Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Panama City, a Well-Earned Dinner, and Fighting Sea Sickness in the San Blas

Here I am in Cartagena, Colombia as I write this (actually that's a lie, I started writing this in Cartagena but got lazy and never finished until now, so I will continue to write as if it were 2 weeks ago) still recovering from a very physically exhausting boat ride across the Caribbean, but extremely happy to be standing on a solid, non-moving surface.  It was the experience of a lifetime, but will definitely be a one time thing.  I'll fill in more on the boat trip later, but now back to where I left off at the end of my last posting.

I spent 4 or 5 days in big, bustling Panama City, which actually somewhat resembles Miami as it is the only city in Central America to contain high rises and sky scrapers.  From what I understand, this is because it is located in an area with less risk of severe seismic activity compared to other areas in Central America.  Socioeconomically, Panama City is quite diverse, with many very wealthy areas as well as some very impoverished ones.  I found a cheap hotel somewhere in the middle of the city, which provided a good base from which to go exploring in other areas.  My first full day there it rained non-stop and I was therefore confined to my hotel most of the day, but the following few days I was rewarded with beautiful, sunny weather and almost no rain.

The highlights of Panama City were the Casco Antiguo (Old Town), Parque Metropolitana, and, of course, the Panama Canal.  The Casco Antiguo is the original part of the city and includes most of the city's main tourist attractions including museums and historical monuments.  I spent a full morning wandering around, visiting some of the museums, and refueling with traditional Panamanian food sold by the many local street vendors.

Catedral in the Casco Antiguo

It was fun and interesting to see that part of the city, but the following day was much better.  I took a bus from the city center to the enormous Albrook mall/bus terminal, and from there hopped on another bus to go visit the Miraflores Locks, which is one of the three systems of locks in the Panama Canal.   On the bus, I met two Israeli girls who were doing the same thing so the three of us toured the locks together.  It ended up being a favorable situation because not only were they really fun and nice (Ayelet I know you´ll be reading this so of course I needed to put that bit in :) but also because for some reason there were bees flying around everywhere and they all seemed to be attracted to Ayelet.  So Ayelet, thank you for being our insect repellent for the day!

 Me, Ayelet, Tal

We walked through the Canal Museum, which provided a good historical background of its construction, starting with the French in 1880 and ending with the Americans in 1914.  After the French lost over 20,000 workers due to disease, landslides, and other accidents and became bankrupt, they gave up on the project in 1893.  The Americans then did what they do best, which was to step in and take over control.  Once techniques were developed to prevent the infection and spread of diseases such as malaria and yellow fever, the Americans were able to successfully complete the project in 10 years.  It was and is still one of the greatest engineering feats of all time, so as an engineer I can definitely appreciate it!

After walking through the museum, we went outside to the viewing area where we were able to see a large cargo ship pass through the locks.  It was incredible to see such a massive amount of water be moved in order to lower the ship a total of 16 meters from the top level to the bottom.  The pictures below show the ship before and after being lowered.

It was definitely an amazing thing to watch.  After the canal, we met up with two friends of the Israeli girls and went to the Parque Metropolitano, which is a large natural reserve sitting just outside of Panama City.  We hiked on an upward sloping trail for about 45 minutes until we arrived at the mirador, where we were able to enjoy an amazing view of the city.

The park was really beautiful and full of wildlife.  And the fact that it sits literally right next to giant Panama City makes it that much more interesting!  How many other places in the world can you go shopping in a giant mall and do a multi-hour hike all in the same morning?

After a long day of touring the Canal and hiking, we were exhausted and hungry so we took a cab back to the hostel where the Israeli girls were staying.  We stopped at the grocery store a couple blocks away to pick up some rice, beans, tortillas, and vegetables, the usual ingredients that make up most backpacker dinners (pasta is the alternative).  The hostel kitchen was small and there were some other people cooking, so we elected Ayelet to start chopping vegetables to make our Israeli salad (which is basically just a normal salad consisting of cucumbers, tomatos, and onions but diced instead of cut in large pieces, and then dressed in salt and olive oil).  She did a wonderful job chopping and then combined all the vegetables together to form a beautiful salad, more than enough for the five of us, which she placed on top of the refrigerator to wait until we had finished preparing the rice and beans.  No more than a minute after placing the salad up there, the friendly Canadian woman who was also staying at the hostel and had just finished eating herself, entered the already very crowded kitchen.  She reached for the refrigerator door, didn't see the salad, and you can guess what happened.  I was focusing on preparing the rice at the time and therefore did not see the action, but I knew exactly what had happened upon hearing the distinct and completely disheartening sound of a bowl crashing on the floor followed by a large gasp.  I slowly turned around to face the reality of the situation for which I already had a clear image in my head: a colorful, oily mess on the floor and the Canadian woman standing over it with her hands on her head.  We all stared in silence for a few moments, absorbing the blow.  Once we had all reached acceptance we assured the Canadian lady that it was not the end of the world.  When I looked at her face I actually felt more bad for her than I did about the loss of our salad.  Since the girls were under a time crunch as they needed to catch a night bus to David, we needed to quickly formulate a plan about what to do to make up for our lost meal.  The choice was between going to the restaurant down the block or going back to the store to get more vegetables to make a new salad.  Before giving anyone the chance to think about it, I was out the door running back to the grocery store.  After all, it was a nice night for a jog and I had been sweating all day anyway.  I made it to the store and back with a fresh bag of vegetables in less than 10 minutes, which to the girls was apparently a very impressive feat.  Ayelet got back to chopping while Tal and I prepared the rice and beans.  Since the pots and pans were all deformed and the stove was small, we had at least two more near spills, but we were on our toes after the inital disaster and our reaction times had increased enough to allow us to save the rest of our food from sharing a similar fate as the salad.  After about an hour of chopping, floor mopping, and running around the neighborhood we had a beautiful, delicious, and well earned meal sitting on the table in front of us.

