Category Archives: Travel in Central America

Lent and Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala: Alfombras, Christ Floats and Processions

 

We say this often, but so much of travel is about serendipity, where timing and seasonal events can play a big part in the travel experience. Since we don’t usually pay much attention to religious holidays, we recently missed seeing one of Portugal’s best Carnival celebrations in a nearby town for the second year in a row. And Lent, the weeks that come after the just-for-family daytime parades and the not-so-family night-time, raucous revelry of Carnival, is a time that usually passes by us completely ignored. Followed by many western churches, these six weeks are a solemn religious observance of penitence and self-denial (pastimes that we avoid) beginning on Ash Wednesday and culminating with Easter Sunday.  And no one in the world celebrates Lent and Holy Week (Semana Santa) quite like Antigua, Guatemala, where we arrived, quite by chance, during the Lenten period in March of 2013.

 

San Jeronimo Ruins, Antigua, Guatemala

We could sing out-of-tune odes to Antigua, a beautiful little city flanked by three volcanoes of approximately 46,000 people in the mountains of southern Guatemala.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Antigua was founded in 1524 by the Spanish conquistadors who arrived in Guatemala from nearby Mexico. The Dominican priests who followed brought along their Lenten and Easter traditions from Seville, Spain, including the Alfombras, the “Christ Floats” and the processions.  Some 500 years from their introduction to the Guatemalan faithful, Antiqua’s Holy Week celebrations have become the largest in the world, with a unique fervor and devotion. Each Sunday during Lent found us waking up to our alarm clocks and setting out to walk Antigua’s streets well before daybreak in search of that day’s Alfombras and procession.

 

 

 

 

Antigua is famous for its Alfombras (Spanish for carpets) and it was easy to see the route the day’s procession would take as the Alfombras mapped the way, laid out on the cobblestone streets in front of the family homes or businesses.  Made from dyed sawdust in a variety of sizes and shapes, stenciled patterns and free-form designs, most were decorated with an assortment of flowers including bougainvillea, bird-of-paradise, chrysanthemums, carnations and roses.

 

Making Alfombras

Here and there we’d see fruits and vegetables in a carefully designed pattern as well as glossy, green, pine needles added as further embellishments.

 

 

Many families save all year to create their Alfombras using one-of-a-kind stencils and designs passed down from year to year, many through generations.  The creation of the Alfombras begins the day before the parade and combines hours of tedious work along with a family celebration.  Often, the carpets are completed only shortly before the procession arrives.

 

 

 

The parades are organized by different brotherhoods affiliated with neighborhood churches and each procession begins at that church. In colonial times, the “Christ Floats,” featuring figures of Jesus Christ arranged in biblical tableaus on a wooden platform called an andas, were quite small and were carried on the shoulders of twelve devotees.  Now, as the tradition has gradually evolved into lengthy pageantries of religious fervor, many of the andases are massive. The combined weight of both the elaborately carved wooden platform and religious statues can weigh several tons with the largest requiring up to 100 carriers. It’s an honor for penitents, who come from all over Latin America and pay for the privilege, to carry the andas. The carriers rotate their turns in and out often at the end of each block as the effort to carry the massive andas demands both endurance and strength as they journey through Antigua’s narrow streets for hours.

 

 

The streets are crowded with men wearing robes of Lenten purple (Cucuruchos) and black-clad women (Cargadoras) awaiting their turns to carry the load.  It’s wasn’t hard for us to imagine a beaten Jesus Christ staggering along the streets with his cross as we watched the faithful voluntarily carrying the andas.

 

 

We’d hear the mournful music from the bands playing traditional Guatemalan compositions well before the procession would appear, which gave us time to stake out a place on the sidewalk corner where we’d get a good view of the participants.

 

 

A purple-robed man would appear, amid a cloud of fragrant (and choking) incense, swinging a metal censer suspended from chains.  The carriers of the first float would step upon the alfombra to walk its length, followed by the rest of the solemn marchers in the procession. The bands with tubas, French horns, clarinets and drums, would follow and, at the end, the trampled Alfombras would emerge as mounds of sawdust and debris.

 

 

The street sweepers were the sad finale of each procession and half an hour after the procession passed, there’d be nothing remaining of the glorious Alfombras.

 

 

Holy week (Semana Santa) takes Antigua’s Lenten celebrations to a whole new level as people from all over the world crowd into the city.  (The estimate for 2016’s crowds during Semana Santa was 1.2 million people.)  Beginning on Palm Sunday, the Alfombras become even larger and more elaborate as their creators work through the night to complete them. The parades are each more spectacular than the last, with costumed Romans and Centurions astride horses. Hundreds of purple-robed men and black-clad women mingle with the crowds of spectators. A Passion Play on Friday culminates with a huge procession and the massive andas bearing Christ carrying his crucifix moves slowly about Antigua’s streets throughout the morning.  And then a lull for a few hours.

 

 

The bands begin to play slow and mournful dirges and the funeral processions appear carrying the body of Christ encased in glass upon a platform.  The Virgin Mary, splendidly attired but mournful, appears amid the Stations of the Cross and commemorations of all her moments of sorrow at the death of her son.  Everyone is clad in a somber black with the women wearing veils or mantillas.  The censers spew out choking clouds of sweet incense that hangs in the streets and the mood is as solemn as though the crucifixion had just occurred rather than happening over 2,000 years ago.

 

 

For us, Easter was almost a let-down with hastily assembled Alfombras, a small procession with the resurrected Christ and firecrackers that went off throughout the day. As non-believers and non-Catholics, we’d spent several weeks immersing ourselves in the Easter traditions of La Antigua and the artistry of her Alfombras, Christ Floats and centuries-old Lenten processions.  We fell in love with the city during the Lenten processions and stayed several months longer in Guatemala than we’d originally planned, exploring the country from coast to coast but Antigua’s Lenten and Semana Santa celebrations and traditions remain among our favorite memories of this country. Firmly rooted in the twenty-first century, cynical and lacking any vestiges of religious ideology ourselves, it was never-the-less tremendously moving to see faith and devotion so openly portrayed in La Antigua.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash 

The Wood Gatherers: Living on the Edge

Hauling firewoodDuring our travels in western Mexico and Central America we’ve become aware of how costly electricity is in Latin America.  Many times our rent is the base price with the extra cost for the electricity added on by the week or month.  Kitchens usually have cooktop stoves (ovens are rare) fueled by propane which is cheaper and no hot water line plumbed in.  And several times, in budget accommodations, our showers have been cold to tepid also. This, we’ve been told, is the typical arrangement for most local dwellings.hauling firewood

It wasn’t until we were in the mountains of Chiapas State, Mexico, on our way to San Cristobal de Las Casas, that we first became aware of the people who gathered wood. This they gleaned as a fuel source primarily for home consumption uses such as cooking and heating. This basic commodity might be bound for the gatherer’s home or it might be for sale on the streets but it was the fuel choice of the lower echelon of society.Hauling wood

This type of labor takes place at the micro level of the economy, akin to the subsistence farmers of the campo – the country side – who tend small plots of land on the slopes of the hills or by the margins of the roads. It takes place off the grid and the harvesting is done in the thick forest or jungle. More often you see men, each with a machete dangling from their hand, and women or children, walking on the sides of the roads with their loads. Or you see the vendors in the small towns, in the markets, on the streets or hawking wood door-to-door.a log and a machete

Gathering wood is ubiquitous; it went on almost everywhere if one was watching for it. We saw it in the mountains of Chiapas and throughout the Petén rain forests of both Mexico and Guatemala.  We saw it on the beaches in El Salvador, in the western highlands of Guatemala, the coastal regions of Honduras and in the northern hills of Nicaragua.

hauling woodHauling firewoodAnd we saw it in the city of Granada as well as on the Caribbean coast of Panama. Often the men and boys were seen with the large loads suspended from the tumplines around their heads or peddling bicycles with staggering loads strapped on front or rear. Or women trudging along the roads with armloads of wood or even trunk sections balanced on their heads or shoulders; they carried driftwood along the beaches and back towards the small homes away from the tourist areas.tumplin

Wood gathering is demanding and dangerous work as we came to learn.  While housesitting in Antigua, Guatemala for three months we enjoyed using the fireplace on chilly nights and Alejandro, a young man, supplied our wood.  One morning we asked about his “bandaged” hand which was wrapped in a cloth soiled by the work of wood gathering. He was missing the last joint of the ring finger due to a machete accident which had happened several weeks previously and was still in the healing process.  A few months later we met Herman, now a middle-aged, panga boat captain from Utila, Honduras who told us of collecting buttonwood beginning at the age of six with his family. He would rise with his father and brothers well before dawn to row from their home on one small island to another spending the day chopping and gathering wood. Since the red sap of the buttonwood would destroy the few clothes they owned father and sons worked in their briefs or naked. Once the wood was gathered and bundled into uniform sized sticks of one-hundred pieces, they’d paddle to a third island to sell the wood and then paddle home to rest for another day.hauling wood

In the lands where electricity is expensive and poverty is a reality, the necessity for firewood as a fuel will undoubtedly continue. Breathing in the smoke in homes not properly ventilated causes a lot of respiratory illnesses, especially in the young.  However, it is the reality of those living in poverty and on the edge to rely upon this natural commodity and it will fall to those within that class to provide the labor which provides this necessity.bundle

 

By Richard and Anita

A Tale of Three Cities: Panama City

We celebrated our last few days in Central America and Panama and splurged a bit by returning to Panama City and renting a charming apartment in the tony area, Casco Viejo, with rooftop views of the city and the bay.Casco Viejo rooftop view

When thinking of Panama City the first thing that comes to mind is, of course, the Panama Canal.  But Panama City is far more than this modern marvel and encompasses two old and venerable cities within its boundaries: Casco Viejo and Panama Viejo.  In between these two entities, each of which shares the distinction of being selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contemporary Panama City carries on its robust and active life with towering skyscrapers, billboards and neon signs and three and four lanes of traffic jammed with honking, speeding cars.  All of which were jarring to our senses after days spent in a tranquil, seaside village.Panama City traffic

Panama Viejo, or old Panama, is the oldest Spanish settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas.  Founded in 1519, it grew in importance as the Spanish empire expanded in South and Central America. Panama Viejo’s value to the crown was the fact that it served as the port city for most of the silver, gold, pearls and other loot that was stripped from the Andes of South America and the rain forests of Central America. From there it was moved overland, by land or water, depending on the season, to be transported to Spain. Not only did Panama Viejo flourish, it became a tempting prize for the many pirates who prowled the equatorial waters seeking lucre. Being alert to this danger the city was situated inland from the coast and fortified by a defensive wall.

