we had in Paris. They were archetypally perfect: cool in the early morning with heat building to San Diego levels of balminess by late afternoon, all under powder blue skies adorned with puffy passing clouds.But rain was forecast for Bordeaux on Friday, with heat moving in on the weekend and building to scary sounding levels Monday and Tuesday.

When our train pulled into the Bordeaux rail station early Friday afternoon, Olivia, Steve and I dodged light raindrops on our way to collect our rental car. These soon dried up, however, and by the time we dropped Olivia off at her hotel, the sun was out and the center of the old city felt pleasant and looked splendid. I’d arranged a home-exchange house in the country, very close to where Annabelle’s wedding reception would be held Saturday evening. We found it and settled into those comfortable quarters, then drove to dinner in the little town of Fargues St. Hilaire about 10 minutes away. By the time we arrived at 7:30, a torrential deluge had begun, intense enough to get us very wet as we dashed (under an umbrella) from our car the short distance to the restaurant. After we finished dinner, the downpour had stopped.

Nothing marred the perfection of Annabelle’s wedding the next day, held at 3 pm in a 1000-year-old basilica in the center of Bordeaux.It was sunny and quite warm outside, but all that stone kept out the heat.

There’s Olivia, chatting with the priest, who coincidentally happened to be an American. The interior of the basilica wasn’t air conditioned, but it felt like it was.

By the time we emerged from the church around 4:30, the heat still wasn’t overbearing.

Rose petals did briefly rain down on the bride and groom.

Over the next three days the temperature forecasts for Bordeaux looked worse and worse: around 90 on Sunday. Maybe 95 Monday, and I think I saw 97 at one point predicted for Tuesday. What surprised me, though, was how much of each of those days was lovely: cool and pleasant throughout the morning.

We stayed in the bottom floor of the house in the distance.
Had a delicious walk down the footpath from the house.

Sunday we weren’t uncomfortable at the wedding brunch on the back lawn of the chateau.

It’s possible the amazing setting distracted us.

The grapes in the vineyards surrounding the chateau looked happy!

Monday morning (after Olivia had returned to Paris), Steve and I made the 40-minute drive to St. Emilion, an important wine-making center. The ancient town and its vistas are almost indescribably charming, and we walked and lunched outdoors and felt cool until mid-afternoon, when the heat finally began to be oppressive.For our last full day in Bordeaux (yesterday), we returned to the center for more walking, another lunch, and a visit to the city’s wine museum. The pattern repeated: weather interchangeable with San Diego’s at its best in the morning, only heating up enough to sap our energy late in the day.

It was definitely shorts weather, but not sultry enough to sweat.
When we visited in the morning, it wasn’t even hot enough to lure many tourists into frolicking in Bordeaux’s famous mirror pool.

This morning (Wednesday) we packed up our rented Ford and headed for the first stop on our grand tour of Europe’s seven smallest countries: Andorra. As we drove south, my phone’s forecast looked like this, disconcerting to anyone bound for the rugged Pyrenees for a two-night stay. At one point, we drove under repeated signs warning about the thunderstorms ahead.

But after a few sprinkles in the early morning, the clouds disappeared, and by the time we whizzed through the border (with not a customs or passport or Covid vaccine checker anywhere in sight), Andorra’s Pyrenean splendors could not have looked more stunning had a professional postcard photo producer arranged the scenes.

This appeared to be the border, but everyone just breezed through it.

We drove up all those hairpin turns to get to this amazing viewpoint.

I’m writing these words in our hotel room in Andorra la Vella (the compact capital city). I’ve heard a few distant rumbles out our window, but no rain is pouring yet. The forecast still looks so bad I can’t imagine we’ll be able to hike most of tomorrow, as I had planned. But I’m wising up; amping up my reserves of flexibility. I think I need them at least as much as my umbrella.

Feeling grateful for the good weather.

Hoops

Nothing like heading to Europe on the day the European Union removes the US from its “safe list” of countries whose citizens don’t have to jump through lots of Covid hoops. I think this news broke as we were flying from San Diego to Dallas. Reading the details of what had happened, as reported by the New York Times, I wasn’t too worried, however. It seemed folks who were unvaccinated would be affected — but not Steve and me.

I worried more about getting into France. Up to the minute we departed, the rules were that vaccinated folks could get in if they presented:

1) Their passports

2) Their CDC vaccination cards (completed at least two weeks before entry)

3) A form testifying to the fact that one wasn’t sick and had no signs of Covid (or immediate recent contact with anyone infected)

Steve and I assembled all these things and even fed them into an app called “VeriFLY” that electronically documented our readiness for French travel. In the Dallas airport, the crew at the check-in desk also gave us another complex Passenger Locater Record form to fill out on the plane.

