Tag Archives: Osa Peninsula

Paradise found

26 Aug

Panama City, Panama
[by Paula]

Yellow-bellied racer snake eating a lizard, Corcovado NP, Costa Rica

Snake snack: we came across this yellow-bellied racer snake with a freshly-caught lizard in its mouth. Gulp.

Of course, we’d never seek a corporate sponsor for our trip – gosh, perish the thought! – but if we did have one there could only be two contenders. Superglue or Velcro. Without which we would literally be falling apart.

We’ve been in Panama for two weeks now, and a good few hours of it has been spent fixing, sticking and investigating all our little breakages of recent weeks. I’ve even sewn a new curtain to replace the back window blind.

But enough of all that excitement. First there is one final chapter of our Costa Rican adventure to share.

We’d travelled to the Osa Peninsula for one reason – to hike into Corcovado National Park, a wildlife-rich world-famous tropical rainforest which National Geographic called ‘the most biologically intense place on earth’.

If you are very rich and/or unimaginative you can fly in to the park’s Sirena ranger station, but most people hike the 19km from the last piece of road at Carate. The information we had about the trail was a bit sketchy, but we chose to go without a guide because the path more or less hugged the coastline and much of it was actually along the beach.

Anteater, Corcovado National Park

Anteater, Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica.

The first hour, on a shadeless beach of steep soft sand, was pretty challenging. By 9am the heat was intense. We were carrying way more than we normally would, because to stay at the ranger station we needed all our food for three days, plus bedding and enough water for a very hot and humid 8-hour hike.

After that test we moved inland to the shade. We took our time, delighting at our first ever sight of a troop of squirrel monkeys, and an anteater which appeared to have such poor sight it climbed down a tree and virtually brushed past us on the path. Scarlet macaws swooped around the tree-tops in pairs.

The trail was not always clear and we relied heavily on the footsteps of walkers who were ahead of us but out of sight.

As we reached the next long stint of beach walking, we’d caught up with a park guide who warned us that we had to reach the ranger station before high tide, because we’d have to wade a fast-flowing river at the end which could become dangerous.

By now we were tired but with the time pressure there was little room for rest. We tramped across the searingly hot beach for about an hour, sliding down the sand with every step. It was incredible – a delicious slice of heaven with a little dollop of hell on the side. A mind-blowing untouched jungle-backed beach, but also the hardest part of the trek.

Squirrel monkey, Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

We saw wild squirrel monkeys for the first time at Corcovado.

We both felt as if we might be dangerously overheating. I am aware of how melodramatic this sounds, but at one point I did fleetingly think: “I’d actually quite like to faint now, because then I will have to be carried for the rest of the way.”

Then I looked at the state of Jeremy, and revised my plan: “Bad idea. If I collapse now there’s more than a 90% chance I’ll be left to the vultures.”

We finally reached the river crossing and luckily there were other walkers just ahead, so we could see how deep the river was before taking the plunge. I waded waist-high in my underwear, all inhibitions diminished by my desire to get there without a set of entirely soaked clothes.

On the final stretch we encountered a Baird’s tapir, an endangered species which is rarely seen in the rest of the world. A great lump of an animal, we reeled back a bit when we first saw it grazing by the path, before realising we weren’t likely to be mauled.

At dusk we arrived at the ranger station, which is also a major research site, and celebrated with a very weak and wobbly air-punch. The bad news was that our only way out of there was to hike back the same way. I wondered if I was up to it. We thought maybe we were being a bit pathetic, but were reassured when one of the guides told us loads of tourists either didn’t make it to Sirena (sometimes having to sleep on the beach because they got lost or couldn’t cross the river) or refused to hike back after they arrived!

Puma, Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

We were really lucky to see a puma during the hike out of the park.

We were sore the next morning, and took it slowly, although the day had started with a rude awakening. I reached into my bag for something and was wearing a glove of biting ants when I drew my hand out. Great! A massive infestation of my least favourite insect – zillions of which had found a food spillage in my bag. We’d gone to a lot of trouble to keep things dry in the rainy humid weather, but the whole backpack had to be plunged into water to flush those buggers out.

We bounced back and spent the day hiking some of the shorter trails around the ranger station, which is a haven for wildlife. We plunged through mud and streams, marvelling at the forest, and saw spider monkeys, more anteaters, and a Great Curassow.

It was hard to photograph things in the dense foliage. I spend ages trying to snap an amazing lizard which had a yellow throat that fanned out. I finally gave up, vowing to find another one by the end of the day.

