Over my travels I have encountered a great number of places where people get stuck. Places where they spend a lot more time in that originally planned for, sometimes ending their trip there, sometimes even coming back to establish themselves in a more permanent manner.
Not so common in Europe or in America, where tourism is generally done among cities or in their vicinity, but in Central America, these persons are abundant It can be because of the climate, because of the proximity to a favorite activity (surfing…) but more generally, its the people you meet and the friends you find that make leaving so hard. It’s the stark contrast with a life back home in a society that is evermore criticized for its individualism and consumerism.
I am in such a place now. The island of Utila, where you come to dive and you stay for the vibe (and the diving too). Easily a third of the island are gringos and quasi every single employee in my dive shop is an expat. They all left at one point but they came back. Spending too much time here had sort of alienated them from the life they left and their old acquaintances On the island, it’s diving every day and socializing at night. In spite of all the tourism, there is a prevalent sense of community. The job is hard, the hours are long, but everyone come to this little piece of land to go underwater and is happy to be there doing so. There are no bad days.
I promise I will not make this post too long, especially since two weeks from the last month were thoroughly covered in the previous post, Saving the turtles.
So I headed out of Parismina not alone, but with Ingemer, a Swedish guy who had been a volunteer at the same project for five weeks. He had been planning to stay there for the whole duration of his trip to Central America, but me and other volunteers managed to convince him he should travel around a bit. Around a beer, we figured we could spend some time together and came to an agreement that the Nicoya peninsula in Costa Rica was a destination that matched both our preferences for the coming week.
A night was spent in San José at Costa Rica Backpackers (my 4th time there!). “Ingo”, who never had spent time in hostels, got a pretty good taste of what is to be expected during a night at a good one: Germans with guitars, an Hungarian who had his passport stolen, a drunk English guy, an American expat and a lot of fun and discussions at the hostel bar. Early the morning after, we took a (surprisingly comfortable) bus to Playa del Coco. Touted as one of the few remaining spots on the Pacific coast still belonging to the Costa Ricans, the place was deserted as holy week as over. A bit disappointed, we decided that we should at least do one activity and leave. Naturally, I picked diving as I wanted to try it in the Pacific and convinced Ingo he should give snorkeling a try.
The Pacific is not as colorful as the Carribean sea, but it is home to very large and impressive animals. I saw large morays, string rays and hordes of puffer fishes but Ingo, while snorkeling around shallow waters came face to face with a nurse shark. The dives were otherwise interesting, the visibility all the way down to 10 meters was very mediocre but deeper, it was acceptable. Only the water at this depth was significantly colder than at the surface, which limited our stay there rather than our supply of air.
Anyway, having exhausted all our possibilities in Playa del Coco, we opted to stick together for a longer time so my Swedish friend followed me on my way up to Nicaragua. He had more than a month to spend before his return flight to Scandinavia and thought that exploring another country would both spice up his travels while not taking away too much time off from his original plan of visiting Costa Rica.
Our first stop in Nicaragua was the island of Ometepe, an surreal (or Jurassic-park like) location where two volcanoes linked by an isthmus form a large land mass in the middle of the Nicaragua lake. It’s a one hour sketchy boat ride away from the shore. The main volcano, Concepción, is almost a perfectly conical shape, towers at around 1600 meters and is still very much active. His little brother, Maderas, is a couple of hundred meters smaller and dormant. Concepción is the one we hiked accompanied by a local guide was accompanying us. After the tree line, the ascent is done on a 30 degrees slope on loose rubble with visibility down to a couple of meters as the top of the volcano is most of the time shrouded in clouds. And the way up is not straight, canyons formed by rain water flowing down the slopes make the path confusing and treacherous for anyone unfamiliar with the route. We were not rewarded with a splendid view at the top, up in thick clouds, only the sometimes unbearable smell of sulfur and very strong winds met us over there, but hey, even without glimpsing down the crater, it still felt like we were on top of one mean mountain (see first picture). Lords of the Rings joke were plentiful – throw the ring Antoine, throw the ring! – but Will, our guide, having seen traces of very recent (like last night) ash falls during the climb, did not feel too comfortable having lunch and jokes there.
