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.