A Travellerspoint blog

A Taste of Costa Rica

Travelling with my dad and Anne-Marie

sunny 22 °C

Red-eyed leaf frog - the mascot of Costa Rica

Red-eyed leaf frog - the mascot of Costa Rica

It seems I have to cast myself way back in time to catch up on this story about Costa Rica. Island life in the Pacific is slow, and a month and a half ago feels more like three months ago. Also, it has been such a change of scenery since we arrived in the Pacific that the details of our last weeks in Latin America seem harder to recall.

We were travelling with my dad and Anne-Marie who had met us in Panama in early November. After visiting the City and the area of Boquete, we took a long bus journey from David, in northern Panama, to San José in Costa Rica. Anne-Marie and I had considered breaking up the journey by going to the Osa Peninsula and the Parque Nacional Corcovado for a few days. This destination however was hard to reach and travelling there from the Panamanian border appeared to be too adventurous for our party. Reluctantly we abandoned that plan and decided to focus on the highlights of Costa Rica's North instead.

San Jose post office - one of the prettier buildings...

San Jose post office - one of the prettier buildings...

Our stop over in San José was short and of a practical nature as San José is not exactly the prettiest city in the world. Dave and I needed a day in town to get the keyboard of our laptop fixed (the new one we bought in Ecuador...), and it's the hub for pretty much all buses to elsewhere in the country. Even though Costa Rica's capital can't boast many interesting buildings (whether old or new) I thought it had a nice, lively atmosphere, and kind of liked the place. We also found a couple of worthwhile museums and restaurants, always a key ingredient for me to appreciate a city.

My dad and Anne-Marie visited the Museo de Oro Precolombino (Gold museum) on their own whilst Dave and I were at the computer shop. We then went to the Museo de Jade (Jade museum) together after a lunch break in one of the many sodas (as local cafés are called) of the Central Market. Both had good exhibits, and I had never seen so many finely chiselled jade pieces before. In the evenings, we first ate at Café Mundo, a trendy spot with a large terrace near our hotel, and to which we returned for apéritif the following day. On our second night, we caught a taxi to go to Restaurante Whapin, a Caribbean eatery in another neighbourhood. After taking a few turns, and giving the driver various instructions to get to the restaurant – addresses in Costa Rica function by landmark rather than by street names – we found out that the place located 200 metres east of the small lighthouse was also within walking distance of our hotel. The taxista had a good laugh at us whilst he cashed in his fare and provided directions to get back by foot after dinner.

Volcan Arenal clears soon after arrival

Volcan Arenal clears soon after arrival

There's likely more to see and do in San José, but we left the capital the next morning for the small town of La Fortuna, at the foot of Volcan Arenal. This volcano is one of the easiest active volcanoes to visit in the world so we were all very excited to potentially see some live lava. As a consequence, we were all equally disappointed to learn that the volcano hadn't spouted out anything for the past 11 months and looked rather dormant at the moment. We still enjoyed looking at it from the balcony in front of our rooms. When we arrived, it was sunny and we could see the top. Perhaps we should have rushed to to the national park and observatory at the foot of the volcano on that first day as thereafter the cone remained mostly covered in cloud. Instead we chose to spend a relaxing afternoon and review the many tours you can partake in.

In the end, we decided that renting a car was a better solution for us than going on various tours. This gave us the liberty to visit the area's key sights at our own rhythm, and actually turned out to be more economical overall. We explored the local forest canopy from the trails and hanging bridges of the Puentes Colgantes de Arenal pathways in the morning. We then drove along Lake Arenal for a bit and had lunch in a lovely roadside café with a great view over the lake. In the afternoon, we walked around some of the trails of Parque Nacional Volcan Arena. We saw a large Ceiba tree and took another look at the lake whilst standing on the 1968 lava flow. Unfortunately, the volcano was hidden by clouds the whole time and we all agreed that it wasn't worth continuing to the volcano observatory. As it felt too warm to go to one of the area's many thermal baths and we had already had a long day, we simply headed back into town for dinner.

At the twisted waterfall

At the twisted waterfall

The following day, we had planned a horse-back excursion to the pretty Catarata de la Fortuna (La Fortuna waterfall). It was raining heavily when we woke up, so we first hoped that the tour would be cancelled, and actually called several times to ask about it. It wasn't cancelled, but we were lucky enough that the rain stopped just about when we were climbing onto our horses and did not start again until late in the evening. Don't take this trip if you like your horses to go fast. We hardly went beyond snail pace, and the horses really only respond to the guide's voice command. The last bit of trail is done by foot and leads down into a canyon to the waterfall. This is pretty amazing and I wished we would have had more time to hang around this trail and by the waterfall. We even spotted an eyebrow viper (poisonous) curled up in a tree on the way. We took a detour back to the ranch with our horses and stopped at a Maleku show-hut. The Maleku are an indigenous tribe living north of Volcan Arenal and the traditional hut is there to show tourists their ancient ways of living and more importantly sell their handicraft. I loved their rainmaker tubes, especially the giant one they were using for the show, and could not resist buying a small one as a gift for someone back home.

Giant rain maker stick

Giant rain maker stick

Later on that afternoon, we went to the Baldi Hot Springs. I have seen many thermal baths in my life as they are quite common in Switzerland and I'm a big fan of them, but I had never seen anything as extravagant as these – it was the Las Vegas of thermal spas! There are 25 pools and 12 different temperatures to choose from (apparently... we lost count after a while). The pools stretch out into a lush tropical garden, some are so hot that you don't even want to dip a toe in (have you ever tried anything above 44 degrees? At Baldi, there's one a 67 degrees!). At least three of the pools feature a bar so you can sip your cocktail whilst sitting in the warm water and watch TV. Some have jets and jacuzzi bubbles, others have lie-in loungers. There's a pool with various water-slides (kind of scary, but I did give a go to one of them), and the last one is towered over by a giant waterfall under which you can sit if you tolerate the high temperature and intense pressure of the water. Check out http://baldicostarica.com/tour/photo-gallery.html for some photos of the extravaganza, we only managed to get one with drinks in hand at the bar.

By the swimming pool bar

By the swimming pool bar

The next morning we moved on to Monteverde via the popular jeep-boat-jeep route. The jeep is more of a 4x4 mini-van but it still gets you there much faster than you would through any other route. On reflection, I preferred the Monteverde region to the Arenal region. We stayed in a cute little hostal in the village of Santa Elena. It was called Cabinas Eddy B&B and managed by Freddy, a charming young Tico (as Costa Ricans are called), and his wife Shirleny (www.cabinas-eddy.com). We thought it was easily the best value place we found in the whole of Costa Rica and were very happy about the excellent breakfast of fruit and eggs each morning. If you are looking for it, it is right next to Casa Tranquilo. Whilst the village was still very much geared up for tourists, things seemed to be a bit more low-key and less brash in Santa Elena and Monteverde than in La Fortuna. At least we did not get solicited by a tour salesman each time we walked through town.