We had all these pieces of paper ready at Charles DeGaulle airport when our plane touched down 10 minutes early Friday morning. After deplaning we hurried to the passport-control booths, where a cute young Frenchman casually thumbed through our passports and stamped each of them in turn. Almost as an afterthought he said, ‘Vaccine, vaccine?” “Sure!” I responded, flashing him my white CDC card tucked into my passport jacket. He waved us on, not even interested in seeing Steve’s card or the Passenger Locator Form or the health testimony forms we had painstakingly prepared. We collected our bags, breezed out of the secure area, and less than 40 minutes after our plane’s wheels hitting the tarmac, we were in an Uber heading for the home of our friend Olivia.

Another more ominous hoop loomed. Around the beginning of August, the French powers-that-be ordered all French people to show an electronic vaccine passport in order to ride on trains, visit museums, or dine in restaurants. Because the EU has standardized digital vaccine records, this passport is easy for French people to get. But for folks vaccinated abroad and armed with proof such as those white CDC cards, it’s been more complicated. At first Americans who were either in France or arriving in France by August 11 were told they could submit an application for a digital pass and three supporting documents (passport, pdf of a white CDC card, and copy of a ticket out of France) to a certain email address. But if you were arriving after that, you were supposed to wait.

On August 12 they opened the admission process for a few more days, then pushed it further down the line every few days after that. Steve and I were overjoyed when on the Thursday before our departure (8/26), the French website said we at last could submit our documents. Within minutes we had uploaded them, but we heard nothing for days, up to and including the morning we arrived at Olivia’s. This was worrisome; we had tickets to a couple of museums on Wednesday and Thursday, as well as a Friday morning train for Bordeaux.

We did have a backup plan in case our passes failed to show up. Testing stations like this are all over town, and if you get a negative test result, you can receive a 72-hour pass. But we wanted to avoid this particular hoop, if possible.

Exhausted from the flight, we took a nap Tuesday afternoon. When we awoke, the electronic vaccine passes were in our inboxes!

We loaded them into our Apple wallets, and Olivia helped us get them printed on paper as a backup. We had to use them for the first time Wednesday afternoon when the three of us made our way to the Place de la Concorde to visit the brand-new Hotel de la Marine museum (which reminded me more of the Palace at Versailles than anything else I’ve ever seen in Paris.) Attendants at the door demanded to scan our electronics passports, and the QR codes worked. We used them again Thursday afternoon when Steve and I went to the brand-new (Pinault Foundation) contemporary art museum that just opened in the renovated former stock exchange building.

Steve getting his digital vaccine pass checked in order to enter the Hotel de la Marine.

We showed them again them this morning and got blue wrist bands confirming our vaccinated status to get on the TGV. But we didn’t need them to get on the metro. Or city buses. Or into grocery stores or pharmacies or Monoprix or the sidewalk cafe where we had coffee and croissants yesterday morning. We did have to don a mask to enter all those places, and Olivia says technically everyone is supposed to mask up outdoors too. But only half the folks we see on the street are masked.

I feel confident that at least in France, any additional Covid hoops will be trivial — and probably non-existent at the wedding this weekend. Down the road there could be more. But the reality of what we’re seeing on the ground in France makes me think I shouldn’t worry much.

Two weddings and a tour of the teeny-tiny countries

If you’re reading this, it means Steve and I have managed to cross the Atlantic Ocean, enter France, and make our way to the apartment of our friend Olivia in Neuilly, just outside the Paris city limits. We will have begun an adventure I began planning two years ago, inspired by an invitation to the wedding of Olivia’s older daughter, Annabelle. Originally, we expected to fly to Europe in May of 2020, but the Covid lockdowns forced everyone to cancel all their plans. When the wedding was rescheduled and a second wedding (of Annabelle’s sister, Marguerite) was set for May/June 2021, I rebooked everything. But a surge in case levels led the sisters to postpone their celebrations again.

Now we’ve made it into the country and are just four days from the first nuptials, which will take place in Bordeaux. The second event takes place October 9 in the south of France. In between Steve and I have planned a wide-ranging tour through some of the smallest countries on earth: Andorra, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, San Marino, Vatican City, Malta, and Monaco.

We’ve both been to Vatican City before, and Steve made a lightning visit to Liechtenstein in 1974, but the rest will be new to us. The micro states stand out in other ways beyond their limited size. They rank among the wealthiest countries on Earth, and their citizens live longer than almost anywhere else (because prosperity and physical well-being go hand in hand?) They have oddball forms of government. Three are principalities, one’s a Grand Duchy, Vatican City is a city-state (Malta and San Marino are humdrum republics.)

