Current Date: Thursday, September 11, 2008 7:00p.m. (Cartagena, Colombia)
Current Itinerary: We’ll likely leave here tomorrow and either head to Tayrona or take a new idea and go to Santa Marta and trek to a lost city from there. Just in the last few hours, the possibility of heading to Venezuela has become an option we hadn’t even considered before. We seriously aren’t sure what we’ll be up to next. I love it!
Note #1: Yes, we are finally in Colombia! The sailboat ride here was absolutely fantastic and possibly the best 6 days we’ve had on this trip. That will be the next journal I send out for sure and I will get the pictures up as fast as possible.
Note #2: Just a reminder for people who want shorter and more frequent updates, you can check Jodi’s blog here.
Friday, August 8, 2008
We loaded up our rental car in Pedasi and after a little breakfast we were ready to roll. We first wanted to check out one of the Playas near town that we hadn't had time to see yesterday. We went there and it really was beautiful.
I ended up playing with some hermit crabs for awhile...an hour flew by just like that. It was already past noon and we had barely made any progress! We hopped back in the car and sped off south towards Tonosi. The drive was actually really nice...this area of Panama is virtually untouched...lots of beautiful rolling hills. We saw almost no cars, but we did manage to pass by bunch of cows being herded down the road (this happened to us numerous times and it always cracked me up...not exactly an image you’d see in the USA).
As we continued on, we knew we would be passing by Playa Venao...which is quite a famous surfing beach here in Panama. We found it easily, although there weren't really any signs directing you there and we were really glad we made the stop.
The beach is probably a couple miles long and enclosed on either end by small cliffs. It is long and straight and faces due south...because of that, the winds off the Pacific almost always blow straight in and the long flat beach creates one of the best surfing breaks in Panama. Even as beginners, we could see how nice the waves were.
We went for a walk along the beach and I ended up playing around with some crabs and a small river for way too much time for a thirty two year old. Afterwards we went for a nice swim and did a little body surfing. The only thing that I didn’t like about Playa Venao was there was nowhere to rent a surfboard.
Finally we got out of the water and changed into dry clothes, ready move on. Just before we left, I ended up striking up a conversation with a couple of the surfers in the small restaurant/bar that is on the beach. They were Tom/Florida and Patrick/Florida. They were both hard core surfers and had been coming to Playa Venao for many years, just for the waves. Tom had discovered the beach back in the mid 90’s and then introduced it to Patrick. They were both super friendly and talked a lot about the surf breaks in Central America, on the coasts in the US, and even in Peru. Patrick talked a lot how he’d love to do a trip like ours someday. We ended up spending about 2 hours talking to them about traveling and the ins and out of surfing. This beach, although well known in surfing circles, is pretty far out of the way and I was impressed that they had found it and loved it so much they returned every year. It’s pretty far off the path of most who travel this way...you would almost only go there if you were going specifically to surf. There is one hostel about a mile away from the place and there are 3 simple cabanas that are one room square on the beach. Although it’s a paradise, it’s not exactly the type of place you’d find in a travel magazine...so it was nice to run into a few of the more adventurous types who will go off beaten path to find some of the real beauties in a different country. These guys were only there for a couple weeks but they were loving life. By the way, both Tom and Patrick were fathers in their late 40’s.
We were treated to a very special treat just before we left the beach. It was late Friday afternoon, so a few young Panamanian surfers who live in cities/towns nearby began to show up. We sat sipping a couple beers and watching them surf, when Tom spotted a couple of whales just behind the surfers! There were a little far away, but still a pretty awesome sight...and a first for me! I was really happy we ended up sticking around! Rock on!
We ended up giving another guy we met in the restaurant a ride back to the hostel that’s up the road. We went to check it out...it was pretty awesome. I small oasis tucked into the woods...plenty of hammocks, decent little cabins and a kitchen to use. We figured we would hit it for sure on the way back through, but for now we wanted to see how far east we could get on the peninsula.
