31 October 2009

More Hiking, More Rain

Having spent a few days on the coast of the Osa Peninsula, we took a bus to the interior mountainous region. We hiked through the undulating tapestry for two more days, enjoying many various shades of green. We also experienced the worst (you pick: closest, loudest, scariest, most exposed) thunder storm. Along the way we found three huge waterfalls, numerous smaller falls and cascades, excellent view points, and no people. The rain makes the hiking harder, but having the parks to ourselves makes it more enjoyable.

Having spent a week around Corcovado National Park, surviving the humidity and getting rid of bed bugs and trying to keep things dry, we decided it was time to head inland to the mountains. Chirripo National Park is named after Chirripo Peak, which is the highest point in Costa Rica and part of the Continental Divide, measuring in at 3820 meters (12530 ft). We found more humidity and more rain, but at least the nights were quite cold. We also found an excellent hostel, that was run by an inspirational couple who left the States 3 years ago. Within a few hours of hanging out with them, they asked us to run the hostel for a few days. They needed to cross into Panama, only to return to Costa Rica with a renewed visa valid for another 6 months. We couldn't help them out as we have to meet up with my family soon. Ah well, we may return . . .

Unfortunately, Chirripo Park, like Corcovado, was closed for the month of October. We had looked every where for info on this park - guide books, internet, the Chirripo Hotel, other park agencies, bus drivers - and nobody knew that it was closed until we physically arrived at the park offices to find a small sign alerting us to the closure. From this, we've learned that while Costa Rica has done a good job setting land aside for parks, they've done a less-than-stellar job in managing said parks. Since then, we've also learned the the country has done a horrible job managing around the parks to the point where some concerned people are arguing that "eco-tourism" is actually significantly damaging the environment.

In the case of Chirripo, there was a private nature reserve surrounding the National Park, serving as a buffer against development. Cloudbridge Reserve also offers educational nature hikes, research space and opportunities for budding scientists, and reforestation projects.

Both parks were absolutely fabulous, with Corcovado presenting us with an abundance of wildlife opportunities, and Chirripo with great views, hard hikes, and friendly people.

26 October 2009

Corcovado National Park

A few people have mentioned this park, on the far southern Pacific tip of Costa Rica. C.G. in particular called this the "best park in Central America." That's a pretty strong statement, but it was coming from someone who spent a lot of time down here and knows what he's talking about, someone I could trust.

So, we took another long bus ride from San Jose down to a one-street town called Puerto Jiminez, which is our jumping off point into the park. It's another 2 hour truck ride from here, which only got us 32 km closer to the park. We then had to walk because the truck couldn't cross the swollen river (seven straight days of rain). We walked 10km to the beach, where we set up camp. The next day started with another 3.5 km along the beach to the park entrance. However, all this effort was well worth it as we saw more wildlife in one day than we have anywhere else (so far). It is the off season, so we nearly had this side of the park to ourselves. It was hard to take in all of the animals - too many to count. So, here's a few pictures. Will post more later, along with more details of what we're up to. Tomorrow we're heading back into the park, but via another entrance: Rio Tigre. This is more mountainous, less visited, and even rainier (is that possible)? Until then, a few photos to keep you wondering . . .

Hiking through the jungle, all to ourselves.

Making a new friend

Tons of hermit crabs. If only you could eat them . . .

Too much tree to hug!

Spider monkeys, eating and playing, just like us.

An interesting new shelter that has made me reevaluate the necessity of a tent.

23 October 2009

Costa Rica and Rain

On my birthday, we had the distinct pleasure of waking up at 3am to catch a bus to Guatemala Airport, where we were able to sit around for 3 hours waiting for our plane. We eventually made it to San Jose, Costa Rica. Our friend from Davis, Carlos, had just moved back to Costa Rica and picked us up at the airport. We hung around for a few days, went to a bio-park/zoo for a day, ate great meals with his family, and tried desperately to get rid of bed bugs.

Finally it was time to move on, so we took a 8 hour bus ride to the most southern park in the country - Corcovado. A few people had recommended this park. Unfortunately, much of it is closed due to heavy rains. We're heading into the park tomorrow and will spend a few days in this wonderful coastal jungle area.

