Life Thru a Travel Prism

A Diary-cum-Travel Journal.

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Nova Scotia 2018

Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Peace and quiet, serene outdoors, quaint fishing villages, and miles and miles of breathtaking coastal views on a drive that rivals the Pacific Coast Highway in California.

Cabot Trail view, Cape Breton island.

Cape Breton island is the size of Hawaii or Jamaica, but with only 132,000 residents. That compares to 185,000 residents on the “Big Island” of Hawaii, or 2.8 million for Jamaica. Thus: small villages and towns, mostly forested hills and empty two-lane roads, not a lot of services, and certainly not a lot of hustle and bustle anywhere. Just our kind of place.

Margaree Harbor, near Belle Cote, Cape Breton island.

We spent a week driving some 1,000 miles around Cape Breton Island (CBI henceforth) along the famed Cabot Trail, staying in different B&Bs along the way. NS route map

Check out our trip photos. Be sure to read the captions 🙂

Our goal was to explore various hikes in the vast National Park, to venture out on a whale watch in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to hop aboard a boat to spot Puffins, Eagles, sea birds galore and Grey seals off the northeast coast, and to learn more of the history of the people who settled and who today make this unique corner of Canada their home.

Fingers crossed, I had chosen the first week of July for our visit, when I hoped the weather would be warm, with little rain or wind. White Point harbor, Cape Breton island.

Margaree Harbor from the dunes, Cape Breton island.

As it turned out, the very week we arrived the weather turned hot (80 degree days), and the seas surrounding this island were placid. The rains came the day we headed home, and stayed rainy for the next week. And- it had snowed a mere 2 weeks before we arrived. Talk about good weather mojo- we lucked out!

Neil's Harbor, Cape Breton island.Baddeck harbor, Cape Breton island.

Our road trip around CBI allowed us to settle into an area for a couple of days at a time, and to experience the rhythm and the unique character of the villages nearby.

 

Our photos of the awe-inspiring sunsets, our hikes, the whale watch, the captivating Cabot Trail views out to the sea and the villages capture the low density of people, the character of the fishing villages, and the serene scenes as we drove along or stopped to enjoy vistas, an early morning harbor or a hike in the Canadian arboreal forest.

Baddeck harbor, Cape Breton island.

Our photos with captions and short video snippets are designed (and laboriously written, edited, etc by me!) to share a sense of what it’s like to travel to this area of the planet, in awesome weather. Hope you’ll take a moment to indulge, and feel free to leave comments and share.

Black Flies, Hikes and an Eye-popping Sunset

The first two nights spent on CBI, our cottage-on-the-shore HQ was in Belle Cote, one of a handful of small fishing villages dotting some 30 miles along the west coast of the island.

Belle Cote, Cape Breton island.

Nights were quite chilly and by late morning, 80 degrees was commonplace. Being along the coast was a grace, as the chill onshore breeze helped to keep us cool in the shade and chased off the worst of the black flies. But look out on those hiking trails in the woods– we came away a few pounds lighter after the flies took off with chunks of our flesh in their jaws!

 

Over the next two days we explored scenic harbors from Margaree Forks to as far north as Cheticamp. I bet we drove up and down that stretch of the Cabot Highway at least 6 times, heading up to Pleasant Bay to catch a whale watch boat, stopping at little restaurants to eat or finding a co-op to buy water or snacks.

 

Of course our focus was hiking the various trails in the National Park on this section of the coast, the highlight of which was the sunset hike on the famous Skyline Trail.

Skyline Trail, Cape Breton Island National Park.

This hike was a three hour undertaking, but thanks to the newly-minted young ranger who led our tiny group, we popped out of the forest and along the ridge line overlooking the sea wayyy down below just in time for the start of a simply breathtaking sunset. Wow. The pictures really do the scene justice, for a change!

Skyline Trail, Cape Breton Island National Park.

Good thing full dark didn’t occur until an hour or so after sunset, so we were able to hoof it back to the car well before we needed our flashlights. We were, after all, at a high latitude, in the summer, with full sunrise by 5:45am and full dark at 10pm.

Trip pix with captions

Hiking is generally a central feature to our vacations, and this was no exception. The hikes in the National Park were challenging, with amazing views out to the ocean and luckily, no run-ins with the 3,000 or more moose who are crowded into the National Park.

Skyline Trail, Cape Breton Island National Park.

Moose-proof fence.

We learned that the moose love to eat fir trees, which is fine, except they favor the young, tender trees, so the high population of moose in a park sized for 500 means the moose are basically eating themselves out of house and home. Park rangers have set aside large enclosures to protect the young trees, which will be replanted after they’ve matured to help ensure moose chow over time, but apparently it’s a losing battle. So the moose are being culled. A controversial topic with the locals, unsurprisingly.

Canada Day Harness Racing

The locals trotted out the bunting and street decorations for Canada Day, and we were fortunate to stumble upon a harness racing event in the town of Inverness, just south of our digs at Belle Cote. We followed hand-made signs up a hill to the rear of the coastal village, where a regulation track spread out before us, with paddocks, barns and large viewing stands.

 

When we arrived, the contenders were warming up, so we settled in to watch the activities and to catch the first race.

Robin had never seen harness racing before, so this was a fun intro to the sport for her. The feeling was a bit provincial, what with the gravel parking areas, with cars (pick-ups, mostly) able to pull right up to the fence to watch the race from the comfort of their front seats. The “crowd” may have been a couple of hundred spectators at the most, but the beer was cold and the sausages freshly cooked, available along with pari-mutual betting at a few tiny windows in the cavernous concrete room beneath the stadium seats.

Check out the video snippet at the track on my YouTube channel!

Such unexpected pleasures like tripping over this harness race are what make independent travel rewarding and so much fun. I’m thankful we have been able to travel independently in many countries, and experience many such unplanned moments. I hope we have many more to come!

Fleeting Finbacks

So about that whale watch out of Pleasant Bay. We left early of a morning, when the fog lay thick, chill and heavy on the little harbor. The boat plowed slowly along the coastline, the young PHD students up in the flying bridge keeping a sharp eye out for whales.

 

“One o’clock! One o’clock!” someone would yell, and by the time I pointed my camera, the slick black dorsal fin and a glimpse of a back would have disappeared. This happened a few times. I gave up taking pictures and enjoyed the boat ride over pellucid seas, on what turned out to be a stunning, sunny, hot morning. We all came back sunburned. Still. A lovely boat ride along the unpopulated CBI shoreline.

Pleasant Bay harbor mouth, Cape Breton island.

Along the Cabot Trail

Continuing our clockwise drive around CBI on the famed Cabot Trail, we briefly visited the tiny fishing harbor of White Point (no facilities, no restaurant, but scenic and atmospheric).

 

Even more picturesque scenes here.

Further along the north coast, Neil’s Harbor was definitely worth a stop, and a good lunch in the restaurant situated on a rocky promontory. The heat of midday was relieved by walking over to the sea cliffs and enjoying the cool, stiff onshore wind from that chilly Atlantic.

We spent two nights in the harbor town of Baddeck (Beh-DECK). What a pretty little town! The town wharf reminded me pleasantly of that in Marblehead, MA where I lived for awhile. So scenic, so mellow.

Baddeck Harbor, Cape Breton island.Baddeck Harbor, Cape Breton island.

The light and the sunset our arrival afternoon were simply phenomenal, and the seafood takeout at the wharf side restaurant was delish!

Puffins, Eagles and Grey Seals

A highlight of our stay in Baddeck was a tour of the Bird Islands, really interesting rocky outcrops just at the mouth of  St. Anne’s bay, in the Atlantic Ocean. We certainly saw lots of the cute Atlantic Puffins who breed here, as well as Bald Eagles, Arctic Terns, Common Loons, Common Eiders, White-winged and Surf Scoters, and Red-breasted Mergansers.

 

The seas surrounding these craggy, grassy and windswept rock formations were full of Grey Seals, which added their grunts and barks to the noise of nesting birds. When the boat swung downwind of the islands, the odor was astounding.

A lobster boat briskly wound its way between us and the islands, hauling in the day’s catch. A proud lobster man held up a truly massive lobster pulled from one of the traps for us to see. Here’s a video short of a Grey Seal on a small rock and the lobster boat working.

 

We then bid a fond farewell to Baddeck and CBI and drove back onto Nova Scotia, to Pictou, a cute little fishing village with a small but admirable museum the Ship Hector, a “… ship famous for having been part of the first significant migration of Scottish settlers to Nova Scotia in 1773.”

Caribou Park, just north of Pictou, Nova Scotia.Boat yard, Pictou, Nova Scotia.

Just a few kilometers up from Pictou we experienced a fantastic seaside sunset during our lobster picnic, catered by the local grocery. Our B&B host gave us the tip to pick out our lobster, and the co-op (rather like a Kroger) would cook it. We paired our lobster with a couple of sides, wine and (for me) a beer and wow, what an amazing evening we had! Even the black flies couldn’t dull my delight, as I shot frame after frame of yet another breathtaking Canadian summer sunset. I wondered later why my phone smelled of lobster and butter. Oops.

Caribou Park, just north of Pictou, Nova Scotia.

Caribou Park, just north of Pictou, Nova Scotia.

For the History Buffs

Ok so I admit to being a “student of history”, which is to say I read a helluva lot about the places we visit, and retain little, so it’s a good thing for me that the history of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton island was ever-present in our travels. Or perhaps we were tuned in, as visitors do pay attention to many things locals take for granted.

Named places, settlements, landmarks, foods etc reflected the earliest known tribal people, the Mi’kmaq and the many European colonial periods. Europeans fished out their stocks and headed to the fertile waters here as early as the 1520s. French priests showed up, soon followed a Venetian Italian explorer whose Anglised name John Cabot is ubiquitous on CBI.

In the 1600s French colonists were shoved aside briefly by the Dutch, and Scottish folk created a colony but of course they and the French were soon at odds and the fight was on. The French won, then most of the European peeps stayed quiet for awhile until the English decided to lay claim to all of Nova Scotia (hmmm, a familiar pattern here). Colonial wars, the American Revolution, the War of 1812– you’d be surprised just what roles this area of our continent had to play in what Americans think of as “American History”.

I did find the Scottish colonists story arc to be rather poignant, considering how and why so many chose to dare a dangerous ocean crossing to an unknown country, with so much to learn and create, literally from their own hands. Sorta like those survival reality shows, many of these families arrived with little more than the clothes on their back, sick from the trip, showing up in the winter, with no home, no crops, no livestock.

Highland Village Living Museum, Iona, Cape Breton island.

Thank goodness they had the folks living in small, existing settlements like Heritage Village to lend a hand, with costumed volunteers who undoubtedly remained in character. OK just testing to see if you’re actually reading this or just looking at the pretty pictures.

To Conclude…

The light, the sunsets, the fresh air, the cooling breezes from the ocean, the scenic little villages and towns– all left an indelible impression on us. The entire trip was low-impact, few people but pleasant ones when met, and a true sense of solitude and quiet, pretty much everywhere we went. Even the towns had few people roaming about, with few cars. No planes overhead. No trains honking off in the distance. Maybe a fog horn near a harbor, and at night just crickets and, if we were near fresh water, frogs croaking. The stars  were brilliant those nights when fog didn’t creep along the coast.

Middle Head trail, Ingonish, Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

Yep, I’d definitely vote this as one of the nicest road trips we’ve taken, and would recommend it for anyone who values independent travel and who is willing to get off the beaten track, who enjoys the outdoors and nature, and who can take care of themselves (remember, few services, places close early, and no ATM’s.)

Pix here and check out video snippets on my YouTube Channel.

Tips:

Canadian currency is King, with few places that “do exchange”, or give you Canadian change for your US dollar. You can often find your currency exchange advantage being eaten up when your $US is spent as if it were the face value of a Canadian dollar. Yeah, go ahead and exchange as soon as you can, especially before you head to rural areas.

AirB&B was a terrific resource for us, but don’t overlook TripAdvisor, VRBO and other sources for unique yet reasonably priced places to stay. Not every place is listed with AirB&B. Remember the summer is High Season so prices will be up and places booked months in advance. Same with excursion boats– book early!

Plan to arrive at your destination and check in well before 5pm, to allow ample time to get settled, perhaps glean tips from your host around places to eat etc. Not all useful or current info is on the Internet. Interact with the locals for the real skinny on what’s what! And remember- places close EARLY, assuming you are in a town large enough to have a co-op or a store. Best to do your homework.

You will encounter road work as you drive around CBI so be prepared to stop and wait. Again, local information trumps your mapping app on this one.

Cellular service is skippy, at best, and WiFi will be hard to come by and likely not the best unless you are in Halifax or a decent sized town. Many restaurants have WiFi, or say they do, but we discovered the WiFi was often not working, “needed to be reset” or whatever. So be prepared and do NOT count on continuous access to the internet or your phone while on CBI.

Enjoy your trip!

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Serene Sedona, the Grand Canyon & the Painted Desert 2017

Late in the Spring, we took off for a long weekend to Sedona. The airfare to Phoenix AZ was low, the rental car and a place to stay affordable, and we were ready for another fast-travel, cram all we can into a few days trip. So– off we went!

SedonaOverviewPan

The vistas Out West just blow me away every time I experience them. Our last trip was four years previously, when we hiked in the Rockies around Estes Park. Robin was delighted to be visiting Sedona again, whereas this would be my first experience seeing the famous red rock for which Sedona and surrounds are so famous.

The drive from Phoenix to Sedona in our rental car took a bit over two hours. Through the trip, we gained about 3,400 feet in elevation, enjoying the changing landscapes of the desert and piney woods along the way. It certainly looked bright, hot and dry out there, which reminded us that we would be arising each day before dawn to grab a coffee and quick breakfast before getting out on whatever mountain or butte we may be hiking that day.

Coming in to Sedona on State Route 179, also known as Red Rock Scenic Byway, is simply staggering. It seemed that suddenly we drove around a bend in the highway and right in front of us- Poof!-  appeared a majestic wall of towering sandstone rocks, lit up by the afternoon light. We pulled into a convenient viewing area to take photos and just gawp in amazement and appreciation.

We found Sedona to be a wonderfully hospitable town to stay in and use as a home base for exploring the area. A lovely, quiet motel somewhat outside of town but near enough to grocery stores, restaurants and our favorite coffee shop served our needs just fine. We were also quite close to Airport Mesa, which we visited time and again, as it offers a terrific overlook of the Sedona Verde Valley below, especially in the mornings.

Many people come here in the evenings to view the sunset but it ain’t easy looking into the sun. It was a much nicer experience to go across and up the road just a bit to the lovely restaurant at the airport and enjoy a meal outside on the patio, overlooking the stunning rock formations on the other side of the runway. The evening light bathes the faces of these rocks, constantly shifting the colors, and offering plenty of photo ops.

Hot Air Balloons and Soldier’s Pass Hike

Our first morning we were enjoying our coffee up at the airport mesa overlook when we spotted six or more hot air balloons lifting off the desert floor in the distance way below us. Soon there were colorful dots hanging at different altitudes in the stillness of the morning. Robin embraced as many as she could between her outstretched arms.

New Age people identify Sedona’s numerous rock formations as vortex sites, where the earth gives off particular energy. While I don’t recall any special sense of approaching vortices as we drove by or clambered over rocks and dusty hiking trails, I can say that the light, the thin air, and the lack of humidity did combine to leave me somewhat light-headed, especially after a few hours of hiking in the sun in the dry, super-attenuated heat of late May. SoldiersChimneyRock

Soldier’s Pass hike was our favorite hike, right in Sedona. We got to the parking area before it opened but the chain was down, so we flung all caution to the wind and hit the trail before the heat of the day could squeeze every drop of liquid from our bodies.

Soldiers Pass hike Sedona.

Not our jeep! It was in the parking area at Soldiers Pass trail head, providing a handy photo prop.

Soldiers Pass hike, Sedona AZ.

This was a serene, quiet hike, especially before the daily jeep tours start. We passed by the two natural arches and the sinkhole ominously named Devil’s Kitchen. Here’s a video snippet

While we aren’t shoppers, we did enjoy a break from the heat under the trees and along the cobblestone streets and quiet courtyards of the Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village. We ate a delish Mexican dinner at a restaurant in the village, then enjoyed popping into various art galleries and stores offering astounding crafts that reflect the mix of cultures populating the area over the past, what, 100 years or more? Definitely a great way to chill during the heat of the day.

Trip pics

The Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon

Driving the south rim of the Grand Canyon was next on our To Do list, so we headed north out of Sedona along scenic state road 89A, which runs through Oak Creek Canyon. This entire route is simply mobbed on a holiday weekend, we soon discovered. Still. If we ever go back, we’ll add this canyon to our itinerary, as it is a phenomenally beautiful, and I’m sure, relaxing area to visit, hike, or chill along the fast-flowing creek. Just not over a holiday period!

Our driving route- Phoenix to Sedona and beyond. Map Link 

We knew to avoid the long lines at the east entrance to the south rim of the Grand Canyon by purchasing our park entrance tickets ahead of time at the Flagstaff Visitors Center. After grabbing a bit of lunch in town, we topped off the gas tank for the next leg of our journey to Cameron Trading Post on the Navajo reservation, where we would spend the night before an early morning arrival at the Grand Canyon east entrance to the south rim.

But first, we planned an afternoon visit to the ancient pueblo ruins at Wupatki National Monument. The National Park Service description is a terrific one to quote:

Nestled between the Painted Desert and ponderosa highlands of northern Arizona, Wupatki is a landscape of legacies. Ancient pueblos dot red-rock outcroppings across miles of prairie. Where food and water seem impossible to find, people built pueblos, raised families, farmed, traded, and thrived. Today, if you linger and listen, earth and artifacts whisper their stories to us still.

We were mesmerized, from the moment we topped a ridge on the endless black ribbon of asphalt and viewed the magnificent vistas of the Painted Desert below us, from horizon to horizon. We were still miles from the turnoff that would take us in a giant semi-circle out to the ancient Wupatki pueblo ruins, located on a mesa way out there in the dusty haze of the afternoon.

In the parking lot, we dismounted from the air-conditioned car into a wind tunnel of hot, dry air sprinkled with grit that got into your eyes, teeth, hair, and threatened to blow your clothes right off your frame. Gripping our hats and collars tightly, as we walked up the lengthy, curving walkway that led to the little visitor center and quite suddenly the ruins greeted us.

The afternoon light was strong and bathed the rear of the ruins, casting long, deep shadows into and around what sandstone block walls remained.  I was transported, pondering the fact that the pueblo was abandoned in 1225 (do the math!). Those ruins have been there a very long, long time.

Wupatki pueblo ruins, outside Flagstaff, AZ.

Here’s a video snippet   that captures the views and essence of this place. The audio is wind and more wind. Note the circular kiva structure down that valley. There’s also a ball court, similar to those found in Mesoamerica.

We stayed at Wupatki until the placed closed, then made our way up the road to Cameron Trading Post, where we would spend the night before heading out early in the morning to get to the east entrance of the Grand Canyon south rim drive just as it opened.

Picture the largest truck stop you’ve ever visited, located out in the desert where two highways meet- one that runs north-south and another that leads to the east entrance of the Grand Canyon south rim Desert View Drive.

How to describe this place? Acres of asphalt. Gas pumps crouching under massively high aluminum roofs. A 1950s era motel complex, complete with a circa 1911 dwelling of sandstone and wood- the embryonic stage of this sprawling, noisy, commercial center plopped down in the middle of frickin’ nowhere. But hey, we were very glad for the huge restaurant, which featured a menu of every kind of comfort food known to tourists and capable of handling at least 4 massive buses stuffed with weary tourists, and still have plenty of tables (if not staff) left over.

Images of wondrous things on sale at this place barely scratches the surface of what is the largest indoor native American -and -also -stuff -from -Taiwan- and- China place under one roof, likely anywhere in the American west.

