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We’re not really city-lovers, so we spent most of our time in San Jose planning the following month of travel. We had a look around for a few hours and saw some nice old buildings, ate at a good vegetarian restaurant (ElGourmet Vegetariano if you’re looking for one in San Jose) and drank tangy fruit juices – which was all nice enough, but we were soon ready to move on again…

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We went to Turrialba to experience some of the best white-water rafting in the world. Opting for a day trip, we rafted down the Rio Pacuare on Class III and IV rapids and what a ride it was! Our guide was helpful, funny and a little mischievous – trying various tactics to make us fall in including instructing us to make the boat spin in circles as we went down rapids and deliberately capsizing the boat on a calm stretch. We did go for a couple of cool swims (planned of course!) including a relaxing one through a lovely steep-sided gorge. All day we were going through mostly untouched rain forest, full of plant and bird life (kingfishers, toucans etc) and dazzlingly green in places.

More (mostly blurry because of the wet camera) photos here.

It was fun :)

 

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Once the setting for the TV programme ‘Survivor’, this group of islands known as the Bocas were almost as pretty as the San Blas archipelago but with the added luxuries of electricity, running water, hostels, restaurants and bars. We’d heard from other travellers who’d ended up leaving early that it rains a lot. Thankfully for us, we were blessed with blue skies the whole time we were there. We spent days getting water taxis between the different islands – some of them national parks – spotting dolphins en-route, sunbathing on gorgeous white sand and coconut-strewn beaches, snorkelling in clear waters with the most colourful coral we’ve ever seen and jumping in the rolling waves on the surf beaches. With hindsight, we’re not sure why we left after only four days.

    

More photos here.

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Boquete from aboveAfter a surprisingly easy and speedy 4-bus journey from Santa Catalina, we arrived mid-afternoon in Boquete. The difference in climate was quite noticeable due to the change in altitude – we hear they call Boquete the town of eternal spring which seems about right – the air was cool, with a gentle breeze – very pleasant after the heat and humidity of the coast.

Boquete is the Panamanian capital of coffee – which may not be saying all that much as Panama is way down the list of coffee-producing countries in terms of volume. Despite the caffeine-fuelled economy it’s a really laid-back town, probably because of the large number of Americans that have retired there in recent years.

Boquete from aboveWe went on a coffee plantation tour to a place that had just been voted Panama’s second best producer – their best coffee is apparently from “Geisha” beans and costs around $130 per cup… we sampled the $5-per-pack variety which still made a very good cup (although Lizzy would say no cup of coffee can be good… she tried some, but was not appreciative!). Geisha is apparently the world’s second most expensive coffee after Indonesia’s Kopi Luwak (which is part-digested by a small mammal before being excreted, dried, roasted and brewed) and grows particularly well in Boquete – Panamanian coffee apparently punches well above its weight. Having been to both countries where these coffees are grown, I am still yet to fork out for a cup of either!

Boquete from aboveThe next day, we took a bus to the start of an hour’s walk to a pretty, secluded waterfall and really enjoyed walking in the cool air, out of the sun. However there were apparently no buses running on the way back and, after waiting 90 minutes, we had to hitch a ride. The kind driver dropped us on a busier road and we were soon on another bus back to town.

More photos here.

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After a recommendation from the B&B owner in Panama City (more on Panama City in a later blog), we booked onto a 2-night trip to the Kuna Yala region and the San Blas archipelago that is strung along its Caribbean coast. Access to the islands, which are owned by the indigenous Kuna people, is by 4×4 and then boat, but by late morning we’d arrived at our new island home.

We’ve never been anywhere that meets the stereotypical ideal of tropical paradise quite so well. Some islands are built up with houses competing for space and hanging out over the water, but most are still just piles of sand with coconut trees on them – perhaps with a bamboo-and-palm hut or two.

The island we stayed on was about 80m in diameter, took 5 minutes to walk around and had 6 huts on it. Our hut had a sand floor, a basic bed, a slightly damp and musty mattress, a mosquito net and 2 torches. Dinners (lobster – a delicacy in other parts of the world, but standard fare here) were eaten by the light of torches, the stars and the campfire we built!

In the mornings, we toured other islands by boat – one with starfish all around its sandy shores, one that was only about 20m across and just big enough for half a dozen coconut trees, one with a shipwreck just offshore. We snorkelled around the wreck for an hour or so, admiring the coral and fish that had gathered around it. In the afternoons and evenings we relaxed in hammocks listening to the sound of the waves and the thuds of falling ripe coconuts – one of which Alex laboriously husked & opened – or chatted and played cards with our new Israeli friends – the only other tourists on the island.

