Titicaca- The Lake From Our Dreams

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Copacabana

From La Paz, we take the bus to Copacabana- a touristy town on the shore of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. Again we look for cheap accommodation, but all the hostels are full with backpackers mainly from Chile, as apparently the schools and university in Chile are on vacation in February and everyone is visiting neighboring affordable Bolivia. In the backyards of some hostels, backpackers have even organized small camping sites, but this time we don’t have our tent, so we keep looking for a cheap room. We finally find one in a dirty suspicious hostel- two beds, next to the common toilets, which is a disaster, but we take it for the night ($10.00 is too much for such a shitty place but we have no other option). We spend the afternoon looking around town: the massive white cathedral, the busy market, the beach on the lake. We can’t believe we are finally here. Lake Titicaca- the lake with the funny name with snowcapped mountains on the horizon, the lake from our childhood geography lessons, the lake from our dreams- is right at our feet, sparkling blue, peaceful, enchanted.

Copacabana

Copacabana

The Cathedral

The Cathedral

With an average depth of 100 meters, reaching some 280 meters at the deepest parts, lake Titicaca is the deepest highest navigable lake in the world, with a surface elevation of 3,812 meters. It is the largest lake in South America located in the Andes Mountains on the border of Peru and Bolivia. Five major river systems and more than twenty other smaller streams feed into Lake Titicaca, and it has 41 islands, some of which are densely populated.

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Isla del Sol

The next morning, we take the ferry to Isla del Sol (The Sun Island). It’s raining and the sky is covered with grey clouds, but as soon as we reach the Island, the sky clears and the sun illuminates the most beautiful landscape: steep green hills and rocky shores, yellow-sand beaches and tiny stone houses- a fairytale land floating in an immense calm lake of blue water.

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Isla del Sol is one of the largest islands on the lake where, it was believed, the sun god was born. Instead of streets, there are narrow paths covered with flat rocks and mud winding between the houses of approximately 800 families, up and down the slopes. The main economic activities are fishing and farming using agricultural terraces on the hills, with tourism picking up speed. There are over 180 ruins on the island, with the main attraction- a sacrificial table, where human blood was offered to the Sun God in the times of the Incas.

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We hike to the sacrificial table and back (about 3 hours both directions) admiring the gentle white and purple flowers of the potatoes blooming on the hills, the tranquility of the land and the immensity of the lake, we eat avocado and egg sandwiches which two women are selling to tourist in front of their house, and we take the ferry back to Copacabana just in time to get on the evening bus to Puno- another city on the shores of the big lake, but on the Peruvian side of the border.

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Sacrificial Table

Sacrificial Table

Floating Uros Islands

We are back in Peru. In Puno, we find a new clean hostel- private shower with hot water, internet and two double beds for $10.00. We rest, and early in the morning we are off to the docks again. We find the ferry to the Floating Uros Islands and Isla Taquile and once again we are exploring Lake Titicaca, this time from the Peruvian side.

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The boat ride is spectacular. We are navigating through channels among swampy waters covered with tall sharp grass sticking out of the shallow lake, birds panicking as the boat approaches, flapping wings, screaming and running in all directions on the lake’s surface. Flamingos fly overhead. After a few hours we reach the Floating Uros Islands- a group of some 40 artificial islands made of floating totora reeds.

Floating Uros Islands

Floating Uros Islands

The ancient Uros were the owners of the lake and water- people with black blood who did not feel the cold. They were the Sons of The Sun. In the times of the Inca invasions, the islanders would simply lift anchor and drift together with their homes to a safe corner of the lake. Yet, they were conquered and made slaves. Today, the remaining Uros people lost their languages but kept many of their traditional ways. They still build their boats and islands using bundles of dried totora reeds abundant in the shallows of the lake, adding solar panels for electricity. (Dry reeds are very flammable, and fire and diesel generators are not too practical anymore.) The dense roots of the plants keep growing after the construction of the islands and interweave to form a natural one-meter layer called Khili that support the islands. They are anchored with ropes attached to sticks driven into the bottom of the lake. The lower layer of reeds rapidly rots away, so new reeds are added to the top every three months. The islands last about thirty years.

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The place has become a major tourist attraction losing much of its authenticity due to the fact that the few hundred remaining locals have become businessmen relying more and more on the tourist dollar, waiting for the next tourist boat to arrive, organizing tours, demonstrations and craft markets. Yet, it is still a unique place worth the visit.

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Isla Taquile

Next, we continue to Isla Taquile, where the festivities for the February carnival are still under way and we witness another festival.

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Taquile is a hilly island with an area of less than 6 square kilometers and was used as a prison during the Spanish Colony. In 1970 it became property of the Taquile people, who have inhabited the island ever since – around 2,200 people. The highest point of the island is 4,050 meters above sea level and the main village is at 3,950 m. Similarly to Isla del Sol in Bolivia, here are found some pre-Inca ruins, and agricultural terraces on the hillsides.

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With no cars and hotels, life on Taquile is still largely unchanged by modern civilization and tourism, and the place is truly authentic and wonderful. Everyone wears traditional clothes. “Taquile and Its Textile Art” were proclaimed “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO. Here knitting is big part of the culture and is done by the men ONLY, starting at a very early age. The women make yarn and weave.

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Taquileans are also known for having created an innovative, community-controlled tourism model, offering home stays, transportation, and restaurants to tourists. Ever since tourism started coming to Taquile in the seventies the taquleans have slowly lost control over the mass day-tourism operated by non-Taquileans. The Taquileans have thus developed alternative tourism models, including lodging for groups, cultural activities and local guides, who have recently completed a 2-year training program. Furthermore, the local Travel Agency Munay Taquile has been established to regain control over tourism. (from Wikipedia)

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This means, that your boat ride to the island and your guide will be locals from Taquile, and all the dollars you spend on your visit will go 100% straight to the local community- AWESOME! Here, we meet a local guy named Delfin, who can accommodate visitors in his home for an overnight visit and awesome local meals and provide a truly authentic experience, so if you are in the area- give him a call, he is a fine sweet and very reliable guy delfin18ani@hotmail.com

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Many people later asked us if we had to choose one destination: Copacabana in Bolivia with Isla del Sol or Puno with the Floating Uros Islands and Isla Taquile, which one would it be. We always tell them, that these two destinations are very different and are both worth the visit.

