Machu Picchu

6 Jun

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We had high expectations, considering the price we had paid to get ourselves here, but we’d never take back our experience of Machu Picchu, and photos could never do it justice. In retrospect, we’re glad we had the privilege of visiting this place, and were surprised by the many stories it had to tell.

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We started our journey with a train trip to Aguas Calientes, which is sadly, a tourist-exploited town that sits in a valley below Machu Picchu. We were told the best way to see the heritage site was as early as possible, so after finding our hotel and some food, we wandered the streets, crossed bridges and strained our necks as we looked straight up the towering mountains around us.

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It’s funny what you do and don’t remember about places, experiences, and pain. I’d been sick a few days prior, and had finally worked out, the night before, that the altitude sickness tablets I was taking didn’t agree with me. I’d hardly been able to walk for long before needing to lie down, mostly due to the pain I had in my lower back. I spent that night drinking huge amounts of water to flush out the diamox from my system, and praying I wouldn’t need to sprawl every few hundred metres the next day for some pain relief. I needn’t have worried – adventure kicked in and the pain became a distant memory.

The woman who sold us tickets for the morning bus told us to start lining up an hour before the buses were to leave (5:20am) and we thought she was joking. Well come 5:00am the next morning, we were already lined up, and then waited in line for the following 2 hours before we finally got on a bus. The road up wound back on itself, what felt like hundreds of times, as the bus chugged its way up each steep but short stretch. We found ourselves at the gates of Machu Picchu, shortly after opening, wove between the guides hounding tourists at the gate, marched past the slow walkers, and took a left as soon as we were through the gates, heading straight for the Sun Gate.

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The clouds hovered over the mountains as the sun beams shot through the mist, dancing across the structures below. The site sits at 2430m above sea level, and as we’d only been at high altitudes for a few days, we panted and puffed our way up the trail, slowly but surely climbing up. Passing the occasional rester, we sat at the Sun Gate, just the two of us, and just watched the site wake up. Researchers say they are unsure why this site was built here, as it served no real purpose, but I think the Incan people placed a high value on feeling connected to the world. Here, you feel like an eagle sitting on the highest peak. The world below you is serene and quiet, and there is a connection to the earth around you that you won’t find in many other places. It’s almost like you need to go there just for a moment with the mountains. You’re so high above the world that you’re always feeling like maybe you could tumble at any moment. And the fall would be long, and would last forever.

We watched the hikers arrive from their four day hike in, and enjoyed a moment of solitude to just appreciate the site, as the mayhem of tourists and selfie sticks awaited us below. Finally we walked back down and explored the ruins. We listened in to the different guides as we passed group after group, all providing unique facts, each more outrageous and contradictory than the next.

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The most surprising thing about this place is how accessible it is. You think, being from the other side of the world, that visiting Machu Picchu sounds exotic and only for the sound of body and adventurous spirit, but the incredible amount of people visiting this place, how accessible it is (think wheelchair access) and the variation in people, old and young, from all walks of life, was mind blowing.

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Though we found ourselves overwhelmed by the crowds and were back to our hotel before lunch, the experience was unlike any other, and we’re incredible grateful that we were able to visit Machu Picchu, and see it in all its glory.

Ollantaytambo

29 Nov

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Our next stop was the capital of Peru, Lima, and honestly it felt like a little bit of returning to civility for us. We enjoyed supermarkets with everything we could want, walks through beautiful neighbourhoods and strange little cat parks, cooler weather and the famous eerie fog of Lima. We milled around the outdoor shopping mall, built into the side of one of Limas famous cliffs, ordered coffees at Starbucks where no one knew how to spell Joshs name, stuck to the nicer neighbourhoods like the tourists we were and I spent time getting over some serious back pain, which I later discovered was directly linked to the altitude sickness tablets I was taking.

