Panama 1: Bocas Del Toro

Exiting the pit stop early, Ang and Simon were joined by Simon, the remaining half of Team Belgium last seen in León, and another Team Israel.  Together they walked over to the bus station where they waited for the bus to the border.

Soon, all teams were on a bus travelling through kilometre after kilometre of banana plantation.  They arrived at the quiet northern border and completed Costa Rican formalities before crossing a rickety old rail bridge to the Panama side. Simon remarked “that it was coolest crossing in a while, mainly because it was so unsafe.  They crazily even drove a semi over it”.

On the Panama side, immigration was completed with no real difficulties, other than the staff wondering why Ang did not have a Panamaian flag on her backpack.  A shared taxi was negotiated for a 50% reduction in the fare and team raced into Panama.

After an hour long ride they were deposited at Almirante where the team boarded a water taxi for the ride to Bocas Town, the largest settlement in the Bocas Del Torro Islands.   Without having any accommodation booked, the team walked around town and checked out the accommodation options.  By doing this, they were able to discover that a hostel had recently opened on the Island of Bastimentos.  They quickly booked this accommodation and then purchased some supplies.  Team Belgium, also received this clue and joined Team Australia on the water taxi to Bastimentos.

At the ferry dock near Almirante Banana ship
A lot of crane for such a small island Main street, Bocas town

They arrived at the water taxi dock and walked into the centre of the island where they checked in and raced to the beach.  There the Simons and Ang completed the swim at Red Frog beach challenge then, after spotting Team Ireland in the back of the shuttle truck, they enjoyed drinks and snacks at the nearby Punta Lava beach bar and grill.

Wildlife outside of the dorm Red frog beach from the bar

Their next challenges were to survey the beaches of Bastimentos and to spot red frogs in the wild.  Once again both teams set off to Red Frog Beach, then headed north.  Soon they were in a muddy rainforest area where they spotted tens of red frogs.  After completing this part of the challenge, the teams continued working their way along the coast until they arrived at the spectacular Wizard beach.

Panorama of Wizard beach
Simon takes a break from racing on Wizard beach

Not wanting to retrace their steps, the team headed across the island to Old Bank town, where they negotiated a water taxi ride back to the hostel dock.

Old Bank town flower Old Bank town trike

The next day the team continued their survey of the beaches of Bestimentos by heading east.

Ang crosses a jungle stream Plantain flowers
Abandoned beach bar
Panorama of a little cove east of Red Frog beach
Simon from Team Belgium follows close behind
Rainbow panorama

With the Bocas Del Torro challenges completed, the team rested for the remainder of the evening, socialising with Team New Zealand and a combination Team from Canada and Sweden.

Waking early the next morning, along with Team New Zealand, Simon and Ang raced via water taxi back to Bocas Town.  They then said goodbye to Team New Zealand and walked to the airport.  There, twenty minutes before departure, they purchased tickets for a short flight to Panama City.  Again after removing excess weight from their check in luggage, they were on their way.

Flying into Panama City the team took in the view of the hundreds of ships waiting to enter the lock.  They took a taxi ride through the congested streets to their hostel in the old town.  There they met up with Team Ireland, and received their next clue to make their way to the Miraflores lock.

Ships waiting to enter the canal The view from the hostel towards Panama City

Owing to the previous accommodation requiring the air conditioning be on 24/7, both Simon and Ang were unwell.  Ang opted to remain at the hostel to rest while Simon set off to complete the task. After two bus rides, Simon, along with Teams Ireland and America 3 arrived at the locks.  Their timing was perfect and they were able to watch three ships transition the locks before they returned via taxi to the hostel.

Miraflores lock Ships in the lock
Miraflores lock panorama

There at the hostel Team Australia checked into the pit stop for this leg of the race.  Once again they arrived in first place. To celebrate, they had an excellent dinner of sushi and traditional deep fried Panama fare before returning to their accommodation for the optional rest period.

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Costa Rica 3: Puerto Viejo

Early the next morning, the team received their next clue and departed the pit stop.  With a pre-purchased bus ticket, the team was driven down the mountain to San José.  Three hours later, the team arrived in capital of Costa Rica.  There they walked to another bus station where they changed to the twelve noon bus to Puerto Viejo De Talamanca.

The journey to Puerto Viejo began badly for the Australian team.  The team’s bus took one hour to leave San José due to excessive traffic.  Eventually the bus made its way through the central highlands and on to the banana plantations around Puerto Límon.  Being the banana growing capital of the world, home to brands such as Dole and Chiquita, there was excessive truck traffic that caused another major traffic jam.  This further delayed Simon and Ang.

San José traffic jam Armed San José carpark attendant
Sad Santa The banana plantation traffic jam

The bus eventually wove its way through the trucks and containers and plantations and arrived at the Límon bus station in time to see the later 2.30pm bus pull into the adjacent parking spot.  Team combined Belgium and New Zealand were on this bus.  They told Team Australia that they had been told the major delay was caused by a landslide.  Simon and Ang were not amused, and hoped that this disastrous day would not cause them to be eliminated when they finally got to the pit stop.

