Tamarindo, Costa Rica
The honeymoon is ending.
We’re sitting on a beach in Tamarindo, Costa Rica, enjoying the warm weather and not doing much else until we fly back to NYC on Sunday, one year exactly since we drove off to Niagara Falls on a snowy day last April.
After thirty-three countries and seven continents it’s time to come home.
Its been a great journey, made far more memorable by the people we’ve met along the way.
And thanks to everyone who’s been following our blog – we hope you enjoyed reading it as much as we did putting it together.
All the best -
Riyad and Sarah
It’s amazing how much there was to see and do in Costa Rica.
Its lush climate, mountains, and Caribbean and Pacific coasts create a varied terrain that support one of the highest number of animal species per area in the world. Between wildlife watching and myriad outdoor activities, there were not two days that were the same during our two weeks spent exploring a small country a third the size of New York State.
Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, was not the most interesting of cities, but by reaching it via a grueling fifteen hour bus ride from Panama City, Sarah and I needed a few days there to recuperate. Walking through the center of town that was closed to vehicles, we were pleasantly surprised with the city’s parks, squares, and architecture. Our visit coincided with opening night for the San Jose national orchestra, so we were fortunate to see them perform at the city’s most famous building, the Teatro Nacional.
After two nights in San Jose we made the trip four hours north to the Arenal Volcano. Thought to be extinct for four hundred years, Arenal erupted violently in 1968, burying three local villages and killing 87 people. Survivors three miles away renamed their town La Fortuna – being fortunate to be alive – but were even more fortunate when tourists began streaming in to see the the lava that continued to flow.
A year ago the lava stopped flowing.
While it could start again tomorrow, it could also be another four hundred years. Nonetheless, pictures of red hot magma glowing in the night remain displayed all over La Fortuna and hotels charge more for rooms with volcano views.
The volcano was still an impressive sight.
Near the volcano were hiking trails and an observatory where at least ten different scientific metrics are used to forewarn another eruption, from monitoring of seismic activity to the use of “tiltmeters” that precisely measure the angle of the ground.
Near La Fortuna are several naturally heated hot springs. Sarah and I visited the nicest one called Tabacon featuring pools of 100 degree water surrounded by waterfalls, gardens, and vines. They were very relaxing, especially after a day of hiking, and we returned for a second visit the following day.
We reached Cano Negro, a refuge close to the Nicaraguan border and one of the best places to spot Costa Rican wildlife, by a day tour from La Fortuna.
On our way our eagle-eyed driver thought he saw a three toed sloth on the side of the road. He pulled over, and sure enough we found the world’s slowest mammal lazing in the tree. Slowest animal or not, we didn’t see another one during our time in the country.
At Cano Negro, a boat took us on a two hour cruise on Rio Frio where our guide pointed out birds and animals hiding in plain sight.
The caiman is technically not a crocodile, being smaller and less aggressive. But he was still intimidating in scuttling quickly across land and floating in the water with only his eyes exposed.
Jesus Christ lizards, named for their ability to run across water without sinking, were common, but none were startled by monkeys and had a chance to demonstrate their skill.
Four different species of monkeys are found in Costa Rica – we found the three that were endemic to Cano Negro.
Howler monkeys, the world’s loudest land animals, sat on the high branches of trees in the hot sun. We thought they were too tired to yell, but as we cruised away we heard their low pitched rumble call after us.
Spider monkeys put on a show.
Capuchin monkeys were very skittish and hard to find. But after seeing a rumbling of branches in a tree, our guide hushed us and one eventually peeked out.
From La Fortuna we headed to Santa Elena, a tiny town in the high elevation Monteverde region. Roads to Monteverde are in very bad condition, but we cut the journey in half by crossing Laguna de Arenal, the largest lake in the country and major source of drinking water and electricity. We had one last glimpse of the Arenal Volcano, and saw the lava still hadn’t appeared.
Costa Rica’s cloud forests are aptly named, being at such a high elevation that the clouds lie below the top of the trees. The Santa Elena Cloud Forest was only a twenty minute drive from the town of the same name, but the weather so much colder that we needed our jackets.