We have to fly into and out of Malta (an island). But mostly we expect to get around on trains and buses and in a couple of rented cars. We smile at how this trip reminds us of our honeymoon 47 years ago. Then we tore around Europe’s Big Bruisers — France, Germany, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy. How different will it be to visit the pipsqueaks? We don’t know. But we are optimistic it will be interesting.

Cost of Living — at home

Yesterday I reported on Steve’s and my half-baked effort to compare the cost of living abroad in four countries — Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, all which we visited in May and June. My friend Anne read the post and emailed me an excellent question: What would a similar basket of goods cost here?

I didn’t know. Curiosity thus drove me this morning to my local Vons, where I was reminded again what a messy, imprecise experiment we had cobbled up. Still, I was intrigued by what I found. It was cheaper to buy the overall basket of goods in Pacific Beach ($24.04) than in any of the four Latin American countries except Guatemala, where it had been $21.94, as compared to $25.20 in Panama; $27.42 in Costa Rica; and $32.76 in Nicaragua. The booze made the Nicaraguan basket cost so much, but when I removed that from all the baskets, the total for the other American products ($11.83) still came to just a bit more than that for Guatemala ($10.85) and Nicaragua ($10.90) and was cheaper than Costa Rica ($14.88) and Panama ($15.70).

I found it even more interesting to focus on some of the individual items. The Colgate toothpaste from my Vons was cheaper than that we found in any of the other countries, $1.50 for a 113-gram tube versus between $1.68 to $2.90 for quantities between 90 and 100 grams. Coke cost the least here too, if not by a big margin.

On the road, Steve and I heard more than one complaint about how expensive life was. Our little comparisons sure confirm that and make it tangible. The gross domestic product per person in Guatemala is $4,619.99. It’s less than $2,000 per capita in Nicaragua — versus more than $65,000 per person in the US. Yet it costs almost as much to buy those eight products in all three places.

On the other hand, nowhere in the four Central American supermarkets did I find the range of products that confronted me in my Vons. Should I include the Optic White variety in my basket? The Baking Soda and Peroxide? The Cavity Protection? One of the dizzying array of other choices? If time is money, should I have added the decision-making into the cost?

It almost makes me want to stay out of supermarkets when I travel — or at least not to think so much about what I find there.

The cost of living

I thought I was done with blogging about our trip to Central America but then I remembered our cost-of-living experiment. I want to share that.

Early on, it struck me that Steve and I would be making lots of comparisons among the four countries we would be visiting (Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua). We expected the costs of traveling in them to vary. But would we get a good sense of how much it costs to live in each? We decided to be Scientific.

Our idea was to create a theoretical “market basket” of common grocery items. We would record the prices starting in Antigua (Guatemala) and later at supermarkets in the three countries to follow, then compare them. Would this give us insight into the daily challenge of keeping a Panamanian household versus a Nicaraguan one? We would see!

We had the most fun the first time we did it. Strolling up and down the aisles of a big supermercado we found near Antigua’s artisanal market, we scanned for essentials of modern living. The selection we came up with was:

  1. Toothpaste
  2. A bar of soap
  3. Toilet paper
  4. Powdered laundry detergent
  5. A can of Coke
  6. A bottle of vodka
  7. Bananas
  8. Kellogg’s cornflakes

Please note I’m NOT saying Steve and I are daily consumers of all those things. (I personally only indulge in Coke on the rarest of occasions.) But they seemed like reasonable representations of stuff folks everywhere buy often. And note that we did not actually buy these items — just wrote down what they cost.

The minute we started recording the prices, it became obvious we needed to be at least somewhat specific if we expected to make comparisons down the road. So we noted that 90 grams of Colgate toothpaste in the Guatemalan store cost 13 quetzals (roughly $1.68). We picked a brand-name bar soap (Dove, 135 grams for 14.5 quetzals/$1.87) and vodka (Skyy, .75 liter for 85.95 quetzals/$11.09), Coke (4.45 quetzals/57 cents for a 354 ml can) and Kellogg’s cornflakes (19 quetzals/$2.45 for a 530-gram box). But we decided to go with generic-looking toilet paper and detergent. Oh yeah, and bananas. How complicated could bananas be?

More than you might think — at least in Central America, where bananas come in multiple incarnations. For our Guatemalan “basket,” we recorded that the price of “criollo” bananas was 1.95 quetzals per pound.

A few days later, when we got to Panama and (eventually) found a large, modern supermarket, we saw that bananas (just one type, thank God) were priced both per pound (45 cents) and per kilo (.99 cents). But the Costa Rican supermercado we later visited in San Juan offered its customers a choice of banana types and, even worse, the prices were per banana. One for 40 colones/6.5 cents or 15 bananas for 350/56 cents) were the prices for the variety we arbitrarily selected. In Granada, Nicaragua, the price was 2.5 cordobas (7 cents) — again per banana.

