San Blas: the Robinson Crusoe way

(First attempts at story writing)

– You look like Robinson Crusoe! – I shouted when I first saw John get off the Kuna lancha. His face was tanned and he had let his beard grow. We talked about the islands and he said he would have stayed longer should he had the time. Looking back I knew what he meant. We took our proper goodbyes before we went our separate ways.

I arrived in San Blas after spending a couple of sweaty days in Panama City. I had woken up at 4am on the day of the departure so I could make the 5am 4×4 that took us to the most beautiful place in Panama. San Blas – home to the independant Kuna Yala tribe, pristine beaches, peace and simplicity.

Our driver Luis was very informative and helpful. He told us how the 3h drive would go, the stops we were to make, the stuff we had to buy. The 3h drive of course took much longer. We were lucky however to get picked up by a lancha fairly quickly compared to others who had to wait for 2-3h.

We were on our way to Isla Robinson when soon after we left the harbour we stopped at this ugly, tightly populated island. There were no beaches there, let alone pristine.
– Is this IT?! – I aksed the tow Israeli girls with whom I shared a boat. They had the same confused, unbelieving expression on their faces. We were all relieved when Efrain (our captain) told we were just making a brief shopping detour on one of the community islands populated by the Kuna Yala.

While we waited I talked to Delio, the other Kuna man on the boat. I asked him about their daily life as as marriage customs. He told me some marriages were arranged but there were many based on love. This was later confirmed by Jesus and his wife who were the shop owners on Robinson´s island. The two of them were constantly all over each other.

At last we arrived at the island. I had chosen it because I was told it had more people on it compared to the quieter Isla Pelicano. I thoughtit better as I could enjoy the company or just desert to a secluded spot. It was a good decision as our camp (there were 3 on the island) turned out to be the quietest, attracting an interesting crowd. We each got our cabanas, mine boasting a double bed with a decent matress which I later found to be the best one in the camp after having peaked at the rest of the ´rooms´.

I didn´t waste any time getting into my bikini and headed to a shady hammock under a palm tree. 6 days later you could pretty much find me in the same position – spread on the hammock absorbed in a book.

The first person I saw soon after we arrived was Haim – an energetic, cheerful Israeli I had met in Boquete a few days earlier. He was focusing all his energy into smashing a coconut on a log the ocean had spit out. When I first met him I thought he was Latino and to the end I wasn´t 100% convinced he was Israeli. He just didn´t have that typical, burly look about him. He made me laugh with his silly jokes and comments, some of which didn´t make any sense at all – that´s when I laughed the most. He became our resident coconut cracker and religiously fed us the meat of the fruit everyday. While the rest of us rested he went looking for fallen coconuts. He couldn´t sit still for a minute, what an energy ball. I missed him when he left a couple of days later. Not only his coconut cracking skills but also his sunny personality.

Then came Sandra and Patrick – a Swiss couple I had met on the Quetzal Trail in Boquete (again!). I didn´t think much of them at first, even disliked Patrick but they turned out to be lovely people and we gradually became friends. Patrick and his Swiss Army knife took over the coconut business.

Then came Wendy, an Aussie film maker who told us stories from her countless travels and let us read her book (to be published). Then there was Brian, a calm Canadian currently working in Trinidad and Tobago. He taught us the art of ´slacking´, the most simple sport/fun activity that always attracted swamps of curious onlookers. This is the main idea of course, an excellent way of mixing with the locals. Who would have thought that a long, flat piece of belt, tight between trees would have such an effect.

Those of us spending more than 2 nights on the island became somewhat of a family and helped each other with small things. Patrick made sure we all got our daily serving of coconut, I handed out Sneakers bars in exchange of the use of headlamps at night when it was pitch black and disturbing.

