Monteverde – Costa Rica’s Eco Adventure Playground.

Jeep-boat-jeep was the way we got to Monteverde from La Fortuna. Let me explain. Option 1 takes you around the volcano, and switches buses to eventually arrive at the final destination some seven or eight hours later. Option 2, on the other hand, starts of in a mini-van (aka jeep), then does the next part in a small boat crossing a lake, and finally back in a “jeep” (yep, that’s the mini-van again), to arrive in Monteverde some two and a half hours later. Yes indeedy, we opted for option 2!

The very first thing we noticed about this small town was its much cooler climate. At an elevation of 1200m to 1600m, the fresh air was a refreshing break from the recent humidity we had been experiencing. This area is home to a couple of cloud rainforests and a biological cloud rainforest reserve, but its real draw card is all the canopy tours offered. We settled into a homely little place called “Sleepers Sleep Cheaper”. Again, it was cheap, and clean, and this time we were afforded some great views of the surrounding mountains. We had the use of a relatively large kitchen, and the owners Ronnie and Ronald prepared an excellent breakfast each morning. Glad that we had a “home-base” as the next week proved to be non-stop adventure!

What is a Canopy Tour? A canopy tour consists of a number of cables running over and through the jungle/ rainforest. We (humans!) are hoisted up on a pulley, and then zip along from one platform to another. The cables vary from about 20 metres, to (the longest!) 750 metres. You zip from platform to platform, and it really is the closet thing to feeling like Tarzan or George of the Jungle! It is definitely for adrenaline junkies! There are a number of companies who run them, but my favourite was without a doubt, “Extremo”. This company only opened three weeks ago, and I found their cables longer, deeper and faster! We did Extremo in the afternoon, and the last cable, the longest at 750 metres, had us hurtling through a gorge, which was deeper than I cared to think about, but afforded us a view of the sun setting over the mountains and the bay, several kilometres into the distance (remember that Monteverde is in the highlands, not on the coast!). Wow, I was blown away! Extremo also had a rappel, which had us free falling for an obscene distance. Needless to say, I screamed all the way down…actually, I screamed before I left the platform! Although I had done the “tarzan swing” (yes, swinging through trees!) with some of the other companies, I just could NOT bring myself to do Extremo’s, at 2550 feet long, and 450 feet high. I tried, I really did! It was way too much like the time when I bungee jumped in Africa, way back in 1995, and I swore I would never do that again! Alex did it though, and said that it was amazing! What can I say, this tour certainly left me feeling on a natural high. Check out their web site, www.monteverdeextremo.com Who needs drugs and alcohol? Life is good!

Not leaving you on such a high, but certainly worth doing, were the treetop walkways. These are a series of suspension bridges, whereby you can walk through the rainforest “from above”. Again, many companies offer them and we did a few. It was breathtaking to be able to view jungle life from a point up so high, and we were able to see a variety of different birds (such as hummingbirds), butterflies, and the odd animal.

We also participated in some of the tamer options. We did the “Don Juan Coffee Tour” (www.donjuancoffeetour.com), where our guide, Gerardo, took us around a coffee plantation, and taught us about the entire coffee process, from the plant to the cup. We even met Don Juan himself. Although retired, he still made the time to come out and greet us, as well as happily pose for a photo! It was an excellent tour, and Gerardo an excellent guide (the best, so far, Gerardo!). They say that all good things must come to an end….well, I don’t know about that….at the end of the tour we were given snacks…and as much coffee as we wanted! Can you see why I liked this place so much…..adrenalin and caffeine! We also did another cultural tour, called “El Trapiche”, which took us through the sugar mill process. This family-run project and tour actually included a bit of everything, including explanations about coffee, bananas and other crops as well. Again, the end seemed the best part, as we were given coffee, and a taste (as well as a sample) of a sweet made from pure sugar cane.

Now really, they do say that all good things must come to an end, and so after being culturally enlightened, drinking enough coffee to make an Italian coffee addict look lame, and practice random death defying acts…………it really was time to say goodbye to Monteverde, and move on.

Nicaragua, here we come!

Next: Our 3.00am start, and how we would cross the border in record-breaking time.

Note: As I type this on the 22nd of December, we are in Ometepe, in Lake Nicaragua, Nicaragua. We crossed the border on the 20th December. Alex and I would like to take this opportunity to wish all of you the most brilliant festive season. May you spend it in peace and surrounded by those you love. I would also like to dedicate this blog to my parents: To my amazing mother Adiga, who although died 13 years ago, continues to watch over me, guard and protect me. To my equally amazing father, Dino, who has been my mother and my father, and who proudly watches over everything I do, and always with unconditional love. I feel blessed to have been given the absolute best parents on earth!

“A challenge doesn’t build character, it reveals it”.

(Photos: 1. Jeep -Boat -Jeep ride to Montoverde. 2. Ombi ready to zip through the cloud forest, via cable. 3. Suspended bridge, Monteverde. 4. Hummingbird. 5. Posing with Don Juan, of Don Juan Coffee. 6. Sunset taken from last and longest cable, Extremo Adventures, Monteverde – looking out to Guanacaste Peninsula).

Costa Rica – it’s “Pura Vida”!

An early start meant getting up, catching a boat back across from Bastimentos to Bocas del Toro, and then catching another boat a further 45 minutes up north, along the Caribbean coast, to a place called Changuinola. I felt like I was in a National Geographic documentary, as the boat zipped through a narrow channel of water, with lush vegetation on each side, lots of huge tropical trees swaying in the wind, and a plethora of birds, who with their various tones, pitches and squawks, made us feel like we were in a magical paradise.

Changuinola’s only purpose, for us, was to be able to catch a bus to the border town of Guabito – Sixaola, which we did so with ease. A tid-bit of information – Changuinola is the place which brings much of the world the famous Chiquita bananas; I am sure that many of you have had these at some point.

