Trip to Costa Rica, Part I

We seem to have formed a habit of taking overland trips. This time, it was the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. It had been a while since we had gone on a family vacation, and we wanted something a little different. After seemingly endless weeks of planning, the Deciders eventually managed to get our transportation and lodging lined up. We decided on a week at a large rental house in the hills above San Juanillo, Guanacaste province, a detour at another rental house in Santa Elena, Monteverde, and a one-day layover each way at a hotel in San Jose. We looked forward to a week-and-a-half of surfing, nature trails, and a different country.

The first part of the journey was familiar:  water taxis to Bocas and Almirante, and a van to wherever we were going. This happened to be the border crossing. We had to disembark, check out of Panama, take our bags across the bridge to Costa Rica, and check in. Then it was another bus to Puerto Viejo for a lunch stop, and still another bus to San Jose.

The drive through Costa Rica was very different from Panama. We passed vast plantations of banana trees, acres of pineapple fields, forests of bamboo, and wide rivers. The buildings and towns we passed also seemed to be sturdier and more well-built than what we saw along the Panama road. The drive was very beautiful, and became even moreso once we entered the mountains. We busied ourselves with reading, attempting to sleep, and looking out the windows. I got out the computer and started writing this blog post, with Nirvana in my headphones and green farmland and rainforest flashing past my window.

We eventually arrived at the hotel in San Jose, after 10 hours of riding in the back of the van. We checked in, and went out for dinner. The next morning, we rented a car, and started driving out to San Juanillo. This drive was also different from the day before. After a long “quick stop” at a Walmart (a Walmart!) to get internet and some miscellaneous items, we left the snarled traffic and absurdly steep and swarming roads of San Jose for rolling green hills and mountains. We drove through forest, over wide, deep river gorges, and past verdant pasture-land.

We were supposed to arrive at the house at four, but of course we were very late. I don’t blame us. The house was out in the middle of nowhere, and the maze of dirt roads was nearly impossible as it grew darker. We eventually made it. The groundskeeper gave us a tour, we took a quick swim and had dinner, and flopped tiredly into bed.

The house was large and well-appointed, with three air-conditioned bedrooms, a deep pool, a widow’s walk, and a beautiful and unobstructed view of the Pacific Ocean. It was located on a hill in the middle of the Los Sueños nature preserve, and the nearest neighbors, also on hills, were at least a three-minutes’ drive away.

Casa del Sol, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Casa del Sol, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Probably the best (and sometimes the worst) part about the house was its close proximity to nature. We regularly saw bands of howler monkeys in the trees around the house, and heard them hollering at each other in the late afternoon.

Howler Monkeys

Blue Morpho butterflies became commonplace, and we even saw a pack of coati in a tree on the last day at the house. At around 9 o’clock at night, frogs spontaneously appeared on the pool deck, and started croaking up a storm. Dozens of geckos also came out at night, and it was fun to watch them stalk bugs across the ceiling. There was a wasp nest the size of a grapefruit hanging from the eaves, and moths, crickets, and other insects became regular companions. It wasn’t that the house was unclean, just that it was surrounded by nature, and insects rule the earth.

On Sunday, our third day in Costa Rica, we went exploring in the car. We drove for miles, reconnoitering the local towns, forming an idea of what we wanted to do with our week, and generally getting the lay of the land. The network of dirt roads connecting San Juanillo, Nosara, and the other coastal towns could only be called dirt roads in the loosest sense of the term. They were more like mud roads, with a healthy dose of potholes, stream fords, and largish rocks. We decided, after much experimentation, that driving slowly in our Hyundai Santa Fe 4×4 over this type of uneven terrain only made the ride longer and rougher. No, the idea was to drive as fast as was safe, and only slow down when confronted with a deep trough, a turn, or a river. Then, we just had to hold on to our seatbelts like rodeo cowboys as the car bucked and shook around us. The degraded condition of the roads was not kind to the poor car. Over the course of the trip, we got it covered in mud, knocked loose a piece of plastic trim, and lost a license plate. On Saturday, we woke up to discover that one of the tires was flat, and Dad had to change it before we could go anywhere.

The next few days were all about surfing. Paul, the guy who rented us the house, recommended Cacho’s Surf School on Playa Guiones, Nosara, so we went over there. At least some of us had a little previous experience surfing, but we all needed lessons.

Surf Lessons

The Pacific waves ware rolling and green, and the shallow slope of the beach allowed for some very long rides. Playa Guiones is supposedly one of the best places for beginning surfers. We were certainly not disappointed. We started out on the white water, the waves that had already broken, but by Wednesday, we were surfing the green water (but not very well). We did meet Cacho, but we were taught by the surf instructors, Hector and Steven, who spoke very good English.

Aaron Surfing, Playa Guiones

Catch a Wave

Cacho gave us some sort of deal by which we would pay at the end of the week for all the lessons and board rentals, and get a discount. In addition to surfing, the Surf School also did river kayak tours that included hiking and waterfalls. Being semi-avid hikers and not-so-avid kayakers, but very enthusiastic waterfall-jumpers, we scheduled a hike/kayak for Thursday.

Unfortunately, the weather had different plans. It rained all Wednesday afternoon and night, and when we tried to drive to Nosara early Thursday morning, the first ford was swollen with water from the mountains. While we sat in the car deliberating about whether to proceed, a hapless pickup truck attempted the crossing and bogged down. After about a minute of watching them struggle, we decided that they needed help, and went out to lend a few hands. We waded out into the muddy stream, and after a couple minutes of pushing and shoving, we got the truck unstuck. It was unexpectedly fun, and everybody had a good laugh when the local man was sprayed with mud from the tire as the truck clambered its way to freedom. The good deed for the day accomplished, we turned back to enjoy a day of resting and doing nothing.

We tried again the next day, which was sunny and clear. We all (Dad included) drove over to Nosara, where we met Hector and Karel (who also works at Cacho’s). They loaded up the kayaks onto an ATV trailer, and we followed them out of town to the start of the hiking trail. While Dad followed Karel to a place where he could wait for us at the mouth of the river, Hector took us up to the mountain stream. It was more of a walk than a hike, through cow pastures and rainforest. The waterfalls were quite beautiful. We hiked upstream and played in the rushing water for a while. Then we went back downstream to where we would start the next part of the excursion.

The river was broad, shallow, and very muddy. After the recent rain, there was a good current. We had a quick snack, boarded the kayaks, and started off. River kayaking is different than ocean kayaking. You don’t have to paddle as much for propulsion, as the current generally carries you along. However, steering is extra-difficult because in addition to going where you want to go, you also have to counteract the kayak’s infuriating tendency to hit the riverbank, T-bone other kayaks, and take bends sideways. Another thing that I did not realize when I signed up was just how long we would be out on the river. I thought that we would be mostly hiking and swimming, and therefor neglected to put on sufficient sunscreen. As it turned out, we were on the river a rather long time, about three hours, and there weren’t many shady trees growing in the middle of the stream. Let us just say that I greatly improved my tan the hard way.