After a long day, a heavy dinner, and a lengthy walk around thousands of displays under that one roof, we were ready for bed. We truly intended to drive out a ways into the desert to do some star gazing, but the amount of light loom this mother ship radiated likely lit up the desert for miles around. Heck, the giant billboard out by the gas pumps, alone, probably served as a backup lighthouse for some rock off of San Francisco.

We did each buy a t-shirt, each extolling the virtues of “dark sky” designated locations. The irony was not lost on us.

Irony aside, we did enjoy a quiet night’s rest, an early morning breakfast just after dawn, and headed west to drive the famous south rim of the Grand Canyon.

If you’ve been there, you’ve experienced the wonder, awe, and majesty. If you haven’t been, you gotta go. Now. Stop what you’re doing, pick a flight, rent a car, get packed and get moving. Life is short. This is one of those places on the planet that started the very concept of bucket list– or, well before that, one of the many Wonders of the World.

My puny photos do the entire thing an injustice, but I enjoy looking at them. Hope you do, too!

By the time we reached the Grand Canyon Village, it was lunch time and the crowds that holiday weekend were bursting the place at the seams. Still, we enjoyed a lovely lunch at the vintage El Tovar hotel, just above the old train station. Opened in 1905, this is a wonderful architectural example of  National Park Service Rustic  architecture. You can just picture Teddy Roosevelt himself strolling through the imposing lobby. Even if you don’t lunch here, it’s a Must See if you spend any time in the village.

GClodgeInside

El Tovar Hotel, Grand Canyon Village, south rim.

After making our way back to Sedona, we spent our last sunset viewing the rock formations from a comfy table on the patio at the restaurant up on airport mesa. The next morning found us retracing our drive, back to Phoenix and onto the homeward-bound flight.

Back at the office, it was back to the work week. But our memories of our visit to Sedona still linger, fueling our desire to get back Out West; back to the light, the dry air, the dust, the heat, and those breathtaking vistas and fields of stars that seem to go on, forever.

Trip pics

Costa Rica Road Trip 2018

Costa Rica revealed over 10 days and 500 road miles.

Costa Rica offers unique challenges for the intrepid do-it-yourself travelers. Here, we share some challenges uncovered on this, our second Costa Rica trip, as well as a few secrets to help smooth the way.

Costa Rica route map

Our itinerary for this trip of 10 days started with our desire to get into and out of the capitol San Jose as quickly as possible. As discussed in my story of our first trip 10 Days in Costa Rica 2016 , San Jose traffic, noise, air pollution and difficulty in simply navigating the streets is as challenging as LA or Atlanta during rush hours– on steroids.

We arrived mid-day in the capitol San Jose, cleared Customs and were picked up by the folks at our chosen car rental agency. Less than an hour later we were in our rental SUV on the way out of San Jose, headed 2.5 hours north to the cloud rain forests around Arenal volcano and the lake at its base.

ArenalPanLo

View from our balcony.

We choose places to stay that are off the beaten path, and our digs at Hotel Linda Vista suited us just fine. After checking in and checking out the view from our balcony we had ample time to enjoy dinner at the restaurant as the sun set over the lake and the volcano.LakeViewLo

Check out the brief video to get a sense of the serenity of this place

All trip photos

Check the captions (click on an image, hit little i in circle at top right).

My shot of a cow, a rain forest, and a river flowing to Arenal lake at the base of the volcano is, for me, one of a kind. Where else would you capture this picturesque combination? Cow and River

Jungle Canyoneering & Rappelling

We hit the sack early because the next day was a challenging canyoneering and rappelling trek, featuring hiking along gloomy, steep and slippery jungle paths, threading our way down narrow slick rock river canyons, and rappelling down increasingly taller waterfalls.

Video snippet of Robin backward ziplining

Just getting to the trail head was an adventure, with a dusty, lurching and noisy ride up perpendicular limestone roads in bench seats attached to a large 4X4 flatbed truck with giant tires capable of tackling deeply potholed and switchback gravel trails. All in the heat and humidity of a tropical rain forest.

We expected this adventure to be the highlight of our 10 days, and we weren’t disappointed. Our photos and video snippets nicely convey the steep terrain, the long drops from the top of waterfalls down to the rain forest floor below, and the sheer exhilaration of facing one’s fear of heights or bugs or gloomy jungle environments or whatever.

LynnRapHigh

It’s a looong way to the rain forest floor below!

It’s a good idea to get Zen with your fear or the adrenaline rush which anyone will experience who doesn’t do this kind of exhausting hiking and gulp-inducing rappelling in the jungle every day. Some days are a triumph, and this day was certainly that!

Check the captions on the pics

Those first two days we explored the nearby, quaint and colorful town of La Fortuna,  spent hours walking on acres of a resort to dip in a variety of hot springs a few miles outside of La Fortuna, and joined another couple on an evening guided paddle down a jungle river, spotting for wildlife with flashlights.

The third day we planned to move east to our next destination near Chilamate, a nice half-way place to explore for a couple of days on our way to Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast near the border of Panama.

Video snippet of La Fortuna

Hot springs video

More amazing hot springs photos

Rio Celeste Falls

CelesteFallsOn our way (actually, out of our way) to Chilamate, we took a side trip northwest to Rio Celeste (Blue River) to see the amazing azure blue of the falls and the river. This trip had not been on our original itinerary but discussions with locals (and hundreds of breathtaking images on the Internet) convinced us to go.

The drive to and from Tenorio Volcano National Park and the subsequent arduous hike up muddy rain forest trails to get to the falls viewing area took a half day, but was absolutely well worth the effort!

More photos of Rio Celeste falls here

Video snippet here

TreeFenceLo

A living fence in Costa Rica.

On our way to the national park, we drove past miles of pineapple plantations and many rural farms both large and small.  Leaving the park, as we made our way east toward Chilamate, we passed through miles of the unique rural settings of Alajuela Province, dotted with farms featuring live fences, many commercial pineapple fields, and the rugged, steep ravines and forested hills that characterize so much of Costa Rica’s landscape.

RoadSignsThe yellow diamond-shaped road signs certainly got our attention, as they warned us to proceed “despacio” (slowly) because, well, a wide variety of critters might be present.

The newer road signs show several silhouettes, and we seldom saw the same group of critters on a sign we had seen earlier. We certainly slowed down as we studied the ever-changing silhouettes. It’s almost as if each sign was chosen to represent the unique mix of creatures in that particular area, which idea struck me as whimsical and, surely, impractical. But hey, what does this gringa know?

Luckily, the roads were in terrific condition and the weather was perfect, which made for driving those twisting, steep roads over river gorges and through numerous villages a bit less tiring. Arenal volcano loomed on the horizon, a constant companion which we didn’t lose sight of until we got fairly close to our digs for the next two nights at Selva Verde Lodge.

Selva Verde Lodge

Here we spent two nights in the rain forest. You wouldn’t think there was a rain forest in the midst of all the traffic on the highway right in front of the reception area, but once you walk into the property a hundred feet or so, the sounds of the roadway drift away as you’re enveloped by the dripping greenery of the rain forest, the bright colors and sweet aromas of tropical plants, and the hoots of Howler monkeys.

Although this is a popular stopover for Tourismo buses and large tour groups on guided Costa Rica treks, somehow Selva Verde Lodge has managed to maintain a very organic feel, as if the place grew out of its surrounds rather than being placed there.

Actually, Selva Verde Lodge is well known as a pioneer of conservation and ecotourism. Although the property encompasses more than 400 acres of rain forest, the feel is cozy and homey, with lengthy covered walkways connecting the main reception area up by the highway with wings of guest rooms and the central pool, dining areas, two bars, a shop and a nifty covered area with displays that are part of the environmental education center supporting field courses for teachers and students.

SelvaPan

Selva Verde quiet cottages away from the main buildings and highway, surrounded by rain forest.

We stayed across the road and back up in the rain forest, in a cramped but quiet and comfy cabina or cottage with an attached screened porch. A number of small cabinas were perched on a steep hillside, connected to a lengthy covered wooden walkway, and surrounded by the thick growth of the rain forest.

Because we were there during the week, we had the entire area to ourselves. Below us, our lonely SUV was parked near a pond, the centerpiece of a large clearing of the rain forest, surrounded by brightly colored tropical plants and walls of towering bamboo. This area attracted all sorts of insects and wildlife, and offered a view to the sky where we spotted Scarlet Macaws, Toucans and Scarlet-rumped caciques. The latter reminded us of large Red-winged blackbirds.

BlueJeans Frog

Strawberry Poison Dart frog, AKA bluejeans frog.

Robin spotted an aguti one evening and the next morning as it came down a forest path to forage for fruit. A beautiful and deadly Strawberry Poison Dart frog (locally called the bluejeans frog) posed for Robin’s camera early one morning.

The silences in this place were countered by a Howler monkey calling nearby every day and into the evening. At night the pattering of rain on the tin roof and the clattering of a family of (I suspect) coatimundis or South American raccoons, playing and chattering, woke me at midnight. I remember I was grinning at those little devils as I fell back asleep.

The security guard sat alone down the hill near our car under a wan security light, often perched on his motorcycle until 10 each night, peering at the lit screen on his mobile phone. Each night he locked the security gate up at the road as he left. We never had to use the key to the gate lock, as we were asleep long before his shift ended.

Check out our photos here 

Night Hike in the Rain Forest

Of the several places near Selva Verde Lodge available for a night hike, I chose Tirimbina Biological Reserve  because of its 800 acres of rain forest, 2/3 of which are set aside for conservation. Only 1/3 is used for ecotourism. This preserve also got high marks by visitors on the TripAdvisor La Fortuna forum.

Tirimbina BridgeOur night hike started with the sighting of a mother sloth and baby a mere 30 feet above our group in an almond tree as we started down the path into the preserve. The rain accompanied us as we crossed an apparently never-ending swinging bridge over the roar of the Sarapiqui river some 60 feet below.

My LED flashlight lit up the foaming rapids below, enhancing my sense of vertigo as I carefully balanced on slippery wooden boards and slid my hand along the cold, wet steel cable that served as a springy handrail. The bouncing of the bridge underfoot became magnified with the many footsteps ahead of me. I was glad to reach solid ground at the end of that passage, but as the rain forest closed in around us, I found myself focused on keeping my balance on the wet, slimy, muddy bricks that are commonly used in Costa Rica for raised footing on jungle paths. I have hiked many such trails before but in the rain and the pitch blackness of this night, I found it wise to stop before I focused my light on the surrounding trees and understory, attempting to see the eyes of a coati, anteater, kinkajou or even an aguiti peering out of the brush. But no such luck.

An hour and more later, our little group returned to the main building of the reserve, having spotted several large frogs, leafcutter ants and tree roots that glowed in the dark. Sometimes the critters just stay at home, especially when it’s raining. Still, it was nice to get out and about in the nighttime rain forest.

After two nights at Selva Verde Lodge, it was time to pack up and head some 3-4 hours east and south to Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, where we would spend the next four nights near the village of Cahuita.

Soothing Suizo Loco Lodge

Even if “Suizo Loco” means “crazy Swiss” in Spanish, we found this lovely little place tucked into the rain forest within hearing of the waves on the beach suited us just right. It was simply perfect. Our private roomy cottage was situated near to the open air dining, kitchen and pool area and the imposing reception building, yet far enough away from the other cottages to afford us peace and privacy.

We had the wall of rain forest within 100 feet of us, which meant the shy agutis would come out at dawn and dusk to scavenge around the kitchen area for bits of fruit tossed out by the ladies who ran the place like clockwork. In fact the family employed by the husband and wife team who built Suizo Loco had been there for years, lovingly tending the property and caring for guests while keeping the place secure and the encroaching jungle at bay.

Brief, Zen video of Suizo Loco pool in the early morning.

Brief video-chilling on our porch during an afternoon rain.

The grounds, pool and buildings were carefully tended, and guests were catered to in an unobtrusive way. Kindness and genuine warmth were the hallmark of every communication we experienced. The food was terrific. The atmosphere was quiet, sedate and laid back. It was the sort of place where we quickly felt at home, especially after a day spent roaming beach trails, spotting for wildlife in the trees and the salt water bay beyond.

In the afternoons we would sit in comfy chairs on our little patio and enjoy the sounds of the waves crashing on the beach a half mile away, the ocean breeze keeping us cool and bringing the signature odor of verdant growth, dead vegetation, salt, and wet, loamy soil.  Each day the Howler monkeys called nearby, while tropical birds flitted and soared above giant rain forest trees, darting in and out of the canopy on their way to and from nesting or feeding.

Where the Rain Forest Meets the Coast

Our days in this idyllic area of the coast were spent exploring a national park and two reserves. Our favorite was Cahuita National Park  mere minutes away.

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Robin and guide view sloth on beach trail, Cahuita National Park, Costa Rica.

There, we hired Richard, a local guide who was born and raised by his grandfather back before the national park was created and when the entire area was undeveloped. Richard was also formally trained as a wildlife guide, and he pointed out more animals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, flowers and trees than we had ever been introduced to in a single morning. It helped that the overnight rain had brought out everything from sloths and monkeys to iguanas, bats, vipers and Jesus lizards. The only other place we had experienced so much wildlife, so accessible, was when we visited the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica two years earlier.

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Short-nosed bats chill in the shade along the beach path, Cahuita National Park Costa Rica.

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White-faced Capuchin monkey foraging above the beach path, Cahuita National Park, Costa Rica.

The beaches here beckoned, so we spent the next day as typical beaching-it tourists. We arrived as the park opened, paid the minor entry fee, and walked a long way down the canopied beach trails to a deserted beach that didn’t offer riptides (red flags warn swimmers).

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Resting raccoon, Cahuita National Park Costa Rica.

A momma raccoon and baby were foraging among the sea grape trees that line the shore, (check out the quick video) and I spotted large cat tracks in sand still damp from the early morning high tide.

Our third day was spent driving farther down the coast, visiting  Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge  This is so undeveloped and off the beaten path as to be virtually invisible. Here again the rain forest abuts the coastline. A lengthy, canopied and deeply shaded trail parallels the beach, winding through the tropical vegetation. Wildlife is everywhere; on the trail, off the trail, on the beach, and in the mangrove estuaries behind the beach trail.

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Iron shore, Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge.

The coast itself is almost all iron shore (sharp, ancient coral reefs), offering stunningly beautiful vistas, with crystal clear water reflecting the myriad of colors of the coral rock, algae, and plants in the shallows. There are a couple of small beaches where people swim, the most stunning by far being Punta Uva.

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Punta Uva beach, Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge.

RobinPuntaUvaLoIf you ever go to this area, it’s worth it to hike down that sandy, shaded path for 3 kilometers or so from the parking area to Punta Uva beach. Bring a cooler, a book to read and let yourself be transported. If you’re there during a week day, and arrive early, you will have the place to yourself.

Check out this brief but beautiful Punta Uva video snippet

Puerto Viejo, Playa Blanca, and a Hidden Gem

After a few hours at Punta Uva, we drove back up the highway and managed to squeeze our way into the noisy, crowded, trafficky, rough-and-ready backpacker haven of Puerto Viejo De Talamanca, where we had a so-so sandwich served with blaring music at a seaside beer joint.

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There I photographed a derelict sailboat, driven onto these shallow, rocky shores years ago, serving as a reminder that nature rules. Always.

We were happy to get in and out at a nearby food store and stop for gas on our way back up the road to our quiet Suizo Loco digs. On the way we discovered a super cute and scenic little restaurant sitting right on the iron shore in the little village of Playa Negro, mere minutes from our cottage. RobinBchLunch

My photo of Robin getting ready to chow down captures the setting festooned with so many vibrant Caribbean colors.

This was another experience we encountered by taking the lesser-driven path. In this case we got off the paved highway and bumped down the rough, jarring, dusty gravel roads to and along the beach, where the incoming tide crashed on the iron shore, sending geysers high into the air as the water forced its way into “blowholes” in the ancient limestone. The trick is: I was comfy taking such rough tracks because we were in a SUV, which kept us well off the ground and readily negotiated large, rain-filled potholes.

Trip pics here– be sure to read the captions!

Jaguar Rescue Center

It’s a good thing we enjoyed the beaches when we did, because our last full day the monsoon rains came. So off we went to the Jaguar Rescue Center back down near Puerto Viejo. This place was awesome, and well worth tramping around in our rain jackets, dodging from one covered area to another, following our young PHD-in-Sloths British guide who kept us entertained and informed about the lives of the orphaned sloths, anteater, toucan, forest deer, the peccary (pig), margay (forest cat), and after awhile I lost count.

This rescue center, like hundreds all over Costa Rica, is fully funded by donations from visitors. Many visitors volunteer their time a day or a week, helping to care for the many injured and (ideally) rehabilitated wild animals that are brought to the center. You can watch the staff vets work with the injured and sick critters, and have your heart strings pulled over and over again, especially when you see all those baby sloths in their hammock, nestled among the yummy leaves they enjoy eating and being cooed at by volunteers.

Here’s a quick video of a sloth moving surprisingly quickly as it heads for its morning meal.

Children will love this place.

Our final day we bid a wistful goodbye to Daniel and his staff at Suizo Loco Lodge and headed back up the highway to the nightmare of the traffic snarl around Limon and the tortuous, seemingly never-ending drive back across the rain-lashed mountains and into San Jose. I had allowed four hours for a three hour drive and it took us six, so be warned- that’s Costa Rica!

Back in noisy, polluted, crowded San Jose we stayed near the airport, dropped off our rental SUV right next door, walked over to Denny’s for dinner, hit the hay and flew back home the next day, bringing along sweet memories of the past nine days of adventure, discovery and tranquility in the wilds of Costa Rica.

All trip pics

My YouTube channel videos covering this trip

COSTA RICA TRAVEL TIPS

Costa Rica is rather unique among Central American countries, in that a road trip is relatively easy to plan and, for accomplished navigators and competent drivers, fairly straightforward to execute. With a rental car, a GPS (Waze is popular, and very useful, throughout Costa Rica) and an up-to-date printed map, we developed our own road trip itinerary. This allowed us to experience the abundance of Costa Rica’s climate zones, which include active volcanoes, high-elevation cloud forests, lush jungle rain forests, lowland, tropical dry forests and beaches. By staying in different, off-the-beaten-path places, we were able to become steeped in the environment and experience the amazing biodiversity of each, while enjoying periods of rest in serene, natural settings.

More important, traveling independently gives us the freedom to be where the animals are, when they are. Most rain forest animals are active at dawn and dusk (and of course, many are active at night), so unless you’re up very early or out on a guided night hike, the chances of seeing animals in the wild like sloths, anteaters, monkeys, aguiti’s, coatimundis, reptiles, amphibians and an amazing variety of bird life are lessened. The reason is simple– most tour vans don’t even get started until 8am or later and by the time they arrive at the parking area of the destination (after having made a circuit of local resorts or hotels to pick up riders), the morning is well underway. The animals have moved further into the rain forest, away from the noisy vehicles and people, or else have moved off to a quiet place to rest before the evening feeding period.

Many tour package visitors are left with seeing and learning about trees, plants, insects, maybe iguanas, birds, amphibians, butterflies, beetles and the like. Which is awesome, but not the same as having all the time you want to observe a mother sloth slowly moving from one branch to another while her baby clings to her, or being captivated by the sight of a troop of coatis marching along a ridge above a raging river to their home tree, silhouetted against a blazing sunset. Or being within fifteen feet of a family of squirrel monkeys feeding just off a trail in the morning light. Or a dawn hike accompanied by a troop of howler monkeys just overhead in the trees, raising such a din that you need to shout to be heard. Or getting to know the resident agutis and their habit of raiding a nearby kitchen area for fruit every evening. Or looking for that little fruit bat that wraps itself in the same banana leaf every night to go to sleep and if you’re up early enough you can watch it wake up and get on with its day. Or keeping an eye on the resident flock of scarlet macaws as they wing their way overhead each morning, calling raucously to each other as they head out to feed for the day, and repeat the procedure, following the exact same flight path, as they return each evening.

