Saturday, February 28, 2009

A treat and a bird



25 to 26 Feb, 2009 - Mirador de Quetzales, Costa Rica

After all the camping, we decided to treat ourselves and stay somewhere a little more special, Mirador de Quetzales. A little more expensive than our usual sort of thing, but with the bonus that it is one of the few places where you are almost guaranteed to see quetzales in the wild. They are fairly small, and stay quite high, so excuse the quality of the snaps, but they are very beautiful birds.


A quetzal
A quetzal
A quetzal, looking somewhat like a Christmas decoration in his red and green. Those magnificent tail feathers were much sought after in times gone by.


Wilderness



17 to 24 Feb, 2009 – Puerto Jiménez & Parque Nacional Corcovado, Costa Rica

Sorry about the delay in blog update, but we were in the wilderness. Lots of animals, but no internet.

Parque Nacional Corcovado is on the Osa Peninsula, which has few residents, a couple of “towns”, and thousands of hectares of protected rainforest in national parks and private reserves. The jewel is Corcovado. We reserved a few days in advance, and were lucky to get a reservation for the campsites, as the daily numbers are very limited and strictly enforced. We met many who only got to spend one or two nights as they reserved late. We spent five nights.

Day 1 - Arrive at the park (Los Patos). This is not as straightforward as it sounds. Take the 5:00 a.m. bus from Puerto Jiménez to La Palma, where you can get a coffee before heading off on your first 14 km of walking. Remember, your pack will be extra heavy today, as you will be carrying 5 days worth of food and fuel, including some fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as tinned fish, etc, etc. After a few hours, find a nice spot for breakfast, somewhere along the road. A highlight of the first day is soon after breakfast. Two km down the road, you will be delighted to remember that you have left a bag at your breakfast spot. Nothing valuable, but containing things you don't want to face replacing, and might need in the next week anyway. Luckily, you will have your spouse with you, who can sit with the big packs while you go back for said bag, hoping it will still be there, finding it, but effectively adding another 4 km to your walk. After 7 km (or is that 11 now?) the trail becomes a 4wd track up a very rocky river bed. Here, you may get your lucky break for the day, being picked up by a park ranger on his way in, meaning you only have to cross the river twice on foot, instead of the total 20 odd times. Arriving early at Los Patos, and setting up your tent, you can now compensate for the unwalked kilometres by visiting a fantastic swimming hole at the base of a waterfall – 2.5 km each way, steep up and down twice. Cook dinner, eat, and go to bed ridiculously early (7:00) because it is pitch dark already.

Day 2 – Walk from entrance to centre of park (Los Patos to La Sirena). Set alarm for 5:00, and promptly make your coffee, eat breakfast, pack your tent, and set out. Today you will cover 20 km, and your pack will in fact be heavier, despite having eaten some food, as you will probably need every drop of the 7 litres of water you are carrying (3.5 each). The first 6 or 7 km will be the hardest, rising up to the highest point of the day early, and then rising and falling. Don't forget to admire the magnificent primary rainforest with its 50 metre trees. Stop to photograph bugs and birds and flowers, but try not to let too much time pass with your pack on the ground and the camera in your hand. Once you finish the ridges, the remaining 14 km will be basically flat. For quite a while, you will still happily scan the woods and trail for wildlife. The large birds (including hawks), the very exciting deer sighting, and the family of coati will help you maintain that enthusiasm. However, be warned, towards the end of the walk, you will stare straight down at the trail, plodding on, waiting for that wondrous moment when you burst from the jungle into the camp. Thankfully, that moment will arrive, and not too long after lunch time. Amazingly, before dinner, you will find that you have enough energy to go for a pre-sunset walk to the river to try and spot more wildlife.

Day 3 – Explore the trails around La Sirena. On this third day, you should once again hit the trails early, as you may catch some early animals. Large groups of monkeys (all four species which live in Costa Rica) will entertain you at various times. When you get back to camp for your late breakfast, a delightful family of endangered squirrel monkeys will play, fight, and eat in the trees opposite your table. After lunch, a canoe trip awaits, allowing you to view rainforest life from the river perspective. You won't miss the crocodiles, but you could miss the sharks. That's right, the bull sharks actually come up the river and live happily in the fresh water. Minutes before sunset, you will see your first tapir. A fair way away, but clear in the fading light, as it gets a drink before disappearing into the vegetation for the night. Yet another early night awaits you.