The star attractions of the area are the various cloud forests which you can visit from dawn to dusk. We took a guided walk through the Reserva Santa Elena one early morning, and were shown many plant and bird species by our enthusiastic guide. Despite keeping our eyes peeled, and smelling them occasionally, we spotted no howler monkeys. We could not find any sloths either. Apart from the forest, there are a number of other interesting places to see. My dad and Anne-Marie went to the small Santa Elena orchid garden, whilst Dave and I visited the ranarium. We all came back thrilled with what we'd seen. Dave and I returned to the ranarium that night when many of the frogs were more active and displayed off all the colours of their body. We also took an amazing tour at the Bat Jungle. This included over an hour's talk to learn more about these animals followed by a walk through a bat house. It was led by a very passionate Belgium biologist who had landed there after meeting his other half in Costa Rica. We all walked out of it believing that bats are the most important and astonishing animals on earth, and swearing that we were going to install bat shelters on the walls of our houses. Watch out, we may try to convert you to do so as well... To find out more about the Bat Jungle and bat houses, visit www.batjungle.com and www.batcon.org/index.php/get-involved/install-a-bat-house.html.

In the cloud forest

In the cloud forest

From Monteverde and Santa Elena, we took a tourist transfer van to Tamarindo where I was hoping to see a giant Leatherback turtle lay eggs for my birthday. If a bit pricey, the tourist transfer van seemed the easiest option to get us from A to B in this case. This way, we could avoid changing buses three times and having to wait by the roadside under potentially pouring rain (rainy season was proving to be quite reliable in Costa Rica) until the next connection turned up. It also saved a bit of travel time and meant we didn't have to get up at the ungodly hour of 5am. On the road, we saw two different groups of howler monkeys and stopped at a café which had a colony of semi-domesticated macaws in the backyard. We also passed Puente de la Amistad (Friendship Bridge), a short-cut to the Nicoya peninsula financed and built by the Taiwanese government in 2003.

Tamarindo lies in the northwest of the Nicoya peninsula and is a well known tourist spot with a developed infrastructure. Many go there first and foremost for the sun, the surf and the party. We took the long trip because I had read that the critically endangered Leatherback turtles, the biggest of all sea turtles, come to lay their eggs in nearby Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas de Guanacaste from November to February. Dave and I had longed to see a turtle laying eggs since we visited the impressive TAMAR project centre back in Praia do Forte, Brazil (see “The treasures of Bahia state” posting) so we were very excited about the prospect to finally being able to witness this. In the end, we did not see a Leatherback, but a sub-species of the Green turtle (locally referred to as Black turtle). It was indeed only the beginning of the nesting season for the Leatherbacks, and by now this species is unfortunately so endangered that only very few of them come ashore. Chances were just better of observing a Black turtle.

Turtle eggs being laid

Turtle eggs being laid

We drove to an unprotected beach (shocking!!) and followed our guide unto the sand stretch with our red lights. White lights are prohibited as they disrupt the turtles who are trying to navigate their way ashore. Soon after, he spotted one who was already digging her bed to nest. We watched her quietly for a while so as not to disturb her. She re-started her bed several times as she was bothered by roots or other things in her way. Another tour group arrived on the beach and our guide decided to take us to a neighbouring beach to limit the numbers watching the same turtle. There we found another animal within minutes. This turtle had already dug her hole and was entering her trance to lay her eggs. This is the best moment to approach without disturbance. We could take a few photos and even touch her carapace. Once she had finished her job, the guide moved the eggs to another hole he had dug a few metres up the beach. This is to prevent locals from finding the eggs for consumption. Regrettably, these are still considered as a delicacy or an aphrodisiac. Locals can easily follow the turtle tracks to find the original nest and since we were on an unprotected beach, there was no one there to keep them from doing that.

Whilst we observed the awe-inspiring spectacle, a lone biologist from the Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas arrived to take measurements, count the eggs and mark the turtle. The guide told us he spends every night on three beaches of the area to help the conservation effort as much as possible. We all walked away having mixed feelings about the whole experience, and I believe we do have to question ourselves about whether it is right to gawk at these age-old creatures in a moment that normally commands utter privacy by anyone's standards. That said, it immediately renewed Dave's and my desire to act for the protection and conservation of these animals. We asked the guide how we could help the biologist and offered our last week in Costa Rica up for turtle volunteering. We even phoned and emailed the park's director to see how we could help. In the end, we could not make it work this time as a minimum of two weeks is required from volunteers given the required training. The project will remain in our heads however, and we will continue to look for an opportunity to save the turtles.

Blue and gold macaw

Blue and gold macaw

The following day was my birthday and I managed to buy two pieces of clothing (a funky dress and a top/skirt) in a local shop where they were sewing the pieces in the design studio above. I also had a swim and a relaxing massage on the beach where the sound of the waves mixed in with the chill out music emerging from the bar next door. Later in the afternoon, we drove back towards San José to see some things in the surrounding area and be closer to the airport as it was nearly time for my Dad and Anne-Marie to return home. We did not go back into the city however, and stayed in Atenas, a small village of the Central Valley, not too far away from the international airport.

The next morning, we drove up to Volcan Poas, an active volcano that has the bad habit of getting covered in clouds from about 10am. This pretty much kills the chance to see anything apart from other disappointed tourists near the rim of its main crater beyond that time. We did not make it before the cloud descended, despite getting up early. We were lucky enough though to get a rainless walk around the remainder of the national park's trails and a peak into the old crater which is now filled by a lake. We also took the time to go to Zoo-Ave, a worthwhile bird park that ended up having lots of other animals too, and the butterfly farm of La Guácima. The latter we fitted in due to Anne-Marie's flight being delayed by a whole 24h. This confirmed my belief that it is better to avoid flying with Iberia if you can help yourself (they still seemed to have problems scheduling that flight a week later when we returned to the airport. Why would you try to land a long-haul flight at 3pm, when the rain is most likely to be torrential?).

View over central valley

View over central valley

We really liked to share a piece of our journey with my dad and Anne-Marie. We think the travelling together went well, although I guess we'll find out how they really felt if they ever travel with us again. After their departure, we only had a week left in Latin America before starting our slow return home via the Pacific Islands. We were torn between lazying on the Caribbean coast (more specifically in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, much recommended by Basak and Sam) or heading to Bahia Salinas near the Nicaraguan border, for a week of kite-surfing.

We picked the kite-surfing...

