street art and revealing the past

Rick Mercer hosts a well-liked weekly news/human interest/comedy show on CBC television. My favourite part of the program is his walking rant, filmed in a colourful back alley in the fashion district of Toronto. Known as Graffiti Alley, it is a lane that runs parallel to Queen Street West, just west of Spadina and I was always curious about it. The backs and sides of many buildings are covered in murals, tags, and random images that frequently change as artists replace old work with new, or find another empty corner to fill. I finally had a chance to see it for myself, although it was an extremely cold day (minus 20 degrees C) and my iPhone shut down after about a dozen photos. So I didn’t get to tape my own rant.

In contrast to this street art is an institution that is celebrating its 100th anniversary – the Royal Ontario Museum, or ROM for short. It has expanded many times over the years and is now one of the largest museums in Canada with four floors stuffed with exhibitions and artifacts from across the country and around the world. In addition to the usual descriptive panels are signs that tell curious facts about the museum, like the voracious collecting appetite of the first museum director, which movies were filmed in the museum, which authors featured characters with a connection to the museum, and more.

The museum also features “pop-up” exhibitions, and the one that caught my eye was a small display focused on the recent discovery of the HMS Erebus, one of the long lost ships of the Franklin exhibition. Franklin and his crew were looking for a way through the northwest passage and got caught in the ice, wintered, split up, and eventually all was lost. Burial sites and artifacts have been found over the years along the shores of islands in the area, but until now the whereabouts of either ship was unknown.

One of the first artifacts divers saw and retrieved was a bell, a key piece of equipment and one that survived it’s deep sea burial because it was made of solid brass. To the causal viewer, you might think you are looking at the bell itself, but on view is a replica. Not a cast or molded imitation, but the product of 3D printing. Fascinating, my first face-to-face encounter with a product of this new technology.

So maybe the museum is 100 years old, but the old dog is clearly still learning new tricks!

Speaking of new tricks, selfies with the Douglas Coupland exhibition is encouraged, and instructions are offered on the hashtags to use. So of course I had to take one!

Graffiti Alley, Toronto

Graffiti Alley, Toronto

Graffiti Alley, Toronto

Graffiti Alley, Toronto

 

Graffiti Alley, Toronto

Graffiti Alley, Toronto

Graffiti Alley, Toronto

Graffiti Alley, Toronto

3D printed bell

3D printed replica bell at the ROM

Me and Coupland art

Selflie with Coupland artwork at the ROM

7 things we love about Puerto Viejo

As 2014 comes to a close we want to share with you what we love about Puerto Viejo. We first enjoyed the charms of this laid-back, off-the-beaten-track Caribbean gem during our travels throughout Central and South America in 2012. At the time we knew we would return, and from the last couple of posts, you know we did — for three glorious weeks. So here they are, the 7 things we love about Puerto Viejo:

1. Wide sandy beaches
There are about 15 kms of beach from the town of Puerto Viejo to the village of Manzanillo to the south. You can walk from one end to the other with your toes in the sand about 80 percent of the way, just a few diversions around uprooted coral reefs and rocky points. Some sections are quite narrow, but there are numerous 2 and 3 km stretches of wide sandy beaches — we were staying just 100m from our favourite, Playa Cocles.
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2. Warm and clean water
Did we mention this is the Caribbean? If you have visited Cancun or Belize, or any of a number of islands located in the Caribbean Sea (like Cuba for example) you know how warm the water is, and in the case of this stretch of beach, clean and almost completely free of the trash that plagues many beaches around the world.
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3. 850 species of birds
Our last two posts probably tell you everything you need a bird watching in PV. So we’ve dropped in a photo of a Resplendent Quetzal about to eat a wild avocado, taken in the cloud forest just a few hours away.
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4. Lazy Mon bar and restaurant
This visit and last, our “home away from home away from home” was the Lazy Mon. At least 3 or 4 times a week we would walk into town from Playa Cocles to get a few groceries and other supplies, and drop by the Lazy Mon. On the beach itself at the edge of town and popular with locals, tourists, families, and Rastafarians, not to mention up to about a dozen laid-back dogs, it also features live music every night, mostly bands of expat musicians keeping themselves and the beat alive.
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5. Expat musicians
Speaking of expat musicians, out favourite group in PV is Tracy and the Two Davids, regulars at La Biela Sabores del Mundo restaurant and bar. Tracy has an incredible vocal range, David One on guitar is extremely accomplished, and David Two knows his way about a bass.
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6. Safe at night
Many tourist areas around the Caribbean are unsafe at night, hence the high barbed wire-tipped fences and armed guards that surround many resorts. Not so in PV. Yes there are a few low-key resorts, but most of the accommodation is in two categories: hostels and vacation house rentals. Almost everyone night we walked either 3 kms north into town, or 2 kms south to La Biela — and no matter how late we returned we did not feel unsafe, other than from cars speeding by too quickly in the dark or swerving to avoid potholes (the only north-south road is paved but not well maintained).
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7. Laid back vibe
Although it’s only a few hours by car or bus from the capital, PV has not experienced the same tourism-fueled development that one finds on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. It continues to attract young backpackers and old expats alike from Europe, Australia, Canada and the US anxious to mix with sandy beaches, warm water, and displaced Rastafarians from throughout the Caribbean. There is an abundance of wildlife, a coral reef, and an annual chocolate festival that celebrates the local organic cacao harvest.
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Did we miss something you love about Puerto Viejo? Let us know!