Towards the end of my stay, an Argentinian couple joined the gang. Ittook me a while to figur out where they came from as I couldn’t understand a thing they were saying. I lay close to them on the beach or ‘casually’ walked by ears-dropping on their conversations trying to figure out what weird language they spoke. I was convinced it wasn’t Spanish. It didn’t even cross my mind! Eventually, I had to ask them where they came from. I knew about the different pronunciation in Buenos Aires but nevr thought it would be that different. To make things worse they spoke really fast, ‘ate’ letters, and combined words. They had to slow down for us.

Let me tell you about my first night on the island. I woke up in the middle of the night and as I said it was disturbingly dark. I was petrified of moving and stayed nailed to the bed for as long as my bladder would allow. Nature called and I gathered the courage to get up. I slowly made my way to the door, arms streched in front of me feeling the empty air for obstacles. I went out, my imagination running wild. I was hoping no bugs or scorpions will crawl on me from the thatched roof of the cabana, no monsters would jump on me from behind the trees, nothing would crawl up my legs while walking and of course I imagined being attacked by Colombian guerillas and drug trafficants. Imagination – a wicked thing! Let me explain why the drug trafficants and the guerillas. San Blas Archipelago is the waterway to Colombia and close to the Panamian Darien province, a secluded patch of jungle used to smuggle cocain from Colombia. The locals often find bags of the precious powder washed on the shores of San Blas, after being ditched by chased trafficants. A line of cocain sold for $1 on the island. Marihuana (or ´mas-tuhl´, the Israeli term for ´being high´) was also abundant and cheap. The locals have picked up the Israeli word for it and spoke to them in code.

Back to the original story. I had safely made it out of the hut and no scorpions were chasing me. The toilet was 50m away, hidden among the trees. Too far away, too dark, and too scary! There was no way I was going there. I opted for the sea instead. I know, I know…but I only had to pee! I walked in between the huts in complete darkness and silence. I could oly hear the occasional rustling of leaves. Freaky! Again I hope no sea monster would chop my head off while I was doing my business.

I was done, still had my head on my shoulders, and had to make my way back. I slowly walked back, my body tense in extreme alertness. I had almost made it to the hut when dogs started barking and gnarling at me. I screamed and my heart skipped a beat. Then it started pounding like crazy, trying to rip my chest off and get out. I was so scared my legs were shaking. I couldn´t see the dogs but I could hear them close in front of me, blocking the door to the hut. I stood still for a while, adrenaline rushing through my vains, waiting for them to calm down. I talked to them, hoping they would recognise my voice but it didn´t help. They gnarled again. I stood motionless for a few minutes until I could hear them snoring. They had fallen asleep. I didn´t want to think about what was behind my back or to the right of my head, hidden in the dry leaves of the roof. In one leap I made it into the hut and shut the door behind me. I lay down on the bed, trying to catch my breath (I had started breathing again) and calm myself down.

From that night on I never drunk anything in the evening and I knew I needed a torch. The following two night I slept in a hammock hung in the eating area, close to the sea. The distance was much shorter in case I needed a toilet and there were no dogs waiting for me in front of the door. The first night went well and I slept through it. I did have to get up on the following night though. AgainI lay down with my eyes wide open and a bursting bladder listening to my surroundings. I was considering my options. Why couldn´t I just fall asleep and not feel the need to pee. I got up thinking about the noise I had just heard coming from the trees behind the hammock and the sharks that came closer to shore at night. There was also the risk of having my bare arse pinched by the crabs that crawled on the shore. The moonlight reflected in the white sand didn´t help at all. The imense silence was still awfully disturbing.

The following night I spent in the cabana armed with a tead candle I had borrowed from Sandra and Patrick. I left it burning, carefully positioned in a place where the wind couldn´t put it out and it wouldn´t burn the house down. I still woke up that night after the candle had gone out but luckily I didn´t have to pee this time. I was relieved. This time I only worried about the bugs and the scorpions. It also rained that night and it dripped on me through the leaking roof. First it was my legs and I re-positioned. Then my arms and I moved again. Then it dripped again and I ended up sleeping spread accross the bed with my legs hanging off the edge. Good thing the bed was big and square so I could sleep vertically, horizontally, and diagonally depending on the lickage.