Lake Titicaca

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Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia

Not far from the Atacama Desert in Chile, we prepare to visit another unique natural site- El Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. At 3,600 m (12,000 feet) above sea level, the world’s largest salt flats are a dry ancient lake part of the Altiplano- a high plateau in South America formed during the uplift of the Andes Mountains.

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From San Pedro de Atacama, we hitchhike to the town of Calama- a big regional city near the Chilean-Bolivian border, where we look for the cheapest bus to Uyuni. But there is a problem. There are no buses going from Chile to Bolivia, because of the roadblocks. The truckers and transportation workers in Bolivia are on strike demanding better pay and working conditions, and have blocked the major routes and border-crossing points to the country. All buses have been canceled until further notice. Apparently, this is a normal routine event for Bolivia (like volcanoes erupting in Nicaragua) and we are the only surprised people without a plan B. We walk from one bus company to another in desperation, until we find a company selling tickets for a bus leaving after two days, when the roadblock is expected to be lifted. Not many seats left. We buy three tickets and look for a hostel. Then we meet again the two young backpackers from Chile, whom we first met in San Pedro hitchhiking on the same spot like us. They tell us, that one bus is leaving tomorrow and will be crossing the border through a checkpoint, where the roadblock has already been lifted. But this bus is full, no places left, and we already have tickets for another bus… Yet, we plead with the woman at the terminal to sell us “passillo” tickets- no seats, we will be standing up. She refuses at first, but then tell us to show up at 06:00 a.m. the next morning, when the bus is leaving, and promise to get us in. We hurry back to the other bus company to try to return the tickets we already got. We can return them, but there is some 20% penalty fee, so instead we sit in the waiting room and sell our tickets directly to passengers. Within one hour, we sell our three tickets for the full price. Now we worry that we might not be able to get on the 6 o’clock bus the next morning, and we don’t have our tickets for the day after.

We sleep in a cheap hostel disturbed by a group of Chilean students on vacation high on marijuana who party in the room next door all night (we remember how much better is on the boat), and early in the morning we show up for the bus to Bolivia. We are not the only ones without tickets who hope to ride this bus. Our two backpacker friends and four more tourists are hoping to get on it too. The woman from the agency collects some extra cash from all extra passengers right there on the street, and everyone is off! Standing up or sitting, in seats or on the floor, we are all heading to Bolivia! Nine hours…

There are no cars on a road winding through land with no nature. We are climbing higher and higher across the barren dusty mountains of the Altiplano. It’s getting colder. We spot families of lamas on the side of the road and pink flamingoes in distant lakes. We reach the border- a couple of trailer-like buildings next to an abandoned train station with a rusty dead locomotive. There is no roadblock. All bus passengers line up for customs and immigration. After about an hour, we board another bus. The one from Chile has to return in Chile and a Bolivian bus is picking us up for the rest of the trip.

a lama on the road

a lama on the road

We begin seeing the first Bolivian villages, like scenes from the past, or the apocalyptic future: poor huts made of clay and salt bricks, dirty streets without pavement, very few old cars, large stray dogs scavenging for scraps of food in piles of garbage, women with long black braids with top hats and long skirts carrying huge bundles on their backs, men chewing coca leaves sitting in corners.

Bolivia

Bolivia

We arrive in Uyuni. The driver of the Bolivian bus tries to extort all extra “passillo” passengers for some extra cash (as we paid half price), but we all refuse to pay and are ready to call the police if he refuses to give us back our luggage. Thanks to this little episode, we make new friends with the passillo-passengers from the bus- mostly 19-year-old Chilean students on vacation, and we find a great deal as a group of 12 people: one night in a hostel with breakfast included plus tour of the Salt Flats with lunch included for $22.00 per person. We are all set for tonight and for tomorrow.

The tour takes all day. We split in two groups riding in big 4×4 jeeps. We meet Domingo- a 50-year-old super friendly and funny guy. He is our driver and guide and we are lucky to have him. The other group gets the boring quiet type, who skips one of the sites- the Incahuasi island.

First, we visit the train cemetery, about 3 km outside of the city. Built by British engineers in the end of the 19th century, the train system, used by mining companies to transport minerals to the Pacific Ocean ports, collapsed in the 1940s and was abandoned.

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Train Cemetery

From there, we drive to a village with houses made with bricks of salt where we have lunch- tasty lama-steaks with quinoa and steamed vegetables.

Lama chops with quinoa

Lama chops with quinoa

 

From there, we head for the main attraction- El Salar de Uyuni, with a first short stop at the “salt mountains”- small stacks left to drain and dry before harvesting the salt.

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Maya’s Bubba at Uyuni salt flats. He is coming everywhere with us since Maya was a baby

Formed by the transformation of a few prehistoric lakes some 30-40,000 years ago, surrounded by mountains with no drainage outlets, El Salar is today a vast dried lake covered by a flat salt crust thick several meters at places, spreading over more than 10,000 sq. km (4,000 sq. mi)- 100 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. This flattest white region on the planet is so big, it’s visible from space, and contains the largest deposits of lithium on Earth.

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We drive for an hour on top of a thick layer of salt further and further in the interior of the Salt Flats. At first, this lifeless monotonous landscape is dry, but then a thin layer of water filtering through the salt transforms this vast white field into the biggest most beautiful mirror in the world, in which the gods to contemplate themselves.

