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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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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The Ordinary House with the Most Extraordinary Inhabitants

The Ordinary House with the Most Extraordinary Inhabitants

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

The yellow house on the left

The yellow house on the left

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

The living room

The living room

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

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

Mira with Valencia

Mira with Valencia

 

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

Yiscel

Yiscel Yánguez

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

An armadillo

An armadillo

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

The tapir Valencia in the backyard

The tapir Valencia in the backyard

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

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

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

The owl

The owl

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

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Sloth

 

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

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

The tapir Valencia

The tapir Valencia

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

Pino the porcupine

Pino the porcupine

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

Pino the porcupine

Mira with Pino the porcupine

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

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

Juvenile spectacled owl

Juvenile spectacled owl

 

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

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

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

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

Tapir

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

Spectacled Owl

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

New World Porcupine

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

Sloth

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

 

Visit ACCP Facebook page and like them!

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

 

 

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

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Kuna Yala: Rivers and Crocodiles

Rivers and Crocodiles

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After a couple of weeks around the small outer islands of the San Blas archipelago we sail to an island near the continent, named Rio Azucar (Sugar River) after a small river that runs down from the Darien Mountains and enters the sea. We drop anchor in the calm shallow waters not far from the river delta. Early the next morning we are ready to visit Panama’s mainland for the first time.

Entrance to Rio Azucar

Entrance to Rio Azucar

With long pants and long sleeves against sunburn and bugs, hats and sunglasses, we pile on the kayak. The wind is hush under a bright sky with a few clouds stuck in the mountain tops. We enter the place where the river’s freshwaters mix with the sea. Nothing moves. Dark blue mountains in the distance covered with thick impassable forest and no sign of civilization for miles and miles in all directions.

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The river is wide and shallow in the beginning, surrounded by mangroves, some so tall they form dark tunnels and we pass under them.

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Further, the waters are still and completely transparent. The world admires itself as if a mirror has been placed at its feet. Our kayak now glides in a shiny sky without bottom, over clouds and upside-down trees.

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The river-water is cool and clear. No industry upriver to pollute it, no human settlement to exploit it, only forest and mountain.

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And animals. Stingrays sleep on the bottom and panic as our kayak approaches, creating small muddy clouds as they make their escape.

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Stingray

Birds fly away as we pass by the shores: herons, cormorants, a dark ibis, jacamars and kingfishers, warblers and woodpeckers, toucans and many more.

heron

heron

A group of dark feathered azure-hooded jays hidden in a bush hanging over the water fill the silence with a cacophony of loud weird chatter, like frogs’ croaking, that goes on for a long time and suddenly stops very abruptly, all at once. Right when the rattle has become part of the silence and we don’t pay it any attention, it stops and it’s strange mystic silence again. A black falcon surveys his kingdom with a most respectful gaze from the highest branch.

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Green Kingfisher

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Flycatcher

Falcon

Falcon

Our favorite river-dwellers are the little brown basilisk lizards, known as Jesus Christ lizards, for they and the son of God share a rare skill- walking on water! And if you ask them, walking on water is piece of cake, they sprint over it! What a spectacle every time they cross before our amazed doubting eyes from one shore to the other speeding as fast as their feet can carry them on the river surface (as fast as 7mph)!

basilisk lizard

basilisk lizard

His divine abilities aside, the basilisk is quite a sight even when sitting still, concealed, pretending to be part of a rotten tree trunk or branch on the shores. Brown, scaly, with a high fin-like crest down his back, head and tail, like miniature dinosaur, and large feet equipped with flaps of skin along the toes allowing the lizard to remain on top of the river when moving quickly, just a bit slower than his land speed.

basilisk (Jesus Christ) lizard

basilisk (Jesus Christ) lizard

Youngsters can run up to 10-20 meters on water, while adult Jesus Christs can cross only a few meters before sinking, not because they move slowly, but because they are heavier and cannot sprint for too long… Once he falls in the water the basilisk continues swimming but only when necessary, when running from predators for example, because some other aquatic animals would eat him too…

basilisk lizard

basilisk lizard

Suddenly we hear a sweet tiny chirping, like a gentle bird’s cry, and it is a monkey! And another one! And another one!