The border crossing was fluid, however, I was glad that we had an around-the world-ticket. The woman checking our passports on the Costa Rican side must have been having a bad hair day, as anyone who could not prove that they would be eventually exiting the country, was expected to go and buy a return ticket to Panama? Like that was going to make a difference! The bridge we had to walk across to enter Costa Rica from Panama, was trying, to say the least. A combination of metal and wooden slats, it had FAR too many gaps for my liking! With my huge backpack on my back, my smaller one in front, and not the best balance on earth, I breathed heavily and navigated to the best of my ability, and made it across with not a great deal of hassle.

Cahuita was our first destination in Costa Rica. Only a couple of hours up, on the Caribbean side, it had a decidedly laid back and mellow vibe. About a third of the people of this area are the English-speaking descendants of black workers who arrived in the 19th century to build railroads and harvest bananas. The majority of these people are bi-lingual too, speaking both Spanish and English fluently. It definitely has a different feel to the rest of Costa Rica. Having said that, the phrase “Pura Vida” (pure life) is never far from the average person’s lips. It is used as a greeting and to simply denote that life is good! We had a relaxing few days here, staying in the out of the way Cabanas (cabins) Iguana, in Playa Negra, a kilometre or so south of the town centre. The walk was definitely worth it, and night times consisted of relaxing in our wooden cabins or lazing on the hammocks on the porch in front of our room. The very cordial Riccardo, who worked there, was also always bringing us fresh grapefruit, star fruit, bananas and whatever other fruit he could find, and which was all grown on the property.

The highlight of Cahuita was undoubtedly the walk through the Cahuita National Park. Several coconut palms line white-sand beaches, alongside which runs a tropical trail filled with animals, snakes and birds. We saw a sloth, some cheeky white faced monkeys who tried to steal our oranges (as we snacked on them!), and a bright yellow eyelash pit viper snake. Alex was able to get right up, close and personal, as he took a photo of it wrapped around the branch of a tree. Unbeknown to us, and which we would later find out, this is one of Costa Rica’s most poisonous and venomous snakes! Part of the adventure, we would both remind ourselves!

Next, San Jose, the capital. Although we actually found it quite unimpressive, we stayed in a great hostel, where we made some great friends. “The Red Parrot” was run by a Colombian, called Sandra, and Julian, who is also Colombian, worked there too. They were friendly and helpful, and kept a super-clean hostel (just the way I like it!). It is in this hostel that we met Noel, a Canadian journalist working on an English speaking paper there, and the gorgeous Carlos and Liyatze, from Venezuela. Although there was a kitchen in the hostel, we soon all figured out what a great cook Carlos was, and so we would all chip in for food, and he would cook! We had Venezuelan hot dogs (mine were soya) one night, arepas another (arepas are traditionally from Venezuela and Colombia, and are like thick savoury pancakes made from corn meal), and the piece-de -resistance, stuffed eggplant! Excuse my heightened sense of excitement and enthusiasm, but after weeks of beans, rice, eggs and fried plantains (cooking bananas), I felt like I had found “food utopia”! Being vegetarian in Central America isn’t easy – it usually consists of a normal meal….with the meat taken out! Needless to say, I have cooked a lot of my own meals, in places that haves kitchen we can use, as well as making a lot of my own salads, even if the veggies do come out of a can!

We also met up with Oswaldo and his wife Gina. Oswaldo is a friend of Alex’s from Ecuador, who works as a lawyer for the Inter-American Human Rights Court. We first met him at work, where he was able to show us around. This is the seat of all human rights cases and hearings in South and Central America and in parts of the Caribbean. We extended our stay in the capital, so that we could spend a Sunday with them both. We ended up at “Peace Park”, just outside the centre, amongst lots of greenery, in a relaxing surrounding, where we had a picnic and chatted.

It’s NOT OK until we ALL say it’s OK!!! Whilst in the capital, we ended up bumping into a gay pride march. Good on them in homophobic Central America! Who cares what your sexual preference is! We are all all human and so have the right to live our lives without fear or persecution. I went up to a few people and expressed my solidarity. Remember that we are all a part of this world, and that lesbians and gay men will only feel “normal” when we all accept everyone as normal!

Our next stop, heading north, was the small town of La Fortuna, which lies at the base of volcano Arenal, which is still active. We stayed in a comfy little place called The Sleep Inn, which was run by the congenial…….Mr Lava Lava! Don’t you love it! Mr Lava Lava guaranteed us that if we did a tour with him that we would see lava….and indeed we did! The night we arrived he took us a couple of kilometres up the road, where we were able to see and hear some explosions, as well as watch red-hot streams of lava trickling down the cone of the volcano. It was breathtaking, especially as I had never been privy to such a sight. Alex, being an Ecuadorian, and having lived in a land full of active volcanoes had, in turn, seen similar things before. The next day we did a short hike to the base of the volcano, from where we could observe the arid and volcanic surroundings. Quite different to the lush vegetation we were accustomed to. Later on we went to the Tabacon thermal hot springs, as well as treat ourselves to a buffet dinner there (www.tabacon.com ) These springs were spectacularly set amongst the lush vegetation for which Costa Rica is known for. There were a great variety of different pools, and although relaxing, I found the price exorbitant.

Although our time in La Fortuna was brief, we felt that we had achieved what we came to do. Tomorrow, we would make our way to Monteverde, Costa Rica’s Eco-Adventure Playground.

“If you walk this Earth, let them know you were here”.