 

 

like living in a bird sanctuary

It’s as if our cabin is located in a bird sanctuary. No sooner did we publish a post describing the fascinating range of birds we’re seeing on the ground or in the trees around our cabin, but some new ones drop by for a visit.

First sight out the window yesterday morning was this female Slaty-tailed Trogan.

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Later we were returning from a day at the beach to be greeted by this Keel-billed Toucan in the cherry tree beside our cabin.

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The Toucan grabbed a cherry and flew to a tree on the other side of the cabin, and what should we see but a group of Montezuma Oropendolas, mostly high in the tree and quite hidden, but this one popped down to a lower branch for just a moment.

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No doubt as soon as we click on “publish” another interesting and colourful bird will land in our yard asking for equal blog time!

costa rica is for the birds

This one is for the bird lovers among our kind readers.

Costa Rica is home to more than 840 species of birds. It is a favourite destination for amateur and dedicated bird watchers alike. In fact, it’s hard to ignore the birds here, whether it’s the ominous circling of black vultures overhead, the screeching of wood rails, the raspy call of toucans, the rapid buzzing past of hummingbirds, or the happy chirpiness of great kiskadees, we are surrounded!

The travel companies here on the Caribbean coast offer bird watching tours, and we may do one yet. In the meantime, the grounds, creek, and trees around the cabin we’re staying at near Playa Cocles, (about three kilometres south of Puerto Viejo), are all we need — most of the photos below were shot from the open main floor of our cabin or within metres of our front steps. Many of the rest were taken at the beach 100m away, or on a nearby trail. And these are just the ones we could see and grab photos of. We could hear many others, but could not see them high in the trees or well-hidden by leaves and branches, or I didn’t have my camera with me or get it out in time.

One tree on the property in particular is a gold-mine for up-close bird watching. In some of the photos you’ll see birds with the red-berry from this tall shrub — I believe they are Surinam Cherries.

We’ve done our best to identify the birds in these photos from a two-page field guide and some good websites — but some remain unknown. Help with additional names, or corrections, is very welcome! You should be able to click on each photo to see a larger version.

Rufus-tailed Hummingbird

Rufus-tailed Hummingbird

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Great Kiskadee

Great Kiskadee

Passerini's Tanager

Passerini’s Tanager

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan

Olive-backed Euphonia

Olive-backed Euphonia

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Blue-black Grassquit

Blue-black Grassquit

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Squirrel Cuckoo

Squirrel Cuckoo

Long-tailed Hermit

Long-tailed Hermit

Streaked-headed Woodcreeper

Streaked-headed Woodcreeper

Green Kingfisher

Green Kingfisher

Collared Aracari

Collared Aracari

Collared Aracari

Collared Aracari

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

Broad-winged Hawk

Broad-winged Hawk

Collared Aracari

Collared Aracari

Whimbrel

Whimbrel

Squirrel Cuckoo

Squirrel Cuckoo

Ringed Kingfisher

Ringed Kingfisher

Grey-necked Wood Rail

Grey-necked Wood Rail

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan

Great Kiskadee

Great Kiskadee

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Groove-billed Ani

Groove-billed Ani

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hot springs started it all

We have long believed the national parks that encompass a huge section of the Rocky Mountains are a national treasure. What we didn’t realize was that a modest source of warm water, once deep in the woods but now a short walk outside the present-day town of Banff, was the birthplace of the whole Canadian national parks system.

We found a good deal on a room in Banff and the road was calling! We decided to squeeze in a short mid-summer run across the Continental Divide and back. So off we went, stopping in Revelstoke on the way and staying at The Sutton Place Hotel, otherwise known as the Revelstoke Mountain Resort. They were also offering a mid-summer deal on rooms, and even upgraded us when we got there. The hotel consists of three buildings at the base of a ski hill, likely a much-busier place in the winter, but quiet and out of the way during the summer. We slipped back down into town for dinner, and sampled the locally made India Pale Ale (IPA) called Nasty Habit, which Mt. Begbie Brewing promises is a “wicked ale that leaves you lusting for more”. Right they are!

The half-day drive from Revelstoke to Banff involves driving along side or through three national parks (Revelstoke, Glacier, and Yoho) and some of the most stunning views of mountains in Canada. The area around Banff itself is so picturesque, it does seem fitting that this would be the inspirational for establishing a system of national parks.