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The world transforms into an endless heavenly blue liquid sky, above and below us. We walk on a sky of water!

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From here, we head even further towards the center of the lake. Our guide is slowing down and is very cautious, as splashing in the salty water is not good for the vehicle. We reach the Incahuasi Island covered by giant cacti- the remains of the top of an ancient volcano submerged in the lake.

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The next stop on our tour is El Palacio de Sal- a hotel built in 1995 entirely from salt in the middle of the Salar. Due to sanitation problems, the hotel no longer accepts guests and has been transformed into a museum. There, we find the Rally Dakar monument also made from salt.

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We watch the sunset reflected over a shallow pool of salty water before we head back to the city to catch another overnight bus to another extraordinary place.

Salar de Uyuni Photo Gallery

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The Old Hermit And His Dream Mountain

The Old Hermit And His Dream Mountain

Don Alberto

Don Alberto

We are sitting on the terrace of a small restaurant in front of the big white cathedral in Leon glowing in the permanent tropical heat. We are eating tacos and drinking beer with our friend Katia Angelova, whom we met only a few days ago.

– Have you heard about this old guy who lives alone in the forest and all he does since many years now is carving the stones of the mountain, I ask Katia.

And even though she lives and works in Nicaragua since many years, Katia has never heard about Don Alberto. It seams that he and his mountain are not very famous; not your typical tourist attraction. Maybe, it’s not worth it? But for us and for Katia, an old stone-carving hermit sounds intriguing.

– Lets’s go and check him out, she proposes excitedly.

– He lives up north, near the border with Honduras, in Esteli. We need two days to get there and back! When do you want to go, we ask.

– Now, she is not joking. In two days I have to fly to Florida, so it’s now or never!

We can’t believe it! There is someone who is even more spontaneous than us! Let’s go!

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Katia Angelova in front of her hotel in Managua

Next, we drive back to Managua with Katia’s car, prepare our stuff for the journey and start driving north. It takes hours on a narrow road winding through hills and small villages. The entire time, Katia who owns and manages a few hotels in Nicaragua, is telling us the funniest stories. I mean, these are some hilarious hotel-stories that can easily become scenarios for the next most popular TV series. The one about the forty refugees from India stuck in her hotel without papers for a few months is my favorite. Crammed in just a few rooms to save on money, they founded a small Hindu community with its intense exotic sounds and smells, washing and drying their turbans on the balconies, starting small businesses within the confines of the hotel lobby, like facial hair epilation for example, smuggling prostitutes now and then, and finally, one of the guys married the hotel receptionist!

In the evening, we get to Esteli, not far from Don Alberto’s mountain, and thanks to Katia and her hotel business, we gat a nice discount in a nice hotel.

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Hotel in Esteli

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After breakfast, we meet Joconda, Katia’s friend who lives in the same town and is also interested to visit Don Alberto- a local legend. Together we head for the forest.

Finding Don Alberto’s place proves to be very tricky and this might be the reason why not many get to visit him. We drive on narrow roads, paved at first, then covered with dirt and rocks, through tiny communities and vast forests, and everywhere we see people we stop and ask them which way to go. In this forgotten part of the world, everyone knows Don Alberto and they explain to us how to get there, first driving to the end of the dirt road and then walking through pastures and farmland. I am worried that after this long journey, the old man might not be home, that we might not meet him.

On the way to Don Alberto's

On the way to Don Alberto’s

– Is he there, I ask a woman working in the field as we get closer.

– He is always there, she replies almost offended by my pointless question.

Don Alberto was born in Nicaragua 77 years ago and for the past 37 years has never gone further than the village church which he visits on Sundays and holidays. He spends his days in the forest and up on the hills overlooking the valley. His home and shelter for the night is a miniature wooden shack with large religious drawings on the outer walls, smaller than an elf’s house.

Don Alberto in front of his home

Don Alberto in front of his home

We find the place empty. He is not there…

A narrow path leads us through the shadows of old trees, and on the side of the path, and in the shadows of the old trees, are scattered grey rocks- big and small, and each rock has been shaped into an animal or an icon of a saint. These shy stone sculptures slowly appear one after another- the most extraordinary forest gallery.

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And then, like a ghost from an enchanted world- small and almost transparent, an old man emerges from the darkness of the forest and floats towards me. I don’t know what to say; I am afraid my words or my presence might scare him away, such a delicate white butterfly he is. The others have gone up the hill and there is no one to share this magical moment with me. I meet Don Alberto.

Don Alberto and his art award

Don Alberto and his art award

He is smiling with the sad smile of an angel, his hair is shining white, his skin is the color and texture of tree bark.

Immediately, he starts explaining about his rocks, his forest, the animals, the plants. He sounds like a recording. I am sure he repeats the exact same things to all his visitors and I wonder if he likes to have foreigners disturbing his peace.

 

– Have you gone up the hill, he asks me?

– Not yet, I explain.

– Go, go up the hill and then come back. I will be here.

I go up the hill. There, suddenly, looming above me, a few meters tall and many meters long- the vertical stone face of the mountain covered in carved figures of buildings and animals, Egyptian motives and religious scenes. An elephant, a tiger, a whale, even a helicopter are facing the vast open view of the valley to the east. The colossal scale of the artwork is totally unexpected, stunning and unbelievable. The work of a lifetime, secluded at the end of the world. Birds and sunrises are this gallery’s only regular spectators.

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It is hard to conceive that this little, humble person who has never seen the world beyond his forest, who has never studied art or carving, who has never been to school at all, has brought the world to him in such glorious proportions, and only using some basic tools. A world of dreams and imagined images, captured in rock for eternity.