Panama Viejo

Panama Viejo

It was put to the torch by its Spanish rulers just prior to being overwhelmed by the notorious pirate, Henry Morgan.  He was now a more respectable English admiral but still commanded a pirate army that had crossed the isthmus after razing the garrison at San Lorenzo.  Panama Viejo was abandoned and fell into oblivion except for providing building materials for the new city which arose at a point roughly six miles southwest along the coast. This site, later known as Casco Viejo, was protected by fortified walls and a reef which allowed access to the city only at high tide.Panama Viejo

But the remains of Panama Viejo are magnificent and inspire an almost reverential awe as one walks among its ancient ruins.  The old city’s remaining skeleton contained houses and a hospital as well as the remnants of the Cathedral with its adjacent tower which, as its medieval shape implies, probably served as a watch tower. The Iglesia de la Concepcion housed a convent for the nuns and their servants in addition to the church with its altar, sacristy and nun’s choir. The site’s location, quite near to massive, towering modern structures, offers a quick comparison of the fate of the long-ago dead in the modern era.Panama Viejo with skyscrapers as backdrop

And the city that was literally rebuilt from many of the stones of Panama Viejo?  This is the rapidly changing old quarter known as Casco Viejo, the Spanish colonial city that replaced the vestiges of Panama Viejo in 1673. When the Americans’ began construction of the Panama Canal in 1904 the old town of Casco Viejo was all that existed of Panama City. However, with the completion of the canal and the natural growth of the capital city many of the country’s elite began to abandon the old quarter and it deteriorated into an urban slum. The stately homes, hotels and government office buildings fell into disrepair. But recently, a new wave of gentrification has emerged and the process of decay is being reversed and eradicated. Even now, part of the charm of the place is the grungy disrepair which stands in stark contrast to the modernized and revitalized buildings.Casco Viejo gentrification

Casco ViejoIf the trend continues, and there appears to be no reason at that this point to assume that it will not, Casco Viejo may be one of the most in-demand neighborhoods in the capital. It is filling rapidly with a mix of traditional Panamanian and gourmet restaurants serving a variety of menus aimed at satisfying every taste, chic shopping venues and large colonial buildings that are being converted to stylish condos. Most of the old churches remain along with many government buildings, the national theater and the original offices of the French Panama Canal organization. And so, Casco Viejo stands alongside Panama Viejo and the contemporary Panama City in a perfect trifecta and a tale of three cities.Panama City Bay

By Richard and Anita

 

The Heartland of Panama and The Gringa of Guararé

Azuero Peninsula near CambutalThe Azuero Peninsula hangs off of the Panamanian underbelly like a squat appendage, jutting southwards into the Pacific.  It’s been called “the heartland of Panama” and “the home of folklore and traditions” but at its heart it is the distillation of the old Castilian culture; the celebration of the vaquero – the cowboy and the landed gentry. Fittingly it is a land of voluptuous, softly rolling hills and breathtaking vistas, verdant green pastures, farmland and working cattle ranches.Azuero Peninsula

For the modern world, it encompasses golden and white sand beaches, world-famous surf destinations, spectacular sport fishing, whale-watching, snorkeling, diving and sea turtle nesting areas.  The eastern portion of the Peninsula, the most populous region, includes the city of Chitré, the smaller city of Las Tablas and the sleepy, seaside fishing village where we found ourselves, El Puerto de Guararé, (pronounced Gwa-RA- ray).

Guarare boats

Although our perception of Guararé was of a town that had stepped back in time our hostess Bonnie Birker, owner of the friendly, seaside guesthouse Casa del Puerto, said it had progressed since her first arrival in 1967 as a Peace Corps volunteer.  At that time La Enea de Guararé was fairly isolated with only one car in the entire area and roads of deep mud during rainy season. There was electricity but no phone service.  Water was provided by a village pump and the homes had outside latrines.

Guararé was featured by Lonely Planet in 2000 and Bonnie, who prefers to be called a gringa from Guararé rather than an expat, realized that the town that had given her so many friends and memories had modernized and even had phone service. She returned to Guararé for good in 2006 after her retirement from a career as an international consultant in countries that included Honduras, Jamaica, South Korea, the Philippines and Nepal.  She bought a large but unpretentious house with deep covered porches that overlook the wide expanse of the Pacific spread out in all its awesomeness.Bonnies house

view from Bonnies houseThe food in Guararé is well worth mentioning. It’s located on the coast and small fleets of boats set out twice daily in the early morning and near sunset and their catch graces the tables of many local restaurants. Most often we feasted on freshly caught corvina, or sea bass.  Served with heads on – and sometimes staring eyes, too – they were easy to debone with a sumptuous, flaky, white meat. They came accompanied by the regional specialty of patacones – which we had previously called tostones in Nicaragua – or crisply fried green plantain patties. We also stuffed ourselves with fresh fish or shrimp ceviche. Late one afternoon we dined on fresh caught tuna on the southern coast of the peninsula. The bounty of the sea was never more lavishly available than in the Auzero.

During our visit Bonnie did her utmost to show us some the reasons why she had returned to the village of Guararé and the Azuero Peninsula.  We visited Las Tablas for the National Festival of the Pollera held there each July.  The Pollera, a descendant of the Castilian culture, is the females’ yang to the vaqueros’ yin. It is the quintessential national dress composed of a blouse and long, full skirt featuring the painstaking work of the Panamanian women with original and complicated, decorative embroidery and, many times, additional applique, crochet and lacework.The Queen of the Pollera

Beauties at the PolleraThe festival included the presentation and judging of the Pollera in several categories, rodeo and equestrian events, craft and food vendors and a concluding parade. The latter displayed several dances with the men and women moving in a formal and stylized, intricate synchronicity while others featured the women – with many young girls imitating them – swirling and twirling holding the hems of their dresses up to display the gorgeous embroidery designs and a demure peek at the white-on-white lace and cutwork underskirts.showing the underskirt

Many of the dresses involved hundreds of hours of skilled and careful needlework and the most elaborate were expensive by almost any standard.  And, as if the Pollera needed any additional decoration, several long necklaces of gold were draped around graceful necks, sparkling beaded hair adornments sat atop glossy, black hair and eye-catching earrings dangled from lobes.

Towards the end of our time in the Azuero we spent a day traveling through the center of the peninsula to the southern coast, again with Bonnie. We drifted through established towns such as Tonosi in the rolling hill country, still much immersed in the cattle culture. Places such as these are the anchor of the peninsula, they are the heartland clinging to the more traditional. At the terminus of the journey we stopped at the beach town of Cambutal, with its rapidly expanding infrastructure reflecting the up-coming changes. Here, and elsewhere, are modern signature homes, boutique hotels, tony yoga retreats, funky eateries and up-scale restaurants all vying for the dollars possessed by the surfers, sun worshipers, eco-tourists, gringo retirees and wealthy Panamanians.the beach at Cambutal

The Azuero Peninsula neatly encapsulates the tensions that exist as an established way of living cedes ground to the new. Surely benefits accrue in the wake of modernity but at a cultural cost. Bonnie, and her many amigos, represent those on the cusp, those who are witness to and participants in the changing of the guard.  And in the Azuero, we were the fortunate ones who wandered through able to observe and appreciate the heritage and enjoy the perks offered by the latest and greatest.Featured Image

By Anita and Richard

Panama Pictures And Panoramas

Panama is the southernmost country of Central America and is comprised of a variety of stunning landscapes and seascapes, white and golden sand beaches, rolling hills with farm and ranch lands, mountains and, of course, cities and people.  During our travels in July we took hundreds of photos and we wanted to share some of our favorites this week.

We’ve spent the month of August crisscrossing the US visiting family and friends on a long overdue trip back “home”.  Our travels started at the beginning of the month flying in from Panama to New Jersey for a few days and followed by a ride to Washington D.C. via Amtrak.  Later we flew to Spokane, WA. for a mini-family reunion. Another flight a few days afterwards took us to Denver, CO where we’re currently visiting more family including our son and grandson.  Our last stop in the US will take us to Corpus Christi, TX before we head to South America in September.  There we may just have to take some time off to recoup from a hectic month and catch our breaths!

Next week:  More stories from Panama

By Anita and Richard

Some Sun, More Rain and the Journey to Bocas Del Toro

Leaving David in the early morning we were off for the Caribbean coast to see the reputed number one tourist area of Panama – Bocas del Toro.  The day was bright and hot, promising to be another scorcher.  Feeling a little less confident about our navigating skills and, again, embarrassed at our fractured Spanish, it had taken us two circuits bumbling around the large and confusingly chaotic, triangular-shaped bus terminal of David before we found the boarding area for the bus bound for Chinguanola that would send us on our way .  The bus was a twenty-four seat vehicle, a mid-size in the world of Panamanian buses, and it left David far from full, departing the terminal with only seven passengers.   We headed east down the Pan-American highway which was under construction; a perpetual condition here in Panama we had been told.

We left the Pan-Am near Chiriqui and began the slow ascent towards the continental divide on our way to the archipelago of Bocas del Toro and Bocas Town on Isla Colon. As we climbed towards the summit the air cooled and it began to mist; wispy, feathery clouds crept out of the valleys and clung forlornly to the ridgelines. Peering down into the valleys revealed a fractured and folded terrain for Panama is a new land. Somewhere around four million years ago, an eye blink in geologic time, massive tectonic plates ground together and this magical landscape up-lifted and created the land bridge between the northern and southern continents.

Just past El Valle de la Mina, near the summit of the continental range, the distinction between the sky and the road began to disintegrate rapidly. The white-greyness of the air merged with the grey-whiteness of the undelineated concrete highway and the misty rain played havoc with depth perception and object identification. The bus crept and climbed slowly along the dizzying curves of the winding road as the windows streamed with moisture.

As we descended from the summit and made our way to the coastal area, the visibility improved somewhat although it had begun to rain steadily and with great purpose.  The bus stopped repeatedly, filled to standing room only and emptied and filled and emptied again, with chattering,neatly dressed, uniformed children finished with another day of school.  The sky cleared briefly and the sweltering heat enveloped the land only to be replaced again by more heavy rain as the thunderheads moved in off the Caribbean.

Almirante, the jumping off point for the water taxi to the Bocas del Toro archipelago and Bocas town, may have seen better days or perhaps it was always neglected and dirty. We grabbed a cab from in front of the dilapidated bus stop but the scenery only deteriorated further when we arrived at the waterfront where outhouses perched at the ends of docks extending out from ramshackle homes. Almirante waterfront

After purchasing our tickets for the water taxi we wrapped our backpacks in waterproof covers to protect our laptops from the rain and hunched protectively over the packs in our laps (rather resembling gargoyles at this point) as we hunkered down in the launch. Rain dripped down the sides of the canvas tarp overhead and splashed into the boat from the sides as the water taxi gained speed and we endured the half hour ride to the island.

