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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Hiking Volcan Baru

Hiking Volcan Baru

Ivo and Maya on top of Volcan Baru

Ivo and Maya on top of Volcan Baru

We wake up at 4:30 a.m. and, loaded with our huge backpacks, head for Volcan Baru- a dormant volcano and Panama’s highest peak rising at 3475m. Ivo’s backpack is as big and as heavy as a small chubby dead person who even in his desperate state of utter lifelessness hasn’t lost the ability to put on weight and grow slightly each day. We call him The Chinaman. Ivo hauls him on his back up and down mountains, in cities and villages, in jungles and across borders and we all hate him with passion. The Chinaman and the two other backpacks are our biggest enemies right now.

Maya and Ivo (and the Chinaman) hiking

Maya and Ivo (and the Chinaman) hiking

The town of Boquete is asleep. Those who told us that there is a bus to the trailhead at 5:00 a.m. must have been joking, as there is not a single car on the street; not a bus, not a soul, except for one crazy hobo singing a happy tune, telling us in Spanish that “the road is long”. Desperate, we walk up and down the empty town’s streets for a few minutes and just when we lose hope of getting to the park’s entrance on time, we spot a lone taxi. He takes us up to the trailhead for $7. It is still dark and the park’s office is still closed, which means we are on time, because we can walk right past the office building and begin the long hike without paying the entrance fee- $5 per person, charged only after 6:00 a.m.

Maya and Mira at the beginning of the trail to Volcn Baru

Maya and Mira at the beginning of the trail to Volcn Baru

We walk under the heavy weight of our backpacks loaded with sleeping bags and rolled matts, jackets and clothes for hot and cold weather, cereal bars and canned food for two days, water bottles and photo cameras- all the stuff we will need in the next one month while visiting Costa Rica and Nicaragua, where we are heading after Panama. Most of the heaviest stuff and the tent make up The Chinaman- about 30 kg. Maya’s pack is 7 kg, mine- 15 kg. Soon, our legs begin to hurt and the higher we go the harder it gets. We are not used to high altitudes and huge backpacks.

Hiking with heavy packs

Hiking with heavy packs

If we had no backpacks, the walk from Boquete to the summit would be much easier and painless, even pleasant, on a wide rocky road accessible by 4×4 all the way to the top, passing by mountainous forests, green pastures and rocky hills, so beautiful we forget about the pain of the long walk and pause often to admire Nature’s charms. Large trees dominate the lower slopes, giving way to smaller plants, bushes, scrub and alpine wildflowers as we go higher. It is uphill most of the way for 12km, not very steep, starting at around 1600m with 1900m elevation gain.

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We stop to rest frequently. At noon, we eat lunch on a huge rock in the middle of the road thinking how difficult it would be for those 4WD cars to pass through here. But they do. They suffer and roar and struggle, but those Toyotas somehow miraculously do get to the top and back in one piece (half of the time).

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Lunch on the rock

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Normally, it should take 6 to 8 hours to get to the campground area, which is just before the summit. But we barely make it in 10 hours, completely destroyed, and pitch the tent under a large roofed shelter, half burned and rotten, surrounded by low moss-covered trees. It’s just before sunset- fog and light rain- and at 3200m altitude, it’s freezing cold. We “sleep” with our hats and NorthFace jackets on inside the sleeping bags. It is incredible that just a few hours ago and at 1900 meters lower altitude it was hot tropical summer. Many people start climbing in the warm weather unprepared for the freezing temperatures. One person has died of hypothermia on top of Baru in 1995. Besides cold, it is also uncomfortable, and our legs hurt so much from the long heavy walk it’s hard to sleep. Rather, we wait for the night to end in a series of short nightmares.

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The place we slept the first night

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It’s freezing cold

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Around 4:00 a.m. we hear a group of people passing near the tent. They flash lights at us and this is a sign it is time to get up and go one and a half more kilometers steep uphill to the summit. These guys have started the hike from Boquete around midnight, walking all night in order to get to the summit before daybreak and watch the glorious sight of the sun rising over the clouds below and the sky turn from black to purple to blue, orange and pink. It is said that in clear day you can see both oceans from the top- the Atlantic to the east and the Pacific to the west, but we are not lucky that day. As we climb the last kilometer and a half wrapped in our winter jackets and hats, a strong cold wind brings clouds and rain.