After the break at Límon, the bus continued the remaining 60km south to the small beach town of Puerto Viejo.  Ignoring the Rocking J’s guy, Simon and Ang located quieter accommodation and met up with half of Team Belgium.  That night they ate at Stashu’s fusion, a restaurant that was run by a friendly Guyanian called Stashu, where they had fantastic fare.  This completed the first eating challenge of this leg of the race.

Good fusion

Receiving their next clue, Ang and Simon hired some bikes and then rode to the Manzanillo national park and Punta Uva to search for the elusive toucan. Despite having a fun day on the beach they had no luck seeing a toucan, but did see a troop of monkeys.  On their return to Puerto Viejo, the team stopped off on the pretty ride back to drink some chocolate and then again to have fish tacos.  After returning the hire bikes and receiving their next clue, the team headed out to dinner for some typical Costa Rican casado and whole red snapper fare.

Dive panga near Punta Uva Barge, dog and birds near Puerto Viejo
Puerto Viejo beach
Panorama of a beach in the Manzanillo reserve
Panorama of the stormy sea and beach in the Manzanillo reserve
Racers pose for a photo Manzanillo beach, drying clothes
Tico beach goers View of beach through jungle
On a tree On a bike
Hot chocolate break Near Puerto Viejo
Monkey in the trees More monkeys
Jungle stream near Puerto Viejo

Completing these challenges, the team raced to the pit stop for this leg of the race where they were once again the first to arrive.

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Costa Rica 2: Monteverde

As the first team to arrive at the pit stop, Ang and Simon departed the next day at 4am.  They boarded a San José bus bound for La Irma.  Ang was annoyed that they had to keep changing seats, as other passengers had pre-booked, which until now had been unusual for Central America.

Two hours later, passing back through Nicoya, the team were deposited at La Irma, a petrol station and small restaurant located at a T junction on the Panamericana highway.  There the team ate a tipical local breakfast of rice, eggs and toasted cheese and awaited for three hours until their next bus came from San José to Monteverde.  Whilst the team was waiting they met Team Belgium/New Zealand, who were on their own exclusive race and who had previously met Team Ireland.

The team waits for the last bus of the day

Boarding the next bus, the team bumped its way up the hills, in and out of clouds to the small town of Monteverde.  The town of Monteverde is a mountain village located close to the Monteverde cloud forest preserve.  The preserve was established in the 1950s and is home to an array of plant and animal life, including toucans and sloths. This area would be the setting for this leg of the race.

Climbing to Monteverde

Arriving into the town the team was almost overwhelmed with sheer number of touts looking to get the team to their accommodation.  The team ignored all and said they were going to meet friends.  They then headed off to El Golfo Vista, where they checked in and meet the owner, who was one of the touts they previously had ignored.  Here, Simon and Ang once again met up with Team Ireland.

Talented local playing the piano in department/hardware store Arrmadillo for riding

The major task for this leg of the race was for the team to see a sloth and a tucan.  In order to complete this task, the team booked two tours.  The first was a guided night walk through primary forest.  The team’s group was joined by an energetic, over enthusiastic and strongly hypo active guide.  They were lead from a to b looking at a sloth and baby, racoons, various insects, an armadillos, glowing wood and a second sloth.  With Ren’s sloth challenge, completed the team was very excited and given their next clue.

A sloth Another sloth, with mold growing on its fur
The final sloth photograph to complete the challenge

Waking up at 8am, the team was driven to the privately owned Selvatura park adjacent to the Monteverde preserve.  Hoping to see a toucan, the team paid the $30 to walk through a rainforest over a series of suspension bridges.  Both Simon and Ang thought it was nice rainforest, but should have been less than $10 each to enter and complete the 3km walk as it was way overpriced.  They slowly walked around the loop, carefully scanning in the trees, but no toucans were spotted on account of the cold, raining weather.  The team raced back to the town and then to the pit stop.

Cloud forest Suspension bridge into the clouds
More cloud forest

Because they did not complete the spot a toucan challenge, the team was required to wait out a 30 minute time penalty.  The team used this time to prepare a delicious curry, enjoy a glass of red  and dry off from the wet dreary day.  With the penalty completed, the team checked into the pit stop for this leg of the race.

The view from the team’s accommodation
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Costa Rica 1: Playa Sámara

Leaving the pit stop at 5.30 am, they boarded the first chicken bus and were soon squashed in with the other Ometepe commuters.  Racing around the island, the bus deposited them at San José del Sur, where the team boarded the largest ferry, the Rey del Cocibolca for the crossing back to the mainland.

Panorama of Ometepe Island

The ferry ride was again slow, but much more comfortable than the ride to over to Ometepe.  On the boat, the team received a delicious hot local Nicaraguan breakfast of gallo pinto, eggs, avocado, tortillas and coffee.  Ang was very impressed with the restaurant service on the boat and said “I wish you could get this  on ferries back home.  You’d be lucky to get a quality meat pie”.