We thoroughly enjoyed our time in the area, but after 2 days and nights with no running water (fresh or otherwise) and no electricity (so no fans or A/C to keep us cool on the very muggy nights) we were quite glad to return to our excellent B&B (Mediterranean Dreams) in Panama City and have a much-needed shower. Who’d have thought that two days would ever be enough in paradise!

More photos here.

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Sunset over Miraflores (HDR)Well, only Miraflores really. We had a little over 24 hours in Lima and had decided to base ourselves in the Miraflores district after recommendations from friends. We saw our first proper supermarket in over a month, watched the sun set and ate pizza (which we have done more often than we thought we would on this trip). We had plans to head into the city centre to see some of the older buildings, but 14-hour days of travel before and after put us off such adventures and we just enjoyed those things within walking distance.

One more photo here.

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This high altitude Peruvian city, steeped in history and with beautiful colonial and Inca plazas was a great place to base ourselves to explore and absorb some of the local culture. It was also good to have a few days without bus trips! On our first full day we walked to two of the Inca ruins that overlook the city, Saqsaywamen & Q’enqo with their impressive 5-600 year old blockwork. After nearly 2 weeks at altitude, we both realised that we’d started to adapt as the walk didn’t leave us completely breathless. Another day was spent on a walking tour which ended at a food festival but perhaps the best day was spent at the Chocolate Museum where we did a chocolate-making workshop- complete from learning the history of chocolate, peeling and grinding the beans to choosing flavours. It was really interesting and a bonus to go away with some of our own chocolate to eat over Easter the coming weekend.

Choco-chefs!

More photos here.

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First view of Machu PicchuAfter two and a half nights in Cuzco (we had arrived at 4.30am), we caught the early bus & train to Aguas Calientes, the base for Machu Picchu. Arriving around 11am, we tried to figure out if it was worth heading up the mountain that afternoon (for an additional US$70 each) just in case the weather was truly awful the following day when we had more time to explore. In the end, steady rain was falling when we arrived at the ticket office, so we opted to save the money and take our chances the following day. As we sat reading our books that afternoon, the sky got bluer and bluer and we got less and less sure of our decision.
When we got up at 4am the next morning, the darkness obscured the mist that was obscuring pretty much everything else. The day grew lighter and the rain heavier as we got off the bus and walked to the first viewing point where we caught a glimpse of the impressive site between swathes of mist, cloud and rain. We quickly snapped some photos, hoping this wouldn’t be the best view we’d get.

First view of Machu PicchuInstead of doing the 4-day Inca Trail, we had opted to do the 2-hour ascent of Huayna Picchu which rises 360m above the famous site, offering a great overview of it (or so we hear). Arriving at the top after a steep climb, we were presented with a complete white-out and persistent rain. We sheltered in a relatively dry cave for about half an hour, but the views hadn’t improved and we were starting to get chilly from the water seeping in through our not-so-waterproofs, so we began the descent. We did snatch a few views on the way up and down, but they still didn’t allow full appreciation of the site.

Back at the entrance, we ate an early lunch and did our best to dry off in the shelter that was available. We watched as some equally bedraggled tourists headed down the mountain for a visit to the hot springs. Tempting as it was to join them, we decided to wait it out and hope for a turn in the weather. At about midday the rain stopped and the first few patches of blue sky appeared. We set off for another loop of the lost city and were finally rewarded for our early start and perseverance – amazing views across the site and the surrounding mountains. We even started to dry off!

Machu Picchu is one of those places where you keep looking up and seeing it in a different way: the clouds drop and you sense that the whole site is floating; the clouds clear and you get a view to the river, the last part of the Inca trail, the full extent of another sheer-sided mountain; you notice another set of terraces; you observe the 600-year-old intricate handiwork of the Incas forming walls and watercourses. We felt we could have sat and watched it for days – surprising for a place that hasn’t really changed much in so many years!

We soaked up as much of the views and atmosphere as we could before heading back down to catch our train & bus back to Cuzco, incredibly pleased that our gamble hadn’t back-fired and that we’d had the privilege to seen one of the new wonders of the world in all its glory.

More photos here.

First view of Machu Picchu

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