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On top of Baru there are some large unromantic installations and cellphone, internet, TV and radio towers emitting constant buzzing sounds. The group of early hikers are freezing huddled next to one of the buildings’ walls; one guy is in shorts and his legs are white-blue. He starts looking for wood to make fire. We are observing him thinking that for the first time in our lives we will see a person dying of hypothermia in front of our eyes, when Jaime shows up and invites us all inside the warm cozy ranger’s station. Jaime is the summit and installations’ guard from Panama’s National Police Force. He is stationed alone on top of Baru spending 15 days per month away from his family in a small room, on top of Panama. He is a great guy and invites us for coffee and hot chocolate.

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On top of Baru

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Ivo on top of Baru

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Mira, Maya and ivo on top of Baru

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At the station, we found out that we could have slept there for free (instead of the tent a few meters below) if we had walked 30 more minutes the previous day….It’s an emergency shelter, and the guard stationed there is super welcoming and a very nice person. He loves guests!

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The Nomadiks with Jaime

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Jaime Alberto stationed on guard duty on top of Volcan Baru

We go back down after spending some time at the summit watching the sun rising underneath a thick blanket of clouds and the clouds become gold, purple and pink; we pack the tent and bring everything back up, as the trail to the other side of Baru towards the town of Volcan starts right at the peak. We decide to take this unpopular, shorter but much harder and steeper path on the western side of the volcano instead of walking back down on the eastern flank to Boquete (a medium- difficult hike), and very soon we regret this decision, but it’s too late.

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The walk down on the western flank is rated : “Muy dificil” (very difficult) going almost vertically down some unstable lava flows. Click on the image to enlarge.

The hike from the top of Baru to the town of Volcan is rated ‘very difficult’. More difficult than this would be rock climbing, and going down proves to be much harder and more dangerous than going up. Here, the volcano shows its true character. The trail follows old crumbling lava flows, huge burned boulders and extremely steep cliffs. Our heavy backpacks throw us off balance and act like sails; we are constantly “jibing” when strong puffs coming from behind push us. Yet, our biggest problem is no longer the weight of the packs but the terrain which here is not just difficult, but extremely dangerous. Ivo and Maya are much faster, but I am terrified as one wrong move here can be fatal, and sometimes it takes me forever to make even one step. Instead of covering the entire 7 km of the trail in about 3-4 hours, we cover one kilometer in 3 hours, starting at 10:00 a.m., after spending some time drinking coffee and hot chocolate and chatting with Jaime. By the time we are down from the rocky slopes and into the jungles of the lowlands, it is already late afternoon.

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In the jungle, it doesn’t get better. The path is still steep downhill and we have to jump down muddy narrow crevices and fallen trees. It has been eight hours of nightmare; my knees are shaking by now and I cannot make another step. I’m done. Ivo, with The Chinaman on his back, takes my backpack too and keeps walking like a leaf-cutter ant with almost double the load, bitching. We are by now completely miserable and just want the ordeal to be over. But the trail keeps going on and on and soon it’s dark. Night finds us in the middle of a tropical forest, exhausted, dehydrated (we finished the water around noon) and far away from civilization. We keep walking with small headlights in the darkness, thinking about snakes, jaguars and other monsters.

In this kind of extreme situations, one’s true character emerges. It turns out, I am a quitter. I just want to stop walking and sleep. I tell Ivo and Maya to leave me in the forest with my backpack and sleeping bag; I cannot continue; I’m not afraid of the jungle; I’ll find them tomorrow in the village. Ivo is a survivor, a stubborn mule with limitless strength and the exact opposite of a quitter. With the two heavy backpacks he keeps going even though he is also completely exhausted and won’t leave me alone in the jungle. He is helping me as much as possible even tough at this point in time and space, we hate each other with passion. Maya is ahead of the two of us and her true character turns out to be one of a hero. She walks without complaining and tries to cheer us up, telling us “We are almost there; don’t give up; I see the end (even though she doesn’t), we are almost out of the jungle; we can make it; come on!”

