Bat Out of Hell

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Lots of people don’t like bats – some even have phobias of them. It’s fairly easy to see why, due to their association with horror and darkness (hence the Meatloaf title). I am definitely not one of them – this little guy was so sweet. It’s easy to see why fruit bats get called ‘flying foxes’! Anyway – I jumped in half way through the day… let me start from the beginning.

I’m running out of days here now! Just when I’m starting to get to grips with the place, I’m going to have to leave! I woke up this morning and hopped on a bus up to the village of Mele, around 10 minutes from town. There are a few places of interest in that area – one of which is the ‘Secret Garden’. At the Secret Garden they apparently bring over men from Abrym Island – the island where black magic is said to originate from – to do magic shows for tourists. Unfortunately, as I was by myself, they hadn’t been able to justify asking the men to come and perform through the morning, so I rearranged to tomorrow morning when some other tourists have booked up to go to the show. They did, however, show me the animals they keep on site, which I was perfectly happy with as an alternative!

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These Fijian banded iguanas are rapidly decreasing in quantity due to destruction of their habitats…

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They explained to me how they rotate the animals every 6 months or so – releasing and catching new individuals. They were all remarkably tame. Many of them are actually endangered now as they’re unfortunately ending up on dinner tables too much. One such example is the coconut crab. They no longer have them on site due to the scarcity of crabs left! Another example are the fruit bats. I couldn’t resist this little guy – absolutely adorable! They don’t seem to have much meat on them anyway so I’m quite sure why they’re so popular as a food source… They’re just such weird creatures – the way he wraps his wings about himself really does make him look like Dracula, haha.

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More on ‘secret garden’ after I’ve returned for the show tomorrow.

Around 10 minutes up the ring road around the island you arrive at the ‘Mele Cascades’. Some entrepreneurial individual has set up a café near the base of a series of waterfalls in order to be able to charge people to visit. There wasn’t anybody there when I arrived, however, so I just walked on in. The cascades themselves were stunning: a series of waterfalls over an outstanding long stretch of river. The path along side is very well maintained by the people who run the café so it was a very pleasant half hour walk to the pièce de résistance at the end.

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I say ‘path’, some of it included sections like this, with ruts carved into the rock to walk up!

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Another half an hour back down the ring road and you come to the beach across from ‘hideaway island’. I didn’t bother going across to the resort as it was an incredibly low tide so not ideal for snorkelling. I loved the way the school kids were playing about on the beach in their lunch hour – their school is right on the shore!

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Back tackling with the internet again this evening, so going to draw a line there!

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Passing Stranger

“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.”

– Tim Cahill

It feels strange being suddenly so alone after having spent such a long time in constant company.

I have to admit that I found the popular ‘Miraflores Locks’ and the Panama canal pretty dull. There was just such an enormous crowd of people watching an incredibly slow and tedious process.

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Perhaps it’s because I’ve reached the end of my tether after travelling pretty much constantly since November, alternatively it could be the fact that I’m recovering from a nasty bug: Either way I’m not particularly interested in Panama city. The ‘Caso Viejo’ old town region was a little more picturesque that the usual mediocrity but I’m not particularly in a position to be wandering around the city by myself as the men are particularly relentless in their verbal affronts. It’s impossible to even walk a minute down the road to the supermarket without being hounded by at least 10 locals, even when reluctantly trading in my short shorts for more conservative attire. The record’s 25. Anyway, you can see that I don’t feel particularly comfortable whacking out a large camera in this rather dodgy neighbourhood so photos will be limited.

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Interesting graffiti in ‘Casco Viejo’. Love how the person trying to paint the walls has dodged around them.

IMG_2382The city does, however, have some great little spots to pass the time. You can get a taxi out to the ’causeway’, a couple of Islands in the bay with a great view of the skyline.

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I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)

Time Flies

We’re led to believe

But it’s us that fly

Time sits on its hands

As we rush by

 – Roger McGough

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Apologies for the tardiness of this post; I’ve been largely bed-ridden with a horrific bug over the past week.

