Joined February 2017 Message
  • Day0

    And so it all begins in Quito, Ecuador

    April 9, 2018 in Ecuador ⋅ ⛅ 18 °C

    If you aren’t doing things that scare or challenge you, then are you really living?

    Colonial streets, rooftop views, chance reunions, an instant group of friends and already I’m wondering why I was worried about travelling alone.

    A whirlwind 4 weeks back in England has come to an end. Finally meeting my wee nephew, spending time with my sister and her husband, catching up with my friends in London. It was all so lovely and I was a little sad to be leaving again but further adventures were to await.

    I’ve been wanting to hit South America for a while now, mostly Peru. Logistics-wise though, it made more sense to fly into Ecuador first to avoid having to double back on myself too much. A 16 hour journey was made worse by the fact that I thought I’d be doing myself a favour by requesting vegetarian meals. It seems they thought I’d requested vegan meals though because I literally got served green salads and fruit salads for both my meals over the 11 hour flight from Madrid. It’s fair to say that there was some serious food envy on my behalf, and I was absolutely starving by the time I reached Quito. Lesson learnt. Never again!

    I had a lovely taxi driver from my hostel called Manuel who met me at the airport, but quickly realised how much Spanish I’ve forgotten as we made some limited conversation over the 45 minute drive into the city. It’s so frustrating to want to say or ask things and not know or remember the words or how to form the sentence to do so! Hopefully it’ll come back to me soon.

    My home for a few days in Quito was recommended to me by a friend who travelled through South America at the end of last year. The Secret Garden Hostel is a multi-level affair with a rooftop terrace which has amazing views over the city. I arrived just as the sun was setting behind the hills, so stunning. Climbing 5 flights of stairs at 2850m altitude with a backpack which is about the third of my body weight though? Not so great.

    Quito is apparently not so safe after dark so a dabble in the hostel bar happy hour ended up in a chance reunion with Suzie - a Canadian girl I met in Laos three years ago. I knew she was in South America but what are the chances of her being at my hostel?! This solved my dilemma of meeting people on the first night, spending time catching up with her and meeting her Australian partner, as well as an American guy they’d met that evening too.

    I opted for the walking tour run by the travel agency within the hostel for my first full day in Quito. Unfortunately this began with a rather lengthy spiel by one of the owners quoting a ridiculous amount of poetry and well known authors - what relevance this had to anything, I’m not sure any of us will ever know but that’s 40 minutes of our lives we won’t be getting back! The rest of the tour was taken by a 5 foot tall local named Stephanie. It definitely wasn’t the best walking tour in terms of the information given but it was an easy way to see some of the sights of the city, particularly in the old town.

    One of the most interesting stops of this tour however, was to a Shaman’s office. We learnt about some of their healing rituals, one of which involved cutting the head off a guinea pig and rubbing the blood all over the naked body of the person needing to be healed. It is believed that guinea pigs will take any of the bad energy or sickness that the person may have. Bizarre.

    The plus side of doing this walking tour was that I met some other people from my hostel who had also only just arrived in Quito, from various directions. By the end of the tour there were 5 of us who had grouped together - Bronte and Kit, a couple from Australia and England respectively, Hannah from Ireland and another English lad, Mark. We all got on like a house on fire and spent the rest of the day somewhat unsuccessfully exploring some of the local markets in the rain and then getting well involved in the rooftop bar of our hostel. Let’s just say the altitude definitely seems to speed up the drunken states!

    Unfortunately Hannah was continuing on a flight to Columbia the following day but the rest of us have been somewhat inseparable since, so it looks like I’ve got some company for the next few days at least!

    A slightly slow morning followed our previous evening’s antics but the remaining four of us were determined to make the most of our time, so we headed to the equator line which lies 22km north of Quito. There are two lines out here in fact, the original line which was calculated in 1736 and then the current line which was calculated using GPS 20 years ago. They’re about 200m apart so the original calculations weren’t too far off considering. Interestingly, Quito actually means ‘middle of the earth’ in the local Quechuan language. It is mind-blowing to think how they would have known this so many hundreds of years ago without any maps or the like; instead using the movements of the sun and the moon to determine these things.

    The short tour at the museum at the equator line was much better than our walking tour from the previous day and gave us an overview of some of the local tribes and some of their traditions, as well as some experiments at the equator line to show differences in each hemisphere.

    The stories about the Shuar tribe were particularly interesting. They would cut the heads off their enemies, take out the skull and brains and fill the head with rocks. They would also sew up the mouth to prevent any bad energy escaping. At this point the head was boiled somehow to make it shrink to about the size of the palm of your hand. To this day it is still not known exactly how they did this in such a way that the skin could be preserved for hundreds of years later. The shrunken head would then be worn on a necklace or put on top of a stick to protect the owner. There was a real example of one of these heads at the museum and as gross as it was, the way it was preserved still some hundred years later was insane.

    We thought the equator line itself would be a bit gimmicky but it was actually really interesting seeing some of the different experiments and also how they could use the position of the sun to tell time rather accurately using shadows. Even just seeing how water swirls down a plug hole one way in the northern hemisphere, the opposite in the southern, but on the equator line itself it just drains straight down. Pretty remarkable to see how moving just a couple metres either side can make such a difference.

