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Things to do before you die: Go to Nicaragua.

Nicaragua was tacked on to our one-week group tour to Costa Rica. While intriguing, we weren’t sure what being in Nicaragua for just one day would be like. Would it be worth the effort of the border crossing? Would we get sick from the less-potable tap water? 

As someone who lives in Los Angeles, one of the country’s most-visited cities by tourists, I often feel a cringe of sympathetic regret for people who come to LA for just a couple days and only see all the horrible touristy sites: Disneyland, Universal Studios, Hollywood Walk of Fame (or the wax museum or Ripley’s Believe it or Not… why??), crowded Venice Beach and its boardwalk and shopping at the Grove or Farmer’s Market or Third Street Promenade. You won’t find any of my favorite parts of Los Angeles in those places (especially not the Grove, which I once described to my boyfriend as “the worst place in the world” - mostly because of the terrible parking situation and the crowds). 

But that’s just what tourists do. If you only have a day or two to see a city, you check your guidebook and find the top attractions and go to those. I’ve been to Paris, but have I really experienced Paris or France only through eating at a cafe on Ile-Ste-Louis, climbing the Arc de Triomphe, breezing through the Louvre, walking along the Seine and through the Left Bank, touring Notre Dame and Sainte-Chapelle, going on a barge cruise on the Seine, and taking the “Sommet” elevator to the top of La Tour Eiffel? No. No, I have not. I’m sure most Paris residents would roll their eyes at how many crowded tourist hotspots I hit up versus their favorite spots. I’m sure most other French residents would argue that there is much more of France to see outside of its largest city. 

But that is the peril of being a traveler. You can never see as much as you want to see. You probably don’t even have a clue what the most amazing thing in the city is. There is always the promise of, “There’s so much to see, and I can always come back another time.” I am glad that at least I have spent as much time in Los Angeles that I have a good sense of the city. I know about its different neighborhoods, some of its best cuisine, its funky street art and interesting shops and public spaces. As much as I know, I don’t know everything and I learn about and discover new things all the time. You can never really know a place completely, even if you live there, especially if it is a large city.

(But wait, I’m supposed to be talking about Nicaragua. However, as a note, I will advise that you should most definitely visit Sainte-Chapelle - it is worth the line and security check.)

So, Nicaragua. After a reasonably long border check, in which our passports were stamped by both Costa Rican and Nicaraguan authorities, and a visual inspection of our small tour bus, and the collecting of fees, and border agents boarding the bus to examine our passports, we were in Nicaragua. 

Nicaragua, in case you did not know, is comprised largely of a massive lake called Lake Nicaragua (good name). We were headed for this lake and the colonial city of Granada, where we would spend the night. 

While I know that I don’t really know the country of Nicaragua or the city of Granada well at all, I now present to you a few things that I did in Nicaragua which makes it worthy of a “must visit before you die” kind of place (well, at least for me). 

1. Volcanoes. Yes, more than one. We drove to Masaya and its national volcanic park. There were several volcanoes - some dormant, some still steaming - and you could get up close and personal with them. Although our day in Nicaragua was mostly overcast, you could still be impressed by the huge cloud of steam coming from the volcano, lean over slightly and smell the sulfuric smell, and hope that the volcano didn’t decide to start erupting. Because then, I think, you’d be running as far away as you could.

Just steps away from the massive volcano is a dormant crater, dormant for so long that there is a lush forest growing inside. You can see me standing in front of it above. I think I could have looked into this crater for hours, wondering about the life inside of it, what birds and animals call it home, and thinking about how fleeting we are on this planet. I stood on that crater while trees grew and flourished, but only for a moment. We haven’t been here that long and we won’t be here forever.

2. Lakes, Islands, Boat Cruises. After the volcano, our next stop was Lake Nicaragua itself for a tour along Las Isletas. The city of Granada is located directly on Lake Nicaragua, and surrounding the outskirts of the lake is a network of tiny islands. Some of the city’s more distinguished residents call these islands home. You can see large estates, complete with helipads, swimming pools and outdoor sculptures. We slathered on the bug spray and went out exploring. Our guide was enthusiastic and friendly as he pointed out rare and exotic birds to us - king fishers, egrets - and drove the boat slowly enough that we could see tiny sardines jumping out of the water every few seconds to catch mosquitoes. We ogled the mansions, gasped when we learned we could buy an island here for as little as $350,000, and enjoyed the ride. 

