April 27, 2016

Take the Money and Run

I've been a fan of the Steve Miller Band since I was a kid. My dad had records or I'd hear 'em play on XRT Chicago. It might not have been the most appropriate of songs, but I did my best to pass on my love of the greats of yesteryear by playing "The Joker" for my little brother and sister. My sister, at about 4, was more fond of it, I think it was her favorite after Spice Girls. Both were on repeat on her Fisher Price boom box, we'd sing along... good memories.

The Greatest Hits 74-78 was one of the first CDs I selected from Columbia House. Remember that? I wonder how kids today ruin their credit?? I listened to that CD so many times I think it wore thin, it no longer plays. Frank and I have tried to see Steve Miller numerous times and the shows have sold out or been cancelled. When Frank received an offer from the Colorado Belle for two tickets, room and dining credits he immediately called to book. It just so happened to be our anniversary weekend. Perfect! Frank told me the great news. I was excited, but I was afraid it was all too good to be true so I didn't get my hopes up.

But the time finally came, we drove down, checked in and collected our tickets. It was a beautiful day, light breeze and near perfection. This show might just go on! We had dinner at the Loading Dock patio and enjoyed the live bands on the Riverwalk. We played a little video poker until it was time to catch the free shuttle to the Laughlin Events Center. They pick you up right by Pints in a fancy air-conditioned tour bus. It filled up fast and we were on our way. The Events Center is an outdoor venue directly behind the outlet mall. Due to road closures for the event, it would be faster to walk, but the free shuttle is much appreciated. The venue has floor seats and bleachers. It's small enough that I don't believe there is a bad seat in the house. There are a number of food and drink stands. Prices are reasonable: $6 beers or $30 buckets. The restrooms have flushing toilets and running water.

There was no opening act, so the band got right to it. I couldn't believe it! I was finally seeing The Steve Miller Band. It was a great show. They played all my favorites, talked to the crowd and jammed a bit. I've never seen so many guitars used during a show. It was awesome.

We walked back to the Belle afterwards, I played video poker and keno. Frank tried his luck at blackjack. We had hoped to "Take the Money and Run," but the Belle had other plans. Neither of us were winners, but it was a nice getaway.

April 11, 2016

April? Is It You?

I'm not sure how it's possible, but here we are four months into 2016. The last few days we've had more than our share of April showers. I'm typically one that requires a daily dose of sunshine, but I didn't mind the storms this weekend. They brought heavy rains, lightning and thunder. With any luck, they washed away much of the pollen that's been driving my allergies bonkers. I had gotten sick before our trip to Nicaragua, and I haven't been able to fully kick the cough since; I have this tickle that remains. Hopefully, the cool crisp air will cure it.

Over the past couple weeks, I celebrated a birthday. Somehow, 36 feels more relaxed, but more achy. I swear I can barely put one foot in front of the other without something hurting. I'm thinking about trying yoga or something to loosen up. I need to do something. I've been at odds with the thought of exercising. I know I need to do it, but it feels so impossible. I keep telling myself as soon as our elliptical (purchased in Sept) is operational it's game on. We keep experiencing issue after issue, though, it's getting pretty ridiculous. Hopefully, the end is in sight. Anyway, I had a great birthday! Friends and family went out of their way to make me feel special. Rather than a fancy expensive strip dinner, this year, I opted for a fantastic meal at Mariscos Playa Escondido. It did not disappoint. We followed that up with drinks at Atomic Liquors. It was just my speed.

A week later, Frank and I celebrated 19 years together. Craziness, I tell you! We had plans that kept us from honoring the occasion, but we'll also have our wedding anniversary coming up on the 17th. That will mark 12 years of marriage. Plus, we have a few trips planned this month so it will be nice to getaway and spend quality time with one another. Frank surprised me with tickets to Steve Miller Band in Laughlin so we'll head there next weekend. After that we'll go to San Francisco and Austin at the end of the month. I had to take advantage of the great fares that Frontier has been offering. It's a bummer that they don't participate in TSA Precheck and all the extras can be annoying (if not avoidable), but when you're talking $38 round trip to SFO or $98 to AUS. I was sold!

April 5, 2016

Granada - Take Two

Little orphan Annie was right, "the sun'll come up tomorrow!" I was up and at 'em determined to make Granada "our bitch" or at least have a better day. We kicked the day off on the right foot with breakfast. Guests are given choice of a traditional Nica Breakfast, eggs or pancakes. You sit at communal table and the staff takes care of everything. It's quite the spread. They helped us organize a private boat tour of the Isletas at 3 o'clock. We appreciated the help getting that squared away.