    And with that, the first stop of this trip comes to a close. Next I’m going off the grid for a few days, continuing to Cotopaxi with my new friends for a nature fix!
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  • Day80

    Panama City, Panamá

    April 5, 2017 in Panama ⋅ 🌙 30 °C

    The end of the road. Mike and I have reached the southern most point and the last stop for us on this trip. Where does the time go?! Panama City is completely different from anywhere else we have been in Central America, but then the city alone contrasts even itself with its many dimensions.

    We're back in the company of skyscrapers, wealth, traffic and genuinely just a full fledged city. It's strange, it's been a while since we've been around this amount of western civilisation. But don't get me wrong, there is a lot of poverty here too. Supposedly a third of Panamanians live below the poverty line and a good chunk of them live here in the slums. And then there's Casco Viejo, the old quarter which is a UNESCO heritage site and rightly so. Beautifully restored colonial buildings filled with boutique hotels and eateries line the cobblestoned streets and sometimes make you feel like you're walking the streets of Paris or another European city. This is the area where we ended up staying at Luna's Castle, a large hostel in a huge creaky old house with one wall which is partly constructed of the original old city walls.

    Panama City is obviously most known for the nearby Panama Canal, an artificial thoroughfare which was built between the Artic and Pacific oceans when it was realised that this was the skinniest stretch of land between the two oceans. The French began building this canal as far back as 1880 but abandoned the task twenty years later after thousands of the workers were unexpectedly dying from malaria and yellow fever. Americans carried on the job in the early 1900s and maintained control of the canal when it opened in 1910, right up until 1999 when the Panamanians got fed up and reclaimed the power of what was rightfully theirs. I guess this makes the heavy American influence here not so surprising. Even the American dollar has taken over as the predominant currency here, partially due to the fact that when foreign workers were coming to help with the canal, the Panamanian currency was useless whenever they went back home so it was easier to use USD. Nowadays the balboa is treated as 1-1 to the USD and generally you only receive the coins as change less than one dollar. Similar concept to the Cambodian riel I guess.

    We went to Miraflores Locks to see the canal, one of three locks that each of the ships must pass through as part of the crossing because the lake the canals join to is higher than sea level. Some 35-40 ships pass through the locks each day as part of their 80km journey through the canal. We managed to time our visit to see two huge ships going through the locks which was really interesting. It's a slick run operation with each ship's controls handed over to one of the canal officials to guide through. Ropes are tied to four little carts that drive on land either side of the ship to pull it along as usually the ship's engines are turned off for this section. These ships honestly must have only had a few centimetres either side as they squeezed their way through each part of the locks. The rate at which the water fills up each section of the locks is baffling too, considering the scale and the thousands of litres this would require. It's pretty impressive. Another lock was opened last year to accommodate larger ships after a majority vote in a Panamanian referendum. It shows they clearly value the income of the canals and the jobs it creates with a sense of pride for their country.

    Sunday mornings are a relaxed affair in Panama City and they have what's called Sunday Ciclova. This is an initiative which we've seen in some of the other big cities in Central America and it basically involves closing off a few of the main streets each Sunday morning so that people can use the area for exercise. Cycling, running, walking, rollerblading, scootering, you name it. In Panama City it's along the waterfront and even offered free fruit, drinks, bike rental and Zumba which they tried to rope Mike and I into! It was awesome to see exercise and wellbeing promoted and all for free, particularly because it's something that's not seen often in this part of the world but it really should be because despite the levels of poverty, there's also some extremely high levels of obesity.

    Always one to love a viewpoint and especially one you can hike to, Mike and I headed for Cerro Ancon which even though it only sits at 200m, is the highest natural point in the city. In true Mike and Char fashion, we continued our walk from the waterfront in the hottest point of the day to tackle it. We walked through a few dodgy areas to get there and probably took the longest way to the top when we did, but it gave us some cool views over different parts of the city. It's safe to say we were sweaty messes after this one. 35 degree heat, 80-90% humidity and minimal water meant we were in dire need of a drink and a cold shower!

    With Panama City being our last stop, Mike and I thought we'd let ourselves have a couple of splurges, one of which was to visit the bar at the top of the Trump tower on the 66th floor. As you can imagine it was overpriced but ironically they didn't take American Express! And while I don't want to support Trump, on the plus side, the bar overlooked the city and the harbour and gave us amazing views as we watched the sun go down and all the city lights turn on.

    Considering Panama City sits on the Pacific coast, you can imagine it has some amazing seafood. There's a local fish market which is situated right on the harbour so the fish goes straight from the boat to the restaurant, fresh as can be. This was the best time to have ceviche, considering we'd been somewhat avoiding it the rest of this trip but it was well worth the wait! Fresh and lemony. Yum!

    Cat and Rich caught up with us again so we went with them to a local baseball game. Supposedly Panama had a professional league at one point but it only lasted a year so this was just a local league. Our uber driver took us on probably the longest and most congested route to the stadium but thankfully we managed to get a refund on some of this afterwards! The stadium was almost empty but there was still a good atmosphere considering, and it was a fun game to watch even though none of us a particularly big baseball fans.

    Our time in Panama has come to an end with a somewhat hair-raising taxi ride to the airport. 100km/hr feels scarily fast to us now after terrible roads have kept all our transport to 80km/hr at best. Pair that with a taxi driver who is tailgating and/or not looking at the road half the time, no seat belts in the back seats and you've got yourself a nail biting journey. Thankfully our taxi driver Alex made up for it in chat so we enjoyed talking to him in our broken Spanish which he matched with his equally poor English.

