Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Peace and quiet, serene outdoors, quaint fishing villages, and miles and miles of breathtaking coastal views on a drive that rivals the Pacific Coast Highway in California.
Cape Breton island is the size of Hawaii or Jamaica, but with only 132,000 residents. That compares to 185,000 residents on the “Big Island” of Hawaii, or 2.8 million for Jamaica. Thus: small villages and towns, mostly forested hills and empty two-lane roads, not a lot of services, and certainly not a lot of hustle and bustle anywhere. Just our kind of place.
We spent a week driving some 1,000 miles around Cape Breton Island (CBI henceforth) along the famed Cabot Trail, staying in different B&Bs along the way.
Check out our trip photos. Be sure to read the captions 🙂
Our goal was to explore various hikes in the vast National Park, to venture out on a whale watch in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to hop aboard a boat to spot Puffins, Eagles, sea birds galore and Grey seals off the northeast coast, and to learn more of the history of the people who settled and who today make this unique corner of Canada their home.
Fingers crossed, I had chosen the first week of July for our visit, when I hoped the weather would be warm, with little rain or wind.
As it turned out, the very week we arrived the weather turned hot (80 degree days), and the seas surrounding this island were placid. The rains came the day we headed home, and stayed rainy for the next week. And- it had snowed a mere 2 weeks before we arrived. Talk about good weather mojo- we lucked out!
Our road trip around CBI allowed us to settle into an area for a couple of days at a time, and to experience the rhythm and the unique character of the villages nearby.
Our photos of the awe-inspiring sunsets, our hikes, the whale watch, the captivating Cabot Trail views out to the sea and the villages capture the low density of people, the character of the fishing villages, and the serene scenes as we drove along or stopped to enjoy vistas, an early morning harbor or a hike in the Canadian arboreal forest.
Our photos with captions and short video snippets are designed (and laboriously written, edited, etc by me!) to share a sense of what it’s like to travel to this area of the planet, in awesome weather. Hope you’ll take a moment to indulge, and feel free to leave comments and share.
Black Flies, Hikes and an Eye-popping Sunset
The first two nights spent on CBI, our cottage-on-the-shore HQ was in Belle Cote, one of a handful of small fishing villages dotting some 30 miles along the west coast of the island.
Nights were quite chilly and by late morning, 80 degrees was commonplace. Being along the coast was a grace, as the chill onshore breeze helped to keep us cool in the shade and chased off the worst of the black flies. But look out on those hiking trails in the woods– we came away a few pounds lighter after the flies took off with chunks of our flesh in their jaws!
Over the next two days we explored scenic harbors from Margaree Forks to as far north as Cheticamp. I bet we drove up and down that stretch of the Cabot Highway at least 6 times, heading up to Pleasant Bay to catch a whale watch boat, stopping at little restaurants to eat or finding a co-op to buy water or snacks.
Of course our focus was hiking the various trails in the National Park on this section of the coast, the highlight of which was the sunset hike on the famous Skyline Trail.
This hike was a three hour undertaking, but thanks to the newly-minted young ranger who led our tiny group, we popped out of the forest and along the ridge line overlooking the sea wayyy down below just in time for the start of a simply breathtaking sunset. Wow. The pictures really do the scene justice, for a change!
Good thing full dark didn’t occur until an hour or so after sunset, so we were able to hoof it back to the car well before we needed our flashlights. We were, after all, at a high latitude, in the summer, with full sunrise by 5:45am and full dark at 10pm.
Hiking is generally a central feature to our vacations, and this was no exception. The hikes in the National Park were challenging, with amazing views out to the ocean and luckily, no run-ins with the 3,000 or more moose who are crowded into the National Park.
We learned that the moose love to eat fir trees, which is fine, except they favor the young, tender trees, so the high population of moose in a park sized for 500 means the moose are basically eating themselves out of house and home. Park rangers have set aside large enclosures to protect the young trees, which will be replanted after they’ve matured to help ensure moose chow over time, but apparently it’s a losing battle. So the moose are being culled. A controversial topic with the locals, unsurprisingly.
Canada Day Harness Racing
The locals trotted out the bunting and street decorations for Canada Day, and we were fortunate to stumble upon a harness racing event in the town of Inverness, just south of our digs at Belle Cote. We followed hand-made signs up a hill to the rear of the coastal village, where a regulation track spread out before us, with paddocks, barns and large viewing stands.
When we arrived, the contenders were warming up, so we settled in to watch the activities and to catch the first race.
Robin had never seen harness racing before, so this was a fun intro to the sport for her. The feeling was a bit provincial, what with the gravel parking areas, with cars (pick-ups, mostly) able to pull right up to the fence to watch the race from the comfort of their front seats. The “crowd” may have been a couple of hundred spectators at the most, but the beer was cold and the sausages freshly cooked, available along with pari-mutual betting at a few tiny windows in the cavernous concrete room beneath the stadium seats.
Check out the video snippets at the track on my YouTube channel!
Such unexpected pleasures like tripping over this harness race are what make independent travel rewarding and so much fun. I’m thankful we have been able to travel independently in many countries, and experience these kind of unplanned moments. I hope we have lots more to come!
So about that whale watch out of Pleasant Bay: we left early of a morning, when the fog lay thick, chill and heavy on the little harbor. The boat plowed slowly along the coastline, the young PHD students up in the flying bridge keeping a sharp eye out for whales.
“One o’clock! One o’clock!” someone would yell, and by the time I pointed my camera, the slick black dorsal fin and a glimpse of a whale’s back would have disappeared. This happened a few times. I gave up taking pictures and enjoyed the boat ride over pellucid seas, on what turned out to be a stunning, sunny, hot morning. We all came back sunburned. Still. A lovely boat ride along the underpopulated CBI shoreline.
Along the Cabot Trail
Continuing our clockwise drive around CBI on the famed Cabot Trail, we briefly visited the tiny fishing harbor of White Point (no facilities, no restaurant, but scenic and atmospheric).
Even more picturesque scenes here.
Further along the north coast, Neil’s Harbor was definitely worth a stop, and a good lunch in the restaurant situated on a rocky promontory. The heat of midday was relieved by walking over to the sea cliffs and enjoying the cool, stiff onshore wind from that chilly Atlantic.
We spent two nights in the harbor town of Baddeck (Beh-DECK). What a pretty little town! The town wharf reminded me pleasantly of that in Marblehead, MA where I lived for awhile. So scenic, so mellow.
The light and the sunset our arrival afternoon were simply phenomenal, and the seafood takeout at the wharf side restaurant was delish!
Puffins, Eagles and Grey Seals
A highlight of our stay in Baddeck was a tour of the Bird Islands, really interesting rocky outcrops just at the mouth of St. Anne’s bay, in the Atlantic Ocean. We certainly saw lots of the cute Atlantic Puffins who breed here, as well as Bald Eagles, Arctic Terns, Common Loons, Common Eiders, White-winged and Surf Scoters, and Red-breasted Mergansers.
The seas surrounding these craggy, grassy and windswept rock formations were full of Grey Seals, which added their grunts and barks to the noise of nesting birds. When the boat swung downwind of the islands, the odor was astounding.
A lobster boat briskly wound its way between us and the islands, hauling in the day’s catch. A proud lobster man held up a truly massive lobster pulled from one of the traps for us to see. Here’s a video short of a Grey Seal on a small rock and the lobster boat working.
We then bid a fond farewell to Baddeck and CBI and drove back onto Nova Scotia, to Pictou, a cute little fishing village with a small but admirable museum the Ship Hector, a “… ship famous for having been part of the first significant migration of Scottish settlers to Nova Scotia in 1773.”
We discovered an expansive seaside park just a few kilometers up from Pictou, where we enjoyed fantastic sunset and a lobster picnic catered by the local grocery. Our B&B host gave us the tip to pick out our lobster, and the co-op (rather like a Kroger) cooked it.
We paired our lobster with a couple of sides, wine and (for me) a beer and wow, what an amazing evening we had! Even the black flies couldn’t dull my delight, as I shot frame after frame of yet another breathtaking Canadian summer sunset. I wondered later why my phone smelled of lobster and butter. Oops.
For the History Buffs
Ok so I admit to being a “student of history”, which is to say I read a helluva lot about the places we visit, and retain little, so it’s a good thing for me that the history of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton island was ever-present in our travels. Or perhaps we were tuned in, as visitors do pay attention to many things locals take for granted.
Named places, settlements, landmarks, foods etc reflected the earliest known tribal people, the Mi’kmaq and the many European colonial periods. Europeans fished out their stocks and headed to the fertile waters here as early as the 1520s. French priests showed up, soon followed a Venetian Italian explorer whose Anglised name John Cabot is ubiquitous on CBI.
In the 1600s French colonists were shoved aside briefly by the Dutch, and Scottish folk created a colony but of course they and the French were soon at odds and the fight was on. The French won, then most of the European peeps stayed quiet for awhile until the English decided to lay claim to all of Nova Scotia (hmmm, a familiar pattern here). Colonial wars, the American Revolution, the War of 1812– you’d be surprised just what roles this area of our continent had to play in what Americans think of as “American History”.
I did find the Scottish colonists story arc to be rather poignant, considering how and why so many chose to dare a dangerous ocean crossing to an unknown country, with so much to learn and create, literally from their own hands. Sorta like those survival reality shows, many of these families arrived with little more than the clothes on their back, sick from the trip, showing up in the winter, with no home, no crops, no livestock.
Thank goodness they had the folks living in small, existing settlements like Highland Living Village to lend a hand, with costumed volunteers who undoubtedly remained in character. OK just testing to see if you’re actually reading this or only looking at the pretty pictures!
The light, the sunsets, the fresh air, the cooling breezes from the ocean, the scenic little villages and towns– all left an indelible impression on us. The entire trip was low-impact, few people but pleasant ones when met, and a true sense of solitude and quiet, pretty much everywhere we went. Even the towns had few people roaming about, with few cars. No planes overhead. No trains honking off in the distance. Maybe a fog horn near a harbor, and at night just crickets and, if we were near fresh water, frogs croaking. The stars were brilliant those nights when fog didn’t creep along the coast.
Yep, I’d definitely vote this as one of the nicest road trips we’ve taken, and would recommend it for anyone who values independent travel and who is willing to get off the beaten track, who enjoys the outdoors and nature, and who can take care of themselves (remember, few services, places close early, and no ATM’s.)
Canadian currency is King, with few places that “do exchange”, or give you Canadian change for your US dollar. You can often find your currency exchange advantage being eaten up when your $US is spent as if it were the face value of a Canadian dollar. Yeah, go ahead and exchange as soon as you can, especially before you head to rural areas.
AirB&B was a terrific resource for us, but don’t overlook TripAdvisor, VRBO and other sources for unique yet reasonably priced places to stay. Not every place is listed with AirB&B. Remember the summer is High Season so prices will be up and places booked months in advance. Same with excursion boats– book early!
Plan to arrive at your destination and check in well before 5pm, to allow ample time to get settled, perhaps glean tips from your host around places to eat etc. Not all useful or current info is on the Internet. Interact with the locals for the real skinny on what’s what! And remember- places close EARLY, assuming you are in a town large enough to have a co-op or a store. Best to do your homework.
You will encounter road work as you drive around CBI so be prepared to stop and wait. Again, local information trumps your mapping app on this one.
Cellular service is skippy, at best, and WiFi will be hard to come by and likely not the best unless you are in Halifax or a decent sized town. Many restaurants have WiFi, or say they do, but we discovered the WiFi was often not working, “needed to be reset” or whatever. So be prepared and do NOT count on continuous access to the internet or your phone while on CBI.
Enjoy your trip!
Late in the Spring, we took off for a long weekend to Sedona. The airfare to Phoenix AZ was low, the rental car and a place to stay affordable, and we were ready for another fast-travel, cram all we can into a few days trip. So– off we went!
The vistas Out West just blow me away every time I experience them. Our last trip was four years previously, when we hiked in the Rockies around Estes Park. Robin was delighted to be visiting Sedona again, whereas this would be my first experience seeing the famous red rock for which Sedona and surrounds are so famous.
The drive from Phoenix to Sedona in our rental car took a bit over two hours. Through the trip, we gained about 3,400 feet in elevation, enjoying the changing landscapes of the desert and piney woods along the way. It certainly looked bright, hot and dry out there, which reminded us that we would be arising each day before dawn to grab a coffee and quick breakfast before getting out on whatever mountain or butte we may be hiking that day.
Coming in to Sedona on State Route 179, also known as Red Rock Scenic Byway, is simply staggering. It seemed that suddenly we drove around a bend in the highway and right in front of us- Poof!- appeared a majestic wall of towering sandstone rocks, lit up by the afternoon light. We pulled into a convenient viewing area to take photos and just gawp in amazement and appreciation.
We found Sedona to be a wonderfully hospitable town to stay in and use as a home base for exploring the area. A lovely, quiet motel somewhat outside of town but near enough to grocery stores, restaurants and our favorite coffee shop served our needs just fine. We were also quite close to Airport Mesa, which we visited time and again, as it offers a terrific overlook of the Sedona Verde Valley below, especially in the mornings.
Many people come here in the evenings to view the sunset but it ain’t easy looking into the sun. It was a much nicer experience to go across and up the road just a bit to the lovely restaurant at the airport and enjoy a meal outside on the patio, overlooking the stunning rock formations on the other side of the runway. The evening light bathes the faces of these rocks, constantly shifting the colors, and offering plenty of photo ops.
Hot Air Balloons and Soldier’s Pass Hike
Our first morning we were enjoying our coffee up at the airport mesa overlook when we spotted six or more hot air balloons lifting off the desert floor in the distance way below us. Soon there were colorful dots hanging at different altitudes in the stillness of the morning. Robin embraced as many as she could between her outstretched arms.
New Age people identify Sedona’s numerous rock formations as vortex sites, where the earth gives off particular energy. While I don’t recall any special sense of approaching vortices as we drove by or clambered over rocks and dusty hiking trails, I can say that the light, the thin air, and the lack of humidity did combine to leave me somewhat light-headed, especially after a few hours of hiking in the sun in the dry, super-attenuated heat of late May.
Soldier’s Pass hike was our favorite hike, right in Sedona. We got to the parking area before it opened but the chain was down, so we flung all caution to the wind and hit the trail before the heat of the day could squeeze every drop of liquid from our bodies.
This was a serene, quiet hike, especially before the daily jeep tours start. We passed by the two natural arches and the sinkhole ominously named Devil’s Kitchen. Here’s a video snippet
While we aren’t shoppers, we did enjoy a break from the heat under the trees and along the cobblestone streets and quiet courtyards of the Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village. We ate a delish Mexican dinner at a restaurant in the village, then enjoyed popping into various art galleries and stores offering astounding crafts that reflect the mix of cultures populating the area over the past, what, 100 years or more? Definitely a great way to chill during the heat of the day.
The Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon
Driving the south rim of the Grand Canyon was next on our To Do list, so we headed north out of Sedona along scenic state road 89A, which runs through Oak Creek Canyon. This entire route is simply mobbed on a holiday weekend, we soon discovered. Still. If we ever go back, we’ll add this canyon to our itinerary, as it is a phenomenally beautiful, and I’m sure, relaxing area to visit, hike, or chill along the fast-flowing creek. Just not over a holiday period!
We knew to avoid the long lines at the east entrance to the south rim of the Grand Canyon by purchasing our park entrance tickets ahead of time at the Flagstaff Visitors Center. After grabbing a bit of lunch in town, we topped off the gas tank for the next leg of our journey to Cameron Trading Post on the Navajo reservation, where we would spend the night before an early morning arrival at the Grand Canyon east entrance to the south rim.
But first, we planned an afternoon visit to the ancient pueblo ruins at Wupatki National Monument. The National Park Service description is a terrific one to quote:
Nestled between the Painted Desert and ponderosa highlands of northern Arizona, Wupatki is a landscape of legacies. Ancient pueblos dot red-rock outcroppings across miles of prairie. Where food and water seem impossible to find, people built pueblos, raised families, farmed, traded, and thrived. Today, if you linger and listen, earth and artifacts whisper their stories to us still.
We were mesmerized, from the moment we topped a ridge on the endless black ribbon of asphalt and viewed the magnificent vistas of the Painted Desert below us, from horizon to horizon. We were still miles from the turnoff that would take us in a giant semi-circle out to the ancient Wupatki pueblo ruins, located on a mesa way out there in the dusty haze of the afternoon.
In the parking lot, we dismounted from the air-conditioned car into a wind tunnel of hot, dry air sprinkled with grit that got into your eyes, teeth, hair, and threatened to blow your clothes right off your frame. Gripping our hats and collars tightly, as we walked up the lengthy, curving walkway that led to the little visitor center and quite suddenly the ruins greeted us.
The afternoon light was strong and bathed the rear of the ruins, casting long, deep shadows into and around what sandstone block walls remained. I was transported, pondering the fact that the pueblo was abandoned in 1225 (do the math!). Those ruins have been there a very long, long time.
Here’s a video snippet that captures the views and essence of this place. The audio is wind and more wind. Note the circular kiva structure down that valley. There’s also a ball court, similar to those found in Mesoamerica.
We stayed at Wupatki until the placed closed, then made our way up the road to Cameron Trading Post, where we would spend the night before heading out early in the morning to get to the east entrance of the Grand Canyon south rim drive just as it opened.
Picture the largest truck stop you’ve ever visited, located out in the desert where two highways meet- one that runs north-south and another that leads to the east entrance of the Grand Canyon south rim Desert View Drive.