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A family of Geoffroy’s tamarin monkeys (titi monkeys, the smallest Central American monkeys) are in the trees above our heads talking to us! Wonder what are they saying? These are different than the ones we saw in Tayrona (Colombia) with short hairstyles- white Mohawks and bald spots above the ears. We nickname them “punks”

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Yet, the one animal we are here to find is the crocodile, master of the river. It is a strange and scary feeling being in a river full of crocodiles, alone, without a guide, having to get out of the kayak when it gets too shallow or when the current gets too strong to paddle against it, and to step in the water barefoot, in a river home of the Central American caiman.

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And sure enough we find him. Hiding in the shadows ashore, camouflaged like the sand and the rocks, completely still, he is watching us with his cold yellow eyes.

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Another one! As we approach a small rocky beach just where the river makes a sharp turn, another croc tanning ashore hurriedly drags himself to the water edge and slides in with a spectacular silent motion. He swims away and disappears.

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It seems that the caimans are more afraid of us than we of them, yet Maya, like most 11-year-old girls, is terrified and almost cries, but as soon as the third one (and they are all small) runs away from us panicking, she is convinced that they have nothing to do with the horrifying monsters depicted in films. And the river safari continues.

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There is even a baby caiman sitting on a tree trunk and we all (even Maya) find him cute.

baby caiman

baby caiman

We keep going. At places the river is shallow, wide and calm-too shallow even for the kayak- and we have to walk and pull it behind.

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Other places are narrow and deep and the river runs fast. It is hard to paddle against it. Going back downriver, we pass these rapids quickly, and it is exciting and fun.

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We would love to go further and further until the river ends, but it doesn’t. It only becomes more and more difficult to paddle, the mountain begins to rise, rapids appear, and so we turn back. We pass again under fallen trees which the leafcutter ants and other forest creatures use as bridges over the river.

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We paddle by the big ceiba tree adorned with the hanging nests of weaver birds. It is much faster going back downriver, and easier.

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Fata Morgana is waiting for us, and a few more wild rivers to explore in Kuna Yala, full of elusive jungle creatures, the sweet-and-sour smell of wild rotting mangoes fallen near the shores, and the sounds of birds and monkeys.

River Photos

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Sponsored by www.kayakshopbg.com

 

Find previous stories from the blog about Kuna Yala:

Paradise at The End of The Sea 

Slums of Paradise

Children of The Moon 

Ulu Men. Cowboys of The Sea

Master Mola Makers

 

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

 
 

 Facebook/TheLifeNomadik

 

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Camping in Tayrona

Tayrona

Тайрона, Ел Кабо

Tayrona, El Cabo

As we approached the shore sailing to Colombia I felt the familiar burnt smell of dry old land.  I inhaled deeply, tasting with much pleasure and for the first time in my life the bitter dust of the New World. What cities, what people, what nature is expecting us? I couldn’t wait to get to know the country carrying Columbus’s name, the narrow busy streets of Santa Marta, the museums and cathedrals of Bogota, the hot native village of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the waterfalls in the Sierra Nevada, the architecture of Cartagena, the wild beaches and the monkeys in Tayrona. One month is not enough to see all Colombia has to offer to the dusty traveler, even a year will probably not do. We didn’t have a minute to spare.

Парк Тайрона

Park Tayrona

We came back from Bogota to Santa Marta late in the evening and the very next day we got up around 6 a.m., packed three backpacks with a tent, sleeping bags, food for three people for three days and lots of water, and we took of for Tayrona. We still had three more paid days in the expensive marina and decided to take advantage of the fact that the boat is safe. We went camping in one of the most beautiful and bio-diverse areas in South America.

Парк Тайрона, плаж Аресифе

Park Tayrona, Arrecife Beach

From the marina we walked to el mercado (about 10-15 min) and there we hoped on a bus to Park Tayrona (6 000 pesos= $2.50 per person), and after about 30 minutes we were there. Entrance fee for adults is 35 000 pesos or about $15, which is a lot for Colombia and 20 000 pesos or about $8 for students and kids. This entrance fee is valid for any period of time, so if you stay longer it’s more worth it. There were a few more backpackers who came at the same time we did and they took a small bus (3 000 pesos= $1.20) from the entrance of the park to the end of the road, deeper in Tayrona- the last place accessible by car. Maya and I also started for the bus, but Ivo stopped us.

– No bus! We are walking!

– It’s just a dollar and it will save us at least an hour of walking in the heat, don’t be ridiculous, everyone will think we are crazy!- I tried to argue but in vain; Ivo values each dollar and if he can save it- he does!