The extra work required to feed our hungry bodies made the meal that much better.  And the Canadian woman gave us a few dollars to cover the cost of our new salad so in the end we suffered no loss!  After an eventful evening, we said our goodbyes and the girls hopped in a cab to the bus terminal and I caught one back to my hostel.

I spent a couple more days in Panama City and ended up meeting up with a Panamanian guy named Roy who I had met in Boquete.  He was nice enough to pick me up from my hostel and give me a mini tour driving around the city.  He lived in a nice apartment building with a gym and pool, so I was able to get in a little workout which was very welcoming.  For dinner we got sushi (my first time in the whole trip) so the night couldn't have been any better.  The rest of my time in Panama City I used to figure out how I was going to get to Colombia.  I had already decided to entirely modify my trip plans and scrap Brazil altogether and finish my adventure in Colombia and Ecuador.  I had no idea how expensive flights to Brazil were, which was the main reason for the change in itinerary.  Anyway, it turns out that it's not easy to get from Panama to Colombia.  Essentially, there are three options: by boat, by air, or by land.  Crossing the border by land involves trekking through the Darien Province which is almost entirely made up by undeveloped tropical forest.  The Pan American Highway ends at the entrance into the Darien, so travelling by car becomes extremely difficult at that point.  I'm not even sure if any buses go through.  If one can manage to make it through the Darien jungle without getting bitten by any poisonous animals, it is probable to be abducted by one of the many drug cartels who have made the region their base due to the absence of any federal authority or police officers.  So I crossed that idea off the list.  That left the options of travelling by air or by water.  Both options cost at least $350, but the sea route involves sailing through the beautiful San Blas Islands for two to three days on an all inclusive cruise.  It has become a very popular method of travelling between Colombia and Panama in recent years and there are many boat captains that have made it their full time jobs to transport backpackers between the two countries.  It's not a cruise as you would normally think of though; these boats are all small sailboats, usually no bigger than 60 feet.  The boats generally have room for 10-20 people, but the quarters are tight so it's best to get to know your travel mates beforehand since you'll be in very close proximity for 5 to 6 days.  The biggest problem with these sailboat voyages are that some boat captains are unexperienced or irresponsible.  Some boats are not equipped to transport the number of passengers that sign up for the trip or may not have proper safety equipment.  Therefore, it is necessary to do some research beforehand in order to find a safe and reputable boat captain.  You can find several stories online by people that didn't look into any of these things before signing up and wound up with major problems.

I ultimately decided to do the boat trip because I really wanted to see the San Blas Islands and because everyone who had done the trip said it was the experience of a lifetime.  Of course, after reading some of the stories, I was sure to do my research and find a reputable boat captain.  On Wednesday I took a bus to Colón, the city at which the Panamal Canal opens into the Atlantic Ocean, and from there another bus to Portobelo, a small coastal town where I was to meet the boat captain.  I met one of my fellow passengers on the way there, a nice girl from Arizona named Sammi.  She and I had no idea who our other fellow passengers would be.  Upon arriving in Portobelo, our Kiwi boat captain, John, had some exciting news for us - Sammi and I were to be the only passengers because another group who had signed up apparently bailed at the last minute.  Since John had already scheduled a return trip from Colombia, he had to make the trip regardless of the number of passengers, so Sammi and I had the whole 60 foot boat to ourselves.  In fact, were were even outnumbered by the crew members, of whom there were 3: John, Tom, and Mary.  Tom, who was from Belgium, had been sailing with John for the past year or so.  Mary, an Irish girl a bit younger than Sammi and I, had been backpacking and had joined John's crew to make some extra cash to support her trip.  Since there was only Sammi and me to take care of, Mary had barely any work to do and basically got a free trip through the San Blas.  Too bad I hadn't thought to do the same.

The five of us grabbed a bite to eat in Portobelo before setting sail.  John, Tom, and Mary were all really nice so I knew off the bat we wouldn't have any problems.  Even if we did get sick of each other, we had a 60 foot boat between the five of us to space ourselves out.  After eating, we hopped in a dingy and zipped over to John's boat.

The sea was pretty calm so I wasn't worried about seasickness, from which I have definitely suffered before, so I was still sure to bring motion sickness pills.  Since it was calm, however, I decided not to take a pill before getting on the boat.  Mistake.  Within the first hour of sailing the swells increased and I started to feel queasy.  I took a pill at that point but it was too late.  20 minutes later I was at the back of the boat watching everything I had eaten that day go back out the same way it came in until there was nothing left.  I sat back there for two hours, taking deep breaths and trying to concentrate on the horizon even in the darkness.  Tom came back to ask me if I wanted any dinner, but there was no way I could hold anything down so I passed on the meal.  Eventually I started feeling a little better so I decided to try to go below deck to get ready for bed and attempt to sleep.  However, with no stationary reference, the seasickness rushed back as soon as I stepped inside.  I spent the rest of the night in my cabin with a plastic bag until I somehow managed to fall asleep.  It wasn't exactly the greatest way to begin the five day trip, but the following two days definitely made up for the first 12 hours.

I woke up the next morning feeling much better and quickly realized that the boat wasn't moving, which made me hopeful that my troubles from the night before had ended.  I walked up to the deck and was confronted with a surreal view - scattered around us were tiny islands with white sand beaches and palm trees immersed in a deep blue-green water.  A handful of the indiginous Kuna Yala people in their typical brightly colored clothing were paddling around in wooden canoes.  My first thought was that this is what I would expect to see as a computer monitor background.

