Tag Archives: Baby Boomers in Latin America

What We Lost: Burgled On A Bus

Although we were careful with our belongings, we must have become complacent during our travels.  Bad luck finally caught up with us and we became the victims of theft.

We arrived home to our apartment in Manta in the early evening after a long day of travel.  We had begun at 6:45 with a taxi ride on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos to catch a bus to the ferry that took us across to Baltra Island.  From there we flew back to the Ecuadorian mainland into the large port city of Guayaquil and grabbed a taxi to reach the bus station.  After buying our tickets we scrambled a bit to find our departure point and made the bus with only minutes to spare.  We settled in to our comfortable seats for the three-and-a-half hour ride back to Manta and the last taxi taking us (finally!) home.

photo available from http://www.canstockphoto.com

photo available from http://www.canstockphoto.com

We arrived home tired but very happy with our visit and began unpacking our carry-ons, piling up dirty laundry and putting our things away.  And then we turned our attention to our backpacks.  With a sinking feeling I pulled out the bag with the charging cords (camera, I-pod, Kindle) and didn’t see my camera wrapped in its bright blue woven bag from Guatemala.  I pulled out the charging cord and mouse for my computer and, with a slow, sick feeling growing in my stomach, made sure all the compartments were empty.  I compulsively patted my backpack front and back. I looked around at my belongings strewn across the bed, checked under each item and verified that my computer, wrapped in its green padded bag, was also gone.  I twisted my backpack side to side as if my computer might magically reappear but the bag was still empty – the camera and computer still gone.

We had taken turns taking pictures on our cameras of all our sight-seeing in the Galapagos Islands and had carefully downloaded the photos each night when we returned to our hotel in case one of the cameras was damaged or lost.  Our Wi-Fi was so slow that uploading our photos to Dropbox, our cloud-based storage file, to back them up wasn’t really an option.  However, we thought we’d pretty much covered the bases…

When did the theft occur? Our best guess is that it happened on the bus from Guayaquil to Manta.

The first suspicious incident happened when an official looking man asked us to move from our assigned seats to more inviting seats towards the front of the bus which we complied with.  However, the rightful passengers appeared shortly and requested their assigned seats. At this time an official in the uniform of Riena Del Camino, the bus line, assisted us and back we went to our original seats.  Both times our attention was divided between picking up our backpacks and gathering up the items we had removed and then stumbling along the narrow aisle while curious onlookers watched.

The second suspicious incident happened when I noticed that my pack had fallen on its back by my feet and was slightly pushed under the back seat rather than leaning against the bus side on my left where I’d first placed it.  Thinking that the bus movement had shifted its balance I moved it upright again without checking the contents.

The important questions are: “What have we really lost?”

  • One of two of our fairly new computers with the contents mostly backed up and recoverable. One of two of our small cameras with over half of our photos of the amazing Galapagos.
  • Our “travel virginity.” In return we gained the realization that we were singled out as vulnerable targets.
  • And, maybe, our faith in the travel gods. Our future journeys may always include less trust in the people around us.  We’ll be more watchful, more guarded and possibly more suspicious.

    photo available from http://www.canstockphoto.com

    photo available from http://www.canstockphoto.com

We live a minimalistic lifestyle as long-term travelers with each item carefully selected and chosen.  But the loss of a computer and camera is much more than the loss of a few of our possessions.  It’s about the diminution of our confidence in ourselves and the people around us who we had formerly greeted with open smiles and trust.

Something’s changed.  Call us less naïve and complacent…. and tally up a small win for the dark side.

By Anita and Richard

 

 

 

Going Up Country

Both of us remember as kids piling into the family station wagon for Sunday drives to “see the scenery” and we both had the same thought: “B-O-R-I-N-G!”  Fast forward to present day and it’s readily apparent how much we’ve changed.  A road trip is a cornerstone of travel and the thought of a day spent exploring new towns and countryside can leave us with a sense of giddy anticipation. north of Manta

We headed north of Manta through a series of small “don’t blink your eyes or you might miss them” towns.  Because we’ve found that this area of Ecuador seems to be very aware of its image and protective of its environment, we were surprised when piles of garbage and random trash appeared dumped beside the road for a stretch of a few miles.  We spied a large landfill off to the side, servicing the large military reservation in the area, along the otherwise scenic route and once we left it behind we began to enjoy the views again.  Our favorite trees, the ceibos, appeared and we began wending our way through the low hills.row crops

As we moved inland from the coastline we began noticing small farms of row crops, many with solitary or multiple workers bent over their tasks – stoop labor. Among the offerings we recognized were onions, maiz, pole beans alongside banana and plantains.  Picturesque rice paddies appeared with egrets scattered here and there in the shallow water near workers standing in the mud, hunched over and laboring at the work of tending their crop as in years gone by. Rice paddies

We arrived in Bahía de Caráquez, with an estimated population of 20,000.  As a coastal town situated at the mouth of the Río Chone, it’s a popular vacation destination for residents of Quito and Guayaquil and has begun to attract foreign visitors and retirees as well as investors in the last decade.  Tourism is a significant source of income and, with its high-rise condominiums and hotels located along the waterfront, this new, vertical construction has earned Bahia the nickname of “Little Miami.” Numerous fishing boats, pleasure boats and yachts of various sizes were moored at Puerto Amistad near the bridge which crosses the Rio Chone.view of Bahia from San Vicente

Because it’s a small town there’s not a lot to see but we had a terrific time looking for and taking pictures of the colorful variety of tuk-tuks and pedicabs. There is talk that a new mall with a modern grocery will be coming soon and this will reduce the need for the frequent trips to either Portoviejo or Manta for some basic shopping.

pedi-cabtuk-tuks galoreWe crossed over the Los Caras Bridge, admiring the boats on the bay and drove through the small town of San Vicente which appeared to be largely ignored by tourists and no comparison to its wealthy neighbor. Here, as elsewhere through our journey, we noted the widespread use of bamboo as a construction material for houses, shops and many examples of split rail picket fences.bamboo construction

bamboo fencelongitude why not latitude?) signPassing by occasional roadside signs that counted down our longitude we reached our final destination, a little fishing village named Canoa (0°28’59.9″S 80°27’04.5″W).  Maybe because it was mid-afternoon or low season the few streets seemed almost deserted although it’s a popular tourist destination. Shops and small eateries lined the sandy street adjoining the huge expanse of golden beach that sold beachwear, souvenirs and basic groceries.  Surf lessons for beginners and intermediates were advertised and there were several of the obligatory surfboard shops and hostels as well.mainstreet Canoa

And finally, it was time to feast on some amazingly fresh and cheap seafood at a little thatch-roofed beach restaurant while we admired the view of the Pacific Ocean, bluffs off to either side and scattered fishing boats along the quiet and almost empty beach.Canoa BeachCanoa Beach

By Anita and Richard

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wooden Ships: The Boat Builders of Manta

wooden beautyWooden Ships, the song performed at Woodstock by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and featured on their first album, may well be remembered by many members of our generation. The ballad came to our baby-boomer minds when we first viewed the magnificent wooden yachts and fishing boats in various stages of construction, tear-down and refurbishing.  All the overhauling and building is taking place in dry dock on the sands near Playa Tarqui here in Manta.cleaning and repairing the hull wooden ships