Пеша из гората с тежки раници

Maya and Ivo walking with heavy backpacks

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We started walking and the tourists loaded in the little bus watched us probably thinking we are crazy, as they passed us down the road. The humidity was intense and soon we were drenched in sweat. We walked with our heads down under the weight of the packs surrounded by thick jungle. Maya was carrying all the clothes and two bottles of water, I was hauling heavy canned food and two more water bottles, and Ivo was loaded up with the tent and the sleeping bags, plus two more bottles.

Синя пеперуда Морф- мъртва край пътя

Blue morph butterfly we found dead on the side of the road

Suddenly we heard the familiar roar we first heard about two years ago up the Polochik River in Guatemala- the Howler Monkeys. Their deep menacing bellows make me shiver every time. It is as if a sick angry monster is vomiting, Maya said. These are the loudest dwellers of the jungle and their infernal cries which can be heard from miles away are meant to warn intruders off their territory. We kept going with eyes wide open, listening, while the roars got louder and soon the family of howlers were directly above us! There is not more magical than returning the stare of a wild animal,, even if it is an unfriendly angry stare of the black howler monkey.

Черни ревящи маймуни

Black Howler Monkeys, Colombia

A bit further down the road we heard other more gentle, more discrete voices and we saw in the trees all around us the tiny cute titi-monkeys, like kittens with hair like Einstein. Unlike the howler monkeys found throughout Central and South America, these cotton-top tamarin or titi monkeys can be seen only in the northeast part of Colombia (or pretty much only in Tayrona) and nowhere else in the world. They are in the list of critically endangered species. We have never imagined or hoped to see and hear them in the wild, even to photograph them from a few feet!

Маймуна-тити

Titi-monkey, Colombia

The little Einsteins seemed worried and were jumping nervously left and right in the trees, stopping briefly, giving as an angry look and making shrill sounds like when you are trying to clear the food stuck in your teeth. They were jumping around us but did not go away, always keeping an eye on us. I would stay with them. Forever. How can one leave behind these adorable elusive little guys if they are not the ones to leave first?

Тити

Titi monkey

We kept going.

-Who is crazy now? We or the bus people who didn’t see a single monkey, I bet!- said Ivo.

Тити

Titi

And he was right. If we hadn’t started on foot, heat or no heat, we wouldn’t see the black howlers nor the titis, nor  a big red spider, nor a blue morph butterfly dead by the side of the road, probably killed by the bus… Only when walking the road awards you rewards.

Маймуна-тити

Titi-monkey, Colombia

More than one hour had passed when we got to the end of the road, the place where the foot-path begins. The rest of the backpackers were long gone, and once again they didn’t have to walk, as from here on people usually rent horses for less than $20 per person. We could also rent horses, they even offered us a discount, bt Ivo just pointed to his feet and didn’t have to say anything…

Кон под наем

Horse for rent

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Two more hours passed. we were walking in something like a canyon formed by the horse traffic in the soft sandy ground, across grey boulders, fallen trees and the winding paths of the leafcutter ants.

Каньон

Sandy canyon

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Мравки листорезачи

Leafcutter ants

Мравки-листорезачи

Leafcutter ants

Noon passed. The heat was unforgiving even in the shade of the jungle. We were dripping with sweat- big droplets were flowing down forming streams on faces and arms. Soon our clothes were completely damp. Good thing we hod lots of water to keep us hydrated.

Мая

Maya

зеленина

green

We met another kind of monkeys who were busy taking down dead palm leafs, dropping them on the ground next to us, and picking the bugs found at the base.They too were screaming at us. Ivo and Maya tried to communicate with them and very successfully if you ask me; I hope we didn’t offend them…

Маймуна

Monkeys

Besides these unexpected meetings with monkeys we also stumbled upon a small indigenous settlement, a place where the rental horses don’t go, of course. Our curiosity led us to a small hidden footpath away from the main road.

Индианско село

indigenous settlement, Tayrona

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Suddenly- two hens digging in the ground for bugs, not paying attention to us. Farther- a fireplace and clothes set to dry on some big bowlders. A few round and one square mud and wood houses with cylindrical thatched roofs. An indigenous guy sleeping in a hammock in the shade! From one of the houses came out a young girl in a white robe and two little kids who were watching us with curiosity and suspicion. Just standing there looking at us, saying nothing, ready to get back in the hut.