Around 8:00 p.m. we are out of the jungle, walking on a wide leveled path covered with thick tall grass. Here, we pitch the tent on the side of the path over a grassy patch and sleep. The wind is violent that night, coming down from the mountain, the tent bends and tries to fly away like a kite, but we don’t care. Thirsty and hungry, we sleep.

The next morning, we awake renewed at the bottom of a beautiful valley- a sea of purple meadows, spiky trees and enormous cacti surrounded by black hills. Thin rain clouds are slowly nearing from the north and with the sun low above the eastern horizon we walk again, under a rainbow. We discover that the end of the trail is just 100 m away from our campsite but it is not the end of the road. From here, we have to walk a few more kilometers on a black road to the first village- Paso Ancho. Luckily, a local woman dropping off tourists heading to Baru gives us a lift on her way back. And this journey is over.

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Our campsite the second night

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Mira pointing at the summit. On the right side of her finger is the trail from Boquete rater ‘medium difficult’ and on the left side of her finger is the trail to Paso Ancho rated ‘very difficult’- vertical down!

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First people we meet after our descent! These guys in the pickup truck are going to climb Baru from the very difficult western flank…. They have no idea what’s ahead of them… and are super exited

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Ivo and Maya walking hand in hand under a rainbow.

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The first house we see as we walk down toward the village. We go there to ask for water.

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At the ranch, we are greeted by indigenous Guayami kids

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Their mother comes out to see us too.

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She has the most beautiful smile in the world….

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After unloading the hikers, the pickup truck picks us up on the way back and saves us a lot of walking to the village of Paso Ancho.

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The Nomadiks with the woman who gave us a ride. The journey is over!

 

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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.

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In The Company of Whales

In The Company of Whales

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We love exploring by foot the small lush island of Contadora with its many steep shady streets among the forest, some ending in the backyard of a house or on a beach, others leading us unexpectedly to the same place we started from. On one such walk, we meet a young couple with groceries and we stop them to ask where they bought the food from. The guy explains how to get to a small grocery store where they sell a few basic products and I detect a particular accent.

Pearl Islands, Panama

Pearl Islands, Panama

– You speak Russian?- I ask them in Russian and they are super surprised and glad to meet people who speak Russian on a small island in Panama.

Later, we meet Natasha and Alex from Moscow again on our beach, one thing leads to another, we become a sort of instant friends, and invite them to check out our boat. On vacation in Panama for a few days, the two Russians are passionate travelers visiting every part of the world every time they have time off work. After stopping for a bit on Fata Morgana, they invite us to join them on a whale-watching expedition.

Whale Watching tour with our Russian friends

Whale Watching tour with our Russian friends

A world of islands, the Pearl Archipelago where the biggest pearl on earth, “La Pelegrina” was found, is one of few places in the world, where thousands of humpback whales arrive each summer. From July to October, the large island group is home to somewhere between 900 and 2,000 humpback whales who travel over 6,000 miles from the cold waters of the Arctic and the Antarctic where they feed to the shallow warm waters of Costa Rica and the Gulf of Panama where they give birth and nurse their babies. Their journey along the coast of South and North America and across the equator is the greatest migration of any mammal on Earth.

Pearl Islands

Pearl Islands

We start from Contadora late in the afternoon in a small fishing boat furnished with benches for the tourists. It is just our family and the Russians. Our guide is a local guy who knows where to find the whales and how to approach them. We go around a few uninhabited islands, but for the longest hour, there is no sign of the gentle giants. It is getting late, the small boat is almost out of fuel, and we are worried that we will not find them at all.

Ivo and our whale watching guide

Ivo and our whale watching guide

Just when we give up and are ready to head back disappointed, we see a tiny black island sticking out of the sea shooting a golden fountain of mist in the air with the sun setting behind it. Next to it- another fountain, and another, and another! A small heard of whales on the western horizon is slowly heading towards us. It looks like they found us, and not we them. Our anxiety and disappointment are quickly replaced by excitement and utter happiness. Everyone except our guide and Ivo are taking pictures while the humpbacks are filling their lungs with air with slow majestic motions.