Other challenges soon were making me feel grateful I don’t make my living collecting data for the Bureau of Labor Statistics and its Consumer Price Index. For example in Panama we found 530-gram boxes of Kellogg’s Cornflakes on the shelf — but ONLY packaged with 67-gram cans of Pringles potato chips! If you hated Pringles but loved your flakes, you were out of luck. Skyy vodka could be swigged all over Guatemala and Panama, but it was absent from the shelves of the Costa Rican and Nicaraguan markets we targeted, so we settled on Smirnoff. That only came in liter (versus three-quarter-liter) bottles, and it was labeled 35% (a lower alcohol content than the 40% of Skyy). While we could price a 354 ml can of Coke in Guatemala, Panama, and Nicaragua, in our Costa Rican market it exclusively came in 600mm plastic bottles.

Despite this jumble, I finally (last week) added up the prices in each “basket” and converted the total to US dollars. I can report that (including their admitted inconsistencies), the Guatemalan basket came to $21.94, the Panamanian to $25.20, the Costa Rican one to $27.42, and the Nicaraguan to $32.76. That shocked us given the fact that Nicaragua is so much poorer than the other three, even Guatemala. But then we realized that the Nicaraguan liter of Smirnoff’s was a whopping $21.86 (compared to $12.54 for the very same bottle in Costa Rica and less for the smaller bottles of Skyy). Subtracting the alcohol put the basket totals more in line with the economic stature of the countries (Guatemala $10.85, Panama $15.70, Costa Rica $14.88, and Nicaragua $10.90).

For me the bottom line is that these numbers aren’t very interesting — certainly not enough to justify the work involved in collecting them. That’s not to say I regret doing it. The whole exercise forced Steve and me to interact with supermarkets in a more focused way than we normally do while traveling. It also probably made me a bit more skeptical of the BLS’s Consumer Price Index (just because I’ve seen how daunting it is to try and make such comparisons.) Still, I have no intention of trying to duplicate our experiment on our next trip that takes us across the borders of many diverse countries. We’re scheduled to depart on that one August 30.

But that’s another story.

Traveling internationally in the time of Covid — some Qs and As

So why would you choose to travel around Central America during the pandemic?

Both Steve and I have confidence in the efficacy of the vaccines we received (Pfizer and Moderna) months ago. We had never been to Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica, or Nicaragua before and were curious about all of them. And they were all welcoming visitors.

You’ve traveled a lot (to approximately 65 other countries, before these). How different was this trip?

In many ways, it felt like all our trips. We enjoyed it all, some things immensely. But some aspects were different — some better, some worse, and some just… different.

What was better?

Fewer crowds! In Guatemala’s spectacular Mayan ruins at Tikal, we had the place almost to ourselves. We never had to think about making a restaurant reservation anywhere. That was pleasant.

What was worse?

Having to be tested over and over to prove we didn’t have Covid. These tests aren’t cheap. The two of us spent almost $200 for the antigen tests required by Panama and the United States. The PCR test demanded by Nicaragua was almost $100 apiece. Guatemala was the only place that let us in with no hoop-jumping other than showing our vaccination cards. (Gracias, Guatemalans!) Costa Rica required neither testing nor proof of vaccination, but it made us get certain insurance coverage in addition to filling out a complicated electronic form.

What fell into the Just Different category?

Seeing almost everyone wearing masks outdoors, virtually all the time, at least in Guatemala, Panama, and Costa Rica. In Nicaragua, maybe 60% of people on the street were masked. Steve and I almost never wore masks outdoors, and the only time we were ever chastised for this was by a bossy American lady tourist in the central park in Antigua.

We couldn’t discern whether the almost-universal mask-wearing was required by law or simply driven by people’s fear of getting Covid. Vaccination rates are low everywhere we visited, and we sensed that many people are scared.

We were fascinated by the requirement in Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama that businesses take the temperature of everyone entering their premises and make them wash their hands. This has spawned an entire industry of automatic temperature-taking and hand-washing stations, though many places instead had a worker aim a temperature-taking instrument at every entering arm. In most places, no one seemed to be paying attention to the numbers displayed by the alleged thermometers. But it may have made some folks feel safer.

One version of a hand-sanitation station. There were hundreds of variations.

Did anything surprise you?

Over and over we asked hotel workers and tour guides and other people in the travel industry what they did when their governments closed the borders and tourism evaporated overnight. One hotel manager started going out to work with his fisherman father. A tour guide at Lake Atitlan started picking coffee beans. Another dusted off his carpentry skills and made furniture. Almost everyone tried to adapt. They sounded shell-shocked.

The artesanal handicrafts market in Masaya, Nicaragua. In normal times it is jammed with tourists. Now the vendors have a haunted look in their eyes. We felt a bit like ghosts, an apparition from happier times.