Click for more photos of San Jose and surroundings, La Fortuna and Monteverde.

Posted by barbla 16:49 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (1)

Adopting island time in Fiji

A week of doing very little

sunny 30 °C
View Where are we now? on lonsdale77's travel map.

White and turquoise - need more?

White and turquoise - need more?

With only seven nights in Fiji, an effect of there only being two flights onto Vanuatu each week, we hadn't planned on doing too much. Originally we had booked into the Hilton for all seven nights, but then we realised that we wanted to see a bit more of the country, so we reduced our stay to four. This would allow for two nights on a small island away from the mainland. We booked into the Hilton as I had collected a lot of reward points from my work travels which meant free nights! After 11 months on the road, a super-comfy bed, a powerful shower and a bit of organisation were a treat we much appreciated. We settled down on the fluffy towels and comfortable sun-loungers by one of the seven pools and didn't move much more. We thought about a few tours but nothing really appealed so we stuck it out by the pool, with the odd glass of rosé or Fijian beer, and did a bit of blog writing and fish photo sorting. We did make it out of the hotel to the nearby marina where we could buy a few supplies (mostly sun cream), find a cheaper restaurant and free WiFi (the Hilton's internet pricing is about 10 years out of date). But we didn't go any further.

Utterly relaxed

Utterly relaxed

The Hilton, and most of the other luxury hotels, are located on Denarau island, which was recovered from mangrove swamps and linked by a short bridge to the mainland to form a new peninsula. There is a beach but it's not pure white sand with coral growing just offshore (we had seven pools, we survived). We decided we wanted to see at least a little bit of those postcard perfect beaches so planned on heading to the Yasawa or Mamanuca islands for our next two nights. Stretching north of Denarau, these are two island chains which must contain over 30 resorts. We had a read about our options and chose a place called Octopus Resort on the island of Waya in the southern Yasawas. It was meant to have good snorkelling, came at a relatively reasonable price and was highly recommended by guide books and review sites. The big catamaran out to Waya stopped at several other islands on the way so we got to see a few more pretty beaches from a distance. In 2.5 hours we reached our own destination and we transferred onto a little speed boat to be taken ashore. Here we were greeted by the staff, singing a welcome song, as we stepped on to the beach.

Purple coral and its chaperon

Purple coral and its chaperon

It really was a pretty spot. White beach, turquoise waters all backed by green peaks. The snorkelling was good too. You could swim over a large area of coral at high tide or follow walls when the sea was lower. We managed to catch up on generating fish photos after not taking any back on the mainland. The food and service were excellent and good value too. The resort offered a variety of activities around the island, but we kept to a simple life of sun loungers and snorkelling with a couple of massages. We did participate in the welcome kava ceremony, where we got to test the locals' favourite drink. Kava is a cold tea made from the root of the pepper tree and has anaesthetic properties – it certainly put my tongue to sleep after a few sips. We also joined a merry quiz night, which culminated with us building a human pyramid (meant to represent a Christmas tree) whilst singing “O'Christmas Tree” in German (6 out of our team were German speakers). We watched the basket weaving and the elder telling stories from afar, but the early morning hike to the summit of the island was outside parameters and was saved for another time.

Preparing the kava

Preparing the kava

All too soon we had to return to Viti Levu, the main island of Fiji. We were quite happy to hear the catamaran back was running late. It meant a bit longer on the beach and our flight wasn't until the next day. The ferry eventually showed up 4 hours late and got us to port at 11pm, 6 hours late in total. A final example of Fiji time, or maybe just bad engine maintenance. We really enjoyed staying at Octopus and for anyone heading to Fiji we'd recommend getting out to any of these islands as soon as possible. You only need to hang around Denarau's resorts if you're up for total pampering (or it's free and you've been on the road for a long time). We did feel a touch guilty about not seeing more of the islands, but we were well rested and knew we'd have a busier time in Vanuatu. Click here for more photos from Fiji.

Sunset from the Yasawa Chugger

Sunset from the Yasawa Chugger

Ps: Merry Christmas all. We are now in Vanuatu, it has been busier, but Christmas day has been designated 'relaxing beach day'.

Posted by lonsdale77 21:22 Archived in Fiji Comments (0)

Happy Samoa

Bye-bye tomorrow

sunny 32 °C
View Where are we now? on lonsdale77's travel map.

Bye-bye tomorrow

Bye-bye tomorrow

All too soon it was time to leave Latin America. Ten and a half months had flown past as we travelled between Antarctica, Costa Rica and many points in between. When we had originally booked our flights we had routed our path home through a few Pacific islands. We hoped it would provide a nice rest and gave no further thought to it. So even after our long journey via Los Angeles (where we caught up with Lecia for 24 hours) and Auckland to Samoa (crossing the International Dateline twice) we still hadn't made any plans. There were new films to watch on the plane, photos to sort, and yes we managed to visit a vineyard during our 12-hour wait at Auckland airport. At least we had purchased some snorkel gear in Los Angeles as we were expecting to see a fair bit of beach, and waited to see what this friendly island full of large Pacific islanders would be like.

With 30+ hours of travel since leaving Los Angeles we slept well into the morning on arrival in Apia. So when offered breakfast at 12am, we just asked for coffee and toast. Instead our table started filling up with fruit, eggs and even a sizeable steak as the old ladies at our hotel fussed around us in their happy way. We were then given a lift up the hill so that we could wander around the old house and pretty garden that Robert Louis Stevenson built when he moved here. It was interesting to look around the house and see the old pictures and exhibits being pointed out by the guide. Then a second guide started taking us around again, shooting lots of photos of us and then finally inviting us to his village on the next Sunday for lunch and church (unfortunately we couldn't take him up as we'd be on the other side of the island). When he gave us repeated rounds of good-bye hugs and his telephone number in case we changed our minds over the lunch offer, Samoa was upgraded to very, very friendly.

The last cannibal king

The last cannibal king

After walking back into Apia, exchanging Talofa (hello) with most people we passed, we had a look around the small capital city of this tiny set of islands. There wasn't too much of note to see along the waterfront so we settled down for a beer and started making some plans for the nine days we had there. We soon spotted there was a traditional show, a fiafia, at one of the main hotels. The show involved a band playing guitars and wooden drums and much singing and dancing. Women danced in a floaty style with little hand waves, whilst the men were more active – running, stamping and jumping about, wearing their short skirts and a bit of foliage. At the end there was a fearsome fire-dance where one of the men spun a flaming war-axe around. The show was a lot of fun, staged by the hotel employees and whilst being very much a tourist event didn't feel too cheesy – we enjoyed it and the performers seemed to enjoy it too.