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– I wake up around 3 o’clock in the morning and I say my prayers. Then I go and I shape the rocks. Later in the day, many people come to see me from all corners of the world. I like when people come to see me and my stonework. They take pictures and more people come every time! One woman who works in university brought me notebooks and I ask everyone who visits me to write their names in these notebooks and the country they are coming from. I have 15 notebooks already full with names. I am teaching myself to read and write now, and I read the names in my notebooks. If you are coming back, please bring me more notebooks, this is my last one. I don’t ask the people who visit me to pay. They can give me a gift if their hearth wishes. Here, look what people have given me.

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Someone has given him a pocket knife he never uses, he keeps it hidden in his shack, like treasure, together with a small pin with the Canadian flag, a plastic Jesus on the cross wrapped in foil, and a pair of black leather boots.

– These are good hiking boots to go up the mountain, why don’t you use them, I look at his old broken shoes he wears instead of the new black leather boots.

– I only wear them when I go to church on holidays, he smiles.

 

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The Three Capitals of Nicaragua

The Three Capitals

While in Nicaragua, we visit three of the country’s biggest and most famous cities: Managua, León, and Granada which have all alternately held the title of The Capital at some point in history.

Cathedral in Granada

Cathedral in Granada

León had been the capital of Nicaragua since colonial times, so when Nicaragua withdrew from the United Provinces of Central America in 1839, León became the capital of the new nation. But for some years the capital shifted back and forth between León and Granada, with Liberal regimes preferring León and Conservative ones Granada, until as a compromise Managua was agreed upon to be the permanent capital in 1858. These three cities- The Three Capitals of Nicaragua- have seduced us with their unique vibe and character, and getting to know them has been a pleasant and beautiful experience.

Maya, Ivo and Mira in Leon, Nicaragua

Maya, Ivo and Mira in Leon, Nicaragua

Managua

Managua is our greatest surprise. Based on what we have read and heard, we expected to be robbed and killed there immediately. Instead, we discover a nice big city decorated with hundreds of permanent colorful light sculptures and even more grandiose temporary decorations for Christmas. Nicaragua’s capital turned out to have very little gang violence and to be much safer than its neighbors to the north- the capitals of Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala, and even safer than Costa Rica‘s capital San Jose, where we had the scariest experience on our way back from this trip.

Light Trees in Managua and the Hugo Chavez monument

Light Trees in Managua and the Hugo Chavez monument

Managua is the largest city in Nicaragua and the second most populous city in Central America, after Guatemala City, located on the southwestern shore of Lake Xolotlán (Lake Managua), declared the national capital in 1852. In 1972 Managua was completely destroyed by a violent earthquake and most of its colonial buildings and cathedrals were reduced to dust. The Nicaraguan Civil War which followed in 1979 aiming to overthrow the Somoza regime, as well as the 11-year-long Contra War of the 1980s further devastated the city and its economy. To make matters worse, a series of natural disasters severely disrupted and stunted Managua’s growth. It was not until the mid-1990s Managua began to see a resurgence in investment and infrastructural development. Today, Managua’s downtown has been partially rebuilt and new governmental buildings, galleries, museums, apartment buildings, squares, promenades, monuments, boat tours in Lake Xolotlan, restaurants, night entertainment, and broad avenues have resurrected part of Managua’s downtown former vitality.

Managua lake promenade

Managua lake promenade

Downtown Managua is decorated with hundreds of permanent Light Tree sculptures

One building that barely survived earthquakes, disasters and civil wars, is the Old St James Cathedral, designed and shipped from Belgium in 1920 by Belgian architect residing in Managua Pablo Dambach who got the inspiration from St Sulspice in Paris. Santiago became the first cathedral in the Western Hemisphere to be built entirely of concrete on a metal frame. Santiago was extremely damaged during the 1972 earthquake, but in recent years, the restoration of the old cathedral of Santiago has appeared to be possible and is currently awaiting renovation.

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The Old Cathedral of Managua

The earthquake damaged cathedral in Managua

The earthquake damaged cathedral in Managua

In the evening, we stroll around the promenade on the shores of the lake illuminated by colorful lights and the central plaza where the old earthquake damaged cathedral sits heavy and silent and wrinkled in the company of giant Christmas light statues. It is full of people and the breeze agitates the evergreen tops of the palm trees. Managua is charming and we feel a bit guilty for thinking so bad of her before getting to know her.

Plaza Managua

Plaza Managua

León

León is the second largest city in Nicaragua, after Managua, located along the Río Chiquito, 90 kilometres (56 miles) northwest of Managua, and 18 km (11 miles) east of the Pacific Ocean coast. It has long been the political and intellectual center of the nation and its National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN) was founded in 1813, making it the second oldest university in Central America. León is also an important industrial, agricultural, and commercial center for Nicaragua, exporting sugar cane, cattle, peanut, plantain, and sorghum. The city has been home to many of Nicaragua’s most noteworthy poets including Rubén Darío, Alfonso Cortés and Salomón de la Selva.

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Church in Leon

León is rich in both architectural monuments and historical places. Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of León is a colonial baroque building built between 1747 and 1814 and the largest cathedral in Central America, as well as one of the oldest dioceses in the Americas. Because of its solid, anti-seismic construction its walls have endured earthquakes, volcanic eruptions of Cerro Negro volcano, and bombings during civil wars. In the cathedral’s crypts are buried several illustrious figures such as poet and diplomat Rubén Dario- the leading figure of the Modernism Poetic Movement of the late 1800s to early 1900s declared the Prince of Spanish Letters by literary figures of the Spanish speaking world.

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Cathedral of Leon

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Leon, Nicaragua

The market, where the mini-bus from Managua drops us off in León, like many other markets in the world, is a noisy crowded place, alive with local colors, sounds and smells. As if all people have gathered here and everything is happening; the streets are buzzing with vendors, buyers and merchandise, small covered three-wheel taxis (capuneras) and horse carts. Giant papayas, leather saddles and boots, furniture, meat, candy. Strange mixtures of smells: fish and oranges, fried pork and ice cream. Thus greets us the madness of Leon, before we find the more peaceful plazas and narrow streets with colorful colonial two-story buildings and cathedrals at every corner.

