Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Panama: The Good

Panama started out as two things for us, a new country to explore and also our portal to South America. We knew from the start that most of our time in this country would revolve around making plans to get us and our car to Colombia, but unfortunately we prepared very little for this ahead of time. It is hard to explain because on one hand we should, and we do, have all the time in the world. But when it comes down to business, like actually sitting down and researching or writing, it is hard to find the time, or wifi.

We arrived to our first, and our only known destination in Panama...the upland town of Boquete (N 8°46.423 W 82°25.915). Boquete greeted us with cool crisp mountain air, and a perfect sweet little town to mosey around. We wandered the streets eating fresh baked treats, barely able to articulate how thankful we were for the break from the scorching temperatures and humidity we had just left! We found a gem of a hostal, that had parking on the lawn... So its like staying at a nice place with wifi, electricity, kitchen, and bathroom, but getting to still set up "camp" and sleep in our own bed. And even though all we wanted to do in Boquete was hike, we had lots of business to tend to!

Before we begin researching and emailing, a pleasant surprise sends us in the right direction. Some overlanding friends, Michael and Veronika from Germany that we met back in Nicaragua, unexpectedly appeared at the same hostal. They had already been in contact with one of the shipping agencies and had a ton of advice/knowledge on how the process works. (They have also shipped their car across oceans a few times, so they were way on top of how things should work!) Before long we were booking a place for Lola on the same ship as their vehicle, with SCLines. Glad that the stress and agony of starting our paperwork and locating a shipping company was under wraps, we were free to spend our days enjoying Boquete. We frequented our favorite bakery deli, Sugar & Spice, for the best fresh bread and sandwiches ever, indulged in the highly uncommon craft beer from Boquete Brewing Company, hiked, prepped the car for shipping, and cooked up some super delicious dinners while going back in forth with emails for our southward journey.

6.9% dark and tasty!!
Cutting the side panels to lock up the sleeping platform during shipping
Our first and favorite hike in Boquete was called "the lost waterfalls" trail. The three waterfalls along the trail are far from lost, but rather difficult to get to on the steep and very muddy path to them. The scenery along the way was lush and vibrant, so lucky for us that the mud made us go quite a bit slower than our usual pace, allowing ample time to soak up the scenery! Being out in nature so much has seemingly only added to both of our loves for it, because the more we are in it, the more we appreciate the smallest of things along the way!
A selfie in front of each of the 3 waterfalls
Sugar & Spice picnic lunch.pastrami on rye never tasted so good!
Some kind of orchid Smaller than half the size of my pinkie fingernail
Flowers that look like floating goldfish

Lola hit a vehicle milestone in Boquete, proving that you do not need to buy new to get reliability...just buy an old Toyota. It seems that now at 200k she is just breaking in. We gave her an oil change with a view as a treat, and are now crossing our fingers that this post doesn't jinx us and we don't break down anytime soon!! ;)

On our last day in Boquete we decided to hike a trail called "Pipeline", and once again let ourselves get excited about seeing a particular animal on this trail, this time was the Resplendent Quetzal. This was our last place to see this near-threatened bird whose habitat is becoming lost. We had heard from some locals that they were in the area right now, and although our attempts at spotting this rare and majestic looking bird have been feeble in the past, we couldn't help but still want to catch a glimpse. On our way in we got lucky and spotted a female Quetzal. She was cool, but what we (and every other hiker in Quetzal territory) really wants to see is the male. The male has incredibly long irredescent greenish blue wings and tailfeathers that can be up to three feet long, a bright red chest, and a strange babyface. We marked the area of the trail where we saw the female, hoping on the return we might see the male in the same area, and continued up towards a misty waterfall and enjoyed the day. On our way back down we stopped at the spot we marked, and she was still hanging around that area. Not two minutes after we arrive does a wonderfully bright male Quetzal swoop down from nowhere and land on a branch right in front of us, holding a big ol' caterpillar in his mouth to impress the lady. The two birds kept a few branches apart, talking back and forth with each other as the male bobbed and flicked his long tail around. They didnt seem to care that we were there, so we quietly watched the Quetzal courting process, took some videos, and eventually left pumped that after looking for one in the past four countries we finally saw one!
Hard to really grasp how huge this tree is in a pic!
The moment we realized we need a better camera!
The female to the left and the male on the right
Driving around the mountains above Boquete surprised us with some of the most idylic farmlands, pastures and orchards we have seen. We took the long way and the wrong way once or twice, but merely driving around the flower lined curvy roads was enjoyable. We stumbled upon a random deserted castle and a unique looking basalt rock formation that is supposedly one of two like it in the world. Intrigued, we went home to find out that when a thick lava flow cools, it contracts vertically but cracks perpendicular to its directional flow with remarkable geometric regularity, and in this case forming a grid of extrusions that almost appear to be manmade.
Abandoned castle
With shipping plans locked down, plenty of rest, and a mission to get to Panama City for the next steps, we depart from Boquete. Leaving here is almost depressing, goodbye good foods and cool air, and hello rice and beans and sweltering heat. That night was spent beach camping, hopefully an ocean breeze will mitigate the effects of being back down in the tropical weather. Arriving at Las Lajas wasn't quite a knockout, but we were pleasantly surprised by scenic free camping, cheap beers, miles of mostly unspoiled beaches and great views of an offshore lightning storm that seemed to last all night. Seriously, who needs a TV and couch when you've got mother natures best entertainment and a few broken camp chairs?!? (N 8°10.037 W 81°51.696).
We had no idea at the time, but the rain and storms will haunt us for the next two weeks :(
So there it is, "Panama the Good." Next comes the bad, the ugly, and the sailing trip that was somewhere in between good bad and ugly...





