Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Pura Vida!

Time is flying by! I've been here 3 months already, and as a result, my tourist card reached its expiry date. We went through quite the effort to get it extended or to do whatever we needed to do to stay in Panama. However, the Panamanian immigration system is not that efficient, or organized by any means. To make matters even more complicated, the immigration law in Panama JUST changed 6 weeks ago so nobody really knows what is going on. However, we have found out that it is more difficult to extend a visa or get a new card in Panama, and that the permit that is required for someone like myself to stay in Panama requires a huge list of things (criminal reference check, health check, stamp from a notary, payment of $100, letters from a variety of organizations etc etc) in order to be accepted. Past volunteers had opted to stay past the expiry of the tourist card and just pay the fine before leaving (it was reasonable), but with the new laws in place the fine went up and once you leave you can't come back into Panama for some period of time. So, Mario and I decided it would be easiest to cross the border into Costa Rica for a couple days. We did some minimal planning, and the next night, we got on a bus to San Jose.

The bus ride there was great! It left at 10 pm, and 15 hours later, we were in San Jose. The bus ride was smooth, quiet, and with "Transporter" and all its sequels playing during our time on the bus it went by quickly. Our most tedious moment was at the border crossing. We arrived to the border at Paso Canoas around 4:30 am. I was sleeping and not knowing it was the border, went back to sleep. At 6:00 am I was woken up by people getting off the bus to find out we were at the same place we stopped 1.5 hours ago. Apparently the border doesn't open until 7 am, but they were able to check our bags early I guess. Then we waited and waited in line to get our exit stamp... and waited, and waited. Turns out the border opens at 7 but their computer systems were down and didn't get online again until about 8:30 (this is not the first time computer systems at Panama immigration have failed and kept me waiting!). I don't understand how an international border can "close" overnight. Anyways, once they were back online we passed through the Costa Rica border and we were on our way again.

We stayed a B&B-type place called "Hotel Coconut House" in Alajuela, just outside of San Jose. We only had full days in Costa Rica, so we wanted to make the best of it. We spoke with the hotel owners and they suggested a couple of day tours. The first day we did the tour to Arenal Volcano and Baldi Hot Springs. Unfortunately it was raining pretty much the entire day, as put by one of the guests in the hotel we talked to, volcanoes are "shy", so we were not able to get a look at Arenal, in fact the clouds were so close to the ground you could barely tell there was a hill there. The drive was scenic and we even stopped in Sanchi to do some souvenir shopping at the Oxcart "museum", which was nice. However, the day was not a bust, because we spent 3 hours in the Baldi Hot Springs at the base of Arenal. Heated by the energy of the volcano, this elaborate place had over 20 different pools of different sizes and temperatures (some cooler, some so hot you couldn't put your foot in), swim-up bars, waterfalls, waterslides and definitely made the day! The tour included a good lunch and dinner at the Arenal Inn Restaurant.

The next day we took a day tour to Tortuguero National Park, on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Wow! After a stop at the Del Monte banana processing plantation, we arrived in Tortuguero just before lunch and hopped on a boat to explore the extensive canal systems that run through the park. This was a much better wildlife-viewing experience than what we were trying to do from the van on the way there. Caimans, crocodiles, egrets, tiger-herons, jacanas, anhingas and much more wildlife was waiting to be seen, and even though it was raining (again!) it was a great time. We had lunch at a little hut in the park and even stopped to look at some Poison Dart Frogs on our way back to the van.

We managed to squeeze in a quick visit to Zoo Ave, in Alajuela, on our last morning there. Owned by Canadians, this zoo puts forth effort to rehabilitate Costa Rica's avifauna. They also have a captive breeding program. It was a little pricy, but enjoyable. One hour was not quite enough time, but we are glad we made the stop. We got back on the bus in San Jose at noon and arrived back in Panama City at 3 am, and legal for another 3 months in Panama. The Costa Rican scenery and landscape is incredible, and we spent hours driving through winding mountain roads and cloud forest.

