Author Archives: Eli

Trip to Costa Rica, Part II

We spent an afternoon driving to Santa Elena, a small tourist town in the mountainous region of the Monteverde Cloud Forest, about halfway along the route between San Juanillo and San Jose. The house we rented had been built 65 years ago, but was now part of the Curicancha Nature Reserve. It was built of wood, and had a stone fireplace and huge picture windows looking out into the forest. We arrived late in the afternoon, and had time only to settle in and relax in our new place and make a plan of attack for the next day.

Vista, Monteverde, Costa Rica

We had one full day with which to explore the area. Over breakfast the next morning, we tried to decide what exactly we wanted to do. On the way in, for example, we had seen signs advertising “Treetop Climbing.” This sounded fun and exotic, so we looked it up. Turns out, you had to pay 50 bucks per-person to climb a 130-foot-tall ficus tree with a hollow inside. Of course, there was also a 12-year age limit, supervision, and safety equipment. It still looked cool, but further research revealed a grove of DIY climbing trees that were a lot closer and could be used at one’s own risk at a 100% discount. Mom also found a horseback riding tour place, and a guided night-hike. Dad stayed at the house to work, so Mom and all us kids piled into the car to look for a tree.

It was close by, and not hard to find at all. We parked by the road, and followed a trail into the woods. We passed several other large and worthy trees before we came to the best one. It was very large and impressive, with two trunks that joined about 50 feet up, and then rose together before branching out at about 70 feet. It looked like something you’d find on Dagobah.

Ficus Tree Climbing

A strangler fig (in the ficus family, similar to a banyan tree) is not exactly a parasite, but it acts like one. A bird eats a fig and lands on the branch of a different kind of tree. The bird deposits the seed. The seed sprouts in the canopy of said tree, and begins to put down roots. The ficus grows up and around the host, using it for support, stealing moisture and nutrients from the soil and hogging sunlight, until the host is completely “strangled,” and dies. It then begins to rot away, but by then, the ficus is too tall and strong to notice a gaping cavity right through its middle.

On this particular tree, the main trunk was tilted at a 30-degree angle, and the cavity where the host tree had rotted away was only partially enclosed, with rib-like strands of wood forming a ladder on the inside slope. Climbing up was childishly easy, but very cool. It was like climbing up the spinal column of a brontosaurus. The view from the top was excellent, wherever there was a gap in the branches. I would have tried to climb out on a limb, but at the last moment, I happened to notice that I was seventy feet off the ground, and decided against it.

Strangler Fig, Interior

We descended and had a snack, then drove to the Bat Jungle, a sort of live bat museum. There was a room curtained off from sunlight which was filled with trees, bananas, and dishes of fruit, and where the cycle of day and night had been reversed so that guests could see the bats when they were active. It was late evening in the bat room when we arrived at mid-morning, and the bats were flapping around behind the glass, or hanging upside down, some of them nibbling chunks of papaya or mango. The museum houses mostly frugivores, as insectivores would have required a prohibitive number of buckets of live insects for food. The bloodsucking vampire bats were also not included, for obvious reasons. We are no strangers to bats, but it was still interesting to see them up close, especially the nectivorous “humming-bat” which uses its ridiculously long tongue to drink from flowers, or hummingbird feeders, in this case.

We returned to the house and ate lunch. The girls went out horseback riding, while Aaron, Sam, and I played a game of Monopoly. When they came back, we had an early dinner and got ready to go on a night hike. We drove up to the main entrance of the Curicancha Nature Reserve, and paid the entrance fee. Dad had to go back to the house to get his tennis shoes. When he returned, the guide handed out flashlights, and we set out. It was 6:30, and the sun was only just setting, but under the trees it soon grew dark. Most animals in the jungle are only nocturnal, and mainly live in the canopy. The guide said that we might not see much, and I believed it would be a miracle if we saw anything at all. And so, we trudged off into the dark and gloomy forest, never to return (for a few hours, anyway).

