S: Mexico Guatemala Belize Costa Rica 2011
BC: Photos and adventures by Joe Goldston and Sharon Mammoser
1: We flew a huge Boeing 757 into Mexico City and took a taxi to our hotel, the Galleria Plaza Reforma...At first we thought we had been dropped off in the wrong spot because it was so luxurious; but sure enough they had our reservation. After unpacking we spoke to the concierge who thankfully spoke English and lined up tickets for an outdoor ballet performance in the big downtown park tonight and then he sent us a couple of blocks to a local restaurant for lunch. It was good; but not remarkable and we had fun practicing our Spanish with the waiter who spoke no English whatsoever. Now we have 2 more hours before the ballet to explore our neighborhood called Zona Rosa. The streets here are lined by both trees as well as policemen and military guards. The buildings do not appear particularly grand or special on the outside; but we have only been in a couple of them. My only birds so far have been....you guessed it...English sparrows. Tomorrow we plan to go to the floating gardens where you can hire a boatman to pole you through the canals for an hour or two and then we will ask if it is advisable to go into the main square for the New Year's Eve celebration. All in all I am mainly glad to be started. The unknown is so intimidating and I am anxious to get my bearings and see what there is to see.
2: Zona Rosa in Mexico City | Balcony of the National Palace Museum | The Aztec god of maize and life
3: Diego Rivera Mural
4: What a terrific New Year's Eve we had in the Zocalo of Mexico City. Our taxi ride took us there through a tunnel painted to look as though you were riding through an aquarium or the ocean. We arrived at the plaza around 6:00 pm and were surprised that not that many of the 25 million inhabitants were there. The stone plaza is surrounded by the National Cathedral and the National Palace as well as several large block like buildings with hotels and shops in them. The cathedral had two large sanctuaries with a mass taking place in each and both were grand in scale with monstrous marble columns inside, intricately carved and gilded fixtures on every surface and many small recesses with burning candles and altars. The exterior, of course, was carved stone that looked like it could use a thorough cleaning and I wondered what color it might actually be. On the facades of the other buildings facing the square they had placed huge lighted displays that were illuminated after dark which markedly improved their appearance. Each was simply a long rectangular shape with little or no embellishment of their facades. Pure government design. The children were all playing with balloons shaped like candles that were 5 feet long and perhaps 1 foot in diameter and they would throw them into the air and then chase them wherever the breeze had taken them. Also in the plaza was an ice rink, a snowmobile rink, and a sled ride down a small hill that they had built as part of their Winter In The City festival. To say that we were the only people there who were not Mexicans might be an exaggeration; but if there were any other tourists, we didn't see them. Did we feel safe?
7: Absolutely! While we were clearly being noticed by those we passed, we were treated with perfect respect and when we asked for help, they couldn't have been more cordial. But this wasn't where the action was......the real action was 1/4 mile away down a pedestrian mall where a carnival had been set up. It was jam packed with people, rides, food stalls, game booths, and many giant scenes in which people would dress up and join in to have their photos taken. Most were either nativity oriented or Disney themed. I wonder if Walt is getting any royalties from so many knock-offs? Anyway the energy and the fun that these people and their families were enjoying was a treat not to be missed. For us it was a test since we were now in central Mexico City after dark and standing out like sore thumbs. The only rule we hadn't broken was to flash large wads of cash around. Dinner was at Cafe Gante and it was rocking with a DJ and great music and we had a thin piece of steak accompanied by small piles of guacamole, rice, salsa, and either cheese or tofu. | By 10:00 the Zocalo had fewer people in it than when we left it....we had heard that New Year's Eve wasn't a big deal here and it wasn't...just a fun family night and then home to bed. So we left as well and that is when it got exciting....our taxi driver didn't seem at all sure of where we wanted to go and so as we tried to help him navigate in broken Spanish, he ran every single red light at full speed even though buildings usually blocked his view of traffic that might have been coming on the side streets. I haven't had a white knuckle ride like that since I was in the police car going down the mountain in Italy...but that's another story.
8: We met our driver Lionel at 10:00 and he took us to the 2nd of three sections of the Chapultepec Gardens which we had not previously seen. It had a series of fountains designed by Diego Rivera that were incredible even though they didn't have water actively flowing through them. Next he showed us the University of Mexico....the largest in the world at 200,000 students. There we saw the 1968 Olympic Stadium that is shaped like a sombrero and again is partially decorated with stone work by Diego Rivera depicting the union of the native Aztec People and those of Spanish decent to create what today are the people of Mexico. According to Lionel, the people are generally most proud of their Indian heritage and understandably so since the Spanish destroyed the entire Aztec culture as best they could upon their arrival in 1521. From there we drove to Xochimilco, the floating gardens, that are actually canals that wind for miles through areas that in the Spring are covered with flowers. Today the most colorful aspect was the myriad of gaudily painted boats that were poled along the canals. As you ride along, you are approached by others in smaller boats offering to sell hot corn, soft drinks and crafts. The best, however,were the Mariachi bands and the Marimba players who would pull alongside and serenade you for 80 pesos.
9: A Woman Selling Hot Corn | Happy kids on a Sunday outing | The boats all had girl's names | Mariachi Players
10: After our boat ride we wandered through yet more craft booths; but these were actually quite a lot better than any we have seen thus far. Soon we heard music and went to investigate and found 5 men 30 feet in the air on a pole and one was playing a flute...no big deal so far ...when suddenly four of them leaned back and dropped off of the pole and were hanging by one leg from ropes. The flute player then began to swing them in a circle which gradually unwound their ropes making them longer and longer until finally the four men whirling around in a circle reached the ground and dismounted. Who thinks these things up???
11: Anguangeo and 200 Million Butterflies Our day began in Mexico City where I had my most unusual breakfast of fried egg atop a fried cactus leaf with a side of julienned jalapenos with corn. Sounds strange; but it actually was quite good and from there we took a bus to Anguangeo 130 miles west. This would be the base from which we would explore the Monarch Butterfly Reserve. Sharon sat next to a resident of Anguangeo named Carlos (Charlie) and he led us up the street to the Hotel Juarez. There we were greeted by the owner and his family who led us up to a room. To say that it was spartan might be generous; it had no key so he took us to another room and handed us a huge padlock that could connect a pair of eyebolts that would take a 10 year old 2 minutes to get through.....Sigh No guts no glory. The look on Sharons face when she saw this room was even more remarkable than when she saw the first one. No heat, a lightbulb hanging from the ceiling and a sign notifying us that the electricity would be turned off at midnight. The bathroom had a sink and a toilet and a showerhead but no curtain....the only curtain was actually the door to the bathroom so that when you shower, it soaks everything else and then runs into a floor drain. She was most concerned about the lack of heat; because we had read other blogs urging us to be sure to get a room with a fireplace because it is so cold up there (10,000 '). The owner brought us a stack of blankets and we were in for a penny in for a pound. | Anguangeo | Hotel Juarez
12: Once settled, we ventured out into town which pretty much consisted of a single very steep street that led up the the Central Square where two enormous churches face each other. The streets were very quiet; but I think everyone was at church since it was Sunday evening. We actually played pool for an hour across from our hotel alongside 5-6 kids and they were nice to us though we couldn't make conversation the way we would have liked to. Then we met Ray and Abbey from New York!!! We were all four obviously hungry for some companionship after trying so hard to connect with Mexican people with no language skills to help us. They were also here to see the butterflies and they had a line on a car to take them up to see them on Monday and so we agreed to meet them and share the ride. Just as we finished our chat they were served their meals and after seeing their plates, Shar and I just turned and left on empty stomachs. It looked awful and the next day Ray would agree that they couldn't finish it either.
13: Another day, another adventure....today we go to see 200 million Monarch Butterflies with Ray and Abbey. We met at their hotel and Miguel took us slowly up the mountain in his old F200 where there was a makeshift kitchen set up. There we had our first tacos of the day and then proceeded up the mountain with our guide. Guide isn't really the proper term because he told us nothing and apparently his job was to keep us from doing anything wrong around the butterflies...all good. No loud talking, watch where you step because when it is cold in the morning the butterflies on the ground cannot move out of the way,etc. 1 km later we saw them! Trees heavy with hundreds of butterflies sleeping on every branch and legions more clinging to the trunks. As long as they were in the shade, they were too cold to move and we took lots of photos. Once the sun hit them and warmed them up they began to fly about by the hundreds. We only stayed a couple of hours; but I can imagine that by afternoon the forest and the sky would be a blizzard of orange wings. When we stood very quietly you could actually hear their wings beating as they manuevered through the trees. While we thoroughly enjoyed what we saw, we were all left with the feeling that we wished we could have roamed farther up the mountain and been a part of more of the butterflies.