Soon the ferry arrived in San Jorge, where they joined some volunteers to share a taxi to back to Rivas.  Ignoring other taxi drivers persuit for the teams business, they jumped onto a waiting chicken bus and sped to the frontier.  The drive to the border was interesting for Simon and Ang as the road hugs the lake, making for some spectacular views of Ometepe Island.  After the 45 minute ride, the team arrived at what Ang called “a hell of a messy border”.

They paid their $1 to the local municipality to enter the border area then completed customs formalities and paid their $2 to exit Nicaragua.  Racing out of the departures kiosk, they were briefly confused as to which direction to head in as the large numbers of parked trucks all over the place like a dogs breakfast made seeing which way to walk difficult.  A helpful map was quickly located and the team set off through the muddy truck lot, along with two Americans who were also making the crossing.

Showing their passports a few more times to Nicaragua authorities, they walked down what looked like, minus the parked trucks, a normal road for this part of the world.  Eventually they arrived at a construction site and noticed a large queue.  There was no signage, but it was obviously Costa Rian immigration.

Passports were soon stamped and the team headed once again into a muddy carpark.  They eventually located the most local looking bus and were soon on their way to Liberia.

After almost two hours of driving, including a stop for Costa Rican authorities to check passports, the team arrived at the Liberia bus station.  Tickets were purchased for the next leg and the team joined the queue of people waiting. Unfortunately the front part of the queue completely filled the first bus so the team had to wait another 20 minutes for the second.

The advantage of this was the team was able to get a seat and were soon on their way 90 km further south.  Simon said halfway through this 2 hour bus ride that he thought that he ‘would never say that he missed chicken buses’ as while the bus was relatively modern, the seats were hard plastic benches. The other advantage to taking the second bus was that it stopped fewer times, which meant towards the end of the journey they caught up with the first bus.  After a painful 2 hours the bus arrived in Nicoya.

Getting some directions from the driver before getting off, the team walked over to the next bus station and waited for their final bus to Playa Sámara.  Some supplies were purchased and the team were soon on the final bus of the day. This bus was the most ultra modern that they had taken yet on the Amazing Exclusive Race and was even air-conditioned.  Both Ang and Simon were amazed.

The drive to Playa Sámara was incredibly beautiful, particularly the stretch through Valle Verde, and was very comfortable for the team.  They pulled into Sámara after an epic 12 hours of travel and there the team found their accommodation, the pit stop for this leg of the race.

During the day long rest period the team took advantage of the spectacular surrounds to explore the beaches and headlands.  Refreshed, they had an early night ready for the next day’s travel.

Man on a horse, Playa Sámara Two horses and a beach
Ang climbing around the headland
Panorama of Playa Sámara
Towards the setting sun HDR image taken near Playa Sámara
Life is indeed awesome
Sunset Horses on Playa Sámara
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Nicaragua 5: Ometepe Island

Simon and Ang left the pit stop early and made their way three blocks south to the bus terminal, which once again was in the centre of a crowded market.  Acting on three pieces of separate timetable information, the team arrived with plenty of time.  Unusually for Central America, they then had to wait for 45 minutes before their bus departed for the town of Rivas.

Chickens in the Granada markets

The ride to Rivas was a standard chicken bus ride and soon they were in town.  There they jumped into a taxi and were deposited at the ferry terminal in San Jorge.  After an hour’s wait, they boarded an old weathered ferry with chicken bus seats for the ride to the Island of Ometepe.

Chicken boat

The island of Ometepe is a unique volcanic formation located in the middle of Lake Nicaragua.  It was formed by two large active volcanoes (Concepción and Maderas). Simon commented that “they would be just like two fried eggs when viewed from space”.  The island is connected by private and government run ferries.

The team rode on the old private chicken boat ferry across the rough lake.  The crew was engaged fully in the transit, regularly pumping the bilge by hand and acting on bell messages from the captain.  The slow hour long crossing was competed without sinking and the team arrived at Moyogalpa.  They then jumped on an ancient chicken bus to Altagracia on the eastern side of the island.  Just before Altagracia they jumped off the bus at El Quito and commenced walking towards Santo Domingo.   They soon gained a ride in a tourist van to their destination.

Concepción making clouds

In Santo Domingo, the team found accommodation and later met up with Team Ireland.  Whilst they waited for the next phase of the race, they spent the afternoon and evening socialising.  They also tried to avoid being bitten by sand flies and attempted to find out where the party was at in the super quiet town.  They received their next clue early the next morning and set off on foot to the town of Santa Cruz a few kilometres away to the south, walking along a road that in parts was only sandy.

Helpful evacuation signage Bird on a hut as the storm approaches

After a 45 minute march with their gear, the team checked into their next hostel in the small community of Santa Cruz.  Their new accommodation had slightly fewer sand flies and a fantastic view of Concepción volcano to the north.