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A few days later, we hoped on a very small plane, which was delayed by 2 hours, and slept the whole way to Cusco. The second we left the plane, we felt the effects of the 3399m change in altitude. The air felt crisp and our bones seemed to ache, and after a few hours in a little mini van with little ventilation, a slight headache appeared for us both – a rare occurrence for Josh. We had decided in advance, to head straight to Ollantaytambo, a small Incan village a few hours out of Aguas Caliente which is at the base of Machu Picchu. Our decision was based purely on my fear of altitude sickness and what it might do to us, and as the town sits at 2792m above sea level, it was enough of a difference to Cusco to make all the difference in our adaption.

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We stayed in a tiny traditional house with a lovely couple and spent the following days strolling around the cobble stoned alleyways, watching tiny rugged up humans in traditional Peruvian clothing playing in the streets with dogs, and disappearing into holes in the wall. The town is beautiful and quiet. It was never truly conquered by the Spanish, and as such, it has kept its original Incan buildings and generations of Incan people. The town sits in a hazey valley, surrounded by enormous mountains and two big Incan ruins which sit halfway up two opposing cliffs. It’s a lazy town, used only as a hub for the Incan Trail hike and the train station which takes tourists to Machu Picchu daily. Around noon, the bustle of people dies down as tourists board their trains, and we found this to be the best time to explore the town. The market is full of fruits we couldn’t pronounce, grains and potatoes, smiles full of gold teeth and promises of the best fly – covered foods in town. We visited the one woman in the whole town who sold bread on a daily basis, and spent our lunches downing peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

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We slowly climbed the cliff behind our accomodation and visited the Incan storehouses of Pinkuylluna. We watched the sun set on the ants that were tourists of the Ollantaytambo ruins on the opposite cliff, having the storehouses mostly to ourselves, watched the smoke from Incan households rise into the air, breathed deep the thin, Palo Santo scented air and decided this was the most beautiful and authentic place we’d ever visited.

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Bogotá and the irony of safety

22 Oct

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Our time in Bogotá was mostly spent researching other destinations, visiting yet another gold museum, taking a cable car up Monserrat for a spectacular view of the 8 million strong city and bakery hopping in the hopes of finding the famous chocolate bread of Colombia. As we felt like the city didn’t warrant its own post, we thought we’d combine it with our final thoughts on the country.

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First and foremost, we truly believe that we just barely scratched the surface of this vast and beautiful country and that 15 days wasn’t nearly enough time here. We also believe that the better your Spanish, the more you are able to experience, and it is our hope that we can one day return to further explore. What follows is our opinion and experience.

That which we so desperately hoped we could write upon arrival, we now feel grateful to write the following with all truth. We were safer in Colombia than in Calgary. Not once did we have a problem with a taxi driver, we were never scammed or robbed, we were not mugged or accosted and even the airline, with whom we flew 4 times and whom also has terrible reviews online, did not disappoint. The cities were vibrant and colourful, the people helpful despite our awful Spanish, the festivals (of which there are many) extravagant and yet never a concern and even some of the drivers felt safe. We had one strange experience, in which a single police officer asked to smell Joshs hands, which clearly smelt of sunscreen, followed by the question “marijuana?” We politely but firmly responded no and walked away and even though we were slightly perturbed by the situation, we never felt unsafe. Even stories that came from other travellers we met were those of policemen causing trouble and one of a quick and clever hand and a traveler whose phone was probably in the wrong pocket, but never dangerous situations. We feel so grateful to say we left this country with all our belongings and our peace of mind.

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But here’s the kicker. While we were in Colombia, a unit in the apartment building which we used to manage had a party. It was once our responsibility to knock on the door, tell them to be quiet and generally be the bad guy. We occasionally called the police if there was a problem. This particular party resulted in a stabbing death. Many times I’d lie in bed at a ridiculous hour while Josh went to break up a party, praying nothing would happen, that he would come back unharmed. What would have happened if we were there? We discussed many times on the irony of the situation.

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While the news is sad, we are once again reminded how safety is relative and it has so much to do with right time right place and vice versa. We’re posting this having left the South American continent and while we don’t doubt that it can be a dangerous place, we have left unscathed and immensely grateful for our safe experience.