Ombi

(Photos: 1 River trip to Changuinola.border. 2. Border Crossing -Bridge from Panama to Costa Rica. 3. Yellow eyelash pit viper snake. 4. Cahuita National Park. 5. Red Parrot Hostel ,San Jose. 6. Oswaldo,Gina and Ombi in Freedom Park. 7. Gay Pride Parade, San Jose. .8 Drive to Arenal Volcano)

Bocas del Toro – Archipelago of a different kind.

It is supposed to be one of Panama´s highlights; the archipelago of Bocas Del Toro, in the country´s Caribbean northwest, near the Costa Rican border. We were afforded a comfortable bus ride, as we headed to Almirante, the port from which we would then have to catch a boat to Bocas. The scenery, as in Boquete, continued to be lush and verdant, and as I watched the ebb and flow of the mountainous landscape, my mind seemed to do the same…ebb and flow. It was as if I was coming in and out of consciousness.

When we reached Almirante, I felt every bit conscious! The ebb and flow of the landscape was replaced with garbage…strewn everywhere! After finding out where it was, we headed down to the port, which was a 10 minute walk away. Let me say that Almirante really was a non event, and it was full of litter and stagnant pools of water, on severely potholed roads. As we walked down the road, shooing away flies, I had visions of malaria and dengue. We walked briskly…in my mind the mosquitos wouldn´t be able to catch us that way!

The port…yes, well…………..more rubbish and flies and mosquitos! We bought our ticket, but would have to wait another half an hour before we would board. Not much around the port…except for a tiny restautant. It was the only place where we could sit down. Not to be deterred by the flies which seemed to be picknicking on fried food that looked no younger than a day old, we had a soft drink. I think that´s about as safe as we were going to get…in Almirante!

Needless to say, we very excitedly jumped onto the boat to Bocas. The archipelago consists of six large, mostly forested islands, and lots of smaller ones. As we sped along, zipping by a multitude of the smaller islands, I couldn´t help but think that they looked like confetti scattered after a wedding.

After some 20 minutes, we arrived at Bocas Del Toro, the capital of the region, on the island of Colon. More rubbish, and more tourists than you could poke a stick at. I would not say resort-like, but I would say, ¨Spot the local¨. I just knew that this was not going to be my thing. After the usual search and hunt for a place to lay our weary heads, we found a place called Hostal Hansi. It was very clean, very new, and very cheap. We stayed for a couple of days, and did some exploring. We went to a place called Boca del Drago, which was a nice enough beach. What can I say, after having seen some exceptional beaches, the ones which are not as spectacular leave you feeling a little ho hum.

In our quest to escape the masses, a couple of days later we departed for Bastimentos Island, only a 10 minute boat ride away. We went with Robert ( who we are still travelling with) and a fun Dutch couple we met in Hostal Hansi, Job and Denise. As we reached the ¨pier¨ – a rickety, ¨watch where you put your feet¨ number, which hopefully enables you to get on to terra firma, my heart sunk yet again. This time, not so much for the throngs of people, but for all the gargbage and litter.

We ended up staying at a place called Hostal Bastimentos, which despite a little mishap, ended up being alot of fun. The owner, Enrique was very helpful and friendly, and Dixon, who worked there, was quite the character, and also ready to help out whenever. The day of our arrival, I went for a walk to Wizard Beach, with Job and Colleen, an American lady that we had met. We had been told that it would be muddy….what an understatement! Let´s say that when we arrived at the beach, some 30 minutes later, my tevas (Teva is a popular brand of hiking sandal that originally comes from the USA), had completely detatched themselves from my feet…to be more specific, the straps ripped off, and so did the heels! OK, so they were fakes that I bought in Thailand last year! So, it really was time to get up close and personal, as I trudged through the mud, ankle deep. I tried not to think about the possibilities of leeches and other mud-borne insects!

The next day was spent ¨relaxing¨ , by default. As it rained incessantly, the one and only option was to hang around the hotel! Talk about an alluvial downpour! Nobody was going anywhere! Later that night, Alex gave me a heart attack! No sooner had he started walking down the slippery and wet stairs, and muttered for me to be careful as I followed, he slipped and went tumbling down. As I saw him bounce and knock his head, as he fell to the bottom, I almost passed out. As he grabbed his head, I almost passed out. I am not sure if you know, but I do not cope with blood and open wounds. I am not sure who went into shock first! I could not even look, and a few others came to the rescue. Pathetic, I know! I eventually had a look, and there certainly was a small cut, fortunately it was not deep. Let me confess, I had visions of Alex needing stitches, and there was not a decent clinic within coo-ee! Alex did go into shock, and was worried that he had done some serious damage. I assured him that all was OK, and we spent the next few hours in our room, icing his head, and making sure that he did not have concussion.

The next day, a group of us went on a day tour of several of the surrounding islands. Dolphin Bay lived up to its name, and we saw lots of dolphins. There is something fascinating about these docile animals. We then went to Coral Cay, which was basically unimpressive, as far as coral goes. But then, being Australian, and having seen the Great Barrier Reef, living up to that is a tall order. Having said that, experiences are relative – as far as being provided with a beautiful small Caribbean small island , surrounded by palm trees, it certainly passed the test. We then went to a place called Red Frog Beach, which had some decent surf, and a pleasant beach. I am sorry if my adjectives in regards to beaches are becoming lax, but I have seen so many phenomenal ones on this trip, that it is getting harder to ¨grade¨them. Three months back, this very beach may have been described as impressive! Our final snorkel at another destination was not possible, due to the massive amounts of rain the day before. The water was all stirred up and murky!

That last night on Bastimentos Island was brilliant, and I finally felt that Bocas was providing me with some of the experiece I had expected to receive. I should explain that the island has no cars, and the only ¨road¨is actually a wide footpath, which runs along part of the waterfront, for no more than a kilometre. As I walked along, I saw shop owners chatting with each other, children playing, young men playing soccer , women hanging out their clothing on their brightly painted balconies and couples walking along together….and at the end of rainbow, oops footpath, was the sea, and a spectacular sunset!