Tip: Best Way to See Wildlife. If its wildlife in the wild that you want to encounter, we strongly advise hiring a guide. This typically is not something you need to arrange in advance, as most guides hang out at the visitor fee pay area. Many guides in Costa Rica are graduates of a naturalist guide training program, and many are also lifelong rural residents who are intimately familiar with the surrounds and the habits of wildlife in the area.

Our travels in different environments have taught us that experienced guides see everything long before you do and of course the safety they provide as they look out for vipers and other things that can blunt your enjoyment is, in a rain forest or jungle, extremely valuable. Plus, as you spend more time with guides, you may find yourself becoming adept at spotting the elusive sloth 80 feet up in that almond tree off the path, where people below are strolling completely unaware.

Being on our own schedule allowed us to get up and out before dawn, to plan for our own meals (or just grab a snack) to be able to enjoy an evening hike or a quiet paddle down a river in the rain forest, using flashlights to spot for animals as the night descended.

Our road trip itinerary also allowed us to spend one day or several in a chosen area, to familiarize ourselves with the people, the roads, and familiar places to grab a coffee, snack or to stock up on food or gas. In our travels, we have run into local events, ranging from parades and art shows to farmer’s markets or a typical Saturday night celebration in a small town square. Such happenstance often serves as a highlight of our vacation!

Tip: Local Knowledge is King. You can Google and read TripAdvisor reviews all day but you’ll simply never glean the level of useful and detailed info you can get from talking with locals, or knowledgeable frequent visitors. We chat up the locals, from the staff at our accommodations to the guy watching our parked car. This is where we glean the very best tips about where to go, the best way to get there, the best nearby whatever to visit (private sanctuary with night hike or sunset paddle or swimming beach) and critical info like how to find a local optical place to fix your only pair of prescription eyeglasses that just popped a lens (yeah that happened.) There’s not a trip we’ve ever taken that our plans haven’t been positively enhanced, and often changed, after an exchange with a friendly and helpful local.

The local network of families and friends have often brought amazing and unique experiences to us. We have had helpful people hook us up with a family member who took us canoeing down a jungle river at night using flashlights to spot for wildlife. We enjoyed a meal of freshly caught fish prepared for us in an otherwise empty restaurant that was closed for off season. More than once, on different Caribbean islands, we’ve gone out snorkeling in a boat operated by a local fisherman who took us to a quiet, lesser-known spot than frequented by the tourist boats, a spot with amazing and abundant, healthy corals and fish.

Once we met the son of a Caribbean island scion who had some down time between SCUBA charters and took us out on his brand new dive boat for an amazing morning of private snorkeling. Later we visited him in his ancestral home dating from the 18th century. You simply won’t have opportunities like those if you’re on a tourist bus and a tight timetable, with 8-20 of your newest friends.

For interacting with and learning about wildlife and the local scene, for being steeped in local environs and for the flexibility to experience serendipity, you can’t beat the freedom of your own itinerary and transportation.

PS: It helps that we plan our trips usually during shoulder season, when fewer visitors are about. In the case of tropical environments, we typically opt for the dry season, when the bugs are reduced and the roads are not muddy bogs. A little bit of research is all it takes to understand the best month, and even the best weeks to visit your chosen bit of the planet.

Tip: Front-End Load Your Itinerary. This is particularly true in tropical environments, where the heat and humidity can sap your energy very quickly. We’ve learned to plan for the more physically demanding driving and activities of our trip early on in the itinerary. This leaves us some well-earned down time to chill out and reflect on our adventures, typically the last day or two before we fly back home.

This approach is particularly applicable to Costa Rica, which beckons with all manner of outdoor adventures and excitement, from hiking and paddling to zip-lining and rappelling in the rain forest. (see my previous Costa Rica post https://lynnsmithdestinations.com/2016/03/27/costa-rica-2016-10-amazing-days/ There are animal rescue centers to explore, cocoa and coffee plantations that beckon, horseback riding or white water rafting, butterfly gardens and jungle trails galore. Chances are very good that every day you’ll be on your feet, walking, and a lot of it over hilly, rugged terrain. Even a day or two spent on a beach can be taxing, what with all the walking in that soft sand or hauling your beach goodies on and off the beach, or just the effort to get up and head for a nearby bar.

Most people don’t “train up” for a vacation, they get ready to wind down. If experiencing the outdoor activities and the unique environments of Costa Rica are why you came, consider front-end loading your vacation with the more physically demanding experiences, preferably with a somewhat “down” day or at least an afternoon in between each to allow time to recharge. Those “down” times can be spent with relaxing activities like visiting hot springs or waking early to take a quiet morning wildlife walk around your accommodations, perhaps coupled with an evening wildlife guided walk. A “down” day can also be considered one of the days you spend driving to your next destination, with stops along the way at places of interest or to food shop, eat at a local restaurant, or stroll around a village square.

Tip: Driving in Costa Rica. Honestly, this one is covered a lot, if you Google the search string. I would say read as much as you want: certainly the warnings about aggressive drivers, lanes that disappear without warning, who has right of way at single-lane bridges, slow-moving truck traffic in rural and city environs, lack of signage throughout the country and even “up to date” printed maps and Google maps that simply don’t reflect the reality on the ground- we found much of what we read to be true. But that’s no reason to despair; just be prepared.

We strongly recommend you rent an SUV to get you off the gravel and potholed roads which you most certainly will encounter, and to get you through wet-foot crossings, which you agree to avoid in your rental contract but, as we discovered, that is simply not possible in some situations.  A 4X4 isn’t really necessary (although it was handy for us because of course I book us into off-beat places like Hotel Linda Vista some miles back into the rain forest on a very rough gravel road and situated way up a steep, switch-backed and partially paved road on the side of a volcano. But, that’s me.)

As mentioned earlier, do get and use Waze. More and more rental cars in San Jose come with a Waze phone. True, it’s one more thing to deal with, and they tend to use Andriod vs iOS so forget your Apple power plug- you have to use theirs and it’s strictly a car charger.

When in the mountains or around a volcano, remember that cellular service (and satellite reception) will be sketch at times, so make sure you know where you are headed and how to get there before you trundle off. It’s best to make arrangements or confirmation calls when you have good service.

We found that generally Waze was more accurate than Google maps, but we used both and even the most recent “Toucan” map of Costa Rica (Google it and buy it ahead of time.) Don’t forget your sense of direction, a working compass and common sense, as you will often need to suss your way around. To me, that’s part of the adventure of getting out of your comfort zone when traveling, but it can be stressful. So do avoid planning for tight timelines– leave yourself PLENTY of time between destinations and especially that last leg as you head for the city and/or the airport to go home.

Bridges can be out. You may run low on gas which can be tricky if you’re driving in the country. You may find a brand new 4 -lane highway that doesn’t show on anything but seems to go where you want, like we did. We took it and were so glad we did! Sometime you hafta trust to the driving gods.

Don’t drive at night unless it’s a short hop, on a stretch of road you know very well, no rain, no fog (which can be present around any volcano- they have a perpetual cloud overhead that stretches for miles and rain can pop up at any time at elevations, which is pretty much true anywhere.)

There are drivers who frequent the TripAdvisor Costa Rica forum who drive the typical tourist routes to and from San Jose and La Fortuna, Limon, and the popular west coast destinations. Learn who they are. Ping them via TripAdvisor before you go to get latest road conditions and tips on gas stations and places to eat along the way where you plan to drive.

As you enter towns or villages, it can be difficult to know where to go when you are faced with several roads at an intersection. Watch the traffic flow and observe the condition of the pavement- those alone can tip you off to which road is the more traveled, which is likely the very highway you want.

Look out for the port of Limon and highway 32, which crosses the mountains and is a major artery into and out of San Jose. It rains up in those mountains, hard. The roads are narrow, twisting, foggy and drivers cut you off even as you get stuck behind many trucks in a row. Be patient. We saw a rental SUV halfway off the mountain and were lucky to get past just before the road was closed- for hours (it made the nightly news in San Jose.)

The traffic in Limon will likely be awful- we got stuck in a 2-hour snarl (on hwy 32) and did not move at the port of Limon- on a Sunday! (There simply is no alternative route, as you can see on a map.)

For all the logical reasons, if you plan a driving vacation, we suggest strongly you don’t plan it around holidays. That includes the week leading up to a holiday and the week afterward.

Tip: Go for the Offbeat.

The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica has received sporadic reviews in various articles in the past 4 or 5 years, from Travel & Leisure to Lonely Planet and the New York Times. This area of the country doesn’t support high-end (or even mid-end) resorts, and it doesn’t see near the amount of tourist traffic that the Pacific side sees, so it hasn’t quite caught the eye of the general tourist trade.

Because the areas around Cahuita and Punta Negro still retain a quirky, laid-back Caribbean village atmosphere, I chose to make this area our place to relax, enjoy the sea, and see a lot of wildlife. Also, lodging and activities here are a lot less expensive than in the more heavily trampled areas, which fits with our travel style.

This area is truly a gem- a combination of the tropical Caribbean island life and funky seaside villages carved from the rain forest, all overlaid with the Tico laid-back and friendly attitude you find throughout the country. Sure, there’s the backpacker scene in Puerto Viejo De Talmanca, which isn’t our thing. And we’ve read of the drug trafficking and petty crime that can occur, but of course we take sensible precautions.

This is a good place to inject that it is always a good idea to pick up some useful phrases in the local language when you travel. The further you get from the big cities, the fewer folks you’ll run into who are fluent in English. Let’s face it, we’re all shy in an unfamiliar tongue, so do come prepared. There are all manner of apps out there, Google Translate is one, where you don’t need an internet connection to communicate with someone. Having a few simple phrases on hand will help you as you shop in local food markets, purchase gas, buy tickets to a private reserve, make arrangements over the phone, or just communicate your genuine appreciation of your hosts’ hospitality.

 

Panama Funk

DebOverUnderFive days aboard a private sailboat, visiting uninhabited Caribbean islands, exploring reefs, relaxing in the tropical sun, enjoying peace and quiet, just we two, the skipper and his wife– those were our expectations. However, the brutal reality of seeing third world slums reflecting the 40% of people living in poverty, rampant rubbish and trash, air and noise pollution, and a rash of peevish details-gone-awry seemed determined to deflate our initial optimism about our week’s vacay in the tropics.

What brought us here initially was a desire to get out to the remote Guna Yala (aka San Blas) islands, located off the northern coast of Panama. This archipelago of mostly uninhabited islands is owned by the native Guna tribes, and harbors some of the remaining healthy, living coral reefs in Central America.

San-BlasMapOnce I discovered charter sailboats operating in the Guna Yala, it was a matter of delving into the selection of boats to settle on one that we might possibly secure, at the desired time of year (not windy season, not rainy season, not the height of tourist season). I eventually secured a private charter for Robin and myself on the stable, roomy 52 foot Blue Sky ketch for 5 days of island hopping and reef snorkeling.

Podcast: my interview with Chris Christensen of Amateur Traveler podcast about our trip to the Guna Yala islands. GunaYala podcast image

Facing the Challenge

From the outset, I recognized that the most challenging part of the trip was going to be the process of transferring from Panama City to Carti, on the coast. Two plus hours drive from PC through rural countryside and rain forest road would bring us to where we would catch our launcha boat to Blue Sky’s anchorage behind a scenic tropical island.

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The common transportation for backpackers and tourists to the Guna Yala from PC is primarily provided by a fleet of SUVs, owned and operated by various individuals and small businesses. Our hosts had made arrangements for our SUV, providing detail about the transfer that mirrored the reviews and trip reports I read on Trip Advisor, repeatedly warning visitors about the nausea-inducing rigors of the hilly, twisting, hour-long passage through the Cordillera Central mountains leading to the coast.

The airline schedules dictated we’d need to spend the night in Panama City (PC) both coming and going, so after much digging and communications on Trip Advisor, I settled on a “4-star” Starwood Hotels property, Le Meridien. We don’t typically opt for expensive hotels but the choices were limited because we needed to stay very near where our driver would pick up the boat provisions after he collected us the next morning between 5-6am. So, it was either a hostel with no hot water, or the Waldorf Astoria, the Intercontinental, or the Le Meridien.

Peevish details-gone-awry started to make themselves known when we arrived at the PC airport, to discover that our ride to the hotel would be late– about an hour and a half late. Should have stuck with my original plan, in which I had emailed our hosts not to worry about having us picked up at the airport, we’d simply cab it to our hotel. However, our hosts asked that we please use their driver. I get it. Always happy to route the money to the families that our hosts depend upon to help their business to run smoothly. But really. We could have been long settled into our room by the time Roger showed up, all smiles and sincerely embarrassed about his having mistakenly set his phone alarm for the wrong time.

Still in the glow of anticipation of the good times to come, we gave up our pique pretty readily and settled in to enjoy the ride in Roger’s air-conditioned van, even if it did completely lack shock absorbers or springs.

We left the airport, suffused in the orange miasma of heavy, oppressive smog that we had seen as we approached PC from the air. The mid-day haze over the ocean and the city seemed to add weight to the fetid, humid air, coated as it was with diesel exhaust pouring in thick black streams from city buses.

Cars zipped willy-nilly across traffic lanes, barely missing fenders and bumpers literally by millimeters. A crazed din of car horns assaulted my ears, and I was reminded of other Central American cities where blowing one’s car horn was apparently the most critical skill for any driver.Gridlock2

Car horns were used totally in lieu of turn signals, to indicate “Hey I just pulled up behind you, get moving!” to warn three lanes of traffic that you were cutting right across them NOW, to encourage people to rabbit-jump a traffic signal turning green, to intimidate drivers to run caution or even red lights, to alert pedestrians that you have no intention whatsoever of giving way, and to say “Hey look at me!” to pretty girls mincing along broken sidewalks.

I had gamely driven my way through such tumult in Cancun Mexico on Christmas Eve, San Jose Costa Rica during rush hour mornings and evenings, L.A. during rush hour in the pouring rain, and Boston during the era of the Big Dig. And of course Atlanta traffic for the past decade. Still. As familiar as the scene may be, each time I experience it, the adrenaline kicks in with a bit of the ol’ pucker factor.

The route that we took into the city generally used high-rise highways and so we didn’t get a good look at the slums (or barrios) that spread out below the highway overpasses, oozing up to the many glittering, modern office buildings, impressive skyscrapers, and high-rise condos of the city central. At first look, Panama was a fairly typical modern, cosmopolitan, crowded, busy, polluted, noisy city wrapped in a veil of smog and haze.

Arriving at our hotel in the neighborhood of El Cangrejo on the Avenida Balboa, the “… biggest upscale area of real estate development in Panama City and the most modern road”, we nearly slid right down the slick tiles covering the steep incline at the portico. We quickly snatched our roll-aboard luggage before it sped down-slope into the alley, where a line of cars coughing gas fumes jostled and honked and inched forward, trying to squeeze between parked cars on either side of the street, while dodging delivery and construction trucks backing blindly into the narrow passage.

The cacophony and diesel and gasoline fumes were simply mind-numbing. The doorman was gesturing to us, Roger was yelling something unintelligible, and the hotel parking guy-in-charge was gesturing frantically for Roger to move the van to make room for one of several cars waiting to perch on the slippery tiles and disgorge their unsuspecting riders. Sure hope those folks had on crepe soles!

In the din, I just plain forgot to pay Roger his fee for the ride, although I did manage to tip him the money I had palmed for the doormen. Nothing for it, Roger was long gone. The best we could manage would be to correct the mistake when we saw Roger next, on our way out of PC.

The expansive, brassy, glittering and cool lobby of the hotel greeted us, and we gratefully hauled up in front of the giant check-in desk. While the process unfolded, I looked around, noting the beckoning restaurant and bar area with its outside seating framed by a massive wall of thick glass, the 20-foot waterfall along the left wall pretentious with its see-through bridge across a little stream with colored up-lights embedded in the stream bed.

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Glassy, brassy Le Meridien

The elevators sported an array of LED lights, and both cars actually worked.  We took one to the “Preferred Guest” floor, reserved for members of the Starwood Hotels guest program. I had signed up for the awards program when making the reservations, more out of curiosity about what goodies the program might offer a new member. As a cynical marketer, I didn’t expect much more than mints on our pillows.

Of course I had been assured by the scowling gent at the desk that we did indeed have a quiet room at the back of the property, just as I had requested.  After all, we would be waking at 4:45 the following morning, in time to check out and be in the lobby for our shared SUV to the coast. We had awakened at 4am this day to head to the Atlanta airport. We needed all the rest we could muster.

Well, of course we got a room overlooking the busy Avienda Balboa below, with a view of the huge parking lot across the avenue and beyond that, the Bay of Panama.

PC baySmog

I clawed back the heavy blackout drapes and through the grime on the plate glass, and the haze and thick smog, I could just make out the silhouettes of massive ships queuing up to pass through the Panama Canal.

“Well, how do you like our quiet room at the back of the property?” I ruefully asked Robin. She said “What?” as if the racket from the avenue below was louder than it was. Which was loud enough, believe me.

While I tiredly considered what to do if we came back after dinner and that loud TV blaring next door was still on, Robin checked the in-room safe to ensure it worked. Few seldom do, at least for us in our travels. Sure enough it wouldn’t encode any set of digits. Sighing with the inevitability of the runaround, Robin got on the phone to request a security or maintenance person to come check the safe.

Our plan was to pop out for an early dinner, then swing by the nearby supermercardo for a few personal boat snacks and to pick up the prepaid phone cards our hosts had requested at the last minute. But we weren’t going anywhere until we could secure our passports and cash stash. We weren’t about to go strolling on city streets with all our valuables on us.

Two “security” guys showed up to check the safe and of course much mansplaining was launched to show two dumb gringas how to work a safe. Their English was sketch and Robin’s Spanish was stretched but her patience wore them down, as she slowly and repeatedly mimed and explained that A) she knew exactly how the safe worked, B) the digital keypad was broken and not accepting any inputs, C) the safe was not operational and we desired either a different room or a new safe.

It took some 8 minutes for these guys to poke, prod and mumble their way to the conclusion “So sorry, the safe is broken!” Sigh. Well at least they offered to fetch a replacement safe, and Robin’s wide smile and enthusiastic nods sealed the deal. In minutes they were back, unplugged the crap safe, plugged in the new one, and waited outside the room at Robin’s request while she checked that the thing would work. Yay! Success! Final gracias and so forth and we could now prepare to head out.

Considering the tiny fridge in the room wasn’t working so well either, some ice was needed for the complimentary, warm bottled water. I headed off to find the ice machine on the floor, but the thing had apparently been out of service for several months, if not years.  Up to the fifth floor- same thing. Back to the room to report to Robin. She trotted down to the 3rd, then 2nd floor, with the same results.

Back in the room I was unpacking and Robin was on the phone to the front desk, again, explaining that no ice machine on any floor was working (we hadn’t checked the 6th floor, but no sane person would believe they’d find a working ice machine there, either). Mr. Scowls at the Front Desk begrudgingly sent someone up with a tiny bucket of ice.

Honestly, we are not the demanding, high-maintenance pain-in-the-butt gringas. We never send meals back, we are always saying thank you and smiling, we tip well. But man I was parched, tired, grimy and not a little put out with the “services” we’d experienced so far as “Preferred Guests” in this supposed “4-star” hotel. I tamped down the bitch I could sense was beginning to wake up, and settled for a bit of a funk.

