After spending the night at a crappy hotel in Changuinola (at least I had a bathroom to myself and did laundry – not very well though:)) I made my way to Parque Internacional La Amistad (PILA). It was the reason I had crossed the border at Sixaloa instead of a much Western point. Now, having done my research properly, it would have been a better move. It is important to plan ahead so you can organise the most efficient/satisfying itinerary. Before I continue I have to mention the gorgeous pork spaghetti I had at the Chiquita Banana restaurant in Changuinola. Delicious!
Getting to Weckso (mispelled in the Lonely Planet guide book) took a bit of work and creativity. I first got on a minibus to El Silencio where I met Alfredo, a local school boy. Once there he accompanied me (as instructed by another local guy) to the river where I was supposed to take a canoe up the river to Weckso. Well, there were no boats, just an old man sitting under the shade of a tree. We asked him about the boats and he suggested I better took a car from the other side of the river. So me and Alfredo got on a small canoe and crossed the river. We walked to a shaded area where other people were waiting as well.
After we had crossed the river I asked Alfredo where he lived. He said he lived in the village on the other side and he´d only crossed to show me the way. He also said he would accompany me all the way but he had an exam and had to go back. And he didn´t even charge me money – imagine that! Speaking of niceties, a local lady had given me a ride to the Tourism Office in Changuinola earlier that day.
Right, so I sat under in the shade under the tree waiting for a car. There were also two indigenous ladies to whom I spoke for a bit, you know, the usual about family, where I was from, wasn´t I afraid travelling alone (always seems to get them:)). They kept asking about the US even though I had told them I was European.
The car came eventually. It was vehicle belonging to´The Company´ – a firm building a road through the jungle. Now´s the time to mention the effects of it (I head a lot about it). On one hand the people are happy with it as it will make things easier for them and also provides employment. On the other hand though they are worried about the long-term effects it will have on the community. A lot of jungle has been destroyed already and more is planned for destruction in the next couple of years. Many plants and wildlife will be wiped out. The indigenous communities rely on tourism and if there´s no jungle, there´s no tourists. The Company is also building a dam, which means the chemicals released into the river will poison (even kill) the fish, a source of food for the locals. Everyone is worried about it.
The truck (4WD/4×4) took me to a location, which was not Weckso. I was told the car charged $1-2 and I asked the guy if I owed him something. He said no. Later I found out that none of The Company vehicles charged money. They just transport people as the go up ad down anyway. Another car did charge money but luckily I didn´t come across it.
I got off in the blazing sun and was told to walk to this village where people could help me. I didn´t quite understand what they were supposed to help me with. As far as I was concerned Weckso was just up the road. It turned out that Weckso was on the other side of the river and I needed a boat to take me there. Unfortunately, there wasn´t one as all the village men had gone to a seminar in Weckso and nobody was coming back for another 3-4h. I weighted my options. They told me I could stay in their village and pointed to a concrete building that served as a hostel. I asked questions about prices, activities, food, lodging, coparing both villages. It did seem pretty similar so I decided to stay there instead of wasting time. I never saw Weckso and I have no base for comparison.
Shortly after I arrivd me and Luis (a local Naso guide) headed to the rain forest – the reason I had come to the park. We hiked in the blazing sun along the road for a while, then we got into the forest and along the river, passed some fincas (farms) and finally made it to the park entrance. The way there was hard – mainy uphill and hot. Things changed dramatically once we entered the park – it was shady and cool. The scenery was completely different as well – imagine primary rainforest, trees as high as the sky, all green, interwind, and full of sounds. We first saw white-faced monkeys (and they saw us!) making such a mess high up in the trees. They did some impressively long jumps :). Luis showed me two of the fruits thy ate. The we saw a tocan and I was extatic! I had gone there to see one. I was surprised how small it was, I had imagined it much bigger. Then we saw another bird – chocolate-colored body and a bright yellow tail. Both birds weren´t much of a singer. Luis showed me three types of frog – a tiny red one (poisonous), a tiny brown one (hardly visible), and a bigger green-black one (my favourite). We also saw something the locals call ´njeke´(spelling). No idea what´s it called in English. Luis said it was like a cat, someone else said it was like a giant rat. In any case it was brown and it ran fast.
