Ends of the Earth Expedition, March 28, DAY 46

The end of the journey…

Decided to take a trip to the “old town” (I believe it is called Viejo Antigua but can’t remember for sure). The guys were just coming into town after their excursion to the Darien Gap and decided to meet us there for lunch. On the drive there we passed through some nice areas of homes and partially through the downtown with all the skyscrapers. The modern gray skyscrapers across the water were an interesting contrast to the old colorful buildings of Antigua. Wound through many narrow streets until we came to the water. Happens to be one of the locations where the last James Bond film, Quantum of Solace with Daniel Craig, was filmed.  Had lunch at an outdoor cafe across from some beautiful buildings, a statue, and a large yellow church. It was a very colorful city. I could have stayed there for days taking pictures. Spent the afternoon walking around the city, shopping, enjoying each other’s company on our last day together, and having ice cream. 

           

   

Ate at a restaurant called Sienna for dinner. It was across the street from where Quantum of Solace was filmed. By this point it was dark and the city was glowing with colorful lights. The restauranteur ushered us upstairs to a nice private room. We had a wine called, “Darien” in commemoration of our journey and reaching the end of the road. We took turns going around the room and remembering our trip by saying our favorite country and number one favorite memory (mine was Guatemala and the special Panama Canal tour – I didn’t pick this because the Prince of Belgium waved at us, I swear!). The food was exceptional.  Everyone said it was the best meal we’ve had the entire trip (and that’s saying a lot, because we have had some good food). The menu was extensive, but I couldn’t resist, I had to get the “Rollo de Pollo al estilo James Bond” (the James Bond chicken roll filled with asparagus, mushrooms, and bechamal sauce – when in Rome, right?).  

There was some big event going on in the city and in the middle of dinner and then again at dessert (apple pie, spanish pudding, chocolate mouse pie, coffee) we heard fireworks. Went out on the balcony to enjoy the fireworks, which were coming from two locations. It was great. The city, the water, the breeze, soft light, the balcony, crumbling vintage buildings,  the James Bond movie set, and fireworks. No matter how you slice it, you can’t beat that. It was a fitting end to a most amazing adventure.

  

 

Ends of the Earth Expedition, March 25-27, DAY 43-45

The days prior to our departure from Panama were spent relaxing, sightseeing, and preparing the trucks and paperwork for the journey back home via shipping container (not us, just the trucks). The boys spent ample time with the shipping agent and at the police station, waiting for the necessary inspections and paperwork to be processed to clear the vehicles for shipment back to the United States. The police station where the boys spent most of their time was located in a seedy area of town. Police officers in full battle regalia stood guard watching the vehicles. After a long morning of waiting, James decided to cross the street to get an ice cream. Before he could make it to the sidewalk, a police office approached him and said, “Get back in your vehicle and lock the door. You’re not safe here.” Needless to say, the girls were not welcome to accompany the boys with the shipping details. Fine with us…we were perfectly fine checking out the local shopping opportunities, including one of Central America’s largest malls. 

  

The following day, we took a trip to the Panama Canal. Special thanks to our in-country contact, Peter, who was able to score us a special access to walk across the locks of the canal and right up to the ships. Fewer than 100 people per year are allowed to do this so we were especially grateful. 

 

While we were waiting at the administrative offices prior to our tour, we noticed some commotion down below (we were on the second floor looked down at the front entrance). There were lots of people in suits, media, security, and then secret service (it was cool to see them talk into their super secret radios on their wrists). Soon everyone got “in place” – the cameras were rolling as the motorcade pulled up. The secret police came around and opened the door, quickly ushering the Prince of Belgium into the building. We were to learn later that the President of Panama was also at the Canal that day. 

  

The Panama canal is amazing. Many, many hands worked to make it possible to take ships from sea level, raise them up enough to allow them to travel over land via a waterway, then lower them back down to sea level on the other end. It is spectacular to see metal giants moved and manipulated by cable, water, tug boats, and train “mules.” 