The climb was on our second day, the first day, I rented a motorcyle even tough I had been telling everyone that renting motorcycles in third world countries, especially when you lack the experience, is a stupid idea. I did not crash, nor did I came close. I met a few people who did over the course of the day, but the riding was fine and my skills were up to the task, it was only the machine that was not.
I rented a Chinese ripoff (a Raybar ET150T) of a Japanese bike. Not so confident about slaloming around stray pigs and cows (the primary cause of traffic incidents on the island), Ingo opted to ride backseat. So we went thinking we could circle around the whole island. Quite wrong, only the main road is paved, the rest is dirt and large rubble with heavy damage from recurrent flooding and soil erosion. After 2 km around the second volcano, I decided to return as driving around these conditions with another adult riding backseat made handling too problematic. After a pause for lunch and a dip at the local waterhole, we decided to tackle going around the first volcano, which we did successfully but not without me having to drop off my passenger to negotiate some tight spots. Working the clutch was a pain and the breaks were not that efficient, but the motorcycle held up through this rough day of riding, so far.
On the way back, I dropped Ingo off to spend some alone time with the machine. I drove around for an hour, picked up an hitchiker american expat who complained that they were overcharging for the chicken bus (30 cents, really?), left him at some village and turned back to go back to my hotel where I had originally picked up the bike. Over the first speed bump, I heard a loud clunk and on stopping to inquire on what made the noise, realized I could no longer brake. Thankfully, I was not going very fast so a gear down to compress the engine and some feet dragging halted me in little time. On closer inspection, I quickly noticed the tying rod that links the pedal to the brake had snapped off and the braking lever had wrapped itself around the drum. The cause became clear as I restarted, the ride was wobbly and unstable even at very low speed, the rear axle was loose. Stopped again tightened it by hand as much as I could, and resumed the long way back to the hotel on this crippled piece of junk.
Motorcycle brakes, work on the same principle as bicycle brakes, but the weight of the machine and its suspension make stopping a different maneuver. On a bicycle, the rear brake is only responsible for a fraction of the stopping force, and that is the same for a motorcycle, but on the latter, it also prevents the torque generated by disc-pad friction (directed slightly downwards) from compressing your front suspension and sending your over the handle bar. Simply speaking, on a motorcycle, without a rear brake, you simply cannot brake.
To add insult to injury, right when I pulled in the parking lot, the chain disengaged. Luckily, I was only about 50 meters away from where it needed to be, so a kind man helped me lift the rear wheel so we could push it. Had this happened further away, I would have been forced to leave it on the side of the road and hitchhike back. Explaining this story to the lady that rented me the machine (in Spanish) was no easy task. She knows tourists crash all the time so her first reaction was to blame me of having dropped it. Convinced here that dropping a motorcycle does not do that sort of damage. She then accused me of pushing too hard on the brake. Convinced her again that her claims were nonsensical, a brake is meant to be pushed on and should be able to withstand my full weight on it in case of emergency stop. I explained her that her idiot mechanic had not tighten the rear axle correctly when he changed the tire and on talking my theories over with the actual man
on the phone, let me go with no overcharge.
I will rent motorcycles again, but under the following conditions:
if it is chinese junk, it has to be brand new,
I will toroughly inspect the machine before accepting it,
if the machine is old, I will only accept reputable brands.
To Granada we went, a supposedly beautiful colonial town. Since most cities are on the Pacific coast in Nicaragua, travelling is a lot faster and that is a very good thing, because it is done in sweaty overcrowded chicken buses, lkie in Panama, old American school buses all pimped up with mags and “Dios bendiga este autobus and su pasajeros” written all over its interior. On some occasions, I am certain we were rivaling the human packing factor they can achieve in the Tokyo metro.
Granada was beautiful, touristy, but welcoming, fun and cheap. The hostel we stayed again blew Ingo’s mind, it probably started its existence as a four star facility and we made quick friends with a group of Canadians from Thunder Bay. I had some work to do so I only did little walking around but I was pleased with what I saw: colonial buildings, busy markets and smiling Nicaraguenses going about their business. Two days later, we went for a bit of relaxing time at a volcanic lake nearby and the next day headed to Managua, the capital.
