After a slow bus journey (5hours for 167km) we arrived in lush green Monteverde. We’d come to see the cloud forests, some cool wildlife and of course to do some ziplining through the canopy. Our first attempt at the ziplines failed because of some very, very wet weather so instead we spent most of the day going around a Butterfly and Frog farm which was surprisingly interesting. If this was a sign of our increasing age and maturity (?!), the following days activities soon rectified things. We woke to blue skies and so off we went to ‘Extremo Canopy Tours’. Flying through the air on ziplines over a km long and in places over a 150m off the ground was utterly incredible! The highlights were a Tarzan swing and the Superman cable. Check out the YouTube link for the short film Alex took as he went over the canopy. Definitely as close to flying as we’ve ever been- awesome!

We’re having a few issues with our photos, so they will have to follow when we have time to sort them out.

Unfortunately, we got some news from the UK the following day that made us decide that the place we most wanted to go next wasn’t Nicaragua, Honduras or Belize but home to be with our nearest and dearest. And so the blogging ends. We will be arriving in the UK on 12th May and for our UK friends and family, we will hopefully see most of you in the next few weeks and months.

Manzanillo: Beach & turtles

Crossing from Panama to Costa RicaHaving left Bocas, we headed to Guabito to cross the border into Costa Rica. To save ourselves the 2 buses, we decided to jump into a taxi to get there. As with all our taxi rides in Panama it was an interesting experiences. Our driver, a (would-be?)-gangster, cruised slowly through the towns with gangster-rap blaring, periodically shooting people out of the window with his fingers. We found this fairly amusing till he nearly hit someone, they came over to the car and he pointed down the side of his seat where a machete was lying. Anyway, after safely arriving at the border (a narrow wooden plank bridge over a river) we crossed by foot, just before a truck came through the other way. It would have been a scary experience having to jump out of the way with our bags of it if we’d been a few minutes later- we wonder whether anyone has taken an unexpected plunge into the river! Another few bus rides and we arrived at Manzanillo on the Carribean coast. Described as a sleepy place we were surprised to find the beach full of a few hundred locals partying, before we realised it was a public holiday. We joined them on the beach for a few hours but found the following day on the beach much more relaxing.

Manzanillo beachAs night fell we set out in a speedboat across the moonlit sea to a nearby beach where we hoped to see Leatherback turtles (up to 500kg and 2.4m long!!!) nesting. In quiet anticipation, we walked a few kilometres along the beach, staring across the waves eager to catch any glimpses of these giants. After our guide picked a spot, we settled down in the sand to watch and wait. Unfortunately, despite 6 hours of waiting during which time our eyes played many tricks on us, at 2am we started the walk back, disappointed not to have seen these magnificent creatures. We were slightly appeased when we came across some strange markings in the sand which our guide confirmed was where a turtle that had come in but decided that it wasn’t the right spot to nest and then we noticed that perhaps 25m away a dark lump was moving out towards the sea. We watched the turtle for a few more seconds and then it was gone. Not the experience we’d hoped for but better than no sighting at all.

Howler monkeys

A few photos here – none of the turtle of course.

Santa Catalina & Isla de Coiba

Lunch in Coiba National ParkDespite our reservations about buses after our experience in Panama City, our four buses to Santa Catalina connected so quickly that our lunch consisted of whatever snacks we could find left in our bags. We were here for diving at Isla del Coiba, an island that used to be a notorious penal colony. The land home to crocs, turtles, snakes and lots of exotic wildlife and the surrounding waters filled with big sharks, dolphins and all manner of other fishes.

Our three dives were great and we saw lots of white tip reef sharks (no biggies), a few turtles (we saw many more surfacing from the boat trip between sites), schools of barracuda and Alex saw the shadow of a manta ray (Lizzy missed it though the guide assured us he’d seen 3). The best bit though was the travelling by boat between dives when pods of dolphins swam around the boat and we were able to stop and get in the water to briefly swim with them- it was awesome. Dolphins are such graceful and playful animals it’s always a joy to see them and hear their clicking underwater 🙂

A few photos here.

