A Travellerspoint blog

A Strange Bird

And other wondrous sightings in western Panama

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First, some photo highlights from Costa Rica´s Osa Peninsula.

Here´s one of the many poison dart frogs we saw hopping along a path in the jungle:

Here´s the tent camp where we stayed (our tent is on the left):

And one of the ridiculously picturesque sunsets over Corcovado National Park and the Pacific:

And now for Panama. During the bus ride up to Panama´s western highlands and the agricultural town of Cerro Punta, it was almost possible to imagine ourselves somewhere in the Midwest, with dairy farms and vegetable fields all around us and contented cows grazing by the roadside.

OK, so not really. The horizon-dominating Volcan Baru was rather non-Midwestern, for starters, and the bromeliads clustered in moss-covered trees were definitely something you don´t see in Minnesota. Cerro Punta is part of Panama´s breadbasket, which produces the vast majority of the country´s vegetables, rice and milk. But it´s also the gateway to two spectacular cloud forests protected within the La Amistad and Volcan Baru National Parks.

And that brings us to the strange bird. Not any bird, but one that happens to share its name with the lodge we stayed at on the edge of the forest: Los Quetzales.

Sorry Jeanne, but it had to be said. We did, in fact, see a resplendent quetzal. Three of them actually, including a close-up of a nesting male and female. This may not be noteworthy to everyone, but quetzals are almost surreal-looking birds, with turquoise feathers, an unusually long tail and a brilliant red breast. They´re incredibly beautiful, hard to spot and the subject of a long-running commentary in which Geoff and his friend Jeanne have used rather unpleasant words to describe their frustration at not seeing any on a previous trip to Costa Rica.

Actually, the sighting was only one of our many highlights in western Panama. By sheer luck, we were able to spend a night in one of the lodge´s secluded two-story cabins in the cloud forest of La Amistad National Park, surrounded by lush green and so many hummingbirds they were literally buzzing around us. The next morning, we hiked along the Quetzal Trail through Volcan Baru park to the town of Boquete. No luck with the birds this time, though we did see some spectacular scenery, trees and flowers, like this one:

Once in Boquete, we spent Easter weekend at La Montana y El Valle, a very pretty coffee estate overlooking the town and Volcan Baru. During our stay, we were spoiled rotten by Jane and Barry, the wonderfully attentive owners, with fresh flowers, roasted coffee and orange juice every morning - all of it grown on their own property. We not only had one of our very best dinners there, but also did some of our most productive birdwatching from the back porch of our bungalow, sipping Chardonnay and eating smoked salmon. Um, not exactly roughing it. But communing with nature all the same.

On Good Friday in Boquete, we also took part in a fascinating and moving procession in which several floats and portable altars were led through the streets by altar boys, drummers and a priest along a route that passed the 12 stations of the cross. Here´s one of the floats, which depicts Christ in a glass coffin guarded by angels:

We´re now in Bocas del Toro, an archipelago of islands on the Caribbean side of Panama. Apart from our first huge thunderstorm of the trip, we´ve lazed on a nearly pristine beach and had another bizarre nature sighting: a tree sloth with baby in tow moving slowly along a tree branch. What made it memorable, and sad, was the fact that it was pointed out by a group of small boys standing atop the blue-tiled tombstone of someone´s grandmother in the local cemetery, each boy trying to hit the sloth with their slingshots.

Fortunately, their aim was a bit off. Tomorrow, we go snorkeling in a national marine park - and are hoping that the wildlife there will be far less disturbed.

Posted by brynster 18:25 Archived in Panama Comments (1)


And some really angry monkeys

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Happy Easter from Panama! We´ve covered a fair bit of ground over the past eight days, from a tent camp in the jungle on Costa Rica´s Osa Peninsula to a cabin in a cloud forest and a cottage in the western highlands of Panama. And today, we arrived in the Bocas del Toro archipelago on the Caribbean side of Panama.

It´s been an exhilarating week, starting with our three-night stay at the Corcovado Lodge Tent Camp on Costa Rica´s Osa Peninsula. The lodge deserves its own blog post, so I´ll write about Panama in a second post (with pictures, hopefully).

