Santa Catalina

Friday, January 29, 2010

I left the mountain town of Boquete for David (pronounced dah-veed) at noon with three people I’d met from the thankless climb up Volcan Baru: Clint & Kenny (two guys from Jersey) and Raj (from England). Raj was headed to Panama City to fly to Colombia and Clint & Kenny were, like me, heading to a place called Santa Catalina. They were looking for a bit of surf before heading back to the US and I for Manta Rays and Whale Sharks that I’d heard had been spotted in the area as recently as two days ago. Both animals are on my top 5 to-see SCUBA Diving list along with an octopus, seahorse, and Hammerhead shark so seeing both in one site made it too tempting to pass up (not to mention that it was somewhat along the way to Panama City). We switched buses in David but as we got to board the bus to Santiago we were told our bus had already left. Indeed, the girl had sold us the wrong tickets and we went back and managed to get ours changed with surprising ease.

We knew arriving that there was no way we’d make Santa Catalina that night without an expensive taxi so the four of us split two hotel rooms at $7/each and walked around Santiago long enough to discover there was very little going on. We also picked up some food as we’d been warned that it was difficult at times in Santa Catalina to get food: I grabbed a big packet of spaghetti, some sauce, and raman noodles or the low price of $2. The next town on our way to Santa Catalina was called Sona and there were many buses from Santiago there. However, there are only a handful of buses from Sona to Santa Catalina, specifically one at 8 AM, one at noon, and one at 4 PM. We said goodbye to Raj who jumped on a bus to Panama and we grabbed one to Sona that was just about to leave at 10 AM. Perfect timing. The countryside was a mix of hills, farms, and small towns, authentic and definitely not on the development trail. Promising. Our arrival in Sona gave us just enough time to grab a quick and cheap bite ($1.50) from the bus station before the Sona bus arrived. Even though it wasn’t supposed to leave until 12, it was full before then and left at about 11:30. Good thing we got here with time to spare.

At last we were in Santa Catalina. The town is great, relaxed, undeveloped, and devoid of anything resembling foreign infestation. Small streets lined with shady trees winding up the hill and down to the coast where a dive centre and a small restaurant sat. The problem with places that aren’t developed, of course, is that there isn’t much infrastructure for travellers. The first few places we looked were either full or way too expensive but eventually we found our way to the Blue Zone Hostal. They had two beds left and Ignacio, the owner, had a tent he was willing to rent out for the third of us. Clint volunteered for the $5 tent and Kenny and I took the last two beds. This place is really cool, just a short walk down a dirt path from the beach, up on a hill, with an open layout. In the rain it might not be so pleasant but it was a beautiful day.

Speaking of amenities, internet was basically a non-option here. There is one cafe about 30 minutes walk out of town which has pre-dialup speeds at T1-fibre prices. Still, I had to log on if only to let Brian know that I’d have difficulty making a Friday podcast in these circumstances (we’re supposed to be talking to Frank Black and Eric Drew Feldman about their upcoming album, Non Stop Erotik). Something else I hadn’t mentioned was that, at least according to, I managed to get myself a stress fracture in my left foot hiking down from Volcan Baru. It’s not too bad for a bit of walking but more than that and it is pretty darn painful. The walk to and from the internet left me again hobbling like an old man and it took me about an hour to make my way back. I also booked myself on a SCUBA dive the following morning with SCUBA Coiba. Two dives are $115 and you stop on one small island and then Isla Coiba as well, which is ordinarily a $50 boat ride in itself. There’s an additional $20 for diving in the national marine reserve but for mantas and whale sharks, well worth it.

The rest of the night was pretty uneventful and relaxed. Kenny lent me his book, Outliers to read and I got about halfway through it. I also picked up a pizza and ate half for dinner leaving the rest for my packed lunch on the boat trip. This was my first time SCUBA diving in the Pacific (obviously Malaysia and Australia don’t count) as well and I was amazed. I’d been warned that the visibility was pretty poor and there wasn’t much to see but there was a bit of reef and a lot of life. And a LOT of plankton, which should have bode well for a whale shark sighting too but alas, the first dive we did not come across one. Flounders, frog fish, and a couple eels, plus the usual parrot fish and other regulars of the ocean world. We stopped at a small strip of sand on a deserted island and had lunch on the beach. One of the girls diving, Rebecca, is from Chicago and in fact manages the Chicago Symphony. We got talking about that and I mentioned my love of John Williams’ music at which point she told me she has met him and had lunch with him on several occasions. And then she points at her foot where she has a tattoo of the Rebel Alliance logo (which she assures me is also a symbol of good luck for a Sahara tribe). So she is going to let me know the next time he’s in town conducting and not only will I go and check it out but maybe – just maybe – I’ll get to meet him.

I don’t quite know how to convey my excitement at this possibility but rest assured it is immense. I’ve been listening pretty non-stop to his music since I was 14 or so and he is the only musician I’d put above Frank Black which might help underscore things a bit. But I digress. Aside from Rebecca, who was awesome, we had a pretty cool group of divers which always makes it a lot more fun. Our next dive was a bit better in terms of life. I have never seen so many moray eels in my life – at least 20! – not to mention the biggest reef sharks I’ve ever seen (and lots of them) and eagle rays. I believe I saw a manta ray as well, but it was quite distant though very large. Still, I don’t think it qualifies as a sighting but just for the sake of recording it. Then we went to Coiba island, which is sometimes called the Galapagos of Panama because it has never been logged and is a protected park. It was pretty though the quantity of life and its shyness leads me to conclude that this is no Galapagos. It is, however beautiful. And when we got off the boat, we were swarmed by media wanting interviews. Do you speak Spanish? A little. OK, good enough, and then some rapid-fire questions for the evening news or some sort of documentary. So now Panama and the world can see how terrible my Spanish is, especially under pressure. Woohoo!

That night, I made my spaghetti, thinking I’d make enough to have leftovers for breakfast in the morning. With my foot, surfing wasn’t a great idea and that left me little to do but relax, and I suspected I’d have quite a few do-nothing days in Panama City as it was, so I planned to leave the next morning. While I was making spaghetti and ‘meat balls’ I finished reading Outliers. I really like sociological books like this and found some of the insights fascinating. I’ve always felt that people who work at something are the people who are good at it, whether it’s math or music or anything else and it was nice to see some correlations of this theory to reality. As well, I always enjoy reading about people who have become ‘successful’ in their fields and there are plenty of stories here, too. Finally, there’s a whole section about cultural impact and flight so I was bound to find the whole thing fascinating.

My spaghetti didn’t have enough sauce and was enough for three people to eat AFTER I finished my dinner. Oops. So I didn’t save any money cooking myself. Afterwards, we all hung out and drank some of the beer Ignacio had stocked the hostel with and Florian, an Austrian guy I’d been diving with, brought out his schnapps that he still had from home. I probably could use more time at a place like this, I decided, but it wasn’t meant to be on this trip. I needed to get to Colombia and get started on South America, I needed to get to Panama and start negotiating with local captains for a good deal via the San Blas islands, and there was the matter of getting some new eye glasses made among other things. So I left in the morning, bequeathing the spaghetti to Clint and Kenny and taking the 8 AM bus to Panama City, the canal, and beyond.