Did you ever come close to dying?

Maybe. It happened when we were being driven to Guatemala’s Caribbean coast. We had a good driver (Alfredo) and made good time from the cloud-forest where we spotted the quetzal. Only once did we encounter bad traffic, passing through a market town.

We were less than an hour from Rio Dulce when the cars in front of us stopped abruptly. Uh-oh. After a while, we got out of our air-conditioned vehicle; it felt like a muggy 100 degrees outside.We realized that a six-car crash had just occurred about three cars in front of us; people were still being extracted from the wreckage. Steve and Alfredo and I all shook our heads and cringed at the thought of how long we would likely be stuck in it.But minutes passed, and no police or emergency vehicles arrived, and cars in both directions began creeping past it.

We sneaked by too and arrived in Rio Dulce having been delayed by less than a half hour. At some point it occurred to me that we missed being in that terrible accident by less than a minute — probably closer than I’ve ever come to dying in a car accident in a foreign country. That’s a risk that scares me. But I’m not willing to stay home to avoid it.

The storm in Nicaragua

On our last night in Nicaragua, Steve and I sat next to the pool in the house where we were staying. Every few minutes the sky flashed with approaching lightning. The thought struck me, “This is a violent country.” It’s dotted with volcanoes and riven with earthquake faults primed to wreck human infrastructure, like one that in 1972 destroyed 80% of the buildings in Managua, the capital. Hurricanes sometimes batter its Caribbean coast and fierce thunderstorms are a summer commonplace. People have done a lot of bloodletting here, at least since the Spanish arrived 500 years ago. Pirates sacked Nicaragua’s cities. An unhinged American named William Walker invaded and got himself elected president in the 1850s (before going on to die before a Honduran firing squad). A long line of Latin-American dictators followed, until left- wing revolutionaries who called themselves Sandinistas toppled the outrageously corrupt Anastasio Somoza. Their war ended in 1987 but Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, now almost as rich and corrupt and vicious as Somoza, has positioned his family members to carry on a dark new dynasty.

None of this violence diminished the pleasure of our week in Granada (the oldest city in Latin America, residents boast.) Founded in 1524, its large, leafy central plaza anchors an orderly grid of streets lined with Spanish haciendas painted in hot tropical colors. I found a house-trading partner willing to accept guest points from us in exchange for a week’s stay in a building erected about 125 years ago. Its American owners restored it to pristine condition about five years ago. From the street it doesn’t look like much. But once beyond the metal gates and heavy wooden doors, we reveled in a 5,200-square-foot patch of paradise, configured around two open-air courtyards. The baronial master bedroom suite opened to them both. At the center of one was a beautiful garden surrounding a fountain……while the other held the swimming pool and adjoined a spacious kitchen.When we arrived (Wednesday, June 9), Steve and I felt tempted never to step outside this sanctuary.

We relented, of course, and were rewarded. One day we visited the potters in one of the indigenous villages not far outside of town. They demonstrated every step in the process of kneading local clay… …spinning it into various shapes on a foot-driven potter’s wheel…… dipping it in colored muds that are allowed to dry before being polished and engraved.They fire the end products in wood-fueled kilns that they heat to 900 degrees. The results were splendid.

Another morning we hired a motorboat to putter among the little islands sprinkled near Granada on Lake Nicaragua. Nicaraguan millionaires and billionaires as well as ex-pats have built mansions on them, which makes the outing part Lives of the Rich and Famous and part nature documentary.

Most of the mansions are hidden behind lush gardens, but this one, belonging to the family of a former president, was an exception.

Sunday afternoon we took a class at Granada’s Chocolate Museum. Cacao trees originated in this part of the world, and today Nicaragua is a major exporter of the beans. I’ve seen the pods before (in Peru and in the Amazon); I’ve sucked the delicious creamy white gel that covers the seeds that grow within the pods. But the class filled in the many steps involved in transforming those bitter seeds into creamy dark deliciousness: fermenting and drying them, then roasting them till they turn dark and aromatic. Steve and I each removed the husks from a dozen or so of them, then pulverized the innards. You get a buttery chocolate mash when you do this. We mixed ours with honey and other liquids to make yummy chocolate drinks and with additional flavorings (salt! rum! bananas!) to make bars that we ate for dessert for three days.

It was all great fun, but I’m not sure I’ll remember it five years from now. What I doubt I will ever forget is the evening we visited Masaya Volcano. Several volcanos dominate the landscape near Granada. Masaya is the closest. It last erupted hugely in 1772, but it certainly cannot be called dormant today. We hired Carlos Medal, a tour guide and jack of all trades (he works for the couple who own the home we were staying in) to drive us out to the national park in which the volcano is located. We paid a quick visit to the informative little museum… …then motored up to one of the craters at the top. Steam was rising from a precipice.