There does not appear to be a great deal written about these craftsmen or the work of the shipbuilders on the beach adjacent to the fish market. Manta, with an estimated population over 300,000, still feels like it’s not much more than an overgrown fishing village although it’s now a major exporter of tuna and other seafood within which a financial sector has flourished. So it’s logical to assume that the profession of building wooden ships has been known and practiced for generations, if not for centuries.a slow process of repair

The current craftsmen still rely on hand tools. Chisels, hammers, adzes, awls, knives, machetes, nail sets and the like are wielded to work the wood to create ribs, hulls, decking, super-structures, etc. Some of the wooden beams and planks are machine milled but not to uniform dimensional lumber. The individual boards are selected one by one, measured and cut separately to match the adjacent plank and the gaps between are sealed by caulking. The beam and ribs are chosen for the grain with a natural bend being required and are slowly shaped so the main supports, to the extent possible, are intact pieces of lumber and not ones “sistered” or jointed.erecting the hull

To seal the spaces between the planks, the fibers of de-husked coconuts are used. These tough strands are roughly woven into a fibrous rope held taut between two men while being worked to form a sinewy caulking that is later covered by water repellant sealers.

Photo by Al Eisele of MantaExpatsOnline

Photo by Al Eisele

Photo by Al Eisele of MantaExpatsOnline

Photo by Al Eisele

As a concession to modernity, a limited assortment of power tools are used in the construction including small chain saws. Some of the wooden ships and yachts, which are covered in fiberglass, require powered grinders and buffers for a finished application. These, alongside the Asociacion de Carpinteros de Manta of which the craftsmen are members, show that this native industry has kept pace with the times.fiberglass cover on the hull

almost ready!It’s been decades since the release of the song Wooden Ships; we’ve aged and changed and could even use some refurbishing of our own. And yet we have little reason to believe that much has changed here on the beach in Manta. Certainly the fiberglass coverings, the chainsaws and the associated electrical accoutrements are a more recent addition. But it’s not hard to imagine that the profession of building ships is passed down through the generations from father to son.  And there’s much to be said for the refurbishing of those ships that have been used well and meticulously restored to their former incarnations allowing them to go to sea once more.ready to be refurbished

By Richard and Anita

Special thanks to Al Eisele of mantaexpatsonline.com for permission to use his photos.

 

Déjà Vu at the Tarqui Market

tarqui“It’s like déjà vu all over again.”  The quote, often attributed to Yogi Berra, is the feeling we have as we wander through the vast market area known simply as Tarqui in Manta, Ecuador. It is, in ways, similar to the sprawling mass of shops and stalls in Merida, Mexico whose cacophony and turbulence would drive us back to Parque Central after a couple of hours. Or it could be compared to the Mercado adjacent to the gigantic, bus parking lot, masquerading as a terminal, in Antiqua, Guatemala. Here we could find, among the fruits and vegetables and almost all manner of things available in that country, the area known as la Paca (the Bale) which resembled nothing so much as a vast topsey- turvey Goodwill drop-off station turned on its head. But, Tarqui is unique. Tarqui Market

Man and fishA happy fish vendorA reputable source guestimates that Tarqui is a rectangularly shaped twelve by fifteen blocks. While we’ve not walked the parameter that seems intuitively correct. Tarqui serves as a market for the barrio, the neighborhoods surrounding it, as well as the city folk. The street stalls offer to the passing throngs the bounty of this fecund province of Manabi in addition to the abundance of seafood from the Pacific. For the haggling aficionado, bargain hunters get an animated buying experience with plenty of smiles and shoulder shrugs as well as, in most instances, the cheapest prices in town.

Chicken fetchingly arrangedProduceOn a daily basis, seven days a week, live chickens and ducks, plucked chickens with feet still attached and a harvest from the sea arrive. The heart of the market is, of course, the produce. The vendors, some on the sidewalks but most abutted to the curbs, display their wares in stunningly colorful geometric piles and pyramids of fruits and vegetables.Best ever strawberries

Incredible values are available; a bag of six green peppers goes for fifty cents.  We pay another fifty cents for a bag of fifty to sixty whole, cleaned garlic cloves and are charged 75 cents for a large bag of thirty to forty radishes.  A young man from the nearby town of Jipijapa (Hippy-Hoppa) sells large loaves of banana-nut bread, fresh and amazingly fragrant, baked by his aunt. This still-warm bundle goes in one of our backpacks to be consumed later with the best-ever, ginormous fresh strawberries.Tarqui

Into this teeming mix of buyers, sellers and lookie-loos which fill the streets, taxis and trucks advance with a slow determination. If you’ve ever witnessed a car drive though a herd of sheep or cattle on a country road you get the picture.  It’s literally a game of give and take with the taxi inching its way deliberately through the teeming multitudes and ultimately gaining the upper hand as no one really wants a smashed toe.Tarqui Marquet

And then, as we venture beyond the produce vendors, who congregate near the major thoroughfare at the north end of Tarqui, we encounter the rest of the vast variety of merchants who sell bootlegged CD’s and DVD’s, clothing, plastic items, breads and pastries, car parts, stuffed toys, construction materials, kitchen items and on and on. Behind the vendor’s facades are the stores themselves and occasional alleyways that break the symmetry of the store fronts and allow access to an interior rabbit warren of more small shops, some of which have multiple entrances and exits, and all of which sell –  guess what? – more of what is on the sidewalks outside.

Tarqui MarketOf course, we have the option to shop in the several supermarkets dotted here and there throughout the city, such as GranAki, Mi Comisario and Super Maxi among others. Modeled after their western counterparts they offer ease and convenience in a sanitized package at, almost always, higher prices.  And Tarqui, while similar to street markets in other Latin countries with an echo of having done this before, offers a slightly difference experience; maybe because it’s a different country on a different continent. But here, there’s a spirit of cooperation with buyers and sellers working together to make sure everyone’s a winner.  Buying and selling goes on the world around, but this, friends, is commerce Ecuadorian style in Tarqui.chicken fun

By Richard and Anita

 

 

They Make House Calls Too

It was a dark and stormy night (we’ve always wanted to start a post like that!). The rain was coming down hard, a rare event in Manta, and our power had just gone out.  In fact, looking out our 11th story apartment windows, it appeared that the power had gone out in much of the city.  We decided to call it a night and started the usual preparations to get ready for bed.  The screech from the generator powered intercom startled us around 8:45 PM and the security guard at the entrance to the property engaged us in a fractured dialogue involving our basic Spanglish with the attendant miscommunications.  Finally, we came to understand that the physician we had seen twice to treat Enfermo’s bronchitis was at the entrance.

His daughter, Jema, a second-year medical student, came on the line and explained that she and her father were concerned about Enfermo’s health and were making a house call.  After we shut our gaping mouths, we invited them up to the apartment and then hurriedly changed out of our sleeping attire and back into street clothes.

