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Stories from Month 2

Boquete, Panama

Pension Marilos

michelleLeaving Panama City for Costa Rica presented a daunting 14 hour bus ride. So we decided to break the trip into two sections, stopping for a day at Boquete. Boquete is a small town sitting in a mountain valley at the base of an inactive volcano. The mountains surrounding the town rise high and the beautiful citrus and coffee plantations that cover the hills are frequently half obscured in clouds.

We woke up this morning to a beautiful sunny day! Tim and I started our day with bread and coffee at a local bakery and then headed out to explore. We visited a coffee factory called Cafe Ruiz and were given our own private tour of the facilities - all in Spanish! Needless to say, I didn't understand much of it but still enjoyed it.

We ventured farther down the road and visited "Mi Jarden es su Jardin", an amazing gardens surrounding a private estate. Flowers, running streams, and lawn ornaments were everywhere. A cross between a classic plantation and a miniature golf course, the garden was truly unique.

We then walked about 8 miles on back roads above the town among coffee plantations, school children staring at us in awe, and the sparkling Rio Caldera River. The landscape and cool climate reminded me quite a bit of the Colorado mountains. We returned to our pension in the afternoon ready for a nap!


San Jose, Costa Rica

On the Ticabus

timOff to Costa Rica!

It was still dark when we hopped on the 6 AM bus from the town of Boquete to the regional capital of David. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to drink coffee. (Coffee is an important part of my balanced diet.) As we headed out of the mountains on the old school bus, the sunrise almost woke me up!

By 8:30 we were headed to San Jose on a larger bus. A couple of hours later we arrived at the Panama / Costa Rica border. Here we walked around aimlessly, never sure of where we were supposed to go and what stamps we needed. Wishing I had studied a little harder in those high school Spanish classes, we made it thought on broken Spanish and sign language. We continued down the Interamerican Highway.

The Interamerican Highway provides a much needed link through Central American countries. But don't think of it like a US interstate. Although urban parts are indeed highway, you should picture most of the highway as a small country road. This small country road is shared by huge trucks and buses and is without shoulders, dividing lines, or guard rails.

So we continued down the road and into the Costa Rican mountains. We rose above the cloud line, where the heavy fog and rain made the visibility terrible. Normally, passing a slow moving tractor-trailer on a country road around a blind curve with a cliff on one side makes me a little nervous. But add fog, rain, and front row seats, and you can imagine how I felt.

Fortunately, we made it through just fine. Others didn't. The driver of a car we saw crushed by a bus in the mountains was not so lucky.

On a lighter note, we found a great place to eat dinner in San Jose. We spent way too much on dinner, but sometimes you have to.


Internet@ Cybercafe

timIt rains a lot in the rainy season. Go figure!

San Jose is a lively town. The large pedestrian-only area in the center of town is great place to drink coffee and people watch. Some neighborhoods are a little sketchy, but that should be expected in every big city.

We spent today visiting museums and walking. Tomorrow, it is off to the western mountains to visit an active vocano and play in the rain forest. Another fun 6 AM bus ...


The colorful streets of San Jose, Costa Rica.

La Fortuna, Costa Rica

La Fortuna

michelleWe arrived in La Fortuna in the afternoon. It's a small town that has become popular with tourists since it's neighboring volcano, Arenal, erupted in 1968 and now has lava flowing down its sides daily. Tourists come to watch the powerful eruptions.

Tim and I were spending the afternoon walking around the town when it suddenly started raining hard. Running across a soccer field we spotted a shelter by a church and darted towards it.

It was great to watch the rain come down under the protected covering while we gazed at the volcano in the distance. A local man from the town approached us. He spoke no English and we hardly spoke any Spanish so the conversation that ensued was quite amusing. Lots of hand gestures and shaking of heads to say "we don't understand". I couldn't tell if he wanted to sell us something, wanted money, or if he was just being friendly. He was very persistent though, trying to communicate the same message. As more time passed his gestures grew more animated and his words louder. He would point at Tim and then myself, make two circles with his hands and then put them together. What could he be telling us?

In the end, after much struggle, I realized he was asking if Tim and I were a couple. I guess he was interested in my romantic availability. When we told him we were indeed together, he smiled, shook both our hands warmly and continued on. Tim and I just laughed.

I felt I won twice. First, for the flattery of his interest. But more importantly, I at last understood what he was trying to say! Victory comes in small packages. top

On the River

michelleThis morning we decided to take "The Safari Float" - a river rafting and jungle trek trip.