It was a bit creepy, walking under the dark trees, with the sounds of frogs and insects all around. We didn’t see any kinkajous or arboreal porcupines (darn!), but we did see a woodpecker-like bird with which the guide seemed most impressed. There were also many spiders. They were mostly wolf spiders, but the guide did know where to find a Red-kneed Tarantula, and I saw a second one further along the trail. Oh yeah, and did I mention the fluorescent scorpions? Scorpions glow an eerie green under a black light, and the guide showed us a whole tree-full.

Fluorescent Scorpion, Nightwalk in Monteverde

Once, while stopped at a frog-filled pond, we saw rabbit. It quickly moved off, and after a short discussion on the evils of global warming, so did we. We arrived back at the parking lot at about nine, with some of the smaller family members dragging their feet. We thanked the guide, turned in our flashlights, and went back to the house.

The next morning, we got up late, ate breakfast, washed the car, packed up, mooched around while the slow packers finished, loaded up the car, double-checked the house, actually got in the car, and left Monteverde. We then proceeded to become very lost. We eventually found our way back to San Jose, and we dropped mom and the car off at the car rental place while we went to check into the hotel. At the check-in desk, the receptionist said that, due to the gigantic futbol (soccer) match between Costa Rica and Mexico, all the rooms were full. Well, almost full. The presidential suite on the tenth floor was free, and she was so sorry, and would we mind? We shrugged, and said that it would be alright. She even gave us a complimentary bottle of water. We coolly handed our luggage off to the bellhop, and then sprinted for the elevators, grinning like maniacs. We left Aaron behind to receive Mom, and got settled in our posh new rooms.

After dropping my bag off, I went back down to wait with Aaron, and plan the bamboozlement of Mom. We had been scheming together for about twenty minutes, how we would deliver the bad news that the hotel had overbooked and had to cram all seven of us into one room (only to surprise her when we entered our suite), when Dad came down, and sent us up. Mom was late. Very late. Dad left us at the room, and went to wait for her at the rental car office. They eventually showed up at the room as the sun was setting, and Mom seemed inordinately glad to see us.

It turned out that at the car rental office, she had been informed that we would be charged two hundred dollars for leaving the gas tank partially empty (due to the difficulty of finding an easily-accessible gas station on our way back to San Jose) and been advised to “go around the corner” to the gas station to fill up. Of course, the roads were clogged with traffic, police barricades, and crowds of face-painted, flag-waving fans (futbol match, remember!), and she had gotten hopelessly lost trying to find her way back in rush-hour traffic. No experience of a new country would be complete without having to ask strangers for help in broken Spanish!

San Jose Traffic

We celebrated our successful trip by dressing up and going to dinner at the Japanese restaurant in the hotel, and returned to our luxurious rooms to get some sleep.

Kids, San Jose, Costa Rica

We got up at five for breakfast, the shuttle arrived at six, and off we went. I spent most of the ride back to Panama writing on the computer or reading my book. We had no problems at the border crossing (since we had purchased completely-unnecessary, refundable airplane tickets for flights to our home country). We arrived at Almirante, took the boat to Bocas, then hired a taxi to take us to the marina, arriving at the boat by late afternoon.

Our road trip was a great vacation, but it was also a learning experience and a chance to see another part of Central America, one we were not planning to visit by boat. What we saw of Costa Rica was very different from what we’ve seen of Panama. While still a third-world country, it seems more developed than Panama. Costa Rica realized a few decades ago that their natural beauty was a resource to be exploited. As a result, their eco-tourism industry blossomed, they capitalized on Nature, and it became a very popular vacation destination.

My conclusion: Costa Rica is very touristy. This is both a blessing and a curse. One the one hand, tourism means that natural areas are preserved and that activities are more convenient, organized, and established. But on the other hand, everything is more expensive, and feels less authentic. The locals are used to gringos, and are more likely to speak English, and tourist installations have somewhat marred the otherwise stunning wilderness. Panama, on the other hand, retains is wildness, but lacks a sense of appreciation and preservation of what the country has.

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…

 

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.

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.

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.

