Checking-In in Hiva’Oa. The Island of Paul Gauguin

Atuona Bay, Hiva'Oa

Atuona Bay, Hiva’Oa

From Fatu Hiva we sail to the next Marquesian island some 45 nautical miles away- Hiva Oa.

Hiva Oa is one of the largest and most populated islands in the Marquesas, and the Port of Atuona is one of the official ports of entry for yachts and ships. Here we check-in officially in French Polynesia. The checking-in procedure for French Polynesia is different for different people. If you are traveling with a European passport- it’s free to check in at the local Police station and you can stay 6 months (or forever if you are French). You go to the local Gendarmerie with your passport and boat papers and you sign a form- it takes 15 minutes.

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If you are traveling with Canadian, American, South African and other not so lucky passports- you have a few options: to pay a deposit at the bank (which will be returned to you months later when you leave French Polynesia; payable ONLY by credit card) and show that you have funds (around US$5,000 for a family of three) in case something happens to you and you have to be put on a plane and flown out of the country; or you have to show that you have bought a return airplane ticket- even if you are sailing with a yacht; or you have to hire an agent who will become your guarantor. Americans and Canadians can stay for maximum 3 months, while South Africans- 2 weeks only!

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You lose money in all cases. In the first one (security deposit)- you lose mainly from the money exchange fees and bank fees (over US$150, depending on money exchange rates at the time of the transactions). In the second option, if you buy a ticket for a plane- you can cancel and refund it right after you check-in with a cancellation fee (this is the cheapest option- about US$20-25 cancellation fee). If you hire an agent- you have to pay US$300 for his service and you have to have a valid health insurance.

Aranui

Aranui

Ivo and I are born in Bulgaria (Europe) and Maya is born in Canada, but our Bulgarian passports have expired and we couldn’t renew them, because there were no Bulgarian embassies nowhere on our way. We tried in Panama- at the Bulgarian Consulate, but they don’t have passport service there- so no luck. We are traveling with our Canadian passports.

The guy at the Police station in Atuona tells us, that they cannot recognize our European citizenship which we have by birth right, unless we present a valid European passport (not expired). So we need to go to the bank and pay a deposit, buy a plane ticket or hire an agent.

Our ordeal begins. We start going between the bank, the police and the agent; friends are trying to help us with the many issues that come up.

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At one point, about two weeks later (still not checked-in), I ask at the Police station what will happen if we don’t check-in at all and keep sailing from island to island? Will they arrest us, confiscate our boat? Put us in jail? – No, says the police officer, I don’t know what will happen…

Nothing will happen, most probably. Later we met a couple from the United States who have never checked in and have remained for three years in French Polynesia planning to stay for at least two more.

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Finally our only option is to hire and agent. But we don’t have health insurance. So we get DiverDAN for the family- recommended cheapest option. And we pay the agent fee which is killing us… For a second time we regret not having valid Bulgarian passports- the first time was in Colombia.

More than two weeks after our arrival, we are finally legally checked-in and free to keep sailing and exploring the rest of the islands and atolls of the South Pacific.

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We use our time while stuck on Hiva’Oa to walk around the island and chill.

We hitchhike from the port to the village almost every day. Everywhere in French Polynesia hitchhiking is the best, fastest and free way to go from one place to another (if the island is big enough to have roads). Friendly people on all of the bigger islands gave us rides all the time.

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In the village of Atuona, we marvel at some awesome sacred wood and stone  carvings called tikis. Tiki in Maori and Polynesian mythology, is The First Man- half human half god- created by god Tumatauenga.

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Tikis are protective statues considered the “patron of sculptors”, with huge head, symbolizing power and big eyes representing knowledge. Every tiki has its own personality- some are evil, others are benevolent.

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Tiki is a powerful icon of Polynesian culture, symbolizing spiritual strength, and visitors of the islands buy small tiki figurines or pendants as souvenirs- to protect them in their journey.

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The largest ancient tiki ever discovered is on the island of Hiva’Oa in the Bay of Oipona Puamau.

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The Moai- monumental stone statues on Easter Islands- is a variant of the Tiki.

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As we walk around Atuona marveling at the majestic scenery all around us, we hear music- wild rhythms that make you want to start jumping and dancing around the fire. The kids in the local school are practicing for a school celebration and they let us watch. This is our first glimpse of Polynesian dance and music- savage, sexy and full of stories.

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How awesome is that these kids get to learn to play the drums and belly dance in school since age 5!

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A short hike away through the outskirts of the village at the foot of the volcano is the old cemetery.

Old cemetery, Hiva'Oa

Old cemetery, Hiva’Oa

But another cemetery attracts far more visitors.

Paul Gauguin's grave on Hiva'Oa

Paul Gauguin’s grave on Hiva’Oa

On a hill overlooking the bay is the grave of post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin. Calvary cemetery  has become a major tourist attraction, besides the Gauguin Museum down in the village with reproductions of his paintings. All tourists coming here climb the hill in heat or rain to pay homage to the famous painter who “escaped western influences” and returned to nature to find paradise lost. Yet, the locals are not too sure about Gauguin and his legacy. What were this French man true motives to buy a house and live in Hiva’Oa?

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The Marquesan islands became famous shortly after their discovery by early European explorers as “haven of free love”. The islanders’ unique culture and way of life included a very different attitude towards sexuality. Children and parents shared quarters and it was OK for kids to witness their parents having intercourse. The adults even found it amusing and funny when children simulated sexual acts, and encourage them to do so from very early age. This explains why European ships were met with swarms of young girls, for whom virginity or chastity was not a social construct, climbing aboard to have sex with the sailors. It also explains why a middle-aged painter whose many Marquesan lovers were barely adult girls, died of syphilis in 1903.

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.*Watch our 10-minute YouTube video More Sushi in Hiva’Oa for more stories from the island- meeting a guitar maker, the arrival of Aranui, looking for an ancient petroglyph in the forest and sharing some MORE SUSHI with friends!

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If you regularly read and value our hard work, consider becoming one of our patrons for as little as $1 or $5 dollars a month and help us in our future travels. Thank you!


 

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Back to Nature in Fatu Hiva

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We sailed 3000 nautical miles across the Pacific Ocean.
Our average speed- about 5-6 kts- the speed you have when you go jogging casually in the morning. We honestly thought that upon our arrival in the first of the Polynesian islands, we will have “crossed the ocean”. Not really.

After 23 days of uneventful sailing, a few squalls, too much sushi, and the most spectacular sunsets, we arrive in the middle of the ocean- a tiny speck of land that you can’t even see on the map without a magnifying glass. Fatu Hiva- the first land on the path of sailors doing the Pacific Crossing from Galapagos- a place beyond reality.

Bay of Virgins, Fatu Hiva

Bay of Virgins, Fatu Hiva

We arrive at night and drop anchor between few other sleeping boats in the Bay of Virgins. The moon is full and bright and we can make out silhouettes of tall cliffs all around us. The smell of flowers and green earth. For the first time in almost a month we sleep at anchor, the boat still, land right next to us.

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In the morning we wake up in the shadow of a strange Jurassic world. Maya says it looks like the Khajiit Realm from her favorite game- Skyrim. The Khajiits are cat people who live in a place called Elsewhere and their king has three sons who are the three moons of this magical world. Fatu Hiva is much like Elsewhere of the Khajiits.

Jagged cliffs of frozen magma plunging into the sea; jungle-covered mountains bathed in pink morning mist rising over a thousand meters; soft folds of green valleys carved by rivers and ancient waterfalls.

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We won’t be surprised if a bunch of dinosaurs pop up from the forest. Actually, a velociraptor just swooped over the palm trees and we saw King Kong climbing up the cliffs on the west side of the bay!

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Right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 12 degrees south of the equator, Fatu Hiva is the southernmost island of the Marquesas island group at the north-eastern extremity of French Polynesia, and the most isolated one. It is only 85 square kilometers in territory with two small villages of a few hundred people and there is no airport. The island is accessible only by boat and tourism is virtually non-existent and limited mainly to cruisers, like us.

