Thursday, February 26, 2015

Spotting Quetzals in Boquete

February 16th-18th, 2015

I was glad that I had scheduled a shuttle out of Bocas as it was another rainy day as I departed.  As we waited at the dock for our water taxi to begin the first leg of the journey, a skiff with four military men towed in another boat.  It turned out to be one of the two boats of the company I was travelling with so although I was called to get on the first boat to head to Almirante, we had to wait about an hour there as that boat whipped back to Bocas and returned with the remaining passengers and then finally we were off.

Sitting beside me was Chris from Sacramento and across the aisle was Coby hailing from Montana with his fiancĂ©e Amanda, and they had just gotten engaged the day before!  Behind us were some other American characters, skater looking Ryan with his girlfriend Jenny and his sister Mandy.  The trip reminded me a bit of my shuttle back in Guatemala as it turned into a bit of a party as the bus climbed its way up into the clouds on the windy road snaking through the rainforest.  Once we crossed the summit we were greeted by mostly clear skies revealing the dry leeside of the mountain range.  As we continued downhill towards the city of David (hey, great name), we could see the huge bank of clouds seemingly stuck on the mountains.  Then came the rainbow.  It got more and more intense and lasted more than a half hour as we started to cruise back north into the mountains.

Boquete itself is a bit of a strange town.  Squeezed by a valley it has an upper and lower section that are quite narrow so there are only 2-3 main streets running north south.  My first night I stayed in the Mamallena Hostel which was associated with the shuttle company.  It was a decent place, right on the border of the central park of town.  I discovered a good restaurant next door with decent pizza and pretty wicked live music almost every night.  The core of the group were locals but they invited expats up to play.  There were a couple of older guys who wailed on the electric guitar and this one white fellow, probably in his 30s with dreads down to the back of his knees (that’s commitment!) stood up and belted out some great solos on his trumpet.  Never judge a book by its cover!

The primary activities in this small mountain town revolve around hiking.  The big one is to climb up Baru Volcano where, if you’re lucky, you can see both the Caribbean and the Pacific at the same time.  Everyone I spoke with who recently hiked it stated that they had not been able to see both bodies of water.  Add to that that the trail up essentially was a bumpy gravel road and I have to admit I was not enticed to do it however now I’m kicking myself as this guy I met at the hostel named Eric from Ottawa asked if I wanted to join him, starting at midnight (in order to summit at sunrise) and I declined as I planned to hike the famous “Sendero de las Quetzales” trail the following day.  Turns out he did see both oceans…damn it.

So the Quetzales trail, named after the strikingly colourful bird that is not only the national bird of Guatemala but also the name of its currency, supposedly requires a guide, or at least it’s highly recommended.  A few years back a couple of Dutch women in their early twenties got lost and months later their bones were discovered.  However most places charge $60-75 for a guide, for one person, which is a bit exorbitant for a simple hike.  I decided to first hike the “Hidden Waterfalls”, a trail that does not require a guide with three waterfalls to visit.  I hopped in a cab for the 6-7 kilometre ride out of town and just ten seconds after we started off the driver almost ran over a 55 year old white woman.  She was slowly walking across the road, some ten meters from the crosswalk and happened to be just in the blind spot of the roof strut on the left side.  It didn’t help that I had just asked the guy if he spoke English and he was trying to respond.  I saw the impending calamity but clammed up with my Spanglish and just said “Whoa, whoa…” and finally he stopped, as he just moved into the lady at about 5 km/hr.  She was not happy (even though I think she was partly to blame) and took her plastic grocery bag and slammed it twice against the hood and some plastic plate or something flew out onto the road.  We just continued on.  No harm no foul I guess…at least in Central America.

The cabbie ended up dropping me at the wrong waterfalls hike, one about 1.2 kilometers before the one I intended on hiking.  I didn’t realize this until I’d already paid my $3 entrance fee but figured it didn’t really matter, it looked like a lovely valley to hike up and the lady claimed it was lovely and to keep my eyes open for the lovely Quetzal.  Part way into the walk I passed a couple of older women and a man who were obviously birders.  They each carried binoculars around their necks and were peering up into the trees.  I asked them what they had seen and it was a flycatcher, not the big prized Quetzal.  I continued on and just a few hundred meters ahead I spotted a blue and red coloured bird on a naked branch.  It didn’t sport the long feathered tail of the male Quetzal but I wondered whether it might be a female.  The bird then flew to a slightly lower branch and was mostly hidden behind leaves.  The three bird watchers finally came up the trail and shortly after I tried to point out the bird to them, a male flew up and perched on a nearby branch, confirming my earlier guess.  Awesome, a mating, or at least courting couple.  One of the ladies was kind enough to lend me her binocs and wow, it is an impressive looking bird.