Fiafia show at Aggie Grey's

Fiafia show at Aggie Grey's

Whilst in Apia, the other two worthwhile activities we found were the Palolo Deep Marine Reserve and the Museum of Samoa. The marine reserve is just a small area of coral reef, in the next bay along from the port, that has been designated as protected. It was only a short swim off the beach to the trench which sloped down offering views of coral and fish at different depths. It may not have been first on Cousteau's list of destinations but for our first experience of Pacific island snorkelling it was a great start. However, we were glad we had checked the tide tables and visited at high tide, I'm not sure that it would have been easy to swim over the first section of coral to the trench in shallow water. It would have been nice to spend some more time on the little beach relaxing, but we had promised ourselves that we would visit the museum. Whilst small, it did prove to be informative and we spent nearly 2 hours in the three rooms reading explanations on the history, culture and environment of Samoa. I also liked the presentation of different styles of wood carving from around the various Pacific islands and the description of a traditional tattoo, applied from the lower back to the knees. It sounded very painful.

Moorish Idol at Palolo

Moorish Idol at Palolo

On our third day it was time to leave the “city” and seek out those perfect beaches which Samoa is rightly known for. We first planned to take a local bus to Lalomanu on the eastern tip of the island. We didn't really know when the buses were meant to leave, or if there was a proper schedule. Our questions on the subject were often answered with a “yes”, even when “yes” was not a logical option. It seemed to be considered impolite to say you don't know, so we had to learn to ask questions carefully, leaving the “yes” option to be taken as “not a clue”. Anyway, when we headed down at 9am, we found a bus at the bus station due to go in the right direction in possibly two hours time. We happily sat down, thinking it was better than expected. The bus slowly filled, seats were swapped and bags were passed around and stowed near someone else's seat. After 1.5 hours, we finally started on our way. However, we headed to the other bus station in town (a slow 10 minute walk or drive), waited for 10, then headed back to the first bus station to check no one had been forgotten. We waited a little longer before surprisingly leaving at the time first promised when we had boarded the bus– maybe there was a schedule after all!

Squeezed on a Samoan bus

Squeezed on a Samoan bus

Our ancient bus with wooden benches, open windows, and a sound system played at a reasonable volume, started to chug out of town. But before clearing the outskirts of town, the bus stopped at a petrol station so that everyone could buy more fizzy pop and crisps. It was a busy bus with people and bags changing regularly, and given most Samoans do look like rugby players (I'm not just talking about the men here), it felt like a squeeze at times although it was always relaxed. The bus first followed the pretty coast, all turquoise water and waves breaking over the off-shore reef, before crossing through some green hills and reaching Lalomanu after a bum-numbing 90 minutes. The ride was a great trip in itself, feeling like a giant family day out. That said, given we then needed to take taxis to continue around the rest of the island (rather than taking a bus back to Apia and back out again), a hire car would have been more practical. When we later crossed to the second island of Savai'i we did hire a car and enjoyed being able to explore a bit more. However, we would still recommend taking one bus journey in Samoa.

During our 10 days in Samoa, we toured around the two big islands of 'Upolu and Savai'i, staying in four locations. The beaches were always made of pretty white sand, though could disappear at high tide; the water was always warm and beautifully turquoise, and often sheltered by an outer reef; and there were always lots of interesting fish in the coral to see when snorkelling, which we did nearly every day. At each location, we slept in simple huts built in the traditional fale-style. These are covered platforms and were the traditional houses here. Privacy is inversely proportionate to tradition and simplicity with fales, so we often opted for the slightly more expensive ones which came with walls, or at least curtains.

Beach fale at Taufua

Beach fale at Taufua

We first stayed two nights at Taufua in Lalomanu, which was great value for money and had the prettiest beach of all, though the coral had been seriously damaged in the 2009 tsunami and was only starting to grow back. They also had a fiafia show on the Saturday night. This was excellent as it was performed by a local troupe who often entered competitions. I was hauled up to join one frantic dance, but with many other palagi (foreigners) there, I wasn't the one one looking total out of his depth. On the south coast of 'Upolu, we stayed at Virgin Cove which felt very remote and allowed for a good meander along the coconut lined bays where we only saw one fisherman in two hours. After crossing to Savai'i and hiring a car, we started to loop around the island and were able to stop at the lovely Lauiula Beach Fales for a curry lunch. We moved on to Manase on the north coast to spend our first night. Here there were several accommodation options and Barbla chose Jane's Beach Fales for their pretty pink and yellow huts right on the beach. We had a good evening there, chatting with Brett who had checked in for a week of very little after the hustle of Sydney. For our last two nights we stayed at the Aganoa Beach Resort which, without an outer reef protecting, allowed for amazing snorkelling over a marine wall only 30 metres from the beach where we spotted a beautiful green turtle swimming and eating. Aganoa is also a known surf spot (though there wasn't a lot of swell at the time) so dinner was spent with young surfers from Australia and Norway.

In the wild with a green turtle

In the wild with a green turtle

Away from the beaches and the underwater world, there weren't too many sites to see. Our rule of thumb was that sights with water were invariably better than those without. Between Lalomanu and Virgin Cove we stopped at a wonderful place called To Sua Ocean Trench. We arrived expecting some reef-snorkelling, but found a great hole in the ground 30 meters away from the sea-cliff edge which was fed by the ocean through underwater caves. We descended into the hole by ladder to swim, surrounded by steep walls and overhanging vegetation. It felt very tranquil, though occasionally the water would surge back and forth when big waves hit the cliffs outside. After climbing out of the hole, we walked to the edge of the cliffs to observe a few blowholes spurting water into the air as waves crashed against the shore. The two sights were both surrounded by well kept gardens and we could easily have spent a longer time there relaxing.

To Sua Ocean Trench

To Sua Ocean Trench

On Savai'i we drove all around the perimeter of the island. Again the more enjoyable sites involved water. The Alofaaga blowholes threw up some good amounts of water even with a tranquil sea-state and the Afu-a-au falls were a set of fresh water pools that were lovely to cool off in. On the western point of the island we stared at the horizon past the remains of a church, a ruin from a village destroyed by cyclones in 1990 and 1991. There wasn't much to see beyond the ocean, but the International Dateline is drawn 37km off the coast so locals say you can see tomorrow. At midnight on 29 December 2011 Samoa is going to redraw that line, skipping the 30th of December to the 31st, to become one of the first places to see in each new day and the 2012 New Year. I think it makes sense for Samoa to move into a similar time zone to its trading partners of Fiji and New Zealand (though it puts a day gap to American Samoa). Anyway, I guess people will get used to staring at yesterday from the eastern tip of 'Upolu instead.