The last three nights Brian came to my rescue. He not only took the 2nd bed in the cabin but also had a torch which he kindly left on the table near the door for me to use in case I had another biological urge. It was comforting having another person in the big, dark cabin.

By now you have figure out how much I disliked the island nights. The days were bright and sunny, worry free, while the nights turned into hell for me. I didn´t look forward to them.

After a couple of days on the island I had developed a strange sense of propriety. I smirked at the newcomers and didn’t want them polluting my island with their presence. I particularly disliked large groups that brought noise with them. That’s also when the locals started charging for coconuts. We had to abstain for a couple of days not knowing whether we would have to pay for a fallen coconut. Civilization was a fact and it had ruined our idylic setting. Luckily, the intruders left only after one night and the piece was restored. The funny thing is that the arrival of new people was also the highlight of our day. I was curious to see who would the sea bring. It was a mixed feeling of expectation, curiosity and dislike.

We passed the days swinging in a hammock in between meals. Wendy and I read a lot. When we got hot or bored we would splash in the water, snorkel over the nearby reefs, or get Efrain to take us on a tour. One day we went to Isla Pero (Dog’s Island) and spent the afternoon snorkelling over and around a massive shipwreck. I still can’t figure out how it sunk. It looked like a load of stone fell from the sky and split it in half. How it got so close to the shore is also a mistery. It was fun exploring as I had never done anything like it before but my imaginationwouldn’t give me a break. As we swam over the ship I could see the inner dark chambers and thought of the sharks living there as described in ‘Finding Nemo’. It was a bit disturbing but also fascinating. We later joked about this: ‘Me friend, not food!’

We were lucky that day as there were no other people on the island and we had it all to ourselves. We observed the pelicans crashing into the water in an attempt to catch fish. It was surreal as I had just marvelled at it on TV a few days back.

One day I ate so much for lunch I could hardly move. I dragged myself back to the hut and slept through the afternoon. On another occasion we were all feeling extra lazy and even walking the 10m between the dining area and the hammock was too much exercise.

In the late afternoon when the sun had set we would prepare for the evening. Some of us would ‘shower’ (a bucket of river water) while others would just remain salty, their hair impossible to comb through. One night after the arrival of the Argentinians we had a night of music. The guy played the guitar and sang. Lost in the beauty of the guitar sounds we all surrendered to our thoughts. ‘Tomorrow a new person comes and brings with them new conversations, new experiences, new emotions and thoughts, new knowledge and new memories.’ We also celebrated Sandra’s Bday and went to the neighbouring ‘party’ camp where a rediculously noisy and rather annoying Belgian girl was celebrating her 23rd Bday around a bonfire on the beach.

One day Brian decided to sail and his idea of sailing consisted of taking one of the local canoes that had improvised sails (far from white!). So, me and Brian, our 8 year old captain and his 9 year old helper set out sailing around the island. At first we had doubts about the boys’ sailing abilities but soon they wiped out wiped out all doubt and proved more than capable. We were sailing in the San Blas Islands! You should have heard the boys talking to each other. If you closed your eyes you would think two grown up men were conversing.

The classical way of sailing is on a beautiful white yacht of course! Many people sailed from Panama to Colombia through San Blas which was my initial plan also before the Colombians refused to give me a visa. At the end I am glad I didn’t do it as many people complained about it desribing it as the ‘best and the worst’ part of their trip. The best being their stay on the islands and the worst everything else.