Eventhough our trip was short, we were there long enough to get a sense of the way life works and moves in Costa Rica, especially compared to Panama. "Ticos" or Costa Rican peoples are very pleasant, very friendly, and quite laid back yet productive at the same time. They seem to live by the phrase "pura vida!", translated to "pure life!". I've never met friendlier taxi drivers! Systems are much more organized in Costa Rica as well, particularly dealing with transportation. Taxis are metered and a uniform colour. Buses are in good shape and looked efficient (although we never got the chance to explore the public bus system). The food was good, they sure love their arroz con frijoles (rice with beans), I think we had it at almost every meal! However, it was nice to get back "home" to Panama at the same time, I definitely feel a connection to this diverse country. Happy to get back to Gamboa, happy to get back to the Harpies.

At the banana plantation, there were a few of these Hercules Beetles feasting on some sugar cane, they are about the size of a human hand, yet have a somewhat 'cute' face! This one we affectionately named, Rigoberto!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Fer-de-Lance Story

Well for all you herpers out there, I'm sure you'll be interested in hearing that I FINALLY saw a Fer-de-Lance here in the jungles of Panama. Apparently we don't come across them as much as you would in Costa Rica or other areas in the tropics, but they are around. We had a good close encounter the other day while we were out in the far north section of Soberania. We were watching an eagle and I decided to get over onto the other bank of a small river to get a better view of the bird. When I headed back down into the stream, I walked along the shallow stream to look for a better way up to where everyone else was, and luckily I looked down because I almost stepped on a young Fer-de-Lance sitting on some exposed rock in the stream. It was coiled up on the rocks, and didn't seem too bothered by my presence (I'm sure if I stepped on him, or even closer to him, that would have made for a different story!). I let the others know and they all rushed over to see it and grab some photos.

A few minutes later, as one of the other members of the group was heading back up to where we were watching the eagle from, he said, "hey, here's another one". The one he found was quite a bit larger, sitting in some leaf litter on the side of a slope we used to climb through that area at least once that day already, not knowing he was there. Phew! So we all rushed over to that spot to take a look at the other one. Its colours were much darker and had more contrast than the young snake, quite beautiful actually. Both snakes sat motionless as we walked about the area, and it took a good pair of eyes to see them sitting there. As the larger one started to move because of our presence, I reacted a little out of the ordinary for me around a snake, and scurried to higher ground. And of course, that was the day I decided to just wear my hiking shoes as opposed to my somewhat more protective rubber boots... so I'm really not surprised that was the day we saw two!

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Sunny January

January has been a whirlwind of a month, with visitors from cold Canada to being busy keeping up on locating the harpies, its been great. So here's a little update. Encounters with finding the harpies has been going well, and they are all doing quite well. Since its the dry season they are moving around more which makes it a little challenging to keep up on where they are moving to, but we re-find them at some point. Seeing them is still as exciting as the first day, and its nice to look out for them and make sure they are doing ok. Even more exciting is finding them with food, because by the time we see them we are usually at close range and they usually end up surprising us! So far I've seen them eating Two-toed Sloths, Three-toed Sloths, Northern Tamanduas and White-throated Capuchin monkeys. They will also prey on Howler monkeys and coatis and other mid-sized mammals.

The harpy eagles are quite curious birds so they tend to stick around when we find them, checking us out and doing their typical harpy eagle daily routine, not too bothered by our presence. When we find one, we look at their overall physical condition, whether there is prey present (either feeding or in the vicinity), species, age and gender of prey, whether there are mutes present, crop size, and feet colour. We also note their perch location and height, and the weather. We also take their UTM position as their dispersal and movements are being analyzed as well. A couple of the birds tend to stay in a particular area of Soberania and moving minimally, but there are a couple eagles that are quite 'nomadic' and move all over the place within the park. Keeping tabs on those eagles can be challenging!