The Mean Streets of El Cangrejo

Park

Park near our hotel

Off we strolled to find the restaurant and the market near the hotel. I had mapped both, but we found it difficult to traverse the broken sidewalks, smashed curbs and dangerous intersections in the din of the city streets at rush hour. Tripping around in the heat and smog, we practically shouted directions to each other as we walked for dozens of blocks, retracing our steps past a city park, and past a forlorn 19th century hotel apparently converted to low-rent apartments, its once-splendid facade now reduced to cracked plaster, peeling paint, and broken concrete steps flanked by the remains of giant concrete planter pots. The sagging edifice was shaded by a massive ficus tree supporting a leaning, rusted bicycle. A dog tied to the bike casually lifted its leg on one of the numerous roots jutting through large sections of cracked sidewalk.

Our evening stroll continued, past the fancy glass fronted auto dealership flanked by yet another hotel or high-rise condo entry. Just one block off Avienda Balboa, the neighborhood mutated from glass upscale-veneer retail to a jumble of overhead power lines, narrow, crumbling storefronts with bars across the windows, overflowing dumpsters, and numerous  empty lots strewn with garbage, plastic, and cast-off appliances rusting in the rubble.PCstreet

The only eatery open in the area that wasn’t outside food service in the noise, dust and searing sun was a Mexican restaurant. We were greeted by welcoming if anemic air conditioning and the owner, who was perched at a shaky table with his laptop.

Twenty minutes later we paid and left the remains of our unappetizing meals of slightly “off” meat served in oil-soaked tortillas, and headed to the supermercardo. The familiar act of food shopping in a foreign market was somehow reassuring, as we negotiated narrow aisles and the crush of impatient workers on their way home after apparently a grump-inducing day.

I idly realized that so far most of the folks we’d run into, except for poor unpaid Roger, had proven to be ill-tempered and impatient. Ah well, maybe it was the heat, and that unremitting city din getting on everyone’s nerves. We certainly weren’t in Costa Rica, the land of the friendly Ticos, any more, Toto!

RibaSmith_Panama_1024We found suitable snacks and drinks to bring aboard Blue Sky (soft drinks and beer offered only at lunch and dinner, water free, all other potables the guest’s responsibility). Paying for them was an adventure, but Robin’s Spanglish prevailed.

I waited outside in a speck of shade, collecting another coat of street dust and grime, while Robin trotted to a small store up the street to purchase the prepaid phone cards our hosts had requested.

Purchases in hand, we returned to our room and to the neighbor’s TV blaring incessantly. Once again Robin phoned down to the desk, where a more helpful person assured us we could get ice for our small travel cooler in the morning- at 4:30am. We might even get a cup of coffee. We rolled our eyes and hoped for the best.

The gringo couple next door was kind enough to turn down the TV volume upon my respectful request, and after showers and re-packing for our journey to the boat, we turned in for a somewhat restful night’s sleep, the traffic and horns and sirens on the avenue below barely muted by earplugs.

A Dawning in Panama

4:30am Panama was 5:30am Atlanta, so we felt positively refreshed as we blearily dragged our roll-aboards and backpacks down to the lobby. Hurrah! Coffee and little slices of breakfast cake were on a sideboard and ice appeared in the small cooler we passed off, ensuring that at least 3 cold beers would make it aboard Blue Sky.

The SUV ride through the barrios of PC was eye-opening, as much as we could see of derelict buildings. The SUV’s headlights swept over old colonial apartments with peeling stucco and bars over every window, litter in the gutters, and scrawny and mangy dogs picking through the garbage in the alleys and empty lots. We picked up a couple of backpackers at a hostel, its narrow facade faint under a wan street light. Police cars with screaming sirens passed in the street below. Everyone aboard was quiet, struggling to wake up in the predawn.

After thirty minutes winding through the narrow streets of the city’s barrios, we collected another young backpacker couple and were brought to a large food market tucked into the ground floor of a high-rise of some sort. Various tricked-out trekker SUVs were parked among the building’s support columns, sporting heavy roof luggage racks, snorkels, and a host of dings and bashed-in fenders and rear hatch doors.

With no explanation, our driver jumped out and joined the other SUV drivers milling about. We all sat quietly in a stew of confusion mixed with a tiny tinge of apprehension. Someone in the rear of the SUV muttered something followed by a nervous laugh.

Our driver’s door was suddenly wrenched open and an in-charge kinda guy leaned in, announcing in a loud voice in Spanish that, well, the gist was “Pay me your $25 per person fee now and soon your driver will return and we’ll all be on our way.”

It’s amazing what you can do with a smattering of a foreign language, talking to someone who has a smattering of yours, followed by gestures and lots of facial expressions to reinforce pleasure, agreement, confusion, and the fact that you do not intend to move until we work this all out. Yeah we didn’t need to go there just now, but the time would come, I could just sense it.

This is where we have learned to trust arrangements made by hosts or whoever our in-country connection may be. I could see that Tito, the guy who managed his little fleet, ran a tight ship, reflected in the deference shown him by several drivers, including ours.

As suggested by our hosts, I pre-paid for our return SUV trip and watched Tito put our names into his phone to hold our seats, exactly as our hosts had said he would. A smile, a nod, a quick handshake and we were assured we’d have a ride back to the city. Not everyone knew to do this, which would catch some folks unprepared.

To the Guna Yala islands

Tito doled out some cash to his drivers, who all dispersed smartly to their respective SUVs. We were finally headed out to the Caribbean coast of Panama, a line of SUVs in various states of repair, swirling up clouds of dust and street litter, madly accelerating and decelerating, scattering dogs and pedestrians as we muscled our way, horns blaring, through crowded roundabouts and around delivery vans parked with their butts protruding into the street. Past the newer Metro city buses in their reserved lane, coughing clouds of oily black diesel smoke, past gaily painted Diablo Rojos (Red Devils), converted school buses that are owned by individuals and painted with crazy colors and designs, each spewing its own oily diesel clouds.

RedDevil.jpgThe poverty and the filth in which many of the poor live was on display right outside our tinted windows. People crouched beside shanties and cobbled-together hovels growing like mushrooms under overpasses, dotting the vista of construction rubble, refuse and garbage. Behind, a line of large fading images proclaiming the glitter and glamour of the “Coming Soon” mega-mall and surrounding luxury high-rise condos and hotels. The giant beautiful faces and photos of jewelry and well-dressed families were mounted on plywood sheets and attached to hurricane fencing, which marched up and over a steep hill, disappearing in the haze. Behind the fence stretched an expanse of weed-choked, refuse-strewn dirt and rubble, tiny figures of people and dogs crossing into the distance toward the line of skyscrapers, giant cranes and highway overpasses. The entire scene reminded me of the set of a dystopian science fiction movie or other world online game, the middle and far distance filled in with clever computer graphics.

Soon we were on the highway out of town. The scenery changed to large tracts of weedy land decorated with windblown plastic bags, litter and refuse, interspersed by large commercial warehouse or transportation facilities, then the airport and its surrounding blight, then on to the countryside of gently rolling hills and scrub, a few ranches and cattle estates beginning to dot the middle ground between the highway and the Cordillera Central mountain range on the horizon.

We were leaving PC just as rush hour was building, as attested to by the miles, and I do mean miles, of traffic gridlock in the opposing lanes. Compact and sub-compact cars, delivery trucks and buses honked and inched their way toward the city receding in our SUV’s side view mirrors.

Gridlock1More dystopian imagery crowded into my brain, recording impressions that I was determined to share here. However painful and lengthy the entire report may be, it is a faithful one, or as faithful as I’m able to bear.

An hour or so later, we came to the turnoff for the infamous Road to Carti,  where we would catch the launcha to Blue Sky. This road was not too long ago a muddy morass or roughly graded road. In spite of being paved, the route is still a nausea-inducing, bat-out-of-hell twisting, turning, roller-coaster ride that had many SUVs in the line of vehicles stopping to regurgitate vomiting passengers.

Luckily nobody in our SUV succumbed to the “scenic” ride through the mountainous rain forest to the “port” where we, and dozens of other green-faced visitors, finally unloaded bags to make our way past the rough-and-ready restaurant, and over muddy gravel to the concrete dock where launchas in various states of repair awaited passengers for islands and charter boats.

Unfortunately, this location on the northern coast of Panama is absolutely downwind from the prevailing winds and currents of the western Guna Yala islands. This means that all manner of plastic and other flotsam and jetsam washes up on these shores. As far as we could see, a virtual wall of garbage washed back and forth in the waves as they lapped ashore, the heaps marching well inland.

Overflowing trash barrels festooned with flies, sodden cardboard boxes, boat parts, rusted equipment, bedsprings, toys, plastic water bottles, plastic ware, clothing, sheets of plastic, torn tarps, ropes and lines and string and god knows how many single flip-flops, crocs and other footwear decorated the ground no matter where you looked.

In the midst of the sea of crap was the crapper, a concrete structure raised some 4 feet above ground, featuring 4 individual stalls for ladies on the left and 4 for gents on the right.

GunaWoman

Colorful Guna attire.

A Guna woman dressed in her typical colorful native attire, slumped in a broken-down chair in a strip of shade, her tiny worn and wrinkled hand extended for the quarter paid by each guest. I was glad I kept tissue in my pocket, although it, like all paper, was deposited in the plastic wastebasket beside the toilet. No running water here, in the Guna Yala (land of the Guna people).

For me, this entire scene was worse than all the garbage, trash, dust, sick and scrawny dogs and urchins we’d seen as we made our way through Panama city to the outer reaches and into the litter-strewn countryside. I was beyond funk and dismayed beyond description. My photo of a Guna woman, sitting dejectedly on the dock, her head covered and her back to the wind, her face to all that garbage, really captures the essence of the refuse heap that is the port of Carti. What Man Hath Wrought.

KunaAndTrash

My brief video pan of the dock

Blue Sky– and Beyond.

The hour-long ride in the launcha, out to Blue Sky’s anchorage, through a heavy wind-driven chop, tested our pain threshold as our butts took a real beating on those hard benches. The launcha slammed down hard in rapid succession the entire way. We deployed our inflatable pads to cushion our backsides and provide some relief to our backs. As luck would have it, we were both in physical therapy for swollen discs– therapy that was interrupted for this trip.

Here’s a quick video capturing our launcha ride! And below, we’re aboard the launcha, with inflatable butt-pads nestled between us and the wet bench seat.

LaunchaGrls

UnderSailWhat a welcome sight to pull up beside Blue Sky! It only took a bit of Cirque-du-Soleil twisting to step over bench seats, under the Bimini top, and clamber aboard Blue Sky’s deck some 4 feet above the bow of the launcha. Thank goodness for the help with our bags and backpacks, I was pretty much out of steam, even as I stood in that hot sun on the deck, greeting our hosts with a big grin on my face. I saw Robin visibly sag with relief as she stepped under the wide expanse of blue canvas providing ample shade on the broad after deck of the boat.

A steady breeze wafted faint cinnamon aroma from the tiny island off the bow of the boat. I drank in the scene: the  sun glittering off the waves and reflecting the blues and turquoise colors of the sea around us, the bright green of the palm trees waving hello from the island, the bright yellow-white of the sandy beach and tongue of sandbar seeming to anchor the island.

IslandLayer in the waves breaking over the fringing reef to the windward of the island, the salt air, the gentle movement of the boat as it swung on the anchor. Oh my, how many decades had it been since I had experienced these all at the same time?

The blue funk, my painful back, and too many nights of poor sleep all simply fell away. It may have taken real stamina to get to this point, but here we were. I was determined to absorb every morsel out of the experience that I could.

Aboard and Below

Our hosts skipper Breeze and his wife and first mate Debbie knew we were here to snorkel. They had a logical if fixed order of islands to visit each day, an itinerary that found us, on the first two bright, sunny days of our 5 day stay in the Guna Yala, anchored off exotic-appearing tiny islands with glittering sandy beaches, surrounded by rather blah patch reefs with few fish.

I knew that the mid-term NOAA marine forecast for the region predicted the last 3 days of our trip to be beset by rain, wind, and thunderstorms. I was hoping we’d get to snorkel a decent wall, with more soft and hard corals and a lot more fish, while the sunny weather lasted.

Each day we moved to a different tiny, uninhabited island, where a short dingy ride would bring us to a series of patch reefs and, on two occasions, very nice reef walls near two of the uninhabited islands/islets in the western Guna Yala islands.

On the first wall we snorkeled, highlights were spotting three Porcupine fish, one of the talismans we seek on every dive.

Porcupinefish-2These cute, shy members of the puffer, or balloon, or blowfish tribe, typically tuck well back into deep crevices and holes within the living reef, making them difficult to see. We luckily spied two swimming free, which was a treat. The largest fish was playing hide and seek under a pillar coral, but we could easily see it was about the size of a fat adult dachshund, which is large for these guys! And really, who can resist that timid, wide smile?

Sighting the Porcupine fishes pretty much signaled the end of the wonder. On our second day, we slipped off the dingy and into warm, soothing seawater. Almost immediately, I realized we were swimming through a sea of trash, garbage, plastic sheets, torn tarps, pill bottles, shoes, and assorted crap. It was so bad that I had to keep wiping my hairline at my mask skirt, and untangling crap from around my snorkel. There was no way I could realistically collect all the trash I saw floating around and below me, which is what I usually try to do. I couldn’t help but be struck by a deep sense of dismay and foreboding. What are we doing to our planet? The seas? Where are the fish? Where are the living coral reefs? What is this liquid dystopia?

This was positively the worst, a real capper to the godawful scene of the shitshow ashore at Carti. Over three decades, I’ve grown steadily disenchanted while observing the results of the steady, unremitting trashing of our seas, the death of reefs, the depopulation of fisheries, the sorrow of silent, bleached and abandoned reefs waiting forlornly and pointlessly for the fish to return. This time I really did cry behind my mask. As I write, I am filled with loathing, revisiting the scene in all its vivid, revolting detail.

Getting a grip, I realized that pissing and moaning or getting all wound up in a harangue against the gods would make no difference and would certainly rain on everybody’s parade. As it was, we were gonna see plenty of rain.RainComes

Our hosts Breeze and Debbie certainly did their best to help make our stay aboard their home Blue Sky a pleasant and safe one. Our water and drinks were kept chilled in a fridge, the meals were terrific, and safety first reigned– even as the music played, all day, every day, until after dinner. I could have used a break in the unremitting tune fest, to listen to the waves slapping Blue Sky’s hull or the waves breaking over the exposed reef just beyond that little island.

Here I will digress just a smidgen to point out that, for me, quietude and tranquility are THE primary reason I seek the great outdoors. Whether on vacation or after a hectic week of work, trading human-made racket for the sounds of nature is a critical component of getting away from it all. Check out this article, by Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge, which makes my point more eloquently than I can do here.

DebChef

Robin enjoyed tranquility on several occasions when she kayaked around an island where we were anchored, or way off to the south, toward the coastal mountains. She was careful to remain within sight of the boat, and the sure knowledge of chitras (sand flies) that inhabit every island kept her aboard her little craft. A newly-developed case of persistent bursitis in my right shoulder meant I couldn’t join her in the second kayak. Too bad, because I would have greatly enjoyed just sitting and floating upwind of Blue Sky and in the lee of the reef, listening to the waves crashing over the reef top, the wind in the palm trees, and the call of frigate birds when they cruised overhead.

Not all was doom and gloom. We enjoyed spotting a turtle on the surface, and Robin enjoyed watching a spotted eagle ray cruise by the reef on two occasions.

We also had a visit from the fruit boat and a lovely Guna couple, friends of our hosts who were happy to show us the wife’s stunning Molas. These well-known and collected examples of traditional Guna skills are each hand-stitched, using the technique of reverse applique. This process requires patience, time, imagination, and extraordinary stitching skills.

FruitBoatFruitPassMolaGalsMola

Our third day aboard, we dared darkly threatening skies to jump into the dingy with Breeze to motor over to a shallow anchorage near the reef off yet another pretty little island. Robin and I slipped into the water and we all made our way against the moderate current over a (thankfully) lovely wall that started some 4 feet below the rain-patterned surface and disappeared into the limited visibility some 40 feet below.

The light was gloomy, making it difficult to see much of the reef’s denizens. Still, it was heartening to be surrounded by more fish here than we’d seen at any patch reef the previous two days. I could hear the typical snap, crackle, pop of a healthy reef populated by parrotfish that crunched coral, unseen shrimps that popped and snapped, and the odd grunts and groans from the many types of fish that produce sound.

Those sounds were soon overshadowed by the rumbling from nasty thunderheads to the east– and west, and south, and north. Thick curtains of rain headed our way, which was fine, except lightning was in those clouds. Drat. We turned around and finned directly back to the dingy, the wind slapping waves against our ears. I tugged on the anchor line and fed it to Breeze as he quickly drove up on the line, took in the slack and anchor, and off we buzzed back to Blue Sky.

BroodyIslandsThe rain and wind steadily increased, and the lightning in the area encouraged us to do the quickie rinse-off on the swim platform and hustle up the ladder to the after deck, where Debbie was just putting the finishing touches on battening down and zipping up for the oncoming deluge.

Porthole

Bye-bye to the sun.

The master stateroom, with its king mattress, was the most comfy furniture to stretch out on as we wiled away the day reading, listening to the rain slam against the hatch and closed portholes.

Main-Salon1

Blue Sky Salon

King-Stateroom-Bluesky

Blue Sky Master Stateroom

Just forward of our stateroom, the salon area featured two ramrod-back wicker chairs and a short, somewhat padded settee where Breeze tended to spend his time on the iffy internet, attempting emails and downloads pertaining to boat parts, provisioning and arrangements for the next guests to arrive the same day we departed.

I’m glad we paid the extra for the master suite. It had a hatch overhead for better air flow, and two busy little fans over the bed.  It was comfy enough that each night we were gently rocked to sleep in a different, quiet anchorage, the boat swinging placidly on anchor, the stars (when we could see them) brightly crowding the sky, the tiny sliver of the moon floating above looking all the world like the Cheshire Cat grin.

MtsPanI found myself grasping at those mental images of the stars, the moon, the mist-shrouded coastal rain forest mountain range towering just to the south, the silvery light bathing the skies, clouds and surface of the seas after a squall. I needed those mental, and photographic, images to tamp down the creepy, dreadful images of a planet choked with human detritus, trash, and garbage. I needed images of wonder and hope, not despair.

And so it rained. And thundered. And squalled. When not slaving away in her galley below and forward of the salon, Debbie would perch on one of the chairs in the salon and read on her Kindle. With the hatches and portholes dogged down, the boat tended to get rather airless, the diesel fumes from the small generator on the forward deck mixing with the bilges and the used TP cooking in the waste basket next to the toilet in the master stateroom head providing a noxious perfume that threatened to send me off into waves of nausea. The only way to avoid the miasma was to sit up on the after deck under vast, if dripping, canvas, in plastic garden chairs that our backs simply wouldn’t tolerate for long.

Up anchor in the rain – brief video clip.

While snorkeling was relatively easy if I didn’t push the leg cramps, the climbing up and down the ladder to the swim platform, the clambering in and out of the dingy, and negotiating the up and down sets of steps in the boat was a bit tiring. And this after two flights in commuter-sized aircraft to get to Panama City, walking the streets for way too long, a lurching ride in a top-heavy SUV, and a butt-sore transfer to Blue Sky aboard the launcha. No doubt, our backs were definitely funky.

Back to PC

After our 5 nights aboard the Blue Sky, we awoke again at 4-something AM for the transfers back to PC. Debbie prepared another lovely breakfast, and fortified by coffee and gritty determination, we said Ta to our hosts, and performed our Cirque-du-Soleil twists to clamber aboard the launcha for the hour long ride back to the trashy Carti docks, to await the SUV from PC.