14: Having seen all that we would be allowed to of the butterflies, we decided to catch a bus towards the coast. We did pretty well getting our tickets and made it as far as Toluca. From there we will turn southwest towards the coast and Acapulco. We arrived at the bus station at dusk and so we stayed at a hotel connected to the terminal. Another spartan room; but fine and it cost the same as our night at the Hotel Juarez..$20. That's right...and beer is only $1.50! Toluca has an enormous market as its town center with shops around 3-4 blocks that form a rectangle. Shops is a bit of an overstatement in that these were shops that measured perhaps 15-20 feet across and 10-15 feet deep. Many small ones didn't let people in at all ...you just pointed and they got it for you. But the crowds were there and since many of the stores were toy stores, the kids were having a ball. The next day we arrived in Taxco by bus and headed for the Zocalo ( town center). The journey was up and up and up a winding street that soon shrunk to interconnecting staircases all of which were clogged with vendors of meats, vegetables, fruits, and wares. So tightly packed were they, that the throngs of shoppers took turns passing one another up the black stone stairs. Everything was actually outdoors and as you looked up through the white stuccoed walls you could see the bright sky and more building tops leading up to the church in the Zocalo. What was striking were the young children who were hawking wares right beside their parents or in some cases with no adult in sight. They open around 9:00 in the morning and work until dark. A long day without much play or school time for these little guys. I took some pictures of the vendors and had them printed at a kiosk and then we brought them back and gave them their copies. Such smiles all around! The town is famous for it's silver and the jewelry stores were everywhere. Prices seemed ridiculously cheap and the pieces were lovely; but not so pertinent for backpackers. We had a nice dinner of "not tacos" overlooking the Zocalo and felt much restored. It was the first town that we have seen that made me want to linger and explore. You could easily spend a few days here especially if you were a shopper. The next morning we did a bit more wandering and then made our way back down the hill to the bus station....next stop....Acapulco
16: Well here we go breaking another rule....we arrived in Acapulco at night after a lovely drive through the steep cactus covered mountains leading from Taxco to the coast. Fortunately for us there is a tourist center in the terminal and he had sheafs of listings for hotels and we could choose based on price and amenities. We chose the Romano Palace, a 22 story high rise right on the "strip". It looked OK and we were on the 17 th floor. Again rather spartan, but fine for such a late arrival. The music was pounding from the clubs and restaurants across the street and we quickly readied ourselves to explore it. Did I say quickly? After a considerable wait for the elevator to rise up and go past us we watched in dismay as it made an express pass right by us to the ground floor. Oh well what's a 17 floor hike when it is at least all downhill. Once out on the street we passed one restaurant/bar/disco after another...every one empty except for the hawkers outside offering coupons to potential patrons. They all had a $10 cover charge or more and so the throngs of tourists (all Mexican except for two) just kept on walking by. We finally zeroed in on the Barbarossa which waived their charge and had dinner. After a bit more walking we called it a night and went back to our room. By now it was nearly 11:00 and still we couldn't see anyone in the discos. Still the music pounded our walls like the feeling you get when a car in the States with a boom box passes you. Suffice it to say that this lasted until around 5 a.m.;but surprisingly we slept just fine through it all
17: We arose today and ate breakfast at the hotel and then caught one of the local town buses to make our way to a camera shop.......what a ride. The driver barreled through the other cars and buses and pedestrians missing each by inches, not feet until a person raises their arm and he stops to pick them up......What did you say?.....I'm sorry I am still a bit deaf from the 10,000 decibels of Latin music that the driver cranked out to entertain us since our eyes were closed so that we wouldn't see the carnage of our impending crash. At last we reached our stop and got off only to find that the shop had closed; but once again the first person we asked told us exactly where to find another shop and practically took us to it. That has been the story time and time again. Our business completed, it was time to get back on the bus and head back to the hotel and collect our gear. Another ear pounding life threatening (for others...we were the biggest thing on the road) ride and after only a short while Sharon was ready to get out and walk...so was I and we made the rest of the trip on foot. This all was so not what we wanted...Atlantic City on steroids...a lot of steroids. So we took a taxi to our new hotel laughing as the driver blew his Tarzan horn along the way. Our new hotel away from the strip and closer to the divers was the Hotel Boca Chica. What a difference....set into a rocky promontory with views across the bay. It has beautifully sculpted gardens and decks and a lovely room. Anyone would love it. We then took another short taxi to watch the divers. The shows are all after dark at this time of year except for one at noon; but the cliff was brightly lit with colored lights and we watched as the divers first climbed up the rock face and then dove singly and in pairs into the narrow channel below. Some did swan dives while others did front and back gainers. Wow! We went back to watch the noon show again the next day and got some better photos.
20: We left Acapulco with the intention of following the coastline down to Puerto Escondido only to learn halfway there that we couldn't get a bus ticket. This knowledge was acquired with extreme difficulty which we took to be an omen and so we set our sights on Spanish school in Oaxaca instead. Unfortunately the only buses to Oaxaca leave at 8:00pm and arrive in Oaxaca at 7:00am. The Mexican Red Eye! Since we had several hours to kill; we took a taxi to the market and we were so glad that we did! It was filled with sellers of every sort of clothes, crafts and foods. And never have we been so clearly the focus of attention. Every eye seemed to be upon us. Already we had read about the general disdain and distrust that the indigenous people have for outsiders; but all we had to do was smile and say hello and they each would break into a wonderful grin and return our greeting. Then, as we turned a corner between the stalls we found ourselves in the food court. Each little kitchen was run by a family and had a long table extending out from it. The instant they saw us the young girls raced towards us chattering at light speed about their offerings. We selected one and had very good chile rellenos under the watchful gaze of everyone there. Afterwards we took pictures of the family and that set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Soon we were taking pictures of everyone and everyone was asking us to take pictures of them and their families. What a blast! It was soon clear that word had already traveled ahead of us and people were already asking for photos as soon as we turned another corner. They loved seeing themselves instantly in the back of the camera.
22: Oaxaca was actually a delightfully clean town in our initial inspection and as it turned out, Casa Arnel our first choice of hotels was not faraway. We checked in and then began our exploration and every street seemed clean and the buildings and shop fronts well maintained. What a delightful difference! We emailed our Spanish language school ( Oaxaca Spanish Magic) and reserved two places. Monday a.m. We reported to class and met Flor the director who administered our entrance exams and then assigned us to our classes. We were disappointed that we could not be in the same class; but so it goes. Sharon ended up in individual instruction and my class had 5 people in it. After our first day we were both a bit discouraged because we seemed to have such difficulty understanding what our instructors were saying; but we spent all afternoon and evening going over our lessons while walking along the streets of the city. We repeated this exercise for the first three days and slowly we are feeling that we are making progress. I had sort of a breakthrough on day 2 when I suddenly began to understand whole sentences instead of just pieces of them. Tonight we went out for Tlaluchas at one of Flor's favorite restaurants. They are tortillas the size of a dinner plate filled with meats and cheese and vegetables and grilled over a charcoal fire. This is apparently a traditional Oaxacan dish and it was really quite good though we found it to be more than we could finish.
23: Oaxaca itself is a big city of 50,000 that sprawls through a mountain valley and so it is quite a bit cooler than the coast. The central portion where we are is all cobbled streets and with the exception of the massive churches, everything is single story height. Most are a cream color interspersed with ochres, blues, and deep reds. The sidewalks while narrow are made of paving stones and there seems to be another nice park every time you turn a corner. There are lots and lots of restaurants and hotels scattered along the streets and shops selling any number of crafts and such. All in all it is the nicest town we have been in and the first in which we have not been the only Gringos. Partly because of the abundance of language schools and mostly because it is such a nice town;there are a lot of Americans and Canadians here and most seem to be staying for months rather than just a week or two. There was some violence here a few years ago during a teachers strike; but now it is very safe and very charming and you rarely see a policeman in contrast to Mexico City and Acapulco where there were men with machine guns and sawed off shotguns on every corner and in every shop. We will finish our classes on Friday and then take a tour of the surrounding countryside where we'll see the largest tree in Latin America, the ruins of an Aztec city, weaving, a " petrified waterfall" and a place where they make the very strong tequila Mezcal.