After a walk to the bank in heavy mud, we dropped our boat at a point in the Penas Blancas River (White Cliffs). The river ran fast, high, and brown as a result of the heavy rain - so we moved along quickly. The tall rainforest trees and vegetation surrounding the river gave the slight impression of rafting through a canyon. As we moved along the river, the guide pointed out egrets, hawks, toucans, iguanas, sloths and monkeys.

We landed on the muddy bank of the river walls and walked uphill to a farm. We were visiting Don Pedro, a 87 year old farmer who had spent most of his life farming on the edge of this rainforest. As he greeted us we noticed his distinctive weathered face and hands that reflected his hard farm work. With our guide translating, Don Pedro told us of how he came to this area as a young man in his twenties. Now the area is a prosperous farm supporting his extended family.

The night before his sow had given birth so we were greeted by 17 new piglets! We walked around the farm full of chickens, cows, horses, pigs and dogs. We were welcomed into his house which had dirt for the floor and no walls. While we sipped coffee, he told us stories of the huge snake his family had just killed and the jaguar he saw walking on the edge of his farm. He said as long as the jaguar left his animals alone, he didn't mind if it roamed nearby.

We then put on boots that almost reached our knees (to protect us from mud and snakes!) and set off on a small trek in the rainforest. Something red caught Tim's eye at the base of a large tree. It was a colorful poison-arrow frog. It was beautiful with it's bright red body and blue legs. You have to be careful though when touching the frogs. Their skin glands exude toxins and if the toxins get into a cut and your blood stream, it can be deadly.

Venturing a little farther we suddenly realized we were being watched. Directly above us in the trees were howler monkeys. The male monkeys make a loud howling noise when approached by intruders. To me it sounded like a roar!

Back on the boat, then to a van to drive us back to town. On the road we passed a couple trees with 10 to 15 huge iguanas. Quite cool!

Later in the day we left for a second tour of the Arenal Volcano. Although it was rainy and foggy, the 45 minute hike up to the lava wall was beautiful! Low cloud cover and darkness reduced the landscape to soft shades of gray. The red-eyed frogs throughout the forest surrounded us with a chorus of sound similar to bells. We arrived at the lava wall, sat for a while in the rain, and hiked back down.

The fog covered our view of the volcano, so we decided to drown our sorrows in the Tabacon Hot Springs. What a place! Water from natural hot springs feeds into 15 or so different pools. Steaming rivers snaked through dark and strangely lit gardens, running over waterfalls and filling pools of different shapes, sizes, and temperatures. There is always something fun about a swim-up bar, even if you can't afford to buy a beer and hang out on the under water bar stool! It was a great way to end the day! top

Don Pedro, an 87-year-old farmer in the rainforest near Fortuna, Costa Rica. My trusty mud-splattered Tevas after a hike through the rainforest during rainy season. XXXXI wore these Tevas almost everyday for 16 months while walking all over the world. Now back home, I still wear the same pair every chance I get.

Santa Elena, Costa Rica

Birthday thoughts

michelleI can't believe I'm 30! It seems like only yesterday I was 29. Oh yeah, I was. On my birthday we are traveling through the beautiful Costa Rican country-side on our way to hike the Santa Elena rainforest.

I am thrilled I can spend the first year of my thirties traveling around the world absorbing cultures, sights and people. It will truly be a year of adventure! top

El Jardin de las Mariposas

timWe took a morning hike to Santa Elena's Butterfly Garden. What a wonderful walk. Clear blue mountain skies during the rainy season must be appreciated!

The guided tour of the garden started in the information center, where an American naturalist discussed butterfly lifecycles, species, preditors, and diets. Then we walked though different temperature environments - each housing butterflies that would be native to different parts of Costa Rica. During the tour, the naturalist pointed out each butterfly type and discussed the unique details of each.

After the tour, we sat on a bench for a while watching colorful butterflies hover around us. top

Pension Santa Elena

timWe started the morning on a 6:15 bus/taxi to the Reserva Santa Elena.

The Santa Elena cloud forest reserve offers over 12 km of trails winding through dense Costa Rican rainforest, complete with beautiful scenery and diverse wildlife. This being a rainforest in the rainy season, the trails can get pretty muddy - and the trail we chose quickly turned into a long string of muddy holes.

