We live here now!

After a great week living in Escazú, we’ve relocated to a cute casita in Atenas. The weather and scenery are gorgeous around here which explains, at least partially, why it’s a popular place for folks from North America to spend their retirement years. Of course, we’re not retiring, but we’re definitely enjoying ourselves.

Our home for the next few weeks

Our home for the next few weeks

We’re lucky to be surrounded by fruit trees — mango, lemon, and lime — and have access to the rancho. It’s a large, covered outdoor area where Emily works and we grill dinner, and it’s a great space for enjoying a beer at the end of the day.

Fruit trees out our front door! Lemon on the left, mango on the right.

Fruit trees out our front door! Lemon on the left, mango on the right.

I’ve been spending a lot of the days while Emily is at work practicing (mostly guitar, this week), recording, taking care of cleaning/laundry, and cooking. We’ve also started a routine of running around the soccer field across the street with the dogs early in the morning before Emily starts work.

The view from our hosts' mirador.

The view from our hosts’ mirador.

Our hosts, Pat and John Wegner, are really gracious and knowledgeable. Both of them have navigated the residency process and have loads of information about that and the Atenas area. I went with them to German’s Bar to a regular gathering of folks from the U.S. last week (some visitors, some residents) and had a great time. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a dance floor filled with sexagenarians shaking it to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.” Or perhaps been one of them.

While I have lots more of Atenas and the area to explore so far, here’s what I do know. The town is home to a great farmer’s co-op-owned supermarket, Supermercado Coopeatenas. There’s a killer farmer’s market every Friday, where I learned that you want to buy pineapples from the guy at the back of the market rather than the vendor at the front, since the guy in the back is always cheaper. The sports bar has free wifi, so you can post to your blog while sipping on a margarita. Pura vida.

I would say our main challenge is that basic interactions are still stressful due to the language barrier. I’m pretty drained after going to the farmer’s market, and both Emily and I have to get psyched up to approach the folks behind the meat counter so we can have a successful transaction. This has led to our feeling helpless and frustrated far too often, so we’ve resolved to (re)prioritize learning Spanish. Our studying had fallen by the wayside after arriving in Costa Rica since we no longer had built-in time during long drives to keep learning with Michel Thomas. Emily asked around and found a community space, Su Espacio, that does language lessons and set up classes for us starting next week! We’ll be taking classes for the next few weeks we’re in Atenas. Hopefully that will boost our confidence and lead to more positive social interactions.

Last weekend, we sort of buckled on sightseeing — it turns out that going to towns on a Sunday when everyone is at church is not the best way to get a feel for a place. We walked around Grecia and Sarchí, which have large numbers of car dealerships and furniture stores, respectively. They’re also great little towns and we may go back on a better day of the week sometime.

Emily, her parasol, and

Emily, her parasol, and “The World’s Largest Ox Cart” in Sarchí

The church in Sarchí, opposite the mega ox cart.

The church in Sarchí, opposite the mega ox cart.

Today, we pulled it together and got ourselves up to Poás Volcano National Park in the nick of time to see the active main crater. The park ranger at the gate said we’d have a 50/50 chance since we arrived after 10 a.m., so we consider ourselves lucky. One nice feature about this park is that you drive basically up to the top of the volcano and it’s a relatively short walk up a nice paved path to the main crater — “great for active seniors,” says Lonely Planet. Also great for us.

Emily and the Crater.

Emily and the Crater.

Andy and Emily at Poás Volcano Crater

We made it before it got too cloudy to see!

After viewing the main crater, we took the trail up to check out the lake in the long-inactive crater, Botos. Unfortunately, the clouds had blown in by then and we could only see the edge. We continued along the trail through the cloud forest microclimate for a couple more kilometers. Upon reaching the main crater trail, we decided to go back up just to see if the view was still any good. Here is what we saw:

There's a crater down there somewhere.

There’s a crater down there somewhere.

The early bird definitely gets the worm at this national park. After hiking back down, we drove out to Restaurante Colbert, an amazing French restaurant tucked into the hills in Vara Blanca. It was a bit of a detour from our route home, but it was well worth it. It’s very close to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, but we didn’t make it there on this visit since we were a little tired and the weather wasn’t great. We’ll just have to go back!