However, it wasn’t as bad as all that. It was actually quite nice, with the jungle on either side, or fields of cattle, and every now and then an island with small trees or bushes. The rapids were fun, even if we sometimes got hung up on tree branches. Even the occasional capsize was a refreshing break from the heat and relative monotony. We saw a number of blue herons fishing by the riverside, and occasionally a Jesus Lizard dashing for shore across the surface of the water. We even saw one or two small crocodiles lounging on the banks, though Hector assured us that there were bigger ones around. The river eventually dumped us out at the ocean near Ostional, and there was Dad waiting with the car.

On Friday, our last day in San Juanillo, we all went to Playa Guiones. We had another successful day of surfing the green waves with Hector and Steven, and Rachel caught some waves too.

Little Surfer Girl

Afterward, we went out to lunch, packed our bags, and cleaned the house in preparation to leave the next day for the mountains.

To be continued…

 

The Land of Plenty

 

Things are quiet in Panamá right now, a time of the year when it rains quite a bit and ex-pats tend to head north to visit friends and family during the North American summer. We decided to stay here, despite our fears of getting cabin fever during “rainy season.” As it turns out, the islands in the Bocas archipelago have weather patterns that are less predictable than on the mainland. Somewhere on mainland Panama, it rains every day during this season, but here where we are, you might have two or three rainy days in a row, then a sunny one. Or a rainy night and an overcast day. One month might be rainier than another, but there really are no “seasons” at all—one big happy summer day after another. Gray days, while they may seem drearier than sunny ones, provide a respite from the intense heat of the sun, so I don’t mind them so much.

Sunset Bocas

For the remaining residents at the marina, we had a 4th of July potluck (several Brits were participants, but we decided against a re-enactment), but even there, with friends wearing stars and stripes, I felt no pang of nostalgia or longing to “go home.” It seems that all I miss of my mother country are the people I love there, and the ease with which one can get what one wants.

I have only been back to the United States (a.k.a. the Land of Plenty) one time in the last 15 months. I took a trip in June to see a couple of my best friends and go to my 20th college reunion in Middlebury, Vermont. It was a 6-day-girlfriend-extravaganza, starting with a midnight road trip from Boston to Portland, Maine (thank you, Kimberly!) and continuing with shopping, chatting, a second road trip to and from Vermont (thank you, Heather!), the sharing of bottles of wine, eating, laughing, more shopping, and finishing with late-night packing, and early morning coffee on the way to the airport. It was the perfect get-away.

Mattapoisett Light

Heather and Tanya at Texas Falls

I loved seeing the aerial view of where we live in Panama and the whole Canal system. It’s easy to get tunnel-vision here and forget about the outside world, so getting out of Bocas was like a breath of fresh air. On the other hand, after being away for just a few days, I began to miss my tribe, my tropical-jungle-island home, and hearing Spanish on a daily basis.

I had a bit of reverse culture shock in the U.S. First, the speed at which everything moves is dizzying.  “Island time” is a very real thing, and I’ve been on it for a long time. I felt something similar to the dread I have of driving into Miami from the Florida Keys, only magnified. Everyone seems so harried and stressed out, and not just in the Boston airport, either.

Also, I underestimated the stormy political climate of the United States right now. I get my news when I want it from the internet, and rarely see a television, so I don’t have to be inundated with images and headlines repeated ad nauseum.  When I do see a TV, it’s usually in Spanish and often headlining not some stupid thing the new U.S. President has said or done, but what’s going on in Venezuela.

Finally, I had forgotten how wonderful it is to go into a store, be surrounded by people speaking English, and find almost anything I didn’t even know I needed. I had ordered some things to get shipped to Heather’s, but I did a little shopping as well, and I was overwhelmed by all the shiny stuff! I was paralyzed in the stores and had to be rescued (more than once). I had brought a duffle stuffed with gifts, thinking I could use it to bring back a few things. Ha! I had to borrow a giant duffle from Kimberly (one she had used for the self-same purpose). I lugged it home like Santa Claus, and my little helpers happily unpacked all those goodies from the Land of Plenty!

The contrast of My Life on a Boat and the lives of my Middlebury classmates was startling, and not just to me. I was afraid of the old inferiority-complex, having gone to a prestigious institution whose classmates are among the influential movers-and-shakers in the world. And what did I do with my over-priced New England education? Got married, quit my career just as I was getting good at it, had five kids, and left suburbia for the Simple Life. That doesn’t sound very impressive. But it all depends on how you measure success—more than a few times, I was met by startled admiration from people I would never have guessed think that I’m living the proverbial dream.

Student Center, Middlebury, VT

In truth, going back to America cured me of wanting to go back to America. Thrown into relief, I was reminded why my life is beautiful—the life of my own choosing, with a career in education and home management, and all in a location and at a pace where I can really enjoy it. Sure, I miss my family and friends more than I like to admit, and ordering things online and paying for shipping to Central America is pricey, but I wouldn’t trade the experiences we’ve had for the convenience of staying Stateside.

See Turtles

The van rumbles to a stop, and you get out onto the deserted sandy road. You hear the crashing of the surf in the darkness. Behind you, the other members of your group exit the transporte colectivo. There is excited chatter from the kids. The guide leads the small group of eight into the pitch-black interior of the beach shack. There, using only a dim reddish light, he tells you all about the turtles. It is a little after 8 PM and you have just taken a rough taxi ride across Isla Colon to Bluff Beach, to see the sea turtles.

For a few short months, both the hawksbill and leatherback species lay their eggs on the beaches of Panamá. The eggs laid in April are also hatching this month. However, the guide does not guarantee that you will see anything at all. He sends out two guys, also from the Turtle Conservancy, to run ahead, and signal with a red flashlight if they find any turtles. At last, you all step out onto the beach, and start walking.

You quickly draw ahead of the others. It is very dark, with no moon and no artificial light. The only illumination comes from the stars overhead. In front of you, the big dipper is low on the horizon, reminding you of escaped slaves on the underground railroad, following the drinking gourd to freedom.

The sand is damp and uneven beneath your feet. When you step down, tiny flashes of green appear between your toes. You’ve never seen bioluminescence in the sand before.

On your left is the jungle, dark and brooding, alive with the sounds of frogs, insects, and other creatures. Occasionally, a light from a house or passing car stabs out through the trees, before being swallowed by the dense foliage.

On your right is the ocean. The black lumps of eight-foot swells break and crash in a never-ending thunderous cacophony. The white foam appears luminous in the starlight as it rushes to swallow your feet.

There is a very dreamlike quality to the night. You feel as if you could walk on forever, impervious to fatigue. All sense of time and distance are lost. The Milky Way arches above, like a thin band of clouds. Behind you, dimly heard, the rest of the group chatters away.

A small child runs on her short legs to catch up with you. She walks with you for a while, and asks, “How many stars are there?” “Billions,” you answer. “OK,” she says, and runs back to her friends, no doubt to resolve some trivial dispute. You are disappointed that she can’t appreciate the contemplation of the universe in silence.

You have been walking for maybe an hour when the guide spots the red signal lights of the runners. They have found something. You all hurry to see what they have found.

