Sloth of the TreeTops

May 1, 2007

We headed to the Pacific Coast town of Dominical after leaving San Gerardo. We spent one night there before we  decided to move further outside the city to a place slightly more expensive but held more than a bed in the room. So we ended up at Hacienda Baru Nature Reserve.

At Hacienda Baru we signed up for one of their tours that took us up into the canopy of the rainforest. With ourselves and a guide we strapped into a series of harnesses, ropes, and other contraptions that made climbing a lot easier. A one-way lever was attached close to our feet and another in our hands. With this setup we were able to pull our legs up close to our chest, have the foot lever lock into place on the main rope allowing us to ‘standup’ and move our hand lever up next, then the hand lever would lock i nto place, and we could repeat the process all over again. Using this process we went vertically up 120 feet reaching into the uppermost part of the tree. I was a bit scared since I’m not real fond of heights and Rachel handled it better and was even bouncing off the tree a bit. Rach reminded me that tree climbing was my idea! It was really cool though and I became more comfortable with it. In addition to this we also rode on 5-6 zip lines through the forest, and at the end of the last one was a sloth! She was within feet of us going ‘full speed’ as our guide said up this little tree. She soon realized it wasn’t big enough for her and came down to the forest floor to find something better. Unfortunately, she found an even smaller tree that started bending back over itself the further she climbed up, but with another guides help who pushed the tree to run into another one she found herself on sturdier limbs. It was a rare and nice finishing touch to the morning and awesome to see a three toed sloth up close and personal.

We heard about a horse ride trip that took people to a set of waterfalls. For us though it was a bit much to fork over and not quite our style. We prefer to hike if possible and therefore set off on our own. First we walked a half hour into the Dominical from Hacienda Baru and found a taxi to take us to the entrance and from there we walked for an hour or more and came to them. They were gorgeous with two smaller waterfalls dumping into an  upper pool that collected water for the main spectacle pouring out below. We swam and even climbed up onto the first ledge at the base of the main fall. After eating lunch we hiked back to the highway and hoped for a bus to come along as no taxis hung around the area. With luck we made it to a bus stop just as the rainy season decided to start that afternoon. 20-30 minutes later a bus arrived to take us back to Dominical. The rain was coming down heavier as we got off and to our dismay there were no taxis available to take us to Hacienda Baru. With no signs of it letting up we began our 30 minute walk back. 10-15 minutes into our very dark walk along the dirt road a Jeep pulled up next to us. It was a guide from earlier in the day who offered us a ride. There wasn’t enough room in his Jeep so we climbed on to the running boards. One of us on each side, and off we went! Pretty exciting…wet ending to an exploratory day.

Fila Cementario de las Maquinas

April 24, 2007

After hiking 8 miles on the beach every night for a week, I thought it would be a good idea to escape to the mountains and climb the tallest peak of Costa Rica. The trailhead is located in the rural town of San Gerardo de Rivas. The bus ride out there was a bumpy one on a steep, dirt road. As soon as we got off in the small town of San Gerardo Andy said, “Rach, what have you gotten us into.” That was just the beginning of a big adventure. We stayed at The Descanso hotel that is run by a very nice Tico and his family. The day before we rested and did some hiking in the Cloud Bridge Reserve before the hike up Chirripo. The next day we left at 5am for the initial 14 kilometers to the hostel located 5.5 kilometers from the summit. The hike was steep and muddy and winded through a luscious rainforest. Above tree line the scenery changed to more of a desert with small plants and tons of lizards. We made it to the hostel around 1. We were tired from the climb with our packs full of ramen and our heavy, but extremely important Nutella and snickers. The hostel sits at about 11,000 feet, can sleep up to 60 people, has running water and is nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains. Awaking at 3am, we left the camp and headed to the summit to catch the sunrise. Walking in the cold and darkness with one headl amp was a challenge and maybe the low point of the hike. The signs were not well marked and both of us had the feeling that we were lost. We climbed a ridge and looked into a valley and saw some lakes and then Chirripo looming in the background. Daybreak was upon us as we started the ascent. Not wanting to miss the sunrise I tried to push it only to become severely out of breath and therefore almost crawling up the mountain. We made it though and saw both the Atlantic and Pacific shorelines and the sun came up. The view was phenomenal…this was the high point and made the whole trip worth it. 5.5 kilometers back to the hostel, we packed the rest of our stuff and started back down the mountain. Every kilometer is marked with a sign that has given that section of trail a name. One  odd name is Fila Cementario de las Maquinas, translation: The Machines Cemetery Ridge. There were no machines to be seen. Other names were Ba rbas Viejo: Old Man’s Beard that was a very calm section of trail with plenty of singing birds. While hiking we calculated that by the end of the two days we will have hiked 25 miles! Once we hit Kilometer 0, we were tired and limping from the downhill grind. Our trip wasn’t over. We had to walk another mile to our hotel, stopping along the way for ice cream and juice. To sooth our aching legs and feet we ventured out that afternoon to some nearby hot springs. It was also a steep hike to the springs, but was well worth it. The next morning we left for the Pacific coast where we are now. We had the idea to head to the beach to take it easy, but we will see how long that lasts.