Gear Notes

This one is for the gear nerds. I read a lot of blogs by other overlanders, especially the folks over at Life Remotely, taking note of what they packed. We ended up packing a little differently since we aren’t staying as long in any one place or going to as many remote areas as the folks we read about. I won’t go over an exhaustive packing list (yet), but here are a couple highlights.

Viair 88P Air Compressor 

Viair 88P portable compressor

The best little compressor I’ve ever owned.

I had an old compressor that hooked to the 12 V / lighter outlet, but it barely worked. This compressor is a huge upgrade, especially since I was filling up the front driver’s side tire every day on the trip (just got it fixed today for ~$5!). It hooks directly to the car battery and has its own fuse, so you avoid the possibility of blowing a fuse in the car. The clamps are a little small, but are able to grab on to the nuts on the battery terminals. Once you hook it up, an LED comes on indicating that the compressor has power and also providing useful light if inflating at night. The power cord and hose are both long, so it’s easy to reach all of the tires. The hose end fitting threads securely on to the tire valve. It also comes with extra attachments: one for filling up an air mattress and a needle for your soccer/yoga/whatever ball. The heat sink fins get hot while it’s pumping, but cools off very quickly after you turn off the compressor.

Primus ETA Lite Camp Stove

A tiny, awesome stove.

A tiny, awesome stove.

Tiny and powerful, the Primus camp stove is designed for backpacking, but works great for car camping when you want to conserve space. The cookpot attaches securely to the burner, so it efficiently transfers heat and minimizes the impact of wind. It’s super easy to set up and use. I might get a larger pot at some point to be able to boil more water at one time, but so far it’s been great. Note that Primus offers smaller fuel canisters so you can fit the burner, a can of gas, the stand and the lanyard inside the pot. Very cool.

Here are a couple things we wish we’d brought:

A waterproof, all-season tent — We’ll be buying this as soon as possible since we’re planning to do some camping in Costa Rica. Our current tent is not up to the task.

GPS — After getting lost as many times as we have on this trip (lots), we’re probably going to invest in a GPS. We found that we could get by with paper/digital maps and the kindness of strangers, but it was often frustrating and caused significant delays. There are free maps available for Garmin units for Central America and much of the world.

That’s all on gear for now. More soon!

¡Llegamos!

Things got interesting our second night at the beach house in Nicaragua.

First, the power went out at about 5 p.m. Realizing we probably weren’t going to regain electricity by the time we left the next day, we cooked dinner in the hour of light we had left, watched the lightening for a while, and gave up and went to bed at about 7:30 p.m. Like olden times! 

At around 8 p.m., we heard a gunshot nearby. We learned the next day that this was the guard firing a warning shot after the power went out, which we appreciated, although we would have been slightly less sketched out to have that intel at the time. I leaped out of bed to ensure the doors were locked, and on my way, knocked a side table’s seashell display onto the tile floor. If you’re wondering what sound that makes, it’s sort of like a bar full of angry bikers smashing their beer bottles against one another’s foreheads all at once.

The next morning, after a romp on the beach, we followed a caravan consisting of two dudes on a motorcycle, a dog, and a guy on a bike out through the dirt “roads.”

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Traffic jam in Nicaragua.

For that evening’s lodging, we decided to try our luck in San Juan Del Sur, a surf town about an hour’s drive north of the Costa Rica border. Luck was not on our side. I held about 10 conversations in my broken Spanish that went along these lines: “Do you have a room for two people for tonight? Do you allow dogs? No? Ah, too bad. Do you know of a hotel or guest house near here that allows pets? One block over, two doors down? OK, thank you very much!”

Normally I’d have difficulty with that much rejection, but I was so elated to be having successful exchanges in Spanish that it buoyed me along. Eventually Andy had the smartypants idea to stop at an Internet cafe and try to find something nearby online, which he did in about 10 minutes. We left pet-unfriendly San Juan Del Sur for a lovely hotel called Casa Bahia in Playa Marsella, about 20 minutes away. The friendly staff upgraded us to a casita with a kitchen, and the girls got more beach romping time in.

