2013, a year of extremes in pictures

I’m gazing out of the window, the rain is lashing down in ‘sheets’, driven by high winds that are bending trees at an alarming angle. Although only early in the afternoon, the light has already started to fail, making it seem more night than day. The traditional New Year’s Day walk has been postponed – in truth cancelled – due to a general reluctance to endure the terrible weather in person.

My mind keeps wandering over the year just past: this time last year we were celebrating the arrival of 2013 in Sucre, Bolivia, our home for a year. Although we would spend another few months in Bolivia, we were already planning a journey north that would take us through Peru, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, before returning to Bolivia. In between, we’d visit Argentina and Chile, Bolivia’s wealthier neighbours, for a change of scene and cuisine.

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

So, with one eye on the coming year, here’s my homage to 2013, a year which took us from the heart of South America to the heart of Central America. A journey from the high Andean mountains of Bolivia to the turquoise waters of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, and back again, before returning to Britain.

Adobe church and Vulcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

Adobe church and Vulcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Cemetery in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Cemetery in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Fiesta in Cuzco, Peru

Fiesta in Cuzco, Peru

Magical Machu Picchu, Peru

Magical Machu Picchu, Peru

Oasis of Huacachina, Peru

Oasis of Huacachina, Peru

A woman sits on a Botero sculpture, Medellin, Colombia

A woman sits on a Botero sculpture, Medellin, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

The Panama Canal, Panama

The Panama Canal, Panama

The beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

The beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

The Pacific Ocean from La Cruz, Costa Rica

The Pacific Ocean from La Cruz, Costa Rica

The magnificent Granada, Nicaragua

The magnificent Granada, Nicaragua

The idyllic Pearl Keys, Nicaragua

The idyllic Pearl Keys, Nicaragua

Glorious Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

Glorious Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

…finally, returning to reality in London…un feliz y próspero año nuevo por todo.

Tower Bridge, London, England

Tower Bridge, London, England

Latin America…14 months in 14 photographs

Its almost impossible to sum up our experiences in fourteen photographs, but these represent some of our favourite places and events from our time in Latin America.

Bolivia’s most colourful and unusual fiesta in San Ignacio de Moxos

San Ignacio is a small town, little more than a village really, in the Bolivian Amazon. Today it is a sleepy place, largely inaccessible during the rains, which acts as a hub for cattle ranches in the surrounding countryside. Its Amazonian history plays an important part in the fiesta, and combines traditional Amazonian beliefs and dress with Catholic beliefs. One of the more extraordinary elements of the fiesta are characters known as Achus who bring mayhem to the village during the fiesta. One trick they play is to attach fireworks to their hats and then run wildly through the crowds. This photo is of an Achus doing just that.

The Bolivian South West

Its almost impossible to imagine the raw beauty of this region in the south west corner of Bolivia. High mountains streaked with colour are reflected in lakes, that themselves range from turquoise to blood red, where flamingos make their home and Andean foxes roam. Set at altitudes that rarely drop below 4000 metres, it is a region that leaves you breathless. In the north lies the vast salt flats of Uyuni, and in the south, Laguna Verde, tinged blue-green by chemical reaction. In-between lie hundreds of kilometres of the most dazzling landscape. It has to be seen to be believed.

Parque Nacional Sajama, Bolivia

Bolivia’s oldest national park is home to herds of llama, alpaca and vicuna, which roam this barren region and have provided a livelihood for generations of people living here. The park is also home to several volcanoes, including the highest mountain in Bolivia, Vulcan Sajama, which can be climbed during the dry season. It is also home to some amazing colonial-era adobe churches and numerous chulpas, pre-hispanic funerary towers that are fascinating in their own right.

The Virgen de Guadalupe festival, Sucre, Bolivia

Three days and nights of dancing, singing, music and costumed parades…not to mention delicious street food and drinking with wild abandon. The Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe is one of Bolivia’s most important. It winds its way around the streets of Sucre from early morning to late night. Performers spend several hours dancing their way towards the city centre before the dance troupe routines come to a climax in the Plaza 25 de Mayo. The culmination of festivities is at the cathedral where the statue of the Virgen de la Guadalupe, resplendent in silver and semi-precious stones, awaits the tired performers.