A Long Patrol of Turtle Love

April 20, 2007

We arrived into Costa Rica on a Wednesday afternoon and spent our first night at Gaudy’s Backpackers in the capital, San Jose. The next day we headed out to ANAI headquarters and got briefed by Claudio, the director I think, on what is expected from us as volunteers working with Leatherback Sea Turtles. Once finished we caught a bus to the Caribbean coast and met the rest of the crew. We were taught how to work with the turtles and found out 3 groups of 2 or more people are sent out every night to patrol the beach looking for nesting turtles. The first group goes from 8-12, the next 10-2, and the last 12-4. Here are our accounts from our nights on patrol.

The first night: We eat dinner with the team at six; everyone goes to sleep shortly after. The alarm goes off at 9:50; we dress and wait for Andrey, the leader, and two others to head out on our first patrol. Andrey is fairly quiet so little is said a s we walk along the 8 mile roundtrip in the sand. The moon hangs low and out of sight behind the thick, tropical forest lining the sandy beach where fireflies sketch patterns on the black canvas night. Lights from Puerto Viejo lie in the distance and grow brighter as we walk on, plankton wash ashore beneath our feet with a shimmer of light, numerous stars dot the sky with an occasional shooting star catching our gaze. We approach the end of the beach and see lights; lights not ours or of another patrol team. “Poachers” Andrey says. Posing as fisherman there is nothing we can do, especially without a Park Ranger. The poachers are not dangerous and don’t want to harm anyone. They just want the eggs and usually get them. We turn and head back for bed. The clock reads 2:04. No turtles. Night two goes much the same.

 Night three: Starting much the same as previous nights we walk along in the silence of the night. Our group only consists of three; Andrey, Rachel, and myself. Coming close to the halfway point Rach and I begin to get our hopes up and wonder if we will at least glimpse one of these illusive and solitaire creatures of the sea. Then there she is. Tractor size tracks lead back to the sea, her nest already laid, and she is camouflaging the area to confuse predators. Andrey marks where he thinks the nest is with a stick. He gets anxious with the feeling that another leatherback is close and wants to move to the end of the beach. I am handed a can of pepper spray. Andrey says in broken English, “Here the trigger” and “you stay with turtle.” Rachel and Andrey disappear. I stand there with protection in hand overlooking a giant turtle making infrequent grunting noises. An ominous figure catches the corner of my eye and slides out of the sea. Another turtle. She makes her way above the high tide line as the other finishes the job and disappears into the waves. I wonder where my team has gone. Half an hour has passed; they were supposed to back in half that time. I try signaling with my flashlight, but to no avail. I assume they found another turtle. This is confirmed 15 minutes later as they appear with a bag of eggs in hand. I point out the new turtle. Andrey panics again and quickly digs a nest to relocate the eggs he has. Then his attention turns to the turtle which is nearly done digging her nest. We watch her curl up her back fins to scoop out the dirt to make a deep nest. It is quite amazing to see. She finishes and prepares to lay her eggs. Andrey puts me down on my stomach with my head at the back of turtle with a bag inside the nest to catch the eggs. I hold it as close to her as I can and she begins. I can feel her breath and the eggs as they drop in 3’s. While doing this Rachel and Andrey check for a PID identification tag, flipper tags, take measurements, a tissue sample, and write down other information like shark bites on the shell or rips in her flippers. She then lowers one flipper into the nest to make sure the eggs are there. Andrey yells “Take! Take!” at me and I quickly pull the bag out before she could fill it with sand. We cover the eggs with sand to keep warm as we begin searching for the nest of the first turtle. A while later the other patrol group catches up to us. Together we dig for the eggs, but we are unable to find them. They take the sack of eggs and relocate them further down shore and we head back to base. On the way back another turtle comes up and decides to trick us by pulling the old ‘false crawl’ and heads back into the ocean without nesting. We are all tired and thankful for this and get to bed a little past 5:00 in the morning. Witnessing the sheer enormity and strength of these animals was amazing. It was a long, but very exciting and unforgettable night for us all.

