Author Archives: Eli

Chips Ahoy

As you may (or may not) have gathered, we are no longer in Guatemala. We flew to the United States more than a month ago and have slowly been making our rounds among people we have missed on our long voyage. After hanging out with friends and family in Marathon, Naples, and Clearwater, we headed north. We worked our way up the east coast towards Maine, staying with various friends and relations along the way.

We were staying in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, at the home of some old cruising pals from s/v Ally Cat. We were at their house for about a week, and Massachusetts is a pretty interesting state from a tourist/field-tripper point of view. Mattapoisett is only a few minutes away from New Bedford, the old whaling town where Herman Melville wrote his famous novel, Moby Dick. Mattapoisett is also only a few minutes away from Cape Cod, home of our family favorite: Cape Cod Potato Chips.

A little research revealed that the factory tour was completely free, and that small bags of potato chips (also completely free) were available at the end. This, apparently, was enough to win the support of the crew, and we set out.

Driving through New England in September was, for obvious reasons, a totally different experience than driving through the summer jungles of Central America. It was sunny and a bit chilly, a novel combination for us, and we drove the Suburban with the sun-roof open. Some of the trees were beginning to change color. We drove over the Cape Cod Canal, which connects Cape Cod Bay with Buzzard’s Bay.

We eventually reached the factory. It wasn’t as large as I was expecting, only employing about 80 people. We signed in at the visitor’s desk, and put a little pin in Guatemala on the world map hanging on the wall. Then we were free to take the tour.

Cape Cod Potato Chips

The tour consisted of a long hallway with a number of large windows along one wall looking into the factory, affording spectacular vistas of large oily machinery, much of it inactive, and the occasional plume of steam in the background. Several plaques were spaced along the walls, offering insights into the various processes of chip-making.

There are only three ingredients in your original Cape Cod chip: salt, oil, and potatoes. Because potatoes are mostly water, it takes four pounds of potatoes to make one pound of crispy goodness. First, the potatoes are divested of their skins with a brush peeler, and inspected by hand. Then they are tossed into a slicing machine with a bunch of rapidly-spinning blades that slice the potatoes into thin rounds. They are then dumped into he fry-vats. Once thoroughly cooked, the chips are put into a centrifuge and spun at high temperatures to remove fat. The higher the temperature, the more fat is spun out. Then the chips are piped to the bagging machine, and sealed in their iconic bags. The bags are then pressure-tested. It was during this phase that we saw one of the bags violently explode, sprinkling its contents across the floor. Judging by the amount of chips already on the floor, this was not an entirely uncommon occurrence.

The hallway soon terminated at the shop, where we were given our complimentary bags of chips, each stamped with the time they were made that very morning. And of course, we bought a few extra party-size bags, including a brand-new flavor: Fresh Jalapeno-Infused. So all in all, it wasn’t a bad experience, though I personally was a little underwhelmed. But the day wasn’t over yet.

Nauset Light

We drove to the National Seashore, home of the Nauset Light, which just happens to be the lighthouse featured on the Cape Cod bags. We parked in a crowded and sunny parking lot perched above the dunes, with the famous lighthouse looming nearby. We took the obligatory tourist pictures with the lighthouse in the background, and then went to look at the ocean. The waves were large Atlantic rollers breaking just off the beach, perfect for body surfing, we thought. Except that the water looked icy-cold, and the wind was none-too-warm either. This didn’t stop many people; we observed a number of children playing in the sand or water, and some half-naked adults, who didn’t seem to know better, were sitting in beach chairs like it was a warm day in the tropics.

National Seashore

We did, however, see one thing that we would never have seen in the tropics: seals. Actual, honest-to-goodness seals. Two of them were swimming in the surf just off the beach. It was very interesting. Seals are also particularly interesting to Great White Sharks, which typically follow the seals south in the fall and winter.

For lunch, we went to a seafood restaurant aptly named “The Lobster Shanty”. We ate seafood typical of the area: fried clams, lobster rolls, fish n’ chips, and fish sandwiches. A rowboat filled with water was used for the storage of live Maine lobster. They looked smooth and drab compared to the Spiny Lobster we had been hunting just a few short weeks before.

Lobster Shanty

It was a good field trip. It was a nice drive, and a very pretty day, with good food involved. And now every time I eat Cape Cod Potato Chips, I’ll have a killer boast.