Bocas TownAnd, you ask, was Bocas del Toro worth the time and effort?  We might have to rethink scheduling any future visits during the rainy season, which according to one local, was one of the wettest years he could remember.  However, most afternoons we could count on the sun making an appearance and a few hours of no rain so that we could explore around the colorful Bocas Town and the Isla Colon. We managed a day trip on a catamaran sailing to Isla de San Cristobal and Isla Carenero among numerous little islands. Mangroves and islets

We anchored a couple of times to swim and snorkel alongside a shore tangled with mangroves above a fantastical reef which included  startling deep purple and brilliantly golden coral and other fabulously shaped and colored occupants.  An amazing number of plumped up, rosy-colored starfish, resembling pictures from a children’s book, rested on the sand or draped over the coral inhabitants in the reef garden.  Another day we unfurled umbrellas and spent a few hours following an energetic English expat as she showed us her incredible botanical garden paradise, Finca del Monos,  spread over 27 acres.Botanical gardenBotanical garden

So yes, our journey was well worth the time and effort and we were supremely comfortable and well cared for at Lula’s B and B.  And hey, we’re not vacationers counting each precious day, despairingly waiting for sunshine and cursing the rain.  We can be patient and enjoy the thunderstorms and downpours.  We have time …

By Richard and Anita, Panama, July 2014

 

 

 

Neither Here Nor There: David And Boquete, Panama

Panama is a country of a few large cities interspersed between small towns glistening with puddles following a rain or a coating of dust in the dry season, wide spots on winding highways often with magnificent, breathtaking scenery. And, at the end of yet another long bus ride, we found ourselves in David on our way to other places.

David downtown

Our battered Lonely Planet Guidebook, a 2010 edition given to us by a friend in Nicaragua, advised us of to think of David (pronounced Dah Veed) as a major agro-business and commercial center rather than a cultural hub. Further digging informed us that it was a popular tourist destination and the second or third largest city in Panama, depending on the source, with a population of roughly 150,000 souls.taxis in David

As the capital of the Chiriqui Provence, the city of David and the surrounding area is rumored to be attracting ever more foreigners interested in relocation and might even be poised on the brink of major growth in both its economy and population.

Although David was founded in 1602 there is very little sense of historical importance or any impressive architecture. Indeed, the present was much more in keeping with a city devoted to the reality of commerce minus the frills of the arts and letters.

David

The center of the city, which radiates outward from Parque Cervantes, is a utilitarian affair which quickly turns drab or run-down in a couple of blocks if you head in the wrong direction. And Cervantes Park, while neat and stylistic, is not particularly appealing to the eye or the seat of pants for the foot weary pedestrian or the casual people watcher.Parque Cervantes

Our guidebook, under the heading “Sights” had listed a single entry: the Museo de Historia y de Arte Jose’ Obaldia. We hoofed it over to the museum twice, both times during the posted hours, with consistent results. It was closed, padlocked shut; so much for the cultural part of our stay…

We took a bus out of David and headed up into the mountains, less than an hour to the north. Here we encountered Boquete, a quiet mountain town of roughly 5,000 people and prized by Panamanians for its refreshing climate and pristine natural setting.outskirts of Boquete

This is the same locale selected a dozen years ago as one of the top four overseas destinations for retirement by Modern Maturity, the magazine of the AARP. So, aside from the gated communities which dot the hillsides, and are currently spilling onto the crowded valley floor, and disregarding the astronomical real estate prices which to seem to start at around a quarter of a million dollars, Boquete is an attractive place.Boquete

Due to the fertile soil, flowers, coffee and citrus all do well in this beautiful mountain town and the surrounding valleys. The city provides a picturesque central square which is clean, compact and welcoming for relaxed chats or simply watching the folks flow by. The presence of sweaters and light jackets might be what confirms the fact that one is in the mountains rather than at a beach resort judging by the relaxed and convivial atmosphere of the people.Boquete Parque CentralReturning to David from the crisp and invigorating climate of Boquete we couldn’t help but compare the two cities. Perhaps the geography best sums up our apathetic response to David. One city nestled in the mountains and the other, situated below a dormant volcano, sweltering in a basin with reputedly one of the hottest climates in the Central American region. It was definitely time to blow this burg and head for points more interesting and, hopefully, a little cooler!

Transportation to anywhere else...

Transportation to anywhere else…

By Richard and Anita, Panama,  July 2014

Plundering, Protecting The King’s Gold And Pirates: Fort San Lorenzo

San LorenzoBy the map it’s only eight miles west of the Caribbean port city of Colon, Panama to the UNESCO site of the colonial Spanish fort at San Lorenzo on the northern border of Panama.  However, this abandoned citadel hidden away at the end of a two-lane road through dense jungle is a world away from the hub-bub of the Canal Zone of which it was once a part.  As with many things Spanish in Central America, San Lorenzo represents conquest, exploitation, untold wealth in precious metals and empire.San Lorenzo on the bluff overlooking the Caribbean Sea

The remains of the crumbling fortress, perched atop a bluff eighty feet above the Caribbean Sea and further protected by a dry moat on the landward side, provided a clear vantage of ships approaching to attack or to blockade the mouth of the Chagres River.Facing the Chagres River

This ability to protect was a vital necessity, for the Chagres River was the eastern terminus of the wet season treasure route that funneled gold and silver from the Incan empire in Peru down through Panama City and across the isthmus and, eventually, to the royal coffers in Spain. Old cannon, some with insignia still visible, litter the site lying awkwardly in broken cradles or sprawl about near crumbling fortifications no longer capable of defending the interests of the crown.

scattered cannon

At one time San Lorenzo was a player in the game of international wealth. The initial fortress was a battery built at sea level. But starting in 1560, shortly after its construction, pirates began to assault the lucrative target and the trail of gold stretching back to Peru. The attackers were persistent and in 1670 Henry Morgan, the Welsh privateer, brigand and English admiral, defeated and leveled the original fort. Using it as a base, he provisioned his troops and took his motley assemblage of buccaneers across the isthmus and sacked the mother lode – Panama City.San Lorenzo facing towards the Chagres

The old fort destroyed by Morgan was abandoned and the current fortress that commands the heights above the River Chagres was constructed by the Spanish only to be attacked anew by pirates and adventurers as well as by the English navy.  When the Spanish fort at Portobelo, further east on the Panamanian coast, fell to Admiral Edward Vernon, San Lorenzo was left the preeminent military garrison on the Panamanian coast.  However, the decision by Spain a few years later to ship its booty around the tip of South America at Cape Horn left the bastion on the Caribbean headland bereft and inconsequential.San Lorenzo

San Lorenzo’s star faded quickly. It was used as a prison for over a century.  Undoubtedly an ignoble death awaited as age claimed the deteriorating brick, wood and stone structures. As a part of the agreement with Panama in 1903 the lands containing the fort and those adjacent to the Chagres River were folded into the Canal Zone administered by the United States until December 31, 1999. But little was done by the Zone administration to conserve the structures that they had acquired in the transfer and the decay continued virtually unabated.San Lorenzo

In 1980 UNESCO designated San Lorenzo a World Heritage Site. There is much to be done. The fortifications at San Lorenzo remain in a state of ruination. The mosses, grasses and plants grow in profusion on a majority of the buildings allowing the eradication to continue day by day. The unabated destruction of the site is almost palpable.San Lorenzo

However, Fort San Lorenzo is a visually engaging site awaiting the attention that once brought it to prominence as a guardian of the riches of the new world. It now needs to be resurrected as a custodian of the history of a world long since passed away.San Lorenzo

By Richard and Anita, July 2014, Panama

 

In The Zone: The Panama Canal

Panama CanalWe left Costa Rica on the Tica Express Bus at midnight for what turned out to be a sixteen hour bus trip from hell (think freezing cold air conditioning and the passenger in front of us lying almost in our laps).  However, we were on our way to Panama City and a visit that we’d dreamed of for many years:  the Panama Canal.  Several years ago we’d watched an impressive documentary about the building of the Panama Canal and, since then, seeing the Canal had been one of our big bucket list items.Locks closed

A waterway between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans had been a dream since the explorer and conquistador, Vasco Balboa, first claimed the western sea for the Spanish crown in the 16th century.  However, by the turn of the 20th century it appeared to be more of a fools’ delusion as the French had lost a veritable fortune and an estimated 20,000 lives between the years 1881 to 1884 attempting this folly.  But less than twenty years after the French catastrophe, science and technology had progressed sufficiently in divergent fields to allow this ambitious aspiration to become a fully functioning engineering reality.

Scientists, among them Dr. Walter Reed, established that malaria was transmitted by a mosquito and, through an aggressive campaign on many fronts, effectively halted the pestilential killer during the construction.  New earth moving machines such as drag-line shovels and moveable dredges made mass excavation possible on a scale previously unimaginable.  And concrete, at the time a novelty for heavy civil construction, was used as the predominant building material. All of this newly acquired knowledge, scientific components and machines allowed the work to begin in earnest.closed

But perhaps the most phenomenal aspect of the canal was the elegantly simple notion to use gravity to raise the ships from sea level through a series of locks over the continental divide and then return them to sea level on the other side of the isthmus. Sir Isaac Newton would surely have been proud.lock gates opening

For the better part of two days our venues were the Visitors’ Centers, first at the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side and subsequently the Gatún Locks on the Caribbean side, gaping at the massive ships as they transited the canal through the system of locks and lakes that comprise this international waterway. Call us hicks but this was one show for which we had both been eagerly awaiting; it was bigger than the big top at the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus we’d attended as kids.entering the canal

We were still struggling with the concept of gravity as the main character in the live drama before us when we realized that a very large container ship, the MSC ELA, was actually sinking into the center lock at the Miraflores. It wasn’t really sinking; the water was being equalized with the adjoining chamber so that when the gates opened the ship would glide towards the final lock gates. This commercial behemoth was being held firmly in the center of the canal by eight mechanical mules (locomotives) with their sixteen hawsers. ship going through

What was even more astounding was that there were approximately eighteen inches of clearance between the sides of the ship and each canal wall.   These last gates would open, when all was stabilized, and the MSC ELA would be free to resume her voyage to the Pacific side of the American continent.almost through

That this entire operation was one hundred years old in 2014 was a staggering thought. The lock gates, forged in Pennsylvania a century before, were performing magnificently. The major modification occurred in 1998 and changed the forty horsepower motors which drove the bull gears, the massive ratio-reduction system of cogged wheels, to a pneumatic system.  But ultimately the key to the longevity was rigorous maintenance and that was evidenced all around us as we watched the ships transit north and south though the canal.done

So much of what we saw was attributable to the efforts of individuals on a regular and recurring basis. This was true from the surveyors who shot the original grade to the laborers who manned the shovels and dredges; from the men who operated the Canal Zone as an American enterprise until the transfer on December 31, 1999, to the country of Panama and the Panamanians who now provide this vital service to the world.Through the canal