Day 4 – Another day of local trail exploration around La Sirena. On your 4th day, there will be no need for you to set an alarm, as the Howler Monkeys will be in the trees right next to the camp, and they have been instructed to wake you at 4:00 with howling and screeching and general carry-on. The morning walks will be on the same trails as the previous day, but the wildlife will be very different. The first highlight animal will be the ocelot – unfortunately you will only see it for about 10 seconds and it will be gone before you can get the camera out, but don't worry, your photos would not have turned out, because at 6:30 in the rainforest, nothing but shapes can be captured. However, an hour or so later, when you find a tapir in the brush, be prepared to take many photos. Not only will the light be significantly better, but the tapir will be very compliant and will allow you to take as many photos as you feel you need. Make sure you leave some space on your memory card for photos of the peccaries in the afternoon. These wild pigs will also allow you to come quite close before moving along. Unfortunately, your camera will not capture the smell of onions that will accompany them. A super early night will set you up for a super early start tomorrow.

Day 5 - Walk from centre of park to exit (La Sirena to La Leona) – This morning, be ready to hit the trail at 4:30. This has two advantages. The first is it allows you to cross the first river at low tide (knee deep, as opposed to waist deep at high tide). The second is that you will complete the longest beach stretch before the sun gets too high and makes you feel sick by beating directly down on you. Today, you will be provided with two French walking companions, helping you to not notice how much walking you are actually doing. (By the way, it is 16 km, and although your packs will be their lightest, a fabulous offset will be the walking on the beach – Great work out on the soft sand!) Still, keep your eyes open when the trail ducks back in to the trees, as the animal spotting is not over. Arriving at La Leona before lunch, have a coffee, a swim in the sea, before doing some little walks along the trails local to this final station. Tonight, a final tick check will reveal that you have 8 or 10 ticks burying in to your skin while your wife in untouched (by ticks, anyway – mosquitoes have ensured she will not leave the park unscathed.)

Day 6 – Leave the park (La Leona to Carate) – The truck you will take from Carate back to Puerto Jiménez will leave at about 8:00, so wake in time to walk the 3.5 km along the beach. If you have been prudent, you will have allowed more time than you thought necessary, allowing you to be relaxed when you overshoot Carate by 1.5 km and you have to double back. This is almost guaranteed, as nobody who has not been there before would believe that Carate is simply a car park with a single shop which is not open. Congratulations, after two bumpy hours in the truck, you will be back at Puerto Jiménez.

We had a magnificent time, and saw heaps.

 enchanting tapirs;
 a brief sighting, but an ocelot none-the-less;
 Collared Peccaries;
 Red Brocket Deer;
 noisy Howler Monkeys;
 cheeky White-faced Capuchins;
 rare and comical Central American Spider Monkeys;
 rarer and cuter Central American Squirrel Monkeys;
 cuddly White-Faced Coatis;
 shy Agoutis;
 squirrels;
 frogs and toads;
 innumerable lizards and skinks, including the remarkable basilisk;
 crocodiles;
 sharks, rays, and fish;
 hawks;
 opreys;
 toucans (well, one);
 noisy and colourful Scarlet Macaws;
 slightly quieter parrots;
 absolutely silent hummingbirds;
 knocking woodpeckers;
 herons and other wading birds;
 large ground birds (sort of sized like a turkey);
 little shore and beach birds;
 many more birds of varying sizes and habitats;
 spiders;
 hundreds of butterflies;
 millions of insects, especially ants;
 insects and beetles as big as your hand.

Wow, what an experience. An absolute highlight!



Scarlet Macaw
Scarlet Macaw
Beautiful and unmistakable.


Beetle
Beetle
A beetle with attractive spots to look like eyes.


Gorgeous squirrel monkey
Gorgeous squirrel monkey

Tapir
Tapir
A tapir in the undergrowth, not far from the river, close to the La Sirena campsite.