Costa Rica is definitely more expensive than Guatemala. On the flip side, however, is that they have a very stable government, no army, less crime, the water is safe to drink, and the fruits and veggies are easier on the stomach. Still, chocolate is not cheap so this is obviously not live-able!

20 October 2009

Saying Thanks

K. and I would like to extend our deepest sense of gratitude to Ann and Gary. They hosted us for the last month, while we peppered them with questions about Guatemala, took over their kitchen, turned their living room into a Spanish school, and found respite when we were tired, broke and sick with Typhoid Fever and bedbugs.

Ann and Gary have traded their comfortable lives in Seattle for a harder, but more rewarding, journey of improving Guatemala through education. They do this through a non-profit that they founded, called Avivara.

19 October 2009

Guatemala - Final Thoughts

Guatemala was the first country visited during our long journey and will naturally burn a unique imprint in our mind. After spending a full month here, I feel like we got a pretty good sense of this country. We lived with a gringo family in a normal Guatemalan town, traveled to many of the usual tourist hotspots, hiked deep into the northern jungle, and visited very poor, rural villages and schools.

A few things in Guatemala work really well. My hospital stay was the best medical experience I've ever had. The hospital was clean, had modern equipment, and prompt efficient service. Fresh fruits and veggies are local, cheap and universally available. It seems like everybody has a piece of land and can eek by, somehow. Alcoholism is not a problem. Communities are strong, usually centered around the local Catholic Church.

Two items that particularly stick out at the top of that list are cell phones and mass transportation. Guatemala never had much of a telephone land line infrastructure. By the time cell phone technology became reliable, modern cell towers were installed throughout the country, thereby leapfrogging the antiquated system in which the US is heavily vested. Cell phones are reasonably priced, minutes are super cheap, you pay as you need (no two-year contracts!), and coverage is fantastic.

The other thing that works really well is mass transportation, the bulk of which is handled by "chicken buses." These are pimped out school buses from the US: painted, stickered, chromed-out rigs with thumping sound systems. However, these buses are cheap, fast, and can take you everywhere, easily. It costs about a dollar an hour to ride these buses. Our commute to Antigua was only $0.25 for the two of us. We've never had to wait more than five minutes for a bus. Supplementing these ghetto-rigged recycled contraptions were shuttle vans, occasional taxis, and the ubiquitous three-wheeled tuk-tuks (which are everywhere in Asia). Most people don't need to own cars.

There are other things, though, that make life in Guatemala more difficult. Laws are created without much forethought and are inconsistently enforced. An example is that a law was passed requiring all motorcycle riders to have a black vest and helmet imprinted with their license number. This was created to stop the number of motorcycle drive-by robberies and shootings. However, a few weeks after the law went into effect, after everybody has spent all the money on new gear, the police realized that it was actually a lot harder to distinguish people when they all wore the same vest and helmet. They stopped enforcing the law soon thereafter.

The government is still corrupt, but at least it's stable now. Guatemala's past (and present) is deeply intertwined with that of the US. In 1954, Guatemala seized land from the United Fruit Company, a US corporation, and redistributed it to the people.. The gov't. paid UFC the amount that the UFC claimed the land was worth, as stated in tax statements. However, UFC deeply undervalued it's land so that it would have to pay less taxes. The UFC had close allies in the US government, which itself was scared of this "communist" initiative. The US subverted the elected Guatemalan leaders, installed our own right-wing puppets, and thereby instigated a civil war that last for 45 years. And really, the battle is still not over today. Most of the soldiers, from both sides of the fight, have either gone into security or crime (it's hard to tell them apart!). Today, 70% of the land is held by the top 1% income earners.

Crime is rampant and criminals often target tourists.  There's not much protection for the natural land and parks.  It's not safe to venture into the mountains without armed guards. This was incredibly difficult for me and Kristin, as we go to the mountains to find freedom. Yet here we were surrounded by forests, jungles, mountains and volcanoes, yet it was off limits to us. We felt trapped and imprisoned. There are more private security personnel then there are police officers.  Guatemala is the most heavily armed country in Central America. There are guards with shotguns and M-16s everywhere - banks, ATMs, park entrances, and so on. Heck, even the coca-cola trucks have 2 armed guards. High birthrates, low levels of education, lack of good healthcare - the list goes on. I don't think I saw one Guatemalan reading in the entire month.