After telling everyone we were going to rough it in the Osa Peninsula´s Corcovado National Park (where we´d have to cross a river at low tide to avoid the hungry hammerhead sharks and vicious crocodiles and where voracious peccaries could rip us to shreds if we didn´t climb snake-infested trees), we felt a wee bit sheepish when we arrived at the tent camp and were promptly treated to plantain ceviche and coconut ice cream.

OK, so we didn´t really rough it and we didn´t hike through the whole park - fully booked by the time we called in our reservations - but we still hiked a fair bit, saw plenty of birds and wildlife and had a great three-night stay on the park border between the jungle and the crashing waves of the Pacific. The tent camp, a half-hour walk down a pristine beach from the airstrip, consists of 16 fairly comfortable but basic blue-tarp tents on wooden platforms overlooking the ocean, and much bigger thatched-roof huts housing the dining, bathroom and bar facilities.

Even before our four-seater landed on a gravel runway by the beach, two scarlet macaws seemed to welcome us by flying in tandem formation below the plane. And once at the camp, a hike up into part of the jungle revealed racoon-like coatamundis, tons of spider monkeys and bright green poison-dart frogs.

None of which, however, can compare to the puma we saw sauntering across the trail in front of us while on a guided hike through part of the national park. With our guide´s help, we were able to spot the puma again, hiding from us in some undergrowth only 25 feet from the trail. It gave me the shivers to train the binoculars on the vegetation and see the cat staring straight back at me. We wisely kept our distance but were never threatened, and you could almost see the exasperated look on the cat´s face: "When will you people ever leave?"

Actually, the only potential danger we faced during our stay, apart from possibly melting from the humidity or over-indulging in rum with fresh pineapple juice, was when we inadvertently interrupted a troop of white-faced capuchin monkeys. As we approached them on the trail, they scrambled down to overhanging vines, bared their sharp-looking teeth and assumed an aggressive "None shall pass!" posture.

A standoff ensued. Or rather, they glared at us and we meekly backed away and sat down. When it became clear they weren´t about to let us by, we detoured down to the beach and passed them without incident.

The park, which now encompasses a former banana plantation and an abandoned gold mining community, features a few odd sights like an overgrown miners´ cemetery and a rusting shipwreck on the beach. Otherwise, the jungle has rebounded nicely, with an amazing variety of trees, plants, birds and wildlife. And every night, the sunset over the park´s sea of green seemed determined to outdo its previous effort.

Admittedly, we saw no sharks, crocodiles, or even any snakes. But it was a great adventure just the same.

Posted by brynster 22:17 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (1)

More Photo Highlights

Is That a Squirrel or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

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As promised, I've included a few more pictures taken over the last week of our travels through Nicaragua. But first, we've enjoyed our first few days in Costa Rica, including a combined hike of 15 kilometers through the wonderful Parque Rincon de la Vieja near the city of Liberia. The first hike was a loop around some cool geothermal features, including bubbling mud pots, a miniature volcano and a rather toasty lake.

The second hike took us to a great waterfall and a nice pool beneath it, which made for a welcome break after a 5 kilometer slog. Along the way, we spotted an agouti (like a giant squirrel with no tail), a coatamundi, a brown iguana, blue Morpho butterflies and two small coral snakes.

And in another rare sighting, we met up last night with a friend I hadn't seen in 18 years. Walter Cruz, who was an exchange student in Dodge Center, Minnesota, my senior year in high school, drove up with his lovely wife from their home an hour south of Liberia. It was great to catch up with Walter and meet his wife, and best of all, they didn't laugh too much at our weak Spanish. A great local story we heard from Walter, by the way, is that the people of Costa Rica jokingly refer to some missionaries as, uh, testicles. Why? They're always together and one is always bigger than the other.

OK, on to the pictures. The first is a view of Leon's cathedral from its central park.

The second is of a resident of Masaya and his faithful dog waiting for a blessing during the Magdalena Church's celebration of San Lazaro, somehow affiliated with pets.