By Richard and Anita

 

Do You Know The Way To San Jose?

view from the Cultura de PlazaThe capital city of Costa Rica, San José, gets very little press in the guidebooks and, like most travelers, we had used the city as a place mainly to get from here to there as it is located in the center of the country.   This was our fifth trip to the city and, aside from the Tica Bus station and some quick food restaurants around our hotel, we didn’t know doodley about the capital except that it was big and hectic with traffic and pedestrians scurrying about.  Like all of our previous visits the weather was chill and gloomy; gray, overcast and frequently raining regardless of whether the rest of the nation was in the wet or the dry season.   However, unexpectedly, we found ourselves with a full day to see a bit of the city as our bus for Panama City did not leave until midnight of the following day.Rosa del Paseo

We did know a good deal about our lodging as, despite our travels, we can be creatures of habit and kept returning to a charming little hotel we had discovered during our first visit. The Rosa del Paseo is housed in a turn-of-the-century Victorian private home and was built 115 years ago by the Montealgre family who made their fortune exporting coffee. Rosa del Paseo It is reputed to be one of San José’s most charming stucco homes and is located near the heart of the city on Paseo Colón. The Rosa has kept pace with the times, undergoing regular upkeep and upgrades yet is nevertheless surprisingly evocative of 19th-century Costa Rica.another staircase It has the traditional central courtyard and is graced with period furniture and oil paintings. Beautiful details are spread throughout the hotel, including transoms, ornate stucco door frames, original tile floors, polished hardwood and parquet floors, gleaming wainscoting and a collection of antique sewing machines on original tables scattered here and there.  In the midst of the frenetic movement of the modern capital city of San José, the Rosa del Paseo retains its dignity and composure.

The Ticos with whom we had spoken had highly endorsed both the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) and the Museo de Jade.  Our map was a bit sketchy as to the exact location of the museums so we opted for the most obvious solution and hailed a cab to the Plaza del Cultura.the Gold Museum below Pigeon Plaza

And there, residing below the Teatro Nacional (National Theater) was our goal. But to get to the museum we needed to navigate our way through a plaza full of pigeons which refused to be flustered by our passing. Indeed, they moved leisurely out of our way delaying just long enough to make certain we were not bearing gifts of food.view from the Plaze de Cultura

The gold museum contained an amazing assemblage of Pre-Columbian gold pieces ranging from raptor broaches and clasps to warrior breast plates and collars and included numerous animal figurines for ceremonial use.Gold ornaments

Maybe subconsciously we’d assumed that, after the depredations of the Spanish and the centuries of interminable grave-robbing and looting, the pieces remaining would not be so numerous or would be of lesser quality. Fortunately we were proven wrong and we were astonished and impressed by the quantity and wealth of treasures assembled in one place.gallery

Coming back into daylight brought us to the National Theater, a magnificent building that is a monument by, for and to the 19th century coffee barons. Performance room in the National Theater

The theater was modeled after and imitative of only the best of European architecture and was built with European marble, windows and chandeliers and decorated with European paintings, silks, brocades and crystals. The barons lobbied the government agreeing to assist financially in its construction but, in the end, 94% of the costs were raised by a general tax overwhelmingly borne by the common population, the non-coffee barons.  And, without a doubt, the masses might have appreciated the century old Steinway and Sons baby grand piano which the maestro graciously limbered up for our enjoyment.San Jose pedestrian walk

As the afternoon waned, we hoofed it a few blocks over to the Jade Museum, a five-story building of modern design tastefully filled with a wealth of multi-colored jade objet d’ art.  Again we marveled that this quantity of masterful work had survived the last centuries of pillage and plunder. We were well pleased with the museum even before we encountered the overwhelming and astoundingcouples coupling collection of ceramics, a massive number of pottery pieces in pristine condition. Tucked away on the fourth floor was an unexpectedly large exhibition of ceramics and sculptures of Pre-Columbian indigenous erotica  which displayed an avid interest in sex, sexual roles and childbirth.  Our close examination was interrupted by the announced closure of the museum which led to our hurriedly breezing through the remaining floor before exiting into the tumult of the city and ending our cultural expedition.

We can’t say that we are a great deal wiser about San José but we learned that beneath the exterior of hurried consumerism and anonymous architecture there are true jewels to be found. The beauty contained in the museums and National Theater made us glad that we had spent a little more time exploring San José.

By Richard and Anita

Housesitting: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Tineke sTwice a day flocks of brilliant green parrots flew by overhead, sometimes alighting here and there among the verdant trees on the property and sometimes continuing on to the neighboring trees.   They screeched and gabbled and the air reverberated with their riotous cacophony. Like clockwork, at dawn and dusk, the air was also filled with the guttural calls of the howler monkeys.  A few iguanas lived on the property including one dignified male who measured at least two feet long from head to tail.  Butterflies, in a profusion of patterns and hues, alighted briefly on the flowers and we rushed to take pictures before they fluttered away.Magpie jays

A variety of other birds visited us from time to time including the beautiful and regal Magpie Jays who squawked like shrewish crows in a deafening shriek.  And hummingbirds, always there were hummingbirds flitting among the flowers.  Tiny frogs hopped about along with enormous toads, both of which occasionally wandered into the house and had to be scooted back outside gently. variegated squirrel

During the day, one of our favorite visitors, the variegated squirrels, would climb down from the trees, sprint in a funny little run-hop a few feet to another tree and climb back to a safe perch.  And at night there were a multitude of stars spread across the firmament, lightning bugs blinked randomly about and, to the north and east heat lightening arced in brilliant flashes.Tineke s house

We housesat for several weeks on a property six miles outside of Tamarindo, Costa Rica on a parcel of land approximately one hectare (2.5 acres) located at the end of a long dirt road that branched here and there as it delved into the countryside.road to Tineke s

The homestead had a variety of palm, banana, mango, lemon and bamboo trees, as well as several enormous trees which spread broadly providing welcome shade. Flowering plants and bushes were scattered about the property which was fenced all around and secured with a gate half of which hung drunkenly, twisted and totally useless.

And here begins the first story, this one about the marauding cows and horses, who visited several times over the course of the first few weeks, trying their best to graze on the thick grass and delectable, flowering edibles.edible grazing for cows

We would tramp about, with Yippy barking enthusiastically but ineffectively in his unaccustomed role as a cowherding dog, and finally funnel  them back out onto the road.  Not especially fun during the day but a whole different game when this had to be done two times in the dead of night with only the light of the stars and a couple of travel flashlights.  We would peer around the property here and there at looming shapes that would suddenly break into slow trots, urged on by Yippy’s hysterical barking, in any direction but where we wanted them to go! A couple of nocturnal bouts of this entertainment led us to the inelegant but practical idea of closing the working side of the gate and driving the car into the breach left by the inoperative side of the gate.  And once again, our nights were undisturbed and the problem was temporarily solved.Yippy I-O

And the car…we had agreed to rent the car for a nominal sum so that we could run errands, grocery shop and visit the beautiful beaches around Tamarindo.  We were looking forward to the experience as we hadn’t driven a car since we left the States in September of 2012.  It was a nice looking Nissan with 4-wheel drive and … two totally bald rear tires.  In Costa Rica the roads are in notoriously bad shape:  paved roads have no shoulders, abrupt drop-offs and deep potholes.  And the dirt roads?  They are washboarded, rutted, and fissured with fractured stones working their way up to the road surface. Tire life expectancy of a tire is none too long in this part of the world and so, you guessed it … a flat tire.   Jorst, a highly esteemed German expat and tire fixer extraordinaire, arrived within fifteen minutes of our distress call – we were told later that this was not common – but we were duly impressed! He performed the requisite tasks for the nominal fee of $20, an astonishing price for roadside assistance.  Of course, we were a little leery of driving unnecessarily as we still had one American Bald Eagle on the driver’s rear. So, after some back and forth with the homeowner we sprang for two new tires ($175).  Problem solved.

Our housesitting gig included looking after the property and house, maintaining the swimming pool (which started out a bit murky but which we coaxed into a sparkling blue) and the animals.  The four pets were friendly, well-natured and very mellow. 3 outta 4Yippy, the inept cow dog and wanna-be watchdog (also not a successful occupation), was the alpha animal. There were two cats; the younger cat, who we nicknamed Queen Calico, was regal and rather stand-offish except with Yippy with whom she had a rather strange fixation;Strange bedfellows! flirting and rubbing herself sinuously around his legs, curling herself around him seductively when napping and lavishing his face with licks and laps.  Actually, we enjoyed watching this strange affair! The second cat was a tabby we called Fat Cat or Big Mama and she would scold us with long plaintive meows first thing in the morning and throughout the day if her food dish was empty.

And the last player in the ensemble was Dolly, a sweet, golden-colored medium-sized matron with a cataract clouding her left eye and comical ears that flopped over at half-mast. Dorrie - Dolly

It was easy to imagine her in a nursing home, inching her way behind a wheeled walker in a confused daze, peering about with no clue as to where she had been going. It was not her age but her hygiene that created the initial issue; to put it mildly, she was highly odoriferous!  We looked at each other the first night of our arrival with a “How are we going to make it through five weeks with this reeking creature?” expression on our faces.  And, to further add to her unimpressive introduction, the next morning we found out she was incontinent as well. The following week we ended up taking her on the first of four visits to the vet after the hair around her tail and rear end fell out in big clumps almost overnight and the skin became angry-looking and inflamed.  She received a giant dose of antibiotics ($100) to treat a massive ear and skin infection, parasites and the ticks that she had hosted.  And (oh praise Jesus!) an antibacterial bath!   We were instructed to bathe her twice a week with the medicinal shampoo, a ritual that transformed her into a soft and sweet-smelling critter.  As for the incontinence problem?  Since the house was open aired with only grills and gates that covered the doors and windows we moved her bedding (freshly laundered) about ten feet to the covered porch so that her ancient bladder could awaken her at night and she could totter off into the darkness to relieve herself.  Another problem solved.

butterflyAnd so, we finished the last days of our home and pet caretaking gig sitting on the covered patio, watching the birds, listening to and enjoying the fresh scent of the rains with Dolly stretched out dozing on one side of the big work table, Yippy underneath at our feet and the two cats curled on pillows napping on the chairs; our little adopted family.  We’d had a Costa Rican rocky road this housesit and solved even more problems than the ones we wrote about here but we’ll miss this place with all its downsides because, it turns out, there were a lot of upsides, too.Bananas flowering and growing

Note:  The homeowner, a lovely Dutch lady, reimbursed us fully for all expenses incurred during our stay.