  

Our tour guide, an older gentleman named Carlos, took us out the visitor center door and through the locked gate that kept the tourists away from the canal. Since the dignitary group was clogging up the closest lock, Carlos took us down to the next lock. (Yep, it was just us and the Prince of Belgium, President of Panama, and the secret service.  On our way down the walkway, Stacey waved to the prince and he waved back. We were giggling like school girls.) We were literally, mere feet from the water in the canal, stepping over the train tracks the mules use to pull the ships through the water. There was a ship in the far channel (big blue one) and another one approaching the second lane (black one). To get between the two channels we had to walk across the lock. When we were still on the first “door” of the lock a bell rang. Not knowing why it was significant, Stacey and I continued to stand there and take pictures. Pretty soon we realized the lock was opening with us on it. Me and Stacey had to quick run and take a big step to reach the other lock “door” which was swinging to the side of the canal we wanted to be on.  

  

Spent about 15-20 minutes between the channels. Received quite a few waves from the workers on the mules and cargo ships. I was most impressed with how quickly the ships are lowered once in the lock. (Check out the word “Maersk Sealand” on the blue ship to get a feel fro how much they lower the water level) and how close the ships are to the edge of the canal. (Fun fact: the black ship in the pictures is holding over 5,000 containers.)

  

  

  

Crossed back to the other side of the channel via the other lock, without incidence. Although I must admit, it is a little more scary walking across that lock when the water has been evacuated from one of the sides. It’s a long way down, but hey, but if the Prince of Belgium can do it, so can we.   

  
  

 

Ends of the Earth Expedition, March 23-24, DAY 41-42

 

Spent the last few days in route to Panama City. A few highlights: 

 

Stayed in Las Lejas on what will be our last beach camp. Water was extremely warm and had sting rays in it. There was a gorgeous sunset (unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me). Felt like the beaches of Central America were bidding us farewell. 

 

We were told about a German place for dinner down the road from where we were staying. We all piled in the Earthroamer and drove down the road looking for the German place. Came upon a restaurant where it was supposed to be, but it wasn’t a German place. In fact, it looked under construction. We pulled over to ask a pedestrian (who just happened to be the owner) and it turned out it was not a German restaurant but OWNED by Germans. We all had a good laugh about that. Anyway, Scott and I both had very good spaghetti bolognese. 

 

Spent the next day driving and that evening we stayed at a place owned by a couple who were fond of birds and had them in cages all over the campground. They had toucans, macaws, parakeets, etc. I was told the birds in the one cage talked. So I go over to the cage and begin talking to the bird trying to get it to talk back. “Hi birdy. Can you say hi? Hi pretty bird. Hello. Hi, can you talk? Hello. Hello. Hello? Do you talk, stupid bird?” I think I saw the bird roll his eyes as he said (and I kid you not), “Hola, como estas?”  Ahhh, yeah. We’re in a spanish speaking country. The bird speaks spanish. Yeah…who’s looking stupid now. 

 

I thought I’d share some “creative wiring” we’ve seen on our journey. These pictures were taken from Mexico to Panama:

  

      

 

Ends of the Earth Expedition, March 22, DAY 40

The big event for the day was crossing our seventh and final boarder into Panama. We ended up at the boarder a little later than we anticipated, about 4:30 pm (thankfully, it was open until 8 pm, or we might have been spending the night there). The boarder crossing was pretty uneventful, except the lady who wanted the “convenience fee” of $50 to let Dave bring two vehicles in to Panama (his son was driving one, but they were both in his name). We decided to go ahead and pay the extortion to save us from possibly having to come back the next day when the notary was open. The no-mans land between Costa Rica and Panama was a duty free zone, and was full of people shopping, buses, dogs, dirt, and the typical boarder chaos. We cleared the boarder in a few hours and had a beautiful sunset in our rear view mirror as we pulled away. 

  

 

Ends of the Earth Expedition, March 19-21, DAY 37-39

Upon recommendation from Dave Harrington, owner of American Expedition Vehicles, we took a route over to the Rafiki Lodge, which is situated above Silencio on 800 acres of pristine Costa Rican jungle. The main lodge is a gorgeous open air, thatched roof building overlooking a pool and acres of hills covered in lush vegetation. The rooms are large African safari tents that sleep 4 (in beds) each with its own deck and fully working (and spacious) bathroom. 

  

We arrived to “welcome drinks” and a very nice lunch. Soon we had our bathing suits on and had a raging competition going to see who could reach the pool the fastest via the water slide. Billed as the second fastest water slide in the world, you depart from the lodges bar (not kidding) to drop 100 feet via a concrete half pipe to the kidney shaped pool below. Originally, we thought, “the second fastest water slide in the world, yeah right.” But they weren’t kidding. We howled with laughter as one after another we plummeted down the water slide at record breaking speeds, crashing into the water below with enough force to displace gallons of water from the pool (the grass around the pool is very green). Charlie was the winner of our little competition with a lightening fast 3.5 second descent.     