We still continue to see the coolest things out in the rainforest... the other day while waiting on an eagle a Tarantula Wasp flew by, this huge wasp pretty much made our jaws drop. They hunt tarantulas, paralyze them, lay their eggs on the tarantula then when the eggs hatch the young aquire their nutrients from the tarantula, eventually killing it. Crazy! There is a species of cicada here that sounds like a little chainsaw or electric drill working up in the trees, and lately its started to become a little annoying! We unfortunately found a dead White Hawk on Pipeline Road that appeared to have been eaten by some mammal... it was missing its head and breast muscle, basically just wings and feet were remaining. Not just wild animal life either, its amazing what your coworkers will do, one day Rigoberto climbed a tall tree barefoot, very impressive! I wish I had a photo...

I took a day off and went out to Santa Clara Beach and El Valle with my mom while she was visiting, and what a great day trip it was. The beach was beautiful - white sand, warm Pacific Ocean water, and since we went during the week, it was quiet. Couldn't beat the weather either - sunny and hot with the right amount of cloud to cool you down periodically while laying on the beach. After the beach we took a stop in El Valle, which is a little town situated in the crater of an extinct volcano. A great area for birding, but unfortunately didn't have time for that on this trip. We did visit the marketplace, which has a little artesania section to buy Panamanian souvenirs and jewelry, and a fresh fruits and vegetables stand.

Here's a bit of a road block we experienced last week...

... this tree had fallen along Pipeline road, preventing us from getting to three of the eagles. Luckily, it was cleared within a few days. Check out the size of those epiphytes!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Isla Grande and Portobelo

Becky was visiting for a couple weeks, and although I was working during her visit, I decided to take a few days off for us to go on a bit of a getaway from Gamboa. After discussing options (Bocas del Toro, Chiriqui highlands, Caribbean coast), we decided the best place would be to visit Isla Grande, which is an island close to the coast of Panama on the Caribbean side. We, fairly spontaneously, hopped on a bus to Colon (2nd largest city in Panama, at the Caribbean entrance to the Canal – not my top choice of places to go in Panama, quite sketchy!), then another bus from Colon to Portobelo, then yet another to La Guayra. At the end of the road, we stepped off the very crowded bus and immediately grabbed a water taxi to the island (only a few minutes by boat). It was a long day of sitting on buses, but we were finally there.

Isla Grande has a small population of locals, a couple resorts and numerous cheap places to stay. We found a room at the Super Jackson Cabanas for $20 a night. There were restaurants, bars (including one dedicated to Bob Marley) and a tribute to the Nazareno, the Black Christ, out in the water. Apparently there is good snorkeling near the island, but unfortunately we did not see any signs for where to rent gear. We enjoyed the island regardless... beautiful scenery, fresh air, the Caribbean Sea, and a relaxed atmosphere (we were two of only a small handful of tourists as it was mid-week).

On the bus to La Guarya, we met a german guy traveling through Central and South America. He was staying in a hostel on the mainland (but near the island), and the next day he came to the island with a couple other guys from the states. We hiked up to a lighthouse with them that gave spectacular views of the island. The weather was mostly cloudy during our time on the island (but no rain), however, during the time on the lighthouse, the clouds turned to white and the sun came through, it was perfect. That afternoon we swam in the sea, collected seashells for Becky, and walked the strip, taking photos and being your typical ‘tourists’. Hoping to try different restaurants at each meal, we ended up eating at the same place 3 times because nothing else was open! Oh well, it was delicious anyways.

After 2 nights on the island, we headed back to Gamboa by bus, making a stop in Portobelo to check out the Fort ruins. Portobelo was named by Christopher Columbus, meaning “beautiful port”, and the area has a history of attack by Henry Morgan (namesake for Captain Morgan’s rum). Apparently there are a few different locations that have ruins in Portobelo, but we just managed to see one of them (the 18th century Santiago Battery). It overlooked the bay in Portobelo, where you could imagine tall ships with cannons firing at the mainland. The sun had come out by then, and even though our stay was short, I’m glad we made the stop, it was worth seeing. We also ran into the guys from the states we had met the day before, who had also stopped to take photos and see the ruins, and they offered us a drive back to Gamboa. That sounded far more pleasant than taking the bus so we graciously accepted (thanks guys!). The trip was short but I think we made the most of it!