The next day, we set out early for the border — the longest crossing yet, at about four hours and 20 minutes. Leaving Nicaragua was relatively smooth; we were able to negotiate the steps ourselves in about 35 minutes without the assistance of a guide (although we were approached by a few). Entering Costa Rica was a jumble, though. First we stood in the long immigration line behind a busload of tourists — once you make it inside the building, you can ask someone at a desk for the immigration form most people in line have already filled out. The woman at the window was skeptical that we didn’t have a return ticket — we told her we were driving and planning on applying for residency, but we didn’t yet have whatever documentation she wanted to see. After a couple tense minutes she decided we weren’t worth the hassle, and approved our 90-day tourist visas. Big whew.

Next, we went to the first aduana (there are two) to initiate the vehicle permit process. They told us to get back in the long line to have our luggage scanned. At that point, we found a young migración employee who became our guide/savior. He helped us get our bags scanned (a wholly arbitrary operation; they only ran our luggage through, not any of the bins or musical instruments or anything else we had in the car. Duh, don’t they know we store all our drugs and guns in the mandolin case???), talked to the vet at the border for us, sat in line with me at the bank so I could pay the ~$30 that would satisfy the vet to allow our dogs in, made sure all was copacetic with the first aduana, and pointed us on our way toward the insurance office, copy shop, and second aduana.

We met a lovely Brit ahead of us in line at the insurance window, who was on an extended mission to form relationships in underprivileged locations that might benefit from assistance with organic farming. His karma, therefore, was clearly more assured than ours — after he was helped, the window closed and the guard informed us it was lunchtime, and we’d have to wait 30 minutes.

I am not a patient person by nature, and I would like to thank the borders of Central America for helping me work on that. No, really! I mean it. If you come here expecting things to happen at a certain rate of efficiency and become annoyed every time that expectation is not met, life will be unpleasant. Patience, adaptability, flexibility and a sense of humor are key.

That said, our patience, adaptability, flexibility and senses of humor had been tested to their upper limits. By the time we purchased our insurance, made the necessary copies of that along with our stamped passports, handed everything over to the second aduana (who spoke not a word to us), and got in a line of not-moving vehicles to exit the border area, we didn’t even have the energy to celebrate the fact that we made it Costa Rica.

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But we did! We made it. We MADE it. The drive from Austin took 12 days, with two days off from driving. We averaged 8- or 9-hour days in the car, only driving at night when we got lost or had to push a bit further to get to our lodging. We were considerably less hassled by police than all the guidebooks and blogs we consulted warned — only twice did we have to show our paperwork, and never once did we have to bribe anyone.

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Our route

Our friend Mario Chaves has an apartment in the Escazú area of San José, Costa Rica’s capital and largest city. He graciously offered it to us as a place to land our first week here, and that has been the biggest godsend. He’s also been texting us recommendations for where to shop and eat, introducing us to his friends and colleagues, and in general being the most generous and hospitable person on the planet.

During our first few days in our new country, we’ve:

  • Gotten hooked up with mobile internet and a local phone number (if you need our number and don’t have it, email us!)
  • Drank wine with Evan and Jessica, a friendly couple from Seattle we met in the phone store who relocated here a couple days before we did
  • Took a twisty drive through the mountains that turned out to be quite a bit longer than it looked on the map
  • Went for a muddy hike with the dogs in Braulio Carillo National Park, a cloud forest about an hour’s drive north of San José
  • Tended to Andy’s bug-bite-swollen ankle, sunburn, and poopsickness
  • grocery shopped, cooked, and enjoyed being normal and not in the car all day erryday.

I go back to work tomorrow, and we’ll start applying for residency soon. We’re still a little in shock. This has been a wild few months — planning, getting our house rented and moving out, pulling all the necessary paperwork together, making the drive. It hasn’t quite sunken in yet that we’ve arrived, and we live here now.

Guatemala – Honduras – Nicaragua, Days 5-9

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We spent a couple nights at Casa Jucanya in Panajachel, Guatemala, on Lake Atitlán. It was ideal: a gorgeous view of the volcano across the lake, a sprawling lawn for the pups to run around on, a washing machine and clothesline, a kitchen to cook real food in, and both a lime tree and a questionably safe trampoline in the yard!

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The girls at the lake house in Guatemala

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In Panajachel, we learned that if you have the time, it’s worth it to buy specific items from specific vendors, rather than trying to one-stop shop at the supermarket. Buy fresh produce from the farmer’s market, tortillas from the tortillarilla, aaaaand more diarrhea medicine than you think you might need from the Farmacia.