Efrain also took us to a nearby island where his Kuna community lived. The others had gone there also in search of chocolate and wine. Wendy was craving them and wanted somefor her island style Xmas. We wandered the dirt streets looking out for the Kuna women. I asked an old woman whether I could take a picture of her in exchange of the $1 they normally charged. She angrily waved her hand and hissed ‘No!’. I was taken aback as I didn’t see it coming. I thought they wouldn’t mind as long as one was paying. I was a bit disappointed as I had walked all over the village in search of the perfect Kuna woman. I was looking for a strong, characterful face and the traditional Kuna dress with everything it represented. This woman had it all except the willingness to be photographed. I was amazed by how thin her legs were, deformed by the decorative beads aimed at keeping them from growing. Model legs by Kuna standads. They were thinner than my arm and you know my arms are pretty thin. As we were wandering the streets I peaked into this house curious to see the women sitting on the patio. It turned out it was that same angry woman and she quickly came running, shooing us away from the house. Just my luck! She warmed up though and I think she even smiled when she saw the village children running after us, huge smiles on their faces, asking us to play with them. I guess she realised we weren’t that bad after all. I always feel bad asking people to take their photo but I elt particularly awkward asking the Kuna knowing their negative attitude towards picture taking.

The children on the island were so funny. A reminder of how little a child needs to be happy. We often played games with them and they were extatic when Brian put the slak line up. A funny habit of theirs was the pronunciation of my name just for the sake of it. I would walk by the shop where they seemed to gather and they would just start saying ‘Katerin! Katerin!’. All of them, even some grown up men. At first I’d ask them if they wanted something but after a while I just smiled and greeted. I don’t even remember telling them my name. I had only introduced myself to a couple of people. Unlike the grown women, the kids were very friendly and loved having their photos taken. I’d always be a bit cautious when they asked as I never knew whether they’d charge me or not. Some of them were well trained. It was funny to see a one year ld girl, barely standing on her eet, posing for a photo and then snatching the dollar bill with an expert look on her face.

The day of the Kuna visit was also my last day on the islands. After a week it was time to pack my bags and go back to Panama City. The morning came, I got my bags loadd on the lancha and we were off. I didn’t get the usual farewell from the others as most of them were still sleeping but that’s when I heard my name being shouted by the local kids. ‘ Katerin, Katerin!’ I turned around, utterly surprised, only to see them running along the coast, waving goodbye at me, I waved back or as long as I could see them and I heard them shouting my name until we lost sight of each other. You can’t imagine how I felt. It was so touching, one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me. I was deeply moved.

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Panama City: the prettiest capital of Central America

After a 7h bus ride from Boquete we arrived in Panama City in the middle of the night. We had misjudged the timing and spent too much time in Boquete when we should have taken an earlier bus. We got to the hostel just before they closed for the night and managed to get a bed in a hot dorm at the back of the hostel.
We were up as soon as the sun was up as one couldn’t sleep in the heat coming from the window. We took a couple of chicken buses (used as city transport) and made our way to Miraflores Locks – the last set of locks of Panama Canal on the Pacific side. We got there on time to see two ships passing through in opposite directions. Very lucky as none passed after we left. I am surprised how much I actually liked the canal. It was a lot of fun learning about its history and development. It was initially began by the French, then picked up by the Americans who completed it and managed it until the 70s when a treaty was signed and the management was taken over by the Panamanians. It didn’t officially belong to them though until 1999. The men who build it were mainly from Barbados and 22,000 dies while building it.
There are 3 sets of locks between the Atlantic and the Pacific.
It is now being expanded – two more lanes are being added at two of the locks to allow for twice as much traffic. They are planning to open them in 2014. 4 major intrnational building companies had competed for the contract. The new project will be environmentally friendly.
Currently 14,000 ships go through every year, and are charged anything between a few dollars to $390,000 for the large cargo ships (5000 containers). The lowest fee ever paid was $0.36 by a man who swam the canal in the 20s. There are 17 accident per year on average. Surprising, as the ships are hardly moving while crossing.
Enough about that, moving on to Casco Viejo – the old town of Panama City. It was an interesting experience. I enjoyed wandering the streets, there was something charming about it. Although there were parts looking very dangerous. We cretainly did´’t want to be there after sunset, and we got stopped twice (by random locals) tellings us not to go into the red zone. A dangerous area guarded by the police. It was nice of the locals to let us know, stops us from going there. What do they care? They seemed to take it very seriously. They literally forbade us to go there.
We then headd to The Causeway – an area outside the city where people go to relax and enjoy the fresh air. There were many posh yachts, clubs, and bars there as well as shops for the tourists coming down from the passing cruise ships. We ended the night at a Greek restaurant, enjoy the night skyline and the ocean breeze. I was so happy to have found a Greek restaurant as I was craving Bulgarian food that day. Greek was as close as it is gonna get here.