We approached and peered in. At first we could detect only a faint glow within the steam…

…but as the sun set, it didn’t take long for the orange-red color to intensify…and grow hellish. For seconds at a time, the smoke cleared and we could see the magma churning barely 1000 feet below. It felt creepy and thrilling and mind-boggling, like glimpsing the inferno… before driving back to our lovely hacienda 45 minutes away.

It’s tempting for me to see the volcano as metaphorical. Nicaragua is beautiful but it ranks among the poorest countries in the world; some sources place it second-poorest in the Western Hemisphere, after Haiti. The suffering is obvious: shacks in the countryside rival those we’ve seen in Africa. Beggars hold out their hands on every other corner. Men on the street sell single cigarettes all day long, every day. Meanwhile the Ortega family members live better than the Spanish kings and queens of old. They’ve murdered some political rivals; put others under house arrest.

Over the weekend we heard so many loud explosions we wondered if another revolution was starting. We asked what was going on, and people told us the noise is humdrum; that Nicaraguans set off firecrackers to honor saints, celebrate weddings, and otherwise express themselves. On Saturday night, we saw more evidence of auditory extremism when we walked down a pedestrian street filled with open-air diners. For at least a block or two, speakers as big as refrigerators were blasting music at volumes guaranteed to cause hearing loss. Yet the locals were tossing back beers and bouncing kids on their laps and acting like they were surrounded by Muzak.

As I noted sitting next to the pool, it all seems violent — violent in a way that makes the US feel like Switzerland. But what do I know… about thunderstorms or Latin American politics? Not much. The storm we thought was coming that night never materialized. The lightning faded away. I hope sunny days are ahead for Nicaragua. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Sneaking into Nicaragua

You’ve heard, no doubt, about the desperate Nicaraguans massed in Tijuana, trying to get into the US. I can relate.

Why it should be difficult for Steve and me to get into Nicaragua as tourists I don’t understand. Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in all the Western Hemisphere; the poorest in Central America. You would think the government would be panting for US dollars, particularly when their international image is so tarnished. Their dictatorial president, Danial Ortega, has been ruthlessly smashing (indeed killing) political opponents and protesters since a wave of criticism of him crested three years ago. He’s been a Covid bad boy, accused of concealing the extent of deaths here and failing to organize any lockdown action in response to it.

What the country has done is to enact the strictest regulations in the region for incoming visitors. Only Nicaragua requires a negative PCR test obtained within the 72 hours before arrival. And that’s not all they ask for.

It took me a while to realize that Nicaragua’s particularly strict testing requirement complicated our plans. Months ago my research made me feel confident we could get Covid-tested near Nita and Marty’s house (where we were staying in Costa Rica). But it typically takes about 24 hours to get PCR results, and it finally dawned on me that because of the weekend, if we tried to go to Nicaragua on a Monday (our plan), we wouldn’t be able to get tested, pick up the results, and have them for the Nicaraguans within the required time frame. Argh!

I finally changed the plan and cut two days from our scheduled stay in Nicaragua. That allowed us to move from Nita and Marty’s to a beach near the airport in Liberia, Costa Rica’s second largest city. I made an online appointment for us to get the PCR test offered at the Liberia airport Monday at 1 pm.

That went just fine. We arrived at our appointments almost two hours early and joined a line of gringos waiting in a big white tent next to the Arrivals terminal. Lab Echandi, the outfit running the operation, seemed extremely efficient and well-organized.They let us get tested despite our having shown up early and said the results would be emailed to us sometime the next day. Less than 24 hours later, they showed up in my inbox — signed by a doctor, QR-coded, and, happily, Negative. The clerk at our hotel’s reception desk printed them out for us.

Only one wrinkle remained. The Nicaraguan government’s website stated clearly that in addition to showing proof of the negative PCR test, all visitors had to fill out an online form from the Ministry of Interior, “an agile, orderly, and secure application for admission, which must be submitted at least seven days before entering Nicaragua.”

A week earlier, I had found that form online, filled it in and submitted it, and within a day received a colorful email back (entirely in Spanish). It seemed to be saying that I had to email the negative test results to the email sender. In yellow-highlighted letters it also said that after sending in the test results, “you must wait for notification to enter the country.”

Of course we emailed them the test results as soon as we got them Tuesday. Within an hour, I received a reply… telling me I had to also submit the health form. I fired back another salvo, reminding them I had already submitted it. I attached a pdf as proof. Then we heard…..nothing. Nothing Tuesday, nor Wednesday morning, nor by the time the driver we had hired dropped us off at the land crossing.