Then we stopped at a small island only to find monkeys swinging from the trees. We learned that the monkeys were brought there by someone and now live on the island surviving mostly off of food that tourists bring. Three monkeys named Lola, Panchito and Mike approached our boat from just a few feet and gleefully accepted Ritz crackers that we threw on them. Little Lola had a baby monkey on her back, and we all went crazy laughing and snapping photos. Our guide called a bird to come over to us to show us something amazing. Although we were mostly focused on the monkeys, he told us to watch the bird as he gave it a cracker. The bird then used a cracker to attract a sardine from the water, and he promptly captured the little fish, killed it by slapping it against the rocks, and ate it in front of us. 

Smart bird!

We finished the boat ride with a race against the other boat in our tour group - we were going at maximum speed, crossing each other’s wake, and laughing as the wind rushed in our hair and mosquitoes splattered on our faces. It was a wonderful moment of pure joy.

3. Granada - colonial architecture and charm. If you’ve never been to a Spanish colonial town in Latin America, what are you waiting for? GO! Granada is Nicaragua’s most-visited city and I am sure it is because of its colonial charms. Lots of cobbled streets, flat-front buildings with large, ornate doorways, wide streets with restaurants and bars and a lively nighttime scene. Across from the central park, just steps away from our hotel was a lovely modern church, lit up beautifully at night. Although you’ll be accosted by menu-holding men, it’s still worth a stroll through the streets, shopping from craft vendors or checking out unique shops selling chocolate and cigars.

We stopped for dinner at El Kapuyo, a vegetarian tapas restaurant just off the street from the main restaurant drag, and were amazed by the amount of food we could get for such a little price tag. A deliciously fresh salad, a shared plate of vegetarian tapas, and a yummy dessert of chocolate cake and ice cream - for about $15? You’d never find that in Los Angeles.

4. Beach time. On our way out of Nicaragua, back to Costa Rica, back to another border check, luggage scan, passport stamps, etc., etc. we stopped by the little surfing town of San Juan del Sur. It was overcast, but we still appreciated the time we spent there shopping for beachy souvenirs, swimming out in the bay all the way to where the boats were anchored, getting up close and personal with pelicans, and eating (not me, the vegetarian, but everyone else) plates full of lobster tails. 

So there you have it, just a few little things that made Nicaragua a wonderful place to visit, even if I was only there for a brief moment in time. 

Hiking to the Hollywood sign.

This one has been on my L.A. bucket list for years. Can you believe I’ve lived here for eight years and hadn’t been up there? I was pleasantly surprised how simple it was!

There are a few different options, but I took the Beechwood Canyon approach. Another popular route goes by the Bronson Caves, famous from their appearances on the old Batman TV show.

Some thoughts - it was a short hike, about 3 miles. However, it was fairly steep. I really noticed this on the way down. It was really hot outside (probably approaching 90 degrees) which didn’t make it any easier. Much of the hike was on a paved path or a horse trail (which means avoiding horse droppings). The views were great the whole way up! First you get views of L.A., then views of the valley (where I live and work), and then of course the great view from the top and behind the sign! I sat up there for awhile just enjoying the views. After my hike, I was rewarded with a delicious taro milk tea with boba from nearby Thai Town.

You can’t get anywhere close to the sign itself, as it is fenced off. I suppose you could try to sneak in there from a different approach but I wasn’t about to try that.

I would love to come back another time, when it’s not so hot, and maybe hike up a different way.

Celebrity skin

Celebrities.

Los Angeles is full of ‘em.

When I first moved here, I didn’t go out much, so I didn’t really see anyone.

I had lived here almost three years when I had my first celeb encounter and it was a special one at that. I sat next to Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey from The Office during a showing of the first “Sex and the City” movie. I spent most of the film sneaking clandestine glances at them, trying to confirm that it was, indeed them. After the show I politely said hello and told them I was a big fan of the show and I loved their recent season finale. They politely said thank you.

I then proceeded to call every human being I knew to tell them about it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it! It was one of the most exciting moments of my life.

Yeah, not so much anymore.

Since then I’ve seen lots of people. Never anyone über famous, but notable celebrities. Let’s see who I can remember:

- Rick Fox and Eliza Dushku at a Coldplay concert in 2009
- Brad Garrett dining at Stack in Las Vegas
- Kourtney Kardashian and Scott Disick at The Mirage in Las Vegas
- Tony Kanal of No Doubt at a Travis concert at the Wiltern
- Rivers Cuomo of Weezer going through the VIP security line at LAX
- Melissa Rivers at the passenger pickup area at LAX
- Colin Greenwood in the lobby of a Thom Yorke concert - Russell Brand and Katy Perry in the audience at a Conan O’Brien live show
- Chris Noth eating sushi with his family at Katsu-ya in Studio City
- Bob Odenkirk from Breaking Bad hanging out with the band Built to Spill offstage at one of their shows
- Nick Lachey walking around Sunset and Cahuenga in Hollywood
- Sarah Chalke dining with her family at Umami Burger at Fred Segal in Santa Monica
- J.J. Abrams and the cast (including Elle Fanning) of “Super 8” at a special screening of the film with a q&a… Not sure if this counts as it was a planned event, not a random sighting.
… I’m sure there have been others, but I can’t remember.