It was a trio of railway workers, Frank McCabe and brothers, William and Tom McCardell, who in 1883 stumbled upon an opening in a hillside that lead to a large underground cave and the springs that were generating hot water from deep in the earth. A park brochure notes that Aboriginal peoples and non-native explorers and settlers knew about the cave and the warm water that trickled into a small lake in the valley, but these three believed that with the coming of the railway, they would be able to attract wealthy travellers to bathe in these healing waters. They petitioned the government for the rights to develop the land, but when word reached Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, he proposed the creation of a hot springs reserve, retaining ownership of the land for the public’s “great sanitary advantage.”

Over the years pools were built near the springs that were attracting over 150,000 people per year in by the early 1960s. The pool was closed in 1971, rebuilt and re-opened in 1985, but closed for the last time in 1994. The main facility is now a viewing platform and park museum (and established as the Cave and Basin National Historic Site), and the starting point for trails that criss-cross this unique marshland.
With warm water flowing in, the area stays frost-free even as snow and ice cover the surrounding mountains. We thought we could do the Marsh Trail, but it is also a horse trail, deep in mud and manure, not something to try without rubber boots. We did take a long walk along the main trail, although when we stopped to read directional signs, we were attacked by dozens of large, hungry mosquitoes, forcing a rapid retreat to apply bug spray – so glad we packed it!

We really like international travel, but exploring our own magnificent ”back yard” once in a while is always worth the effort; and there is always something new to learn!

View from our room, Revelstoke

View from our room, Revelstoke

Mt Begbie, near Revelstoke

Mt Begbie, near Revelstoke

Columbia Ground Squirrel, Glacier National Park

Columbia Ground Squirrel, Glacier National Park

Lake area, Cave and Basin, Banff

Lake area, Cave and Basin, Banff

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Chipmunk, Cave and Basin, Banff

Chipmunk, Cave and Basin, Banff

Closed pool at Cave and Basin

Closed pool at Cave and Basin

View from upstairs bar, Banff

View from upstairs bar, Banff

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Marble Canyon, Kootenay National Park

Marble Canyon, Kootenay National Park

Bighorn Sheep along the highway

Clark's Nutcracker, Manning Park

Clark’s Nutcracker, Manning Park

Penguins enjoy snow in Calgary

It’s a bit of a shock to the system to leave the wet but moderate west coast and land in the thick of a winter blizzard in Calgary. The snow wasn’t just coming down hard, it was being blasted horizontally across the prairie by high winds – fortunately I could see the bus stop from just inside the airport doors and only had to brave the sub-zero chill for a moment. But what is it with Calgary bus drivers, keeping the buses hotter than an oven, and here I am bundled in every piece of winter clothing I own!

There are two inexpensive ways to get downtown from the airport – the regular #100 bus that takes a wide drive around the perimeter of the airport to eventually connect visitors with the C-Train for access to the downtown core for only $3; or the #300, an $8 bus that runs directly to downtown via several major hotels. I rejected the five buck money grab and took the 45-minute scenic route.

I was in Calgary for some meetings, so Deborah stayed home this trip. Just as well, because although the blizzard ended the next day, temperatures dropped to 20 below for the rest of my time in Cowtown. That didn’t stop me from slipping over to the Calgary Zoo, just a few minutes east on the C-Train. I saw a bit on the Rick Mercer television show a few weeks ago that featured the relatively new penguin compound, and after seeing so many penguins in the wild over 2012, I was already missing the funny little flightless wonders.

Regular admission for adults is a whopping $22 – but flashing my Hostelling International membership card cut the price in half. It was a very cold and quiet day and I headed straight for Penguin Plunge, an indoor/outdoor exhibition space that on the weekends and during the summer attracts thousands of people a day who wait up to 90 minutes in order to spend 15 minutes inside with the manufactured rock formations and glass-walled swimming areas. Oh yeah, and four kinds of penguins: King, Gentoo, Humboldt (which we saw in Chile and Argentina) and Rockhoppers, from a couple of small islands off the coast of Chile that we did not get to.

I had the place almost to myself; only a couple of other visitors passed through while I studied my new friends, all of us watched carefully by volunteers eager to talk about their little charges. Once in a while there is some chatter from the Humboldts or a howl from a King as they walk around. When they dive into the water, they glide at hide speed despite their sometime clumsy on-land waddle. The ever-curious Rockhoppers really do hop from rock to rock.

One of the volunteers told me some of the King penguins came from a zoo in Texas, which meant that when they got to Calgary, they experienced snow for the first time and quite enjoyed it, and now stay outside in the snow most of the day. The Gentoos also like the snow, while the Humboldts prefer the slightly warmer inside area.

The Calgary Zoo covers a lot of ground, and while most of the outdoor areas were closed due to the snow and cold, most of the large indoor areas were busy with birds and animals from around the world – finally got to see an Andean condor, and although the enclosure was quite large, I felt bad it was not free to soar high among the mountains of Peru. That’s the problem with zoos and why I mostly avoid them, so I’m conflicted around recommending everyone go see Penguin Plunge on a cold weekday when you can have the place to yourself.

by the way, whenever I’m heading for Calgary, I book a dorm room bed at Hostelling International city centre for $29 per night, which includes bedding and towels, free breakfast with pancakes, muffins, and bananas, free WiFi, and free coffee or tea all day. Amazingly, its only two blocks from the east edge of downtown and the City Hall C-Train station. Not even Hotwire can offer a better deal.