And the third, my favorite, is of an up close and personal encounter that Geoff had with some local wildlife from the Isla de Ometepe.

Posted by brynster 18:29 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (1)

Cultural Exchanges

Or Petite Drag Queens and Plus-Sized Tarantulas

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When we last signed off, we were enjoying Nicaragua´s historical characters like the ugly, crazy top-heavy woman and the headless priest. The latter once lived in Old Leon, which we visited with a local guide. It´s supposed to be the Pompeii of Nicaragua, as the whole town was buried by the eruption of Volcan Momotombo.

Beforehand, however, said priest was beheaded under the colonial governor´s orders for defending the natives from some truly awful treatment, including branding them and unleashing hungry dogs on a group of warriors in a Colisseum-like plaza to dissuade the natives from rebelling. In quick succession after the priest´s untimely death, the city was hit by a hurricane, an earthquake and a volcanic eruption. The townsfolk decided the city was cursed and abandoned it before a second eruption sealed the deal.

Like the colorful legends, a lot of Nicaragua´s fascination lies in its striking juxtapositions. Wonderful birds flitting around a ruined city. Smoking volcanoes in the skyline of a vibrant city boasting a top-notch collection of modern art from Latin America (Centro de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Guardia in Leon). And in Leon´s most popular hotel and restaurant, El Convento, a bizarre ceramic statue of the Pamela Anderson Lee of angels showing off her ample assets to a crowd of gawking children. Which was tastefully placed within eyeshot of a beautifully restored altar from the city cathedral.

We were even more surprised when we strolled to the very-well designed and hopping central park in Granada and stumbled upon a well-received drag show, complete with overwrought power ballads, high heels and tiaras. Not really what we were expecting to see in front of the cathedral.

Granada is a bit less rough around the edges than Leon and more popular with tourists. We thought its churches were less interesting, but a museum in a former convent (Convento de San Francisco) showed off some of the country´s prehistoric riches - a great set of stone statues carved in volcanic basalt about 1,000 years ago that are part human and part animal, such as bird, snake, jaguar or alligator.

We saw strange animals of another sort the next morning when, on a tip, we visited the nearby city of Masaya to witness the annual celebration of San Lazaro at a church called Magdalena. It´s not clear exactly how or why it all started, but the people of the city celebrate the patron saint of mascotas (or pets) by dressing up their dogs as pirates, gypsies, clowns and other characters and bringing them to church for a candle-lit blessing. And then to an outdoor stage for a costume contest.

The animal theme continued when we arrived in Isla de Ometepe, a wonderful island in Lago Nicaragua formed by two adjacent volcanoes and full of cool creatures like howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys and blue Morpho butterflies. Unbeknownst to us, however, the island was in its first full day of a tronque, or roadblock. Two sets of them, actually, exactly between where the ferry let us off in the town of Moyagalpa and where we needed to be. From what we heard, the locals very much want to add a third ferry to the island to boost tourism revenue and spread the wealth - a plan opposed by the current owner of the only two boats transporting people to Moyagalpa. To demonstrate their displeasure to his opposition, a bunch of islanders decided that no one was going to go anywhere. For three days.

Which allowed us plenty of time to observe the domestic pigs, horses, dogs, cows and yes, chickens that were all crossing the road at will. Luckily, we were able to get a taxi to the first set of roadblocks, walk through them and pay a pick-up truck driver to hustle us to the second set before the people there became overly testy. Our hotel had promised to have a van waiting for us after that one, but the driver chickened out after seeing the unhappy people manning the blockade. A helpful tip, by the way: smiling a lot and saying "Hola" repeatedly can do wonders when facing a potentially hostile crowd.

We were saved by a local bus, which just happened to be turning around after the last barricade and took us all the way to the Finca Magdalena, a huge old farmhouse on a cooperative coffee farm at the base of Volcan Maderas, near a small village called Balgue. We met some awesome fellow travelers while staying at the finca for three nights (a big shout out to Tom and Anna from Boston) and witnessed the biggest tarantulas we´ve ever seen. In the communal bathroom, actually.