We quickly found the hike worthy of the mess. The quiet sound of light rain in the forest canopy is very relaxing. And although we didn't see any of the much sought after quetzals, one could stand for hours admiring the forest growth.

We left the park covered in mud and headed over to the close by SkyTrek. In all honesty, this has been one my favorite experiences so far on the trip!

When I was 10 years old, a neighborhood friend installed a zipline between 2 trees in his backyard. By holding a simple pulley device, we flew though the air from tree to tree. Take that basic idea, multiply it by 1000, and you get the adult version called SkyTrek.

The SkyTrek tour lasts a couple of hours. It starts by strapping you into a harness and walking you into the forest via a suspension bridge. You climb a tree and off you go.

The first couple of ziplines are short and help you get comfortable with the equipment. As you fly in and above the forest canopy, the ziplines quickly get longer and higher. Tarzan meets George of the Jungle! I had a smile on my face like I was still 10 years old.

After about 8 ziplines, we walked to the top of the mountain and came to "the big one." As if leaping from the top of a mountain wasn't high enough, we then climbed to the top of a very tall observation tower. We all held tight to the railings. The wind was so strong that we were literally worrying about flying off! Our very calm and cool guide Gustavo explained that the zipline was about 1400 feet long and 400 feet high. Standing on the platform, I couldn't help but compare that to a 50 story building.

From my point of view, the zipline connected the tower I was standing on to the clouds in the distance. When my turn came, Gustavo strapped my harness into the pulley system and told me to have fun. Then he pushed me into the clouds.

What a ride! top

Butterflies in El Jardín de las Mariposas (The Butterfly Museum).

San Jose, Costa Rica

Internet Cafe

bothWe are in San Jose again before we head back to Panama. Costa Rica is truly a beautiful country. Tomorrow we head to Cerro Punta, a town on the edge of a rain forest in Panama. We will meet our friends Gordon and Antonio there. Then the four of us will head to some islands on the Caribbean side of Panama. It should be a week of exploring, island hopping, snorkeling and relaxing.

We don't know if we will have access to the internet there. So if you don't hear from us in the next week, just picture us lying on the white sand beaches! top

The colorful streets of San Jose, Costa Rica.

Guadalupe, Panama

Hotel Los Quetzales

timWe ate a leisurely breakfast here in this Panamanian mountain town called Guadalupe. The slow pace and relaxation was well deserved after yesterday's 13-hour return trip from Costa Rica by cab, bus, foot, bus, bus, and cab. Fortunately, sitting in the back of the hot bus made the return trip seem safer - even considering the silent fight I enjoyed with the woman in the next seat over control of the shared window!

After breakfast, we hiked past the small farms in town towards the Parque Internacional La Amistad to look for quetzals. On the way we met Cookie, a huge sausage-shaped slobbering rottweiler. As we walked, Cookie followed and marked his territory along the way. We soon discovered his territory covered every piece of property in town. Peeing on house after house, Cookie left behind a trail of barking dogs.

Once in the park, we walked the lush mountain trails. The cool climate here is the perfect temperature for hiking. We explored for a few hours. The dog remained as quiet as we were, but we never spotted a quetzal.

So now I sit peacefully on a wooden balcony overlooking a street in Guadalupe. It smells like rain. I'm slowly drinking a cup of coffee and watching children play soccer in the street. A light drizzle starts, but the sun still shines on the terraced mountains around me. A woman in Guayni indian dress holding a plaid umbrella walks briskly through the soccer game, and I stop writing for today. top

Flowers surround a home in the highlands of central Panama.

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Caribbean Panama

timOur friends Gordon and Antonio met up with us a couple of days ago to travel across Panama. This morning we drove from Guadalupe to the provincial capital of David, dropped off their rental car, and took a small commuter flight to the Caribbean town of Bocas del Toro.

Bocas del Toro doesn't feel like the rest of Panama. On the streets of this laid back beach town walks foreign tourists, students, hippies, expatriates, blacks from the West Indies, Latinos, and all-of-the-above hybrids. They speak every European language and the local mix of English, Spanish, Gali-Gali (Indian), and Patois.

Construction sounds ring everywhere, yet the absence of large chain hotels keeps this town relaxed. Walk down any street, you will see colorful houses on stilts, broken-down shacks, laundry hanging out to dry, street dogs sleeping in the shade, palm trees shading hibiscus, and kids playing games.

We spent the afternoon celebrating Independence Day in a restaurant full of American expatriates, students, and sailors. The only fireworks were a couple of sparklers at a nearby table, but our table sat on a dock with a beautiful ocean view.


