Author Archives: Eli

Hiking with Jungle Jerry

Life here in the Rio Dulce has settled into a daily rhythm, and things have begun to move in a sedate and predictable manner. Life is steady, possibly even monotonous. Weekdays, for the most part, follow this general pattern: get up early, do school for five hours in the tropical heat, call it quits and play basketball in the afternoon, go for a swim, take a shower, play video games or watch an episode of Star Trek before dinner, eat, go to bed. Weekends are a little different, but are still predictable. On Saturdays, Aaron and I go volunteer at an orphanage, and work our butts off for most of the day. We are often accompanied by Deon, a friend of ours from South Africa. We work in the dirt until the afternoon, when Jerry (the house father) drives us home. Then we swim and play for the rest of the day. Sundays, we have a pancake breakfast and goof off in the afternoon; sometimes Dad takes us wakeboarding on Lake Izabal.

Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with a repetitive week, but for people who are used to changing locations every few months, it can get a little dull. So we leap at any opportunity to break the trend, get out of the boat (and school) for a day, and do something awesome. Our marina in the Rio Dulce is in the shadow of a national park on a large mountain covered by lush rainforest. Our friend Jerry from the orphanage where we volunteer is often lovingly referred to as “Jungle Jerry” because he leads rainforest hikes on occasion. We asked him to take us into the jungle and he agreed to take a day off and show us a part of Guatemala we might not otherwise experience.

Jungle Jerry and Deon

I didn’t quite know beforehand what it would be like. All I knew was the general area where we would be hiking (in the hills further down the river), how we would get there (in Jerry’s little SUV), and what time I had to wake up (7 a.m.). The early hour was possibly the least pleasant aspect of the outing, but it was well worth it. We packed lunches, snacks, spare articles of clothing, a camera, and water bottles in two backpacks. We put on sturdy shoes and hopped in the dinghy. Dad drove us over to the restaurant where Jerry would be picking us up. On the way, we grabbed Deon. Jerry was waiting for us; Mom, Aaron, Deon and I piled into his vehicle and drove off.

We drove over the bridge and soon left the noise, chaos, and urban squalor of Fronteras behind in favor of the tranquil scenes of pastoral squalor that comprise much of Guatemala. Jerry told us entertaining stories about his childhood in Guatemala and his life in the U.S., including his time in the Marines. Suddenly we turned off the highway and became off-road explorers. Such radical changes in terrain are quite common here. One minute, you can be driving down a well-paved road with flat pasture-land on either side, and the next, through dense hilly rainforest on a muddy track, rattling your teeth out as the road dips and bumps over rocks. Jerry’s vehicle is a hardy off-roader, an Isuzu Amigo, the sort of car you get when you cross a jeep wrangler with a pickup truck and drive it around for a few years on bad roads. It has seats for five, but by Jerry’s count, it can carry up to ten people (an assertion we put to the test on one occasion). It has little in the way of comfort, but she’s got it where it counts.

We drove for almost an hour on prodigiously bad roads, through two shallow rivers, and deep into the hills. The land near Rio Bonito was verdant and cultivated with palm oil plantations which rose up on either side, covering the road with a green arched roof, with the overgrown trunks forming ranks of shaggy green pillars. We stopped and disembarked. Jerry took his vehicle a ways down the road to park, and came back with two local guides and a few scrawny dogs. In single file, we followed the guides (and dogs) off the road.

Palm Oil Plantation, Rio Bonito

At first the path went through the palm plantation, and the ground was muddy and dotted with cow manure. Then the orderly rows of palm trees ended, and we began to ascend. The path became narrower, and the guides up ahead hacked away at the encroaching vegetation with machetes. The dogs ran off into the woods to hunt. Sounds of their chase would echo back to us from time to time. The trees were very thick, and covered with vines and moss. The slowly-rising ground was split by roots and covered with fallen leaves. The air was humid and heavy, but not too hot as the day was mercifully overcast. But the path snaked ever onward and upward, and it wasn’t long before we were perspiring like professionals.

The trail went up and up. It was often very narrow, cutting into the side of the wooded hills. The sound of insects filled the air. Aaron and I traded off the big backpack every now and then; Mom, puffing behind us like the Little Blue Engine, carried her own small pack. After about an hour of trudging upward, enveloped in our own personal banks of fog, we reached the top of the hill. We waited for Mom to catch up, then we trudged down the other side. The other side was lot steeper, and we found ourselves stumbling and sliding as often as walking.