And of course the pictures don't even do it justice.  We spent the next two days hopping around the islands, snorkeling, reading, relaxing, and taking in sun.  With the boat no longer mimicing the motion of a pendulum, my appetite returned so I was able to enjoy the delicious meals cooked by Capitan John, including fresh fish, lobster, crab, chicken, and pasta.
On one of our snorkeling excursions, Tom brought his spear fishing gear, so we followed him around as he hunted down our dinner.  It was my first time seeing spear fishing in action, and I found it to be a much more entertaining form of catching fish than sitting on a boat with a line in the water.

On the second day we made our way over to an island where John had a Kuna friend from whom he usually bought lobster and crab.  While their, we gathered wood to use for a bonfire that evening.  After a delicious dinner on the boat, we assembled a cooler and took the dingy back to the island to make the bonfire and enjoy some cold rum cocktails, known as Cuba Libres.  No more than a minute after we had the fire going, we were greeted by 3 of the local Kuna who were looking to make some friends, and more likely, enjoy some of our drinks.  Considering the population of the island was eight, a bonfire with drinks and gringos was a wild party for them.  All of the Kuna speak Spanish in addition to their native language so we spent the night with them, conversing in Spanish while learning a few words in Kuna.  I would guess they don't get treated to Cuba Libres very often because laughs were increasing and words were beginning to slurr after about 2 drinks.  I think they ended up having even a better time than we did!

When it started to get late we had to insist that our Kuna friends not throw any more wood on the fire and that we had to get back to the boat.  I think they were a bit disappointed and probably could have stayed up all night drinking our rum, but we needed to start the 40 hour voyage over open water to Cartagena.  Those 40 hours were a bit rough, but apparently my body had adapted enough to keep me from getting sick like I did the first day.  I definitely kept up a steady intake of motion sickness pills just to be safe.  We arrived in Cartagena early on Sunday morning, all very happy to return to a permanent situation on solid ground while at the same time dissappointed that the trip was over.  Same as everyone who had done the trip told me, it was the experience of a lifetime, but one that I most likely will never repeat.  That is, at least until I conquer my susceptibility to sea sickness!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Bungee Jumping, Tropical Forests, and Finding a Home in Panama

The past two weeks have been packed with a wide variety of activities and experiences.  Despite the fact that San José has little to offer for tourists, I had a great time there and managed to limit my contact with English speakers, allowing for a full four days of Spanish practice.  Just what I wanted.  While an American tourist (I should say US tourist since we're ALL Americans down here) may feel very stand-outish in the sea of Ticos that flood the streets of San Jose, without the human prescence he or she would feel very at home.  Let me explain with the following picture:

In case you didn't notice, there's also a KFC to the left and outside of the picture a McDonalds down the block to the right.  So if you've always wanted to venture abroad but can't stand the thought of eating rice and beans instead of burgers and pizza, have no fear for the golden arches are here!  But be sure to bring enough cash because you'll be paying the same prices you do in the States, if not more.  Lucky for me, I'd have no problem eating eat rice, beans, and chicken 3 meals a day for a year! (as long as you throw in some pasta and veggies every now and then).

During my time in San José, I managed to visit some of the city's museums including El Museo Nacional, part of which was originally a barrack for the Costa Rican military until it was dissolved in 1948.  The museum houses exhibitions relating to the history and wildlife of Costa Rica.  One of the exhibitions was devoted entirely to the Blue Morpho Butterfly, which are found all over the country.  After chasing butterflies for 20 minutes I finally managed to get a few good pictures.

One side of the wing is colored brown with a pattern of dark blue circles, and the other side is a light blue with a black rim.  You can't tell by the pictures but these things are really big, about the size of your fist.  Anyway, I thought they were pretty cool.

There's not much else worthy of mention about my time in San Jose.  I managed to get to a decent gym for a few days, catch some of the soccer matches in the Copa América, and experience some of the nightlife with some Ticos I met.  It was a great way to get off the beaten trail for a few days and recharge my batteries.
After San Jose I was ready for some more adventure so I took a bus to Jacó, a small, touristy beach town on the Pacific.  The main purpose of my visit there was to go bungee jumping, and that is the first thing I did once I arrived (well maybe the second, I stuffed my face with a giant burger, fries, and a beer just before - after all, why go bungee jumping on an empty stomach?).  Bungee jumping is something I had always wanted to do since I first started skydiving but never got around to it, so I told myself I would defintely make it happen in Costa Rica.  The bungee jumping facility was great for beginners - it was essentially a 40 meter high crane with a platform at the top and an in-ground pool directly below the platform.  Before jumping, you specify your body weight so they can select the appropriate level of resistance such that your hands baretly dip into the pool before your body is lanched back upward.  Possibly because of the giant meal I ate right before the jump, I must have had some excess body weight because rather than gently and gracefully touching the water as my Israeli friend Dima had done, I experienced more of a dunking in the pool such that my head became completely submerged before beginning my ascent.  It made the jump all the more refreshing!  In addition to the standard bungee jump, I attempted their "tarzan swing" and "rocket launcher".  The tarzan swing was exactly as it sounds - they attach an elastic cord to your harness, raise your body upward as well as horizontally, and release you at the top such that you swing down like a big rope swing.  That was fun, but not nearly as exciting as the rocket launcher, in which they strech two elastic cords from the top of the crane and attach them to your harness at the lower end, and then release you such that you are shot upward like a giant slingshot at a force between 2 and 3 Gs.  That was maybe even more intense and excited that the bungee jump.  Unfortunately, due to my mastery in digital camera technology, I managed to delete all the pictures and videos of all these activities when I was messing with some of the camera settings a few days later.  But I swear I really did do it!  If you think I'm making the whole thing up so be it.  When the technology for displaying digital images from human memory becomes available I'll be able to prove it to all you non-believers!  Just to give you an idea though, here's some pictures from the website (www.pacificbungee.com).     