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On a side note, there should be more posts soon. It’s been very difficult to edit photos and post everything on our iPad. I have been reunited with my beloved laptop and things should be much smoother in the posting department, now that we are home. We’ve still got Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, the USA and our sneaky and very secret arrival home to share. Stay tuned.

Taganga and Tayrona National Park

27 Aug

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After a comfy but hair-raising ride, in which the driver would only overtake another vehicle over bridges, blind rises and corners, we found ourselves once again dumped on the side of the road in Santa Marta, with instructions to jump in an unmarked taxi that had been flagged down and directed where to take us. It seems that down here, having no hotel name to provide the driver (because we use AirBnB) can be a real pain, and we often spend a ridiculous amount of time explaining this in our broken Spanish. Something was lost in translation and after many confused looks and attempts to hide our phone with the directions on it, we were off, up and over the hill, through a neighbourhood that made me more and more nervous by the second. You know, the kind with cars on stumps, people sitting on their steps watching you drive by, dust, dirt and rubbish floating on the air currents and each house looking more dilapidated than the last. Josh is always so sweet and we have a silent conversation in almost every taxi;

“Are we going the right way?”
“Yes”
“Are you sure? This looks a little sketchy”
“I’m sure”
While I confess I’m not the bravest of travellers, he finally confessed he doesn’t always know if it’s the right way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we trundled down the other side of the hill, our hosts instructions start to make sense. “AQUI” (here), and we bail out, bags in tow, staring up the 120meters of rock wall we had to climb. It better be worth it, I’d said under my breath. Who knew 120meters up was so tough. We climbed, rested, climbed, rested and climbed a little more. Josh, ever my hero, carried both bags. We were a sweaty mess by the time we arrived, and a sweet face, with ringlets sun bleached many shades lighter than his skin pops over the banister and dashes off to tell mum. Turns out the views from here are stunning and the walk, while brutal, is worth it. There’s no internet, but that’s part of its charm. We were shown to our room; stunning views and air conditioning, a pool just below, open air common area upstairs and hammocks for days. We decided to head into town and get food supplies so we wouldn’t have to go anywhere for the next few days. The hammocks were calling us. We caught a bus at the bottom of the rock wall and bumped our way down through the sketchy neighbourhood once more. I was feeling less concerned and more adventurous by the second. We asked a friendly guy where to get off and followed his directions, and once we are past the myriad of street vendors, and have followed the single-file path, we arrived at the Exito.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I know it sounds strange, but one of my favourite things to do in a new place or country is to visit a supermarket. It’s so fascinating what is sold and what people buy and eat. For example, it’s hard to find unsweetened bread. And I mean, sickly sweet whole grain with seeds and all. Or products you’ve never seen before, like a block of cocoa mixed with sugar, that you add to hot milk and drink for breakfast. And it doesn’t taste as great as it sounds. After buying what we needed, we tried some street food; “arepas” which are essentially fried corn flour and water, with cheese and guacamole, and finally jumped on the bus back to Taganga, which stopped moving as soon as we got on, thanks to a traffic jam. We later found out the ornately decorated cars, statues of saints, loud music and fireworks were all thanks to one of the many celebrations that occur in this country. Let’s just say South America is not for light sleepers. And that safety comes second to a good firework lighting. The following days were spent poolside, relaxing, occasionally heading down the rock wall for Internet and a Lulo juice (one of the many exciting and exotic Colombian fruits). There had been no rain since November, and every morning we woke up, the valley looked drier; like a fire had raced through the night before. Every night was warm and festive, and we went to sleep to the sounds of fireworks and bad karaoke, from the once sleepy fishing village below. “They’re always celebrating something here” explained one of our hosts.