Just last night at the “Tiger Eyes” screening I saw not only the stars of the film, Willa Holland and Cynthia Stevens to name a couple. And of course I saw Judy Blume.

But in the audience, I saw, to name a few: Kate Flannery aka Meredith from The Office; Nia Vardalos, who is stunningly gorgeous in person, and twitter celebs @sofifi and @kellyoxford.

I’m a fan of Kelly Oxford, so I said hello and told her I was a big fan. I’m not sure why I did it. I haven’t done that since my first celeb encounter and I don’t think I’ll do it again. They’re always polite and say thank you, but it is still one of the most awkward encounters you can have. Plus, I’m sure they get bored and tired of these encounters and secretly roll their eyes at me when I walk away.

When my high school friend visited earlier this month, one of her main goals was to see a celeb. She was dying when we saw Chris Noth, aka Mr. Big at Katsuya. But I had to discourage her from saying anything, number one because he was with his family, and number two because they all get bored and tired of their awkward encounters with fans.

Plus, they’re everywhere. The longer I am here and the more I go out the more people I see, the more likely I am to see someone would merit another excited freak out. For me that person is Larry David. I love him, and I named my cat after him. I would love to see his reaction to me telling him that!

Currently hanging out in Fairfax Village waiting for a movie screening. I signed up to go to a free screening of the movie “Tiger Eyes,” based on one of my favorite Judy Blume books from when I was growing up. Best part - there’s a Q&A with Ms. Blume and the cast after the show! Thanks to HelloGiggles for the opportunity to attend and of course thank you to Los Angeles for offering many opportunities like tonight’s free movie screening!

My coworker sold me his amazing $900 Ikea “Karlstad” leather sofa for $350! I had a boring futon before, and this is basically the leather couch of my dreams. It’s so roomy, comfy, and pretty!

I think I need new pillows though - maybe something with more of a pop of color.

My new reading nook in my bedroom at my apartment. I love it! I had been wanting a chair for my bedroom for some time; when I saw this chair at cost plus I knew it was perfect!

Chair: Cost Plus World Market
Table: Ikea “Lack”
Lamp: Ikea
Faux flowers: also Ikea! I got the vase at Marshall’s many years ago
Fluffy ball decorations: Party City
Candle holders: Partylite from several years ago
Book I’m currently reading: “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World” (very good)

After a coupon at Cost Plus this whole reading nook came together for less than $200! Nice!

I still want to get some wall decorations though!

My new favorite burger at The Counter - veggie patty on Hawaiian bun with queso fresco, red peppers, carrot strings, pineapple, corn & black bean salsa and habanero salsa. So glad I broke out of my usual burger rut - it was so good!

What to eat in Westwood.

My boyfriend began attending UCLA last year, so I have spent much more time in Westwood over the past year than I ever have before.

We’ve tried lots of different spots. Westwood is a cute area of town with lots of little places to eat and places to shop.

However, we seem to always default to one standard evening out - and this is where we took my visiting friend on her first evening in Los Angeles.

1. 800 Degrees. First hint: this place usually has a line out the door. Second hint: once you walk inside, you almost start drooling because it smells so good. This is a build-your-own pizza place. I like to call it the Chipotle of pizza, but it’s classier than that. You pick your base pie, and then add whatever toppings you want to it. So you start at the end of the counter, they roll out the dough, add your sauce and cheese, and then you move along the counter to select your toppings. You can enjoy several different salads, burrata plates, and gelato as well.

We have found what we feel is the perfect pizza here, and it is pictured above twice. We’ve tried other pies, and they’re good, but this one never fails to disappoint.

We start with the Pizza Marinara - this is a cheeseless pizza with marinara sauce, garlic, and olive oil. Then we go down the line and add the following: smoked provolone, sun-dried tomatoes, and chile oil. The chile oil is a free topping, and it’s so good. The boyfriend usually adds pepperoni to half of the pizza. We ask for our pie a little crispier than normal because who likes soggy pie? Then they stick it in an 800-degree oven, and within a few minutes, we have our delicious pizza.

They also have one of those fun soft drink machines where you can pick a zillion different combinations of sodas and juices. The prices aren’t bad either.

2. From 800 Degrees, it’s just a short walk to Diddy Riese. Do you like cookies? Then go to Diddy Riese. They have a huge selection of simple but delicious cookies, and they’re cheap - 3 for $1. The best part of Diddy Riese, of course, is making your own cookie ice cream sandwich. Pick any two cookies you like and a flavor of ice cream and you can devour your personalized delicious ice cream sandwich. At only $1.75 apiece, I don’t think you can find a better dessert deal in the city.