One more bit of travel advice: bus #300 direct from downtown back to the airport is only $3, and it gets you there in less than 30 minutes. That’s more like it.

Gentoo penguins in the snow outside

Gentoo penguins in the snow outside

King penguin

King penguin standing tall

Gentoo pengion

Gentoo pengion

Rockhopper penguin

Rockhopper penguin

Humboldt penguins

Humboldt penguins up in the rocks

Indoor penguin pool

Indoor penguin pool

cloudforests and happy hour with surfer dude

We don’t always know where we’re going or how to get there. Other travellers can often point us in the right direction; sometimes we rely on taxi drivers, almost always a mistake.

As Deborah mentioned in our last post, our very generous neighbour at the hostel in Panama City gave us a ride to the regional airport for our flight to David, the closest we could get to the highlands by air. Once in David, we needed to get to the bus station to complete our journey for the day. We told the taxi driver we were heading for Guadalupe, which the print-out map we had from the lodge seemed to indicate was near the larger community of Boquete. In hindsight, we guess all he heard was “Boquete”; he delivered us right to the bus door and rushed us on board. The packed and noisy bus dropped us ninety minutes later in the little town of Boquete. So far so good. A taxi driver by the bus stop, in consultation with other drivers and locals, assured us it would be an $8 taxi ride to the lodge. Turns out, he took us out of town to a park with the same name as our lodge, obviously not what we were looking for. After consulting with yet another driver who obviously knew the area better, he had to confess us there was no way to get from Boquete to Guadalupe except by going back to David and getting on a different bus. Fortunately a bus back to David was about to leave for the 90-minute return trip. This time we dealt with the bus driver in David ourselves and made sure he knew where Guadalupe was, and could take us there, which he did in just over two hours. In fact the lodge was very near the main Guadalupe stop, a welcome sight after spending most of the day in transit.

The Los Quetzales Eco-lodge in Guadalupe, near a number of national parks in the highlands, was perfect, and we had the place to ourselves. Our wonderful third-story room had a small fireplace for the cold nights; breakfast and a guided hike were included in the morning. The area is also known for fruit and vegetable production, including strawberries, onions, carrots, cauliflower, and more, all cultivated by hand on steep hillsides – there are no level valley floors here, it is all hillside. We were glad we had booked three nights, a dramatic change of pace from dreary Panama City. Lots of interesting birds, cloudbursts and sunshine, hummingbirds everywhere, and great meals at the lodge.

From Guadalupe we took a series of rural buses over the highlands and a water taxi to get to Isla Colon, the largest of the islands on the Caribbean Coast of Panama that make up Bocas del Toro province. The island is less than 20 kms long and a just a few kms wide, and mostly undeveloped, a situation that will likely change as Panama tries to attract more tourists in competition with its neighbours to the north. There is a small town centre, a main road that leads from downtown across the island is where most of the hotels, hostels, and restaurants are located – and just behind the tourist facade are local neighbourhoods, mostly old wooden buildings, some built many years ago for banana plantation workers and now looking rather run down.

We stayed at a small rental condo about 3 km from downtown, good for getting us out for a walk to and from the bars that were offering all kinds of happy hour specials. Our favourite was at the front of a hostel for surfers; happy hour featured 50 cent beers and one or more other specials. In one corner there was always a group of guys that looked like young hippies out of the late 60s, taking a break from wandering the streets selling bracelets and necklaces. The rest of the tiny bar was packed with young people fresh from surfing, diving, and soaking up the sun. It was a happening place. Oh yes, the margaritas we had one night were extremely strong – the shirtless surfer dude behind the bar just emptied the tequila bottle into two glasses and added a bit of lime juice. Clearly not the owner!

We walked a lot, and one day took the bus to the other end of the island to check out the beach at Boca del Drago (mouth of the dragon). Not a very big beach and not much sand, but around the corner we found another small beach that featured warm sand and warm water – the perfect place to spend an afternoon. The next day to went on a boating excursion to get out to a bay where dolphins feed and do some snorkeling in the Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park. We did spot a number of dolphins, and the snorkeling was okay – but the day did not live up to the tour office description – something we’re getting very used to during this year on the road. Fortunately it was only $20 plus the park fee, and for that price we’re happy just to get out on the water and see what there is to see.

We were also very happy our building had a small outdoor pool that we had almost entirely to ourselves – we submerged ourselves at least twice a day to escape the high heat and humidity we were experiencing (along with intense thunderstorms most nights).

It was then time to say goodbye to Panama and head up the coast to Cocles Beach, just south of Puerto Viejo. We arrived here Monday and our home for the next month is a fairly new 2-bedroom house set in the jungle near Cocles Beach. The kitchen and living rooms are on the main floor, open to the outdoors; the bedrooms and main bathroom are on the second floor, and there is an open wrap-around porch on three sides. There are other houses visible through the trees, and you can hear locals and other visitors, but it is the howler monkeys that make the most interesting noise –a deep long growl that sounds like you’ve wandered into Jurassic Park – but they’re just minding their own business high in the trees along the road. We expect to have lots to report, stay tuned!