By the Afu-a-au falls

By the Afu-a-au falls

Of the places we visited without a water theme, one of the better ones was a star mound on the south coast of Savai'i. An hour's walk through a coconut plantation finally led us to the Pulemelei Mound, a 12 metre-high platform built of stones. The mound is about the size of two tennis courts and provides a great view back to the turquoise water on the south coast. These ancient star mounds found in Polynesia are thought to have been used by village chiefs for practising their favourite sport of pigeon catching. We also visited a few sights created by a large lava flow between 1905 and 1911 which affected a fair proportion of Savai'i. First was the remains of a church where the lava had flowed but left the walls standing. The second was a lava tube (a cave under the lava sheet) inhabited by swiftlets. Both proved to be quirky distractions on our travels around the island, but I was more impressed with how much greenery had grown over this old lava flow – villagers who had rebuilt houses over the flow seemed able to grow a reasonable amount of fruit trees and plants in their rocky gardens. A walkway in some recovering rainforest sounded interesting until we found it was only one bridge that led to a tree house and a viewing platform in an impressively large banyan tree. Though we enjoyed it, it still didn't quite feel worth the WST20 per person (USD8). Worse was Moso's footprint, a small hole in the ground, which could have been at least fun if the story of the giant stepping from Fiji to Samoa had been retold instead of a request for additional money for car-parking and the ushering of some children into the photo shot. I understand the rights of locals to make some much needed tourist dollars but at one or two of the places you seemed to be expected to hand over cash for very little.

Evening volleyball game

Evening volleyball game

Anyway, we loved the drive around Savai'i, seeing both the beautiful coastline and village life. Throughout the day, as we drove past children (and occasionally adults), we'd be greeted with waves and shouts of “bye-bye” - somewhere the teaching of hello and goodbye seems to have been confused. Whilst the villages would seem very sleepy in the day, with people dozing in the fales[i], they would wake up in the late afternoon to games of volleyball and touch-rugby which took place on ever piece of grass. Village life is very important in Samoa, even more so on Sundays when church is fervently attended (small villages could have several churches catering for various denominations) and large lunches are prepared for the extended family. At Taufua's Beach Fales in Lalomanu, they were very proud to invite all guests to a free Sunday lunch where they served typical Samoan foods (which we had also tried after the [i]fiafia in Apia). Traditional dishes include: baked taro root (manioc-like, much improved when topped with palusami, smoked taro leaves containing coconut cream), oka (a ceviche-like raw fish with coconut cream), poke (raw tuna in soy and sesame oil; from Hawaii so not so traditional but very tasty), and the little piglets you see running around the villages all week – well, several of those would be served too, beautifully roasted with crackling skin – no Yorkshire puddings though.

Super blue waters

Super blue waters

Along with the green countryside and the entertaining villages, we were also enchanted by the traditional attire. I thought the lava-lava (a skirt for men or women, like a sarong) looked pretty cool and practical. It was regularly worn in the fields or to the office with a bright Hawaiian shirt. Barbla liked that dressing up for her involved sticking a pretty flower behind the ear (right to show you were in a relationship, left if free). I think she was also sizing up whether she could try the language in its pretty singsong manner. However the best parts of Samoa were undoubtedly the beautiful beaches surrounded by the stunning turquoise waters teaming of tropical fish and coral, and of course the very relaxed lifestyle prompted by the lovely people. We left Samoa charmed by the place and very relaxed, and landed in Fiji (two hours later, but it was the next day) hoping for much of the same. For more stunning pictures of Samoa click here.

Departing Samoa

Departing Samoa

Posted by lonsdale77 03:30 Archived in Samoa Comments (3)

Panama City and Boquete

Meeting up with my dad and Anne-Marie

sunny 28 °C

We have now left our adventures in Latin America behind us and are in Samoa, our first destination in the Pacific. Considering that we are dreadfully behind on our blog, we've decided to take up my dad's suggestion and write a more recent story first. As a consequence, we'll skip Colombia for now (though it was much loved), in the hope that we'll catch up on it as we sit on a beach of white sand. Fast-forwarding should enable us to maintain a more up to date blog (maybe...). Perhaps this will help people who have been telling us they never know where we are (despite our best efforts to create a journey map with dates). We also try to write shorter posts again (another recurrent critique to our recent stories is that they take too much time to read).

Panama City skyline

Panama City skyline

We arrived in the small port of Portobelo (Panama) by sailing boat which left from Cartagena (Colombia). This trip took us five days with a stop in the picture-perfect San Blas archipelago for two nights. We were meeting my father in Panama City on 3rd November, and his partner, Anne-Marie, was arriving on the 4th. My dad got to our meeting place, at Casa de Carmen in one of the nicer areas of Panama City, about an hour before us. We had many travel tales to share (he had been road tripping from Boston to Florida with a friend before catching a flight to join us), so we soon headed to a wine bar for aperitif.

The following day we rented a car and drove to the Caribbean side of the isthmus to visit the Gatun Locks. This conveniently allowed for a detour back to Portobelo where I had forgotten a mobile phone on the boat. The Gatun Locks are the biggest of the three sets of locks on the Panama Canal. They lower or rise boats by 29.5 metres in three stages between the Caribbean Sea and the artificial Lake Gatun. We just made it in time before the visitor centre closed and were able to witness a big ship go through two stages of the locks. The vessel was followed by a comparatively rather small-looking catamaran which entered the Canal at the same time. This made Dave and I dream about the day we would go through the Canal on a yacht ourselves... perhaps when we sail around the world during our next sabbatical. On our way back to Panama City, we picked up Anne-Marie from the airport.

Boat passes the Gatun lock house

Boat passes the Gatun lock house

Since we still had the car, we drove to the Miraflores Locks the next morning. These are the most visited locks of the Canal as they are the closest to Panama City. Apart from the viewing platform to see the ships pass, it has an informative visitor centre where you can learn more about the construction of the Canal. We observed a Chinese ship go through this set of locks. It was even bigger than the one we saw on the previous day and, according to the official speaker who loudly comments on the passing boats, there were only 60 cm to spare on each side between the ship and the lock walls. It was truly impressive to watch the giant vessel being lowered into the first chamber of the locks and, once the water level equalised, being gently pulled through the open gates into the second chamber by six locomotives.

Each set of locks actually comes in pairs allowing traffic to enter and exit the Canal at the same time. But ships sometimes still have to wait around for days and they have to book their slot months in advance. Between 35 and 40 boats go through the channel each day. You can see them queue up for it in the ocean on both sides of the isthmus. With such demand and the boats getting bigger and bigger, the Canal is currently expanding. A third lane of larger locks is being constructed near the Miraflores and Gatun Locks and the channel itself is being deepened and enlarged in some sections. Completion of the new larger locks is planned for the Canal's 100th birthday in 2014.