Santa Catalina Photos

The Last Volcano

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Bocas del Toro was in the distance and I was making my way, half asleep, on the series of buses that would take me across Panama to the Pacific coast and then back up into the Chiriqui highlands. The scenery was beautiful but, I had trouble keeping my eyes open after my Saturday night sendoff from Bocas and I would like to think I managed to be awake to see most of the highlights like the large dammed mountain lake but in truth I probably missed a lot of it. It took about six hours all said to make it from Bocas to Boquete and I arrived just before sunset and checked into Hostal Palasio, right across from where the bus left us. There was a bit of lightning in the distance and cloudy mountaintops, but even so you could tell that this was a really pretty town. I was pretty hungry and walked up the street to a favoured haunt of locals, Restaurante Saboroso, and had some traditional Panamanian stew, Sancocho for $1.

The reason I had come to Boquete was to climb Volcan Baru, not because it was a volcano and for that matter the last volcano in Central America heading south, nor because at 3400 metres it was the highest point in Panama, but because it was one of only a handful of places on the globe where you can stand and see two mighty oceans with a turn of your head – and if there’s a place that is famous around the world for the fact that it brings these two oceans together, it is Panama. Back at the hostel, I learned that there was a group heading to the top that very evening, at about 11 PM to catch the sunrise in the morning. Although I hadn’t had much sleep, it was convenient to go with others and so I went out to buy some supplies for the hike including freshly sliced salami, Monterey Jack, tomatoes and sweet peppers for a baguette, a couple of apples, water, and cookies. Then I made my sandwiches and visited a bit with my fellow hostellers and hikers and closed my eyes for half an hour before heading out the door to hike all night. It was still less than 12 hours since I’d been having a Trits on the island of Bocas del Toro.

There wound up being twelve of us ascending the mountain at night. There were a couple American guys (Clint and Kenny), two solo traveling Argentinians (remind me to go off-topic at some point about Argentinian travelers), two Dutch girls, a Spanish girl named Amanda, an Englishman named Raj, and a few others plus myself. It was a lot of names to learn at once! I think it’s probably lucky that we went up at night because there was not much to see on the so-called trail, really a very bad 4WD/Hummer only road up to the top. I thought Ometepe was bad, but these roads would be impossible to bike on and were covered in foot and ankle punishing stones. We trucked on through the night, not really having a chance to be sleepy as it was pretty cool and we kept moving through the thinning air. We had plenty of time for sunrise by my calculations, but others were worried about making it on time so we split the group into two groups of six (faster and slower) and that promptly disintegrated into every man for themselves.

The two Dutch girls were in last place and having a lot of trouble with the altitude (although I think we were too low to really have altitude sickness, I’m no expert) and I stayed behind with them trying to keep them moving as they were getting pretty discouraged and wanting to turn back. There was little point in doing so as we were already halfway by then and while it was exhausting walking uphill in the night it would be treacherous coming down at night. I managed to both convince them to press on and get them keeping a decent pace so that they wouldn’t miss sunrise. Plus, it was night and I wouldn’t want to be two girls walking alone with nobody behind them in the forest. We all made it to the top with plenty of time to spare and those that had been so quick to get to the top had been sitting and freezing for quite a bit of time and had started a fire. We sat around the fire for a while and looked at all the stars (amazing up here) amidst all the cellular, radio, and TV towers. There is no place set aside to view anything, just rowers everywhere. Some national park.

The sunrise finally came and was nice but I was pretty tired by this point or at least it wasn’t my primary reason for being there. As the sun rose and mists were cleared, there was the Pacific Ocean, clear as day, and the distant city of David looking surprisingly close. Looking on the other side, the more distant Pacific and specifically the Caribbean could just be seen as well as the islands and river mouth that make up Bocas del Toro. This was pretty cool though if you’re looking for a photo, there was no way I could find to do it with the towers, guy wires, and power lines everywhere. As it got lighter, we started our descent and I got talking to Amanda, the Spanish girl who seemed pretty interesting. Her walking pole had malfunctioned the night before and as we were talking an idea popped in my head and I managed to finally fix it for her which was a pretty good feeling.

The road down was hell. Pure and utter hell. The big rocks strained knees and ankles while the smaller ones targeted the feet and before long I found a stick appropriate in size for a walking stick to help out my left leg. I was going about the same speed as the Americans and we had gone ahead of the girls because it’s usually less hard to go down a bit faster than to force your legs to always brake your descent. Soon, however, I was hobbling down like an old man, leaning heavily on my walking stick as my left knee, ankle, and outside of my foot (problem with my arch?) were agony. We eventually found a nice lookout and laid down to wait for the girls to catch up. They also had the only cell phone and we thought it would be a good place, about an hour away from the bottom, to call and organize transport. We waited for about 40 minutes and when they showed up a 4WD did as well and they took off in it leaving us alone on the mountain with no phone to walk down on our own. Now that’s gratitude. They didn’t even offer to call us a ride, they just waved at us and bumped away down the trail.

This sleight angered us and perhaps fuelled us as we hobbled down six more kilometres out of the park and to a crossroads. Coupled with my extreme fatigue and lack of sleep, it’s probably lucky I didn’t run into the girls again or I probably wouldn’t have been very polite OR friendly. By this point I almost couldn’t walk on my left foot and we still didn’t have transportation. In the past 36 hours I had partied Saturday night in Bocas, drove across the country to Boquete, hiked overnight to the top of a volcano and back down some 30km, and I was now sprawled out alongside the road, beaten. Eventually, a collective or minivan came by and we got ourselves home for $!. I wanted nothing more than to sleep, but I was starving and it was my dad’s birthday, so I grabbed a quick bite then went to an internet cafe to call my dad. It turned out that he was no longer interested in meeting me to go to the Galapagos, which would have been a great time and obviously it would’ve been nice to see him, but at the same time it was a relief in that I could spend however much time I wanted in Colombia without worrying about having to be somewhere at a certain time. Plus, trying to book from here and in advance meant more stress and much more expense than I probably could afford (though I’d do it anyway, who knows when I’ll be back in Ecuador).