Just before ten, we were off to Mombacho Cigars. Our data still wasn't up and running, thankfully, it was an easy find. There was plenty of street parking too. We wanted to do a tour, and one had just started so we joined in. We were given a lesson in growing tobacco, a history of the colonial house, followed by an all access tour and ending with a real hands on experience of cigar rolling. Our guide Jim was from Chicago so we immediately had that in common. His passion for cigars runs deep, he's very knowledgeable and his excitement is contagious so it was a joy to take the tour, even though, I am not a cigar aficionado. I opted not to roll a cigar, but Frank did ($10) and he now has a much greater appreciation for a well made stick.

Mombacho Cigar Factory tour

Look at that tile! All the cigars are pressed in molds before wrapping

Aging cigars

Frank rolling his own cigar

The building is gorgeous and fully restored. The tile work is drool worthy. And there is a rooftop patio with amazing city views. It will later become a bar and cigar lounge. Mombacho or Tierra Volcan (in the states) is in its infancy, but I have no doubt it will become a greater success than they ever dreamed. They take the time to put out a quality product and go above and beyond to keep their employees happy. There is only one machine in the entire factory, it measures the psi to ensure a good smoke. The rest is all done by hand. It's quite the operation.

view from the roof of Mombacho cigars

Mombacho volcano

City views from roof

After the tour, we hung out in the lounge chatting with the guys. Drinking Flor de Cana rum, while Frank smoked a couple cigars in order to best choose which he'd bring home. Before we knew it, we had to rush back to the hotel to meet our guide for the Isletas tour.

Our guide arrived with a driver promptly at three. We were dropped off at the boat docks on Lake Nicaragua. Here, we met our captain from the isletas. Our guide was from Granada, his family owns an orchard. He is a guide for all nearby sights. He learned English just by conversing with visitors. We were impressed. He knew much about the area and was happy to answer questions and would elaborate when he'd capture our curiosity - like discussing the rivalry between Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans or the ruins in Leon.

Mombacho volcano & lake Nicaragua

Each of the islands are privately owned

Saw more egrets that any other, but there were a variety of birds

The sights were beautiful. The 365 islands were formed by Mombacho, each is privately owned, most by rich and famous. Many have caretakers that live on site. One, appropriately named, Monkey Island was purchased for the owner's pet monkeys. Five live on the island, they feed off the fruit trees on the island and have grown fond of taking snacks from visitors. They've tired of citrus fruits, but they didn't seem to mind when I fed them clementine segments. Lucy came aboard to go for a ride around the island, but quickly demanded off to raid another tour boat when she spotted they had avocado.

One of the monkeys tried to escape the island via power lines, but quickly learned why his plan was flawed. As a result, he lost much of his tail. The other monkeys did not follow. Now, they eagerly await visitors and anticipate their treats.

One was purchased for the owner's 5 pet monkeys

This guy lost his tail on the powerline trying to escape

Lucy likes to go for ride around the island

They offered to stop at a restaurant on an island if we cared to stop for a drink or bite, but we were content to head straight back. We had plans to have dinner at Charly's. A recommendation from Jim at Mombacho. When we docked we met back up with our driver. Our guide asked if we minding riding with another couple since our hotels were near each other. Of course, it was no trouble. The tour was relaxing and very enjoyable. I was nervous about the heat (breezy), direct sun (shade) or exhaust fumes (none). Frank is known to suffer from sea sickness (it was calm) so he was concerned about that, but from the door to door service through the duration of the boat ride; It was a fantastic experience. Many thanks to Miss Margrit's for making the arrangements ($25pp).

We freshened up, and then hailed a taxi to Charly's. We shared a ride with a local woman, our driver had us to our destination in a jiffy. Charly's is a guest house and German restaurant. Authentic German cuisine and imported beers right here in Central America. Who would've thunk it? We wanted one of everything but we showed restraint and started with goulash, followed by a variety of sausages, sauerkraut, the best potato salad, spaetzle and finally a crepe with fresh jam for dessert. It was a feast!