Panama has rushed past in a blur of alcohol and beaches. Our first stop was the Caribbean archipelago, ‘Bocas Del Toro’. It’s easy to hop on water taxis between the different islands, surf, walk through the national parks or just soak up the laid-back Caribbean pace of life which has now become so familiar. On ‘Colón’, the amusingly named main Island, there are some fantastic places to eat including a little sushi bar called ‘Raw’ with half price sushi and Martinis between 4 and 6. Ideal. I’d definitely recommend a lychee Martini if anyone’s not yet had the pleasure. They also had novel chalk-boards in place of mats which was a refreshing alternative to pre-dinner conversation!

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There’s also plenty of fun to be had exploring the rather eccentric island nightlife. Most bars/clubs (well, places to dance) have integrated the sea into the structure of their building, with large areas cut out of the decking for people to swim in the beautifully warm sea below. I particularly enjoyed ‘Aqua lounge’ on the nearby island which had swings into the water and ‘El Barco hundido’ (The sunken ship) with floating dance platforms over a shipwreck. It’s fantastically weird to be able to dive down and pick up a starfish off the sea-bed in the middle of a bar!

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I’m afraid I don’t have much to report on our next stop, Boquete, in the Panamanian mountains. To be perfectly honest I wasn’t particularly taken with the place. It was largely made up of a community of retired couples and ex-pats. I wasn’t overly disappointed that this was where my illness started to kick in. The nine hour journey to Panama city was somewhat less convenient.

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All of my travelling companions having gone their separate ways, I’m now alone in the rather daunting capital city…although it is nice to have my own room for the first time in three months!

What The Water Gave Me

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“If a man could pass through Paradise in a dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in his hand when he awake – Aye, what then?”
 – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica, is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. The park itself is a large expanse of wilderness where the tropical rainforest meets the Pacific. It’s packed full of monkeys, sloth, exotic birds, butterflies and a huge array of other animals.

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I followed a family of Raccoons (beach-coons, as we decided to call them) across the beach to a spot that they’d clearly smelt from a decent distance: a pile of somebody’s left over lunch at the edge of the forest.IMG_2317

Trying to cram as much of the food as possible into that little mouth of his!

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What at first appears to be a beach full of moving rocks is actually herds of hermit crabs scuttling around. Here’s a particularly tiny one!

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An adorable little squirrel monkey, playing about in the tree tops.

The town beside the park has an incredibly relaxed, mellow atmosphere; locals are dotted about with their boards in the surf whilst the tourists (yes, unfortunately there are a lots of them) soak up the hot Costa Rican sun. There are also numerous boards for hire. Perfect.

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On our first night in this paradise, one of our group members was leaving the next morning so we decided to give her a send off on the beach, unsurprisingly involving copious amounts of alcohol. The inevitable swim which followed was so fantastic that I had to go back in the following night: not only is the idyllic beach entirely isolated and star-lit but the ocean is teaming with phosphorescent plankton so that when you swim it lights up specks of greenish light all around you. Absolutely stunning. The best night time swimming I’ve ever experienced.

The downside was that the $20 note I had been keeping in my bikini fell out into the water. As I’m on a very strict budget you can image that I was pretty cut up about this, so when my, rather intoxicated, self realised it was missing I went back down in the dark to try and find it – with a candle of all things! It was such a hilariously fantastic moment when I found it, washed up on shore with the shells.

The cherry on top of a perfect night was spotting a two-toed sloth making it’s way along the telephone wire a couple of metres above our heads on the walk back. We watched it’s slow voyage for about half an hour, particularly enjoying it pulling off leaves to eat from the nearby trees. Another lucky up-close viewing.

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Darkness Between The Fireflies

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Next stop: Monteverde. My frustration with the health and safety rules continues. The Monteverde cloud forest itself was in fact so cloudy that we could barely see anything on our three hour hike through the park. The hummingbirds however in the national park’s ‘humming bird garden’ were simply stunning: ranging in many different luxurious colours and sizes.