Jungle Hike, Rio Bonito, Guatemala

Before long, we reached a broad, shallow, and fast-moving stream. We took off our shoes and waded across, then continued upstream. I didn’t catch on to the fact that this was a waterfall hike until I could see the waterfall (although the name “Rio Bonito” should have cued me in). And what a waterfall! It rushed out from a wide gap between two great piers of black rock thrust out from the sides of the valley, and tumbled into a series of deep pools, each turquoise pool hidden from the next. We took off all unnecessary clothing items and began the exploration of the falls.

Waterfalls near Rio Bonito 2

The water was frigid and fast-moving. Diving into the turbulent pools, we discovered tunnels that ran under the rock. We scaled the rock faces, swam and climbed up the curved canyon, and found more pools and falls. It was otherworldly—like something from a movie set. Mom followed us up the first canyon, then swam back to relax and eat lunch. One of our Mayan guides hunted snails by the rocky pools, his faithful dogs following him around, leaping from rock to rock over swift-moving water.

Mauricio with his Perros

Climbing up icy waterfalls in your underwear may be fun, but it gets pretty tiring after a while. So we swam over to the small rock island downstream where we had dumped all our stuff. We opened our weighty backpacks and lightened them a little. After a delicious lunch of sandwiches and carrot sticks, we donned our clothes and shoes, and plunged back into the jungle. The way back seemed easier, probably because all that uphill we did at the beginning was now mostly downhill. Now that we weren’t straining to get up the hill, we were free to enjoy the surrounding wilderness in relative comfort. As an added plus, the sun had finally come out, bathing the forest in a pleasant, green, leaf-filtered light and warming us after our brisk swim.

The trail ended, but we continued down the road toward the village where Jerry had parked his vehicle. The palm plantation dissolved abruptly into rolling sun-drenched cow pasture. The walk to the village was long, and we talked while we ambled, with the dogs barking and chasing cows in the background.

Palm Oil Plantation

The village was small and indigenous, something I usually associate with grime and poverty, but this place was immaculately clean. Most of the buildings were elevated on stilts, with hand-cut board walls and palm-thatched roofs. Colorful blankets fluttered from clothes lines. Hammocks hung on porches. Women washed clothes down at the river. It was very National Geographic. Jerry told us that when he first visited the village, the children were afraid of Gringos eating them (a threat parents made to get good behavior). Apparently, they were still afraid, because there were none in sight. Just tiny Mayan eyes peeping out at us from window cracks. We reached the car. The guides produced coconuts and speedily lopped the tops off with machetes, then handed them out as refreshments. We sipped the coconuts, tipped the guides, and drove home.

Village of Rio Bonito

The hike showed us a Guatemala we had not seen before; long ago, the entire country must have been like this, blanketed completely by trees and undergrowth. Now, the landscape is a patchwork of cattle-strewn grassland, dense groves of banana trees, and orderly ranks of rubber-trees or palm-oil plantations, the rainforest held back by machetes and a few feeble strands of barbed wire. But the jungle remains, thick, dark, and lush, lurking just beyond the property lines.

Mayan Ruins in Guatemala

We had been back in Guatemala for a few weeks after our trip to the United States when we decided the Mayan ruins nearby sounded like an interesting and educational way to pass some time while our boat was hauled out. The house on the Rio we had rented was reserved by another group for three days in the middle of our stay, so we had to find somewhere to go. Why not Tikal? And that is how I found myself climbing into another bus privado with only my backpack and a good book. For a sailing blog, I spend an awful lot of time writing about being on a bus.

We drove for several hours, at last alighting in the town of El Remate. We had rented another Airbnb house, a well-appointed affair that was part of a nearby hotel. We got our tours to Yaxhá (another ruin in the Petén region) and Tikal lined up for the next two days and were just sitting down to a relaxing lunch at the hotel restaurant when disaster struck. Dad had asked a friend to go check on his batteries while we were gone, and he discovered a serious problem. This was very bad news. Dad had to return to the Rio early the next day to work on the battery bank. The good news was that the rest of us would stay to see the ruins.

Our tour to Yaxhá was slated for the afternoon and evening. We filled the intervening time by reading about Mayan history, playing video games, and eating at a nearby restaurant. Then it was time to go. Our driver and tour guide were waiting for us at the hotel reception desk, along with a turismo van. Our guide’s name was Nathaniel, a young guy who used to play soccer (futbol) on the national team. He and Mom talked continuously during the hour-long ride to Yaxhá. The road ran through the Guatemalan countryside: fields, dwellings, roadside produce stands, cow pastures, and jungle.