Humpback whales, Panama

Humpback whales, Panama

They dive. We hold our air. We stare at the sea. We wait. There they come out again, even closer this time, and the cameras are clicking away. Ivo is our lookout spotting the whales, pointing and yelling in Russian every time they surface for air: “Streliay (Shoot)! For Mother Russia!” or “Za Stalinu! Za Rodinu (In the name of Stalin and Patria!) and other such glorious military commands and cheers, while we are clicking like mad in the direction of the water spouts, like happy snipers.

A display of the tail was always a joyous moment.

A display of the tail was always a joyous moment.

A mother with her calf is so close to us now. She breaches high with a glorious slow motion display of might and elegance, her white fins spread like the wings of a butterfly, her mighty 15-meter long 36,000-kilogram body slicing the water with an unbelievable splash. We are all smiling with awe, our eyes full of love and gratitude. It is a moment we will never forget for the rest of our lives.

Humpback whale breaching, Pearl Islands, Panama

Humpback whale breaching, Pearl Islands, Panama

After this, we see whales every day. They come in the anchorage, near the beach, and so close to the boat that we hear their unhurried deep PUFFFFF and run on deck to look at them passing. Sometimes we jump in the kayak and start paddling towards them to take a closer look. It is unbelievably exciting and a little scary to chase an enormous mighty animal with a tiny kayak. What if mama whale doesn’t see us and jump out of the water landing on top of us? Or simply overturns the kayak without effort with a small slap of her giant tail? But we know this is not going to happen. We trust them completely. Humpback whales may be big and powerful animals, but they rarely attack people, kayaks or boats. They are the gentle giants of the sea.

Humpback whales

Humpback whales

The night of the lunar eclipse, the sky is deep and cloudless, the air is warm, there is no wind and the sea is sleeping. The eclipse announced for 8:00 p.m. starts promptly on time. We prepare popcorn for the show, and we watch the bright white moonrise followed by the slow ominous miracle of the moon-eating dragon. We observe the most perfect lunar eclipse surrounded by fragrant shadows of tropical islands in the company of humpback whales.

Lunar eclipse 2015

Lunar eclipse 2015

Humpback Whales Facts

  • The humpback whale is one of the largest rorqual species. Adults range in length from 12–16 metres (39–52 ft) and weigh approximately 36,000 kilograms (79,000 lb). The largest humpback on record, according to whaling records, was the female killed in the Caribbean; she was 27 meters (89 ft) long with a weight of 90 metric tons (99 short tons)

  • The humpback has a distinctive body shape, with unusually long pectoral fins and a knobbly head.

  • An acrobatic animal known for breaching and slapping the water with its tail and pectorals.

  • Males produce a complex long, loud song lasting 10 to 20 minutes, which they repeat for hours at a time. Its purpose is not clear, though it may have a role in mating. Each song consists of several sounds in a low register, varying in amplitude and frequency. Humpbacks may sing continuously for more than 24 hours. Cetaceans have no vocal cords, so whales generate their songs by forcing air through their massive nasal cavities. Whales within a large area sing the same song.

  • Found in oceans and seas around the world, humpback whales typically migrate up to 25,000 kilometers (16,000 mi) each year.

  • Humpbacks feed only for a few months per year, in polar waters, and migrate to tropical or subtropical waters to breed and give birth in the winter. During breeding, humpbacks fast and live off their fat reserves.

  • Their diet consists mostly of krill and small fish. Humpbacks have a diverse repertoire of feeding methods, including the bubble net feeding. A group of whales swims in a shrinking circle blowing bubbles below a school of prey. The shrinking ring of bubbles encircles the school and confines it in an ever-smaller cylinder. This ring can begin at up to 30 meters (98 ft) in diameter and involve the cooperation of a dozen animals. Some whales blow the bubbles, some dive deeper to drive fish toward the surface, and others herd prey into the net by vocalizing. The whales then suddenly swim upward through the “net”, mouths agape, swallowing thousands of fish in one gulp.

  • Females typically breed every two or three years. The gestation period is 11.5 months.

  • Newborn calves are roughly the length of their mother’s head. At birth, calves measure 6 meters (20 ft) at 2 short tons (1.8 t). They nurse for approximately six months. Humpback milk is 50% fat and pink in color.

  • Like other large whales, the humpback was and is a target for the whaling industry. Once hunted to the brink of extinction, its population fell by an estimated 90% before a moratorium was introduced in 1966.