The back story is immaterial but through circuitous means the doctor had learned that the nebulizer he had loaned us for inhalation treatments was not working properly and they had come to investigate the possible causes of the problem.  Upon deciding that yes, there was a problem with the machine, which of course didn’t work now because the power was out, the doctor and his daughter insisted that we get in their car and go to a pharmacy with power and test it there. So, with Jema driving, we set off into a black night and an entirely different view of Manta.  In addition to the nonfunctioning street lights, many of the traffic lights were also unlit and we slipped and slid on wet, slick roads up and down the steep, winding city streets through a crazed checker board of darkness and illumination.

Dr Cedeno & Jema We found an open pharmacy and after turning on the device the doctor was able to ascertain that the compressor could not produce sufficient force to vaporize the medicine.  This perplexed Dr. Cedeño, as it was a new machine, but he quickly thought up a solution.  Once again, we set off through the rain-speckled, night streets in quest of another nebulizer at his office which was located in the teaching hospital at La Universidad Laica Eloy Alfaro de Manabi where he rounded daily.   Upon our arrival at the university campus the doctor ran into his office only to discover that the equipment that he had envisioned loaning to us was no longer there.  But, (Aha!) he had one other option, an older model in his office across town at the Clinica Americana where we had first met him.

Setting off on our quest once again, we talked about the improbability of this ever happening in the United States. A physician, with his medical-student daughter, making unsolicited house calls out of concern for the health of a patient.  Both of them expressed incredulity at what we described and explained that it was quite common in Ecuador. Part of the physician’s job was to see the patient in the home, as necessary, and here the family would listen to the doctor and also be a part of assisting with patient care.Dr. Cedeno

At last, with a serviceable machine in hand, we arrived safely at our apartment shortly before 11 PM and were deposited at the gates expressing our profuse, totally inadequate thanks for the care, concern and unbelievable efforts just bestowed upon us. Shaking our heads as we mumbled “incredible!” the thought dawned upon us that there had been no discussion of compensation. Only in Ecuador. Only in a land far away from where we once called home.

By Richard and Anita

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

A Year’s Accounting or…We Spent What?

money-stream roadA pox upon budgets We’ve never budgeted in our lives. The whole notion of a budget was antithetical to our concept of being. Yet, when we first started planning our great adventure one of our foremost questions was “How Much”?  We diligently researched destinations across the globe and avidly read travel blogs and how-to books on retirement in various countries that broke down costs.  Some articles boasted that expat couples were living in Ecuador and Nicaragua for as little as $800 per month Chiapas Mexicowhile others said $2500 a month would entitle one to a lifestyle one could only dream of back in the States. When we hit the road in September of 2012 we started tracking our daily expenses and charted it in a monthly spreadsheet.  This was basically to give us a baseline and to anticipate future costs. We also had to learn and adopt a lifestyle that was both commensurate with our desires and our bank book. Lodging is the largest single cost and our criteria have remained consistent: safe, clean, affordable. When possible we look for weekly or monthly rental bargains. Caveats Medical costs are excluded; these are too idiosyncratic. All costs associated with life back in the states are excluded such as costs associated with our house that we are currently leasing (and plan to sell this year), charitable and Christmas gifts, etc.

Mean Monthly Costs by Category for Calendar Year 2013 in Dollars per Month

ITEM                                 MEAN            MAX             MIN

Clothing                  44          115            5

Food                      368          632          77

Classes                   164          400           0

Meals                     407          587        202

Misc.                      190          383          80

Rent                       875        1697          22

Tours                      136          511            0

Transp.                    240           503          13

Total                     2367           N/A         N/A

What’s Included:

Clothing: Clothing covers everything from rain ponchos, sunglasses and second-hand shirts to Teva sandals shipped in from the states.

Fruit and VeggiesFood: Includes consumable items as well as household products (shampoo, soap, paper goods, garbage bags, etc.). Many times we buy gringo foods at gringo prices and, obviously, this would be a perfect place to economize!

Lessons: Spanish lessons and, most recently, the services of a professional trainer. These are intermittent costs. We don’t incur them every month.

Traditional Mayan FishMeals Out: Any meals eaten outside the home including drinks and snacks. The figure is a real eye-opener!

Miscellaneous:  A sampling of expenditures reveals moneys that were spent for laundry, haircuts, massages, entertainment, a travel alarm clock, housekeeper gratuities, baby, graduation and quinceanera gifts, volunteer supplies, replacement computer mouse (mice?), fees to use public bathrooms and handouts to street beggars.

Online: This includes fees paid online for e-books, I-tunes, Netflix, Hot Spot (our virtual private network), Dropbox, Skype membership, etc.

Vista MombachoRent:  This year we paid for lodging in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Our most common lodging is at B&B’s but this also covers homestays and housesitting and includes any utility costs when paid.

Tours/Excursions: Entrance fees for museums, archeological sites, historic sites such as cathedrals, National parks, guided tours and the like.  Also included are entrance or exit fees at border crossings between countries.

Tuk-Tuks Santa Elena, GTMTransportation: If it moves and we’re on board it’s included. That means tuk-tuk, taxi, bus, shuttle, panga, launcha, ferry and airplane fees. We’re not absolutely convinced that this budgetary spreadsheet is necessary or advisable. But we’re finding it interesting to see how we spend our money and tracking our expenses has become a habit. So, we reckon we’ll keep at it for another year and see what changes in our spending behavior…

Through the roof!

Through the roof!

By Richard and Anita, January, 2014          

A Fiesta in Barrio Pantanal

Barrio Pantanal The New York Times reported that in Latin America the rate of population growth has dropped dramatically recently; Nicaragua is no exception. During the last two generations urbanization, increased access to health care and women’s empowerment has translated into smaller families. Barrio PantanalBut it was hard to reconcile that account with the reality of barrio Pantanal, a neighborhood south of Granada’s mercado district. It is not a place that taxis like to go because many of the streets are not paved but rather are dirt roads or foot paths. Jim, our host, explained that of the roughly 11,000 people in Pantanal, 7,000 are children 15 years and under. In this neighborhood, many of the residents are squatters. They live on vacant land which they use until they are evicted and required to move to the next make-shift shelter.Barrio Pantanal

Feeling a little at loose ends for Christmas day we made inquiries regarding volunteer opportunities and leaped at the chance to spend the afternoon in barrio Pantanal helping Education Plus Nicaragua with a fiesta and celebration for the children it serves and including the folks in the neighborhood.  We arrived at the festival location, a modest home with neatly swept concrete and dirt floors and two newly built latrines out back.  waiting for airThe family who lives in the home has generously allowed the NGO (non-governmental organization) to use it on weekdays until a permanent home for the school is found.  Education Plus provides a much-needed nutrition program to combat the malnutrition and hunger that many of the children experience by offering a free lunch and dinner to its students.  The non-profit organization believes that children who speak English have the best chance to escape a life of limited options and poverty so high priority is placed upon teaching English as well as after-school tutoring and help with homework.  The volunteers also work on teaching and improving socialization skills such as sharing, taking turns and playing cooperatively in organized recreation programs.Two Princesses

The yard and roadway in front of the home were filled with excited children.  A handful of adult volunteers of many nationalities were sprinkled throughout the crowd.  Antonio & MelissaThe children, many in their best party clothes, were eyeing two huge inflatable bounce houses, a table filled with soft drinks, popcorn and cotton candy machines and piñatas. The dozen or so volunteers, some already working with the program, were there to enjoy a Christmas fiesta along with the children of the neighborhood.

