Monday, March 30, 2009

Panama anitguo y moderno

Modern skyscrapers rise behind the ruins of the original Panama City

Panama city was founded in 1519 on the site of a native-Panamanian fishing village shortly after Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa made the reasonable claim that everything that touched the Pacific belonged to Spain. For the next 150 years it served as an important port for Spain and a launching point for the conquest of the Inca Empire in Peru. Known as the 'bullion pipeline,' much of the gold and other wealth plundered from the Incas passed through Panama city, also making it a prime target for a series of pirate attacks. The city finally fell in 1671 to privateer Henry Morgan and over 1000 of his men. After looting the city of all its wealth, it was burned to the ground. England rewarded this deed by knighting Morgan and appointing him lieutenant governor of Jamaica. Of the hundreds of houses, churches, a mint, and stables, only scattered stone foundations remain today.

Crumbling French-Colonial architecture in Casco Viejo

After its plunder, Panama City was reestablished on a small rocky peninsula north of the original site. This area is now referred to as Casco Viejo, meaning Old Compound. Protected by a shallow bay, moat, fortified stone walls, and watchtowers, the city was never again sacked by privateers. However, the overland trade routes to Panama City were subject to constant attack, so less than 100 years after it was reestablished, the city was in decline as the Spaniards stopped using the route. Panama city again revived with the construction of a railroad in the 1850s that was an important part of the route west for the gold rush. Rather than traveling by land across the United States and risk attack by American Indians, prospectors and miners from the East Coast of the US would sail to Panama, cross the narrow isthmus via rail, and then make their way north to California. The city continued to flourish as the French attempted to build a canal starting in 1880. This attempt was abandoned 13 years later after over 22,000 workers had died from malaria and yellow fever. We spent a steamy morning strolling the narrow streets of Casco Viejo, admiring the crumbling colonial architecture. A lot of restoration and reconstruction work is underway, and we imagine that in five or ten years the dilapidated buildings of rapidly gentrifying Casco Viejo will be restored to their former glory.

Cathedral, Casco Viejo

Early in the 20th Century, the United States revived efforts to build a canal across the narrow isthmus that was still part of the country of Colombia. An initial treaty signed between the US and Colombia to lease the land for 99 years was not ratified by the Colombian senate, initially blocking the US from commencing canal construction. To get around this problem, President Roosevelt incited rebellion among rich Colombian land-owners in the Panama City region. Colombia ceded the land to the rebellious land owners (who were backed by the guns of the US Navy), and the new country of Panama was born. Conveniently for the US, newborn Panama then agreed to indefinitely lease the land around the proposed canal site to the US and construction began. As the treaty for this lease was signed by a Panamanian ambassador who was not authorized to sign treaties, it became a contentious diplomatic issues years later. Despite this, by overseeing effective sanitation and mosquito-control practices, deaths from disease plummeted and the Panama canal was successfully completed ten years later.

Panama CanalMercado Publico
Ships sailing the Panama Canal and the Bay of Panama

After World War II, Panamanians began questioning the wisdom and legality of the indefinite lease of such a valuable commodity. Increasingly violent protests against US occupation of the Canal Zone intensified, and in 1974 a new treaty was signed between the US and Panama, granting Panama control of the Canal on December 31, 1999. Despite fears to the contrary, since Panama gained control of the canal, transit time across the canal has increased and the accident rate has decreased. Not content with making tens of thousands of dollars per ship traversing the canal, we paid the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) $8/person to get a bird's eye view of ships crossing through the Miraflores Locks. Building-sized cargo ships moved slowly through the locks, guided by small vehicles that resembled Zambonis on rails. With barely 2 feet to spare on each side of the ships, it looked like a tight squeeze.

Two Panamax ships squeeze through the Miraflores Locks

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Red devils and piracy

Kristin admiring the sweet airbrushing on a diablo rojo.

This afternoon we enjoyed a little bit of rampant consumerism for the first time since we have left the US eight months ago - we shopped in a mall. Over the last couple of months we have been compiling a wish list, including new clothes, small speakers for our computer, and a new headset. We finally had the opportunity to cross some items off of that list at the Allbrook Mall in Panama City. The previous day we had tried to drive to the mall, but after getting lost, paying an unnecessary toll, and running low on time we headed back to our hospedaje in defeat. Ivonne, our friendly hostess at Villa Michelle, suggested we take the bus next time. Buses in Panama City, like many other buses throughout Central America, are rescued United States school buses reincarnated as diablos rojos (red devils). These colorfully decorated buses fearlessly speed through Panama City's streets blaring retrofitted air horns to give other cars enough warning to move out of the diablo rojos path. A quarter fare will get you anywhere in the city on a devil, as long as you don't mind crowding 3 adults to a seat meant for 2 small children.