I met a bunch of cool people in Jacó and spent the next couple days there hanging out, attempting to surf (but mainly getting crushed by giant waves definitely not meant for beginners) and partying with all the other gringos and tourists.  It was a blast, but a bit pricey since it was quite touristy so I limited my time there to 3 days.

From Jacó, I began the 20 hour bus ride to Puerto Jimenez, a small port town on the Peninsula de Osa in the very southern Pacific part of Costa Rica.  The main attraction there is Parque Corcovado, a giant natural reserve that apparently has some of the most diverse and amazing wildlife in all of Central America.  I had met several girls from Boston and New York in La Fortuna who had visited Parque Corcovado, had an amazing time there and highly recommended it to me so I took their advice!  It definitely lived up to expectations.  The first day I walked along some of the beach trails just outside of the town with some Europeans I had met on the bus, where we witnessed a multitude of brightly colored macaws, screeching monkeys, iguanas and a million little lizards, and best of all, about 6 or 7 caimans, which are basically a type of crocodile.  Luckily for us, we arrived at the caiman viewing area at the same time as a Dutch couple who had bought several pounds of beef which they planned to throw into the marsh in hopes to coax out the prehistoric creatures.  As you can guess, their strategy worked quite well.  At first just a couple caimans were present to devour the meat slabs being tossed to them, but within a couple minutes I think their entire family and many friends had wandered over to take part in the feast.  At one point a clueless puppy ventured dangerously close to snapping jaws of the caimans but it managed to sense the danger and edge back in enough time to spare us a scene that would have been a hit on National Geographic.  Of course, it was right after this that I managed to delete my camera memory so unfortuantely I can't share any of those pictures.  It's too bad because I had some really awesome shots!

The following day my European hostelmates and I woke up at 4:30 to catch a 5am taxi to the Leona Ranger station in the southern part of Parque Corcovado where we began an 8 hour hike through the natural reserve.  The taxi ride took about an hour and a half and dropped us off where the road ended about an hour from the Leona Ranger station.  We then walked for an hour along the beach to arrive at the station where we entered the forest trail.

The hike totally lived up to expectations.  We had beautiful weather and saw an abundance of wildlife, including several of the trees such as the one in the picture below.  I had never seen such a big tree trunk in my life; one definitely could have made a comfortable one bedroom home inside. 

I think they're called strangler trees or something like that, which would make sense based on the way the roots slither outward at the base of the trunk.  We also saw a million of these brightly colored land crabs, and were careful not to step on any of them as we trekked through the forest.

Lizards, including iguanas, were plentiful as well.

We managed to see all four types of monkeys that exist in the area: the spider monkey, howler monkey, squirrel monkey, and white face monkey such as this lazy guy.

We also saw some brightly colored frogs, small snakes, and unusual mammals whos names I've already forgotten.  I was really hoping to see a giant boa constrictor, but unfortunately they were all hiding that day.

The following day, I took a ferry across the Golfo Dulce to the town of Golfito, where I met a Swiss girl and together caught a bus to the border with Panama.  I remember the border crossing from Costa Rica to Panama being somewhat chaotic when I went last year, but this was a nightmare.  The whole border area was dirty and chaotic with no signs clearly signaling where to go for passport inspection.  We managed to find the Costa Rica immigration office and got into the line, which was more of a funnel of about 50 people trying to make their way to one of 2 opens windows.  As we were standing in the mob, I noticed there was a suggestion box located next to one of the windows and I was very tempted to draw up a schematic with a new system of lines showing directions of traffic flow.  Honestly it would not have been that complicated, but I deduced that the suggestion box was present more as a decorative and had most likely not been opened in several decades so I decided against sharing my ideas.  After about an hour of waiting we got our stamps and headed to the Panama immigration office where there was a brand new line waiting for us.  Once we made it to the window, we were informed we needed to have proof of exit out of the country (because of course all backpackers and other tourists are planning on staying in the country and stealing all of the precious jobs from the Panamanian citizens) so we had to walk all the way back to the Costa Rica side, find the bus company, and buy a $15 open-ended bus ticket from Panama back to San Jose, Costa Rica.  Most backpackers that don't have any travel booked out of the country have to do the same.  Do you think that there may exist some collaboration between the "bus company" and the immigration office?  That sure is a lot of profit coming from sales of bus tickets that are never redeemed!

After finally getting our Panama stamps and escaping the chaos of the border area, we got on a bus to David, the second biggest city in Panama behind the capital.  It's not far from Costa Rica, only about an hour and a half from the border.  After spending two weeks in Costa Rica paying prices similar to those in the States, it felt great to be back in a cheap country!  And to make life even easier, the Panamanian currency (called the Balboa) is exactly equivalent to the US dollar so both are accepted everywhere.  After I checking into a hotel, I had a giant lunch for which I payed about $3, got my first haircut since May which cost me another $3, found a local gym for which I payed $1 to use for the day, and bought a variety of other snacks for less than $2.  There's not a whole lot to do in David, so I wandered around and explored a bit at night and then went to bed early.     