Trekking in the Corillera Real, Bolivia

A multi-day trek through this vast Andean wilderness, passing glacier fed lakes and tiny llama farming villages, all the time overshadowed by giant, snow-capped mountains, is an extraordinary experience. At the end of a hard day’s walking, wrapping up warm and watching the galaxies appear in a night sky untouched by neon makes all the effort worth it. You’re more likely to see llamas than other human beings, but that’s what wilderness trekking is all about.

Watching the sun rise from the summit of Huyana Potosi, Bolivia

At 6088 metres in altitude, Huyana Potosi is considered to be one of the easiest 6000m mountains in the world to climb. ‘Easy’ is a relative word when it comes to mountains, and reaching the summit of Huyana Potosi was an endurance test like none I’ve experienced before, particularly since the last 300m of the climb is along a narrow ice ledge with sheer drops off both sides. The exhausting climb and freezing temperatures were rewarded with absolutely stunning views over the Cordillera Real as the sun rose to illuminate a world wreathed in snow and mist.

Driving through the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile

Without really understanding the immensity of the Atacama Desert, we decided to hire a car and drive ourselves around this amazing region. The photograph is of the Mano del Desierto, a sculpture that suddenly appears in the midst of the sun-bleached desert like a beacon of hope to weary drivers. The Atacama is the driest place on earth, some areas haven’t received rain in thousands of years, yet humans have also eked out an existence in this region for millennia. Today that tradition continues with miners working in some of the most inhospitable conditions known to humankind.

Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Northern Chile is dominated by the Atacama Desert, yet dotted throughout it are desert oases, abandoned nitrate towns, cosmopolitan ocean-side cities and pristine beaches formed along the mighty Pacific Ocean. Head away from the ocean and you suddenly find yourself climbing into a high altitude world where mountains and lakes are brightly coloured by chemicals in the soil. It is here you’ll find the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, a place of exceptional beauty, and the chances are that you’ll have it to yourselves – hardly anyone makes the journey to reach this remote area.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Perhaps the best known archeological site in the world, I was worried Machu Picchu would be something of a disappointment. I needn’t have feared. Set high on a plateau and overlooked by towering mountains, this lost city of the Inca is a magical place. The photo below is taken from the Sun Gate which forms part of the Inca Trail. Even if you can’t do the trail itself, its worth walking to the Sun Gate to get the view most Incas would have had as they approached the city.

Nazca cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Nazca is known for its monumental pre-Hispanic lines in the desert, yet they form only one (albeit stunning) remnant of the former civilisation that lived in this inhospitable region for thousands of years prior to the emergence of the Inca empire. Drive south of Nazca into the desert and you will come to a huge site where the Nazca culture buried their dead. What makes the cemetery so poignant and moving, is that the remains of the dead are so well preserved and yet surrounded by nothing but desolate desert.

The San Blas Islands, Panama

Picture perfect islands floating in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. There has been little development on the islands because they are controlled and governed by the indigenous peoples who inhabit them. Don’t expect luxury hotels and all-inclusive spa packages, do expect peace and quiet, good seafood, white sand beaches without anyone else and bathwater warm sea in which to swim and snorkel. A small slice of paradise.

Cartagena des Indias, Colombia

It is difficult to describe just how lovely Cartagena des Indias on the Caribbean coast of Colombia is, but after a few hours of strolling around the city it had captured our hearts. Cartagena is an extraordinarily well preserved colonial city, with a history as long as Europeans have been involved in the Americas. It has been the scene of pirate attacks, terrible torture under the Spanish Inquisition and suffered at the hands of colonial Spain for declaring its independence long before the rest of Colombia. Walk its beautiful streets, day and night, and absorb the atmosphere and history as you go.

Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

We fell in love with Nicaragua, and if we could spend a year abroad again I suspect Nicaragua would be very high on the list of places we wanted to go. We visited the delightful colonial city of Granada, perched on Lago Nicaragua; time stopped and so did we in Pearl Lagoon; El Castillo and the Reserva Biologico Indio-Maiz were wonderful places to spend time. In the end though, Little Corn Island was paradise itself – delicious fresh seafood, incredible beaches, relaxed locals and, best of all, not a single motor vehicle anywhere.

The Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia

I agonised over having another photo from Nicaragua, but in the end you can’t leave out one of the natural wonders of the world. The Uyuni salt flats are simply amazing. A vast salt pan burned white under the intense Andean sun, it scorches your eyes just to look at it. It is impossible to truly imagine what the salt flats look like unless you’ve been there, an endless alien landscape that is like nothing else on earth.

Isla Taboga, an unforgettable panorama of Panama City

We decided to take a day trip to Isla Taboga – an hour’s boat ride from Panama City – despite the weather looking terrible. It wasn’t raining but the sky was grey and threatening. While we were hoping for blue sky and sunshine to enjoy Isla Taboga’s beaches, the rest of Panama was praying for rain. The rains that normally arrive at the start of May hadn’t materialised, causing major problems.

Much of Panama’s electricity is generated as hydro-electricity. In times of water shortages this has serious impacts on Panama, made worse by the fact that the Panama Canal – the country’s major economic driver – uses huge amounts of fresh water to operate the locks needed to transport ships. For the government the equation is simple: lose money and credibility by restricting the operation of the canal or take emergency measures in other parts of life.

To save electricity the government decided to close all the nation’s schools on the flimsy premise that since they weren’t allowed to use air conditioning during the drought, studying would be dangerous. Despite an extensive media campaign to conserve electricity and water in homes and businesses, we didn’t notice too many places in Panama City turning down the air conditioning…suffer the children, or at least their education.

Large cruise ship, Panama Canal, Panama

Large cruise ship, Panama Canal, Panama

Boat to Isla Taboga, Panama

Boat to Isla Taboga, Panama

Panama City from the ocean en route to Isla Taboga, Panama

Panama City from the ocean en route to Isla Taboga, Panama

Bridge of the Americas from the ocean en route to Isla Taboga, Panama

Bridge of the Americas from the ocean en route to Isla Taboga, Panama

Ships waiting to enter the Panama Canal, Panama

Ships waiting to enter the Panama Canal, Panama

While this played out in the background we jumped onto a passenger ferry to Isla Taboga. We didn’t really know what to expect, but the young Panamanians on the boat loaded down with cool boxes gave us an indication that it might be fun. The boat is worth taking just for the panoramic views you get of Panama City, including the weird and beautiful Frank Gehry building.

Isla Taboga, with sandy beaches, incredible views and good food, is a lovely place to spend some time. The ferry heads through ranks of ships waiting to enter the Panama canal, but when you reach Isla Taboga and climb a nearby hill you get the full impact of what is going on off the coast of Panama. It is a truly impressive sight, dozens of ships lined up reminding me of when all the allied ships appear off the coast of France in the WWII film The Longest Day.

Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Most people visit the island for its beaches – although they disappear when the tide comes in – but the island has some history as well. It was settled by the Spanish in 1515 (after they had killed or enslaved the native population) and still boasts the second oldest church in the Americas, which was sadly closed when we were there. The island didn’t always belong to the Spanish though. English pirates made it their home and attacked Spanish shipping from here.

After a steep and hot climb up the Camino del Cruz, which leads you to the top of a hill crowned with a cross and offering panoramic views of the island, ocean and Panama City, we had a tasty lunch overlooking the water and wished we’d decided to stay for a night or two.

Panama City from Isla Taboga, Panama

Panama City from Isla Taboga, Panama

Panama City from Isla Taboga, Panama

Panama City from Isla Taboga, Panama

Panama City from Isla Taboga, Panama

Panama City from Isla Taboga, Panama

Ship arriving at the Panama Canal seen from Isla Taboga, Panama

Ship arriving at the Panama Canal seen from Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Instead, we got on the return ferry and headed back to the mainland just as the sun was setting. Back on terra firma in Panama City, we walked up the causeway towards the Frank Gehry building that will one day become an ecological museum. The causeway offers great views towards the Panama Canal and as we strolled we saw a giant cruise ship emerge from the Panama Canal underneath the Bridge of the Americas.