26: Well it is now Saturday and we have finished a week of classes at Oaxaca Spanish Magic. While it was taxing to more or less study all day; it was fun and I can't say enough nice things about the school. They even went so far as to put Sharon in a one-on-one class rather than put her in a group class that would have been over her head; but would have saved them the expense of an extra teacher. Every day we studied in school from 9-1:00 and then went to lunch to study on our own. We have even begun to wake up at night thinking about Spanish phrases. Today we took a tour through the countryside with 4 Mexicans 1 Greek and 1 Argentine and I must say that the Spanish we have learned still did not allow us to understand more than bits and pieces of what was going on around us in the bus. You feel rather lonely when they say something and then all laugh about it; but maybe if we keep working at it we will get better. We began our tour in Teotitlan where they make rugs from yarn which they dye with extracts from plants and even insects. He showed us the insect living on cactus leaves that yields their red dyes. They dry it and then crush it and then boil it for 6 hours before dying the wool with it. To make purple, they add baking soda to the red dye. To make the green they use moss and to make yellow they use a yellow marigold flower. Very interesting..after that we went to see Hierves de Agua....a "petrified waterfall" . It is really a spring high up on a mountain whose deposits of minerals has created a stone waterfall. The Aztecs cut channels into the rock to send it to the valley to irrigate their crops. Then we went to Mitla, the site of an Aztec temple and city of about 10,000 people before the Spaniards came and destroyed it and killed most of the people. Some of the temple was so well done that even they didn't have the heart to destroy it and so that part remains today. After that we had a Oaxacan buffet specializing in " moles", sauces that are local delicacies. I, however have a different insight into that and Mexican food in general. We have been eating Mexican food for two weeks now and particularly in Oaxaca we have dined in some absolutely lovely rooms, balconies, etc. But honestly, the food is so terribly overcooked that if you didn't have a mole or a salsa to put on it, you would never be able to get it down. Anyway; after the buffet we learned how they make Mezcal from a different agave tree than the blue agave used for tequila. The tasting room was fun and although the 5 and 8 year old stuff was as good as say a scotch....the ones sweetened with flavored cream tasted just like Baileys. Or pineapple or apples...you name it they had it and we tried more than a few. Finally we saw the widest tree in the world and in some ways perhaps the largest in all of Latin America. El Tule . It is a 2,000 year old cypress. Amazing to think of a tree that has survived for that long and it appears perfectly healthy. The things that tree has seen!!! Tomorrow we are going with a couple of classmates to a big indigenous market held only on Sundays and which is attended by as many as 10,000 people in a single day.
27: El Tule | Mitla
30: Hierves de Agua
31: Fried Grasshoppers
32: Unable to find an alternative, we finally succumbed to the reality of a 10 hour bus ride to reach Puerto Escondido on the Pacific Coast from Oaxaca. It was another beautiful blue sky day and we stopped by 100% Natural restaurant for breakfast and muffins to go to fortify us on the trip. Already, Shar was not feeling very well and I tried to convince her to abandon so that I could find a flight; but she has a tendency towards hard headedness that was not to be overcome and so off we went. Immediately the bus began to negotiate kya switchback turns through the mountains with lovely views of where you would eventually land several hundred feet below since there were no guardrails and few trees to slow you down. Were it not for her queasy stomach, I think she would have enjoyed it as much as I did; but it was a very tough 2 hours until I asked the driver if we would be taking a break soon. He said not; but guess what? In less than 30 minutes he pulls over in a tiny little town right in front of a pharmacia..he gets out and takes us into the pharmacia and tells them what we need. So Dramamine in hand we reboard the bus and off we go....How nice was that? We continue to be amazed by the kindness that we have received. Sharon....now much better actually was able to enjoy the remainder of the trip...which was a good thing because there would be surprises ahead.....
33: The scenery remained much the same for the trip with tall pointed mountains on both sides of us covered with scrub trees and cactus. An overall brown appearance, it would have been much more colorful in the Spring I am sure. Just before dusk we began to follow the coast and of course this was just gorgeous with the setting sun. Finally we reached Puerto Escondido and took a taxi to our chosen accomodations....chosen because of its proximity to the beach and its rustic description...Shar has such an adventuresome side. The Bungalows Acali is not actually on the beach; but it is just across the street from the beach. Each bungalow is made of dark woven wood and a thatched roof. There was a ceiling fan and a large mosquito net hanging above each of the beds. The bathroom had a sink with only cold water and the same was true of the shower. The toilet had a cracked top and rocked intriguingly when sat upon. To say that it functioned would be a bit generous; but it was all in all adequate for our needs. After all; these two have spent months on the Appalachian Trail and for $25 it was a deal...we thought. Yes we heard some music and laughter from the bar next door; but nothing you could not live with.....until after 11:00pm. That is when the crowd arrived and the music went up to sonic levels. Actually I really enjoyed the music. It had a great Latin beat and vocals and it sounded like the crowd was more than enjoying it. Enjoying it Enjoying it.....until 4 a.m. when they called it a night and everyone trickled away to get ready for surfing as soon as the sun came up. That is right. We are at Zicatelli..the famous surfing destination in Mexico renowned for its pipeline waves that surfers all yearn for. Suffice it to say...these dudes are going to be out for the count this aternoon if they are going to be able to repeat their performance again tonight...As for us...we moved down the street. We wanted the party to be optional...not 50 feet away.
34: After our long night we just did what people do at the beach...we had a nice breakfast at the Cafe Cito and went down to the beach where we sat under an umbrella and watched the big waves roll in. This is not really recommended as a swimming beach because of the big waves and the strong undertow so we pretty much stayed dry and then had a couple of drinks with lunch. After noon it gets so hot that indoors is the better idea so we checked out some of the shops and scheduled a birdwatching kayak trip for Thurs. That evening we took our cameras down to the beach and experimented with sunset photos and really got some great ones that I will share with you. The birdwatching trip today would turn out to be a bird watcher's bonanza. We saw 70 species and got close enough to photograph Magnificent Frigatebirds, Tiger Herons, an Aplomado Falcon, Northern Jacanas, Common Black Hawks, well....you get the idea. I could go on for longer than you would be interested; but it was terrific! Our guide was Mike Malone, a Canadian from Ontario who has wintered here for over 30 years and has done much to protect the habitats here in this area. He is a good birder and lots of fun to be with and; of course, it is wonderful to have everything described in English.
36: Tiger Heron
37: Whistling ducks
40: We arrived in Tehuantepec primarily to avoid the 13 hour bus ride into Chiapas. It was unfortunately after dark and we had some trouble finding our way to the Zocalo. All of the streets seemed so narrow and so even though we had asked directions, we were uncertain about our way. As usual for us; we understood only a portion of what we were told so we tend to travel a few blocks and then ask again and as usual we were successful! Just as we reached the Zocalo a voice behind us spoke to us in English. It so startled us that we both jumped. Christian and his friend were anxious to practice their English and to help us out. I indicated that we were looking for the Hotel Daniji and so he shouted " Let's go". I became anxious however when he seemed to be taking us in the wrong direction. Down a gradually smaller and darker street we went. I kept a wary eye on them and kept them in front of us as best I could. No worries! He had a different hotel in mind; but it turned out to be full and so he took us to the Daniji and we took a room with a/c for $32. The zocalo had a central stage around which paths wound through " bean trees". For all of the young couples smooching in the shadows it could have been Paris in the Spring...and; of course, there were the ubiquitous food carts and craft booths along the street. There was an almost constant parade of noisy three wheeled Motos bringing more and more people into the action. Everyone from families to women in traditional dress to the teens in their tight jeans and colorful blouses and shirts. There was no live music which surprised me for a Saturday night; but there was plenty blaring from the cars parked along the edges. The only disappointing aspect was the lack of places to eat; but we managed a bite and then headed in for the night.
41: Today we took a boat ride up a river through the Canon de Sumidero. The water is a brownish green and it is perhaps a 1/4 mile across in most places; but it can be hard to tell because of the sheer scale of the place. The whitish canyon walls tower over the river itself and in most places they are absolutely vertical all the way to the top. In spite of this they are still supporting a green carpet of bromeliads and sometimes even small trees. At their highest, the walls extend 1400 meters above the river below. Throughout it's length you see more Black Vultures than you ever will again. They soar endlessly both high and low or even walk along the beaches like gulls. Where there were flatter areas, the trees were much more typical of a jungle canopy and we saw both monkeys and a crocodile in those habitats. The saddest part of the river was the enormous amount of trash floating in it. There were signs noting that there was a campaign underway to remedy this; but the typical Mexican conciousness about trash is very very low. After an hour or so on the boat, we disembarked on an island where they have kayaks, rappelling, a zip line etc; but Sharon and I spent our time wandering the trails and enjoying the birds, butterflies, and spiders. The best of the birds was a flock of Montezuma Oropendolas....crow sized birds with a bluish mark on the face, an orange bill, rufous back, and the most outrageously yellow tail you've ever seen.
42: Crossing Into Guatemala We dreaded the border crossing because we read that it takes a bribe to get across; but when we got there it all went pretty smoothly. You have to get a stamp on the Mexican side then take a taxi for 3 KM to the Guatemalan side and have your passport stamped and there were no fees at all. I still worry that we might have missed something; but we'll find out eventually I suppose. Then It got interesting. We took a three wheel Tuk Tuk to the bus station and there we met our first "chicken bus". These are old US school buses repainted on the outside; but otherwise unchanged on the inside except that above each row there are three seat numbers. Now that might work for 3 rd graders in the US; but it was an impossibly small space for adults and that is before you put three people into a bench seat for two. My knees hurt from pressing against the metal seatback in front of me and poor Sharon was in even worse shape with her long legs. And then they filled the aisles too!!! Holy Cow....and that is not counting the aromas from so many tightly packed bodies. Fortunately the windows were open and what a view. I have never seen such dramatic mountains. Row after row of conical peaks touching one another like teepees all stacked up. As the sun began to set they had a Smoky Mountain blue hue to them. In the valleys were all sorts of deciduous and palm trees and big leafed trees that look very much like jungle. Alongside of the road were people working or waiting for rides. The women wore burgundy skirts and serapes and most of the men wore hard white cowboy hats. I saw fields being plowed by hand with hoes, with oxen, and with a nice tractor. I saw coffee beans being air dried and sacks of coffee being stacked and loaded for export. This doesn't really look any more well to do; but the scenery is definitely more dramatic and beautiful than Mexico. Our plan was to pass right through Huehuetenango (WayWay to the locals) and spend the night in Quetzaltenango (Xela) pronounced Shay La; but it was dark when we landed in WayWay so we stayed at the Hotel California and had dinner in their restaurant...oh my gosh!! White cloth napkins and well cooked vegetables and meat that still had some life in it. Things are definitely looking up. If we can enjoy the food then we will feel so much better about our days.