It is a leatherback turtle, digging a nest in the sand. She is by far the largest turtle you have ever seen, with a shell over five feet long. Careful to stay out of her field of view, you all kneel in the damp sand behind her to watch as she uses her back flippers to scoop the sand from her three-foot-deep hole. Presently, she stops digging. One of the runners produces a plastic bag, and places it in the hole. The guide explains that the turtle chose a bad place for her nest, and that the eggs will not hatch if they are laid in the water in the bottom. They will be reburied in a dry hole to increase the chances of survival.

A few minutes later, the first white baseball-sized egg rolls into the bag. You all sit enthralled, as if in front of a movie, as the huge turtle lays about a hundred eggs. Then, the first runner reaches into the hole, and deftly pulls the bulging bag back out without disrupting the mother, who begins the laborious task of filling the hole, completely unaware that it is empty.

The guide checks his watch, and says that it’s time to go. You stand up, sweep the sand from your clothes, and start the long walk back to the taxi. You have witnessed something rare and almost magical: a leatherback, probably the last of the season, laying her eggs on a starlit beach.

Swarming at Sunset

Yesterday we witnessed a natural phenomenon that had us scratching our heads and mildly worried. Zillions of insects with helicopter-like wings rose up out of the jungle after a heavy rain into the calm evening air. After a brief-but-frantic flight, they landed, dropped their wings and disappeared. Most of them landed ashore, some of them landed on the surface of the water or the docks, and a few hundred landed on our boat. This morning, we went looking for the survivors, but all we found were hundreds of black wings. What were they?

If you guessed termites, you would be correct. There are two common types of termites: subterranean and dry-wood or “powderpost.” The West Indian Powderpost might infest a wooden boat, boring into the wood, making a nest inside it, and slowly eating away at and weakening it. The subterranean variety, after the nuptial flight, dig a hole in the ground, mate, and lay eggs, creating a nest underground and mud-tunnels up to wooden structures. So which ones did we find on Take Two?

Turns out the easiest way to differentiate one type from the other is by looking at the wings. Using our microscope and a very helpful University of Florida website, I was able to identify exactly which species left wings all over the cockpit and decks of our boat. Thankfully, they were the subterranean variety, having taken flight from their jungle homes on Isla Bastimentos, looking for deadwood in the rain forest, not cedar, mahogany, teak, or cold-molded marine plywood, all of which are part of Take Two’s construction. One mystery remains, though: where did all the termites go? We dug around in some cockpit lockers and failed to find a single bug.

Add that to the other mysterious visitors we’ve had on Take Two recently, like the fruit bat that nibbled bananas in our fruit bowl in the middle of the night, or the little brown beetles we picked up in Colombia that attracted our new “pet” geckos. Despite our living in a floating home, we get a surprising number of critters aboard, not all of them welcome.

Panamá!

That’s right, folks, that wee little strip of land connecting good ole’ North and South America. Home of the Panama Canal, Manuel Noriega, and Chiquita Bananas. We’ve been living in the expat republic for several months now, and it’s pretty good. Panama seems like your typical Central American third-world country. The jungle is green, the sun is hot, and the rain is wet. Take Two is situated at Red Frog Beach Resort and Marina, on Isla Bastimentos. Bocas Town, the primary settlement, lies on Isla Colon, another large island a few miles to the north.

Bocas Waterfront

Aesthetically speaking, Bocas del Toro is a cool place. The islands are very different from the low limestone Cays in the Bahamas, or the rocky desert of Bonaire. They are rolling and hilly, rimmed with mangroves and covered with lush green jungle. Dotting the coasts of the islands are indigenous villages and gringo houses. The sides facing the Caribbean Sea have beautiful white-sand beaches lined with coconut palms.

San Cristobal

There are five basic types of people in Bocas. First, you have the Panameños, the Spanish-speaking Panamanians, that live in Bocas town and the surrounding area. Then there are the indigenous peoples. They live in small villages spread around the islands, paddle around in dugout cayucos, fish, and sell coconuts. There are also many people of African descent, as well as Chinese people. And last, but certainly not least, there are the gringos, the white people not born in Latin America. This category can be further sorted into to two sub-categories, with a few exceptions. In the first are the expat retirees, people generally over 50, who spend all or some of the year in Bocas. In the second, you have the backpackers, young singles or couples that migrate through Central and South America in an unending river with nothing but their flip-flops and the contents of their ever-present backpacks.

The preferred mode of transport for the non-indigenous people is the panga. A panga is a medium-sized fiberglass fishing/work boat, with a fabric sun-shade and oversize outboard. They are used by Panameños and gringos alike, and most of them seem to be in a perpetual state of disrepair. The closest equivalent land vehicle is the minibus.

Panga Ride

Since we arrived at Red Frog, we have made a few friends. The most notable is the family that owns Agua Dulce, the other marina on Isla Bastimentos. In addition to running a marina, they house volunteers, do panga and boat repair, and run a small medical clinic for the indigenous people. They have three kids who are home-schooled, fluent in Spanish, and reasonably good at ping-pong.

Rachel's Sixth

On weekdays, Aaron and I take the dinghy over and work at the shop from 1:00-5:00. The work varies from grinding metal and sanding boats, to cutting fiberglass and polishing T-tops. Once, I made a handle for a spigot that had rusted off. Despite the lack of pay (we are often referred to as ‘the interns’), the difficulty/danger of the work, and the fact that we frequently come home looking like chimney sweeps, it beats sitting around doing nothing and we get credit for high school “shop class.”

Every Tuesday, Mom and one lucky volunteer catch the free marina water taxi to Bocas town for groceries and packages. This involves hauling the Red Wagon all over town, in and out of five or six separate stores of varying degrees of cleanliness, and somehow dragging a weeks’ worth of food back to the taxi dock before one o’clock. The main duty of the lucky volunteer is to assist in the portage of the goods. He or she is also usually rewarded with a special treat of some kind. The weekly grocery haul sometimes lasts us less than a week, so further resupply excursions to the small marina store may be required.

On many weekends, we take the boat out of the marina and spend a night or two at anchor. This is the first place we have been able to do this easily. There are innumerable mangrove islands and coral reefs to explore in Bocas, and very few other boats, so it feels like we have the place to ourselves. We spend the weekend swimming, climbing the rigging, wake-boarding, and just generally remembering what it feels like to cruise on a sailboat.

Wakeboarding

The water is pretty clear around here, but the snorkeling is not so great. There are a few good spots that we know about, but most of the coral is patchy and not very interesting. Of course, we are a bit spoiled in that department; compared to the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, or Bonaire, poor Panama just is not that impressive. One thing it seems to have in abundance is lion-fish. One time while we were anchored out, Sam, Dad, and I speared over eight of the nasty little buggers in one afternoon. Unfortunately, they were too small to be worth the effort of filleting.

All the insects are extremely numerous and virile, from the army ants that will carry you off, too the Hercules beetles that will knock you over. The chitras, the local brand of biting no-see-um, are particularly irritating… or they would be, if we didn’t run the AC all night (and all day, as we are doing disturbingly more and more often). Mosquitos are less of a problem then we had originally anticipated, although rainy season has yet to start. I am very glad of this fact, given the quantity of readily available parasites just waiting for the opportunity to infect and permanently maim you (go Google Leishmaniasis or botfly to see what I mean).