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We jump in our three-person awesome kayak and paddle to shore. Land feels strangely new and shaky. It’s hard to keep the balance. Our knees are startled. Our joints awake with disbelief. Our legs are utterly surprised at the forgotten act of walking.

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The dry warm air full of exotic smells is overwhelming.

The village near the bay is but a cluster of a few neat houses almost hidden behind drifts of bougainvillea and hibiscus. Lush gardens with papaya, banana and palm trees, large flowers the color of fire. Pigs, goats and chickens looking at the ground in search of goodies, a sleepy dog walking aimlessly under the bright tropical sun.

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The first Polynesian we meet is a woman sitting on a low concrete fence near the road. She looks like a mixture of Latin-American and Asian race, yet distinctly particular for the Marquisan islands. Dark long very thick hair, a large red flower behind the left ear, she smiles “Bonjour, bienvenues a Polynesie Francaise!” and asks us if we have some perfumes or makeup to exchange for fruits from her garden. Her French has a distinctive islanders’ accent. On these remote Pacific islands with small populations and no shops, where all goods arrive by boat a few times a year, people need all sorts of things, so easily obtained in continental countries. Anything basic- from makeup, clothes, household objects, food and spices- is difficult and expensive to get, and cruisers are always welcome to trade whatever they can spare in exchange for local fruits, vegetables and fish. But we didn’t bring anything to trade.

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We keep walking up a steep road looking for a small waterfall in the forest. Right before we left the boat, a fellow cruiser told us how to find the waterfall. You take the main road and walk up until you reach a curve. Keep walking on the path to your left, past the school and the bridge, through the forest. The path will get narrow and steep and difficult at places. You can’t get lost.

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We got lost. We keep walking on the road up the mountain under the burning sun and it feels the wrong way. There is absolutely no one to ask if we are on the right way to the waterfall. Maya is tired, complaining that her legs hurt. My legs hurt too, and the pain is intense- it has been 23 days of sitting on our butts most of the time and zero walking.

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We reach the top of the hill overlooking the village and the Bay of Virgins. Fata Morgana and her friends look like toy-boats in a calm blue lake below us. The view is spectacular. White birds with long tails like bridal veils soaring among majestic cathedral-like volcanic pinnacles gathering clouds in their crowns, dramatically shaped red and grey cliffs, lush green forests and valleys, and beyond- the endless blue of the ocean.

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Here, in 1937, Norwegian explorer and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl and his wife found paradise. Here, they lead for one year and a half “a primitive life in the wilderness, away from the artificial civilization, independent of everything except nature”, as he wrote in his book “Fatu-Hiva: Back to Nature”- an experience for which I envy them.

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To our left, far in the distance on the opposite side of the mountain we spot the waterfall. We have been walking away from it for the past one hour and a half but the view from this hill is worth the detour. And now we have a better idea where it is. We go back down and meet an old guy walking next to an old horse carrying heavy bags full of dried coconuts. He tells us how to find the way.

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An hour later and one more time getting lost this time in some farmlands, we are finally on the right path.

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It has been a wild dream to see this place, to walk among a jungle full of flowers, to reach the waterfall. And now we are here. Bathing in the cool sweet waters of the deep green pool of our dreams.

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There are not so many places left in the world- awe-inspiring places of extreme natural beauty, unspoiled by civilization and mass tourism like the remote island Fatu Hiva and its elusive waterfall.

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*Watch our 10-minute YouTube video Fatu Hiva- Back To Nature for amazing views of the island and the waterfall!

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The House at The Bottom of The Jungle

The House at The Bottom of The Jungle

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Ivo, Maya and Mira with Stanimira and Angel. El Golfito (Costa Rica)

Border Crossing

Destroyed from two days of walking up and down Volcan Baru– the highest mountain top in Panama and our heaviest, most exhausting hiking challenge ever so far, we catch the bus to the Panama- Costa Rica border. The border is a hot, noisy, dusty place full of people crossing, vendors selling suspicious food in plastic bags and cheap souvenirs, barefoot beggars sleeping in the shadows, and a huge line of tractor-trailers waiting to be processed.

At the Exit Panama booth, the Panama officials want to charge us $50.00 per adult for overstaying our 6-month visa in Panama by 2 days- a total of $100 penalty. Totally unexpected! I explain, that our visa is not a 6-month free visa, but a 1-year special maritime visa for which we paid $100 each (the most expensive we ever paid), issued to people who arrive in Panama by sea, but they want proof that we have indeed arrived by boat. The proof is a small paper given to us by the customs in the island of Porvenir (San Blas), but we left it on the boat. So no proof… I then want a proof that such 50-dollar penalty for overstaying really exist. After 1 hour of waiting, I am presented with a small booklet, where under regulation I-don’t-know-what it says, that “aliens over 18 years of age who have overstayed their visa in Panama have to pay 50 US$ penalty”. I now beg them to call the officials in San Blas and confirm that we have arrived in Panama by boat in July and therefore our visa is a special one-year maritime visa and we haven’t overstayed, but they are already so pissed off, they won’t call. At the end, I go to the cashier to pay the penalty. The cashier is a huge fat gay dude and after finishing his fun chat with a friend on the cell phone, he slowly pulls out a box with some blank forms. I prepare the cash.

The other option would be for Ivo to take the bus back to Panama City (10-hour bus ride in one direction) and get the little papers from the boat proving we have arrived by sea. We feel ultra-stupid for leaving these important papers on the boat. This will cost $18 for the bus to Panama City one way and about $20 -30 for a hostel for Maya and me to sleep the night while waiting for Ivo. A total of over $60-70 and a lost day (we would also have to spend money for food for that lost day). Instead, we decide to pay the $100 penalty and keep going. Just as the fat dude starts filling-in the penalty form, I ask him again why don’t they call San Blas and confirm that we have arrived by boat. “Sure”- the dude says and calls them!

After another 2 hours of waiting and anticipating, the officials in San Blas confirm that we are OK with the maritime visa. We exit Panama after 4 hours at the border, no penalty! We walk over to the Costa Rica side. Getting in Costa Rica is super easy and fast. And free. We fill a small form, they scan our passports and we are in, no questions asked! Welcome to Costa Rica! At the line, a local couple returning from shopping in Panama, ask to use my pen. Sure. While waiting, we begin a small polite conversation; the usual questions: where are you from?; are you on vacation? ; is it your first time in Costa Rica, etc. At the end, we are welcome to jump in their car and they give us a lift all the way to Rio Claro, just 20 kilometers from our destination. We hitch another free ride on the back of a pick-up truck of the Red Cross, and just before sunset, spending zero dollars for transportation, we arrive in El Golfito.

El Golfito

Lying on a narrow strip of land between a bay with the same name and a line of high green hills, El Golfito (‘little gulf’) is a small port and fishermen town in the Puntarenas Province on the southern Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, near the border of Panama. Here, Stanimira and Angel are expecting us.

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El Golfito

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Stanimira and Angel

Stanimira and Angel are fellow Bulgarians, who contacted us through our blog as soon as they found out we will be visiting Costa Rica, and invited us to stay with them for a few days. Stanimira Deleva, born in 1988, has a degree in Biology and did her Masters in Ecology and Preserving Ecosystems from the University of Plovdiv. She is a biologist who specializes in cave bat and have been supported by the Rufford Small Grand Foundation to study the local bats and cave systems within the project “Protecting Unique Cave Systems in Costa Rica Using Bats as Flagship Taxa” in the Brunca region together with Angel Ivanov, her boyfriend, who is experienced in speleology, rock climbing, and all sorts of extreme sports, here to assist in the cave exploration. Find out more about their cave bats project and support the project by visiting and liking their Facebook page @ Brunca Bats Project and read more about their adventures and scientific cave explorations in their blog @ The Amateur Naturalist.

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Stanimira Deleva and Angel Ivanov

The House At The Bottom of The Jungle

Stanimira and Angel have just arrived in Costa Rica a week before us and are renting a couple of rooms in a house in El Golfito. They made it possible for us to stay with them for a few days, just when the family living in the house was off on a trip to visit relatives. Perfect timing.