The five hours passed quickly for it was mostly chatting briefly with individual children, helping to keep games moving along, making sure every child had their turn at the various activities and doing whatever looked like needed to be done.  The children were having a great time; there was laughter and smiles galore. Sipping sodasMuch food was consumed. There was none of the usual fighting and bickering associated with almost three-hundred kids in close proximity to one another.  Looking to the east you could see where the pavement ended and the dirt track began. You knew that the poverty and hunger were waiting, as they always are. But for that Christmas celebration, for that sun dappled afternoon, it was fiesta time.Howdy hi!

By Richard and Anita, January, 2014

 

Jaco Beach, Costa Rica: Comfortable In A Familiar Sense

Jaco Beach looking northSome places are comfortable in a familiar sense. It’s not a feeling of déjà vu – not having been there before, but one of replication – having been someplace similar to it previously. That summed up the experience of Jaco quite neatly.  Jaco was like being at a surf-side town in the States.

Mar ArenasThe condominium where we stayed was a well-maintained, horse-shoe shaped affair, only thirty-two units, wrapped around a large pool on lushly landscaped grounds that would have done itself proud in any US beach town. It was bounded by privacy walls with a locked gate and carport, manned by a security guard and sat directly on the seashore on the quiet south end of Jaco Beach. The unit had recently been renovated and sported a kitchen backsplash between the granite counter and custom-made cabinets that was a vibrant, unique and playful mosaic scene hand-wrought by one of the owners who’s an artist.  It was a comfortable, modern affair with wi-fi, flat screen cable TV, ceran stove top, hot and cold water throughout and, the epitome of modernity, a commode that accepted toilet paper.

Jaco BeachJaco BeachWe were ensconced here as a reward by our patrons for whom we had house-sat for two weeks in Atenas. In recognition of our services while tending to their home and holding the pet carnage to a minimum of one prized hen, we were given the opportunity to recuperate in this sea-side paradise and go to sleep listening to the sound of breaking waves.

Jaco's main dragJaco itself is a recent affair having come of age as one of the premier surfing beaches in Costa Rica. For two-and-a-half miles the black sand beach slopes gently out into the Pacific. There is a steady stream of breakers which, while not large, are consistent. Surfing schools set up shop on the beach under canopies and provide instruction and board rentals to the hard-body twenty-somethings that come to learn and enjoy the waves.

Jaco's main dragThe town of roughly 10,000 souls is laid out behind the beach in a long strip between the surf and the coastal highway in the lush, verdant tropical forest. For all intents and purposes, it is a modern tourist town that would be at home on any US coast with similar price tags for both goods and real estate.  As in the US, SUV’s are the vehicles of choice. Chicken buses were conspicuously absent, replaced by Mercedes and Toyota buses as the most common form of public conveyance. Aside from the language and the currency, the modern restaurants, tour agencies, hotels and souvenir shops felt like they could be in Anywhere, USA.

Jaco's main dragIn this familiar setting we experienced our first encounter with crime since we’ve been travelling in Latin America. We had gone to eat an early dinner with Mario, our host, and some of the other home owners of the condominium who had just concluded an annual meeting. After the meal we went to climb back into his SUV, walked a few steps back and forth in puzzlement and… the vehicle was gone – vanished –disappeared! There were patrons of the restaurant sitting at sidewalk tables but no one heard or saw anything suspicious. The police were called, reports filed, insurance claims initiated but it was all with a sense of futility.  The damage had been done and, most likely, the vehicle wouldn’t be recovered. It was perhaps fitting that it happened in Jaco. In this modern town, in this modern country, the old crime of boosting cars on a Saturday night was reminiscent of home. As I said; comfortable in a familiar sense.Sunset

By Richard and Anita, November, 2013

 

Two Cats, Two Chickens: Living The Life In Costa Rica

The best weather in the world

Everyday, there's a friendly game of checkers to be found near the park

Everyday, there’s a friendly game of checkers to be found near the park

“Vivir la vida” means living the life and that’s what we figured we were doing as we headed for Atenas, Costa Rica and a new housesitting gig we had arranged a few months beforeThe picturesque town of Atenas, reputedly named by a National Geographic writer as having the “best climate in the world”, is surrounded by mountains and coffee plantations. It’s a popular place for North American retirees who are drawn to the area by the climate, the area’s beauty and its proximity to the Pacific coast and  San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica.  Also high on the list of things to like about Atenas is the genuine friendliness of the people.  And, although it’s a small town, (approximately 27,000) it has numerous westernized amenities.

Atenas street scene

Home maintenanceWe met the homeowners, Mario and Christina.  Their abode, behind a traditional privacy wall, was large and comfortable and located in a “Tica” (local) neighborhood. Inside it had many original paintings and mosaics that Christina, an artist, had created. And, oh joy! hot water in both the kitchen and bathroom.  The tap water was potable so, not only could we wash our fruits and vegetables in it, we could drink it as well.  We spent a couple of days with Mario and Christina learning the idiosyncrasies of their home and the basic layout of Atenas.  Our responsibilities included caring for two cats (Miles and Chunche) and two chickens (Blue and Dixie).  Additionally, there was swimming pool maintenance and composting of organic food and yard wastes, cleaning the patio and sidewalk, picking up the mail from the post office, vehicle checks and emailing our hosts every few days to discuss any problems or assure them that we were caring for all they loved diligently.Miles & Chunche

And then…one of the chickens died.  Our worse fear as house and pet sitters is of a pet death or some home catastrophe that we might have prevented.  Granted, Blue was limping around the yard in the days before our hosts left but… We alerted Mario and Christina a couple of days after they left that Blue was ailing and did not want to leave the chicken coop and that we had placed her feed near her.  A couple of days went by with her continuing to eat but, one morning she was dead. How to tell someone their pet had died?  Tough but we just had to suck up being the bearers of bad news and figure out where to bury her…

La FeriaOther than poor Blue…the rest of our house and pet sitting job went smoothly with us enjoying the run of a well-equipped home, cable television, fast internet and, such luxury, a pool.  Each Friday we’d walk to the local feria (farmers’ market) and join a throng of smiling shoppers looking at the artful arrangements of fruits and vegetables, flowers, breads and baked goods and a small selection of handmade crafts. Eventually we’d make our purchases and take our tasty acquisitions back to our abode to enjoy over the next few days. It seems that vivir la vida is really what it could be all about…

La feria

By Richard and Anita, November, 2103

 

Granada: Grande Dame Of Nicaragua

Street scene

Repairing and refurbishing a building in the city center

Repairing tile and stucco on
a building in the city center

Entering Granada by bus we looked out the windows to see a colonial city with multicolored buildings, clay tiled or tin covered roofs and windows and doors behind distinctive, decorative grillwork. The streets were clean and overall there was a feeling of purposeful energy that seemed to be missing from its tired neighbor, Leon.  Granted, unlike Leon, Granada had emerged unscathed (physically, at least) from the devastation caused by the civil war.  Another important factor has been the influx of foreign aid which began in 1990 to restore, refurbish and preserve this historic city.  The charm of the city draws tourists from all over the world and there is a sizable community of expats who have decided to make Granada their home. In turn, the money from the tourists helps fuel the relative prosperity, in contrast to the rest of the country.