    Mike and I are flying back to Costa Rica, San José to be exact. Just for one night before we both go our separate ways - Mike back to New Zealand and me back to London for a little while. We were pleasantly surprised with our one hour Avianca flight having not only snacks and drinks for free but movies and tv programmes too! Spoilt. I have to say it's somewhat soul destroying to know how long in driving hours it took us to cover the same distance, but at least we didn't have to go back on ourselves via bus. We're are topping it off by splashing out for a nice hotel and dinner for our last evening before starting the big couple of days of travel, Mike especially! Whoopsies.

    Final post for the trip coming soon...
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  • Day75

    Boquete, Panamá

    March 31, 2017 in Panama ⋅ ⛅ 25 °C

    A couple of wrong turns, one decent hike and a couple of sneaky brewery trips. Oh and some fresh mountain air - yay for not sweating 24/7!

    Boquete is a small town in the mountains of western Panama with the most local feel that we've had in a while, even though there are many American expats who have retired here. The town itself isn't particularly anything to rave about but it's a relaxed place and it's popularity comes from the amount of outdoor activities there are to do in its surroundings. There are many hikes to do, white-water rafting, hot springs to see and other activities, some of which don't really cater to the old backpacker budget but we're making do.

    Day one started off as a bit of a mere with a walk to essentially nowhere. We intended to walk to a garden that took inspiration from Alice and Wonderland in the hills, (sounds random, I know) but got sidetracked along the way when we saw a sign for a lookout instead. Our spontaneity didn't take the win on this occasion as we walked more than the 1.7km advertised and there was no lookout to be seen, nor did the locals we asked have any idea about it. Defeated and hungry, we headed back to the town for a regroup.

    The afternoon was more successful with an outing to a local bakery come cafe for some sweet treats, followed by a visit to the local microbrewery for a sampling of their beers. It's definitely been a while between pints so it was nice to have a bit of familiarity in that respect! Unfortunately I was unable to finally get my cider fix, (non-existent in this part of the world as far as we've seen) as they were waiting to reload the keg the following day but we settled for their IPA and an amber ale, and later the pale ale from their guest beer list. All were decent brews and it was a great place to chill out for the afternoon. A cheeky bowl of free popcorn on the side was a nice touch too.

    We'd saved our big hike for our second day as we knew Cat and Rich would be catching up to us again. And a big hike it was. We'd toyed with the idea of hiking nearby Volcán Baru, but it sounded like a tough gig starting the walk at 11pm to catch the sunrise at the summit. Deciding we couldn't hack the idea of another volcano and valuing our sleep, we set our sights lower with a hike called the Lost Waterfalls. Let's just say we were the ones getting lost.

    A slightly hairy taxi ride from Boquete town finished with us realising we'd been dropped at the wrong place, so we walked a kilometre on the road to the waterfall we were after - or so we thought. We parted with $5USD each and started walking through some farm lands and crops and reached the waterfall within about twenty minutes. This was supposed to be the first of three waterfalls but it was the end of the path, which is when we started realising that maybe we'd come to the wrong place. Our fears were confirmed when we asked a couple of farmers on our way back where the hike was that we were looking for, for both of them to point to the other side of the valley. Damn. Annoyed that we'd managed to waste $5USD each on the wrong walk and not even one particularly worth doing, the four of us decided that if we'd come this far, we may as well do the hike we intended to do in the first place.

    Only a couple of hundred metres further around the corner from the entrance of the first hike was a clearly marked sign for the Lost waterfalls. Typical. We parted with another $7USD (these hikes are on private land) and continued on with what was a great hike. The trails took us on muddy paths through the jungle and had us scaling up and down hills constantly, with three impressively tall and gushing waterfalls to see along the way. We had intended to swim at the base of one of the waterfalls but considering the water was coming from the mountains you can imagine it was absolutely freezing. While it was warm when hiking around, it was quite cold in the forest when we stopped, especially after a wee lunch break at the top of one of the waterfalls, so we decided we'd save the swim for another day.

    It was still only early afternoon by the time we'd done all this so we thought we may as well just walk back to the town from waterfalls too. Probably lucky we'd planned to do this as no taxis or buses went past until we were almost back in the town so we didn't have much of a choice anyway! It ended up being about 10km back to Boquete along the road which took us a good couple of hours, so by the time we got back, the four of us had well and truly earned another trip to the brewery. And it was happy hour, so it would have been rude not to!

    This time they had cider on tap, albeit not of the apple variety like Cat and I were after. Orange or passionfruit were the options so we had one of each and they went down a treat. The boys opted for the IPA and I've never seen Rich savour a beer so much! Admittedly it's probably one of the most expensive beers we've had this trip but still cheap by western standards.

    Our drinks were interrupted by the entrance of a lady who must have had a few screws loose, complete with two baby howler monkeys on her head. She saw our reactions and then proceeded to put a monkey each on Cat and I, which left us both a bit lost for words and uncomfortable. Not so much because we had monkeys on our head but more wondering why she had them in the first place. Central Americans have been known to keep all sorts of wild animals as pets. Supposedly she worked for an animal rescue place and would release them back into the wild when they reached three years old, but I wasn't sure why they needed to be at a bar. The more contact with people these animals have, the less likely they are to have a successful release into the wild. I can only hope this isn't a regular occurrence.

    Next up is the last bus journey of the trip, may as well make it a long one. It's one hour back to David via chicken bus, then seven hours to Panama City on the best bus we've seen in a while - a double decker coach, complete with air-conditioning. It seems we've done a full circle since Mexico!
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  • Day72

    Bocas del Toro, Panamá

    March 28, 2017 in Panama ⋅ ⛅ 19 °C

    Much R&R time and probably the last beach I'll see for a while! Gasp.