Frank Gehry building in Panama City, Panama

Frank Gehry building in Panama City, Panama

Bridge of the Americas with a large cruise ship, Panama

Bridge of the Americas with a large cruise ship, Panama

Large cruise ship, Panama Canal, Panama

Large cruise ship, Panama Canal, Panama

The great inter-oceanic railroad, from the Pacific to the Caribbean on the Panama Railway

Crossing the Isthmus of Panama by rail has to be one of the great rail journeys in the Americas – not that there are many of the continent’s once magnificent railways left. Although I’m no train spotter, the journey is worth the $25 one-way ticket for the historic and atmospheric route passing through jungle alongside the Panama Canal.

At only 77km it isn’t a particularly long trip – it takes an hour from Panama City on the Pacific to Colon on the Caribbean – but the route has a history that has defined Central America. The overland route has been used for over three hundred years from colonial times onwards; people and cargo were unloaded on one side and crossed overland to the other. By the nineteenth century the growth in global trade and the arrival of steam trains gave rise to a daring plan to construct an inter-oceanic railroad.

Panama Canal Railway station, Panama City, Panama

Panama Canal Railway station, Panama City, Panama

Train, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Train, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

The City of Gatun, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

The City of Gatun, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Train, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Train, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Carriage, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Carriage, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Spurred on by the California Gold Rush, construction of this incredible engineering feat began in 1850 and was completed in 1855 – just as the Gold Rush was coming to an end. During the American Civil War troops and materials travelled along the railway between the coasts of the United States because it was quicker and safer than travelling overland. In the 1880s and 1900s the railway played a pivotal role in the attempts to build a ship canal.

Today, the railway still carries large quantities of cargo from shore to shore. The huge container ships that won’t fit into the 100 year-old Panama Canal locks unload their cargo on one side of the canal, the railway carries it to the other side, where they are loaded onto waiting ships. Nothing has really changed in four hundred years, but now new locks, big enough to carry the super-sized cargo ships, are being constructed and the railway’s day may be numbered.

The Panama Canal Railway, Panama

The Panama Canal Railway, Panama

The Panama Canal Railway, Panama

The Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Global trade in a box, the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Global trade in a box, the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Global trade in a box, the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Global trade in a box, the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

The day we went, the rainy season seemed to have arrived, just without the rain. The sky was a battleship-grey and it looked like it was going to pour with rain at any minute. The journey began at 7.15am and we soon passed the Miraflores Locks close to Panama City. Soon though, we were travelling through dense forest with views of the canal and ships heading towards the Gatun Locks and the Caribbean.

I’ve read some accounts where people have felt cheated by the journey. While its no Trans-Siberian, I thought it was great. Tourists get put into a panoramic carriage with air conditioning and, while the complimentary coffee was welcome, the snack box was very underwhelming. Customer care aside, we saw lots of boats from the outside viewing platforms and the dark, brooding sky seemed to add an extra dimension to the journey.

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

If there is one down-side to the whole trip it is arriving in Colon. There isn’t a train station at Colon and passengers are just disgorged onto a platform in the middle of nowhere, where a number of touts and taxi drivers try to sell vastly inflated trips to the Gatun Locks, an old Spanish fort or to the beaches on the coast. We were planning to do a trip but on arrival in Colon it started to rain and we decided a hasty retreat was probably wiser.

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Being stuck in Colon isn’t a great experience, it is Panama’s most crime ridden city and the idea of spending more time in it than necessary is not appealing. The train back doesn’t leave until 5.15pm, giving you nine hours to fritter in a city with nothing to fritter it on. In the end we negotiated a taxi to the bus station and took one of the regular buses back to Panama City – an eye-opening experience, as it passed through very poor and run down neighbourhoods that you’re unlikely to see on any tourist borochures.

A walk through coffee country

After my disaster climbing Vulcan Baru the previous day, we decided a leisurely stroll through the wooded hills surrounding Boquete would be much more sensible. Although the day was hot, there was a mountain breeze and the countryside was absolutely beautiful: forested hills, coffee plantations, small suspension bridges, rushing rivers and a somewhat disappointing waterfall.

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

The ultimate goal of our walk was a waterfall that several people had told us was ‘spectacular’. It was a disappointment, but thanks to the fabulous countryside the journey really was better than the arriving. I wish we’d had a few more days so we could have explored a little more of the area, its such a beautiful place.