That night I went to bed content! Tomorrow would be an early start, as we would be making our way across the border, to Costa Rica.

¨Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail¨- Emerson

Ombi

(Photos: 1 Water front – Bocas del Toro. 2 Soccer on the beach, Bastimentos Island. 3 Ombi walking in mud , on the way to Wizard beach (Bastimentos Island), after “fake” Teva sandals broke. 4 Red frog, Bastimentos Island. 5. Paco, Ombi & Alex, Denise & Job. 6 Dolphin ..on the chase for a yummy tourist. 7&8 Sunset on Bastimentos Island.

Panama´s highlands and the world´s youngest backpacker.

Panama has been an experienece that has not stopped with the Kuna Indians! It is a country that has so much to offer, and as usual, we find ourselves saying, ¨We cannot see it all!¨ Having said that, we gave up trying a long time ago! The quest is to see, enjoy and experience, taking each day as it comes.

From Panama City we made our way to David, in the south west of the country. Although it was only a quick stopover , it proved to be quite interesting. Although it has few attractions in its own right, it is a great spot to people watch and see how the real Panamanians (as opposed to tourists) live their lives. An early morning stroll, showed me……fruit and vegetable sellers calling out their prices in a bid to capture the wholsale as well as the retail market, people going about buying poultry, live! There was a lot of hustle and bustle, and it felt fun to be part of it.

One of the main reasons we came to David was to see ¨Los Pozos de Caldera¨, the natural hot springs which lie only 14 kilometres away (from David). After a 30 minute bus ride, it was a further 45 minute walk, through lush tropical forest and a ¨healthy¨amount of mud. Nothing that our hiking shoes could not cope with! We finally reached the property where the springs were. No big entrance or doors, just a woman who came up to us and explained that it would cost USD $1.00 each to enter! I should quickly mention here that although the Panamanian currency is technically the Balboa, they actually use American dollars. As I looked around I was taken aback by the natural beauty and pristine nature of our surroundings. No fancy pools, just some stones built up against the few natural springs that were scattered over the property, which was being shared with goats, hens and other animals! I silenty wondered how long it would take before they became a McHot Springs! The attraction was in the raw beauty and the fact that they had not been commercialised…yet! And just for the record, our hot springs experience really did come without the fries!

Boquete was next, and with quite a different climate to the rest of humid Panama. As it is nestled in a mountain valley at more than 1000 metres above sea level, its climate is cool and fresh. The town had a totally different feel to what we had experienced thus far in Panama. Undoubtedly lush and verdant, it is home to some of Panama´s, and if I may say so, Central America´s , best coffee. Being a coffee lover, I must say that I had some exceptional coffee, one of them being from the Duran Cafe (Duran is one of the many coffee brands here) in the centre of town. As many of you would know, I am a fairly low maintenance backpaker, and whilst I need neither vegemite nor my mod cons……I will NEVER (almost categorically!) knock back a good coffee.

How is it that we seem to have a penchant for arriving in places when there is some type of festival going on, and which usually consists of places being booked out? We did it again! We had no idea that we were coming in on a four day festival to celebrate Panama´s independence from Spain (as opposed to Colombia), as it celebrates both. Panama actually used to be a part of Colombia, so it actually celebrates its liberation from both countries. Just to make it difficult, on different days! We finally found a place (there was some luck involved as somebody cancelled) called Hostal Boquete, right on the Caldera River. Let me reiterate, right on the river, as in when we ate our meals (which we often make ourselves, and/ or use kitchen when it´s available) our TV was the river running over big pebbles and stones infront of us, as it made the kind of sound you only hear in those 3-D Imax movies. Better than a flatscreen!

Boquete is home to Volcan Baru, the highest point in the country at 3475 metres high. Whist we chose not to do this hike, we did do the ¨Sendero Los Quetzales¨(Quetzals trail). The trail meanders 8 kilometres between Boquete nd Cerro Punto, another hillside village. We walked it both ways. Although quite muddy, the views offered were spectacular, and we felt as though we were in another world. Do any of you remember Enid Blyton´s ¨The Magic Faraway Tree¨? I felt transported. Nobody else was on the trail, so I felt a little like I had found utopia. Quiet, serene and surrounded by the movements and sounds of a tropical rainforest, I wondered if anything or anyone else existed. Although we did not see much wildlife, we did see a quetzal, a bird which although not that big, has a tail that can extend up to about 30 inches. It is a resplendant bird which is only found in the rainforests of Central America. I fleetingly saw an intense emarld-green flurry, before it disappeared back into to its utopia ! Check out the following website to read more about this majesic bird, http://www.travellog.com/guatemala/quetzal.html

Amongst several outstanding characters we have met on this trip, I would like to mention Bryce Ward. Bryce is an 8-year old American, who is travelling with her parents Lauren and Blake. They have all been travelling the world for well over a year now. They have basically been doing this trip backpacker style, each with their own backpack, including Bryce. So, this makes Bryce the youngest backpacker I have met! Bryce is funny, articulate and intelligent. She has thoroughly enjoyed travelling the world, and when asked about her experiences was able to recount them with passion and vigour.

Our time in Boquete was interspersed with good walks, good coffee, and the general hype that goes along with any major festival. People selling home-made food and local crafts during the day, and discos and clubs blaring their music by night. Alcohol is cheap in Panama anyway, and during this festival it was free flowing…how does a beer or rum and coke sound at USD 50 cents a can/glass? On the last day of the festival, there was an all day parade, where different high school marching groups compete with each other. This went on ALL day, with no repeat performances….and they just kept coming, and coming and coming. The day after it looked like a totally different town. All was quiet and subdued – the aftermath of days and nights of revelry. As we slinked away with our backpacks on our backs, I internally said goodbye to Boquete and thanked it for allowing us to experience what we did. As we jumped on the bus headed for Bocas Del Toro ( in the north-east, on the Caribbean side, close to the Costa Rican border) I wondered what would await us there. Life is good! (even without LG!!)