Night four: Rachel and I are put on hatchery watch from 12-6 to make sure no poachers come in and steal any of the eggs we’ve managed to save. Besides from me falling asleep several times and our imaginations getting the better of us, our shift was uneventful.

The last night of patrol: We were lucky and managed to swing the early shift from 8-12. At the end of the beach we encounter poachers again who were “fishing” as usual. They do little to acknowledge our presence. A very odd feeling when you’re both alone on the beach in the middle of the night, not to mention discouraging knowing they’ll take the eggs of a turtle if it comes to shore. The night rolls on seemingly slower than before. I look forward to our final rest stop at marker 44 which signifies one hour to go before reaching base. We approach our normal log to sit down, but reach a turtle first. She is very small and battered with many chunks missing from her back flippers. This makes it increasingly difficult to dig more than a shallow nest for her eggs. She does the best she can though and gives us time to get into position. Rachel is on her stomach waiting for the eggs to drop in. I have clipboard in hand and follow Patricio, our team leader for the night, around as we take measurements and notes. He finds she doesn’t have a PID and shows me how they insert it into their upper right flipper using a 3 inch needle as the turtle takes a breath. She starts bleeding everywhere. “Most of the time they don’t bleed, but a few times it goes everywhere” Patricio says while cleaning the wound. Next he puts one tag on each rear flipper and a takes a tissue sample. She starts bleeding from that too and it begins to drip on Rachel’s arm. The turtle seems not to notice any of this or care and is solely focused on laying her eggs. She finishes lying and they pull the bag out of the hole. I receive a blast of sand in my face as she covers everything up and I decide to move. Patricio relocates the eggs down beach and makes the real nest look like it’s already been poached. Hopefully this will be enough to confuse the poachers. We take a brief rest and head back for the night, talk with the next team coming out, and make it back by 1:00.

During the days, when we were not lethargic, we would go play in the waves of the beach, get games of volleyball or soccer going in the sand, travel to either Cahuita or Puerto Viejo to eat something other than rice and beans, and catch up with friends and family on the Internet. We went snorkeling and saw small coral reef formations, and went on hikes inside the Cahuita National Park where we saw heaps of hermit crabs scuttling along the trail next to larger red and blue crabs, caught glimpses of lizards and frogs, perhaps a toucan, poisonous snakes, and of course the curious white faced monkeys. A fun time spent on the beach with great volunteers and experiences.

Our Last Week In the Old City

April 11, 2007

We had the chance to witness many strong traditions during Semana Santa in Antigua (Easter Week). During this Holiday the people of Guatemala flock to Antigua to participate in processions that recreate the sentencing, death, and resurrection of Christ. The main religion of Guatemala is Catholicism and many Guatemaltecos have participated in this holy week for generations. The processions involve many people. Both women and men carry a float or “Andaria” throughout the streets of Antigua. The Andas are massive with flowers, angels, and statues of Jesus or Mary on top. With 40 people on each side of the Anda it sways down the street with a band playing a slow sad march. These processions last all day and into the night. The men wear purple robes; some carry incense, and carry Jesus. The women wear black and white with veils, and carry Mary. There is also a children’s procession, with a smaller float. The significance of the procession is to carry the pain that Jesus Christ carried on his way to his crucifixion. Some carry the Anda for penance, others for tradition. Every few blocks new carriers switch with the others and the procession continues at a steady crawl. Andy and I witnessed many of these processions. It was quite an amazing experience. The biggest ones were on Thursday and Friday. The recreation of the sentencing was a group of men dressed as Romans on horseback that went to several corners of the city and read out loud the sentencing of Christ. At 5am the procession of the death of Christ began. Smoke from the incense filled the street along with people. The next few days there were several other processions that represented the mourning for the death of Christ and then his Resurrection on Easter Sunday. The most important day was Friday. Guatemaltecos are not supposed to work for it is a day of rest and mourning for Christ.

Another tradition that is very unique to Antigua is the making of Alfombras. Alfombras are carpets that people make in the streets as an offering to Christ. These pieces of art are made out of flowers, fruit, and colored sawdust. Andy and I had the chance to help make 2 out of flowers. Even families that don’t have much money still partake in the alfombras. My host mom told me it is a sacrifice that people are willing to make for Dios (God). People start making alfombras in almost every street in Antigua where the procession is going to pass. This all began on Thursday night and continued through the night until the procession passed by in the morning on Friday. Families worked for hours on these beautiful, detailed carpets. When the procession came the alfombras were destroyed as the Anda was carried past. People would follow and pick up the flowers and then men with shovels, a backhoe and a truck close behind to pick up what was left of the mangled alfombras. It was amazing the amount of time and work the people poured into these works of art only to see they destroyed the next day. To many that fact didn’t matter because it was an offering to Christ. After staying up all night making alfombras, visiting churches, walking around the city to see other alfombras, we saw the procession and went to bed. I have to admire this tradition and the people who believe so strongly in what they stand for.

