Life Thru a Travel Prism

Posts tagged “central america

Costa Rica Road Trip

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

PvT town imageAground

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.

 

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Panama Funk

Guna Yala islands, Panama

Guna Yala islands, Panama

Five 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.

Guna Yala islands, Panama map

Guna Yala islands, Panama map.

Once 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

Guna Yala Amateur Hour podcast interview.

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.

The road to Carti, Panama

The road to Carti, Panama.

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.

TRIP PHOTOS

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.

Panama City, Panama gridlock

Panama City, Panama gridlock.

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.

Panama City bay view of the ship queue

Panama City bay view of the ship queue for Panama Canal.

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.

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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 bit down on angry frustration, and settled for a bit of a funk.

Tripping the Streets of El Cangrejo

A park in El Cangrejo neighborhood, Panama City, Panama

A park in El Cangrejo neighborhood, Panama City, Panama.

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.

Panama City, Panama street scene

Panama City, Panama street scene.

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!

Riba Smith store, Panama City, Panama

Riba Smith store, Panama City, Panama.

We 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 Panama City Dawning

4:30am Panama was 5:30am Atlanta, so we felt positively refreshed as we blearily dragged our carry-ons 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.

We passed the newer Metro city buses plugging along in their reserved lane, coughing clouds of oily black diesel smoke and 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.

Red Devil bus, Panama City, Panama

A Red Devil bus, Panama City, Panama.

The 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.

Faded billboards proclaimed the glitter and glamour of the “Coming Soon” mega-mall and surrounding luxury high-rise condos and hotels. Beyond these, giant beautiful faces and photos of jewelry and well-dressed families mounted on plywood sheets and attached to hurricane fencing 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, I could glimpse through the smog 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 otherworld online game, the middle and far distance filled in with clever computer graphics.

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Panama City, Panama barrios mar cityscape

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Panama City, Panama hovels

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.

Morning rush into Panama City, Panama

Morning crush traffic into Panama City, Panama.

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.

CartiLauncha

Our launcha to host boat

Carti

A scene at Port of Carti, Panama

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.

idal trash, Carti, Panama, C.A.

Plastics, garbage pile up at water line, port of Carti, Panama

CartiCanoe

Traditional canoe floats amidst garbage. Carti, Panama, C.A.

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.

Guna woman in traditional garb

Guna woman in colorful traditional garb.

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.

Guna woman, port of Carti docks

Guna woman waits for launcha ride to her island. Port of Carti docks, Panama, C.A.

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.

Launcha ride to our host boat in the Guna Yala, Panama

Launcha ride to our host boat in the Guna Yala, Panama.

Sailing yacht Blue Sky, Gun Yala islands, Panama

Sailing yacht Blue Sky, Gun Yala islands, Panama.

What 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.

RobinConsole

Robin aboard Blue Sky, Guna Yala islands, Panama

RobinShade

Robin, first day aboard Blue Sky

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.

An islet in the Guna Yala islands, Panama, C.A.

A tropical islet in the Guna Yala islands, Panama, C.A.

Layer 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.

FirstStop

Our first anchorage, Guna Yala, Panama

GrlsDeckPose

Aboard Blue Sky sailboat, Guna Yala, Panama, C.A.

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.

Dingy to nearby snorkel site, Guna Yala islands, Panama

Dingy to nearby snorkel site, Guna Yala islands, Panama.

Dingy ride to snorkel site, Guna Yala, Panama, C.A.

Dingy ride to snorkel site, Guna Yala, Panama, C.A.

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.

Porcupine fish

Porcupine fish wearing a grin, in its element.

These 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.

More Trip Photos

Rain over the Guna Yala islands, coast of Panama, C.A.

Rain over the Guna Yala islands, coast of Panama, C.A.

Tranquilo and Local Color

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.

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Robin kayaks, Guna Yala islands, Panama, C.A.

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Robin paddles toward island, Guna Yala islands, Panama, C.A.

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.

Fruit boat visit, Guna Yala islands, Panama, C.A.