Ometepe goats heading towards Santo Domingo

After checking in, the team attempted to locate Team Ireland.  They checked several accommodations, but were unsuccessful.  They did however manage to negotiate a free ride in a tourist van to the Ojo de Agua.  The afternoon was spent swimming and rope swinging into the cool water.  Completing this task the team set off with Simone from Team Switzerland for an early meal of Tostones con Queso.  Completing this challenge the team travelled by bus back to Santa Cruz and made a final attempt to locate Team Ireland at a nearby Irish run bar and hostel.  Unfortunately they were unsuccessful, so they returned along the dark sandy road to their accommodation where they checked into the pit stop for this leg of the race.

Panorama of the Ojo de Agua
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Nicaragua 4: Granada

Once again Simon and Ang were the first to depart from the pit stop.  They travelled on foot back to the dock on the western side of the island.  Their they joined the mostly backpacker crowd waiting for the panga.  Schedule departure time passed without the boat being seen.  Twenty minutes later an engine roared into life from around the headland.  The boat was speedily loaded and it disembarked from the dock.

An early start to this leg of the Race Many pangas, few drivers
Panga filled with gringos, while locals are still asleep

This crossing was a nearly flat easy ride across the strait back to Big Corn.  The team once again shared a cab to the airport, this time with Team Ireland 2 and once again almost emptied their backpack contents to meet weight limits which they carried as carry on.

Big Corn Island from the air

After another uneventful flight the team arrived back in Managua and negotiated a good deal for a 100Q cab ride back to the bus station.   There they boarded a bus south to Granada.

Granada is perhaps the most touristy of all the towns in Nicaragua.  The colonial streets and restored buildings are set around a flat tourist core.  There the team arrived in the centre of town and made their way to their accommodation.  There they met up with the original Team Ireland, who they had last seen in Tikal, Guatemala.

Sus pies or potentially sexist subtitling as the giant monkey king looks on

Challenges for this leg of the race included repairing damaged/worn clothing, climbing to the top of La Mercer Church for scenic views, eating in the top eating spots in the city, walking to the nearby shores of lake Nicaragua and swimming with beer in hand at the hostel pool.  Lastly, the team completed the personal grooming challenge where Simon had a haircut and Ang a pedicure, at a local beauty salon with the combined costing less than $5.

Panorama looking towards Lake Nicaragua
Clock tower towards Lake Nicaragua Music and cycling
Ang is part way through the pedicure challenge Simon (looking like Christian Bale) part way through the haircut challenge
Haircut challenge complete
Central plaza looking south east Central plaza looking north east
Kind of like the Blues Brothers, but not as cool Moss covered footpath near the lake
Ang completes the “photograph a Nicaragua vendor” challenge with this picture A building near the shop where the clothing was repaired
Not as good as After Party, but it is on wheels!

Completing these tasks, the team, still in first place, checked into the pit stop for this leg of the race.

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Nicaragua 3: Little Corn Island

As the first team to arrive at the León pit stop at 2am, Simon and Ang were the first to depart seven and a half hours later at 9.30.  After a quick breakfast, they raced to the bus stop and were soon in a collectivo van, bound for the capital of Nicaragua, Managua.  They were to make their way to Little Corn Island via the quickest means possible.  Team Belgium who had received their own separate clue, left the pit stop 15 minutes later on the next collectivo.

Within 15 minutes of leaving León their van was directed to pull off the road by the Policia.  There they waited as a fleet of Nicaraguan government vehicles drove past.  Ang and Simon estimated that there were 200 Festivas and 50 Ladas.  All were without number plates, but all had big fleet numbers on their windscreens and appeared to be travelling in perfect numerical order and in alternate red then silver colours.

One of many fleet cars on the left Tail end of the convoy

Once all of the cars had finally driven past the police escort allowed traffic to move on again, however the team’s minivan resumed its journey directly behind the convoy.  The rolling traffic jam meant that the estimated time to drive to Managua would double.  This potentially meant team Australia would miss their flight to Little Corn Island.  The driver of the van soon became tired of the constant braking and accelerating of the excitable drivers ahead and decided to take an alternative route.  The delay caused by the convoy allowed Team Belgium to catch up and both minivans turned off the main road to Managua.

The alternative route they took was mostly dirt roads in very poor condition. This meant the average speed of 50km/h they were able to achieve on the chaotic main road fell to the 20km/h.  After an hour of bumping their way along the road, Ang communicated the team’s concerns to the driver when it became apparent the team would be late into Managua for their 2pm flight.  Rapid phone calls were made in Spanish to Managua and onward transport in a taxi was organised.

Arriving at the Managua bus terminal at 12:50pm, the team was met at the door of the van by the pre-organised taxi driver.  Seconds later they were in the cab heading away from the bus station for the airport.  Their taxi driver raced his under powered Honda through the gritty streets of Managua.  It was clear the team was not going to arrive at the airport in time.  Finally they arrived at the small domestic airport 20 minutes before scheduled flight departure.  Frantically the team grabbed their bags and paid the cab driver.