Watching boats pass at Miraflores Locks

Watching boats pass at Miraflores Locks

Having had our fill of Panama's engineering marvel, we drove out to the Causeway under pounding rain. Since Colombia, we had become used to the afternoon downpour common to the rainy season. But we could not see much of our surroundings so we decided it was better to just look for a lunch spot until the deluge calmed down. The Causeway is a 2km-stretch of palm-fringed road that heads out into the Pacific Ocean linking four small islands. To build the road, the land between the islands was filled with debris from the Canal construction. It is supposed to protect the sea leading to the entrance of the Canal at the Miraflores Locks. Now the Causeway is popular relaxation spot for residents and tourists alike. It offers splendid views over Panama City's skyline and a good selection of bars and restaurants as well as plenty of walking space and cycle lanes. The future Museum of Biodiversity designed by famous architect Frank Gehry will provide it with a new landmark when it's finally completed. Now it looks more like a pile of colourful rubble.

(Future) Museum of Biodiversity

(Future) Museum of Biodiversity

On our final day in Panama City, we visited the old colonial part of town, the Casco Viejo. Whilst charming with its old crumbling buildings next to beautifully renovated ones, Dave and I weren't perhaps as blown away by it as Anne-Marie and my dad. However, matching Cartagena and the many perfectly preserved colonial villages of Columbia is a big challenge, and we still very much enjoyed our walk-around. After a quick bite to eat, we headed to the domestic airport to catch a flight for David, Panama's second largest city and the capital of the Chiriqui province. From there, we took a taxi to Boquete where we planned to spend a couple of days before crossing the border to Costa Rica.

Kuna lady selling crafts in Panama's old town

Kuna lady selling crafts in Panama's old town

Boquete is famous for its balmy climate and nice surroundings. The area boasts several recommended scenic walks, thermal springs, coffee growing farms and plenty of extreme sport options. We thought we'd definitely find something for everyone's interest there. It turned out that the hike I most fancied, the Sendero los Quetzales (Quetzal trail) across the Volcan Baru national park, was quite difficult from Boquete. The better starting point would have been in Cerro Punta, another village lying about 1,000 metres higher than Boquete. But this required a long drive and sounded too complicated to us, so we decided to try the Sendero El Pianista (Pianist trail) instead. It turned out to be a lovely walk, although the ascent through the cloud forest to the top of El Pianista (as the mount is called) was quite steep and we got wet and muddy in the rain. My dad also managed to rip a big hole around the crotch in his only walking trousers.

Rain in the cloud forest

Rain in the cloud forest

On our second day, my dad and Anne-Marie enjoyed an excellent visit of an organic coffee farm whilst Dave and I stayed in our comfortable round cabin to do some administrative work and put up a blog posting. In fairness, we had wanted to go river rafting but the recommended outfitter that ran the tour was full for that day and we could not find another company that offered a ride on the same day in the time we had available for search. In the afternoon, we headed to the local hot springs, Los Pozos de Caldera. These consisted of two rather simple, home-made, stone-walled pools in the forest by a river and we all thought it wasn't really worth the taxi ride. The water was just too hot (about 40 degrees) for the weather and the pools too small to really relax in. We did see a funny tame monkey on the way to the pools though, which belonged to the family owning the grounds, and the drive to the pools offered beautiful views over the Chiriqui valley.

After a last home-cooked dinner in our cabin and another tranquil night, it was time to return to David and get the bus crossing the border to San Jose, Costa Rica. For more photos of Panama and Boquete, click here.

More short stories soon, we hope...

Posted by barbla 17:21 Archived in Panama Comments (1)

Volunteering in Guandera forest reserve

Two weeks labouring in a 3,000 metre high cloud forest

semi-overcast 14 °C
View Where are we now? on lonsdale77's travel map.

Arturo, the secret garden driver, eventually deposited us at the office of Jatun Sacha. It really wasn't too easy to find in the suburban sprawl of Quito. The meeting only involved completing some papers and handing over our contribution. It felt a bit unnecessary and could have been done remotely but maybe it's appropriate for their younger volunteers. We then checked into a hostel and quickly headed out to shop for the few things we needed for our upcoming work – gardening gloves and rubber boots. Our hostel was on the edge of the Mariscal Sucre, the night-life quarter of Quito. Many funky restaurants and bars are concentrated around the few blocks that make up this area which is enjoyed by both locals and tourists. That first night we were able to find a long-awaited Vietnamese restaurant, called Uncle Ho's, and run by a friendly Irish guy (his old business partner was American-Vietnamese). They were out of spicy squid but we found some other dishes that turned out to be a pleasant surprise, including a good phó (typical Vietnamese soup).

On the renovated La Ronda

On the renovated La Ronda

The next day we explored Quito's old town, another jewel of colonial architecture. We liked the picturesque streets, some of which had been charmingly renovated. We also liked the busy plazas and two of the many churches. The first, La Compañia de Jesús, was stunning inside with lots of gold leaf, the extent of which we hadn't seen since Salvador de Bahia (Brazil). Annoyingly, you couldn't take any pictures despite the pricey entry fee, fortunately the San Francisco church provided a few for the photo album instead. In comparison, the Basillica del Voto Nacional had little ornamentation but did have big Gothic turrets and spires and was adorned with gargoyles in the shapes of jungle animals. You could climb all the way to the top of one of the 72 metre clock towers passing a souvenir shop, a café and then using metal ladders to reach the very top. The height could cause a touch of vertigo, even from inside the stone towers. You could also cross a bridge, running over the main nave and just below the external roof. That lead to another tower into which you could climb via a small metal staircase. This staircase was a little exposed, venturing outside of the main wall. I popped up, but by this point Barbla had had her fill of heights. In any case, we had run out of time and the church was closing. For more photos of Quito, click here.

Stone armadillos on Basílica del Voto Nacional

Stone armadillos on Basílica del Voto Nacional

In the evening we headed to a posh Japanese restaurant to satisfy our sushi cravings. These turned out to be very creative with many including lots of components, one involving plantain, and another one representing a volcano which was flambéed on our table. The next morning we were off early to reach our forest reserve, Guandera. We weren't too sure how long it would take but we knew we needed to be there in daylight. In the end it wasn’t too bad a journey. Five hours on a bus towards the Colombian boarder, stopping at the town of San Gabriel, and a 20 minute taxi to the village of Mariscal Sucre (not including the 10 minutes waiting for the taxi driver's wife to join us). There we met Jose, director of the station and our boss for the volunteering work. We took the chance to lighten our rucksacks of non-essential gear at his house in the village. Next, we took a small truck up more hills for 20 minutes, saving a good 1.5 hour hike. It's a collectivo, but as we ordered it and paid the full USD6 for the journey, any locals going that way got a free ride. That left only a 45 minute hike to our home for the two weeks. We walked through the beginning of the reserve, following the river through cloud forest, and started to appreciate the beauty of the place. We made it in time for cafécito (afternoon tea rather than a small coffee, in this case) – some home made herbal tea, bread and jam. We met two younger volunteers who'd already been there for some time and would outstay us too; Sophie from France and Daniel from Germany. There was also Daisy, Jose's daughter, who was acting as the temporary cook. The last of the family were Faffy, a feisty cat, and Beethoven, a super-friendly Rotweilller.