Boquete: in search of the elusive quetzal

I left the Carribean sun and made my way to the cloud forests of Chiriqui and Boquete in particular. Not sure what the fuss ragarding this place is all about but it was the entrance to the Sendero de los Quetzales – the most beautiful hike in Panama. At least that´s what they said.
Boquete itself is situated amongs the mountains and is pretty, there are many coffee plantation, great fruit and veg, as well as many Western retirees. The property market is booming there.
So, I spent the first day hanging about and visited a beautiful private garden. Mi Jardin es Su Jardin is a gorgeous garden owned by a rich local family. The owner – an elder gentleman – has been maintaining it for 4o years and letting people see it for free. He is now living alone (after the dath of his wife) in their huge mansion aided by 4 gardeners, 5 maids, and a driver. I think he named the house after his wife (so romantic) – Villa Maria – and it is very sad and touching that she is no longer alive.
The visit to the garden was followed by a nice, hot cup of cappuccino at a local coffee farm. A nice, relaxing day. I then dedicated myself to updating my blog and uploading photos. Hard work.
The day after me and a fellow traveller from Holland (imagine that!) took a minibus to th entrance of the trail. The first kilometer or so was indeed very pretty – Swiss Alps-like. But then we got into the forest itself and couldn´t see anything but green, green, and green again! We were surrounded by vegetation and there were no views. I was disappointed and didn´t think it was that spectacular. I guess I had something completely different in mind. I imagined we would be walking on the edge on the mountains overlooking the hills.
Anyhow, we hiked and hiked, taking short breaks on the way until we got to a lookout point higher up on the hill – El Mirrador. It took us a while to figure out where it was as the place was run-down and overgrown with knee-high grass and fallen trees. Big trees! As for the views, well, hardly any. We wondered whether that really was IT. Eventually, we found out that there was a narrow path leading to the actual mirrador. Another horrible run-down spot. I wondered when the decaying boards are gonna fall apart under my feet. I liked it though – it was very Indiana Jones-like.
That was the spot where we had to decide whether we go back or continue walking. We had been told at the start of the track that it has been destroyed by a landslide and one couldn´t walk through unless they were trying to get lost. Well, I couldn´t go back knowing I was so close to the end (2.5km). Not before I had gone to the ruined spot and made sure myself that it really was the end of the path. I would have then gladly gone back. We were taking a risk as this would increase the time we needed to go back and we couldn´t walk in the dark. We took our chances!
Soon after we left the viewing point we reached the landslide. It was indeed bad. The place was covered in fallen trees and branches making the path hard to follow. I thought it was probably better to go back and not take any unnecessary risk just before I saw the path on the other side of the landslide. It was nice and clear, 100% visible. Like you wouldn´t notice th wooden fence running along its length. From here there was only one way to follow. Straight ahead. We did cross the landslide using a path others have already made and carried on on our way to the end of the treck. People and guides had told us that the land slide can´t be crossed and the path wasn´t visible. They really should have checked better. They had closed the trail (on one side) because of that and it really wasn´t the case. It was perfectly managable.
Anyhow, we did make it to the end of the trail on the Cerro Punta side. But we now had to walk the 6-8km to the nearby village where we could take a bus back to Boquete. It is funny how the two villages are only 8km away from each other (the length of the trail) but not connected by a paved road hence making the bus trip between the two nearly 4h long. Back to Cerro Punta. The reason I had wanted to complete the trail so badly. I had heard that it is very beautiful up there because of its elevation (25oom or more?). Well, the hike up was well worth it. It was exactly what I wanted, what I had imagind the actual trail would be. Going from Boquete to Cerro Punta was harder than doing it the other way around because of the elevation. Most of the trail was uphill. Still I thought it pretty easy, moderate at most.
We made our way to the village while enjoying the surrounding views. It did rain on us but it was nice nevertheless. By the time we got to the bus we were pretty tired and our legs were hurting. Still I got the views I wanted!
The next day we were leaving for Panama City but had some time in the morning to explore another garden and have some strawberry fondue. My first fondue ever! It was delicious and very chocolatey. As for the garden – I wasn´t impressed with it at first and thought the one I had seen the day before had been better. It did grow on me as we walked on though. There were many quirky displays and many insirational messages. It also turned out to be a lot bigger than I thought. It was fun and very different to the first garden. I am glad we went there.