We headed on to Tonosi as it was starting to get dark. It's great to have the car and be able to move along as you please and not have to depend on the buses...that's especially helpful when you show up to a place at night because searching around when you have a car is much easier. We found a really nice place called hotel Boamy in Tonosi for $25 with A/C. We were both pretty tired (once again, it was not the strenuous of a day...not sure why we were so wiped out) so we didn't do anything that night. That's cool though, because the next day we were able to get up early and start our exploring.
Saturday, August 9, 2008
After a quick breakfast in town, we were off to see how far we could get along the southern border of the Azuero Peninsula. On our map it looked like the road was paved as far as Playa Cambutal but anything after that would be a question mark. After the rainstorm from earlier in the week we didn’t have high hopes that roads would be passable, but there is no harm in seeing how far you can go.
Again, the drive was amazing. It gets so hard for me to describe these types of things over and over again...there are not enough adjectives for me to be able to paint the picture. I try to look at things from the perspective that I’m seeing these scenic views for the first time in my life but it gets tough. I always try to think about how I would react if 15 years ago, somebody would have walked up to me and showed me 30 second video clips of all these things I’m seeing and doing. I would have never believed it! Fifteen years ago I had never even been on an airplane! Now THAT is amazing. Anyway, I try to keep things in perspective and remember how far I’ve come...but I have to admit it’s becoming increasingly difficult. Collectively, if you don’t count the first 17 years of my life that I barely left Illinois and never even got on a plane, I have spent something like 15% of my adult life outside of the US in countless different cities and different terrains. By no means have I seen it all, but I do sit back and think sometimes that it’s getting harder and harder to surprise me. Make no mistake though, I still love it...and the drive out to Cambutal was no exception.
We made it there in about 30 minutes...it was a very beautiful beach once again...much longer than Playa Venado. There were lots of rocks in the water and some that were about 200 meters off shore that created a nice calm little bay...ideal for snorkeling had we only remembered to bring our darn snorkels! Damn. That’s the last time that will happen. Anyway, this part of Panama is not very inhabited...although since surfers do come to this beach, there were a few restaurants and a couple places where you could pitch a tent. We parked and went down to one section of the beach that was too rocky to swim and had some pretty big waves.
We decided we would see how far we could go on the dirt road and then circle back to Playa Cambutal. That was a short excursion. A half mile down the road, we had to cross the river at a shallow point. It was a little worrisome but we made it. About 400 meters after that, the road got muddy and there was a larger river crossing. We were in a little Toyota that would have never made it much further...it would have been tough enough to get past it with a 4x4 SUV. We had to turn around...we had literally come to the end of the road. I can only imagine how few people make it beyond that point. I mean, we were already in a pretty remote area...we ran into a surfer or two out on the beach, and I’m sure they get some seasons when more people show up, but very few people venture this far down the peninsula.
Anyway, back at the beach, Jodi went for a swim while I hung out with some locals at the small bar on the beach. We talked about the Olympics almost the whole time, which started today. Later when I joined Jodi, a big storm cloud started to roll in. I walked around playing around with hermit crabs (yes, again!) for awhile but it started to rain so we went back to the beach bar. We ended up eating a great shrimp meal, but since the rain didn’t let up, we figured we might as well head back towards Tonosi.
On the way back, we did stop to take a picture of the beautiful scenery.
We also made a stop at Playa Guanico on the way back. It had a lot more people on it but it was still really nice. It was overcast and still raining so we did not stay there long, but we did get a chance for a good self portrait!
We got back to Tonosi around 4:00 and just hung out in our room for a few hours, staying out of the rain. Later we went out to get some dinner and even found an internet place! I also made some calls to find out about Isla Canas and going there to see the turtles. I managed to talk to somebody for about 10 minutes, but in true latin American fashion, I got zero information out of it. Looks like we’ll have to wing it tomorrow.