Later, we did find one, but not in the way we’d expected. We’d spotted a snake rearing up in the leaves ahead of us, and when we caught up with it we noticed it had something in its mouth. I photographed it and we zoomed in, only to see one of those poor yellow-throated lizards, still alive and in the jaws of the snake.

As we sat resting on the deck at the ranger station, toucans shuttled back and forth in the trees in front of us. There were spiders that looked like they’d been on steroids, and flying crickets the size of sparrows.

We started our return to Carate at dawn the next day, wading the river in the half-light. We dodged the high tide, scrambling over rocks and climbing onto higher trails. As we rounded one corner, a park guide gestured to us frantically from further up the hill. “Up here, quick!”. They’d spotted a puma. We scrambled up, and there she was, sleeping on a fallen tree. Unforgettable.

Wading the Rio Claro, Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

We waded the river at dawn as we began the eight-hour hike back.

Blistered and knackered, we got back to Carate and shared a collectivo back to Puerto Jimenez with some of the park guides. We’d found it hard in parts, we said, but we felt privileged to have been in paradise and would do it again. The wonder of Corcovado was something they were clearly proud of, and they said they supported the conservation of the forest. But it had come at a high price for local people. One of them had actually lived at Sirena, as a youngster, before the area became a national park. The government had forced them to sell their farm there for a paltry $13,000, he said. His friend had a similar tale of his family’s land nearby.

Later we hobbled to a local restaurant for dinner, and that night set a new record by being in bed asleep by 7.45pm.

Reluctantly, we left our much-loved campground in Puerto Jiménez, and drove towards Panama. Our last night in Costa Rica was spent at rather less of a beauty spot – a truck stop on the border, where the little van was lost in a forest of massive American rigs.

Arriving in Panama we went straight to the city of David, where we spent a few days looking into our mechanical issues [should be sorted soon] and getting our propane gas leak checked out [small leak, but can be safely used until we replace a part].

While there we managed to coincide with fellow road-trippers Andy and Dunia, of Earthcircuit – whom we’d first met in Honduras – and spent a couple of evenings catching up over some cervezas.

We did what the locals do and headed from there into the hills, to cool off. Boquete is gourmet coffee country, so we were wired on caffeine after sampling several brews. After sploshing about in the rain and feeling chilly for two nights we thought, “Hhmm, this is like being in the UK. Let’s move on.”

Carnival queen, Festival del Manito, Ocu, Panama

The Ocu carnival queen was one of the ‘brides’ at a mock campesino wedding in the village. Azuero Peninsula, Panama

En route to a beach south-east of David we drove through the most incredible storm. We pulled off the road and waited it out, and when we left again the highway was strewn with trees and branches. We ploughed on to Las Lachas, but when we arrived it was pretty bleak. I waded through enormous river-fed puddles to see if the van would make it through them. We pulled on to the beach and ate a limp peanut butter sandwich, looking out at the grey beach, grey rainy sky and howling wind. “This feels like a holiday in Aberdeen,” we said. “Let’s go”.

We headed towards the Azuero peninsula, a relatively drier and more remote part of the country. Next day we had a spectacular sunny drive to its southern tip. The rolling pastures, the smell of cut grass in the clean air, and little cottages with pristine gardens also reminded us of the UK, but this time in a good way.

We had a great piece of luck by coinciding with a festival as we passed through the village of Ocú. We stopped for a few hours and watched a mocked up ‘campesino’ wedding, as part of the Festival del Manito. After the church service, one of the couples was paraded through town on horseback, as the men swigged from bottles of Seco, the local firewater.

We went on to spend a few days body-boarding, swimming and camping at a great spot overlooking the bay at Playa Venao, before dragging ourselves away to head for Panama City. Driving over the Bridge of the Americas – at the southern end of the canal – was quite an introduction to the place, giving us a breathtaking view of the city.

Bride and groom, Festival del Manito, Ocu, Panama

The ‘bride and groom’ at a mock campesino wedding in Ocu, Panama, feed each other after the ceremony.

There is much to organise here, in preparation for a trip to the UK we are taking in a couple of weeks. We spent one day driving to the customs office and storage places, to sort out all the bureaucracy involved in leaving the car here while we go home.

Based on past form, we expected to get lost in the city. There was a reasonable chance of some shouting and swearing. As I got into the driver’s seat, ready to set off, I decided to pre-empt what may come.

“Jeremy,” I said. “Let me say that whatever comes out of my mouth this morning, I want you to remember that I love you.”

And in what may be another new trip record, we’d only driven 100m before the first u-turn-related expletive.

Days: 328
Miles: 10,889
Things we now know to be true: It makes sense to get in early with the apologies.