A fruit boat visits our host boat, Guna Yala islands, Panama, C.A.

Fruit boat visit to Blue Sky yacht, Guna Yala islands, Panama, C.A.

Fruit boat visit to Blue Sky yacht, Guna Yala islands, Panama, C.A.

Guna woman displays her molas, Guna Yala islands, Panama, C.A.

Guna woman displays her molas. Guna Yala islands, Panama, C.A.

A beautiful Guna mola

The mola we selected. Beautifully hand crafted, approx 18″ square.

Heavy Weather

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.

Rain over the Guna Yala islands, Panama, C.A.

Rain over our anchorage, Guna Yala islands, Panama, C.A.

The 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 view, Guna Yala islands, Panama, C.A.

Porthole view, our first anchorage, Guna Yala islands, Panama, C.A.

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.

Darien Gap, Panama viewed from a sailboat, Guna Yala islands, Panama, C.A.

Notorious Darien Gap jungle, Panama viewed from a sailboat, Guna Yala islands, Panama, C.A.

I 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 Panama City

LynnCoffee

Breakfast, first day aboard

RobinCoffee

Robin breakfast, first day aboard

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-maquina

Cartí Sugtupu island, Guna Yl, Panama, C.A.

Cartí Sugtupu island, 1 mile from Carti port, destined to be inundated by water, if not population first.

Cartí Sugtupu island, a plastics and garbage heap, densely populated

Cartí Sugtupu island, a plastics and garbage heap, densely populated.

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.

TRIP PHOTOS

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.

Launchas docked up a jungle river, Panama, C.A.

Launchas docked up a jungle river, Carti area, Panama, C.A.

Our 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.

Guna Yala island image from recent past, Panama, C.A.

Idealistic image of a Guna Yala island from recent past, Panama, C.A.

By 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 Yala and its people.

Photos here


Costa Rica- 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.

Robin walks beach, Osa peninsula, Costa Rica

Robin walks beach, Osa peninsula, Costa Rica.

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.

Monteverde Cloud Forest trail, Costa Rica

Early morning, Monteverde Cloud Forest trail, Costa Rica.

We 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 rural mountain farms

Costa Rica rural mountain farms.

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!

Robin, hanging bridge, Monteverde Cloud Forest reserve, Costa Rica

Robin, hanging bridge, Monteverde Cloud Forest reserve, Costa Rica.

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.

Resplendent Quetzal busy digging nest

Resplendent Quetzal busy digging nest in his tree, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica.

quetzal

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.

View of Arenal volcano and lake, Costa Rica.

View of Arenal volcano and lake, Costa Rica.

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.

Lynn and kittens overlooking Arenal volcano and lake, Costa Rica.

Lynn and kittens overlooking Arenal volcano and lake, Costa Rica.

The 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.

Lynn with her rainforest feline friend, Costa Rica.

Lynn with her rainforest feline friend, Costa Rica.

While 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.

Meal with a view to Arenal volcano and lake

Meal with a view to Arenal volcano and lake

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!

Rural rolling rainforest hills, Costa Rica.

Rural rolling rainforest hills, Costa Rica.

Back 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 muffler-less 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.

osa bound

Our private jet to the Osa!

Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica

Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica 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 paradisiacal unspoiled, wild place.

Dining area, el Remanso lodge, Osa peninsula, Costa Rica

Rain forest dining area, el Remanso lodge, Osa peninsula, Costa Rica.

Some 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.

Our cabina, el Remanso, Osa peninsula, Costa Rica

Our cabina, el Remanso, Osa peninsula, Costa Rica.

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.

LynnRappel giphy

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.

Our cabin, el Remanso, Costa Rica

Our cabin, el Remanso, Costa Rica.

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.

iguana

Iguana feeds

toucan pants

Toucan calls

capuchin

Capuchin monkey troop

spider female

Female Spider Monkey feeds

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 scene, Osa peninsula,, Costa Rica

Beach lagoon scene, Osa peninsula, Costa Rica.

We 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.

Alpha male Spider Monkey

Alpha male Spider Monkey next to the dining area.

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!