It’s sketchy, ugly, and uninteresting. The whole city was leveled in 1972 by a massive earthquake and judging by the multiple photos we saw around the center, it was back then a glorious capital with a bright future. Now, it looks like the perfect place to get mugged. Onto León.
What a great place. This city is extremely hot, but it makes up for it in cultural life and looks. A colonial town like Granada, its counterpart (and historic rival), León is the university town of Nicaragua. Also located near a large range of volcanoes and the ocean, great nature, the waves of the pacific and interesting hikes are only a short (chicken) bus-ride away. The hostels are great, there is a lot of partying going down and it is cheap. All throughout the city you can see numerous advertisements for volcano-boarding, or sledding down the ashy slopes of a volcano. We decided to try it and it was somewhat disappointing. Never did we even came close to reaching the advertised speed of 95 km/h, rocks are not like snow, they will tear off whatever slippery surface you stick under the board, so my second descend was done running down. Cerro Negro, the volcano itself was very impressive and made the trip worth it. Standing out some 300 meters among a desert of black volcanic rocks (its walls it blew apart during past eruptions), it is small enough to be hiked around in less that an hour and safe enough for a visit down its multiple craters.
The following day, I finally decided to try out surfing, which was OK. It’s a lot harder than it looks but I got up on the board a couple times. I will give it another go in El Salvador if I ever get there. Ingo was having a blast tough, good for him as he wanted to devote the rest of his trip going down the pacific coast to surf. With the day over, I headed back to the city while he remained at the surfing hostel to spend a night or two (or several). I would have stayed as well, but I was too eager to cross into Honduras. What a great country Nicaragua was, unlike its southerly neighbor, Costa Rica, it is cheap, welcoming, safe and has not suffered from the damages of resort type tourism. True adventure can still be found it seems, everybody I have conversed with is unanimous, Nicaragua is awesome: comfort aside (not to be confused with safe, Costa Rica is not safe), there nothing that Costa Rica has that Nicaragua has not. 12 days was way too little, it’s just a check in my list, I will have to come back.
I had missed the Tica bus (the comfortable, air-conditionned, roomy, fast no hassle but expensive bus company) so rather than postpone my leaving date yet another time, I woke up at 4h30 and headed to the bus station with the objective of reaching Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, the complicated way. Four buses and 9 hours later I arrived at my destination. Tegus did not feel as dangerous as Managua, but the sight of armed security guards in most stores, heavy barriers and gates on every window and house and a long speech by the owner of the hotel on how I should NOT under any circumstances stay in the streets past 22h00 managed to convince me that I should not stick around too long. It seemed attractive tough, the city sits in a valley surrounded by high mountains and is generally very hilly, which make a beautiful setting. During the day it is lively and apparently has a few museums. I could have stayed one more day, but I could not wait to get to Utila.
Then one more buse and a boat where a third of the passengers got sick and I had reached my destination.
All the way down to Panama I started hearing about this island in the Carribean sea at the north of Honduras. Among backpackers, its motto is “drink and dive”, THE spot in Central America you should go for if you want to scuba dive. All the way down to Panama, I knew I had to budget my time so I could do a few courses there. Scuba diving does not get cheaper in the Americas. There are better spots, but Utila provides quality diving at unbeatable prices with great ambiance as an added bonus.
This island will get it’s own post in time as it looks I will be staying there a couple of weeks to do my dive master and a couple of specialities.
Many species of sea turtles come nesting on Costa Rica’s beaches, but mostly the leatherback, the green and the hawksbill. Not surprisingly they are all endangered, especially from poaching. Feeling guilty about enjoying Costa Rica’s natural resources after speaking with Jerry (see Central America – month 1), I figured a bit of volunteering was in order so I decided to join ASTOP in Parismina, a small community on the Carribean coast whose beaches are nesting grounds for sea turtles and likewise a popular spot for their illegal hunting. Volunteering was harder than expected, but otherwise a very rewarding experience which I will make a detailed account of in the following paragraphs. Sadly, there are no photos of the actual volunteering work, everything happened at night and flashes can severely disturb these animals so taking picture was frowned upon. Too bad as they really are dinosaur-scale animals (lthe leatherback I saw was 1,60 meters of length and weighted around half a ton) and are out-of-this-world creatures, they spent most of their living time roaming the seas and only come on land to lay. Having me in the picture could have helped giving a sense of dimension, but trust me, your first encounter is jaw-dropping, and the best part is that it never gets old.