We are tired and destroyed from hiking Volcan Baru and then traveling all day and dealing with the border; we are dirty and hungry and our backpacks are killing us. At the end of the day, we meet these awesome young people who love Nature and Adventure as much as we do. After crossing the town and hiking for a few minutes on a narrow path among tall tropical trees along a stream, they bring us to the coolest house in Costa Rica- a big two-story lodge with a veranda and many rooms, which was once a hostel, built by a German guy years ago at the bottom of a deep lush jungle, between two rivers. Here is one of the wettest places in the world with the highest storied rainforest in Central America. We are surrounded by trees up to 45 meters tall, wet green vegetation, and tropical flowers.

In The House at The Bottom of The Jungle, we spend three days and nights resting and recuperating, washing our dirty clothes (which have hard time drying), and enjoying the company of Stanimira and Angel who are full of stories of wild cave explorations and incredible journeys around the world.

In the house, Maya falls in love with the cutest little cat in the world- Venus, who is so funny and lovable we all end up crazy about her. Now Maya wants a cat just like Venus.

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The House at The Bottom of The Jungle

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Stanimira at the veranda

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Venus- the little cat

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Writing in the journal with Venus

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Maya and Venus

The Waterfall

Stanimira and Angle bring us to a small waterfall no one knows about, which is right behind the house, on the same property. A private waterfall with a succession of small pools- how cool is this!

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Hike to the Hills

On the second day, rested and renewed, we hike to the top of the hills overlooking El Golfito. It’s a short easy hike, about 6-hours round trip, but nevertheless tiring in the intense tropical heat, with the most rewarding view at the top- the sparkling blue waters of the bay and the Osa Peninsula with its green soft hills in the distance.

On the way up, families of tiny squirrel monkeys who have invaded the jungles of this part of Costa Rica are keeping us company, jumping from branch to branch overhead. Chestnut-mandibled toucans with their large imposing beaks are also easy to spot, and a shy anteater creates a bit of a commotion in the bushes. Nature around El Golfito is healthy and abundant like nowhere else.

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Chestnut-mandibled toucan

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Squirrel monkey

Squirrel monkey

Squirrel monkey

Squirrel monkey

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Maya, Mira, Stanimira and Angel

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View of Golfito

Learning About Bats

While hiking, Maya is learning about bats from Stanimira and how very special they are. Bats are the only mammal that have wings and can fly. There wings are actually hands with very thin skin. There are over 1000 different species of bats. Some use echolocation to navigate in the dark. There are fruit bats who eat fruits and fish-eating bats as well. Bats are important for the health of our ecosystem as they eat a lot of insects and pollinate some flowers. The biggest bats are the flying foxes with wingspan about 2 meters and the ugliest ones are the Wrinkle-faced Bat (Centurio senex), who look like extraterrestrials. But the most fascinating bats for Maya are the vampire bats who eat nothing but blood.

“These notorious bats sleep during the day in total darkness, suspended upside down from the roofs of caves. They typically gather in colonies of about 100 animals, but sometimes live in groups of 1,000 or more. In one year, a 100-bat colony can drink the blood of 25 cows. During the darkest part of the night, common vampire bats emerge to hunt. Sleeping cattle and horses are their usual victims, but they have been known to feed on people as well. The bats drink their victim’s blood for about 30 minutes. They don’t remove enough blood to harm their host, but their bites can cause nasty infections and disease. Vampire bats strike their victims from the ground. They land near their prey and approach it on all fours. The bats have few teeth because of their liquid diet, but those they have are razor sharp. Each bat has a heat sensor on its nose that points it toward a spot where warm blood is flowing just beneath its victim’s skin. After putting the bite on an animal, the vampire bat laps up the flowing blood with its tongue. Its saliva prevents the blood from clotting. The common vampire bat is found in the tropics of Mexico, Central America, and South America (source – National Geographic)”

In Costa Rica there are many species of bats, but on our little expedition, we were hoping to see the tent-making bats who make little tents under the palm leaves by bending them with their teeth. We found a few tents made by the bats but they were all empty. Later, Stanimira wrote to me: “They are everywhere! You just have to keep looking! After checking 30 tents, I finally found them!”

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Tent-making bats (Costa Rica) Photo by Stanimira Deleva

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Tent-making Bat (Costa Rica) Photo by Stanimira Deleva

After these much needed days of rest in The House at The Bottom of The Jungle with Stanimira and Angel, we are ready to continue hiking and camping in one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet- the Osa Peninsula, while our new friends are getting ready to explore some known and unknown caves in Costa Rica looking for bats.

Thank you, friends, for your hospitality! We had the best time with you and we hope some day our paths will cross again!

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Fata Morgana Destinations

The Life Nomadik is now on Patreon patreon

Where is S/V Fata Morgana heading to next?

MAP23

Many are anxious to find out where the wind will blow us after five months in Panama, our longest stay in one anchorage EVER! And even though our plans, like the sea, are never solid and may change without notice at any time, here is where we would like to go in the near future, Neptune permitting. This is the Best Case Scenario for The Life Nomadik crew aboard S/V Fata Morgana:

After sailing to most of the Caribbean region in the past two years, from Cuba, to Mexico, Guatemala, The Bahamas, Dominican Republic, down the Easter Caribbean Island Chain to Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and back to Puerto Rico, we crossed over to Aruba, next we sailed to Colombia, the San Blas Islands, and across the Panama Canal to the “other side”. We are now in the Pacific Ocean, waiting for spring, when it is the best and safest time to cross from Ecuador to French Polynesia. But before this, we still have much to explore in Central and South America on land.

Two Years in the Caribbean Sea

Two Years in the Caribbean Sea

In the beginning of December 2015, which is the end of Rain Season in these parts of the world, we will leave Fata Morgana at anchor in Panama City and take the bus to the Province of Chiriqui, near the border with Costa Rica. This is the most beautiful part of Panama, with hiking trails in tropical forests, volcanoes, canyons and waterfalls, best enjoyed in Dry Season, between the months of December and July. With a tent and warm cloths, we are planning to climb Panama’s tallest peak Volcan Baru, from whose top one can see both oceans in the distance, the Atlantic to the east and the Pacific to the west, early in the morning, before the clouds roll in.

Нашата палатка нощем

Our tent at night

After Chiriqui, we will take the bus to Costa Rica. First stop: El Golfito, where we are hoping to meet new friends cave bats researchers, and then we will spend some time hiking, camping, drinking river-water, and socializing with parrots and monkeys on one of the most bio diverse places on Earth: the Osa Peninsula. Another bus rides (or a passing car or two) will take us from Osa Peninsula to the foot of Cerro Chirripo– Costa Rica’s highest mountain. Of course we’ll climb it!

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Next on the agenda is the capital San Jose and some of the nature parks around. From San Jose we will continue north to the beautiful town of Liberia, surrounded by even more nature parks, volcanoes and hiking destinations. Then we will hit the beaches on the Pacific Ocean side near the border with Nicaragua and see if the wind will fill Ivo’s kitesurf or not. Kitesurfing in Costa Rica, and then on the big lake of Nikaragua is on the menu. If all goes according to plan, all this kitesurfing will be in the company of our good friend Rado, whose entire family lives in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital. We will pay them a visit and pitch our tent in Rado’s parents’ backyard right around Christmas and New Year 2015. There are a lot to see and do in Nicaragua, and our “local” friend will show us around.

Central America Trip

Central America Trip

In the beginning of January, we will head back to Panama City, where Fata Mrgana will hopefully wait for us safe and sound. She will need a quick bottom job there (a new coat of paint on the hulls) before we sail south to Ecuador. Arriving in Ecuador by the end of January 2016 will give us two-three months’ time to explore the country, hop to Peru and all the way to Bolivia once again riding The Bus with a tent and sleeping bags on our backs.

panama-ecuador-peru

South America Trip

April 2016 the big epic ocean journey begins. A thousand miles to the Galapagos Islands should take us between one and two weeks of sailing west. How long we will stay in Galapagos depends on how much it will cost and how much we will have collected from our Galapagos Fund. A unique and fragile ecosystem and a final rest stop before the long journey west, the Galapagos Islands are not a place to be missed. Unfortunately, these islands are one of the most expensive sailing destinations on the planet, but we are sure it’s worth it.