    Mike and I had a relatively stress free border crossing from Costa Rica although it was slightly like a treasure hunt at times, trying to figure out where the office booth was that we had to attend next as it was all a bit haphazard. I swear we ended up having to see about 5 or 6 different people, one for each stamp, each fee and passport check. Lucky there were many a kind local who pointed us into the right direction each time and thankfully didn't ask for tips. A couple of decent signs wouldn't go astray, just saying.

    Bocas del Toro is our first stop in Panama, which also happens to be our last country for this trip. Where does the time go? Panama looked very far away on the map back when we started in Mexico in January, but here we are, 10 and half weeks later.

    From the border it took a taxi, a bus and 2 boat trips until we reached Isla Bastimentos, one of the nine islands that make up Bocas del Toro archipelago. In all honesty we made a bit of a mistake by choosing to stay on this island in the beginning. Although the accommodation itself was nice, the surrounding area wasn't. We thought we would be able to swim off the jetties by our cabaña but it looked as though pipes from the houses were pumping some of their kitchen waste out there, potentially even the toilet waste too. In saying that the water was still mostly clear but it was still a firm no from us. With that we quickly realised it was going to be annoying and expensive staying there when most things we wanted to do or needed were on the main island - Isla Colon. Thankfully our cabaña was part of a group of 10 cabañas owned by the same people, so they were happy to allow us to move to the main island for the same price after our first night.

    Our move to Isla Colon gave us a smaller room but we had more freedom in terms of everything else, especially with the free use of bicycles from our accommodation. The island is actually quite large and the town itself is more built up than any of the other islands we've been to on this trip. Isla Colon has proper roads and all sorts of vehicles, hotels, guest houses, restaurants, surf shops and a weirdly excessive amount of supermarkets (really more the size of dairies).

    Much of our time here was spent lazing about reading and chilling out, living on island time. Mike and I are shattered at the moment from moving around so much and generally just not having a huge amount of downtime, so this was well and truly welcomed. Aside from a couple of nights in Ometepe, it is also the first time it had been just the two of us since we were in Mexico, way back at the end of January. It's crazy how at the beginning of this trip we thought we might be doing the whole time alone and it has ended up that we have had company from our friends more often than not!

    We did manage to the leave the hammock for a couple of adventures, one of which was taking the bicycles to Playa Bluff which is about 7km from where we were staying. The bike ride took us around the coast, past many smaller beaches and at one point the road turned to sand which certainly made things interesting. We reached Playa Bluff to find a huge stretch of beach at least two or three kilometres long, golden sand and clear turquoise water. And only one other person there that we could see. What! We were expecting this beach to be busy as it's one of the main beaches of the island, so I really have no idea where everyone who is staying on the island goes all day. Not that we were complaining.

    Rich and Cat have caught up to us again, or rather they are one day behind us so we are going to be playing a bit of cat and mouse with them for the rest of our time in Panama, crossing over at each stop. We met up and shared stories of our previous two weeks over a few cervezas at their cabaña which overlooks the airport runway and the soccer pitch that is right next to it. Who needs a TV? Cat and Rich sound like they enjoyed their extra time in Nicaragua and the fleeting visit they had through Costa Rica. The two of them are gearing up for the next stage of their adventure, which is to tackle South America. That one is going to have to wait until next time for us!

    Bocas del Toro was a good stop for some chill time but we are already missing the cleanliness of Costa Rica. It's such a shame people don't know how to look after these places well. Once again taking New Zealand's cleanliness for granted and the fact that people actually care about the environment. I feel like I talk about this a lot but it's sometimes just so hard to comprehend the mess that some of these people live amongst. You wonder if they realise or if that's just what they're used to. Either way I hope it will change someday.

    Anyway, enough ranting for now. We're heading back to the mainland, to the mountain town of Boquete and hopefully to a cooler climate!
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  • Day69

    Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica

    March 25, 2017 in Costa Rica ⋅ ⛅ 27 °C

    Caribbean vibes, a change in weather, beach time and one last dose of animals.

    Puerto Viejo is a small beachside town on the southern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and it also happens to be our last stop in this country. There's a few different beaches either side of the town, a couple of which have some decent surf so it's a popular place for surfers here. Otherwise there's not a heck of a lot going on but the Rastafarian culture is definitely apparent in this neck of the woods.

    Given we had the flexibility of a car and the hostel options weren't looking great, the four of us opted to stay in an Airbnb house about 4-5km south of the actual town for just a few extra bucks a night each. It was a wise decision and we ended up with a wee two bedroom place nestled in amongst the jungle with the best kitchen I've seen in a long while, (which we made some good use of) and essentially an outdoor living room. The perks of having an all year round warm climate I guess! We did have our fair share of insect visitors though, can't have it all. We spent much of our time here just relaxing as the previous week had been jam-packed with walks, activities and clocking up the driving hours.

    The first night rendered us some torrential rain which seems to have been a common theme in this country, a bit of a novelty considering we've seen next to none for the rest of the trip. The novelty soon wore off when we wanted to go and make the most of the beach, but instead we ventured to the nearby Cahuita National Park for a walk in the jungle by the beaches in the drizzling rain. In the beginning it was almost as if the sky and sea had merged into the same dull grey, but by the end of our leisurely stroll the day was trying to clear and the horizon became obvious again. Hooray!