Guandera is one of the five private forest reserves owned by the Jatun Sacha foundation (www). It is relatively small, but has some very special habitat with 500 hectares of cloud forest, including the fairly unique Guandera tree (more later), and above that 500 hectares of páramo (high-altitude moorland, previously seen near Cuenca). The reserve ranges between 3,000 and 4,500 metres, with the house at 3,300 metres. The reserve, with pre-appointment, is open to visitors, welcomes volunteers to help with the maintenance and scientific work there, and houses Ecuadorian research students as well. As I hope the photos show, it's a special, beautiful place and we were very glad to contribute a little.

Guandera reserve in sunshine

Guandera reserve in sunshine

Guandera house

Guandera house

The next morning we started work properly. A bridge needed building as the previous one had been washed away by a flood a few months back. The new main beams had already been laid across the river, but we needed planks to build a more substantial walkway. So we spent the day cutting and splitting logs from trees which had fallen in the flood. Given the trees were oak, it was hard heavy work, compounded by blunt saws. During the day I broke a small bow-saw blade and we didn't have nails to secure the planks. Both would need to wait for the following week when Jose would get some money from the foundation. To me, it felt frustrating they were so cash-strapped that there wasn't a spare blade (USD 2.50) and a supply of useful bits and pieces around the house, but Jose was used to it. In fact he was very happy to have got so much done that day, and we felt good but tired for the successful hard labour. We had enjoyed being in the forest, worked well together and chatted our way through the day in Spanish, English with Barbla and Sophie slipping into a bit of French.

The weekday routine at the reserve had long been set. Each morning we'd be up early for breakfast at 7am and start work by 8am. We would work through to lunch at 12pm and start again by 1pm until around 4pm for cafécito. Dinner was at 7pm and it was a rare night for people not to be heading to bed around 9pm (it would normally involve Jose getting excited by a game of Uno). Food was necessarily simple, both for cost and because it had to be carried in by horse each week. We would eat mountains of soup, rice and potatoes to sustain us in the work. But it was dull, really dull. We could only add interest by adjusting the mix of rice-soup-potato in each dish and then throwing in a major amount of aji (local spicy sauce, approaching tabasco). One lunch time when a tuna salad was served I was over the moon with excitement. And Barbla ate the over-cooked pasta, provided one evening, with gusto. However, despite the dullness, the food was always prepared well and much appreciated.

At night it got pretty cold, made worse by the damp weather. We were sleeping with four blankets piled on top of our sleeping bags, and whilst there was a hot shower, you didn't want to use it too late at night as the water would cool down rapidly with the chilly air temperature and feel cold by the time it reached you. So we were a bit shocked to find they only occasionally lit the open fire in the kitchen. The chimney didn't draw well and the fire-wood was damp so fires were saved for very cold evenings only. Anyway, Barbla and I decided this was one routine that would be changed for our two weeks there. I would usually get the fire going each night, but it was a busy job to sustain it for the evening hours with damp wood. However, it did warm everyone up a bit, dry our work-gloves and add a bit more cheer to the room. Each afternoon, after cafécito, I went to work on the wood pile, cutting more and smaller pieces so they could dry better. I also started a stockpile by the fire to dry it for the following nights. It helped, which left me time to make suggestions on how to improve the chimney design.

Barbla and Faffy by the fire

Barbla and Faffy by the fire

In that first week we also re-dug a trout pond beside the river which had been filled by the flood. Over two mornings we were able to shift several cubic metres of sticky mud and stones, then re-lay rocks at the bottom. Jose hoped to get some baby trout in there soon and, in time, augment the food at the house as well as sell some to the village to supplement income for the forest reserve. Over lunch I tried to sell him on the idea of building round ponds and creating a vortex to force the trout to swim harder, an idea I'd seen somewhere else in Ecudaor, but my conceptual physics explanation didn't translate too well and he liked his simple approach. Other tasks included rebuilding sections of paths, and weeding around the house and the small gardens which exhibited local orchids, bromelias, and plants of the páramo. Even in these surroundings I find weeding mega-dull, so I would plug into my iPod and look forward to the more heavy duty jobs (or run off to carry a few firewood logs). The weather could be variable, swinging between sunshine and showers. Extended heavy rain would have us retire to the workshop for sign-making or other indoor tasks. Barbla and I knocked out a few signs for path directions and Sophie was completing a mammoth welcome sign. Dan was identifying, drying and presenting specimens for the herbarium (and so was happy for the evening fire to help with this).

A new trout pond

A new trout pond

With no permanent cook, Jose had to disappear several times down to the village in search of a new one. The previous cook had been sad to leave but needed to return home as her kid was starting school. Jose was having trouble convincing people to come join him in a forest for 5 days a week. One lady did arrive one evening and we tried to make her feel welcome with a prime spot by the fire and a game of Uno, but she had changed her mind by the morning. By the time we left, Jose thought he had found someone to join soon. I hope so as Daisy wanted to get back to her normal job in Ibarra. It was a shame Jose was away so much as he was always enthusiastic and chatty, with much information about the forest and life there.

One night when Jose was away, Beethoven decided he wanted to see how hedgehog tasted. We woke up to find him very upset with a mouthful of spines which meant he couldn't eat. We tried a few times to hold him and remove the spines but he would never keep his head still. We even tried to mix up a bit of a sleeping pill in water and shoot that into his mouth, but he wasn't having it. We were balancing up whether to try to drag or carry him down to the village veterinary, or wait for him to get hungry and weaker. Jose returned and with the extra pair of hands we had another attempt. This time Sophie had found a large rubber band to wrap around his muzzle and keep it stable whilst nurse Barbla pulled the spines out with large pliers. The other four of us held him off the ground as he thrashed around and whimpered. He also chose to show his displeasure by pissing on my leg, an act I’m sure is considered lucky in certain parts of southern Germany (you know, at least he didn't sink his teeth into you). It was probably only 10 minutes, but that's long enough to try to hold a strong Rottweiler off the ground. With all the spines removed, he soon forgot all about it and returned to following us around the forest as we worked.