Go Big or Go Home

Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world. Weighing around 20 tons and reaching lengths of over 40 feet, they are bigger than any other currently-living species of fish or non-mammalian vertebrate. They are slow-moving filter feeders, eating krill, plankton, and other tiny sea creatures. Their gentle nature, graceful movements, and tremendous size make whale sharks one of the more majestic creatures on the planet. We swam with some.

Swimming with a Whale Shark

We had been in Roatan, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, for a little over a week, enjoying the excellent diving, and were making plans to leave for Utila. Mom mentioned that there were whale sharks in Utila, and would we be interested in taking a tour to see them while we were there? Would we?! I should think so! It sounded just like the sort of incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience that we try to collect.

Utila is one of the few places in the world where whale sharks can not only be found year-round, but can be found easily, as their migratory route takes them past the Bay Islands. Whale sharks are very rare, secretive, and shy, and as a result, very little is known about their life cycle, breeding patterns, or migrations.

We arrived in Utila a few days later, after a short half-day passage. The weather would be calm and sunny for only a few more days, so one of the first things we did was to sign up the whole family for a tour the next morning with Bush’s Bay Island Charters. The trip would start at eight, and we would be out “whale-sharking” for several hours.

We had just finished breakfast when our captain came by in a dive boat. His name was Denny, a local guy whose family had originally come from Louisiana and the Cayman Islands. We got our snorkeling gear and cameras together, and loaded up. After a quick fuel stop, Denny took us around to the north side of the island, along the edge of the drop-off. The sharp peaks of the Honduras mainland were clearly visible to the south, while in the north, we could see the hills of Roatan low on the horizon.

Denny and Jay, Looking for Whale Sharks

On the way, he told us a little bit about finding whale sharks. Whale sharks eat plankton, an extremally abundant commodity in this area of the ocean, so they should be able to go wherever they want. But they don’t. For some unknown reason, whale sharks follow the schools of tuna, which feast on the bait-fish, which, in turn, feast on the plankton. Whale sharks can almost always be found near a tuna boil, a place where a school of tuna feeds near the surface. Then it is a simple matter of locating the shark, and jumping in on top of it. There were already several dive boats out looking for tuna boils when we got around to the north side of the island.

We soon found such a boil, and Denny told us to jump. We pitched ourselves over the side. The water was deep, disappearing into inky blue-blackness far below us. Tuna swam around in the upper few feet, snapping up bait-fish. Then we saw the whale shark. It was huge, maybe twenty feet long, greyish-blue and covered with white spots. It was most definitely a shark, and not a whale. It wasn’t just the fin alignment, the gills, or the vertical tail, there was something distinctly un-mammalian about it. Oddly enough, it wasn’t the least bit frightening. Maybe it was the knowledge that they had no teeth. The shark seemed shy, and soon ghosted off into the depths.

Whale Shark

We got back in the boat, to look for the next boil. The sharks always seemed to be near the surface in the middle of a boil. Denny said that later in the afternoon, when the tide rose, they would become less skittish, sometimes letting snorkelers swim with them for 30 minutes or more.

By this time, the other dive boats had caught on, and were beginning to arrive. At the next boil, we were joined by a half-dozen other snorkelers. We didn’t mind; the pool was big enough for all. In total, we made five dives, with about 15 minutes in between. We saw a whale shark on each dive, sometimes two at a time. A few were over 30 feet long. They seemed more annoyed than scared at our presence. They would swim around for a few minutes, then go deep. We brought along a couple of cameras, and I got lots of video footage of whale sharks swimming majestically away from the obnoxious snorkelers.

Whale Shark Tail

Eventually, it was time to go. We climbed back into the boat, and Denny headed us for home. Rachel, justifiably a little leery of swimming in ridiculously-deep water with ridiculously-large fish, had elected to stay in the dive boat the whole time, but had still seen some from the surface. As for me, I’m happy I took the plunge. It will stand out as one of the highlights of our trip. If I’m going to swim with sharks, they might as well be 30 feet long.

Stingray City

We came to the Cayman Islands to haul the boat out for an insurance survey, and also for the supposedly-stunning underwater landscape. We got the survey sorted out the first week. and broke out of the marina to experience the rest of the island. One thing many people strongly recommended we check out was Stingray City.

We did a little research, read through sickeningly-cheesy articles in tourist brochures, and talked to other people. Apparently, it all started as a bunch of fishermen in the early 1900s, who always cleaned their catch in the same place every day. Before long, the local stingrays caught on, and began showing up for the daily banquet. Not long after that, the local tourist industry caught on, and began running tours to see the stingrays.