 

 

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On our second last day, we decided to head to the Wilsons Prom of Colombia; Tayrona National Park, and the reason we came all this way along the coast. We were picked up by “Fifa” who kindly guided us through ticket purchase and took us all the way to the gate. Foreigners, as per usual here, pay almost ten times the entrance fee of nationals. And the lines were huge. We later discovered that we had arrived on the one day of the year that half of Colombia would too; Colombian Independence Day. After a 2 hour hike in, over boulders, across thick sand and drenched in more sweat than we had ever experienced, we arrived at the first swimming beach, La Piscina. We couldn’t get in the icy waters fast enough, and were finally able to appreciate just where we were. It was busy, yes, but the water, the sand, the rocks and jungle backdrop was worth every sweaty step. We continued on, over more rocks, boulders, through jungle and sand, to the biggest beach, Cabo San Juan. It was packed, and the sweat was coming on fast. We found our spot, and after cooling off we sat back and people watched. We had been told that we could catch a boat from this beach, back to Taganga and were given times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The national park shuts every day at 5pm and if you aren’t staying the night, you needed to be out by then. We thought we’d be early and catch the 3:30 boat back, which actually turned out to the 4 o’clock boat, and also was full. In fact, thanks to the holiday, the next two days of boats were full, and we were fresh out of options. A 2 hour hike in, 1 hour to get out and our only option was the possibility of maybe finding a bus at the entrance, as we had told Fifa not to wait. Telling each other this would be a story (little did we know), we started the fastest and most gruelling hike of our lives. Surprisingly, I didn’t hate it until the end. If we thought the sweat was bad going in, we knew nothing of sweaty hell. We made it back to the gate 15 minutes after closing and jumped in the second last mini van, crammed with people, sweat dripping off our noses like a tap. To say the 15 minute ride to the gate was uncomfortable was an understatement. I closed my eyes and could feel heat radiating. We were more than sweaty; we had sweated off the sunscreen and were now sunburnt too. Finally, we arrived at the gate and waited for the bus to take us back to town. A bus that was either too full, or never came. An hour later it started to get dark, we were 40km from Santa Marta, and I was starting to get worried. The area at the entrance to the park is not exactly pretty. We teamed up with some guys from the UK and realized things could be worse; they had all their luggage, had just lost a bunch of money on accommodation in the park that was not what they expected, had no where to stay in Santa Marta that night, and no buses would stop for any gringos. All we had was sunburn.

 

 

Finally, in a typical British rant, complete with profanity, one guy saw a ute, and after a quick discussion, we all bailed in the back. We had no idea where the guy was going, if we should pay him, provided we arrived safely and didn’t fall out due to the 6 people, 4 backpacks and at least 10 numb limbs, or if this was even legal. We raced past two police stops, a toll and all I could think is, I’m in the back of a strangers car, in Colombia, with other strangers, and it’s getting dark. My mother would freak! But most people are good and kind, and this particular man and his family were. Though wind burnt, we were let out (slowly) in Santa Marta, waved our thanks and finally were making the hike to our accommodation, which we did not move from for the next 24hours, thanks to sore muscles and wind and sunburnt skin. We enjoyed a final Taganga sunset and went back to Cartagena the following day.

Cartagena – La Heroica

17 Aug

Although our time in Colombia began in the city of Bogotá, our adventure really began in the steamy, colonial city of Cartagena, pronounced Carta-hena with a slight roll of the r. As an addition to my stress, we were to land in the dark (read, early evening) and had to catch a taxi to our accommodation. As with most of our experience of Latin America, only negative experiences are  written about, and an Internet search on safety and taxis can bring a fresh wave of panic, but our experience has been nothing but positive. We were given a ticket with the neighborhood and a price before we got in the taxi, so the usual question about the cost was not required. We arrived in the very safe neighborhood of Castillogrande, were welcomed by our hosts, and encouraged to venture out to find dinner at night. And what a wonderful evening we had. We found a healthy dinner, artisanal Italian Icecream and a stroll along a widely paved sidewalk complete with palm trees – all which could rival, and was reminiscent of the Gold Coast. The next morning we caught the local bus, an experience in fumes, loud music and bad driving, and hopped off at the entrance to the “old” part of town.

