Tag Archive for 'birds'

Not biking in Panama is better than biking in Panama

Kilometers this post: 521km pedalled, 339km bus, 16.1km taxis, 40.5km boats

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Once across the questionable bridge at the Costa Rican border, we ventured forward into our final country in Central America to find it pretty different from all the others. Our impression of Panama is in fact a lot like our impression of that border crossing: a questionable, somewhat puzzling bridge between two worlds. Some things we’ve noticed and/or read: There is an overwhelming number of supermarkets, very often run by folks of Chinese backgrounds. On the shelves of said supermarkets are many, many things processed, packaged, and imported from other countries. We could not figure out what Panama produces… We passed a few banana and pineapple plantations, and some of the canned goods we picked up off the shelves were Panamanian, but so much of what is here seems to come from somewhere else. There are a few areas of the country with strong concentrations of indigenous people, (these have been some of the highlights), and large expanses of land much less populated than anything else we’ve seen in Central America. There are very few small towns with central markets or church squares (or any center at all, really). Of course, the most densely populated area is around Panama City and along the canal, where there is remarkable urban sprawl as we know it in the USA, complete with large strip malls, car dealerships, and US fast food chains.

But we’ve seen some striking natural beauty as well as some awe-inspiring feats of engineering, and we’re glad to have visited. Riding in the northwest was full of very (very!) steep rolling hills through deep green jungle spotted with rural communities, many of them of the indigenous Ngobe-Buglé. We took a couple of days to visit the islands in the archipelago of Bocas del Toro province. We took a snorkeling trip that visited the most idyllic beach either of us have seen. Yes, islands with flawless, soft white sand and bright blue-green water and statuesque palm trees do exist.

After lazing on the islands, we thought it was about time to bike up a GIANT hill. So, we spent a full day grinding out 36km (that ain’t much) up and over the continental divide. We appreciated the spectacular views during our breaks from the 15% grades before we biked into the clouds and it started pouring rain. At the top (which wasn’t the real top, we later learned) we arrived at a dam with a visitors’ center, where we collapsed wet and exhausted on the porch, thanks to a fella who said, yes we could stay but don’t tell his boss. Next day, legs rested, we continued up and just over the real top for, yes, another day off the bike. A thank you here to Aran’s bro, Kieran, who put us up for two nights in the Lost and Found Hostel, a lodge at the top of the divide way up in the cloud forest. Yes, we finally got to hang out in a cloud forest! (After trying and failing to do so in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.) We spent a day hiking around in the cool, misty jungle, exploring a mountain river, and watching in fascination as the view from the lodge porch went from wild, expansive mountains to white sheet of fog, and back again in a matter of minutes. We also saw some very neat birds and bugs.

Then, down we rolled to the Pacific coast once again, taking a detour to the city of David where we got some overdue replacement shifter cables for a’s bike. We hung out for a day in a very purple hostel, where we met and exchanged stories with Angela and Philipp, a pair of bike tourists from Germany. Heading east toward Panama city, a biker has basically one choice: the Panamerican highway. We had heard from many cyclists that the road was a long slog with not much besides a gas station here and a supermarket there, and so we’d considered for several months taking a bus to Panama city to use the time, energy, and dollars in Colombia where we might get more out of them. But, we thought, we should check out this Panamerican thing for ourselves before we decide to skip out. Our day began (yes, ok, slightly later than it should have) in the brutal heat. We took a break in the shade of some trees and two in the shade of large “servicentros.” Finally, in the late afternoon it broke with a torrential downpour, the heaviest rain that either of us has ever been out in. Great relief at first. Then less fun when we couldn’t see the road in front of us. Aran got a flat tire with no shelter in sight. We changed it and rode several more kilometers before coming to another gas station with an hospedaje behind it, where we paid too much for a hygienically questionable room so we could get dry. In the morning, we woke up covered in tiny mite-like bugs and each of us had another flat tire. Let’s call that morning a low. Worried the bugs were lice, we changed our tires and headed for the nearest town (off the highway a few kms and up a giant hill.) Andrew got another flat. There are an impressive number of exploded truck tires on the Panamerican Highway that leave tiny shreds of metal for bikers to enjoy. In the town of Tolé we visited a pharmacy and checked into another hospedaje. Having taken a deep breath and considered our options, we decided that yes, a bus would be fine.