After 2 nights on the island, we headed back to Gamboa by bus, making a stop in Portobelo to check out the Fort ruins. Portobelo was named by Christopher Columbus, meaning “beautiful port”, and the area has a history of attack by Henry Morgan (namesake for Captain Morgan’s rum). Apparently there are a few different locations that have ruins in Portobelo, but we just managed to see one of them (the 18th century Santiago Battery). It overlooked the bay in Portobelo, where you could imagine tall ships with cannons firing at the mainland. The sun had come out by then, and even though our stay was short, I’m glad we made the stop, it was worth seeing. We also ran into the guys from the states we had met the day before, who had also stopped to take photos and see the ruins, and they offered us a drive back to Gamboa. That sounded far more pleasant than taking the bus so we graciously accepted (thanks guys!). The trip was short but I think we made the most of it!

A Gamboa Christmas, Panama City New Years

I had anticipated christmas and new years down here in Panama, curious to see what it would be like (or what we would come up with to do). We did a family christmas back at home in November before I moved down here so to me, I had already had my somewhat traditional family christmas, so this christmas was a bonus.

Since I (was) living with 2 guys from Spain, we decided to do a big dinner on December 24th, as they do in Spain. We each took a course (I chose dessert). Also, since I live in a very male-dominated house, there was a lot of meat. Cold meats and cheeses for appetizers, salmon for course #2, and the main course was ham. By then I was about ready to turn vegetarian, and not to mention that I was belly-aching full, but we managed to cram down dessert too. Our cooking styles were limited, since our oven doesn’t work, so everything was prepared either stovetop, microwave, or cold. It was still delicious, and a nice way to celebrate christmas with my roomies.

Christmas day was probably the most relaxing day I’ve had here so far. I got up early to enjoy the day, went to the pool in the morning for a few hours, home for lunch, then since nothing too exciting was going on at my house, decided the best place for me to be at the time was back at the pool. I planned on just going for another hour, but ended up spending another 2 hours (at least!) at the pool. It was wonderful. There was a christmas BBQ at a friend’s place, where we continued to eat, drink and dance into the late hours of the night.

New Years Eve was not exactly what I expected for Panama City, but still an enjoyable night. My friend Becky was in Panama visiting me and had arrived a couple days before our ‘big night out’. We got all dressed up (thankfully Becky brought some nice shirts because I apparently overlooked that when I packed), jewelry, makeup, the whole works, and met up with some other friends in Gamboa to head into the City. We arrived in the Calle Uruguay area (where all the bars and clubs are) around 8:30, expecting lineups and tons of people, only to find the 6 of us to be alone on the streets. Baffled, we wandered around to find a place to eat dinner and get a drink, thinking that it would pick up at any time. After we finished dinner around 10, there were people just starting to trickle into the area. We went over to another bar, where we got served complimentary fruit and chocolate fondue (we figured because they wanted us to stick around for midnight, the bar was quite quiet!). But we decided it wasn’t the place for us, so we headed to another bar, just in time to “ring in the new year”. No line ups, no countown that we were all so ready for, and all of a sudden some fireworks went off in a nearby section of the city and there was a bit of cheering that lasted maybe 30 seconds. And that was it for new years in Panama! It doesn’t seem to be a very big deal down here, and in fact, most people celebrate new years with their families and then head out later. We stayed at the same bar until about 4 am, since it was comfortable, airy, and playing 80’s music videos (in english) all night!

The taxi ride home was probably one of the most talked about parts of the night! We think our driver was tired (or drunk, hopefully not!), because he would go really fast, start drifting off to the side of the road, slam on the brakes, then smack himself in the face a few times to wake himself up. Over and over again. In order to get into Gamboa, you need to cross the bridge, which is an iron and wood bridge with two wide tire tracks that you need to stay on. We made it halfway across and then before we knew it the wheels of the taxi had drifted off the the tracks and the bottom of the car was scraping against the bridge! We made it across thankfully, but sometimes I think that taking those crazy buses are safer!