Overall, it was a great experience. We saw the highs and the lows of the country. When we were able to explore the wilderness, we thoroughly enjoyed it. There are a lot of amazing things to see here, but it's not a place for every traveler.

18 October 2009

A Weekend Getaway

K. and I spent the weekend up at Lake Atitlan. This natural beauty is surrounded by steep mountains and several large volcanoes. It's about 3.5 hours NW of Antigua and well worth the ride. The area reminded me a bit of Lake Tahoe and Cinque Terra, Italy. There are about a dozen small towns surrounding the lake, most of them built into the steep hills. Much of the land is heavily terraced for agriculture. And there are a lot of nice lake-front properties. You can tell this is where Guatemala's wealthy elite have second homes. (Here I am still looking gaunt, but happy to eat well, after my bout with Typhoid fever)

Friday we serendipitously happened upon a great outdoor market in the town of Solola. We caught a bus to the hub town of Panejachel (which K. still can't pronounce correctly), and then a boat to San Pedro. Saturday was hiking up Volcano San Pedro.

After a night of not sleeping well and an early rise, we were ready to leave the hustle behind and find somewhere more tranquil. San Marcos was the perfect solution. It was quiet, well vegetated, and home to many gringo naturalists interested in yoga, healthy food, massage, meditation, etc. We instantly felt better. We ate well and read books in hammocks in the garden. Our hotel was one man's art masterpiece, with everything being hand made of mostly recycled materials and delicately crafted.

We're now back in the Antigua area and have one day to visit the doctor, do a little shopping, pack for Costa Rica, and have a celebratory dinner. It's our last day in Guatemala, and it's the day before I turn 29. I get to celebrate in two countries!

16 October 2009

Recovering Nicely

Just a quick note that after 2 days of resting at home, I am feeling much better. The drugs are working well. My energy (and appetite) are returning. Kristin and I are heading to Lake Atitlan, which is a few hours away. It is supposed to be a very beautiful lake in the midst of mountains and volcanoes. We'll take it easy. When I return on Monday, I'll put some great photos of our recent travels.

Thanks for all of the kind thoughts, notes and phone calls. Adios!

14 October 2009

Out of The Hospital

If you've been reading Kristin's blog, then you already have heard the news: upon our return from the north, I had a fever and the most terrible head/neck aches. We got back to Antigua on Sunday morning and I tried Ibuprofen and Extra Strength Tylenol. Those didn't work so we went to the hospital Monday morning. They ran some blood tests and determined that I had salmonella poisoning which caused Typhoid Fever. I stayed in the hospital for 2 days and am now home recovering. I am taking meds for the next week and have another checkup before we leave for Costa Rica on Tuesday. I won't be 100% for another month.

I can't thank Kristin enough for her help during my stay at the hospital. Overall, it was a smooth and safe experience, but I'm aware of how hard she worked to make it that way for me so I could recover. She handled the travel insurance, filled my prescription, snuck in some treats, and stayed with me the whole time to keep me comfortable and entertained.

I'm feeling better now, though I still sleep a lot. Obviously, we've had to reschedule our travel "plans" for the rest of our time in Guatemala. Unfortunately, we won't be able to get in to the Western Highlands and visit places like Huehuetenango and Todos los Santas. We'll spend the weekend at Lake Atitlan, which is supposed to have stunning scenery. Hopefully that'll help revitalize me.

08 October 2009

Photos from Mayan Ruins

Our time in Northern Guatemala was well spent, but I ended up with salmonella poisoning which caused typhoid fever. I never had time to post the photos, so here I go:

Tikal - 900 AD

Climbing the stairs . . .

. . . to get views like this.

The most famous of Tikal's pyramids.

Giant trees and lots of wildlife really made Tikal a pleasant park. Overall, it was a perfect blend of rebuilt buildings, while not being too refined or commercial (like Chitzen Itza, Mexico).

Mirador - 2000 BC

It took a lot of imagination to see this place as the peak of Mayan civilization and the largest pyramid ever built.

Impeccably-preserved frescoes lined the irrigation canals. Really, who had the power to make gutters look this good?

60km from the farthest village and we still got cell phone connection. Gotta love flat states. Nothing but flat, humid jungle as far as we could see.