Click for a bigger view of the Panamarama:

And the next day, we found ourselves in Panama City! Not at all sorry to have missed the countless other inevitable flat tires and disgustingly hot hours on the Panamericana passing greenness interspersed with sprawl, we spent two days gaping at the canal. Simply amazing. The scale of the project and of its current use is mind-blowing. We were a bit disappointed with the presentation of information in the museums (giant, dry history text books plastered to walls,) but spent a lot of time watching the Panamax boats going through the locks. This was a strange physical experience akin to growing up in the Catskills and one day coming face-to-face with the Grand Canyon, thought Aran.

We took a long bike ride (without bags! Weeeee!) to visit the canal further afield from the city, and to check out a national park that holds the record for species of birds spotted in 24 hours (525). We only spotted toucans and woodpeckers, but the views of the canal were again fascinating. We biked out to the middle of the Centennial bridge (there’s no tourism here, just a lot of fast traffic) and had some great views of the Gaillard Cut and waved to the teeny tiny crew members on the giant boats below.

Then, off we biked to the north side of the isthmus again to meet our Columbia-bound sailboat in the tiny town of Portobelo, which is home to four (and counting) Chinese supermarkets. Here we are. Our last day in Central America. We are ready, even hungry, for the wider open spaces and cool mountains of South America.

Volcanoes, birds, and zip lines: Costa Rica

Kilometers this post: 480 biking, 9 hiking, and 211 on the bus

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So what does it mean to be the most developed country in Central America? Well, we began to figure it out pretty quickly when we got off the boat in Los Chiles, and especially when we took the road south out of town. In place of wooden and corrugated metal shacks with trash fires out back, there are stuccoed buildings, nicely painted houses with landscaping, and public garbage collection. Where lots of folks in countries to the north do their shopping in poorly stocked stores run out of people’s houses, Costa Rica has American style grocery stores in every town where you can buy anything your heart desires: artesanal cheese, capers, fresh meat to name a few. Instead of the rolling hills full of cows, horses, and cowboys that we’d gotten used to seeing in Nicaragua, we rolled by enormous plantations of pineapple, sugarcane, and papaya worked by big, industrial tractors, and headed directly for export. The country smells of prosperity and piña. On our first day, dazed after entering an impossibly well-stocked store, a couple of kids offered an entirely new spin on a word we’d heard screamed from hillsides since Mexico. A group of students came to check out our bikes while we were resting at a grocery store, and one of them asked in the politest of ways, “Entonces, son gringos?” (So, you’re gringos then?). Of course, there’s a price to pay for luxury: rather than spending $6 to $15 for a hotel, we paid $14 to $32, although most had internet, and some had air conditioning. Rather than wandering unmarked trails in a National Park, you have to pay someone $10 to go look at a waterfall. In spite of the cost, we decided to do some touristing while we were in the area. Here’s what happened.

After a few more glasses of the most wonderful passionfruit drink at the kiosk in San Carlos, Nicaragua, we changed our Córdobas for a few thousand Colones and got on the boat down the Rio Frio to Los Chiles. On the way, we saw lots of water birds, our first monkeys of the trip, and an Italian bike tourist. Two days of rolling south over short, steep climbs, we arrived at La Fortuna, at the base of the famously active Arenal Volcano. Which had stopped erupting 8 months before. And here we thought it was Aran’s best chance to see lava in Central America, since she never had in her life. We did our best to shrug off the disappointment, and took a “day off” in La Fortuna anyway. We biked a few kilometers out of town to see the La Fortuna Waterfall, and hiked up Cerro Chato (sneaking stealthily past the hotel where we supposedly had to pay $10 to use a portion of their trail) to see the crater lake, leaving our legs very sore for several days. Apparently climbing volcanoes will do that, even to hearty bike tourists.

From La Fortuna, we made our way through resort land and around Lake Arenal to the little town of Nuevo Arenal (the old Arenal went underwater when they built the new dam), where there are no bars on the windows. It’s quite a striking thing to notice. After months of seeing ironwork in front of ever pane of glass, to be looking out of the hotel through a huge clear window is an interesting luxury. The tourist traps were closed when we arrived, so we ate “casados” at the local joint across the street. Casados (meaning married) is a plate of rice and beans married with some sort of meat, accompanied by some kind of salad, cheese, and fried plantains, sometimes with other additions. Delicious. The next day we rolled along the rest of the shore of Lake Arenal to Tilarán with hopes of seeing their anual rodeo. On the way we stopped for some coffee and internet at Casa del Agua, and hung out there while a shower came and went. It was the first time we had the pleasure of spotting some new and strikingly colorful birds (including a Collared Aracari), and we began to see why visiting Costa Rica might be worth the overpriced coffee. Aran traded a book and we sat on the beautiful wooden porch, enjoying not riding in the rain. On our way out, we stopped to watch some howler monkeys munching berries in the trees beside the road.