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…

Cartagena Vacation

Our family had a few hundred dollars’ worth of ‘Fun Money’ (Christmas money donated by generous relatives for the creation of memories rather than the purchase of stuff) burning a hole in our pockets, and we decided that it would be best used to take a three-day trip to Cartagena, Colombia. To say the least, I was not completely psyched about this new proposition. Not at all. In fact, I was not even remotely psyched (even though, as we shall see, it turned out well). It seemed to me to be one of Mom’s hair-brained schemes that by some unhappy twist of fate made it past the planning stages. It looked suspiciously like an attempt to broaden our horizons, and I wanted nothing to do with it.

Despite my loudly-voiced misgivings, Mom and Dad purchased bus tickets to Cartagena and back, but failed to decide which of two rental houses we wanted. When, on the morning of our departure they did finally decide on a house, we discovered that it might take up to 24 hours to validate the booking. After a few tense hours of talking Spanglish on the phone with various help-desk agents, they finally got the booking issue sorted out. Only when I was sure that we were actually going did I pack. We all double-checked our stuff, went to the bathroom one or two last times, and went up to the curb at 12 to wait for a bus that might not arrive until 1. The bus eventually arrived, and we all settled in for the 5-hour ride to Cartagena.

It was much like an airplane ride, only on the ground. Thankfully, the bus had a competent air conditioner, not one of those second-rate clunkers that occasionally farts out lukewarm air every few minutes that one comes to expect in third-world countries. We read books, looked out the window at the Colombian landscape, and stared down the other passengers. Aaron, Sam, and I grabbed the three back seats, and watched Iron Man 2, on a computer that we had brought for that very purpose. When the movie ended, we still had a few hours to go, so we read our books for the remainder of the journey.

Cartagena

The supposedly 5-hour ride turned out to be only about 4 hours (Sarah timed it), but it was getting dark when we arrived in Cartagena. Cartagena is a large, modern city full of skyscrapers, taxis, and parking garages. However, the part that concerns us was the old walled city. This is full of small shops, restaurants, and four-hundred-year-old houses that overhang the narrow streets. Because we had not decided on a house when we bought the bus tickets, the driver didn’t know where to drop us off. So, we and all our luggage were dumped somewhere near the clock tower, without a clue in which direction our house lay. So, we wandered around the crowded streets of Cartagena for an hour, searching for our elusive house. We eventually found it, with the help of a friendly local. We got the key from the restaurant on the ground floor, opened the door, went up the stairs, and took a look at our new digs.

Cartagena

They were nice. Real nice. The house was huge, with four bedrooms with three beds each, four bathrooms, and a pool (without any water). It had a balcony overlooking the street in a quaint, historic neighborhood. We chose bedrooms, dumped our stuff, and headed back out the door in search of dinner. We went down the street toward the plaza, and sat down at one of the many restaurants lining the avenue. Our table was outside, in the middle of the street, which only hours before had been clogged with taxis, motorcycles, and delivery trucks. There were no cars, but plenty of foot traffic. Street vendors carrying boxes of homemade jewelry, art, or cigars walked up and down, hawking their wares to restaurant patrons who had unsuspectingly taken seats outside. As we waited for our food, ate our dinner, and waited for the check, we were approached by at least 6 different guys, all with something to offer. One crew of jewelry salesmen was particularly persistent, coming repeatedly to our table and telling us, in no-doubt very eloquent Spanish, just why we needed their black coral necklaces, pearl bracelets, etc.

This was just a taste of the Cartagena street life. Over the next few days, we were approached by all manner of vendors, selling all manner of oddments. There were guys selling sketches, guys selling sunglasses (during the day) and guys selling little glazed-paper animal magnets.

Fruit Lady

There was also a wide variety of street performers. We witnessed guys with acoustic guitars that would ride up to your table on rusty bicycles, and start playing, guys that walked around with a boom box and mic, and sang you a personalized rap song, and even a Michael Jackson impersonator. He was good, too. However, we soon became acutely aware that the entertainment wasn’t free–even more so because Mom happens to be somewhat overgenerous, if there is such a thing. We also saw a gang of break-dancers in action, which as kind of cool, because I always thought that break-dancing was something that happened in large northern cities in the 1980’s. Even though their performance wasn’t exactly free either, I think whatever money we parted with was well-deserved.