Sunday, August 10, 2008
We packed up our things in the morning and left Tonosi, heading for Isla Canas. It took a little searching around, but we finally found the small port and got the short boat ride across to the island (note for anyone coming to do this...show up at high tide if want to avoid a confusing, muddy/sandy, quarter-mile walk through the mangroves). You could tell when we got to the other side that we were in for a great little experience. Our boat driver happened to have some small rooms behind his house for us to stay in, so we got in his horse drawn little cart and went about 400 meters down the muddy road to his place. The room they had was just okay...lots of beds crammed into a small room, but it did have A/C, although, it’s not really necessary this time of year. He charged us $20 total for the room, which was probably a little steep for the island, but comparable to most of the rest of Panama.
After dropping off our stuff, we went down to the port to the small bar there to get some food. Well, there is no sitting in bars like that without having a few beers. We hung out there for about 4 hours, eating, drinking, and talking with the locals. It was really fun actually...although one wasted guy was hitting on Jodi pretty bad. She is a good sport about that kind of thing though, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. We had a few chuckles about it.
At some point a family of like 10 showed up on one of the boats. They looked like they were Panamanian, but one of them was wearing a Chicago Cubs hat and two of them were wearing Chicago White Sox hats. I should mention, it’s not uncommon at all to see people wearing Red Sox or Yankees hats down here...you see quite a few of them, but you rarely see any other teams. The fact that three of these people were wearing hats of Chicago teams meant there was a solid chance they had a connection to there. Well, so much for logic! They were from the mainland town of Canas that is only 5 kilometers from the island! Not only had none of them ever been to Chicago, several of them had never even been to Isla Canas which you could almost throw a stone and hit from their homes! Anyway, we all had a good laugh about it and they were nice folks.
Jodi pointed out something pretty interesting at the bar by the way. In these places, you rarely see women out drinking...the bars of full of drunk men...ESPECIALLY in the smaller towns. Isla Canas was no exception. I guess there is very little for these guys to do when they are not working. There is nothing wrong with having a few beers of course, I’m the first guy to admit that, but the problem is that there is no moderation here...when these guys drink, it’s an all day, all out, sloppy drunkfest everytime. Anyway, what Jodi noticed was that there were a few kids hanging around the bar (it was really just a big outside patio) and they were just kind of playing among themselves and watching all the other males in the bar sitting around drinking and singing. You could easily envision these kids doing the exact same thing in 7 or 8 years...you could tell they were looking on with admiration and envy...destined to repeat the same process that has been going on here for generations. It was a pretty sobering observation.
We finally left the bar around 5 to go walk around a little, but when we got back to our room we both fell asleep instead. That’s what happens if you’re drinking all afternoon. Around 7 we woke up and then went down to the bar again to get some dinner. We had probably the best meal we’ve eaten since Boquete so we were pretty happy.
Finally at 9:00 we met up with Jorge to take us out to find the turtles. We walked down a muddy little path to the beach and it was dark out, but the moon provided a decent amount of light for us to see. The beach here on the island stretches on almost straight for 14 kilometers. We turned and just started walking...apparently the turtles come up to lay eggs pretty regularly but they can come up anywhere on the beach. A few facts that he told us: Depending on the type of turtle, they lay eggs 3 or 4 times throughout the year. It takes them about 40-60 minutes to complete the process...they come up out of the sea, find their way up the beach to about where the vegetation line starts (depending on the tide, this can be about 100-150 meters), and then dig a 2-3 foot deep hole to lay their eggs. They usually lay somewhere between 80 and 120 eggs, of which maybe 3 or 4 end up surviving to adulthood. Not very good odds. The eggs take a couple of months to hatch and have many natural predators (and also not so natural predators but I’ll get to that in a minute). Four times throughout the year, there is an “Arribada”, when hundreds of turtles come up on the beach on the same night to lay their eggs. In the weeks before and after the arribada (for the record, when we were there, they were expecting one in the next week or so) you get sporadic numbers of turtles laying eggs each night...as few as 5 or as many as 40. There is actually a small 1.5km area of the beach that is protected and patrolled and that area is central to where many of the turtles come ashore.