    We were blessed with much better weather the following day so we kicked off the morning with a visit to the Jaguar Rescue Centre. This non-profit animal sanctuary and rescue centre was started by two vets who looked after a sick baby jaguar after its mother was murdered. Unfortunately the baby also died in the end, hence why they named the rescue centre after her. Nowadays they rehabilitate all sorts of different animals from birds, monkeys and sloths to crocodiles, wild cats and deer, with the view of reintroducing them back into the wild where possible. Any animal that couldn't go back to the wild for whatever reason, is given a permanent home at the centre. It is a slick run operation and it was great to visit a place that genuinely cared for the animals. You hear far too many stories of places that pose as rescue centres or sanctuaries but still treat the animals badly or don't try hard enough to get them back out there.

    The only way the centre makes money to care for the animals is from people like us visiting or just generally giving donations. The only way to visit involves doing a which allows you to meet all the animals and hear their stories of how they got there and their progress. Even though many of the species we had already seen in the wild, it was amazing to see these ones up close and to see each of their different personalities. One that was particularly cute was Rollo, a baby white-faced monkey who kept doing a little growl. The other was a peccary (similar to a pig) called Conchita who roams free in the centre and kept making cameo appearances as we made our way around, too funny. She was found alone when normally this type of pig travel in groups, so she was bought to the centre a couple of weeks prior. The other animals to mention are the sloths, of which they have many. Unfortunately a lot of animals in Costa Rica are either hurt or killed by the power lines as they're poorly insulated, so many sloth babies are often left without mothers which is how they end up at the centre. While it's obviously not great the reason they're at the centre in the first place, at least they're getting the help they need to get back into the wild when they're old enough and oh my goodness they make for cute viewing! The centre has many of the two-toed sloths which we haven't really seen and they are adorable so we were very happy to see them.

    While the centre doesn't currently have jaguars, they did have a few other types of wild cats, none of which we'd managed to see thus far as many of them are endangered, nocturnal or just much deeper in the forest. The margay was by far the cutest but also supposedly the most feral of the ones we saw. They're probably smaller than a medium sized dog but they can do some serious damage. The one currently there supposedly tried to take down a deer in the centre at one point before the staff came to the rescue, so you definitely wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of it. They also had an ocelot and a jaguarundi which had an abnormality in its spine which is currently awaiting surgery for.

    The Jaguar Rescue Centre was definitely a highlight and it was nice to know that the money was going somewhere useful. Who knows, maybe I'll come back to Puerto Viejo someday and help to volunteer here too. Playing with baby monkeys and sloths all day doesn't seem like too much of a tough gig!

    With the sun well and truly shining, the rest of our afternoon was spent at one of the best beaches in the area, Playa Cocles. There happened to be a surf competition on the same weekend so it was quite busy but made for some good entertainment in between body surfing the waves ourselves. Finally some sea water that was a refreshing temperature! Win.

    Puerto Viejo also marked our final destination with Shorty and Em as they head north to Tortuguero for a few days before flying back to London and we head south to Panamá. They've been some great travel buds and it's been awesome to catch up after a few months apart. We had a few overpriced beers (compared to the rest of Central America) at the beach to commemorate the occasion and bid farewell to them, Terry and Costa Rica the following morning.

    Costa Rica has been a completely different ball game to all the other Central American countries to date. It almost doesn't fit the mould. The prices for everything are much higher for a start, it's much cleaner in terms lack of rubbish, everything is lush and green - there are 35 national parks covering 11% of the country. There's animals to be seen everywhere and we saw more than our fair share of them. Some things here are more forward, some things are backwards. It's interesting. All in all we've had a great time getting amongst nature and having some freedom with a car for a couple of weeks was definitely a plus too.

    Pura Vida Costa Rica. Back to the bus game for us. Panamá here we come.
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  • Day67

    Cerro de la Muerte, Costa Rica

    March 23, 2017 in Costa Rica ⋅ ⛅ 26 °C

    Our big day of driving continued from Sierpe and took us high up into the mountains that cover a large proportion of the lower half of Costa Rica. The highest point took us to the top of Cerro de la Muerte at 3451m, which was a fair amount of hill climbing for old Terry. We were just happy we weren't covering this by foot. The change in altitude bought with it a massive drop in temperature and a complete change of weather. We started the day in stunning sunshine, blue skies, strong heat and humidity in Drake Bay but in the mountains we found ourselves in the clouds, lapping up the cool breeze and even a few stray drops of rain.

    The locals obviously make use of the altitude up here as we saw many different types of food crops and of course many a coffee plantation too. Costa Rica is another Central American country which is well known for its quality coffee and have an estimated 130,000 coffee farms. Subsequently it is one of their main exports, although not as much today as previously, considering at one point in the 1900s it accounted for 90% of all their exports.

    The rest of our journey was largely uneventful but long, with the driving shared between Mike and Shorty until we hit the other side of the capital San José where there was much more traffic. With just single lane roads and a double yellow line constantly, everyone seems to just pass each other anyway whenever there is the smallest gap to do so. Shorty followed suit but didn't realise that there also happened to be two police cars parked on the opposite side of the road. Subsequently they pulled us over and then proceeded to try and tell us that it would be a $600USD fine for passing on s double yellow line. This was when I wished I'd done a bit of reading up on how corrupt the cops are here and how best to play it but obviously we knew this was a big yarn. $600 was laughable but maybe some people would fall for that. Eventually with a bit of bartering and pretending that we only had $50 on us, the end result was somewhat more of a bribe so they didn't write a fine. We probably could have got away with less or not even paid at all but in broken Spanish and just wanting to get back on the road and be on our way, Shorty and Em took the hit.