Still, stress and whatever worries might have been alleviated, I was a bit disappointed not to mention sore and tired. I went to the doctor before going to bed to see if they had an X-Ray or anything because my foot hurt so much (even with two painkillers) that I thought I must have done something pretty serious to it. The secretary didn’t know what an X-Ray was and wouldn’t let me ask the English speaking doctor without opening a file. I wasn’t getting in a better mood, that’s for sure. It was time for a few hours or mid-afternoon sleep but when I went back to the hostel he had given my bed away to someone else and (with my permission) wanted me to move to another room with smaller creakier beds and terrible mattresses. Of course, there really was no option as the new guy’s backpack was all over my bed and in my fatigue I could have killed the overly friendly hostel owner, Pancho. “I don’t care what else might be around here, I’m out tomorrow” I decided. I managed to get an hour of sleep or so and then woke up and went out for beer and dinner with my Swiss roommate, Denise, who was a pretty nice girl and probably pretty good company considering that I didn’t fall asleep on the table in front of her, even with two beer in me.

The nearby hot springs would have been handy for my sore joints and foot, there’s a famous scenic walk nearby (not ready for it yet), flowers leftover from the recent festival of flowers, and more but after my sleep that night any doubts I had about leaving left me. I was so tired I should have slept straight through the night and into the next day but I was up from 3-5 swatting at the hundreds of mosquitoes buzzing in my ears, trying to keep from overheating, and trying to keep my whole body under the sheets while always aware that the slightest twitch sent loud creaking noises that could be heard on both coasts. I left the next morning for Santa Catalina as Boquete had offered me one thing at least, and that was first hand accounts of recent SCUBA dives with whale sharks AND manta rays. I set off with Raj, Clint, and Kenny for Panama’s Pacific coast and left Boquete and Central America’s last volcano behind me, beautiful but deadly.

Boquete Photos

In the Mouth of the Bull

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Most renowned explorer in human history Christopher Columbus. Scourge of the Spanish Sir Francis Drake. Fearsome pirate (and delicious rum) Captain Henry Morgan. Legendary travel and photo journalist Dean Katsiris. What do we all have in common? We spent inordinate amounts of time enjoying the paradise that is Bocas del Toro, my first stop in Panama and one of the most magnificent places I have visited, in Central America or anywhere. The name, which in English means “Bull’s Mouths”, comes from the fact that when Columbus arrived the surf funnelling through rock chambers on shore made snorting sounds, something I would witness on Red Frog Beach without realizing the significance a few days later. As for the pirates, well, it’s an archipelago of islands with thick mangroves and shallow reef perfect for hiding fleets of ships not to mention running your adversaries on the ground or staging ambushes. And myself? Well, I would be snorkelling in dolphin-infested waters, SCUBA diving walls of reef, surfing the perfect waves at Black Rock, catching water taxis to nightclubs on other islands, reclining on pristine beaches with a world-renowned (Island Magazine, June 2009) Pina Colada, and more. Of course, first I had to get there.

Getting There

Crossing the Costa Rica-Panama border was pretty easy, especially compared to the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border. We (Phil and I) crossed the big steel bridge at Sixaola with loosely spaced 2x4s serving as the deck of the bridge, feeling like refugees straggling across to a new life. I asked the customs officer to place my exit stamp on page 20 rather than 21 as my passport is growing short of blank pages and some countries require full-page visas. Instead, he stamped the empty page 6. One last middle finger from Costa Rica. On the Panama side they were surprisingly rigid about proving continued travel, which is the first time I have encountered that although it is supposedly necessary for every country. I employed a mixed dose of semi-fluent Spanish and completely illiterate foreigner as I explained that I was leaving for Colombia by boat and from there to Ecuador by bus and managed to get admitted into the country. Others had to buy a bus ticket to San Jose or elsewhere in Costa Rica that they had no plans of using which only serves to underscore how pointless it is to insist on proof-of-exit. Then we were in Panama, at last.

They have shuttles that run from the border to the ferry terminal for $10 as we learned from a rude man that insisted we were idiots if we didn’t go with him – there was no hope of getting there any other way, it would cost the same and take 3 hours. Au contraire mes amis, we caught a public bus to Changuinola (80 cents) and then another to Almirante (90 cents) and arrived just over an hour later and at 1/5 the cost. From there, a local walked us to the ferry terminal where we paid $6 to bring us to Isla de Colon in Bocas del Toro. Jez was still there, and it was good to have the three amigos back together for one last night (he had to catch a plane to Venezuela in two days from San Jose, Costa Rica). We also hung out with a Quebec girl and two Swedes that we met at our hostel, Mondo Taitu. Backpackers again, it was nice to be back among travellers and in a cool hostel where we could meet people. The town here has a very backpacker-friendly vibe with lots of cheaper restaurants, local eateries, laundries, bars, and dive shops. Walking down the streets you’re sure to have somebody ask what you’re up to today and if you’d like to take their boat to do it.

Old Friends and Hookahs

We had a big night out with Jez starting as all nights do with cheap drinks at the hostel and then over to the Iguana bar, which was a fun night for all involved and we met yet more cool people. I should also mention that after our two-country search for fedoras, Jez had finally found one that was pretty sweet. That left Phil and myself on the hook, but here in Panama they take hats pretty seriously (hence the Panama Hat) and I found one for myself that will hopefully become a staple of my travel outfit. If nothing else, it should keep the scorching sun (and it IS scorching here) off my face a bit. The next morning we were up early to wish Jez a good trip as it’s doubtful we’ll be seeing him again unless he visits Canada at some point, although I believe we’ve planted the seed for including Colombia in his travel plans. Either way, hopefully he’s safely in Venezuela and having a great time now. It had started out pouring rain that morning but eventually stopped and remained overcast, so there wasn’t much except to explore the town a bit and see what there is to see. Some cool art, some cheaper restaurants than we’d found the night prior, and every supermarket owned by the Chinese.

That evening we went out because our Iranian friend wanted to have that flavoured tobacco out of the pipe that I’ve seen a million places in Asia and always thought was some sort of illicit drug. Turns out that nope, it’s just steam and flavoured smoke (apples in our case) that you taste when you breathe out and so we sat around with the girls (Swedish/Swedish-Iranian, Canadian, and German) with a beer and they passed around the hose. I didn’t mind it though I certainly wouldn’t want to make a habit of it. On the way home, Phil got a salsa in the streets lesson from Roshe and we almost had some street food. Street food! Yes, we’re definitely backpacking again. Here, they have “Sandwich guy”, “Meat-on-a-stick man”, and “The Chicken Lady” with their food carts and I have to say it’s a good and cheap way to top up the tank though we wouldn’t do so until tomorrow.

The Snorkel Trip

They run a pretty standard snorkel trip here, and I was aboard one that morning. First, they take you to Dolphin Point, where you would have to be blind to miss the dolphins swimming around and jumping out of the water. Unfortunately, capturing this on film proved to be quite a tall order but from there we went out to Coral Caye and did some snorkelling. Because Bocas is at the mouth of a river, visibility here is rarely better than mediocre but it was good enough for shallow water to see some neat things. Our American roommates had a plastic bag that sealed for taking a camera snorkelling and I chanced mine to take a few underwater photos. The plastic has to be pulled taut, however, or the effect is to warp time and space itself. Far too quickly, everyone was back on the boat and ready to go to our next stop: the beach. I don’t really understand why all these people came out on a snorkelling trip when all they wanted was to go to the beach but I didn’t want to hold everybody up so I got back on board too.