With some trepidation, Steve and I hauled our roller bags across the invisible line separating Costa Rica and its neighbor to the north. The sun was blazing; it felt like it had to be over 90 degrees. Outside the immigration office, some white-uniformed women at a health station signaled for us to hand over our passports and Covid test results. A few minutes later, they returned them to us with stamped slips of paper that suggested the tests had been reviewed and approved. Then we entered the immigration office to find a sleepy scene: a booth manned by two officers and no would-be visitors other than us. One of the officials, a burly, round-faced man, motioned for us to approach and asked me cheerily in Spanish how I was. In the minutes that followed, he examined and stamped our passports, photographed each of us in turn, had us pay a lady a municipality tax of $1 apiece, asked for an additional $13 federal entry fee per person… but never said a peep about the online health form.

So did we technically sneak in? It didn’t feel like it. But this morning, after being here in Granada for almost 24 hours, another email from the Nicaraguan government popped up in my inbox. It was exactly the same email I had received three or four times before: telling me to submit the Covid tests; stressing (with the same yellow highlighting) that we must not enter until we’d heard back from them. I suppose it’s theoretically possible a knock could come on our door. We might be hauled off for questioning.

I’m not losing sleep over the possibility.

And I have to note: taking the two days at the beach turned out to be a blissful payoff for slogging through the bureaucratic quagmire. Steve and I rarely spend time at beaches during our travels. We declare, too archly, that we live at the beach so we don’t need to seek them out on vacation. But this beach on the north-central Costa Rican coast was nothing like our hometown San Diego beaches.

We walked for miles, seeing almost no one but crabs……and a showy while egret.

Along with two or three other people, we were almost the only guests at the beautiful resort that I had found online for about the same price as a Rodeway Inn at home. It was sort of creepy but also really cool to have it almost all to ourselves.

Call it the yin and the yang of traveling in the time of Covid.

Soylent Green in Costa Rica

When Steve and I left behind San Jose last Wednesday (6/2), weeks had passed since I watched a television show or movie. That morning we drove in our rented SUV to El Castillo, a tiny village (pop. 250) that clings to the slopes of Volcano Arenal in northwest Costa Rica. I had traded more of my HomeExchange.com guest points to arrange a five-night stay in a delightful two-bedroom bungalow owned by a couple of American ex-pats there.

That’s the roof of our house with its view of the lake in the distance.

A moon gate on the grounds led to a private trail into the rainforest. We had our own little private swimming pool… ,,,hand-carved doors and other colorful decorations.We also found an extensive collection of DVD movies, through which Steve and I leafed Thursday night after dining on excellent burgers at a local joint named after the monkeys that serenaded us every morning with their barks and moans (Howlers). Craving some electronic entertainment, we decided to watch Soylent Green.

Somehow we missed this movie when it came out in 1973. Turns out it’s set in the year 2022 in New York City, where the population has reached 40 million, a hellhole so insanely crowded that people sleep in stairwells, piled up like trash bags in a garbage strike. But it’s home to a buff young city cop: Charlton Heston. He and everyone else in the throngs are sweating because global warming has gone critical. We see people wearing masks (yikes!). In the end Charlton figures out that dead humans are being transformed into green wafers (Soylent Green) because that’s the only food left on the planet; even the plankton in the seas has all been eaten. Shortly before this climax, we watch him bust into the creepy facility where his old friend Edward G. Robinson, dispirited and hopeless, has gone to be euthanized. Because Edward G is so old, he remembers what the world used to be like, and as he’s dying, he gets to watch images from the pre-apocalyptic days on a giant screen. Tears well up in Charlton’s eyes when he sees deer eating grass in a flower-filled meadow; schools of fish swimming in the sea. “How could I have known?” he chokes out.

Pretty corny stuff. But also wildly comforting to be watching in 2021. New York City’s population, Wikipedia tells me, is actually just 8.3 million (and that was before the Great Covid Exodus). In the movie, no one mentions Costa Rica, but anyone paying attention in the 1970s would have likely predicted a worse future than New York’s 50 years down the road. More than 75% of Costa Rica had been covered by forests in the 1940s, but by the 50s and 60s, people were chopping down ancient giants as if they were weeds, clearing land for cattle and pineapple farms whose produce could be hollowed out and used to hide bags of cocaine. By 1987, more than two-thirds of the forests were gone.

And then the Costa Ricans miraculously changed course. By 1998, the deforestation had not merely stopped; the forested areas began expanding. Costa Rica is the only tropical country in the world where that’s happened. According to one estimate, 53% of the country was again covered by trees in 2019, up from 21% at the nadir.

Today the money from ecotourists and adventurers drawn by the tropical splendor makes up a big part of the economy. And now I understand why. If Charlton and Edward G could have seen what Steve and I experienced over our five days in El Castillo, they would have stocked a backpack with Soylent Green and headed south.