Tapir
Tapir
What is there to say? Isn't she (he?) beautiful?


Tree...
Tree...
Well, some of the magnificent root structures of one of the trees.


Big spider, and little spider
Big spider, and little spider
A large spider awaits dinner. This is the female, and you can see the tiny male (not quite in focus) hanging around, too.


Big bug
Big bug
Maybe a type of locust? It looks more like a grass hopper, but flies, and it is bright red and blue when it is in the air. Stationary, it is like a leaf. Oh, by the way, this was about 10 or 12 centimetres long.


Oink!
Oink!
A peccary stops in his tracks to check us out.


Peccary dashes across the trail
Peccary dashes across the trail
A large group of peccaries were trampling through the undergrowth, and wanted to be on the other side of the trail. One by one they broke out of the vegetation and dashed across the path to the other side.


Toucan in the sun
Toucan in the sun
Late sun catches this beautiful bird in a bare tree.


Smile
Smile
A coati looks up from work, foraging for crabs.


Mum eats, baby just hangs on
Mum eats, baby just hangs on
Looking over the shoulder of mum, a baby monkey peers at us.


Just hanging
Just hanging
A white faced capuchin strikes an adorable pose.


Monkey mums and bubs
Monkey mums and bubs
Two spider monkeys with babies on their backs swing casually through the trees. Baby monkeys learn very young how to hang on!


Sunset
Sunset
View from La Leona campground, on our last night.



Tuesday, February 17, 2009

San José



15 to 17 Feb, 2009 - San José, Costa Rica

Between running around and doing various jobs in town, we managed to see a couple of sights from the capital. We did especially enjoy the Museo de Jade, for the pre-columbian pottery as much as the jade objects.


Pot
Pot
A fantastic pot in the Museo de Jade, San José.


Monday, February 16, 2009

“Point and Giggle”



12 to 15 Feb, 2009 – Cahuita, Costa Rica

Parque Nacional Cahuita was described in our guide book as “full of point and giggle wildlife”. Very true. Besides the capuchin monkeys, lizards, snakes, birds, and insects (primarily ants!), the most giggle worthy were the sloths. Our first few sightings were from a long way below, but there was a bit of a highlight with the finding of a mother with a very cute baby.


Mother and Baby Sloths
Mother and Baby Sloths
A sloth with her baby, in Cahuita National Park.


Little Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
A heron feeds in the shallows on the shores of the Caribbean in Cahuita National Park.


Sea Birds on Perches
Sea Birds on Perches
The remains of an old pier along the beach of the national park.



However, as we were thinking about stopping for lunch, we found one only 2-3 metres or so from the ground, on a branch over the beach. Upside down, and wedged in the fork of a tree, he was unphased by our presence. At first, he opened his eyes and checked us out, and as we sat down on the beach to enjoy a lunch break, he yawned, stirred a little, and decided to try and sleep again. Just before we decided to continue on our way, after maybe a half hour, he got really active. It took 5 minutes, but eventually, he found his way on to the next branch, which Jo and I were convinced did not have enough strength to hold him. I guess he has more experience with knowing the weight limits of branches, as he did not end up on the ground. Once there, he settled down again for another nap.


Sloth Portrait
Sloth Portrait
Unphased sloth who let us share his stretch of beach when we had lunch in Cahuita National Park. He had no qualms about us being there.


Sloth
Sloth
Unphased sloth who let us share his stretch of beach when we had lunch in Cahuita National Park. This is soon after we sat down, as he checked us out.



We saw a couple of snakes, too, but one Eyelash Palm Viper was so stunning, lying in the sun, bright yellow, on a beautiful contrasting background of palm fronds. Perfect.


Eyelash Palm Viper
Eyelash Palm Viper
A venomous viper suns himself in the middle of the day.



We had already seen a sloth in town in Cahuita. The previous night. While having dinner. A wet sloth took his time to cross the road in town, from the town square, in to a vacant block of land. Given the way he moved and looked around, and the speed with which he moved, we wondered if it was not actually a sloth, but one of the dreadlocked hippies we had seen during the day who had got stuck in to the weed.