We then sat down to rst before we went back. Luis told me stories about longer trecks, deeper into the jungle where poisonous snakes and large animals could be sen (tiger, jaguar, puma, wild pigs, etc.). I always knew they existed somewhere but being so close to them is kinda freaky. Luis told me he had saved a Frenchman´s life from a snake and also scared away (with a shot gun) a persistent (curious/hungry) tiger.
Just then I noticed I was attacjed by a giant ant (bullet ant). At first I freaked out (don´t like bugs crawling on me) but then I thought it cool having it on the side of my tummy and decided to observe it for a while. I proudly showed it to Luis. I was happy to see another cool specie when his face changed into an intense, worried/scared expression and he quickly flisked it off my shirt. It all happened in about 2-3secs. He then told me the ant was poisonous and extremely dangerous. If you got bitten by one the spot swallows and for about 8h you feel like you have been shot (hence the name bulet ant). That´s when I realisd how dangerous the jungle really was. I was extra carefull on the way back and no longer thought it was a stroll in the park.
I stayed in a traditional house very close (1m away) from the house of the host lady (Magali) and she prepared meals for me. I had fried plantains and egges, lemongrass tea (delicious) and bananas for dinner served in a coconut shells and a bamboo glass. Magali said I had to eat with my hands as all the tourists did it. I asked whether they locals did it and when she said no I thought the whole tourist setup was very cheesy and slightly offensive. I later saw the family eat in regular ceramic plates, using cuttlery. They had rice, checken and a boiled root vegetable. None of it very tasty as it was all boiled. That´s why they gave me the fried food.
After dinner I stayed up at Magali´s house and she told me about last year´s great flood that wiped out everything – houses, animals, plants. Some people were left with nothing and they had to rebuild the community. She also breast-fed her giant one year old (he looked like 3) in front of me while instructing the rest of her children (3 in total). Her husband came back from playing football and told us about the seminar they had attended earlier and what some of the community´s problems were – mainly health issues. They currently didn´t recycle but burried the trash. Her younger brother was also staying with them having come down from his mother´s house up in the mountains. It was too dangerous up there, Magali said, because of the puma. I also met an American girl working with the Peace Corp. She had been sent there 5 months ago and taught them English while also helping with various tourism and community projects. Her name was Nicole and she was somewhat of a celebrity in the village being the only white person there. Magali spoke very warmly of her and said she was like one of their own.
Indeed, that´s how I felt while there. Everyone was extremely nice and helpful. They seemed like they truly cared about your best interest. I felt more like a guest than a tourist. Since I stayed and ate at their house I trid to disturb them as little as possible. The kids were all smiles, curious, shouting ´Hello!´ from every corner. The adults also greeted from everywhere, came to shake hands and tell me about the area and the indigenous. Such friendliness is unusual among the indigenous. The Naso tribe differs from the other two tribes in the area and also from the majority of the indigenous I have met so far.
I slept (well I was trying to) in the house alone. I left one window open, hoping for some fresh air but had closed the rest afraid that something might come in. I always forget how freaked out I am when sleeping in basic structures in the middle of the jungle. I am torn between the experience ad the novelty and the fear of bugs and other crawly things/flying creatures. Magali had given me a candle and I left it burning hoping to fall asleep before it went out. A bunch of kids had shown me a dead snake (2m long) hanging on a tree just a couple of hours earlier. A man had killed it in the village, just 15m away from where I was sleeping. Then Nicole had told me about scorpions hiding in the roofs. I had seen a giant cockroach crawling on the bed next to mine and to top things off, there was a something big, black and flying in the corner of the room. Try sleeping after all that!
I covered myself with the sheet after I had checked it (and the bed/pillow) for bugs and it was boiling hot. I was also sweaty and sticky after the hike. I hadn´t taken a shower as it was in a tiny, concrete building with no light and it had become too late and dark by the time I was done with dinner. The ´shower´by the way was a bucket of water from the river. I had a choice – bathe in the river or use the bucket. There was no electricity in the village. The main generator had run our of diesel and only a couple of houses had their own batteries.