Male Hercules Beetle

Aside from a trip to the interior to see the mountains and cloud forests, we have not done a lot of overland travel while we’ve been here. Our proximity to Costa Rica and the Pacific Coast of Central America makes those tempting destinations for future family outings. We’d also like to cruise back toward the islands of San Blas, and to central Panama to see the Panama Canal. For now, since Panama is south of the hurricane belt, we’ve decided to stick around and enjoy what this place has to offer.

Cooking with David

We have a new friend in Panama, though he isn’t Panameño. Every afternoon when we finish our school and chores, we head over to the other side of the island (through the mangroves, over the hill with the “monkey crossing” sign, past the sloth tree) to go to Playa Tortuga and cool off and play in the waves. There are two guys who work there, raking the beach to keep it free of seaweed, serving Coco Locos to thirsty tourists, and acting as lifeguards to swimmers: Humberto and David. Humberto has been working for Red Frog for a long time, something like 9 years, but the other guy, David, is relatively new to the job. I discover all this in casual conversations in both Spanish and English.

David, as it turns out, is Venezuelan, working in Panama for a couple of years and sending money back to family while his home country is busy falling apart. He has a wife and two sons, brothers and sisters, aging parents—all of whom he helps by raking beaches in paradise. In our conversations, he helps me with my limited Spanish, and I help him with his limited English. He is surprised to learn that our family of seven lives on a boat, and I am surprised to discover that he is a medical doctor in Venezuela. He’s on-call for emergencies at Red Frog, but can’t afford the outlandish license fees to practice in Panama. I used to encounter this kind of thing when I taught elementary school in Atlanta. A refugee family would arrive in the neighborhood, and the dad would be working three jobs, dishwashing or construction or day-labor, and it would turn out he had been a college professor in his home country.

David, aside from having a great sense of humor, is a sort of Jack-of-all-trades, a “utilíto,” who can do just about anything. After his parents’ separation when he was a child, he basically raised himself, becoming completely independent by the age of 14. One of his many talents is Venezuelan cooking. On his day off, David often comes over to cook and share the meal with our family. One night, he teaches me how to make a Venezuelan empanada, which is made with corn masa rolled into a thick tortilla, folded around a filling (usually meat and cheese) and cooked slowly on a griddle. Eli and Sarah learn how to make hallacas–similar to tamales, but using banana leaves instead of corn husks, and including some very surprising ingredients. Sam is becoming our expert on arroz con coco–a delightful desert, slightly reminiscent of rice pudding. What follows is a recipe, of sorts, though I’m not sure you could repeat it at home. I’m not even sure we can repeat the experience without our Venezuelan chef!

Arroz con Coco with David

Making hallacas is an all-day, whole-family affair, a holiday meal often served at Christmas and New Year’s. The only thing comparable in the U.S. might be the preparation of turkey-and-trimmings at Thanksgiving. For this cooking class, David is the chef, and Eli the sous-chef. Sarah offers some assistance as well as making dessert (a coconut flan with lime-caramel sauce), but Aaron is out all day working at a neighboring marina, and Sam and Rachel have some new boat friends to play with so they stay out of the way. I take photographs and clean up after the cooks.

The day starts with a shopping trip in Bocas Town to buy supplies for two dozen hallacas:

2 lb. beef (steak or stir-fry strips)
1 lb. pork (chops)
2 lb. chicken (breast)
1 large jar green olives
1 small jar capers
2 large onions
2 large bell peppers
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1+ tablespoon soy sauce
1+ tablespoon Worcestershire
8 cloves garlic
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
1/3 cup chopped parsley
1/3 cup chopped hierba Buena (a very mild mint) or celery leaves
1+ tablespoon Adobo con pimiento
Salt and pepper to taste
5 eggs
4 large potatoes
1 cup raisins
2 large carrots
2-3 lbs. corn flour for masa (Doñarepa extrafina)
4 cups water
1/3 cup olive oil
3 teaspoons salt, divided
1 ball of cooking twine

Hallaca ingredients

When we return home, the first step is to trim the stems off of, and wipe down, a dozen large banana leaves. Using a clean cloth and bowl of water, they clean both sides of each leaf. After they are dry, we fold them gently and set them aside for later. It is possible to buy prepared banana leaves, and David says they have been passed through fire so that they impart a different flavor, but since he couldn’t buy them here, fresh will do.

Washing banana leaves with David

Now the frenzy begins. Eli and David trim the fat and bones off of the meat and begin to chop it into small bite-size pieces, keeping the chicken dices in a separate bowl, since they cook more quickly and are added at a different time. Sarah peels and chops garlic. Eli chops finely one of the onions and one of the peppers. David minces the green herbs.

The diced pork and beef are placed in a large pot over low heat and begin to cook in their own fat. The minced vegetables, garlic, and herbs are added. When the adobo, Worcestershire (a.k.a. salsa Inglesa), soy sauce, capers and green olives (drained and rinsed), and tomato paste are added, the smell it begins to generate is tantalizing. The top goes on the pot so the meat can stew in its own juices for about twenty minutes. Then the chicken is stirred in. After another twenty minutes, David tastes the mixture, adds salt and pepper, and declares it delicious. It stews a little longer until all the flavors have melded. After about an hour total cooking time, the heat is turned off and the top is placed on the pot. Time for the next step.

Hallaca filling

In another pot, we bring two quarts of water to boil. We add the potatoes and carrots, unpeeled and whole, and the eggs. After about 15 minutes, we will remove the eggs, test the root veggies with a fork, and continue to boil them until they are tender. Meanwhile, under David’s tutelage, Eli is thinly slicing the remaining onion and bell pepper. When the potatoes are done, they are peeled carefully under cold water. When cool to the touch, the potatoes, carrots, and eggs are also sliced thinly. At this point, I am wondering how all these things are going to come together. This recipe is like nothing in my repertoire.

Hallaca ingredients

David makes a masa with the fine yellow cornmeal. When I make tortillas, I add warm water to salted cornmeal, but when David makes a masa, he starts with cool, salted water and adds the cornmeal. I’m not sure about the science here, but his dough is softer and smoother than mine, and a little wetter than when I’m making tortillas. He adds a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, and continues to massage the dough until it forms a smooth, silky ball, adding cornmeal or water until the texture is just right (about like play-dough).

Making the Masa

When the masa is ready, it’s time for assembly. At this point, all the ingredients are laid out on our salon table: banana leaves, a small bowl with water and oil, a large bowl of corn masa, a pot of meat, bowls of cooked and sliced carrots, potatoes, and eggs, sliced fresh onions and peppers, a bowl of raisins, and a ball of string. My largest pot, a 20-quart pressure cooker, is two-thirds full with water over medium heat. By the time it comes to a boil, the first hallacas will be ready to cook.