Waterfall in countryside around Boquete, Panama

Waterfall in countryside around Boquete, Panama

Coffee finca near Boquete, Panama

Coffee finca near Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Coffee beans in the countryside around Boquete, Panama

Coffee beans in the countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Mother and daughter walk in the countryside around Boquete, Panama

Mother and daughter walk in the countryside around Boquete, Panama

Boquete, wake up and smell the coffee

After our epic hop, skip and jump through three countries in 36 hours we decided to spend the night in David, Panama. We were heading for Boquete, a small town in the wooded hills east of David, and the centre of Panama’s coffee industry. We were quite excited at the prospect of having decent coffee for once, but not enough to board another bus.

As an aside, Central America is famous for producing some of the world’s finest coffee. Yet ask for coffee in most restaurants or cafes and chances are you’ll get powdered rather than ground coffee…all the best stuff is on sale at inflated prices in North America and Europe.

Boquete, Panama

Boquete, Panama

Boquete, Panama

Boquete, Panama

David is a busy commercial centre and Panama’s second city. As a tourist there is precious little to detain you beyond breakfast, so after a cup of awful coffee we headed back to the bus station for the one-hour journey into coffee country. Boquete sits at an altitude of 1200m and has a cool, refreshing climate – after the tropical heat of the last few weeks it was glorious.

The climate is one reason Boquete is a retirement destination for North Americans, well that and the low cost of living and high quality of life. Panama goes out of its way to encourage people to move here and gives tax breaks and other incentives to retirees. For us, the up-side of Boquete having so many expats was the number of good restaurants offering cuisines we hadn’t seen for two months.

Boquete, Panama

Boquete, Panama

Boquete, Panama

Boquete, Panama

House, Boquete, Panama

House, Boquete, Panama

Our main reason for coming to Boquete was to do some walking in the hills surrounding the town. The nearby national Parque Nacional Volcan Baru contains a wide variety of wildlife and is home to Panama’s highest mountain, Volcan Baru, which rises 3475m above Boquete. Despite two months in the Caribbean with very little exercise, I decided it would be a good idea to climb to the summit.

Boquete, Panama

Boquete, Panama

House, Boquete, Panama

House, Boquete, Panama

Boquete, Panama

Boquete, Panama

To get there you either walk 22km from Boquete or take a taxi to the park entrance and walk the last 14km up a steep dirt track. The going is hard, so hard that at the 9km point and at 3047m on the mountain I decided to turn back. The altitude was affecting me but worse was a massive blister that turned into a weeping sore on my right heel.

I’ve seen women in London walking home in their bare feet after a night out, high heels in hand, but never had much sympathy until now. I was in agony. So much so I had to walk down a rock-strewn track in my stocking feet…sisters, I feel your pain. Making painfully slow progress, but unwilling to put my boots back on, I spotted a discarded plastic bag. I’ve never been so happy that someone had taken the time to litter in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

En route to Vulcan Beru, Boquete, Panama

En route to Vulcan Beru, Boquete, Panama

The plastic bag had once contained something wet and sticky and was now home to a variety of insects. In one of the less dignified moments of my life, I evicted the insects, turned the bag inside out and put my foot in it; then I put my sock on. Gingerly putting my boot on I found I could walk almost pain free. My homemade ‘second skin’ worked, although the plastic bag was like a foot sauna…once again it contained something wet and sticky.

I finally reached the park entrance and the paved road. Since no one lives here and hardly anyone visits, and it was a Sunday, there were no cars or buses to flag down and I had the prospect of another 8km walk back to Boquete. After walking for 5km I got lucky, a taxi came round a corner and the driver, spotting someone who was definitely willing to pay over the odds for a ride back to town, screeched  to a halt and drove me the rest of the way.

Trail on Vulcan Beru, Boquete, Panama

Trail on Vulcan Beru, Boquete, Panama

Vulcan Beru, Boquete, Panama

Vulcan Beru, Boquete, Panama

After seven hours and 23km of walking, a cold shower and a cold beer have never been so welcome.