Stopping to chatWhile Granada is a relatively affluent city it still resides in a poor Latino nation; the duality is never far from the surface.  The churches and cathedrals, the parks and the city center all wear new paint and stucco and tiles; the restaurants vie for cordobas with varied menus, the horse-drawn cabs stand spit-shined with the horses well-groomed.  But wander into the streets in the early morning or walk the barrios away from the city center and the flip side slips through the filter. Here you find the use of human power to push and pull carts, to clean city streets, to construct major buildings. It is the face of the country. It is a reality that underlies much of the beauty and charm through which we travel.

pick-up baseball gameFor entertainment, baseball seems to be a popular sport and after a Sunday walk to the shores of Lake Nicaragua we happened upon a ballpark set up with four diamonds for intramural play among city leagues. The games were quite spirited with a crowd, both in the stands and on the adjacent sidewalks, ready to loudly heckle any errors or disputed calls. Pick-up ball games are also regular features on the streets in the city itself as vehicle traffic can be worked around in the interest of a game of work-up or five man sides. Of course, futbol or soccer is common as this is a Latin American nation and soccer fields dot the city barrios and kids block off streets to play the game.   On one particular street there is even a basketball hoop cemented into the sidewalk for a pickup game.pick-up game of futbol

And  the streets come alive in the evenings when the day’s heat abates following the afternoon rain; there may even be a cooling breeze.  People take an evening stroll or sit on their stoops.  Many times household chairs will be brought out to the sidewalk for a more comfortable resting place  to watch the traffic, exchange a “buenas noches” with neighbors and other passersby and chat amiably with each other.  Many times the doors to the homes will be open offering a glimpse into other families and lives.   It seems to be such an old-fashioned, pleasant, enjoyable  pastime: celebrating a day’s work done, talking to family and participating in a neighborhood ritual.

Afternoon storm clouds gather over La Catedral (Lake Nicaragua in background)

Afternoon storm clouds gather over La Catedral (Lake Nicaragua in background)

By Richard and Anita, November, 2013

The Man In Black: Sandino Watches Over Managua

Augusto SandinoThe silhouette dominated the sky line as we rounded a corner coming into Managua, Nicaragua, the capital. It was the iconic shadowed contour of Augusto C. Sandino, a Nicaraguan general, revolutionary and leader of the rebellion between 1927 and 1933 against the U.S. military occupation of Nicaragua. He was referred to as a “bandit” by the United States government but his exploits made him a national hero (even to this day) throughout much of Latin America. He was assassinated in 1934 following the withdrawal of American troops . This particular statue was located in the Parque Nacional Historico on the hills overlooking the city and Lake Managua along with Loma de Tiscopa, the notorious prison of torture and murder for rebels and political prisoners used by the Somoza family dictatorship until the 1979 revolution.

An unusual pairing

An unusual pairing

From the heights of Managua, the yellow sculptured trees can be seen that were dedicated in July, 2013, to commemorate the 59th birthday of Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan President.  The imaginative trees were a gift from his ally, President Daniel Ortega (whose name might be familiar to those watching the U.S. news in the 1980’s during the Iran-Contra affair).  These rather whimsical structures lining the Avenida Bolivar did not quite mesh with the stern visage of Hugo, especially when mounted on his psychedelic base. Nearer the malecon (walkway along the lake) these trees were paired with the silhouette of Augusto Sandino, but this time in bright yellow.

Sandino, the icon

Sandino, the icon

The old cathedral, damaged but still standing

However, revolutionary zeal was not all that was on display in Managua. We also visited the old and new cathedrals. The old colonial Catedral was destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1972, along with much of the old city center, which killed an estimated 5,000 residents, injured 20,000 and left 250,000 people homeless. It alone of all the ruins remains, adjacent to the Palacio Nacional de Cultura, the national cultural museum. The interior of the church is now empty and unused; a church without a heart in a city without a center.

Outside of the new cathedral -what does the roof look like to you?

We also visited the new cathedral, the Catedral Metropolitana, constructed in 1993, which is completely unique when compared to the more traditional, heavily decorated architecture  of Latin American cathedrals. The sixty-three cupolas (resembling egg cartons or breasts depending on one’s point of view) signify the country’s sixty-three Catholic cathedrals.

The New Cathedral

The interior might be described as austere and industrial yet the lighting from the cupolas and the sparse use of paint and decoration makes the interior quietly inviting and respectfully humble.

Our day ended with a tour of the National Cultural Museum. Despite some very interesting displays, the visit got off to a tenuous start when our guide informed us that the fee for taking pictures was an additional $80 Cordobas, on top of the ex-pat fee of $80 Cordobas per person. We declined the fee and politely advised the guide that we would be fine by ourselves. Giovanni, our driver, huddled with the museum guide and returned to explain that there was a misunderstanding: there was no fee for photographs and the guide’s services were required as we were allotted a thirty minute viewing tour of the museum. So, with our docent in place, we took a rather rushed tour of the facility. Despite the uninspiring ending to the day, we were impressed with the beauty and cleanliness of Managua and the overall friendliness of the people that we met.

Trees line a Managua avenue

Trees along Bolivar Avenue

By Richard and Anita,  November, 2013

There’s Art In Them There Hills – The Pueblos Near Granada

Making a pot

We had been in Granada, Nicaragua for a few days when we arranged for a trip to the pueblos in the hill country to the northwest of the city. We had read of a couple of these villages or heard of them while visiting Leon and others were recommended by our local contacts. So it was, on another bright and sunny Wednesday morning, we set out to see the artists’ villages.

Hammocks at the Masaya mercado

Handwoven hammocks

We’ve enjoyed visiting the  mercados found in each colonial city and we had strolled through the largest market in Granada on Tuesday during an afternoon walk. However, we  noticed and remarked upon the fact that the Granada market was lacking the abundance of hand crafted items that usually fill a substantial portion of the stalls.

Entry to the Masaya mercado

outside the Masaya mercado

The conundrum was answered first thing the following morning. Masaya is billed as the “Artisans Capital of Nicaragua”; this statement was repeated later by others in Managua and Granada. The weavings and pottery absent in Granada during our market tour were found here in the Masaya Mercado. It is contained within a walled compound in the city and is filled with traditional woven clothing, beautiful handmade leather shoes, boots, handbags and cowboy hats,  colorful tiles and gorgeous pottery, handsome hardwood bowls, chairs and other furnishings both unadorned and painstakingly, intricately carved, and paintings by numerous artists. Because we visited in the opening hours of the mid-morning and during the low season, the aisles were unusually empty, but this only added to the discounts the vendors were offering for their wares.