  • While stocks have since partially recovered, entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with ships, and noise pollution continue to impact the 80,000 humpbacks worldwide.

  • In Japan, not only humpback, minkes, sperm, and many other smaller Odontoceti, but also including critically endangered species such as North Pacific right, western gray, and northern fin have been targets of illegal captures utilizing harpoons for dolphin hunts or intentionally drive whales into nets. Humpback’s meat can also be found on markets even today, and there had been a case in which it was scientifically revealed that humpbacks of unknown quantities with other species were illegally hunted in EEZ of anti-whaling nations such as off Mexico or South Africa, and so on.

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*Related stories from the blog:  Children of The Moon and The Whale Who Came to Say Hi.

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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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Valle de Anton

Ivo, Mira and Maya hiking La India Dormida, Valle de Anton, Panama

Ivo, Mira and Maya hiking La India Dormida, Valle de Anton, Panama

If you are a nature-lover visiting the big busy Panama City, there is a place you can go to escape the hustle and heat of the metropolis, the perfect getaway. Set in a tranquil valley surrounded by mountains, high above the sea, inside the second largest volcano crater in the world, is nestled the small picturesque town of El Valle de Anton, offering much more than a quiet retreat in the beautiful countryside.

Thermal Spring, Valle de Anton, Panama

Thermal Spring, Valle de Anton, Panama

The first time we visit El Valle is with our new friends here in Panama Milen, Maylen, Ian and Kristo, a mixed Bulgarian-Panamian family, and a young couple: Ana from Costa Rica and Samuel from Panama. We met Milen Bojinov soon after arriving in Panama City and shared many wonderful moments with him and his family. They helped us with the Panama Canal buffer refund, took us to the fruits and vegetables market and all the other best and cheapest places for grocery shopping and for propane, invited us to their house may times, and came to sail with us around the gulf aboard Fata Morgana one afternoon.

Maylen, Ian and Milen, Valle de Anton, Panama

Maylen, Ian and Milen, Valle de Anton, Panama

Milen is an experienced sailor and the epic story of his Atlantic Ocean crossing with his friend Vassil Beyazov aboard an small salvaged sailboat Peterson 25 from Bulgaria to the Caribbean has been described in a book: The Feeling of Freedom, by Vassil Beyazov.

Milen and Maylen’s family just got bigger today, November 11, 2015 with the arrival of a little girl named Mylena at around 0900 a.m.! Congratulations and may your journey in life be the happiest of all, little princess!

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One Sunday, we start early in the morning with two cars, Milen and his family in one car, Ana, Samuel and our family in the other, driving for over two hours, first on the Inter-American highway for about 1.5 hours and another half an hour on a narrow mountain road winding through a bizarre landscape of pine forests mixed with palm trees. The higher we go, the cooler it gets, and once up in the valley we find ourselves in a climate much different form the suffocating tropical heat of the lowlands. It’s fresh spring in El Valle de Anton, a beautiful sunny day. The town is charming, a preferred destination for everyone from the city, with handsome vacation homes and gorgeous mansions with Tuscan architecture, lush gardens with ponds and exotic plants, belonging to some of Panama’s wealthiest families. It is a main tourist destination too, offering a vast choice of accommodation, from cheap hostels to luxurious boutique hotels and eco lodges with stunning mountain views and renowned restaurants, surrounded by tropical forest and the sounds of birds.

Vacation home, Valle de Anton, Panama

Vacation home, Valle de Anton, Panama

It has been a while since we hiked up a mountain, so the first place we head to is La India Dormida (the Sleeping Indian Girl), a three-hour easy and pleasant hike, passing by a huge boulder with ancient petroglyphs, La Piedra Pintada (the painted rock), a small waterfall, a natural river-pool, and spectacular views of the valley.

Ana, Samuel and Kristo on their way to the India Dormida

Ana, Samuel and Kristo on their way to the India Dormida

The Painted Rock has large pre-Columbian petroglyphs without any archaeological explanation or legend attached to them, so you are welcome to invent your own legend and interpret the drawings and figures using your imagination.