Once the last procession was over on Sunday Antigua returned to normal. We spent our last days studying, walking, and saying goodbye to the friends we met, spent time with, and worked with during our journey in Guatemala. I was happy to find out that my work is being and will be continued at the library in Pedro Molina. Andy and I received an Intermediate Advanced score on our Spanish exam! Que Bueno! Now we are waiting in the Airport in Guatemala City for our flight to Costa Rica where more adventures are waiting. It was sad to say goodbye to the old city and everything that is familiar about it, but I have the feeling that someday I will see her again.

Yo Estoy Aqui, Barracho y Loco

April 5, 2007

My parents arrived late on a Friday night. Rach and I were lucky enough to get a ride down with the shuttle to pick them up and greet them. Glad to see them we caught up as we spent the first 3 days in Antigua showing them around and touring various churches, meeting our host families, and so forth. In the evening of the last night we hiked up Volcano Pacaya. Rach and I were impressed with this hike our first time around, but it was even better the second, as more lava flows were visible. Our guide also made it exciting, because as we approached what we thought would be the “don’t go beyond this point” line our guide momentarily paused before ascending further. He called back for all of us to follow him; most of the group hesitated and hung back. I knew that I wouldn’t get another opportunity like this, especially in the States, so I set off following him with Rachel coming behind and both my parents too. We came within about 10-12 feet of a lava flow slowly falling down the mountainside. It was great.

For our next few days we headed out to Lake Atitlan. We heard about a sweet Zip Line Tour outside of Panajachel that we had to visit. This was our first destination. We had to first climb up the mountainside to the first leading zip line, attached into the cable from our body harnesses and away we went one-by-one. The tricky part was slowing down. Each of us had a leather glove that was used to grab the cable near the end of the zip line to slow us down in order to stop. It seemed scary at first, but once you got a feel of the ride it felt rather safe. The ride continued onto 5 other zip lines until we reached the bottom base camp where we had started.

The next two days we took boat rides out to the different pueblos scattered around the lake’s edge as well as a thermal area where the water shot up to scorching temperatures and dropped in cold spots just inches away. In was neat seeing all the little towns and how they varied from one another. Some were very tranquil and peaceful and for the most part we went unnoticed, while others were packed with people and kids harassing us to buy things or give them money even before we could get off the boat. One pueblo is well known for it’s ceramics that we’ve surprisingly found sold throughout Guatemala, others for their weavings, one for their wooden “maximon” figurine that the local people worship and give offerings in form of liquor and cigarettes to help with crops or deal blows to their enemies. We saw the way of life of the people around the lake and visited a few smaller towns that appeal to foreigners who are currently building homes and resorts in these areas.

From the lake we made our way to the Mayan ruins of Tikal on a 9 hour bus. The bus ended up being less glamorous than what we were originally told at the travel agency, making Rach and I feel really bad for my parents, but we all managed through it. We spent two days inside the park exploring the vast expanse of ruins left behind, many of which are still being excavated and reconstructed, not to mention unburied from the tropical jungle that quickly reclaims the limestone ruins. My favorite time in the park was towards the end of the day one most of the tourists had left, leaving the park relatively empty. In the afternoon we were walked back through the main plaza after watching the sunset from atop the “Lost World” temple. We found ourselves surrounded on all sides by towering temples and ruined complexes to match, almost no one around, quiet and a nearly full moon to light our way.

To round out our travels we stopped in Flores on the way back to Antigua and toured through a very unique zoo which had a variety of animals and birds like wild pigs, toucans, a puma, a jaguar, and spider monkeys. And finally we toured La Azotea in Antigua which is a small, working organic coffee plantation and a couple museums. Some interesting facts being that a single coffee tree produces 8.5 pounds of coffee fruit once a year, this makes one pound of coffee beans after processing, and is good for 40 cups of coffee. One worker can pick 100 pounds a day by hand in an 8 hour period, and get paid $4US dollars for every 100 pounds that’s about fifty cents an hour. The plantation exports the final product at $3US dollars a pound, where it’s sold in the States for $10US dollars a pound.

Our goodbye to my parents ended up being quicker than expected and therefore maybe a little more sad. All in all we had a good trip with the parents and are now looking forward to our travels to come in Costa Rica.