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The four thousand miles of Nothing-But-Blue should begin somewhere between the end of April and mid-May 2016 from Galapagos and hopefully end successfully a month later on the shores of one of the most beautiful islands on Earth in French Polynesia. From here on, our plans are a distant blur. By November 2016 we will have to be in New Zealand, but we might postpone New Zealand with a few months or a whole year if we feel like it. Once settled in New Zealand, we will spend a lot of time exploring the two islands by land, and who knows when (sometime in 2017-2018) we will continue to Australia. Needless to say, we will visit Australia properly on wheels and foot before continuing on to Indonesia. We have “a date” in Bali with an awesome individual and his awesome family.

Across the Pacific Ocean

Across the Pacific Ocean

And then Asia. In Asia is where our hearts are. It will take us years of traveling in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India… Across the Indian Ocean, from the Maldives, to the Seychelles, to Madagascar, South Africa, and past Cape Good Hope to Cape Verde with a stop in St Helena, The Canaries Islands, Gibraltar, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey…. If we are still alive and well, we will be at least 5-6 years older, with eyes filled with beauty from around the world, hearths full of friendships, minds populated by unforgettable memories and unbelievable stories to share with you, when we finally reach the shores of the Black Sea and drop anchor in Varna, BULGARIA.

In the land where we were born, our journey will pause but not end, as there are so many more ports in the world waiting for Fata Morgana, and so much more thirst for adventure running in our veins.

Sailing Fata Morgana

Sailing Fata Morgana

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Maya’s Journey. On a Search for Whales

An example of Maya’s Boat School experience/experiment is her recent Whale Project.

Humpback whales Mother and Baby, by Maya

Humpback whales Mother and Baby, by Maya

After visiting the Pearl Islands in Panama where we met and observed humpback whales in their natural environment, Maya had to do a project, as a part of her education and development. The objective was to create a coherent written text using research and personal experience. For the research, we watched the 1998 documentary Whales An Unforgettable Journey, pausing the film each time there was an important information so that Maya could take notes of all the scientific and interesting facts mentioned. Next, she had to find an on-line article, read it and select some more facts and information related to the humpback whales. The final step was to write a text containing description of the animals, details about breeding, migration, as well as an account of Maya’s personal encounter with them, accompanied with a drawing.

Maya on a whale watching expedition

Maya on a whale watching expedition

The Whale Project

The whales are the largest creatures in the world. They are bigger than dinosaurs. The Blue Whale is the biggest of all whales measuring 30 meters (100 feet) in length and 200 tons. Its head is bigger than a small car and a young child could crawl inside its largest arteries. His heartbeat is so loud that you could hear it a mile away. The white skin on their heads is called ‘callosity’ and each and every pattern is unique like a fingerprint. Whales look like they have a frown. Only male humpbacks sing. The humpback whale’s songs travel a thousand miles away through the sea.

Photo by Maya

Photo by Maya

Whales migrate great distances every year. They travel between the cold waters of the North to the hot waters of the equator. In the cold they feed on krill and plankton by filtering them through their teeth called ‘baleens’. Plankton and krill are a massive protein source and thus the whales store fat called ‘blubber’ which helps them survive without eating anything during their migration for a few months. They travel 3000 miles away and lose a third of their weight during the trip, following the same ancient routs as their ancestors.

Photo by Maya

Photo by Maya

When they arrive to the hot waters of Hawaii and the Pearl Islands Archipelago in Panama they give birth. Humpback whale-mothers are pregnant for a year once every four years and give birth to a baby that weighs 2 to 3 tons. Like humans, whales are air-breathers and babies have to come out of the water for air every few minutes. Calves only drink milk for the first few months. While nursing, the baby gains 100 pounds a day in the first few weeks. Mothers protect their calves. Physical contact is very important for the mother and the baby. The young whales like to play and sometimes to block their mother’s blowhole in order to attract attention.

Photo by Maya

Photo by Maya

This year, I went in a small motorboat for whale-watching with my parents and a Russian couple we met in the Pearl Islands. We were looking for humpback whales but for one hour found no sign of them. Then we suddenly saw a mother and her calf breaching and waiving their tails with absolute joy. They both had masses of callosity on their heads. The mother was huge! It was nice. And then we saw about 12 spouts in the distance coming from the ocean. Whales! They were approaching us, jumping in the air and flipping their tails. It was terrific; we certainly took a bunch of photos. It was a nice journey on a search for whales. I liked it.

Maya S/V Fata Morgana

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Killer Whale tribal design

Killer Whale tribal design

 

Watching humpback whales has been a valuable lasting lesson not only for Maya, but for all of us. Learning through nature and direct experiences with the support of research materials and documentary films has proven to be the best successful strategy. Such lessons are also easy, interesting and unforgettable.

Find and follow Maya on Instagram/Theyoungtraveler

 

*Related articles from the blog: Boat School

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Sailing to The Pearl Islands

Sailing to The Pearl Islands

The Pearl Islands

The Pearl Islands

About 30 nautical miles south of Panama City, the Gulf of Panama is dotted by over 200 small and big mostly uninhabited islands and islets of exceptional beauty, named Islas de las Perlas (The Pearl Islands). It is our favorite destination on the Pacific Ocean side of Panama and a place no cruiser sailing through these parts of the world should miss.

At Anchor near Contadora

At Anchor near Contadora

The Pearl Islands emerged from the ocean over 60 million years ago. Before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, they were home of the Cuevas and Cocle indigenous cultures. In 1513, their “discoverer” Vasco Nunez de Balboa named the islands Pearl Islands, after the Indians greeted him with baskets full of large pearls. This friendly gesture from the part of the local population was met with violence and only two years after the arrival of the Spaniards the locals were brutally and completely wiped out. After killing everyone, the conquistadores realized that there is no one left to harvest the pearls which were so abundant in the waters of the archipelago. So they imported slaves from Africa to do the dirty job; slaves whose descendants make the majority of the inhabited island’s permanent population today.

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After one unsuccessful attempt to sail to Las Perlas from our anchorage at La Playita (the wind died and we spent four hours drifting with the current, covering just one mile in the wrong direction, and decided to turn back …) we start again one slightly windier September morning. It’s rainy season in Panama which also means not much wind until November.

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Big Ships anchorage and Panama City in the distance. Water in the gulf is covered with floating plastic garbage from the ships.

The wind dies down again just as we are crossing the big ship anchorage outside the Canal Zone and we find ourselves drifting with strong current and almost no wind among containerships, some waiting at anchor, others maneuvering, and we almost get run over by a giant metal boat (or rather, we run over the giant boat), because Ivo will not turn on the engines even in a situation like this, and with the spinnaker up our options for turning are limited…

Sailing on a collision course

Sailing on a collision course

Very slowly, we are out of the danger zone so crowded with cargo ships and so polluted with plastic garbage floating on the surface of the sea, it’s appalling.

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The next couple of hours- still no wind and our progress is ridiculous 1 to 1.5 kts…

Ivo- one horse power, 0.5 kts speed...

This is Ivo- “motor-sailing”- puling the boat with one horse power, 0.5 kts speed…

In the afternoon, the wind finally picks up and we sail fast now, with 6 knots. Yet, we have lost precious time for the first 5 hours, and we cannot make it before sunset.

Mira

Mira

The charts of The Pearl Islands are notoriously inaccurate and the entire archipelago is a rough area to navigate, especially at night, with lots of reefs and dangerous rocks in the shallows near the islands. Luckily, we have the Panama Cruising Guide by Eric Bauhaus (fourth edition). It is an essential cruising guide for Panama, San Blas, Bocas del Torro and Las Perlas, which a good cruising friend gave us awhile back in exchange for a few of our old AGM batteries. This book has been our most treasured crew member since we left Cartagena (Colombia) direction Panama a few months ago, a crew member we could count on; who never failed us. Thank you Tina, and thank you Eric!

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We arrive at night with one final squall pushing behind us, navigating in pitch black, paying little attention to the charts and much more attention to The Book, avoiding shallow areas and reefs, until we see the lights of hotels and houses on Contadora.