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Walking around in Panajachel. Tuk-tuks are a convenient way to get around in a lot of Central American towns.

After resting up, we set out in the morning toward the Guatemala/Honduras border. The original plan was to stay another night in Guatemala and tackle the crossing in the morning, but when we approached the border at El Florido, we didn’t see anywhere to stay. Overestimating the amount of daylight left, we decided to cross — the tourist town of Copán was just 10 kilometers across the border, a short enough distance to justify breaking our “don’t drive at night” rule.

Leaving Guatemala was painless; entering Honduras was character-building. There were no lines later in the evening, but the process was painfully slow. After being fingerprinted and paying our immigration fees, we headed to the Aduana for our vehicle paperwork to be processed — but the one guy on duty was on his dinner break. A guard pulled a TV outside of the office and turned it to the Discovery channel, and we watched programs about lions and sharks in Spanish until we were allowed to go in.

If you keep a sense of humor, the Honduran aduana is a hilarious Orwellian experience. Neither of us had ever witnessed more bureaucratic nonsense in our entire lives. Honduras requires three copies of everything (and you can forget what any guide or blog post tells you about what those things are, because it will have changed by the time you get there). For us, it was copies of my driver’s license, passport, vehicle title, and registration. We hadn’t anticipated the registration copies — indeed, the employee on the Guatemalan side told us we wouldn’t need copies of that — so we didn’t have them, and the copy shops were closed for the night. We panicked for a moment — this dude was humorless — but I spotted a copy machine behind his desk, clasped my hands in plea, and in poor Spanish offered to pay him a little extra if he would make the three copies of the registration for us.

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AduanaEm Our Honduras aduana faces.

Homeboy rolled his eyes but obliged. Then he hunt-and-pecked in all the information from my passport, the title, and random bullshit about our Subaru. At one point he pulled out and thumbed through a binder to denote whether the model was a four-cylinder versus a six-cylinder. Andy and I exchanged many surreptitious wide-eyed looks over the course of the hour this dude took entering data about our car, making even more copies, and scolding a poor truck driver who didn’t have three copies of everything that he’d have to wait until morning when the copy shops opened.

We were more than relieved to arrive in Copán, especially when the first hotel we stopped at had a room available, agreed to allow our dogs, and offered secure parking, hot showers and internet for $35/night. Score. We walked the dogs, ate some street food tacos, washed off our stink, booked a room for the next night, and passed the eff out.

The next morning, we blew past the Mayan ruins that make Copán worth visiting (“don’t miss the ruins!” our guidebooks said), but we were determined to make it to the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, well before nightfall. Which we did! Because I was driving rather than navigating, and we tend not to get quite as lost when I am not navigating. Heeeeeee.

Honduras is a beautiful country, and we were never hassled by the police or asked to show the safety triangles and fire extinguisher every guidebook warned us to have on hand, lest they stop you and demand a bribe should you be traveling without those essentials. Everyone we met was friendly and helpful.

We stayed in an AirBnB converted-garage apartment owned by a lovely man named José. There, we decided we’d cross the border to Nicaragua the next day and drive another four hours to the beach, where we’d rest again for a couple nights.

The Honduras/Nicaragua border at Guisale was stressful — it’s hot, kiddos beg for money and money changers hassle you, and it takes hours. We hired a guide for $11 to walk us through the first half. Honduras wasn’t amused that we didn’t have the document we were supposed to get at the previous border for our dogs, and that took an hour and some (perhaps unofficial) fines to process.

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We waited in the car with the AC running and our hot pups in the front seats to cool them down.

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The sweaty Honduras immigration building at Guisale

The Nicaraguan aduana asked for some kind of vehicle document I didn’t have, repeatedly demanding the one with the license plate on it. I’d already given her the title. Did she want my registration? My insurance? No, no. People behind me in line were trying to help. Andy helpfully went to buy some food from a vendor, because we were getting hangry and losing it. Eventually, another gal in the office pulled up a translation on her phone: “The title with your license plate number on it.” I pointed to the title the aduana was already holding. “Lo tiene,” I said.