Ombi

(images: 1.Flower, Kuna Village, Panama 2. Ombi & Alex travelling to the next point, David, Panama
3. Natural hot springs, inbetween David and Boquete 4. Kid smiling, Boquete highlands 5. Quetzal trail – sprouting of a young fern 6.Quetzal trail look out. 7. L to: Blake, Lauren, Ombi, Robert, Alex and the world´s youngest backpacker ,
Bryce Ward.

Panama – From the Canal to the Kuna Indians of San Blas.

I am not really sure as to exactly what I was expecting of Panama….but I have been pleasantly surprised. I kept hearing that it was really Americanised or westernised, but thus far, I have not found that at all. What we have found however, is a multicultural metropolis in Panama City (where we have hooked up with an Alaskan called Robert, aka Paco, and are really enjoying his company) , and an Archipelago called San Blas which appeared to come out of a time machine .

Our first few days were spent in Panama City, just strolling around, and taking in the city sights. It is quite a big city, with lots of variety. The business district, with all of its commercial to-ing and fro-ing could well be Melbourne…..just more hectic! The Old City centre (Casco Antiguo) is a fascinating labrynth of cobbled streets and colonial places, many dilapidated, dating back hundreds of years. And the the Panama Canal is an engineering feat of mind blowing magnitude!

No trip to Panama could possibly be complete without visiting the Panama Canal. It is one thing to see it on television, but altogether another thing to see it “live”! The Panama Canal is 80 kilometres long from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It was cut through one of the narrowest and lowest saddles of the long, mountainous Isthmus that joins the North and South American continents. Only keeping this information in mind, can one begin to appreciate what was really created here!

We went to the Miraflores locks, where we were able to see a variety of ships passing through; cruise ships, cargo ships, big, small, heavy, light. We stood transfixed whilst we watched for a few hours. The locks are quite close to the city centre, but buses come rather infrequently. Whilst waiting, we saw a linen truck stop in front of us and swing open its back doors whilst a couple of locals jumped in….with my finger always on the travel pulse, I called out and asked half-jokingly, if they had room for an extra couple of people. We were promptly told to jump in. As we sat, muffled and squashed amongst clothes in the back of a truck, going at a reasonable speed, with its back doors wide open….I could not help but feel a wave of excitement! It´s all part of the thrill, well the adventure at least! We later went to the Panama Canal Museum, which went into the knitty gritties of how, what , why, when. Check out their web site, www.sinfo.net/pcmuseum/

Always on the lookout for something different, unusual , or out of the ordinary (say I, after a ride in a linen truck!), we ended up doing a four day tour with an indigenous community in Kuna Yala (San Blas Archipelago), on the Caribbean side of Panama. I have done a few hilltribe and indigenous treks in my life, but nothing prepared me for this!

The Comarca de Kuna Yala, which includes the San Blas Archipelago, is a narrow strip on the Caribbean coast which runs all the way to the Colombian border. There are some 350 plus islands dotted off the coast line, and several of them, no bigger than a football field, are home to an indigenous group called the Kuna. Many islands are deserted, some have a solitary palm tree, another simply had two homes…..with the water’s edge as their fence.

Our trip began with a four wheel drive ride heading north east of Panama City, right through the guts of the jungle, and re-emerging on the Caribbean coast. The ride was…interesting…..bumpy, muddy, potholes, ravines with a drop of…..I did not look! Actually, the guide books do not even mention this road! Why? We found out that it was closed for years due to its appalling condition, and only reopened about a month ago! Adventure we wanted, adventure we were getting! When we “hit the end of the road” (aka, the bridge was recently destroyed by torrential rain), we had to get into a boat (hand made by the Kuna Indians) and actually make our way to the Caribbean. Nothing could prepare us, as we emerged into the Caribbean and saw a multitude of islands dotting the ocean.

Was I in a dream? Was I seeing Kuna Indians rowing in hand dug canoes? Was I seeing tiny islands with bamboo huts? Was I seeing deserted islands that looked like sets out of Fantasy Island? I had to pinch myself! Yes, I was seeing it, feeling it, experiencing it! It was not a show, or a put on for tourists, this is really how the other half live! And for me it was a moment of revelation, and the reason why an expensive car or mansion could and would never compare!

Our first stop was the island of Carti Yandupo, a small oasis about the size of two football ovals. And yes, we could clearly see the perimeter as the boat pulled up to the small but wooden pier. We were greeted by Nixia, who would be our (very modern!) Kuna guide and several other Kuna women. Their dress and style is very distinctive; beaded strands run the course of the bottom half of both legs, beads around both wrists, vibrantly coloured blouses with molas(traditional Kuna textiles), gold rings through their noses and black lines painted down their noses to ward off evil spirits. These women continue to dress as their ancestors did…..their world is real……and it could not possibly be any further removed from our own ¨real world¨.

The next few days proved to be amongst some of the most fascinating and thought provoking of my life! I felt like I had been transported to another world; a world so different to my own that at times it was hard to comprehend. They seemed to have so little, but yet they had so much! No cars, no TVs, no Play Station 3 ( I heard that in the USA, when this came out recently, a multitude of people had spent up to three days waiting outside the various stores to buy one??????), no Nike shoes. Where did we get it wrong? Another fascinating aspect about the Kuna is their honesty and gentle nature. We heard no fights, raising of voices or children fighting. They do not steal, and murder is rare.