Turtle Watching at Playa Bluff

michelleThe hazy moon lit our way along the beach as four of us walked behind our two guides. We were in search of sea turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs in the sand. Our surroundings seemed surreal with loud crashing waves and horses running in the distance on the water's edge.

Walking for a couple hours we were losing hope of spotting a turtle. The only hints of their presence were deep trails left in the sand by turtles who had previously been there but had returned to the sea. When we almost walked the length of the beach we started heading back discouraged. But suddenly one of the guides started whispering excitedly. Down the beach there was a turtle emerging from the water! We strained our eyes trying desperately to see the dark form. We had to keep our distance and not use flashlights for fear we would scare the turtle back into the ocean. Turtles are very careful about laying their eggs. If they come ashore and feel threatened or that the beach is not safe for the eggs, they will turn around and try a different location farther down the beach. And that is exactly what this turtle did. It crawled half way up the beach and then turned around. It was now OK for us to approach it and get a better view.

The turtle was a green turtle and our guide said in six years of leading this tour he had never seen this kind of turtle on the beach. It was an exciting night for all of us. She was beautiful! We watched as our guides measured her shell (42 inches in length) and made notes. There was definitely a sense of awe in the air as she struggled to pull her large body back into the crashing waves. We stood in silence watching, thankful for the opportunity to see this grand creature. top

Snorkel Trip

timWe met a British couple named Pauline and Mike who were spending a few years biking from Canada to South America and on to Australia and Asia. Sharing costs, we collectively arranged a boat trip to Dolphin Cove to find dolphin, to Cayo Crawl to snorkel and eat lunch, and to Isla Bastimentos to hike and sit on the beach.

The weather cooperated, raining only once while we ate lunch under cover. In Dolphin Cove, we coaxed the dolphins to play around our boat. Cayo Crawl's snorkeling was mixed; the assortment of fish on the reef is limited, but the coral formations are fantastic. We ate lobster and conch fried rice in a restaurant built on the reef, then hiked across Isla Bastimentos in search of red poison arrow frogs. After relaxing on a rough Washington state-like beach, we boated back to Bocas.


Panama City, Panama

Good-bye to Panama

bothWe left Bocas del Toro to spend our last weekend in the Republic of Panama relaxing in Gordon & Antonio's Playa Blanca beach house and admiring at the strange vegetation in their backyard.

Now we are back in Panama City, preparing for tomorrow's 18 hours of flying to Hawaii.


Skyline of Panama City.

Honolulu, HI, USA

Waikiki Condo

timsurfboardsSeven days ago we touched down in Hawaii and started a whirlwind of family events centered around the wedding of Michelle's cousin Phillip. Like many of Michelle's relatives, Phillip and his family live here in Hawaii. And because a wedding is a great opportunity to get everyone together, Phillip and Christine's wedding became a huge extended reunion.

So I met Michelle's family - immediate relatives, 10 aunts and uncles, 26 cousins and spouses, and plenty of children. Over brunch, lunch, dinner, and dessert, I quickly discovered what holds a Hawaiian reunion!

Thanks to the generosity of Michelle's family, I spent the week touring Hawaii with my taste buds. So far the scenery has been great: poke (Hawaiian - salad of raw fish), saimen (Japanese - noodle soup), malasadas (Portuguese - doughnuts, similar to ours but without a hole), fish (butterfish, mahi mahi, ahi, salmon, fish cake), haupia (Hawaiian - coconut pudding), mochi (Hawaiian - dessert made from rice flour), dim sum (Chinese - various dumplings), tropical juices, poi (Hawaiian - taro paste), shave ice, custard pie, plate lunch (with 2 scoop rice, 1 scoop macaroni salad), lilikoi (passion fruit) chiffon cake, sushi, papaya, mango, Kona coffee, and more Chinese dishes than I can remember.

We haven't neglected the tourist side of Oahu. In between meals, we walked through the tall hotels of Waikiki, sat on beautiful crowded beaches, swam with the fish of Hanauma Bay, enjoyed the view from the Pali lookout, and shopped for an aloha shirt. But the highlight of the trip so far is the food. And although Michelle is now poking my increasingly Pillsbury Doughboy-like stomach expecting me to giggle, I would like to thank everyone for a great introduction to the islands!

Next week, we take off on our own to explore the island in a cheap Daewoo compact.

Hawaiian Surf top