Video clips:

swimming with pink dolphins

As planned, we made our way to Manaus, 1500km up the Amazon River from the coast, to do a 6 night, 7 day boat trip on the Amazon. Manaus has a population of around 2 million people, the largest city on the Amazon. When we arrived in Manaus it was quite warm… 40 degrees. After checking in to a B&B we asked our host about a place to have dinner. He told us not too much was open in the neighbourhood, as it was Sunday, but gave us directions to a brand new shopping mall about six blocks away. Now, I am not really one for food fairs, but we wandered over and found a very nice, but expensive restaurant/pub tucked in behind the food fair. On the menu there was quite a few imported beers… one was $78 for a 355m bottle. Needless to say, we didn’t buy that one. The food was good though.

The next day we started our boat cruise on the Amazon. We arrived at the Tropical Hotel for our 2pm departure and met our trusty guide, Hugo. Along with five other men, we walked to our home on the river, the Amazon Clipper. Turns out, I was the only female passenger. At first I thought how weird it would be, but these guys were pretty nice… three from the States and a dad and his son from Mexico.

It was a pretty amazing trip. We hiked into an eco-reserve to see giant water lilies, we enjoyed numerous early morning canoe rides (getting a wake-up call by Hugo at 5:30am) as well as afternoon and evening canoe excursions. We saw dozens of species of birds (the photos below just scratch the surface) and lots of creepy creatures on the jungle walks. The evening canoe rides brought us face to face with caimans, boas, and many nocturnal birds.

Our second day in, we put on long pants, tucked our pants into our socks (just in case ants decided to climb on us) and jumped off the canoe onto a very muddy bank to do our first jungle walk. We were happily walking looking at trees and stuff… Don was third in line and I was behind him. Suddenly, we were being stung and slapping at something we couldn’t see and damn, did it hurt. I took off running and the little beings that turned out to be some tiny, gold wasp, stopped stinging me. I was told I should have stayed still, but who can do that when you can’t see what is getting at you. Unfortunately, someone stepped on another wasp nest and I was stung again, as well as the young man from Mexico. In all I had 20 stings and Don had about half a dozen or so. The bites are still resurrecting themselves and still bother us. Hopefully they will stop soon. I must say I lost patience with walking in the jungle that day.

After our walk, we could go swimming in the river. Don and Ernesto, the Mexican dad, were the only ones to take advantage of this opportunity. Hugo, our guide, told Don to get away from the bank of the river as that is where the anacondas live… he quickly did that… no anacondas were spotted that day.

Day 3 we went to the “meeting of the waters” which is where the Rio Negro and the Rio Amazonas (aka Rio Solimoes) meet. The line between the two rivers is very distinct; Rio Negro is dark and slow moving while Rio Amazonas/Solimoes is cooler, faster and muddier. They finally mix about 15 km downstream. Apparently, lots of fish hang out at this spot (confused by the change in water speed and temperature), attracting lots of grey dolphins who feast on the disoriented fish.

That afternoon, we dropped off our Mexican friends as they were only doing the first portion of the trip. We were told we would be getting off the Amazon Clipper and would transfer to the Premiere to join with 11 others. The new folks were from Australia, England, South Africa (newlyweds… she was originally from Germany), Spain, Italy and a young man from Germany, along with us and the three Americans we were now a group of 16.

It was wonderful to chat with the women… no offense to the men, but I really enjoyed hanging out with kindred spirits.

The Premiere boat is much bigger and you can walk around your bedroom (couldn’t do that in the Clipper… just had room for yourself to go from the door, past the bunk bed and into the bathroom… shower was over the toilet… pretty tight space), the air conditioner worked really well and the bathroom was more conventional.

We did the same type of things as the first leg… canoe rides, jungle walking, swimming (which I did do this time… the water is amazingly warm). On both legs of the journey you could go piranha fishing. I didn’t do either one, but Don went on the second outing with observer status… he didn’t fish, but watched others do their best. According to our American friends, fishing during the first leg was more lucrative, everyone caught piranhas that day… the second time out only half the group got a bite.

My favourite part of this section of the trip, and maybe overall, was hanging out with the pink dolphins. We did see some from the deck of the Premiere boat, but it was fleeting glances, they don’t jump and arch the way other dolphins do. One of the afternoons we went down one of the many channels of the Rio Negro to Recanto do Boto, a dolphin preserve. We were told that the young man, who fed the dolphins, swam in the river as a young child. The pink dolphins started to swim with him and over the years, the spot became a sort of protectorate for the dolphins. They come to him when he slaps the water with fish and the dolphins allow people to touch them as they are being fed. They are totally free, no cages, no nets… just the river.