How to describe this place? Acres of asphalt. Gas pumps crouching under massively high aluminum roofs. A 1950s era motel complex, complete with a circa 1911 dwelling of sandstone and wood- the embryonic stage of this sprawling, noisy, commercial center plopped down in the middle of frickin’ nowhere. But hey, we were very glad for the huge restaurant, which featured a menu of every kind of comfort food known to tourists and capable of handling at least 4 massive buses stuffed with weary tourists, and still have plenty of tables (if not staff) left over.
Images of wondrous things on sale at this place barely scratches the surface of what is the largest indoor native American -and -also -stuff -from -Taiwan- and- China place under one roof, likely anywhere in the American west.
After a long day, a heavy dinner, and a lengthy walk around thousands of displays under that one roof, we were ready for bed. We truly intended to drive out a ways into the desert to do some star gazing, but the amount of light loom this mother ship radiated likely lit up the desert for miles around. Heck, the giant billboard out by the gas pumps, alone, probably served as a backup lighthouse for some rock off of San Francisco.
We did each buy a t-shirt, each extolling the virtues of “dark sky” designated locations. The irony was not lost on us.
Irony aside, we did enjoy a quiet night’s rest, an early morning breakfast just after dawn, and headed west to drive the famous south rim of the Grand Canyon.
If you’ve been there, you’ve experienced the wonder, awe, and majesty. If you haven’t been, you gotta go. Now. Stop what you’re doing, pick a flight, rent a car, get packed and get moving. Life is short. This is one of those places on the planet that started the very concept of bucket list– or, well before that, one of the many Wonders of the World.
My puny photos do the entire thing an injustice, but I enjoy looking at them. Hope you do, too!
By the time we reached the Grand Canyon Village, it was lunch time and the crowds that holiday weekend were bursting the place at the seams. Still, we enjoyed a lovely lunch at the vintage El Tovar hotel, just above the old train station. Opened in 1905, this is a wonderful architectural example of National Park Service Rustic architecture. You can just picture Teddy Roosevelt himself strolling through the imposing lobby. Even if you don’t lunch here, it’s a Must See if you spend any time in the village.
After making our way back to Sedona, we spent our last sunset viewing the rock formations from a comfy table on the patio at the restaurant up on airport mesa. The next morning found us retracing our drive, back to Phoenix and onto the homeward-bound flight.
Back at the office, it was back to the work week. But our memories of our visit to Sedona still linger, fueling our desire to get back Out West; back to the light, the dry air, the dust, the heat, and those breathtaking vistas and fields of stars that seem to go on, forever.
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.
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.
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.
Check out the brief video to get a sense of the serenity of this place
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?
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.
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
On 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
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
Our 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
If 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 common transportation for backpackers and tourists to the Guna Yala from PC is primarily provided by a fleet of SUVs, owned and operated by various individuals and small businesses. Our hosts had made arrangements for our SUV, providing detail about the transfer that mirrored the reviews and trip reports I read on Trip Advisor, repeatedly warning visitors about the nausea-inducing rigors of the hilly, twisting, hour-long passage through the Cordillera Central mountains leading to the coast.
The airline schedules dictated we’d need to spend the night in Panama City (PC) both coming and going, so after much digging and communications on Trip Advisor, I settled on a “4-star” Starwood Hotels property, Le Meridien. We don’t typically opt for expensive hotels but the choices were limited because we needed to stay very near where our driver would pick up the boat provisions after he collected us the next morning between 5-6am. So, it was either a hostel with no hot water, or the Waldorf Astoria, the Intercontinental, or the Le Meridien.
Peevish details-gone-awry started to make themselves known when we arrived at the PC airport, to discover that our ride to the hotel would be late– about an hour and a half late. Should have stuck with my original plan, in which I had emailed our hosts not to worry about having us picked up at the airport, we’d simply cab it to our hotel. However, our hosts asked that we please use their driver. I get it. Always happy to route the money to the families that our hosts depend upon to help their business to run smoothly. But really. We could have been long settled into our room by the time Roger showed up, all smiles and sincerely embarrassed about his having mistakenly set his phone alarm for the wrong time.
Still in the glow of anticipation of the good times to come, we gave up our pique pretty readily and settled in to enjoy the ride in Roger’s air-conditioned van, even if it did completely lack shock absorbers or springs.
We left the airport, suffused in the orange miasma of heavy, oppressive smog that we had seen as we approached PC from the air. The mid-day haze over the ocean and the city seemed to add weight to the fetid, humid air, coated as it was with diesel exhaust pouring in thick black streams from city buses.
Cars zipped willy-nilly across traffic lanes, barely missing fenders and bumpers literally by millimeters. A crazed din of car horns assaulted my ears, and I was reminded of other Central American cities where blowing one’s car horn was apparently the most critical skill for any driver.
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.
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.
I clawed back the heavy blackout drapes and through the grime on the plate glass, and the haze and thick smog, I could just make out the silhouettes of massive ships queuing up to pass through the Panama Canal.
“Well, how do you like our quiet room at the back of the property?” I ruefully asked Robin. She said “What?” as if the racket from the avenue below was louder than it was. Which was loud enough, believe me.
While I tiredly considered what to do if we came back after dinner and that loud TV blaring next door was still on, Robin checked the in-room safe to ensure it worked. Few seldom do, at least for us in our travels. Sure enough it wouldn’t encode any set of digits. Sighing with the inevitability of the runaround, Robin got on the phone to request a security or maintenance person to come check the safe.
Our plan was to pop out for an early dinner, then swing by the nearby supermercardo for a few personal boat snacks and to pick up the prepaid phone cards our hosts had requested at the last minute. But we weren’t going anywhere until we could secure our passports and cash stash. We weren’t about to go strolling on city streets with all our valuables on us.
Two “security” guys showed up to check the safe and of course much mansplaining was launched to show two dumb gringas how to work a safe. Their English was sketch and Robin’s Spanish was stretched but her patience wore them down, as she slowly and repeatedly mimed and explained that A) she knew exactly how the safe worked, B) the digital keypad was broken and not accepting any inputs, C) the safe was not operational and we desired either a different room or a new safe.
It took some 8 minutes for these guys to poke, prod and mumble their way to the conclusion “So sorry, the safe is broken!” Sigh. Well at least they offered to fetch a replacement safe, and Robin’s wide smile and enthusiastic nods sealed the deal. In minutes they were back, unplugged the crap safe, plugged in the new one, and waited outside the room at Robin’s request while she checked that the thing would work. Yay! Success! Final gracias and so forth and we could now prepare to head out.
Considering the tiny fridge in the room wasn’t working so well either, some ice was needed for the complimentary, warm bottled water. I headed off to find the ice machine on the floor, but the thing had apparently been out of service for several months, if not years. Up to the fifth floor- same thing. Back to the room to report to Robin. She trotted down to the 3rd, then 2nd floor, with the same results.
Back in the room I was unpacking and Robin was on the phone to the front desk, again, explaining that no ice machine on any floor was working (we hadn’t checked the 6th floor, but no sane person would believe they’d find a working ice machine there, either). Mr. Scowls at the Front Desk begrudgingly sent someone up with a tiny bucket of ice.
Honestly, we are not the demanding, high-maintenance pain-in-the-butt gringas. We never send meals back, we are always saying thank you and smiling, we tip well. But man I was parched, tired, grimy and not a little put out with the “services” we’d experienced so far as “Preferred Guests” in this supposed “4-star” hotel. I bit down on angry frustration, and settled for a bit of a funk.
Tripping the Streets of El Cangrejo
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
An hour or so later, we came to the turnoff for the infamous Road to Carti, where we would catch the launcha to Blue Sky. This road was not too long ago a muddy morass or roughly graded road. In spite of being paved, the route is still a nausea-inducing, bat-out-of-hell twisting, turning, roller-coaster ride that had many SUVs in the line of vehicles stopping to regurgitate vomiting passengers.
Luckily nobody in our SUV succumbed to the “scenic” ride through the mountainous rain forest to the “port” where we, and dozens of other green-faced visitors, finally unloaded bags to make our way past the rough-and-ready restaurant, and over muddy gravel to the concrete dock where launchas in various states of repair awaited passengers for islands and charter boats.
Unfortunately, this location on the northern coast of Panama is absolutely downwind from the prevailing winds and currents of the western Guna Yala islands. This means that all manner of plastic and other flotsam and jetsam washes up on these shores. As far as we could see, a virtual wall of garbage washed back and forth in the waves as they lapped ashore, the heaps marching well inland.
Overflowing trash barrels festooned with flies, sodden cardboard boxes, boat parts, rusted equipment, bedsprings, toys, plastic water bottles, plastic ware, clothing, sheets of plastic, torn tarps, ropes and lines and string and god knows how many single flip-flops, crocs and other footwear decorated the ground no matter where you looked.
In the midst of the sea of crap was the crapper, a concrete structure raised some 4 feet above ground, featuring 4 individual stalls for ladies on the left and 4 for gents on the right.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Aboard and Below
Our hosts skipper Breeze and his wife and first mate Debbie knew we were here to snorkel. They had a logical if fixed order of islands to visit each day, an itinerary that found us, on the first two bright, sunny days of our 5 day stay in the Guna Yala, anchored off exotic-appearing tiny islands with glittering sandy beaches, surrounded by rather blah patch reefs with few fish.
I knew that the mid-term NOAA marine forecast for the region predicted the last 3 days of our trip to be beset by rain, wind, and thunderstorms. I was hoping we’d get to snorkel a decent wall, with more soft and hard corals and a lot more fish, while the sunny weather lasted.
Each day we moved to a different tiny, uninhabited island, where a short dingy ride would bring us to a series of patch reefs and, on two occasions, very nice reef walls near two of the uninhabited islands/islets in the western Guna Yala islands.
On the first wall we snorkeled, highlights were spotting three Porcupine fish, one of the talismans we seek on every dive.
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.
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.
Robin enjoyed tranquility on several occasions when she kayaked around an island where we were anchored, or way off to the south, toward the coastal mountains. She was careful to remain within sight of the boat, and the sure knowledge of chitras (sand flies) that inhabit every island kept her aboard her little craft. A newly-developed case of persistent bursitis in my right shoulder meant I couldn’t join her in the second kayak. Too bad, because I would have greatly enjoyed just sitting and floating upwind of Blue Sky and in the lee of the reef, listening to the waves crashing over the reef top, the wind in the palm trees, and the call of frigate birds when they cruised overhead.
Not all was doom and gloom. We enjoyed spotting a turtle on the surface, and Robin enjoyed watching a spotted eagle ray cruise by the reef on two occasions.
We also had a visit from the fruit boat and a lovely Guna couple, friends of our hosts who were happy to show us the wife’s stunning Molas. These well-known and collected examples of traditional Guna skills are each hand-stitched, using the technique of reverse applique. This process requires patience, time, imagination, and extraordinary stitching skills.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
The photos capture what appears to be a third-world island scene in Malaysia or Thailand. As we approached a rickety dock, an elderly gent was picking through the garbage at the water’s edge. Two neatly attired nuns in pristine, starched, full-length habits complete with wimples waited serenely at the end of the dock, apparently unaffected by the morning’s heat and humidity. With dignity, they quickly climbed aboard with an ease borne of practice, and quietly chatted as we pulled away from the dock.
Why was I surprised that this scene of overcrowding and floating garbage surrounded by clouds of flies and the reek of fish should disgorge two tidy, together women of faith? Surely their work was most direly needed and deeply appreciated, in spite of the mean surroundings– or because of them.
Once back at Carti, we hefted our backpacks and lifted our heavy roll-aboards to hump across acres of mud and gravel to the restaurant where we awaited our SUV for the ride back to PC.
There were few amusing moments in our entire trip but the one that stands out was provided by the two obviously French women approaching their 30s, possibly sisters, standing with stringy arms akimbo outside the restaurant, looking wind-blown, beyond trendy thin, in matching well-washed tight black short sleeves. One sported ragged short-shorts and the other dark leggings. Long, frizzed, and massively tangled manes of indeterminate washed-out color blew across their pinched faces as they gazed about them with noses high. I pegged them for upper-tier backpackers, some might label Eurotrash. They were wearing little flat slippers instead of the ubiquitous crocs, and dragging rolling carry-ons through the muddy gravel, vs hefting large backpacks.
Those two were right out of Central Casting: disdainful, and impatient with me when I didn’t take the photo of them with their camera quite as quickly as I should have, then rapidly switching on smiles when they saw the shot I finally did take after I waited for a couple of ogling young boys to get out of the picture frame. The men all hanging about waiting for launchas or new tourists to arrive in SUVs were chatting and rolling their eyes and gesturing at the two women, who studiously ignored the stir. I desperately wanted to capture the essence of these two, their attitudes, and their impact on the immediate surrounds, but there was no easy and discrete way I could get the shot I wanted, so I took mental pictures for this blog post description.
Our SUV soon showed up. We were joined by two young German women who seemed somewhat confused and out of place, glancing nervously about them and carefully watching the drivers in a group, chatting among themselves while passengers settled into their vehicles.
Our SUV had no bench seats, just individual seats like those in a converted van, thus, one butt for every seat. This came into play when, a short drive from the port, we pulled off the Carti road and followed a rutted dirt track down to the edge of a river. Several launchas were pulled up on the shore and a group of around 30 backpackers were milling around in the shade of an open pavilion, applying bug spray with gusto.
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.
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.
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.
It’s nighttime. We’re paddling a canoe down the middle of the briskly flowing Macal river in the Belize jungle, somewhere very near the Guatemalan border. The handle of the powerful handheld spotlight I’m gripping is warm. Actually, it’s hot. So hot that I shift it from hand to hand as I point it up onto the riverbank and sweep the overhanging branches of the giant rain forest trees that lean out over the river.
A dense cloud of moths forms a ball around the light, covering my face, my head, flying into my ears and eyes, tumbling down the front and back of my shirt. I reach into my décolletage to dig a few out and my fingers encounter a ball of squirming moths, soaked and likely drowning in a pool of sweat.
Ahhhh- vacation! We’re on yet another adventure in the wilds of Central America. This evening, the last of three we’ll spend in the Cayo district of Belize, has so far featured a hair-raising ride in an old and well-worn pick-up truck with two canoes strapped on top and six humans crammed inside a steamy interior, being tossed about like pebbles as the truck bounces and bangs down a deeply rutted, dangerously steep and potholed track through the jungle night.
Once at the river’s edge, we four guests stand behind the truck out of the way while the guides untie the canoes and place them in the river shallows. We’re told to watch where we put our feet and to use our headlamps to look for snakes. The jungle growth pushes up right next to the jeep and there’s little cleared space for our feet. Robin and I stand quietly and watch the other two gals, a mom and daughter from Maine, as they mince about and scan the ground nervously. Robin’s more concerned about bug bites than stumbling into a snake, but only harmless moths and gnats flit about. In the light of my headlamp I spot a couple of bats swooping overhead.
The crickets and frogs clamor so loudly that it’s hard to hear the guides as they call for us to climb into the canoes. In the canoe, I step gingerly toward the bow seat, maneuvering around a car battery. The guide hands me a large hand-held spotlight and I watch as he hooks up two somewhat shielded wires from the spotlight to the battery terminals. Interesting. Guess I won’t be letting those wires dip into the river.
Robin settles in the middle seat, the guide shoves us off the gravel bottom, hops in and paddles us efficiently into the brisk flow of the river. While I’m digging moth bodies out of my nether regions, I can hear Robin behind me making disgusting noises and muttering “Oh for heaven’s sake!” and “Ick! Yuk!”. Her brisk motions to wave off the clouds threaten our balance. Atypical for me, I’m feeling exposed up here in the bow, probably because I’m top-heavy holding this big spotlight. (Wry humor.) Besides, my position in a canoe has always been at the stern, since I was 10 years old and learned how to paddle. I simply feel more comfortable being in the rear seat, managing the balance and track of the canoe.
I warn Robin to be still and wait, the moth swarm will go away once we get some breeze.
Sure enough, a nice breeze greets us as we move into the center of the river’s width, generally about 200 feet across. Soon the moths thin out and we find ourselves distracted by the strong beam of light, which I aim to light up the massive trees that thickly line the banks of this wild river.
We’re spotting for wildlife that has come out on this starry night to forage for food, mate, meet up with family members, dodge predators, and to pose for us as they’re picked out of the darkness by the unrelenting probing lights from the two canoes.
Our guide uses a powerful green laser pointer to direct my spotlight beam- he knows where to look for critters. As we float along with the current, I spot a brown animal up high on a large limb. “It’s a kinkajou!” the guide exclaims. The boats quietly approach the tree and there it is, about 30 feet above us, stretched out on a limb. We sweep our lights about but the kinkajou won’t budge, so we continue downriver, scanning the river banks and trees.
Soon I spot two orange eyes up on a river bank and as we approach the guide tells us it’s a fox! The eyes scoot along the river bank but the spotlight is relentless and soon picks out the little fox. We watch as it darts behind some shrubbery and then the current moves us past our vantage point.
Next up, around a bend, we spot two kinkajou’s in a tree, darting from limb to limb and making their way quickly away from the river. A few minutes later I spot a Wood Rail sitting quietly on a limb overhead, it’s orange and white beak shining in the spotlight.
As we continue down the river, we can hear rapids ahead– nothing huge but definitely enough force to turn the canoe over if mishandled, so I direct the light to help guide our passage. Once past the rapids, I resume sweeping the light through the trees, marveling at their incredible heights, some with massive buttressed trunks and many festooned with creepers, strangler fig vines, and huge air plants.