The next day I called Gabi and Kobi Klaf, an Israeli couple I had met in La Fortuna, Costa Rica a couple weeks before, as they had told me they were planning spending a couple months in Boquete, a town about an hours drive from David, and welcomed me to visit them when I arrived.  Gabi and Kobi have been travelling for over 5 months now with their three children ages 6, 8, and 10, and plan to continue their adventure for at least another year.  They started their trip in Colorado and have moved south through the States and all through Central America by public transport or hitch hiking, stopping in various places for weeks or months at a time to search for volunteer activities.  I still don't know how they're managing this trip because Dahnya, Orazi, and Solai are some of the most wired kids I've ever met.  They keep a really amazing blog, so feel free to check it out if your're interested in learning more abour their adventures! (workingtheworld.blogspot.com)  Anyway, Kobi was nice enough to pick me up in David in the 4x4 Mitsubishi SUV he had just purchased in Panama to give them a bit more flexibility and freedom in their traveling (thank God, I don't know how they lived without it).  We drove back to their new temporary home in Alto Boquete, just outside of Boquete, which is a basic but nice and well made cottage consisting of a single room (kind of a mix between a living room and kitchen), a separate bathroom, and a large outdoor patio where, of course, they spend most of their time.

The cottage belongs to and was built by Gabi's father, Yosi (sorry if misspelled!) who has lived just outside of David the last 12 years with his Panamanian wife and their daughter, Ilana, so the arrangement worked out quite nicely for the Klafs!  Gabi and Kobi were nice enough to offer me to stay with them for as long as I liked as they had a nice big tent set up outside the house and no one using it.

I took them up on their offer, thinking I'd stay with them for a night and then find a hostel in Boquete, but I ended up spending the next 5 days with them!  It was a very unique and wonderful experience staying with the Klafs for those 5 days because for the first time since I had started travelling (not counting my homestay in Nicaragua with Ileana and Ninoska, which was just as amazing but in a different way), I felt like I was living, rather than simply passing through, in a home as part of a family.  And after those 5 days with the Klafs I really did feel like part of their family!  It was great spending time with the kids, and I think they enjoyed having an older playmate.  I know for sure that Kobi and Gabi were happy to have a new diversion for their kids to give them a bit of a respite from their usual parenting routine.

We did a bunch of activities in those 5 days, including hiking on the Sendero Los Quetzales, having a BBQ, picking oranges, practicing gymnastics skills, reading Greek mythology stories, having meditation/relaxation sessions,and stargazing. 

In the car on the way to the Sendero Los Quetzales 
Left to right: Ilana, Dahnya, Orazi, Gabi in back (Solai hiding behind Ilana)

Random bridge we found on the way to Sendero Los Quetzales
Kobi on top, Ilana, Orazi, Dahnya, Solai underneath
Grillmaster Kobi

 Practicing gymnastics skills after the BBQ

BBQ attendees: Yosi, Kobi, me, Patrick and wife, Gabi, Solai, Ilana, Patrick's daughter, Dahnya 
(Orazi taking photo)

One of the best parts about Boquete was the sky.  I have never seen such an amazing sunset anywhere else in the world in my entire life.  Something about the way the sun sets behind Volcán Barú and shines up on the clouds makes the sky look like it's on fire, and it's almost the same every single night as long as it's not raining.  I tried to capture it with these pictures, but they really don't do it justice.    

The night sky is just as impressive.  I don't think I had ever seen a sky with so many stars as I did in Boquete, and definitely never so many shooting stars.  We must have seen 20 within a half hour!  Another thing I enjoyed about Boquete was the cool climate, as it sits at an elevation of about 3,200 feet.  In fact, it got so cold at night that I had to sleep in long pants and a jacket!  But after spending so many nights sweating in hostels, the cold was definitely welcome.  

I really enjoyed the town of Boquete as well.  It's quite touristy, but at least you can still find cheap food!  One of the days when I went into town on my own I spent the morning rock climbing on a natural rock face, formed by the last eruption of Volcán Barú, which was a first for me.  It's definitely different than climbing on the artificial rock walls, and I think in manys I enjoyed it better.  

It was hard saying goodbye to the Klafs, and I really wish I could have stayed with them longer if I had the time.  Ironically, the kids were the most quiet they had been the whole week my last morning with them as they were busily working on their very artistic going away gifts for me.

We spent our last afternoon together in town eating lunch, playing soccer, and eating cake and ice cream, which I should mention were paid for out-of-pocket by Orazi and Solai with their own money.  They did, however, talk it over with their parents to make sure it was within their budgets.  We said our goodbyes that evening and I hopped on a bus back to David, where I actually ended up spending the night with Gabi's dad, Yosi, his wife Korina and daughter Ilana in their beautiful home.  They even had a whole guest room with a double bed for me, and a shower with hot water!  Talk about luxury.  I was originally planning on just spending the night and moving on the following morning, but ended up waking up early with everyone else, taking Ilana to school with her parents, going grocery shopping, and then to Yosi's favorite bookstore which he had been raving about the entire time and telling me that I needed to check it out and buy at least two books.  So we went to the bookstore, I bought my two books, and of course by that time there was no sense in leaving so I ended up staying an extra night, bringing my stretch of free accommodation to a week!  Thanks again Klafs and Yosi!

I went back to the usual backpacking routine the following day as I caught a bus to Playa Las Lajas, supposedly one of the most beautiful beaches in Panama, where I hung out all day under a little beach hut and finished the book I had started the day before.  Rough life, I know.

The next day I woke up early and got one of the coldest buses I have ever experienced, heading to my current location, Panama city.  I had been warned about the excessive level of air conditioning on the long distance Panama buses, but wasn't expecting temperatures I like to freeze meat at.  The bus ride took about 6 hours, so when we finally made it to Panama City I had to sit in the sun for a bit to let my toes thaw.  For once I was happy to be walking around with my big backpack in excessive heat!  Of course that happiness lasted only about 5 minutes until it was back to sweating profusely as I wandered around searching for cheap accommodation.  It started raining soon after I arrived so I haven't seen much of the city yet, but as soon as it stops raining I'll begin exploring one of Central America's largest cities! 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

One Month Down and Still in Costa Rica!