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There are free mooring balls just off the beach and Ivo orders us to catch one, on sail. We are super close to shore, it’s shallow, it’s dark, there is strong current and we are trying to catch a small mooring ball, without engine! Here is how it’s done: you sail in the direction of the mooring ball but not towards it, so that when you are close enough, the ball remains exactly where the wind is coming from. A few meters away from the ball you turn towards it (and towards the wind) and quickly furl the head sail. The main sail is up, but the wind is against you and the boat slows down super quickly and stops just next to the mooring ball. You catch it and drop the main. You have to consider the current as well when you estimate when and where to turn. If you turn too soon, or if the distance between the boat and the mooring ball after you turn is too big, the boat stops before you reach the ball and starts drifting backwards. In this case, you have to position the boat sideways to wind, spread the headsail again and repeat the operation. Always be aware of the surroundings and other boats in the area, shore, rocks, wind and current. In high winds, at night, and in a crowded unfamiliar anchorage, it is much more difficult to do this operation. In our case, the current is super strong, it is pitch black, we have never been here before, and there are a few small fishing boats on moorings all over the place. Yet, after much yelling and running around- Ivo on the wheel and furling the head sail, Maya with the spot light, and me with the long hook trying to grab the damn thing- we manage to catch one mooring ball without turning the engines on, only after the third attempt… A great exercise.

The sea at sunset

The sea at sunset

The next morning, we wake up in front of a small beach with the hilly island of Contadora rising behind it. A few small hotels and private luxurious mansions are perched on the hill, surrounded by trees and flowers. The island is a little more than one square kilometer in territory with a couple of hundred permanent residents and many hotels and vacation homes. With its small airport and small boat port, Contadora is the most accessible and most popular of all Perl Islands among foreign tourists and weekenders from the capital, attracting visitors with its pristine beaches, and gorgeous resorts built without disturbing the nature.

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After the construction of so many hotels and houses, roads and public spaces in the 1960s and 1970s, the flora here has been successfully preserved with lush tropical vegetation looming over buildings, and roads making sudden illogical turns around large centennial tees. The busy tourist season has not started yet, and there is almost no one. The hotels are deserted, many- abandoned and in ruins. It feels so calm and quiet as if time has stopped. It is also the only island from the archipelago that has streets long enough to run, so Ivo can still train for his marathon.

Cintadora

Cintadora

It is a great relief being here alone, in the calm clean transparent waters teaming with fish, after so many weeks in the polluted rocky and sometimes noisy anchorage at La Playita near the Panama Canal’s entrance. It’s time to relax, snorkel and fish, and once again fully enjoy our cruising way of life. This is exactly what we signed up for. And it gets better.

(To be continued…)

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Fata Morgana

Mira

Mira

Ivo

Ivo

Maya

Maya

Ivo and Maya

Ivo and Maya

Read about our favorite cruising destination on the Caribbean side of Panama: Paradise at The End of The Sea

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Project Green Tent

Project Green Tent

by Mira Nencheva

The beach at Punta Chame (Panama) where Ivo goes to kitesurf with Rado is a beautiful sight at low tide. A vast wet landscape painted with black-and-yellow sand patterns formed by wind and sea, sparkling in the light of the setting sun. Here and there, large driftwood sculptures break the monotony of the mile-long sand strip. Little sandpipers run in groups on the edge of the sea searching for small crabs as the waves recede, frigates like dark kites ride the high air currents above, and black vultures roam the shores scavenging for anything dead that comes out of the ocean.

Punta Chame (Panama)

Punta Chame (Panama)

Isolated, at the end of a long narrow peninsula, this beach is not very popular with tourists or locals; only kitesurfers visit as the winds here are the strongest in the entire region. It is one of the wildest most desolate beaches in continental Panama. It is also the dirtiest. No one cleans the incredible amount of plastic trash that comes out of the sea here every day.

The first time we see the amount of garbage in Punta Chame we are shocked. At the edge of the sand strip just before the grassy shore begins, there is a pile of plastic bottles and cans, lots of flip-flops and crocs of all sizes, broken foam containers and all sort of other non-degradable trash stretching accross the entire length of the beach. As if a garbage trucks has been dumping its contents here every day for months. There are a few hotels and a few private residencies facing the sea, but no one cleans or maintains the public beach.

Dead sea turtle in a pile of trash. Punta Chame (Panama)

Dead sea turtle in a pile of trash. Punta Chame (Panama)

Current and waves dump all that trash coming from the Gulf of Panama, where thousands of big cargo ships sit at anchor waiting for days for their turn to transit the Panama Canal. The ships, as well as people living near the shore dump illegally their waist in the sea and some of it ends up back on land, on the beach. The rest remains in the ocean, largely unnoticed, harming irreparably the sea life and the entire marine eco-system.

As Maya and I are just sitting around while Ivo and Rado are kitesurfing, we decide to clean up the beach a little. There is a broken green tent in the dump at the kitesurf shack- perfect to collect trash in, as we don’t have any garbage bags. Maya is excited. She is not simply collecting plastic bottles in an old tent; she is working on a whole new project: to clean the Planet’s environment, to reduce plastic pollution, to help the Ocean and all the creatures in it.

Maya cleaning the beach. Punta Chame (Panama)

Maya cleaning the beach. Punta Chame (Panama)

Maya is doing a great deed and it is not just cleaning a few square meters of beach but learning and teaching a lesson; giving an example. She is also working hard for a prize. If she fills the tent to the brim with beach trash she can have a chocolate of her choice at the end of the day, I promise! What kid wouldn’t spend an hour or two picking up garbage for a nice big chocolate?

The job is not as easy as it might seem. To clean this particular beach just the two of us, we would need much more than a couple of hours and many more than one green tent. The garbage has accumulated beneath the sand, packed in layers, and we only pick up the top one. It seems to me, that if we start digging and take all the plastic bottles under the sand, the entire place will collapse and disappear, as when you remove the foundation of a building…

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The tent is full but only a small area of the beach looks cleaner. Yet, it feels like a tremendous achievement and Maya is super excited and proud of herself. Some people passing-by noticed what we are doing, and people noticing is probably more important than what we actually did.

It is not the first time we have been cleaning dirty beaches and Maya decided to keep doing it in the future as part of our newly initiated Project Green Tent.

Project Green Tent

Project Green Tent

Plastic Pollution Facts

• Over 220 million tons of plastic are produced each year.

• The average American throws away approximately 35 billion plastic water bottles and 185 pounds of plastic per year.

• There are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic trash in the world’s oceans.

• Each year, 8 million tons of plastic are added to the count.

• Each year, 26 million pounds of plastic travel hundreds of miles from inland areas to our oceans, contributing to massive floating garbage patches, and killing one million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals.

• The level of waste is starting to reach a crisis point.

• Plastic breaks down into small pieces that look like plankton and is eaten by everyone from plankton to whales, acting as a poison pill.

• China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam contribute more than half of the oceans’ plastic since their waste infrastructure hasn’t kept up with rapid industrialization.

• 80% of pollution enters the ocean from the land.

• The Great Pacific garbage patch, also known as the Pacific trash vortex, is a gyre of marine debris particles in the central North Pacific Ocean not easily visible, because it consists of very small pieces that are almost invisible to the naked eye.

• 46 percent of plastics float and it can drift for years before eventually concentrating in the ocean gyres.

• Unlike organic debris, which biodegrades, the photodegraded plastic disintegrates into ever smaller pieces while remaining a polymer. As it disintegrates, the plastic ultimately becomes small enough to be ingested by aquatic organisms that reside near the ocean’s surface becoming part of the food chain.

• Some of these plastics end up in the stomachs of marine birds and animals and their young, including sea turtles and the black-footed albatross. Many albatross chicks die due to being fed plastic from their parents.

• By expanding garbage collection systems and plugging up their leakage points, plastics leakage could be cut by 50% by 2020.

In order to make Maya’s initiative a success, there are a few things you can do to help:

1. Read the facts above and learn more about Ocean Pollution.

2. Try to buy, use and throw away less plastic. Recycle.

3. LIKE and SHARE this article so that it reaches more readers. Not many people like to read about garbage and to look at pictures of dead sea turtles, so this article, like so many of its kind, will most probably remain unnoticed, unless YOU help us share it with a larger audience.