Why stop with just one hood ornament?

Arriving at the giant Allbrook Mall on the outskirts of the city, we were surprised to find Christmas season sized crowds. While unfamiliar with many of the stores, some places looked suspiciously familiar. The Conway store seems to have stolen a page out of Target's marketing book, with a look-alike logo, bright displays, and dirt cheap clothes. Even the large photo displays and sassy print advertisements made me think I was looking at a Target ad. I think Conway might be pulling a couple of their own tricks that Target could never get away with. I'm pretty sure that Abercrombie & Fitch doesn't allow their brand to be sold in any stores but their own, especially not a low-cost Panamanian department store. Another thing that tipped us off that some of the brands may be misrepresented was the uneven stitching and fraying seams.

Coincidence or copyright infringement? You decide.

Still laughing about the Conway, we came across an even more blatant rip-off. Loud music pouring out of its entrance, scantily clother models, and preppy clothes, the only thing differentiating this store from an Abercrombie & Fitch was its name, Moose. A&F fans will immediately recognize that the moose is A&F's logo. However, not all of the stores were pirate-copies of North American vendors. A whole section of the mall was devoted to upscale stores like Mountain Hardwear, Izod, Tommy Hilfiger, and Kenneth Cole, that appeared to be legitimate. Walking through the air conditioned mall you could forget you were in the middle of Panama until you crossed paths with a crowd of Kuna women wearing beautiful colored dresses, gold nose ring, and sumptuously beaded leggings. After spending a couple of hours wandering both pirate and genuine stores, items crossed off my list and laden with several shopping bags, we hopped on a diablo rojo and held our breath as we sped back to our hospedaje.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Looking for a sign in Panama

Camping at Oasis Surf Camp, Santa Catalina

After 4 days in the cool mountains of Panama, we were ready to head back to the warm beaches of Santa Catalina on the Pacific coast. Our friends, Tom and Kelsey, were temporarily stranded on the Caribbean coast when several bridges washed out due to unseasonable amounts of rain so we hadn't seen them in a while, but we hoped to meet them in Santa Catalina. Armed only with our lousy Lonely Planet maps (which make it look like the Pan-American Highway is practically the only road in all of Panama) we would be relying mainly on road signs for navigation. Speeding east on the Pan-American, we were dismayed by the distinct lack of signs. The few signs that did exist were apparently paid for by car-rental companies, since they were always adorned with National or Hertz logos. After driving for what felt like too long on the Pan-American, we figured that we had missed the unmarked turn-off for Santa Catalina. We asked for directions from an unfriendly trinket vendor who directed us down an unpromising side road. Doubting his word, we stopped to double check with the cashier at the chino (Panamanian grocery and convenience store) who instructed us to take the next right. This miraculously put us on a paved road that led to Santa Catalina. Once we arrived, we set up camp on an idyllic black sand beach, our camper surrounded by coconut trees and shaded by leafy almond trees. While Tom and Kelsey did manage to find us there the next day, they weren't quite as lucky as us with their directions and wandered bone-jolting dirt roads for several hours before they found their way to Santa Catalina.

Crystal clear views of the stars through the palm trees

We spent the hot days swimming and reading, the cooler nights admiring the amazing display of shooting stars and crystal clear views of the Milky Way. We are now far enough south that we can see the Southern Cross constellation, but can't seem to find the Big Dipper anymore. While living without hot water, electricity, or internet access can be refreshing for a few days, we needed to do some research before entering Panama City, so we next stopped in the small mountain town of El Valle. Miraculously there was actually a small, partially obscured sign on the Pan-American directing us to the town. After climbing through the dusty hills from the Pacific, we descended into the lush extinct volcanic crater that houses El Valle. We wandered around the flower-lined streets looking for inexpensive accommodations before we were directed to the Rastafarian campsite owned by friendly Swami. While we felt a bit out of place among the dreadlocked crowd chilling in the lotus position or blissing out in the drum circle, they were welcoming from the start.

