11 countries in 2011

At some point during the year, probably when I realized that the travel gods were on my side, I decided that I was going to attempt to visit 11 countries in 2011.

And lo and behold, I did.

I started my travels this year with a much needed getaway to culturally rich and geographically diverse Nicaragua. That was followed by the legendary banana pancake trail and a Europe camping trip. It was very poetic that the 11th country I visited was in Latin America as well, the beautiful Panama.

If I were to talk about all of those individual trips, this would be an excruciatingly long blog post that no one will read (because, let’s admit it, we don’t like long blog posts). Instead, here is a little photo montage of my most amazing year for travel ever.

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Los Puros

If you ask a Nica where you can visit a “cigarillo factory” they’ll wonder why the heck you’re interested because unlike other Central American countries, that implies cigarettes. They call their cigars “puros“, meaning “pure”.

My carefully crafted itinerary was missing a trip to the forests of Esteli and a visit to the famous cigar rolling factories of that area. Cigars are one of the biggest exports for the Nicaraguan economy. Being a non-consumer of tobacco, I am only fascinated by the art of rolling cigars for the precision and craft that goes into it.

Luckily, on my way out of the country, I was able to spot a man rolling cigars at a duty free store in the airport. With an hour and a bit to kill before boarding the plane, I learned about the technique of rolling cigars and took some photos.

The torcedor (roller) is busy rolling the fine Nicaraguan cigar, Joya de Nicaragua (Jewel of Nicaragua)

The first step is to bunch together the filler leaves to fill the body of the cigar

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Potters of Pueblos Blancos

A short, hilly taxi (or bus) ride away from the colonial and beautiful Granada, or the bustling Masaya, is a cluster of small, white houses, fittingly called Los Pueblos Blancos. A large indigenous population lives and works in this town, specializing in ceramics and pottery.

I took a day trip up to this quiet, little town and ended up in the workshop of the family of Valentino Lopez. His son, now the instructor to the young boys of the town, showed off his skills in a striking demonstration of how artistic and challenging this job is.

The first step is to knead the clay from the volcanic soil until it is the desirable texture

Spinning a wheel with his foot and fluidly using both his hands, he transforms this piece of clay into a perfectly symmetrical pot

This is their work station; all the products are a result of their natural, volcanic surroundings

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Sand-surfing in Leon

A big orange truck pulls up outside Bigfoot Hostel in Leon, Nicaragua and 25 people, including me, start piling up inside the ex-military vehicle. Some have to sit in the water cooler, because it is a bigger group than usual. I get the corner seat – good for snapping pictures. Soon, I realize, picture-taking in this bumpy ride will be hard task.

Volcano-surfing boards

The road to Cerro Negro is a rough, uneven drive. The hike up will leave me painfully breathless. And the slide down will be completed on a wooden board at nearly 30 kilometers per hour.

The sand-surfing boards piled in the back of the truck could easily pass for wooden planks with a thick rope. In fact, the first time anyone sand-surfed they used a refrigerator door, so minimalist technology is required. What is needed, are orange overalls and laboratory glasses to prevent serious damage – small damages are intended. It’s part of the thrill. Continue reading