Bocas del Toro: a pleasant surprise

After the jungle I made my way to Bocas del Toro, an archipelago off the Atlantic coast of Panama. I didn´t really want to go there at first as I thought it wouldn´t be too beautiful and full of party people. Not necessarily my type of crowd. I decided to go there since I was in the area and just relax for a couple of days even though the beaches were not mind blowlingly beautiful Carribean style. Meaning blue waters and white sand. I ended up staying 6 days.
I was pleasantly surprised by the islands and really enjoyed myself. Although the water was not turquise colored and the sand wasn´t white the beaches were still remarkably pretty. The water was emerald green and very clear, full of tropical fish and the sand was powedery and yellow.
I took two boat trips while there among other things and none of them went exactly as planned due to bad weather, poor organisation on behalf of the tour agencies or both. The first trip was supposed to take us to two snorkelling spots, but because we lost 1h in the morning we couldn´t make it to the second one as it was windy and cloudy by the time we got there. We did snorkel earlier that day though and it was beautiful – the reef was very shallow and the coral so colorful! Really you needn´t use any imagination to see the colors. It was all there! Not many fish though. We also saw dolphins that day:)
The day after that we had planned to cycle to another beach accross the island but it rained so we stayed at the hostel and caught up on blogs.
I did eventually make it to the pretty beach on the other side of the island and it was worth the wait. The 2nd most beautiful. That is where we saw all those starfish – Playa de las Estrellas. We spent the day chilling on the beach and in hammocks when the weather got bad.
Next day was time for another boat trip and a complete disaster. It rained all day that day. We left in the morning hoping it would brighten up as it had done before but it didn´t happen. It was cold, gloomy and rainy all day. Again we didn´t get to go to the last spot of the trip because of the weather. We also couldn´t quite enjoy the most beautiful beach of all – Cayos Zapatillas. It was so windy and cold that we had to stay in the water all the time to keep warm. Good thing the people I was with were fun and we laughed our way through it.
Th day after and my last day in Bocas, I hired a boogy board and went to the most beautiful beach of the adjacent island – Wizard Beach. Unfortunately, I got a small boat to take me there and it couldn´t make the waves. I had to walk to the beach through a mud path in the jungle. It was horrible – mud, stones, and other things not nice. I was also barefoot as I wasn´t prepared to walk at all. I hated it! That´s one of the few times I have been so upset since the beginning of the trip. We did try to get another boat on the way back but again they couldn´t make the waves and we had to repeat the disgusting walk all over again. At the end of the day I had an argument with the boat captain who wouldn´t give me money back despite not taking me to the original destination. Anyhow, it did work out at the end.
Bocas was fun! I met cool people and laughed a lot. The one thing that was not so good were the bed bugs – they ate me alive! Half my legs are covered in bits, and I seem to have brought them with me so they keep eating me.

PILA: staying with the Teribe indigenous

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.