But first, we found we were aboard the “local bus” launcha, which stopped at several islands and boats to gain and lose various passengers. The final stop before scenic Carti was a larger, heavily populated Guna island, apparently built on a giant heap of garbage, flotsam and jetsam, the makeshift hovels crowding each other to the water’s edge.

aerien-maquinaThirdWorldThirdWorldTrash

The photos capture what appears to be a third-world island scene in Malaysia or Thailand. As we approached a rickety dock, an elderly gent was picking through the garbage at the water’s edge. Two neatly attired nuns in pristine, starched, full-length habits complete with wimples waited serenely at the end of the dock, apparently unaffected by the morning’s heat and humidity. With dignity, they quickly climbed aboard with an ease borne of practice, and quietly chatted as we pulled away from the dock.

Why was I surprised that this scene of overcrowding and floating garbage surrounded by clouds of flies and the reek of fish should disgorge two tidy, together women of faith? Surely their work was most direly needed and deeply appreciated, in spite of the mean surroundings– or because of them.

Once back at Carti, we hefted our backpacks and lifted our heavy roll-aboards to hump across acres of mud and gravel to the restaurant where we awaited our SUV for the ride back to PC.

There were few amusing moments in our entire trip but the one that stands out was provided by the two obviously French women approaching their 30s, possibly sisters, standing with stringy arms akimbo outside the restaurant, looking wind-blown, beyond trendy thin, in matching well-washed tight black short sleeves. One sported ragged short-shorts and the other dark leggings. Long, frizzed, and massively tangled manes of indeterminate washed-out color blew across their pinched faces as they gazed about them with noses high. I pegged them for upper-tier backpackers, some might label Eurotrash. They were wearing little flat slippers instead of the ubiquitous crocs, and dragging rolling carry-ons through the muddy gravel, vs hefting large backpacks.

Those two were right out of Central Casting: disdainful, and impatient with me when I didn’t take the photo of them with their camera quite as quickly as I should have, then rapidly switching on smiles when they saw the shot I finally did take after I waited for a couple of ogling young boys to get out of the picture frame. The men all hanging about waiting for launchas or new tourists to arrive in SUVs were chatting and rolling their eyes and gesturing at the two women, who studiously ignored the stir. I desperately wanted to capture the essence of these two, their attitudes, and their impact on the immediate surrounds, but there was no easy and discrete way I could get the shot I wanted, so I took mental pictures for this blog post description.

Our SUV soon showed up. We were joined by two young German women who seemed somewhat confused and out of place, glancing nervously about them and carefully watching the drivers in a group, chatting among themselves while passengers settled into their vehicles.

Our SUV had no bench seats, just individual seats like those in a converted van, thus, one butt for every seat. This came into play when, a short drive from the port, we pulled off the Carti road and followed a rutted dirt track down to the edge of a river. Several launchas were pulled up on the shore and a group of around 30 backpackers were milling around in the shade of an open pavilion, applying bug spray with gusto.

RiverLaunchasOur driver seemed resigned as he dismounted and slowly made his way over to a guy-in-charge-of-drivers. In the next few minutes, several SUVs pulled into the area, the drivers joining their fellows.

Much gesturing, scowls, shaking of heads, pointing to the parked line of SUVs and back to the backpackers in the shade of the pavilion ensued. It was clear that there were far more passengers for PC than there were SUVs and things were in a state of flux.

I muttered “Oh yeah, here comes our driver and the news isn’t good.” Behind me, Robin muttered “Oh. Swell.” The German girls’ eyes got bigger as our unhappy driver opened the door and, in a mixture of Spanish and English, communicated that this SUV needed to take two additional passengers aboard.

I laughed and gestured to the seats, saying “Oh? And where will they sit? (Gesturing)– on the roof luggage rack?” He just shook his head and closed the door.

The German girls, who had been mute until now, both started speaking in German, clearly quite concerned. I waved a “stay cool” signal and watched as Mr. Guy-in-Charge-of-Drivers opened the driver’s door and said, in clear English, “We need to put two people in here. One or two of you may need to jump out and change to a different SUV or wait for…” I cut him off, my voice ice cold and Army tough. “Oh no you don’t. We (gesturing to myself and Robin) paid Tito for this return trip, in advance. We are NOT giving up our seats. Call Tito if you like, but we are not moving. No way.”

His eyes locked with mine and we had an instant understanding. The German girls piped up and, together, made it quite clear that they, too, refused to leave their seats. He shrugged, snapped the door closed, and within a couple of minutes here came a young couple over to the SUV. With muttered apologies and a surprising lack of fuss, they squeezed themselves somewhere into the back of the SUV. I’m not sure where they both ended up. I sat in the front passenger seat, looking out the windshield, my jaw set in the universal don’t-mess-with-me signal.

Robin may have thought me a bit rigid when it came to nailing our butts to our paid seats in the SUV and even the launcha, but the truth is, people who don’t pay for tickets always hitch rides of convenience when they can. People who just don’t plan ahead or who aren’t capable of adjusting to conditions on the fly can easily be intimidated to give up their seat, their money, and information. You simply must look out for yourself when you travel, because nobody else is going to. End of lesson.

CODA

Hey, like I said, this trip wasn’t totally a bummer. I’m sure if we’d spent a lot more time in country, and a lot more money, we would have experienced many more of the delights of Panama and the Guna Yala. Still, in my attempt to provide a clear-eyed report and to help travelers understand conditions as we find them when we travel, I believe that any description of Panama City that describes the upbeat vibe and majestic skyscrapers and high rises should rightfully include the fact that those soaring buildings, expansive highways and broad avenues are surrounded by barrios and slums, harboring abject, third-world poverty that no “cosmopolitan” veneer can possibly begin to cover up.

Like a tart, Panama City aims to impress, but the lightest scratch reveals the crushing poverty underneath the surface, and the massive divide between the rich and everyone else. All the hoopla about the new, improved Panama Canal can’t whitewash the fact that, as a 2016 CIA analysis notes, “…Panama has the second-worst income distribution in Latin America”. Check out this brief article from David Brancaccio, NPR’s MarketPlace host.

Here’s another article that will lend perspective about how Panama’s canal divides the country into haves-and-have-nots.

SanBlas1By the same token, any description of the Guna Yala islands must scratch beneath the surface of scenic islets gently washed by a virgin sea, surrounded by healthy and productive seas and reefs. These islands are no longer peopled by an ancient tribe of natives living life as they have for centuries, paddling or sailing in their hand-crafted canoes, producing their unique crafts for trade, enjoying the benevolence of the tourists who visit private cruise boats and the islands. Instead, the Guna people have adapted to 21st century technology, and embraced mobile phones and gas-powered engines. The indiscriminate netting of fish has rapidly replaced the age-old selective spear fishing these gentle people practiced in the past, and the Guna now find their archipelago over-fished, even as they sell out-of-season and undersized lobsters by the ton to cruisers and island guests who either don’t know or don’t give a damn about how they are contributing to the inevitable degradation of a people, their culture and the very islands they call home.

You may wish to read this eye-opening report on the state of the Guna Yal and its people.

Photos here.

Costa Rica 2016- 10 Amazing Days

With its well-established system of national parks and protected areas, Costa Rica has since the mid-1990s been considered the poster child of eco-tourism. However, signs of the burgeoning growth of tourism abound. Manuel Antonio, the most popular national park in the country, has suffered from environmental decay and loss of habitat from too many visitors, raw sewerage being dumped into the Pacific, etc. We heard from every guide we encountered that this former crown jewel of the Costa Rica Pacific coast has turned into an island amidst uncontrolled and extensive growth. Species of monkeys and other animals that can’t merely fly away are further endangered as the gene pool continues to shrink. The guides consider a stint at Manuel Antonio a requirement to be endured, as they aspire to be employed in the misty Monteverde Cloud Rain Forest Preserve in the north, or the new jewel of the untouched primary rain forest, the Osa Peninsula.

I’ve experienced this dynamic of Discovery, Build-out, Exploitation and Decay in my home state of Florida for decades. My travels since the late 1970s have truly shown me how as few as three years can make the difference between experiencing a place, environments, people and cultures Before and After the airports or cruise ship terminals are built, the hoteliers take over the prime environments, and the rough-and-ready tracks are replaced by pavement and insidious development.Thus, in planning for our trip, I had determined to avoid the overly-trammeled tourist paths.

CR routeMy travel mantra remains to experience the wild places before the rest of humanity and the inevitable hyper-growth catches up to these areas. So, my plans for our Costa Rica vacation had us driving from the airport in San Jose up to the cloud rain forests in the mountains near Monteverde, spending three days exploring the area, maybe glimpsing Arenal volcano from a distance, then driving back to San Jose to catch a short flight down to the off-the-grid Osa Peninsula, best described as a primitive paradise of rain forests, empty beaches, and backwater settlements.

Cloudforest trailWe knew that this itinerary would entail a lot of hiking along steep rain forest trails, as compared to leisurely snorkeling or driving around tropical islands taking in fauna, flora, history and various cultures. And we weren’t disappointed!  I had planned for guided night walks, zip lining and rappelling down waterfalls, so this trip would be less relaxation and more work-out but hey, you can always hang around and relax at home, right? Besides, the main goal was to spot a lot of wildlife and to be thoroughly steeped (once again) in a tropical rain forest– a favorite environment.

Our collection of photos with captions and the numerous videos we shot really capture many of our amazing moments, so you should check those out!

ROAD TRIP!

The driving out of and back into San Jose was as challenging as LA, Atlanta, Miami or Boston. There was the poor air quality, many, many trucks, lanes that came and went unexpectedly, a decided lack of road signage anywhere, noise, and really crazy drivers on motorbikes and in a variety of sh!tbox vehicles.

While I played road warrior, Robin gamely “navigated”, combing through printed Google maps at various scales, a country driving map provided by the rental car folks with indecipherable scribbles illustrating a short cut to the toll road out of the city, and Trip Advisor forum tips ranging from “Don’t even try this trip if you have less than 4 hrs to make it before dark!” (I made it in 2.5) to “Forget the rental, take the bus or hire a driver. ”

We actually enjoyed the trip once the traffic was behind us. We left the Pacific coast and started up the blindingly dusty gravel roads into the scenery of small farms, ranches and towns tucked into the steep mountain terrain. costa-rica-mountains

The SUV kept us high enough to clear most of the boulders strewn across the twisting, steep and straight-drop-to-nowhere track as we crossed extremely gusty passes that rocked our boat and whipped up large dust-devils that obscured the view. Thank goodness for a new vehicle with working AC, but no recirculation option meant we ate dust the whole way into Santa Elena. To add to the excitement, the loose footing meant we slid out on almost every hairpin and we seldom got above 25 mph. Not to mention the bone-jarring potholes and the sun glaring off the dusty windshield and the grimy inside of the windows. Challenging? Tiring? You bet.

IN SANTA ELENA

santa elena

Santa Elena street scene

I was ready for a cold anything when we arrived at our little motel-like digs, tucked down yet another dusty, potholed “street” in a sketch part of a sketch town, above the dusty little backpacker berg of Santa Elena. But the tiki bar in the tiny eating area was closed (at 6pm??), so we got a nice hot cup of coffee, which failed to refresh. Still. We were here, so off to town we drove, looking for a spot of chow.

We ended up eating at a diner-like affair on the main drag, which was paved with bricks that slumped into large potholes. The place offered “tipical” fare, which is typically rather dull.

Robin learned that night that “beef” in this part of the country at least, was lacking in flavor and chewability. I figured the chicken is always a smart choice, when traveling to Central America destinations, and was rewarded with a meal I could tolerate, but barely. Subsequent tacos where the backpackers hung out was the smartest move, and the location for the coldest beer too, ha.

We spent the next two days and one night hike exploring the cloud rain forest of the Monteverde national preserve and a nearby private property with extensive trails and wildlife viewing. See our photos for a genuine sense of this portion of the trip!

The cool, windy, misty and mysterious cloud forest was hauntingly beautiful, and because we arrived early in the morning, we were treated to a rare sighting of a mated pair of Resplendent Quetzals. We paused for quite some time to watch the male busily digging out a nesting hole in a dead tree. The best shot I could get was the male’s resplendent tail feathers poking out of the hole and jiggling with the vigor of his efforts.QuetzalButtquetzal

 

 

The next night we were delighted with all the critters we saw during a two hour guided night hike through rain forest trails.We spotted coatimundis, an aguti, an anteater sleeping in the fork of a tree, armadillos, several sleeping birds, frogs and snakes, and beautiful beetles that glowed like fireflies but were 20x the size and would vibrate if you squeezed gently.

The rain forest at night is simply crawling with wildlife and a fascinating place. I don’t find it eerie at all but some people on that hike were pretty nervous and yammered away, breaking the spell of the night sounds.

OFF THE GRID

A special, serendipitous experience  began with our decision to go down a track way off the grid (seriously, even Google maps is clueless), past a  “Closed- turn back” sign which we ignored “Hey this road looks traveled– uh, mostly”. That track was hands-down the most challenging, painful and exhausting driving at 15mph I have ever done but the scenery was spectacular and the payoff at the end of this hour jaunt was this magical old homestead-cum-hostel carved out of the rain forest on top of a steep ridge with a spectacular view of Arenal volcano and the lake at its base.

arenal pan

We were met by two playful kittens as we painfully hauled ourselves out of the dust-covered SUV. The panorama view pulled us to the edge of the grassy parking area and a steep drop off. The rain forest rolled away toward the massive volcano, pitching down sheer ravines and covering the steep series of ridges. Waterfalls cut through the wall of green in the distance, glinting in the afternoon light. The wind at this elevation (likely 6,000 ft) was cool and steady, with gusts enough to blow my ball cap away.

The only sounds were the wind, rain forest birds, and the swishing of the landscaped greenery around the property.

ArenalViewCatsThe kittens cavorted while we took photos. Only after taking in the sights did we turn our attention to the lodge-like structure behind us. Heavily constructed of massive logs, the place stretched out across the cleared hilltop, offering plate glass windows to the view before us.

I smelled wood smoke as we entered the arched, high-ceiling entryway, went down a short flight of stone steps, and walked the length of the cavernous dining area. A couple was seated at one of the tables, enjoying the incredible view.

I approached a solid wooden counter at the end of the room and saw a huge fireplace behind the counter and a stack of large logs that looked like a wood pile for some serious stoves. And sure enough, I could see into the industrial-sized food prep area to my left and there were two men, chopping away on greens and veggies on long metal trestle tables. Behind them open wood burning ovens were glowing away, coughing clouds of smoke back down the chimney and into the area with each gust of wind outside.

The atmosphere was so, well, atmospheric! The prevailing quiet, interrupted by the chopping and the sounds of gusting winds buffeting the building– the smoke, the rasp of a heavy wooden chair across the stone floor as Robin sat down at a table behind me— it was all so weirdly transporting. I felt like time hit Pause for five seconds. What a tranquil, timeless kind of place.

The spell of course was broken as our host ambled out and asked in Spanish if we’d like to eat. A brief confab ensued, with Robin leading the way in her capable Spanish to the conclusion that there was little on offer and we’d be taking pot luck. Or, as our host described it, a “tipical” meal, which we were grateful for, having eaten little that morning besides a scrambled egg and squashed protein bars retrieved from our backpacks.

forest felineWhile we waited for lunch to be served, I repaired to a couch nearby, joined by the kittens, who wore themselves out playing, then settled down in my lap for a snooze. The quiet descended again, and the smoky stillness of the airless room started to lull me to sleep until I got up to open a couple of windows high above the plate glass expanse to let in some of that invigorating mountain air.

Following our meal, we buckled in and buckled down for the return trip to Santa Elena, back up and down that killer, twisting, slippery, rutted track. The forest soon engulfed us but was broken here and there by open vistas of incredibly steep pastures dotted with trees and tangled underbrush. Not a cow or horse, donkey or mountain goat in sight. I couldn’t imagine spending a day on a small horse, struggling up and down those pitches chasing up cattle. What a hardscrabble life the rural farmers and ranchers must lead!

DSC00820Back to our little, high-ceiling room at the Monteverde Mountain Lodge, with its lovely, dusty landscaped garden area, the noise of construction from a third floor addition, the incessant racket of mufflerless motorcycles at all hours, the barking dogs throughout the night, and the sound of the wind slamming against the building. We slept with windows closed,  earplugs in and a small fan blowing the dust around the room and into our sinuses, eyes, ears, luggage and any drink left uncapped.

TO THE OSA

We were glad to take our leave after  three days in Santa Elena and head back to noisome San Jose, getting lost and tangled in city traffic, making our way back to the rental car place, and catching a small but beautifully appointed plane, us the only passengers, down to Puerto Jimenez on the Osa Peninsula.

puerto jimenez

Puerto Jimenez street scene

At the tiny airstrip next to the graveyard in the noisy, crowded, dusty town, we were met by our driver, who carefully placed our bags in the bed of the pickup and covered them with a tarp as a nominal dust cover. Now we faced what we well knew to be an hour-long, truly bone-jarring ride down yet another dusty, god-awful road through ranching and teak wood-growing country.

potholed roads cr

Thank goodness it wasn’t rainy season for our visit!

The scenery was pleasantly distracting, with the Golfo Dulce to our left framed by high mountains, and the flat farming terrain to our right, bordered by towering rain forest hills folding back to the western horizon. Even so, it was difficult to see a lot through the blur of the jouncing and thumping, and taking photos was completely out of the question. We just endured and tried to chat up our driver, who was shy due to his lack of English. Robin was in the back seat gritting her teeth to protect her tongue and my Spanish is beyond desultory, so it was a non-chatty drive.

The fun part was the road-guard Capuchin monkey, whose image resolved out of the dust as we approached a section of canopy road. It sat facing us, and as the truck slowly approached, it hiked itself up on all fours and bared its teeth– a clear warning to stop. We laughed and, suspecting it was holding traffic for its family to cross, we looked up into the trees overhead and sure enough, five more monkeys were making their way down a tree. The road-guard glanced at them, then glared at us, teeth bared, then glanced at them again. I half expected it to motion “hurry up there!” to the troop, who eventually crossed quickly right behind the guard.

With one last glare and teeth-baring, the road-guard jumped across the road, following the troop, and we resumed our trek, amused and thankful for the short break from our rough ride.

IN THE RAIN FOREST

el Remanso was our home-away for the next five days and boy, it was worth every strained muscle in our backs and necks to experience this paradisaical unspoiled, wild place.

el remanso lodge2Some folks choose their vacation spots for the food, or to be pampered, or just to relax. We tend towards the “active” vacation experience. I’m deeply grateful that Robin is more adventure-minded, gathering experiences vs, say, souvenirs. As hard as she works, she deserves some pampering or just hanging out by a pool but she’s game for hiking her butt off, sweating buckets, eating unknown and perhaps not-great food at unpredictable times, sleeping on mattresses that are more park bench than not, or being awakened at the barest crack of dawn by the startling, abrupt and incredibly loud Howler monkey calls right outside the cabin.

Things like the probability of running into the fer-de-lance, the most dangerous snake in Costa Rica, or falling off a steep trail or a zip line or on rappel may give her pause but she is a brave and tenacious fellow traveler! Of course before we went I didn’t tell her that the reason the fer-de-lance has such a fearsome reputation is that many people are bitten because of its association with human habitation and that many bites actually occur indoors. Kinda like I didn’t tell her a lot about Australia’s enormous variety of toxic and venomous creatures before we slept in the open (no screens, no doors) in the rain forest of Tropical North Queensland.

All this to say that I respect and admire Robin’s willingness to undertake these journeys rather than insisting on a vacation of pampering or even just relaxing. We have done some pretty adventurous stuff and I guess our activities this trip certainly added to the list. Plus, Robin delighted and surprised me with her willingness to undertake rappelling down waterfalls in the rain forest, no less.  I am very proud of Robin’s stamina, strength of character, determination, and the extreme focus she brings when it’s Game On and time to learn how to do something on the fly, depending on your sense of balance, timing, and paying close attention to things like thorny plants, army ant columns, snakes, scorpions, spiders and slippery and dangerous footing.

rappel lynn3

Lynn 2nd of 3 waterfalls

I could wax on about the el Remanso property, the awesome staff, the incredible logistics challenges they face daily to just keep the place running way out there on the tip of the Osa, way far from any hospital or store or easy access to even get in and out of that area. It’s most definitely for the fit, outdoors wildlife peeps, the adventurous, the hearty and hale. If it’s dawn yoga or a spa treatment you seek, this ain’t it. But they do have a fantastic yoga platform just off one of the many winding gravel paths that snake throughout the property, as well as a lovely massage area quite secluded but where one has a stunning view of the ocean way down there through a gap in the forest canopy. But we saw nobody using those services.