  

We spent the next few days exploring the area. We rode horses and in vehicles, hiked, white water rafted and talked conservation with Loejie, a biologist and the lodges owner, who is working on Tapir reintroduction. We experienced the rich diversity of the Costa Rican jungle, from massive chicken trees and spiny ferns to cutter ants, poison dart frogs, huge red-faced iguanas and jesus christ lizards (the have special air pockets on their feet which allow them to walk on water). 

  

The owners and staff of Rafiki were very pleasant and helpful. They provided exceptional service and great food. If you ever find yourself on the pacific cost of Costa Rica, and in need of a place to stay (you can camp there too) I highly recommend it. It is a first class destination. 

 

Ends of the Earth Expedition, March 17-18, DAY 35-36

Ended up at Lake Arenal. The lake and surrounding area are extremely beautiful. Reminded me of a cross between Hawaii and Santa Barbara, California. 

 

On our way out the next day, we came across a cute little animal on the side of the road. Kinda looked like a slender raccoon. When we came around another corner the animals were everywhere. Probably about 2 dozen of them. We pulled over to get pictures. They ran right up to the truck. James and Stacey threw nuts out the window and were absolutely mobbed by them. Found out later the animals are called Coati’s. 

You have to have a little fun while your on expedition. After all, an adventurer can’t spend ALL their time exploring. Every once in a while you just need to get out of the truck. That’s what we did today with a little help from a canopy tour company. 

 

The guides suited us up with hard hats, gloves, and a harness. A quick lesson about slowing down and where not to put your hands and we were off. The tour was through the jungle canopy, so we began by climbing up, up, up a huge tree to the first line (I did question my sanity a little bit about 3/4 of the way up). Once we were comfortable zipping down the lines through the trees about a million feet from the ground, the guides decided it was time to mix things up. On the fifth zip line, the guide flipped each of us over so we were hanging by our waist in the harness and pushed us off the platform. The trees were a blur as we flew over the top of them face down (I wasn’t the only one who alternated between screams and laughter). On the tenth line (a particularly long one, that has you barely clearing the bottom of a large tree limb) the guides bounced the line after they sent each of us off and we bounced wildly up and down as we slide down the line. On the last tree stand there was a whole bunch of monkeys and monkey babies in the tree by the line. We also saw a large iguana. All too soon our tour was complete, and we came screaming into the station. 

  

  

Hmmm, after further thought…we were flying OVER the land, so maybe it was overlanding. Regardless it was a grand adventure. 

 

Ends of the Earth Expedition, March 14-16, DAY 32-34

Some of the highlights from the last few days:

Arrived at the Costa Rican boarder. When we pulled up to the boarder, James and Stacey, who were in the lead vehicle position got swarmed by the “boarder fixers.” They were like a plague of locusts, completely enveloping their truck. We assured the fixers repeatedly we were capable of getting ourselves across the boarder, but they just wouldn’t let up. Finally, James, our New Yorker, turned on his New York attitude and the fixers got the hint real quick. Got ourselves and the vehicles out of Nicaragua and imported in to Coast Rica. It was all very smooth. 

 

Stopped at the “Jumbo Market” in Liberia for food. True to our experience with pervious grocery stores, this one had an affinity for music. A band was playing in the entrance to the grocery store. We just had to laugh. 

Arrived at Playa Tamarindo, on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. We were going to camp in the parking lot of a place called Lola’s (Lola is a big old pig) but there were tons of people there. It was clearly the happening spot. While us girls hit the local clothing and jewelry vendors, the boys found us a great place to camp down the road right on the beach. 

Spent the next day combing the beach for shells, relaxing, doing laundry, swimming in the pacific ocean, and eating at the charming little place next door. The waves were great and attracted many surfers to the area. The water temperature was warm. Air temp was about 88 degrees. The beach was sandy and beautiful. 

  

After dinner next door, I sat in one of the hammocks on the beach. My senses were tantalized – swinging in the hammock, the ocean surf roaring before me, the stars were brilliant and bright, only obstructed by the palm trees swaying in the slight breeze above me, and Jane Monhet playing softly in the background. It was a lovely way to end a most amazing day. 