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Индианци от племето Когуи

Indigenous people in Tayrona

We were not supposed to be there and we didn’t want to disturb the secrets of this enchanted place. Quickly we returned to the main trail. By then we were so stunned by so many unexpected sudden encounters with wild animals and people that we wouldn’t be surprised if a jaguar, a dinosaur or an extraterrestrial jumped out of the forest in front of us.

Мария- от племето Когуи. Вървеше в гората успоредно на пътеката и излезе, когато я извиках с думите: Чоколате? С нея имаше още едно дете, което не посмя да излезе от гората. Мария обеща да раздели шоколада със сестричката си.

Maria was walking in the forest parallel to our trail and came out when I called her with the words: Chocolate? There was another shy kid with her who didn’t come out of the forest. Maria promised to share the chocolate we gave her with her sister.

Finally we got to a clearing with a few tents and hammocks, This is the first of a few camping sites in Tayrona. We rested for while in the restaurants sharing an expensive coke, and we walked around the Arrecife Beach deserted, as swimming here is forbidden because of the hundreds drowned in the strong currents and big waves of this part of the coast.

Първи къмпинг

First camping site

Душове

Showers

Мая в ресторантчето

Maya in the camping restaurant

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We continued on to another beach, La Piscina (the Swimming pool) – a lagoon surrounded by reefs breaking the waves, perfect and safe for swimming. Here we took one-two hour break cooling down in the pleasant waters of the Caribbean Sea. There is nothing more refreshing after a long hike in the heat and dust than the sea. Here we also started meeting the others Tayrona visitors.

плаж Ла Писина

La Piscina Beach

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хубава гледка...

Nice view

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Брадорасло

Seaweed

Around 3 p.m. we put back on our sweaty clothes, socks and heavy shoes and refreshed but exhausted from too much walking with big backpacks we continued on. After half an hour through a coconut palm forest we got to our final destination- El Cabo.

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Кокосова гора. Тук видяхме най-много кокосои орехи не едно място

Miles of beautiful coconut forrest

Мира и Мая

Mira and Maya

Tayrona is a national park with 12 thousand hectares of pristine territory in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, with 3 thousand hectares of the most bio-diverse wild coastal zone in the Americas. With many deserted sandy beaches, beautiful Caribbean waters, tropical jungles and rainforests home of thousands of animal and bird species, this is one of the wildest most stunning corners of South America.

Мая и Иво

Maya and Ivo

And El Cabo is the crown’s jewel.

Ел Кабо

El Cabo

Къмпинг Ел Кабо

Camping in El Cabo, Tayrona

– We build here!- said Ivo and the two with Maya started setting up the tent, while I had the the task to document the events with my camera.

Мая и Иво опъват палатката

Maya and Ivo setting up the tent

Мая и Иво горди

Maya and Ivo proud tent-builders

Мая се чекне в палатката

Maya in the tent

Мая оправя спалните чували

Maya unpacking

Only three more backpacker-couples had brought their own tents. Everyone else, some 30-40 visitors from around the world, mostly Germans and Australians, instead rented a tent or a hammock. The “coolest” spot to rent a hammock was the small open shack on the rocks surrounded by the sea- Tayrona’s most popular landmark.

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Ел Кабо, Тайрона

El Cabo, Tayrona. This is “the coolest” spot to rent a hammock

To rent a tent is about $15 per person per night, a hammock is about $10 and we, even though we brought our own tent, had to pay around $6 per person (Maya- free) for the privilege to set the tent up in El Cabo.

Нашата палатка нощем

Our tent at night

And even though we didn’t like the fact that we had to pay yet again, it was worth it. In Tayrona we lived the most beautiful, the most happy, the most perfect days in our lives.

Иво и Мая край огъня

Ivo and Maya by the fire

Мая хапва равиоли от консерва

Maya eating ravioli from a can

Мая с маршмелоу

Maya with marshmallow

Къмпингът се събужда

The camping is waking up

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Мая и Мира готови за поход високо в планината до Ел Пуеблито (половин ден)

Maya and Mira ready for another hike up in the mountains to El Pueblito

Иво помага на Мая през канарите

Ivo helping Maya

Мая

Maya

Мира и Мая

Mira and Maya

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Иво обича да бере диви портокали

Ivo likes wild oranges

Черно колибри

a black hummingbird

Мира и Мая обичат да прегръщат големи дървета

Mira and Maya like hugging trees

Пуеблито е малко изоставено индианско селце (не живеят индианци), където туристите от Тайрона могат да се разходят и да видят къщите на индианците. До тук се стига за 2-3 часа стръмно изкачване- труден терен с канари през цялото време; вертикално катерене.