43: Most of the trees in Guatemala are gone | A Chicken Bus
44: Sunday morning in WayWay transforms itself into a street fair across from our hotel and so when we went through the doors into the street in search of breakfast it took a few minutes to get our bearings. But quickly enough, there were the chicken buses with their big chrome hoods and colorful paint jobs eagerly waiting for a few more poor souls to cram on board. Maybe it makes economic sense for the passengers. You can ride for about one dollar US per hour of travel. But with 60 people on it at any one time and two employees and gas at $4 a gallon??? Oh well....not for me to judge by my US standards of comfort and decorum. The hillsides between WayWay and Xela were much less forested. Mostly pine with much more open farm land even though the plots were very steep in places. As we neared, Xela we began to catch glimpses of Volcan Santa Maria a nearly perfectly conical sarape and clearly the dominant figure on the landscape at 3770 meters high. It is all covered by hardwoods so it doesn't appear to have been active for some time. There is supposed to be an active one somewhere nearby and I believe it flattened Xela in the early 1900's so the Greek architectural of their central Parque dates from that. It seems a bit out of place here; but that is the town theme.
46: Our next day in Xela, we decided to visit Laguna Chichibal, a lake in an extinct volcano used to this day by the Mayans as a sacred place where they conduct rituals. The mountain is just outside of San Martin about a 45 min drive from Xela. From there it is a substantial walk of about 2 miles over a very steep and dusty road and down into Laguna Seca where you pay and then walk another 3km up to the top of the volcano...so steep that we were grateful for birdwatching opportunities as we climbed along. Finally we reached the summit and took a little side trail down to a view point where we could see the lake. There was a white sandy beach along the rim and a group of Mayan dressed Guatemalans were there blowing a shell horn and engaged in some sort of ritual ceremony. We stayed high up on the slopes and busied ourselves with the constant antics of the hummingbirds. One was huge at 5-6" and Violet blue and another was less than half that size and looked much like a Ruby Throat but only 2" tall. We eventually made our way back down the road and caught a ride in the back of a pickup truck to the main road where we picked up a van (micro- bus). It would typically hold 15 people; but in Guatemala that blossomed to 25. Some of the school children were forced to semi-stand and hold on while others were literally hanging out the door and holding on to a piece of the door to keep from falling out. Worse even than a chicken bus!!! | Laguna Chicibal
47: For the evening, we went to the Royal Paris restaurant since it came highly recommended in our guide. It is run by a French couple and is upstairs above a fairly quiet street. We had the best meal since we left the U.S. and nice glasses of wine. I saw our waiter and the owner's son wink at each other and then disappear...moments later two long strings of firecrackers erupted in the street below. The owner and his wife ran out to the balcony and began clapping...it was his birthday and that was part of the celebration. And since it was Thursday night...a jazz quintet showed up to play...hugs and congratulations all around followed by a birthday cake with trick candles that he couldn't blow out and then they settled in to play. What wonderful music. A trumpet with a muffler, castinets, bongos, guitar and bass guitar and the vocalist was just terrific. It made a wonderful end to another good day.
48: El Petronicia Wildlife Preserve We were picked up in front of our hotel at 4 a.m.(yes that is correct) by our taxi driver Rafael because the trip is around 49 km southeast of Quetzaltenango and the road is slow and winding with lots of speed bumps...until you get to the bad road from Retalhuleu where the road becomes worse with major potholes and then you make the turn off to the reserve and you have another 5 km of dirt road suitable only for 4 wheel vehicles (not that we were in one) and you bump and bounce through the banana and coffee plantations and scatter the occasional Common Paraque off the road until finally we arrived at the reserve itself. Paulimo was there to greet us in the dark just before 6 am; but had we arrived later we would have missed many of the birds and the views of the Volcano Santa Marie before it becomes enshrouded by mist and clouds. What a spectacular place!!! We meandered along a path that was sometimes cobbled and sometimes firm earth beneath huge stands of bamboo, banana, and coffee. Paulimo would describe the different uses for the different types of bamboo and explained the difference between all of the different varieties of coffee..lots more than just Robusta and Arabica. He took the leaf of another tree and rubbed it between his fingers and produced a red pigment and from a vine he gave us each a piece of the woody stem to chew. It made our mouths begin to water and he said that was good when you were hot and thirsty and did not have enough water along. While we did not see them, he said there were Ocelots sleeping in the bamboo and pumas. He also has Acaris and a Yelow Trogan species on the property. I could have stayed there for a week doing walks day and night.
50: It was time to move on from Quetzaltenango and we were both excited because our next stop would be Panajachel on the shore of Lago Atitlan. It was described by Aldous Huxley as the most beautiful lake in the world and I am sure that it has garnered similar praise ever since.Surrounded by mountains, the water is blue in color and on the southern shore stand three separate volcanoes that make Atitlan such a spectacular sight. We were already feeling pretty lucky; because our chicken bus experience was actually a good one this morning. We began at the wildly hectic Minerva Terminal where all the gaily painted buses await their passengers. Vendors are set up all around the area and hawkers are calling out the name of their bus's destination. Once they get a taker, they haul whatever bales or bundles or luggage up to the roof of the bus and strap it down. Then when the bus begins to fill, the walking vendors board one after another and offer all varieties of foods. Once underway however; the show isn't over. At any bus stop or market where there are potential passengers, the driver stops and more hawkers get on and ride to the next stop while they offer their wares to the passengers. We even had a "preacher" get on and shout and pray for 15 mins before he came around to pass the hat. I was really glad when his stop came up.
51: Our route to Atitlan was the Pan American highway which is basically a nice 4 lane highway through the mountains where the bus driver can practice his high speed cornering skills. My shoulder was actually sore from the G-forces of his hard right corners. Our entertainment for most of the trip was a little girl, her mother and grandmother who sat in the seat in front if us. They were all dressed in traditional clothing and the little gilrl who was about 6 played peek-a-boo with us the whole way. It was fun for a long time; but it was eventually akin to throwing a stick for a lab...a lot of fun with no end in sight. | We took a three wheeled Moto to Villa Sueno Real our hotel and then headed out for lunch on the waterfront. Great food at the Cafe Muelles and then Theresa came to our table selling her family's weaving. She braided long colorful cloth through Sharon's hair and we bought two small scarves. It was fun and painfully cheap. It is amazing how little things cost. We spent our evening photographing the sunset and then enjoying wine and dessert at another lakeside tavern. I cannot wait for tomorrow
54: Antigua, Guatemala There has been a change in plans...that should really be our motto for the trip. We decided that we had seen as much of Lake Atitlan as we could and that we wanted to be in a nicer place that might have a bigger TV for the Super Bowl on Sunday night. Most room TV's have been 17-19" and it would have put us in the nosebleed section for the game. We really spoiled ourselves and took a shuttle (minivan) for the three hour trip; but heck, it only cost $20 for the two of us. The funny thing about it was that we turned out to be the only passengers and as we rode through the beautiful countryside which we could now actually see...we missed the craziness of the people on the chicken bus. I never thought that I would say that!! The shuttle dropped us right at our hotel and then we went out to explore Antigua... It is a fairly small town; but a major tourist destination as well as a center for immersion Spanish instruction. . The focal point of the town is a cobblestone walking mall that extends from a lovely wooded park with a central fountain through an ochre colored arch to one of the cathedrals. All of the streets are cobbled and have narrow raised sidewalks between them and the colorfully painted buildings that run as a continuous line. None appear to be over a single story; but when you venture through the big wooden doors of one of the hotels or restaurants; you are transported into beautiful courtyards filled with tables set amongst trees and all manner of tropical plantings. Waiters are eager to seat and serve you and it really is very elegant.