At least 1200 species of butterflies live in Costa Rica, and we saw a couple dozen types of these beauties on a visit to a butterfly conservatory located in El Castillo.

These two are mating.

We went on several long hikes, through dripping rainforests…Across suspension bridges…

…and over lava fields created by Volcan Arenal.

The volcano had been quiet for 400 years before bursting into life in 1968. It put on a spectacular show for 42 years, then it abruptly stopped in 2010. So we didn’t see any lava flowing, but the mountain is still a powerful presence.

Its magma heats an extensive network of hot springs throughout the area; frolicking in them is a popular tourist activity. Steve and I spent a couple of hours in one resort, and I thought soaking in the hot water was pleasant. But finding otherworldly flowers like these in the garden mesmerized me.

Even more mind-boggling was the guided walk we took yesterday morning on the Bogarin Trial. We’d been told this was a great place to see both wild sloths and local birds. We wound up getting that and something even more magical: more than three hours in the presence of Marvin “Geovani” Bogarin.

Geovani told us he was one of 11 children born to poor parents; their small house didn’t even have electricity. He was named Marvin (god knows why), but he always hated that, and as we learned quickly, he is not a fellow to passively accept what fate doles out.

Now 58, by the time he reached his late 20s, he somehow found his way to a career in guiding biological research teams and tourists. He worked at that for 10 years, and then around 2000, he was seized by a crazy vision. He wanted to take 300 acres near the center of La Fortuna (the larger and more touristy town near El Castillo) and transform it from grassland for cattle into a nature preserve. He had no money. But somehow he struck a deal with the land’s owner: if Geovani would do all the work to effect this transformation, he could use the land in exchange for splitting any eventual revenue.

Somehow he turned a landscape like this…

…into this:

In the early years, he dug deep trenches and built up trails made of gravel and clay — flat and smooth enough that blind people and folks in wheelchairs could use them, as they do regularly today. (Giovanni thinks access to nature shouldn’t be limited to the able bodied.) He planted everything except for the handful of old-growth trees that still dotted the pastures. For long intervals, he slept on a platform open to the elements. Everyone in town thought he was crazy, even his siblings. But he persisted and by 2010 he had accomplished enough to begin shepherding tourists around the place. Today he welcomes visitors from all over the world, and if they see it through his eyes, as we did, it’s a wonderland.

A green basilisk (known as the Jesus Christ Lizard because of its ability to walk on water) greeted us near the entrance, but we soon moved into the forest where Geovani scanned the canopy like someone taking in the headlines on Apple News. He pointed out a large male sloth that I would never in a million years have spotted in the leaves above us. For several happy minutes we watched him hang there, scratching at the parasites infesting his fur.Then Geovani heard a toucan, and we scurried after him to find and photograph it.

At another point, we called a broad-billed motmot to us. Or rather Geovani did. He commands at least 100 bird calls, an achievement that has gotten him onto the pages of the New York Times. For us, he not only whistled the motmot’s pretty song, but got an answer back.Eventually the bird alighted not far away. As much as it looked like the two of them were engaged in a conversation, Geovani said the bird and his mate had a nest nearby, and this guy probably had mistaken Geovani for another motmot who might be moving in on his territory.

There was more. Just three days before, Geovani been bitten for the first time in his life by the fearsome bullet ant, a denizen of these parts, and we wanted to hear the gory details (“24 hours of excruciating pain.”) Another grisly story involved a close friend who a few months before had died from the bite of a fer-de-lance, a highly venomous pit viper that lives in these woods (along with coral snakes and several other deadly serpents.) Compared to them, the tiny poisonous frogs (provider of the poison for blow darts) look childish, like something Fisher-Price would make. Geovani told us how he once had gotten careless after handling one, touched his eyes, and went blind for three days.

He was careful not to touch this guy, whose charming name is the Blue Jeans Frog. You can see why.

It wasn’t all horror stories. Geovani’s a thoughtful guy with a passion for studying geopolitics. So we talked about next year’s race for Costa Rica’s presidency. And we asked him how Costa Rica had been able to turn things around; how it had avoided becoming Soylent Green South. His thoughtful answer was too long and detailed for me to fully reprise here, but he cited many factors: the realization that struck many of his countrymen in the 1980s that tourism could be more profitable than farming, proselytizing on the part of some key environmental visionaries, the country’s high education level (something like 97% of the population is literate, an achievement Geovani attributes to not having to spend money on a military); some sensible laws protecting key resources.

He didn’t say it, but we left thinking we’d just met another piece in the puzzle: the existence of people like him. Tough, generous, brave, inspired, intelligent, unbelievably hard working. As long as individuals like that keep popping up on the planet, I don’t feel terrified about its future.