Pueblito is a small uninhabited site of an old indigenous settlement in Tayrona. The hike there is steep, hard and takes about 3 hours.

Пуеблито

El Pueblito, Tayrona

Номадите в Тайрона

The Nomadiks in El Pueblito

обратно на плажа

back at the beach

Иво си почива след дълъг изморителен поход до Пуеблито

Ivo resting on the beach after the hike to El Pueblito

Мая прави пясъчен октопод

Maya making a sand octopus

Иво реже кокоси

Ivo opening a coconut

Мая пие кокоси

Maya

Червена катерица в палмите

A red squirrel

 

Мравки-листорезачки

Leafcutter ants

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Залез. Втора вечер

Sunset. Second night in Tayrona

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Още една рядка птица

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Тайрона, Ел Кабо

El Cabo, Tayrona

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Rocks and Cacti in Aruba

Rocks and Cacti in Aruba

Aruba was a pleasant surprise. We didn’t expect to find so many interesting places on such a small (32 km x10 km) flat desert island. After visiting California Lighthouse, the Alto Vista Chapel and the northwest rocky shores, we decided to go for a hike in the desert in the interior of the island and to check out some more of the tourist attractions.

Мира в Казибари

Casibari Rock Formations

The Casibari Rock Formations, abut 3 km from the capital Oranjestad, are brownish- reddish boulders sticking out in the middle of the desert as if they had fallen from the sky, surrounded by cacti. It is still a mystery how this pile of huge rocks smooth and strangely shaped came to be on such a flat sandy island, where the tallest elevation is a hill barely reaching 189 m. One of the theories is that their origin is in fact extraterrestrial…

Скали в Казибари

The first inhabitants from the Arawak tribe would climb on top of the boulders and stare at the eastern horizons to see if a storm is approaching. Here, hundreds of years ago, they used to pray and perform rituals for the gods of rain and lightning.

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A narrow path through cacti and heavy rocks lead us to the steep steps of wood and stone. We climbed on top of a flat boulder. Aruba was stretching in our feet, surrounded by blue waters. On a clear day one can spot the shores of Venezuela in the south.

Скални формации Казибари, Аруба

From the top of one of the cacti which had invaded the entire island, a small orange-and-black bird was watching us. The Trоupial is one of the few rare birds native of Aruba.

Трупиал от Аруба

Arikok National Park

 

The next day, we packed water and sandwiches, put on shoes good for hiking in a salty desert surrounded by sea, and went to Arikok National Park.

Мая и Иво в парк Арикок

 

The Arikok Park occupies a huge territory on the island, almost 20 percent of Aruba. It is one of the main tourist destinations offering a variety of attractions and landscapes to the visitors: caves with pertroglyphs, sandy dunes, volcanic formations, abandoned gold mines, ruins of old traditional farms, rock formations, a natural pool and many beaches.

Северните брегове на Аруба, част от парк Арикок

 

We paid 11 US$ per adult (free for kids under 17) admission fee, we got a map of the area and we were warned to watch out for snakes.  Among the most common snakes in Aruba are the boa and the casabel- a type of rattlesnake endemic to Aruba, which you will not see anywhere else in the world. We’ve been told to stay on the paths in order to avoid stepping on a cactus or a rattlesnake.

– What do we do if a snake bites us?, we asked.

– You start counting, because you have 20 min to live, was the answer.

We decided to keep to the paths…

Мая в парк Арикок

 

Yet, a few times we did step off the path, mainly to take pictures of interesting things.

кактус

 

We didn’t step on a snake, but Mira did step on a cactus…

Мира стъпа на кактус.

 

In the park there are many hiking trails, as well as roads accessible by cars and off-roads accessible only by foot or 4×4 vehicles. The off-road safaris with jeeps and buggies are activities very popular with the tourists.