It was pretty cool to touch this huge being. Their skin is really smooth and they have peg like teeth. I was wary of the teeth, but nothing untoward happened. All the folks who were there had a marvelous time and the dolphins were happily fed.

On our last jungle walk, no wasps were sighted, but our guide, Fernando, found a tarantula and her babies in a hole in the ground. It had been covered by leaves and a web that the mom had spun to protect her babies from predators. I didn’t think much of this until someone gave me a flashlight to hold so others could take pictures. The tarantula was huge!! It didn’t move out of the hole, but the babies were getting a bit active… likely because of the light. After we all had a look, Fernando put back the leaves and the mom now had the job of making the web again.

We also learned on the walk how to protect ourselves from jaguars when you are lost in the jungle by yourself and you just have a camera and a machete. We learned how to make a spear to pierce the jaguar as it is lunging at you. I personally think one should set up your camera to take photos of the incident so when someone coming along the trail finds the camera, there will be a record of your demise. One quick lesson won’t stop a hungry, irritated jaguar.

We also learned how to quickly make a blow gun out of palm trees, make darts, in order to hunt if we are lost in the rainforest.

Last day was kind of sad… I really enjoyed our fellow travellers and many have promised to stay in touch. I hope we can do this.

We’re now on our third day of rain in Panama City. The first two days featured thunderstorms that lasted about two hour followed by partial clearing and the return of heat and humidity. Today however, it started raining three hours ago and shows no sign of letting up. Feels like Vancouver!

Happiness to you, our friends and family!
Keep smiling!

(The video posted below is low resolution because we have a poor internet connection here in Panama and couldn’t upload the HD version — will try to post the sharper version at a later date)

magical time in the amazon basin

Deborah and Don have just returned from four days deep in the Amazon rainforest. They stayed at a lodge owned and operated by the Kichwa Community of Anangu, located within Yasuni National Park. They’ve agreed to a share some trip highlights with our readers.

DON: When we were deciding which lodge to visit, we avoided those in the province nearest the border with Colombia – the Canadian government recommends against travelling in the rainforest anywhere near Colombia – and focused on what was available along the Napo River. When we read that the Napo Wildlife Center was owned and operated by the local Indigenous community, and met a variety of eco-tourism standards (and was well-reviewed by TripAdvisor contributors), we were sold. We later also learned that as soon as they decided to embrace eco-tourism as a community development tool, they banned hunting in the area in order to allow wildlife to flourish and be less afraid of people. Motorized boats are not allowed within the tourism zone around the lodge, so people and materials are hand-paddled in and out (one hour with the current heading out, two hours against the current heading in!). Each tour group includes a freelance naturalist and a guide from the community, and all lodge staff are hired from the community. The lodge itself features 16 cabins, some duplexes, built on stilts with thatched roofs, an open-air dining room, and a small observation tower. The cabins are spacious, and the beds come with mosquito netting, although as one would expect, creepy-crawlers do make their way into the cabins. All in all a wonderful place to spend three nights!

DEBORAH: We usually travel alone and visit most places by ourselves, so this was a real treat to hang out with the same people as a group for the whole visit to the Napo. We were introduced to Danny, our guide, as we got off the plane in Coca. In our paddling canoe we met Meliton, our community guide. As tourists, we finally introduced ourselves to each other over dinner the first evening. In our group were Emma and Waheed from Australia, and Cynthia and Bruce with two of their sons, Aaron and Jason, from Southern California. It was a very good group to be with. Everyone was very engaged and loved being in the rainforest. Thanks to all for helping to make it a magical experience!

DON: After ten days touring the Galapagos Islands, canoeing and hiking through the Amazon rainforest was a completely different experience. While vegetation on the Galapagos is mostly twisted, sparsely distributed, wind-sweep scrub-bush, the rainforest is extremely lush, dense, and diverse. We were told that hundreds of species of trees can be found in every square kilometre, and 10s of thousands of species of insects lie in wait to buzz and feast on visitors – and we have the bites to proof it, DEET repellent notwithstanding. On the Galapagos Islands, one has to step over or around the birds and animals that are lounging everywhere – they pay tourists little attention, going about their daily business of eating, sleeping, and doing mating dances. In the rainforest, hikers have to search long and hard through thick vegetation to find the monkeys running along branches just below the canopy, or the birds perched on the top branches.

The birds and monkeys in the rainforest move amazingly fast – so not only is it hard to spot them, it is even harder to aim and focus a zoom lens in the right direction as they zip by. The wildlife in the Amazon is exceptionally diverse, but few and far between. We were really fortunate to see a great range of monkeys and birds, only some of which are pictured below.

DEBORAH: One of the most off the wall, humorous moments of the trip occurred when a young guest ran up to the lodge dining room, where we were talking and having coffee, to tell us he had spotted Giant River Otters. I looked through my binoculars and sure enough, they were in the lake just in front of the lodge. The group of us ran down to the dock. On the way, Danny joined us and confirmed the sighting of the otters. We asked Danny if we could take one of the 20-foot canoes and we jumped in (no cushions but with 4 paddles). Danny was at the back, with Aaron at the front and five of us in between. We did our best to get to the otters. Unfortunately, no one except Danny had experience in this type of canoe.