Turtles, being reptiles, lay eggs and to lay eggs, you need a nest. Nesting begins when a mother comes up on the beach to survey the area. Not every part of the beach is suitable, on occasions it will be too steep or on others there will be too much vegetation. The turtle will crawl around to judge the site and make her decision. It is quite common that it will return to the water, dissatisfied with what she saw but if the location provides to be suitable, clearing of the area will ensue. The turtle will flap her flippers around while turning on herself to remove as much foreign objects from the sand as possible and then proceed with the actual digging. Using her back flippers, the mother will scoop up sand out of a hole she will excavate as deep as her flippers allow her, throwing the sand away in the face of any unsuspecting volunteer crouching behind to measure the progress.
Once the nest has been made, the laying starts. The size and amount of eggs is species dependent, but for the leatherback and the green it hovers around an hundred with eggs being the size of billiard balls for the former and ping pong balls for the latter. Eggs come out two or three at the time and feature of soft shell to make the landing down in the nest a bit softer.
With the last egg having been laid, the hole is filled back up and the nest camouflaged as best as possible. It is no challenge to figure out where a turtle was laying eggs, the beach has obviously been disturbed, but finding the exact location of the egg cavity is no easy task and takes either a lot probing with a stick or the eye of an experienced guide.
The process by which these animals build their nest is quite amusing and impressive but it takes some time. They are certainly gracious creatures underwater but on land, they are clumsy, slow and depending of the species, in need to conserve energy as much as possible for the return journey around the globe. As such, they will move their flippers a couple times, rest for a while and repeat, with the whole nesting and laying taking up to and sometimes more than an hour. Suffice to say that during this time, the turtles are extremely vulnerable.
Logging and relocating
While laying eggs, turtles are utterly oblivious to what is happening around them. It is night time, they are near sighted out of the water and not very intelligent animals (“you know turtles, they are not very smart” as would often say Jerry). Talk about the reptilian brain, theirs is about the size of small carrot, most of their skull is occupied by salt-filtration glands. So when busy doing their business, they could not care less about what is happening around them and this made our work a whole lot more easier.
Right when the digging is done and the first egg is about to come out, we rush to the hole and fill it with as much sand as possible to make picking eggs up more convenient: nests for the leatherback are typically 80cm deep. As the turtle expels her eggs, you pick them up and put them in a bag. Simultaneously, another person, measures the turtle, inspects it for wounds and records the tag numbers if has any or tags it if it does not.
Once the turtle has been cataloged and her eggs have been gathered, it is left to return to the see on her own if it is a leatherback. They have a foul taste and are not preyed on for their meat. Green turtles on the other hand have to be guarded until they return to sea. Then eggs are taken back to the hatchery, where a nest is dug up and one by one they are counted and disposed in the nest as carefully as possible. There the eggs will mature over the next 60 days or so and hatch as newborns, which will be then collected and released back in the sea at different locations on the beach.
Patrolling and being a volunteer
Volunteer work mostly involves patrolling the beach at night in two shifts, one from 20h00 to midnight and the other from midnight to 4. Volunteers are teamed with local guides who have been formed with working with the turtles. When one is spotted, you follow their orders and try to be useful which may mean crouching behind a massive leatherback reaching for eggs deep down as she lays them, its a good thing they actually do not smell too bad. Turtles do not come out during day time, they rely on the sea being actually brighter than the beach to orient themselves. Sadly, in the process some get lost because of artificial light from the village, but usually, shining a flashlight in their face will guide them back to where you want them to go.