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We decided to explore the lower forest that night and stumbled across a number of different creatures including agoutis (like a small version of a capybara), racoons, numerous fireflies, white-nosed coati and red-kneed tarantulas. We were also harrased by the tarantula wasp, which apparently gives one of the most painful stings in the world. It kept landing on our clothes – my back for example or our guides neck. Not nice! The forest became unusually quiet for a significant period of time – the reason soon became apparent  We got a very brief glimpse at a mountain lion wandering through an old farm!

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‘Headlight click beetle’. When in the air it shines about twice as brightly as the fireflies. It also has a nifty way of flipping itself over when it’s stuck on it’s back: It tucks it’s legs in and makes a loud ‘click’ noise with it’s wings plopping back over onto it’s front!

ImageI have to admit that I was completely unaware that scorpions reflect UV light! Pretty cool.

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Such Great Heights

“Life is an adventure, dare it.”

 – Mother Teresa

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Bungee over the canopy at Monteverde cloud forest. Hard work trying to convince the company that I’d be fine barefoot (I left my hiking boots in San Jose!) but as you can see I managed to get through to them. The platform is 143m high. Check it out if you’re in the area – the company is ‘extremo bungee’.

Born To Be Wild

A Brush With Authority

I had a brush with authority

Not only did it tell me

What to paint and when

But also which colours to use.

– Roger McGough

Unfortunately, so far I have been rather frustrated by the tourist industry in Costa Rica. The raw country itself is simply beautiful but is spoilt by the high price tags on activities/entrance into ‘natural’ areas, not forgetting the large numbers of tourists. In comparison to the rest of Central America it has the highest number of tourists and (undoubtedly as a result of this) it is by far the most expensive.

Another thing that greatly frustrates me is the ridiculous obsession with health and safety concerning any activities, for example rafting, rappelling, even walking! I personally get frustrated when I’m told what I can and can’t wear in my free time. They are my toes. If I want to run the risk of stubbing them (which I have already done) then I will bloody well do so. This stubbornness runs back to my childhood when I would refuse to wear a raincoat out, insisting that I had the right to risk getting cold if I wanted to!! Of course, though, they have to introduce these obligations to prevent people from suing them when they injure themselves – the whole system is just ridiculous.

Anyway, on arriving into La Fortuna I decided against any organised events and did not particularly relish the idea of paying to see a waterfall so I went out for a walk into the countryside where I stumbles across this magical little place:

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A large waterfall pool off the side of the road where the illusive locals were out enjoying themselves. The pool was incredibly deep, perfect for diving into and, what’s more, they had tied a rope swing onto one edge resulting in a terrifying but adrenaline pumping ‘Tarzan’ swing into the water.

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The bovine locals looking inquisitively at a sopping wet gringo heading back towards town with a smile on her face…

 

Monkey On My Back

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Proyecto Asis, across the border now into Costa Rica, is a small wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centre where it’s possible to ‘volunteer’ for a day. On our way through from the capital, San Jose, to La Fortuna I was dropped off the Bus at the nearby town ‘Javillos’ and made my way over to the project. The experience wasn’t quite what I had expected. Although we had a fantastic introduction to the animals in the centre, the actual volunteering consisted of solely the preparation of the food and the feeding of the animals. Great for seeing some of the local wildlife but not giving you the feeling of being particularly useful! If you want to get familiar with the animals and have a more ‘hands on’ experience it’s certainly necessary to volunteer for at least a week or two.

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The majority of the animals in rehabilitation had been confiscated from homes where they were being kept as pets, for example the white faced monkeys which I introduced you to in my previous post, spider monkeys, a lazy Kinkajou, Macaws, A young boa constrictor, White-lipped Peccaries, Parakeets etc. My personal favourites where the two orphaned baby white-faced monkeys, who desperately clung onto each others backs and tried to suckle from your fingers! So adorable.