    By this point this 10 hour journey was really becoming a chore. Get us to Puerto Viejo. Stat.
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  • Day67

    Sierpe, Costa Rica

    March 23, 2017 in Costa Rica ⋅ 🌙 27 °C

    And so the 10 hour journey across the country begins. Unfortunately this is as direct as the route can get because there's a huge national park in the middle of the country that prevents us going straight across. Cue the tiki tour that takes us in basically a semi-circle almost back to San José before going over to the Caribbean Coast. It would actually be faster for us to go through Panama but two border crossings would add to that time and also there's the minor detail that we aren't allowed to take Terry out of Costa Rica. 10 hour journey it is then.

    Torrential rain on our last evening in Drake Bay had us all a bit nervous about tackling the river crossings again on the road back out. Our host Lucy recommended us an alternative route that would supposedly shave an hour and half from our total time by taking a new road that doesn't even exist on Google maps. With no signs on the roads, we were instead armed with some fairly vague instructions, "cross the first river and take the second left past the airport, there's a school on the corner."

    Bring on the unpaved roads again and here goes.

    We crossed the first river and then looked out for any signs of an airport. We knew realistically it was probably just going to be an airstrip of some kind for small planes but saw no such thing. We reached the second road on the left and saw no school either. We looped back and saw a school a bit further down that second road on the left so took the plunge and hoped this was the one we were after. We couldn't really afford to take the wrong roads either as there were no petrol stations for miles and Terry was already on less than half a tank.

    The road took us in all sorts of directions around the hills but also gave us amazing views of the mangroves along this part of the coast and through forests again. We have been very lucky to see some amazing scenery here in Costa Rica. Everything is always so lush and green and clean. It's so nice to be somewhere clean again after a few months in some seriously grimy countries where they really just give no thought about throwing their rubbish wherever they please.

    15km took us almost an hour on the unpaved roads. It was somewhat soul destroying to see written on one of the first signs we'd seen in a while but eventually we joined up to a better road that got us covering ground more quickly. This route required us to take what Lucy described as a ferry, across one of the inlets by the small town of Sierpe. Mike and I had already pictured that this was going to be more of a barge like the one we had used in Guatemala, but we hadn't expected that it was going to be powered by a small boat attached to the side of it. Classic.

    Two workers guided us to drive onto the back of this barge with one other car for the short journey across. It was only 20 metres or so of water that required crossing so it was over within a couple of minutes but at least it provided some entertainment and a change of scenery for a short while before we continued on. Whether this route really saved us any time is yet to be seen but nonetheless it was nice to see a different area.

    A road block from a children's sports day in Sierpe had us taking a tiki-tour of the town's few streets before we finally arrived back to proper roads and the highway for the next leg of the journey. Happy to see the back of unpaved roads that's for sure.
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  • Day66

    Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

    March 22, 2017 in Costa Rica ⋅ ⛅ 28 °C

    This area is insane. It is honestly like a scene from the TV series, Lost - if you can handle the back breaking boat journey to get there, that is.

    Corcovado National Park occupies 40% of the Oso Peninsula and is hugely biodeverse making it home to half of Costa Rica's species. There was a time that people inhabited this area but in 1975 it was declared a national park and therefore these residents had to move elsewhere. Today it is dense forest, although the area we walked in was of course secondary forest so not so thick and the trees weren't as high as other places we have been.

    We had a 5:30am wake up call in order to leave the lodge by 5:45am to follow our host Lucy down to the beach (who said travelling was easy or relaxing?!). There we met with our guide for the day, Alberto and picked up our surprisingly large packed lunches. Where was all this food for Acatenango? These days it's mandatory to have a guide to visit Corcovado, presumably partly due to its immense size, a somewhat lack of marked trails and also to protect the park and its wildlife. Although it was a bit of a sting on the old budget, the plus side of having a guide is that they are able to tell you about the animals you see and they're more likely to know where to look to find them in the first place, not to mention that they usually carry around a telescope which makes it possible to get a decent view of said animals, especially when they're often far away or hidden amongst the trees.

    Drake Bay sits on the outskirts of the park so a boat trip was required to get us to the Sirena Ranger station, the area of the park where we were going to be walking. With no jetties in sight, the boats can only do wet landings at the beach so it was a barefoot affair as we clambered onto the boat with some companions for the day. And so began a one and a half hour boat journey that would liken to riding a camel at speed. Huge swells made for a bumpy and uncomfortable ride, definitely stirred up my old back injury yet again and probably gave everyone else a new one. It wasn't all bad though, we had stunning views of the coast and the jungle, not to mention an insane amount of deserted beaches. Backs and bums having definitely seen better days, we finally reached the bay we were after. Some decent surf (at least 2-3metres) provided a slightly hairy entrance but clearly it wasn't the driver's first rodeo as he manoeuvred the boat to surf the waves in so we made it to shore safely. Another wet dismount onto the beach meant we were battling with sandy feet to then put socks and shoes on top of to walk with for the day. Joy! After a quick sign-in at the tourist office which was really just a couple of sticks and a tarpaulin, we were on our way.