I must have fallen asleep as I woke up in the middle of the night and it was pitch black. The candle was out. I could no longer sleep very well and I kept waking up, turning and tossing. I was so hot wrapped up in that sheet but I wouldn´t let go of it. It was the only thing between me and the bugs.
Morning finally came and I rolled out of bed kinda late trying to make up for the lost sleep. I had another traditional breakfast (2 boiled eggs, many boled root vegetables – same thing just different varieties and colors, and cream of banana with sugar – hot drink). The whole touristy setup was there again. I ate and drank but the veggies were so dry and the drink so thick that I had trouble swallowing. I took my breakfast up to Nicole´s house as I had promised to come by the night before. The locals helped her build a lovely house perched on a hill surrounded by vegetation just behind the rest of the houses. She had a veranda, a kitchen, and a bedroom on the second floor. It looked like something from a fairytale. The dream tree house. We had a quick chat and she helped me finish the last of my dry breakfast veggies (her cat licked the bowl). While I was there a local lady that was passing by as I came had gone back to her house and brought back some wooden carved animals her husband had made. I had no idea she had gone back as she was just standing there talking to Nicole. Should have I known I would have said´no´ but when she presented me with all the figurines she had brought for me I couldn´t say ´no´. I ended up buying a small figure of a water turtle for $1. As you know I don´t buy souvenirs as I can´t carry them. And I wasn´t particularly keen on these ones.
Anyhow, I then went to take a shower where I was greetd by a big, ugly toad (it had rined during the night). Its eyes were kinda closed and stuck out of the head. I kicked him outand proceeded to my bucket shower. The water was merky but so refreshing (and much needed). It´s amazing how much you can wash with just a bucket of water. I thought about the quantities of water we waste back home.
I then was off to my 2nd trip. I hadn´t exactly agreed to it the day before but both Magali and Luis told me the ANAM (tourism office) boat was waiting for me. I wanted to get out of it as I had already seen what I came for but after hearing everything was ready and waiting for me, I couldn´t. This time Luis´ father was my guide. He was extra (maybe too much) polite. We crossed the river to the Weckso side and took the round trail surrounding the village. It was flat and man build. It really felt like a walk in the park (just a bit more expensive). It was 10am when we left and already too late to see any wildlife. They had retrackted deeper into the jungle. We only saw a different type of tocan and a few un-identified birds here and there. My guide did a pretty good job telling me about plants though and even made a broom from palm leaves. He also told me about this natural loofa plant that was poisonous to eat.
I almost forgot – I saw another tocan on a tree just outside the village. I was surprised by its close proximity to the poeple. Didn´t think they came out like that.
Since we didn´t see much during the trip I got bored pretty quickly. It also started to rain and we couldn´t even hear the birds anymore. All I could think about was my laundry and how it would get wet again. I had been trying to dry it for almost three days now. Despite the hot climate clothes just didn´t dry. Funny!
We came back to the village after a short boat ride down the river. I had another shoe washing/laundry/teeth brushing session by the river before I left the community. It was Mother´s Day and everyone was celebrating at the school. The kids performing and the fathers cooking. I had told Magali not to make me lunch so she can be there. I am glad I did as it was too expensive for what it was.
Something unpleasant happened just before I left and it´s a shame I am going to end this story on such a note. But it is what happened.
I had already paid my bill – $5 for each (vegetarian) meal while the average (for meat and much bigger portions) is about $3-4. Then I paid $7 for the bed although I had been told $6 the day before. I had paid the entrance to the park and $40 for both tours ($20 each). Just then Luis came to me asking I ´added´ an extra something for the boatman. I calmly told him that nobody told me anything about tit beforehand and that I had already paid a very good price for their services. He tried to push it but I said no. He apologised and left. The first tour was worth the money (4-5h for $20), the second one was only 2h and wasn´t all that impressive. I certainly didn´t need a guide. No point in bitching about it now.
I left disappointed wondering whether they were genuinly nice or were just trying to get my money. One thing I learned there was that I should toughen up a bit and protect my own interests better (instead of those of others). At the end of the day I am a tourist and a source of income to them. Nothing more.
I did get to stay with an indigenous family though. Something I couldn´t do in Guatemala and I saw my tocan! All in all a good trip.