By Anita and Richard

 

The Beautiful Place: Lugar Bonita

Lugar Bonita

“Where are you from?”  “How did you end up here?”   While we’ve been traveling those are among the first questions we ask and answer as we meet people and exchange our back stories.   One of the reasons we hear most often is that it’s cheaper to live here in a Latin American country or that one can have a much higher standard of living (think maid, cook, fancy digs) for the same amount of money.  Others move to another country because the people are friendly, the culture and history are intriguing, the weather is more agreeable or they’re hankering for adventure.  As for Wanda and Jerry…

Lugar Bonita

Wanda and Jerry had successful careers and upon their retirement sold their home in Arizona and took off for Costa Rica in 2000 with a dream of finding paradise.  They arrived in San Jose and began traveling around the little country looking for the place that titillated their fancy. They were among an earlier wave of expats who were relocating to a Costa Rica which was welcoming retirees with open arms and enticing incentives to move to their country.  In Costa Rica they could find a new home where the life style they wanted could be afforded after years of slogging it out as entrepreneurs on the American economic treadmill. They found a property east of Tamarindo beach in Barrio Josefina which measured one hectare or 2.5 acres and the deal was struck.Tne main house

The property had an existing house where they lived while they closely supervised remodeling and enlarging that structure and incorporating it into the future paradise they envisioned. The construction began in earnest in 2001 and was, by and large, completed in ten months.  When all was done there stood a main house with a large pool and the sizeable rancho, a covered open-air living area with a high peaked ceiling and huge outdoor kitchen. Lugar Bonita Rancho

Lugar BonitaScattered around the property as well, because Wanda loved to entertain guests were smaller casitas, free-standing abodes with en suite bathrooms.Lugar Bonita

And then the work began – turning the buildings into a home.  Wanda and Jerry imported the comforts of a North American lifestyle in two cargo containers including a riding mower and household goods; two sub-zero refrigerators, furniture and all the other paraphernalia and brick-a-brac that constitute a fully stocked home.  They hired a maid cum cook, who lived nearby, for six days a week to maintain the habitation and prepare the evening meals. Then they settled into the life they had dreamed of and Jerry, a passionate gardener with an engineering background, worked almost daily, ultimately removing thirty-five trees from the property and landscaping the grounds, bringing beauty forth.  And … life was good.Lugar Bonita

Another ten years went by and life moved on bringing health problems that forced a relocation to the States.  The property was put on the market and sold, after a couple of years, to two American investors.  They hired Wanda’s son, Sky, and his Colombian-born wife, Sandra, as their property managers.  The estate’s new iteration is as an end destination for weddings, fiestas, birthdays, reunions and all manner of happy events that can be rented by the night and accommodates up to eighteen people in comfort.Lugar Bonita

Our travels bring us into contact with many people and, in a fortunate happening, the Lugar Bonita was next door to the home we were housesitting. Sky and Sandra welcomed us to the neighborhood and invited us over to the property several times.  They shared the evolution of the Lugar Bonita as well as stories about Wanda and Jerry who followed their dream and created a paradise…Lugar Bonita

By Anita and Richard

The Panacea: Do Nothing, Just B-e-e-e-e-e….

Panacea de la MontañaJust down the road from where we’re housesitting is a nondescript sign on the side of the highway announcing “Panacea de la Montaña” which leads onto a rutted dirt road of dubious worth.  After the initial slog you arrive at a junction on a level flat. A quick glance at the road ahead informs you that this is the time for four-wheel drive for the final push up the steep grade.  Panacea de la Montaña

The discreet sign alongside the highway and the pitch of the daunting road may be inadvertent but no one arrives at Panacea de la Montaña unintentionally. It is, in fact, an end destination of repute; a boutique yoga retreat and spa visited by individuals, groups and aficionados intent on participating in a sublime physical and spiritual experience set inside the forested canopy of the coastal mountains of Costa Rica.Panacea de la Montaña

And when you reach the crest near the top of the mountain there is a vista of a lush and fertile valley below and mountains in the distance all swathed in variegated hues of green.  Panacea de la MontañaAn infinity pool seems to drop into the valley so that the vast expanse spread out before you can be admired and contemplated, a hypnotic and mesmerizing view. Panacea de la Montaña

Once you leave the common area of the pool, patio and cocina (kitchen) and pass by the yoga pavilion you enter the more private space of the cacitas, the individual residences for the guests.  The little dwellings, seemingly set down on the mountainside randomly, offer private views of spectacular scenery from the covered porches.Panacea de la Montaña

Trails meander around the mountaintop and slopes, spread with white rock for easy visibility and edged with larger river stones.  There’s a feeling of discovery as one wanders about this little bit of paradise; every turn reveals something new such as a totally unexpected labyrinth amid the trees or benches here and there for contemplation. Panacea de la Montaña

And interspersed throughout the walk are signs painted by guests with meaningful bits of wisdom or river rocks decorated with pithy expressions of inspiration and insight.Panacea de la Montaña

Upon our arrival in Tamarindo we were introduced to the three owners of the yoga retreat by Tineke, for whom we were housesitting.  Mary leads the yoga classes and Debbie, who is also a yoga instructor, acts as gourmet chef extraordinaire while Peter deals with the business side of living in nirvana as well as teaching aqua fitness classes and providing reflexology treatments.  We signed up for four weeks of classes and, from our novice perspectives, were  bent sideways, forwards and backwards, stretched out and relaxed within an inch of our lives. Here, amid the greenery of the coastal forest and accompanied by the twittering of birds, the flitting of multi-hued butterflies and the baleful calling of the howler monkeys, we slowly stretched and breathed to the measured and calming cadence of Mary’s expert instruction.   Each class was unique and had the successful goal of making us feel refreshed both mentally and physically. One of our favorite sessions (no effort involved!) was a restorative yoga class that focused on us moving our bodies into a variety of comfortable positions fully supported by various pillows and cushions and concentrating completely on doing nothing, breathing deeply in and out and just b-e-i-n-g.  And, at the end of every class, when the cymbal would chime softly, the realization would slowly creep into our minds, “But, surely that wasn’t ninety minutes already?”Panacea de la Montaña

And all too soon our time, not just for the day, but for Panacea de la Montaña had come to an end.   But we gained, with the aid of Mary’s classes and instructional materials, the ability to continue with our practices as we decamp again for parts further south.Panacea de la Montaña

By Anita and Richard

Nesting Sea Turtles at La Playa Piratas

Daniel, our guide for the evening, picked us up shortly before dark. The group was small, just the two of us and two young women from Argentina. The night would be dark as it was broken cloud cover and the crescent moon would not rise until much later in the evening. We were off to search for the nesting Pacific Black Sea Turtles on the beaches north of Tamarindo.

Pacific Black Sea Turtle - photo credit Rosa Sandoval photoa available at http://seaturtlesofindia.org/?page_id=358

Pacific Black Sea Turtle – photo credit Rosa Sandoval – photo available at http://seaturtlesofindia.org/?page_id=358

We turned off the highway onto a dirt road rutted with washboards and after considerable bouncing and rattling about arrived at La Playa Piraticas. Daniel went ahead to scout for turtles coming ashore and our small group waited on the beach listening to the sound of the surf and watching the stars beginning to populate the heavens.  The white foam of the waves was interspersed with several massive rock outcroppings silhouetted against the night sky under the faint glow of the stars. A few fireflies flickered here and there, pinpoints of light in the night.

Daniel emerged from the blackness and quickly led us in a single-file walk south along the beach for a few minutes to where we quietly approached and spied upon a female turtle who had already dug a shallow, circular depression about six feet in circumference. She had selected a spot high up on the beach, near the encroaching trees, and could dig no further down for rocks and roots impeded her progress.  She continued to labor at the task for some time while we watched and then, exhausted, relinquished the chore and made her way awkwardly back towards the sea. We saw her enter the surf and a wave finally lifted her and restored her graceful movement.

Returning to the sea

Returning to the sea

Sea turtles leave distinctive tracks along the beach which alerts guides that they've come ashore

Sea turtles leave distinctive tracks along the beach which alerts guides that they’ve come ashore

We immediately regrouped and Daniel led us back north along the beach to find a second sea turtle whose black bulky form we had sensed, more than seen, arising from the waves when we had passed the spot previously.  We remained on the beach until Daniel, using his red light, scouted around quietly to find where she had decided to nest.  Stealthily we approached her, and remaining soundless and kneeling about two feet away to her rear watched as she created the circular depression for her nest alternating between her front and back flippers and pivoting  from side to side about the depression to make sure that the depth remained consistent.  It was fascinating to watch the intensity of her digging, flinging the sand out of the depression.  Although we were crouched a couple of feet behind her as she dug, we were splattered by several flippersful of sand on the face and body from her powerful efforts.

Once she had completed her digging of the circular depression, it was roughly 18 inches deep and uniformly level and compacted. Work then began on digging a trench which would be at mid-line of the rear of her shell and would serve as the repository of the eggs. Using her rear flippers she bore into the soft sand to remove and spread the material. With the trench roughly 15 inches deep, and with no further fanfare, she began laying her eggs.

laying the eggs

At this climax of the evening we found it necessary to relinquish our place at the nest after we hurriedly snapped a couple of pictures aided only by the guide’s red light. A government biologist, alerted by Daniel, came to take possession of eggs as they were deposited in the nest and transfer them to a beach where the danger of high tides exposing the nest to predators would be lessened.

It probably makes no difference that there is a taxonomic disagreement as to whether the Pacific Black Sea Turtle is a unique species, as some contend, or a subspecies of the more predominant Green Sea Turtle. The sad and sorry truth is that all sea turtles are endangered by extinction. Their dwindling numbers remain subject to depredation by natural foes such as land crabs, raccoons, gulls and other shore birds but thus it has always been. Man’s voracious appetite, along with habitat depletion, threatens the turtle’s existence. It was with this sobering reality that we savored the night as we watched the eggs, loosed from the mother’s body, fall into the sandy cavity of the nest designed through the millennia as the hatchery of the turtles.

 

 

 

 

 

By Richard and Anita, June, 2014

 

Tamarindo or TamaGRINGO: Tourist Mecca On The Costa Rican Riviera

southside beachIn mid-May we crossed the width of Costa Rica from the Caribbean shore to the Pacific coast heading for the small town of Tamarindo where our next housesitting assignment would be.  By one estimate, 25% of the people who deplane in Costa Rica will end up hanging out in Tamarindo for some part of their vacation. When you consider that in 2012 over 2,000,000 visitors came to this small Central American country that’s a passel of folks to pack into a small sea-side town.access to swimming beach

In 1995, when the regional airport facility was upgraded to the Daniel Oduber Ouiros International Airport in nearby Liberia the response from the commercial carriers was a stifled yawn; one charter flight per week was the total through-put for the tourist invasion in that year.  Fast forward to the turn of the twenty-first century and the main highway into Tamarindo was still not entirely paved.  So what happened to turn this sleepy, insignificant fishing village on the northwestern Pacific coast with the Costa Rican Riviera as its new moniker into a mecca for hard-body surfers and eco-tourists? Surfboards and surf schools

The genesis of Tamarindo is probably known to some of the life-long residents who remain in the area and perhaps those who wish to sift through the property records. Quite possibly it was a keen-eyed surf fanatic, with some connections, who noticed that Tamarindo Beach had two main breaks for the ride seeking surfer; Pico Pequeño, a rocky point in the cove, and El Estero, the excellent river mouth break. On these two breaks, the biggest waves can get up to twelve feet during November and December and the rest of the beach breaks are perfect for learning.

south end

As word spread, or was promoted, money arrived to support the gringo dollars just beginning to flow into the economy. The pump had been primed and the spigot was about to open.