Whew, lots of facts. So we walked for about an hour before reaching the protected area...we had not seen anything yet, although walking on the beach at night was nice. What was amazing was how many sand crabs we saw! There were hundreds of them everywhere as we walked along. We ended up resting for awhile, waiting and hoping for a turtle to show itself. After 30 more minutes, there was still nothing. We continued walking along the beach but finally at 10:45, decided to turn back. We were a bit disappointed that we had not seen anything. We had a great day on Isla Canas but it seemed like it would all be for nothing. Well, about 45 minutes into our walk back, we finally spotted one!
We didn’t see it come out of the water...it was up on shore already. It was trying to dig a hole for it’s eggs but couldn’t...which we learned when we shined our flashlights. It was missing one of it’s hind flippers. Poor thing...it couldn’t even move in a straight line. She was quite big though...and a beautiful animal.
We were happy that finally got to see one, and then not 5 minutes later, we saw another! This one was just putting the finishing touches on her nest...but there was some bad news as well. Apparently, the locals on the island use these eggs as a source of food...they consume quite a few of them and every night they come and patrol the beach for nests. Not only that, but we were very upset to find out that they take ALL the eggs from the nests when they find them. Even more disturbing...only 1.5 km of the beach is protected (and a highly question how protected it is) and the rest of the beach (13k!) is fair game. I asked Jorge if many nests are left alone...the answer was no...none, repeat NONE of the eggs that get laid outside the protected area are left to complete their natural process. Either dogs, raccoons or people (my guess is that is the vast majority) take the eggs long before they can hatch and the baby turtles can return to the sea. It was a travesty really...check that, it IS a travesty and we were both a little disturbed by it.
The reality of this situation hit home for us when we saw our second turtle. There was a local guy there collecting her eggs...while she was still at the nest!! He didn’t even wait for her to finish before destroying the whole thing. He showed us his large sac of eggs, which he said he had collected from 2 different nests so far. There were hundreds of eggs. I forgot to take a picture of it, but I guess in the end I’m glad I didn’t. It really made me feel bad.
Anyway, we finally got back to our little room around 11:45 and atleast we got to see the turtles, but the harsh reality of nature vs. the survival of man left both of us feeling a little down.
Monday, August 11, 2008
I didn’t sleep the great for something like the tenth night in a row it seemed. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything behind it. It’s a problem that’s been rather common with me for years. I couldn’t help but feel that this time that it had something to with the turtle egg thing from the night before...I seriously could not stop thinking about how much it bumped me. Jodi and I talked about it for quite awhile the next day, wondering if it was something we should even be concerning ourselves with. Is it fair for us to impose our culture upon that of others when they have been living a certain way for decades? Is it fair for us to judge them? There are a lot of little things about the mentality of the folks down here that is very hard to wrap your mind around if you are not from a third world country. I think that the real root of it all is they think survival first, family second, and everything else is so far down the list that it is completely off the radar. It sort of makes sense if you think about it...when your stomach is empty and you can’t feed your kids, it’s pretty tough to start thinking about the environment and sharing our planet. You can tell that politically,there is a sense of morality about these subjects...or atleast there is bit of awareness, but on a local level, they just don’t think about those things here. People go the beach, have a picnic and just leave all their trash. It’s not their problem. Nobody cares about littering here just as nobody cares about the turtles or many other things. Especially for the truly poor here, they have been raised in a completely different way and they have a very short sighted view of the consequences of their actions. Only the next meal matters.