Panama City

Even Panama Hats donIt was an interesting six days in Panama- a minor series of mishaps but a very enjoyable time nonetheless. After getting dropped off by bus right in the middle of an area the Lonely Planet advises avoiding (oops) we managed to navigate ourselves safely to Casco Viejo, the old Panama City. It’s now a strange mix of renovated boutique cafes and hotels adjacent to dilapidated and overgrown buildings. Next we successfully managed to get a taxi (no small feat in Panama where taxis aren’t so interested in where you want to go but whether it’s somewhere they want to take you). We got in before noticing the big knife wedged into the dashboard but weren’t too concerned as we figured carrying weapons must be fairly normal in Panama given that supermarkets have to tell you not to bring your gun or knife into the store.

The taxi took us up to Cerro Ancon, a nature reserve on a hill overlooking the city which gave pretty good views. On the walk down we spotted monkeys and squirrels in the trees and some weird mammal which looked like a rat without a tail. It was only on reaching the bottom that we realised that we’d left our Central America Lonely Planet at the top. After walking back up, back down, then around the hill, putting on a re-enactment of losing our book to a bemused guard we finally gave it up as lost assuming it would be easy to replace. We were wrong.

Even Panama Hats donSecond mishap involved severely underestimating the time it would take us to get a bus in to a wildlife park that we’d intended to visit before the canal. Over two hours later (the park was 20km away), we arrived and despite the fact that two of the big attractions were absent due to illness (the harpy eagle & the tapir) we had a great time seeing monkeys, toucans, parrots, jaguars and lots of interesting plants- including a cashew tree whose fruit we ate (weird alkaline taste). Realising we’d been admiring the animals too long and were now too late to get to the canal, we decided to extend our stay in Panama for another day.

Even Panama Hats donBraving the buses again the next day, we made it to the Miraflores locks where we spent most of the day learning about the history (apparently so many workers died of yellow fever and malaria that they pickled the bodies, sold them for medical research and used the money to build a hospital) & watching boats going through the locks from the Atlantic to the Pacific side. Third mishap involved Alex realising almost too late he’d left his wallet in a taxi, spotting the taxi about to leave a car park onto the highway, dashing across said car park, seeing a hedge in the way he decided it would be safer to roll over it than jump over it in case there was a ditch in the way – he hadn’t realised it was a thorn bush – but nevertheless returned triumphantly with wallet in hand covered in scratches and thorns! Ouch!

Fourth “mishap” involved a hunt to replace our lost Lonely Planet. To cut a long and boring story short, it took us nearly a day. It appears there are very few bookshops in Panama- maybe they’re all straight onto Kindles, either that or they don’t like reading very much… then again maybe with so much other more exciting stuff to do, they don’t need to?

More photos here.

Kuelap, Gocta and snake bites

We were looking forward to a hassle and planning free 6 day tour of the Northern Highlands of Peru – the only tour we’ve booked on these travels. During a 10-hour drive from Tarapoto to Chacapoyas, we stopped briefly at an orchid farm (unfortunately, most of them weren’t flowering, but the hummingbirds were very impressive). We soon realised that if speaking Spanish hadn’t been that important before, it looked like it would be in the coming days. After an uneventful night in Chachapoyas, we were collected the following morning to go on a tour of Kuelap – a 1,100 year-old pre-Incan citadel on top of a 3,000m steep-sided mountain top. The three hour drive up, often with sheer drops to one side or the other, was picturesque if a little bumpy. Kuelap itself was very different from Machu Picchu – older and bigger but more overgrown and harder to appreciate its scale.