55: We trolled the park for photo ops and found several children willing to pose; but not for free!! The hardest bargainers were the shoe shine boys who were akin to little bandits. The most beautiful; however, were three girls whom we saw running through the park. Eventually Sharon engaged both them and their mothers and ended up with spectacular photos and even played a card game of "concentration" with them on the cobblestone street. We drew quite a crowd. I took some photos of them and then had them printed and handed them out to the mothers. Needless to say, that was also a big hit. Some of the photos are of the crowd watching a mime as well as of our new friends. I have included a lot of photos with this entry and I hope that you will enjoy looking at them as much as we enjoyed taking them
58: On Tues, we enrolled in a Spanish school again that does one-on-one instruction and Juan and I have been having a very good time together. We are almost the same age and our discussions have been most interesting. We have lots of good laughs and when the other students look at us (all are girls) we just try to look as innocent as possible. Today we spent much of the day discussing the evolution of democracy and civil rights in Guatemala since 1944. They had one of the longest and worst revolutions that lasted 36 years and killed many many people. The government is still rather weak; and interestingly is said to be run by the wife of the current president. The law here forbids family members from running for office; but the speculation is that she will have the law changed. He said that the society has morphed from the typical Latin American Machismo male dominated form into one in which women work, go to university, work in the government and actually are more forceful in the home and society in general than their husbands. Just like in America! On Wed we were treated to an eruption of Volcan Fuego the only active volcano of the three visible from the city. All the students were excited and we got a couple of decent shots...it really simmers and smokes a little all of the time; but this was a big plume of smoke that we got to see. That afternoon Sharon and I were in the Central Park trying to study and not doing very well so we started playing Yahtzee. A couple of kids stood by and began to watch and so we simplified the game and let them join us and before long we had a crowd playing. Only a couple actually were old enough or clever enough to get the gist of the game; but they were all thrilled when they were able to get their dice to match and we cheered and clapped for them.
60: It is once again Sat and we have completed another week of Spanish language school. Sorry to say that not as much material reaches my entries during these study weeks; because...one...I am mentally whipped...and two...it takes up half a day. But fortunately for you; dear readers, Olga, Sharon's teacher has come to the rescue. Yesterday was the last day of class for most of the students since they began on Monday and it was also my instructor's 56th birthday so halfway through the class each student and their instructor left the house and headed out into the the local market for supplies to make guacamole. They, of course, left the most important ingredients to the most senior and important pair; but more on that later. The market itself is on the face of it open air. Typical 10X10 stalls selling blue jeans, pirated CD's, fruits, etc; but nothing really eye catching or special once you have seen a blue million of these things in Mexico and Guatemala. But just take a turn in between the stalls and you emerge into a rabbit warren of aisles and interconnected lanes filled with wares and foods and things of every sort. There seem to be "neighborhoods" in which they sell primarily meats, or produce, or fruits, or clothing, or shoes. Other areas sell foods that are cooked right there as you watch. I was amazed as Juan navigated through aisle after aisle and turn after turn and then stopped at a specific stall to ask for tiny jalapeno peppers....no luck; but she knew him and directed him on to another vendor where he bought a handful after rubbing them and tasting his fingers. 50 cents....Next he made more turns until he found an indigenous woman sitting cross-legged on the floor between stalls with a cloth bag and bought a dozen or so still warm tortillas....almost a dollar. Finally we broke out into the open air market again to the state run deposito...liquor store and bought the key ingredient for success...a fifth of Guatemalan rum!! Now we are talking some real money....over 4 dollars. The other students came back with both Guatemalan avocados...bigger and softer and Mexican avocados...creamier and better; but more expensive. Also onions, tomatoes, cilantro, limes...lots of limes and began mixing it all together. Once the rum began to flow so did the jokes; but they were all told in Spanish...school rule...unfortunately for most of the students...our Spanish wasn't up to the task most of the time and even when it was the humor often turned out to be peculiarly Guatemalan and we still didn't get it.Sigh...we all laughed politely and then tried to dissect them until we were sure that at least we understood.
61: After lunch we hit a real highlight. Sharon's teacher Olga took us on a chicken bus about 5 miles out of town to a Macadamia nut farm named Valhalla. It was founded 36 years ago by a maverick named Lorenzo from California and his Guatemalan wife as a means of saving the forests. Complicated but true. Interestingly macadamia trees produce continuously and not seasonally. Even easier than that, they just drop the ready nuts and you only have to bend down and pick them up.The nuts are covered in a thick wooden husk high in carbon and this is removed by a Rube Goldberg looking contraption consisting of an old automobile wheel and tire on a pulley that rubs the nuts against pieces of re-bar and the ridges of the re-bar tear off the husks.The wheel can be powered by a bicycle so no electricity is needed.The nuts are then sized by rolling them down a slanted wired grid through which they fall into bags. The husks themselves are then used as wood for their stoves like pellets and burn long and hot just like charcoal. If they need more wood than that, the trees need periodic pruning so rather than just cut them down to burn for firewood; the trees can continue to grow even better and continue to produce the macadamia nuts which are high in omega 3,6 and 12 which help to lower cholesterol. All in all a wonderful story and one that has been repeated in 20-30 communities so far. As I finished listening to the talk and waiting for Sharon to finish with her Macadamia butter facial massage, I met the owner himself Lorenzo Gottshamer. He was just finishing a call from the boss...his wife Isabel and we talked for a bit about his life and the work he has done. It actually all began as a 3 week vacation to Guatemala 36 years ago and I felt so incredibly honored to be shaking his hand. It never ceases to amaze me when I can see into a man's eyes and shake his hand and realize that this man is so much more than I will ever be....To pursue such a dream for the benefit of others...well what more can I say..
62: We decided to go to Volcan Pacaya since Antigua is surrounded by at least 4 volcanoes, two of which are active... Fuego is too dangerous so Pacaya it is. You see Volcan Pacaya hasn't erupted since last year when it turned the sky a dark red and spit out fire and ash for several hours. The resulting fallout buried the local village under 12 feet of ash that was so heavy that it collapsed all of the houses and killed all of the farm animals; but what are the chances that something like that would occur twice in a 12 month period...right?? | The ride only took an hour or so and then we began the steep climb up through the forest on the side of the volcano. Apparently these trees were spared when the ash fell farther down the mountain. Still it was akin to walking through deep sand and made for tough going. We finally came out into the open and away from the trees and we could see the black mass of the main cone broken open at the top and spewing a steady stream of white smoke into the air. I was a little disappointed not to see a river of red lava oozing down the side of the cone; but we watched and took photos and hoped for a mild eruption that we might get to see from so close. As we looked around, we realized that we were all standing in what was the former crater and that the larger part of the mountain had already been blown away | Darn it, still no red glow; but I did notice that our tour leader was now carrying a bundle of small sticks. We stopped at a vent that was 2-3 feet across and 12-15 feet long and felt the hot air coming up out of the vent. He laid the sticks across the vent and they ignited on their own within a minute. One of our group who knew the drill had brought a bag of marshmallows and soon everyone was roasting marshmallows over the hot air.
63: On to the Rio Dulce The rain was pelting everyone in the public boat to Livingston as we all huddled beneath the blue plastic tarps. The canopy would have been fine had there been sun bearing down on us; but the rain swept easily underneath and since we had barely made the 4:00 ferry we had the honor of sitting in the front row of the boat where the rain first entered. I shouldn't make it out to be so bad. All of the passengers even to the back were huddled under their blue plastic tarps as well and we had gotten really lucky on the bus ride here sitting like royalty in the front two seats of our first double decker bus on the upper deck. Now that was the way to travel!! Most of the passengers in the boat held the tarp over their heads; but with gulls and terns and Magnificent Frigatebirds wheeling overhead and lines of Brown Pelicans gliding low over the water, we just accepted the shower and kept our heads out where we could watch. Our arrival in Livingston was soon enough and we were greeted by an elderly black man with a great purple sweater who spoke English. He hailed a young man who was going our way and we began our second soggy boat ride; but this time we were traveling 12 km up the Rio Dulce..Guatemala's famous and much beloved stretch of jungle covered river. The river was perhaps 1/4 mile wide with canyon-like walls covered in thick jungle vegetation. On every available branch there were Cormorants, Egrets, and Pelicans roosting or leaving to fish along the banks. We finally turned up the smaller Rio Lampara and pulled into the dock of the Hotel Perdido where we received a thorough face licking from Berne and Bali before we could climb up onto the dock.
64: Once ashore we could just see the thatched roofs of the cabanas and then out came a little slip of a woman who introduced herself as Aska. Originally Polish and then living in Holland before coming here with her partner 7 years ago, she now runs the hotel by herself. There are 3 or 4 cabanas and a dining-meeting house and all are barely visible within the jungle. As darkness fell we heard the throaty roar of a Bare Throated Tiger Heron not 50 yds away; but there was no way that we were going to see him in this thick vegetation.She let us settle in and get dry and then fed us spaghetti, homemade bread, and red wine until we could hold no more and we retired to our two story cabana and crawled in through the mosquito netting for a night of listening to the patter of the rain on our thatched roof.