Here is a quick story that I think explains it. Jenny from the Paradise Gardens told me this one, and there must be a hundred other examples, but it does underscore what I’m talking about very well. There was a woman who had some land (perhaps it was a coffee plantation, but it doesn’t matter) and she employed some the local indians to do all the planting, caretaking, harvesting for the season. To help them eat, she gave them a healthy ration of corn and some egg laying chickens, explaining that if they feed the chickens the corn, they can have eggs for the whole season. Well, imagine the dismay just a few days later when she discovered that they killed the chickens and ate them, and ate all the corn as well. They chose to eat for 3 or 4 days instead of a constant food source for months. That is how they have lived for years and years...the next meal counts and that’s it. They need to be taught to think a little further down the road, but it doesn’t happen. When you have that mentality, you don’t think about the turtles slowly disappearing. All you see is that there is a constant food supply that has been constant for your lifetime. You don’t understand that it takes 3 or 4 or 5 generations before you start realizing...wait a second, what happened to all the turtle eggs?
Anyway, I can’t say that in the USA it’s some kind of utopia where everybody cares about the environment. It certainly isn’t anywhere near that. I’m no environmentalist myself (although I do feel myself more concerned with these things as I travel). What has happened in our culture, however, because people have full bellies and time to worry about such things, is that a certain level of awareness seeps into the society. We start realizing that living “greener” is a good thing and people try to do their part. Sure, you still have the occasional moron who dumps their ashtray in the supermarket parking lot, and certainly there are poachers and people who don’t think much about the environment, but our society has a much different approach to how we treat our planet. Again, I guess it isn’t fair for me to impose my rules on how these folks live and survive, but it doesn’t mean it won’t upset me sometimes.
Anyway, you can tell it upset me and it still does, but I can’t say we didn’t enjoy our time on Isla Canas. In the end I’m glad we saw the turtles and I’m glad it gave me something to think about. It’s all part of journey.
We went for a short walk on the beach in the morning just to see what it was like in the day time. We saw another set of turtle tracks and we were happy to see that it didn’t look like the nest had been ransacked. Hopefully it will make it. It looked like a nice beach, and it would have been awesome to stick around for the day, but we decided to move on. Since we’ve rented a car for the week, we need to stay on the move.
We caught the boat back across to the mainland and we’re happy to find the car in one piece. We were still up in the air about what to do next...we had been thinking of spending the day at Playa Venao but it was raining once again and we didn’t think spending another day at the beach would be worth it. We had sort of explored all we could on the peninsula. There are several places near Panama City that are worth visiting and that we want to hit, but the real problem was that we had to return the car in Chitre, which is several hours from Panama City. We left, driving back towards Pedasi, but not really knowing what we wanted to do. We did make a quick stop at Venao, though, and said hello to Tom and Patrick. We watched them surf for a little while and then moved on.
We figured we could get some lunch in Pedasi and then decide, but the place we wanted to eat wasn’t open yet, so we went back to Las Tablas. After we ate we spent a couple hours at the internet...I needed to make sure my account was credited for the ATM screw up from last week (it was, sweet!) and we had only briefly been able to use internet for the previous 5 days.
By the time we were ready to leave Las Tablas it was already 3:30. We had considered driving to a place called El Valle, but it was a couple hours away and I didn’t feel like driving that far. Plus, we were filthy from the previous day on Canas...it’s pretty muddy but our less than stellar accommodations made us decide to put off showering until the next spot. Man, I’m getting a little mad at myself...I’m going soft in my old age. After only 5 or 6 days of cold showers I was already fed up. I wanted to find a place with hot water and we knew that it would be easy in Chitre, since it’s a decent sized city...even the budget places in Panama have had hot water...it’s just the smaller towns where it’s tough.
After a little search, we found a nice little hotel in Chitre that had hot water and cable so we could watch some Olympics. As an added bonus, they called somebody to come and pick up our laundry as well, which we both needed to do pretty badly. We were pretty happy. I even caught some of a preseason NFL game! Ugh...missing football season will be painful.
We had a great pasta dinner that night and we were able to see Michael Phelps win his third gold medal of the games (and his third world record!). Yes! USA! USA! USA! Hahaha...I love the Olympics. We had a bunch of Sangria and then crashed happily, pushing the decision for what we would do next until tomorrow.