The spider monkeys were also very fond of human company, even running over to hug the permanent volunteer worker when he walked over to their cage!Image

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http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g309226-d1231711-Reviews-Proyecto_Asis-La_Fortuna_de_San_Carlos_Arenal_Volcano_National_Park_Province_of_A.html

I Wanna Hold Your Hand

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“Being asked what animal you’d like to be is a trick question; you’re already an animal.”
 – Doug Coupland 

Our next stop was Ometepe: a beautiful volcanic Island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. As you can see, I made a new little friend. It’s hard to believe that he’s wild! Perhaps I was a little foolish to get so close but he really seemed ravenous for human company – completely bizarre! He particularly liked holding my hand or having his hand or head stroked; he would come running over and splat down on the floor or chair in front of me and grab my hand and just lie there holding it! Alternatively he’d just reach out his hand expectantly, like a dog waiting to have it’s belly scratched! He even jumped onto my lap a couple of times!

Hilariously he didn’t seem to like my friends, actually bearing his teeth at the men! Later, when I left to have a shower after a dip in the sea lake, he followed me back to my room and apparently was peering through the glass of the door with his hands up by his eyes to block out the reflection like a human!

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Like little babies’ hands!

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The Island horses are allowed to roam free, stopping in herds to drink from the lake in front of our rooms. The horses were also available to ‘hire’ for an hour or so, leading to fantastic gallops across the beach. An idyllic place to visit on a trip to Central America.

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P.S.please excuse the infrequency and poor quality of posts – Have had lots of 4.30 AM starts and long days crossing borders etc.

A Spoonful of Sugar?

“Anything is good if it’s made of chocolate.”
 – Jo Brand 

My first impressions of Granada are rather more favourable than of the gritty León: yet another classic colonial town with beautiful churches, cathedrals and general architecture.

Being Easter Sunday, I decided to indulge in a course in local chocolate making! The process was great fun, starting from the dried bean right through to a bar of chocolate!

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Roasting the, previously fermented and dried, Cacao beans – a wok can be used in place of this traditional ‘ceramic pot over an open fire’ method!

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The outer ‘husks’ are then removed (a ‘crushing’ technique before peeling seems to be the most effective method!) to leave Cacao nibs which you then ground with a pestle and mortar into a cocoa mass called chocolate liquor. The natural fat in the bean produces a surprising amount of moisture once ground thoroughly!

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We then used this chocolate liquor to recreate ancient Aztec and Mayan recipes! Cacao has been cultivated for at least three millennia in Central America, with it’s earliest documented use being by the Mayans in 1100BC! Adding boiling water, cinnamon  honey and pepper and then mixing naturally through pouring from one jug into another produces the original Mayan take on Hot Chocolate!

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The Aztec version involves simply adding chilli and cardamom to this concoction creating a bizarrely uplifting drink! It was in fact believed to fight fatigue. I was shocked to find out that there is actually no caffeine in chocolate, as I had previously thought, but the similar, mood enhancing, theobromine possibly explaining why chocolate supposedly makes people ‘happier’! These chocolate drinks were consumed widely in Mayan and Aztec culture, also being used at sacred ceremonies and even as sacrifices for the gods and as currency!

The Europeans were the ones to include the additions of refined sugar and milk, ingredients unknown to the inhabitants of Central America. We also had a crack at making this more modern take on the drink through adding three teaspoons of the Cacao mass to a cup of hot milk then two teaspoons of sugar, resulting in a much more familiar taste! Unlike the Mayans and Aztecs, however, the Europeans never integrated chocolate into their general diet, isolating it instead into the ‘sweats and deserts’ category. Perhaps this idea may itself evolve with the help of some of the more adventurous modern chefs!

Following the class, I headed out to the local Easter service in the country’s most renowned cathedral (Granada Cathedral). Despite the fact that my Spanish has come a long way since Argentina I must admit that I struggled to understand the service but enjoyed the atmosphere, nevertheless! I then found myself stuck in an Easter procession on the way back, with fireworks and a loud brass band accompanying me to the hostel!

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So there’s my Easter experience in Central America! More to follow tomorrow…