Monday, July 27, 2015

Costa Rica part 3: Corcovado

The time had finally come for Chris... he has been wanting to get inside of Corcovado National Park for many years, and even attempted to make it happen on his last trip to Costa Rica with no avail. The park has strict rules about how many people can enter at a time, and also that an offcial guide is required, so a chance at hiking around the "most biointense region in the world," (supposedly 2.5% of all the species on Earth can be found in the park) is nowadays an expensive endeavor. Given the cost and also the nature of the trip, Mallary hesitantly opted to stay bug free in a cabana while Chris ventured into the park for a 3 day adventure. Here are our stories...

With my backpack stuffed with three days worth of food, supplies, and several liters of water, I woke up to the alarm going off at 4am and was off to meet my guide Luis at the town bakery. Luis is in his mid 20's, and although young for a guide, he is licensed through Costa Rica's official guide certification program, not to mention he has spent his whole life running around in the bush and is quite the wildlife, insect, and tree enthusiast. From Puerto Jimenez the drive to Corcovado is over an hour long down a fairly scenic dirt road that ends at a beach called Carate. The only signs of human habitation here is a couple rustic ecolodges tucked away in the forest, a small tienda, and an unmanned tiny airstrip. After being dropped off we wasted no time in hitting the trail, though it's early the heat and humidity are already starting to build up. From this point, it is an hour hike to the park border where we check-in at La Leona ranger station. The goal of the day is to hike 12 miles to Sirena ranger station. Sirena is the only place in the park where visitors are allowed to camp, and also acts as a research station for scientists from all over the world. (N 8°28.791 W 83°35.376).

The trail starts off with a creek crossing and then into the forest where we are instantly met by the strange sounds of the critters that inhabit this untamed region. After checking in at La Leona I march on with Luis, proving his skills for honing in on wildlife via sight, sound, and even smell. We constantly encounter monkeys, various beautiful birds, packs of coati's, snakes, and poison dart frogs. At one point Luis stops in his tracks, "I hear something large further in the brush" he says. Excited about what it could be, we quitely creep off the trail towards it. Soon the shape of a large Tapir appears wallowing in a watering hole. Awesome! Tapirs are a rare animal that resemble a mix of pig and elephant, but are closer related to the rhino. It's never a good idea to spook a 500lb animal so we keep our distance. Pumped about the sighting, we press onward. Timing is important on this hike because sections of the trail are on the beach with ocean on one side and steep rocky cliffs on the other. At high tide these stretches are impassable, and if caught out during it, one could be stranded on the rocks or even swept away in crocodile and bull shark infested waters.

A Tapir laying in the brush.
Poison dart frogs, racer, and an anole trying to intimidate us with it's colorful throat.
Coati's hunting for food.

As the day went on, the sightings continued as well as the unrelenting humidity. To give an idea of how intense it was, the inside of my waterproof watch fogged up! All was going well, then Luis stopped in his tracks, "Smell that!? Cat pee!" I took a big whiff of the air, and he was right, there was definitely a lingering scent of cat urine. Six types of wild cats live in the park, including the large Jaguar and Mountain Lion, and seeing any one of them is considered a lucky outing. We continued on, moving quietly, and then we came across cat prints. Things are looking good and Luis seemed to think we were in it's home range. Five minutes later we spot two Mountain Lion cubs up on a branch!! It was a stunning experience seeing them in the wild! We waited a good half hour hoping that the mother would come around, but we weren't fortunate enough to see her.