Hallacas with David

The magic begins like this: David tears a banana leave into squares, which he overlaps to make a larger rectangle. He dips his fingertips in the water-and-oil, and wets the surface of the leaves. He takes a handful of masa and rolls it into a ball, which he places in the center of the leaves. With oiled fingertips, he flattens the dough and presses the edges outward until it is a disk about 1/4 of an inch thick and eight inches across. He spoons some of the meat mixture into the center. On top he places a few disks of potato, carrot, and egg, and a few long, thin pieces of onion and pepper. He sprinkles on some raisins, then carefully begins to fold the whole thing into a tightly-closed packet. No recipe could explain how to do this—it’s the sort of thing that must be seen and done to be learned. He has a special way of tying it up with string which he is teaching to Eli. If we ever make this recipe on our own, we will probably have to watch a video to remind ourselves how to do it.

Hallacas with David

In the end, we have a perfectly-wrapped, soon-to-be-enjoyed gift. It is placed on a platter and the whole process is repeated. After about a dozen are done, they go into the boiling water for twenty to thirty minutes, doneness being determined by lifting the packet out of the water, and tapping on it until it sounds done (the same way empanadas are tested). While the first batch of hallacas are cooking, the second batch is in assembly. Eli is watching and learning, tying the finished packets. Soon, a distinctive smell rises from the pot. It is unlike anything we have ever cooked, and once the banana leaves are unwrapped and the golden hallacas are steaming on the plates, I am incredibly hungry. I can’t see how 24 will be enough for the eight of us.

Hallacas on the boil

But our eyes are bigger than our stomachs—though delicious, the hallacas are very filling. We eat just over half of them, send David home with leftovers, and keep some for our lunch the next day. David instructs us to reheat them in boiling water, though Eli discovers they’re pretty good cold, pulled out of the fridge, unwrapped, and eaten on the spot. Teenage boys.

Hallacas with David

To David, we are so grateful. These are more than cooking classes—they are part of a cultural exchange, a language lesson, and a friendship. It is emblematic of something I love about a traveling life: meeting new people and forming symbiotic relationships. David teaches us to cook Venezuelan food and gives us an opportunity to speak Spanish, and we provide a family atmosphere and give him a chance to practice English. It’s an experience that leaves everyone feeling satisfied.

Song for My Dad

I’ve taken to doing some songwriting recently, and here is my latest effort. I’m not quite ready to upload video of me singing it and accompanying myself on the ukulele, but here are the lyrics, anyway.

I Never Can Stay

When I was a kid, you took me on long trips
To see our vast country from the back of a car.
We crossed mountains and deserts and saw the big cities;
We meandered on roadways like a wandering star.

Looking out the back window and over the prairie,
My heart would long for things far away.
The stars overhead were the only thing constant–
I knew at that moment I never could stay.

This feeling of moving took hold of my spirit;
I crave open sky and the wind in my hair.
It’s not a question about discontentment;
I wander because I am happy out there.

Looking back at my childhood and all our adventures,
My heart is longing for things far away.
The stars overhead are the only thing constant–
And home is the place where I am today.

So I sail from this harbor in search of another;
Saying goodbye’s a part of my lifestyle.
The boat is my home, the ocean my mother.
If I find a nice place, I might stay for a while.

Looking back at my travels and all my adventures,
My heart is longing for things far away.
The stars overhead are the only thing constant–
And when I find a nice place, I never can stay.

There is always a new place on the horizon;
My new friends become like family.
The old sailors I meet remind me of you, Dad,
And it keeps me from feeling too lonely.

Looking back at the islands and over the sea,
My heart is longing for things far away.
The stars overhead are the only thing constant–
I know that this moment never can stay.

Oh, Daddy, did you know when we drove cross-country
That someday I’d sail for points far away?
My children are growing up far from their grandpa–
I miss you, but you know, you made me this way.

Looking back at my memories and my family,
My heart is longing for things far away.
The stars overhead are the only thing constant–
I’m happy to see you, but I never can stay.

Trip to Boquete

Note: This is part two of our mountain adventure, continued from the March 25th Mount Totumas post.

Our small caravan arrived at our Boquete residence, dumped us and our luggage on the front porch, and sped off. The house was large, and divided into four units. Ours was the biggest, with three bedrooms. We all picked rooms, and plopped our stuff in them. Then we turned our attention to a more-pressing matter: food. We called a taxi, and went into town. We walked around for a while, searching for a restaurant. We eventually found a sandwich place, Señor Gyros, where we ate lunch. Afterward, we went to the store to buy meals for the week, and, toting our loot, made the 2-kilometer walk home, where we had family movie night.

The next day, the first order of business was to do laundry. After all the hiking up at Totumas, we were running out of clothes. Mom also took a taxi into town to pick up a rental car from Cowboy Dave. Dave, one of many U.S. ex-pats living in Boquete, recommended that we check out Los Cangilones de Gualaca. (Yeah, I couldn’t pronounce that on my first try, either.) It was a section of a river that had carved a canyon through a low hill, about 45 minutes away. It was apparently a favorite swimming hole for locals, rather than the ordinary tourist attraction. Mom ran it by us, and it sounded interesting. We would have to swim in our clothes, and bring some dry ones to change into, having neglected to take our swimsuits along on the trip (not many beaches in Boquete).

Cangilones de Gualaca

After lunch, we loaded up in the car, and drove straight there without delay. At least, that’s what should have happened, had mom brought a map or phone along, instead of studying an internet picture back at the house. We became lost, and had to ask for directions from passing motorists. We eventually found it, at the end of a side road just outside the center of a small town. We parked the car, grabbed our stuff, and got out.

Cangilones de Gualaca

The river was just as cool as it had looked on the internet pictures, even with the all the people. The gorge was about ten feet wide, and rose above the water just as high. It was only about 200 feet long, and broadened and shallowed out at either end. The river was moving very slowly, but I imagine it would be quite something to see in the rainy season. Swimming about in the broad area downstream were a number of families, while hanging around the gorge were several local teenage boys.

Rachel, Cangilones de Gualaca

Cangilones de Gualaca

I went up to the edge of the gorge, and looked down. The water was slow-moving, and darkish green. I shrugged, and jumped in. Ironically, I wasn’t all that worried that it would be shallow, so much as I was worried that it would be cold. Happily, it was quite deep, and not nearly as frigid as one comes to expect from mountain rivers. Once they saw that I had failed to freeze to death or break my legs, the other kids soon followed my lead. It was quite nice, swimming in the shade of the gorge walls, after I got over the initial creep-factor. Of course, swimming wasn’t the reason we were there, it was jumping.

Cangilones de Gualaca

We swam out of the gorge into the sunlight, and scrambled out onto the rocks. The wall was only ten feet off the water, about the same as the high dive on our boat. That meant that all the favorite jumps could be performed without having to compensate for altitude change, and the minor psychological barrier of cracking your head on a rock. Knowing this, I confidently went to an overhang, where there was less risk of hitting the edge, and back-flipped into the river. This immediately got the attention of the local teenage boys. Suddenly, their nice afternoon hangout was shattered by some gringo kid jumping into their river, and they weren’t about to be outdone.

What followed was a sort of jumping competition, with each boy, Aaron and Sam included, trying to outdo the others. I am pleased to say that I held my own, only surpassed when one guy pulled off a gainer. A few minutes before we left, I dove down to the bottom of the river. It was 22 feet deep according to my dive watch, and I had to swim with my eyes closed. I brought up a handful of mud to prove I had been there.  Just as we were walking away, I saw several boys come up with handfuls of bottom mud. More evidence that boys are the same everywhere.