4. Clean up a beach.

Maya and the Green Tent

Maya and the Green Tent

Related articles from the blog:

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Punta Chame. Kitesurfing in Panama

Punta Chame. Kitesurfing in Panama with Rado Barzev

by Mira Nencheva

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At the end of a narrow almost deserted peninsula less than 100 km west of Panama City, we get to a wild beach of extreme tides, black vultures and skeletons; of howling winds and flying people. An hour and a half drive from the city is Punta Chame, a popular kitesurfing spot along the Bahía de Chame in Panama, a prime destination for adrenalin-junkies from the city.

Punta Chame (Panama)

Punta Chame (Panama)

One of those adrenalin-junkies and kitesurfing maniacs is Rado Barzev, a tall big guy from Sofia (Bulgaria) whom we met the first week of our arrival in Panama City.

Rado Barzev

Rado Barzev at Punta Chame (Panama)

Rado’s family moved to Nicaragua in the 1980s when he was a teenager. He did his master’s degree in Economics in Chile and a doctorate in Holland. Today, he works as a freelance Environmental Economist consulting international organizations on environmental projects based in all of Central America, South America, and the Caribbean region. Thanks to his work, which involves a lot of traveling, he spends a lot of time in Panama City, a central strategic place for the region. His job is done in two stages: first visiting the place and then writing estimates and reports for the projects he is commissioned to work on, mainly from his computer at home. Rado, always chill, positive, and contagiously cheerful, is one of not many people in the world who actually love their work, enjoying the freedom of choosing his next project, working from home, and traveling for work. Thanks to this, he has visited some of the most beautiful natural, historical and cultural destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Rado Barzev

Rado Barzev at Punta Chame (Panama)

Nature and travel are the two most enjoyable things for him. Rado also makes sure he has enough free time on his hands, which he spends with his beautiful girlfriend Kenia, visiting interesting places, enjoying the mountains and the sea, reading, playing tennis, but mainly kitesurfing in Nicaragua or Panama, or wherever he happens to be.

Rado Barzev at Punta Chame (Panama)

Rado Barzev at Punta Chame (Panama)

If you ask me, Rado’s primary occupation is kitesurfing and his work is done in his spare time, that’s how it looks. He is constantly monitoring the wind forecast, and as soon as there is wind strong enough to fill the kite, he jumps in his car and an hour and half later is in Punta Chame.

Rado Barzev at Punta Chame (Panama)

Rado Barzev at Punta Chame (Panama)

“Tomorrow- good wind! I’m going to Punta, you coming?”, we get his messages once or twice a week and most of the time we pack Ivo’s kite, Maya’s and mine bathing suites, a couple of beers in a small cooler, and off we go with Rado to kitesurf in Punta Chame.

Ivo and Rado at Punta Chame (Panama)

Ivo and Rado at Punta Chame (Panama)

Once, we wake up around 7 in the morning and find a message sent at 3 o’clock at night: “There will be wind at 5 a.m., I’m going! You guys want to come?” We missed that invite, as we, unlike Rado, sleep at night. I think he has a beeper that goes off day or night, as soon as a good wind is predicted. A true maniac.

Punta Chame (Panama)

Punta Chame (Panama)

The first time Rado comes to Amador Causeway to pick us up to go kitesurfing is comical. He is about two meter tall guy and we expect he is driving some sort of a big car, a jeep maybe. A tiny Chevrolet Spark with a kiteboard on top shows up and from it Big Rado emerges, like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon. “It is much more economical and much better for the environment”, he explains smiling. “When I grow up, I want to have a car exactly like this one.”, Maya says. “And me, I want to become like Rado, when I grow up…”, Ivo is inspired. Incredibly, we all fit comfortably in the little car, with all the kiting equipment, the beer cooler, and even Maya’s friend Noee.

Rado's car

Rado’s car

All packed in the Chevy, we start west on the Inter-American Highway for the first 70 km and after the turnoff for Punta Chame we continue on a narrow winding scenic road for another 25 km, past rolling hills and small ranches, along a vast bay lined by shrimp farms and mangroves, until we reach the beach.

Punta Chame (Panama)

Punta Chame (Panama)

It’s low tide and the beach is vast and wet with tiny craters formed by air bubbles coming out of the yellow-and-black sand. A strange and beautiful sight.

Punta Chame (Panama)

Punta Chame (Panama)

The wind here is unbelievable. A river flowing between high hills and entering the sea forms a large delta and creates a sort of a funnel, so even when there is zero wind in Panama City it can blow 20 knots in Punta Chame. Kitesurfers’ paradise.

Punta Chame (Panama)

Punta Chame (Panama)

Across the bay to the west we see the blue silhouettes of islands posing for spectacular sunset photos. One of them was property of John Wane.

Punta Chame (Panama)

Punta Chame (Panama)

Ivo and Rado unpack the kites and are gone for hours flying left and right parallel to the beach in the company of a few more enthusiasts and two yellow dogs. These must be the happiest dogs on the planet, splashing in the water, and running after the kitesurfers all afternoon.

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While Ivo and Rado are zooming in the sea, Maya and her friend Noee play on the beach and even sneak unnoticed in the swimming pool of a near-by hotel, enjoying every minute of our unforgettable afternoons in Punta Chame.

Maya and Noee

Maya and Noee

Meanwhile, I explore the shore with my photo camera. It is one of my favorite most photogenic places in Panama: a deserted beach with huge driftwood sculptures, patrolled by hundreds of black vultures and frigate birds.

Punta Chame (Panama)

Punta Chame (Panama)

At low tide, the yellow and black sand, the sea, and the tiny sea creature create abstract patterns of colors and shapes on shore, with different textures every time.

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At the south end there is a community of small fishing boats, abandoned and still, anchored in the sand without sea. At low tide the water beneath them disappears and they just sit on the beach waiting for its return.

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Kitesurfing in Punta Chame with Rado has become the highlight of our time spent in Panama City, while waiting for the rainy season to end, before heading off to the mountains and volcanoes of Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Ivo and Rado at Punta Chame (Panama)

Ivo and Rado at Punta Chame (Panama)

If you are going to kitesurf in Punta Chame, here a few facts and some useful information about the place:

• On the Inter-American Highway going from Panama City to Punta Chame, there are a few very nice and clean gas stations with fast food restaurants, toilets, and small stores, where you can buy food and drinks.

• In the morning going to Panama City and in the late afternoon going to Punta Chame, you will experience some intense traffic jams on the main highway.

• After the turnoff there is a police outpost stopping every car, checking each passenger’s passport and immigration status. Always bring your passport with you!

• There is not much in Punta Chame besides a few hotels and beach houses. And the kitesurfing school.

• The kitesurfing season is between mid-November to the end of April, with strong winds. Occasionally, there are gusts even off-season.

• You can get kitesurfing curses during season from beginners to advanced. The school is closed off-season.

• There are a few nice and safe spots to park a camper van for free and spend time in the area.

• Often the sea is rough with waves and strong currents.

• The beach is with grey sand, wild and deserted. It is also extremely polluted with plastic garbage deposited by the sea. No one cleans and maintains it.

• At high tide there is virtually no beach and kiting becomes very dangerous, because of the proximity of the large rock wall on shore at the south end. It gets hard lo launch or land the kite.

• At low tide the beach is huge, but the shallow waters are full of stingrays. Swimming is not advisable at low tide.

• Not many services are available in the area, besides a few hotels and restaurants. It is a good idea to bring food and drinks with you.

• The small town of Chame is up the road near the highway and has a bank, an ATM and a few basic grocery stores.

• In the area you will find a few nice beaches: Playa Coronado and Playa Farallón, which are upscale beach destinations, the surfing beach at Playa El Palmar, and the white-sand beach of Playa Santa Clara.