Snap, crackle and pop

15 Aug

David, Panama
by Paula

I wouldn’t say we are clumsy people by nature, but in recent weeks we have broken more things than could be considered normal for anyone beyond toddler age. Is anything built to last?

One of the many things we have discovered in the last year is that when your domestic world shrinks to the size of a van and its contents, and when that world is constantly moving, it is infuriating in stratospheric proportions when things break.

Why? Because every single thing in the van is there because we need it, there’s no room for spares, and many of those things – such as an awning to protect us from burning sun and rainstorms – can feel pretty crucial to us having a pleasant day.

Waterfall near Quepos, Costa Rica

We encountered another venomous viper on the way to this waterfall.

And when stuff does break we rarely have a quick solution. Always being in a foreign landscape, we don’t immediately know where to go to replace things or get them fixed. Everything takes longer to resolve. Vehicle camping is a foreigners’ pursuit here, so you can’t just walk into a shop and expect to find the particular kind of stuff you need for a trip like this. As for mechanical problems, well… the world over, finding a trustworthy mechanic is a lottery, and Latin America is no different.

Conversely though, when you do solve a problem, you celebrate as if you’d just won a hat-trick of golds at the Olympics. At both ends of the scale, our emotions are often all out of proportion.

We’d had a good trouble-free run with the van since leaving Honduras. So when the ‘check engine’ light came on in Cabuya, Costa Rica, we pulled into a mechanic with some trepidation about the diagnosis. If I even heard anyone whisper the word “transmission”, I’d decided, I was just going to lie on the ground and stay there with my hands over my ears.

So we were actually quite relieved when he said it was the catalytic converter. Yeah it was definitely that, he said. He told us to get a new one, so en route to the next place we called into an exhaust specialist and asked him to replace it. After a few hours it was done and off we went.

As darkness approached we took a punt on a sign off the main highway to a restaurant and trout farm that we hoped we could camp at. We bumped along for a few kilometres and arrived to find it in darkness. But soon enough the lovely family that owned it came out and gave us an enthusiastic welcome, letting us camp in a lovely spot by the river and offering to open up the kitchen to cook us some rice and chicken. We’d only been passing through, but it was so nice we decided to spend the next day there.

In the morning one of the children, 15-year-old Alberth, took us hiking to a waterfall and gorgeous swimming hole. As we tramped along Jeremy stopped dead behind me. “You’ve just stood on a snake,” he said. I looked back and a small brown snake was curled up on a leaf I’d just walked over.

We looked to Alberth for reassurance, but he reared backwards and said: “That’s really bad.” Another venomous viper! We can’t move for those at the moment. He flicked it into the undergrowth with a stick and we tried not to think about what could have been.

When we set off the next morning the check engine light shone back to life. It was Sunday, inevitably, so nothing could be done. It was also our 300th day on the road, and as we carried on down the Pacific coast and passed Dominical, we hit our 10,000-miles-so-far mark. We do love a milestone or two.

Jeremy walking along the beach at Uvita

Long walks at Uvita, Costa Rica

We drove to Uvita, a stunning flat, wide surfers’ beach, and happily based ourselves there for a few days to sort things out and take long walks on the sand.

The mechanic we found there said the problem we had was with one of our 02 sensors. He rang his mate who knows about European cars. Yeah, it was definitely that, he said. It would need to be replaced, and the original part for VW would come from San Jose in a couple of days. No problem. We arranged to bring the van back in 3 days to have it fitted, and would then drive straight to our next destination.

Three days later we went back. It was the kind of day that is becoming wearily familiar, going roughly like this:
US: “We’re here”
HIM: “But the part is not. Apparently it’s a holiday so there are no deliveries, but I’ve told him he has to be here this morning with the parts. Come back in a couple of hours.”
US: “We’re here again.”
HIM: “He’s still not here. He says he’s 20 minutes away. Come back in 45.”
An hour later..
US: “We’re here. Again. Hello?”
No sign of HIM.
HIS COLLEAGUE: “Erm, he’s not here. He’s gone to (name of random town). Or was it (name of other random town)… [or perhaps he’s just hiding? – ed] Anyhow, he said to tell you the delivery guy’s bike broke down 2 hours from here so he’s not coming now. You should probably just come back tomorrow.”
US: “Argh…”.

We found a new place to camp, and returned in the morning.

Jeremy, Paula and the van

Quick photocall at Dominical to mark 300 days and 10,000 miles.