The Kuna houses are basic, but distinctive bamboo huts, with thatched roofs, and floors made of sand. No wardrobes, no closets and no locks! And yes, we did keep our documents in our rooms, and no one dared touch what was not theirs. Theirs is a culture of respect, integrity and honour. This gave me a completely different take on ¨primitive cultures¨. Which one of us is actually living in an advanced culture, and whose exactly is primitive? Talk about food for thought!

The next four days involved eating home cooked food, sleeping in hammocks, watching spectacular sunrises and sunsets, and snorkelling on tiny islands that could only be reached by boat. Did I mention sunbaking on deserted beaches with only one or two palm trees as friends? On the island we called home for a few days, we walked around and played with the local children and watched the women make molas, traditional textiles (Please take a look at http://www.galenfrysinger.com/Kuna_women.htm). I bought two of these molas, and it was not only a pleasure to buy something and be given their meanings by the persons who actually made them, but also be able to give something back to the very comunity that the products came from. I gave my money freely and lovingly! I had a bracelet made for me – one long strand, which when wound around the wrist, forms a geometric design. Ingenious really. I also had a line painted down my nose by Edith, Nixia´s mum. The material used is natural and comes from a seed called jawa. They say this is used for protection and ward off evil spirits!

This mesmerising experience, like all others, had to come to an end, and on the last day, as I jumped into the boat and waved goodbye, I had a knot in my throat and my eyes welled up with tears. I felt overwhelmed…..and then out of the corner of my eye, I could see a boat with a group of children waving. They were coming back from school, which for them is on another island, a short distance away….and there was my little friend Senen, with a big grin on his face and waving wildly! He was the child who with his gentle nature and soulful eyes, had had the biggest impact on me. I will never forget him…I can only hope that he remembers my goodbye to him the night before, when I told him that on the whole island he was my favourite!

Dedication: Thank you to all the people of Kuna Yala, who touched my heart and helped change the way I view the world. Most of them will never know the long lasting impact they have had and will continue to make on my life! To Arquimedes, and his wife Edith who helped make our trip so special. And to their children Alejandro and Nixia who helped it come to fruition. Nixia, thanks for your friendship and for the portal into your world!

Ombi

Florida Getaway!

Travel is often go, go, go! Sometimes it’s also about being quiet, and in the moment, but it’s a big world out there with so many opportunities, feelings, sensations, cultural practices, and most importantly, people! The challenge for us, each day, is how we will tackle the way in which we wish to interpret what we see! There is no formula, or bar code, except to go with the heart. I believe that each day brings a plethora of opportunities, and our destiny helps with what we will “get out of ” that particular day! It has been a gift to be able to experience what we have thus far, and I feel overwhelmed with the knowledge that although we have a year of travel, we will barely scratch the surface!

The flight from Santo Domingo to Miami was pleasant, the wait in passport control was not! 1000 questions, fingerprints, and eyeball scanning! “The freaks” were asked if we had jobs, and how it was that we were travelling for a year…….our salvation was that we were Australian……”You Australians do have a reputation for going walkabout for long periods of time, don’t you!”, said the passport control officer. He was quite nice, if not obscenely meticulous, even having commented that Alex was from Ecuador (although he is travelling on an Australian passport, his birthplace is listed as Quito). “When was the last time you visited Quito”, he asked Alex.

We were picked up by Alex´s cousin Christian, and his partner Frankie. We had not seen Frankie in over two years, and the last time we saw Chris was in Ecuador, in January this year. As many of you know, Alex grew up with Chris and so they are like brothers. I adopted Christian too! When I lived in Ecuador, he was my salvation! He was my support and closest friend as I learned to live in a country so very different to my own.

We hit the popular and well known South Beach, for a walk and a hamburger …mine was a soy one, of course! After that it was a two hour and some drive back to Fort Myers, where the boys live with Charo, who we also know from Ecuador.

The week that we spent in Fort Myers was actually very relaxing, and we did not do anything overly strenuous. We took time out to spend with Chris and Frankie, who had both taken some time off work. We visited beaches, did some short walks in the mangrovy type parks for which Florida is famous, and on the night before we left we went to Sanibel beach, on a small private island close by, to watch a spectacular sunset….whilst swatting ¨nosee’ems¨ ……these horrendous, tiny little bugs that you cannot see and bite like crazy! I was not a happy camper! Not only are my scarred filled legs recovering from previous insect bites in the Caribbean and scars from falling on my walk up Pico Duarte in the Dominican Republic not so long ago, but a few days ago I tripped over whilst going for a run near Chris´s house….and you guessed it, two nice big, crusty grazes, one on eack knee! As Kath and Kim would say……….NIIIIIIIIIIIICE!!!!!!!!!!

Alex and I also both had our hair cut. As Frankie is a hairdresser, and an excellent one at that, we thought this would be an ideal time for a ¨trim¨. Well, Alex went for the trim….and Ombi for the chop! My hair was pretty ratty and tattered on the ends, and I would have had to have taken off several inches. Nah, that´s not me…all or nothing…so I told Frankie to go for it. I think he was more shocked than I was! To use Nike´s slogan, but in a poitically correct way, I said, ¨Just Do It!¨ It´s very short and cropped, and hey, it´s only hair, and it will grow back!

Many of you would either know or have heard me speak about one of my closest and dearest friends, Rita Garcia. You would also probably know that Rita´s parents, Aida and Octavio and sisters, Maribel and Esther are like my second family. And I certainly love them as if they were my own family! Well, Rita´s Auntie Dora and Uncle Gilberto (Octavio´s brother) live in Miami, and we went to have lunch with them on our last day in Florida. What an absolute pleasure it was to meet them both, and Dora´s mother too, who has just turned 94. It was exactly like being with the Garcias in Australia…..warm, loving and spirited people! I really did not expect any different. And what a truly special feeling to meet the family of people that you love. They made us feel very welcome indeed.