Patrols work on two fronts. They protect the nests by relocating them to a safe and guarded place, but they also act as deterrents to poacher by ensuring a consistent presence throughout the night. At any given time, two teams of local guides and volunteers are walking along Parismina’s 6 kms of beach. Poachers, when spotted, will most of time walk away, knowing that the practice is illegal and that they will quickly get framed on an island only inhabited by 500 people or so. As a result, the practice has severely lost popularity over the time the association has been active, and except for a few encounters every season (mostly with outsiders), poaching is very much a thing of the past. Mission has not been accomplished tough and never will, other threats exist in the form of dogs, pollution and should the association lower its guard, poachers will surely make a comeback.
Walking on loose sand is much harder than it looks: this is no romantic stroll on the beach. Mosquitoes and sand flies are out hunting and over time, stress builds up in all the lower joints from stepping on this kind of surface. Soon, your knees, your hips and your back start aching and your legs, forever itchy from the bites, become full of scars from the uncontrollable urge to scratch. Even at nighttime, the heat and humidity are sometimes crippling in the Carribean, especially as you wear long clothing to protect yourself from the bugs. Turtle sightings are not guaranteed either: during two weeks of patrols, I saw two leatherbacks and one green turtle (quite exceptional since it is not their season yet). This can make the work seem unrewarding and compounded with the hardships of the patrols, has depressed more than a few volunteers into quitting earlier. Thankfully, we got plenty of rest during daytime, as besides the occasional garbage pick-ups and activity with the children, there was not a whole lot to do; I got plenty of work done, helped with the association’s computers, improved the Wikipedia article on Parismina and created one for the association. The rest of the day involved killing time by going for swims, playing pool, befriending other volunteers or developing a fascination for coconuts.
The association provides rooms to accommodate large groups, but most volunteers prefer homestaying with a local family, where for a small fee (17 US$ a day), you get a bed, three meals and your sweaty sand filled clothes cleaned. Not a bad deal, but what is most interesting is the cultural experience, which does not come from eating Costa Rican dishes (you can have anything, as long as its rice and beans) but from getting to chat with your hosts, share a moment watching tele-novelas or eavesdrop on village gossip. Parsmina’s inhabitants were religious and simple folks for the most part, but finding more about their outlook on life was enriching and appeasing. While literate, they were never given the opportunity to question anything and frankly this somewhat makes them happier. Sometimes, it felt like the earth was still flat, that the world ended outside the island’s boundaries and that the only measure of time that mattered was whether it was day or night.
In terms of material comfort, it was still way below anyone from up north would consider the minimum. A few houses were surprisingly luxurious (some said it had something to do with drug money), but most of them were wooden shacks with rusty corrugated iron roofs. Sleeping without a mosquito net was not an option and at nighttime, you had to share your living space with a wide array of critters: crabs, geckos, tarantulas, cockroaches, etc. Parismina had not been spared by modernity tough, every house was (somewhat) electrified, had running water and basic appliances such as a fridge, a stove and a television. Health wise, the village had its own clinic so everyone was generally healthy and had good dentition but just like the rest of Costa Rica, obesity and its related illnesses were rampant, owing to a diet heavy in starches and fried stuff.
I will keep fond memories of my time in Parismina. In the past, I was quick to criticize voluntourism as an attempt by foreigners at giving themselves good conscienc
e. In the past, I was wrong. Whatever money I spent to the village was handed directly to those providing me services or to the association so if anything, I brought a bit of prosperity to this otherwise secluded island but really, the interactions were genuine and the cause was one worth fighting for: the whole experience was unlike anything I had previously lived. Locals see volunteers come and go with only a handful of them staying long enough to truly have a lasting impact, but all go back to their corner of the planet better individuals and share that betterment at home with their family and friends. While it cannot escape the egocentricity of travelling, voluntourism still fits within a framework of responsible and slow tourism and certainly does away with its exaggerated hedonistic nature. It is an exercise in global awareness, promotes cultural sensibility and provides original experiences to those who try it. I for one will from now on try to devote a portion of my future travels to volunteering on projects like this.
We know coconuts as the principal ingredient of a piña colada, we know coconuts as the tasty filling of a bounty chocolate bar, we know coconuts as the crucial part of a good curry, we know coconuts for their awesome taste but otherwise, we remain pretty ignorant about its many uses and life cycle.