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The auto insurance sales office on the Nicaragua side of the border

Andy said it’s his goal to learn enough Spanish to handle these situations smoothly on the way back. It’s a great goal. So far we’re more or less getting by, but I still feel like an idiot a lot of the time, and it sucks to feel like an idiot. I look forward to not including the phrase “Lo siento; no hablo mucho español” in every single conversation at some point in the future.

A few hours later and significantly calmer, we arrived in León to do some grocery shopping and meet the dudes who would guide us to our rental on Playa Tes. I thought it was a bit silly to have us follow someone’s truck — we can follow decent directions! — until we went on this drive. There were a dozen squirrelly turns through jungle, across mudflats and over sand. On top of that, a thunder and lightning storm started to raging outside. Andy was making spooky noises and Blair Witch references, which I did not appreciate:

We arrived at the beach house and met the charming Roberto, who gave us the most thorough tour of a cabana that can possibly be given. “This is the closet! Here is the silverware drawer, and that is the microwave! Ah, I forgot to show you how the shower works!”

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The oh-so-mysterious shower apparatus

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The beach house at Playa Tesoro, Nicaragua

We sat outside and watched the lightning storm, then crashed out. Today, we’ve been swimming in the pool and the Pacific. The dogs are in heaven. We’re resting up — both of us are under some predictable digestive distress, and we’ve got another drive to the south of Nicaragua tomorrow. After that, we cross our final border into Costa Rica!

Five Days In!

We’re on the road! We ended up leaving Austin on Saturday morning rather than Friday night. The trip south from Austin initially felt like just another drive. However, once we hit the border and crossed the bridge into Mexico, we started to feel like this thing is really happening.

Picnic at a rest stop

Our last meal in Texas for a while!

The border crossing itself was surprisingly easy. We were stopped at a checkpoint on the Mexican side of the border. We told them we had dogs, so they didn’t open up the back. We let them look in the windows, then they sent us on our way to the CIITEV to get our Permisos Vehiculos (vehicle permit) and visas. We were lucky enough to find a blog detailing this process, since it isn’t obvious to the border-hopping newbie. As instructed, we followed the nice blue and yellow signs down a very non-official-seeming road, made the craziest U-turn in our lives, then made it to the CIITEV!

Crossing the border!

Crossing the border!

Due to our being slightly frazzled and tired because Penny whined and woke us up every 40 minutes while staying at Silas’s house the previous night (thanks Silas!), we accidentally waited in the line of cars that were waiting to be inspected and have their temporary vehicle permits cancelled in order to leave Mexico. Whoops. While waiting in this line, Penny freaked out and forced her way past the barrier keeping the dogs in the back and ended up on top of all our gear. After figuring out that we were dorking up this whole process, we hopped out of line, parked, left one of our two keys in the ignition with the AC running, moved the dogs to the front seat, and locked the car.

Now, it may seem like a super sketchy idea to leave a car running in the parking lot to keep our dogs cool, but it worked really well. There are also windows all along the front of the building, so we were able to run out and move the car so we could see it at all times. Our dogs being slightly scary-looking helps, and they LOVE being in the front seat.

Inside the CIITEV, there were a bunch of government-employed helpers available to assist with filling out the necessary form for entry into Mexico. The forms were in both English and Spanish, but it was nice having someone guide us through it quickly so we didn’t make mistakes. After visiting windows 1 (Imigracion), 2 (Copia – copies of forms) and 4 (Banjerecito – pay refundable import fee and get permit) we were on our way!

Signs were plentiful and helped us relatively easily get out of Nuevo Laredo and on to 85 / 85D to Monterrey. Emily pointed out that this might be the quickest way to get to see some mountains from Austin, especially if you have the vehicle/visa process down.

We arrived in Monterrey, our first big city in Mexico, and after successfully navigating a few turns, we got a bit lost. Luckily, our spidey-senses were tingling and we were able to turn around easily. Retorno = “Here is a gift from the Mexican transportation and highway authorities. You screwed up, but we’ve left you an out — you’re welcome.”

Retorno sign

This will save you when you make a wrong turn.

We did end up at the Novotel we were looking for. It’s a fine place to stay, if a bit uninteresting relative to our subsequent lodging. Also, not the best for travelers with dogs — the elevator trips to take them outside were kind of a pain. Luckily, there was a nice open area at the Lincoln dealership next door for them to romp around.