It was quite a site for the observers on the shore. We spun around in circles, went right when we wanted to go left and then left when we wanted to go right. We learned that our best paddling was in reverse. Can you imagine this group trying to get across a lake paddling backwards! It was quite delightful!

Anyway, we did not get to the otters, but spotted a caiman, a relative of the alligator. We then put our efforts into getting close… not a chance… we were really pathetic. At one point, the order of canoeists changed… it was really scary… out of seven people… three decided to stand up at the same time… I was sure we were going to tip and end up in the lake. Fortunately, they devised a plan for safe movement. It really didn’t help our canoeing though.

We heard really cool, loud noises coming out of the brush just in front of us… it sounded like the otters were having an argument… perhaps children disagreeing (there had been three of them). Danny encouraged us to go down a stream off the lake to see if we could find the otters. We then waited awhile and the otters did not come any closer, so we decided to head back… it was so much easier, we could paddle backwards really well and got back to the lake in no time.

I don’t know whether it was because we weren’t chasing anything or if we just got better, we glided very smoothly back to the dock as if we really knew what we were doing.

It was such a lark, such a spontaneous thing to do, and for me one of my most entertaining highlights of this trip.

DON: An amazing aspect of the Amazon rainforest is simply how big it is. We paddled and then hiked to the lodge’s well-placed observation tower – attached to a massive Kapok tree like a fire escape at the back of an old building. More than 200 steps up you reach a platform braced between the tree’s massive branches, the perfect place from which to enjoy a commanding view that reaches to the horizon in every direction. And this is only a small part of Ecuador’s tiny share (2%) of the Amazon rainforest. Our tour guide (Danny), and community guide (Meliton) worked together to find and point out birds hiding in the trees or perched on the top branches. Meliton was particularly good at spotting solitary birds perched hundreds of feet away. Two types of brightly-coloured macaws treated us to a fly-by, while toucans and others made us work harder to see them, sometimes only with the aid of a powerful birder’s telescope Danny brought with him. We saw about 20 different species of birds as well as a three-toed sloth, the only creature that day that stayed still for more than a few minutes!

DEBORAH: We had to get up at 5am the first morning we were at the Napo. Breakfast was at 5:30 and we were on the canoe at 6am down the Anangu Creek, which was our major waterway in and out of Anangu Lake and our lodge. It was a two-hour paddle to what they call “The Warehouse” where workers and goods are transferred from motorized boats to canoes for taking to the lodge. We hopped from the canoe to a long boat with motor and headed to the Napo River to see the clay lick on the shore that attracts large Mealy Amazon and Yellow-crowned parrots, and the smaller Blue-headed and Dusky-headed parakeets to feast on the minerals and salts in the clay at this specific bit of river-bank. Eating this clay apparently offsets the toxic build up from the flowers, fruits, seeds and nuts they eat on a daily basis. Early in the morning on sunny days are the best times to view this really cool activity.

We tried an hour later or so to view the clay lick that is inland about 800 metres. It was a well-kept trail and as we got closer to the viewing area the sound of the parrots was quite deafening. Unfortunately, the birds were very high in the trees as they had been scared by raptors circling the area. We waited in the viewing hut for about an hour hoping the birds would come down to the forest floor, but when we counted at least eight hawks flying about we knew there was no chance that day that the parrots would come down – they only have to visit the clay lick once a week to stay healthy. We left disappointed that nature doesn’t always fit into tour schedules!

That night, with the support of our guide, our 8-person group took a vote and decided we would pass on paddling down a second nearby creek and instead return to the forest clay lick the following afternoon. We were so glad we did! When we arrived at the clay lick we could hear the birds about 40 feet up the trees (the day before they were very much higher). We quietly sat on small stools to watch… with our binoculars and cameras ready. We were encouraged when a group of the birds came down to around 30 feet… then 20 feet… then one of the birds (after about 10 or so minutes) flew down to the bottom of the wall where the clay lick was, then another bird and then hundreds of birds flew down and frolicked in the clay and mud. They were so enjoying themselves, chirping, flapping their wings and rolling in the clay. The noise was really loud… we figured anywhere from 600 to 800 birds participated that day… then the forest got really quiet, and all of a sudden the birds burst forth from the clay pond, many flying straight for and through the viewing hut. Don almost had one fly right into him… it was so cool!!! Danny said they had been frightened by a false alarm that a predator was nearby, evidenced by the fact they returned to the clay lick almost immediately and enjoyed themselves again… fewer birds though. They did the loud chirping, playing and licking clay, then quiet and off they flew again. They came back… again fewer birds. They did this for about four more times and then we had to leave as a large tour group was coming in. It was an amazing thing to watch and apparently it is rare for the birds to return after an alarm has been raised. We were really treated to a special event and all were extremely happy we had decided to go back.