Sting Ray

There are two sites: The Sandbar, which is shallow enough for non-swimmers, and the actual Stingray City, which lies in 12 feet of water and is hailed as the #1 shallow diving spot in the world. Both are frequented by dozens of “gentle giants” in search of an easy meal. Dive masters and tour guides throw squid in the water, and when the “lovable creatures” show up, the tourists throw themselves in to “cozy up”. Supposedly, stingrays only sting when under attack, but I would think that getting lifted out of the water, kissed, or ridden would register as attack. But apparently, not enough people have been stung to ruin the fun for everyone else.

From our anchorage, we couldn’t see the famous place, but we could see the mass of boats anchored on top of it (and almost, it seemed, each other). It looked awfully crowded, and we generally avoid large crowds. But Grandma Mary flew down for a week, and we were going to be sailing around anyway, so we figured, what the heck, and went. It was early evening when we anchored nearby, and all but a couple speedboats were left. We swam over.

Sarah Swimming with Stingray

There certainly were heaps of stingrays, some of the largest I’ve ever seen. The stingrays would get close enough to touch, but didn’t hang around after they realized you didn’t have any squid. It was still pretty cool, but not “magical” and we were not “mesmerized by the antics and charm of these fascinating creatures” as advertised. It seemed like just a bunch of ordinary stingrays. Of course, I doubt that the average tourist has ever seen a stingray, so the chance to touch a wild one must seem exotic and “unforgettable.” The stingrays themselves were a diverse lot. One of them, a particularly large black one, had no tail. Another had a gash that split its face almost to its eye. Most of them were buried in sand, trying to sleep.

The sun went down, and I swam home. I enjoyed it about as much as I normally enjoy an early-evening swim. It seemed to me that the whole stingray thing was hugely overrated.

Stingray City at Sunset

The next day, we returned. It was quite a beautiful day, with cloudless skies. The Sandbar was thickly-coated with tour boats and their camera-wielding cargo. Mom, Rachel, and Mary swam over to look at the stingrays, and the rest of us (except for Aaron, who stayed on the boat) swam over to the reef. The coral, for the most part, was bleached, but there were quite a lot of fish. We saw a number of ridiculously large snapper, which were so docile, I could easily have shot one with a short pole spear (which is totally illegal, of course). We returned to the boat. Mom, Mary, and Rachel were still off playing with the stingrays, so we just swam around the boat, reluctant to mix with the throngs of tourists. I absently began stacking rocks and lumps of dead coral into a big heap. Sam and Sarah joined in the fun, and the heap soon turned into a cairn, and the cairn into a tower. We decided it was done when it was as tall as I was.

Eli's Underwater Cairn

Mom, Rachel, and Mary had since come back, with lots of photos. We picked up the hook, and left the zoo behind us. So much for Stingray City, the island’s premier underwater attraction.

Mary, Adventure Grandma

Adventure Grandma!

San Blas

The San Blas islands have been on the cruising list, or so I’m told, since before we bought the boat. They certainly do seem list-worthy, with clear blue-green water, miles of reef, picturesque palm-tree-studded islands, and friendly natives. We set out from Linton Bay Marina after about a month of stocking up and waiting for weather, and sailed east to spend a few weeks in the San Blas archipelago.

San Blas consists of hundreds of islands and islets on the eastern end of Panama’s Caribbean coast. They are quite beautiful, not hilly or mountainous like Bocas del Toro or the mainland, but flat spits of land covered in white sand and palm trees. Many of them have thatch huts, and dugout canoes, called ulus, pulled up on the beach.

Parting Shot, San Blas

The islands are part of the Comarca de Guna Yala, a large province that covers about a quarter of Panama’s land area. They and the surrounding jungles are home to the Guna Yala, a peaceful, independently-governed indigenous people that mostly live as they have lived for centuries (minus the TVs). They are best known for their molas (intricately embroidered, quilted handicrafts), which they are-all-too happy to sell to cruisers and tourists.