Cartagena was founded on 1 June 1533 by Spanish commander Pedro de Heredia, and got its name from the same town in Spain. The city became prosperous and wealthy which made it a target for pirates and thieves, and Spain soon intervened, constructing castles, forts, and a iconic wall that surrounded the city. When all construction was completed the city was almost impossible to take, and to this day many of these building and part of the wall still stands.

We strolled the streets, awed by the colours and flowers, marveled at the intricate nature of each detail on each facade and found ourselves intrigued by the fruit vendors, who were selling fruit we had never seen. I bought a Colombian dessert, which I’m still not sure the name of. Essentially two circular wafers, with Arequipa (caramel) and coconut smothered between them. We tried uchuvas, a orange ball like fruit that comes in a paper leaf and whose texture is similar to a cherry tomato, only the taste was fruiter.

At 3 o’clock we met “Edgar”, a local man who runs free tours of his city. From here we received an overload of information about the history of the city and Colombia, something we soon found that we knew nothing of. He covered everything, from the independence of the city, to Bolivar (who was influential in the independence of many South American counties) and his role in the city, and of course, the impact that Pablo Escobar has had on the country. Edgar was so passionate about his country and educating others that we finished the tour feeling inspired, and continued chatting about the country as we watched the sun go down over the walls. After a day spent exploring the area we were staying, we packed up and headed to our next destination, Taganga.

Panama

5 Aug

We began our adventures to Panama with a short trip to the border, a walk across a bridge, a few stamps and after a few palms were greased, we arrived in the town of Bocas del Toro, Panama. We quickly grabbed some food and found a 4-wheel drive taxi who took us out to our accommodation. We soon found out exactly why the trip, of which we had been warned, was so expensive. More so because Panama uses the U.S. dollar. The road followed a dirt track, that quickly turned to sand, and then lead out onto the beach itself. Barriers had been built to prevent the “road” from being washed away. This had clearly not worked and chunks of the road were missing.

 

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Finally, after turning to each other a few times and exchanging significant “where the heck are we” looks, we arrived at the eco lodge that is Tesoro Escondido. The two story lodge, painted in blues and oranges, has two full balconies that surround it, and being up on the cliffs, the waves crash consistently and loudly below. Hammocks and spots to hang are scattered around and a yoga deck is hidden in the jungle of a garden below. A short walk reveals a stunning, wild beach – it’s easy to see why turtles come here to lay their eggs. We relaxed and prepared for the day that would follow. Our sweet Panamanian friend had booked us a tour and we set out for the journey into town the next morning.

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We were taken on a mini bus, full to the brim of sweaty shouldered people, to the other side of the island. We spent the day exploring Playa de las Estrellas, and here the blue water is full of starfish. Each is just as unique as the last, orange, red and coral in colour, each with different patterns, the smallest the size of a grown mans hand.

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The next day we spent on a boat, searching for dolphins (and sadly finding none), snorkelling, resting out sea legs on an island and exploring the mangroves. We found beautiful reefs and a sloth on a floating island, reminiscent of something out of “The Life of Pi”. In the days that follow, we relaxed, meet other guests, did a bit of yoga with said guests and enjoyed the never end waves. The last two nights pour with rain, practically monsoon, and we moved everything into the center of the room to avoid the rain coming in through to mesh. Its muggy in Bocas, and quiet easy to work up a sweat, but due to the nature of the lodge, nature is the only way to cool off, and we found ourselves relying on the wind to stay cool. On the last night, I found mold on some of our clothes and the bugs had finally gotten to us. The rain was so bad, a small landslide had occurred and so three large trees were cut down in front of the lodge, sending swarms of bugs into the air. Our last night was spent covered in deet, fending off the bugs and rain. Needless to say that while this place was stunning, we were thrilled to get moving again. At 5 o’clock we started our journey on the one and (we hope) only over night bus of the trip and headed to Panama City. Drivers here leave much to be desired, and to say it was a bad nights sleep is an understatement.