They ran into the terminal and found check in had only just started and that they had plenty of time.  Really relived, the team relaxed and completed check in formalities, which included removing all the heavy items from their check in luggage to meet weight restrictions.  With their arms full of dirty washing, shoes and toiletries, they crossed through security and there the team celebrated with the purchase of beer (for Ang) and yoghurt (for Simon) in the lounge.  Approximately 45 minutes later, well after the scheduled departure, their aircraft left Managua via Bluefields to Big Corn Island.

The uneventful flight was soon over and the team shared a taxi with Team America 2, two brothers called Tommy and Ben.  The short drive around the airport to the docks was completed and the Australian and American teams boarded a Panga to Little Corn Island.

Dead cake on the tarmac Rollers at work? Nice

A Panga is a reinforced speedboat with passenger capacity of 25 persons and a top speed of 65km/h. The crossing between Big and Little Corn Islands is typically rough and this crossing was no exception.  The captain throttled up and they commenced the thrill ride across the strait.  On the crest of each wave, the engines would be throttled down as the boat became airborne.  This was accompanied by vocal girly nervous screams by some of the other backpacker passengers.

Half way between Big and Little Corn Islands

Simon and Ang, who had unwisely sat at the very back, laughed at the craziness of this ride and unsuccessfully tried to stay dry.  After 25 minutes of constant bashing and near constant screams, the captain stopped the boat and in rapid and colourful Creole, basically told the passengers it wasn’t even that rough.  Screams were slightly less vocal for the rest of the passage and team Australia continued the journey eyes shut due the harsh saltiness of the Caribbean Sea which was burning their eyes with every wave.

On dusk, the panga pulled into the Little Corn dock, a freighter parked next to the dock itself.  The team alighted from the boat across the freighter and then walked across the island to the main accommodation area on the east of the island.  Checking a few of the cabañas, they eventually settled at the Casa Iguana.

Arriving there, they were given accommodation and were given challenges for this leg of the race.  These included to circumnavigate the island, locate prime fishing spots around the island, find missing shoes, climb to the highest point on the island, sample the food and drink of Little Corn, and to play “Ring Swing”.

Typical Little Corn street Inspiring fine print at the entry to Casa Iguana
Alien fruit Private beach near Iguana
Panorama of the main eastern beach on the island (from Iguana)

The circumnavigation challenge was completed over two consecutive days and involved a considerable amount of bush bashing in the rain and thick mud whilst wearing in appropriate footwear.  At one point Ang tragically had a plugger blowout, which Simon addressed by picking up a spare out of the flotsam on the beach.  On their journey around the island, the team was also able to locate a fishing spot that Shaun, and the sole member of Team American 1, was able to exploit to catch two large trigger fish.  This inadvertently seemed to spark a cold war fishing competition between Team Americas 1 & 2 which hilariously continued for the remainder of the week.

PVC pipe hammock Lighthouse contraption
Another beachside outhouse Exclusive Survivor
Art Boat storage
The only corn growing on the whole island Guard monkey
Garbage on the beach (sadly from the wider Caribbean) Clean beach
Looking south from Little Corn Shaun’s trigger fish haul

The sample the fare of Little Corn Island challenge was completed over the six days at the island and involved eating and drinking at Tranquillo, Rosie’s, Mango Pizza and Casa Iguana.  Several mornings involved the team scouring the Casa Iguana grounds for missing footwear, stolen by a resident loco pero suffering from kleptomania.  The climb to the highest point on the island was completed in one morning with the team ascending an old lighthouse tower.  Finally, accompanied by much drinking, the team played ring swing with Teams America 1 and 2.

Tranquillo Bar
Art, Little Corn style Ang sits on some more art
Random drop gecko during dinner Western side of the island
Ang climbing the lighthouse tower Simon climbs the tower
Ang demonstrates ring swing technique A successfully hooked ring
Sunrise from the casita

With all challenges completed, the team was met by Iguana Doug (one of two human Dougs on the island) and checked into the pit stop for this leg of the race, Casa Iguana’s casita 11 by the sea.

Casita 11, Casa Iguana, the pit stop for this leg of the race

In a post leg interview, Simon said “I really liked the island.  It was more laid back than Caye Caulker. Hilariously, the dogs were very territorial and would use backpackers to gang up with, to cross into other dog’s territories.  There were distinct personalities on the island, perhaps not to the same degree as Caye Caulker, but certainly as entertaining – there were three Dougs!  I found it odd that there was only one maize plant growing on the whole of Little Corn Island”.  Ang said when interviewed that ”it was a wonderful place to relax and explore the many secluded beaches but I am surprised at how many Norwegians visit the island. I struggle with my new learned Spanish and keep mixing Norwegian and English which is a laugh but terribly frustrating”.