What we did see, and hear, and experience on many levels was the never-ending parade of wild animals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and birds galore.

We could hear them moving in the forest canopy, shuffling or darting along the forest floor– even whipping past (a bat just missed hitting me in the ear one dusk- I actually felt the wind from its wings.) We observed critters sleeping, hunting, mating, nesting, rooting and just going about their business. We could smell the musk and piss from the monkey troops overhead and just upwind. We spotted deer and peccary tracks at the edges of creeks, and coati and ground-dwelling bird tracks in the moist beach sand.

beach lagoon robin panWe felt the salt air from the ocean shore and the mists rising from rushing waterfalls, and the cold water flowing over our feet as we carefully stayed to the center of the river’s flow to avoid snakes on either bank. Sweat poured down our arms and dripped off our fingertips in the 100% humidity hovering over the riverbed during one night walk, way deep in a ravine, cut off from any breezes.

And yes a fer-de-lance made an appearance, darting under our night river walk guide’s boot. Rinaldo the guide didn’t spot it but I happened to be watching for snakes in the circle of my flashlight and warned Rinaldo to stop. Later we got an eye level close-up view of a non-venomous green snake stretched out on the limb of a small tree, bent on getting to the two small birds eggs in a nest mere inches away.

What I didn’t miss were man-made sounds. The rain forest was all-encompassing, all-present, and spending an entire afternoon walking trails quietly or sitting on the deck and just listening and watching, was all the conversation anyone needed.

The new moon hadn’t made its appearance so the nights were draped in absolutely black night skies, the stars bright as diamonds on display, the planets shimmering and the satellites barely moving, if at all. We’d turn off all lights in our cabina and in minutes the show was on. Some nights I hated to go to bed but the daily dawn chorus and an at-first-light hike with guides were typically waiting, and we needed our rest to get through the heat, humidity, and just plain day-long workout hikes.

Our videos of this special slice of Costa Rica are transporting, and there are many more awe-inspiring photos, so be sure to visit our links!

We visited in-between seasons, so what few guests we saw (maybe 10 toward the end of the week- the place accommodates 31) were other couples, some younger than us, some older. Several were semi-pro bird watchers, there was one pro photographer hired by the management to gather shots for marketing. There were no children in tow.

As the owner and his wife explained, most visitors are there for the outdoor activities, the wildlife, and being in the rain forest.  Many learn of this magical place by word of mouth. Still, el Remanso has earned the Trip Advisor 2016 Choice Award, consistently gets 5 star reviews, and people like Bear Grylls and other TV animal kingdom and critter show producers discovered this place some years ago. It won’t be long before Travel & Leisure does a piece that brings this area to the attention of a lot more travelers, but for now the sheer pain of getting there keeps the hoards at bay.

I hope they never pave that hellish road leading in or that’s the beginning of the end.

Again I point to our photos with captions and the videos on my YouTube channel Costa Rica playlist as well worth the time, if you want to experience these places vicariously. I’ve worked hours to edit shots and videos and welcome the opportunity to share with friends and family. Please feel free to comment on photos or videos too!

CODA

Costa Rica is definitely a place to visit time and again. We have quite a few friends who have a long history visiting and some who are planning to retire there–that’s a whole different topic. But as such magical places become easier to access and the tourist numbers keep growing exponentially, there will be changes, and in my experience few of them are good.

If you do your homework on Costa Rica, you’ll discover why this tiny country may have a real shot at avoiding the worst of the negative effects of a shrinking globe, population pressures and attendant problems, greedy developers, corrupt officials, infrastructure collapse, pollution and the whole ball of wax. Sure they have challenges, such as the Taiwanese mafia holed up in Puntarenas and manning fleets of illegal shark finning boats, poachers trawling the national marine parks, turtle egg poachers, wildlife poachers, etc. But I prefer to look at the potential of the majority of ticos and maybe even some of the ex-pats to continue to lead the way, raise voices, and raise hell to protect the future of this achingly beautiful slice of Central America. Pura Vida!

Australia 2015

Australia mapAustralia. Down Under. Oz. Simply an amazing, spell-binding place to vacation!

We arrived to a Tropical North Queensland late summer, having left a southern Appalachian late spring. There was little difference between the two climates, even though our destination was the tropics of the Coral Sea, 16 degrees below the equator.

The real contrasts were the trees (various figs, paperbark trees, and over 700 varieties of eucalyptus), the Aussie accents and learning new expressions for familiar objects and activities. Examples include “brekkie” for breakfast, “tomato sauce” for ketchup, “serviette” for napkin (“nappie”, goes on a baby’s behind), “troppo” for tropic, “esky” for cooler (we deciphered this in a welcome note from the owner of our digs), “servo” for gas station (look for the signs!), and “ta” for thank you. The checkout lady at the grocery store confused us for a second when she referred to the “chook” we bought (chicken.)

And the ubiquitous “No worries–Cheers!” from simply everyone, including the staff working security screening at the airports. What a breezy culture.

Australia Road SignsWe were amused and often baffled by the road signs, the town names, and the Aussie money! Large, thin, colorful bills much like Caribbean dollars started at $5, and the weight and bulk of the many coins we ended up toting was, well, weighty. Coins ranged from .20 to .50, $1, $2. If you search Google Images you can fill in the blanks.

But of course it was the unique wildlife of this oldest of the ancient landmasses on the planet that held us in thrall– or rattled our cage, as in the case of our nightly nemesis the Orange-Footed Scrub Fowl, a chicken-sized Megapode (BigFoot for Latin lovers) sounding very much like a screaming child, a crowing rooster or clucking hen, and a drunk gargling a full bottle of Listerine. Loud. At night. Mostly.

Actually we became fond of these birds as they scratched around under trees in parks, throughout neighborhoods, parking areas in the rain forest, pullouts along the coast, and almost anywhere you’d expect a scrub fowl to be scrubbing around. Scrub Fowl Australia

Artists Treehouse Robin

 

 

 

 

 

Our lovely digs in Port Douglas were situated a couple blocks off the beach and each dawn the scrub fowl vocals were augmented by all manner of tropical birdsong, and punctuated by frequent fly-overs of flocks of cockatoos, lorikeets and many of the more than 630 species of birds reportedly making Tropical Northern Queensland their home. I managed to record a minute or so of the morning chorus, which you can view and listen to on my YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCb3LG_u08PSCrZ5zHPnWe3A.

Critters and Hazards

Kangaroo chatEnthusiastic tourists, we welcomed the chance to check the boxes on our most desired critter encounters. Hug a Koala- check. Pat a ‘roo and a Wallaby- check. Walk with an emu- check. Photograph a platypus and a cassowary in the wild – check. Snorkel amazingly brilliant and healthy Great Barrier Reef areas and spot A) huge Maori Wrasse, B) Giant Humphead Parrot Fish, C) Reef Shark. And a special treat: get photographed diving just above a venerable, large Green Turtle as it rested on the top of the reef– big fat check mark!

We were successful in avoiding the Most-Deadly-On-The-Planet things that Could-Kill-You-Swiftly or make you very “crook” (sick.) No spiders or snakes bit. No Box Jellies (“stingers”) stung, no salt water crocs attacked, no sharks circled our snorkel spots, no venomous octopus or cone shell lurked with deadly intent, and we didn’t trod on a toad, a scorpion fish, a bull ant or a giant centipede. Heck I had to look up half of these to even know what the dangers could be!

However I’m sure we did court mishap, whether we were hiking down trails in the rain forest, slipping along sandy paths to a deserted beach, or stumbling over razor-sharp volcanic rock approaches to out-of-the-way waterfalls. Likely the most hazard-prone activity we undertook was driving the Great Dividing Range of coastal mountains via steep, winding switchbacks through the rain forest at night, and flying down endless straightaways through the savannas and grasslands where signs warned “Unfenced road-beware of stock and wildlife”, complete with cow and kangaroo silhouettes violently meeting the front of cars. Then add getting through numerous traffic circles (“roundabouts”) in the city of Cairns, especially when driving on the wrong side of the road and sitting on the wrong side of the car (“Drive Left- Look Right!”)

I did have to dodge a big ‘roo road kill on the way back from the Atherton Tablelands, threading the little rental car between a massive stiff hind leg sticking out into my path, a chunk of unspeakable on my right, and a huge transport rig bearing down in the oncoming lane. Other than that, the roads everywhere we went (and we went a lot of places) were refreshingly devoid of road kill, which we attributed to so little traffic in an area of Queensland that is mostly national parklands (rain forest) and only lightly settled.

In The Bush

Once out of the city of Cairns (“Cahns”, as in beer, pop. approx. 500k), mid-day traffic began to wane and roadside businesses dwindled to nothing. We drove north along the coastal Captain Cook Highway, which climbed up and over numerous steep mountain pitches and wound along under a lovely tropical treed canopy. Any place out of the cities and in the country is apparently “the bush”, so we happily tooled along, however jet-lagged from days of travel and a 15 hour-ahead-of-our-bodies time change.

Rex Lookout

On our way from Cairns to Port Douglas, our HQ for our 11 night Oz Getaway, the view from Rex Lookout was stunning, and the Coral Sea bathing lovely beaches and crashing against rocks helped keep us alert.

Along the coast, “the bush” is basically rain forest, and during the week, the further north we drove on various adventures, the fewer settlements we encountered. Just a few miles north of bucolic Port Douglas (pop. 3,200), if you get off the Cook Highway and onto the only other “road” noted on most maps, (forget GPS and mobile service, you are in the bush!), you actually run out of road. The pavement dribbles away to rough “track” that wanders off to the northwest, following the wild, beautiful and croc-infested Daintree River.

Mossman GorgeStaying on the Cook Highway was wise, and led us just 15 miles north of Port Douglas to Mossman Gorge, a stunning natural beauty in the World Heritage listed Daintree National Park, set within a steep-sided valley on the Mossman River. Along the way, we passed through a coastal plain featuring rampantly healthy sugar cane fields viewed against majestic, jagged mountains heavily green with rain forest cover.

CaneField Mossman

Even though we had a couple of days of windy and rainy conditions, the low clouds and thick mists crowning the tops of the highest peaks made for spectacular scenes, some of which I managed to capture in-camera. Be sure to visit my photos link Our Oz Photos-Picasa for pix, and Lynn’s YouTube Channel – Oz for brief videos!

Rainforest Flowering treesAdventures in the Rain Forest

We spent more time in the rain forest than on the beach or in PD, or even snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). This was intentional. I chose PD as our base because it was wonderfully convenient to the Daintree National Park and the nearby Atherton Tablelands, all of which were readily reached by the Cook Highway.

Coastal rainforest QLDIf you Google “Daintree National Park” or even “tropical northern Queensland” and check out Google Maps, you’ll see how the Cook Highway describes a large oval from Cairns up to Mossman and then west and south, in the rain shadow of the Great Dividing Range, to the amazing beauty and stunning vistas of the Atherton Tablelands. This area of I-dunno-how-many-square-miles embraces beaches, rugged and undeveloped coastal areas, ancient rain forest and dry grasslands and savannahs, each environment home to unique and strangely unfamiliar fauna and flora.

We learned that these rain forests are among the oldest on the planet, which makes sense if you study your geography, plate tectonics, and history– or watch a lot of nature or travel programming!

Daintree ferryBush Trek to Cooktown

Toward the end our stay, we were off to drive north along the Cook Highway, across the Daintree River via car ferry, and onto the now narrow two-lane, twisty and switch-backed Cape Tribulation Road. Through the wilds of the coastal rain forest to points further on, we drove for over an hour until we ran out of pavement in a tiny beach side village tucked into the rain forest.

rainforest hideawayHere, in Cape Tribulation, we arrived in the late afternoon under threatening skies at the Rainforest Hideaway, an aptly-named BnB. With only 4 small structures, this place was just the ticket to spend an off-the-grid night in the rain forest. Limited electricity provided by a generator, composting toilets, and a micro-cabin awaited us, as did the experience of taking an outdoor shower in the rain forest. No photo of the facilities here, you’ll have to hit Our Oz photos link for that one!

We’d both developed a Nasty Head Cold our 3rd day in PD, so here we were a week later, coughing and blowing our noses most of the night. The sounds of heavy rain soaking the surrounding greenery did little to soothe, as I found myself struggling to avoid getting tangled up in the mosquito netting while fishing around in the dark for that dang Kleenex box.

cassowaryAfter a rough night, we were up at the crack of dim rain forest light, to a visit by a Cassowary! One of several that make this corner of the rain forest home, this 2-year old male was enjoying a breakfast of fruit just off the raised deck of the open-sided reception area. What a treat, to watch this ancient and other-worldly appearing bird as it slouched along in its unique and somewhat sinister way with its head nodding with every step, and its back parallel to the ground. (Robin stands next to a huge adult replica in the photos collection.)

My attempts to get a decent photo of this guy in such dim light failed miserably and too, I was wary of holding the camera within reach of a bird with a reputation of being aggressive and nasty-tempered.

I’m simply fascinated with this strange life-form and was delighted to see one so close up! We’d spotted one the afternoon before, when we first arrived at Cape Trib and strolled through a park-like area on our way to a beach path. But here we were near enough to touch this curious bird, whose head bobbed up over the edge of the platform from various places as he walked around the veranda, peeking inside to see if more fruit was in the offing!

If you’re as fascinated as I am, and enjoy National Geographic stories and photos, check out this link for a brief tale of Cassowaries and their homeland, the wet tropics of Northern Queensland. Cassowary NatGeo

Cooktown QLDAll too soon it was time to say goodbye to Big Bird, as our guide Mike D’Arcy arrived to escort us on his 11-hour guided 4X4 tour of the rain forest, unspoiled coastal beaches, a small Aborigine village, and eventually Cooktown.

The Cooktown Wiki entry describes this scenic little town as “… at the mouth of the Endeavour River, on Cape York Peninsula in Far North Queensland where James Cook beached his ship, the Endeavour, for repairs in 1770.”

Cooktown was lovely, offering a quiet town, a tasty repast of fish n’ chips (fries to us), and lovely scenes of the river debouching into the Coral Sea from atop Grassy Hill.

After visiting the amazing James Cook Museum, located in a stately 19th century former Catholic convent school, we retraced our steps along the dusty, potholed, rough Bloomfield Track, stopping to spot waterfowl at a lovely estuary setting where I found the paperbark trees a photo op.

PaperbarkSwampBloomfield falls

 

 

 

 

We passed back by the trail leading off to Bloomfield Falls, where that morning we’d rested after a bit of a trek to try spotting the resident croc that lurked in the inviting creek below the falls. But, no croc sighting, so we pressed on, the 4X4 splashing gamely once again through the wet-foot crossing and arriving at the beach at Cape Tribulation.

We’d visited here early in the morning (seemed simply HOURS ago!) when the tide was in. Now, at low tide, the sea was practically at the horizon and the expanse of exposed beach seemed to go on forever.

The light at early dusk was simply magic: shades of mauve, cyan and a powdery purple played on the undersides of rain clouds on the southwestern horizon. I was drawn to a few stray red mangrove trees whose exposed roots tantalized my photographer-brain, and suddenly the entire scene was bathed in an ethereal silver light.

Some distance down the beach, Mike and the four gals were exclaiming over crabs in the sand but I was transfixed, as I splashed through large puddles left by the receding tide and found the shot I knew was waiting for me– I just had to capture it before that light slipped away!

mangrove cape tribulation beach
That shot alone was worth the aching back, the red cold-sore nose, a full bladder and a dozen other annoyances of a day spent banging about in a cramped 4X4. I was ready for a beer, dinner and bed! But first– a little two-hour drive back down the coastal road in the pitch dark, through the rain forest, over switchbacks, to the Daintree Ferry– and home in PD.

Great Barrier Reef snorkelSnorkeling the Great Barrier Reef
This was truly the genesis of our trip. Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef had been a dream of mine since I first experienced the underwater realm as a SCUBA diver way back in the early 1970s. It took awhile, but 40-odd years later, there I was, Robin beside me, finning over this vibrant, fishy, brilliantly colored reef system. I truly had more than salt water in my eyes as I blinked behind my mask at the breathtaking scenes that presented themselves, no matter which way I turned my head.

Our third day in PD had us boarding the vessel Wavelength for the run out to the GBR off Port Douglas. Here the reef system came close to the coast– not as close as further north perhaps, but close enough to get there after a 90-minute run in a 60-foot, twin-diesel, monohull craft.

I’d chosen Wavelength Marine Charters because, unlike the other charters in the area which carried 90 to 200 people aboard (egads!), Wavelength offered small group, low-impact reef experiences, and “… employs qualified marine biologists as crew in order to offer a high level of interpretation of the Great Barrier Reef.” True enough, and the first mooring ball we tied up to in the lee of Opal Reef brought us face to face with a large Green Turtle as it rested quietly on the top of the reef some 30 feet below. Green Turtle

Luckily one of the marine biologists had her camera, and captured a shot as I dived down to get a better look at this gorgeous and serene turtle, which was about the size of a dining-room table. The water clarity here wasn’t as clear as subsequent stops, where we saw all manner of Coral Sea life, including giant clams, clownfish snuggling down in massive and colorful anemones, and more staggeringly healthy and massive hard and soft corals than I have ever seen on any Caribbean reef.

GBR fishyMany species of fish here are quite differently colored than in the Caribbean, and indeed uncounted species are simply not found in the Caribbean. I found my internal database somewhat lacking when it came to accurate fish-identification, but frankly the selection was simply overwhelming. Triggerfish, parrotfish, butterfly fish, sea basses, various cods, wrasses, the odd-looking unicorn fish, and the beautifully-striped and red-lipped Sweetlips flipped, darted, hovered and cruised until I felt I was swimming through a kaleidoscope of fishes. And I guess I was.

I desperately wanted to spot a specimen of the famed Maori (AKA “Humphead”) Wrasse, and at our second dive spot, two cruised by about 25 feet of depth, just inside the visibility veil. Wow, those fish were BIG and impressive, as the pic (from the web) illustrates!Maori wrasse

Giant clamAnd speaking of huge, the giant clams we swam over on various dives on the two different days we went out with Wavelength, were, well– giant! The non-aggressive (joke) mollusks we saw sported psychedelically-patterned mantles in colors ranging from electric green and disco purple, to intensely orange, flaming pink, and so forth. But the amazing thing, aside from their sheer SIZE, was the plethora of neon-colored dots (eyes?) throughout the mantle. Looking at photos is one thing, but floating just a couple of feet above one of these massive mollusks and viewing the details of its shape and coloration in clear water with the sun providing a handy spot-light– well, that was sheer magic.

Savannas and the Tablelands

termite mound QLDThe photos really tell the story of the two trips we took to the Atherton Tablelands. Highlights include driving through the misty mountains and crossing the Great Dividing Range to the dry savannahs beyond, where the roos and other indigenous critters live on the grasslands that are dotted with thousands of termite mounds of all size and coloration.

Lake Eacham QLDVisiting the region of deep, crystal-clear crater lakes surrounded by nothing but rain forest was a series of eye-opening surprises, as were the many waterfalls, the little towns looking all the world like movie lots of hundred-year old Australian bergs (another joke but a truism I guess.). The giant “curtain fig tree” was simply breathtaking, you really should view the brief video snippet I caught of this 600 year-old behemoth.