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We arrived, haggard and confused, but welcomed by our most helpful host yet. He picked us up before dawn and took us to his hotel of an apartment, complete with stunning views, a pool, gym and the comfiest, biggest bed of our stay. Complete with air conditioning we were in heaven, and promptly hopped in bed to recover. The following day we spent in an air conditioned mall, drinking coffee, replacing lost clothing and enjoying being away from the scraggly life that is backpacking. If just for one glorious day. We took a taxi the next day into the old part of town, Casco Viejo and wandered it’s beautiful colonial streets. Casco Viejo was the second area built in Panama City after the first, Panama Viejo, was attacked by pirates (or the Queen of Spain, depending on who you talk to). Until recent years, the area wasn’t that safe, until the government saw the potential in the buildings, and now hotels, restaurants and bars are beginning to pop up. Its still an area in development, and as such, makes for a stark contrast in condition of each building. We then negotiated a taxi out to the Panama Canal and museum. I’ll preface this next part by saying we are budget travellers and the U.S. Dollar was not kind to our pockets. We purchased one very expensive ticket and took turns visiting the small museum and peering over the decks into the canal. It’s bad practise, we know, but one that saved us aperture penny. We definitely found Panama to be the most expensive country and without careful for thought, we found it easy to blow a chunk of change in a day. Whether it’s our safety or the unknown, or a flight that I’m uneasy about, I woke up with vertigo, no appetite and a mouth ulcer that took a few days to disappear. It’s strange how ones body reacts to stress despite telling yourself you’re fine. Turns out I had nothing to worry about, but that’s a story for next week.

The Jaguar Rescue Center

22 Jul

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Pistachio the pelican greets you as you enter the grounds. He roams the gardens here, and like the boss he is, will warn you when you’re too close. There are glass cages everywhere, eyelash pit vipers in greens, corals and yellows hide in each one, wrapped in pairs, never sure of where one begins and the other ends.

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The tour starts with Nala the baby puma. She, like all other animals here at the center, was brought here for help. She was kept captive as a pet after her mum was killed by poachers. Like almost all the animals here, they plan to release her. Many animals that start here go to the centres privately owned and protected forest, La Ceiba, once they are ready. It’s slow release and animals, such as the monkeys, come and go as they like. Our guide shows us another of the cat family, native to Costa Rica. They have tried twice to release him, and twice he’s found his way back to the center, taking out their neighbours chickens on the way. Now they wait for another option as they begin talks with a national park far away.

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The sloths, both two and three toed, hang out in a low hanging tree, each with a similar tale. Mother was electrocuted and died, baby survived and brought here. Adult sloths can regulate their body temperature and are usually around the 32degree mark, but the babies have no control and without a mothers warmth they can die from hyperthermia. They hang out here in the trees with some sweet flightless parrots who are growing back their wings. Around the corner hangs their male deer, who charges people at random, and our guide stands with a stick at the ready to ward him off.

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There is a baby ant eater walking around. He may never be released. He has a neurological disorder and was found walking in tight circles. He’s slowly getting better but sometimes resumes his circles and stresses himself out. The monkeys are adorable. They need lots of love and the volunteers at the center spend hours just being their touch. There are two older monkeys – one is missing a leg and the other is blind. They are just too fragile for release. There’s a spider monkey, many howlers and a white faced capuchin. They leap and climb and play, and of course, hassle the older monkeys. There is a variety of birds; Hawks, owls and parrots, each with their own sad tale. A crocodile, famous for being beaten and dragged down the main street in Puerto Viejo, now lives here. A caiman found in a hotel bathroom lives just next door. The center is doing incredible things for injured wildlife around the area and we felt so lucky to have had the chance to see them. I’ll leave you now with Samantha – a few month old sloth who stole our hearts.

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Puerto Viejo

16 Jul

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I had read so many good things about this place. One blogger, whose site I visit on occasion, visits multiple times a year. After Santa Teresa, my expectations were high. We arrived, after another long day of buses, nearing night fall. It’s said that in Costa Rica you don’t take unmarked taxis, and as we hopped off the bus, there were no marked ones in site, yet there were men asking where we’d like to go. Central America is notorious for all things happening at a much slower pace than you’re used to, but not arrival. No, when you first arrive at a new place, bag in hand lookin all tourist like, things happen fast. It’s hard to differentiate who wants a buck, who wants to work for a buck and who is just trying to be helpful. It usually works in that order in terms of probable encounters. So of course I’m checking to make sure we didn’t forget anything on the bus, Josh is looking around to find our next safe passage and some guy has our bags, dragging them of in another direction saying “taxi this way”. The chaos of it all is infuriating.