Lunch

Mom claimed (repeatedly) that for her whole life, she had wanted to go to Cartagena. She did not specify exactly why this was so, or what she expected us to accomplish while we were there, but…Whatever. Moms. She seemed content to spend our time eating out at local restaurants, walking around the walls, and generally hanging out and getting to know the place. Surprisingly enough, we were only dragged into one museum. This happened to be the ‘Museum of the Spanish Inquisition and History of Cartagena’, elected by unanimous vote because it supposedly contained several instruments of torture. While the torture devices were a little disappointing, our tour guide was very helpful in explaining some of Cartagena’s history.

One day, we took a walk outside the walls of the old city to the nearby Castillo de san Felipe, a large fortification that overshadows the eastern entrance. We spent the first half of the day walking around the fort, watching an animated history video (in Spanish), and running through the maze of arched tunnels that wound under the battlements.

Castillo Tunnel

So, what did we do when we weren’t traipsing all over the city? We mostly spent our time lounging around the rental house. We often engaged in raucous pillow fights, just because we had the space. Aaron had somehow crammed Settlers of Catan in his backpack, and we played that once while Mom and Dad went out for a dinner date in an old convent-turned-fancy-restaurant.

On the last full day that we were there, we found a small chocolate shop/museum a few blocks away, and Mom secured ‘chocolate workshop’ sessions for five of us, Rachel, oddly enough, electing to forgo this great opportunity to consume chocolate and hang out with Dad instead. We learned all about the history and cultivation of cacao, the transformation of the purplish seeds of the tropical fruit into the silky brown substance familiar to chocolate-lovers everywhere, the preparation of a traditional native beverage (unsweetened and spiced with chili peppers), and, lastly, how to make our own confectionery delights, some of which survived long enough take home for later consumption.

Making Chocolate

To say the least, our departure the next day was a bit harried. The geniuses among us had packed the previous day, but there is always a last-minute scramble as people hunt down their various odds and ends and try to get out the door. We were told to be at the bus station at three o’clock to catch the bus, which might not arrive for another hour. Between going out for breakfast, packing up, tidying the house, and getting sandwiches-to-go, our morning soon disappeared, leaving us only fifteen minutes to make the twenty-five-minute walk to the bus station. We must have looked hilarious to the other pedestrians, overloaded and dragging a whiny five-year-old, as we sped past, leaving a dust cloud that lingered in the afternoon heat. But when the man at the ticket counter in a foreign country tells you to be at the bus station at a certain time, you be there, even if the bus is late. A classic case of hurry up and wait.

Waiting for the Bus

The ride home to Santa Marta was much like the ride there, only slightly longer. It was very late when we staggered through the front door, ate a few sandwiches, and collapsed in our beds. Though I had been very skeptical of the whole operation in the beginning, the trip to Cartagena turned out to be a great experience, and an excellent use of the Christmas money. To those who helped fund our Cartagena Vacation, thank you.

Underwater Bonaire

Out of all the many islands that we have visited over the course of our little cruise, my favorite (so far) has to be Bonaire. Bonaire is the easternmost island in the ABCs (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao), a chain of Dutch islands just north of the coast of Venezuela. All the Caribbean islands that we have previously visited are giant, volcanic affairs with towering mountains and steamy jungles. Not Bonaire. Bonaire is flat, arid, and prickly. It could have been Arizona, with red dirt, wild donkeys, and large spiky cacti. There are a few largish hills at the north end, vast flamingo-infested salt flats at the south end, and cactussy desert in the middle. The capital city, Kralendijk, abounds with good restaurants and bars, good shops, and good ice cream parlors. Right before we arrived from St. Lucia, a wave of uncharacteristically wet weather hit Bonaire, and it rained on and off for the duration of our three-week stay.

