Author Archives: Eli

Trip to Boquete

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

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

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

Cangilones de Gualaca

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

Cangilones de Gualaca

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

Rachel, Cangilones de Gualaca

Cangilones de Gualaca

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

Cangilones de Gualaca

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

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

Boys, Cangilones de Gualaca

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

Volcan Baru

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

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

Tree Trek, Boquete

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

Tree Trek, Boquete

Tree Trek, Boquete

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

Pair of Quetzals

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

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

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

Basalt Wall, Boquete

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

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

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

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

Mount Totumas

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

Cabaña, Mount Totumas

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

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

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

Bellbird Lodge, Mount Totumas

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

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

Front Porch

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

Bird Feeder

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

Monkey Watching

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

Howler Monkey

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

Monkeys

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

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

Waterfall

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

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

David

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

Front Runners

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

Los Pozos

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

Cartagena Vacation

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

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

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

Cartagena

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

Cartagena

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

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

Fruit Lady

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

Lunch

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

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

Castillo Tunnel

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

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

Making Chocolate

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

Waiting for the Bus

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

Underwater Bonaire

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

Flamingos

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

Dropoff

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

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

Pete

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

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

Salt Pier, Bonaire

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

Underwater Bonaire

Christmas Traditions

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

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

Sinterklaas

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

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

Zwarte Piet

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

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

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On the Road Again

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

Le Phare Bleu Marina

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

Tobago Cays Squall

Marigot Bay

Pool Day, Marigot Bay

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

Perch

Floating Playground

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

Lego War

Grocery Run

Tropical Depression

Let’s talk about storms for a minute. During our time on the boat, we have seen some varied and nasty weather (we have also seen some pretty good weather too, but I won’t waste your time on something so boring). We have seen towering water spouts come within less than a mile of us. We have had waves wash over our cabin top and flood the cockpit. We have endured torrential rain, hail, lightning storms (blue, white, and pink), 50-knot winds at sea, and 12-foot swells. Once, Dad slipped on ice that had formed on the deck during a record Florida winter. But so far, we have never faced a hurricane.

Waterspout

The monster that became hurricane Matthew started out as a tropical wave way out in the Atlantic Ocean. It was clear from early on that it was going to develop into a tropical storm, and it was headed straight for Grenada, our current place of residence. Hurricanes, or tropical storms for that matter, almost never swing this far south, so Grenada is considered outside the hurricane belt. This does not mean that Grenada doesn’t get whacked, it just doesn’t get whacked very often.

Hurricane Ivan in 2004 was the last major storm to hit Grenada. It killed 39 people, and devastated homes all over the island. The capital, St. Georges, suffered severe damage, and several notable buildings were damaged or destroyed. The entire island was left without electricity or running water, and it caused $1.1 billion in damage. The only good thing about Ivan (if you are a criminal, that is) was that the 17th century prison broke open during the storm, allowing many of the inmates to (briefly) escape.

Initial forecasts of tropical storm Matthew looked grim. It would either pass to the north of us, and hit the northern end of Grenada, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, or it would swing to the south of us, hit Trinidad and Tobago, and flood our marina with sustained high winds. The worst case scenario, however, would be if it went directly overhead and we got the winds from the eye wall. That would be bad. In anticipation of this, we began to scout out places to hole up the boat, as marina policy forbids catamarans from staying at the dock in the event of a hurricane. The ten mooring balls just outside the marina were a viable option. Attached to two eight-foot screws hydraulically driven into the bottom, as well as chain through a giant concrete block, the moorings weren’t going anywhere.

We also found a nice spot in Egmont Bay, right next door. Tied up against a wall of mangroves, we would be safe from the anticipated high winds. However, this option looked less and less appetizing, as in the days preceding the storm we watched more and more boats cram themselves into the bay. This seemed extremely foolish to us. The main danger would not be the high winds, but the notoriously poor holding in Egmont Bay. If even one boat broke loose, it would pin-ball around the harbor, cause considerable damage, and potentially break other boats loose as well. When it comes to storms in crowded bays, “safety in numbers” is a myth.

As Matthew approached, he began to swing to the north of us. The marina allowed us to stay in our slip, so we stayed. On September 27th, Matthew officially missed us. Despite all of our preparation, the worst we had to endure were two days of rain and squalls. The highest wind speed that we recorded was a good stiff breeze of 40 knots. Not enough to damage anything, but enough to make it very uncomfortable in our slip. We got a break from school, and played dominoes all day up at the restaurant. So all in all, Matthew was a bit of an anti-climax for us in Grenada. However, the same cannot be said for the rest of the Caribbean.