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The market in Leon

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Big papayas

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Love is in the air

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Cathedral in Leon

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Leon, Nicaragua

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Ivo and Maya in Leon

Granada

Granada, with its rich colonial heritage, seen in its architecture, is much more popular and touristy than Leon with even more beautiful freshly painted colonial buildings housing some world renowned restaurants and luxurious hotels with square inner yards. One evening, we gather with many of our Bulgarian friends living in Nicaragua in one of the restaurants lined along the streets. As everywhere else in the Latin American world, orders takes ages to arrive. In the meantime, we drink beer and exchange stories and wisdoms, while mariachi, beggars and street vendors offering sunglasses and local arts and crafts, constantly stop by our table to torment us, and is hard to get rid of them.

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Cathedral in Granada

Granada, founded in 1524, is historically one of Nicaragua’s most important cities, economically and politically, and one of the most visited sites in Central America. During the colonial period, Granada maintained a flourishing level of commerce with ports on the Atlantic Ocean, through Lake Nicaragua (a.k.a. Cocibolca) and the San Juan River. The city has been witness and victim to many of the battles with and invasions from English, French and Dutch pirates trying to take control of Nicaragua.

Granada’s economy continues to grow as it is becoming the national tourism hub. Though Granada remains Nicaragua’s sixth largest city, it is widely known for preserving some of the finest colonial-era architecture in the country.

Granada’s restaurants have received international recognition by newspapers like the New York Times. In recent years, the city of Granada’s evolving culinary scene mixes local and international flavors, as well as supporting farm to table sustainability of local growers and producers. Granada’s economy continues to grow in big part because it is fast becoming a tourist attraction for its colonial architecture, as well as its ecological beauty and now as a food destination.

 

(with information from Wikipedia)

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Granada, Nicaragua

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  • Next: The Hermit and The Mountain

 

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Things To Do in La Fortuna

la Fortuna

La Fortuna (The Fortune) is a small city in Alajuela province of Costa Rica attracting hordes of tourists with its many natural attractions and activities: volcano hikes, crater lagoons, waterfalls, hot springs, whitewater rafting, hanging bridges, zip-lines, kayaking, caverns, and others. But the main attraction is Arenal Volcano- an active andesitic stratovolcano whose perfect cone towers over the town just 10 km to the west- one of the top 10 most active volcanoes in the world until 2010, when it stopped erupting lava and is now dormant.

Arenal Volcano

Arenal Volcano

We take the bus to La Fortuna with the idea to spend there a couple of days, but we end up staying longer, as we just fell in love with the entire place and all the FREE activities it provides, besides the many very expensive ones, which we skipped.

Street in la Fortuna

Street in la Fortuna

We get a room in a super nice hotel- Las Palmas, and after a short negotiation, we pay $25 per day (instead of $40) for a private room on the second floor, with a balcony, with nice hot water showers right in the center of the city, next to the supermarket, complete with a friendly cat who comes to visit us in the room every evening.

Pick nick in the park at La Fortuna

Pick nick in the park at La Fortuna

The city itself is the most charming, clean and tranquil little town where blond young backpackers coming from Europe make up more than half the population, and every house is a hostel or a restaurant.

El Poso

Immediately, we begin exploring. The first place we visit, is “El Poso” (The Pool) – a natural pool under a bridge just outside of town. It’s a 15 minute walk on the main road towards la Fortuna Cascades. Way before the cascades, which are a popular but expensive site, there is a bridge, and right before the bridge a small path leads us to the free-of-charge alternative. El Poso on La Fortuna River is popular with the local kids who come here in the afternoon and perfect the art of jumping in the river, or just chill in the water, or sit on the rocks and smoke marijuana. We join them, only for the jumping-in-the-river and chill-in-the-water part, as we don’t enjoy smoking anything…

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El Poso

There is a rope hanging over the river and Ivo and Maya play Tarzan. It’s scary the first time when Maya takes the rope and swings high and then lets go and drops in the river below from about ten meters with a splash, but after the fifth time it just gets more and more fun, and Maya doesn’t want to leave the place.

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Ivo performing “The Bulgarian Flying Hummer” jump

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Maya Tarzan

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One- Two

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Threeee!

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Yes, they did jump! I took a video of this one

Aguas Termales

The next day, we take the bus heading to the hot springs not far from town, and tell the driver to stop at the FREE thermal springs (Las aguas termales gratis). There are two resorts built around the hot volcanic springs with specially made pools and manicured gardens, which are probably very beautiful and super nice- we don’t know, as we didn’t visit those. Instead, the bus driver leaves us near a small path in the forest on the right side of the road and after a short walk we get to the river. It’s the same hot-water river coming from the same volcanic springs like the ones of the resorts, only this one is with free public access and there are no special pools and gardens and restaurants- just the river, completely natural and HOT! And there is no one but us in this awesome river-Jacuzzi!

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Thermal river

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Maya and Mira in the Jacuzzi

Hiking to Lake Arenal Dam

After about an hour we are all nicely soaked and marinated, ready to go to the Arenal Volcano Park, which is further down the same road. We walk on the paved street for about an hour and then a couple of tourists from the USA with a rental car pick us up and bring us to the park’s entrance, which is to the left. But instead of going in the park, which is I-don’t-know-how-much per person, we take another black road through the forest opposite the park (to the right), which leads us to the big lagoon lake- Lake Arenal Dam, about five kilometers away.

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The guys who gave us a lift

On the way we spot a sleepy coati, a crested guan (a turkey-like bird), parrots and monkeys. It’s a nice shady walk with some very rewarding views of the great lake. And is free of charge.