Before the beach however, was lunch. They took us to a place for lunch alright. Spaghetti? $18!!! Really. I definitely was NOT going to eat there but I went over and talked to the store owner next store and found that their Snickers bars were a much more reasonable $1. I joked that it was for lunch and mentioned how crazy the prices were at the restaurant and she mentioned that she had some empanadas and sweet banana bread available for 35 cents/each. So my lunch turned out to be three empanadas (filled with egg and spices and a bit too much salt) for $1.05. Getting back on the boat our ‘tour guide’ who didn’t speak English started telling us what was going to happen next (yes, in Spanish) and I got to play the very fun role of interpreter for the Americans as there were no other English/Spanish speakers on the boat. There are days when you feel like the goal of fluency in Spanish is hopelessly out of reach and other days where you realize how far you’ve come. When Phil and I arrived, we were in the same shoes as these Americans and now here I was translating for them.

Red Frog Beach Club

At Red Frog Beach some were shocked to learn that they had to pay $3 to get in. If you get one of these snorkel tours from the guys on the street, they’ll tell you anything to get you on board. Cooler with ice? Of course and maybe a free beer too! Admission included? Definitely! Cost is $15? Yes, yeeeeesss! In the end, it’s $20 plus $3 admission which is the same cost as the much more reputable Jampan tour – except I believe that they actually have a nice boat, cooler, and stick to their promises. Next time. The beach is so named for the indigenous red frogs (maybe a bit bigger than your fingernail) that are in the jungle here, and although it is $3 it’s a pretty nice beach. We hung out there for the remainder of the afternoon and then went back to wait for the boat. However, on the walk back I was extremely lucky to get to see a three-toed sloth on the forest floor with her baby. Generally, you’re lucky to see them in a tree as they only come down about once a week to expel their slow-digested food (incidentally, I’m not convinced that there’s a working one on the whole island; your money at work) but here I was looking at two of them! Cool. We finally got back on the boat, waited for the woman traveling with her Chihuahua to finally come back to the boat, and went back to Isla Colon.

Surfing Brazilian Coladas

Wednesday nights the infamous Aqua Lounge has its Ladies’ Night and EVERYBODY in the town goes there. It’s on the next island over, a $1 taxi trip away, and consists of a bar, dance floor, and a floating platform with a large hole in the centre for swimming – or jumping from the roof. I have to admit I think it’s pretty awesome to boat to a bar and then back. In fact, I think that the whole concept of boating everywhere is about as close to living in Venice as you can get in this hemisphere. Do I sound like I’m in love with this place yet? We boated early the next afternoon to Black Rock, off Isla Carenero (Columbus named it that because this is where they careened their boats on their sides to clean the hulls) with surf boards in tow, and the boat took us right out to where the waves were breaking for $2. I’m not a great surfer or even a good one, but I know what constitutes a good wave and these were probably the best I had ever encountered for my skill level. They were taller than anything I’d surfed before, which made it a challenge, but they broke beautifully, slowly, and ran for a healthy amount of time before waning. Unfortunately, the previous evening combined with my genetic propensity for mal-de-mer resulted in two stomach-emptying sessions out there in the waves before I rode a wave in to the shores of Carenero.

The beach was something out of a fantasy novel or at least the opening scene to some cheesy adult movie. It wasn’t that this beach was so incredible but the fact that there were six Brazilian models doing an impromptu photo shoot coupled with the fact that I was happy to have solid land under my feet. Seriously, these girls were Maxim-grade good looking and were striking poses on rocks, with trees, in the water with one leg lifted daintily to the sky, and laying on the sand with head cradled in hands. I won’t lie to you, I propped my surf board against a tree, laid down on the pier and enjoyed every minute of it. They left far too soon, and were replaced with Mike (the American that Phil and I had come out surfing with) followed thereafter by Kyla and Eric (the two Americans I’d gone snorkelling with). I went to refill my stomach at the nearby Prickly Pear and got talking with the owner as I sipped my Coke and ate my burger whereupon he showed me the article of Islands magazine that constituted his 15 minutes of fame and my excuse to try one of his now-famous pina coladas. It was more than worthy of renown: he freezes pineapples and then blends them with coconut and rum (no ice) to make a sweet and syrupy cocktail of deliciousness.


The next morning, I moved rooms finally. After the first night I woke up with over 20 bites running from my pinky all the way up my arm and a few elsewhere as well. I’d gone to reception to tell them I thought I had bedbugs not expecting much of anything but unlike many other hostels, they took it quite seriously. They were in my room steaming the bed, wood, and anything else for almost two hours. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough and the next morning I awoke with even more bites on my back, stomach and legs and two others in the room (Kyla and Eric) also had a couple. I was now over 50 bites and calling them itchy is like calling Everest a hill. They were back in the room that afternoon steaming the other beds too. Phil had escaped any bites which we postulated was due to his mosquito net, though I don’t fully which gave rise to the theory that it was ants or (sorry Nicole) spiders. I don’t think so, however, not in these quantities and configurations. When I finally moved, the hostel owner offered to wash and dry all my clothes for me and anything that had touched the bed. The rest I left in the sun to burn the creatures out and that was the end of that particular bedbug episode. Or so I hoped.

Japan Attacks

Mondo Taitu, which was the hostel I stayed at, is well known because its owners make a pretty good effort to arrange some cool themed parties, and Friday nights start with them here in Bocas. That evening was Sake Bombs and with your bomb you got a Japanese bandana to proclaim your mastery. We met some friendly Argentinian girls and I got to telling them and a few others my idea to rent a boat for the day and go island hopping wherever we wanted. I wanted to explore this archipelago more and everybody was pretty excited about the idea which isn’t really on the standard list of optional activities and soon I had more people that wanted to join than I had room in a standard boat. First come first serve in the morning I thought, but then I never counted on how explosive the sake bombs could be. Not only were most people tired and/or hungover in the morning but the weather was gray and gloomy so that idea was put aside. Still, I wanted to do some exploring as I was going to leave on Sunday and so Phil and myself (as well as an Israeli guy and a German girl named Jenny who had arrived that morning) went to the other end of the island to see Bocas del Drago, or Dragon’s Mouth beach.