Boys, Cangilones de Gualaca

Anyway, we all had a great time, despite having to change into long pants in the hot car. On the way back, we took some photos of the mountains in the distance, and stopped for ice cream in town. When we got home, we were presented with yet another load of laundry to do. Mom also hunted around for more interesting things to do and see.

Volcan Baru

The next morning, Friday, I was awakened at the ungodly hour of 6:30. I was most unhappy, even if it was for a good reason. We were going hiking (again) at Tree Trek, an eco-lodge with cabins, zip lines, and canopy bridges. We ate a hurried breakfast, and drove over to the tour office in town. From there, we took the Tree Trek off-road truck up into the mountains above Boquete. The eco-lodge was much like Mt. Totumas, only more touristy. After disembarking, we were met by a Tree Trek guide who led us into the forest.

It was about 8 A.M., so it was a bit chilly in those woods. No doubt due to a sleep-addled brain, I neglected to take along my fleece. This was a mistake. I was very cold in nothing but shorts and a t-shirt with a light windbreaker. The hike was similar to the Cascadas trail at Mt. Totumas. The trees were larger, the trunks stained black by the damp. Sam caught several tiny frogs in the undergrowth, and our guide showed us a number of plants and flowers. But what really made the trip worth-while were the canopy bridges.

Tree Trek, Boquete

At various points along the trail, hundred-foot-long, steel-cable-and-plank bridges had been strung, spanning the gulf over a deep ravine or connecting the tops of trees. The floors of the bridges were transparent, so you could see, for example, the river running over 100 feet below. It was very cool. Spitting over the edge was my favorite part.

Tree Trek, Boquete

Tree Trek, Boquete

We also had the chance to glimpse the elusive quetzals. The Resplendent Quetzal is a tiny bird with bright green plumage, and a red breast. It is the national bird of Guatemala, but migrates to Panama for mating season in the spring. We were hiking along the last kilometer of the trail, when the guide pointed out one of them, perched on a branch. It was instantly recognizable as a male, because of the two ludicrously-long feathers extending from the bird’s tail. It soon saw us, and flew away, but not before we all saw it and attempted photographs. We later saw a pair.

Pair of Quetzals

The trail, and the guide, dumped us off at the lodge, and with nothing to do until the truck came to get us, we went in. Mom ordered some mocha cappuccinos for us all, and we sat sipping until the truck showed up. We arrived back home at about noon, had lunch, and got ready to go out again. Aaron, Sam, and I had signed up for rock climbing that afternoon.

Mom drove us back to the tour center, paid up, and took off. The two guides introduced themselves, and found us harnesses and climbing shoes. Not long after we had gotten all of our gear sorted out, a taxi pulled up. The five of us squeezed in, and off we went. Our climbing destination was a basalt wall 60 feet high, just outside of town. It looked nothing like the Giant’s Causeway in Scotland that Mom had shown us when she googled “basalt rock formations,” but it was still pretty cool. It looked like a huge stack of gray French fries, covered with graffiti. Drilled into the rock at various heights were anchor points for belaying. We put on our gear, while our guide, Cesar, free-climbed up the wall to set up the belaying line.

We spent three hours there, and had fun every minute. Despite my reputation for climbing stuff, this was my first time climbing actual, real rock, outdoors, and not concrete inside a climbing gym. It was a bit tougher than I expected, and by the end of the three hours, my grip was almost completely shot. Because there was only Cesar and his buddy, (hence only two belaying lines) only two of us could be climbing at any one time. This was just fine by us, because after making it to the top of the wall and back, you needed a break. When we weren’t actively climbing, we spent the time resting, taking photos, or talking to the guides. They were both professional climbers who had been climbing all around the world, but returned to Panama to start a business.

Basalt Wall, Boquete

In addition to climbing up, we also spent some time traversing the wall sideways, without touching the ground. Cesar was especially good at this. We had all done about six climbs each when the taxi pulled up. We packed up our stuff, the two guides coiled up the belaying lines, and we got in. Mom was waiting back at the tour center. After thanking the guides, we got in the car and went back to the house for some much-needed rest. Mom had taken Rachel to Boquete Bees on a field trip while we were climbing, so there was also a sweet treat waiting.

It rained all day the next day. Daunted by the miserable weather, we proceeded to do nothing of great importance on Saturday. We lounged around, played games, and performed other unimpressive feats of imagination, like reading Clive Cussler novels that we found on a shelf. Mom and Dad went for a walk in the rain, but came back in time to make spaghetti, finish laundry, and start to pack up.

We returned home on Sunday, exactly one week after we had left. We packed up our stuff, had breakfast, and waited for the taxi. Mom had returned the car the previous day, so there wasn’t much to do. The taxi arrived and half of us got in. The others had to wait for a second pass. Somehow, we all ended up at the bus stop. Like before, we handed off our junk to be packed on the roof of one of the buses, and sat down for the long ride.

Four hours later, we pulled into Almirante, got out, claimed our luggage, and then it was into the water taxi bound for Bocas. In Bocas, we had lunch at a local restaurant, and enjoyed the change of climate for about 20 minutes before the heat got too oppressive. After lunch, we got in a water taxi for the last leg of our journey. Back at the boat, we turned on the AC, and started the arduous task of unpacking. It had been a great week, crammed with new and fun experiences, but we were happy to be home.

Geography Report: Panamá

Editor’s Note: We welcome Sam as the new author of the Take Two Sailing Geography Reports!

Basic Facts

Capital: Panamá City

People/Customs: Population is 4.1 million, made up of mostly Mestizo and Native people groups, also some Afro-Panamanians, Mulattos, and Whites. Most people are Catholic, with some Protestants and a few indigenous religions.

Language: Spanish

Climate: Tropical, with a wet and dry season. The rainy season is in between May and December, and the Caribbean side gets twice as much rain as the Pacific side. Panamá lies outside of the hurricane belt. Average temperatures are between 75°F and 86°F, though it is significantly cooler in the mountains.

Food/Farming: Fish, Beef, Pork, Chicken and Eggs are produced here. Corn, rice, and bread are popular staples, and a large variety of tropical fruits and vegetables, such as mangoes, citrus, passion fruit, pineapples, bananas, and plantains are grown in Panamá.

Government: Constitutional Republic with a President and a National Assembly.

Currency: the Balboa, equivalent to, and interchangeable with, the U.S. Dollar

Art/Music/Culture: The music and culture is influenced by a mixture of Indigenous, Spanish, and African traditions. The Guna people sew a kind of colorful quilted art called molas. A Christmas parade is held in the capital every December 25th with people dancing in traditional costumes, and Carnival is held in February with loud music, elaborate costumes, and parades.