HIM: “The part’s here but I need longer than I thought because the previous guy has welded the 02 sensor to the catalytic converter. [you’re really not supposed to do that – ed]. And I don’t think he’s put the right catalytic converter in there either.”
US: “Sigh”.

I’m afraid to say so many mechanics here spend a lot of time spouting off about what a terrible job the previous mechanic has done, only to then find a whole new way of buggering it up themselves.

We finally set off for the Osa Peninsula several hours late. An hour down the road the check engine light came back on. We swore a lot, pulled off the road in nowheresville and miraculously found a mechanic with computer diagnostics. He said there was a problem with the 02 sensor – that the mechanic we’d just used in Uvita had not installed an original part and what he had installed he appeared to have buggered up.

We sat in the car park in the pouring train, trying to decide whether to go back and get him to re-do it, or move on and forget him. Once someone has done a bad job, do you really want to wait around for another few days so they can cock it up again?

We moved on and decided to forget about it for a few days, as although the van was sounding a bit rough it was okay to drive.

After a certain point the road to Puerto Jimenez, on the Osa Peninsula, deteriorates massively. We weaved up over the mountain in the fog and rain, trying to avoid the cavernous water-filled potholes. The road soon became more pothole than road, and we were finding it hard to see them as dusk fell. We pulled over to a national park ranger station and asked to camp and the guys were very obliging, waving us into a space next to their base. As so often happens, they kept their distance for a while, and then a little delegation was assembled to come over to peer inside the van and ask about our trip.

Scarlet macaws, Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica

Our campsite in Puerto Jimenez was choc-a-bloc with Scarlet Macaws.

During the night, disaster struck. One of our worst fears, in fact. As we slumbered, at 4am the propane gas alarm went off, meaning we had leaking gas building up inside the van. When there’s any loud noise at night Jeremy’s reactions are lightning quick. He was on his feet and flinging the door open before I could say ‘wha…”. We were really shaken up – where the hell was the gas coming from? We switched it off at source so the gas quickly cleared, and the alarm stopped sounding. Another puzzle to solve.

It’s all about balance. Most times these annoyances melt away quickly after the initial tantrum. We look around at where we are, remember what we are experiencing, and resolve to not let the little problems ever dominate the endless amazing things we are seeing and doing.

Just to prove that very point, when we arrived in Puerto Jimenez the next morning in bright sunshine, we pulled into one of the most sublime camping sites we have encountered on this trip – a beautiful patch of land flanked by the ocean and a lagoon, where the trees are filled with scarlet macaws. As we parked up these bright red, yellow and blue parrots were swooping all around the sky above us. It was like being on some kind of film set, they just don’t look real.

The surreal nature of the morning continued when the owner, Adonis, came over and offered to take us to see the crocodiles in the lagoon. We watched, slightly nervously, as he called these enormous crocs and caiman over to be hand-fed. They reared out of the water and we took several steps back as they tossed huge chunks of fatty meat into the air and chewed loudly before slouching back into the water.

On the second day Adonis came over and said he’d been worrying in the night about where we’d camped – under a huge tree that was leaning over us. Great for shade, we thought.

“See all these massive logs lying around on the ground,” he said, pointing to various logs which I had draped our wet clothes over. “Those are rotten trees like this one that have previously fallen down. If one falls on your van I’d have to give you a patch of land as compensation.”

Adonis hand-feeds a crocodile

Snack time for Mr Croc.

Hhmm, we both thought, that doesn’t sound too bad, this being one of the most incredible pieces of land we’ve seen in all of Costa Rica.

“Well, that’s if you’re still alive,” he said. We found this to be a convincing argument, and moved the van.

While camping there we really went to town on the breakages. Another camping chair. Snap. The leg of our awning – sheared in half due to the weight of water after a storm. A vent cover ripped off the outside of the van in an incident with a gate. Then the central locking started behaving independently, locking and unlocking itself while we were sitting having a cuppa outside the van.

Our much-needed back window blind, a kind of sprung concertina design which couldn’t be replaced here in a million years, went doiiiinggg and the bracket we need to fix it disappeared forever. Jeremy tried to repair it, but one night – in a scene not unlike the propane alarm incident – it pinged off with a great thwack, right next to our heads. In a nanosecond, as I tried to open my sleepy eyes, Jeremy was on his feet: “That was a tree! A tree falling on the van!” he shouted.

“It was the blind breaking again,” I muttered. “Now lie down.”

Days: 316
Miles: 10,305
Things we now know to be true: There are no quick fixes.

If you haven’t caught up with these, here’s a couple of sets of pics from Nicaragua:

Nicaragua part one
Nicaragua part two