Escape from the Dragon's Mouth

Isla Colon itself had not struck me as particularly beautiful up until that trip. As we drove out on the noon bus ($5 return) the weather improved and improved and it was hot and clear skies by the time we arrived. In the paradise of this paradise. Bocas del Drago was absolutely the most beautiful beach I’d spent any decent amount of time on this whole trip (Cancun was beautiful too but lacked the charm, swaying palms, and spaciousness). It just ran and ran for miles in little bays and points, palm fringed with Caribbean. To put it another way, that day alone I took over 140 photos (don’t worry, I’ve gone through and selected only my favourites). Phil and I found a little hut out on the water that was deserted so we pulled up two lawn chairs and sat there enjoying life. I went to buy a couple daiquiris. She put in way too much ice and exactly 2 oz of alcohol so it was spread over 3 cups. I’d also asked for a mixed Pineapple-Strawberry daiquiri so there was no way she was going to use the extra and I asked for it but no. I then offered to pay $1 for the extra but nope, it’s a whole cup. Fine, so it is, but it’s also 1/3 of the alcohol I paid for. Still she wouldn’t budge. Ah well. This doesn’t exactly qualify as trouble in paradise.

After soaking up a lot of sun Phil and I walked along the beach as far as we dared before catching our bus back. Dinner that night, like every night, was at El Chitre, the best budget option in Bocas with a full plate of rice, coleslaw, and choice of meatballs, chicken, or pork and a cold glass bottle of Coke for $3.75. We ate there maybe 6 or 7 times and qualified as regulars by the time we left. Saturday night was my last night in Bocas, although I’d made that claim before, and we went out with some of the new arrivals for another Ladies’ Night at Aqua Lounge including Phil’s two new Argentinian roommates, our new buddy from Chile (Nicolas), Jenny, a couple Americans, and probably one or two others that we’d met at the hostel. It was a great way to say goodbye to the island. Or so I thought. The next morning I woke up and the power was out. No ATM, no money to pay for my hotel or get out of there, but I was surprised and delighted to learn the bank had backup power. My mismatched sandals, which had made it all the way from Mexico to Panama had walked their last stride and did not escape Bocas with me. I left them there as much for symbolism as necessity and stepped onto the ferry. The islands faded and Panama sat on the horizon growing larger.

Bocas del Toro Photos

The Caribbean Costa

Monday, January 18, 2010

Phil, Perry, and I were in El Nubio, the white 4WD that Perry had rented heading ever closer to the Panama border and specifically to Puerto Viejo. We'd heard it was really sketchy and I didn't expect much from it at all, but as we rolled into town (what a way to travel!) I decided it was a marked improvement from Cahuita. At least here, there were people milling in the streets (some of whom were female and not a couple!) and life. I imagine with better weather, I would have liked Cahuita, but I'll never know. We drove around and looked at some different accomodation options and settled on Cabinas Larry for $9/night. There was no internet to be found, but otherwise it was a pretty nice place and a huge step up from my lodgings in Cahuita. We got settled in, got our stuff out of the car, and then it was time to walk the town. Quick facts: a nice beach on the north side of the town, two very well-reputed beaches south of town, plenty of expensive restaurants, and the appearance of a healthy nightlife.

We took a walk along the beach nearest town. There is beach right in the town but it's not very nice. The northern beach is next closest and almost qualifies as being in town. It's actually a pretty nice beach except that there's no surf to be found there but we walked up to the northern end and then back to town. These two girls walked by us six times, which was kind of strange as they'd basically just get past us and turn around; I thought we'd probably encounter them later but we didn't. This may have been our fault as I was still recovering from my sickness thanks to Perry's antibiotics, so we stayed in and just sat chatting, taking turns in the hammock, and listening to Greek and Spanish music off my computer. For the first time on this trip, we cooked. Perry and I cooked spaghetti together and I was pleased at how much money this saved us. Meanwhile, the two of them bought a bottle of Guarro and Fresca and just about finished it. For just hanging around chatting, it was a really good time. People make all the difference when you're traveling.

The next day we drove south and explored the famed Manzanillo beach. Perhaps because it was high tide, perhaps because of the storm that had just rolled through, or perhaps for other reasons altogether, there wasn't much beach to be found. It was brown sand, palm-fringed, and mostly empty. We stayed for awhile and watched some local kids playing a game where they'd wade into the water and then when they saw a wave they'd run out screaming and laughing. It was more funny than it probably sounds here. The surf was coming in pretty decently but I headed out to see if there was some decent snorkeling on the reefs out here. There usually is, or so I'm told, but the visibility was so bad that I kicked some fire coral that I didn't see below me and that was the end of that session. Fire coral, incidentally, is basically like being stung and, well, stings. Not pleasant but if you don't focus on it too much it fades. Until you go in the water again, which I discovered in Cocles beach back up the road towards Puerto Viejo. Here, there was plenty of sand, plenty of scenery and plenty of surfing - if you were an accomplished surfer. Perry and I were not up for the challenge and even Phil declined, but we sat by the beach and enjoyed life anyway.

Phil was going to try the next day but he wound up having a bug pretty similar to whatever I'd had, complete with fever, chills, lethargy, and no surfing. Just as well. Perry and I got him sorted with water and supplies and went to Cocles ourselves to find 4m waves scaring even the locals from entering the water. We did go for a swim, by which I mean wading to about waist-deep water (the deepest allowed before the lifeguard would whistle you back in) and trying to fight the incredible rip tide sucking you out to sea. As we drove back we found Phil walking the streets and sat with him at a cafe with a cold drink. It was HOT. We ate spaghetti again that night and I spiced it up by cooking some sausages and putting them in there. It was a great dinner. This was compensated for the next night by eating out at a cheap looking restaurant and finding our bill came to 8000 colones each (which is about $15) including our two beer. We went out as well, watching the great Plan B reggae it up with numerous guest stars from the audience then heading to another bar on the beach that was too hot and crowded to enter and visiting with a couple local girls and their pretty cool friend from Ottawa.

But all things, good or bad, have to come to an end. Perry was heading back to San Jose to catch his flight home. Phil and I were heading south to Panama. I don't want to be unreasonable here, but all three of us really didn't enjoy Costa Rica. Not for backpacking, anyway. There are nice people and beautiful places, but all of those nice people want a LOT of money to get anywhere near the nice places. I was sick almost the whole time, and Phil even got sick, though of course that can happen anywhere. The public transport is unavailable for some of the most obvious routes and the tourism industry has taken the incredible step of becoming Costa Rican culture. If I never hear Pura Vida again I will be quite happy. Still, there were good times. The crew of Tamarindo. Ziplining in Monteverde. The expensive hotsprings in La Fortuna. The party in Puerto Viejo. And meeting up with Phil and Perry. Perry was driving us to the border and I looked at the distant Panamanian mountains knowing that there lay another set of challenges, of things to love and hate and most importantly, experience. We said farewell and he drove off in one direction while Phil and I strode across the aged metal bridge into a new country.