For the first few days, we moved around a lot. We would anchor in one place, stay there a day or two, and go somewhere else. On our second night, while in the Hollandes Cays, we turned on the underwater light. We saw large fish circling the light, and decided to take a night swim (well, those that were brave enough). I took along the spear gun, just in case. Spearfishing in the San Blas is not strictly legal for visitors, but the prohibition is not enforced. As it turns out, the circling fish were huge schools of permit. Shooting one would be easy. That didn’t stop me from missing on the first try, but after several false starts and five minutes of unwanted reloading practice, I got one. This was only the second time I had ever shot a fish, and the first time with our gun. It was a good shot too, right through the brain. I hauled my catch up the ladder, and Dad gutted it. We put it in the icebox whole for later consumption. (We later heard there’s a resident caiman in that same island group. )

Eli Fish Killer

There were two major problems with an extended stay in the San Blas: internet and food. The cell service we were able to get was sketchy at best, and nonexistent at worst. Dad needs copious amounts of data for his work, and if Dad can’t work, then we can’t stay. Simple as that. We went to Cartí, one of the more populated group of islands near the mainland, where Dad bought a sim card and Mom bought some groceries. As long as we stayed within range of a cell tower, internet wasn’t such a big problem, but it remained patchy.

Food was another issue. We have vast stores of mixed grain, beans, and freeze-dried goodies and ingredients, so we didn’t starve, but luxuries such as cheese and lunch meat quickly disappeared. Mom made bread every day (which was great), and we ate a lot of peanut butter and rice-and-beans (which was not great). We received a partial re-supply when our friends on Jubilee arrived, bringing with them various rare foodstuffs, like butter and cream. Once or twice, Mom and Dad took the dinghy to a nearby town to buy food. The selections at the various “grocery stores” that we encountered were limited, apparently, to flour, onions, chicken, and eggs. On one shopping excursion, Mom returned with a chicken, which had been thoughtfully plucked, and 90 eggs. We had to remove the head and feet of the chicken, and about half of the eggs were bad. Mom was always trying to sift the weevils and their larvae out of the flour. I told her that it wouldn’t matter once it was in the bread, but she wouldn’t listen.

We stayed in the West Lemon cays for a week or so, at a place where Dad could get internet, and we could wait out the Christmas winds. We didn’t do much beyond school, chores, and the daily jump-n-swim. It was wonderfully boring. Almost every day, Gunas came up to the boat, selling molas, fish, or lobster.

Sailing Ulus

When the Christmas winds ended, we sailed around aimlessly for a while, before settling near Green Island. The swimming was much better, despite there reputedly being a crocodile in the island group. There were several good reefs nearby, with deep coral walls. On sunny afternoons, Dad and I would go out to the reef and clean out all the lionfish with a pole spear. We got 11, enough for a meal.

A week before we were to leave, we were pleasantly surprised when our friends on Nakamakula arrived and anchored ‘next door.’ We had met them in Shelter Bay, and their three small girls were ecstatic at the prospect of seeing Rachel again. We hung out with them for a few days, then headed west to get ready to sail back to Linton Bay.

The next day, we left the San Blas. After a short but miserable passage, we arrived back at Linton Bay Marina. With the A/C running and sandwich meat in the fridge, it’s hard to miss being anchored in an exotic location with no modern conveniences, but I managed it somehow.

San Blas

Escape from Red Frog

Well, here we are, back in the saddle again. Not literally, obviously. After almost exactly nine months at the dock, we are finally moving again. Of course, saying good-bye to all our new friends was hard, but we’ll probably come back… someday. Aaron and I got paid for all those months at Agua Dulce, and it amounted to quite a lot. The Woods had known that we were leaving soon, and threw us a see-you-later party a few days before, so we got all our farewells in. Leaving a place where you have made friends is always tough, but it was time.

Red Frog Marina

(View of Red Frog Marina from the Wood’s house at Agua Dulce)

We first went out to Isla Popa, and had a goodbye dinner with some more friends. We spent the night, then motored all day to Escudo de Veraguas, a crinkly-edged island to the east. We went snorkeling the next morning at the “mermaid lagoon,” in the words of a certain small crew member.

Escudo de Veraguas

Then we took an over-night passage to the canal zone. We motored up the Rio Chagres as far as the spillway, and spent the day kayaking, fishing, and trying to spot crocodiles.

Rio Chagres

The next morning, we picked up the hook and motored past anchored container ships to Shelter Bay Marina. It is a popular hangout for cruisers getting ready for the canal transit, and there were plenty of other kids. We went there because of its proximity to the canal and Panama City.

Port of Colon

(Port of Colon, Caribbean side of the Panama Canal)

Next up: we take another overland field trip to the capital, visit some museums, do some shopping, and see the famous Panama Canal before moving on to Linton Bay in time to meet friends for Thanksgiving…

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.