Barack Obama owes me breakfast…from Nicaragua to Panama

OK, so the President of the United States isn’t entirely responsible for my missing breakfast, but if he hadn’t been arriving in San Jose, Costa Rica, for meetings with Central American leaders I would almost certainly have been able to take advantage of the breakfast included in the price of my room…it would have looked something like this, but this is for illustrative purposes only since I didn’t actually get to eat it.

Typical Nicaraguan Breakfast

Typical Costa Rican Breakfast

After spending so much time in Nicaragua without internet access we didn’t know President Obama was visiting Costa Rica the same day we’d be arriving. This is the sort of thing that happens when you’re travelling. It could have been worse, we met someone on our bus to Panama who’d had his flight cancelled so Air Force One could land…makes missing breakfast seem small fry.

President of the United States and breakfast thief?

President of the United States and breakfast thief?

As it was, the entire centre of San Jose was to be placed in virtual lockdown from 6am in the morning until 4pm in the afternoon. Getting to the bus station in time for the 7.30am bus to David in Panama would require leaving the hotel no later than 5.30am. Breakfast started at 6am, lockdown-time.

I didn’t really mind about the missed breakfast, but losing an extra hour of sleep following a long day of travel the previous day was pretty galling. We’d arrived in San Jose at 9pm after setting off in a boat down the Rio San Juan in Nicaragua at 9.30am. After a delay of three hours in the transport hub of San Carlos, we got another boat to the Costa Rica border at Los Chiles.

San Carlos sits at the confluence of the Rio San Juan and Lago Nicaragua, Nicaragua

San Carlos sits at the confluence of the Rio San Juan and Lago Nicaragua, Nicaragua

En route to the Los Chiles boarder crossing between Nicaragua and Costa Rica

En route to the Los Chiles boarder crossing between Nicaragua and Costa Rica

Immigration formalities complete we had to walk 2km to the bus station in Los Chiles. Why, oh why, couldn’t the bus station be near the port? Failing that, surely some enterprising taxi driver might consider it worth his or her time to hang around the port when a boat from Nicaragua arrives? Apparently not. So in the baking sun we walked.

Dripping with sweat, we made it just in time to catch the last bus to San Jose. Its not far from anywhere to anywhere else in Costa Rica, but buses pick people up along the road and drop people off outside their front door, making Costa Rican buses one of the least efficient forms of transport on the planet. It took five and a half hours of squashed bus travel before we reached San Jose.

It wasn’t all bad. As we crawled up the zig-zag road through the mountains we witnessed a truly stunning sunset over the ocean to the west. Although this was ruined by a passenger two rows in front being violently sick over himself. Actually, it was pretty bad.

After only a few hours sleep we got cab at 5.30am to the bus station in San Jose, narrowly missing the city centre lockdown. We got our tickets and prepared to wait an hour and a half for the bus to leave. It would be a nine hour journey if everything went well at the border crossing between Costa Rica and Panama, and after the previous day’s travel we weren’t looking forward to another long bus journey.

Costa Rican bus

Costa Rican bus

In the end everything was fine, although the border crossing at Paso Canoas between Costa Rica and Panama was one of the most chaotic I’ve ever come across. We arrived in David, Panama in the late afternoon, tired but relieved that we’d managed to cross from Nicaragua to Costa Rica to Panama in a day and a half using only two boats, two buses and three taxis.

We’d decided we wanted to see a bit more of Panama before we headed back to Colombia and then to Bolivia via Peru, so skipped through Costa Rica as quickly as possible. Next up, Boquete, Panama…

Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, where death by frog is a possibility

The Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz is home to large number of impressive animals – monkeys, tapirs, jaguars and panthers to mention but a few – but perhaps the most dangerous is small, damp and has a red body with blue legs. The Poison Dart Frog doesn’t look like much, most of them are little bigger than the tip of my index finger, but it is a renowned killer.

In the hands of an experienced indigenous hunter, the toxic secretions of the poison dart frog in combination with a blow dart is deadly – either for hunting game or combat between warring tribes. There are two fairly common types of poison dart frog in the Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, the red and blue version and the slightly harder to find green and black-spotted version.