Banks, ATMs, Realtors & Shops

Banks, ATMs, Realtors & Shops

One ex-pat, who was present at the creation, recounts that the boom began around the turn of the century. The city had been growing slowly but steadily with new businesses like hotels, restaurants, and surf shops opening but, seemingly in a blink of the eye, growth accelerated and continued at a frenetic pace until the economic bust of 2008. The sunny shores of the Golden Coast of Guanacaste, Costa Rica were not immune to the plight of the “too big to fail” crowd and the boom cycle stalled.multiple signs

Now, that economic reality does not diminish the fact that this little burg is a hopping place – especially during high season.   The small town of approximately 3,000 residents in the low season can swell to 10,000 and more when the tourists arrive in force in November through April.tourist businesses

And it’s not just the surfers anymore. Eco-tourism is a substantial portion of the economic vitality, which is no accident as Costa Rica is perhaps the most protective of their natural resources of any nation in Central America.  Playa Grande, north of Tamarindo, is where the Leatherback Turtles come to lay their eggs. The Leatherbacks take over the beach from November to April, digging their nests on the beach, covering them with sand and returning once again to the sea.  With Las Baulas National Marine Park and other bio-preserves readily available there are numerous eco-friendly activities, including night turtle watching, diving, snorkeling, body surfing, zip-lining, estuary trips, bird watching, horseback riding and surf fishing.

playing in the water

Tamarindo and the surrounding areas fit many sizes and shapes: surfers, nature enthusiasts, honeymooners, families, backpackers and all-inclusive mavens delight in Tamarindo’s multi-cultural community and tropical paradise activities. And the development has left niches for almost every class and every budget. The town’s combination of affluent foreign culture, chic cafés and restaurants, all in the flavor of authentic Tico culture, has a strong appeal for locals, expats and foreign visitors. So in a short time the original drowsy beach village of Tamarindo has evolved into the most bustling tourist destination on the Costa Rican Riviera. Not too shabby.

Doctors and Pharmacies

Doctors and Pharmacies

By Richard and Anita, June, 2014

 

Cahuita: Cow Whee What?

Bus station mural There was no breeze and the town felt almost deserted in the mid-afternoon sun as we entered Cahuita for the first time after a forty minute walk down a dirt road from El Jardin Glorioso where we were staying. Main street Cauita At the northern end of the main street was the first grocery store named, incongruously, the Safari, and about three short blocks away and anchoring the other end was the second grocery store, the Vaz #2.  Cahuita National Park sat at the southern edge of the town. Two additional streets in Cahuita pointed west; they linked up near the bus station on the road out of town.

Cahuita is a funky little Caribbean beach town where the days play out slowly and there just isn’t a lot to get excited about.  It’s a laid-back place for the traveler who wants to enjoy the mix of rugged coral, black and golden sand beaches and hike through the rainforests rather than party the night away.  the populationThe name is derived from an indigenous word Cawi for the towering, twisted Sangrillo trees that, along with mango, palms and a variety of other trees, comprise the coastal forest.  The town’s origins can be tracked back to Africans who were brought via Jamaica in the late 1800’s to build the coffee railroad from San Jose and work the banana plantations. The Afro-Caribbean culture is still in evidence among the local population and a jumble of Caribbean patois, English and Spanish seems to be the language of communication.

North end of CahuitaAfter a few long walks into town to buy groceries or sample the restaurants we followed our hosts advice and rented bicycles for 5,000 Colones ($10) a day; big clunky, graceless, single-speed contraptions with sluggish coaster brakes.  These sped us on our way with less effort along the dirt roads and we explored the national park and the town and its environs at our leisure (as everything seems to be done in this humid, tropical area).

Cahuita ParkCahuita National Park was established in 1970 and is Costa Rica’s only free national park. It’s small land mass, 2600 acres, was established to protect the large coral reef off the Caribbean coast which is still endangered.National Park We donated towards the park’s maintenance, chained our bikes and walked for a few hours along its trails, beaches and occasionally upon long, wooden, raised footpaths elevated above swampy ground.  The sun overhead was filtered by the coastal forest canopy, the air humid and the atmosphere quiet and tranquil, broken occasionally by some insect buzzing or a birdsong.  Golden beach at Cahuita National ParkOur hike was gratifying although we had hoped to glimpse either the two or three-toed sloths or a troop of capuchin monkeys inhabiting the park.  Our efforts however rewarded us with the sighting of a lone howler monkey high in the trees and a couple of raccoons ambling across the path.  And, thankfully, no pit vipers were spotted either since they also occupy the park.Upside-down sloth

Since we had no luck spotting the sloths in the park we hopped a bus to the nearby town of Puerto Viejo and visited the Jaguar Rescue Center, a sanctuary that protects injured animals and returns them to the wild whenever possible.  And, finally, we saw sloths, both two and three-toed, high in the trees adjoining the property (so we can truthfully say we saw them in the wild) and climbing sideways along branches or hanging upside down inside the sanctuary. Camoflauged tree frog We saw several varieties of frogs alongside a cleverly landscaped natural-looking lagoon including one so cleverly camouflaged that it nearly defied the focus on our camera. In several sturdy Baby howler monkey sleepingcages were species of the poisonous snakes including the fer-de-lance and the golden eyelash pit viper.  There was a half-blinded anteater that had been rescued and (so cool!) four small baby anteaters and a few baby howler monkeys.  Although we’re not zoo fans the Jaguar Rescue Center was a unique, educational and uplifting experience that we really enjoyed.

Baby anteatersIn retrospect we’ll still stand by our statement that there’s not a lot to get excited about in Cahuita; that’s different from not a lot to do. You just don’t get too animated – that can be hard work in the hot tropical sun, don’t you know.Red-eyed tree frog

By Anita and Richard, May, 2014

 

 

 

The Road To Cahuita

Riding the Tika Bus again we could tell within a few miles that we had left Nicaragua and were now in Costa Rica.  The shanties alongside the Pan American Highway looked a little less shabby and the rusted corrugated structures used as shelters were not in evidence.  The cars looked a little newer and, it took a while to notice what was lacking, there were no horses or cattle pulling carts or families walking beside the road.  Overall, within just a few miles of the border, Costa Rica felt more prosperous.Ferns & Forest

The feeling of Costa Rica having more continued into the next day as we set off early in the morning from the capital city of San Jose to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica.  We wound our way on a two-lane road through hills and low mountains driving through rain forests; the damp mists and clouds clung to the vehicle and traffic turned on their lights and slowed to a crawl to navigate through dense, cool fog.  Alongside the road were giant ferns, plants with huge leaves at least eighteen inches across and, in some places, the trees from either side of the road touched overhead and formed a living tunnel.  Occasionally we could see the valleys far below filled with hazy clouds and there were brilliant greens in every imaginable shade wherever one looked. For a while we followed a truck carrying mangoes and tomatoes and then other trucks filled with pineapples and bananas.  We glimpsed numerous rivers and streams as we passed, some with round, water-smoothed rocks scattered about the riverbeds and the trees lining the banks were flowering with exotic blossoms of purple, reds, yellows and oranges.  Everywhere the earth was populated by some thriving, living plant and the impression of abundance and fertility seemed to envelope us.Headed towards Jadin Glorioso

We arrived at our destination, Cahuita, about noon and were met by our American hosts, Edward and Julie, who led us down a dirt road about two hundred yards to the little casita on their gated property.  We were compelled to walk slowly as we were valiantly dragging our hard-shell, 24-inch suitcases with state-of-the-art spinner wheels through ruts and over pebbles along-side us; yet, again, another reminder of how inappropriate our luggage is for the out-of-the-way places in which we keep finding ourselves!El Jardin GoriosoSo, anyway, on to another piece of heaven, El Jardin Glorioso – the glorious garden. The grounds are a natural, park-like setting populated by royal palms reaching forty feet towards the sky, fan palms, triangle palms, lipstick palms and a profusion of numerous extraordinary and colorful plants, flowers and trees. This includes our new favorite, the ylang-ylang tree, which grows the most amazing flower with an intoxicating fragrance (rumored to be one of the ingredients for Chanel No. 5).The coral pool

Coral poolWe took advantage of the property’s crown jewel, a natural coral pool that one climbed down into carefully, avoiding the sharp walls to swim in tranquil privacy; watching the waves form and crash through the pool’s opening, the sea water flowing into the enclosure and ebbing out.

And so we found ourselves spending over a week Cahuita, waking to a chorus of birds early each morning (and not a rooster crow to be heard!) and finishing our day sitting out on our porch enjoying the night sounds or at the nearby coral beach watching both the night sky and the waves.El Jardin Glorioso

Next post – There’s much, much more to the Cahuita area including the Cahuita National Park and The Jaguar Sanctuary.

El Jardin Glorioso

By Anita and Richard, May, 2014

Granada In The Rear View

Granada, Spain conjures up visions of the fabled history of Andalusia, the breath-taking magnificence of the Alhambra, the Moorish conquerors turned overlords.

La Catedral

La Catedral

But Granada, Nicaragua?  Before our Nicaragua sojourn our conversations with travelers suggested to us that we would prefer Leon, Granada’s sister city on Lake Managua, which is the larger of the two cities, the liberal bastion, the university town. Granada is smaller, more commercial, more conservative, favored by tourists seeking more amenities. We were fully prepared to be drawn more to Leon; so it came as somewhat of a surprise that we were captivated by Granada, Nicaragua.

The Old Hospital Ruins

The Old Hospital Ruins

In Granada the colonial architecture around the city is being refurbished and upgraded; its charm enhanced with each renovation. The city has begun to effectively lure the tourist – the more affluent class beyond the transient, back-packer crowd.

Hotel on Avenida Calzada

Hotel on Avenida Calzada

Avenida Calzada, jutting out of Parque Central, is a vital, bustling, pedestrian thoroughfare crowded with restaurants catering to many tastes. The adjoining streets offer more eateries, watering holes, souvenir shops selling traditional handicrafts and shops seeking to accommodate the needs of a growing city.

Kathys Waffle House

Kathy’s Waffle House

Scattered around the historic city center are the cathedrals and churches which lend an air of dignity and accentuate the beauty of the skyline. Breezes blowing off Lake Nicaragua help cool the air, in all but the dry season, vitalizing the city.