We spot a Water Possum on the bank- a brief glimpse before it darts behind a large tree. Then a bit later we come across a beautiful Spectacled Owl, small and as brightly marked as a tropical bird, perched just above our heads on a tree branch. And then we spot four or more kinkajous. These are quite close to us and only 15 feet above the river, on a large tree limb. Three of them take off but the last one remains behind, blinking in the spotlight. It stretches out on the limb and then flips to the underside, then flips back up, then hides its large round eyes behind two little fore paws and cowers. We all say “Awwww” and turn the two spotlights away to let it go on about its business. The guide is tickled pink; he seldom sees a kinkajou that close up, much less one that doesn’t dart immediately away.
At one point we turn off our spotlights and headlamps and soon the stars are right down on our heads! One of the highlights of our trips to little-trammeled places is that we get to see the stars as our ancestors might have seen them. No light pollution, no loom from nearby man-made anything, just stars: the Milky Way scattered across the chunk of sky visible above the river, the Big Dipper over There, every star in it etched against that dense blackness, not at all where we’re used to seeing it the few times we might glimpse it on the eastern seaboard of the U.S.
Nearing the end of our journey we come upon a large bend in the river and before us is a limestone bluff, over 300 feet high and disappearing into the gloom. Massive trees grow out and up from the sheer walls, which are densely covered with thick vines, creepers and vegetation. The scene is starkly lit by our lights, the shadows quivering mysteriously in the breeze.
The jungle night sounds wrap around us and as we slowly slip by this towering wall, I’m so absolutely in the moment, with the smells, the jungle night sounds, the humidity and the breeze on my skin, the little taps of bugs hitting my exposed face, hands and arms as moths and gnats and who-knows-what bugs collide with my body.
For just a moment, I am suspended. I forget about my aching flat butt, heated hands and sore back. I recognize this all-encompassing feeling; it reminds me of SCUBA diving, that moment when you’re past the awkward and jittery phase of transitioning from a large dive boat plunging in ocean waves to the calm depths below the surface. That moment when your equipment is comfortably settled on your body, when your breathing slows and you relax into the sensation of water buoying you, caressing you, moving you perfectly in tandem with the fish that hover over the reef. That moment when you hold your breath for just a few seconds, so you can hear the pops of shrimp, the myriad of unidentified squeaks and grunts, and the crunching of the parrot fish as they bite off chunks of living corals.
It’s the experience of moments like this one that bring me back again and again to nature, the outdoors with few or no people or trashed and trampled environments. Sure the adventures are fun, meeting new people, learning about different cultures, being physically active and challenged by the newness and the unknowns of travel. But for me the magic is truly moments like these. So fleeting, so sublime, so few in a lifetime.
The ATM Cave
The day before our canoe adventure, we headed out in the early morning from the Mariposa Jungle Lodge, our digs for a 3-night “Belize jungle experience” that I’d cobbled together by spending hours on the Internet during months of planning for this vacation.
My usual approach for building a vacation plan had given us a running start. Beginning with a geographic area, I craft an itinerary based on the various things we want to see and do, then I really dig into the details, from finding a place to stay near our planned outdoor excursions and figuring out in-country transport options, to immersive time on TripAdvisor forums.
I keep a running spreadsheet of costs, set up online travel bots, sign up for numerous email and Twitter alerts (airlines/airfares) and correspond with local experts and property owners to glean the “inside” info. Often, I negotiate discounts based on pre-paying and between such negotiations, keeping copious notes, checking costs and adjusting itineraries, we save a LOT of money, avoid not a few unpleasant surprises, and are better prepared for the vagaries of a given locale while leaving a great deal of room for serendipity and last-minute adjustments due to weather, illness or just plain “I don’t wanna do anything today but relax”!
This day, our destination was the ATM cave, short for Actun Tunichil Muknal, located in the Tapir Mountain Reserve, just north of the Maya Mountains. Here we’re reminded no cameras, period. No nothing, really. Your guide will pack in anything you need: lunch, water, your specs etc. NO CAMERAS because some tourist a coupla years ago dropped a camera or accessory on an ancient human skull in the cave and broke the skull so, that’s that.
Thus I’m resorting to open-source pix taken inside the cave before the camera ban.
Check out more trip pix here.
After banging down the painfully rough track from the Mariposa out to the main highway for 40 mins and another 30-min trip off the main road and back into the jungle, we arrived at the parking area for the ATM cave tour. Off we trekked down the path, keeping a wary eye out for snakes sunning themselves in the places where the rapidly heating rays of the tropical sun penetrated the jungle canopy.
We crossed the same river three times (knee-deep, rapidly-running cold, clear water and slippery ankle-turning rounded stones) and kept going, spotting a lovely bright green Vine snake (non-venomous) and swatting at gnat-clouds attracted to our sweating bodies.
After 45 mins or so of hiking up and down trails we arrived at a clearing in the jungle featuring a rough-built palapa, an old wooden picnic table, a felled tree used for seating, and large trees all around for those who wish to relieve themselves. I trotted off down a path and followed my nose to an old privy– a hole in the ground surrounded by a tumbled down wooden structure, fallen tree limbs, dead palm leaves and a cloud of buzzing insects.
I returned to the mustering area, where our guide Gliss was loading new batteries into headlamps and strapping each onto the damp and slightly smelly plastic helmet we each had been given. Gliss explained that this area where we were standing was likely an ancient Maya ball court, due to the obvious work that went into leveling a large area of ground where level is simply not typical. He pointed to a massive limestone face that may have served as one wall of the ball court. The towering wall disappeared into the humid gloom, almost completely hidden by vines, trees and vegetation growing up, out and dangling down the face.
As it turned out, within that towering limestone edifice was the cave system we were about to enter.
Gliss led Robin, myself and another Mariposa guest, a petite and somewhat timid retired lady school teacher, down a short path that followed the curving wall. The sound of a rapidly flowing river became louder, then the forest canopy opened and before us appeared the huge gaping mouth of the cave.
The photos do this place justice– it was every bit as magnificent and intimidating as it appears. I consider myself pretty fearless, in a calculating way, so I was startled to sense my slight apprehension about entering this unknown, sorta spooky, certainly dark, dank and confining cave, with nothing beyond hiking sandals, a helmet and headlamp on my head, a cherry chapstick in one shorts pocket and a pair of old socks in the other.
But, no time to ponder the possibilities as we stepped gingerly down slippery rough-hewn wooden stairs to the water’s edge, slid over slippery rocks into that clear, frigid water up to our waists and next thing you know, we were swimming in 15 foot depths under the cave overhang and beyond, into the gloom of the cavern opening.
The shock of that 70-degree water hitting my tropical-sun-heated body literally took my breath away, but once I got past that I actually enjoyed paddling quietly into the cavern. I noticed swallows darting in the gloom overhead and became aware of every sound that was amplified, reflected off rock walls and the water’s surface. The too-loud splashing and squealing of the larger party ahead of us as they clambered out of the water onto a rocky ledge jarred as we drew closer. I wanted to just be still for a moment and soak up the atmosphere, the silence I knew this place could generate, allowing one to pick out little trickles and drips of water, the ripple of bird and bat wings, the background buzz of the jungle just beyond the cave opening.
But, such moments of solitude and contemplation are anathema to organized “tours”. Rather, we had to hurry up and get going; staying together, carefully in single file as we slapped along in our sandals, careful to watch our step on the uneven and sodden clay of the cave floor, or tromping confidently on gravel through the fast-flowing underground river shallows.
Squeezing through tight spots, we aimed our headlamps to assist with handholds to avoid razor-sharp rock and to aid in penetrating the often shoulder-deep water to help us find ledges or dodge knee-and-shin-knocker boulders. Sometimes we’d be in a skinny crevice that disappeared overhead, our feet feeling along a narrow ledge about 4 feet below the water, sidling sideways as we crept along a wall. More than once I allowed myself to slip off the ledge into the water quietly and swim alongside to encourage the nice schoolteacher lady, who was pretty freaked out by all this, already. And we were only into the first minutes of what would be three hours in that cave.
Can’t remember her name but whatever, she was very nice and I thought very brave in her determination to overcome her fears and to challenge herself to finish this expedition. She was certainly past 60, with a knee that simply would not bend, no upper body strength, and little self-confidence in bouldering and climbing heights in the pitch blackness, swimming in frigid water for unknown distances, balancing on a rusted and creaky 40 foot ladder that led to a slippery 90-degree squeeze around an overhang– yeah, stuff like that.
Clearly the brave lady felt safer right behind Gliss, so I followed and Robin brought up the rear, saying if she fell she would have all us to soften her landing, ha.
Around a bend there appeared a giant sinkhole off to our left in an area that looked like it would take 15 minutes to get to by clambering over boulders, some stacked on one another, all the size of a golf cart. Sunlight speared down into the hole from some 60 feet above us. Vines hung over the crumbled top, trees grew right out of the sides, and more massive trees crowded the margin, as if they too wanted to take the plunge.
That was our last view of sunlight for a couple of hours.
The further we penetrated into the cave, the more dense the humid atmosphere became. Our headlamps illuminated the condensation of our breath, adding to the suspended water molecules hanging in the air around us. We were soaked, cold from water immersion, and sweaty from exertion. The sounds of other groups receded into the vastness around us, and often the noise from the rushing river over shallow gravel beds, and us splashing doggedly against the current, drowned out any other sounds.
By the time we got to the first of many skulls, human bones, large and small smashed pots strewn about on various ledges and natural platforms, my feet were tired, my shoulders and neck sore, my lower back complaining, and my knees were inflamed. So far this had proven to be more Cirque du Soleil than a jaunt into the distant past. Between the climbing, clambering, balancing, tripping, mincing, squeezing, shin-cracking and neck-craning, my poor bod was a bit tired. But, we still had to get to the place where we were to take off our shoes, don socks, and stomp around for an hour or so over rocky, crumbly, slippery, ever more painfully rough cave surfaces, avoiding harming the mud while working our way to the very rear of the cave to see the really cool stuff.
Cool stuff: Amazing crystal formations, much as you will see in many a cave around the world. Lovely but really, how many stupidly named formations can you gawp at? However, there was an awesome and inspiring ceremonial stone plinth way up and over on a wide ledge, supporting two heavy angled stones about 3 feet tall, carved to look like the gaping maw of a crocodile. Well, at least the shadow cast on the massive cavern wall behind it sure looked like a crocodile. The question is- if the ancients didn’t have LED flashlights, would that have cast the same shadow when lit by a torch or a dozen? Good question. Gliss was full of many question like this, which caused us to scratch our chins and ponder. Or at least gave us an excuse to perch on a nearby rock and, for just one second, rest. But then- “Let’s move on!”
On to more slippery cave footing and more climbing to yet more ledges with pots and small fire pits and human bones and a skull or two and then, on our way to the pièce de résistance, we came upon the climbing challenge that I thought was going to cause a mission abort. Our intrepid nice retired school teacher positively balked, and even Robin turned quite pale in the lamplight when faced with this last bit.
First: place your left foot here, about two feet above the cave floor, flat against the wall. Now use your hands, reach across to this edge, get your right foot into place across this gap, over to this little ledge here, just wide enough for your foot. Now lever yourself up, using your thighs and quads and any muscle you may have down there — out and over the gap while reaching up to this handhold, right here, all lit up in the little circle from my headlamp. Then your other hand goes here- nope not there, here!
This was a challenge for folks with little or no climbing skills, but with coaching from Gliss above and myself below, they made it. Thank goodness Gliss had done this many times and had this traverse, and others like it, down pat.
No break in sight, though, as we arrived some 20 feet higher along this crevice. I found myself balanced with one foot on a small rounded, slippery and shiny limestone cap on top of a stalagmite. My other foot dangled in mid-air. I looked down and my headlamp revealed my perch– a large mushroom head, beyond which was a two foot wide chasm that dropped straight down to five foot tall jagged rock teeth below, the teeth seeming to twitch malevolently in the shadows from my light.
No time to study my predicament, as Gliss steadied my elbow and motioned for me to spin in place- yes spin in place, lean forward across that gap and sit right down there on that ledge. Quickly, now. Don’t think, just do it, then scramble away from that gap, stand up and go over there to take off your shoes. Time for the socks drill.
Holy cow. We all made it and, socks donned, we formed up into our single file again. Robin muttered “Did you see that gap? What the hell did we just do?” I replied “Shhhh,” and she understood it wasn’t a good idea to let on to the retired teacher what we had spotted. She had obviously been smart enough to follow Gliss’s instruction to not look down during that passage.
The full skeleton splayed out on the cave floor, carefully roped off with engineer’s tape, was worth the effort to achieve the viewing. Of course Gliss took the opportunity to fill us in on a bit of fact and a lot of educated guesswork about what, who, why this obvious display of a human corpse, way back in the day, way back at the rear of this cave.
The thing sure looked spooky there in the harsh shadows of our lights, the bones (or whatever they had turned into by now from leaching of limestone) appearing as fragile as piles of dust.
As we stood close together, a few feet from the skeleton, my claustrophobia crept in. The still and musty air, the closeness of our bodies squeezed in a narrow opening between walls, the deep pitch around us only barely penetrated by our weakening headlamps, the knowledge that we were heaven-knew-how deep under tons of rock — all combined to make me want to get the heck gone.
I was quiet most of the way back, as we retraced our steps back down the rusty ladder, across the cave floor that further bruised my tender soles. Back to the shoes (ahhh), back across that dang gap passage, down and down and swim and squeeze and swim some more and balance on tired legs, my back telling me it had had it.
Soon enough we were back in the twilight of the cavern entry, lowering ourselves one last time into now bitterly cold water, swimming out of the cave, out from under that huge overhang, slipping on rocks and soggy wooden steps, and back to the ancient ball court area, where a light lunch of fruit, a few strips of cheese and swarms of flies awaited us.
I could have eaten one of those Tapirs. Instead, we guzzled water, gnawed cheese, gulped fruit, swatted at flies, then started our 4 kilometer trek back up and down the jungle trail, re-crossing the river three times in the full heat of the equatorial afternoon. Steam rose from our clothes and heads, my sunglasses fogged, gnats and biting flies swarmed, sweat dripped into my eyes and the fine sand collected between my Teva outdoor sandal straps at every point they touched my skin, raising painful blisters.
Hey, this is what it’s all about. Eco-adventure! Jungle trekking! Caving! Thirst, hunger, full bladder, aching body, and beat up feet combined to make me feel every single year of my, er, age.
We survived, and it’s in the re-telling that I appreciate fully the effort, commitment, tenacity, determination and sometimes just plain blissful ignorance that drives me to take such a “vacation”. Luckily Robin and I are both adventurous enough to want to experience such things and are physically able to endure them. All in all, a tale worth telling but you know, I’ve done my caving thing now and, like climbing pyramids, I’ll move on to something different for the next adventure.
Coda: the two things our adventures typically have in common is History and Nature. Tubing through a cave or down a river with a bunch of screaming people, or zip-lining, or riding in a 4-wheeler tearing up the landscape or blowing through water hyacinths in an ear-splitting air boat, for instance, simply isn’t it. Just sayin’.
Next Stop: Turneffe Atoll
We spent three nights at our “jungle lodge”, which was situated on a ridge in the piney highlands of the Belize Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. This reserve is located within a large alluvial river valley that serves as the key area of the country for vegetable and fruit farms, cattle ranches and dairy farms, and has been supporting agriculture and human habitation for thousands of years.
All of which meant, if you want to experience anything jungle-like, you need to travel in a vehicle with shot suspension along the washboard, dusty limestone track for almost an hour to get down to one of the many rivers and creeks and that form a network within the Cayo district of Belize. There, you can escape the heavy layer of slash-and-burn smoke and the ubiquitous fine dust from limestone roadways that criss-cross this heavily farmed area of western Belize.
A feature of our getaways is the opportunity to exchange the pollen and other delightful particulate inhalations of Atlanta for the fresh air of the tropics. We deliberately planned our trip to Belize during the dry season, when the winds are calm and the waters warm for snorkeling. Also, travel to the Caribbean at this time of year typically offers off-season rates and fewer visitors, while avoiding the bug swarms and other drawbacks associated by the rainy season.
Not for the first time, we had deplaned in Central America at the Belize airport to a heavy pall of smoke caused by the relentless slash-and-burn agricultural practices that prevail in this area of the developing world. From the time we walked off the aircraft until left the coast in the wake of the dive boat transferring us to Turneffe Atoll, we coughed and choked on the heavy smoke, dust and the fumes of the petroleum-and-water mix infrequently sprayed by trucks over the more heavily traveled limestone tracks.
So, on Saturday we were quite ready to bid Goodbye to the wonderful staff at Mariposa. Safely ensconced in a newish van with AC and shock absorbers, we rode a couple of hours back down the Western Highway to Belize City on the coast. The pall of smoke had been dispersed somewhat by rising winds the past day, which meant we were anticipating a rough 90-minute boat ride out to Blackbird Caye Resort on Turneffe Atoll, some 25 miles or so off the Belize coast.
The resort’s 50-foot dive boat Big Bird handled the big seas just fine as we and the other dozen or so guests aboard jammed ourselves into the driest places we could find, bracing ourselves, our water bottles and any miscellaneous gear into positions that might spare us injury from the heaving of the boat as it crashed headlong into seas that were 5-footers or more.