A Wet Sloth
A Wet Sloth
When we were told a sloth was crossing the road in Cahuita, we at first assumed it may be a reference to one of the doped up hippies from the bus terminal. No, it was a sloth.



Another highlight was the Mariposario de Cahuita, a butterfly reserve. Fantastic opportunities for stunning photos.


A Butterfly Enjoys A Rotting Banana
A Butterfly Enjoys A Rotting Banana
A butterfly in Mariposario de Cahuita, with lots of butterfly attracting fruit and plants.


Beautiful Irradescent Blue Butterfly
Beautiful Irradescent Blue Butterfly
A butterfly in Mariposario de Cahuita, with lots of butterfly attracting fruit and plants.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Bocas



9 to 12 Feb, 2009 – Isla Bastimentos, Panama

Bocas del Toro, and more specifically, Isla Bastimentos. These Caribbean islands are so unlike what we expected.

The people and the language, Gadi Gadi, are distinct from the general Panamanian population. The inhabitants are primarily of Jamaican decent, who came over in the centuries and decades past to build railroads and work on the banana plantations. The language is a veritable soup of English, Spanish, and Creole. Of course, there is a distinctive Jamaican look about the people, too.

Geographically, I guess we expected the beaches to be more swimmer friendly. Although we got to spend some time on the sand amongst the mangroves, the snorkelling was nothing much, and we couldn't go far out because of the rips and the pounding surf. Really, the beaches are much more suited to those with a surf board.

From the balcony of our hospedaje, we have the pleasure of being visited by numerous hummingbirds. Even more special, though, is the endemic poison dart frogs living on the trees in the garden. Bright red, green, or yellow, they are not particularly quick, relying on their toxicity as a deterrent to being eaten.


Strawberry Poison Dart Frog
Strawberry Poison Dart Frog
Stunning warning colours on a slow moving and extremely cute frog.


And ... Action!
And ... Action!
Green poison dart frog shows that he is capable of leaping.


Glorious Details
Glorious Details
Fantastic pattern on the back of a green poison dart frog.



Today, we did a boat trip around to the other side of the island, and then up a creek. From there we walked to the entrance of a bat-filled cave. We walked up the river that was flowing out the mouth of the cave, and it got progressively deeper. Soon we were waist deep, and eventually chest deep (for me, in any case; for Jo it was almost up to her shoulders). Finally, we scrambled up some wet rocks to a subterranean lake, complete with mini waterfall. This was the furthest we could go in the cave. Turning off the torches, it was black as black, with not a single peep of light. Thankfully, the bats' radars were working, as we felt them fly narrowly over our heads.


Chest Deep
Chest Deep
We visited this bat-filled cave, accessible via a river only. At times, we were chest deep (or in Jo's case, shoulder deep). In the deepest part there was a swimmable subterranean lake. Just like being outside, but pitch black and with bats.


So Close, Yet So Far



6 to 9 Feb, 2009 – Boquete, Panama

We could see where the trail continued. Maybe 50 metres away, it continued beneath the canopy of trees, much like we had been following for the last couple of hours. Behind us, 4 or 5 kms of trekking. Ahead, 5 or 6. There was just one thing stopping us from continuing our walk on that tantalisingly close path. A bit of a mudslide. It appeared to have a life of its own, churning and groaning. The earth just kept flowing by where we stood, huge boulders just carried along by a river of mud that was just destroying all stability below. Every few minutes, when the rock, earth, and vegetation debris (including entire trees) was at a point where it could no longer be supported, then huge slabs of the mountain would slide off toward the river hundreds of metres below. Boulders the size of cars crashed end over end, filling the valley with sound of splintering and shattering on a huge scale.


Mud Slide
Mud Slide
The mud slide which prevented us from continuing and completing our trek.


So Close
So Close
The trail continues, just over there...