When we couldn't possibly consume another bite, we settled the tab and had Charly call us a taxi. The driver arrived quickly, he too, had a local family already in the car. We squeezed in, he wasn't familiar with our hotel or places we knew nearby. We failed at trying to convey directions to Miss Margrits. Somehow, I've managed to never learn the words for left or right. Luckily, the kind lady beside me helped us out by translating my hand directions. I made good use of my newest vocabulary word "despacio" when we approached our stop, followed by an "aqui, por favor." Phew, we made it. Then, we settled in for our final night in Nicaragua. All in all, I must say it was a pretty great day. Before I drifted off to sleep, I couldn't help but think about when I read somewhere that advised visiting Granada or Leon, but not both. Sure, both are colonial cities, but they are vastly different. It would be a disservice to heed that advice. Even though, we didn't love Granada. The tours alone were well worth the visit. In any case, I always find it best to form your own opinion whenever possible.

The next morning we packed our bags and had one last Nica breakfast before leaving for the airport. The drive was expected to take an hour, but we feared we could run into issues so we left plenty of time about 2.5 hours. We hit construction in Managua so it took just over an hour. Returning the rental was very easy and they gave us a lift to the airport. No issues with check in, but we had a slight hiccup in security. I had forgotten to transfer Frank's cigar cutter from my purse into our luggage so it was confiscated. Frank was salty. It was a really nice cutter. Lesson learned. We had plenty of time to kill we walked the length of the airport which took all of ten minutes. We stopped for a bite to pass time. It was expensive, but I finally got to try a quesillo. I ended up trading Frank for his nachos. There was too much cream for me, but he enjoyed it.

We flew United back to Houston, but we were stuck at the gate because a passenger refused to turn off his cell phone. We had to wait for him to be escorted off the plane and while his luggage was retrieved. The delay caused us to miss our connection home. Customs was fantastic due to our new Global Entry status. Frank and I gifted it to each other this Christmas. It is worth every penny for the that alone, but the TSA pre-check access is pretty awesome too. We were rooting to be stuck til morning so we could grab some Texas BBQ. But no such luck, they had us on a flight a few hours later. There were severe storms most of the way home so it was a very turbulent flight. By the time we arrived at T3 we were very thankful to be home. Another adventure was in the books!

April 4, 2016

Off the Rails in Granada

Apparently, Sunday drivers don't exist in Nicaragua, because we made fantastic time to Granada from San Juan del Sur. We clocked in at just under an hour when 1.5 hours was estimated, and our previous drives all took longer than anticipated. This was a great surprise. We arrived at Miss Margrits about noon. It's a small bed & breakfast, I booked on Airbnb. Thankfully, they didn't mind us checking in early. Our Mirador suite was still being cleaned, but we were welcome to park, leave our belongings and grab lunch. We did just that, but first...

Throughout all of our travels most trips go off the rails at some point. You guessed it! Ours derailed in Granada. Right as we turned off the main highway we lost our data connection. We had an idea of where Miss Margrits was located, but we lost the convenience of google maps telling us the way. We circled the block a couple times before locating it. The signage is tiny and we nearly overlooked it because of the man passed out on the side walk right outside the door, and two other men seemingly intoxicated sitting on the corner nearby. Frank gave me a look that said what I was thinking, "where are we staying?" I assured him, the reviews were great and it'd be fine.

It's become routine that I hop out to check in and sort out where to park while Frank waits in the car. We go through the motions; however, this time I must step over the man on the sidewalk only to find all the doors are locked and no one answered my knock. Meanwhile, the men on the corner are clearly talking about me and work to gain my attention. The more I ignore them, the louder they become. I knock again, thankfully, the door creaked open and I was welcomed with a warm smile. Once inside, I relax. The courtyard is beautiful. There is parking inside, so I guide Frank in. We store our belongings and dash out.

Because we left in a hurry, we're not fully prepared for the 15 minute walk to the Calzada. It's hot, we quickly get sweaty. Frank is in sandals which aren't the best for walking, and I'm in a long maxi dress. Which isn't ideal either. When we arrive at the Cathedral, we're approached by a boy that refuses to accept "no gracias" when trying to sell a flower made from palm. He's pretty aggressive which throws up red flags that a scam might be underway. Thankfully, nothing came of it. He sulked off and we pressed on, restaurants line the Calzada much of it is closed to traffic with mostly empty tables in the street. Folks try to encourage you to sit, eat, drink or take a tour with them. It's touristy to the max. We've been spoiled, thus far. Now, we feel like we've been thrown to the wolves and we're less than thrilled. Time was running out and I really wanted to try a nacatamale, vigoron or quesillo. All of which have eluded me and continued to do so. We settled on lunch at Nectar which laid claim to the best fish tacos. By the time we were seated in the courtyard, I was overheated and despite feeling hungry my appetite was fading so I ordered chips and salsa. I did steal a taco from Frank and while not the best, it was satisfying.