We enjoyed a short respite from the gyrations as our passage took us through an area of pristine mangroves, where we could easily see the sandy bottom some 15 feet beneath the hull through clear water.
Finally, after what seemed hours of noisy and uncomfortable running, we approached Blackbird Caye and the deep channel that cut through the fringing reef to the protected waters inside, and the resort dock. I could see we were going to turn 90 degrees or more to line up for that channel, so I scooted over to Robin and yelled above the noise of the twin diesels, the wind and the waves slamming the boat to hold on, we were going to virtually come about and we were gonna take those seas full abeam. She nodded and we both found something to grip as, indeed, that big boat gave a mighty heave, crawled up the face of a wave I didn’t even want to look over at, and, with dexterity that told me our skipper was indeed a skilled pilot, we executed that turn and surfed right on through that channel and into the relatively calm waters of the inside of the reef.
Good thing everyone on that boat was an experienced diver and big seas boat passenger. Nobody got tossed, no gear went rolling over the deck, and calm expressions prevailed as we approached the dock and all began to gather their gear.
A significant tailwind gave us a couple of shoves as we stumbled along the dock boards. Once on land, I silently gave thanks to being on solid ground, even if my lower legs were getting sand-blasted.
This was our introduction to a wind-blown week on Blackbird Caye. We were here to snorkel every morning and afternoon, and to experience some of the most pristine coral reefs remaining in the Atlantic Ocean. But these high winds were weird– uncharacteristic for this time of year, these winds were more like what you’d see in the winter months, not in early May. My quick video panorama of conditions here: http://youtu.be/J8wffvrZwGY
Well, we were here, our room beckoned, we had a group orientation to attend in the palapa bar and then dinner, sleep, and we’d see what the morning conditions would be.
No other way to describe it, this was indeed awesome snorkeling, leaving nothing to disappoint.
While the morning seas were choppy inside the protection of the reef, and we had to do some energetic finning ever so often, we still had incredible visibility for most of the week, aided by the bright sunshine that lit up the corals and the amazing variety of fish, crustaceans, mollusks, rays and anything that caught our attention.
Our guide Chris was terrific- he was a patient and relaxed snorkeler, allowing us ample time to hang in spots to simply watch fish doing their thing, or to enjoy the view of soft corals swaying in the surge or a fish cleaning station taking on another customer. His knowledge of this environment was encyclopedic and he would point out critters in places I wouldn’t have known to look. Obviously he was well acquainted with the hidey-holes that certain critters or fish called home. You don’t become that acquainted with the locals without diving those areas a lot, and often.
I was delighted when he dove down to the sandy bottom to show us an electric ray. I have a trained eye to spot fish and critters, especially rays, but these electric rays totally had me baffled!
When Chris would spot an electric ray, he would take off a fin and, slowly sinking down to the bright white sandy bottom, he would gently slip the tip of the fin just under the nose of the ray. The ray then would raise itself from the bottom, none too fast, swim calmly a few feet away and settle down in another patch of sand. Then it would flip its wings a few times to cover itself with sand, and once again it was perfectly hidden in plain sight. Well, in plain sight for Chris, but not for me. I never did learn how to spot them accurately. Too many worm holes in the sand look just like the ray’s slightly oval, dark eyes.
Once, Chris pointed out across the sand and I looked and motioned “what?” and we floated briefly to chat. “Big ray over there,” he said. “Really?” I wondered. “Yes,” I remember him smiling impishly. “Really big ray.”
Oh, so I was looking for a Really big ray, and I sure spotted it. The animal was the biggest southern stingray I have ever seen, including the monsters that used to show up at Stingray City off Grand Cayman back in the early 1990s. Forget spotting the eyes, the bulges below the eyes were poking up at least 4 inches above the sand and the gap between them was easily 16-18 inches. When we approached (her, likely) she raised calmly up and, shedding sand in a big cloud, she moved off and soon swam out of sight. Holy cow, that was one monster stingray, easily the size of a dining room table seating six. I looked around for Robin and she was right there just off my shoulder, nodding emphatically and arching her brows.
Subsequent dives brought new and fabulous sightings and experiences. We spotted clouds of fish of almost every variety common in the Caribbean, including millions of tiny Sharp-nosed Puffer fish, breeding and dying.
Large predatory fish, from groupers to hog snappers, tarpon and barracuda were spotted. Turtles and spotted eagle rays swam in and out of the visibility curtain. Mature soft corals undulated in the currents. Unbleached corals reflected their true, healthy colors. Large hard corals, from brain coral to staghorn to elkhorn, were abundant. We even saw some sharks (although their numbers are very, very depressed.)
And–lobsters! Amazing. When we spotted a clump of five lobsters all crowded into a large hole in the reef, I got kinda teary-eyed because I realized, horrifyingly, that many years ago I had stopped looking for the signature antennae of these crayfish, once so common on the reefs of my native Florida. Heck, in the early 1970s I used to catch my limit of lobsters right off the coast of Dania beach in Ft. Lauderdale, within hearing distance from the tide line! I realized I had simply not seen lobsters anywhere in the Caribbean for many, many years. Not to say they aren’t out there but I had seen damn few, if any, in my travels criss-crossing the Caribbean basin for over a decade.
If I was gratified by this experience, I was equally, and familiarly, dismayed when comparing notes with the highly experienced, knowledgeable and trained fish-spotters we shared the resort with that week.
Reef.org www.reef.org is the web site for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, described as “… a grass-roots organization that seeks to conserve marine ecosystems by educating, enlisting and enabling divers and other marine enthusiasts to become active ocean stewards and citizen scientists.”
Every one of these folks is self-funded, and this group was fully outfitted with underwater still and video cameras and laptops and editing software. Everyone did 2-3 dives a day with their slates, ticking off the fish they spotted. Each day the group would meet in the palapa bar at 5pm to review what they’d seen, count fish, review fish images to freshen memories, and share videos.
What an amazing group of dedicated divers. I was overwhelmed and humble in the face of their knowledge and dedication. I thought I knew my Florida and Caribbean fish species, including juvenile phases of many, but whew, these folks are da bomb! Several are easily classified as true EXPERTS.
It’s so cool that many of these folks have dived together in different seas around Planet Ocean. They give of their time, money, energy and enthusiasm to add to the international database of knowledge which is completely open to the public.
Too, these folks’ personal, hard-won experiences completely validate global climate change– not the cause(s), but most assuredly the impact on reef ecosystems. They remember all manner of locations back in the day and compare conditions, fish life, reef health, etc to today. Not a pretty picture- period.
Two of the member ladies were well into their 60s and were diving daily– and remember, the seas were massive, especially where they were diving, out in the open ocean, with no protective barrier reef. And that boat was a dangerous platform to get on or off, with all that gear and weight, even with the superior assist of the dive masters. It’s just plain hazardous to dive in 4-6 foot seas, under any circumstance. I surely enjoyed the confabs with these and others of the group over meals, and was delighted to share in their experiences.
The Great Blue Hole
This trip was simply amazing. A full day and a full contingent of divers aboard Big Bird, all of us off for a 90 minute drive out to the blue hole http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Blue_Hole where divers plumbed the depths and we snorkelers tooled around the reef on top. A highlight was being buzzed by two Cessna planes that would have made an interesting shot from the perspective of a snorkeler, but no camera in hand!
Then it was off to Half Moon Caye for more snorkeling, diving, viewing the Red Footed Booby colony, and of course a yummy BBQ in the shade of a palm tree grove with Frigate birds soaring high overhead.
Back aboard, we headed off to Lighthouse Reef for an amazing dive/snorkel on a world-class, virtually pristine reef.
By the time we got back to the dock, we were all tuckered out. Fish class was held, as usual, and after dinner folks drifted away to their cabanas to rest up for the following day’s dives.
Lionfish and the Green Moray
Many readers may know about the problem that lionfish pose in the Atlantic. The population of these non-indigenous predators have simply exploded across the Atlantic, impacting fish and reef systems in ways we’re only beginning to understand. They have few predators. Divers spear them whenever they can. Lionfish rodeos spring up all over and dive clubs and other groups are pitching in to attempt to undo what aquarists have done, but the genie is out of the bottle and who knows what’s in store for many fish species.
In any event, one day the group came back with an amazing video clip. The dive master had speared a lionfish and tucked the dead fish into a nearby hole in the reef. Along came a large green moray eel, swimming out in the open over the reef- a rare sight. The eel disappeared into a hole in the reef and soon reappeared, the dead lionfish now a large lump in the eel’s throat. The eel writhed and gyrated, using its body muscles much like a snake, to crush the lionfish. Then the eel opened its mouth wide and out floated one, two then more of the venomous lionfish spines. Scratch one lionfish. That was an amazing video.
Our last day the gale-force winds finally subsided, making for calmer conditions and better visibility underwater. Quick video pan: http://youtu.be/morXnFycNR4
A group of us went snorkeling that afternoon on the outside of the nearby reef. Suddenly someone yelled “Shark! Shark!” Rather than heading for the boat in a panic, this wise group all headed as quickly as their legs could propel them toward the person yelling!
I laughed into my snorkel as I joined the clutch of folks and, sure enough, below us in about 25 feet of water, lying quietly on the bottom was a large nurse shark– all 7 feet of it. Nice to see a shark– any kind, these days. The finning of sharks for shark soup and other uses has truly taken a toll in the world’s oceans. It’s quite a statement to have people swim toward a sighting rather than away. That could have been a black tip or a Caribbean reef shark or a bull shark or any shark, but the mere fact of spotting a shark is perhaps becoming a rarity, especially in some oceans. That’s a hell of a situation.
I’ve waxed philosophic and perhaps sophomoric in this posting, but I guess like our trips, my musings must come to a close. I don’t claim to have any real insights, just observations about our travels. More and more, these trips into the Caribbean are becoming bitter sweet, less fun adventure and more frequent and alarming exposure to What Man Hath Wrought.
I can say I’m not at all proud of the legacy my generation and the ones before us have left the planet. I can say that this trip has given me hope– hope that governments like that of Belize, in partnership with NGOs like Reef.org and just plain folks, are trying to save something for the future, even as we all grapple with the consequences of too many people, too little space, greed, overpopulation, environmental degradation, poverty, corruption, greed, ignorance, and more greed.
I reference a heroine of mine, Dr. Sylvia Earle, the famed oceanographer, explorer, environmentalist and National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence. Here’s her famous, award-winning TED talk in which she speaks of what she calls Hope Spots on the planet, marine protected areas critical to the health of the ocean: www.ted.com/talks/sylvia_earle_s_ted_prize_wish_to_protect_our_oceans
(In which we vacation for 9 days and 8 nights, split between two locations; a tropical rain forest lodge, and an intimate Caribbean island retreat.)
My Honduras YouTube playlist
Link to trip photos
“Turf”- The Rain Forest
Our plane from Atlanta dropped through the clouds to reveal San Pedro Sula below, only dimly viewed through the pall of smoke choking the Sula valley where the city sprawls. As the plane rolled toward the airport gates and acrid smoke wafted through the aircraft, I was reminded we were once again visiting a third world country, where almost any unwanted item becomes litter or trash, much of it eventually finding its way either into the Caribbean Sea or a burn pile.
But, hey, we’re in Honduras, on vacation, and we are determined to have a fantastic time. Especially since this trip is the culmination of several months of painstaking research and meticulous planning, including a steady stream of digital communications to schedule and secure transportation and accommodations, careful study of maps and charts, plane schedules, weather forecasts and even whale shark migration reports.
The smoky view of nearby mountains vaguely seen from the main terminal windows served to distract somewhat from the frequent ear-splitting and incomprehensible loud-speaker announcements that assaulted us during our three hour layover as we waited for the flight to the coastal city of La Ceiba, some 120 miles distant, on the Caribbean coast of Honduras.
Our flight to La Ceiba was short and uneventful, and upon arrival we were captivated by the sight of the Cordillera Nombre de Dios mountains, razor-toothed and mist-capped, looming over us in the late afternoon light.
We were met at the small airport by the driver of the van from the Lodge at Pico Bonito http://www.picobonito.com/ our pied-a-terre for the next 3 nights and days. As the only passengers, we had the undivided attention of Manuel, the taciturn but friendly-enough driver who kindly informed us that the cultivated fields rolling by were pineapple.
We sanguinely gazed out the windows for the next 20 minutes while the van bumped over ubiquitous tope’s (“Toh-pays”, or speed bumps) on the main road out of town. Pineapple fields slipped by and we were continually passed by drivers determined to run us or the oncoming vehicle out of our respective lanes. Cars, trucks, motorcycles, and three-wheeled taxis called tuk-tuks darted in and out of the traffic, while pedestrians and bicycle riders made their way slowly and carefully along the narrow gravel verge, somehow managing to avoid being sideswiped.
Like I said, we were fairly sanguine, having seen it all before, many times, in many Caribbean locales. All the same, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief as we pulled off the busy road onto a peaceful, tree-lined, rutted and dusty track that meandered between coconut, pineapple and palm oil plantations as it wound its way relentlessly uphill, pulling us into the embrace of those mysterious purple massifs.
Manuel explained that the area plantations were owned by the Standard Fruit Company (later, Dole) which, along with the United Fruit Company, in the 1920s played a significant role in the governments of Honduras and other Central American countries, which became known as “banana republics” because of the highly favorable treatment the fruit companies were given by those governments.
“It’s complicated” barely touches the history of U.S. influence in central america politics and business, but that’s a topic for another day, and someone else’s blog.
In any event, we were fairly well-informed of the country’s colorful past, and more importantly, current woes and how the latter could conceivably give us some concern for our safety, which is really a continuance of our experience on the island of Roatan in 2007, as my blog posting details http://wp.me/pYCsM-n
In prepping for this trip, we had long since come to an accommodation of our understanding of the dangers inherent in traveling to a third-world country where the rule of law is iffy at best and where there is a certain comfort in glimpsing the heavily armed private security guards as they patroled the hiking trails around and roads leading into the properties where we stayed.
We realized that our three night stay in a tropical rain forest would expose us to an environment fraught with mosquito-and-water-borne disease, poisonous critters (Fer de lance snake!) and a zillion stinging and biting insects just waiting to pounce. Even so, we figured flying in planes that we knew would get smaller, older and more haggard as our travels unfolded gave us more pause than did thoughts of mosquito-borne diseases and parasites. There’s no DEET for a plane that can’t fly and won’t float!
Historic, Serene Pico Bonito Lodge
As the van passed through the guarded entry gate of the Lodge, the scrub of overgrown plantation grounds soon gave way to lovingly tended tropical plants, shrubs, and trees bursting forth with blossoms, blooms, giant buds and flowering spikes of various sizes, shapes and shades of red, orange, and magenta that glowed among a wall of greenery decorating a large garden area bisected by a lengthy lined gravel walkway.
Out-sized palm and banana leaves, ferns and bromeliads, orchids and epiphytes nodded in the late afternoon breeze flowing off the mountain, seeming to beckon us toward the massive covered entry and the raised portico of the Lodge.
This description may seem a bit, well, flowery but when you see our pictures you may begin to understand why we were so quickly and so surely captivated by the sights, sounds and smells of this amazing place.
Stepping from the air-conditioned quiet of the van, my senses were overwhelmed by the onslaught of sights, sounds and odors. The late afternoon light limning the massive mahogany posts, beams and polished floors of the soaring, open-aired entry to the Lodge signaled a place that had grown from and into its immediate surrounds.
Built on the site of former coffee and cacao plantations, the Lodge is nestled in the lush 270,000 acres of Pico Bonito National Park, home to hundreds of varieties of tropical birds, as well as monkeys, anteaters, tapir, kinkajous, reptiles and jaguars.
I certainly felt I was well off the grid now, in a spectacular setting, the humid breeze redolent of the fecund smell of rotting vegetation, sweet tropical blossoms, freshly watered soil, crushed gravel and cinnamon. And the sounds! A symphonic flow of bird calls pealing, tinkling, chirping and whistling blended together in a harmonious concerto, accented by the percussion of geckos and cicadas. All was overlaid by the sustained high-pitched burr of thousands of insects.
Robin and I hardly had time to share stunned smiles because here was the beaming receptionist offering us a small tray with warm, wet and scented hand-towels to refresh ourselves, even as another friendly staff person flourished a large serving tray arrayed with two sweating glasses of a cold tropical concoction, to which I agreed a tipple of rum added was in order. I even managed to notice the lovely hibiscus bloom next to my glass before I snatched it up eagerly. The glass, not the bloom.
Arriving on a Friday evening was apparently in our favor, as we were the only guests checking in, so before undergoing the rituals of registration, we were given ample time to slowly walk around the vast interior of the main Lodge entry, pulled inexorably to the vista that unfolded as we made our way to the garden side of the entry. Photos hardly do this sublime scene justice, and my first view left me rooted to the spot, just trying to take it all in.
To spare the reader more over-blown exposition, I refer you to our trip photos, which I believe capture the visual lushness of the scene we encountered. But do return to the story, it will be worth your patience!
Soon we were stepping along a raised boardwalk and then down to the gravel path that led to the cabins, situated some distance from the main lodge building, yet readily reached, as long as one stayed on the gravel paths. Heavy undergrowth grew right up to the pathways, the plants and trees springing up from leaf-litter that was, on average, as deep as one’s thighs. Largish rocks poked up from the gravel walkways and my not-quite-healed injured ankle was, even in my hiking boot, sorely tested as my foot slipped off one and then another of these treacherous devils.