It was raining. In this park, it has been raining for the last 4 days or more. But that is sort of to be expected, as it is rain forest after all. We took a bus from Boquete to David (1 hour) and then another to Cerro Punta (2¼ hours), and we entered the rain belt about 15 minutes before Cerro Punta. Undeterred, we took a taxi 5 km till the road became impassable, then walked 2 km in the rain to the trail head. Despite the rain and mud and crossing many little rivers, we remained basically dry, even our feet. However, from this point, it got harder and harder to stay that way. Soon, we were heading through some magnificently beautiful rain forest, but at times ankle deep in mud. We cautiously had to go around some bits where the trail had slid off in to the forest, and a few times had to walk in the rivers which had changed course to actually be the trail. We even had a few hands and knees muddy scrambles where steps had once existed but had since become victims of nature. None of this caused us sadness – the scenery was beautiful, and we laughed at ourselves with mud spattered up to our waists – what were we thinking? Oh, and we were past the point of no return, now, or so we thought!

Then we encountered the mudslide. It was so amazing to see such power and destruction caused by streams of water undermining the very foundations of the hillside. And although we looked for possibilities of going up through the forest and over the top, of the breach, it was not to be. Our hearts did sink. Not only would we have to backtrack the 4 or 5 kms we had already done, but we were also faced with the prospect of walking the extra 5 kms to Cerro Punta, as we would could not count on any traffic on that little road the taxi had brought us on. Then the two buses back. It did take some time, and food, to lift our spirits again, but in the end, we were happy, with yet another memorable experience. Especially once we got back to our room, hot shower, and dry clothes.

Boquete was a nice stop, all in all. Some rain, some sun, and hence lots of rainbows. We did a trip out to some more rustic hot springs nearby. The sun just baked down there – Boquete is in a little valley and has its own weather, and looking out the window gives no indication about what the conditions are like just 5 km away.


Another Rainbow
Another Rainbow
Boquete.


More Hot Springs
More Hot Springs



Boquete riddle – When is a bus station not a bus station? When it's a bingo hall! Late on Saturday night, wanting to catch the early bus on Sunday morning, I headed to the bus station to inquire. There were 15 or so people with cards and tokens, and a man at the counter had a giant barrel with numbers. After calling 11 (which he did not call as “legs eleven” or even “piernas once”), the emcee looked up at me - “¡Diga me!” So I asked about buses in the morning. He answered while everyone waited patiently. As I walked out, he continued, “¡Venti-tres!” “¡Bingo!”, called the lady nearest the door. What I never worked out was if this is just where the locals came, or if someone thought it might be a good idea to fill in some time before the next bus left.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Wild and Woolly



4 to 6 Feb, 2009 – Boca Brava, Panama

Our first bout of bad weather. Rain on our bus ride, resulting in wet packs (they were on the roof, and honestly, it looked bright and sunny when we got on the bus and put them up there). So we eventually get to Boca Brava, a little island just off the coast, on the Pacific side of the country. A fantastic setup, relatively inexpensive, with a magnificent dining area. 180 degree plus views from open terraces, built high on a point of the island. And therein lay the first problem. Open terraces. With the wind and rain howling, all the guests huddled on a few tables closest to the bar.


Arcoiris
Arcoiris

View from terrace
View from terrace
Looking from the terrace back to the mainland.



During the night, the wind picked up more and more. Would we open the door in the morning to find two legs in striped stockings sticking out from underneath? “This doesn't look like Kansas, Jo!” But no, the cabin proved itself to be solid enough. Although the rain had pretty much disappeared and the clouds were few and high, the wind was brutal. Electricity was off. In the terraced dining area, “breezy” was no longer an appropriate adjective. “Breezy” was just sarcasm, now. Chairs and tables were now tied down. Some pieces of the roof lay far below, twisted beyond the possibility of re-use. The glass rattled menacingly in its frames. And again, a few tables close to the bar area were densely populated.

So, no rain, just wind. We filled the morning with a walk and a swim on the protected side of the island. So protected, that the water was dead calm in the bay, and the only indication that the weather had not let up was the distant howling and whistling in the trees high above us on the ridge. Zorro, the dog from our hospedaje, joined us for the walk and he waited most patiently on the beach while we swam, in our underwear, because somebody stupid (possibly me) grabbed the wrong bag from the room before they set out. Luckily, the beach was practically deserted. Oh, there were a couple of other dogs, so Zorro had some friends to play with between lounging in the shade.