It was here that we met a German girl, Katja, who, whether through bad planning or bad luck, had missed meeting her friends for the trip. Not to be deterred, she decided to walk the “2 hours” to Kuelap on her own. After 4 or 5 hours of walking in intermittent rain, she arrived at a small village without a hostel, hotel or restaurant and realised she wasn’t going to make it that day and that she’d been misled as to how long the walk really was. She spent a very cold night in the house of a local who took pity on her and provided her with a straw bed. Leaving them the following morning, she realised that the money she carried in her purse was missing and so she set off- no food, no water, little money and no idea how she’d get back from Kuelap as it was Easter Sunday. We offered for her to join our tour and so we gained a travelling companion for a couple of days.

The ride back from Kuelap was made more interesting as not only did the car have non-functioning shock absorbers and a cracked windscreen but the wipers were partly broken – and it was raining. This meant that our driver had to physically push the wipers back down every wipe. As the ventilation was also broken and the windscreen was steaming up he was alternating between pushing the wipers back with his left hand and wiping the inside window with his right whilst still attempting to avoid the numerous pot holes and keep us from driving off the edge. Needless to say, the inevitable (but by no means worst) happened and we hit a pot hole and the front tire deflated. The driver quickly put on the spare (slick!) tyre and it was only a short while before we were off again, though none of us completely relaxed until we were back on sealed roads with no precipice to the side. The journey made arriving at Gocta, a gorgeous new lodge overlooking Gocta waterfall all the more rewarding (yes, we splurged on this). It’s not the kind of place to expect to find at the end of 5km of dirt road – a luxurious hotel whose comfortable rooms and infinity pool overlook the falls 3km away.

We spent the first full day at Gocta walking to the foot of the waterfall, which according to Lonely Planet is the third highest in the world at 771m but has only received around 2,000 visitors per year since its “discovery” in 2006. Katja joined us again and between the three of us, we managed to translate perhaps 60% of what our Spanish-speaking guide told us about the surrounding flora and fauna of the jungle/cloud forest. The information given at the hostel had said the walk was 6km return but this must have been “as the crow flies” because the one-way sweaty non-crow trip took us 2.5hrs. The return trip (much more uphill) took us much less time, but for unwanted reasons. Three quarters of the way back, Alex felt a sharp pain in his leg and looked down in time to see a small (80cm long) very dark green/black snake slither off into the undergrowth. On inspection, we could see two small blood spots where it had punctured the skin. After an agonising few minutes attempting to explain to the guide what had happened, he eventually seemed to understand and radioed the village. We were met further down the track by a man with a horse to take Alex more quickly to the village whilst Lizzy ran to the hostel to get insurance documents, phones and money. Lizzy met Alex at the local doctor’s “surgery” where we said lots of silent prayers and tried to convince ourselves that the snake probably wasn’t deadly and that, if it was, then we’d be able to get to help in time (which with hindsight, had it been, would’ve been nearly impossible).

Thankfully, Alex didn’t seem to have any immediate symptoms, which helped keep panic at bay, though this was counteracted by most of the village gathering to take a look at the gringo who’d been bitten by a snake – apparently a first for the village. Infuriatingly our guide kept trying to say that we didn’t need to worry or do anything but the village doctor, who we’d initially had little faith in as her first question was about money, agreed he should to go to the hospital. After more anxious waiting, a car eventually arrived (thankfully in much better condition than the last one we took) and we sped off to the nearest hospital an hour away. Once we had mobile phone reception, we got through to a helpful nurse at the insurance company who explained that the hospital needed to identify the snake and do a swab test to identify venom. She told us that although it was positive there were no immediate symptoms, some snake bites can take a while to kill you as they work by slowly congealing your blood (not what we wanted to hear!).

When we finally arrived at the hospital, we sat for an hour before someone wearing no uniform (doctor? nurse? patient?!) walked over, had a cursory look at Alex’s leg and seemed to indicate he was fine to go, having not followed any of the recommendations from the insurance nurse. Despite our protests, we were turned away until some people from the tourist agency (who had been called by a helpful lady from our hotel) turned up. Not only did they speak English but they ensured that Alex was seen. After the hospital staff (clearly grumpy at the tourist agency’s involvement) tokenistically cleaned the wound, they again sent us away. Giving up on the hospital and not willing to take any risks we went to a local internet cafe to try and identify the wretched snake. Whilst we failed to do so, we did manage to verify that it hadn’t been one of the 5 poisonous snakes in the region. Satisfied with that and happy that Alex was still symptom-free, now nearly 5 hours later, we returned to the hotel, physically exhausted, emotionally drained but VERY VERY VERY thankful.