History

In 1501, Panamá was discovered by a Spanish explorer named Rodrigo de Bastides. Until his death in 1506, Christopher Colombus governed the area stretching from Panama to Honduras. In 1513, the Spanish conquistador, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, was the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. In 1519, a Spaniard named Pedro Arias de Avila founded the city of Panamá on the Pacific side. The Spanish used the isthmus for transporting gold looted from South America to ships headed for Spain.  In 1572, English privateer and explorer, Francis Drake, destroyed one of the first towns built in Panamá, and after he did this he sailed away with Spanish gold. In 1671, the buccaneer Sir Henry Morgan sailed up the Chagres River, looted, and destroyed the city of Panamá. The city was rebuilt, but there was no way to stop pirates from taking Spanish gold. In 1739, Admiral Edward Vernon destroyed the fortress of Portobelo, so the Spanish decided to sail all the way around South America rather than carrying their gold across the isthmus.

Spain lost nearly all of its colonial possessions in the 18th century in the Napoleonic Wars, and Panama won its independence from Spain in 1821 as part of Gran Colombia, liberated by Simón Bolivar. In 1846, the U.S. was granted permission to build a railroad across Panamá, which grew wealthy from people traveling across the isthmus. In 1881, the French tried to build a sea-level canal across Panamá, but the mosquitos and rainy season made this impossible.

The United States, in a bid to get control of the project, helped Panamá fight against Colombia for its independence in 1903. In exchange, they would build the canal. They tried a new strategy, building locks, damming a river, and using a lake to get across. In 1914, the Panamá Canal was finished, and the first ship sailed through—they had succeeded in building a passage that connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, making trade and shipping much easier. The United States controlled the Canal completely until the 1970’s, collecting concessions and using the strip of land on either side as a military base.

After the death of the leader General Omar Torrijos in 1981, military leader Manuel Antonio Noriega took control of the Panamanian government and formed a dictatorship, declaring himself president and growing the military. He was accused of corruption and doing business with Colombian cocaine cartels, killing his opponents, and rigging elections. In 1989, he re-elected himself, and the first thing he did was to declare war on the U.S., who had imposed economic sanctions and refused to pay canal fees. Of course, the U.S. won in a very short time, and Noriega was captured, tried, and sentenced on conspiracy charges. He was flown to Florida to spend decades in jail.

Meanwhile, resistance to U.S. control of the canal had grown, and the conflicts sometimes grew violent. After a series of treaties in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the United States ceded complete control of the Canal to the Panamanians in 1999. Also, in 1999, the first female Panamanian president, Mireya Moscoso was elected. Noriega did not return to Panamá until 2011.

Today, Panamá is exporting tropical fruit and building its tourism industry, attracting people from all over the world to its beautiful islands, beaches, mountains, and national parks, and is continuing to profit from the ships that transit the Panamá Canal. A new set of larger locks were finished in 2016.

Land forms/Flora and Fauna

Panamá is an isthmus, a land bridge that connects North America to South America. There is a 50-mile canal across the middle section. Panamá is about 35 miles wide at its narrowest point. Tropical forest covers fifty percent of Panamá. Mangrove swamps line the coasts, and the interior has mountains, the tallest of which is Volcan Barú at 11,4oo feet. Aside from tropical plants like palm, mangrove, banyan/fig, banana, papaya, and breadfruit, the mountains have deciduous trees like oak and elm, many varieties of epiphyte, fern, and moss. Animals you might find in Panamá include pumas, jaguars, tapirs, anteaters, agoutis (and other large rodents), coatis, peccaries, armadillos, sloths, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, and capuchins, poison dart frogs, boa constrictors, and tropical birds like the three-wattled bellbirds, quetzals, toucans, parrots, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, and sea birds like tropicbirds and frigates.

Things to do

White-water rafting, climbing, going to beaches, ziplining, surfing, hiking in the mountains, visiting the Panamá Canal, snorkeling and SCUBA diving, fishing, taking a helicopter tour, horseback riding, and sailing to the San Blas Islands.

Bibliography

“Panama.” Random House World Atlas and Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Random House Reference, 2007.

“Panamá History.” Lonely Planet Travel Information,  http://www.lonelyplanet.com/panama/history, March 27, 2017.

 

 

Mount Totumas

We have spent several weeks in Bocas del Toro, Panama, and have decided that we like the place. However, Bocas Town seems a little small, and we were wanting a taste of the rest of the country. Chiefly, the mountains. Spurred on, no doubt, by the stunning success of the Cartagena Vacation, Mom, through a mixture of Spanglish phone calls, strategically-invited dinner guests, and magical powers, secured three days in a mountain eco-lodge, and three more days in the town of Boquete, at the house of a new friend of ours. She also managed to arrange transportation for seven people plus luggage all the way there and back.

Cabaña, Mount Totumas

The first few days of our trip would be spent at the cabaña at Mount Totumas. We would be living in a large cabin, hike all day on the trails, and enjoy cooler weather in the cloud forest biome. The second half of the week would be spent in a large apartment in Boquete, a nice little town with restaurants and hostels and tour companies offering everything from ziplining to hot springs to views of the Atlantic and Pacific from the top of 11,000-foot Volcan Barú.

The trip sounded pretty good, but the transportation did not. First, we had to take a water taxi to Bocas Town at 9:30 A.M., wait for half an hour, and then take another boat to the mainland. After another half-hour wait, we would have a four-hour bus ride to Boquete, on the other side of the isthmus of Panama. At 3:30 P.M., two drivers would meet us in a pick-up truck and taxi for the two-hour drive to Volcan, a small town up in the mountains, where we could buy a few groceries. At the turn-off to Mount Totumas, the taxi would turn back, and three of us would pile into the back of the 4×4 pickup truck, along with all our luggage, for the bumpy, hour-long ride to the cabaña, arriving just before dark.

Amazingly, it all went off without a hitch. The view from the road was quite extraordinary. We drove through the mountains, with a steep wooded slope on one side of the road, and the whole countryside spread out like a blanket on the other. Squinting in the right direction, I could almost make out the pale line of the Pacific Ocean. As the sky darkened, we arrived at the cabaña, rapidly unpacked our things, and headed to the Lodge for dinner.

Bellbird Lodge, Mount Totumas

The Bellbird Lodge is cozy, wooden, and warm. Sitting on one of the comfy sofas, I half-expected to see snow falling in the darkness outside the window. Sadly, there is no snow in the cloud forest. Dinner was excellent, cooked by Jeff’s wife, Alma, daughter, Karin, and helper, Hilda. Afterward, we walked back to the cabin along the dark track, pointing out lightning bugs, and admiring the stars. With practically no light pollution, night among the mountains is akin to being out at sea.

Back at the cabin, we explored our new digs. The cabin was made of wood, had two floors, a full kitchen, two bathrooms, and slept seven easily. And it had a bath tub! I haven’t seen a bath tub in forever! Tired after sitting in a car all day doing nothing, we all chose our beds, and went to sleep. We spent three days in the cabaña, hiking the trails, hanging out at the lodge, and enjoying the change of climate, not to mention scenery. We ate mainly at home, Mom cooking with the groceries from Volcan. We also spent a fair amount of time watching the hummingbirds.