Poison Dart Frog, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Poison Dart Frog, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Poison Dart Frog, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Poison Dart Frog, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Poison Dart Frog, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Poison Dart Frog, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

The Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz is an extraordinary place. A vast and pristine tropical rainforest, it runs for over 100km along the banks of the Rio San Juan and goes a similar distance inland. The majority of the reserva is off limits to anyone who isn’t a scientific researcher, but along the fringe of the river sections of the forest have been opened to eco-tourism, so now we can all get a glimpse of the flora and fauna that inhabit the forest.

If there is a small upside to the terrible war civil war that raged in Nicaragua for a decade or more, it is that this huge tropical rainforest was cut off and left largely untouched by human development.

Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

We hired a local guide in El Castillo and early one morning set off in a motorised canoe down the Rio San Juan, spotting large numbers of river birds, and smaller numbers of turtles, green basilisks and alligators along the way. The entrance to Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz is only 30 minutes away from El Castillo and almost from the moment you get off the boat you can hear Howler Monkeys high in the trees.

Green Basilisk, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Green Basilisk, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Turtles, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Turtles, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Alligator, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Alligator, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Green Basilisk, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Green Basilisk, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

After a quick orientation session with the park guards – during which I almost walked into the web of a poisonous Golden Orb Spider – we were off down a forest trail for three hours of animal tracking and plant spotting. The interior of a tropical rain forest is a hot and silent place. Very little wind reaches the interior and there doesn’t seem to be any oxygen in there either.

Entrance to Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Entrance to Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Golden Orb Spider, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Golden Orb Spider, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Hot, sweaty and breathless we made our way deeper into the forest spotting birds and listening to the occasional Howler Monkey making its point to its fellow monkeys. Our guide showed us medicinal plants and explained the way of life of the indigenous peoples who still inhabit the forest. At one point we chewed a small twig which instantly numbed our tongues – a natural anesthetic used by the forest tribes.

We were fortunate, not only did we find Poison Dart Frogs, we spotted Spider Monkeys with their young.

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

We also had a rare but exciting sighting of a Collared Peccary. As we approached the end of our trek our guide suddenly stopped and told us to stay still and quiet. Moments later we heard something coming through the undergrowth. Suddenly three Collared Peccaries, one only a few feet away from us, emerged out of the undergrowth. They then spotted us and charged across the trail in front of and behind us and disappeared into the forest again.

Collared Peccary, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Collared Peccary, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Collared Peccary, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Collared Peccary, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

We finished the trip with a swim in a small and cold river that is a tributary of the Rio San Juan. The fact that the water is cold is important – alligators don’t like the cold so its safe to swim. At least thats what we were told. After the heat of the forest it was wonderful to cool off in the river, and as we floated there a troupe of Spider Monkeys made an appearance in the trees above us.

Swimming river, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Swimming river, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

Spider Monkey, Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, Nicaragua

It is a memory I’ll treasure. Swimming in a river in the middle of a tropical rain forest while Spider Monkeys ran through the trees above us…it really doesn’t get  better than that, and it was the perfect end to our stay in wonderful Nicaragua. As we motored back towards the Rio San Juan we could still hear Howler Monkeys, but we didn’t see a single one.

Sleepy El Castillo, centre of an eighteenth century global conflict

Its difficult to imagine as you stroll down the ‘main street’ of El Castillo, but in the seventeenth and eighteenth century this village was at the centre of a global conflict between competing European nations that saw bloody battles between English fleets and Spanish defenders. The reason for those conflicts was a fortress built by the Spanish to prevent pirates from sailing up the Rio San Juan from the Caribbean to attack the fabulously wealthy city of Granada.

Granada was sacked and looted three times by pirates between 1655 and 1670, including famously by the Welsh pirate, Henry Morgan. In response, the Spanish built a fort on a bend in the Rio San Juan between two sets of rapids that slowed ships down and allowed the fort to train its cannons on them.

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

The site is spectacular. From the battlements you can see for miles down the river and over the top of the vast tropical rain forest that surrounds it. It is hard to take in what it must have been like to be a Spanish soldier posted to this remote site in the forest, surrounded by hostile indigenous tribes and subject to malaria and other tropical diseases.