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A coati just waking up

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..a bit of yoga is good for you…

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Ok, ready to go now.

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DO NOT FEED WILD ANIMALS, really, it is not a good idea, it breaks the natural balance.

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Crested guan

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Arenal Volcano from another angle

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Arenal Lake Dam

The dirt road comes out on the main road just before the bridge. There we meet Wilson Sackett for the first time- a young fellow from the USA biking from Costa Rica to Nicaragua, who has some problem with his bike and Ivo tries to help him. Later, we bump into Wilson again on the streets of a small town in Nicaragua, and AGAIN on Ometepe Island! I don’t know who is following who, but meeting the same guy in three different locations in two different countries within four weeks is quite a strange coincidence, isn’t it!

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Wilsn Sackett

Hiking Cerro Chato

On the third day of our stay in La Fortuna, we hike to Cerro Chato, which is a small volcano next to Arenal Volcano with a beautiful green crater lake at the top. Visitors are supposed to go to the park’s office and pay the entrance fee (I think it is $16 per person) before taking to the trail. There are some waterfalls also within the park and it is not clear to us where to pay for the hike only. We head for the trailhead figuring there will be someone to collect the fee at the beginning, but there is no one. No one stops us, so we end up climbing Cerro Chato for free. The trail is in terrible state of neglect, extremely muddy and steep, and super challenging. There are some ancient wooden steps of which about 60-70% are completely destroyed and it looks like for many years no one has fixed any of them. Zero maintenance. We expected a short easy hike, but it ends up a super difficult, tiring, steep trek on poorly maintained trail.

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Ivo on the trail to Cerro Chato

It takes about four hours to climb to the top, often on all fours, and another hour to descend down to the crater lake- an eerie place of clouds and dark trees, where a bunch of other tourists enjoy an afternoon dip in the volcanic cold waters.

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Cerro Chato Crater Lake

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Hitchhiking With Mad Scientists

On the way back, we take a different easier but longer rout (the only alternative) that leads us, past pine and eucalyptus forests, to a private resort very far away from La Fortuna.

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Arenal Volcano from another angle

Luckily, we hitch a ride back to town with a couple of young college professors from the USA on vacation- one researching reptiles, the other specializing in parasites in frogs, who immediately identify the huge snake that terrified us earlier as “a harmless tiger rat snake”, just by hearing our confused descriptions.

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Tiger Rat Snake (not poisonous)

Also, they almost kill us. The car suddenly breaks and stops in a cloud of dust on the dirt road, and both professors jump out of it with the speed of light and no apparent reason. Before we realize what is going on, the girl is across the road grabbing a small green innocent lizard, who has no chances of escaping such a sudden, skillful, ninja attack. The scientists, then, happily identify the little fellow, take some pictures and release him unharmed and confused. We are amazed and become these guys, whose names we don’t remember, biggest fens. We love it when people are so passionate about animals and nature and the work they do! Thank you for the ride, guys, hope you are reading this and giggling!

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Mission Lizard

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Thus, we spend three unforgettable days and not much dollars in la Fortuna, Costa Rica, enjoying rivers, volcanoes, cascades and hot springs. For those who are planning to visit- there is a lot more to do around this beautiful town, especially if you are willing to pay the entrance fees, so plan to spend at least 3-4 days and a bunch of dollars. There are the Venado Caverns, the spectacular hanging bridges, the hot-water spa resorts, one of the best and longest zip-lines, a few waterfalls, butterfly gardens, and more.

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Arenal Volcano from another angle

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Arenal Volcano at sunset

Or just ask around for the free options. Enjoy!

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Pura Vida

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Ivo Gone Green in Costa Rica

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Cerro Chirripo. Conquering Costa Rica’s Highest Mountain

Cerro Chirripo. Conquering Costa Rica’s Highest Mountain

by Mira Nencheva

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Mira, Ivo and Maya at Crestones Ranger Station, park Chirripo, Costa Rica

From Rio Claro we catch the TicaBus to San Isidro de El General, the largest regional city of 45, 000 population at the crossroads between some of Costa Rica’s most important destinations. The ticket costs less than $3 per person and it takes 4 hours to get there. In the beginning, we pass through palm oil plantations and jungles. Further, as we climb higher, the road starts curving along a wide shallow river, passing through small villages and dry forests. The TicaBus is a big comfortable bus serving all Central American countries, and it’s not too expensive.

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At the bus station

Midway, we make a long bathroom stop next to a big buffet restaurant on the road and in the late afternoon we arrive in San Isidro lying in a valley at the foot of the mountains, clean, tranquil and beautiful. A large white neo-Gothic cathedral sits heavy at the eastern end of the Town Square. We eat in a small Peruvian restaurant- one of the cheapest places in town where the food is pretty decent, and sleep in a hotel. The room for the three of us is $35 per night and it is pretty basic. It has two double beds and a TV. The bathrooms and showers are shared- outside of the room. But there is hot water and we wash our dirty clothes in the shower. We have only a couple of T-shirts, shorts, underwear and socks each, so we have to wash them every time we can. We are super happy to sleep in beds, after spending the past few nights camping on the beaches of Osa Peninsula and sleeping in a tent.

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Cathedral in San Isidro

In the morning, we take another bus to a small picturesque village up in the mountains- San Gerardo de Rivas. Our main purpose in Costa Rica is to climb its highest mountain- Cerro Chirripó rising at 3820m above sea level . It is located in the Chirripó National Park and is famous for its ecological wealth and extremely high biodiversity. San Gerardo is the town from where the trail begins.