A nice ranch house at the start of the trail:

The view up the valley:

The female Quetzal:

The male has joined.  He doesn't look too stunning in this photo from my little point and shoot camera, but trust me...gorgeous.  The female is just above him to the right, behind some leaves.

Some cool trees:

I continued on to the waterfalls which were nice, but perhaps I’m getting a bit waterfalled out on this trip.  I only spent a few minutes in the chilling mist before beginning my walk back.  About five minutes later I ran into Montana Coby which was a nice surprise.  He tried to entice me back to the falls with the offer of a beer in his backpack but I ended up meeting up with him and Amanda later that night back at my favourite Boquete restaurant with the pizza and music.

My first view of the waterfalls:

I changed hostels after the first night to one called “La Polilla”, which means the moth.  Kind of an odd name for a hostel.  It is affiliated with the original hostel that I had booked online called “El Refugio del Rio” and I had received confirmation from the third party website but it turns out there is a disconnect there and they were in fact full.  However a guy named Juan emailed me and offered a room in the moth place, which was obviously run by the same owners.  It turned out to be a lovely little place, managed by Argentinian Juan and his girlfriend Nati along with help from a young couple from Ontario, Jamie and Dan.  They were lovely people and although the place is a work in progress, I enjoyed my stay there.

La Polilla Hostel:

The view looking back the other way:

Paps, the hostel dog:

The backyard area:

A sculpted tree:

Nati (with the pot on her head), Jamie and Juan...beautifying the place one day at a time:

I had still planned on hiking the Sendero de las Quetzales trail but the night before I was going to go I was crossing the main street coming back from the grocery store and smashed my foot into a small embankment on the side of the road causing me to fall down and crush my newly purchased eggs.  Wearing only flip flops I did some good damage to my big toe plus I blew out the flip, or was it the flop.  These suckers were from India and I’d only paid $4 for them and they’d lasted about 2 years so they owed me nothing but I would need to quickly replace them.  So the hike was out, no point in hobbling around a trail looking for a bird I had seen the day before.

A chilled out day rounded off with a final pizza dinner at Baru Restaurant finished my stay in Boquete, it was time to head southeast to Santa Catalina, to hopefully scuba dive with whale sharks!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Bocas Del Toro

February 12th-15th, 2015

For backpackers entering Panama from Costa Rica, the natural first stop is Bocas Del Toro.  I took the local bus to the border and while waiting in the line to exit Costa Rica, I met a lovely German couple, Albert and Regina.  It took surprisingly long to get our exit stamps considering how few people were in front of us and when we reached the one counter in operation it only took 30 seconds each.  We walked across a rusted old railroad bridge which is now only for pedestrian use, the vehicles have a newer, dedicated bridge that runs parallels to this one.  There was no line up on the other side and after filling out the standard entry form and paying a $3 entry fee, we were in Panama.

Bananas,bananas, bananas....

And these are the lovely houses that the workers get to live in...thanks Chiquita!

I keep running into McGiver...I could be a celebrity down here:

About to leave Costa Rica:

 "Border-line Selfie"

A couple of local bus rides later and we’d reached Almirante where a water taxi was needed to make it over to Isla Colon, where Bocas Town is located.  The boat ride was about half an hour and the water was relatively smooth.  I bid adieu to Albert and Regina as they were off to locate their hostel.  Meanwhile I needed to figure out when I could get another water taxi over to Bastimentos Island where I had a reservation at the Bocas Island Lodge, a recommendation from Australian Jacinta, whom I’d met while zip lining back in Monteverde.  Then it was time for a late lunch.

This is the men's bathroom at the water taxi dock...note: it's just a missing plank to aim through so your pee just goes into the ocean.  So glad I didn't have to go #2!

With Albert and Regina on the water taxi: Bocas Town:

With my first Panama beer:

I ended up having my own water taxi over, for ten bucks.  Not too bad as one place had quoted me $15.  A big fancy yacht and some large catamarans were anchored at Red Frog Marina on Bastimentos, must be nice.  Although if I had the money to buy a big yacht, that wouldn’t be the one.  It looked like it lacked great deck space.  And everyone knows that a good deck is important!