Unfortunately, the bull riding segment of the Tilarán rodeo wasn’t until Sunday evening, and we arrived in town Friday. We did watch the totally bizarre horse trotting competition Friday night, but sadly, we forgot the camera. High-stepping horses, looking very uncomfortable, prancing around the ring and then being forced to walk in place for 2 minutes. Apparently, it’s called Piaffe, and you can see an example of it on YouTube. Instead of sticking around for the rodeo on Sunday, we hopped a bus to Monteverde, tourist town extraordinaire, in hopes of finally seeing a cloud forest. However, in order to avoid paying the $18 entry fee to the Cloud Forest Reserve for an unguided trail hike, we spent our money on guided activities outside the reserve in the lower altitude dry forest. This was fail #2 at seeing a cloud forest, but the activities we chose were very worthwhile. In the morning, we went birding with Freddy and saw 27 species, including three types of Toucan, a Long-tailed Manakin with a striking call, a supremely beautiful Nightingale-Thrush, and some Euphonias with appropriately tropical coloring. In the evening, we went for a night tour and saw a kinkajou,an agouti, a green pit viper, enormous cockroaches, a tarantula, caterpillars, lizards, a tiny frog, and other wonderful creatures. Then the next day, we talked ourselves into a “canopy tour”. For those of you unfamiliar with this euphemism, “canopy tour” means 10-20 zip-lines through the jungle, and Monteverde is where the trend started in Central America. When in Rome… We went to 100% Aventura, and it was super fun flying through the treetops, going head first over a kilometer of forest, and jumping off a hanging bridge on the Tarzan swing (for which they don’t prepare you at all. They just said “Hold these ropes in front of you. Bend your knees. Now I’m going to open the gate. OK, bye” Nothing about experiencing the heart-in-your-throat-shit-I-can’t-even-scream free-fall for 50 ft. before the rope tightens.) During the zipping, we hung out with Hilton and Ingrid, a designer and a lawyer from NYC. We all got along so well that we decided to go to lunch, and so they took us to the restaurant at their lodge, where we ate the nicest meal of our trip so far.

Things that are cheap in Costa Rica: fruit and busses. So rather than spend three days riding down the Panamerican Highway into San José (already unappealing) spending money on food and lodging, we opted for a $6, 4.5 hour bus ride. $32 HOSTEL in San José. Then we rode toward the Caribbean coast through some beautiful mountains. The rainy season has arrived, so we are in the process making some physical and mental adjustments for wet weather. Sometimes we stop for shelter, and sometimes we ride on through. One day, after we thought we’d waited out the rain and headed on down the road, it started pouring, and looked like it would continue all night. As there were no hotels that we could see reachable that afternoon, we asked a logging/trucking company if we could sleep in their shed. The dude started to send us on our way to an hasped he knew, but then changed his mind, realizing we were much happier stopping right then for something dry and dusty than riding some more in the pouring rain in search of a pricey hotel room. He asked us all about our trip, brought us a tarp to lay on the floor, and explained that he used to drive trucks all over the province without knowing where he’d sleep, and he’d spent many a night sleeping in corrals with the animals. In the morning, his mom (who, it turned out, lived in the beautiful wooden house on the property) invited us to have tea and cheesy tortillas on her patio.

Very well fed and ready for some more beach, we climbed up and over a few more mountains and rolled down, down, down to the coast along with all the banana trucks. Spending the night in Puerto Limón brought us back in touch with the Caribbean islander culture that you find in so many Atlantic-side cities and towns in Central America. There isn’t a whole lot of diversity in Costa Rica. The population is almost entirely Ladino. But a little less than 2% of folks are black islanders, and they all live in Limón province. As we biked the entirely flat road down to Puerto Viejo, we heard a lot more lilting calls of “Ok, ah-right mon” than the usual “Adios” or “Buenas.” Puerto Viejo was our final stop in Costa Rica, where we took a dip in the Caribe Azul and ate our last delicious casados, with an island twist of course, before riding on down to the Panamanian border for the physically sketchiest crossing to date, involving an 80-year-old railroad bridge with loose planks. Here we are, on the other side, ready to take on some more of the Caribbean, a trip up and over the continental divide, and a big ol’ canal.