65: By morning the rain had actually begun to come down even harder so we delayed our kayak trip to the end of Rio Lampara until nearly 11:00 .By then I had already had a good day of birding around the buildings with a Blue Crowned Mot-Mot being the highlight. Once underway on the river we were really expecting flights of parrots, some Toucans, and a host of other exotic species; but it was much less striking than that.Rather than the cacophony of calls that I expected, it was pretty quiet as we paddled slowly along the shores. Still by being observant we were able to see a lot of bird life and some of them were new for us and we even got a couple of good shots of a Rufous Tailed Hummingbird.The one hour paddle to the end of the river took us 5 hours so we did have a good time hunting for the birds; but then we had to bear down pretty hard to make it back to our dock before dark. The were a surprising number of people living along the river banks and typically the children would run down to the edge to wave and ask us our names. They actually said much more than that; but that was the only part that we were able to ferret out of their Guatemalan/Garifuna dialect. Spanish is probably a third language for them.
66: The day before, we had a pretty good day birding the Rio Lampara; but our hostess said that the adjacent tributary was even better for birds, so we were looking forward to another day on the water. I don't want to make it sound too good; becuase the kayak is of a design that tends to collect water with every paddle stroke and we were both a little tired of sitting in river water all day; but the prospect of seeing some new wildlife was enticing. Nevertheless, we awoke to our usual patter of rain on our hut; but today it stopped sooner and by the day's end we would actually see some sun breaks. We were able to leave around 9:00 and this river or creek was never more than 50-75 feet wide and more often covered by a canopy of trees than not. We paddled for hours against the current until it finally became too strong and we stopped for lunch before riding that same current back towards the Rio Dulce. In this time we saw over 60 different birds as well as an otter. All in all a banner day for birding though not too much for photography. The next day we took a boat to the Manatee Reserve and while we only saw another otter and a couple of new birds, the paddling through the mangroves was a real treat. Mostly along little channels 20 feet wide with trees towering above us and vines reaching all the way to the water. Each channel meandered back and forth becoming darker and darker as we slipped away from the main channel. Expecting to see snakes, birds,and other mangrove creatures; we were genereally greeted only by the sounds of our own paddles pushing against the water.
67: . We were back at the Hotelito Perdido by lunchtime and so we just rested, read, and watched the river flow by. It is all very peaceful and restful; but I am accustomed enough to my creature comforts that warm showers once in a while with dry towels and dry clothes would be too important to me. I admire Ashka for her spirit, her love of the planet and her acceptance of the adaptations necessary to live in this beautiful place. She has an amazing ability to see the problems created by location or government or local culture and just accept them for what they are without fighting against them. I gather that perhaps she did push back at first; but has found life to be a new kind of pleasure when she just floats along instead.
68: El Remate It feels like it has been days since I worked on my diary and I suppose that it has been. Our days have been really full since we arrived in El Remate. We chose this as our base camp for going to see Tikal; but happily found it to be more than worthwhile on it's own.Our lodging was the Mon Ami which consists of an open air dining area and several really nice bungalows behind it. Ours was huge with a ceiling of thatch that must have been 15-18 feet tall in the center. Outside our windows the vegetation was typical jungle with the huge green leaves overlapping one another and palms protruding up through. We had a hammock on our porch and while settled in it to read one afternoon we were treated to sightings of both Brown Jays and Collared Acaris,( the smaller billed version of toucan) and a trio of Plain Chacalacas. What a lazy way to bird! | But we deserved a little break because we had been up and birding the local preserve, Cerro Cahui since daybreak and there we met Tom Allin. Tom is an Arizonan birding his way through Mexico and Central America. He drives his Jeep and plans to donate it when he reaches Panama. What a trip he is having. He took us birding on what passes for a back road (I would have said that it would be a short turn off to a dead end) and we saw Anis, Yellow Faced Grassquits, and a beautiful sunset to boot.
70: Tikal It began as a mist shrouded trek through the woods and after 15-20 mins. We spotted the first of the Mayan towers. Each is pyramidal and a gray-black color with steps up the sides. These steps were invariably 18 inches tall or more which had to be exceedingly difficult for people who were not much more than 5 feet tall. Each tower is aligned with a specific cardinal direction and at certain times of the year their doorways or arches perfectly noted the changing of the seasons. For us it was a great opportunity to see spider and howler monkeys as well as Keel Billed Toucans, Crested Guan, and the very rare Orange Breasted Falcon. Far and away the most impressive were the Howler monkeys. It is nothing like a howl....it is as deep and reverberating a roar as you have ever heard in any movie of a Bengal Tiger or even Jurrasic Park. I suspect that old Cortez sent scouts ahead to look for these guys before venturing forward himself. To see them is almost a disappointment; because they are just not really very big or fearsome looking. I saw the small dark guys and kept looking for the big ones who were making the noise! Next most fascinating were the leaf cutter ants. Hundreds of them bringing bits of leaves 5 times their size and dropping them into their hole before going back for more. | Coatamundi | Oceollated Turkey
72: The next day we bid adieu to Guatemala and entered Belize. We took a taxi with a German couple to the capital city of Belmopan ( about an hour) and then went by ourselves another hour and a half to Dandriga on the coast where we got a boat out to Tobacco Caye. What a difference! We saw half the country in less than three hours and it is absolutely gorgeous. Where Guatemala had islands of trees and mostly cleared farm or grazing land, Belize is lushly forested everywhere you look. It looks clean and very inviting if you want to get out and see the land and the animals. Our boat ride was nothing short of jarring as we pounded out through the chop towards our little 5 acre island.
73: Out on the island, it looked like a slice of Carribean heaven. Turquoise water interrupted by patches that were even more turquoise and our tiny island with it's swaying palms. The Belizean reef extends the whole length of the country and this section is supposed to be less damaged than the rest so we rented our snorkel gear and dove right in. Once in the water we saw lots of beautiful small fish and rays; but the coral itself wasn't particularly colorful and I suspect that it has been damaged. Fortunately, much of the reef is off limits to any sort of boats, divers, or snorkelers so hopefully it will survive. The Smithsonian Institute has it's own small island here where they do research...now there is a good job! The next morning we took a boat trip to see Manatees (we did actually see one at a distance) as well as an island teeming with mating Frigatebirds and Brown Boobys.The photos are amazing and don't even do it justice. Then we snorkeled another section of the reef and saw bigger rays, tarpon, and barracuda as well as lots of smaller more colorful guys.
74: The Bird's Eye View Lodge We took the local bus from Dandriga to Belmopan and then on to Belize City in our journey to the north of Belize where the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary is located. At the bus station in Belize City, I asked the driver how to find the Jez Bus which runs out to the preserve. He turned to a dark little man in his 60's with dreadlocks and a Rastafarian outfit that was totally shabby and this guy introduced himself as Dennis. Dennis took us around several blocks past characters that even made Dandriga look better in retrospect. So here we are following this guy whom we don't know from Adam down streets with fewer and fewer people and sure enough there sits a blue bus....locked up and empty. Dennis assures us that the driver has just gone to lunch (it is already 1:45) and that we should wait with him there "because he will keep us safe". I am bigger and younger than he is and neither of us would have half a chance against most of the people in these streets so I suggested that we find a phone and I called the Reserve. They knew that the bus did not actually leave until after 5:00 and so I told Dennis that we were going to abandon him and his plan and take a taxi. He cheerfully said " fine my cousin will take you". Across the street he hails a guy in a beat up minivan who actually looks pretty good and so we negotiated the fare and climbed in. I felt better when he started telling us about his family and children and eventually the ride turned out to be a short lesson in local Belizean culture and events. I think from his tales that Belize has just as much a problem with the drug runners and their impact on the local people and police as the other countries which we have visited. He made them all sound bad, though I noticed that he had a long nail on this pinky finger himself. Once at the Bird's Eye View Lodge on the preserve we stowed our packs, grabbed our binoculars and headed out. Within an hour or so we had already seen nearly 40 birds and after our guided boat ride the next morning we were up over 70. I couldn't believe that the words were coming out of my mouth; but I was saying things like "just another flock of Anis and it is just another Snail Kite". But it was true. Rare birds at home are really common here. | Apple Snail | Limpkin | Snowy Egret
75: Snail Kite | Black Collared Faloon | Apple Snail laying eggs | Tri-Colored Heron at sunset
76: One Day, Three Countries We took the shuttle van from Crooked Tree Reserve to the airport stopping along the way for our driver to show us a Jabiru Stork on it's nest. It is the largest flying bird in the Western Hemisphere with a wingspan of over 8 feet. Some argue that it might be the largest bird in the world. He also told us about the cashew crops which are the main source of revenue for this region of Belize and about the variety of mangoes. They export the biggest and best looking ones to us and keep the smaller better tasting ones for themselves. And I suspect that the same might be true for much of their fruits. We have not bought a bad orange in all of our travels; but not one of them "looked" as good as the ones in the US. Anyway we got to the airport in Belize City which is not only the tiniest; but also the only one without anywhere to buy a meal. We ate Pringles and energy bars and played dice until time for our flight and we were off to El Salvador. We were only in that country for an hour; but the views of the volcanic mountains on the way in were spectacular with the sun creating a fiery backdrop as it dropped out of sight. No active volcanoes unfortunately; but the sun made up for it. Once airborne again, it was dark and we landed in San Jose without incident. Soon after breakfast on this Sunday morning, we began to here cheering crowds and music through our windows. When we went to explore, we found that the street was closed off and a fitness fair was in progress with 3 stages set up in the streets. Three hours and two Zumba classes later we were hot and a bit tired since we haven't really been getting any real exercise for two months now and so we left that scene and followed the crowds to the big Metropolitan Parque a couple of blocks away. There the scout troops were celebrating International Scout Sunday; but that wasn't all. Amongst the towering Eucalyptus trees, there was a roller skating oval, a running track, a small lake showing off the skills of wake boarders and a jet ski demonstration and every venue was packed with participants and on-lookers. In a grassy field, a big stage was set up for a musical concert by Serrat, a Latin American star. I just couldn't believe our luck. Had we picked any other hotel we would have missed all of this.