Soon after Matthew passed us, he underwent a drastic transformation. In only two days’ time, he rapidly became a full-fledged hurricane, and then a category 5 monstrosity with 160 mile-an-hour wind speeds, and an appetite for destruction. We watched, over the course of the week, as he plowed northward through the Caribbean. On October 4th, he made landfall in Haiti, with predictable results. Entire towns were wiped off the map, and transport and communication was disrupted throughout the region. Somewhere between 546 and 1332 people were killed, and thousands more left homeless. Later the same day, he also made landfall in eastern Cuba, wreaking more havoc. Matthew then proceeded northward through the Bahamas, causing well over $200 million in damage, and wrecking hundreds of buildings.

As if he hadn’t caused enough destruction already, Matthew headed towards Florida the next day. He swept up the east coast of the United States, causing widespread flooding and power outages. Most of his energy spent, Matthew, now a category 1, made one last tour, brushing Virginia and the Carolinas, before disintegrating off of Cape Hatteras on October 9th. During his stay in the U.S., Matthew caused $4-6 billion in economic losses; as well as the death of 46 people, one of which was the result of a heart attack where emergency services had closed down. This is in stark contrast to the huge loss of life in Haiti, and comparatively low monetary loss (close to $1 billion). All told, Matthew was around for only 17 days, but in that time, he caused $6.9 billion in damage, and killed over 1380 people, while leaving hundreds of thousands more homeless. Matthew has been dissipated for over a week, but in his wake remains a “tropical depression.”

Twilight Drive in Grenada

You are standing in front of a large yellow van parked on a high mountain road. You are tired and muddy from a four-mile hike through the jungle. It is past seven o’clock, and the sun is beginning to sink below the horizon. You and the other hikers pile into the van, and you take a window seat on the left side. The driver, aptly named Yellow Man, gets into the driver’s seat on the right side. He is wearing a yellow shirt, yellow pants, yellow socks and shoes, and a yellow rubber band in his long beard. He starts the engine and the van begins to roll down the slope. For no particular reason, you slide back the window and stick your head out in to the evening air.

The wind is warm on your face, carrying with it the smell of damp vegetation and, occasionally, goats. You also catch a faint whiff of rotting mangoes. Over the rushing air, you hear the almost-electronic peeping of thousands of tiny frogs in the jungle. The road winds through the mountains, looping back and forth through the valleys and slopes. Sometimes your view is blocked by a wall of volcanic stone, and sometimes the rainforest drops away, revealing the whole island spread out before you like a wrinkled green quilt.

You pass through a small town. The houses are painted all manner of colors: powder blue, bright pink, mango orange, and banana yellow. Reggae music blasts from a small pub where local men talk and play pool. Occasionally, a car rushes past in the opposite direction. Because you are seated on the left side of the van, you do not have to worry about your head being forcibly removed by on-coming traffic, but you do have watch out for branches sticking out into the road.

At one point, you pass a landfill. You smell it long before you see it in the fading light: the stench of burning rubber. The huge piles of garbage have been burning for years, rendering this beautiful valley entirely uninhabitable. You are very relieved as the van drives away, and start to breathe from your nose again.

The van gradually makes its way out of the mountains and into the capital, St. George’s. It is well past eight o’clock and the sun is long gone. The only light comes from the orange street lamps, and the van’s own headlights. By this time, your neck is very sore from holding it outside the window for over an hour. You briefly pull your head back into the vehicle, but you just can’t stand the inanity of the conversation from the back seat.

You are beginning to feel sleepy by the time the van drives through the marina gate. You hear the sound of tires crunching over gravel as the vehicle comes to a halt, and draw your head back through the window for the last time. Yellow Man kills the engine, hops out, and opens all the doors. The seventeen occupants of the fifteen-passenger van all tumble out. You gather up the bag of muddy shoes, and say good night to the other weary hikers. As you walk down the dock toward home, calypso music drifts across the water from faraway hills.

Taking the Heat

It is hot in Grenada. Hot, hot, HOT!  At mid-morning, with the door and windows closed, the temperature in the cabin would be around 99 degrees Fahrenheit. A good breeze brings the temperature within tolerable limits. At anchor, the trade winds provide a consistent source of…well, wind. However, tied to a dock in Port Louis Marina, the breeze is both blocked by a mountain and hitting us at the wrong angle. Cooking only compounds the problem. Unless you were born in the tropics, or the Sahara Desert, you will be unable to function efficiently.

We are pretty tough. Six years ago, we survived a summer in Boot Key Harbor, baked by the relentless sun and besieged by the relentless mosquitoes. We lived through that by spending the heat of the day lounging on the trampolines under a shade tent, doing nothing. Needful to say, now we’re older and have school and chores to do, so lounging all day is no longer a viable solution to our little problem. The frustrating thing is that we do have air conditioners capable of bringing the temperature below 85 degrees, and shore power is available. It’s just very, very expensive; 62 cents per kilowatt hour may not sound like much, but it adds up. We could run the generator all day, but that doesn’t bring the cost down much, and it’s annoying.