Kitesurf Punta Chame Picture Gallery

Punta Chame (Panama)

Punta Chame (Panama)

Ivo kitesurfing in Punta Chame (Panama)

Ivo kitesurfing in Punta Chame (Panama)

Vultures and skeletons, Punta Chame (Panama)

Vultures and skeletons, Punta Chame (Panama)

Rado Barzev at Punta Chame (Panama)

Rado Barzev at Punta Chame (Panama)

Maya at Punta Chame (Panama)

Maya at Punta Chame (Panama)

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“Ride the wind of today, for the wind of yesterday will bring you nowhere and the wind of tomorrow may never come.”

Ivo, Punta Chame (Panama)

Ivo, Punta Chame (Panama)

Mira, Punta Chame (Panama)

Mira, Punta Chame (Panama)

Ivo, Punta Chame (Panama)

Ivo, Punta Chame (Panama)

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Ivo

Ivo

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Punta Chame (Panama)

Punta Chame (Panama)

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Punta Chame (Panama)

Punta Chame (Panama)

Punta Chame (Panama)

Punta Chame (Panama)

Maya and Noee

Maya and Noee

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Mira

Mira

Ivo and Rado

Ivo and Rado

Punta Chame (Panama)

Punta Chame (Panama)

Punta Chame (Panama)

Punta Chame (Panama)

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Maya and Noee

Maya and Noee

Ivo...

Ivo…

Other stories from the blog about Kitesurfing:

Kitesurfing in San Blas

Kitesurfing in Aruba

Rado, Ivo and Shrek

Rado, Ivo and Shrek

About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page: Facebook/TheLifeNomadik

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Our Kayak Got Stolen

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A couple of days ago, as we were returning to our boat in the afternoon, we found the spot up on the rocks under the bushes and next to a big driftwood tree where we leave our kayak named Junior, empty. Our kayak is our only means to get between the boat and shore. It is our transportation up wild rivers inaccessible to dinghies, and in mangrove swamps home to colonies of frigate birds; it is our silent, clean 100% nature-friendly friend and family member who can carry all of us, our backpacks, and a few bags full of groceries all at once. We love him and need him.

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We love him and need him the same way as a family from Sichuan Province in China loves and needs their one and only water buffalo named Strong Mountain for he pulls the plow in the rice fields, draws cartloads of produce and homemade bricks to the village on market day, and patiently carries the heavy bundles of firewood or bamboo home on his broad back. This family, they take good care of their water buffalo Strong Mountain. But us, we failed to take good care of our kayak Junior and abandoned him unlocked and unattended for hours…

Taking the kayak for a ride.

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It is a three-seat new orange kayak very stable, light and comfortable. A gift from our friends at www.kayakshopbg.com – the one store in Bulgaria where you can buy from sailing and fishing Hobie kayaks, to all MalibuKayaks last models. A few months ago, they became our sponsors and gave us this new kayak, just when our old one got badly damaged by the UV after twelve years of staying under the sun. The extraordinary story of how Kayak Shop BG organized the buying of our new kayak while we were in Puerto Rico can be found and read here:  How We Got Our New Kayak.

Иво и Агент Оранжев-Младши

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We were devastated. Junior was gone. The place where we come on shore and leave the kayak is a small rocky beach where no one of the other cruisers from the anchorage at La Playita (Panama City) comes, as it is inaccessible to dinghies. Everyone else uses the dinghy docks at the marina for a 35-dollars weekly fee. I quickly calculate, that our kayak is worth the dinghy dock fee for a year. We used to lock it to a tree with a long cable and a padlock, but after we returned from Las Perlas Archipelago a few weeks ago, we stopped locking it and this is not a good idea. Abandoning a kayak unlocked on a secluded beach in Panama is asking for it.

Ivo tying the kayak to a log at high tide, anchorage La Playita, Panama

Ivo tying the kayak to a log at high tide, anchorage La Playita, Panama

It’s a beautiful sunny Sunday and many families are out and about. Four people are having a picnic up on a small grassy patch overlooking the entire bay, fishermen are stationed on the rocks on both sides of the beach constantly looking at the sea, waiting for fish. They have all seen a single guy climb in an orange kayak about half an hour ago and leave paddling awkwardly, just on one side. He went that way, they point. The weird thing is that the guy has left his clothes on the beach. It is also a hopeful sign that maybe he is planning to return.

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Our kayak among the indigenous Kuna ulus in a river in San Blas

We start running around, reporting the theft to the marina security on the other side, asking people if they have seen an orange kayak, but they haven’t. An officer from the harbor police goes up on a small tower from where ships coming in and out are being monitored and with huge binoculars scans the bay in all directions. Nothing. Then he jumps in a motorboat and for half an hour searches the waters around Amador Causeway for the criminal. But no success.

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One hour later all is left to do is for Ivo to swim to the boat and get the old patched-up kayak, so that we can go back home and be miserable. Right then, we spot an orange kayak in the distance towards the marina entrance heading our way!

I just wanted to paddle around for a bit! I never intended to steal the kayak. I know it is yours, I have seen you before. And this is not the first time I take your kayak for a spin after you leave it; I do it all the time. I take it, paddle around and return it to the same spot!- Sais the guy, never apologizing, accusing us for coming back too early!!!

Ivo, with a big rock in his hand, is ready to whack the kayak thief, but the prospect of spending the rest of his life in a Panamian jail in the company of ex-dictators and all sorts of criminals keeps him from killing the guy.

Don’t you ever touch this kayak again, you hear me!

Lesson learned: from now on, we lock Junior every time.

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About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page: Facebook/TheLifeNomadik

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The Ordinary House with the Most Extraordinary Inhabitants

The Ordinary House with the Most Extraordinary Inhabitants

The house where Yiscel Yánguez and her husband Néstor Correa reside looks like any other ordinary suburban house: just like the house on its right and just like the house on its left, and just like the row of houses across the street except that they are all painted different pale colors. Theirs is painted yellow. It is nothing special really.

The yellow house on the left

The yellow house on the left

A two-story house with a garage and a backyard. It has windows and doors like any other house, a living room, a few bedrooms and a kitchen. The floors inside are made of dark hardwood and the walls in all rooms are cream colors. There is a blue couch in the living room, a few chairs, book shelves with books, a ventilator, a table, and a big branch in the corner with three sloths. A big branch in the corner with three sloths???!!!

The living room

The living room

Oh, and by the way, there is a porcupine, a tropical screech owl and an iguana sharing one of the bedrooms, a lemur, an armadillo, a possum, and two baby crocodiles in small cages in the other bedroom, a barn owl perched in the upper corner of the dark room with blankets blocking the light from the windows, a spectacle owl in the total darkness of the garage, and a young tapir named Valencia in the backyard! You see, this very ordinary house has the most extraordinary residents. It’s the most extraordinary story made of many sad and happy stories, and they all take place in Panama.

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Valencia’s mother was killed by poachers in the thick tropical jungles of the Darien Mountains in 2014 when she was only two months old. The baby was rescued and survived and today the 19-months old tapir lives in the backyard of the house which is a temporary home to many animals in need of help.

Mira with Valencia

Mira with Valencia

 

The house serves as the headquarters for the Panamerican Association for Conservation, APPC of which Néstor Correa is the president and his wife Yiscel Yánguez is the director.

Yiscel

Yiscel Yánguez

In 2006 the APPC starts a program for rescuing and rehabilitating injured, sick and orphaned wild animals in Panama and provides care to animals with special needs with particular attention to sloths, Panama’s most common wild animal. Since then, more than 3,000 animals have been saved, of which 95 percent have been reintegrated in their natural habitat. Through education, the APPC promotes environmental awareness, harmony between humans and nature and teaches the community to love and protect Panama’s wildlife.

An armadillo

An armadillo

– Why this house?, I ask Yiscel Yánguez who showed me around the rooms and introduced their unusual residents to me.
– The house is a part of the Historic Town of Gamboa built in the 1930s and 1940s near the shores of the Chagres River to accommodate the American families during the construction of Panama Canal. Today the town is uninhabited and the houses are managed and maintained by the Rainforest Hotel Resort, who became our partner. The house is ideal for the APPC project for saving and rehabilitating animals as it is far away from the city, surrounded by jungle, the area is uninhabited and quiet and we can work with the animals releasing them and reintroducing them gradually in their natural habitat right from our backyard.