Allow me to enlighten you with my recent experience with this incredible fruit and the knowledge I gathered from the locals in the Carribean. While not scientifical, I sincerely hope you will remember this little piece should you ever become stranded on a lonely tropical island. Otherwise, just take it as a little how-to guide for the next time you find yourself around a lot of coconuts.
Coconuts as their name implies, are the nuts (or fruit (technically a drupe)) of the coconut palm tree. They grow everywhere around the carribean coast of Costa Rica and as far as I know, their extend is very large and in some cases, their productivity can turn them into a nuisance. There is no season for these trees, they just constantly produce all throughout the year, with every batch taking a couple months to mature. Coconuts are large fruits and do not biodegrade very easily. So much so that locals have to get rid of them (and their leaves) using bonfires.
Coco palms come into a few varieties which are mainly differentiated by the colours of their nuts: yellow, green, or something in between. If you are after pipa, you will prefer the green variety for its sweetness but when they age, the differences in flavor dissapear and the nuts all turn the same brown.
There is a couple of vendors yelling “pipa fria” around you but cannot quite figure out what they are selling? Its coconut water, or “pipa”. A young coconut before it becomes ripe has a lot of water in it, easily 150 ml I would say. This water is sweet, very rich in minerals and feels very healthy to drink, if you can get past the weird taste (it’s somewhat of an acquired thing). Mike, another volunteer at the association has aptly called pipa “the gatorade of the jungle”: some local guides will not bring any water bottles on patrols, they will just reach up for a pipa or two.
The pipa is probably the stage of the coconut that is easiest to consume. Vendors in the street will slice the top off, put in a straw an refrigerate pipas but in nature, you just grab, smash and drink. Grab a pipa from the palm, smash it one or two times against the trunk until the nut cracks and drink the dripping water. It’s a bit messy but even though it is sweet, pipa will not get your hands all sticky.
The older pipa (or half-coconut)
As they age and ripe, pipas grow bigger, thicker, and get harder to crack open. Should you succeed tough, you get rewarded with sweeter coconut water and a gelatinous substance called “coco tierno” (tender coco) that covers the inside surface. Coco water serves as a suspension for the endosperm of the nut and as it matures, will form this deposit. This substance is what is later going to become the white hard flesh of a ripe coconut and while the taste is somewhat different, it definitely hints towards that flavor.
This tasty flesh can be scooped using a broken piece from the shell or a slice from the skin of the husk but in order to access it the nut has to be split in half. Without the proper tools (a machete), this is quite a challenge and requires a lot of smashing around and prying. At this stage, the very hard shell which we are used to crack with a hammer has started forming.
The nut (as we know it)
Now we come back into known territory, the ripe and mature nut is what we are used to finding in northern hemisphere supermarkets. What we are not familiar with however is how incredibly hard it is to get to the nut itself. Covered by a dry husk made of a thick skin and very fibrous material, this one it truly a “tough nut to crack”. Once open, little coconut water remains, most of it has coalesced into the very flavorful flesh we are all so fond of.
When on the ground and in the presence of humidity, the nut will obviously start to germinate. From one end of the nut, leaves will burgeon and from that same end a root system will emerge, all feeding on what is inside the nut and turning the flesh and water into a coconut sponge. Very rich, this sponge when be pressed will ooze oil (good for cooking) or can simply be eaten. Be careful, common wisdom has that eating too much of this will give you diarrhea.
These nuts are nature’s own small ships, known to have traveled by sea for thousand kilometers to land on a small remote island and populate it with this awesome tree. I did not get into the great many uses of the husk (textile), shell (jewelry, combustible) and the tree (lumber) itself, I did not cover the great many culinary, medicinal and industrial applications of this plant as well. I admit to be
wholly ignorant in this matter: the list of use cases for the coconut palm and its fruits seems virtually endless, I just know how to eat them raw.
Now we need to figure out how to grow these in Canada.
Spatially speaking, Central America is a small place. Yet, it is very dense both in population and ecology. Very narrow and split in half by high mountains, the two sides feature differing climates with differing flora and fauna. The divide is also cultural, with the Pacific side populated mostly by Spanish descendants while the Carribean coast is home to a black population which emigrated there as slaves or free men.