Iglesia Guadalupe

Iglesia Guadalupe

The physical expression of a city is fundamentally important; it’s the first impression, it’s what keeps you wanting to dig deeper, to know more. And what began to emerge, what drew us back for the third and extended stay was the relaxed feel and hospitality rooftopexerted by the expat community of varying backgrounds and nationalities. There is an eclectic mix of full-time residents, part-time residents and visitors driven by a multitude of personal motivations. The mix includes retirees, entrepreneurs, gap-year students, NGO professionals, volunteers, vagabonds and thrill-seekers.   And most have those ex-pat qualities of gregariousness and affability.  It is the norm to run into acquaintances on any short journey as we walk about the city and, since shank’s mare is the preferred mode of travel, social contact is amplified.

Old Train Depot

Old Train Depot

To augment the welcoming ambiance provided by the architecture and the expats, there is also the availability of world-class medical care and international transportation options found in the capital, Managua, just a short drive north of Granada. Vivian Pellas Medical Center, a newly constructed facility and private hospital, offers exceptional health care services at extremely affordable costs; it’s possible to ensure medical coverage through a monthly payment option. International flights are readily available at the Augusto C. Sandino International Airport to whisk tourists and expats to the States, Canada or any onward destination. Tica Bus Line has daily routes to all the capital cities in Central America and Mexico, so low-cost modes of transport are available for shorter jaunts.street scene

So it’s hard to leave a city that we have come to appreciate and friends with whom we’ve had great conversations and with whom we could develop deeper bonds given more time.  But we both agree that it’s time for new experiences and locations; time to leave a city and a country that have imprinted themselves upon us and move south, leaving Granada in the rear view.

La Iglesia Xalteva

La Iglesia Xalteva

By Anita and Richard, May, 2014

Selva Negra: Nicaragua’s Black Forest

Our bungalowAfter a short drive from Matagalpa along windy roads and climbing to an elevation above 3,000 feet we arrived at the Selva Negra Mountain Resort in the late afternoon.  Almost immediately we felt that we had taken a step back into both another time and another country.  Picture a little bit of Germany set down in the highlands of northern Nicaragua.  Quaint Bavarian-style bungalows and chalets, each with a few rocking chairs in front, were scattered along the road or set near a pond that reflected the deep greens of the cloud forest that surrounded the little valley.  Although the mists had burned away earlier in the day the weather was noticeably cooler and damper and fresher when compared to the lower elevations of the country. The European style architecture and geese wandering around did little to ground us in Nicaragua; if a German milkmaid had come around the corner with a pail of sloshing milk we wouldn’t have been too surprised.Bavarian style chalet

So, how did this bit of transplanted Germany wind up here in Nicaragua?  Wikipedia says that, “In the 1850s, when gold was discovered in California, many American and European passengers made their way to California crossing the Isthmus of Central America through Nicaragua”.  Among those seeking their fortunes was a German couple, Ludwig Elster and Katharina Braun.   Evidently the northern highlands of Nicaragua reminded them of the region they were from and, travel-weary, they chose to remain in the area they later called Selva Negra, the Black Forest, rather than continue to San Francisco.  They planted the first coffee beans in the area and were joined later in their farming community by other Europeans and Americans.

Solar water heater

Solar water heater

The Ecolodge was built in 1976 by Eddy and Mausi Kuhl, descendants of the original settlers who are the current owners of the 400 acre property.  Daily tours of the historic coffee farm, observing some of the methods currently practiced for living green, horseback riding, hiking and bird and wildlife watching are a few of the things that can be done while visiting.  Of course there’s always just relaxing, rocking in a chair, reading or chatting with new friends.

Anita says, “I decided to go on a hike with a couple of friends to see the panoramic view from the mountain top. Jungle Hike After talking to the woman behind the counter about our plans and being assured that we were in for a real treat we set off with a map (which we lost halfway through the hike) and spent about three hours climbing steep, seemingly vertical trails, slipping and sliding around the paths.  When we finally arrived at the promised panoramic viewpoint the riotous overgrowth and foliage from the trees almost totally obscured the view.  And then we had to go D.O.W.N…         

Richard says, “I read a good book, napped and took pictures of the gardener dredging algae from the pond”.Algae removal

Obviously, some choices in how to spend one’s leisure time are better than others at Selva Negra.

By Anita and Richard, May, 2014

 

North To The Hill Country Of Nicaragua

Sebaco MarketWe branched off the Pan-American Highway at the Masaya exchange and headed north on Route 2, beginning a slow ascent through arid country seared from the long, hot, dry season. After an hour we made our first stop in Sebaco; the fruit and vegetable stalls beckoning us to pause and sample their offerings.Fruit and Veggies This was not a grand market in scale; no more than a dozen stands lined the west side of the highway. However, the vibrant colors, with fruits and vegetables carefully and artfully arranged in baskets, piles and stacks and hanging from posts overhead made a visual appeal. The vendors repeatedly sprinkled water from large barrels nearby over their goods which made the produce sparkle and glisten in the sunlight. We purchased a bag of mandarin oranges and, after settling in to our journey again, alternated between savoring sections of the aromatic fruit and gazing out the windows.Smiling woman Read more

Howlers At The Green Puddle

Lagoon with Volcano ConcepcionWe exited the ferry onto Ometepe, an island comprised of two volcanoes rising above Lake Nicaragua’s choppy surface which are connected by a low isthmus giving it an hour-glass shape. The northernmost volcano, Concepcion, is active while the southern, Madera, lies dormant with a caldera and lagoon crowning its heights.Lake Nicaragua The island is large and sparsely populated for its size with a population somewhat in excess of 40,000 inhabitants. Ometepe is still primarily devoted to livestock and agriculture although tourism and eco-tourism are rapidly growing economic sectors. There are two small ports, Moyogalpa on the northwest coast of Concepcion, where our ferry docked, and Altagracia on its northeastern shore, with a newly paved road connecting them. A paved road also runs the length of the isthmus then abruptly ends on the northern slopes of Madera and the ride rapidly deteriorates. Clench your teeth because, if you want to go anywhere off this semi-circular road, you’re in for a bite-your-tongue, slow and bumpy journey.Petroglyph The island has an interesting archeological history whichs appear to have begun with migrants from Mexico as the initial inhabitants perhaps around 2000 BC. By happenstance, we stumbled upon Jorge Luis who was knowledgeable and who served as both chauffeur and guide during our stay.Statuary He shepherded us around the island starting with Museo de Ceibo at the end of a dirt road near a small village with the unusual name of Tel Aviv. The museum, devoted to the artifacts of the island, was much more than we had expected and showcased household and ceremonial pottery, kitchen and agricultural implements, weapons for hunting and war and burial urns. The influence of the Mayan culture in certain polychromatic ceremonial pieces was obvious.  We also visited Altagracia to view the few pieces of statuary left on the island (most have been moved to Managua and Granada) and many of the numerous and sizeable petroglyphs located on the lower slopes of the volcano Madera, among the most ancient of the relics on the island. Ojo de AguaAfter a tasty lunch of fresh grilled fish from the lake we headed for a swim to Ojo de Agua, the Eye of the Water, a mineral spring marginally developed by an encasement of the basin in a tiered pool, situated at the end of, yet another, rutted, bumpy road. The water, crystal clear, mirrored the surrounding colors of blues and greens and the sun’s rays slanting down through the leafy cover overhead reflected mystically off the water.  After a hot and dusty day the cool water was divine and the atmosphere of the spring was extraordinary and surreal. Butterflies hatching On the third day of our visit we discovered the newly opened Butterfly Paradise, obviously intended for butterflies but it could also have been called that for us humans as well.  A recently built, enclosed, mammoth-sized enclosure was beautifully and artistically Butterflieslandscaped which allowed our flying friends to live in an environment without predators. Fresh fruit was cut and strategically placed throughout the enormous space as a supply of fructose and colorful flowers offering nectar as a food sources in abounded in well-tended garden beds. For us, the only visitors at the time, it was simply an oasis of tranquility and a place to marvel at the delightful creatures.

the green puddleWe lodged at the Charco Verde Hotel, literally translated as the Green Puddle, so named due to its association with a small nature preserve of that name, found at the terminus of (yet again!) a dusty dirt road.Water bird The setting was quiet and relaxed, nestled on the water’s edge in a cove on the south shore of Concepcion. The lagoon itself, the “puddle”, was fed by a fresh water spring and was lined with trees, forbs and shrubs. But the most appealing were the troupes of howler monkeys which we found could be witnessed each afternoon, high overhead, around dusk. The dry season provided the perfect viewing with the sparse vegetation allowing us to observe these clever acrobats and listen to their deep and reverberating warnings.  All in all, a few days delightfully spent in the somnambulant life of Charco Verde serenaded by our hosts, the howlers.Howler on Ometepe

By Anita and Richard, April, 2014

The Easter Pilgrims Of Popoyuapa

Pilgrims from PopyuapaSo much of travel is about serendipity; the unanticipated, the unknown and the totally unexpected.  And so, imagine our smiling astonishment as we rounded a curve on the Pan American Highway south of Granada, Nicaragua, last week and found motorized traffic halted and waiting for a long line of at least one hundred and fifty carts being pulled by oxen and horses. Caravan  Families with young children and the elderly passed by, either walking alongside the carts or riding inside.  Many of the carts were in the process of pulling off the road to rest and water their animals.  And, of course not able to resist an opportunity for a closer look, we hopped out of car and started walking down the road to find out what we could.Family passing by

The two-wheeled carts were built with a wooden base, many with aged and gray boards but others were gaily painted.  They had arched frameworks that were mostly covered in sugarcane stalks and leaves to shade the occupants within from the hot sun shining overhead.  Hanging from the roofs and along the carts’ sides were buckets filled with food, straw baskets, coolers, hammocks and cheap, plastic chairs and bunches of bananas or plantains. Chicken on the roof!