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Nicaragua 2: León

León is a Nicaraguan spanish colonial city surrounded by unique volcanic formation.  The city is perhaps most famous for the extreme activities and hikes that can be undertaken nearby.  León was also the pit stop in an exclusive race around the world.

As the team were first to arrive, Simon and Ang were the first to depart the pit stop.  They raced to the nearby Quetzaltrekkers, a great non-profit tour organisation.  There they were fitted and measured for two yet unknown major challenges for this leg of the race.

After this, the team set out to explore the town of León and took care of travel chores such as clothes washing until it was late enough for them to join Team Belgium (now a whole team of two complete with theme song – Black Eyed Peas “I’ve got a feeling” ) and others for drinks.

Early the next morning, Simon and Ang, along with half of Team Belgium (Walter was not required to go boarding) and others, they boarded the Quetzaltrekkers flatbed truck for the hour drive to Cerro Negro.  The drive began on paved roads but quickly transitioned to black sandy tracks through fields of corn and sugar cane.

Farmers on the road to Cerro Negro

Soon they arrived at the entry to the national park and then the base of the volcán where they were kitted up with their water, volcano boards, gloves, overalls and goggles.  The racers then hiked up the side of the still active black volcano.  Cerro Negro is a young volcano that first erupted in 1850 and since then it has erupted 23 times with the most recent occurring in 1999.  If the rate of eruptions and growth continues, it is predicted to be the highest volcán in Nicaragua.  The sides of the volcano are black basalt that look remarkable like asphalt.  One side in particular has the perfect slope to allow boarding.

The team is ready to climb the volcán Boarders high up on Cerro Negro

After an hour long hike that included a stop in the crater for photos, the team arrived at the summit. There they donned their protective equipment and slid down the side of the volcano.  The ride down lasted approximately 2 minutes with Ang the fastest in the group for this first run.

High up on Cerro Negro The team completes the sulphur steam bath challenge
Panorama of Cerro’s crater
Kitted out for the first run At the bottom of Cerro Negro’s long boarding slope

Once at the bottom, snacks and Tang were had and the group started back up the volcano again.  The second climb was completed somewhat faster than the first.  Once at the top the team again dressed and moved to the launch point.  The team shot down the side of the volcano once more, this time with much less concern for safety and more for speed.  At the bottom of the volcano the team received their next clue and were soon speeding back to León.

Ang touches a cloud Ready for the next run
Free range iguana farm

Ang was particularly thrilled to have completed this challenge and said “I wish I could do it again, but next time on a bike”.

The next day the team checked out of their accommodation and spent the day walking around the old town before they once again returned to Quetzaltrekkers for their next clue.  Their task was to summit the Volcán Telica overnight as part of the full moon hike.

Apparently the largest church in Central America is in León Another, smaller church in León
Unfortunately the team missed Gustavo and his dancing girl’s performance Chilling in the hostel between challenges

After a few pre-hike drinks with team Belgium (both halves and once again accompanied by “I’ve got a feeling”), the team once returned to Quetzaltrekkers.  Dinner was had and then at 11pm, they climbed into a truck and drove off into the night.  Arriving at start of the hike, the team marched through moonlit maize fields and down dark rocky country roads.  At one rest stop, the team entertained the other hikers with an interruptive dance as they attempt to light paint the mango tree they had stopped under.  Ang said, when asked what the hell she was doing, “I’m trying to add fairy lights”.

Light painting of the mango tree rest stop

The walk itself was fairly easy.  The team chatted with the other hikers including Team America 1 and kept an eye on their foot placement over the uneven terrain.  At times the moon was bright enough to see the way by.  At other times, they needed their head torches to see the path.  They walked for a total of 6 hours (26km return) before they arrived at the hellish Telica summit, just before dawn.

There the team was required to approach the unstable crater edge.  With Telica venting sulphur and there being a light mist, it was difficult to see to the bottom of the crater and so the team was unable to see the lava.

Desending from the Telica crater edge

Retreating down into an older crater, the team along with the other hikers enjoyed an early morning breakfast.  They then raced back up the escarpment to watch the spectacular sunrise.  They once again attempted to view the lava and succeeded and were over joyed and awed at the sight and roar of it through the sulphur clouds.  They then started the long walk back down the volcano.

Early morning breakfast spot near Telica Early morning Telica under a full moon
Telica panorama
The racers pose for a photo with Telica Simon next to the crater edge
Ang next to the crater edge Ang looks over the crater edge (130m straight down)
HDR image of sunrise Telica just after dawn
Another panorama of Telica showing the crater
Parts of teams Australia, France and Israel watch the sunrise
Sunrise Telica panorama
Returning to León in the Quetzal truck

Back to León they raced. They checked into accommodation and then along with Team Belgium, headed out for a night of drinking and dancing.  This included a visitation to “After Party”, which Walter of Team Belgium had been excited about ever since he had completed his first León challenge for the Amazing Exclusive Race Belgium.   They danced until 2am when they were given their final clue for the León leg of the race.