In the Rain Forest, High Above a River Gorge
The following day, on our ass-kicking hike to Unbelievable Falls, I would find myself cursing these rocks and all their brethren who did their best to deny us the dignity of a somewhat balanced tumble. The gravel paths would prove to be tiring and slippery as we made our way around the 400 acres of the lodge property during our stay.
Our cabin appeared to float among heavy foliage and as we mounted the steps from the gravel walkway, I spotted one of the many large feeder trays piled with rotted fruit that were positioned around the property. The feeder was less than 40 feet from our cabin, just across the loop trail which our deck overlooked, and was perched on the sharp edge of the river gorge, which dropped precipitously almost straight down to the river some 200 feet below.
The sounds of the rushing river water harmonized with the buzz of insects and bird calls, which echoed off the massive trees that screened much of the afternoon light. In the gloom under the forest canopy, the cabin interior glowed from lights thoughtfully switched on, bathing yet more hardwoods used in constructing the interior of the cabin and its furnishings in a warm and welcoming glow.
Thanks to our luggage having magically made its way to the room, we were soon showered and refreshed from a long day of travel and ready to walk the grounds a bit before the typically rapid tropical sunset. But first, we faced a visit from a White-Faced Capuchin monkey, who was as surprised to see us as we were to see it!
Robin and I were relaxing on the cabin deck under the paddle fan when we heard rustling in the trees overhead. A falling branch prompted us to step out onto the deck, and there was the monkey, peering down at us from some 30 feet up in a tree. As soon as it spotted us, it chattered at us and started moving away. In the matter of a minute it was lost to us in the thick foliage. We watched for several minutes but could detect no sign of movement in the trees or any sound.
This was my first close encounter with a wild monkey in the rain forest. I’d seen Howlers in Belize but never got as close as we did to this one. We agreed it was a special moment.
After the monkey’s visit, we headed down the hill to the magnificent dining area close by the main Lodge.
Armed with flashlights and DEET, we took a turn around the lovely and well-kept pool area and took in a view of the deep and narrow river gorge afforded from a platform nearby. The sounds of the rushing river water below drifted up to us, along with a light spray which did nothing to dissuade the mosquitoes, so we escaped to the spacious deck of the dining area and enjoyed the sight of the last golden light of the day gilding the clouds that shrouded the tallest peaks of the mountain range to the east and south.
Small, rabbit-like mammals called Agutis darted here and there among the flowers and shrubs, and we soon understood that these rabbit-sized rodents were considered a nuisance by the locals. We found them rather cute and amusing and I managed to get a couple of shots before we lost the light.
An amazing meal provided a restful segue to our traipse back up the hill (getting lost along the way) to our cabin. I was too tired to linger long in the hammock on our deck, even as I was loathe to fall asleep and miss one minute of the night sounds of the forest.
Bats swooped in the faint light from our room. The bird sounds throttled back but not all of the feathered types went to bed, apparently. The cicadas really cranked it up, so loud that at times we couldn’t hear each other over the noise unless we shouted- really, they are quite loud. Grunts and peeps and squeaks abounded (we learned that many of the sounds I thought were frogs were instead geckos). As for this nature-lover who is accustomed to recognizing all manner of North American critters by their vocals, I found myself befuddled, unable to recognize much beyond “Gee I think that’s a bat squeak!” Or a mouse? Or an Aguti or other rodent?
Eventually, it was Lights Out and into the arms of Morpheus, accompanied by the sound of the rushing river below and the night sounds of the rain forest enveloping the cabin.
I was awakened suddenly around 1am by a “thump-thump-THUMP!” sound from the feeder, quickly followed by a prolonged, high-pitched squeal that rapidly faded as, apparently, some poor creature was spirited away on wings.
A Brutal Hike Through the Rain Forest
Right after dawn we were up and at ’em, preparing our hiking gear for what we anticipated would be an arduous but awesome hike way up a mountain and down into a river gorge, where the 100 foot drop of Unbelievable Falls and its two pools beckoned. But first, we got to watch the early morning Bird Show from the gallery of the dining area while we sipped Honduran coffee and enjoyed a light breakfast.
I have no idea how many of the 300+ species of tropical birds we saw and heard, but the activity was fierce, the bird calls loud and entrancing as tropical fowl flitted, flapped, dove, darted and soared among the shrubs and towering trees arrayed before us. For close-up activity, the fly-bys of hummers coming to feeders positioned around the gallery were a delight.
At times the bird call concert would pause, and in the silence we could clearly hear the hummers’ rapid wing-beats and tiny peeps and cheeps as they flitted here and there, from feeder to feeder, aggressively defending territory from other hummers. I spotted at least 3 different hummer varieties, both male and female specimens, before I lost count.
Right on time, our guide showed up and we were off, up and up and up and relentlessly UP the steep, narrow, washed-out, dry, dusty and rolling-rock-underfoot trail that would, some 2.5 hours later, in the heat and humidity of the equatorial mid-morning (when the breeze from the nearby coast lays to!) take us to Exhaustion Falls, er, Unbelievable Falls.
Upon making our way down the incredibly steep, treacherous, one-misstep-you-are-gone-baby trail into that gorge, I was ready for the rescue helicopter.
But of course no helicopter could make its way to us. Not amid these steep mountain gorges thickly covered with towering 120-plus foot tall trees festooned with tangling vines– certainly not in this vastness, which we had all to ourselves. But of course we had it all to ourselves. The only way in and out was by foot. So after resting, eating protein bars and drinking a lot of the water we’d packed in, it was time to face that steep gorge incline.
Clambering over slippery and mossy rocks and pulling ourselves up using trees and vines (while ever-vigilant for where we placed our hands!), we made our way ever so carefully up and out of that gorge. I’ve hiked some of the highest mountains in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, braved the treachery of the Rockies at over 10,000 feet and tromped peaks in Georgia for years but this was just brutal. Admittedly, I was working with an injured ankle, which made it necessary for me to plan every step, every second, which probably didn’t help!
Enough whining. Now it was time to buckle down and retrace our steps, back up and down steep ridges, through several valleys, past Hummingbird Gulch (my name for an area where we were surrounded by dozens of hummers, darting about our heads and objecting to our incursion). Past Army Ant hill (again, my name), where one simply didn’t stand in one place but kept dodging the lines of these voracious insects while clambering over giant, fallen trees and crunching through a hillside of dead vegetation the locals had chopped, denuding the valley to enable illegal lumbering.
Across the valley we spotted two Toucans flying from tree to tree, calling to each other in high-pitched frog-like croaks.
Further along we again walked across a steep hillside planted with cacao trees, where our guide had earlier introduced us to the sweet meat found in each gourd. White, fleshy thumb-sized bits of gooey fruit surround each cacao bean which, when processed, delivers the basic stuff of chocolate. We sucked the moisture from the white fleshy parts and were surprised at the fairly pleasant and faintly sweet flavor.
Crossing the next-to-last ridge on our way to the final downhill run to the Lodge, we stopped to admire the view out to the Caribbean Sea less than 10 miles distant. A large valley below us provided an unimpeded view of massive buttressed Ceiba trees, 200 feet tall and higher, in clumps that from a distance looked like tall broccoli heads.
We could clearly see many Montezuma Oropendola birds returning to their nesting colony made up of hundreds of large nests that looked like long-necked gourds. The racket these clever and colorful birds made came to us across that valley. We stood in the breeze and enjoyed the spectacle for a few moments while catching our breath.
We also passed by a lone and massive tree on the very top of a ridge. The main fork of the tree featured two huge branches and against the fork rested a long, thick tree branch. Clearly, someone had chopped steps up that branch using a machete. I looked and saw no fruit on the tree, so I asked the guide what the ladder was for. He hesitated then explained that someone was using the tree as a place to catch wild parrots for the illegal trade.
I had wondered if something was amiss. Still, this sight, combined with the deforestation we witnessed as we crossed unprotected areas of the rain forest during this hike clearly illustrated much that we’ve heard and read for years about the threats to natural areas worldwide.
It seems that even in the midst of the enjoyment of nature, we are constantly reminded of the devastating effects of human impact. Poverty, disease, fear, crime, poverty, more poverty and so forth are constantly with us, no matter where we travel. No matter how I crop the images I take and dress up the stories of our experiences, the not-so-paradisaical reality is always there, ever-present. Which I guess is why we do what we do, and go where we go.
We’re admittedly, selfishly, doing our best to experience what we can, even as we see it disappearing and destroyed before us. And, to be fair, WE are a part of the problem, no matter how we may clothe ourselves in “eco-adventure” language, Cool-Max clothing, and good intentions. But, honestly, if the choice is stay at home and watch the Travel Channel, I’ll opt for the travel, every time.
At this point I left the soap-box behind and, eventually, managed to stumble back to our cabin, where a shower and bed awaited. I slept most of the afternoon and through the night, only awakened once by the vocalization of some sort of cat that was NOT a jaguar but was equally NOT a house cat. I suspect it was a Margay, fairly common in this area of Pico Bonito.
A Day at Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge
The next day we were up again at the crack of dawn. We grabbed a quick breakfast, and met our guide at 6:30am for our trek to Cuero y Salado wildlife refuge on the coast nearby. I’d never heard of this place and wondered why, because it is truly an amazing place worthy of the full Travel Channel (or Lonely Planet) treatment!
The 82 square mile preserve forms a triangle encompassed by the Cuero and Salado rivers and the sea coast. It was designated a protected area in 1986 because of its endangered manatee population, as well as the complex series of saltwater and freshwater wetlands it contains. The park protects about 35 species of animals, including manatees, jaguar, Jabirus (storks), Capuchin and Howler monkeys, as well as gators, crocs, iguanas, bats and a great diversity of fish species.
We actually spotted quite a few critters during our 2 hour ride in a jon-boat. Our trip up-river had barely begun when a troop of Howler monkeys growled at us as we approached the east side of the river. The boat slowly eased through the deep shadows near the bank and at first we had a hard time spotting these fairly large and slow-moving monkeys, but soon enough the Alpha male moved to the outer branches of the trees and looked down at us while barking his warning calls.
We spent a few minutes marveling at these marvelous primates. I was struck by the contrast between their loud and threatening vocalizations and the careful way they moved through the trees; altogether a different experience than the one that awaited us elsewhere on this morning’s expedition.
Before long, the Howlers moved back into the trees away from the river’s edge, and we continued our trip, nosing into backwater canals and small lagoons off the main river to see what we could see.
We soon came upon a large crocodile floating among water hyacinths near the bank, jaws agape. When it finally moved, its lengthy body sinuously slid across the hyacinths and we estimated its length as close to 12 feet. The guide commented “Yes, no swimming in this river!” No argument here.
Cruising slowly around a lagoon, we spotted many water birds common to sub-tropical Florida, such as kites and egrets, herons and cormorants, rails and limpkins. A large Belted Kingfisher kept us company for a few minutes, crossing from one river bank to the other, chattering its signature rattling call as it zipped back and forth.
It felt kind of strange to me to be in the watery environment of a tidal fresh water river, surrounded by trees and animal life so familiar yet quite different from the outdoors where I’ve spent a great deal of my life. Here the trees were far larger, and more jungle-like, than those in the Everglades or the few remaining sections of ancient wetlands along Florida’s coasts. For instance, in Florida, very few old-growth giant mangroves and cypress trees survived 80 or more years of intense logging. I was gratified to see so many healthy, old, untouched trees lining the river and lagoon banks.
The boat skipper slowly nosed us toward a large tree overhanging the water and lo and behold, mere inches in front of us, were 7 short-nosed bats lined up on the underside of the trunk in the reflection of the water, hanging downward, their tiny legs clamped securely to the trunk.
We approached slowly and I was able to get a picture of these little mammals that were so close I could have touched them. If you look closely, you can see their little faces low down on their upside-down bodies. They were looking out, right at us. So cute!
As the boat backed away, they all took flight in a simultaneous burst, and in the blink of an eye, they were gone.
Next, we turned into a narrow canal, out of reach of the light breeze over the open water. The mid-morning sun was developing a real bite as we came upon a small landing, where our guide pointed out a short boardwalk that led to a narrow foot trail through the undergrowth. We agreed to follow the trail for a short distance to see what we might run into.
We quietly made our way along the boardwalk and stepped down onto the foot trail, right into a cloud of voracious mosquitoes. We started to converse about the wisdom of continuing without a thorough dousing of DEET when suddenly the trees around us erupted in a volley of sound and movement. “Quick! Monkeys! A lot of monkeys!” our guide whispered and motioned us onward. We scrambled to catch up, looking overhead as shapes darted here and there, rattling limbs, shaking bushes, and screeching in an alarming manner. Twigs and leaves rained down and it dawned on me, those monkeys were throwing them at us!
We danced down the trail a bit more, spotting monkeys. “Here!” “Over there!” “Look- right there!” I had the camera ready to go, but the rapid movement of the monkeys through the thick vegetation foiled any attempt to photograph them, so I stood still and watched as the troop quickly moved off.
At least we got a good look at them, and no doubt, they were Capuchin monkeys, which were smaller than the Howlers and much more colorful, sporting a white scruff and face accenting black furry coats. Our guide was simply delighted, telling us that he’d not seen Capuchin’s in the reserve in more than a year.
By now, the clouds of mosquitoes made lingering a non-option so we all hoofed it quickly back to the boat and shoved off.
A short run in the jon-boat brought us to the wide mouth of the river, which debouched directly into the Caribbean Sea. We saw no signs of development along the beach, only a large gathering of Turkey Vultures busily fighting over the piles of garbage and plastic that the tide had left on a long sandbar at the river’s edge.
Between the vultures, the sight of so much garbage on an otherwise beautiful and deserted beach, the smell and the flies, the scene lost a lot of what should have been a certain appeal, and we quickly demurred when our guide asked if we wanted to walk along the beach. I figured hoards of sand flies were crowding to the water’s edge, just waiting to get their little jaws on unsuspecting tourists. Besides, I didn’t want to get a closer look at the material that was creating that nauseous smell.
Soon we returned to the dock and after tipping our skipper, spent the next hour or so in the shade of a tree just outside the preserve’s school building. Our guide provided cold water and chilled fresh fruit slices from a cooler, and before long we were joined by several incredibly mangy and emaciated dogs, which brought with them a swarm of flies.
We ate hurriedly, trying not to spend too much time agonizing over the condition of the poor canines, but it was hard to ignore them when they flopped in the dust under our picnic table. One poor fellow with a glassy thousand-yard stare was so weak he could barely manage to stand, his legs shaking as with the ague, his tongue lolling. I was afraid he would collapse and expire right there in front of us. My heart ached. That was about the time Robin got up to go walk around.
Close Up: Developing World Woes
With a clatter, the little-engine-that-could train announced its arrival and we didn’t dally as we joined the small gathering of passengers who were headed back to the village of La Union with us. The train driver pushed the open-aired wagon toward the little engine and, with the help of a couple of by-standers, connected the two.
We took our seats on the rough wooden benches and with a jerk the train struggled back the way we’d come, belching diesel fumes while it thumped and squealed and rattled down the narrow-gauge railway.
For the next 45 minutes we bumped and thumped and screeched our way past pineapple plantations, scrub, and herds of sleek cows grazing in low pastures that were mostly under a thin layer of water. Clearly this was a wetland, subject to flooding during the rainy season, which made for lush pasturage but required the few simple homes and ranch buildings we spotted to be built on stilts well clear of the ground.
The closer we got to the community of La Union, the more people we saw walking along the well-worn foot path beside the raised rail bed. Without exception, these rural folk were barefoot and not prosperous, judging by the worn condition of their colorless attire. Some men wore woven, straw cowboy hats, but most were bare-headed, as were the women.
I watched the faces of people as we passed, and those who deigned to look up at us wore expressions ranging from dull curiosity to resignation and weariness. I caught not a few glares of resentment. Mostly, people went on about their business and ignored the passing of what is clearly the primary connection and transport into and from the surrounding countryside.
As we came into the settlement, I was again struck by the amount of garbage, litter and junk strewn along the tracks, down the steep hillsides, at the bottom of ravines and surrounding what can charitably be called hovels that were squatting right next to the rails, almost within touching distance.
These homes were make-shift, put-together affairs, using broken lumber, tree limbs, old tin, plastic sheeting, torn tarps and cardboard. The “roofs” were often weighed down by stones or old bricks. Women washed clothes in rusted tin tubs, the lines of uniformly grey shirts, trousers, dresses, children’s school uniforms and undergarments hanging on chicken wire or rusted barbed wire fencing, or laid out on items like old refrigerators laid on their sides, wagon wheels and other unidentifiable items strewn about.
We had noticed that the few small homesteads further out of town all sported barred windows and doorways, and were surrounded by high concrete walls topped with worked iron bars. The places in town more often featured lower concrete walls with broken glass bottles thickly embedded along the top. Every window and the meanest opening sported bars or a barrier of some sort.
It certainly looked to me like the residents feared each other, and this level of security wasn’t limited to this community — we saw such evidence of fear and concern for security throughout our entire trip. The only difference between how these folks lived and the places we stayed is that we had guards with automatic weapons roving discretely around the property, maintaining a 24-hour vigil, particularly at points of relatively easy egress to the property.
Our van driver was waiting for us when the little train huffed across the main street crossing in town and with a final prolonged and ear-splitting metallic screech, pulled into the engine’s tiny open shed.
The ride back to the Lodge was uneventful and we were glad to pass through Checkpoint Charlie and make our way back to the main Lodge, where lunch awaited us.