Getting our tracking on
I managed to snap this pic through a telescope
After hiking for ten hours, drenched in sweat, tired, thirsty, and hungry we arrived at Sirena. I set up camp on the tent platform, ate dinner, and passed out. Due to so many poisonous snakes and various animals the entire ranger station, walk ways, camping zone etc is a network of decks that keep people off the ground. The number of giant and unusual bugs here was astonishing. Sleeping in a tent wasn't only neccesary to keep mosquitos away, but also to keep the massive spiders, hissing roaches, scorpions, and a heap of other unidentifiable bugs from crawling on you.
Sirena Ranger Station
Massive grasshopper!
Day 2 was spent prowling the numerous trails in and around Sirena, often times going hours without seeing a another person. Other then seeing a lot of the usual suspects, we came across a pack of peccaries. These wild pigs have been known to chase hikers up trees, so we quickly hurried by them as they snorted and grunted at us. The next morning we got back on the trail before sunrise for our hike back to Carate. It was another long hot day, but as usual the wildlife impressed, including something new, two anteaters! Luis was on top of his game detailing every type of plant with enough interesting facts that could have filled a notebook. We eventually reached Carate and were quickly whisked away towards civilization, hankering for cold beers and A/C. In the end, the trip was totally worth it. If you find yourself in this corner of the world, don't mind getting hot and dirty, and enjoy intense levels of nature then this adventure is a MUST-DO!
Peccaries on their way to bully us away...definitely no time to try to catch a good photo!
Meantime, back in Puerto Jiminez for 3 days...
I'm all alone. I have an air conditioned cabana with a poolside porch in a cute little complex on the water called Cabinas Jiminez. It is such an odd feeling at first, I haven't been alone for more than a few minutes in the past 4 months. I ride a bike around the tiny town then spend the afternoon eating grilled veggie and blue cheese sandwiches while binge watching the new season of Orange is the New Black like its my job. I'm straight chillaxin, and just keep thinking of how I could not be having a more different experience than Chris is having right now! I think the weekend will continue like this, until about 7pm that first night when I meet my neighbors. Within 5 minutes of meeting these 2 very different cousins who are avid travelers, do they invite me along to go hear some live music with some folks who they also just met... And before they even got the words out I'm all "let's go!" Next thing I know I'm squished in the back of a 4x4 rumbling down a dirt road in search of music while exchanging life and travel stories with this hodgepodge of a group of travelers, each of the 5 of us probably representing a different decade. The night flies by with drinks, music, and laughter, and we head home, curiously sticking our lights out the windows in search of glowing croc eyes. I'm so appreciating the odd and totally cool interactions between these strangers turned friends, cause although we are all different as people could be, we are all lovers of the life of travel! The weekend continues like this for me... Hopping in a kayak for an afternoon paddle, many hours skyping with my favorites back in the US, taking the bike to town to read and slurp down a fresh papaya shake, back and forths from my room to the pool to my porch, and many more oh so random interactions with various travelers around the cabinas and various locals around town. Definitely a time of recharge for this girl!
view from my porch
Chris stumbled back into the cabina dirty, sweaty, tired, and fulfilled with his time back to nature... and we quickly decided that a "poor mans Corcovado" was going to need to happen so Mallary could get a taste of it! The next day we set out in search of an adventure together around the perimeter of the park. Looking for a secluded camping spot on a beach, we put Lola into 4 wheel drive and took the most rugged looking path to the beach. The reward was a deserted beautiful beach, however not suitable for camping, so we hung out for a bit, backtracked through the jungle and drove to the end of the road towards Corcovado.
Of course, the rain came in just as we arrived, so we found refuge at the only open place way out in the middle of nowhere, which turned out to be a pretty sweet ecolodge. We met some interesting characters and throughly enjoyed the varied company there, but booked it for the beach to set up camp as soon as the rain let up. The next day we hit the trails and Mallary got a small taste of what Chris has been up to for a few days. We hiked through the humid jungle a bit, with two perogatives... find a tapir and a beach with heaps of Scarlett Macaws! The macaws were on board with our plan, and were flying and squaking overhead, but the rare tapirs must have been hiding sneakily in the thick jungle! We had made it almost to Leona Ranger Station, where we would have to turn around since that's as far as "Poor Mans Corcovado" is allowed. We head to the beach for the walk back (Chris thoroughly wanting Mallary to see how hard it was to trek through this soft sand) and start seeing fresh tapir tracks! The hunt is on! We try following every lead we have, start checking the hidden areas, and venturing off the trail a bit hoping to see one!! Everytime we followed a set of tracks, they would lead us to a dead end, that didnt involve a tapir in the mud!
Tracking animals is not our strong suit apparently
More tracks!
The poor mans Tapir sighting never happened, but as soon as we arrived back to our campsite, Mallary's Scarlett Macaw beach dream came true. 6 or 8 or so pairs of Macaws gathered in the trees above us and began to squak and chit chat loudly with each other. They were busy cleaning each other, kissing, talking, chomping on fresh almonds, and doing flips in the branches, all the while seeming undisturbed, if not more and more encouraged by our presence! One lovely bird even looked directly at Mallary, then hung upside down and spread it's wings out just so we could enjoy the intense bright blue, red, and yellow colors of his back! :)
We leave Costa Rica on a high note, as usual anticipating what awaits us across the next border... Here we come Panama!!