The big yacht:

Red Frog Marina:

The hostel turned out to be pretty decent.  I liked that each bed of the bunk beds in the dorm had its own light, plug in and small shelf.  On the negative side it had a kitchen although when the place was full, its size was inadequate and I found the volunteer staff not too helpful and the bathrooms and kitchen were not cleaned frequently enough.  Thankfully there was a cool restaurant/lounge that had a pool table, ping pong, massive Jenga and some TV screens and it was a great place to chill out on my middle day there when it poured with rain for most of the afternoon.

A path from the hostel led down to Red Frog Beach which was pretty stunning.  Nice sand, some turquoise blue water, an island off in the distance and not too many gringos!  A few restaurants set back amongst the trees offered sunbeds which I took advantage of one afternoon to do some reading although I had a bit of an incident with the guy tending to the beds.  I had sat down at one sunbed, with another one beside it under a parasol.  The guy told me it was ten bucks for the day.  It seemed steep to me but I relented and handed him a $20 bill, expecting ten back.  He started to walk away and I figured he thought that I wanted both beds so I told him that I only needed one.  He fished out his wad of money in his pocket and proceeded to hand me just five dollars back.  Huh?  Shouldn’t I get ten?  He stated that the beds were only $5 each.  I told him that I had handed him a twenty but he was emphatic that I had given him a ten.  I was certain of what I gave him.  Panama uses American dollars as its currency and it baffles me that it’s all the same colour, green.  The most powerful currency in the world, and the most easily confused.  The dude counted his money and affirmed that I had given him a ten but I couldn’t follow, nor trust his accounting.  He started to get angry at me, calling me a liar and stormed off.  What a dick!  Oh well, I’m out $10, deal with it.

Lovely Red Frog Beach:

This is the life Stimpy!

For the entire afternoon I noticed him offer to get drinks for other tourists but he never once approached me.  Seemed as though I was a second class citizen.  I decided not to give any more money to the establishment so I would wander next door to purchase my beer.  Later I got up to go to the bathroom and found out that they charged $1 for that!  An older American was going into the toilet with a key from the bar and he said he’d just leave it unlocked for me but when he came out, a 12 year old local girl snatched it from him and told me I had to pay.  Screw this, I’ll go find a bush thanks.  I recounted my experience so far with this place to the American and he told me that I should talk with the owner, Scott, as he “runs a good show”.  Later on I did hear an American, in his mid-forties, talking with some tourists and it was pretty obvious that it was Scott.  I told him of my earlier incident and he said he had heard of it and in the end he gave me the missing ten bucks.  I relayed that it wasn’t so much about the money, but how it had been dealt with by his employee and he would look into it, as obviously it’s not good for business.

The next day the beach wasn't quite so inviting:

Can you spot the surfer enjoying it though?

This was the best I could do...not bad...

I had only booked a couple of nights in the hostel and the first evening it was barely half full however when I decided to ask for a third night, it turned out that it was fully booked.  It was the weekend and I didn’t realize it was Carnaval time.  Oh yeah, I’m in Latin America and they take this last blowout before Lent pretty seriously.  Already having booked a shuttle van to take me to Boquete on Sunday morning, I frantically searched online for somewhere to stay in Bocas Town.  I lucked out, although it was a pricy private room at $50 whereas I was paying $18 in the hostel.  Oh well, it’s just for one night and it was probably best to be in the town and not trying to catch a water taxi from Bastimentos first thing on Sunday morning to get the 11am shuttle.

This is more up my alley...

I was surprised that there was a little airport in Bocas Town:

Coming into Bocas Town:

This is looking through a cross shaped hole into a cemetery.  I found it interesting that people aren't buried, but put in sarcophagi above ground, which are tiled with the type of tiles you'd expect to see in your bathroom.