The next day, we made the trek to San Miguel de Allende. By the way, if you want to get somewhere as fast as possible in Mexico, the autopista (toll road) is the way to go. It costs some money and I’m sure we’re missing out on some cool stuff, but it saves loads of time and the roads are generally in great shape.

After getting lost shortly after arriving in town (this will become a pattern) we arrived at the San Miguel RV Park and Tennis Courts, a fantastic place to camp that is just a few blocks from the action in San Miguel. We also met Pat Williams, who happens to be from Wimberley, TX! He’s riding around the world on a motorcycle over the next year and was about a week into his journey when we crossed paths. Check out his blog!

Our campsite in San Miguel de Allende

Our campsite in San Miguel de Allende

Before setting up camp, we had heard from the proprietor that it had been raining the last few nights and would probably rain again. “No worries,” we thought, “we’ll just throw on the rain fly and we’ll be fine!” Satisfied with our preparations, we walked into town to find some yummy food. We totally lucked out in that regard: we found a great restaurant that served chile relleno en nogada, one of Emily’s favorite dishes. After stuffing our faces, we walked back to camp feeling great.

As we were sitting in the tent texting our families and checking on some emails, it started raining. After a few minutes, I noticed that my edge of the tent was getting wet. Then it started raining harder and there was thunder and lightning. And water started dripping from above. Our tent, as it turns out, is not waterproof! Emily had the great idea to move the tent under a covered library/hangout area near our camp, where we stayed the rest of the night. Not the best night of sleep, but we survived. All in all, we really enjoyed San Miguel and wished we could have stayed longer — we’ll just bring a better tent next time.

On Monday we got up bright and early, packed up our wet tent, made coffee, and hit the road for Córdoba. There’s not a lot to say about this drive, except that there are lots of awesome suspension bridges in Mexico!

Mexico loves suspension bridges.

Mexico loves suspension bridges.

Take that, Sundial Bridge.

Take that, Sundial Bridge.

We stayed with a lovely couple, Frank and Ania, at a chalet on their property in Córdoba. The place was very cozy and we had a great time. We went into a nearby town, Fortín de las Flores, to find dinner. We ended up at a small restaurant on the square with three things on the menu: gordas, huaraches (I think), and tostadas. One of the proprietors explained what each item was — gordas were explained as “like a gordita” and we already knew what tostadas were — but it was way beyond our abilities to comprehend, so she just brought over an example of each one. We saw them and said, “Yes.”

Chalet!

Chalet!

On Tuesday, we got back on the autopista to San Cristobal de las Casas. After we got lost, then unlost, we ended up at yet another great house just a few blocks from the pedestrian-only section of the Real de Guadalupe. We met Megan from Asheville, North Carolina who was about to leave San Cristobal after being there for a month on a grant to learn more Spanish for her career teaching ESL classes. We went out to a fancy dinner on the Real, got some hot cocoa (a little different than we’re used to) and headed to bed in anticipation of our next border crossing.

Fancytime in San Cristobal

Fancytime in San Cristobal

Wednesday was a huge drive. There were lots of two-lane twisty roads through mountains that reminded us of being in the Sierra Nevada mountains on the way to the border at Cuauhtémoc.

Feels like California

Feels like California

It was easy enough getting our paperwork sorted when exiting Mexico. The offices we went to were in a somewhat sleepy town, only made busy by the traffic through it. The border crossing on the Guatemalan side, in La Mesilla, is also fairly straightforward, but it is a crazy stretch of market stalls and loads of pedestrians and scooters.

In Guatemala looking back into Mexico

In Guatemala looking back into Mexico

The border at La Mesilla

The border at La Mesilla

It took a little time, but we got through, managed not to hit anyone on the way out, and continued along a very twisty set of roads down to Panajachel, on Lago Atítlan. When we arrived at our lodging for the night, Emily proposed that we stay an extra night to take a break from the road. I agreed, so we’ve had a full day of no driving at a beautiful home right on the lake. We’ll share more about our experiences here in a future post. In the meantime, here are a couple photos!

Casa Jucanya

Casa Jucanya

The view from Casa Jucanya

The view from Casa Jucanya

Hasta proxima!