Dave and Beethoven

Dave and Beethoven

Towards the end of the first week, the dull food and cold evenings were starting to drag for me (Barbla was maybe closer to revolt) and our minds wandered to the forthcoming weekend. We planned to visit Otovalo, and in my mind at least, the cafés there started to seem like they would kick any Parisian Michelin starred place into the gutter. In the end, I probably wouldn't recommend Otovalo's cuisine over Paris, but the change was much appreciated and you could take a beer or glass of wine with it (alcohol is prohibited in Jatun Sacha reserves, and to be honest I wasn't that interested in carrying it up and down all that way). The town itself is famous for having the largest indigenous craft market in South America. Each weekend, the whole centre is covered in stalls selling pretty handicrafts - jewellery, paintings, carved wooden items, alpaca weaving and much more. There's plenty of local food on sale too. A large chunk of whole roast pork, served with four types of corn, was a top Saturday lunch treat and was followed by fresh fruit juices. Many of the locals are decked out in traditional dress, and the whole place is good fun for the weekend. We enjoyed the day perusing and haggling over some souvenirs and presents. We were also able to get some very dirty laundry done, clean ourselves up and catch up on news, emails and the blog. For more photos of Otovalo, click here.

A plate of pork and corn in Otavalo's market

A plate of pork and corn in Otavalo's market

Refreshed by the weekend we returned to work with new enthusiasm and enjoyed both the work and the conditions a bit more. In the second week, we managed to finish the bridge with the newly acquired nails. Even with me being responsible for nailing the thing together, that solid oak bridge should last a good 10-15 years as long as there isn’t another major flood. One day was spent slicing and collecting old rotten wood from the forest and a specific type of moss from more open areas. Both are used for the cultivation of orchids, which is one of the income streams for the foundation. As well as growing his own orchids, Jose would send these materials to the other Jatun Sasha stations so they could cultivate their local orchid types. All stations would send these plants to Quito for sale. Later in the week, we visited Jose's orchid garden behind his house in Mariscal Sucre and the range of plants he had growing in such a small place was impressive. That day we had a lighter workload as we tended to his organic garden in the village. This was much appreciated after the previous day slogging away on a heavy piece of road repair. With all the recent strong rain, the access road to the start of the station had become seriously rutted and it was very difficult to pass even with a 4x4 truck. We re-dug the drainage ditches on both sides of the road with large hoes , moving the material into the centre to fill those ruts. Jose would later ask for the municipality's road-roller to come compact it down. I was so knackered after this that I probably didn't speak during lunch. So that afternoon I was ecstatic to learn we were going to work on the potato fields. After three more hours of turning over soil at 3,300 metres, I was truly spent. At dinner lifting the fork to my mouth seemed a chore!

The new bridge

The new bridge

Whilst we worked very hard for the first four days of each week, Friday was set aside for exploring the reserve. Both weeks we took a similar circuit, the first time was ably led by Daniel. The second time Jose joined us and provided a running commentary on the forest and plants we passed. On the journey, we put up a few more of the new direction signs. I also took a machete to clear some fallen debris we'd seen on the first week's trip. By this time I was improving with this excellent tool, though I couldn't hack through 5-10cm branches as quickly as Jose would. Anyway, this walk first took us steeply up through the cloud forest to the area of Guandera trees at around 3,500-3,600 metres. The Guandera trees are fairly unique. They are able to grow to 30 metres high at this altitude (though very slowly; 1-3 cm per annum). They deploy air-roots too so provide a dense habitat for wildlife, orchids, bromelias and mosses. Jatun Sacha's Guandera reserve holds some of the last remaining super-high Andean forests and as such is very special. Above the forest we quickly transitioned into the páramo and continued to walk up to around 4,000 metres. Taking a rest, just off the top of a ridge, we saw more chupayas with pretty blue flowers but slightly different to those we'd seen in Cuenca (see previous posting). Dependent on the cloud movement, the view over the valley could be grand. Volcanoes would occasionally be visible on the horizon. The region is very agricultural, and up to around 3,000 metres, there are well-kept fields mainly growing potatoes or raising cattle. Páramo topped similar hills, but forest was sporadic. Though it's difficult to grow much above 3,000 metres (our tiny organic potatoes were evidence of this), forests have still been lost over time so the reserve had an important habitat to preserve. On these walks, we had really hoped to see the endangered Andean spectacled bear, but maybe we need to put in six more months at the reserve to earn such a treat. We then started our descent to head home, I at least had some more path clearing to look forward to.

Chupaya and frailejones in the páramo

Chupaya and frailejones in the páramo

Towards the end of the second week, we realised we had settled in better and were enjoying it much more than the first. We would quite happily have stayed for another week or two to work with Jose, but Colombia was next and we had appointments to keep there too. It wasn't just the physical work in a beautiful forest, I also had ideas for that chimney, wood store and trout ponds to test out. It felt we had done a lot in the two weeks but had seen there was always more to be done. We never actually planted new trees, which is something they do there. A lot of our work was catching up on the effects of the flood. We had originally thought we would work four weeks for Jatun Sacha but had swapped two of those for the whale research, and we felt perhaps a little guilty that the whale experience was more of a holiday than this more physical contribution. Anyway, we decided to pay for a chainsaw for Jose. Despite his vitality and fitness at 70, an old shoulder injury was causing him some problems and he'd talked about saving money for a chainsaw several times. He was hoping to buy one next year if he saved up carefully. The USD400 he needed was around the same we would have paid for those extra two weeks so it all seemed to fit. It was a happy final lunch when we gave him the cash, plus our boots and gloves for subsequent visitors or volunteers. We left that afternoon to walk all the way down to the village, where we luckily timed it right to catch a direct bus to Tulcan (Ecuador's last town before Colombia). Whilst we crossed the border the next morning, Jose and Sophie headed to town to buy that chainsaw, and thanks to Sophie, we soon had pictures of him testing it back in the forest. For more photos around Guandera, click here.

Jose and new chainsaw

Jose and new chainsaw

As I said above, by the second week we had become more accustomed to the conditions and were relishing the tough but useful work in this little reserve. We had really enjoyed working with the small group of Jose, Sophie, Daniel and Daisy and seeing that an extra two pairs of hands can make a difference. It felt better suited for me than one of the larger Jatun Sacha stations, where you can join up to 40 others clearing the same patch of land of invasive plants (e.g. the San Cristobal experience, as we understand it). It was a pleasure to work in such beautiful surroundings (rain permitting) and learn a lot about the forest and life in the area from Jose. I highly recommend this station as a great volunteering experience for those with an interest in nature. You may also get to loose a bit of chub too with the simple food and honest labour (Barbla thought it was the best weight loss programme ever)!

Sophie's new welcome sign

Sophie's new welcome sign

Posted by lonsdale77 16:22 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 48) Page [1] 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 »