The city of Yaxhá is located at the end of a loooong dirt road stretching through the hilly wilderness. At the end of the road is a pyramid. It is one of the smaller ones, only about fifty feet high. The stone was weathered, and plants were growing on its stepped sides. That looked like all there was; there was no ruined city in evidence, only thick, hilly jungle. Thick, exceptionally steep hilly, jungle. Wait a minute. Nathaniel informed us that the suspiciously steep hills were the ruins. But they were covered with trees! Our guide explained that the pyramids and temples were extremely overgrown, but there was definitely a city buried under the forest. Over 500 structures’ worth. Excavation and restoration had begun in the 1950s and was still underway. Nathaniel showed us around.

Mayan Pyramid, unexcavated

The path wound through the invisible city, skirting the buried pyramids. Howler and spider monkeys swung in the trees above. It seemed like a typical rainforest hike. Then we would come around a corner, and a cluster of stone buildings would emerge. Nathanial told us they were palaces. The ruins looked like sets from an Indiana Jones movie. The city was built near a large lake that provided transportation to the other nearby cities. There was even a temple on an island in the lake.

The Mayan empire once stretched from the Yucatán peninsula in southern Mexico to northern Honduras and El Salvador, completely encompassing Guatemala. Which is why Guatemala is home to some of the most spectacular Mayan ruins in the world (in addition to quite a large population of Mayans, who are still around despite efforts by the Spanish conquistadors to obliterate them).

Ruins at Yaxha, Guatemala

Some of the buildings we were looking at dated from as early as 600 B.C., the middle of the Mayan Pre-classic period, though structures were often built in layers, pyramids becoming larger with each successive renovation. The Mayan civilization lasted from around 2000 B.C. to well into the sixteenth century, and thrived from around 750 B.C to 900 A.D. Not long after, the civilization went into decline, and collapsed in the following centuries for reasons unknown. The last vestiges of any organized civilization were systematically destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors after their arrival in the 1500s, however, there remains to this day a large number of people of Mayan descent that inhabit Guatemala, Mexico and Belize, and still carry on many of the traditions.

During their multi-millenial dominance of Mesoamerica, the Mayans developed an advanced system of writing, mathematics, and astronomy, in some areas predating and surpassing all other early civilizations. Their mathematical skill was far ahead of contemporary peoples, and their hieroglyphic writing was the most complex of any pre-Columbian civilization. Their polytheistic belief system had much in common with other Mesoamerican peoples, including complicated rituals, sacred basketball games, and human sacrifice. Despite efforts by Spanish settlers to convert the people to Catholicism and destroy the original traditions and practices, Mayans still come to worship and make offerings at sacred places. The ashes of their recent fires can be seen in front of many of the pyramids (like the altars in the main plaza at Tikal).

Mayan Ruins at Yaxha

We wandered around Yaxhá for several hours. Most of the structures were still buried, but we could see what once had been there. The sheer number of pyramids was surprising. You would expect that constructing something so large would be an expensive, laborious, and time-consuming endeavor, but there seemed to have been no shortage of cheap labor in the ancient city, because the ponderous edifices were liberally planted throughout the area. Basically, every hill was made of cut stone blocks under all the dirt and trees. I still have trouble believing it. Many of the excavated structures had wooden stairs running up the side, put in place by the national park system so that people could ascend to the tops, and a brisk climb afforded wonderful views of the surrounding jungle, punctuated with the tops of other pyramids.

The (literal) high point of the tour was when we climbed up a temple that towered 100 feet above the city. It was late evening by then, and the sun was hidden behind a thick layer of clouds. We were joined by several other tour groups, all eagerly awaiting the imminent sunset. It was, after all, a sunset tour. We were not disappointed. The sun sank through the grey clouds, and for a few moments illuminated the jungle, sky, and stone with its ruddy brilliance. Then it slipped behind the mountains, leaving only the lava-colored clouds above to mark its passage.

Sunset, Yaxha, Guatemala

We walked back to the bus in the dusky shade of the forest canopy, listening to the eerie roars of the howler monkeys in the distance. So that was Yaxhá. The Mayan ruins were cool. They were remarkably well-preserved; except for the fact that they were often still half-way inside of a hill. It was hard to believe that they were the oldest man-made things I’ve ever seen.