Random Nicaraguan festival dude Inside the legendary After Party

Racing back along the calle towards Quetzaltrekkers, the team successful convinced other racers to take part in their full moon challenge.  Teams from Holland, Israel and Belgium joined and together they completed the full moon outside of Quetzaltrekkers.

Full moon challenge completed at 2am (censored)

Successfully completing this final challenge, the team raced back to their accommodation, the pit stop for this leg of the race. Ang commented “After an awesome 43 hours of racing this leg, I am pumped to still be in the amazing race but so glad to be finally hitting the hay”.

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Nicaragua 1: San Marcos, Honduras to León

After returning from breakfast, the team was greeted by a big and serious gentleman in reception.  He was talking to the hotel owner and was wearing aviators, a cowboy hat, cowboy boots with big cowboy spurs, a huge cowboy belt buckle with tartan cowboy shirt and a engraved cowboy pistol in a matching cowboy hoister.  The team said buenos dias and quickly went to their room.  On the way there, they passed another big guy who was similarly dressed to the first dude but was checking each of the rooms (except the teams) for something or someone.  Needless to say, the team completed their pre-race preparations quickly, received their first clue for this leg and then left the pit stop.

The ride to the border was quickly completed and customs on the Honduran side was very relaxed as was the Nicaraguan immigration, once the required fees were paid.  Arriving into Nicaragua proper, the team was informed that there were no public buses running as today was the Nicaraguan election.  Simon and Ang were both concerned that their only options were walking or a taxi.  They suspiciously accepted the taxi ride for the small sum of 20 córdboda, about $1 to a nearby town of Somoto.  Simon was proud that the plastic Nicaraguan money was printed in Australia.

Honduran border station (under renovation)

Over the course of the journey, the taxi driver talked to someone on his mobile telephone.  The conversation mentioned of the amount of time left to drive and that he was coming from the Honduran border.  Both Ang and Simon were wary as the taxi didn’t seem to be a legitimate one and they had only been in the country for about an hour.  All along the 20km drive there were no buses, only scores of people walking to polling stations or to their family homes.  They made a brief stop for some Policia at a checkpoint to inspect their passports before they arrived at the dusty town of Somoto.

Arriving at Somoto, a dusty town with an empty quiet bus station, the team managed to determine that there would be no buses for the day and according to the driver and a guy at bus station, none for the next two days.  This meant that they would need to stay in Somoto or they would need to get the taxi further to Estelí, the next major town heading south.  Deciding that the accommodation options in Somoto would delay them too much, the team negotiated with the cab driver for a reduced fare to Estelí for the princely sum of USD$40.

With nothing to compare this fare to, other than the price to come from the border, Ang in particular was concerned they were being ripped off.  This fear was exacerbated when a chicken bus drove past them heading in the other direction.  The taxi driver was forced to justify his no bus claim.

The rest of the drive to Estelí passed quickly and they covered the 80km in about 1.5 hours. Entering the outskirts of town, the driver stopped on the outskirts of the city and told them to take another cab to their hostel.  At this point the team commenced arguing with the taxi driver.  The team didn’t think that USD$40 was fair given it appeared as though the taxi driver was profiteering and was not completing the journey to the agreed destination.

The argument spilled out of the taxi with the team collecting their bags and trying to pay half to the cab driver.  Hailing another taxi, they managed to negotiate a compromise with their original taxi driver and the second taxi driver who kindy assisted with the dispute and $25 was accepted. Soon after being delivered to their accommodation, the team found out that $40 from the border was a fair amount and that $25 was a really good deal.  Simon felt bad, but said “while we were the bad guys today, we’ve lost out more than we’ve won”.

As this day was also Simon’s birthday, the team was tasked with finding a suitable piñata for him to bash in celebration.  Unfortunately this task was not completed (due to the public holiday shop closures).  There also was no alcohol available for purchase, so the team set about completing the alternative task to locate and consume local Nicaraguan ice cream.  This was eventually achieved at the only open shop, a welcome sight, the only supermarket in town.

That evening, whilst completing the second food task for this leg of the race, the team had perhaps the weirdest dinner experience yet.  They raced from their hostel to a nearby open restaurant that was a poor imitation of a 1950s American diner.  It was located right next to the local vote counting station and just down the road from the second most popular party, PLC after the ruling FSLN party, so was surrounded by action.  Dinner was enjoyed while watching the riot police, celebrating voters, yahoos and general election night craziness.  Simon said later that “that was by far the oddest birthday I’ve head yet”.

Riot police, Estelí

The team’s next task was to complete a homestay with a Nicaraguan family.  This was to involve travel to their home in the Miraflores.  The Miraflore reserve is a community orientated project with the objective of maintaining the natural flora and fauna of the region.  This area is home to a range of diverse plant and animal species, and banana and coffee plantations, but is very poor.  Homestays provide the families living in the area with supplemental income and are an excellent way to see traditional Nicaraguan life.