77: Monteverde Cloud Forest The Monteverde Cloud Forest of Costa Rica is one of the crown jewels in all the world because of the habitat that it maintains and even more impressive is the 22,000 acres adjacent to it named the Eternal Forest Of The Children which was made possible by contributions from school children from 44 countries around the world who spread the word about this virgin forest and it's importance and then raised the funds to purchase the land. Monteverde itself was bought by Quakers who left Alabama because of their convictions as conscientious objectors in the 60's and they also saw the rapidly diminishing forests and sought to preserve this important piece of the world. Getting there is no simple matter however; as the last 15 miles is unpaved washboard road with large rocks protruding through the dirt and the maximum speed you can make if you want to keep your teeth is 10-12 miles an hour. We arrived just after dark in the nearby town of St. Elena and after a quick meal, we called it a day because we wanted to be at the reserve at dawn for the ranger led walk at 7:30. All night long you could hear the wind howling over our cabana and the overhanging trees scraping across the metal roof. As dawn approached, I looked outside and saw how high up we were with a misty drizzle obscuring the more distant hills below us. Already in our yard, I could see half a dozen good birds so I was more than ready to go into the forest. What we found there was a cloud forest aptly named; because the huge trees seemed to disappear into the fog and mist. Even on a clear day, visibility would be severely limited by the sheer numbers of overlapping trees, ferns, and tree-ferns. On each tree were a myriad of bromeliads, orchids, and clumps of moss that made camouflage for any animal a wonderfully simple matter so that combined with the wind and the misty rain, we saw very few birds at all. The most famous bird here is the Resplendent Quetzel, a large green bird with a red belly, a nice crest and an elegantly long green tail, but they don't really get here until the 60 different kinds of avocado trees begin to produce ripe fruit in late March and April so we had little chance of an encounter. What we did see was a Black Guan, the Emerald Toucanet, and a wealth of hummingbirds at the feeding stations near the headquarters. The hummers were so accustomed to people photographing them at close range that they whizzed between us with abandon and many times their wings actually brushed our faces and clothing. And such colors!!
78: Violet Sabrrewing | Emerald Toucanet | Purple Throated Mountain Gem | Blue Crowned Mot-Mot | Copper Headed Hummingbird
79: After that we visited a fascinating bat "museum" where we learned about bats that drink nectar with tongues 1 1/2 times their body lengths, bats that eat insects, birds, frogs, fruit, and even bats that catch and eat fish. On a scale there, I learned that for my weight, I would have to eat 60 buckets of insects a night if I were a bat. Inside the building they have built a room where dozens of bats can be seen flying around as they visit nectar stations and bowls of fruit, then hang upside down while they munch their bits of melon. Microphones amplify and broadcast their sonic location calls to the visitors to complete the effect. Finally, we went to the Eternal Forest at dusk for a night hike where we saw sleeping Wood Thrushes, Mot-Mots, an Orange-Kneed Tarantula, a scorpion, and a bright green ribbon snake waiting high above our heads for its nightly meal. This one isn't poisonous; but many in Costa Rica are. We also saw trees with thorns the size of your thumb that protect them from sloths and other leaf eating creatures, trees that smelled like citronella that fend off insects, and a hollow secropia tree that has colonies of Aztec ants living inside of it that attack any animal that tries to climb it to eat it's foliage. What an interesting day....I can't wait to see what tomorrow brings. A live volcano perhaps | Orange Kneed Tarantula | Leaf Bug | Katydid | Red Kneed Bug
81: We spent the morning birding in the Childrens Eternal Rainforest and had some great looks at the Emerald Toucanets again; but the highlight was a pair of male Long Tailed Manakins that were sitting on a branch together practicing their courtship songs (they do this). These are little wren sized birds that are dark blue with powder blue wings and a gaudy red spot on top of their heads. As if that isn't enough, they have slender double tail feathers that are 6-8 inches long. What a treat! After that we decided to see the Arenal Volcano which involves a long and winding ; but beautiful drive around Lake Arenal. As we descended from the heavily forested mountain into the rolling foothills, the scenery changed into lush farmland spread across the hillsides with bands of trees dividing them. We birded as we went and before long, we had the volcano in sight. Dark and a bit foreboding, it rises out of the lush green forest with no other mountains in sight and a single cloud covers the top. We couldn't see any lava; but we wanted to wait until night and then try when it would be easier. As night fell, it was pretty much all clouds so we gave up; but I awoke at 2:00 am and saw nothing but stars so we dragged ourselves out and set off for the SW side of the mountain only to find that we still couldn't see the top or any red lava. The next day we learned that there hasn't been any volcanic activity in the past 3 months; but we had already booked another night so we went to the Arenal observatory lodge to go birding. What a fabulous afternoon we had! I have never seen so many memorable birds in a single day.
82: La Selva Biological Research Station The La Selva Biological Research Station is an effort to showcase, explore, and preserve a tropical rainforest in much the same way as Monteverde was designed to preserve and observe a Cloud Forest. Here, they average around 12 feet of rain per year and the preserve covers around 11,500 hectares. You immediately feel the difference as you enter the area as you see the brown fast moving creeks overhung by big leafed trees with their vines hanging down to the ground. There are the big strangler fig trees here and the tree ferns like in Monteverde; but the tree ferns are much larger....often 30 feet tall before the trunk branches into a fern with fronds that are 10-15 feet long and shading a huge area. And this is where you get your jungle audio tapes from. Flocks of Chestnut Mandibled Toucans scream from the trees and the roar of the Howler Monkeys answers back. A Damselfly hovers overhead in a swampy section; but it's wingspan is nearly 10 inches across and the brown moth hiding under the eaves looks more like the size of a bat than an insect. Upon arrival, they issue you a pair of knee high rubber boots...and they tell you not to venture off the paths.....and not to go from your cabin to the dining hall without them and your headlight in the evening to avoid the snake bites that can be so quickly fatal. Oh Boy! Another adventure. Anyway, I donned my rubber boots and set out across the metal swinging bridge that crosses the largest river...past the sign that warns against swimming because of the crocodiles and underneath the watchful Howler Monkeys and into the steamy green woods. All of a sudden the whole scene seems to change again. The vegetation is thicker, but because it is away from where it has been cut sometime in the past, the canopy now is so dense that visibility is now very limited even though it is 1:00 in the afternoon. Everything takes on a muted green and brown tone and surprising to me...it becomes almost totally silent. Only Sharon's sharp eyes can pick out tiny brown lizards on leaves or a poison dart frog that is brilliantly red with blue legs; but only the size of your thumbnail.
84: The trails start out as nice concrete sidewalks; but after an hour or so we were walking through leaves and over gnarly roots and through mud trying to look up, down, and around at the same time so as not to miss anything. Still we didn't really see very much..a troop of peccaries ambled by and we did see a trio of Broad Billed Mot-Mots; but in general the area around the camp buildings was much more alive with birds. Still you can't help but wonder how many things saw us that we didn't see at the time. In the morning we will be on a guided hike and it will be fascinating to see what the possibilities are. The next morning we joined Edgardo our guide and four birders from England for our nature tour. It was terrific for me because Edgardo knew every call and did a good job of finding the birds for us. We saw another Poison Dart Frog or Blue Jeans Frog as they call it. We also saw two different Mot Mots and two different Trogons and the real highlight was as we were walking back across the big swinging bridge, a whole troop of Howler Monkeys came across with us and then doubled back and came back by us again. We could have reached out and touched them they were so close. The mother was very cautious as she passed us with the baby on her back but the baby was definitely very curious. The crazy part was watching the mother jump from the bridge to the trees with the baby clinging to her back.
85: This is our first chance to see the coast of Costa Rica. We drove down out of the mountains towards San Jose and then on towards the long coastal road that follows most of the Pacific side. There are still mountains along the coast; but now we saw coconut plantations and some farms along the mile or two between the hills and the sea.Here the water is decidedly blue and so far it is very flat....not yet a surfer's destination. We were trying to get to the Parque Manuel Antonio but we were quickly running out of daylight and this was really too lovely to miss by doing a night drive so we decided that we would look for a place and wait until morning to continue our drive when I suddenly recognized the bridge and the river we were crossing....it was the crocodile viewing bridge and it is where we saw the Scarlet Macaws when I was in CR before. We stopped to look and sure enough it was full of huge crocs just waiting for something to drift their way. We were too late for the macaws so we found a room and returned the next morning just before dawn. What a birding hot spot!