Flamingos

As great as the island is, the main attraction is the water. Bonaire is not called a diver’s paradise for nothing. The water is crystal clear and relatively shallow close to shore, but after about two hundred feet, it slopes gently downward and then suddenly drops off into the deep, empty blue. The boat was moored just on the edge of the drop-off, with 15-foot sandy bottom under the bow, and 30-foot coral slope under the swim ladder at the stern. We went swimming almost every day. We were usually joined by our friends on s/v Abby Singer (henceforth to be referred to as “our esteemed neighbors”), who were anchored next door. Often, I would go into the ‘front yard,’ and practice my breath-hold at the mooring-block. I would hang there, motionless, my foot hooked under the loop of metal to keep myself from floating away. I achieved my longest submerged breath-hold while doing this, at 1 minute, 45 seconds.

Dropoff

The good snorkeling, unsurprisingly, was not limited to the area directly under the boat. In fact, it was good snorkeling pretty much everywhere. Coral grew plentifully along the slope, and there were fish everywhere. It was great for free-diving. The coral just keeps going down and down. Generally, the deeper you go, the better it is. We often took the dinghy, sometimes accompanied by our esteemed neighbors, to Klein (or “little”) Bonaire, a long flat island a mile to the west rising out of thousands of feet of water. On the north side is a white sandy beach frequented by ‘pirate’ ships, constantly belching out pasty white tourists and re-ingesting pink ones. The snorkeling off the beach was only mediocre (for Bonaire). The good stuff was on the south and east sides.

Aaron and I were SCUBA-certified in Marathon before we left. While we were in Bonaire, I had the opportunity to practice this skill. One day, Andrew on Abby Singer, Pete on Penny Lane, and I decided to go diving. Everybody already had the proper gear, except me. Our dive tanks were five years old, Andrew’s spare was empty, and Pete’s extra was too small. In the end, I had to use a tank rented from one of the numerous dive shops, a BCD and regulator borrowed from Andrew, a mismatched collection of weights borrowed from everybody, and my own mask and fins. We took Penny Lane to the south side of Klein Bonaire, and grabbed a ball. It was a pretty good dive. We generally stayed at around 45 feet, and just cruised along the drop-off. Early on, Andrew’s regulator developed a leak, and he had to head back. We saw a bunch of cool stuff, and returned to the boat an hour later.

Pete

As much as I like SCUBA diving, I would almost always rather be free-diving. Tank diving allows you to stay down longer, and see things in more detail, but at the cost of having to rent and wear cumbersome gear, and the added risk of nitrogen narcosis and decompression sickness. Free-diving is not without risk, but I find it to be more rewarding. For my 15th birthday, I received a free-diving watch. It functions like a normal digital watch, except that it displays and records the depth, time, date, and temperature of any dive over five feet. While in Bonaire, I broke my record for depth and dive-time twice. The first time, I was diving right off the back of the boat. Wearing fins, I swam down 67.2 feet below the surface, with a dive-time of 1 minute, 4 seconds; more than ten feet past my previous record.  The second time, Andrew and I were trading dives off Klein Bonaire. He went down to 50 feet (his record), and came back up. I finished breathing up, took a gulp of air, and descended to 73.4 feet. I returned to the surface 1 minute, 5 seconds later, without suffering any ill effects.

During our last week in Bonaire, we took Take Two, and our esteemed neighbors, down to the south of the island, where the salt flats are. We took a mooring ball, and dinghied to the salt pier (a prime diving destination), where big ships take on their cargoes of salt. We tied up the dinghy, and jumped in. The mass of coral-encrusted pilings were tilted at different angles to improve support. Diving down and swimming among them through the green light was like swimming in a shady forest. Unfortunately, someone (me) forgot to bring the GoPro, so we have no pictures of this great experience.

Salt Pier, Bonaire

Although there is excellent free-diving all over the Caribbean, nowhere else have I seen such a concentration of pristine reefs and flourishing coral. As you may have guessed by now, I greatly enjoyed our time in Bonaire, and hope to return one day.

Underwater Bonaire

Christmas Traditions

*Spoiler Alert! Do not read if you believe in Santa!*

In the U.S., as in much of the rest of the western world, Christmas is the largest holiday of the year. Each year, millions upon millions of dollars are spent on Christmas gifts, and millions more on air travel, evergreen trees, and candy. And the star of the show is, of course, Santa Claus. Yes, that mysterious bearded and red-robed fat guy, who, with the help of hundreds of elvish henchmen, breaks into every house in the world via the chimney, and gives presents to good little children.