The tapir Valencia in the backyard

The tapir Valencia in the backyard

Yiscel Yánguez and her husband Néstor Correa have moved and live in the house permanently, providing special care and attention to the rescued animals, day and night, every day of the week.

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Sometimes volunteers also stay in the house and help. Like the girl who helps with Valencia, the young tapir. In the morning she feeds her and plays with her, running around the yard, and gives her a nice bath, before the animal retires in a small dark shed to take a nap.

It is not easy living in a house full of animals most of which sleep during the day and are active at night, like the owls, the possum, the armadillo, the lemur and the sloths.

The owl

The owl

– The animals make lots of noises, especially the owls. At night we hear them screech, and everyone is running around. Sometimes it is hard to sleep. – admits Yiscel.

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Sloth

 

Taking care of so many different animals, injured and orphans, requires an extensive knowledge about each animal’s habits, behavior and needs, as well as much determination and a big heart. These are not pets, nor zoo animals, and one of the main tasks of Yiscel is to keep them from getting used to people, so that they can remain wild and be reintroduced in the forest as soon as they become healthy and independent.

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But sometimes this is impossible. In most cases when an animal arrives as a baby and has to be nursed, it becomes attached to people and has to remain in captivity. Like Valencia, who came as a baby and is now domesticated. But when she grows up she will take part in the international program for captive breeding of this critically endangered species.

The tapir Valencia

The tapir Valencia

Or like Pino, the Rothschild’s porcupine and the cutest resident of the house, who was just a few days old when she was found alone and injured in the Gamboa area. Most probably a predator had killed her mother.

Pino the porcupine

Pino the porcupine

Pino survived thanks to APPC but is now so used to people; she can never return to the wild and will most probably go to a zoo. She started climbing on my leg as soon as I entered the room where she lives together with an iguana and an owl, and she ate dog food from my hand!

Pino the porcupine

Mira with Pino the porcupine

Unlike Valencia and Pino, the baby spectacled owl is being kept in the garage with minimal human interaction and is being prepared for the wild as soon as she is old enough.

– Feeding the spectacled owl is a bit… We have to give her live rats with broken limbs, so she can learn to hunt. -shares Yiscel.

Juvenile spectacled owl

Juvenile spectacled owl

 

It’s all part of the job: breaking rat’s legs for the owls, giving a hose bath to the tapir, finding the sloths’ favorite leaves, making fruit salad for the iguana, changing the newspapers in the possum’s cage, caring for the injured legs of the armadillo, cleaning lemur’s poop, and listening to the owls’ heartbreaking cries at night.

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But it’s all worth it, as this is just half of it. The other half includes: getting kissed on the ear by a porcupine, playing with a tapir, love and being loved by an armadillo, an owl, a possum and a lemur, and watching sloths smiling like yogis, and slowly disappearing in the forest after being released back in their natural habitat.

My heart remains with the animals at that ordinary house in the abandoned town of Gamboa.

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Thank you Yinscel for your hospitality and generosity, for the work you do with so much passion and selflessness!

Tapir

The tapir is a large, herbivorous mammal, similar in shape to a pig, with a short, prehensile snout. Tapirs inhabit jungle and forest regions of South America, Central America, and Southeastern Asia. Their closest relatives are the other odd-toed ungulates, which include horses, donkeys, zebras and rhinoceroses. The proboscis of the tapir is a highly flexible organ, able to move in all directions, allowing the animals to grab foliage that would otherwise be out of reach. Although they frequently live in dryland forests, tapirs with access to rivers spend a good deal of time in and underwater, feeding on soft vegetation, taking refuge from predators, and cooling off during hot periods. Tapirs near a water source will swim, sink to the bottom, and walk along the riverbed to feed, and have been known to submerge themselves under water to allow small fish to pick parasites off their bulky bodies. Hunting for meat and hides has substantially reduced their numbers and, more recently, habitat loss has resulted in the conservation watch-listing of all four species: both the Brazilian tapir and the Malayan tapir are classified as vulnerable; and the Baird’s tapir and the mountain tapir are endangered. (Wikipedia)

Spectacled Owl

The spectacled owl is a large tropical owl native to tropical rain forests, being found mostly in areas where dense, old-growth forest is profuse. This species is largely nocturnal, starting activity right around the time of last light at dusk and usually being back on their roosts for the day around first light. It is a solitary, unsocial bird. Vocal activity tends to be most prominent on calm, moonlit nights. The primary sound made by the spectacled owl consists of guttural knocking or tapping sounds with a popping effect: PUP-pup-pup-pup-po, POK pok pok bog bog bog bobobo or BOO Boo boo boo boo. Each progressive note becomes weaker and lower in pitch but faster in pace as the call continues. The male is the primary singer to proclaim a territory, often singing from the upper third of a tall tree. However, females also sing, uttering the same song but with a higher pitch. Duets between pairs have been heard on moonlit nights. Females also make a hawk-like scream with an emphasis on the drawn-out second syllable, ker-WHEEER, which has often been compared to a steam-whistle. Young spectacled owls beg with a harsh, high-pitched keew call. The spectacled owl occurs over a very large range and is still a resident in much of its range. Due to this, it is classified as Least Concern by the IUCN. However, being a large, slow-maturing bird of prey with a strong sense of territoriality, it as a rule occurs at low densities. In areas where prey populations are hunted by people and habitats are destroyed or compromised, they may decrease.

New World Porcupine

Rothschild’s porcupine belongs to the New World family of porcupines, or Erethizontidae. All New World porcupines protect themselves using keratinous spines that are loosely attached to the porcupine’s skin, ready to pierce the flesh of predators. Erethizontidae feature quills tipped with sharp, backwards-pointing barbs. Once one of these spines lodges in the skin of the porcupine’s molester, it detaches from the porcupine and works its way deep into the offender’s flesh. The characteristic barbs on New World porcupine spines make removal difficult and painful. Perhaps because he comes equipped with a unique defense against predators, this little guy is not endangered. Conservation efforts in Panama help to preserve the environments that support his natural habitat. Unfortunately, many cousins of Rothschild’s porcupine appear on the endangered species list. For example, Brazil’s thin-spined porcupine is an endangered species, so rarely seen that it was thought to be extinct until its rediscovery in 1986.

Sloth

Sloths are medium-sized mammals belonging to the families Megalonychidae (two-toed sloth) and Bradypodidae (three-toed sloth), classified into six species. They are related to anteaters, which sport a similar set of specialized claws. Extant sloths are arboreal (tree-dwelling) residents of the jungles of Central and South America, and are known for being slow-moving. Extinct sloth species include a few species of aquatic sloths and many ground sloths, some of which attained the size of elephants. Sloths make a good habitat for other organisms, and a single sloth may be home to moths, beetles, cockroaches, ciliates, fungi, and algae. They have made extraordinary adaptations to an arboreal browsing lifestyle. Leaves, their main food source, provide very little energy or nutrients, and do not digest easily. Sloths, therefore, have large, specialized, slow-acting stomachs with multiple compartments in which symbiotic bacteria break down the tough leaves. Sloths’ tongues have the unique ability to protrude from their mouths 10 to 12 inches, an ability that is useful for collecting leaves just out of reach. As much as two-thirds of a well-fed sloth’s body weight consists of the contents of its stomach, and the digestive process can take a month or more to complete. Sloths’ claws serve as their only natural defense. A cornered sloth may swipe at its attackers in an effort to scare them away or wound them. Despite sloths’ apparent defenselessness, predators do not pose special problems: sloths blend in with the trees and, moving only slowly, do not attract attention. The main predators of sloths are the jaguar, the harpy eagle, and humans. . The majority of recorded sloth deaths are due to contact with electrical lines, poachers, and killed by cars while crossing the street, due to fragmentation of forests and loss of habitat. They sometimes remain hanging from branches after death. On the ground, the maximum speed of the three-toed sloth is 2 m or 6.5 ft per minute. Sloths go to the ground to urinate and defecate about once a week, digging a hole and covering it afterwards. (Wikipedia)

 

Visit ACCP Facebook page and like them!

Visit ACCP website for more information about their mission and the animals they work with. Donations are also accepted through the website.

 

 

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About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page: Facebook/TheLifeNomadik

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