I have mixed feelings towards Costa Rica. While it has managed to retain its natural appeal, there is no denying that it has been irreversibly spoiled by tourism. Then again, I am part of the problem, going on a rant on how hordes of westerners (otherwise known as gringos) are such a nuisance to my travelling experience would amount to hypocrisy, but I cannot help but feel like a walking wallet in Costa Rica.
Thankfully, there are escape zones in the form of national parks, where for a moment, staring at absolutely majestic trees or spying on a couple of monkeys, you feel like you are witnessing what is most precious around here: Nature.
I started my time in this country by landing in San José, the capital. I only stayed a day and took a bus to Monteverde, where I met with friends from back home for a couple of days of hiking, some ziplining and one bungee jump. Came back to San José where I remained for a few days. Not that the city is great, one afternoon is enough to tour it, there is not a whole lot to do, but I was helping a friend fix his motorcycle and also really liked the hostel I was at (and to which I came back). As a token of appreciation, he took me to the top of Irazù volcano on his bike where, a good hour ahead of the tourist buses, we got to enjoy this gorgeous landscape by ourselves.
More and more I am realizing that there is no such thing as a bad place. Your first impressions are very much governed by how pretty/safe/cheap/culturally rich a city is, that is a fact, but what will make the most difference are the people you will meet. There is fun to be had anywhere on this planet and in San José, I was blessed with the companionship of a motorcycling driving crazy stand-up comedian dutch guy and a swiss-german lady that is still a mystery to me.
So along with those two I headed to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca where for four days we chilled at the beach or in the hostel, listening to the rain on the tin roof and the sounds of the jungle. The motorcyclist still had problems with his machine but having given him all the emotional support I could, I crossed the border over to Costa Rica’s southern neighbor, Panama, in order to go explore an archipelago called Bocas del Toro.
Everybody knows Panama because of its famous canal, but prior to travelling there, I knewnothing about this country. Very much like Costa Rica when it comes to architecture, cars, fast food joints and big bucks stores my experience in Panama was totally different from my two previous weeks in Costa Rica. Panama sports nature as beautiful as in Costa Rica, but with most Panameans living around their eponymous capital, the countryside feels empty. And with much less tourism going on, you get a break.
Going across the border was an interesting experience. I now know that crossings like the one I did are the norm around here, but for a moment, it was somewhat disorienting. You need a stamp out of the country you were in, you cross a derelict railroad bridge on foot, you get your visa for the country you are going to, you pay the entry fee and you are in. Simple, takes an hour, but there was a catch, I needed to show proof that I intended to travel out of the country. Normally, a plane ticket back home would have done the trick, but since I took a one-way flight, it had to choose between arguing in spanish with the custom agent that my travel insurrance validity period was proof enough or go buy a useless 15$ bus ticket that would take me back across the border into Costa Rica; thankfully, my spanish was convincing enough.
Then, one hour by bus and a boat to take from a “garbage strewn town” (Almirante as described by the Lonely Planet) was all that separated me from my next destination. Well, not quite because Bocas del Toro is many islands, and I was recommended not to stay on the main one but to go to Bastimentos instead, and that was another boat ride away. A great decision it was. Bastimentos might also have a bit of a waste management problem, but Old Bank, the largest village, is right along the idea most have of a laid-back carribean place. Inhabited by black people who speak Guari-guari (a Spanish-english creole), the only road is a cement walkway (a much welcome break from souped-up taxis, old trucs, and general lack of street crossings elsewhere), you get places by taxi-boat and everyone is just genuinely friendly.
You are still a tourist around here and it seems like their livelihood stems from that industry, but once you say no, the bothering and sales-pitching ends there, the dude sits with you at the table, lights up a joint, offers you some and strikes a conversation over village gossip . It could be their trick after all, because as you get friendly with the locals, you end up going on a tour with them anyway but seriously, what is there not to enjoy about a boat ride in the mangrove while listening to reggae, smoking some more, drinking beers and then going for a swim deep down in a cave with bats flying past you in the dark?
A Frenchman I met back in Costa Rica told me three lies are always told by everyone who sets foot in Bocas del Toro: that you are not going out tonight, that you are going out but only having one beer, and that you are leaving the next day, because you always end up sticking around longer.