Tikal, which we toured early the next day, was basically more of the same, only on a grander scale. We were pretty tired from the evening hike the day before, and I had a very pleasant sleep… only to be rudely awakened at the ungodly hour of 5:30 to get ready to go to. The van had arrived by the time we were all packed up and semi-conscious. It was the same van, in fact, and our guide was Nathaniel again. I confess to sleeping on the ride to Tikal, an incredibly difficult feat considering the bumpiness of the road. Tikal is a much larger and more well-known city, much more frequented by tourists. As such, there is more tourist-related infrastructure, like a large parking lot, museum, bathrooms, and trinket-vendors. Fortunately, this was only around the visitor center. Once we started walking into the jungle, all of that disappeared.

Visitor's Center, Tikal

Once the most powerful city in the Petén basin, Tikal was abandoned in the 10th century. At its height in the Late Classic period, the city was home to possibly millions of people, and its suburbs, satellite cities, and fortifications extend miles and miles into the jungle. Only a tiny fraction of Tikal’s hundreds of buildings have been excavated, but even that is impressive. The vast majority of the city is still immersed in the forest. Recent technological advances have allowed archaeologists to discover that the Mayan infrastructure and population in the Petén region was much more extensive than previously thought. Using LIDAR technology (Light Detection And Ranging, basically like radar with lasers), archaeologists have been able to analyze the earth’s surface beneath tree cover, virtually peeling away the jungle to see what lies underneath. Recent LIDAR surveys of the area have revealed thousands of buildings, roadways, pyramids, and terraces, indicating that many of the scattered ruins were actually part of a vast urban sprawl that covered the Guatemalan lowlands.

This is not evident at ground-level. The excavated sites are isolated from each other by the ever-present Guatemalan jungle. Nathaniel led us on a hike to the first cluster of buildings. The buildings in Tikal fall into three basic categories: there are the palaces, which are stone apartment blocks with fantastically tiny recesses for sleeping, and then there are the giant pyramids, with either a temple or platform for making astronomical observations on top, and there are the other buildings serving various, sometimes-undiscernible purposes.

Where the Mayan Sleeps Tonight, Tikal

The most impressive area was the Grand Plaza, the beautifully-restored heart of the city. It was a vast green courtyard with two towering temples facing each other, bordered by the North and Central Acropolis. The entire area was well-maintained and accessible. The two pyramids were unsafe to climb on, but the rest of the nearby ruins were free game. We ran around and explored the two acropolises. I was disappointed to find graffiti etched into the stone walls inside many of the palaces.

Main Plaza, Temple and Palace, Tikal

Nathaniel showed us something cool: when you stand in the center of the plaza and clap your hands, the echo from the pyramid stairsteps sounds exactly like the call of the Quetzal. The Quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala, was considered to be sacred in many indigenous traditions, and the pyramid stairs were constructed intentionally to make that noise. Now how did they figure out how to do that?

Moving on, we saw several more complexes and climbed several more pyramids. It was like a repeat of the day before. Jungle trails. Giant stone buildings emerging from a hillside. Heck, we even recognized a number of tour groups we saw at Yaxhá. Also like at Yaxhá, our tour ended with a pyramid climb and a nice view. This final pyramid, Templo IV, was a little different, though. It is the tallest pyramid in all of Mesoamerica. We made the long climb up a wooden staircase to the top. The vista of the treetops and surrounding city was astounding, but also familiar: it was where George Lucas filmed the scene from Star Wars: Episode IV,  when the Millennium Falcon flies in for a landing on Yavin 4. We spent some time up there, took some pictures, and climbed down. We stopped for a typical Guatemalan lunch (chicken, rice, beans, and tortillas) and went home soon after.

Mayan Ruins of Tikal, Guatemala

Our trip to the Mayan ruins was very interesting, and probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Other people told us that the ruins in Mexico and elsewhere in Guatemala were inferior to Yaxhá  and Tikal, and that those two cities were the most impressive and pristine. Of the two, I think Yaxhá was my favorite, both because of its remoteness, and because of its natural beauty. I like the idea of there being an entire city lost under the creep of nature and time. But of course, being able to see it all, and to imagine what it was like when it was new is also pretty cool.

We returned to El Remate and spent the rest of the day at the house, playing games and eating pizza. We took the bus home the next morning. On the long drive back to the Rio, I wondered just how many of the hills by the side of the road concealed ancient temples, and how many of the people we passed were descended from their builders.

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.