DEBORAH: Our last night at the Napo Lodge included an after-dark canoe ride around Anangu Lake looking for caimans. I wasn’t sure what to expect. We had heard lots of splashing sounds from our cabin (we were right at the lake’s edge) every night as we were going to sleep so I wasn’t sure whether we would see huge angry beasts or what.

When we got into the canoe, Danny had a very strong search light (reminded us of what the FBI might have) that he shone around the edges of the lake in the reeds and grasses. It was amazing to see red eyes show up all around the lake as we moved across the lake. Apparently, caimans are not anything like their cousins the alligator. Alligators would make sure they took some sort of initiative against us, but the caimans were quite kind and did not attack. We got really close to all sizes of caimans. We could see young caimans about two feet long, with their whole bodies visible in the murky water. As we paddled around the lake, some of the caimans dove under the water just before we reached them. We didn’t wait for them to emerge as they can stay under for hours at a time.

The longest caiman we spotted was just before we headed back to the lodge. It was between 12 to 14 feet long. It just floated in the water, with its eyes very red, and let us enjoy its company. They were neither afraid nor aggressive. Another very special experience… I have never been that close to such a great creature.

DON: Visitors reach the Napo lodge by boat from Coca, a small city dominated by the movement of oil workers on their way in and out of the Amazon. About 30 minutes along the Napo River from Coca, on our way to the lodge, we stopped briefly to discuss an oil flare visible from the river (pictured below). Our guide lamented that the practice of burning off excess natural gas was not only a waste of a good source of energy, but represented 24/7 destruction of the environment, something that is not allowed in most western countries. I appreciated that he wanted to point this out to a boatload of tourists, giving us something to think about as we headed into one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world and the purest air on earth. It also brought to my mind the landmark civil suit brought against Chevron resulting from its purchase of Texaco, the oil company that first exploited and terribly spoiled a huge area of the rainforest just north of here (Amazon Watch has the full story).

DEBORAH: This has been our first foray into the amazing Amazon. We will be travelling to Brazil next month and the plan is to spend a couple of days at the mouth of the Amazon and then do a river cruise into the heart of the Amazon. We look forward to more magical times!

hammerhead sharks and giant sea turtles

Good morning all you wonderful people,

I am writing this in the garden of our hostel in Quito, July 7th. We got our pictures back from the underwater camera and a I wanted to share with you those and our last 3 days in the Galapagos.  We disembarked at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno—- on Ilsa San Cristobal, picked up our luggage and looked on the large map of the town to see where the Ecolodge was. It wasn’t listed and we only had the address on our computer. Unfortunately the cab drivers we asked didn’t know of the Ecolodge, so off we went to find a cup of coffee and an internet connection.

As the heavens opened up and the rain came down we drank our coffee and waited for the internet. We did find the address and Don emailed Harry at the Ecolodge and quickly he emailed back saying he would pick us up in 20 minutes (I imagine he had a blackberry).

Driving to his place, Harry told us that the Ecolodge sign was promised to be ready a week ago and even though we had an address, the taxi drivers don’t go by addresses. If we would have known, we could have asked for a ride to Harry Jimenez’s house and they would have taken us right there. Apparently, everyone knows everyone else… lots of relatives in the town.

After living in the small cabin and very tiny bed on the boat, our room was like being in a palace. The bed was king size with light switches on the wall in the middle of the headboard of the bed, so you didn’t have to get up to turn the lights off… pure luxury. It had a lovely modern bathroom, air-conditioning, microwave, small fridge, tv and tables and chairs.

Our stay included breakfast which was at 7:30… we made it about 7:45 most days.  Harry and his wife looked after us very well…

We did a snorkelling day which was awesome. We saw hammerhead sharks, Galapagos sharks, spotted eagle rays, giant green sea turtles and lots of regular tropical fish, mostly traveling in schools… great to swim with them all.

We were on San Cristobal for 3 nights and enjoyed every minute. It was a quiet place… we noticed that no one came up to us to sell us wares as we were sitting outside in cafes nor did people try to get us into their restaurants as we were walking around. It was heaven after our six months of travelling and people not leaving you alone.

We also noticed that there were no homeless dogs in the town. We asked Harry about it and he said that all the domesticated animals had a microchip inserted under their skin. Harry’s sisters dog had been stolen and she went to the authorities and they found the dog through their computer tracking program… pretty cool, eh!

Tracking of the domestic animals is important as they are living in the national park and they don’t want animals to disrupt the balance they are trying to preserve.

The other thing to note is that for the first time since we have been away we saw the full moon. The super moon that you saw in Vancouver wasn’t visible to us as we were in Buenos Aires and it was majorly overcast that night. So, our first full moon, half way through our year, it was something to be celebrated.

Anyway, our dear friends and family, you have a wonderful day. We are off to Papallacta Hotsprings about 1.5 hours out of Quito. We are celebrating my 58th today and I wish you all very much love and happiness in your lives.

(underwater photos below taken with cheap disposible underwater camera — the turtle shows up well, but the Galapagos and Hammerhead sharks were in deep water and in a narrow channel with less sunlight)