When it gets later in the evening, and especially on weekends, there is a line down the block for this place. Those drunk college kids know what’s up - a cookie ice cream sandwich is the perfect late-night treat. It can be rather scary at times. But you must soldier on if you want cookies.

My tried and true combo is a candy chocolate chip cookie + white chocolate chip cookie + peanut butter cup ice cream. My boyfriend enjoys chocolate white chocolate chip + candy chocolate chip + cookies n cream ice cream. I’m sure any combination you would get would taste delicious. Needless to say, my friend enjoyed her first tastes of 800 Degrees and Diddy Riese!

An evening in downtown Los Angeles

Besides visiting downtown for the Jewelry and Garment Districts, I also took my friend on an evening tour of downtown Los Angeles to check out some other spots. This is one of my favorite ways to spend an evening in the city. It’s a great way to check out a bunch of sites, eat good food and spend time with a friend or a date!

Here’s what we did:

  • Took Metro to Union Station. I showed her the awesome lobby and waiting areas in the beautiful old building. It’s fun to sit on one of those leather chairs and people watch.
  • Went outside and crossed the street to go to Olvera Street. We browsed the Mexican goods, souvenirs, and food being sold. My friend bought luchador masks to bring back for her little brothers! I bought three De La Rosa peanut mazapan candies (I LOVE THESE) and we shared a couple as a pre-dinner snack.
  • Got back on the Metro to go to Pershing Square. I showed her the square, which has a great skyline view and hosts an ice-skating rink around the holidays. Then we went to Angel’s Flight and took the funicular railway up the hill. Only 50 cents!
  • Once we were up the hill, we walked over to MOCA to check out the exhibits. MOCA is FREE on Thursdays from 5-8pm. They had a crazy exhibit going on this time. It’s by an artist named Urs Fischer, and I really can’t even adequately describe it. They cut out entire sections of the walls to make a more open gallery. The artwork includes things like creepy skeleton sculptures, a large log cabin made entirely out of loaves of bread, fruit hanging from the ceiling, piles of debris and trash… yeah, it’s weird. But visually, it was really cool. I want to bring my boyfriend back to see it because it’s that unique. It’s running at MOCA on Grand Avenue until mid-August!
  • Walked back down the hill to Mas Malo. This is one of my favorite restaurants downtown! It’s a pretty restaurant in what used to be a jewelry store downtown on 7th and Grand. If you’re there later in the evening, you can hang out in the lounge downstairs, or there’s a separate whiskey bar upstairs called 7th&Grand. But for me, the real draw is the FOOD! Besides a huge menu of unique margaritas, they have the best potato tacos EVER! Crispy taco shell with mashed potatoes, cheese, and peppers. Dipped in their homemade salsa, they make my belly very happy! It’s also wise to check out their different dips and salsas. I love the salsa verde made with tomatillos, and the burnt habanero cream salsa is perfect if you want something SPICY. IMPORTANT NOTE: If you get salsa and chips, get the CHEWY CHIPS! These are chips that haven’t been fried to total crispness yet. They’re a little crispy, but they still have some chewiness to them. It sounds weird, but they’re amazing. (Note: the pics above are recycled. They’ve since changed their menu a bit and serve the tacos as a platter now with rice and beans or salad.)
  • Right across the street from Mas Malo is Bottega Louie. This is an Italian restaurant with amazing reviews. I’ve never actually eaten there - but I go there for the desserts. They have a long glass display case with beautiful pastries and desserts you can get to go, along with a range of colorful macarons that you can select piece by piece to make your own perfect box. A box of 5 costs about $13 (not cheap, but they are a yummy treat). I recommend the salted caramel, vanilla, and lemon macarons.
  • Then we walked over to Library Bar. This is a dimly-lit, intimate bar that is, quite literally, a library, with one main wall featuring bookshelves filled to the brim with books. If you so desire, you can pick up a book and start reading. They have good, albeit pricey, drinks and an assortment of small plate foods. It can get really crowded here on the weekends, but it’s a great place to drop by in the middle of the week and just hang out. I love the comfy velvet-upholstered booths and their featured cocktails.
  • We took another jaunt to Perch, a rooftop restaurant and bar right in the middle of downtown with amazing views. Unfortunately we arrived before the outdoor patio opened for the evening, and we didn’t want to wait around for it to open. Normally, you can enjoy those great views on a beautiful patio with pretty lights and fire pits. It’s worth checking out for the views, as is the Standard Hotel rooftop bar, another spot closeby.

And after that, we were pretty tired, so we hopped back on the metro in Pershing Square and headed back to my apartment. It was a great night hanging out downtown!

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