Curtain Fig Tree, Atherton Tablelands

Checking out the funny and unexpected signs on roadways, buildings, businesses and in public toilets, seeing a platypus swim 30 feet away — these were moments I’m very glad to have caught on video and in-camera, as I walked around in a head-cold induced fog, trying my best to fully LIVE every moment, in-between bouts of coughing and drowning in sinus gunk.

Full Circle

Homeward bound, we awoke one morning in Honolulu knowing we needed to get to the Pearl Harbor Visitor’s Center to see what we could before our flight from Honolulu to Atlanta took off that afternoon.

USS MissouriBy now we were virtual zombies, quite numb from dealing with the time difference between Brisbane and Hawaii, the addled confusion of crossing the International Date Line, and dealing with the dregs of a severe head-cold. But hey, we were STILL on vacation, so we two middle-aged gals dragged our jet-lagged and horribly sleep-deprived-after-23 hours-of non-stop-travel selves out into the rental car and next thing you know (or as best I can recall), we were on the deck of the USS Missouri, standing just about where the table was placed for the signing of the document that officially ended WWII. This was a real treat for this history buff, and even as foggy as my brain was, I still felt an intense mix of emotions for what happened– the conflict, the loss of millions of lives, the horrors. I won’t wax lengthy on this one but suffice it to say, I was moved. I’ve spent a lifetime studying history, and my particular interest in WWII really came home to me in many moments I was fortunate to experience here.

Wavelength Boat galsSo, what’s my personal Big Takeaway from this trip? Beyond the amazement that we could even GO, the keen appreciation for the fact that we could weather it (you gotta be tough to travel these days) even sick as dogs for most of it; the gratitude for being blessed with the ability to marshal our financial and planning resources to make something as complex as this come together and, not least, the support of family and friends who provided the peace of mind knowing our home and critters were cared-for in our absence: my takeaway is this…

… Don’t Go on such a lengthy trip and spend ONLY 12 nights total in-country! Spend more time so you can truly breathe it, embrace it, and LIVE every moment as if it is your last.

—————————-
CODA

This trip challenged me in many ways; the planning alone turned out to be extraordinarily detailed even for OCD me. The budgeting, saving and tracking of spending was a chore but very smart and necessary. Communicating with people hours and days removed, even via relatively “easy” internet comms was often difficult and frustrating. Figuring out travel timetables, airline schedules and plane seats, accommodations in several cities, towns, and on different continents proved daunting. Taking advantage of currency exchange rates, finding ways to reduce the costs of foreign transaction fees and international mobile phone coverage, uncovering “cheap” sources of transfer to and from en-route hotels, sifting through the best and inexpensive places to stay, to eat or buy food en-route definitely paid off in spades. And, covering our butts in the event of major issues was time-consuming and necessary, but proved gratifying and added room for flexibility and serendipity to embrace experiences I never could have anticipated.

It does pay to study your geography! Through the months of studying maps, Google Earth, Trip Advisor, and a host of websites patiently bookmarked and frequently revisited, I learned much about the areas where I wanted to go, stay, visit, drive to, fly to and so forth.

Long before catching our initial taxi ride to the MARTA station in Atlanta to head to the airport, I had been mapping, estimating drive times and conditions, studying ocean tides and winds, boat schedules, train timetables, and weather forecasts. By the time we hit the ground in Honolulu, Brisbane, Cairns, and our pied a terre in Port Douglas, the places we were to visit and the routes we would take to get there were as familiar to me as they could be from such a distance.

Challenges

A brutal head-cold took hold of us almost as soon as we boarded the Hawaiian Airlines flight from Honolulu to Brisbane. “Aloha” and “mahalo” were the watchwords, but the soothing, mellow Hawaiian tunes piped through the ‘plane were drowned out by the unrelenting sneezing and coughing of Aussies. I donned my hoodie, plugged in ear plugs, strapped on my silk eye mask and surgical face mask and, like Robin across the aisle, huddled in my “extra comfort” seat, doing my best to prepare for 9 hours or so of flight forward in time. Or– was that backwards?

That flight made the previous 8 hour leg from Atlanta to Honolulu seem a lark, in spite of the fact that I had given up my “extra comfort” seat on the Delta-to-Honolulu flight due to a simply huge man sitting next to me who basically laid ON me. The flight attendants were vastly sympathetic, and moved me to a wonderful emergency row seat with extra, extra legroom right next to the amidships galley. A note from the attendant helped me get a full refund for the extra seat purchase and went a long way toward dealing with my Mad over being literally squeezed out of my seat.Big Man Abroad

By the time we landed in Brisbane we were too addled by the time shift to do much more than clear customs and catch a quick shuttle to our nearby no-frills hotel, where we grabbed a bite to eat, slept a few hours and hustled back to the airport to catch the 2 hour flight up the coast to Cairns.

Mid-day in Cairns found us in our rental car, with me coping with sitting on the “wrong side” of the car and driving through city traffic on the “wrong” side of the road.

Right away we were met with a series of fast-moving traffic circles (“roundabouts”), which will test the mettle of the most sanguine traveler who is extremely jet-lagged. Once again, I found myself switching on wipers instead of signaling a turn (“Oops, you’d think I would remember that!”) However, the car was low-mileage, very fuel-efficient (at $5/gal for gas equivalent, that was critical!) and by the time I was met with hairy, winding, steep, twisting mountain roads a week later I was down-shifting the automatic gearshift left-handed and steering one-handed with aplomb. Thank goodness we humans are as adaptable as we are!

Drunks and Cultural Differences

Our digs in PD were awesome–except for the neighbors who partied until after 2am–loudly. Then there were the drunks from the nearby pub that closed at 1am, walking up and down the street outside screaming, hollering, and kicking over garbage bins- nightly.

Set those disturbances aside and Port Douglas was simply a wonderful little place to call “home”, especially as it was so laid-back, friendly, and convenient to all the places we wanted to visit.

Cultural Differences: I noticed that most men speak in a higher tonal range than men in the U.S. I can’t account for it.

Everybody went about with head-covers on- the ozone layer is thin over much of Australia and residents and visitors alike are very careful to cover up from the sun. I saw very few exposed bodies out on the beach, for instance– most people wore long-sleeves of lightweight material.

Aussies deserve their reputation for being very friendly and approachable, if not garrulous. Drunks aside.

Aussies love their beer. They love their ‘roos and koalas and cassowaries and the GBR and the other things that attract tourists. I think they even love tourists, although we took a LOT of ribbing for being “yanks”.

The medical system is awesome, based on my experience with a physician in PD, who told me I was going to survive my cold and then went on to disclaim (not too heavily) about the mess the U.S. healthcare system is in. Interesting chat.

The road signs are amusing and often confusing– approach a roundabout and try to figure out any sign describing the traffic pattern, while driving at 45 MPH or so. Not.

The stars are right overhead, brilliant, fascinating. Every night, anywhere in tropical north Queensland. What magic there is in the clear night skies. I am saddened that in our suburban existence on the east coast of the U.S.,we have that experience pretty much removed from our daily experience.

I love Oz. I wanna go back.

ALL trip photos HERE – be sure to read the captions! And short video snippets and panoramas are posted to Lynn’s YouTube Channel – Oz

Belize 2014- a Hope Spot

TurneffeIsland200504It’s nighttime. We’re paddling a canoe down the middle of the briskly flowing Macal river in the Belize jungle, somewhere very near the Guatemalan border. The handle of the powerful handheld spotlight I’m gripping is warm. Actually, it’s hot. So hot that I shift it from hand to hand as I point it up onto the riverbank and sweep the overhanging branches of the giant rainforest trees that lean out over the river.

A dense cloud of moths forms a ball around the light, covering my face, my head, flying into my ears and eyes, tumbling down the front and back of my shirt. I reach into my décolletage to dig a few out and my  fingers encounter a ball of squirming moths, soaked and likely drowning in a pool of sweat.

Ahhhh- vacation! We’re on yet another adventure in the wilds of Central America. This evening, the last of three we’ll spend in the Cayo district of Belize, has so far featured a hair-raising ride in an old and well-worn pick-up truck with two canoes strapped on top and six humans crammed inside a steamy interior, being tossed about like pebbles as the truck bounces and bangs down a deeply rutted, dangerously steep and potholed track through the jungle night.

Once at the river’s edge, we four guests stand behind the truck out of the way while the guides untie the canoes and place them in the river shallows. We’re told to watch where we put our feet and to use our headlamps to look for snakes. The jungle growth pushes up right next to the jeep and there’s little cleared space for our feet. Robin and I stand quietly and watch the other two gals, a mom and daughter from Maine, as they mince about and scan the ground nervously. Robin’s more concerned about bug bites than stumbling into a snake, but only harmless moths and gnats flit about. In the light of my headlamp I spot a couple of bats swooping overhead.

The crickets and frogs clamor so loudly that it’s hard to hear the guides as they call for us to climb into the canoes. In the canoe, I step gingerly toward the bow seat, maneuvering around a car battery. The guide hands me a large hand-held spotlight and I watch as he hooks up two somewhat shielded wires from the spotlight to the battery terminals. Interesting. Guess I won’t be letting those wires dip into the river.

Robin settles in the middle seat, the guide shoves us off the gravel bottom, hops in and paddles us efficiently into the brisk flow of the river. While I’m digging moth bodies out of my nether regions, I can hear Robin behind me making disgusting noises and muttering “Oh for heaven’s sake!” and “Ick! Yuk!”. Her brisk motions to wave off the clouds threaten our balance. Atypical for me, I’m feeling exposed up here in the bow, probably because I’m top-heavy holding this big spotlight. (Wry humor.) Besides, my position in a canoe has always been at the stern, since I was 10 years old and learned how to paddle. I simply feel more comfortable being in the rear seat, managing the balance and track of the canoe.

I warn Robin to be still and wait, the moth swarm will go away once we get some breeze.

Sure enough, a nice breeze greets us as we move into the center of the river’s width, generally about 200 feet across. Soon the moths thin out and we find ourselves distracted by the strong beam of light, which I aim to light up the massive trees that thickly line the banks of this wild river.

We’re spotting for wildlife that has come out on this starry night to forage for food, mate, meet up with family members, dodge predators, and to pose for us as they’re picked out of the darkness by the unrelenting probing lights from the two canoes.

Kinkajou

Kinkajou

Our guide uses a powerful green laser pointer to direct my spotlight beam- he knows where to look for critters. As we float along with the current, I spot a brown animal up high on a large limb. “It’s a kinkajou!” the guide exclaims. The boats quietly approach the tree and there it is, about 30 feet above us, stretched out on a limb. We sweep our lights about but the kinkajou won’t budge, so we continue downriver, scanning the river banks and trees.

Soon I spot two orange eyes up on a river bank and as we approach the guide tells us it’s a fox! The eyes scoot along the river bank but the spotlight is relentless and soon picks out the little fox. We watch as it darts behind some shrubbery and then the current moves us past our vantage point.

Next up, around a bend, we spot two kinkajou’s in a tree, darting from limb to limb and making their way quickly away from the river. A few minutes later I spot a Wood Rail sitting quietly on a limb overhead, it’s orange and white beak shining in the spotlight.

As we continue down the river, we can hear rapids ahead– nothing huge but definitely enough force to turn the canoe over if mishandled, so I direct the light to help guide our passage. Once past the rapids, I resume sweeping the light through the trees, marveling at their incredible heights, some with massive buttressed trunks and many festooned with creepers, strangler fig vines, and huge air plants.

WaterPossum

Water Possum

SpetacledOwlWe spot a Water Possum on the bank- a brief glimpse before it darts behind a large tree. Then a bit later we come across a beautiful Spectacled Owl, small and as brightly marked as a tropical bird, perched just above our heads on a tree branch. And then we spot four or more kinkajous. These are quite close to us and only 15 feet above the river, on a large tree limb. Three of them take off but the last one remains behind, blinking in the spotlight. It stretches out on the limb and then flips to the underside, then flips back up, then hides its large round eyes behind two little fore paws and cowers. We all say “Awwww” and turn the two spotlights away to let it go on about its business. The guide is tickled pink; he seldom sees a kinkajou that close up, much less one that doesn’t dart immediately away.

At one point we turn off our spotlights and headlamps and soon the stars are right down on our heads! One of the highlights of our trips to little-trammeled places is that we get to see the stars as our ancestors might have seen them. No light pollution, no loom from nearby man-made anything, just stars: the Milky Way scattered across the chunk of sky visible above the river, the Big Dipper over There, every star in it etched against that dense blackness, not at all where we’re used to seeing it the few times we might glimpse it on the eastern seaboard of the U.S.

Nearing the end of our journey we come upon a large bend in the river and before us is a limestone bluff, over 300 feet high and disappearing into the gloom. Massive trees grow out and up from the sheer walls, which are densely covered with thick vines, creepers and vegetation. The scene is starkly lit by our lights, the shadows quivering mysteriously in the breeze.

The jungle night sounds wrap around us and as we slowly slip by this towering wall, I’m so absolutely in the moment, with the smells, the jungle night sounds, the humidity and the breeze on my skin, the little taps of bugs hitting my exposed face, hands and arms as moths and gnats and who-knows-what bugs collide with my body.

For just a moment, I am suspended. I forget about my aching flat butt, heated hands and sore back. I recognize this all-encompassing feeling; it reminds me of SCUBA diving, that moment when you’re past the awkward and jittery phase of transitioning from a large dive boat plunging in ocean waves to the calm depths below the surface. That moment when your equipment is comfortably settled on your body, when your breathing slows and you relax into the sensation of water buoying you, caressing you, moving you perfectly in tandem with the fish that hover over the reef. That moment when you hold your breath for just a few seconds, so you can hear the pops of shrimp, the myriad of unidentified squeaks and grunts, and the crunching of the parrot fish as they bite off chunks of living corals.

Macal river, Beize

Macal river, Belize

It’s the experience of moments like this one that bring me back again and again to nature, the outdoors with few or no people or trashed and trampled environments. Sure the adventures are fun, meeting new people, learning about different cultures, being physically active and challenged by the newness and the unknowns of travel. But for me the magic is truly moments like these. So fleeting, so sublime, so few in a lifetime.

 

The ATM Cave

The day before our canoe adventure, we headed out in the early morning from the Mariposa Jungle Lodge, our digs for a 3-night “Belize jungle experience” that I’d cobbled together by spending hours on the Internet during months of planning for this vacation. My usual approach for building a vacation plan had given us a running start. Beginning with a geographic area, I craft an itinerary based on the various things we want to see and do, then I really dig into the details, from finding a place to stay near our planned outdoor excursions and figuring out in-country transport options, to immersive time on TripAdvisor forums. I keep a running spreadsheet of costs, set up online travel bots, sign up for numerous email and Twitter alerts (airlines/airfares) and correspond with local experts and property owners to glean the “inside” info. Often, I negotiate discounts based on pre-paying and between such negotiations, keeping copious notes, checking costs and adjusting itineraries, we save a LOT of money, avoid not a few unpleasant surprises, and are better prepared for the vagaries of a given locale while leaving a great deal of room for serendipity and last-minute adjustments due to weather, illness or just plain “I don’t wanna do anything today but relax”!

This day, our destination was the ATM cave, short for Actun Tunichil Muknal, located in the Tapir Mountain Reserve, just north of the Maya Mountains. Here we’re reminded no cameras, period. No nothing, really. Your guide will pack in anything you need: lunch, water, your specs etc. NO CAMERAS because some tourist a coupla years ago dropped a camera or accessory on an ancient human skull in the cave and broke the skull so, that’s that.

Thus I’m resorting to found pix and this video that documents the entire experience practically- FF to the good spots! http://youtu.be/218n6_d2i_g

After banging down the painfully rough track from the Mariposa out to the main highway for 40 mins and another 30-min trip off the main road and back into the jungle, we arrived at the parking area for the ATM cave tour. Off we trekked down the path, keeping a wary eye out for snakes sunning themselves in the places where the rapidly heating rays of the tropical sun penetrated the jungle canopy.

Green-vine-snake (1)We crossed the same river three times (knee-deep, rapidly-running cold, clear water and slippery ankle-turning rounded stones) and kept going, spotting a lovely bright green Vine snake (non-venomous) and swatting at gnat-clouds attracted to our sweating bodies.

After 45 mins or so of hiking up and down trails we arrived at a clearing in the jungle featuring a rough-built palapa, an old wooden picnic table, a felled tree used for seating, and large trees all around for those who wish to relieve themselves. I trotted off down a path and followed my nose to an old privy– a hole in the ground surrounded by a tumbled down wooden structure, fallen tree limbs, dead palm leaves and a cloud of buzzing insects.

I returned to the mustering area, where our guide Gliss was loading new batteries into headlamps and strapping each onto the damp and slightly smelly plastic helmet we each had been given. Gliss explained that this area where we were standing was likely an ancient Maya ball court, due to the obvious work that went into leveling a large area of ground where level is simply not typical. He pointed to a massive limestone face that may have served as one wall of the ball court. The towering wall disappeared into the humid gloom, almost completely hidden by vines, trees and vegetation growing up, out and dangling down the face.

As it turned out, within that towering limestone edifice was the cave system we were about to enter.

Gliss led Robin, myself and another Mariposa guest, a petite and somewhat timid retired lady school teacher, down a short path that followed the curving wall. The sound of a rapidly flowing river became louder, then the forest canopy opened and before us appeared the huge gaping mouth of the cave.

ATMentry2

The photos do this place justice– it was every bit as magnificent and intimidating as it appears. I consider myself pretty fearless, in a calculating way, so I was startled to sense my slight apprehension about entering this unknown, sorta spooky, certainly dark, dank and confining cave, with nothing beyond hiking sandals, a helmet and headlamp on my head, a cherry chapstick in one shorts pocket and a pair of old socks in the other.

 

 

ATMOuterEntryBut, no time to ponder the possibilities as we stepped gingerly down slippery rough-hewn wooden stairs to the water’s edge, slid over slippery rocks into that clear, frigid water up to our waists and next thing you know, we were swimming in 15 foot depths under the cave overhang and beyond, into the gloom of the cavern opening.

The shock of that 70-degree water hitting my tropical-sun-heated body literally took my breath away, but once I got past that I actually enjoyed paddling quietly into the cavern. I noticed swallows darting in the gloom overhead and became aware of every sound that was amplified, reflected off rock walls and the water’s surface. The too-loud splashing and squealing of the larger party ahead of us as they clambered out of the water onto a rocky ledge jarred as we drew closer. I wanted to just be still for a moment and soak up the atmosphere, the silence I knew this place could generate, allowing one to pick out little trickles and drips of water, the ripple of bird and bat wings, the background buzz of the jungle just beyond the cave opening.

But, such moments of solitude and contemplation are anathema to organized “tours”. Rather, we had to hurry up and get going; staying together, carefully in single file as we slapped along in our sandals, careful to watch our step on the uneven and sodden clay of the cave floor, or tromping confidently on gravel through the fast-flowing underground river shallows.

ATMsqueezeSqueezing through tight spots, we aimed our headlamps to assist with handholds to avoid razor-sharp rock and to aid in penetrating the often shoulder-deep water to help us find ledges or dodge knee-and-shin-knocker boulders. Sometimes we’d be in a skinny crevice that disappeared overhead, our feet feeling along a narrow ledge about 4 feet below the water, sidling sideways as we crept along a wall. More than once I allowed myself to slip off the ledge into the water quietly and swim alongside to encourage the nice schoolteacher lady, who was pretty freaked out by all this, already. And we were only into the first minutes of what would be three hours in that cave.

Can’t remember her name but whatever, she was very nice and I thought very brave in her determination to overcome her fears and to challenge herself to finish this expedition. She was certainly past 60, with a knee that simply would not bend, no upper body strength, and little self-confidence in bouldering and climbing heights in the pitch blackness, swimming in frigid water for unknown distances, balancing on a rusted and creaky 40 foot ladder that led to a slippery 90-degree squeeze around an overhang– yeah, stuff like that.