Zorro waits patiently till we are finished at the beach
Zorro waits patiently till we are finished at the beach



Power did not return. Water was starting to run low, as they use pumps to fill the tanks. And although the wind eased over the next night (only just so very slightly - the cabin still sounded like it was being torn from the foundations), by the next morning, the owner had to make the difficult decision to close up. Without water, he could not offer accommodation. And with no definite time line for the power to come back, he had no other option. Guests who were only just showing up after making the two hour trip out were being turned straight around. So, earlier than planned, it was time to move on.

Panama's Colonial Heart



2 to 4 Feb, 2009 – Chitré, La Arena, Playa El Aguillito, & Parita, Panama

While Chitré is the most significant town in the area, it was more of a convenient base than a place to see. The cathedral was incredibly beautiful, without ostentation, impressing with a wonderful balance of dark wood features and gold ornamentation. Swiveling stained glass windows allowed the breeze to be caught and directed to maximise its effectiveness.


Cathedral interior, Chitré
Cathedral interior, Chitré



Neighbouring La Arena is known for pottery, and a stroll up the main street resulted in us visiting the workshops of half a dozen or so artisans.

Both Chitré and La Arena definitely feel different to other Panamanian towns we have visited, and this is what we were hoping to experience, but they both faded in comparison to Parita.

Parita is just so incredibly cute. If it weren't for the power lines, the view down any street could be from an era long past. Especially in the middle of the day, when the only people not having a siesta are the two foreigners walking those streets. People lazing on verandas wave and smile a greeting. Greetings are called from people unseen in dark houses, doors and windows wide open to catch some breeze. A couple of cowboys ride past. A pair of boys announce they want to be the subject of a photo.


Colonial street
Colonial street
It may be paved, but there is not much else that has changed here in the last 400 years.



Eventually, we start asking – does anybody know where we can get a key to the church? Of course, in no time, we received directions to the house opposite the garden with lots of flowers, and to look for Ambrosia. Ambrosia, cheerful and chatty, accompanied us back to the 400 odd year old church. She scarcely looked strong enough to push those huge doors open on her own, but they were obviously very well balanced. Inside the cool church, we discovered quite the collection of antique altars, all two to four hundred years old. A smooth skull in a niche caught our eyes. It was polished – probably the result of being touched and handled by many hands over countless years. When we enquired with Ambrosia for any details, all she could tell us was that they didn't know who it had belonged to, or its age, just that it had been there as long as she could remember.


Whose head was this?
Whose head was this?
Cranium of an unknown former Parita resident.



A chatty gentleman in the street shared some of the history or Parita. Which houses were the oldest, and which ones were home to the oldest residents. A few locals are in their 90's, and at least one is over 100. The relaxed lifestyle of Parita life, he insisted, resulted in longevity amongst its residents. Looking up the streets, we could detect no stress.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Convalescing in the hills



30 Jan to 2 Feb, 2009 – El Valle de Antón, Panama

Well, we're up in the hills, and we're both at different stages of feeling unwell. Jo seems to be pushing through the other side of something that had her coughing and blowing her nose. Meanwhile, I had to confess this morning that I was just at the start of going through something similar. So we've managed a few things, but have spent a fair bit of time on the terrace in front of our room, or laying down and taking it very easy.

Sights we have managed to get to include Pozos Termales, thermal baths. We slapped mud on our faces, and we sat around in a rustic tub of 38 degree mineral water. We walked out to Piedra Pintada, a rock with pre-Columbian carvings from an unknown culture. There are lots of waterfalls in the area, so we managed to get to a few of those. We ate at various establishments around town, including the $6 buffet (including beer/wine and dessert). On our final day, we headed out to the unusual square trunked trees. Yes, they were actually quite square.


Jo soaking up the good minerals
Jo soaking up the good minerals
Pozos Termales, the thermal springs. Rustic, and a pleasant soak.


A cool break
A cool break
Near Piedra Pintada, two girls take a dip in the cool waters at the base of an unnamed waterfall.


Magnificent blue dragonfly
Magnificent blue dragonfly

Piedra Pintada
Piedra Pintada
Pre-Columbian rock carving from an unknown culture.