Puerto Viejo Photos

Cahuita Raining, Please

Thursday, January 14, 2010

While it had long been the plan to visit the towns on Malpais and Montezuma on the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, the lack of transportation options had changed my mind. There was no way to go down the peninsula (it’s interesting that in poorer countries the buses, though less scheduled and more packed, would run EVERYwhere and it was much more simple to get around) which thwarted my first plan. So I’d hopped to the mainland. To get there now, not only would I have to double back and spend about $20 and a day in transit (bus to San Ramon, change bus to Puntas Arena, Ferry across, bus to Malpais) but I’d then need two days of travel to cut back to the Caribbean coast and continue my journey south to Panama and finally across the Darien Gap to Colombia and South America. So I skipped them. To be honest, I haven’t been loving Costa Rica anyway, in part because for some reason I can’t seem to shake my stomach bug (maybe my expired antibiotics made it tougher?) but everything costs a lot of money and it really doesn’t feel like the country has much culture left. Or at any rate, everything feels like it was built for tourism which, for a different kind of trip is fine, but not what I’m after and not after seeing the countries I’ve already visited. This is a package holiday spot in the making and it already shows in the people you see and meet on the streets: couples, older folks, even some braver families. So a great place to come for a week or two but not somewhere to backpack, and especially not on your own. It’s hard to find others doing the same.

So it was that I made my way on the scenic drive to Guapiles in a $30 shuttle. It was the only way to get there without doubling back to San Jose and taking the major highway which in the end would still have been slower and probably less scenic. I should emphasize that for all I’ve said about the country’s tourism industry, there is good cause: it’s absolutely stunning. The drive to Guapiles took me over more rivers than I can name, wetlands, jungles, distant volcanoes... the place has a very primeval feel when you get out of the towns that I can’t put into words. From Guapiles, I caught a local bus to Puerto Limon which was en route from San Jose. The bus stopped for 15 minutes and quite a few people got off to use the washrooms or buy some snacks, so when I got on there were quite a few empty seats, or so it appeared. Looking closer, many had bags, jackets, scarves, and other things reserving them. I picked a seat beside one that had two small plastic bags on it and about 10 minutes later, as the bus refilled, a man came on and apologetically told me that he and his son were sitting there. Why they didn’t cover both seats is beyond me. I smiled, got up and found another spot not earmarked. Only to have to stand a minute later as somebody else got on and told me it was taken. Again, put your bags on both seats. Easy!

There were two spots left and I took one of them. The bus was pretty much full and 15 minutes were up and I was willing the bus to just go. The bus engine started and idled and just when I was sure we were gone, a woman and her son came on board and came to my seat, telling me that they, too, needed both seats. It’s not that I mind giving up a seat for them, but really, HOW HARD IS IT TO SAVE SEATS? Three times in one bus ride I had to move because people would only mark one seat as taken. I wanted to get up to the front of the bus and have a small lesson on the subject, demonstrating the ways that a sweater’s sleeves could be extended, for example, to cover a second seat and thereby indicate it was occupied. I definitely grumbled by now and got up yet again. The bus started moving, too late for me, and every seat was full. I alone was stuck standing (where perhaps a luckier choice would have let me sit) the full hour to Puerto Limon. The standing isn’t terrible, but you can’t see a thing out the windows and the guy whose seat I was leaning against suddenly became Mr. Elbows in my leg. Pura Vida, man.

I arrived in Cahuita to mild drizzle and found my way to Cabinas Smith, where a grungy cabina was mine for $6/night. The sheets were clean and the mattress had no sign of bugs but the floor could use a good sweep and/or wash. The communal toilet was likewise clean, but the floor disgusting and, well, let’s just say I didn’t shower in the four nights I stayed there It was simply disgusting. Luckily, I didn’t have to. It rained the whole time, badly. I actually thought I was going to have to move my stuff off the floor at one point, so heavy was the rain. Puerto Limon, which I’d passed through just the day before, was now flooded and impassible, a state of emergency declared. Likewise, my first destination in Panama, Bocas del Toro, was flooded and closed: there was no way to get there or to leave. So I didn’t bother leaving Cahuita because the whole of the Caribbean coast (which was where the next week or two would be spent) was being inundated and I’d fair no better elsewhere. Instead I woke up in the mornings and studied Spanish for a few hours, at a restaurant over breakfast if it wasn’t raining too badly. The restaurants all close around 1, at which point there’s nothing to do in the rain unless you’re a good enough surfer to brave the waves crashing in (and I was not) so I’d go back to the room and watch a movie.

Evenings I went out to dinner hoping to meet people but restaurants are a hard place to do that. One pizza place shows movies at 7:30 which usually fills it up, so I went there and got a table. Sure enough two American girls needed a spot and I invited them to sit with me and even gave them the choice spots as I’d already seen Slumdog Millionaire twice (such a great movie). Still, once they sat down they basically ignored me and talked amongst themselves, and then of course there’s no talking during the movie, and afterwards they said goodnight immediately and left. So that was a bust. I had my first steak since leaving home at an Argentinian restaurant (it was worth the expense: the cut of meat was tough but delicious) but didn’t meet anyone, and I ate at a Quebec chef’s restaurant and met his wife, Candy, having dinner on her own as well (as he was busy in the kitchen). That was it for this place. Again, I’d have left sooner had I had somewhere to go, but I didn’t until the weather cleared, which was supposed to be on Wednesday.

Wednesday came and it was drizzling instead of pouring. Good enough for me. I went for a walk in the national park which is miraculously free in this country but I didn’t manage to spot a sloth or toucan, two animals on my must find list. I did however see a couple spiders that Nicole couldn’t pay me enough to kill for her, a pretty cool heron, some bats, and of course the coastal jungle walk was beautiful for the scenery alone. I couldn’t walk as far as I wanted because all the rain had swelled the stream to an impassable river so it was only a 3km return walk. Back to the room to continue my Star Wars marathon, I finished watching A New Hope and went to the washroom when I heard “Uper”, the Costa Ricans’ way of saying “Hello? Anybody there?” What could it be? I opened the door and there was Phil and his brother Perry in their shining white 4x4 (El Nubio) to rescue me from my borderline boredom. They had got tired of no waves on the Pacific coast and headed here hoping for something better on this side.

I said before I couldn’t seem to shake this bug. It didn’t really affect me too much, day to day, but it was annoying. That morning, I’d bought some pineapple and yogurt from the store and had that as a snack and I’m not sure if that’s what did it, but that day I had a total relapse into the first day of my sickness. We went for pizza again figuring it’d be cheap to share but I not only had no appetite but was getting a fever again and nauseous. I don’t know why it won’t go away, I’m usually pretty healthy and get over things quickly but it may be time to visit a doctor down here. I actually had to leave early, ostensibly to get something a sweater from my room as I was shivering but really I was going to be sick. I walked back to my room and lay there shivering and feverish at the same time for about 30 minutes before finally getting the energy to get up and go tell the boys I couldn’t watch a movie tonight. I walked back but they were gone and walked back towards my hostel. I was almost there when I finally did get sick and left the pizza all over the empty lot next to the hostel. With the morning’s pineapple, my ham and green pepper pizza had become Hawaiian on the way back. I wonder how many foods have been discovered this way?