The Coati Troop and Home Tree
As this was our last full day before moving to an offshore island destination for the remainder of our vacation, we wanted to explore more of the Lodge property, eschewing the temptation of spending a hot and still afternoon lounging by the pool.
Fortified with a meal and packing our water, we headed to the nearby river gorge area called Las Pilas, which offered yet another brutal up and down trek, but lovely pics and a video snippet of the river made it worthwhile.
We made our way back to our cabin, trudging slowly and carefully along the loop trail that encompasses the Lodge grounds. Under that towering canopy of massive trees, the afternoon heat seemed to press in on our tired bodies, while the few bird calls and the unrelenting burr of cicadas echoed all around us. For just a moment I felt disembodied from a weird combination of fatigue and euphoria as I virtually swam through the humidity, clouds of gnats, and the wafting odors of rotted fruit and vegetation.
A late afternoon shower and chilling with a cold drink on the covered deck under a fast-spinning ceiling fan seemed in order.
Along came a Lodge employee, adding fresh fruit to the overflowing bird feeder just across the loop trail from our deck. We lazily watched him as he piled on the fruit, then suddenly he gestured at us excitedly, motioning down the ravine behind the feeder. “Huh? What did he say?” I asked Robin, whose grasp of Spanish is light years from my own.
“Something about ‘grande’, something big out there, I think,” she replied. I struggled to dismount the hammock as Robin asked the fellow what he’d seen. I could hear him excitedly chattering while I stumbled around the cabin looking for my hiking boots or a pair of socks or something to put on my feet before I could get to the feeder through the leaf-litter surrounding the cabin.
Shod, I came out onto the deck and saw Robin peering over the lip of the ravine. The employee was gone and Robin was waving at me. “Coatis!” she said excitedly. “A whole bunch of them! Moving down there!” She pointed down the ravine.
It seems that “grande” in this instance meant a Bunch, not something Big. Cool!
After stomping through the leaf-litter and coming up on the deck, Robin reported she’d seen six or more Coatimundis, or South American raccoons, moving along just below the ridge line, heading toward the setting sun. As we discussed whether to trail after them to get a photo, we spotted one climbing the trunk of a huge tree about 150 feet from us and just off the loop trail. We decided that we would likely make noise getting through the leaves to the trail and we might disturb the troop, so we decided to stay put. Besides, we could clearly see more Coatis working their way up the tree.
From our vantage point, the tree was back-lit by the now blood-orange red globe of the rapidly setting sun, the Coatis sharply silhouetted as first one, another then another crossed a low, lengthy horizontal limb to yet another tree.
The photographer in me wanted so badly to rush right down there and try to get a shot, but the nature-girl recognized the effort wouldn’t be worth it as I’d probably disturb the troop and miss out on the rest of the action.
For the next 10 minutes or so, we stood captivated by a sight that struck me as precisely something one would see on a nature video. Life imitated art in an amazing view of this family group of more than eight Coatis moving through what was apparently their Home Tree. I saw one young Coati pause on the horizontal limb, scratch itself, and be joined by another Coati, who passed the youngster then returned long enough to share a bit of mutual grooming.
And so the sun dropped over the mountaintops to the west, casting all in the deepening gloom of an equatorial evening as the night birds called, bats squeaked, and insects chirred against the background of the river waters rushing to the Caribbean Sea, far below.
In my memory, this is the most indelible visual of our rain forest visit, made more poignant by the knowledge that this was our last night in this place.
Taken together, the extraordinary sense of peaceful isolation in the rainforest, surrounded by what quickly became familiar sights and sounds of the wildlife and insects, the smells, and the majestic presence of so many massive trees will remain with me for many years to come.
“SURF” – Utila Island and Nearby Bay Islands
Our quick hop from the airport at La Ceiba out to the island of Utila took less than 30 minutes, but it seemed much longer as I worked to quell my case of the jitters. I’ve been in some small planes in my lifetime, including a Volkswagen Beetle-sized kit plane that my father built when I was a teen. But, I don’t think I’ve been in a plane quite as small AND old and tired and rusted and, well, iffy as the one we took out to Utila.
The sight of the island and its attendant group of little cays did little to relieve my tension, beyond signaling that perhaps soon we would re-join terra-firma: which we did, with a thump and a bump of shifting luggage from the head-high pile teetering behind our cramped bench seat.
We really weren’t surprised at being greeted by the sight of a wrecked 2-engine plane as we landed on the rutted, potholed, and barely-asphalt-covered “tarmac” on Utila. Clearly parts had been scavenged off the wreck but still, the thing looked like its undercarriage had been wrenched off.
Later we learned that the plane had run into a cow upon landing. Apparently, nobody was hurt, besides the cow, which we were told “disintegrated” upon contact.
OK, so Welcome to Utila! Grab your own luggage out of the plane, carry it over to the waiting van, take the short ride through the noisy, narrow, potholed, dusty, steaming and teeming streets of Utila Town to the commercial docks. Get on a 24 foot dory (motorized, at least) for the 30 minute slow cruise through the late afternoon heat and haze down the coast to Utopia Village, situated on a virtually deserted beach and within spitting distance from the living coral reef.
The accessibility of the reef is what brought us to Utila, and the starred Trip Advisor reviews are what brought us to Utopia, whose amiable, genuinely friendly staff made us feel warmly welcomed as we got the run-down on the facilities. The dive shop, spacious dining area and main lodge, handful of rooms and nearby beach side cabanas, all crafted in Honduran hardwoods, nestled in the deep shade of sea grapes, gumba-limba and coconut trees struck us as homey, serene and every bit the tropical getaway we anticipated.
The next 5 days found us snorkeling on the “house reef”, sometimes in the morning and again in the afternoon. We soon familiarized ourselves with the immediate reef area and its denizens as we’d slowly fin over the shallows and out to the wall, which dropped to depths of over 100 feet.
The water temp was warm, the visibility good to excellent, the corals apparently healthy, and the small reef tropical fish abundant. However, there was a decided lack of larger fish. The usual sea turtles, stingrays, cuttlefish, red snappers, groupers, and other species we are accustomed to spotting throughout the Caribbean were simply gone. This was in contrast to our experience in 2007 on the nearby island of Roatan, where we’d snorkeled daily with a diversity of fishes, amphibians, and crustaceans.
The lack of larger species on Utila was disturbing and a topic of speculation among the 8 or so other guests of this small resort, all of whom were well-traveled SCUBA divers. Based on information from the locals, we supposed that Utila was quite simply over-fished; repeating the pattern I’ve witnessed in island travel from the Bahamas to Belize, St. Kitts to the Yucatan. Everywhere we go, we speak to the older folks who make their living from the sea, and everywhere we hear the same examples of the complete collapse of abundance and variety of seafood these people experienced in their youth.
What does set Utila aside from most Caribbean islands is that it is uniquely situated in the path of migrating whale sharks, a fact that the dive operators and resorts on the island promote to SCUBA divers and marine enthusiasts. While we didn’t get to experience a close encounter with one of these awesome fish, a group of divers staying at Utopia had briefly jumped in the water with a whale shark earlier in the week, and although the encounter was brief, it was very much an exciting footnote for some of our fellow guests.
The days flowed all too quickly through our fingers, accented by an afternoon trip that the group took over to nearby Water Cay, a deserted little island that’s as picturesque as it is isolated.
While the rest of the group walked the beaches and hung out in hammocks in the welcome shade and breeze, Robin and I snorkeled around the island. This turned out to be a lot more work than we’d planned because at the halfway point, over the lovely coral reef on the windward side, we faced the unrelenting current of the outgoing tide, which meant a lot of swimming with few pauses as we made our way to the final obstacle in our path, blocking our access to a long sandbar on the island’s lee.
The obstacle was the reef itself, forming a steep and apparently impenetrable wall of sharp coral growing up from the sand bottom at about 40 feet to a height that was barely covered by the tidal outflow whipping around the point of the island. Yikes, we were in for it, so we just kept finning against that current while I probed for an opening, only to by stymied by water breaking over the reef top.
Eventually, after swimming half-way to a neighboring cay, we found a break in the wall and thankfully swam over some barely-covered razor-sharp coral to the sandbar.
A yummy beach BBQ (Barracuda, salad, pasta and rice), followed by relaxing in hammocks, helped us to recover from the snorkel workout.
One evening the group decided to take a boat ride over to Pigeon Cay, a neighboring tiny island that hosts some 500 souls who live in stilt houses built on the living reef and the scant remaining “land” that hasn’t been torn away from the islet over the centuries. Most of the island’s residents descend from the first residents, who came to Utila from the Cayman Islands in the 1830s. The fisher-folk of Pigeon Cay provide almost all of the fish consumed on Utila and to this day fish only with hand-lines.
After a brief tour of the island hosted by our most-knowledgeable Utopia staffer, the group settled on the breezy deck of a bayside restaurant owned by “Mr. Herman” and his wife Gladys. Next thing you know we were the attentive (and somewhat captive) audience of Mr. Herman as he regaled us with colorfully-told Tales of the Sea that I found riveting.
Simply put, this was a 2-hour plus display of storytelling prowess. This gent of 66 years or so could talk the ear off a cob of corn, and I found him articulate, entertaining, and believable—clearly a man who can weave tales of magic and wonder with mere words and animated gestures. What a performance!
At one point Robin drug my attention away from a story of how Mr. Herman had caught, boated (in a 24 foot hand-rowed dory), and hauled home a 1,250 pound Blue Marlin using only a hand line and his wits. I guess we were 30 minutes past having eaten a so-so fish dinner and the wind off the dark ocean, the dim lighting of the dock and deck area, and the nearby chatter of folks who’d had a snoot-full were wearing thin for Robin. She commented sotto-voice “If I were Gladys I woulda killed this guy 20 years ago!” after the umpteenth time Mr. Herman mentioned his long-suffering wife of 40 years who had put up with his frequent and lengthy disappearances to chase some gig on a merchant ship sailing off to China or Japan or Peru. The ol’ “Girl in Every Port” was the oft-repeated theme underpinning Mr. Herman’s intro to each Next Story, and I think Gladys came out the Saint. Apparently so did the group, who commanded her presence and awarded her with a standing ovation!
Well, I wasn’t put off and indeed consider the stories and Mr. Herman’s storytelling to be a highlight of the trip! Seriously, if I could afford it, I’d return to Pigeon Cay to capture this animated and gifted Teller of (Tall?) Tales on media, before he’s gone.
All too soon it was time to figure out how to cram all our dirty laundry and snorkel gear back into our carry-ons and backpacks and catch a slightly larger plane to the horrific noise inside San Pedro Sula airport terminal and the thankfully direct flight back to Atlanta—where we once again found our tans languishing under layers of clothing in uncharacteristically chilly late Spring temps.
Our Surf and Turf Honduras adventure is sadly behind us, but thanks to photographs, videos and windy blog entries, we can return to relive special moments of our vacation, however fleeting.
Pico Bonito lodge pool pan http://youtu.be/L2KXcg3wtRE
Unbelievable Falls pan: http://youtu.be/6MJeDyL4AKU
Honduras River Gorge pan: http://youtu.be/25kOMcuSgyM
Utopia Village Utila beach pan: http://youtu.be/68uO6ld8hJw
Dec. 21, 2012- the day the world ends. Or ended. We weren’t sure, as we were at about 32,000 feet flying over the Gulf of Mexico, and couldn’t really observe much going on below. However, we were aware that we were headed for one of the hot-spots for that supposed ending- Chichen Itza, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Yeah, that Chichen Itza. The one with the snake descending the stairs of the pyramid during the Spring Equinox. The same place that would, likely, be mobbed by thousands of people on the fateful December 21st.
Of course when we’d planned this Christmas vacation we didn’t pay a lot of attention to the End of the World racket and media play. Our chosen dates were based on more prosaic concerns like joining 5 of our pals who were planning to vacation in Cancun, and on our work schedules.
Back in the summer, when our friends were planning this trip, they kept after us to join them. We dillied and dallied and by the time I got around to finding a relatively inexpensive Delta vacation package (air and all-inclusive resort stay for 7 nights), we ended up staying at a less-expensive, “kid-friendly” resort just up the beach in the Hotel Zone in Cancun rather than joining our pals at their rather more expensive digs.
Ever the conscientious shopper, I earmarked the money we thus “saved” for a rental car and day trips. My plan was to visit our pals at their resort and also schedule several day-trips OUT of Cancun (a destination I’ve always considered as Miami South, simply a place for air transfers) to visit Mayan ruins and other places I explored when I stayed in the Akumal/Tulum area in 1999.
Robin had never visited Mayan ruins or Mexico for that matter, and had been studying Spanish for a couple of years so, I thought What the Hell, Let’s Go, I’ll be tour guide and Robin can be Translator!
Well, as I was reminded, there’s a reason I’ve had this long-standing aversion to the All-Inclusive (AI) experience. Like cruise ships, to me the very idea of being “cooped up” with 2500 of my newest friends and people sharing their germs over buffet meals and SCREAMING, poorly-behaved KIDS and their I-don’t-believe-in-discipline-and-am-not-responsible PARENTS is, just, OMG, anathema. Hell. On. Earth.
True to the AI experience, resort “guests” were treated more like medium-security prisoners, and as a result we never saw our pals after we all got off the same arrival flight in Cancun. The resorts do not allow anyone to visit from another resort (without paying an $80.00+ fee, which I do understand, with food and drink being included but really, guys, there should be a way to ”tag” visitors who don’t want to eat or drink without paying for the privilege). The resort main reception phones aren’t answered, so you can’t leave a message for anyone at a hotel Reception desk. You can’t even leave an envelope or a message for a guest at Reception—there’s no cooperation to try to help anyone off the resort to communicate with any guest of the resort. In fact, the lack of cooperation is very emphatic and made quite clear.
Remember- this was 2012, before the advent of widely available WiFi at tourist destinations. We didn’t have the international plan from our telecom carrier, as we would routinely have for subsequent trips abroad.
At this time, it would have taken an international call placed from a one-off cell phone we would have needed to purchase simply to call one of the girls who had an international account with HER mobile carrier, and that was Way too complex cuz after all, hell, they were just like 4 kilometers from us! Believe me, both parties tried almost daily to connect with the other and next to pulling a James Bond-esque stunt, it simply wasn’t worth it to keep trying to find and visit our friends.
We were so happy to have the freedom afforded by our rental car “Sneezy”- aptly named due to the sneezing sound it would emit about every 30 seconds while the AC was running. We laughed about Sneezy, with Grumpy and Dopey, making the rounds of the Mayan Riviera! I swear, every trip we take that we rent a car, that car always has something weird and problematic about it. Stories about our rental cars would make up a blog in itself!
Thus, we were delighted to haul ass every day to get away from the seething mass of noisy people and the traffic of Cancun. A couple of different days, we headed down the coast some 2-3 hrs south to visit Tulum and Coba ruins and snorkel in cenotes and eat at some great restaurants on the beach.
Xmas eve was the day we chose to drive west some 3 hours through the jungle to visit Chichen Itza, avoiding the End of the World hoards of 3 days earlier. Turned out to be a smart move–we got there early in the morning, before the tourist busses arrived, and managed to see most of the sights that this awesome World Heritage site offers.
Our Chichen Itza photos here.
In the heat of mid-day, we drove a few klicks east to Ik’ Kil cenote, a spectacular cenote I had missed during my 1999 visit. The photos and video I took managed to capture a real sense of this place, which must be simply breathtaking when it isn’t mobbed with screaming kids.
In the early afternoon, on our way back to Cancun we wandered through the scenic, old Mexican town of Valladolid. We used our handy printed-out Google map to locate Taberna de los Frailes, a simply splendiferous restaurant I’d read about on Trip Advisor.
This place was everything reviewers had reported— a marvelous find lost in the maze of narrow, dusty alleys and back streets of the old town, next to a small park and nestled against the walls of a Spanish nunnery dating from the 1500s. The food was genuine Mayan fare, from scratch, inexpensive, fresh and totally yummy.
After our late lunch we drove slowly through narrow streets leading to the town square. It was late Xmas eve day, the sun was shining, the air was cool and dry, and the narrow and dusty streets were swarming with smiling, laughing crowds. People clutched all manner of bags and boxes and crossed the street willy-nilly, seemingly unaware of the traffic crawling past. All colors of the rainbow swirled in the rugs, serapes and clothing for sale hanging over the sidewalks and in shopfronts. An open truck pulled up to the curb next to us and people began to help the driver unload very large and colorful pinatas. The hurly-burly and energy were distracting, I was glad I was only able to roll the car along at a creep.
But we had to head on to Cancun, which after a two hour drive, we arrived in the city “centro”, once again caught up in the last-minute holiday shopping frenzy, this time in the main market area for the locals. This place was simply insane– traffic every which way, drivers doing pretty much as they pleased with dangerous aplomb and blowing horns frequently and with elan. I almost hit 2 pedestrians and we barely avoided being rear-ended. Even a cop who was directing traffic gave us a shrug after he stopped crosswalk traffic, gestured for me to move along and watched as a pedestrian ran right in front of me. That person just missed an ambulance ride on Xmas eve.
We made it back to the hotel zone, finally, nerves totally frayed but, for once, glad to be back in the room. Ah now for some rest. Well, not so much, with the boom-boom of the disco reverberating through the walls until 11pm. Earplugs were useless against this nightly onslaught. Another amenity of our lovely AI…
I was delighted to take Robin on an extended tour of the seaside ruins of Tulum and the extensive ruins of Coba nearby. I had spent a week in the area in 1999 (my blog post is here) , so I knew the area quite well, the roads, the best times to arrive at different destinations, and nearby restaurants, and cenotes to snorkel.