    Within ten minutes of walking we had already seen numerous animals - coatis, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, some ground based birds I can't remember the name of and one of the largest grasshoppers I've ever seen, literally the length of my hand or possibly even longer. The morning continued with the guide helping us find all sorts of animals including a sloth and it's baby (so adorable) as well as the well camouflaged red eyed tree frog, which is brightly coloured red, blue and orange underneath but when sleeping as we saw it, you can only see bright green.

    While we've seen many animals now multiple times in some of the other national parks in Costa Rica, it is still interesting to go to different parks because we've had different experiences with the animals at each park. For Corcovado one of the highlight was watching a big group of spider monkeys having a fight in one of the trees and making an almighty racket. At one point one of the monkeys fell or was thrown by one of the others, a decent distance out of the tree to the point where our guide had to go and make sure he hadn't died or was lying hurt on the forest floor. Unable to spot him, we carried on with the assumption that it just looked worse from afar and the monkey was ok.

    Crossing a couple of streams, we found a Cayman which is like a small crocodile, lurking with its head above water. Even though they're much smaller they still manage to look menacing. A little walk longer and we reached a river mouth where we stopped to have an early lunch whilst birds circled overhead and loads of tiny crabs all with unique shells scrambled on the sand underfoot.

    After lunch we continued on our mission to find the elusive Baird's Tapir, the largest mammal in Central America and one of the animals we hadn't managed to see in Costa Rica yet. Unfortunately they're endangered which obviously makes them a little harder to find, but Corcovado was going to be our best bet. During our hunt we found some squirrel monkeys, also endangered and only found in a small area of Costa Rica. We saw one of these in Manuel Antonio bouncing in the trees by the beach but this time there were two just resting in the trees which supposedly is not common to see as they're usually busy bodies as their name would suggest. Our guide strayed off the path a few times to check by streams and rivers as tapirs can swim and also will go to water to drink. Still no luck. We'd mostly given up on the chance of seeing these creatures when suddenly we stumbled across a mother and baby sleeping not far off the one of the paths.

    The guide took us quietly closer to we could each get a better look one at a time and have the opportunity to take photos. The tapirs were much bigger than I expected, I'm not sure why I had in my head that they were like the size of small pig. They're bigger than a large pig but smaller than a rhino or hippo. Supposedly their closest relatives are actually rhinos and horses. After a few minutes of us being there, the baby got up and started walking away and calling to the mother. They have a very strange call, almost like a high pitched squeal which really doesn't match what they look like. Tapirs have bad eyesight so they rely mainly on hearing and smell to find each other and find their way around. It turned out the baby had sensed another male tapir coming. Normally tapirs are solitary animals aside from mother and babies so sometimes the males attack the babies but in this case he just ended up settling down to sleep near them. This is usually the only time you see more than one together.

    Everyone was happy that we'd managed to spot the tapirs when we'd almost given up and we continued our way back to the boat on a slightly different route, when suddenly Alberto was shouting "snake!". Again this was the first we'd seen in Costa Rica, but blink and you'd easily miss it. This one was a tiger rat snake which moved very quickly in the leaves on the forest floor but we managed to catch a couple of glimpses of it before it slithered away. Our weird streak of finding animals we hadn't seen before continued with an anteater who bounded across the path in front of the guide and Mike who were at the front of the group, before proceeding to jump up and climb a tree. Such bizarre looking creatures they are.

    Our boat was waiting for us when we got back to the beach and so followed another sketchy exit from the bay through big surf which had us hanging on for dear life when it almost tipped us out a couple of times. Against the odds we were back at Drake Bay by early afternoon which gave us time to hit the beach and have a swim and a bodysurf at what is basically a deserted stretch of beach.

    The four of us hit a bit of a wall about where in Costa Rica to head to next. The idea of climbing Chirripo the highest peak in the country, was thrown around but it was by no means a small adventure and would have taken the best part of two days which none of us were really sure we were up to. With not much else we wanted to see or do in the middle of Costa Rica, we decided instead of wasting a couple of days just to break up the travel it was best to take the hit for one day and take the 10 hour journey over to Puerto Viejo, a beach town on the Caribbean Coast.

    Bring on the cabin fever.
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  • Day65

    Bahía Drake, Costa Rica

    March 21, 2017 in Costa Rica ⋅ ☀️ 13 °C

    It's one of the most isolated places in Costa Rica but Bahía Drake (pronounced drah-kay) was well worth the effort to get to, especially as a jumping off point to visit Corcovado National Park.

    It took us about 4 hours to drive from Manuel Antonio to Drake Bay on a somewhat roundabout route. On the map it looks like the road is right on the coast but in reality we only caught glimpses of it every now and then between palm tree plantations and forests. Eventually the road goes inland to Piedras Blancas, where we turned off (well actually we missed the turn originally didn't we, Shorty!?) back to the west towards Peninsula de Osa. This route took us past Golfo Dulce, but again we only periodically had glimpses of this stunning gulf between the trees. After driving a decent while without seeing much of anyone or anything except for forests, the town of Rincón was an unexpectedly large settlement for Costa Rica but it also saw the end of the paved roads. A quick pitstop for a cup of joe and a fruit shake and we buckled in for the last 20km or so stretch on unpaved roads.