Flowering bushes line the streets of El Valle

El Valle is quite a small town, but we entertained ourselves on the first day by visiting the local hot springs. While these were no Guatemalan Fuentes Georginas or Costa Rican Tabacon, we had fun smearing ourselves with the therapeutic mud and then rinsing off in the slightly stinky and suspiciously cloudy hot pools (we sorely regretted not bringing any cameras). Feeling surprisingly clean, we found a local wireless cafe and tried to catch up on email while searching for an apartment in Panama City. We think we will need at least 1 or 2 weeks in Panama City to figure out how to ship our car around the Darien Gap. With a couple of leads on places to stay in hand, we packed up our campsites and headed toward the canal and Panama City.

Abandoned house in El Valle

Saturday, March 14, 2009

How can it be this cold this close to the equator?

Foot bridge to houses in Boquete, Panama

Entering Panama felt like a bit of a milestone for us: we had finally reached the southernmost country in Central America, the land of the roadless Darien Gap. Feeling all that much closer to South America we are itching to cross the gap and start exploring a whole new continent, but Panama has several wonderful mountain towns and beaches we didn't want to miss. We first headed to Boquete Panama, high in mountains of the Chiriqui province. Boquete means 'gap' in Spanish, and the town was given this name as it was one of the quickest passages for trans-Atlantic fortune-seekers from Europe heading to California during the gold rush of the 1850s. We enjoyed the sparkling sunny days but were quite surprised that we had to bundle up in down vests for the cold windy nights.
The 100 year old Kotowa coffee mill

Some of the finest coffee in Panama (and some say the world) is grown in Boquete, so on our first full day we toured Finca Kotowa, an organic, shade-grown coffee plantation. Our knowledgeable (and quite opinionated when it came to what is good or bad coffee) guide Hans walked us through the coffee plants which were covered in shiny green and red coffee beans, took us step-by-step through the bean selection, husking, drying, aging, and roasting process, and finished the tour with a lengthy coffee 'cupping.' For the cupping we sampled three different types of roasts, and discussed their relative flavors and boldness much like you would sample wines at a vineyard. I thought they all tasted like burnt dirt, (I am not a coffee drinker) but Chris picked up a bag of their award winning coffee for a steal. It was $6/pound on their finca, but in the United States it sells for over $20/pound.
Plants on the Sendero de los Quetzales

Despite all of the caffeine in our systems, we slept well in our Ecamper that night and the next day met our new friends Iris and Brian to hike the Sendero de los Quetzales, or Quetzal trail. They had been admiring our camper, and we also ran into them while eating dinner (Boquete is a small town) so we invited them on the hike. The trail winds up through the lush forests and mountains near Volcan Baru, but ended rather abruptly in a wide washed out section surrounded by waterfalls and wildflowers. Brian spotted a beatiful bird on the trail which we thought was a quetzal, but we now think it may be a slaty-tailed trogon. The slaty-tailed trogan is no resplendent quetzal, but its beautiful red and green colored feathers are a league apart from what you will ever see at any birdfeeder in your backyard.
Boquete valley views from Sendero de los Quetzales

The next day we went to visit Paradise Gardens animal refuge after hearing great things about it from Brian and Iris. This refuge began when a British couple, Jenny and Paul, moved to Boquete with their scarlet macaws several years ago, and they have been slowly taking in abused, neglected, or hurt animals. If you find yourself in Panama and you are looking for an opportunity to volunteer, Paradise Gardens desperately needs people to help out for 1 or 2 weeks. We wish that we had known about this earlier because we would have loved to volunteer, but our time in Panama is limited. Their ever-expanding menagerie includes white faced capuchins, tamarins, parakeets, parrots, margays, jaguarundis, ocelots, anteaters, and owls. The owners put a sign up which talks about each of the animals and how they ended up there. Since there weren't too many guests at the gardens, we got to carefully pat the feisty jaguarundi (who left long scratches on the keeper's arms), hold the baby anteater, and hang out in a cage with 4 baby owls. We especially enjoyed the very social capuchins, tiny monkeys who leaped to the front of their cages to chatter at us while we walked up to their home, and reached out their tiny hands to grab at our cameras.
Kristin holding the baby anteater

The two young ocelots were beautiful cats to see with their fur that resembles a jaguar, but it was sad to hear that Paul was not able to take in two more ocelots due to the expensive meat diet they require. The margay, a tree dwelling spotted cat, was rescued from some kids who kept him in a cage so small he could barely turn around. After weeks of physical rehabilitaion, Paul was able to get the margay's muscles strong enough that he is now able to walk, climb, and jump again, but the cat's tail will always have a permanent kink from the time he spent cramped up in the cage.
Margay pacing in its cage

Monday, March 9, 2009

300 mile detour

Lately, we have been griping about the serious amounts of rain soaking us during what is supposed to be the dry season in Costa Rica. We were lucky that we managed to visit Tortuguero the two days when the rain was intermittent, and downright sunny the morning of our jungle canoe trip. After Tortuguero, our next stop was the small beach community of Cahuita. While it was a very nice Caribbean village on a crescent shaped white-sand beach, we didn't see much through the sheets of rain that descendedfor two straight days. Hoping for better weather in Bocas del Toro, Panama, we headed for the Costa Rican-Panamanian border. The border was nearby, and then it would be a scant 30 miles to the Caribbean paradise that awaited in Bocas.