Handmade footwear

Wood fired kiln

Wood fired kiln

After wandering throughout the Mercado, we gathered our lone purchase, a bottle of local honey to share with our Granada host, and headed for San Juan de Oeste, a mecca for pottery. Some San Juan pottery was shown in the market stalls in Masaya and much more was on display in the shops of the village. That morning we visited the taller (workshop) of Valentin Lopez, a potter who works with natural dyes and wood fired kilns. His workshop and showroom also serve as his home, where his sons apprentice in the trade, so we were appreciative of the hospitality of the family in explaining the process involved in the creation of both his utilitarian and decorative art. This visit was perhaps the high-point of the day but it evoked the cruelest feelings when trying to explain to the family why not even the sturdiest or smallest of the ceramic pieces was appropriate for our limited luggage.

A fired and polished pot using natural pigments

A fired and polished pot using natural pigments

Santa Catarina flower  shop

A short tour of Pueblo Catarina was sufficient to establish it as the gardening center for the region. In fact, Santa Catarina and the surrounding countryside provide the majority of the bedding plants and cut flowers for Granada and Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua. The small puebla vibrated with the colors of the numerous blooms. At the top of this hilly city was the Mirador Catarina, an overlook for Laguna Apoyo, a warm, fresh water lake in a volcanic caldera.

Laguna de Apoyo

The drive down to Laguna Apoyo took us into the Reservada Nacional, the protected area around the lake. There are several hostels on the edge of the lake, a Spanish language school and a few private homes, but most of the land on the hillsides is undeveloped. And judging by the large family of spider monkeys which we spied near the water’s edge, the forest remains healthy in these hills above Granada.

The Peace Project-hostel, school & volunteer organization

The Peace Project-hostel, school & volunteer organization

By Richard and Anita, October 2013

 

“Don’t Know Much About History”…Leon, Politics And The Civil War

1786 La Iglesia Recoleccion

1786 –  La Iglesia Recoleccion

Our guide, Juan, joined at age 14 and fought in the revolution in 1979

Our guide, Juan, joined at age 14 and fought in the revolution in 1979

As travelers we prepare for each new location or country by breaking out the maps and researching the history.  The theme of “La Revolucion” is present in most of the Latin American nations where we have been, harkening back to the battles of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But Nicaragua has its own unique perspective. For, unlike Guatemala which fought a civil war for thirty-six years only to arrive at an armistice, Nicaragua experienced a real and successful revolution in 1979 with the overthrow of the  Somoza regime by the Sandinistas.

A street mural

A street mural

Leon, being the intellectual capital of the nation, has a special relationship with that historical period. It has always been the city favored by the more liberal of the country’s political class. The city figured heavily in the revolution, led by the FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional or the Sandinista National Liberation Front]. There was fierce street by street fighting as each side sought the upper hand. In a desperate move, the Somoza government resorted to bombing the city. The Sandinistas eventually gained the advantage and held the city until the ultimate defeat of the Somoza regime.

FSLN Banner

The Museo de la Revolucion, housed fittingly in the Palacio del Gubierno which belonged to the deposed Anastasia Somoza, is staffed by veterans of the conflict and contains a small collection of memorabilia. The residence still bears many the scars of the fighting including bullet pocked  walls.  Elsewhere in Leon is the old 21st Garrison, the prison used by the Somoza government at the time of the revolution, which depicts many of the brutal interrogation tactics of the discredited regime. Near the city center there are a number of street murals, some covering extensive portions of city blocks, honoring the martyrs of the revolution.

Pulling a cart

With Leon’s history – it was the capital city founded by Francisco Cordoba in 1524 and a major colonial center –  and the recent revolutionary events, the city comes down on the proletarian side of the equation. It is a nitty-gritty sort of place and does not display the grandeur of Managua or Granada. Over-laying the ancient churches and the colonial architecture there is a glimpse of the working class nature of the city. Pedi-cabs replace tuk-tuks for cheap personal transportation. Horse drawn and human-powered wagons provide a means of moving goods within the city as well as from farm to market.

Homemade cart pulled by a horse

Adding to the impression of the proletarian nature of the city is the number of shops given over to the sale of used clothing. This feeling was further underscored by the dearth of restaurants; even the “tipico” eateries which cater to the local population were not in abundance around the city center. It appeared that whether buying or selling, money was in short supply.

Despite its relative humbleness, the good will of the people was obvious and abundant. It did not appear that hospitality was a casualty of the conflict.

By Richard and Anita, October, 2013

Getting To Leon, Nicaragua: Another Muggy (But Not So Buggy) Location

Some trips probably seem long before they even start!  (Leon, Nicaragua)

Some trips probably seem long before they even start! (Leon, Nicaragua)

We left Utila at the end of September and took the early ferry to the La Ceiba dock where we met Omar who would transport us on our journey from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific.  Omar was an enterprising and entertaining young Honduran who spoke fluent English. However,  he was still working the bugs out of the direct shuttle company he had launched a couple of months before which filled a transportation niche on the gringo trail between the northern coast of Honduras and the colonial city of Leon in north-western Nicaragua. A late start was occasioned by a wait for additional passengers and a heated discussion over the wisdom of lashing backpacks and suitcases to the roof of the van with no luggage carrier or tie downs. This resulted in another delay while we waited for a second vehicle and driver to accommodate the extra passengers and luggage. Once underway the ride went smoothly. 

Until … we were stopped at a military checkpoint in Honduras and Omar realized he’d left his driver’s license at home.  A gratuity of about $10 USD resulted in the okay to proceed but we spent the rest of our time in Honduras dodging military checkpoints and roadblocks. Omar picked up a friend along the way with a driver’s license who drove the van across the Honduras-Nicaraguan border. Finally, after our nineteen hour journey, we arrived safely in Leon in the dead of night.

Pedicab - another form of transportation

Pedicab – another form of transportation

The largest Cathedral in Central America

La Catedral

The original city of Leon was established in 1523 and, after Managua, is the second largest city in Nicaragua.  It’s an important industrial and agricultural hub with a picturesque, traditional city at its historic heart that is easy to traverse by foot. Most visitors come to Leon to see the colonial architecture which includes the 18th century cathedral, the largest in Central America. Additionally, it‘s the intellectual center of the nation; a fact bolstered by the presence of the national university.

This time of the year is known as “muggy and buggy” and one thing the guidebooks emphasized  was the oppressive heat in Leon.  We, of course, figured that the heat and humidity couldn’t be any worse than Utila but, in that, we were wrong.  Each day we arose, showered and then sweated through our clothing in a matter of minutes while walking around the city. Even when sitting in our B&B with the fans whirring, we would feel a trickle of sweat running down our backs.

Reminiscent of Ghost Busters - the fumigator's equipment

Ghost Busters flashback – the fumigator’s equipment

As for the bugs, we witnessed the Leon bug eradication program in action – weirdly reminiscent of  a scene from the old movie Ghost Busters.  First thing one morning, and later that day throughout the city, a couple of young men with gas masks and backpacks carrying the gas-powered, insecticide applicators appeared to fumigate our premises. We stood in the front courtyard while they walked from room to room spraying each area and, soon enough, clouds of noxious  fumes began roiling from the building.  Out of the fog appeared our fumigators wielding their strange weapons and promising that the premises were bug free for another few months.