Оф-роуд сафари

 

We started on foot towards the natural pool. The park rangers told us that the hike is approximately 1.5 hrs. But we got lost, even though the paths are very well marked and there are signs at every crossroad. We just took the wrong turn at the beginning and after 1 hour of walking in the heat we got to a small traditional plantation house built in the cas di torto style.

Canucu Arikok

 

We had to turn back and walk another hour almost to the park entrance and when we got to the fatal crossroad with the sign we turned right and continued on to Natural Pool or Conchi.  But the deviation was worth it, as we enjoyed the monotonous rigid nature of this part of the park. We walked through forests of cacti and met a few goat families roaming in the shadows of the big boulders. We even encountered two caracara hawks perched on a rock in the company of big brown goat.

Двойка соколи и козел

 

The time was advancing, yet we were still far from destination. The sun hung low on top of our heads as if its greatest ambition was to start a fire in our hats. We climbed one hill from where we could see the sea and the northern shores of the island and from there was just downhill on a dusty rocky road accessible by 4×4 vehicles and hikers. Maya started complaining of her shoes…

Път към естественият басейн

We decided to hitchhike. A jeep with two girls from Boston passed by and the first thing they saw must have been Ivo’s beard, as they were not sure if they wanted to pick us up, but they finally did and saved us at lest one more hour of walking on rocks in the heat of the desert. What followed was the bumpiest ride we have experienced since the beginning of our adventure two years ago, except maybe when we had to drive on the mountain roads destroyed by landslides in the Dominican Republic countryside.

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Conchi- Natural Pool

 

We finally got to the natural pool- number one destination in the park. We were lucky and got there before all the off-road safaris with jeeps and buggies unloaded hundreds of noisy visitors, whose only wish was to jump in the cool waters of the pool and quickly transformed a secluded place into a soup of tourists.

Естествен басейн в Аруба

 

Mira in the Natural Pool

Mira in the Natural Pool

The Natural Pool is surrounded by rocks and protected by the stormy sea. It is like a small lake on the shore. They say that many years ago the islanders used the pool as “a prison” for sea turtles, who couldn’t escape in the sea.

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The place is excellent for swimming and snorkeling or just for hanging out in the clear waters heated by the sun. But when the waves are too big and crush high above the rocks, it is risky to go in.

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On the way back we hitchhiked again and got a ride in the back of one of the park’s 4×4 vehicles with three guys, one of whom was the park’s manager. He complained that the goats are eating up the vegetation and all there will be left soon are cacti. And by the way, we saw one goat eating a rotting cactus too.

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Arashi Beach

 

Another beautiful place we were fortunate to visit in Aruba is Arashi Beach. it is located near palm Beach and is just 15 minutes walk from our anchorage.

Араши плаж

 

This is the most picturesque rocky shore we have ever seen. On the backdrop of limestone carved by the sea and tall cacti standing on the edge of the rocks two pirate ships had dropped anchors. They bring tourists twice a day- in the morning and in the afternoon, to snorkel in the reefs.

Пиратски кораби, Аруба

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The Whale Who Came To Say Hi

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This can happen to you when sailing from one place to another, slowly, gentle breeze, the sea surface almost flat, just a few ripples; then the wind dying completely and the boat drifting in some random direction carried by an almost imperceptible current, the sky clear and so bright it hurts your eyes, no land in view only barren sea, a great intense space empty and silent, and then…pffff… a long lazy slow-motion pfff, and you know it’s a whale, and your heart starts, and adrenalin hits you so violently you feel tiny needles in your arms and legs, and you know it’s a whale but you don’t see it, you missed it, so close to the boat, and you look with all your eyes and you scan the sea in all the directions and you know: next time he comes out for air you will see him for sure.

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There he is, coming slowly, like a delayed miracle, pffff, closer this time, just next to the boat, his dark back smooth and shiny, his wet eye looking at you. He circles the boat closer and closer, worried, why are you not sailing, why is the boat drifting like that, do you need help? The water is so clear and completely transparent that when he decides to pass under, just a few feet below the boat, you see every detail on his body. It is a young humpback whale; about thirty feet long, with dark back, a small dorsal fin, two white pectoral fins, and a powerful elegant tail. You are looking down as if suspended in the air. A whale is flowing beneath your feet.

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He decides to stay with the boat for a while, to make sure everything is OK, coming out for air every few minutes sometimes really close. Sometimes he swims on his side his white belly shining through the water, showing off, here I am, look what I can do, how are you, nice to meet you!

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