Desired Route to the Border

Driving to the border, we passed flooded fields, rushing rivers that overflowed their banks, and houses surrounded by ponds of muddy brown water. We wondered why people were flashing their lights at us as we drove down the road, and quickly realized they were trying to warn us that the border road had been washed out. Not two hours before we arrived, according to the crowds gathered at the gaping hole in the road, the waters overtook the road and washed it away.

We scrambled to look at our maps to figure out our detour. With sinking hearts we realized that we had to drive all the way back to San Jose and across to the Pacific coast of Costa Rica to get to the other border, takings us 300 miles out of our way. Rain, fog, wrong turns and two mountain crossings slowed down our drive, and an exhausting 10 hours later we collapsed into a cheap hotel in the small city of San Isidro. We will forge on tomorrow for the small surfing community of Pavones, Costa Rica on the sunny Pacific coast to rest for a couple of days before continuing into Panama.

Our 300 mile detour

Friday, March 6, 2009

Jesus lizards and apocalyptic downpours in Tortuguero

Our original plan was to drive from Arenal to Tortuguero National Park, with a one day detour to Volcan Poas. The largest active crater in the world, it also is the only volcano in Costa Rica with a paved road leading to its summit. After our attempts to see an active volcano at Arenal were thwarted by clouds, we figured we might as well drive up to the crater of a bubbling volcano to take a peek in its sulfurous depths.
I guess it wasn't in the cards for us to see a volcano in Costa Rica. A few minutes after passing signs indicating that we were only 37 km away from the Poas Volcano, the road suddenly ended in a tangle of construction equipment building a bridge as the road up a steep hillside. We wondered what had happened. The river below the bridge must have taken on a huge surge of water. Huge fallen trees clogged the ravine and all foliage had been ripped from the riverbanks, leaving only exposed rocks and mud. Later we realized that this spot was close to the epicenter of an earthquake that had occurred a month earlier, and wondered if this earthquake had caused all of this destruction.
We gave up our plans to visit the Poas Volcano after looking over our maps- it would take us hours of driving to wind our way around to the other entrance to the park. After turning around and backtracking 10 km, we headed for the 'mini-Amazon' of Tortuguero National Park. The park is only accessible by boat or airplane, and is home to the small village of Tortuguero. Narrow sand paths wind between colorful houses on stilts. From the soccer field you can practically see across the width of the island to both the black sand beaches of the Caribbean Sea and the muddy waters of Laguna Tortuguero. Dodging the periodic downpours that temporarily flooded the sandy walkways, we wandered the island for the afternoon and sampled the delicious Caribbean dishes.

The next morning our knowledgeable and strong guide, Roberto, paddled us in a canoe through the park for 3 hours. While we had to don our raincoats a couple of time for brief showers early in the morning, after an hour the sun broke through the clouds. Drifting quietly among thick carpets of lush vegetation and towering walls of royal palms, we observed the abundant wildlife. Three varieties of herons stalked through the weeds, small yellow-beaked jacanas scampered across floating plants, grinning caymans sunned themselves on logs, and iguanas and other lizards perched on branches. We saw a bright blue and green basilisk lizard, which looks very dinosaur-like due to a crest on it's head. The nickname for this reptile is the "Jesus Christ Lizard" from his ability to run across the surface of the water on his elongated webbed hind feet in order to avoid predators. Spider and howler monkeys leaped through trees and clambered down branches while feasting on leaves. The tour completed, we managed to time our boat-ride back to our car perfectly too, as the skies opened up with deafening downpours for the rest of the afternoon. Hopefully the rains will let up as we travel further south down the Caribbean coast.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Our most expensive cheap day yet

After leaving Monteverde, we drove through the verdant Costa Rican countryside to Volcan Arenal, one of the most spectacular active volcanoes in all of Central America. There is a slight catch though: the volcano is often covered with clouds since the area gets about 20 feet of rain a year. Unfortunately for us, the volcano was completely obscured by clouds the entire 48 hours we were there.
As we're traveling on a budget that gets tighter and tighter as our trip gets longer and longer, we are working diligently to keep expenses down. We try to buy food in supermarkets instead of eating in restaurants, camp rather than stay in hotels, and hit the tiendas for beer rather than go to bars. After driving for 2 hours around the town of La Fortuna looking for a cheap place to stay, we stumbled upon Cabinas Don Carlos. While their cabinas were about $50/person, they were kind enough to let us park our car on their beautifully landscaped grounds and camp overnight for free. We ended up giving them around $8 USD for their generosity, and got a coffee and juice in the morning in return.