Our guide Jorge walked us through the trails describing birds, insects, trees, and plants that grew on trees. We didn’t have the best of luck seeing birds even with Jorge’s tripod mounted telescope, but we heard several. Jorge knew over a hundred bird calls and was able to communicate with them – they would chirp, he would call out, and they would chirp back. Sarah and I were very impressed, often not being able to tell the difference between the two.
We had more luck spotting wildlife during a night walk through the lower elevation Refugio de Vida Silvestre. Animals were camouflaged, yet our guide Jesus constantly surprised us by shining a light into the middle of nowhere to show a tiny creature.
He had us all gather tightly around him before prodding a hole in tree bark. Out scurried an angry orange kneed tarantula.
On the bark of tree was a dime sized tree frog.
Right next to our path Jesus spotted an extremely dangerous side striped palm pit-viper.
Several birds were sleeping in trees with their heads tucked under their wings. They were hard to recognize, looking just like a clump of feathers, but they were at least still.
Jesus picked up different insects, showing us ways to make them glow, jump a foot into the air, or curl up into a ball or into a stick. He spotted a few more mammals that were barely visible, including a skunk and a pair of two toed sloths.
Monteverde not only had an abundance of wildlife, but was the original place where zip lining was introduced to Costa Rica. Sarah and I signed up at Extremo, one of many operations in town, which supposedly had the fastest and longest lines.
After being fitted for harnesses and helmets and signing our lives away, we climbed a platform, were strapped onto the line, and took off down the steel cable. It was exhilarating although each line lasted only a few seconds before we had to brake by pulling on the cable with our gloved hands.
After a dozen lines we followed signs directing us to the “Tarzan Swing”. At the front of the line I didn’t know what to expect – not even when I was being strapped in. I was given a small nudge and well, the video speaks for itself.
I watched from below as each person swung down one by one – screaming more like little girls than Tarzan – while waiting for Sarah to join us. She eventually did, but by taking the stairs.
Sarah didn’t have any problems doing the Superman zip line at the end, where our backs and feet were strapped to the cable and we zoomed down like the Man of Steel. With views of the canopies six hundred feet below, we felt like we were flying.
Needing something more low-key we visited a coffee farm in the valleys near Monteverde. The three acre farm was run by a lone farmer; our guide was his half-American daughter. He completed the entire farming cycle himself: planting the trees, picking the fruit, peeling, and then drying the seeds for export. His coffee was pooled with neighboring farmers’ and sold to a distributer in Montana who marketed them under the Monteverde Fair Trade label.
Although we had seen the gamut of Costa Rican wildlife, we were a bit disappointed not having encountered any colorful frogs. At the Ranario frog pond in Santa Elena, we were able to see many of the country’s species, albeit behind glass. Frogs are mostly nocturnal, so we showed up at night and shone flashlights into each tank to see them hopping about. Most turned their backs after we blinded them, but a few remained for pictures, including the poison dart frog…
…and the rufous eyed stream frog.
Barro Honda is a little visited national park near the town of Nicoya that features a large network of underground caves. Sarah and I rented an SUV and drove to the park along with a couple we had met on our coffee tour.
Descending into the cave required a climb down a sixty foot ladder while the park ranger held a safety rope above.
Inside were typical stuff found in caves: stalactite, stalagmite, and limestone that resembled the Virgin Mary or various animals if you squinted correctly. We squeezed through tight passages and into small rooms, made all the more difficult having spent the last year eating our way across seven continents.
After climbing back into the sunlight we both agreed that we’d had our fill of physical activities. It was time to head towards the Pacific Ocean to take in the country’s biggest attraction that we had so far missed: the beach.
Panama City, Panama
Portobelo, on Panama’s Caribbean coast, has great historical significance as a once mighty Spanish port, but Sarah and I weren’t interested in seeing its ruins. We had arrived at its harbor after five days sailing the rough seas, and in need of a shower and a proper bed, headed straight to Panama City.
Panama’s capital, apart from the language, could have passed for an American suburb. New buildings and downtown were similar, and roads were not pedestrian friendly, lacking sidewalks or cars that slowed for us to cross. Everywhere were American chains: Pizza Hut, Subway, KFC, Blockbuster, Dunkin Donuts, and even a Hooters.
Some public busses were former American school busses painted with bright murals on the outside with the original interior.
