We flew from David, Panama to Alajuela, the international airport of San Jose, Costa Rica. I was required by the airline, in order to board the flight, to purchase an exit ticket out of Costa Rica, so bought a $165 return flight back to David. This is not uncommon requirement but I have never had it enforced in the destination country. Despite being reassured that a refund was possible, it proved impossible, so eventually “ate” the ticket. We then caught an immediate flight to Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula, on the south Pacific coast. The only other accesses to here are by a riverboat or a long, difficult 4WD trip with many river crossings. We stayed in the DB Resort, at $130/night (not including any excursions), the most expensive accommodation I have ever paid for. We went on a great walk along the coast to a river seeing monkeys on the way and swam in the river. The highlight of the area is the Sirena section of Corcavado NP, supposedly with the highest biodiversity of any spot on earth. The one hour speed boat ride past great rock formations landed on the beach. Guides talked to each other on radios and we say a tapir, many kinds of monkeys, birds and lizards. Roberta went horse back riding and I took a 45 min boat to snorkel on Cano Island. With great visibility, I say white tipped reef sharks, a turtle and many fish. We kayaked up the river and I had great fun surf kayaking on a small break on the bay. There were lots of interesting people there, mostly Americans.
After a flight back to Alajuela (pop. 175,000), we went up to PN Volcan Poas, Costa Rica’s busiest national park. With a crater 1.3km across and 300m deep, there were no views in the mist. The key here is to go before 10AM to beat the cloud and get a view. The tour went to a wonderful waterfall park with butterflies, birds, cats, snakes and spectacular scenery. We never did go to San Jose. Roberta flew back home and I took the bus to Monteverde. Costa Rica is renowned for its undisturbed tracts of rainforest with 21% of the country in its natural state. The Monteverde Cloudforest Reserve is renowned for its bird life. Again the naturalists communicate with each other so that everyone gets to see everything. Besides many other unusual birds, we saw 2 magnificent quetzals, the national bird of Guatemala and the name of their currency. With a bright red breast, impossibly long tail feathers and a bright lime green back and head (with an Iroquois cut), it was amazing to watch it eat avocados. It swallows five at a time, digests the fruit off the pit and then spits out all the pits at once. The guides had spotting scopes and we watched for half an hour. The quetzal moves up and down the mountains eating the 11 varieties of avocado that produce fruit in different seasons. one of the best things to do was a night walk – we say many sloths (one came down to within 3 feet), snakes, coatis and many spiders.
I then took the jeep-boat-jeep trip to Fortuna, famous for its very active volcano (inactive when I was there!). There was a very lame volcano tour and a visit to a hot springs with a death-defying slide. The speed attained was terrifying. Despite rave reviews from many, I found Fortuna disappointing. I then took a long bus ride to Turrialba (pop27,000) SE of San Jose near the Caribbean coast to go white water rafting on the Rio Reventazon. Fed by a reservoir behind a dam at 1000m, the river has 65 km of rapids. Big rains had made the best trip into a class 5 so we had to settle for a less thrilling ride. After another long bus ride back to Alajuela, I caught the plane to Belize (and despite being told I would need an exit flight, the airline said nothing and entered the country with no problems).
Belize City (pop 70,800), the capital, is a shabby, run down place with a large black population. I hitched a ride into town with an American living there doing research on coral. Hurricanes had recently flooded much of the town. I have never been panhandled as much anywhere else and was advised to go almost nowhere outside of my hotel. Unemployment is high but Belizeans refuse to do manual labor so Guatemalans have taken over that role. Corruption is high and everybody complains. I caught a taxi 35km north to Altun Ha, a unexciting Mayan ruin with 2 temples surrounding a grassy plaza. As I was the only one there, it was very serene. On my last day in Belize City, I caught the 6AM bus to Orange Walk (pop 18,000), and went on a tour to Lamanai, another Mayan ruin 50 miles down the New River. The trip is as much about the river as the ruins. We caught the boat at the Tower Hill toll bridge. Many birds and crocodiles were seen and we passed a large Mennonite town. Mennonites immigrated here in the 1920s and produce 80% of the vegetables and build almost all the furniture. One community has a modern farming community across the road from fundamentalists who use no machinery. The ruins were great with some large pyramids and many howler monkeys. With the largest voice box of any animal for its size, the roar can be incredible. On the way back up the river, the young boat driver took the many corners at high-speed, great fun.