The fumigator (in uniform)

The fumigator (in uniform)

By Anita and Richard, October, 2013

 

What We Fear Most or … Danger: Sidewalks Ahead!

Pick left or pick right...

Left or right?

Extensions for more obstructions

Extensions for more obstructions

Drug cartels, kidnapping, bribery, robbery, extortion, murder! These were all concerns expressed by our friends and relatives when we broached the subject of extended travel SOTB [south of the border]. Now admittedly, these are all legitimate worries. But, being the fuddy-duddies that we are we do not loiter in bars and cafes or parks much after 9:00 PM, pull out rolls of cash, flash lots of bling or explore neighborhoods that look sketchy or that we’ve been cautioned to avoid.

Makes sense to us...we think?

Going up?  Going down?

Watch your step!

Watch your step!

But honestly, no one warned us of the sidewalks. These pedestrian pathways designed to promote safety have caused us as much physical damage as Montezuma’s Revenge or the mosquitoes and sand flies. The sidewalks have been the cause of trips, slips, stubs and dings far out of proportion to their posted hazard. And this little talked about and unreported evil is nearly universal both in large cities and small towns throughout Latin America. No place we’ve visited has been exempt from the ravages of broken, uneven, malformed concrete, bricks or cobblestones, twisted and narrow steps, curbing that can be grotesquely elevated or nearly non-existent. It may be glossed over in the newest and trendiest of neighborhoods, but walk a few blocks and the scourge returns.

Around or about or through?

Around or about or through?

Now, there are sidewalks that are tastefully, even artfully, done and meticulously maintained. While we appreciate and celebrate their existence we don’t take them for granted as they are conspicuously uncommon.  They are usually associated with buildings that are well-maintained such as the central park, up-scale housing developments or fronting ritzy buildings.

But, as in the US, they are primarily bread-and-butter, utilitarian and functional except when they ain’t. And when they ain’t they can be accidents waiting to happen, annoying or, occasionally, amusing.

Squeeze through the opening and then walk at a slant!

Squeeze through the opening and then walk a little crooked

Watch your feet and head

Watch your feet and head

So next time someone you know or love proposes to venture SOTB be sure to warn them of the unknown dangers lurking under their feet.  Oh yeah, and while they’re gawking at the beautiful parks and churches ahead or  looking sideways into various businesses and stores remember to tell them to check occasionally for obstacles jutting out of buildings at shoulder and head level too!

By Richard and Anita, October, 2013

City workers improving (?) the pedestrian walkways

City workers improving (?) the pedestrian walkways

Tourist Trees, Jesus Lizards, Chirping Geckos And Other Island Oddities

A view from Pumpkin Hill

A view from Pumpkin Hill

the "Tourist Tree"

the “Tourist Tree”

A few days ago we donned long pants – very difficult to do when it feels like 300% humidity and 200 degree heat – and set off with our guide on a horseback ride to Pumpkin Hill, the highest point on the island of Utila at 243 feet.   Sterling, whose ancestors emigrated from Arkansas to Utila in the late nineteenth century, was a fount of information on the flora and fauna of the island.  He pointed out the blue land crabs as they scurried across our path, the numerous reddish-hued trees called “tourist trees” by the locals (because they are red and always peeling) and the Jesus lizards, which run upright on two legs and can sprint across water, hence the name. 

Happy trails

Happy trails

 It was a quiet morning, riding through the dense, green growth of the island’s interior with the creaking of saddle leather providing the accompanying sound to the clopping of our horses’ unshod hoofs, culminating in a panoramic view of the island and the turquoise waters of the Caribbean.

Mini-golf balancing act

Mini-golf balancing act

Now, horseback riding is only one of many activities in which we’ve engaged during our stay on the island.  There’s Ed’s Reptile Gardens Mini Golf, an original and very quirky exercise in chasing one’s golf ball across rocks, holes (intended and not), next to sculptures complete with swim fins and reposing dummies, into caves and onto balancing-act greens.   On many of the holes, the assigned par score seemed merely a suggestion as we’d add up scores of eight, nine and ten strokes, search for our balls in the ground’s nooks and crannies all the while hoping we wouldn’t encounter a scorpion or tarantula and laughing with evil glee when we came in with the low score on a hole. 

Our guide on the way to Pumpkin Beach

Our guide on the way to Pumpkin Beach

Another day we amused ourselves by borrowing a friend’s ATV and, with a couple of adventurous cohorts, explored the deeply rutted paths through mud and deep puddles while trying to find Pumpkin Beach (coincidentally next to Pumpkin Hill).   A local boy on a bike answered our question of “which way to Pumpkin Beach?” and, with a brilliant and genuinely friendly smile, rode his bike as fast as he could to lead us back to the meandering track on the way to a rocky and coral strewn shoreline with the far off smudge of Honduras on the horizon.

We’ve spent many mornings snorkeling and afternoons lying in hammocks reading as well as sitting on deeply shaded porches waiting for a stray puff of wind with new friends talking, trading histories, funny tales and sharing laughs.  The conclusion to many days is a ritual of doing “sunset”  which takes place at the watering holes with names like Tranquila, Driftwood and Babalu’s located on the bay front. Here the locals, divers, expats and tourists gather to watch the sun descend prior to heading out to the numerous restaurants or home.

Sunset view reflected in the  water from Tranquila

Sunset view reflected in the water from Tranquila

A chirping gecko clinging to the ceiling

A chirping gecko traipsing across the ceiling upside down

Some evenings we’ll return to our third floor apartment and sit on the deck while the night brings a little relief to the day’s sweltering humidity and watch the bats swoop by the trees and eaves eating their fill of the little biting varmints (mosquitoes and sand flies).  Inside our home there are little geckos ranging in size from one to three or four inches clinging to our walls and vaulted ceilings or scampering across our shelves as self-appointed house pets, also doing their share of controlling the biting hordes.  Many nights we drift off to sleep or awaken during the night to hear them chirping and clicking to each other as another island day ends.

By Anita and Richard, September, 2013

Honduran Independence Day on Utila

A rainy beginning to Independence Day celebrations

A rainy beginning to Independence Day ceremonies

Everyone has a part in the celebration

Everyone has a part in the festivities

Exuberance – that’s the word that came to mind watching the young people as they practiced in the school yards and lanes, as they waited for their chance to strut their stuff before the packed bleachers at the soccer stadium, as they played before the crowd of applauding parents, relatives and friends. Independence Day on Utila was indeed an occasion for celebration.

Independence Day in Honduras - Marching bands with drums and glockenspiels

Independence Day in Honduras – Marching bands with drums and glockenspiels

The school bands, and each school possesses its own band, practiced  in earnest for several weeks before Flag Day on September 6 and Independence Day on September 15. The bands began practice before the school day, sometimes well before 7:00 AM and continued with unflagging energy after school and well into the evening, often until 10:00 PM.

Waiting their turn to perform

Waiting their turn to perform

These marching bands, consisting exclusively of percussion instruments – snare drums, base drums, glockenspiels, cymbals, shakers – epitomize the economic reality of the nation. The instruments are relatively low-cost and low maintenance; they can be mastered in a reasonable amount of time by enthusiastic students of various ages, can be carried individually in marching bands and do not require auditoriums for practice or public performances.