More photos here (none of the snake – we weren’t that quick!)

La Paz

Illimani looks over the cityArriving at 6am from the overnight bus, we stumbled bleary-eyed around La Paz exploring the slightly unimpressive plazas but admiring the glimpses of the huge snow-capped mountain that overlooks the city’s steep, cobbled streets. The following day, feeling slightly more awake after a proper night’s sleep, we attempted to collect a package that had been sent to La Paz Poste Restante 3 weeks earlier (unsurprisingly it wasn’t there), explored the interesting coca museum (suggests it’s only since the West got hold of coca that misuse has been a problem), did some more planning and booked our bus trip to leave La Paz the following day. Unfortunately, Lizzy got food poisoning that night and our departure to Lake Titicaca was delayed by 36hrs.

A few more photos here.

Illimani looks over the city

Salar de Uyuni and the Southwest Circuit

Our three day trip started with a slightly odd stop at a train graveyard followed by a more interesting visit to a small town selling salt products, after which we headed to Salar de Uyuni itself (the biggest salt flat). Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do the usual trip out all the way across the flat due to flooding. We had a lot of fun anyway on the accessible part (see photos!), though it was disappointing not to see some of the more famous sights.

Next, our jeep of seven headed south across dusty, barren deserts and passed snow capped mountains (snow and desert seeming an odd combination) en route to stay in a hostel made almost entirely of salt. There were storms to the east as we drove and we saw spectacular flashes of lightning as our jeep bounced along to the sounds of Bob Marley and Coldplay. Next morning, we went to visit a pre-Inca burial site. It was eerie looking into the tombs to see 800 year old mummies staring back at us – they’re all placed into a foetal position for reincarnation.

Continuing on towards our second night’s more basic hostel (no showers, no heating, limited electricity, roof held down with stones, sellotape-mended windows… but a better quantity of food than the previous night) we passed stunning scenery – orange, snow-capped peaks, lakes of red, white and blue – many with flamingoes – amongst miles of desolate rocks and sands, fields of quinoa, strange Salvador Dali-like stone formations all set against impossibly blue skies. It was beautiful in a way we’ve never seen before.

It was well worth braving the cold at 5am on the third day to go and see sunrise at the geysers. We soon warmed up with a jump into hot pools before breakfast, having peeled off our many layers of thermals, fleeces, down jackets and waterproofs and got our togs on. After visiting a few more stunning lakes, three of the group were dropped off at the Chilean border whilst the rest of us headed the seven hours back to Uyuni. We’d hoped to book onto an overnight bus to La Paz (Bolivia’s capital) a few hours later, but unfortunately all of the bus companies were booked so we had to settle for the following night instead.

More photos here.




Iguazu: The largest waterfalls on earth

WOW! Definitely one of the most impressive sights we’ve ever seen. Hundreds of waterfalls thundering down into a chasm of whiteness. It was utterly awesome – if only our photos did it justice. Thankfully one of the staff at the hostel we stayed in gave us loads of excellent advice about which parts of the falls to do and when. First, we did the Brazilian side of the falls (the falls span the border between Brazil & Argentina), and ended up getting about 8 buses taking nearly 3 hours to cross the border and get there. Being a little wiser to the process with the local buses after our earlier experience, on the way back we took only 3 buses and under 1 hour – phew! We had a fabulous time on both the Argentinean (definitely the better) side and Brazilian side, walking, spotting monkeys in the trees, trying to identify other strange animals and looking at the most amazing array of waterfalls pretty much anywhere in the world. All in all, two very excellent but very long, hot and sweaty days – we have no doubt this will be one of the highlights of our trip.

More photos here.