Fortunately, we were staying in a cabana and only had two smaller tarantulas spending their evenings with us. Harmless, everyone kept saying. And then laughing. Curiously, you can see spider eyes very well at night if you´re wearing a headlamp; if your light shines at the right angle, the eyes reflect a bluish glow back at you and on a brief night hike we saw dozens of blue lights in the grass around us. Very cool. From a distance.

While on the island, we also swam in a beautiful spring-fed pool in the midst of a banana plantation and did a lot of walking along the roadside while waiting for sporadic buses, while watching white-faced capuchin
monkeys trying to steal eggs from some very noisy tropical bluejays. On the last full day of our stay, Volcan Maderas kicked our butts on a day hike that produced more sweat than we thought we were capable of. By four kilometers up the volcano, at which point the steep path of rocks and roots had turned to rocks, roots and mud, Geoff´s knee and my thigh had declared war on our bodies and we were forced to retreat. On the plus side, we saw some extraordinary butterflies while howler monkeys hooted all around us.

No lasting problems, and the roadblocks mercifully ended, allowing us to make our way to Liberia, Costa Rica last night - a little redder, sorer and, hopefully, wiser (more pictures coming soon).

Posted by brynster 20:10 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Island Life and Headless Priests

And other travel legends

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After Copan, we made our way to Roatan in the Bay Islands and were treated to the Honduran portion of Central America´s impressive coral reef.

And in a strange testament to how small the world really is, our Roatan flat adjoined that of Richelle, Albi and Walker Huff, who once lived less than four blocks from us in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and have since moved to Minneapolis. Great folks and we really enjoyed eating, chatting and hanging out with them on our communal porch space.

In Roatan, I succeeded in not panicking on my first SCUBA dive (Geoff´s third) and we saw some interesting sea life though we´ve both admitted that we prefer snorkeling so far, especially since we swam with an amazing variety of tropical fish in a portion of the reef less than 25 yards from shore.

A view of a Roatan sunset:

After a few trying travel days that claimed a pocket knife (stolen in the airport) and a pair of jeans (ripped in a taxi), we made our way from Teguchigalpa with its thickets of razor wire and metal bar to the surprisingly arid and cactus-dotted north of Nicaragua.

Our introduction to the country was a bit bumpy - literally. After three hours of our "express" bus careening across an unpaved road to avoid the largest potholes, seemingly picking up anyone wandering along the roadside, nearly hitting a horse and almost claiming the foot of the vendor who had just sold us lard and pineapple-flavored cookies, we made our way past an impressive line of volcanoes and entered the city of Leon.

The colonial city and Sandinista stronghold is fascinating, with anti-U.S.A. murals, war memorials and bullet-scarred buildings, plenty of university students, beautiful but somewhat neglected old churches and Central America´s largest cathedral:


As in Copan, the city seems determined not to let anyone sleep in, with a jarring air-raid siren that sounds every morning at 7 a.m. Tradition, supposedly.

At a riveting but bizarre museum in the ruins of a notorious jail, our guide told us about the brutalities of Nicaragua´s Somoza dynasty, with some frank depictions of the types of torture practiced there by National Guardsmen under the dictator´s orders and newspaper photos of some of the many Leon residents who were killed or simply disappeared during the country´s civil war in the late ´70s.

Housed in the same building, however, are other rooms containing a hodge-podge of dioramas depicting Leon´s local legends, like the golden crab, haunted oxcart (complete with lit-up skulls, scary sounds and stuffed oxen) and the headless priest - actually a good guy who was a champion of the indigenous people but was beheaded by the Spanish and now wanders the streets, or at least in the stories told to scare misbehaving children. The same legends are also shown in mosaic form in the museum´s courtyard.

Here´s the haunted oxcart:

None of the legends, however, can compare with that of the local woman who was so ugly she couldn´t find a date, even after showing off her ample bosom - and yes, this is also lovingly depicted in the museum.

Posted by brynster 22:26 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (1)

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