Well I'm now about halfway through my trip and have maybe made it 2/3 of the way through Central America.  I guess my original travel itinerary was a bit unrealistic.  In the beginning I thought 3 months would be plenty of time to see all of Central and a good portion of South America, but it turns out it's really easy to stay in one place for a matter of weeks.  The maps below show my progress in the first 6 weeks.

As you can see I still have a long way to go before getting to South America.  What this means is that I won't be able to get to as many places as I had oringinally hoped.  It's simply impossible to see everything, but it just means you save what you missed on one trip for the next!  At this point I think my Latin American adventure will be turning into a Central American adventure plus Brazil.  I'll continue playing it by ear and see how much time I have left by the time I'm ready to leave Panama.

Anyway, it's easily been more than 3 weeks since my last posting so I have a lot to report on!  After my mishap at the Honduran-Nicaraguan border I went to the beatiful city of León, which used to be the Nicaraguan capital in the 19th century until it was moved to the rival city of Granada.  There was so much tension between liberal León and conservative Granada that the capital was finally moved to Managua in order to end the dispute.  Both León and Granada were key cities in the war between the liberal Sandanistas and the conservative nationalists during the years of the US occupation in the 20th century, as well as the four decades of the Somoza dictatorship.  While Nicaragua was one of the friendlies countries I've visited, there is definitely still an anti-US sentiment present as a result of the history between the two countries.  Considering what happened, I'd say it's understandable!  It is a very interesting history.

As I mentioned before, the first thing that grabbed my attention when I got to León was an activity called volcano boarding, which is exactly what it sounds like - sledding down a volcano.  The day following my arrival I hopped on a bus with 10 or 12 other kids and rode to Volcano Cerro Negro, the youngest volcano in Central America and still very active (last eruption was in 1999).   

The volcano is not high, only about 730 meters (2400 ft), and since we started our hike a few hundred meters above sea level it only took about 45 minutes to reach the top.  We hung out and caught our breath at the top for 20 mintues or so while our guide, Hugh, gave us an orientation on volcano boarding safety and techniques.  While it's not a totally dangerous sport, cuts and bruises are not uncommon, especially when going fast.  The current record for fastest speed is 52 mph (actually set by a female, although I heard she didn't intend to attempt to set a record speed, rather she forgot to brake with her legs and was wildly out of control but managed not to crash until after her speed was clocked).  No one set any new records in my group, but a few kids got close.  

Yes, we are wearing convict jumpsuits.  I'm not sure why that degree of protection would be necessary in a prison, but it sure works well for volcano boarding.  Anyway, it was definitely a very fun activity, and unique to say the least.  And to make it even better, included in the package were two ice cold mojitos waiting for us at the hostel bar when we got back to help us cool off and relax after a long afternoon on the volcano.  Not a bad deal!

I decided to hold off on volcano-related activities the following day and head to the beach for some surfing.  I went with 5 or 6 other kids and we had an entire section of the beach to ourselves for the whole day, perfect for beginners such as myself who aren't capable of manuvering through a cluster of surfers all trying to catch the same waves.  We had great weather for most of the day and the waves were really good!

Having surfed only 5 or 6 times, I'm definitely still a beginner, which explains the 8 foot board in the picture.  The better you get, the smaller a board you can use which allows you to catch more waves and maneuver the board better.  Maybe in 40 years when I retire to a small beach town in Costa Rica or somewhere similar where I can go surfing every day I'll be able to consider downsizing.  Since the day trip package was through the same hostel, included again were the two mojitos waiting for us at the bar when we got back.  A perfect way to end the evening.

By the following day, I decided I liked León enough to stick around another week and take a Spanish class.  After spending two full days with Americans, Ozzies, Kiwis, and Brits, I was in need of a way to go back to speaking Spanish.  I thought it was interesting that I found myself signing up for classes on my so called post-graduation vacation, right when I thought I wouldn't have to set foot in another classroom for at least another year or two.  At least the classes were held outside, so I didn't totally feel like I was back in a calculus lecture.  The classes were organized as 1 on 1 instruction, so it ended up being a great way to practice my Spanish for the week.  Additionally, the school provided the option of living at a homestay, so I lived with a local Nicaraguan family for the rest of my time in León, which gave me even more of an opportunity to practive my Spanish.  The family consisted of my host mom, Ileana, and her daughter, Ninoska, who were two of the nicest people I've ever met.  Oh and I can't forget to mention their dog, Scooby, who was of course just as much a part of the family!  There was also another American guy named Austin staying in the house who was part of a group of medical school students doing an exchange program.

Ileana, me, Ninoska

Scooby (pronounced Ehskoobie)

Overall I had a great experience living with Ileana and Ninoska.  Ninoska was nice enough to take me out for some typical Nicaraguan activities, such as singing karaoke and going to the movie theater to see Cars 2.  It was nice being able to settle down in a single place for more than just a few days.  To make the experience even better, I was able to find a local gym and pay for a week-long membership.  The week cost me 65 cordobas, or about 3 US dollars, so the bank was definitely hurting after that one.  Well not exactly, but the Spanish course did set me back a bit.  I think God was watching out for me though, because I wandered into the León casino with a friend I had met in the hostel I stayed at when I first got to the city, threw some chips down on the Roulette table, and won $62 on the first shot.  I collected my chips, cashed out, and walked out happy (Kuhn not so happy, as he had lost all his money almost as fast as I won mine).      

Lyon Gym in León

With the way I've been eating, it was definitely a good thing I managed to get a few workouts in during the week.  So with classes and the gym, I was able to get into a nice routine for a week, which was actually quite welcoming!  Generally I woke up at 7:15, at breakfast prepared for me by Ileana, went to class from 8 until noon, came back, at a typical Nicaraguan lunch (usually rice and beans with some kind of meat), went to the gym, then came back and showered and relaxed before enjoying any of the nighttime activities.  