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The rapids underneath the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The rapids underneath the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

Today it still feels remote – to reach the village involves a one and a half hour boat ride from San Carlos at the entrance to Lago Nicaragua where the river begins – but the effort to get there is well worth it. El Castillo is a sleepy place where you can relax for a few days between trips to surrounding natural wonders, including the extraordinary Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, a vast and pristine tropical rain forest.

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

Perhaps the most famous incident in the history of El Castillo was in 1762 when Rafaela Herrera, the teenage daughter of the dead fort commander, rallied the troops and defeated an English fleet headed for Granada. Although El Castillo’s true moment in the sun was during the California Gold Rush from 1848-55 when it was an important staging point for prospectors trying to reach San Francisco.

This was pre-Panama Canal and a decade before the US transcontinental railway, making it the quickest way to get from the East Coast of the US to the West Coast. Ironic then that the Nicaraguan government is conspiring with Chinese investors to build another transcontinental canal to rival the one in Panama. One possible route will be the Rio San Juan, something guaranteed to destroy both the natural environment of this region and the main reason for tourists to come here.

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

We spent a few days here absorbing river life and watching the world go by in small boats. El Castillo is another place where geography and history have conspired to keep it free of motor vehicles, so the world goes by much more quietly. The region is famous for giant river shrimp, much to our disappointment this wasn’t the season for shrimp – seriously, this is the sort of information a guidebook should give you!

The village is very welcoming and is starting to build a solid tourist infrastructure. Things will change in the next few years, but currently it feels like you have fallen off the tourist trail. People in the village genuinely want to encourage tourism, a guide we hired to take us to the forest put it very simply: before tourism many people in the village worked illegally (and cheaply) picking fruit in Costa Rica. Tourism, he implied, had restored a sense of pride in El Castillo.

Death and glory: the beautiful, brutal history of the Rio San Juan

Hands up anyone who has ever heard of the Rio San Juan? Me either, but it is one of the most beautiful and tranquil places in Nicaragua and it boasts a history second to none.

Since the Aztecs first used the Rio San Juan in the 1200s to link their trade routes from east to west, the river has been a vital artery between the Pacific and the Caribbean. In the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was at the centre of a global battle between European nations vying for the treasures of the new world.

Throughout those centuries the river became the stuff of legend, incorporating Inca gold shipped to Spain by Conquistadors; pirates sneaking up the river to attack the fabulously wealthy Spanish colonial city of Granada; a teenage girl defending the fort at El Castillo against a flotilla of English ships; and the English navy, led by Horatio Nelson, attacking Spanish forts along the river before being driven back as his men died wholesale from malaria and dysentery.

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

In the nineteenth century the river was a global super-highway shuttling prospectors to the California Gold Rush (1848-55), making shipping magnet Cornelius Vanderbilt a very wealthy man. More than 150,000 people travelled up the Rio San Juan en route to San Francisco and the river was the scene of frenzied activity. At the rapids by the village of El Castillo a railway was constructed to help transfer passengers from one boat to another.

From the earliest days of the discovery of Nicaragua in 1502, the strategic and commercial importance of a waterway linking the Pacific and the Atlantic was understood. The Rio San Juan flows out of Lago Nicaragua, which is only a short distance from the Pacific ocean and could have been linked by a canal. Towards the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries this almost became a reality but Panama got there first.

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

The dramas played out along this river are virtually unknown today, even though it continues to be a source of tension and occasional conflict between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The river is entirely Nicaraguan, but just south of El Castillo it forms the border between the two countries and there is an ongoing dispute between them as to the right to use the river.

Border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Inside a panga, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Inside a panga, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

If there is a more historic and dramatic river in the Americas than Rio San Juan I don’t know where it is, yet the river is so much more than its history. It flows through a beautiful and timeless area of Nicaragua and links small, isolated but welcoming communities that are just now opening their doors to tourism. It is a truly wonderful region to visit.

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Blue Heron, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Blue Heron, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

As you travel down the river there is a stark contrast between the Nicaraguan side and the Costa Rican side. Along the Nicaraguan side lies a vast and pristine rain forest, the Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, that is home to an extraordinary catalogue of flora and fauna. The Costa Rican side is virtually deforested. In other words, a country known for its ecological policies has allowed a tropical rain forest to be destroyed. Luckily it can still be seen and visited on the Nicaraguan side.