Front Porch

There were two hummingbird feeders out on the porch, and they received constant business. Seventeen species of hummingbird have been seen at Mount Totumas, but we only observed about a dozen. There were hummingbirds of all colors and sizes, from the large Violet Sabrewing, to the green and yellow White-Throated Mountain Gem, not much larger than a bumblebee. During our stay, Sarah had to refill the hummingbird feeders twice. The activity was especially intense around the feeders at the back of the hostel. If you took all the feeders down, and held one up in your hand, the hummingbirds would buzz right up, and start chugging down sugar water right next to your face.

Bird Feeder

On the first day, Jeff took us on an introductory hike, on a trail called ‘Big Tree Loop.’ There certainly were some very big trees. The cabaña lies in a rare ‘cloud forest’ biome. This is a high-altitude, old-growth, tropical forest. It is very biodiverse, containing many different types of trees and plants within a small area. As we walked on the dirt trail among the trees, Jeff told us about some of the wildlife that lived in and around the property. These included pumas, ocelots, tapirs, and hundreds of species of birds. However, during our walk, we saw not a single animal on the ground. As in most tropical forests, the action is primarily in the canopy above. One of the most notable examples is the monkey.

Monkey Watching

Mount Totumas is home to three types of monkey: capuchin, spider, and howler. Halfway through the hike, we spotted a small community of howler monkeys. Jeff saw one first, then Aaron, then the rest of us: a little howler monkey-head poking out from behind a branch fifty feet up in the trees. Jeff set up a small telescope that he brought along a for spotting birds, and trained it on the monkey. After looking at the ugly little primate for a few minutes, we discovered that it was not alone. Altogether, there were about a dozen monkeys sitting in that one tree, just off the path. While we were watching them, we were careful to keep our distance. These monkeys had a reputation for urinating and defecating on trespassers to their territory.

Howler Monkey

The others seemed to be content to ogle the monkeys from a safe distance, but I soon became bored. I walked off the path a short way, to the base of a big, tall tree. Hanging next to the trunk, from a hefty branch up above, was a vine. And boy, what a vine! It was as thick as my wrist, and had another one just as thick spiraling around it. After testing to see if it was secure, I wasted no time in climbing up. The first branch of the tree was about fifty feet in the air. By the time I got up there, my arms were quite fatigued, so I scrambled into a sitting position on the branch, and looked around. The monkeys were only a few trees away, and from that distance I could smell them a little too clearly. Meanwhile, back on the ground, Jeff started making deep barking sounds, attempting to provoke the alpha male. Just exactly why he was doing this, I don’t know, but in any case, it worked. The monkeys went completely bananas, whooping and hollering, and zeroing in on my tree. Confronted with the prospect of getting pasted with primate poo, I wisely decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and beat a hasty retreat down the vine.

Monkeys

Aside from the monkeys, the rest of the hike was pretty uneventful. We saw tall trees, flowers, fungi, and a slime mold. The lack of wildlife sightings might possibly have been due to the rambunctious nature of the children on the hike. The afternoon was a little more interesting. Jeff took us down to the hydro-plant that supplies power to the entire facility. The water is piped from a nearby stream. Where the pipe meets the generator, it narrows, forcing a pressurized jet of water into the turbine. The turbine turns the generator to make 7500 watts of electricity, and the water flows back into the stream. The system provides more than enough clean, reliable energy to meet the demand of the lodge, hostel, and cabaña. We also saw the greenhouse, where most of the vegetables served at the lodge are grown. As people who generally prefer to be self-sufficient, we were very impressed with the self-reliance off Jeff’s little operation.

The next day, we got up early. This was made possible by an excited five-year-old stomping around creaky wooden flooring. After breakfast, Aaron and I packed a backpack with water and a map of the trails, and went out hiking. It was rather cold in the morning, but we hoped to see a little more action in the forest than the day before. We had studied the map before went out, and decided to do the one marked “Cascadas” first. The trail descended into the valley below the lodge. There was less wind down there, and we soon took off our unnecessary windbreakers. The canopy above was denser, casting the trail in green shadow. Water dripped from every leaf, and the dirt underfoot was damp. Unfamiliar and exotic bird calls filled the crisp air, and in the distance, we could hear the deep barking grunt of the howler monkeys. We passed two tall waterfalls, columns of white foam that gurgled, frothed, and went bubbling and swirling out beneath the trees, deeper into the valley.

Waterfall

We had just passed the second waterfall, when somebody caught up with us on the trail. He was a local boy, dressed in faded blue jeans and a red shirt. In broken English, he introduced himself as David. He was 14, and his family lived on the property. We introduced ourselves, and told him where we were going. He seemed content to hike along with us. His English was about as good as our Spanish, so we could generally understand each other. We didn’t talk much, just sort of walked together. Occasionally, one of us would ask what a word was in Spanish, or he would ask about an English word. David obviously knew a lot about the local flora and fauna, but was only able to communicate a little. He was astonished that we lived on a boat, and were home-schooled.

After about 30 minutes, we reached a fork in the trail. We still had several hours to kill, so instead of going back to the cabin, the three of us went on the other trail. In this manner, we went on to hike segments of every single trail on the property. We slowly moved out of the valleys, and up into the hills and meadows above the lodge. On the top of one of the hills was a large rock that jutted out over the valley. A sign nearby labeled it as ‘”The Thinking Rock.” It was not hard to see why. At about noon, we descended to the lodge and bid David farewell. We never got the chance to see him again, but I wish we had; in that friendship, at least, language wasn’t really a barrier.

David

The next day was our last at Mount Totumas. We packed up our various belongings, then it was off to the Bellbird Lodge for a breakfast of eggs and toast. We decided to do some last-minute hiking before the truck came to fetch us as noon. By popular demand, we settled on “Roble,” a relatively short trail that Aaron, David and I had hiked the day before. Part of the reason for choosing this trail was its proximity to “The Thinking Rock,” with which the others had become inordinately obsessed. The hike was just as beautiful as before. Due to the increased wind, we did not see any birds, and due to the chattering of small children, we did not see any beasts. After about thirty minutes of toil, we reached the object of out labors: “The Thinking Rock.” We all sat down on it, while Dad tried (and largely failed) to set up the camera for a time-delayed shot. After messing around on the rock for fifteen minutes, we continued down the trail. The one interesting thing that we saw on the way back was the intake for the hydro generator.

Front Runners

The truck arrived right on time, and we all piled our junk in the bed, then Aaron, Sam, and I piled ourselves in. The ride out of the property was just as bouncy as the ride in (what did I expect?). Halfway down the road, we made a minor detour to see “Los Pozos,” the hot springs. It was a small orange pool of water, about a meter across.  The only thing remarkable about it was that it was boiling. Hey, after hiking eight hours to see the boiling lake in Dominica, this little saucepan just wasn’t that impressive. Ironically, it was two feet from an icy cold stream. Mom put her finger into the pool, just to see if it was really boiling (smart woman). Apparently it was, or close to it, because the finger was retracted mighty fast.

Los Pozos

We lingered about five minutes, then we were on our bumpy way. We were met at the end of gravel road by the same rattletrap taxi which had carried us before. With all the seats in the truck taken, Aaron, Dad, and I got in to the taxi. We settled in for the two-hour ride, with Mount Totumas behind, and Boquete ahead. Our time on the mountain was a high point, in more ways than one, but there was still more to come…