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So we find ourselves in an unmarked taxi and I’m praying he’s not taking us down some dirty road to rob us blind. Turns out no, he’s legit, and we find ourselves at Alex’s place. He welcomes us, in his thick Caribbean accent, with a fresh coconut a soft bed and a fan. Really, that’s all we need. So we breath in the dense, wet air, turn our fan on and let the panic pass.We head to the beach – the sand is black. What did I expect with the name Playa Negra. While it’s fascinating, this is not what I expected at all, and so far I’m unimpressed. Where’s the blue water and white sand that is Caribbean? Where is the tranquility that blogger promised? I just feel sweaty. We walk to town on the beach. Turns out, trolls live under and near the bridge, at least that’s what the Canadian at our accommodation calls them. People in shantys, loitering and looking shady on the street corners, with beach fires and flapping black plastic everywhere. By the time we have drawn out our money, bought our food and water and got back to our digs, I was feeling positively livid. The sweat (humidity sits around the high 90 percentile here), the vibe, everything being damp, no escape. Yikes. It’s so easy to get worked up here, and even a few weeks in, I find that I still do. We had no other choice, and Josh, ever my rock, tells me it will be better in the morning. I resolve to give it one more chance the next day, and I’m so glad I did.

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Puerto Viejo, and the multiple towns the follow the coast line south, are breathtaking. Turns out, the troll bridge is actually the worst spot in the area and a blip in comparison the size. A walk into town shows the beach quickly turns to white sand, the ocean subsequently turns blue. Street vendors sell handmade crafts and tasty empañadas, restaurants and souvenir shops fill in the spaces. Salsa Brava, a huge wave that pops up out of nowhere thanks to a reef, soon becomes our favourite spot to hang (the bar) and watch (the wave). A walk further south reveals a road filled with hibiscus aromas, dense jungle with muddy paths, leaf cutter ants on a mission, large and aloof blue butterflies that are just out of reach, scuttling crabs of various colours and finally, an isolated wild beach. We rent bikes and enjoy freedom for two days. On a cool and overcast day we ride 8 kilometres to Punta Uva. It’s even more isolated. There’s one family here. The roads are damp with sea mist, the air smells like a flowery jungle and the cicadas are singing at the top of their lungs.

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We buy banana bread from a street vendor and enjoy the sticky sweet stuff and watch the sun go down. The trolls aren’t so bad. The lights go out one night and it starts a moonlit discussion. We talk to our host Alex about Costa Rica, politics and the indigenous people. He spoils us with coffee the next morning and we talk more about his life and the beautiful place he’s built. It’s a privilege to see and hear how others live around the world.

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We visit the Jaguar Rescue Center (watch for the next post) and head all the way to the furthest town, only to cross a dirty river to find a national park and some pristine beaches. Puerto Viejo has taught me that first impressions aren’t everything, but if you go looking, you can find magic.

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SANTA TERESA

7 Jul

It was a bus, a ferry (note the unimpressed sea sick pic of me) and two more buses, including a small, hand painted sign that marked the bus pick up, before we arrived in Santa Teresa, and as with most Central American locations, you question whether the sticky sweaty hell is worth it. All you can do is take deep breath, accept the here and now, and (lie) tell yourself you won’t always feel that gross. Turns out it was worth it. We were unceremoniously dumped just a few meters short of our accommodation which turned out to be heaven on earth, thanks to air conditioning.