Perched upon the top of several of the carts we spied hens and roosters clinging to roof coverings for (perhaps?) their last ride.  Many carts displayed yellow flags which signify the Catholic Church and the blue and white national flag of Nicaragua.  Some were draped with a large purple cloth representing the upcoming Holy Week and stamped across with the name of the city from which they ventured.Pilgrims to Popoyuapa

Nicaragua is a Catholic country and the culture is rich in religious beliefs and folkloric traditions that may vary from region to region; many are prominently on display during Lent and Semana Santa or Holy Week, the week preceding Easter Sunday.  We found out later that the caravan that we had seen formed the return trip of devout pilgrims visiting Popoyuapa, a small village of 4,000 near San Jorge, Rivas and Lake Nicaragua where a four-day festival occurs each year before Santa Semana.  The Sanctuary of Popoyuapa is the home for the Shrine of Jesus the Redeemer, a life-size Christ figure wearing a traditional crown of thorns.  The image is also known as Jesus the Rescued, possibly named so after the floating statue was retrieved from Lake Nicaragua or, according to another story, after being pieced back together following an earthquake in 1844.Pilgrims from Popoyuapa

In addition to those making the symbolic pilgrimage by oxcart, thousands more of the faithful visit the shrine during Semana Santa to show their devotion and express their thankfulness for what they’ve received, for favors divinely granted or to ask for miraculous intervention in their needs.

colorful cartsThe pilgrimage by oxcart to Popoyuapa  is a tradition passed down through the generations and has occurred for at least a century with the faithful traveling from as far away as Masaya and Granada in a journey that may take as long as four days and cover up to 150 miles round trip.  Except for a chance encounter on the Pan-American Highway we might never have seen this astounding caravan of oxcarts plodding down the road nor learned of this religious pilgrimage of the deeply faithful. Pilgrims to Popoyuapa

By Anita and Richard, April, 2014

 

 

Competing For Candy

DancersWe were not certain what to expect as we walked into the auditorium of Casa de Tres Mundo in the heart of Granada on a Friday morning. We knew that we were attending a scholarship contest for Priscila, the 10 year-old daughter of Yanni, whose family has graciously lent a portion of their home to the school where we had volunteered for the last three months. In fact, we had supervised our older class the previous day in making posters to raise and wave supporting Priscila’s effort in competing for the prize. And we knew that some of the volunteers had been working closely with Priscila the last couple of weeks on the academic portion of the match, rehearsing answers to the questions that might be asked. We also understood that of the eight participants, only one would advance to the final competition in the capital city, Managua.

Contestant # 1Now we were prepared to operate on SOTB (South of the Border) time; we’ve pretty much acclimated to that aspect of life in Latin America. So we knew that we might have a bit of a wait when we arrived on time at 9:00 AM.  But we had our friends and volunteers from the school there, Priscila’s immediate family, the directors of the NGO and a small contingent of students from the Pantanal school.  The minutes ticked by slowly and, when the event finally began, it was not fashionably late, it wasn’t SOTB late, it was an hour and forty minutes late. Even the locals were beginning to despair.

CompetitionWe used some of the long wait profitably, however, and learned a bit about our hosts, MILAVF and La Fundacion Casa de Tres Mundos. The former, known also as Movimiento Infantil or the Children’s Movement, is a nationwide organization that, for 34 years, has worked to enact and enforce child protection laws. They work in communities with at-risk children and adolescents, organizing them into dance troupes, sports clubs, performing and visual arts classes and ecological projects. La Fundacion Casa de Tres Mundo, which began in 1987, was founded by an Austrian artist and author and a Nicaraguan poet, priest and politician.  It has steadily expanded to include classes in the arts, dance and theater for the children of Granada, an art gallery with rotating exhibits for the public, a free, communal radio station and an arts program to encourage youngsters in the poorer barrios of the city and beyond.All the contestants

When the competition finally began it was with each of the girls coming down the makeshift runway in sports attire:  a tennis outfit with a racket, a cheerleader with pom-poms, a soccer player with ball and so forth. It was a bit un-nerving to see these young girls striking semi-seductive poses during their introductions and sauntering flirtatiously. Following this was a segment with the girls in their colorful, traditional dresses of Nicaragua, which included a short introduction to the judges and a brief Q and A for the academic portion. Interspersed with the program presentations by the eight young contestants were dance numbers by various ensembles; these were highly entertaining.The dance troupe

Finally, the results of the judges were announced. Our contestant, Priscila, came in third. Of course this was not what we had hoped for, but as she was competing with girls from the more affluent, private schools in Granada we were pleased with her showing. As third-place winner she received three gaily decorated bags with packages of sugared confections. The winner of the competition won a chance at a scholarship and was crowned with a tiara and draped with a sash in true Miss America style.  She also received a beautifully decorated cake and three flowered bags filled with sugared confections. As Jim, our school’s director drily observed, “Hey, they’re kids. They like candy.”

Priscila with the loot

Priscila with the loot

By Anita and Richard, April, 2014

The ‘Hood: Living In Our Barrio

Vista MombachoIt starts to get light about 5:00 a.m. and the roosters commence their competition to welcome the new day.  Who can crow loudest?  Longest?  Most Inflections?  The birds join in with a songfest and soon we hear the occasional bark of dogs as households begin to stir and take advantage of the cool morning temperatures to get some chores accomplished.  A baby wails, a child laughs, a new day begins.View from rooftop of Vista Mombacho

We can go up to the third-floor rooftop terrace and peer over the waist-high railing into our surrounding neighbor’s irregularly shaped dirt yards filled with an outdoor stove for cooking, various shade trees, the occasional mango, and the ubiquitous banana trees. Drying clothes hang from lines and, in a haze of suspended dust, the women sweep the hard dirt backyards clean of leaves and place the debris into a trash pile with other discards to be burned every few days. The funky odor of burning trash and other garbage wafts into our window occasionally.

We are renting a cheerful, airy, one-bedroom apartment, about 500-square feet, at the Vista Mombacho Apartments.  Our apartmentWe have doormen who monitor the entrance around the clock for security and keep an eye on the neighborhood doings.  A small staff makes certain that maintenance problems are promptly fixed, the apartment cleaned twice weekly, the 5-gallon bottles of drinking water replaced as needed and our questions answered as they arise. The laundry facilities are clean and the Wi-Fi, while not blazingly fast, is reliable.  And, oh yes, there’s a lovely pool to float around in during the heat of the day and a roof-top patio for get-togethers or star-gazing while relaxing in a hammock.the neighborhood of Vista Mombacho

As for the neighborhood, zoning is a first world concept and “mixed” would most aptly describe the area. The predominant style is colonial with the attached dwellings fronting the walkways and/or road and finished in a stucco facade. Some homes are well-maintained with freshly varnished doors and a gleaming coat of paint. Neighborhood near Vista Mombacho Some are a little shabby and some are in uncared for, dilapidated disrepair interspersed with the occasional empty, trash-strewn lot. Mixed in with the houses are pulperias: small, family run stores in the front of the home specializing in convenience items and groceries, homemade foods and drinks, bicycle or small appliance repair shops, etc.  Many mornings we’ll glimpse the neighborhood women here and there busily scrubbing down the walkway in front of their homes or businesses.  At various times of the day, groups of men (varying in age but all unemployed) will congregate to visit or pass around a bottle.  Occasionally, as you walk a few blocks in any direction, will be some prone, passed-out man sleeping off another day of no work, no hope.

Home security - Stretching concertina wire

Home security – Stretching concertina wire

La Union

La Union

The two grocery stores we shop at, La Union and La Colonia, are about four blocks from our apartment.  Every couple of days we grab our canvas bags and set off. The stores are surprisingly westernized with shopping carts, scanner check-outs, and US and Latin American brand names. The familiarity and ease of shopping is reflected in the increased pricing.  We attempt to economize by buying some of our fresh fruits and vegetables in the small markets around the city or the mercado but the habit of convenient one-stop shopping dies hard.

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, just a couple blocks down from the grocery store is the office of our physician, Dr. Francisco Martinez Blanco,  who speaks fluent English and enjoys a popular reputation in the expat community.   In the other direction is the Laboratorio de Diagnostico Clinico Jesus Christo known to expats as “The Baby Jesus Clinic” where you can get your lab work done.  Two blocks further on is a husband and wife dentist team, both fluent in English and trained in Argentina, who run a spotless, modern and well-organized office and personally performed  our bi-annual cleaning and dental checkups at a fraction of the cost of work in the US.

The Baby Jesus Lab

The Baby Jesus Lab

It’s not hard to find fault in any city if you’re looking but Granada, a beautiful little city, is easy to love and easy to feel at home in. There’s plenty to do and see in the area for those so inclined or there are many places to relax and while away an afternoon.  Parting company with the city and continuing our travels at the end of April will be difficult.

By Anita and Richard, April, 2014

Field Trippin’ To La Playa Gigante

La Playa Gigante How do you reward kids who have perfect attendance and good behavior?  You take them on an outing to the beach!  And so, on a Saturday morning about 8:00, a group of around forty of the students who attend Education Plus Nicaragua met near the school where a hired bus waited to begin the odyssey.Waiting for the all aboard  Among the students were approximately twenty adults: volunteers affiliated with the school, other enthusiastic supporters who’d tagged along and a few parents.  There were smiles galore and anticipatory laughter and, when the “Everyone, get on!”  call finally sounded the kids scrambled aboard eagerly.

We headed south towards the Costa Rican border for about an hour and a half with the kids chattering, laughing, gazing out the windows and singing songs they’d learned in English and other favorites.Singing "My Heart Will Go On"  Above the bus driver’s head was a sign entreating “Jehovah, guard our entrance and exit now and always” and another sign above the door reminded us that the safe passage of the bus and its passengers was in the hands of The Father.   Thus ensured of the Almighty’s protection, we turned off the paved highway onto a rutted, narrow dirt road and bumped up and down and around the hills for a bit until, finally… the Pacific Ocean sparkled ahead.La Playa Gigante

And, here’s the part that totally astounded us, the kids, even though they were full of energy and itching to run into the water as fast as they could, lined up and listened as the safety rules were explained.  And … then … they… ran!  racing as fast as they could go toward the water before them.La Playa GiganteLa Playa GiganteThe huge beach, situated in a half-moon bay, was almost deserted; dark brown sand stretching long and wide with a gentle slope into the shallow water.  And, unlike so many beaches along the Pacific, it was fairly calm with just enough waves to provide some excitement for kids who were novice swimmers.  Playing in the waterOnly a few of the kids had swim suits (what luxury!) and  beach dress was anything goes, from t-shirts and shorts to underwear – it didn’t matter who wore what because fun was the order of the day.  The kids jumped in the waves, laid in the surf, splashed and yelled.  They kicked the beach balls about in impromptu games, dug holes to fill with water and buried each other in the sand. Sand in places you don't want to think about!Eating watermelon right down to the rindLunch was pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven – fabulous but, of course, the perfect crust was somewhat underappreciated by the ravenous kids and devoured in about three bites. Wedges of watermelon followed and then… a sprint to the water again for more fun!

At the end of the magical afternoon, filled with laughter and many hugs, the kids and adults boarded the bus for the return trip home with happy smiles and a lot of pink noses.  The bus bumped back down the dirt road accompanied by a couple of howler monkeys in the trees.  P1010045 (800x595)The kids talked animatedly about their day and, except for two roadside stops to get rid of several gallons of soda they’d drunk immediately before the return trip – boys to the left, girls to the right and no peeking! –  the trip back to Granada was uneventful – good since all the adults were either a fixin’ to or were already dozing!I love Nicaragua

By Anita and Richard, March, 2014

 

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