Not only did I stay longer, but I ended up going back. The nearest beach from Old Bank was a 30 minutes walk in the jungle mud, but on arrival you were rewarded with you own private spot with no houses, boats, cars, nothing; just sand, palm trees and the odd pelican. The scuba diving was affordable and reefs were gorgeous. The hostel was one cool place and the local bars were frequented by like-minded travellers and locals. You fist bump everyone and within a couple days, they know your face and you know theirs, even the chinese corner store owner becomes nice to you.
I met with my cousin in Panama city, it was his spring break and had only a week to spend. There we saw the canal and climbed up mount Ancon to get a nice view of the city and we both felt that was it. Panama city looks like Miami without the beach (too polluted). Unlike any other central-american city, it is full of skyscrapers and hotels. The wealth disparity is immense between the districts and after short while we concluded that those high-rise luxury apartment building were just residences for fiscal evasion: all the lights are out at 21h00 and given the density the streets should be teeming with life.
So we quickly, we bought bus tickets back to Bocas del Toro where we did more muddy walks around the jungle, got invited to a locals house for beers visited that cave I wrote about a couple of paragraphs ago and did some diving. I could have seriously stayed for longer but my cousin’s time was up. We took a bus across the country to David and bade farewell because my cousin’s time was up. I slept an extra night in David to get some work done during the day and then suffered through another border crossing into Costa Rica.
Costa Rica (again)
I should have made a stop in Corcovado national park to hike Costa Rica’s highest mountain, but climbing up peaks alone is not as fun, so I pressed on to Quepos, the gateway to Manuel Antonio national park.
The place is a bit of a joke. Manuel Antonio is the country’s smallest park yet it is the most visited. The coast line around is peppered with resorts. In the lineup to get inside the park (wtf a lineup?), I overheard people complaining about the waiting. Read you guide next time. The park is more like a beach/zoo combination than a conservation area. Meeting with monkeys is a certainty and they will be a meter away but that is because they’re after your snacks. Homo sapiens sapiens of all coulours and sizes are to be seen everywhere and if you are lucky, you might see a sloth or two through the binoculars of an over-expensive guide. I knew what to expect but even there, it was a disappointment.
Having not had enough of the pricey resort packed places apparently, I went to Jacò next. There at least the beach was nice and I was travelling with two girls from Québec, but the town itself was just a strip of surf shops an pricey restaurants. We spent a day hiking in and around Carrara national park, the one place in Costa Rica where the Scarlet Macaw is a common sight. We caught just a glimpse of them but definetly could hear their chicks: these birds are loud and just like Toucans, make a racket of guttural an unpleasant sounds normally assimilated to mammals. I did get to see one from up close in Monteverde because it had been tamed; beautiful creature. Outside the park was el puente de los cododrilos, or crocodile bridge, where, as its name implies, 20 or more of these massive reptiles can be seen basking in the sun or floating around at any given time.
Saving the turtles
While in San José over a few beers, I had the chance to meet with someone working for a sea-turtle grassroots conservation project (soon to be non-profit). His convincing argument was that everyone who got to enjoy a bit of Costa Rica’s nature ought to give back a bit of time to preserve it. Knowing I had all the time in world, I anouced him that within the coming weeks, I would come over to his village and help out for a while. My swiss friend made the same promise and found herself going there from Puerto-Viejo.
On my way out of Jacò back to San José, I sent this organization an e-mail stating that if they had a working internet connection, I would be glad to volunteer. Their answer took a while to come, but it was positive.
ASTOP (Associacion Salvemos Las Tortugas de Parismina) is the name of organisation and their goal is basically to protect their beach, a nesting ground for three species of sea turtles (Leatherback, Green and Hawksbill), from being poached. This practice used to be common place as those animals provided both a source of food and income (sea turtle eggs are thougt to have aphrodisiac properties), but now being critically endangered, there is an ongoing conservation effort to protect what little remains of their once widespread populations.
Volunteering over there consists mostly of patrolling the beaches at night and gathering eggs to bring them to a guarded hatchery to prevent them from being poached. As I write those lines, I have already been on one patrol, but since this write-up is already very lengthy, I will leave this for a separate post.