Almost free place to stay in hand, we ate cereal for breakfast, made bean sandwiches for lunch (which are better than they sound), and had a cheap dinner at a local soda. Expenses for the day: about $18. Pretty good, but there was one catch. We do shell out the big bucks if we think there is something special that we should not miss. And we couldn't miss the Tabacon Hot Springs despite the price. After closing our eyes while charging our $60 day passes on our credit cards, we spent an enjoyable day wandering the lush jungle grounds, sitting under hot waterfalls and in steaming pools, sliding down the hot water slide, and sneaking in beers in our water bottles. So despite spending next to nothing on food and lodging, we ran way over budget after buying the passes. We just couldn't pass up visiting Tabacon after Chris's experience there 6 years ago. To bad the price has tripled since then. Good thing we visited now though; at this rate of inflation in another 6 years it would break the bank.

Monday, March 2, 2009

From dusty beaches to cloud forests

A bumpy, dusty ride punctuated by six river crossings brought us from Playa Negra to the beach community on Playa Guiones. The long, narrow, white-sand beach and small town were separated by a band of natural forest, and Chris had his pick of waves on the huge beach break. We spent a relaxing afternoon and the next morning catching waves and reading on the beach before driving to the cloud forests of Monteverde and the small town of Santa Elena. Heading inland from the Pacific coast, it felt like a special treat to drive on pavement after the jolting dirt roads we were used to on the Nicoya Peninsula. This all changed when we exited the Pan-American Highway for the winding mountainous road that leads up to Santa Elena. Steep ravines plunged off the side of the curvy road, and we were glad we brought along a full-sized spare after a sharp rock punctured our tire. When the tire pressure monitoring system light lit up on our dashboard, I first thought we might have a hard time figuring out which tire had a slow leak, as we already dealt with this annoyance once on the Nicoya Peninsula. However, the second I stepped out of the car I could hear a hissing sound over the whipping winds and could actually see the tire rapidly deflating. We kept our fingers crossed that we wouldn’t spring another leak in the remaining bumpy 10 miles to the town of Santa Elena. Flat tires are a daily ritual there, so luckily there were plenty of llanta repair shops to help us out. Tire patched, we found a cheap dorm room at a newly opened hotel and filled up at a local soda, a small restaurant serving comida tipica, or typical Costa Rican fare.
Hiking in the Santa Elena Nature Reserve, we could hear a beautiful variety of birds signing in the misty forest ceiling, and squelched through ankle deep mud on the wet trails. This was one of the first times we hiked through a real jungle on our trip, so we enjoyed the hanging vines, huge ferns, moss-draped trees, and colorful flowers. Afterwards we indulged in home-made ice cream at the local cheese factory (where we decided not to sample to Chocolate Cheese), splurged on an Italian dinner with great red wine, and hit the bunk beds early since we had a 7:30 am guided hike through the Monteverde Reserve the next morning. Our knowledgeable guide pointed out monkeys, birds, tarantulas, poisonous plants, and we were lucky to spot two very rare resplendent quetzals roosting in their favorite place, the avocado tree. The national bird of Guatemala and arguably the most beautiful bird in Central America, quetzals are being driven to the verge of extinction through illegal hunting and loss of habitat. Less than 50% of the visitors to Monteverde ever glimpse a quetzal, so we were very grateful for the sharp eyes and expertise of our guide. Hoping to see even more wildlife, we also took a guided night hike in a nearby forest. As the sun set, lots of cuddly mammals scurried around, foraging for some last food before they curled up for the night. Several cute agoutis (cat-sized gerbils) strolled by, followed by a trotting grey fox, lots of raccoons, and a coati (a raccoon relative). Fireflies flickered in the darkening forest and crickets chirped throughout our hike. Our guide’s binocular-sharp eyes picked out minuscule frogs, sleeping birds, and lots and lots of bugs, and also lured some huge orange tarantulas out of their hovels. Without these guides, I’m sure we would have missed over 90% of these animals, plants, and insects.