Rice, beans, and eggs with chorizo

One night I went out with Ninoska, two of her Nica (short for Nicaraguan) friends, and the American med students to a bar to watch the US vs. Mexico soccer game (US got pummeled 4-2).  Later in the evening, a TV crew from one of the local stations came in to interview people for what I believe was a promotional activity for the bar.  They first went to a table of locals then decided they wanted to interview the gringos, so the next thing we knew we had a camera and microphone in our faces.  Since we had all had one or two (but of course no more) Toñas (local Nicaraguan beer), I believe we provided solid responses to all their questions in fluent Spanish.  Unfortunately we didn't get to see ourselves on TV, although maybe it's a good thing so I can continue believing that I spoke like a local that night.

While it was a really fun night, unfortunately it had to end with the first negative incident of my trip.  It happened as I was walking home with Ninoska and her two friends.  Before I knew what had happened, Nino's friend had her cell phone snatched out of her hand and I felt a solid blow to the face which took me down, and I managed to fall on something sharp enough to take a good chunk of my shin out.  By the time I got up the two guys had already dissappeared.  I won't post the before picture (it's in my Facebook album if you want to see it), but here's a good shot of my leg after I cleaned myself up:

It was an unfortunate experience, but it could have been worse!  And luckily I had nothing stolen from me.  I managed to get to sleep after bandaging myself up, then made a trip to the hospital the next morning.  The best way I can describe the León hospital is very different.  It definitely made me feel fortunate to have the kind of care we do at home.  The nurse cleaned up the wound with some sort of liquid in an unmarked container, stopping at one point to send a text message, then gave me a tetanus shot, and I was on my way.  I really wish they had given me stitches because it still has a good deal of healing to do even after 3 weeks.  At least I'll have a nice scar to show for it once it finally does heal!  Anyway, I suppose the lesson here is don't party until 4am in foreign cities (we'll see how well I retain the lesson).

The following Monday was my last day of class.  Thanks to my arduous studying during the week, I passed the course and was awarded a diploma!  Two diplomas within 2 months, not bad right?  This one's definitely going on the résumé. 

Receiving diploma from my "professor", Fátima

For the next couple days I hung around León to do some more exploring, but mostly because I wasn't ready to leave.  Plus, I was invited out to dinner for Ninoska's brother's birthday with the whole family, and it would have been rude to turn down the invitation.

Here's some pictures of the city I took on my last day there:

 Central Park

 Cathedral - largest in Central America

This last picture is a famous mural outside of fire station; both are portraits of Agusto Sandino.  On the left, Sandino is stepping on the head of Anastasio Somoza, the leader of the natinonalist forces (Contras) and Nicaraguan dictator during 4 decades following the assasination of Sandino.  On the right, Sandino is stepping on Uncle Sam with the words "Sandino Vive" painted across his waist.  It's definitely true that the the spirit of Sandino does still live in the hearts of many Nicaraguans!

On Wednesday I managed to pull myself from León and hop on a bus to Granada.  It was a beautiful city, but I felt much more like a tourist there than I did in León. 

 Central Park

View from belltower of Iglesia La Merced

I split a hostel room with a guy named Matt from Seattle who I had met on the bus for $5 each.  We did some exploring, ate a typical dish of chancho con yuca (pork with yuca), and made it an early night.  The next day I made some museum visits then met up with Matt in the afternoon for a boat tour of Las Isletas, which are a cluster of tiny islands off the coast of Granada in Lago de Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America.  After some bargaining, we arrived at a reasonable price of $10 for an hour long tour and we were assured we'd be able to see the tourist favorite, la Isla de los Monos (Island of the Monkeys).  However, upon boarding the boat and setting sail, el capitán informed us that an hour long tour would not be sufficient to make it as far as the Isla de los Monos, but that if we payed another $5 each for an additional half hour we'd have plenty of time to see the monkeys.  I was unable to persuade el capitán that if he drove slightly faster than 1.5 knots we'd be able to reach the island in less than a half hour (simple d = v*t).  Apparently he had never studied physics, so we ended up paying the extra $5 each.  Despite being set up entirely for tourists, it was worth it to see the 7 monkeys in their tiny island habitat.  When we approached the island, one of the monkeys dropped in from a branch and plopped into the boat, a quite unexpected maneuver.

I'd have to say that la Isla de los Monos was the highlight of Granada (I won't admit that to any locals).  On Friday I hopped on a ferry to Isla Ometepe, an island in the middle of the Lago de Nicaragua formed by two volcanos: Volcán Maderas and Volcán Concepción, located on opposite ends of the island.  The main activities offered by the island are hiking, volcano climbing, and relaxing, all of which were the things I was looking forward to doing.  On Saturday I did some hiking along the beach with 3 French tourists I had met on the ferry.  We saw several bird species and tons of lizards (but no monkeys unfortunately). 

Paul, one of the French guys, and I decided we wanted to climb Volcán Concepción the following day.  Concepción is the taller of the two volcanos at 1610 meters (almost exactly one mile).  However, we had been told all day long that there was going to be a huge party in Altagracia, one of the two main towns and that end of the island, and that we couldn't miss it.  We decided that maybe we could check out the party for a few hours and then get back at a reasonable hour to be ready for our 5:30am wake up time on Sunday morning.  There was a large group from the hotel planning to go so we didn't want to miss out.  However, it started raining just before we got in the cab, and by the time we got to the so called party, there were no more than 3 people there.  Trying not to think about the reality that I should have been in bed already, we ended up going to another local bar where we were quickly put in the spotlight as we were the only tourists there.  We all ended up having such a great time speaking with many of the locals that Paul and I forgot (or more tried not to think) about how quickly 5:30am would roll around.  I'm glad Paul and I were in the same dorm room because without each other's motivation there's no way we could have made it out of bed, especially considering the 7 hour hike that awaited.  We somehow managed, and were on the mountain hiking by 7am.  We both felt like zombies in the beginning and were wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.  No more than 10 minutes into the hike it started pouring rain.  Great, just what we needed.  Fortunately we had both brought rain jackets, but for an hour we trekked upwards in a downpour in soaking wet socks and shoes. 