Preparing to present the colors

Preparing to present the colors

Much like in the US, there was a passing nod to history during the day’s parades, picnics, boxing matches and the greased pole climbing competition. The context for Independence Day, September 15th, is rather convoluted and in addition to Honduras, includes El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. On this day in 1821 these four colonies of Spain declared independence in their Congress of Central America. Reading between the lines, it appears that these countries piggy-backed off the success of the twenty plus years of freedom fighting that was just concluding at the time in Mexico. Following independence, there was a brief alliance with Mexico, under the Federal Republic of Central America, which ended in mutual rancor in 1838.

Bird's eye view of the festivities

Bird’s eye view of the parades & hoopla

At the end of a long day of festivities, when all the Independence Day marchers had gone home and all the instruments were put away, the night was quiet.  What was surprising to us was the extent to which we missed the sound of the percussion instruments that same evening when we retired. We were accustomed to dropping off to sleep to the sound of the rhythms. Nothing like a soothing glockenspiel to bring on the nods…

Parade Rest

Parade Rest

By Richard and Anita, September, 2013

 

The Utopian Island Of Utila

Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras

Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras

Main Street - Airport Road

Main Street – the “business loop”

Before we boarded the ferry from La Ceiba, Honduras to the Bay Island of Utila we knew who Darrell was. The tall, very tan and very blond man in his forties or fifties walked into the sheltered area that served as the ferry station and we heard, “Hey, Darrell”, “Good to see you Darrell” and “Where ya’ been, Darrell?” with handshakes dispensed all around. When we arrived on the island, after a rough fifty minute crossing, we heard an English couple asking “Where’s Darrell?” So, we were able to establish our bona fides as friendly newcomers right away by turning around and gesturing towards Darrell. This seems to have set the tone for our visit to Utila as the island is an incredibly friendly community with few pretensions and a large, open and welcoming community of both locals and expats. Utila is a kick off your shoes and set-a-spell kind of place!

Our third floor apartment

Our third floor apartment

We’ve rented a quaint little apartment for a few weeks on the third floor of a clapboard residence (kind of like being in a tree house) named Jericho Gardens. We’d planned on practicing our Spanish but, once again, our sloth has been rewarded because, even though Spanish is the official language of Honduras, English seems to be the preferred language on Utila which was once a British colony.

Airport Road

Airport Road

The island itself seems like a small American town from the 1950’s (think Mayberry) with very narrow streets, many paved but some dirt, most suitable for pedestrians or various forms of transportation such as bikes, scooters, ATVs, and golf carts. There are few cars or trucks on the island which is easily explained once you see how difficult it can be for them to maneuver around the narrow streets. The houses that line the winding roads vary from large and picturesque two and three-story wood frame homes (many divided into apartments or housing businesses) to smaller, more modest dwellings. The lanes and paths that branch off the roads are, for the most part, trash and garbage free. Vacant land is readily filled to capacity with native growth in this moist and humid tropical climate.

Utila businesses along the shoreline

Utila businesses along the shoreline

Surrounding Utila are the warm, inviting crystal clear waters of the Caribbean and many smaller cays, some occupied but many uninhabited (although they may be privately owned). The island is known internationally as one of the best and cheapest places to learn how to SCUBA dive as well as possessing many easily accessible places for amazing snorkeling among the coral reefs that are part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the second-largest in the world.

View from Water Cay- an uninhabited island

View from Water Cay- an uninhabited island

Now admittedly, utopian may be a bit of a stretch as a label for Utila but it’s an awesomely beautiful island that has quickly claimed a space on our list of favorite places. And, once visited, it might beckon as a safe haven to which one returns.

Paradise by any definition...

Paradise by any definition…

By Anita and Richard, September, 2013

 

By Boat And By Bus to Belize and Back

Boats on the waterfront at Livingston

Boats on the waterfront at Livingston

Who knew they liked Americans so much in Central America? They even set up a special travel status just for us: the CA-4. Now that’s a bit of southern hospitality.

Dock at La Casa Rosada

La Casa Rosada Hostel, Livingston

Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua participate in an agreement called the CA-4 (Central America – 4) that allows U.S. citizens to travel freely between the four countries for ninety days.  We entered Guatemala at the end of February, extended our visas in mid-May for an additional ninety days by going to Guatemala City, filling out a short application form and paying a fee, and finally, had to leave the country for seventy-two hours in August to renew our visas and continue our travels into Honduras and Nicaragua.  We decided to exit Guatemala via Livingston, a funky little town on the Caribbean coast accessible only by boat.

Great Food - A bit messy but GOOD

Great Food – A bit messy but GOOD

Livingston is a small port city, with a population of roughly 17,000 souls, inhabited by
the Garifuna (descendants of 17th century shipwrecked African slaves and indigenous Carib),  Q’cqchi’ Mayan and Guatemaltecans. Spanish is still the predominant language but Garifuna, English and Mayan are heard regularly.  The cuisine is distinctly different from the rest of Guatemala with a tasty selection of seafood and coconut based dishes.  We walked up the short main street, Calle Principal, which included a very steep hill from the little marina, wandered about a few side streets where we encountered a sow and piglet, chickens and goats and …that was it.  We’d seen the town.

Entering and exiting Punta Gorda, Belize

Entering and exiting Punta Gorda, Belize

We took our passports to the immigration office, received our exit stamps and, early Tuesday morning we boarded a launch for a ride across deep blue water sparkling in the sunlight to the port city of Punta Gorda, Belize.  After receiving our visa entry stamps, we caught a local bus for a two-hour ride to Independence, also called Mango Creek by the locals, and finally boarded a water taxi for the fifteen minute ride to Placencia.  It was a long day waiting and riding upon various forms of transport, hauling our backpacks and suitcases around and about, but it went surprisingly smooth and people were smiling, friendly and very helpful.

Main Street - Getting around in Placencia

Main Street – Getting around in Placencia

Placencia peninsula is sixteen miles long and very narrow with the Placencia lagoon on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other; as we walked about  Placencia Village we could catch glimpses of both the lagoon and the sea.   The village was founded by pirates and is a mixture of expats, creoles, Garifuna and Mayan Belizeans all speaking several variations of English, the official language of Belize, a former British colony.  The spoken English varied from a very proper British accent to a thick, melodic Caribbean patois that we had to strain hard to understand.  Added into this mix was the background talk from the tourists we met (German, Israeli, French, Canadian, etc.).

Main pedestrian walkway in Placencia

Main pedestrian walkway in Placencia

Because it was low season, we found a charming room with a kitchenette and porch complete with a hammock on the beach and a view of the Caribbean for a discounted price.  There we spent our three-day exile gazing out at the Caribbean, occasionally swimming, laying in the sun, swinging in the hammock and reading (and did I mention sweating buckets in the thick humidity?).  This was a pleasant and leisurely respite before we had to reverse our trip back to Livingston and then begin the next leg of our journey to the Bay Islands of Honduras.

Quiet  time at dawn-

Quiet time at dawn-

By Richard and Anita, August, 2013

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