Perry is a pharmacist and had a fresh supply of antibiotics (though he figures that if it’s been two weeks I have a parasite even if I don’t have any of the classic symptoms) so I went again to find him and found him and Phil walking the streets looking for me. I got my antibiotics and took some ibuprofen for the headache, drank as much water as I could, and laid in bed chatting with Phil and Perry while they used the internet. I had a weird and restless night of talking to multiple versions of myself but woke up feeling a lot better than the night before though not as good as two days ago. Perry and Phil came by and picked me up in their jeep and we drove down to Puerto Viejo which turned out to be a pretty cool place. Had I known, I might have moved earlier had I known, but I was expecting another Tamarindo. It helped that finally, FINALLY, the rain was done and the sun was even shining through in pockets. My appetite, which had not been big in Cahuita anyway (luckily, because food there is expensive) had returned. That morning, while I showered in Phil and Perry’s much nicer shower (actually the best shower so far in Central American, high pressure and hot water) they made me some instant noodles that I couldn’t eat much of. But by lunch I finished a burrito and was pretty hungry both before and after we made some spaghetti that night. Hopefully these antibiotics are doing the job. The shining sun and some new scenery is definitely helping.

Cahuita Photos

La Fortuna de Costa Rica

Sunday, January 10, 2010

One thing the marketing people of Costa Rica taught me: Jeep-Boat-Jeep sounds a lot more exciting than van-ferry-van. I was in Monteverde, however, and JBJ was the fastest and most convenient way to get across the continental divide to La Fortuna, my next stop on the way to the Caribbean. And it was worth it, if not for the adventure I'd hoped for then because the views and the rural passage down to the lake where the boat carried us across to the other side was stunning. Simply stunning. Beautiful views everywhere of Costa Rica, of cloud forest, rivers, green mountains, small villages, and more. We had the fortune (la fortuna, in Spanish, incidentally) of witnessing the sun break through the clouds in our wake as we sailed across the lake and I had pretty good company for the trip, too. I was planning to stay at the Arenal Backpackers Resort, which promised swimming, lockers, a/c, and everything you could want in a hostel for $8/night (or so I'd heard). Unfortunately, it was full, so Anna (a Finnish girl I'd met en route) suggested Gringo Pete's and sure enough we found a place to hang our towels.

I say towels because our first stop that evening was to take Mr. Lava Lava's trip to the Baldi hot springs. La Fortuna is a hub of activities from horseback riding to white water rafting (Rio Del Toro apparently is Class IV) to ziplining to hiking volcano viewpoints to waterfalls to ATV tours to ... well, you get the idea. Unfortunately, all of these things cost a lot more money than your average backpacker is likely to have in his budget (unless of course there is something exceptional about one of these things here). I had heard the hike to view the volcano was nice but the cloud cover precluded that. Most of the other activities fell into the category of things I had already done in places world-renowned for them and while I'd love to do them again, these are hard fought travel dollars. However, La Fortuna's hotsprings are more deluxe and excessive than anywhere I'd ever heard of, so for $28, I was in. And I was not disappointed. Having been ziplining in Monteverde that very morning and then JBJing it here without so much as a snack in between, I was starving and included in all of this was a buffet. It was nothing to write home about but man did it hit the spot. The fresh fruit was great and I could have drank the whole of the chocolate fountain if someone had just given me a glass. The sweet and sour pork was quite nice too, and the smoked tuna was decent if dry. It didn't matter, really. Everything was tasting good at that point.

Dinner done, Anna and I got changed and started exploring the place. While I had heard of some of the excessiveness of the various hot springs in La Fortuna, I wasn't prepared for it. Not only did this hot spring have a large number of pools in about four different temperatures, but it had a Hollywood-style fake waterfall, faux-naturale jacuzzi, and three waterslides not to mention a couple swim-up bars and more. And this was the budget hotspring, although I have heard that there are free and ACTUALLY natural ones for those with more time or interest to find them. We stayed and moved from pool to pool right until 10:00 and were in fact some of the last people out on account of the fact that every once in a while, the analog dial of my watch decides to put itself out about 45 minutes. By the end we were feeling like new people, and we went back to the hostel then out for a drink before calling it a night. Anna was flying home after the weekend so she had an early start in the morning to get to see the waterfall and I thought I might as well join her while I had company.

The next morning I got packed up and moved over to the Backpackers Resort after picking up a few snacks at the store for breakfast. We cheated and took a cab up to the park entrance rather than hiking due to Anna's short time before catching her bus at 1:30, and the cabbie (who had left the meter running while I ran in to check-in to Backpackers) decided he should be compensated extra for waiting (in addition to running the meter) and so left the meter running as we were getting our money together to pay and then insisted on charging us extra. I had had a yogurt drink in the car and figured if he was going to do that, HE could find a garbage for it. Nope. He ran after me angrily and shoved it in my backpack. I'm not sure why I paid him the extra as easily as I did, and I'm not sure why I didn't throw the yogurt at his greedy little head but somehow I just muttered angrily to myself for 10 minutes and carried on with my day. If anything, the Parks official got most of my wrath because it was $10 to take the path down to see the waterfall. $10 to see a waterfall? I was more upset at the cabbie but for some reason I had held back.

In any event, I didn't harass the parks guy too much, though he was in danger of pushing me too far after the cabbie, and we went in. It really is one single path. There is no series of hikes or trails or viewpoints. You walk down a trail (at least the trail was quite well-maintained) to a viewpoint of the waterfall and then back up. If you like, you can scramble over the boulders and have a swim or get a closer look at the waterfall, which we of course did, but that's it. It was a pretty impressive and powerful waterfall and it was nice to get a BIT of exercise in. We scrambled back up then walked down the road and back into La Fortuna which is quite a nice walk in the downhill direction. I said bye to Anna and went back to check out my hostel. Now I should mention that the price is not the quoted $8/night but $14, which is pretty steep for dorms. Still, it was one night, pretty nice, and I met some friendly if cliquey Quebecois at the hostel. It wasn't a pretty quiet night though, because I had to be on my bus for Guapiles, en route once more to the Caribbean coast, by 7:30 AM. This was another "pay a bit more and take the shorter and faster way" expenditure that, could I see the future, I may not have done. Ah, traveling.

La Fortuna Photos

Superman Comes to Monteverde

Friday, January 08, 2010

When our adventure last ended, we were winding our way up the green mountains from Tamarindo to Monteverde, Sloane, Shaun, Johnny, Jez, and myself, in Sloane’s aptly named Green Machine. We arrived at 2:30 PM to find the wind howling and the temperature already too cool for shorts and a t-shirt. The hostel we’d been recommended, Vista de la Golfa, was full (they had a few cabins left but she wasn’t recommending them in this wind and on top of this kindness the lady there called a couple other hostels for us) and we had a spot at Hostal El Pueblo just up the gravel road. These hostels are short on common area meetings but we already had a group of five so this was no problem, and our $10/bed cost included a free make-your-own breakfast. A quick change to warmer gear and we were off to the taco stand for a very cheap (by Costa Rica standards) couple of tacos for dinner. Then, with little else to do here and a whole evening to wait before sleep was an option, we made our way to the Amigos Bar.