To my special friends, the Garcias in Australia and Los Angeles (Maribel and family) : Thank you for being such a special and important part of my life for so many years. You have always loved and supported me like your own, and I feel proud to be the fourth, adopted ¨Garcia Girl¨. As all of our families have grown and expanded, that love has continued to flow! Each and every one of you have a very special place in my heart and I love you very much!

Ombi

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart”…Helen Keller

(Photos: 1. Christian, Franko, Ombi & Alex. 2.Christian, Franko, Ombi at Sanibell beach 3. Franko ready to chop. 4. After the big chop. 5. Dora, Alex, Ombi & Gilberto in Miami)

Recovery, Constanza and farewelling the DR!

When we woke up the day after the hike, we felt like we had been body-slammed and then run over by a semi-trailer…….which then hit reverse to run back over us to make sure that we were totally crushed! I can categorically say that I have never felt that kind of pain before in my life, and I have participated in several other walks and hikes. When I got up, the pain in my calves was unbearable, and it took a couple of days of R ‘n’ R (rest and relaxation) to start feeling human again. Needless to say, these two days, were filled with eating, watching TV and seriously short distance walking.

We lived to tell the tale, however, and on day 3, we felt human again, and capable of venturing out into the world! A couple of days earlier we had chatted to “Negro”a moto-concho (motor bike) driver who told us that he did tours to the local waterfalls, so we took him up on it. That day was pleasantly spent visiting Jimenoa Waterfall 1, Jimenoa Waterfall 2 and Baiguate Waterfall. They were all pretty, but our favourite was Jimenoa Waterfall 1, which was a bit of a walk to get to, but with rewarding views. We actually had to cross a series of suspension bridges to get to Jimenoa Waterfall 2, before the climb to the first one.

It was time to move on, so after our day of relaxing amongst several waterfalls, we made our way to Constanza, also in the country’s interior and not far from Jarabacoa. Here we stayed at a beautiful little hotel called “Vista del Valle” (View of the Valley) for a couple of days, and simply observed local life. We met a terrific Dominican in the hotel called Hugo, who was there for work, and we spent several hours sitting on the balcony chatting.

Finally, it was time to go back to Santo Domingo, as we had a plane to catch to Miami. We spent a night in the capital before flying out. Hugo, the guy we met in Constanza, had a few days work in the capital, so he swung by with his family to say hello! Luckily our flight was at 2.40pm in the afternoon, so we were able to look for an alternative to the USD $26.00 – $30.00 taxi ride to the airport. After a bit of investigation, we were able to catch two local buses and a moto -concho each! The Ombi and Alex total coming to about USD $5.50, and that was including tipping the moto- concho drivers! OK so we were a little crammed in the bus, a little sweaty too, and they really made far too many stops. But what a feeling to ride a motorbike, with back packs on our backs, hair blowing in the wind, ocean views surrounding us……. and then pull into the airport like this! Ahhhhh, this is the simple life! Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton got it all wrong!

Until next time, Ombi.

“Falling in love with the Earth is one of life´s geatest adventures”…….Steve Van Matre

(Photos: 1. View of Jarabacoa 2. “Negro”, Ombi & Alex riding towards the falls 3. Jimenoa Waterfall No.One 4. Our ride towards Abanico, going back to Santo Domingo 5. Hugo with wife Fatima, and children Chantal & Hugo in Santo Domingo.)

Climbing Pico Duarte, the Dominican Republic’s highest peak!

After an amazing few sun drenched days on the coast of Samana, relaxing on some of the Caribbean’s most beautiful beaches, we decided that we would go to the country’s interior. Indeed the Dominican Republic is known for its beaches, but we wanted to also experience the Republic’s less famous but, as we would later find out, equally beautiful sites.

So, we decided on Jarabacoa. At 88 metres above sea level, it has a mountain setting, and coolish climate….well certainly cool compared to the rest of the country, which is decidedly hot and humid!

As usual, we had to take a couple of local mini-vans (gua-guas) to get to our final destintion. Although this usually consists of being crammed in with other people and objects, it truly is the perfect way to experience the local people and culture. I cannot reiterate how affable and warm Dominicans are, and although we have usually been the only foreigners on the local transport, they are always willing to chat.

As we neared our final destination, really only hours away from our original starting point, we could see the topography changing: more trees, lusher, and (I thought I would never hear myself saying this!) cooler! Upon arrival, we did the usual hotel search, and finally found one close to the city centre, with sweeping balcony views of the mountains!

Our intention was to chill out for a few days, see a couple of waterfalls and make our way back to the capital. Somehow, in a matter of hours we had organised to climb the country’s highest peak leaving the very next day! A man had approached us and told us that he was leaving the next day with a couple of Spaniards, and as a last minute deal he would give us a good price, USD $125.00 each for two days including food, water, transport to the beginning of the trail, accommodation in a refuge, tour guide, and mules (used for carrying both provisions, and people when necessary). The deal was to pay 50% upfront and the other 50% upon our return. Seeing that the other two had paid considerably more (we know that for a fact, as we would later ask them), we felt that this was not only a good deal…..but a challenge! Hey, this is what our trip’s all about!

And so, at 5.00am the next morning the adventure began. We were driven to the starting point, where we would begin our ascent with a young “guide”, an older local guide, whose main job really was to look after the mules, and the mules themselves.

What would you say to hiking 48 kilometres in 2 days! The walk was spectacular, the final view rewarding, and the feeling of accomplishment immense, but (there is always a but!!!)………it was badly organised, not enough food or water, and the guide really was not a guide, in that he provided no information at all on the surrounding area. I must say that it was really hard work, and we are fit! Alex walked it all, and I walked almost all of it….upon our descent, I spent an hour on a mule….and I must say that it felt good!