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San Gerardo

Parque Nacional Chirrpo

There, we visit the Park Service where our ordeal begins. First, we have to make a reservation. We fill forms; write down names and passport numbers. Then, with a piece of paper and a reservation number, we go to another place to do a bank transfer ($7 per person; Maya pays too for the bank transaction) and pay the park’s entrance fee. We have to write down our names and passport numbers again. The park’s entrance fee is $16 per person per day, $1 for Maya, as she is 12. We need two days minimum to hike the 40-kilometer trek up and down the mountain, so for the entrance fee we spend $65 plus 21$ for the bank transfer.. So far $86 for the three of us, just to enter in the park. Now, with the proof of the bank transaction, we walk back to the park’s office. We have to fill forms once again, and write our names and passport numbers again, and with this done, we have to walk all the way to another office on the other side of town- about 15-minute walk- to pay for the sleeping accommodations and reserve meals inside the park, which is not done by the park’s services, but by a private local organization. There, we have to fill forms, write down our names and passport numbers for a fourth time, and we have to pay $40 per person to sleep in a bunk bed up in the “Refugio” (ranger station) 5 km before the summit. The meals cost $20 for breakfast and $25 for lunch or dinner each! No thanks, we will be on canned ham and crackers diet for the next two days… Can we sleep in a tent instead of a shelter? No, there is no other option but the 40-dollar bunk bed. Tents are not allowed. Our total for a two-day trek to Cerro Chirripo is $206.00, food not included. We feel robbed. This is the most expensive mountain we ever climbed so far… We complain to every official in each of the offices we visit, and tell them that these prices are ridiculous and offending, and charging so much is not fair. We have climbed many other mountains in the Caribbean, Central and South America, many of them for free, including Pico Duarte in Dominican Republic, which is a very similar two-day one-night hike, and even with two mules and a guide, it is much less expensive. Costa Rica has by far the most expensive nature, and this unfortunately keeps many tourists away. But, as we found out, there is a cheaper way to experience Cerro Chirripo, as long as you have time and you plan it well in advance. You can sign up for the volunteer program and work in the park (office job or maintaining the trails) for a minimum of 6 days. Your accommodation will be covered. All you need to pay for is transportation to food. Kids under 18 can participate too, as long as they are accompanied by a parent. For more information you can download the PDF file of the park’s volunteer program (in Spanish) http://www.parquenacionalchirripo.com/pdf/voluntariado.pdf

Hostel Casa Chirripó

All the reservations and payments done, we are ready to find a hostel and relax for another night before the big hike tomorrow. San Gerardo is full of hostels, as many tourists from all over the world come to conquer Costa Rica’s highest peak. The one we choose is a small colorful house turned hostel at one end of town, next to a river. Hostel Casa Chirripó .

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Mira and Maya in front of the hostel

As soon as we enter, we feel like home and we don’t go looking further. This will be our “home” for the night. Our room is clean and tastefully decorated and Maya loves her cozy bed with cheerful colorful blankets. For the three of us it’s $40, breakfast and transportation to the trailhead in the morning included. Pretty awesome!

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Our room

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The Kitchen

But the best thing about the place, are the people who run it. They are the friendliest guys, especially Jose Anderson. He is the one who has painted the walls and he promises: as soon as we return from the mountain, the Bulgarian flag will be added on the wall with the flags. We will be the first Bulgarians staying at this hostel who climbed Cerro Chirripo!

Jose Anderson in Hostel Casa Chirripo

Jose Anderson in Hostel Casa Chirripo

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The Bulgarian flag on the wall!

Hiking with Jose

Jose is one of those easy-going people, who have the talent of becoming your instant friends, and a few minutes after you meet them it feels as if you have known them forever. He is also very knowledgeable about the local flora and fauna, and offers to bring us to a small cave full of bats, and to show us a local cow farm. It’s a wonderful little afternoon walk; the path is surrounded by flowers, wild orange and lemon trees.

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– This little flower there is an orchid. It is small and it doesn’t look like and orchid, but it is, Jose laughs. And these lemons are supper sweet, try one. Oh! Look at this bird! This is a type of toucan!

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orchid

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We reach the cave. It is just a small opening between two big boulders at the end of a cow pasture, but it’s full of sleeping bats! I tell Jose about our friends back in El Golfito who study bats and cave systems in Costa Rica and who inspired us to learn and respect these animals. We are very happy we finally got to see bats! Thank you , Jose, you are brilliant!

Visit Hostal Cerro Chirripo and contact them through Facebook.

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Ivo and Jose in front of the cave

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Hiking Cerro Chirripo. Day 1

4:30 the next morning we are up and ready to go. This time, we leave our heavy stuff at the hostel and only take some food, water and jackets in the smallest backpack. It’s still dark when we start walking past pastures at first and then- in the wet mysterious evergreen jungle. At dawn, a family of capuchin monkeys are jumping overhead, going somewhere.

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The trail is beautiful and well maintained, not too steep. As we move upwards, the lower montane forest gives way to the montane rainforest with giant oak trees home of epiphytic ecosystems, towering at 50 meters and more over the other trees that average 30 meters, and the understory of ferns and bamboo.

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Every kilometer is marked and the countdown begins. There are 14 kilometers of uphill before us until we reach the shelter where we will sleep. Midway, kilometer 7 marks the end of the first part of the trail as we reach refugio Llano Bonito serving super expensive coffee, hot chocolate, and other treats. We drink some water and keep going. Here, we meet some sort of wild friendly partridges completely unafraid of us.

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The forest beyond this point and altitude is dry, the trees are much shorter, surrounded by cactus and scrub. Conditions become harsher. It gets steeper and harder to walk. After kilometer 10, there is no more forest, but alpine grasses, flowers and some small very dry trees all around us. The montane forests lying above 1500 meters elevation up to approximately 3000 meters elevation, transition to the grasslands and shrublands of the Costa Rican Páramo.