These places simply do not disappoint. They have many faces: mysterious, atmospheric, scenic, aromatic, spooky, exhilarating and quietly pensive. It’s well worth doing one’s homework to walk (or in the case of Coba, bike) the many ancient sacbeob (raised, paved roads) and paths that cut through the jungle or connect different buildings and sites.
Another day we caught the ferry over to Isla Mujeres, and rented a golf cart with a ridiculous governor on it that had us creeping around the island at a crawling pace. But we did find a quiet spot or two from the maddening Isla crowds.
Basically, we stayed the hell OUT of our medium-security resort (Oasis Palms Hotel), where the elevators were tiny, cramped, airless and slow (and only 1 worked for ½ of the total resort property!); the shower hosed down the entire bath area and was never repaired; we never got towels we asked for (we took them off carts instead), the reception/desk staff were uniformly rude and completely unhelpful (so we stopped talking to them), items were routinely stolen from the rooms (a young woman frantically reported a male hotel staffer using an electronic card to enter her room, uninvited, through her locked door while she was alone) — etc etc.
To be sure, Trip Advisor had provided ample warning, with simply dozens of “Run Now, Don’t Stay Here!” reviews, and they were right. The place was simply mobbed with tons (and I mean, tons) of Fat American Families knocking you down as you minced your way to the buffet to get a banana for breakfast or dodged running kids to get near enough to stab a bit of the mystery-chicken-thing at dinner. The noise from live music, drums and bass-back-beats clearly reverberated up the seven stories to our room from the plaza below, from 8-11pm every night, augmenting the nearby disco racket. Geez, and this was the BEST option Delta vacations offered, after the expensive digs! And let’s see…. No chairs at the pool or tiny beach cuz they were all grabbed by the people at the “Grand” sister property next door, whose guests had exclusive access to better rooms and food (for a price) but their pool was in shade all day so they took all the lounge chairs at the Kid-Friendly crap sister resort with the terrific pool.
I’m the only person I know who went to an AI resort, brought in my own bottle of rum and some cokes, drank 25% of the rum, left it behind with the too-sweet cokes for the maids, and only ordered soda water with lime from the (quiet, out-of-the-way bar) the few times we sat at it after a day trip!
So forget the resort experience: check out my page with Mexico Trip Pix , with helpful captions.
Trip Coda: We flew home after 7 days in Cancun, drove into the house from the airport Thu. night, tossed dirty clothes into the hamper, repacked our suitcases, woke up early Friday and drove 7 hours down to central FL to arrive at my niece’s wedding exactly on time, 30 mins before the music cued up. Missing this wedding truly would have been The End of the World!
Check out my lengthier, meatier blog entry from my 1999 trip to the Yucatan.
The turquoise waters of the Bahamas Banks slipped under the wings of our Delta jet as we began our descent toward the airport on the island of Provo, Turks & Caicos. This was our second trip to Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI) and, in contrast to the hustle and bustle we encountered on Provo on our previous trip in 2011, we looked forward to the quiet and solitude of Salt Cay and, later, on Grand Turk.
I had carefully crafted arrangements for our trip some months before, and we anticipated fairly smooth sailing once we arrived on Provo from Atlanta, cleared Customs & Immigration, and hopped on the small Caicos Express Airways Cessna for the 20 minute flight to Salt Cay.
Following my in-depth research on TripAdvisor, Fodor’s Grand Turk forum and emails to various property and business owners, I had selected the Castaway property for our 3 night stay on tiny, quaint Salt Cay. Upon our arrival at the little airstrip on the island, we were met by the erstwhile, efficient and friendly property manager Paul, who drove us around in his golf cart and gave us a quick tour of the settlement and harbor area. Paul showed us the two places to eat and suggested we needed to make a res for that evening’s fare if we wanted a meal. We took him up on his offer to call the managers of Island Thyme restaurant and to let them know they’d have two guests around 7pm.
Soon, we arrived at our little cottage on the secluded beach on the north end of the island. We had the buildings, the beach and surrounds totally to ourselves, with the exception of a few cows who wandered by, grazing placidly on the low scrub surrounding the cottage.
The refreshing wind off the ocean kept us cool while we unpacked and prepared to head to the settlement to dinner. Luckily, we had made arrangements to rent a golf cart, which waited patiently outside the cottage as we climbed aboard and thumped our way down a long, dusty limestone track through the scrub to the settlement to Island Thyme.
On our way we passed by numerous simple homes of the locals, many surrounded by low limestone walls with gates to keep the donkeys at bay. Old salt-raker cottages, some quite nicely updated, appeared among the small houses that clustered near a park-like area where donkeys and cattle rested under welcome shade from casuarinas pine trees, providing a bucolic and wind-swept scene as we tooled by in our golf cart.
The little restaurant was placed on what appeared to be a small “town square” of the quiet settlement. While we waited for our dinner of almond-encrusted red snapper to be prepared, we enjoyed the rooftop patio view of the late afternoon light casting a warm glow over the salt ponds in the center of the island. These “salinas” are the legacy of when Salt Cay was the world’s largest producer of salt in the 1800’s. In spite of multiple hurricane visits throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, much remains of the history of the salt trade on Salt Cay, as expressed on the Turks & Caicos Preservation Foundation website http://saltcaypreservation.org/saltcay/historicdistrict/saltcaytoday.htm
which proclaims “A stroll through Balfour Town is like a tour of an outdoor museum, 19th-century industry, with dilapidated windmills, salt sheds and abandoned salinas.”
Another interesting Salt Cay factoid can be found in Jimmy Buffett’s autobiography, “A Pirate Looks at Fifty”, in which Buffett mentions that his father, James Buffett, told stories of his father (Jimmy’s grandfather), one James Buffett, who was the skipper of a five-masted Barkentine sailing vessel named the Chickamauga, from Pascagoula, Mississippi. James told his family tales of Salt Cay, which he considered the place he had some of the best times of his life. While salt was being loaded onto the ship, bound for New Orleans, the six-year-old boy who would grow up to be Jimmy’s father would “take off with a group of local kids and…chase flamingos and catch lobsters from the beach.”
While herding flamingos was not on our agenda, snorkeling certainly was. We hooked up with a descendant of the “salt baron” family Harriott, one Tim Dunn, who is the proud owner of a lovely new twin-hulled boat which anchors his business Crystal Seas Adventures.
We had Tim’s undivided attention and his fast powerboat to ourselves, as we snorkeled several reefs over the next two days. The best reefs were located not far offshore right in front of our cottage. You can see this series of circular reef formations in the aerial photo I took. In the photo, the furthest reef to your right is the one where I spotted a bull shark, my very first (and I hope last!) sighting of these critters with the well-deserved reputation as seriously dangerous to human health.
I won’t stoop to the lurid “man-eater” moniker but let’s just say I was glad it was seemingly intent on cruising the sand at the base of the reef some 45 feet below me and that Robin was safely (?) swimming over a different part of the reef (ironically, trailing after a nurse shark) and managed to miss being buzzed by this 6+ footer. The reef fish, at least, had holes in the reef to dart into, and I watched them scatter as the shark swam rapidly along. I remained very still and was glad the critter just kept going until it disappeared around a bend in the reef.
Robin soon appeared. I mentioned the sighting, and we agreed to slowly make our way back to the boat. I saw Tim pull himself aboard and give us a relaxed wave. I figured he hadn’t spotted our visitor, which Tim confirmed once we got back aboard. He said he’d seen few bull sharks in his many years of diving the TCI (over 500 dives) and that the overall shark population was very healthy in these islands, which was most heartening to hear but I must admit that thoughts of ocean conservation weren’t uppermost in my mind when I first figured out I wasn’t gazing at a sleepy, harmless ol’ nurse shark!
In spite of SCUBA diving and snorkeling the Caribbean waters since the 1970s, (I have no idea how many dives I’ve been on but a coupla hundred would likely be a fair estimate), I’ve only been in the ocean with A) lots of nurse sharks (too many to count), B) one reef shark, C) one lemon shark and D) that’s quite enuf sharks for now, thank you.
Back on land, we totally loved the perfect quiet and isolation of the cottage. Over the course of our 3-night stay, we went to bed under a huge, bright-white-light full moon. The brisk breezes coursing through open screen doors and windows and the ceiling paddle fans made the mosquito netting superfluous and a light blanket welcome during the wee hours. We were nightly lulled to sleep and daily awakened to the sounds of the ocean waves rolling along the shoreline, the breeze through the scrub and the frequent calls of birds. No human voices. No planes or traffic sounds. No telephones. No radio or TV. No smart-phone alert sounds. Just nature. Bliss.
Our decision to stay some distance away from the little community near the town dock/harbor was a wise one, as the resident donkeys and roosters kicked up enough noise and drama to steal some sleep from the only other visitors (four adults) on the island. The visitors had chosen to stay near the center of the settlement, where, apparently, the beasts and fowl also chose to hang out. Some of the tales the other party told about the jacks waging bloody battles over the jennies were amusing, if somewhat alarming. Wouldn’t want to get between them! (The jacks, not the visitors…)
When not snorkeling or resting at the cottage, we hung out at the Coral Reef Bar and Grill right next to the little harbor near the town “square”.
While our meals there ranged from just-passable to awesome, we mostly enjoyed chatting with “Miss Debbie”, the proprietress of the bar/grill, the Tradewinds guest suites nearby, Salt Cay Divers (the primary dive operator on the island), and Salt Cay Real estate. Before long we were chatting about the TCI, Grand Turk (where we were headed next), whale watching, the resident donkeys, island history and online marketing tactics. Debbie sure is connected, and as far as I could tell, is the Go-to person on all things Salt Cay. Debbie’s life is apparently deeply rooted on Salt Cay, which struck me as different than the other 60 or more ex-pats who call the island their second home.
We were told by Tim and others that most of the ex-pats had left the island a few weeks ago, as the season wound down. Besides Paul and his wife, the only other folks we met on the island were locals (“Belongers”, as the folks in the TCI refer to themselves.)
After our three laid-back days of quiet on Salt Cay, we caught one of the few-and-far-between flights from Salt Cay over to nearby Grand Turk. Here we were slated to spend the next week enjoying the comfort of a 3br, 2 bath, fully air-conditioned private villa called “Palm Villa”, which I had found on VRO.com. We had secured the place, pre-paid, months before, after exchanging emails with the owner, a Canadian resident. We arrived at the airport to find we had no ride awaiting us from the owner’s on-island “property manager” and, abandoned at the airport, we stood around searching in vain for a pay phone (no such thing in the 21st century, anywhere, apparently). Debbie had luckily caught the same Cessna we did to GT and came to our rescue, using her cell phone to call the number I had been given for the PM, whom she apparently woke up and who admitted he had “forgotten all about” picking us up! This after I had called him, using Paul’s cell phone, from Salt Cay to remind him of our scheduled arrival!
The situation went from bad to worse. The condition of the property was simply awful– broken down, worn out, no linens, no AC, filth, exposed wiring. Suffice to say we hired a lawyer while on-island due to rectify a situation where the owner lied, misrepresenting his property in dated photos, refusing to compensate us a cent, etc. The lawyer made as much as we recovered. Lesson learned. Buy the insurance to protect yourself from property owners who are less than honest.
We managed to squeeze lemonade from lemons, and ended up moving lock, stock and over-the-barrel to the Bohio resort on GT, which turned out to be a lovely spot on the relatively undeveloped north side of the island.
Tom, the manager, was very kind to offer us a corporate rate on a standard, motel-like room when we washed up on his beach after our little surprise at “Palm Villa”. He, like everyone we spoke to over the course of the next few days, knew all about those brown houses, where they were, their decrepit state, etc and was as horrified as other islanders and business owners over the treatment we had received.
For the next 6 days and nights, the Bohio management, staff and surrounds served up a combination of off-season quiet relaxation, delicious meals, and multiple opportunities for us to jump into a boat and run a couple of minutes out to the edge of the wall and 7,000 feet of ocean blue depths. We were delighted to be situated so close to the wall, and found ourselves on a boat every day, experiencing another amazing snorkel spot.
One afternoon Tim came over to GT from Salt Cay to help with cruise ship overflow for an outfit he used to work for. I saw his boat go by and gave him a quick call on a borrowed cell phone and sure enough he was free that afternoon. Soon he anchored off the beach in front of the tiki bar at the Bohio, we jumped aboard and he took us to the northwest point of the island to a dive spot he referred to as his favorite, the “Ampitheater”.
We ended up snorkeling the Amphitheater atrium, a shallow (15-45 foot) area shoreward of the marked dive location. Wow, was that area teaming with fish! The (full moon!) tide was coming in, creating serious currents in a deep channel between fingers of reef. A large swell was running as well and the water was cold, all of which accounted for the fishy environs. The angle of the afternoon sun’s rays lit up the west-facing reef line like a spotlight, and all the colors of the hard corals, soft corals and tropical fish simply danced in our vision. Massive goose bumps under our thin dive skins finally drove us to get back aboard and we grinned like kids, enthusiastically thanking Tim for sharing a special spot with us.
Debbie’s Salt Cay Divers skiff, with skipper Ollie, was also available at the Bohio a couple of mornings, so we had Ollie and his boat all to ourselves as he took us to 3 different locations on the wall to snorkel. All in all I think we snorkeled eight different locations during the 5 days we had available for snorkeling. By the time we were ready to pack our gear, we discovered our skins were almost worn through and my mask and snorkel were getting pretty ragged and leaky after the past 3 years of Caribbean trips. Hey, a nice problem to have!
We actually got around GT quite a bit in the didn’t-want-to-start-or-keep-going golf cart, while we had access to it for the first two days on the island. We shopped for food stuffs and went to the bank to fetch money for the lawyer we hired, drove up and down Front Street innumerable times, popped into the national museum, checked out a couple of other motel-like properties I had come across during my research, had a ho-hum lunch at one of them, took photos of the short stretch of historic Duke Street that most visitors photograph (believe me, the Abacos are far prettier as examples of scenic Bahamas streets!), ate lunch out of a food wagon on dusty, hot Front Street (cruise ships were in so the street vendors were out), ate another (not-so-great) lunch at a local hole-in-the-wall eatery on dusty, hot Middle Street (where to locals live), visited a couple of thinly-stocked “convenience stores”, and saw a lot of trash and stray dogs and the shanties where the homeless Haitians lived.
We also dodged speeding cars, kids who chased our golf cart for fun, crazed cruise-ship zombies racing rented golf carts up the main drag of Pond Street, a group of cruise-ship zombies being herded, er I mean led on a tour of the town salinas on their rental Segways, and gave way numerous times to donkeys and horses that would appear suddenly and either dash madly or stroll leisurely across the street in front of us and disappear in the brush or behind a modest dwelling where the folks sitting in the shade of the porch would wave at us and call “Hello!” We always returned the wave with a smile.
After such frenzied activity, we were glad to give up the golf cart and remain “stuck” at the Bohio the remainder of our stay.
All in all, I believe this vacation goes down as one of the more unusual. Not exactly what we had hoped for, much less planned, and the additional expense of paying for, in essence, two places to stay kinda put a damper on our enjoyment. But, really, I found it hard to stay upset for long while I rested my tired-out-from-snorkeling self on a lovely padded beach chaise lounge in the shade of the casuarinas, enjoying a terrific breeze, watching Robin leisurely paddle a sea kayak against a backdrop of layers of Caribbean greens and blues stretching out toward the setting sun. Somehow, the world and my tiny spot in it clicked right back into place and kept on going round, and round, and round.
Unexpectedly, I was called to a business meeting at my employer’s HQ in Stockholm. I called Robin and left a message along the lines of “Wanna go with me to Stockholm next week?” Her reply, received in minutes, was “Is that a trick question?”
We were in a tizzy for the next 8 days, she arranging her client schedules, me wrapping up critical tasks at work and to prepare for what I anticipated would be at least one 16+ hour day of meetings in this beautiful, 700 year old European city spread across 14 islands, facing proudly out to the Baltic Sea.
With cat sitter in place, airline tickets and hotel arrangements secured and our carry-on bags packed, we headed out on our 6 day adventure. I was traveling at company expense, and to save $ had to capture a Saturday. Which was fine, because due to a national Swedish holiday the following Monday, we would end up having 4 full days on the ground before we returned to the states. Our last full day was my meeting, while Robin would be on her own to explore city delights.
We arrived at Arlanda airport, Stockholm on Saturday at 8:30am local time, after having left Atlanta at 3:00pm on Friday afternoon– flying 10+ hrs across the Atlantic to Amsterdam, where an hour “layover” between flights turned into a frantic race the entire length of the airport to get to the gate in time for our connecting flight to Stockholm–oh yeah and passing through Immigration Control and another security scan at the gate. It was all a blur. It didn’t help that I had taken a sleep aid on the plane and was groggy, but who needs presence of mind while running down concourses? The trick was to just keep my feet under me and try not to trip when stepping onto the moving sidewalks, which in any case weren’t moving.
Of course we took a couple of wrong turns at the Amsterdam airport, got confused with signage and ran into a really tricky (read: weirdly unfamiliar) Immigration Control process, but we did manage to get seats on the plane and soon settled into our 2-hour ride to Stockholm.