 

The property was secure, the apartment was self contained and the garden was full of exotic flowers and wildlife – we saw bugs, butterflies, iguanas, hummingbirds, a raccoon and even a howler (monkey). It didn’t take us long to settle in and soon we were doing what everyone comes to Santa Teresa to do – taking it easy. The beach in Santa Teresa is a surfers dream. Josh rented a surf board and I sat on the beach staring blankly as the waves rolled in and out. We spent our days just being, letting go and enjoying a different pace of life. For anyone that knows my inability to do nothing, it was a challenge. No plans, just beach, sleep, eat, repeat.

 Expats from all over come here to make a new life. The town is full of “locals” who don’t look local at all. One of Josh’s many fun facts informed me that holiday goers from America would visit Santa Teresa and never leave because they arrived responsible for one and quickly became responsible for more. The town is unpretentious. There are no high end shops, no fancy five star restaurants, and one small, non-descript resort. People use legs, bikes and motor bikes to get around on the one half paved road that runs the length of the beach over two towns – most vehicles have some form of attachment on the side for a board and if not, they tear down the road, board longways and in front under both arms.

 

Just about everyone surfs, and with a coast line stretching for kilometres in either direction, and nothing but sand under tumultuous waters, you can understand why. It seems everyone is welcome here, gringo or local. We lounged in the garden, strolled to the beach, took trips to the grocery store and enjoyed our shady spot on the beach. We took this precious place for granted as Jaco paled in comparison. To be honest, we shan’t even mentioned our measley two days there.

How to make Kirsty happy

30 Jun


It’s pretty easy actually… give her coffee and chocolate. We’re leaving Monteverde with a new understanding of and deep appreciation for our coffee addiction. It seems that the process involved to obtain the ingredients for a cup of coffee is no easy feat. We arrived to rolling hills full of trees and plants that is Don Juans coffee farm, in the afternoon following our visit to the forest. It was drier and warmer here, and well maintained. We were greeted by a worker who proceeded to show us around. We started with the green arabica bean, still growing on the tree, and were then taken to a green house, where he explained the type of plants they grow, which to my excitement included cacao trees, the harvest season and coffee bean colouring, as well as how coffee was first discovered.

    It originated in Ethiopia, when a goat farmer noticed how overly active his goats were after eating from the arabica plants. He tried many different things until finally he roasted some beans on the fire and made his discovery. This story may or may not be true, but it sounds legit and has frolicking goats in it, so I’m rollin with it!  Costa Rica now exports only 7% of the worlds coffee, but I know I’ve definitely had some in other countries before.

             He showed us banana trees planted between coffee trees and explained that coffee needs plenty of shade. Harvest time is around Christmas, so all the beans were green and the fields calm. We were taken the the de-pulping machine and shown how the beans are left to ferment (very important for flavour infusion), are then left to dry for weeks on end, husked and separated by size, and only after weeks of preparation, are they roasted. The roasting process usually takes no more than 20-30 minutes, and the beans pop like popcorn once they are nearly done. He gave us samples of light, medium and dark roast to smell, and explained the subtle under tones in each, which were easy to pick up.

     

We were then taken to a room where he opened a cacao pod. Inside the seeds were covered in fruit like jelly, and upon a taste test, were very reminiscent of lychees with a slight chocolate flavour. He explained that in order to get good chocolate beans, the fruit has to ferment on the seed for at least a week. As with the coffee beans, the seeds are dried and husked and ground into cacao nibs. Right there and then he put the nibs into a grinder with a hand crank and we ground the nibs into a paste. He explained that usually at this stage, much like how cheese is made, the paste is separated into coco butter and coco powder. He took the paste, added vanilla, sugar, chilli, pepper and salt and shared it with us in little containers. It was the most dense and delicious chocolate stuff we’ve ever had. We then shared some chocolate covered coffee beans, the left overs of which we promptly stuffed into our pockets.

 

We then had a little fun juicing sugar crane and were then escorted back to the dining hall to sample as much of their three blends of their coffee as we wished, while we sat on a balcony and watched over the plantation. I’m not one for drip coffee, but this stuff was tasty. I was sad we had no room in our bags for a few bags of coffee and a handful of the chocolate beans, but we left with a new understanding and appreciation for the good old cup of jo.