    These unpaved roads didn't have any signs and we frequently reached a fork in the road that we'd just have to take a gamble with because even with our google maps on, we weren't really matching up with being where we should be. Terry had to take on three river crossings, for which we were thanking our past selves for doing the research on needing to hire a 4WD. Supposedly in wet season the road becomes impassable and I can definitely believe that. The rivers were still quite deep in parts so it took a bit of guess work on where best to drive. We were just hoping there was no more rain while we were in the area! Perhaps these roads all join up eventually or we have some good intuition but we somehow made it to Drake Bay just before nightfall and managed to get a quick glimpse of the beautiful deserted beach. What is this place!

    After driving for so long without seeing signs of much civilisation, it was slightly bizarre to suddenly find the village at Drake Bay. Like other places we've been to in Costa Rica, it was quite small and mainly just one street with a dairy, fruit and vege store, a handful of restaurants, tour companies and the like.

    We pulled up to Paradise Lodge, our home for the next couple of nights to find the lovely owner Lucy and our wooden hut (or cabina as they're called here) amongst a lovely garden come forest. For less than the price of a hostel dorm, it was a no brainer to stay in a nicer place and have a private room for the four of us, especially after a couple of nights in the prison cell dorm at Manuel Antonio. Lucy quickly got us organised onto a tour for Corcovado National Park the following morning and then explained about the animals we might see even just in the garden here. In the end we didn't spend much time there in the daylight so only really saw a handful of birds and a rogue toad! Supposedly they saw a tayra (weasel like thing) while we were on our tour though. It still amazes me how many animals there are in this country and the fact that you can see them amongst areas of civilisation so often.

    We had hoped to make use of the simple outdoor kitchen and do some of our own cooking but the prices at the supermarket (really just a dairy) weren't great nor was the produce so we figured we'd just stick with going out. We had to succumb to the hamburgesas again. Help. Thankfully the comida rapida (fast food) place we went to also knew how to make a mean fruit smoothie. It's all about balance right...?

    Next post: Corcovado
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  • Day64

    Cataratas Nauyaca, Costa Rica

    March 20, 2017 in Costa Rica ⋅ ☀️ 23 °C

    A visit to a stunning waterfall, but not before a horrific walk that left the four of us dripping in sweat, looking like the waterfall we were trying to get to.

    This post is a bit out of order just to make things confusing but think of it more as a side post. As I wrote previously, with messing up our timing in Manuel Antonio to visit the national park, (i.e being there on a Monday, the only day of the week the park is closed) we had to do a bit of a switch around of our plans. We'd intended to visit a waterfall called Cataratas Nauyaca on our journey from Manuel Antonio further south, but ended up doing this as a day trip instead.

    The road took us past huge palm tree plantations and subsequently a palm oil factory. We're unsure if this is an eco-friendly one, but that's the hope. It looked rather ominous though. Costa Rica is the leading producer of palm oil in the Americas and while there are global ethical standards to be followed in terms producing palm oil whilst still protecting the environment, not all companies actually follow these. Some companies here have been in trouble for degrading the environment plus child and immigrant labour issues. Sigh.

    On a brighter note, we found another cheap (for Costa Rica) roadside restaurant that did good and cheap food for lunch on the way and then ended up returning again for dinner because when you find a good one, just stick with it.

    In hindsight, it probably wasn't our wisest move to embark on this one hungover and in the brutal heat in the middle of the day. This waterfall is on private land so we purchased our tickets from the grumpy woman at the desk and set out to walk to the falls. We quickly realised she hadn't actually told us where to go nor were there any signs, so had to go back to the office and ask, much to her displeasure it seemed! We left our car on the main road because the woman also didn't inform us that we could have driven the first kilometre or two and parked our car in a carpark. Normally this wouldn't be such a big deal but this first kilometre or so of the walk happened to be a rather steep hill which was fine for the way down but the whole time, we were thinking how bad it was going to be walking back.

    The rest of the walk was undulating, through farms and across streams. Normally it would probably be quite an enjoyable 5-6km walk, but on this particular day it felt like hell to all of us in the sweltering heat and humidity. It would have been about 35 degrees and humidity that day must have been at least 80-90% and honestly, I don't think I've ever wanted a swim more in my life. I'm not sure I've ever been so sweaty in my life either. It took us about an hour and each kilometre there was a sign telling you how many more there were to go. I'm not sure if this was a good or bad thing, but each kilometre began to feel longer and longer and signs further and further apart.

    The relief of finally reaching the waterfall was immense. Shoes and clothes couldn't be discarded fast enough and we scrambled over the rocks into an amazingly refreshing pool at the base of the waterfall. Bliss.

    The waterfall itself was stunning with multiple different layers and levels. You could sit underneath it and have a free shower or water massage due to the power of the water. In some ways it was surprising the amount of water here because there are so many other waterfalls and rivers that are just completely dry at this time of year - it being dry season and all - but definitely weren't complaining. There seemed to be many American school or university groups and families around, perhaps this is a common area to be holidaying in for them. Some of the lads scaled the waterfall and jumped off various levels which was fun to watch.

    We spent an hour or two at the waterfall and then succumbed to the fact that we were going to have to endure that walk all over again. A quick visit to the upper section of the waterfall that you're not able to swim in and then we were on our way. The walk back was actually much more pleasurable and seemed to pass much quicker, possibly because we had cooled down and the day was cooling down too. Until we reached that beast of a last hill, that is. Our somewhat higher spirits were quickly dashed especially with cars driving past us. Even the two-wheel drive cars were battling to get up the hill on that dirt road.

    Normally you'd probably say a beer was well deserved after this day but after the previous night, none of us could face one. It's fair to say we were all well and truly pooped!
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