Stockholm- East City and Old Town (Gamla Stan)
Having landed successfully at Arlanda airport, we fueled up with a latte and caught a taxi for the 45 minute ride to our hotel in the heart of Östermalm (“East City”), the more upscale area of Stockholm, a city of over 800,000 souls.
Hotel check-in completed, we quickly unpacked in our cramped, hot, virtually airless room (with AC- sorta) and proceeded to the cafe downstairs, where it was beer time for Lynn (they were kind enough to open the bar at 10am, accustomed as they are to jet-lagged international guests). Then– off to Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Our 25 minute stroll led us past a lovely park, peopled by humans and dogs enjoying the bright sunlight and an unusually hot (80+ degrees) and humid day. The city teemed around us, busses and cars zipping by on the streets and pedestrians crowding the sidewalks and street crossings. We grabbed a couple of bottled waters at the nearby 7-Eleven ($4 each- a taste of the sticker shock we would encounter throughout our visit) and passed through a large pedestrian outdoor mall featuring high-end stores.
We stopped at a large intersection, attracted by the sound of an approaching parade and, sure enough, here came the palace guard on horseback, right down the middle of the four-lane.
A band blared music and everyone stood and watched as the cavalcade rounded the corner and headed down the avenue toward the royal palace, which we could just see down by the water. Grinning, we followed the parade, careful to avoid stepping in the evidence of the passing steeds.
Once at the water’s edge, we were met by a busy, colorful panoramic vista of the city. High-rise hotels, old and modern government buildings were festooned with flags and banners. The wide boulevards were packed with traffic, while pedestrians and people on bicycles flowed around us as we stood in welcome shade, enjoying the cool breeze off the water and gawking at the spectacle.
The day seemed to radiate light and energy, with the groups of people relaxing in the park or sitting in outdoor cafes contrasting with the hurly-burly of the traffic and mobs of people crossing several bridges we could see leading to different islands before us. We chose the bridge in front of us, which we knew would take us past the huge edifice of the royal palace, and directly into Gamla Stan–which is where we spent most of our time while in Stockholm.
Portions of Gamla Stan date back to the 13th century, and the architecture, the narrow, cobbled streets lined with funky shops and cafes, the street musicians, mobs of tourists, the sights, sounds and smells galore, was truly a wonderful introduction to a European city that wasn’t bombed in WWII.
During our days on the ground, we managed to squeeze in a couple of museums, ride the public tram and subway and even visit the Bohemian Södermalm, with a population of 99,685, one of the most densely populated districts of Scandinavia. A few years after our tip, this area was to be made more famous as the home of the fictional heroine Lisabeth Sander, the protagonist of Stieg Larsson’s Milennium Trilogy, which the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” movie made famous.
Many things amused and confounded us, not the least the adventure of visiting a local pharmacy (green cross, not red) to get something to treat my poor swollen, red and yukky legs for the poison ivy that I had tangled with just before leaving on this little European adventure. Approaching a woman in the store wearing a white lab coat, I asked if they had anything for poison ivy. My request was first met with a blank stare (“I don’t think she speaks English”, Robin whispered.) I pulled up a leg of my jeans, pointed to the damage unveiled, and the woman blinked and said “On-ne-MAL?”
“I think she just asked if you were attacked by an animal,” Robin choked out behind a snicker. I wiggled my fingers (why? No idea) and said “No. Plant. Plant!” The woman motioned another lab-coated lady to come over. I pointed to my leg. The lady smiled and said “Cur-te-ZAL?” Ah-ha! Cortisol! Yes! And yes, the stuff did work—after 4 days of applying it constantly.
Note to self: next time traveling anywhere, pack an English-to-local-language medical dictionary.
By our third day on the ground, it was time for me to participate in an all-day meeting at my employer’s HQ . Robin took the morning to affect our transfer from the fairly comfortable, if tiny, room at the Scandic Park hotel to our truly miniscule closet at the “crap hotel” down the street from HQ. Turns out we couldn’t stay just one more night at the Scandic Park due to a big football (futbol) event that had hotel rooms in the city booked solid.
My day concluded with a walk in the rain with my hosts to a nearby restaurant. Afterward, I made my way back to our cramped, airless, non-AC room in an ancient hotel undergoing much-needed updating. After getting stuck in a truly medieval elevator, I found our room, where fans perched on window sills struggled valiantly to move the still air. The windows were thrown fully open, the curtains pulled back as far as they could to allow the hot air and the city sounds to drift in.
The curtains remained open all “night”, which at this time of year lasted approximately 3 hours, between midnight and 3am. Oh well, no sleep for our last night to help us prepare for the 18 hour travel day that awaited us, as we caught the taxi to the Stockholm airport and retraced our steps, including the mad dash down the entire length of the Amsterdam airport to catch our connecting flight across the Big Pond—only to arrive in Atlanta late at night and drive our way slowly home through a torrential downpour packing hail. But hey, we had a great time, as the photos (with helpful captions) will attest!
Quick video of great street musicians in Gamla Stan (“Old Town”) http://youtu.be/rKDBUz-koTs
The direct flight from Atlanta to Turks & Caicos Islands steadily approached Providenciales, the largest island in the group. As the plane began its approach, we looked up from our paperback books to catch glimpses of the collection of islands below, stretching roughly east to west, surrounded by the purple-black of the “deep”, over 7,000 feet worth. The colors of the sea surrounding the islands reflected changes in the water’s depth – first royal blue, then cobalt blue, then robin’s-egg blue, and finally a brilliant turquoise over bright, shallow sandy bottom.
Viewing the familiar yet consistently stunning colors of the Caribbean Sea jump-started our excitement and anticipation of a long-awaited and hard-won week’s holiday. By the time we clanked our way down the metal steps from the plane to the tarmac and hiked the quarter mile or so to the terminal, we were hot, sweaty and grinning from ear-to-ear. We had arrived! Vacation could officially begin.
Clearing Customs and Immigration and securing our rental car was relatively painless and soon I was sitting on the wrong side of the car, driving on the wrong side of the road and hesitating at each of several roundabouts while my brain processed new rules of the road in Real Time. Robin, erstwhile Navigator, refrained politely from snickering as I repeatedly flipped on the windshield wipers instead of the turn indicator.
“Yield” yielded to “Give Way”. Posted speeds were in Kilometers, not Miles per Hour- as was the speedometer- a happy coincidence. Soon enough we arrived, unscathed, at the IGA Supermarket on Leeward highway, purchased necessaries for the first few days in our rental condo and tooled down the road to Turquoise Ridge, our home-away for the next 7 nights.
After checking out our spacious, new and completely comfy (privately owned- found on VRBO.com) digs and the view of Juba Point (a bright turquoise colored bay) from the screen porch overlooking the pool, we whipped up a favorite adult beverage to fortify us as we unpacked our carry-ons and backpacks. Then, off to one of our rare visits to one of many resorts lining Grace Bay, where perfectly white sands kissed by crystal turquoise waters greet tourists (mostly American, Canadian, British) and the prices are, well, quite beyond what we routinely want to pay. But hey, it’s our first evening and we have a terrific view of the large patch reef right in front of our perch on the wind-blown upper deck of the restaurant at Coral Gardens resort.
Our drinks appear, soon accompanied by tasty meals and we’re just happy to be here, enjoying the fantastic view, the cool wind and the shade of the table umbrella. This is a treat, as we’ve agreed to go it “on the cheap” on this vacation, re-heating lunches for dinner or buying a half chicken with a side or two at the IGA and stretching it to 2 or more meals. Each day we prepare a light breakfast in the condo kitchen, pack our travel cooler with drinks and ice, tuck snacks we brought from home into our beach bags, grab the snorkel gear and off we go.
Next morning we were up bright and early, making our way to the north side of the island and Smith’s Reef, a lovely spot just off the beach, arrived at once one has made their way from the road and stomped along a hot, unmarked sand track through the scrub to the wind-swept beach.
We donned snorkel gear and were soon finning against a wicked current, past a few isolated coral heads and finally over Smith’s Reef, approximately the distance of a football field from the rocky shore. Here, the water depths ranged from 5 feet on the lee side of the patch reef to over 20 feet at the northwestern-most point.
A school of juvenile barracuda hung over the reef, facing into the current. The usual fishy reef denizens patrolled, like trumpet fish, damsels, groupers, snappers, grunts and Parrot fish, busily snapping off bites of coral and pushing that lovely white beach sand out the other end in never-ending streams.
I floated above the deep, watching the curious behavior of a young Nassau grouper, which was pointing like a dog at a spot in the reef. The grouper would move a little, roll its eyes, turn this way and that and point. I decided to free dive down to see what had its undivided attention. At my approach an octopus with a head the size of a soccer ball suddenly darted out of its hole and danced across the sand, its mantle stretched out and tentacles flailing as it tried to find another hidey-hole while the grouper gamely pursued. In a blink, the octopus tucked its body into a handy crevice of the reef and, Poof, it changed its color and mottled pattern to perfectly mimic its surroundings. Even though I knew exactly where it was, I was hard-pressed to pick out its shape before I had to head for the surface. I watched for a few more moments, but clearly the grouper was as baffled as I was, and we each went our separate ways.
We visited Smith Reef again later in the week, early in the morning when the wind was quiet. The visibility was low due to so much suspended sand in the water caused by several days of high winds, but we spotted the same grouper, the same squad of barracudas, and had the added pleasure of watching a slipper lobster bumping its ungainly way across the reef.
While hanging over the deep part of the reef, I kept looking out over the surrounding sand and turtle grass, hoping to spot a passing turtle like we had on our first visit. Suddenly, out of the gloom, a large spotted eagle ray appeared, swimming right toward us. I alerted Robin, who watched, google-eyed, while the ray came within 4 feet of us then gracefully turned and glided away on a 5-foot wing span. I followed, swimming alongside it (but keeping a safe distance from that 7 foot long tail!). A magical moment that ended as the ray quickly out-distanced me and disappeared at the edge of the visibility curtain.
The next day was still windy but we had reservations with Deep Blue to spend the day aboard their boat, snorkeling at various locations on the fringing reef around Provo and West Caicos, a relatively undeveloped outer island known for amazing corals and healthy fish populations on the nearby reef system.
A note about the reefs of T&C: The barrier reef system is the third largest in the world, behind the Great Barrier Reef and the system that runs down the western side of Mexico and Belize, extending into the Bay Islands of Honduras. Since the 1980s I’ve visited numerous locations in these areas, and have witnessed the steady degradation of reefs from Florida and the Bahamas to Ambergis Caye, the reefs off the coast of Tulum and Akumal Mexico, and Roatan. My “bucket list” consists of the search for pristine-as-possible, healthy coral structures in the Caribbean with lots of healthy reef fish.
Here, off the coast of West Caicos, I finally got to see large collections of amazingly colorful Elkhorn corals the likes of which I haven’t seen since my SCUBA check-out dive on Molasses Reef off Key Largo, Florida in 1972. What a breathtaking sight, to snorkel in clear water, the late morning rays penetrating the shallows to light up a scene perfectly sublime: a massive, rust-red Elkhorn coral in the center of a gracefully curving reef face festooned with large sea fans and other soft corals and gorgonians waving in the currents, many adorned with one or more cowrie shells. Each little cowrie shell appeared to be hand-painted a unique pattern of bright colors, and the play of light and shadow of the waves above gave the impression of the cowries dancing merrily as their hosts waved back and forth, back and forth with the current.
At one snorkel stop, the boat anchored in 50 feet of water right at the edge of the abyss. We jumped in the water and spotted a large school of horse-eyed jacks circled in a protective ball, enjoying the welcome shade beneath the boat. The dive master beckoned us to follow her over toward the edge of the drop-off and, as she had promised, we spotted 2 reef sharks, mom and youngster, slowly circling the top of the reef 50 feet below. At the edge of the “wall”, the water turned from a royal blue to almost purple, the visibility curtain closing down rapidly across such depths.
The day’s travels took us around the greater part of Provo and West Caicos, where we observed several resorts in various stages of development, apparently abandoned to the elements. Unpainted concrete buildings stood forlorn on the rocky shore, their window openings bruised eyes staring bleakly out to sea. Barren of any decorative trees or shrubs and surrounded by streets carved from the rock, the resorts were quiet testaments to the effects of the Great Recession, the closing of banks and the withdrawal of development funds. Combined with Britain’s 2009 suspension of Ts & Cs government over allegations of corruption, (the Premier and his fellow government ministers apparently sold off Crown land to property developers for their own personal gain), the effects of this Perfect Storm are still very much in evidence.
One day we caught an early morning ferry to explore the outer island of North Caicos, where we planned to secure a rental car for a day’s exploration of North Caicos and its rather more remote neighbor Middle Caicos.
Once on the island, we drove our rental car along the main highway toward the settlement of Whitby on the windward cost of “North” and weren’t surprised to run out of asphalt when we turned off to head toward the “Three Mary Cays”, our morning snorkel destination.
Getting to these scenic cays situated just offshore in a pristine setting required concentration and a tight grip on the steering wheel as we bumped slowly along narrow and exceedingly potholed limestone tracks festooned with sharp rocks just waiting to puncture the little tires on the poor tired rental car. At one point the track apparently disappeared in a wash-out caused from a hurricane in 2010, but we persevered and eventually ended up at our destination, on a wind-blown and rocky shore.
The cays were exceedingly scenic and beckoned, so we donned snorkel gear and, in spite of the high currents and heavy seas, we snorkeled out to the cays, which offered little in the way of reef structure or fish life around their undercut bases. A dangerous rip current threatened to sweep us out to sea, so we quickly returned to the relative safety of the razor-sharp ironstone shore, where we minced around, observing the beauty of this remote location. The bow of a large freighter poked up from just inside the barrier reef, approximately a mile from shore, serving as a reminder of treacherous potential awaiting the unwary.
Making our way gingerly along yet another track, we arrived at the highway again and headed toward the settlement of Kew and the nearby ruins of Wade’s Plantation, a Loyalist era cotton plantation founded in 1789. After an arduous drive and a great deal of dead-reckoning navigation, we arrived at a small parking area carved out of the surrounding scrub. We walked a quarter mile along a rough footpath between low stone walls to arrive at a padlocked hurricane fence. The guide books and web pages we had read described the ruins as open daily. We were disappointed but dang it, we came all this way to see the ruins!
After glancing around guiltily and reassuring each other that we might be able to talk the authorities into viewing our trespass as a minor offense if we were to be apprehended, we clambered over a broken section of wall and proceeded on a self-guided tour of the ruins. Our risky gambit paid off, as we thoroughly enjoyed discovering the main house, overseer’s house, kitchen building, a garden and the original well site, all situated on the top of a hill that, back In the Day, must have provided excellent breezes and a breathtaking 360 degree view. Although our view consisted of twisted, bulldozed trees and ruins of the plantation walls that disappeared into the overgrowth, it was not hard to imagine how busy and possibly scenic this now desolate setting must have appeared when the estate was in full swing.
After a lovely lunch at the quaint cottage housing the Silver Palm restaurant and bar (delicious pina colada!), we drove our rental car along the paved road that connects North Caicos and Middle Caicos, hardly surprised when we were faced with large sections that were washed out by the hurricane.
These outer islands are characterized by stretches of scrub and salt ponds dotted with flocks of Flamingoes in the distance. Small settlements came and went and we met few vehicles on the roads.
We enjoyed a visit to a limestone cave, part of the largest cave network in the northern Caribbean.
We stopped off at Bamberra Beach, where a large cavern carved by huge waves over millennia overlooked a beautiful little bay protected by a high ironshore wall.
Soon it was time to return to the ferry dock, leave the keys in the rental car and catch the 30 minute ferry back to Provo which, after our day on North and Middle Cays, seemed terribly cosmopolitan and teeming with auto traffic.
Highlights of snorkel trips to the barrier reef just off Grace Bay included exploring the fairly robust and healthy reef, where some places were fishier than others.
On two different stops we spotted a large puffer fish, each over 3 feet long. I always look for these comical and shy fish and consider them a talisman. During the day they seldom come out of their holes in the reef, so I was surprised and delighted to spot each one swimming out in the open—even if they were frantic to find another place to hide.
In another spot that featured deeply undercut ledges at 20 foot depths, I spotted the distinctive outline of a nurse shark’s tail in the gloom of a large overhang. I dove down and, sure enough, there it was, all 7 or more feet of it, resting comfortably on the almost-smooth ledge, hidden from casual view by the deep overhang. Robin managed to dive down to spot the critter and returned to the surface, grinning.
One place we visited on Provo was a history buff’s delight- “Pirate carvings”, reached after best-guess driving/navigation and carefully picking one’s way up an almost vertical, rocky and slippery goat-path to the top of wind-swept Sapodilla Hill, which overlooks the commercial port and the sea.
Here carved into the bedrock and several large stones were dozens of rock carvings that featured dates and names of sailors who stopped by the island in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. Some names appeared more than once, with almost a decade between dates, testifying to a steady commerce in sisal (rope for sailing vessels) and cotton during those periods.
Between balancing on boats, snorkeling in heavy surge and strong currents and hiking up and down precarious hills and goat-paths, we slept well each night and found ourselves thoroughly relaxed, if a bit worn out, after our week’s stay in TCI. Typically, we avoided the resorts and shopping and the high-end tourist scene, with the exception of Robin’s parasailing adventure over the reefs fringing the popular tourist destination of Grace Bay. So OK we did indulge, just a bit. After all, vacation should be about experiencing the new and different and the Ts and Cs did not disappoint!
Video panorama of one lovely, isolated snorkel spot.