We almost did not make it to the top, as the conditions were not that great, and the surface very muddy and slippery in places. But we were all determined….despite our night being spent in a rat-infested refuge! Well, perhaps not infested, but I certainly was not going to sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor, and took advantage of a dome tent that we popped up inside the refuge! Yes, that at least was provided!

After climbing some 19 kilometres the first day, on the second day, we got up early to climb the last 5 kilometres to the peak….to later only have to climb a total of 29 kilometres back to the base on that very same day! At 3175 metres Pico Duarte is the highest point in the Caribbean! We later found out that it would have been better done in 3 days than 2, but we did it! Upon reaching the summit (not that cold, I was in shorts), it was quite cloudy and foggy, but we did get a very brief glimpse of the surrounding mountains. They say that on a clear day both the Atlantic and Caribbean are visible.

Mission accomplished! It was hard yakka on the way back down, and we did not get back until a little after 7.00pm. Although the guide had been useless, the local guide, Chan, was very helpful and resourceful, so we gave him a good tip.

In a nutshell, the hike was tiring but worth it! When we were picked up by the guy who had originally offered us the tour, I basically told him what I thought and explained why we were unable to pay the ensuing 50% for services not rendered! Needless to say, on reaching our hotel room, we showered and went to bed….hungry but too exhausted to eat!

Trick or Treat?

Back in early October, when we were staying with Alex’s auntie in Chicago, we noticed a lot of Halloween preparation going on! Although Halloween is celebrated on the 31st of October, preparations start early!

As we strolled through the streets surrounding the area we were staying in, we took the opportunity to observe, interact with, and take photos of the “street art”!

Have a laugh and enjoy!

Ombi


Dominican Republic please, with no resorts on the side thanks!

Cabarete? Sosua? Puerto Plata? Las Terrenas? Punta Cana? No thanks, no thanks and no thanks again! All the above mentioned places are highly touristy, and mostly filled with resorts. As Alex once said to me not long after arriving in Australia, “It’s not your cup of coffee, is it Ombs?” No, it isn’t actually! Lets say that neither of us are into resorts and hanging out with our own, on the other side of the world. It kind of defeats the traveller’s motto of experiencing the country and it’s people!

Our first point of call after Santo Domingo was the Samana Peninsula, in the north-east of the country. We arrived there via Caribe Tours, one of the country’s two national and public bus systems. After finding a place to sleep……Alex guards the backpacks whilst I go and “explore”, we were free to wander around. I should mention the two “must haves” in any room we choose – a clean bathroom, and a bed which is comfortable and has clean sheets!

The town of Samana is quite tranquil, yet dotted with either bright or pastel coloured wooden houses……a look which has so definitely come to depict anything Caribbean. It is mostly and justafiably famous as it is one of the top places in the world to observe humpback whales. They visit the region, between January and March of each year. We did not get to see the whales, as we were a little early, but we did get to see the Los Haitises National Park.

In the language of the Taino Indians (sorry, none left, eradicated by the Spaniards!), the primitive settlers of the islands, the word Haiti meant high or mountainous earth. The park is reached by boat, and rather than being a solid land mass, it is dotted with several jungly type islands and thick mangrove forests. The entire park is of coralline origin, having emerged from the sea millions of years ago as the earth’s plates thrust them upwards. What an exciting place to explore………we stopped at several of the islands, and wandered through caves, saw stalagmites, as well as some of the paintings, or pictographs, left by the Taino Indians. I felt like an extra on “Gilligan’s Island”!

Although we only stayed a couple of nights, we managed to get to a very non-touristy nightclub called ” El Cielito” (The Little Sky), thanks to a local we met. Here, we were very much the only tourists, and I must say that as I watched those women slowly move and gyrate to the beat of bachata, I felt very inadequate! Not only were they brilliant dancers….I must admit to feeling a little jealous…. I want to come back in my next life with one of those butts!

Next was Las Galeras, only a 45 minute “gua-gua” ride away. A gua-gua is effectively a minivan, in which the aim seems to be to cram in as many persons as humanely possible! No….actually, more!

The ride took us through lush rainforest, and several small “pueblitos”, or towns, where the people obviously live very simple lives. Everyone had a big smile on their face and many waved, in the fashion that I now know to be so Dominican. And of course the road side was dotted with those brightly painted houses! Las Galeras is indeed small, but it has a multitude of mind-blowingly spectacular beaches. We hung out with Mel Gibson (aka John) the yank and Audrey from France, who were managing Paradise Bungalows. both had been to Australia, so I suppose I was aptly named “Sheila”. An extremely friendly couple who made sure that I had good coffee and plenty of “mamahuana”, the local brew. Another beautiful family was Wolfgang (originally from Germany), his gorgeous Dominican wife Yanett, and their delightful daughter Camilla. C’mon, look at that photo and tell me she isn’t stunning! May I add with a personality to match!

We spent a few days here, just resting and exploring the beaches, including La Playita and Playa Rincon. The latter has been named one of the best beaches in the Caribbean, and with its multihued water, gorgeous stretch of white sand, and fringed by continuous rows of white sand, I can totally understand why!

Add fresh sea food on the beach (that’s forAlex!), and locals cracking open coconuts for us, I am sure that you can understand how we could be forgiven for assuming that we had found paradise!

Next: Our grueling ascent of Pico Duarte, the nation’s highest peak.

(Photos: 1. Ombi & Alex , Haitises National Park 2. Playa Rincon (Rincon Beach) 3. Caribbean home 4. Haitis National Park. 5. The locals. 6. Ombi, Camila & Yanett. 6. La Playita. 7. The locals with the photographer.)