We made the best of it, keeping in mind the end goal of reaching the top.  The trail quickly became much more rugged until we found ourselves climbing over rocks and boulders with both hands and feet.  Luckily, the rain let up, and by the time we reached the halfway point  the sky eventually cleared up enough to give us a good few of the landscape below.  After a total of 3 hours, we finally made it to the top where we had a fantastic view of the whole island and were able to stare down into the foggy abyss of the volcano's crater.  It was definitely the most intense climb I had ever experienced, but was totally worth it.

We took a 20 minute break at the top to eat lunch, than began the climb back down.  The climb down ended up being even harder than the climb up, as the rocks kept coming loose beneath our feet.  It took us four hours to get down, making a total of a 7 hour hike.  It was an amazing feeling to set foot on flat ground again, and to make it better, we were greated by several monkeys in the treetops at the base of the mountain!  I passed out soon after getting back to the hotel, woke up to eat a massive dinner, then went right back to sleep again.

The following morning I caught the ferry back to the mainland, and from there took an hour long bus to San Juan del Sur, located just north of the Costa Rican border and famous for its culture of surfing and partying.  After a quiet few days on the island, I was ready for a little more action!  It turned out I was in luck, because without even realizing it I had arrived on the 4th of July, and the hostel I checked into had a full day's Independence Day celebration lined up (can you get an idea of the demographics of the town?  I think the locals are outnumbered...)  I mean, why not celebrate the American Independence Day in Nicarauga?  It was definitely a fun day and I felt like I was back on campus at U of I.  The following two days consisted of surfing, eating, partying, and surfing, so by the third day I thought I should take a break and actually explore the town.  It's definitely a gorgeous place, well worth a visit even if you're not into surfing or partying.

The following day I was ready to escape the craziness of San Juan, so I caught a bus to the border and ventured on to La Fortuna, Costa Rica (again, triple checking to make sure I had gotten two stamps in my passport).  La Fortuna is famous for the nearby Volcano Arenal and the surrounding hotsprings, basically several rivers delivering steaming hot water from the volcanos to the surrounding areas.  I checked into Gringo Pete's Hostel, went to the local supermarket to purchase groceries to make the backpackers special of chicken pasta and vegetables, and crashed early.  The next morning I got up early and went on a hiking tour around Volcán Arenal.  Until a year or so ago, lava could be seen flowing down the mountainside most days, but it has been dormant since then so unfortunately I wasn't able to see such a sight.  The lack of lava, however, was compensated for by an incredible variety of plant and animal species and we had a great tour guide to identify them for us.  We ended the tour by taking a dip in one of the hot springs near the volcano.  Now I understand why they're called hot springs and not warm springs; the water literally feels like a hot tub!  Since it was so humid, I was able to enjoy the water for 15 mintues until I became overheated and had to escape quickly.  If we could move these rivers to Chicago in the winter that would be fantastic.

The next day I was up for some more adventure so I signed up for a white water rafting trip on Río Balsa.  We were told not to bring cameras so unfortunately I don't have any pictures, but it's definitely a trip I won't forget!  We maneuvered through a continuous series of class 2, 3 and 4 rapids for three and a half hours, stopping once for a lunch consisting of delicious Costa Rican watermelon and pineapple (seriously I could move here just for how good the fruit is).  Some of the rapids were pretty intense, but we only had one man overboard incident the whole trip.  Not too bad I'd say.  Additionally, we were able to enjoy some of the wildlife around the quiet sections of the river.  We saw a ton a bird species and even a few three-toed sloths hanging in the trees.  At the end of the trip, I had what I'd say was the most amazing meal of the entire trip so far, half because of how good the food was and half because it was buffet style and I was able to eat until I couldn't take another bite.  The meal was served with delicious Costa Rican coffee and a shot of a traditional Costa Rican liqueor, which I believe is made from sugar cane and is very similar in taste to Bailey's Irish Cream.  I can't remember the name of it, so if anyone knows please remind me!  Following the meal, we sat in on a demonstration of juice extraction from sugar cane using a manual mill powered by two bulls.  The bulls walk in a circle, spinning a large beam connected to a system of gears that are in turn connected to two cylindrical metal presses.  The sugar cane is inserted in between the cylinders and gets squeezed through while its juices are deposited into a jar, ready to serve!  As you can imagine, it was very sweet, delicious, and refreshing.  So not only did I get in my adrenaline fix, but also a bit of culture which made for an excellent, well rounded day.  

I woke up early the next day to catch a bus to Playa Jaco to go bungee jumping, but decided at the last minute I wanted to get off the beaten backpackers trail for a few days to get some more opportunity to practice speaking Spanish, so I got on a bus to the capital city of San Jose instead.  While all the places I've visited have been amazing, they have also been enjoyed by many other tourists such as myself, so I generally find myself speaking more English than Spanish.  Since San Jose is such a big city, it's pretty easy to blend in and not be in constant contact with other tourists.  Anyway, it has worked out because I've been here for two days now and haven't spoken more than 10 words of English!  I think I'll stay another day then re-merge onto the beaten trail and do some bungee jumping!