Panama used the dollar as its currency, and while they minted their own coins, they were the same size and weight as their American counterparts and indistinguishable by feel.
But Panama City has a rich past distinct from American culture. In 1519, the Spanish colonizers founded Panama Viejo, the predecessor to Panama City, and Panama became of great importance to their empire. Between their presence at Panama Viejo and at Portobelo, the Spanish were able to transport goods and people between the seas by unloading ships on one coast, transporting overland, and then back onto waiting ships on the other coast.
Repeated attacks on both coasts were repulsed over the years until Welsh privateer Henry Morgan (of Captain Morgan fame) held Portobelo for ransom in 1668 and invaded Panama Viejo three years later. Panama Viejo was burned to the ground although no one is sure whether the fires were set by Morgan or defensively by the Spanish. Since the city was built mostly from wood, not much is left today aside from a few stone buildings on the side of a busy street.
The best preserved building is the old cathedral tower. Restoration work has been recently completed allowing us to climb to the top via a steel staircase.
The Spanish rebuilt Panama Viejo on a more defensible peninsula five miles west. Today known as Casa Viejo (Spanish for old town), it remains a small neighborhood of Panama City with old peeling buildings.
The best view of Panama City’s skyscrapers is from Casa Viejo.
No visit to Panama would be complete without seeing the canal. Cutting fifty miles through Panama, the canal saves a ship from making an eight thousand mile journey around the tip of South America. Because Panama rises 85 feet above sea level, there are three sets of locks that raise and then lower ships.
The Miraflores Locks are located just outside of Panama City and are open to visitors. We showed up just as the last ship was being raised for the morning. It was a tight fit; ships are designed specifically to pass through the locks and this one was pushing it. New locks, scheduled for completion in 2014, are being built to accommodate even larger ships.
The locks’ hundred year old technology is brilliant in its simplicity. Since the path of the canal crosses Lake Gatun at its highest point, locks are filled by gravity without pumps.
An accompanying museum describes the history and the economics behind the canal. The US built and administered it before handing it over to the Panamanians at the end of 1999. Since then, Panama has run it with the stated goal of maximizing profits, charging fees that could top three hundred thousand dollars depending on the ship’s size and cargo. (Kris, the captain who had sailed us from Colombia to Panama was expecting to pay $1500 for his fifty foot boat.)
After a day in Panama City it was time to move on. There were a few Panamanian cities on the tourist track reputed to be “the up and coming Costa Rica”. We decided instead to leave Panama for the real thing, and boarded a fifteen hour overnight bus to Costa Rica’s capital San Jose.
Although Colombia and Panama share a land border, crossing it would have involved a suicidal passage through the Darien Gap: a hundred miles of dense forest and swampland lacking roads but full of mosquitoes spreading malaria, rabid vampire bats, and guerillas with a penchant for kidnapping.
Flying between the two countries is an option, but the most interesting way is to cross by sea. Small sailboats embark on the five day journey between Cartagena, Colombia and Panama almost daily, stopping at the scenic San Blas Islands en route.
Sarah and I talked to a few captains who had been plying the route for years; each was trying to squeeze as many people as possible onto his boat. We were lucky to meet Kris, a Belgian who was two years into a five year sailing trip around the world. His ship, the Donna, was fifty feet long and featured three cabins, two bathrooms, a small kitchen and dining area. Not only was he limiting the number of passengers to six, he was the most interesting and genuine captain we had spoken with. Agreeing to join him in sailing to Portobelo, Panama was an easy decision.
Kris had recently met Svetlana – a 24 year old Russian woman who has to be the most hardcore traveler we have ever encountered. She was also traveling the world, but on a non-existent budget. Having hitchhiked across Africa, volunteered as a crewmate on a different boat crossing the Atlantic, and spent the last year also hitchhiking throughout South America, she was now employed as the first mate on the Donna.
The four of us plus two other passengers – Toby from Germany and Emma from England – sailed off from Cartagena late at night under a full moon. We sat out on the cockpit and watched Kris and Lana at work as they killed the motor, unfurled the sails, and set the course using GPS and compass for the straight path to Panama. They would take turns steering the ship, rotating every few hours throughout the night.
The voyage started out well enough, but as Cartagena’s skyline faded away and we were in the open ocean, the sea became very rough and the ship was tossed about violently enough to knock us to the ground.