When we returned to the hotel our room was ready. It is perched on the third floor and it sits higher than most of the city buildings so there were panoramic views of Lake Nicaragua and the Cathedral and the Mombacho Volcano and Xalteva Church. It was lovely, but we didn't take time to soak in the view, because we were soaked from sweat and eagerly peeled our clothes off and thoroughly enjoyed the cross breeze. When we failed to cool down from the breeze alone, we closed the windows and relaxed in A/C. A luxury well worth the money.

Once refreshed; we ventured back out, this time, we stayed near the hotel. We sought out Espressonista for a pick me up. It was a cute place, but a couple iced coffees and basil ice cream cost far more than expected. The ice cream had an odd grittiness to it so I wasn't keen on finishing it. It didn't hit the spot like we had hoped. We walked over to the Cuidad Lounge. We thought we'd enjoy a couple drinks and a cigar, but the prices scared us away. Afterwards, we tried to locate Comedor La Frontera, but no such luck. After three strikes we returned to Miss Margrits to regroup. Suddenly, I wasn't feeling very well. I chugged some water, but my stomach remained in knots. I had hoped food would settle it.

Reluctantly, we walked back toward the Calzada. This time avoiding the area around the cathedral. We ate at Pita Pita which also shares space with El Pizzaiol so we ordered the Mediterrean Platter and a veggie pizza to share. The restaurant was very crowded and we were seated near the pizza oven which was very warm, I was quite uncomfortable when there was no breeze to circulate the air. I was feeling worse than ever. Thankfully, our food came quickly to the table. The Platter was very good! The pizza sufficed, the crust was a bit too thin and wet for my liking. However, I was happy to have food in my belly. I started to feel a bit better (or so I thought).

We thought about stopping at the Irish bar after dinner, but it was louder than we were feeling. So, we grabbed a taxi back to Miss Margrits. There is a nice pool there, so we thought we'd have a drink, cigar and swim. Unfortunately, my stomach didn't agree with the plan and it preferred I stay near the bathroom. Frank swam, but was unable to finish his beer and cigar because mosquitoes thought he was there for their dining pleasure. We had been in the country five days and we had a combined total of two bites up to now. We never would have guessed it'd be Granada that we'd be feasted upon. Frank is so sensitive to bites, large welts began to immediately raise. At least, it made it easy to pinpoint where to apply the anti-itch cream. Needless to say, we threw in the towel. It had been a pretty miserable first day in Granada. We couldn't help wonder why we left San Juan del Sur? Oh well, we'd make another go at it in the morning.

April 1, 2016

Las Playas - SJDS

The coast of San Juan del Sur is made up of sandy coves which offer some of the best beaches in the country. There were three local beaches that were easily accessible from our rental in Balcones Majagual. Playa Majagual is the furthest north it is divided from the other beaches by a large rock formation that resembles a shark fin. Playa Playones is nestled between it and Playa Maderas to south. There is a private road from the community to Playa Playones, but public access is also available from the Chocalata Road.

I hear that Playa Maderas is the most popular, but at sunset there were 2 or 3 families on the beach. The sand was smooth, firm and easy to walk on - thank goodness! I don't think my ankle could bear the kind that's so soft you sink. The setting sun was as picturesque as can be.

We spent one afternoon at Playa Playones. There was no one, but us, and the occasional passerby walking over from Playa Maderas. I was afraid of sunburn so I kept pretty well covered (see if you can spot the ghost me, below). I only got in about knee deep, not because it was too cold, but the waves were too powerful. I've been a weakling since surgery - it's amazing how quickly muscles atrophy - and thought it best not to push it. By this point in our trip I knew full well how out of shape I am; I pulled two leg muscles simply buy stepping up and down stoops and stairs along the city sidewalks. Frank went in and got twisted like a pretzel. The waves were bigger than him. He stands at 6' 3" so that's not a typical occurrence. It's no wonder the surf is so great here. He had fun, but he took a beating.

Additional beaches dot the coast all the way to the Costa Rican border, I didn't learn of it until after our trip, but 40 minutes from San Juan del Sur is La Flor National Park. Which is a long stretch of beach that protects paslama sea turtles. They hatch and lay eggs from July to January, if I'm ever back again at that time, I must check it out.

We were having such a great time, we were reluctant to leave San Juan del Sur - we could've stayed for days, weeks or maybe even years... but Granada beckoned.