 

Ends of the Earth Expedition, March 12-13, DAY 30, 31

Left the volcano and headed toward the beach via an overland route. Really nice narrow road, lots of greenery, pretty trees sometimes creating a canopy over the road, that constantly gained and lost elevation. At one point we could see the volcano we just camped at, at another we could see the city of Managua. Some of the power lines were low-hanging. Sometimes we would have to get out and get a stick to lift them a little so the large EarthRoamer could fit under them. All the towns people seemed real friendly. One man welcomed us by shouting out, “Welcome to Nicaragua.” 

 

Arrived at beach around 5pm. We wanted to drive out on the beach and camp, but there was a full-moon tide so the water was about 10 feet higher than normal on the beach, leaving little room for us. We drove down the road trying to find beach access to no avail. Finally, we stumbled upon a large lot with a grande palm ramada with a nice tile floor mere feet from the beach. Asked both neighbors and no one said they’d seen the owner in a long time. We debated, but finally decided to camp there. The owner did end up coming by the next day and was happy to have us there.

 

Spent the next day relaxing, exploring, working on the trucks, and braving the powerful pacific ocean before we concluded with an exceptional group dinner of curry BBQ’d chicken, rice, and stir-fry vegetables in a coconut ginger sauce.  

 

Ends of the Earth Expedition, March 11, DAY 29

Drove to the Masaya volcano. It is an active volcano that continually releases smoke and gas. The large parking lot is scared from the lava rock that fell from the sky in 2001, the last time it erupted. The volcano crater looks like a large pit in the ground, similar to what we see in some of the mining operations in Arizona. The rocks surrounding the crater are an interesting shade of yellow and green. A sulfur smell permeates the air, in fact, it’s so thick you taste it. 

 

We received special permission to drive an overland route to the other side of the volcano with the park guides. It was a great route that reminded us a little of the jungle in Guatemala. On the way back, the guides pulled out hard hats for us all to wear and had us get out and walk down a path to the bat cave (I’m not kidding). It was completely dark at this point (about 7 pm). We came to a big tree and we had to use the stones and tree roots to climb down to the opening of a cave. It is estimated that 20,000 bats live in this cave. We began to descend into the cave and would instinctively duck as the bats would fly by us on their way out of the dark, moist cave. The further we got in the cave, the more bats there were. In one chamber where we stopped they were just everywhere. Without our lights it was so dark, you couldn’t see them, but you could hear a high-pitched screeching noise. If we turned off all the lights and just stood there, you could feel the air from their wings as they swoosh by your head. When we took a picture using our flash, all of a sudden you would hear a loud swooshing away, like they were heading toward you, but the flash or noise of the camera made them turn away. It was crazy how many there were when we illuminated the cave – like hundreds all flying around us.

 

After we had our fill of bats, a lava tunnel where the ancient people conducted ritual sacrifices, and a look over the edge of the volcano into the depths to see the glowing lava, we made dinner and camped in the parking lot of the volcano – that is after we signed a release saying something to the effect that we wouldn’t hold the park liable if, say the volcano erupted in the night and we all died (I know, doesn’t make sense to me either), but we were willing to sign anything to add one more “life does not suck moment” to our repertoire. 

 

Ends of the Earth Expedition, March 9-10, DAY 27, 28

The main road from Esteli to Leon was CRAZY. Full of HUGE potholes. Some of them, you could lose your vehicle in, they were so big. 

 

Could see several smoking volcanos off in the distance. One of the volcanos had a smoke port in the side of the mountain. 

 

Landscape is very arid and dry. Temperature keep creeping up and up, until it was at 100 degrees, by far the hottest we’ve experienced thus far on our trip. 

 

Came into Leon. Typical nicer town, with colorful buildings and narrow cobblestone streets. About 7 pm Scott and I walked into town. There is a university in Leon, so there were a lot of kids out and about, riding bikes, hanging out, playing hand-ball, goofing off at the square. Found a little restaurant on the square that was totally open to the outside. Sat in one of the tables overlooking the square and had dinner. After dinner, we walked to the ice cream shop. Got a cookie sundae and sat at the tables overlooking the street. Watched the people go by and contemplated how our lives are vastly different from theirs, but also very much the same.