I chilled out for a bit on a dock near my new hostel:

After settling in at the Mar e Iguana Hostel I walked to a nearby grocery store and who would I run into but Regina and Albert, from crossing the border a couple of days earlier.  They happened to be staying at the same place, in fact in the room next to mine.  Later that afternoon we ventured downtown to see what Carnaval activities were going on.  As we walked down the long street that runs parallel to the single strip airport on the island, we saw a guy dressed up in some kind of demon looking costume, dancing along his way.  Soon there were three of them, then more and more.  Loud music was blaring as these devils danced around on the street, surrounded by onlookers.  Some of them had sticks with little whips on the end of them that they thrashed about.  The odd local, not in costume but sporting a whistle seemed to be taunting the demons, entering the oblong circle and blowing piercing shrills at the fiendish dancers.  Occasionally they would turn and attempt to lash out at the ankles of the taunters.  We even saw one seemingly intoxicated devil whip another devil who was not at all pleased about it and an argument had to be broken up by some bystanders.  Seemed like fairly serious business as occasionally camo geared police would step in to moderate tempers.  On the opposite side of the street were a dozen temporary stands selling beer and most of them were blaring out their own music, each one trying to drown out their neighbours which was a bit annoying.  I mentioned that we should get a cerveza and was tempted to dash across the 15 feet of open space, across the area that the demons were dancing instead of the long and crowded walk around the perimeter.  Albert insisted that we take the long way and that turned out to be a very wise move as the beer lady told us that entering into the perimeter was tempting fate as you were then fair game for the demons to try and whip at your lower legs.  What a strange festival!

I saw this bit of a "fixer upper" on my walk downtown:

This is "Hippie Park"...all these folks twirling poys, juggling and hula hooping:

The good and the bad, you choose which is which...

The first devil dancing:

This looked like "el jefe" of the devils:

Regina finally braved getting her pic with a devil:

The Devils' Dance:

After almost an hour, and with the demon dancing scheduled to go on for another half hour, we decided to go for a drink and later for dinner.  While eating in an American style sportsbar/saloon we were entertained by a troupe of dancers who came in and proceeded to strut their stuff on the bar.  Nice way to finish…

One of the dancers...yes, he's decided to play for the other team but his enthusiasm was infectious:

Happy Carnaval!

Snorkeling in Cahuita

February 9th-11th, 2015

I had contemplated camping and hiking in Corcovado National Park but decided that the three days required to do it would not give me enough time in Panama, so seeing anteaters and tapirs would have to wait.  Instead I hopped on a local bus to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica.  I changed buses in the port town of Limon and headed south to a sleepy little town called Cahuita.  Most tourists go a little further south to Puerto Viejo which is a bit more of a party town but Cahuita has a national park with coral reefs, perfect for snorkelling.

Reaching the Caribbean:

The hostel I stayed at, Hakuna Matata, was right next door to the bus station which was convenient.  It was a decent place but I had read reviews on TripAdvisor complaining about a big stinky dog…and they weren’t kidding.  I love dogs but this guy was super smelly, but still well loved by the owners, so he didn’t need any extra lovin’ from me.

The stinky canine...he's massive too...probably weighs 140 pounds!

I wandered around town to get my bearings, then ventured down to the beach to read for a bit.  What a gorgeous place to hang out, nice white sand bordered by palm trees and warm turquoise blue water.  Later I made my arrangements for snorkelling the next morning as it’s mandatory to do it with a guide, plus you need a boat to get there.  I finished the afternoon with a few beers at the Coco Bar/Restaurant, on one of the main corners of town.  A super happy and enthusiastic acoustic guitar player kept me there a little longer as he belted out some good tunes.

The beach, looking at Cahuita National Park:

With a beer..

A fairly typical house in town.

I loved this wooden bike:

The snorkeling turned out to be some of the best I’ve ever done.  It was relatively shallow water populated with tons of different fish, magnificent coral of varying types, I saw one big lobster and the highlight was two sting rays, the first I’ve seen while snorkeling.  I sure wish I had purchased a waterproof camera back in Phoenix when we got one for my niece Brenna for Christmas.  So unfortunately all of the awesome underwater action is only on my mental camera.

Our set off point:

Motoring out:

Other snorkelers: 

Post swimming:

We stopped on the tip of the park's peninsula for some fruit.  What a gorgeous place:

The view back to the beach I was at the day before:

They have signs not to feed the monkeys but this guy got a hold of a cantaloupe skin and worked it for all he could get:

Later that afternoon I caught a local bus to Puerto Viejo, I wanted to check out what all the buzz about the place was.  It is a nice town and definitely there is more going on than in Cahuita but I was happy with my choice of where I was staying.

The view from Puerto Viejo back towards Cahuita:

I loved this guy's fro on the left and the "baba" on the right:

Now it’s time for Panama!  Panama-ah-oh-ah-ah-ah! (cue Van Halen)