Sarah and I had bragged that in all our travels we’ve never been seasick. After a few hours aboard the Donna, we were no longer able to make that claim.
The next thirty six hours were awful.
The night was rough but we managed to sleep despite being awakened by the motion of the boat. The following day we only ate plain bread and tried to sit out in the cockpit, but found the best remedy was to lie down and sleep as much as possible. The ocean did not calm that day or the second night – lying down in our hot tiny cabin we were both wondering what the hell we had got ourselves into.
But it did get better.
Early on our third day we spotted the first of the San Blas islands over the horizon.
Comprised of four hundred islands, the San Blas archipelago is home to two thirds of Panama’s indigenous Kuna Indians and an attractive vacation spot due to its pristine and idyllic beaches. It was here that we would dock for the rest of the day.
Kris and Lana wrapped up the sails, started the motor, and steered into the bay. After turning on the boat’s depth meter, Kris took the wheel from Lana and proceeded slowly around the shallow coral reef, passing an overturned rusting ship that clearly hadn’t been as careful. We dropped anchor a few hundred yards from land, and memories of our rough sea passage immediately began to fade.
Toby was the first to jump off and I followed shortly after in swimming to a deserted island. I wonder if the creator of Gilligan’s Island had based it on the San Blas Islands – both were similar in size and covered with coconut trees. Its beach was empty and the seal we had identified from the boat turned out to be a log. Standing on solid ground for the first time in days was a great feeling.
Kris and Emma swam after us, but Lana just wanted to practice her diving.
Sarah wasn’t up for swimming or diving, instead kayaking next to me around the reef.
We slept on the boat that night close to other sailboats that had docked nearby. With our cabin hatch open and the boat perfectly still, it was relaxing and enjoyable and the opposite of our experience at sea.
After breakfast the next morning, the six of us swam and paddled to the nearby inhabited island where a few Kunas lived in a thatched roof huts.
The Kunas were excited to see us and had no problem with us walking around. The adults even tried to get their shy kids to pose for pictures.
The island was small; we walked all the way around in fifteen minutes.
We then returned to the Donna and prepared to leave. While we were getting ready, two Kunas rowed up asked if we wanted to buy some of their fish. We had been resigned to eating canned meat after two days of an unsuccesful fishing effort by Kris, so of course we agreed.
We continued west, remaining three miles from shore and marking a path parallel to mainland Panama. This was the experience that Sarah and I had signed up for. Watching Kris and Lana work the sails was fascinating – even without wind directly at our back it was amazing to see how fast we could go.
Three hours later we arrived and docked at a second group of San Blas islands. More boats were docked here and the inhabited islands had more infrastructure – we spotted a bar on one and a store selling Kuna handicrafts on another.
A Panamanian boat of immigration officers motored up to stamp us into the country. Feeling empowered, probably because they were so far removed from shore, they took our passports and successfully shook us down for an extra $20 because they were “working on a Saturday”. Corrupt officials notwithstanding, everyone else in the bay was friendly, from the other captains flying flags from all over the world to the Kunas, who were selling handbags instead of fish.
We had another relaxing night on the boat, eating our fresh grilled fish as the sun set.
On day five Kris gave us the option of leaving at the crack of dawn or around lunchtime. We were having a great time were not in a rush to get to Portobelo, so we opted for the latter. Again we swam and paddled to shore after breakfast. This island was even smaller than the one we had visited the previous day, probably fifty yards across with only three huts. The water surrounding it was clear; we could see down to the ocean floor.
After too short a time we swam back to the Donna, pulled anchor and sailed away.
Weak winds made sailing time to Portobelo longer than expected. But it was bright and sunny and time passed quickly out in the cockpit. Everyone but I spent a few hours sleeping downstairs. Sarah came up when the sun wasn’t as strong and said “wow you got really dark”. She was right. And my tan was accompanied by a rare sunburn.
It was dark when we arrived at Portobelo’s harbor. Lana and Kris again carefully navigated their way in and the six of us decided to stay on the boat one more night before we parted ways. Kris and Lana were to cross the Panama Canal on way to the Galapagos Islands while the rest of us landlubbers were off to Panama City.
Sarah and I were already talking about our next sailing adventure.