I took a ferry out to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, about 2 hours form Belize City. Most of the many tourists rent golf carts to move around the small island producing a pretty unpleasant atmosphere and it was not long before I wanted to move on. Caye Caulker is a tiny place, had no carts, narrow dirt streets and a very laid back atmosphere. I stayed in a small hotel run by the ex-secretary of the prime minister. The snorkeling was world-class, I went three times and saw lots of great fish including moray eels. The Belize Reef is the second longest reef in the world after the Great Barrier Reef, but like most coral reefs in the world are suffering. Warmer water secondary to global warming bleaches coral. We were able to hold manta rays and small sharks. Diving the Blue Hole, a sinkhole of startling blue water about 400 feet deep, is a major draw. Ragamuffin Tours offers a three-day sailing trip to Placentia in the south of the country. With a bunch of 20 some-things and a three-man crew of rasta dudes, it was great fun. The food was excellent, there was lots of ganga and the rum punch started with breakfast. We stayed on two islands, the first, Rendezvous Caye, only 60x30m big and on Tobacco Caye, a 5 acre island with a few hotels and a bar. We cleaned out the bar and the party continued well after midnight. I picked up all the garbage on the beach (2 large garbage bags) and don’t understand why such beautiful places are treated so badly. We snorkeled every day in remote places, adding more fish to my list. Fishing rods hung off the boat and everybody caught something. Unfortunately the sails never went up but it was a very relaxing few days.
Placentia (pop 1,200) is on the tip of a long, narrow, sandy peninsula. I bussed up to Dandriga (11,500) to start a five-day kayaking trip out to Glovers Reef, a 17×6 km rectangular reef outside the main Belizean Reef. The resort was nice with good food and guides but quite lame kayaking as there weren’t many places to go (the other guests were all novices). One off the guides worked on Quadra during the summer and he helped me with my roll (unsuccessfully). However the snorkeling was fantastic on the outside of the reef. I went alone to a small caye about an hour from the resort and picked up all the garbage on a beach that we had snorkeled at the previous day. The park wardens were a rather lazy bunch. Returning to Dandriga, I had a few days to kill so bussed to San Ignatio (pop 17,000) close to the Guatemala border. I took a tour to Coracol, my 26th Mayan ruin. With a very long drive, I’m not sure it was worth the trip. The highlight of the area is the ATM Cave (Actun Tunichil Muknal). Opened to the public only in 1997, it has been well protected and can only be visited with a guide. With a running river in the cave, there were two swims and lots of wading, some up to your chest. The formations in the cave were pristine. After ½ km in the river, we climbed up into a fantastic Mayan ceremonial cave. Hundreds of broken pots lined the walls and were cemented into the floors by the mineralized water. There were several skeletons including one of a hydrocephalic child. 98% of the artifacts have been left intact, making it one of the most authentic archaeological sites in the world, truly one of the highlights of my entire trip so far.
BAY ISLANDS OF HONDURAS
I bussed back down to Placentia and caught the ferry to Porto Ordaz, Honduras and then shared a taxi with 3 others through San Pedro Sula to La Ceiba, an unsavory city on the Caribbean coast. Another ferry brought me to Utila in the Bay Islands, one of the premier dive spots in the world. The other larger, better known and more expensive island of the islands is Roatan. Utila is only about diving and I took my open water PADI certificate here. Having to swim 200 yards at the beginning was a real test. They thought I was going to drown. I have never swum more than 25 yards in my life. The instruction was world-class with instructors from Denmark, England, the US and Trinidad. Probably the cheapest place in the world to get your open water at $300, 4 nights accommodation, breakfasts, a t-shirt and 2 free dives at the end were included. Known for its big wall diving, the fish were exceptional. It is one of the better places to see whale sharks, the largest fish at over 60 feet. They come here in early February and had just arrived. We say several in the distance and one very close, quite a sight as they are covered in yellow spots. It is not allowed to dive with them, so everyone lines up in two rows at the back of the boat with snorkeling gear. When the whale approaches, everyone hits the water hoping to catch a glimpse as it cruises by. Utila was a lovely place to finish my Central America trip as it so laid back.
Another long bus ride brought me back to Guatemala City (stayed in a nicer part of town this time) but still got hustled by fellow from Montreal who claimed he had been robbed. After the flight home, it felt good to be in the cold again.