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These are the Talamancan montane forests very rich in biodiversity and they are Central America’s most intact ecoregions, with 40% of the ecoregion protected by national and international parks. Scientist estimate that between 3 and 4 percent of the biodiversity in the world is found here with 136 mammal species (jaguar, cougar, tapir, deer, anteater and several species of monkeys) and 450 species of birds among which the harpy eagle and the quetzal. The Costa Rican páramo, also known as the Talamanca páramo, is a natural region of montane grassland and shrubland found above 3000 meters elevation on the summits of the highest mountains. These are also called sky islands- home of many species of plants and animals. Here, we feel like we are in a different world. It is breathtakingly serene and beautiful.

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We start seeing fat scaly lizards- some black other green-blue, sunning themselves on rocks and branches near the path. Later, we found out that these are the emerald swift or green spiny lizard (Sceloporus malachiticus)- a species of small lizard, native to Central America.

Emerald swifts

Emerald swifts are distinctly bright green in color, with males typically being more striking than females. They grow from 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) in length. Like other species in the genus Sceloporus, their scales tend to be fairly stiff and heavily keeled, giving them a spiny texture. Emerald swifts are arboreal lizards. In the early morning they forage for insects, and then spend much of the day basking in the sun. They will retreat to a burrow, or under a rock or log if the temperature becomes too high or to sleep. (from Wikipedia)

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Emerald swift (male)

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Emerald swift (female)

At Crestones Ranger Station

After 10 hours of walking, we reach kilometer 14 and the Ranger Station Los Crestones already full with other mountaineers who cheer for us as soon as we walk through the door. Maya is the youngest hiker this day and we are once again the proudest parents. It has been a beautiful sunny rainless day; we are tired and hungry and super happy to be here. For the fifth time, we have to write down our names and passport numbers in the big registry book. By now, I just invent random numbers. We are then awarded with two blankets each and a key to a room with two bunk beds- the coldest most expensive “hotel” we have ever slept in and there is not even a shower. At this altitude, it gets freezing at night. While the rest of the mountaineers eat hot meals prepared in the kitchen of the ranger station, we eat canned food and crackers. Most of the people are locals (they pay less) and Europeans: lots of German and French. In our room, we sleep with our clothes on wrapped in the blankets.

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Climbing Cerro Chirripo. Day2

The next morning, we wake up at 3:00 a.m. and start walking in the dark with little headlights on. There are 5 more kilometers to the summit, and these are the toughest ones. At this altitude, I can barely breathe. It’s freezing cold. We can hear a river, but don’t see it. All we see are billions of stars hanging above us, and contours of black mountains. We are walking through the thick grasses of the Costa Rican paramo. The path is hard to find in the dark, especially when it goes over flat rocky areas. We lose it. We have to come back and find it again. We keep walking. We want to get to the summit just before sunrise and watch the daybreak from the top of Costa Rica, but I am struggling with the altitude and am way too slow. I don’t feel good at all. I want to quit. I want to go back in the shelter and wait there. But Ivo and Maya are urging me to keep going. They stop and wait for me while I rest every couple of minutes. I need to sit down, catch my breath, and wait for my heart to calm down. The terrain gets rougher and steeper, and on top of that the cold wind picks up. After one last turn, we finally see the last peak. Cerro Chirripo is beautiful and frightening- a vertical steep pyramid of grey rocks. I give up. I will not reach this summit. It’s way too hard for me. I tell Ivo and Maya to leave me behind and hurry up to catch the sunrise. I want to start walking back and will wait for them at the shelter. Reluctant, Ivo and Maya continue without me. As they start the final ascent, I hear Maya in the distance saying- “Mama, don’t come, this is way too difficult for you, you can’t make it!”

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Alone, I sit and rest for a while but it gets too cold. I have to keep going or I will freeze to death. I get up and start walking again. Towards the summit. Slowly, I climb over the rocks on my fours. This reminds me of our ordeal going down from Volcan Baru in Panama... The sun is already out and I can see the dark crater lake and the sea of white clouds below. Ivo and Maya are already on top and when they see me struggling across the final vertical meters of the mountain like a wounded old turtle, they are super happy and surprised. In fact, I haven’t seen Ivo so happy and proud of me for a long time. This makes me feel happy too. I made it! We all made it to the top of Costa Rica, what a glorious unforgettable moment!

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Maya with Cerro Chirripo behind her

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After a few freezing cold minutes on the summit and a well-deserved chocolate, we start the long downhill walk. It’s 5 km back to the shelter plus 14km back to the village for a total of 24 km for the day. The walk down is easier on the hearth and lungs, but proves harder on the knees and legs, and I struggle again. The weather is once again perfect. We don’t get a drop of rain the entire time both days, and only when we return to San Gerardo and finally sit on the bench in front of the small grocery shop in town eating some cheap spicy sausage and drinking local beer with a young coupe form Quebec, it starts poring. But we don’t care. We are back, we are dry, and we are resting. No more hiking for today.

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Ivo, Mira and Maya on top of Cerro Chirripo 3820m

Tips for climbing Cerro Chirripo

Make reservations in advance if possible. There are only 60 people per day allowed in the park, as there are only 60 beds in the ranger station. While we were in San Gerardo, we met a guy who had to wait one more day, as the park quota was reached and he couldn’t climb the summit the same day.
Bring good mountain boots, winter jackets and hats, and flashlights. The lights at Crestones are switched off at 8:00 p.m. and the hike in the morning begins in total darkness.
Bring a bottle of water. You can refill it at kilometer 7 and once again before Crestones.
Even though we didn’t get any rain, it is highly possible that you will, so bring rain ponchos.
If you feel, like we do, that the park fees are way too expensive, you can make a complaint. Hopefully, they will lower the prices if more people express their opinion. For more information, visit the park’s website Parque Nacional Chirripo

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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

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Where is S/V Fata Morgana heading to next?

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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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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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