Maya and the petroglyphs, Valle de Anton, Panama

Maya and the petroglyphs, Valle de Anton, Panama

We walk among thick forest in the beginning. By the end only rocky hills covered in thin green grasses enveloped in fog are all around us. Seen from the village below, these desolate naked hills- the rim of a huge inactive volcano crater- look like the contours of the body of a sleeping woman.

Ivo and Maya

Ivo and Maya

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Next on the agenda is El Serpentario (the serpent sanctuary). At the end of a narrow muddy path, we find a small building containing a collection of about a dozen local snakes, who are no prisoners in cages, but injured specimens, ex-pets, and temporary visitors, some to be released back in the wild as soon as they are rehabilitated and ready for independent life. The young guy working with the reptiles is a Panamanian who studied biology in United Stated and worked with conservation programs in Florida. He is one of the most important herpetologists and conservationists in Panama with vast knawlage and passion for the reptiles, committed not only to work for the conservation of local snakes, frogs, caimans and others, but also to educate the population about the importance of the reptiles for the ecosystem, as well as to diffuse some Hollywood myths about snakes.

Mira at the serpentario

Mira at the serpentario

You fear what you don’t know. If you get to know the snakes, if you understand and respect them, their needs and behavior, what to do and not to do in their presence, you will find out that they are not your enemy, and that most of the stuff you know about snakes from films and TV is unrealistic and untrue.

Samuel at the serpentarium

Samuel at the serpentarium

Ivo has been terrified by snakes all his life. Ever since he was a little boy and saw Indiana Johns Raiders of the Lost Ark snakes have been his biggest nightmare. But only after a few minutes in the serpentarium his new best friend is a sleepy very friendly boa. An unwanted pet, she became one of the sanctuary’s permanent residents. She doesn’t mind being held by visitors, and when Ivo places her on his freshly shaved head, she coils around tightly and comfortably, and prepares for an afternoon nap.

Ivo....

Ivo….

A month later, we go back to show El Valle to our Aruban friends who came to visit us in Panama and this time we check out the Thermal Hot Waters and Mud Baths. Set amidst lush tropical vegetation are a few small pools with yellow waters coming from underground volcanic thermal springs.

Maya at the Hot Springs Batsh

Maya at the Hot Springs Batsh

Mira and Patrizia putting therapeutic mud on their faces

Mira and Patrizia putting therapeutic mud on their faces

Ivo

Ivo

This could have become the most awesome and fun experience and our very favorite spot in all of El Valle, if it weren’t for e small nervous guy who was constantly monitoring us, telling us what we can do and what we cannot do, like a prison guard. He wouldn’t let Maya, who quickly jumped in the kid’s pool, to come out of the pool and put therapeutic volcanic mud on her face like the rest of us, just because according to the rules, you have to do the mud first, and then, after you wash the mud off your face, you can go to the pools. But once in the pool, you have no right to come out, do the mud, wash it off, and go back in the pool.

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– Why? I want to know. What is the logic behind this strange rule? And if Maya made a mistake and went in the pool first, why don’t you let her go out, dry herself with a towel, and put some mud on her face?
– No, no and no! the small guy is raving, ready to arrest us if we break the rule!
– Then, can we go out of the Thermal Baths, and then comeback after ten minutes, pay the entrance fee again ($3), and do the procedure the correct way this time?
– No, no and no! She (Maya) cannot use the mud and that’s that!

I am absolutely frustrated at this point, I start screaming at the guy and the entire experience is ruined…

I generally hate most rules, but rules that don’t make sense and people who are idiots just make me crazy. Unfortunately, the world is populated by idiots who make and follow stupid rules.

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There is a lot more to see and do in El Valle de Anton. Besides hiking in the mountains, relaxing in the thermal baths, and meeting the snakes, you can rent a bike or a horse, visit a tropical zoo, do the zipline adventure or simply relax and watch the variety of birds. One day is not enough and once you visit this enchanted place, you will want to return again.

Ivo and Mira (Maya could have been in the picture too...)

Ivo and Mira (Maya could have been in the picture too…)

Ivo and MIra (Maya could have been in the picture too...)

Ivo and Mira (Maya could have been in the picture too…)

Ivo

Ivo

Ivo

Ivo

Ivo and Mira

Ivo and Mira

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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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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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