Now I hadn’t had a single drink in 2010, which wasn’t that big a feat considering it was only one week in, but I guess this was my first beer of the year and in Costa Rica, an Imperial. Not great but not bad. My second, Pilsen, was much better. The bartender, who we all wound up calling Jeffe (boss), was a pretty funny guy and took good care of us but then that wasn’t hard. Aside from the Americans watching college football in the back the place was pretty empty. Jez and I went to get a few things done while the others searched out another bar, but one thing I didn’t bank on was FINALLY finding a piano. A piano that was in tune and which the owner of the shop insisted I play after noticing me gingerly pressing a few notes. While I don’t especially like to show off or play with an audience (at least not sans band) I did anyway. Sometimes you have to suffer for art. And I’m not sure whether it’s kosher to include smileys in a blog post to indicate the tongue-in-cheek of the last sentence, but rest assured it’s there. I shook the rust out of my fingers and played for a good 30 minutes before getting up figuring I’d pre-empt being booted out.

We met up again with the rest of the gang who had determined – incorrectly, I might add – that Amigos was the only bar in town. Au contraire, we would discover the next day that there was at least one more (and I think maybe two) and it had karaoke. Perhaps we dodged a bullet. Back to the bar and Sloane made it his personal mission to have me off my feet. Guaro, which is a local Costa Rican spirit of some variety, and Fresca was the drink of choice (Phil and Jez may deserve credit for this invention) and they were being called (at least by me) Costa Libres. Costa, incidentally, is the Spanish word for Coast and the Greek word for Dean. Well, Constantine actually, but that is the root of my name at any rate. Moving on, we all wound up dancing – there were a couple groups of girls sufficiently entertained by our movements to dance with us – and it’s not that I dance better with some drinks, it’s that I don’t care when I’ve had them which doesn’t seem to have the life-ending consequences I attach to bad dancing when more clear-headed. In fact, we had fun in this sleepy little town, even partying with the hostel owner’s sister for a while.

Had I known in advance, I probably would have gone to sleep much earlier. But I think it’s quite possible that Hostal El Pueblo has the best beds in Central America. It was cold and windy outside on the mountain, but they not only had soft mattresses that you melted into, but nice warm blankets to cover you up. Waking up at 9 to get the included breakfast hardly felt worth leaving my warm cocoon but I did get up and made myself a fried egg sandwich. The others staggered up a little later and by 10:30 we were packed up, checked out, and in the shuttle for Extremo Ziplining, which was basically the reason we’d come up here in the first place. Well, that and the Costa Libres, apparently. I should emphasize that I’m not really that excited by ziplining, maybe because I don’t really worry too much about mechanical failure on such things and so a lot of the risk or fear is gone. It’s not that it can’t happen, it’s that the odds of it happening on a fixed set of equipment when I’m the one riding are really, really low. Things that scare me tend to be where my own stupidity or human error in general is a larger factor.

So I didn’t go in with any expectations, aside from the fact that everyone I met said I MUST do the ziplining here. Needless to say I was pleasantly surprised. This IS the best thing I did in Costa Rica (at least at the time of writing), I had so much fun and did even get scared (like adrenaline rush scared) not once but twice. It starts with a couple mild zips which are more in line with what I had experienced elsewhere. And then you go tandem and zip from one hilltop to another, high above the valley floor below. There was a bit of mist and light cloud in the air which also led to some spectacular rainbows beneath us. Nevermind the fear, it was worth it for the scenery. You can spend all day climbing a mountain to get to a viewpoint and never get the kind of perspective you do in the air between mountain tops. The only unfortunate part is you have to enjoy it quickly. A little later I had my first scare. It was a relatively short zip line, maybe only 100m or so, but quite steep. The lady in front of me, a local, told me that last time she was here her sister had slammed into the tree at the bottom and had to be taken to a hospital. The guide then said to brake the whole way.

And then it was my turn. I did indeed brake the whole way. Or I tried to. It didn’t seem to make a difference, I kept going faster and faster. I put my other hand behind me and tried two-hand braking. Still nothing was happening except for my gloves warming up. The end – and that big tree – were coming at me too fast. Then I noticed something on the line before that and knew I was going to hit it at speed. There was no way I was stopping. And I did hit it, cringing as I expected the impact to be messy. Maybe I’d fly off the track, maybe I’d be jerked to a stop abruptly and thrown forward into the line, I didn’t know. It turned out it was just a brake. Apparently they’d upgraded since the last incident and I came to a quick stop on the platform just fine. Whew. A few more panoramic crossings and it was time for the second rush: the tarzan swing. This one you climb out on a very rickety platform (one person at a time) say 10-15 m above a platform below, step off, and plummet downwards. Just when you think something has gone wrong the rope (which is tied to a branch in a distant tree) catches and you go swinging out high above the ground like a mad man. It doesn’t matter how many people go before you, your adrenaline is pumping when you finally get off the swing.

The final event was the Superman. Here, you fly across the valley back to the main station on a line that is just over 1km long, suspended from your back and feet (to keep you straight) and flying like Superman did. As a boy, I watched the old 1960s Superman TV show. Since then, I’ve always imagined that if I could fly, it would be something like that: arms stretched out in front of you, looking forward at oncoming terrain or down at people, cities, and countryside below. Well. This is as close as you could possibly get and I finally lived out that childhood fantasy, arching my neck back to look at the mountain coming towards me, then putting my head down to look straight below at green fields and cattle, then twisting to look over my left arm sideways, always scanning for injustice. I found none here, just a great day out and a lot of fun. And I realized that I had forgotten to ask how to brake on this one. Obviously, you can’t put your hands on the rope as they would be in front of the pulleys and any braking would send them flying in to be chewed up. Luckily this was toward the end and I didn’t think on it too long before their braking device did all the work for me.

The shuttle took forever to come and I was worried I would miss my jeep-boat-jeep to La Fortuna but thankfully they were waiting for me when we arrived back at the hostel at 2:30, 1.5 hours after we were told we’d return. I said a hurried goodbye to the guys (who were heading towards San Jose) and jumped in my ‘jeep’, a minibus for La Fortuna. The reason for this trip is twofold. Firstly, it is pretty affordable ($25), secondly it saves backtracking down the mountain and going all the way around. Instead you meander down into a deadend valley through all sorts of rural mountainous splendour at which point you hop on a boat across a beautiful lake to the other side where you make your way up, around the base of Arenal (a very active volcano), and to the town of La Fortuna. On the trip I met a very pretty girl from Helsinki named Anna, a recently graduated Australian electrical engineer name James, and a professional pianist from San Jose that was heading up to play some of the resorts in La Fortuna. This was my kind of crowd.

Monteverde Photos