Waking early, the team were soon on the only chicken bus for that day bound for the Miraflores.  For two hours the team endured the bone-jarring off-road ride that took the team deep into the picturesque reserve.  Due to there being limited transport services to this area, the team disembarked their bus at Terrere, and along with a pre-organised guide, set off for a two and a half hour hike overland through the reserve to the small community of El Somote.

Their guide Darvin had been up most of the night involved with the elections at the PLC party headquarters in Estelí.  He was tired, disappointed with the outcome of the election and was also unwell.  The team had to wait often for him to catch up during their walk through coffee and banana plantations and cool forests.

Miraflore cow Waiting for Darvin
Mariposa in Miraflore

Before long, the team arrived at their homestay and met the family.  Their stay involved completing challenges such as to go for walks to see the views, help prepare dinner which included hand making tortillas from scratch from corn flour only, and to practice their Spanish.  Ang was particularly pleased to have the opportunity to practice and the chance to communicate.

Wilbur on his horse The rest of the family The rest of the family
Making tortillas in the kitchen
Brushing up on basic Spanish phrases Between tortilla making, there was lots of sitting around

After spending a relaxing and interesting night, the team woke early and commenced racing once again.  They prepared more tortillas then they boarded the one and only chicken bus back to Estelí.  This ride took the team three hours as it had to drive around the whole reserve and was another spine shattering journey.  Once back in Estelí, the team’s final challenge for this town was to print the photos they took of the family to give as gifts.  After completing this, they were given their next clue and set off to the bus station.

At the bus station, the team was unable to locate the direct minibus to León, but did meet Walter, who would soon become the second half of Team Belgium.  Together the one and a half teams walked to the southern bus terminal where they boarded a chicken bus bound for San Isidor.  An hour later they were on another heavily loaded chicken bus heading south past dramatic volcáns to León.

The shark fin helps make the deliveries faster Australian aid dollars at work

Three and a half long hours later the teams arrived at León’s bus station.  As seems to be typical in Central America, this station was also located in a market.  However, Ang and Walter both agreed that it looked like something from Asia or India due to the incredible amount of chaos, rubbish and smell.  Leaving this behind and 20 minutes later entering the rough and ready colonial heart of the town,  the teams checked into their hostel, the pit stop for this leg of the race.

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El Salvador 3: Alergría to San Marcos, Honduras

As the first time to arrive at the pit stop at 7.30 pm, Ang and Simon were the first to depart after their breakfast at 8.30 am.  They headed to the northern corner of the plaza where they waited for the chicken bus from the nearby town of Berlín to arrive.  They did not wait long and were soon on the drive down the mountain.

Chicken bus vendors in action – everyone standing is selling something

Changing in Santiago de Maria and then again at the main highway, they made it to San Miguel.  Their pace of travel was perfect with their buses consistently arriving in time to meet connections.  They continued east, boarding a bus to Santa Rosa where they changed again to another bus that took the team to the town of El Amatillo, on the border with Honduras.

Truck expertly stored at the border

Some US dollars were changed and the team queued to complete passport formalities.  After crossing the bridge on foot, they completed the entry requirements on the Honduran side and were soon once again in another chicken bus. Ang remarked that the Honduran buses seem to be not as fun as they were missing chickens and doof doof español techno common in El Salvador.  This bus ride took them 2.5 hours to Choluteca and was the least comfortable of the bus rides to this point for the team on account of a creepy guy staring at Ang and the terrible seats.

The river between El Salvador and Honduras Simon consults the clue for the next step

Arriving in this dusty town on the crossroads, the team asked for the location of the San Marcos bus service.  Unlike the friendly El Salvadorians, the assistance given was limited.  The team eventually gave up trying to locate the bus stop in the chaotic public space and walked north to the town’s second terminal where they were told the next bus would be along in 40 minutes.

Simon returned to the other bus terminal area to buy some water and heard a bunch of people calling out “San Marcos”, which was usual for a chicken bus about to leave.  Simon asked the helper what the departure time was and found it was seconds away.  So after asking if the bus could wait a moment, he sprinted off to get Ang and the bags at the other bus terminal.

Racing past the laughing locals, the team arrived back at the first bus terminal only to find they were too late to catch the chicken bus.  A little sweaty, they then returned to the second bus terminal. An hour later a modern air conditioned bus arrived.  Both Simon and Ang were fearful that this costly delay could mean that they would be eliminated as it was now getting dark.  They could do nothing but enjoy the sunset as their bus climbed through the spectacular southern Honduran country side.  After dark, the bus arrived in San Marcos de Colón.

There the team ate some deep fried maize dumplings before checking into the pit stop for this leg of the race.  Simon and Ang, despite the costly time delay in Choluteca, were lucky they were the first to arrive and so where not eliminated.

Honduran TV supports movember

In the post race interview, Simon said “luck just wasn’t on our side.  If our earlier bus had of been a few minutes later, we probably would have seen the first chicken bus we missed.  Still, after 6 buses, it was good to get a comfortable one for the last ride.  I’m just glad we weren’t eliminated”.

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