Despite the various roadblocks, we are winning the battle against the summer heat. Here are some of our strategies:

  1. Shade awnings. We have four large mesh awnings stretched over the cabin top and foredeck by fiberglass broomsticks, and held taut by a complex web of small-diameter lines. It may seem low-tech, but it really helps lower the temperature.
  2. Ice cream. Every week, when mom goes to the store down the road, she brings back a 1-gallon bucket of ice cream (along with the other groceries, of course). This doesn’t directly help keep the cabin cool, but it raises morale while temporarily lowering the body temperature.
  3. Breeze Boosters. This is a special type of wind scoop that does not require the constant use of a halyard for suspension. We have four, and position them over the bedroom hatches in an attempt to funnel whatever wind there might be in to the boat.
  4. Going to the pool. As a general thing, I do not like pools, and this marina’s pool is no exception. However, sometimes it’s just too hot to object, even if the water is lukewarm, cloudy, and feels like you are swimming in lubricating oil.
  5. A/C. We typically run the generator from 7 to 11 PM, to make water and power, so we also run the air conditioners. This counteracts the added heat from mom cooking dinner, and allows us to go to bed nice and cool (I like my room at a balmy 70 degrees Fahrenheit). We close up the boat, and keep it closed even when the A/C goes off, trying to keep the cold in.
  6. The poor man’s A/C. Take cold shower. Turn on fan. That simple.

If all these methods fail, a visit to the air conditioned marina bathroom, grocery store, or taxi tour will provide some relief until the sun goes down. In the tropics, you have to learn to take the heat.

Boiling Lake, Dominica

One of the reasons we stopped in Dominica, “the Nature Island,” was to do some hiking. We knew that Dominica had a boiling lake up in the volcanic mountains, and thought it sounded cool. However, it could only be reached by a steep 16-mile hike over rough terrain. Despite this, and the six-hour time limit, Mom, Aaron, Sarah, and I still wanted to go. Dad stayed home to work and keep an eye on Sam and Rachel, whose legs are too short for such a long hike.

Several days before, Mom had purchased a National Parks Pass, which was required to go hiking anywhere in Dominica. We also required a guide to help us navigate the somewhat-confusing paths, a driver to take us to the capital city of Roseau and up to the beginning of the hike, and an alarm clock to help us get up at 6 o’clock in the morning to start the day-long journey. I am typically a late-riser, so hauling my butt out of bed at such an early hour was tortuous. We then ate a quick breakfast and packed lunch, snacks, and water into three backpacks. We were then picked up and ferried ashore by a ‘boat boy’.

The boat boys are a gang of local men in small dinghies and paddle boards, armed to the teeth with fresh produce, and whose only purpose in life seems to be to cater to cruisers. They, among other things, brought fresh fruit to your boat, helped get you around town and plan expeditions, and also gave good river tours. They also served as a water taxi.

We were met at the dock by two local guys: our driver for the day, Anselm, and our trail guide, Francis. We got into the van, and took off. The drive to Roseau was a little over an hour long, and Anselm was apparently very comfortable at high speed, even on the twisty mountain roads. And all the while, Francis gave a running commentary on the history of the surrounding scenery.

The road ended where the hike began: at Titou Gorge. Titou Gorge is, well, a gorge. It sits right next to the beginning of the path, and the Trois Pitons River runs out of the mouth. Before it flows on down the valley, it forms a large shallow pool. Francis told us that it was possible to swim over a hundred feet back into the gorge to a waterfall, whose waters come from a fresh mountain lake several miles away. It sounded fun, even though the water was bitter cold and the average depth was 15 feet. After a short potty break, we hefted our packs, and set off after the guide into the jungle.

Boiling Lake Hike, Dominica

Each leg of the hike was entirely different. The first few miles were through lush, wet jungle. The slope was gentle, and water constantly dripped from the leafy canopy overhead, turning the dirt between the stair steps to mud. Everything was either green, like the leaves, or brown, like the mud. Occasionally, we had to cross cold mountain streams that ran across the path. We took the opportunity to refill our water bottles at a mountain spring bubbling out of the rock.

And then there were the stairs. More stairs than you can count. All up and down the mountains, somebody (or more likely several hundred somebodies) had secured split logs across the trail to form crude stair-steps. Francis assured us that the muddy and sometimes slippery steps were a considerable improvement over past years before the trail was maintained by the national parks system. Judging by the difficulty of some parts of hike, even with the stairs, the steeper areas must have been all but impassable.

The next part of the trek was much steeper. The trail wandered up the side of the second-tallest peak in the Morne Trois Pitons National Park, and so did we. Even on a nice day, the Pitons are usually blanketed in clouds, and this was not a nice day. As we hiked along a narrow ridge, I drew ahead of the others. Off to either side, the no-doubt astounding view was obscured by blowing clouds. Occasionally, as I took a short rest between flights of stairs, I could see snatches of another mountainside off to my left. The blowing mist had another effect: to fog up my glasses. Q: What do you get when you try and clean foggy glasses on a dirty shirt? A: Muddy glasses.