Sinterklaas

Almost every country that has even remotely Christian beginnings celebrates some form of this holiday. In Bonaire, an old Dutch colony, they worship Sinterklaas, rather than Santa. Sinterklaas is more closely related to St. Nicholas, the root of all Santa incarnations, than his American counterpart. He wears red bishop’s duds, has a white beard, and delivers presents to nice children on December 5th, the eve of his supposed death-day (343 A.D.). Rather than use a sleigh as his preferred mode of transportation, he takes a steam boat, and drops goodies into shoes, not freakishly large stockings.

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However, instead of being accompanied by hordes of elves in pointed hats, Sinterklaas is served by Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, a short black person who is either: A) a freed slave, B) a tamed devil, C) a Spanish Moor, or D) a chimney sweep. Whichever one you choose, Sinterklaas’ little toady listens at chimneys, to find out which children are good, and which are bad. And upon discovery of such a rotten egg, he carries them off in a burlap sack to Spain, where he and Sinterklass dwell off-season. Also, in some traditions, Zwarte Piet has gold skin, rather than black. Does this make him Black-Gold Pete? I don’t know. What I do know is that he is probably a holdover from pre-Christian religious practices, chiefly in relation to the Wild Hunt of Odin, in which blackbirds accompanied Odin and listened at the chimney to see how the mortals were getting along.

Zwarte Piet

This is true of a lot of Christmas traditions, where old pagan rituals were changed to fit Christianity in the early centuries A.D. Some of the more bizarre traditions cheerfully celebrated by thousands of Americans and Europeans during the holiday season have their roots in Germanic Paganism. Who among you likes to burn the Yule Log? That there is an interesting piece of Norse mythology, I can tell you. It all depends on how deep you want to dig into the dirty secrets (and there are many) of your favorite holiday rituals.

It is also totally normal to go out caroling (wassailing), decorate your Christmas tree (Yggdrasil?), and eat your Christmas Ham (Yule Hog), by the flickering light of your merrily burning Yule Log. In short, you should celebrate the Christmas season without thinking too much about its roots, and just enjoy your time-honored traditions with people you love.

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On the Road Again

It’s been almost a month since we left our summer refuge in Grenada. One last stock-up trip to the store in St. Georges, one last afternoon at the pool/bar, one last trip to the Lightship, and we were off. Most of our friends and acquaintances had already left for other lands, so it wasn’t as if we were leaving anyone behind, never to see them again (mom’s bartender friends excluded).

Le Phare Bleu Marina

The leg from our marina in the south of Grenada to Carriacou was our first day-long passage in a very long time. We sailed most of the way, and got there before dark. We spent the night at Sandy Island, and after a short swim the next morning, we left for the Tobago Cays. We spent two nights in the Tobago Cays looking at turtles, and then moved on to Bequia, where we spent two nights. From there, we went to Marigot Bay in St. Lucia. We stayed on a mooring ball owned by the Capella resort for a few days, so we got almost all the benefits of a resort guest, such as free internet, swimming pool (with swim-up bar), restaurants, exercise room, shops, etc. We stayed for a week, before moving on to Rodney Bay, a little further to the north.

Tobago Cays Squall

Marigot Bay

Pool Day, Marigot Bay

We spent almost two weeks in Rodney Bay, where it rained almost every day, but on the few sunny days we had, we went hiking on the laughably tiny mountains on nearby Pigeon island, or snorkeling in their shadow. There was also a large inflatable splash park anchored off the beach where we injured ourselves and had a great time.

Perch

Floating Playground

On the rainy days, we entertained ourselves with Legos, video games, and school; while Mom entertained herself by going to the nearby Rodney Bay Mall and the gourmet grocery store. When the moon was full and the weather was calm, we set out for Bonaire, the first stop on the next leg of our 2016-17 Caribbean Tour.

Lego War

Grocery Run