87: We booked a snorkeling/ whale watching trip off Ballena which is Spanish for whale's tail and is so named because the spit of land that forms the park is shaped like a whale's tail. We used Pelican Tours because they were recommended to us by our hostel and it was so spot on! Our boat had 8 people on it and the other boat looked more like a chicken bus; which for snorkeling doesn't matter; but for whale watching is awful. We did see a mother Humpback and her calf as well as three males gliding alongside them. We got to see them lots of times; but we never saw them breach. We looked for dolphins and green turtles too; but we didn't find either. Then it was out to this tiny island called the whale for snorkeling. They call it the whale because it has a series of caves and one runs the length of it (now we're talking about a very small island) such that when the water level is high enough, the water goes into one end of the island and then comes out the other with such force that it looks and sounds like a whale blowing through it's spout. | Humpback Whale
91: At last we have traveled the length of Costa Rica and arrived at the OSA Penninsula on the Pacific side. It is almost in Panama and is home to much of the possible wildlife in Costa Rica. More specifically it is home to Corcavado National Park which is 60,000 hectares of rainforest that is very carefully protected. It is probably the most difficult area to get to and to explore as we soon learned when we turned off of the tortured and potholed main road and headed up and over the even more challenging dirt road to Drake's Bay. Thankfully we had gotten a 4 wheel drive vehicle and fortunately it was the dry season because it would have been impossibly muddy if it had been wet and we had to do quite a few river crossings as it was. We stopped earlier for breakfast and met Miguel who lived half way between there and Drakes's Bay so we gave him a lift and then he called his friend Martin in Drakes Bay whose niece runs a set of cabinas. He described us to Martin and said that he would find us and give us a good deal on the room. Sure enough, as soon as we came to the first intersection in town, Martin was standing by the road and hailed us. He took us to a house that was less than impressive and introduced us to his niece who then led us up a winding path where the cabins were nestled in the woods. Fine if you want that; but this is a beautiful coastal location and we were both shaking our heads; but on she went until we reached the top of the hill and she showed us our cabin looking out over the bay with a cool sea breeze blowing across our porch. We settled in for the evening with some wine and cheese and watched as 30 parrots landed in the tree above us and then we watched 3 pairs of Scarlet Macaws glide noisily by.
92: The next day we joined a girl from Iceland and her beau from London and two Columbian chaps also from London on a hike through the Corcavado National park led by Carlos. He has been guiding for 25 years and does it barefoot no less. He did not really share my interest in birds; but we did see a Great Currasow, 2 Trogans, and a Pygmy kingfisher. We also saw Tapir tracks as big as your hand and a very brief glimpse of a fer-de-lance ( you have about 7 hours to get to the antivenin). We also saw troops of spider and howler monkeys and watched in amazement as the Spider monkeys leapt from one tree to another with their babies on their backs. He also showed us vines for arthritis, plants for gastritis, a "prehistoric " plant, two leaves of which can be boiled to make a poison so strong that it kills as quickly as cyanide. He then stabbed at the bark of a tree and let us taste the milky white sap. It tasted like marshmallows, but it is used to stop bleeding very quickly. It was extremely sticky and made it hard to separate your fingers after the experiment. Finally he took us to a waterfall and let us swim in the cool water. What a treat after a long hot and humid walk! | Tapir tracks | Carlos with a lizard earring | Spider monkeys
93: Swallow Tailed Kite being chased by a Tropical Kingibird | Long Tailed Hermit on her nest | A Jesus Christ Lizard
94: Finally we are going to get to snorkel off Canos Island. It is the second best spot in CR and since Cocoa Island is 300 miles off the coast, this seems like a good deal. Our group is 8 with one couple from France, one from Quebec, one from New Jersey; but living here 6 months out of the year and us. Canos island is still about 12 kms. off the coast and so a 30 min boat ride and it appears fairly small when you get close. It is all covered in deciduous trees with palms down around the brown sandy beaches. We didn't t even make it into shore when Pedro our guide spotted a huge school of Triggerfish and so we got in and swam right with them. I tried diving and swimming under them and they didn't seem to mind a bit. Later we swam with several more schools of fish; but this was the largest and easily numbered in the hundreds. I was fortunate enough to see a small(4') Reef Shark and Sharon and I both swam 5 feet away from a sea turtle that came up for air. He was maybe 2 1/2 or 3 feet long with yellowish plates or scales and a sort of marbled face and he didn't seem to mind swimming with us at all. In fact, none of the fish seemed the least bit shy and we soon found that we could swim right alongside and even inside the schools. This might have been the highlight of the trip.
95: I would have thought that snorkeling would be the highlight of the day; but Sharon had not had her night hike and so she arranged one with a young man named Stephan on his uncle's property. We began just after dark and after he issued us both big rubber boots and two of the most pitiful flashlights ever. We traipsed down the road and then turned off onto a narrow trail overhung with vines and covered in brown leaf litter. He urged us to always walk slowly, always look down before you take a step and don't reach out and grab something to steady yourself. Can you see where I am going? As we walked along we inspected every leaf, twig, and vine and soon began to find spiders, beetles, Katydids and tiny lizards. Next we found the Common Rainforest frogs that were just as brown as the leaves themselves; but they gave themselves away by sitting on the green leaves above the trail. Occasional we heard a hoot or a soft Humpf of an owl; but we never found the eye shine to get a look at one. Next we went down to the creek and waded along looking at creek shrimp and then back up onto the banks | Katydid | Common Rainforest Frog
96: Poison Dart Frog | Glass Frog
97: . It was slick going as it began to drizzle and we were going down a little incline....I was third in line and Sharon was second behind our guide (there was only the three of us). Suddenly Sharon screamed and jumped down the bank and there not 2 feet from where she had stood was a coiled Fer-De-Lance sitting on a branch waist high. The trail here was about 4-5 feet wide and I was trying to calculate what 30% of his body length would be. That is their strike distance. To the other side of the trail was a bamboo thicket that I would have to traverse in order to avoid him and I decided that with my body taking up some of the trail space that I was definitely in range. Of course, he had already let two people walk by without striking so..... Our guide was trying to be encouraging by saying things like....walk as far away from him as you can...he looks ready to strike; but I think you can make it. What the heck, you have seven hours to get to some antivenin here in the jungle in the middle of the night. OK bamboo, I hope you aren't hiding any more surprises.... Safely on the other side, I was torn between my own fear and my anger that our guide had missed such a danger so close to the trail and us. We walked for another two hours and found more spiders, frogs and crickets; but I was less enthusiastic than Sharon or Stephan for the remainder of the hike. The highlight for me were the little tiny Glass frogs and the Poison Dart frogs. Both were the size of your fingernail and in this part of Costa Rica they are red and green instead of red and blue up north. Whew. What a day! From the beautiful ocean and reef to the jungle at night and a scrape with disaster. All in a day of vagabonding.
99: We drove back over the rough road and through the streams from Drake's Bay to the main road; but this time we did it in a driving rain storm that made the road itself look a bit like a stream. Fortunately, our little 4X4 was up to the task and we never stalled on any of our stream fords, so we hit the main road and headed inland to the Central Valley of Costa Rica to try a new part of the country and to stay at the Mirador De Quetzales where we had the best chance of seeing the legendary bird. We stopped short in San Isidro because we didn't want to drive at night and miss the lovely mountain scenery that we were experiencing so we got up the next morning and arrived at the Inn around 10:00 which was perfect for an afternoon of birding. This whole forest of avocado trees and such was the dream of Eddie Serrano who planted them nearly 50 years ago and though he has since passed away, his children now operate it and so both the Quetzals and the people still benefit from it. We saw over 20 birds that we had not seen so far on our trip that afternoon so it was a good hike; but we didn't see the great green bird. Hoping for better luck with a guide, we were up early for our tour. Everyone was stamping their feet and holding their cups of hot coffee and chocolate after a cold night in the unheated bungalows and the mist covered much of the view which the day before had stretched for miles of rolling hills and mountains. We set off in a group of a dozen and our guides called and called the birds; but after 3 1/2 hours we returned empty handed. Oh well, you cannot make nature do what she doesn't want to do. We packed our backpacks for the last time and headed for San Jose and the airport to return home at last. Sounds easy right? Not so! San Jose doesn't have any street signs so we ended up navigating by dead reckoning until some hours later we finally turned in our car and caught our flight....to Panama. Yes you have to go South before you can go North so now we are catching a few winks in the Orlando airport waiting for a 5:15 flight to Charlotte and then Asheville. And so this adventure has ended and the next one has begun. I hope that you have enjoyed traveling vicariously with us as much as we have enjoyed your company....Happy Travels!