We took a break to eat some snacks at the top of the mountain (we assumed that it was the top of the mountain, because there were no more stairs leading up). Frances said that you could see the entire island from this vantage point, but all we could see was white, white, white. We were half way to the boiling lake, and we were a bit behind schedule. Francis had brought a thermos of ‘cocoa tea’, tea made from roasted cacao beans, sugar, and milk; in other words, home-made hot chocolate. He shared some with us.

Step three of the journey led us down the other side of the peak, and into the Valley of Desolation. It was very desolate. The rocks wore an odd mixture of colors, from white to yellow, and even green. As we carefully clambered down the rocky trail, we passed a cold spring, a hot spring, and a really hot spring. In several places, steam jetted out of invisible cracks in the rocks, adding to the freakishness of the landscape.

Valley of Desolation, Dominica

Francis found some white clay, and painted all of our faces (including his own) with intricate patterns. We spotted some lost French tourists that had apparently been too cheap to hire a guide. They asked Francis for directions to the Boiling Lake. Francis said that they could travel with us if they each paid him $50EC (about $20US). They grudgingly paid the bill, and we moved on.

Francis, Boiling Lake Hike, Dominica

Boiling Lake Hike, Dominica

The next and last leg of the expedition was somewhere between a hike and a climb. We gasped our way up several flights of stairs through more jungle, and scrambled up short cliffs and across lukewarm rivers trying not to get any more water in our already-soggy hiking shoes. We also passed a series of warm waterfalls and pools that our guide said we would go swimming in on our way back. Sarah, Aaron, and I drew ahead of everyone else, and so, after climbing up one last hillside, we reached the boiling lake first.

We were standing at the top of a cliff, with mountain behind us, and boiling lake before us. We wearily set our packs down by a rock, and went over to the edge to finally glimpse our objective. We heard faint bubbling noises coming from below, but we could see absolutely nothing through thick layer of mist–or was that steam? Several minutes later, Mom and the French people caught up, with Francis bringing up the rear. We sat on some handy rocks and ate our lunches. Francis was just making himself a special cigarette with “all natural smoking weed” when a soft breeze wafted away the steam cloud, revealing the lake in all its glory.

Boiling Lake, Dominica

It was surrounded on all sides by cliffs, except where a small stream ran out. The lake was about a hundred feet across, and an eerie milky bluish-gray color. And it actually was boiling. Right in the middle of the lake, the water bubbled and frothed like a pot on a stove, and steam rose from the surface of the water. A couple from Martinique, who had reached the lake before us, asked Francis if it was possible to go swimming in it. Francis asked them if they were out of their minds. We stayed by the lake for almost 45 minutes, enjoying the view and eating the last of the snacks, but when the fog rolled back in, we shouldered our packs, and started the long way back.

Boiling Lake Hike, Dominica

After about thirty minutes of steep jungle, we arrived at the hot waterfalls. We had been hiking in our bathing suits, so we just set down our packs, took off our muddy shoes, and climbed down into the pool at the base of the fall. It was so relaxing to sit in the warm rush of water cascading down the yellow rock after a long, damp hike. We washed off our war paint in the water, and generally enjoyed ourselves. But all good things must come to an end, and this was no exception. After ten minutes of sitting in the waterfall, we had to climb back out and put our shoes and packs back on, and get moving. And boy, was that wind cold.

The hike back through the Valley of Desolation was just as cool as the first time. If you listened closely, you could hear bubbling and boiling noises coming from underneath your feet. If the climb down from the peak was tough on the way down, the climb up was agonizing. Mom and the French people soon lagged far behind, with Francis staying with the stragglers. Aaron, Sarah and I waited up at the top for them, and when they eventually caught up, we started down. The trek through the jungle was longer than I remembered, but again, on the way up we weren’t extremely tired. About halfway down, it started to rain, but we didn’t mind. We stomped in the mud puddles that formed between the steps, trying to splash each other’s legs.

Tired, wet, and muddy, we eventually reached the bottom of the trail. We laid down our packs, and sat on a bench to wait for Mom and Francis. When they arrived, Mom joined us on the bench, and Francis went over to a small café. We went for a brisk swim in the ice-cold water of Titou Gorge, then we wearily lugged our packs for the last time the short distance to the van, where we were joined by Francis. I was so tired that I almost fell asleep on the way home, despite Anselm’s erratic driving. Back in Portsmouth, a boat boy ferried us back to Take Two. We were immediately accosted by the kids that had stayed home, asking all about our adventure. The day ended with warm showers, hot soup, and a good sleep.