Clearly the brave lady felt safer right behind Gliss, so I followed and Robin brought up the rear, saying if she fell she would have all us to soften her landing, ha.

Around a bend there appeared a giant sinkhole off to our left in an area that looked like it would take 15 minutes to get to by clambering over boulders, some stacked on one another, all the size of a golf cart. Sunlight speared down into the hole from some 60 feet above us. Vines hung over the crumbled top, trees grew right out of the sides, and more massive trees crowded the margin, as if they too wanted to take the plunge.

That was our last view of sunlight for a couple of hours.

The further we penetrated into the cave, the more dense the humid atmosphere became. Our headlamps illuminated the condensation of our breath, adding to the suspended water molecules hanging in the air around us. We were soaked, cold from water immersion, and sweaty from exertion. The sounds of other groups receded into the vastness around us, and often the noise from the rushing river over shallow gravel beds, and us splashing doggedly against the current, drowned out any other sounds.

pottery-atm-caveBy the time we got to the first of many skulls, human bones, large and small smashed pots strewn about on various ledges and natural platforms, my feet were tired, my shoulders and neck sore, my lower back complaining, and my knees were inflamed. So far this had proven to be more Cirque du Soleil than a jaunt into the distant past. Between the climbing, clambering, balancing, tripping, mincing, squeezing, shin-cracking and neck-craning, my poor bod was a bit tired. But, we still had to get to the place where we were to take off our shoes, don socks, and stomp around for an hour or so over rocky, crumbly, slippery, ever more painfully rough cave surfaces, avoiding harming the mud while working our way to the very rear of the cave to see the really cool stuff.

Cool stuff: Amazing crystal formations, much as you will see in many a cave around the world. Lovely but really, how many stupidly named formations can you gawp at? However, there was an awesome and inspiring ceremonial stone plinth way up and over on a wide ledge, supporting two heavy angled stones about 3 feet tall, carved to look like the gaping maw of a crocodile. Well, at least the shadow cast on the massive cavern wall behind it sure looked like a crocodile. The question is- if the ancients didn’t have LED flashlights, would that have cast the same shadow when lit by a torch or a dozen? Good question. Gliss was full of many question like this, which caused us to scratch our chins and ponder. Or at least gave us an excuse to perch on a nearby rock and, for just one second, rest. But then- “Let’s move on!”

On to more slippery cave footing and more climbing to yet more ledges with pots and small fire pits and human bones and a skull or two and then, on our way to the pièce de résistance, we came upon the climbing challenge that I thought was going to cause a mission abort. Our intrepid nice retired school teacher positively balked, and even Robin turned quite pale in the lamplight when faced with this last bit.

First: place your left foot here, about two feet above the cave floor, flat against the wall. Now use your hands, reach across to this edge, get your right foot into place across this gap, over to this little ledge here, just wide enough for your foot. Now lever yourself up, using your thighs and quads and any muscle you may have down there — out and over the gap while reaching up to this handhold, right here, all lit up in the little circle from my headlamp. Then your other hand goes here- nope not there, here!

This was a challenge for folks with little or no climbing skills, but with coaching form Gliss above and myself below, they made it. Thank goodness Gliss had done this many times and had this traverse, and others like it, down pat.

No break in sight, though, as we arrived some 20 feet higher along this crevice. I found myself balanced with one foot on a small rounded, slippery and shiny limestone cap on top of a stalagmite. My other foot dangled in mid-air. I looked down and my headlamp revealed my perch– a large mushroom head, beyond which was a two foot wide chasm that dropped straight down to five foot tall jagged rock teeth below, the teeth seeming to twitch malevolently in the shadows from my light.

No time to study my predicament, as Gliss steadied my elbow and motioned for me to spin in place- yes spin in place, lean forward across that gap and sit right down there on that ledge. Quickly, now. Don’t think, just do it, then scramble away from that gap, stand up and go over there to take off your shoes. Time for the socks drill.

Holy cow. We all made it and, socks donned, we formed up into our single file again. Robin muttered “Did you see that gap? What the hell did we just do?” I replied “Shhhh,” and she understood it wasn’t a good idea to let on to the retired teacher what we had spotted. She had obviously been smart enough to follow Gliss’s instruction to not look down during that passage.

VictimATMThe full skeleton splayed out on the cave floor, carefully roped off with engineer’s tape, was worth the effort to achieve the viewing. Of course Gliss took the opportunity to fill us in on a bit of fact and a lot of educated guesswork about what, who, why this obvious display of a human corpse, way back in the day, way back at the rear of this cave.

The thing sure looked spooky there in the harsh shadows of our lights, the bones (or whatever they had turned into by now from leaching of limestone) appearing as fragile as piles of dust.

As we stood close together, a few feet from the skeleton, my claustrophobia crept in. The still and musty air, the closeness of our bodies squeezed in a narrow opening between walls, the deep pitch around us only barely penetrated by our weakening headlamps, the knowledge that we were heaven-knew-how deep under tons of rock — all combined to make me want to get the heck gone.

I was quiet most of the way back, as we retraced our steps back down the rusty ladder, across the cave floor that further bruised my tender soles. Back to the shoes (ahhh), back across that dang gap passage, down and down and swim and squeeze and swim some more and balance on tired legs, my back telling me it had had it.

Soon enough we were back in the twilight of the cavern entry, lowering ourselves one last time into now bitterly cold water, swimming  out of the cave, out from under that huge overhang, slipping on rocks and soggy wooden steps, and back to the ancient ball court area, where a light lunch of fruit, a few strips of cheese and swarms of flies awaited us.

I could have eaten one of those Tapirs. Instead, we guzzled water, gnawed cheese, gulped fruit, swatted at flies, then started our 4 kilometer trek back up and down the jungle trail, re-crossing the river three times in the full heat of the equatorial afternoon. Steam rose from our clothes and heads, my sunglasses fogged, gnats and biting flies swarmed, sweat dripped into my eyes and the fine sand collected between my Teva outdoor sandal straps at every point they touched my skin, raising painful blisters.

Hey, this is what it’s all about. Eco-adventure! Jungle trekking! Caving! Thirst, hunger, full bladder, aching body, and beat up feet combined to make me feel every single year of my, er, age.

We survived, and it’s in the re-telling that I appreciate fully the effort, commitment, tenacity, determination and sometimes just plain blissful ignorance that drives me to take such a “vacation”. Luckily Robin and I are both adventurous enough to want to experience such things and are physically able to endure them. All in all, a tale worth telling but you know, I’ve done my caving thing now and, like climbing pyramids, I’ll move on to something different for the next adventure.

Coda: the two things our adventures typically have in common is History and Nature. Tubing through a cave or down a river with a bunch of screaming people, or zip-lining, or riding in a 4-wheeler tearing up the landscape or blowing through water hyacinths in an ear-splitting air boat, for instance, simply isn’t it. Just sayin’.

MariposaCabanaNext Stop: Turneffe Atoll

We spent three nights at our “jungle lodge”, which was situated on a ridge in the piney highlands of the Belize Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. This reserve is located within a large alluvial river valley that serves as the key area of the country for vegetable and fruit farms, cattle ranches and dairy farms, and has been supporting agriculture and human habitation for thousands of years.

 

 

RobinPoolAll of which meant, if you want to experience anything jungle-like, you need to travel in a vehicle with shot suspension along the washboard, dusty limestone track for almost an hour to get down to one of the many rivers and creeks and that form a network within the Cayo district of Belize. There, you can escape the heavy layer of slash-and-burn smoke and the ubiquitous fine dust from limestone roadways that criss-cross this heavily farmed area of western Belize.

A feature of our getaways is the opportunity to exchange the pollen and other delightful particulate inhalations of Atlanta for the fresh air of the tropics. We deliberately planned our trip to Belize during the dry season, when the winds are calm and the waters warm for snorkeling. Also, travel to the Caribbean at this time of year typically offers off-season rates and fewer visitors, while avoiding the bug swarms and other drawbacks associated by the rainy season.

Not for the first time, we had deplaned in Central America at the Belize airport to a heavy pall of smoke caused by the relentless slash-and-burn agricultural practices that prevail in this area of the developing world. From the time we walked off the aircraft until left the coast in the wake of the dive boat transferring us to Turneffe Atoll, we coughed and choked on the heavy smoke, dust and the fumes of the petroleum-and-water mix infrequently sprayed by trucks over the more heavily traveled limestone tracks.

BlckBird Caye aerialSo, on Saturday we were quite ready to bid Goodbye to the wonderful staff at Mariposa. Safely ensconced in a newish van with AC and shock absorbers, we rode a couple of hours back down the Western Highway to Belize City on the coast. The pall of smoke had been dispersed somewhat by rising winds the past day, which meant we were anticipating a rough 90-minute boat ride out to Blackbird Caye Resort on Turneffe Atoll, some 25 miles or so off the Belize coast.

The resort’s 50-foot dive boat Big Bird handled the sizeable seas just fine as we and the other dozen or so guests aboard jammed ourselves into the driest places we could find, bracing ourselves, our water bottles and any miscellaneous handhelds into positions that might spare us injury from the heaving of the boat as it crashed headlong into seas that were 5-footers or more.

Boat2BlkBirdWe enjoyed a short respite from the gyrations as our passage took us through an area of pristine mangroves, where we could easily see the sandy bottom some 15 feet beneath the hull through clear water.

Finally, after what seemed hours of noisy and uncomfortable running, we approached Blackbird Caye and the deep channel that cut through the fringing reef to the protected waters inside, and the resort dock. I could see we were going to turn 90 degrees or more to line up for that channel, so I scooted over to Robin and yelled above the noise of the twin diesels, the wind and the waves slamming the boat to hold on, we were going to virtually come about and we were gonna take those seas full abeam. She nodded and we both found something to grip as, indeed, that big boat gave a mighty heave, crawled up the face of a wave I didn’t even want to look over at, and, with dexterity that told me our skipper was indeed a skilled pilot, we executed that turn and surfed right on through that channel and into the relatively calm waters of the inside of the reef.

Good thing everyone on that boat was an experienced diver and big seas boat passenger. Nobody got tossed, no gear went rolling over the deck, and calm expressions prevailed as we approached the dock and all began to gather their gear.

A significant tailwind gave us a couple of shoves as we stumbled along the dock boards. Once on land, I silently gave thanks to being on solid ground, even if my lower legs were getting sand-blasted.

This was our introduction to a wind-blown week on Blackbird Caye. We were here to snorkel every morning and afternoon, and to experience some of the most pristine coral reefs remaining in the Atlantic Ocean. But these high winds were weird– uncharacteristic for this time of year, these winds were more like what you’d see in the winter months, not in early May. My quick video panorama of conditions here: http://youtu.be/J8wffvrZwGY

Well, we were here, our room beckoned, we had a group orientation to attend in the palapa bar and then dinner, sleep, and we’d see what the morning conditions would be.

 

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DockScenic

Snorkeling Awesomeness

No other way to describe it, this was indeed awesome snorkeling, leaving nothing to disappoint.

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While the morning seas were choppy inside the protection of the reef, and we  had to do some energetic finning ever so often, we still had incredible visibility for most of the week, aided by the bright sunshine that lit up the corals and the amazing variety of fish, crustaceans, mollusks, rays and anything that caught our attention.

Our guide Chris was terrific- he was patient and relaxed snorkeler, allowing us ample time to hang in spots to simply watch fish doing their thing, or to enjoy the view of soft corals swaying in the surge or a fish cleaning station take on another customer. His knowledge of this environment was encyclopedic and he would point out critters in places I wouldn’t have known to look. Obviously he was well acquainted with the hidey-holes that certain critters or fish called home. You don’t become that acquainted with the locals without diving those areas a lot, and often.

I was delighted when he dove down to the sandy bottom to show us an electric ray. I have a trained eye to spot fish and critters, especially rays, but these electric rays totally had me baffled!

Bullseye_StingrayWhen Chris would spot an electric ray, he would take off a fin and, slowly sinking down to the bright white sandy bottom, he would gently slip the tip of the fin just under the nose of the ray. The ray then would raise itself from the bottom, none too fast, swim calmly a few feet away and settle down in another patch of sand. Then it would flip its wings a few times to cover itself with sand, and once again it was perfectly hidden in plain sight. Well, in plain sight for Chris, but not for me. I never did learn how to spot them accurately. Too many worm holes in the sand look just like the ray’s slightly oval, dark eyes.

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Once however Chris pointed out across the sand and I looked and motioned “what?” and we floated briefly to chat. “Big ray over there,” he said. “Really?” I wondered. “Yes,” I remember him smiling impishly. “Really big ray.”

Oh, so I was looking for a Really big ray, and I sure spotted it. The animal was the biggest southern stingray I have ever seen, including the monsters that used to show up at Stingray City off Grand Cayman back in the early 1990s. Forget spotting the eyes, the bulges below the eyes were poking up at least 4 inches above the sand and the gap between them was easily 16-18 inches. When we approached (her, likely) she raised calmly up and, shedding sand in a big cloud, she moved off and soon swam out of sight. Holy cow, that was one monster stingray, easily the size of a dining room table seating 6. I looked around for Robin and she was right there just off my shoulder, nodding emphatically and arching her brows.

SharpNosePufferSubsequent dives brought new and fabulous sightings and experiences. Clouds of fish of almost every variety common in the Caribbean, including millions of tiny Sharp-nosed Puffer fish, breeding and dying.

Large predatory fish, from groupers to hog snappers to tarpon and barracuda were spotted. Turtles and spotted eagle rays swam in and out of the visibility curtain. Mature soft corals undulated in the currents. Unbleached corals reflected their true, healthy colors. Large hard corals, from brain coral to staghorn to elkhorn, were abundant. We even saw some sharks (although their numbers are very, very depressed.)

And–lobsters! Amazing. When we spotted a clump of 5 lobsters all crowded into a large hole in the reef, I got kinda teary-eyed because I realized, horrifyingly, that many years ago I had stopped looking for the signature antennae of these crayfish, once so common on the reefs of my native Florida. Heck, in the early 1970s I used to catch my limit of lobsters right off the coast of Dania beach in Ft. Lauderdale, within hearing distance from the tide line! I realized I had simply not seen lobsters anywhere in the Caribbean for many, many years. Not to say they aren’t out there but I had seen damn few, if any, in my travels criss-crossing the Caribbean basin.

If I was gratified by this experience, I was equally, and familiarly, dismayed when comparing notes with the highly experienced, knowledgeable and trained fish-spotters we shared the resort with that week.

Reef.org www.reef.org is the web site for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, described as “… a grass-roots organization that seeks to conserve marine ecosystems by educating, enlisting and enabling divers and other marine enthusiasts to become active ocean stewards and citizen scientists.” Every one of these folks is self-funded, and this group was fully outfitted with underwater still and video cameras and laptops and editing software. Everyone did 2-3 dives a day with their slates, ticking off the fish they spotted. Each day the group would meet in the palapa bar at 5pm to review what they’d seen, count fish, review fish images to freshen memories, and share videos.

What an amazing group of dedicated divers. I was overwhelmed and humble in the face of their knowledge and dedication. I thought I knew my Florida and Caribbean fish species, including juvenile phases of many, but whew, these folks are da bomb! Several are easily classified as true EXPERTS. It’s so cool that many of these folks have dived together in different seas around Planet Ocean. They give of their time, money, energy and enthusiasm to add to the international database of knowledge which is completely open to the public.

Too, these folks’ personal, hard-won experiences completely validate global climate change– not the cause(s), but most assuredly the impact on reef ecosystems. They remember all manner of locations back in the day and compare conditions, fish life, reef health, etc to today. Not a pretty picture- period.

Two of the member ladies were well into their 60s and were diving daily– and remember, the seas were massive, especially where they were diving, out in the open ocean, with no protective barrier reef. And that boat was a dangerous platform to get on or off, with all that gear and weight, even with the superior assist of the dive masters. It’s just plain hazardous to dive in 4-6 foot seas, under any circumstance. I surely enjoyed the confabs with these and others of the group over meals, and was delighted to share in their experiences.

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The Great Blue Hole

BN9002This trip was simply amazing. A full day and a full contingent of divers aboard Big Bird, all of us off for a 90 minute drive out to the blue hole http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Blue_Hole where divers plumbed the depths and we snorkelers tooled around the reef on top. A highlight was being buzzed by two Cessna planes that would have made an interesting shot from the perspective of a snorkeler, but no camera in hand!

 

 

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HalfMoonCayeThen it was off to Half Moon Caye for more snorkeling, diving, viewing the Red Footed booby colony, and of course a yummy island BBQ meal. Then back aboard for an amazing dive/snorkel at Lighthouse Reef. By the time we got back to the dock, we were all tuckered out. Fish class was held, as usual, and after dinner folks drifted away to their cabanas to rest up for the following day’s dives.

 

Lionfish and the Green Moray

Many readers may know about the problem that lionfish pose in the Atlantic. The population of these non-indigenous predator have simply exploded across the Atlantic, impacting fish and reef systems in ways we’re only beginning to understand. They have few predators. Divers spear them whenever they can. Lionfish rodeos spring up all over and dive clubs and other groups are pitching in to attempt to undo what aquarists have done, but the genie is out of the bottle and who knows what’s in store for many fish species.

In any event, one day the group came back with an amazing video clip. The dive master had speared a lionfish and tucked the dead fish into a nearby hole in the reef. Along came a large green moray eel, swimming out in the open over the reef- a rare sight. The eel disappeared into a hole in the reef and soon reappeared, the dead lionfish now a large lump in the eel’s throat. The eel writhed and gyrated, using its body muscles much like a snake, to crush the lionfish. Then the eel opened its mouth wide and out floated one, two then more of the venomous lionfish spines. Scratch one lionfish. That was an amazing video.

RobinSnorkel Last Day

Our last day the gale-force winds finally subsided, making for calmer conditions and better visibility underwater.  Quick video pan:

http://youtu.be/morXnFycNR4

A group of us went snorkeling that afternoon on the outside of the reef. Suddenly someone yelled “Shark! Shark!” Rather than heading for the boat in a panic, this wise group all headed as quickly as their legs could propel them toward the person yelling! I laughed into my snorkel as I joined the clutch of folks and, sure enough, below us in about 25 feet of water, lying quietly on the bottom was a large nurse shark– all 7 feet of it. Nice to see a shark– any kind, these days. The finning of sharks for shark soup and other uses has truly taken a toll in the world’s oceans. It’s quite a statement to have people swim toward a sighting rather than away. That could have been a black tip or a Caribbean reef shark or a bull shark or any shark, but the mere fact of spotting a shark is perhaps becoming a rarity, especially in some oceans. That’s a hell of a situation.

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Final Thoughts

I’ve waxed philosophic and perhaps sophomoric in this posting, but I guess like our trips, my musings must come to a close. I don’t claim to have any real insights, just observations about our travels. More and more, these trips into the Caribbean are becoming bitter sweet, less fun adventure and more frequent and alarming exposure to What Man Hath Wrought.

I can say I’m not at all proud of the legacy my generation and the ones before us have left the planet. I can say that this trip has given me hope– hope that governments like that of Belize, in partnership with NGOs and just plain ol’ folks, are trying to save something for the future, even as we all grapple with the consequences of too many people, too little space, greed, overpopulation, environmental degradation, poverty, corruption, greed, ignorance, and more greed.

I reference a heroine of mine, Dr. Sylvia Earle, the famed oceanographer, explorer, environmentalist and National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence. Here’s her famous, award-winning TED talk in which she speaks of what she calls Hope Spots on the planet, marine protected areas critical to the health of the ocean: www.ted.com/talks/sylvia_earle_s_ted_prize_wish_to_protect_our_oceans

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