Category: Birds

Instagram Feeds

Instagram Feeds

We’ve been seeing so many incredible birds (Colombia has more bird species than any other country) and vintage cars (Colombia also seemingly has more vintage SUVs than any country) that I decided to (or succumbed to) start a couple Instagram feeds. Feel free to follow, if you’re so inclined.

Birds: Balakay @balakaysbirds

Cars: Vanablog @workingvintages

Some Cock-of-the-Rocks

Some Cock-of-the-Rocks

Caught a few of these Andean Cock-of-the-Rocks just outside Jardin, Colombia. Beautiful, crazy birds.

The males, as you can see, have disk-like mohawks and brilliant blood-orange plumage. They head-bang and squeal (kinda sound like pigs; see video below) when courting females. We didn’t actually see any females, however. At least we don’t think we did. Andean Cock-of-the-Rocks, like many birds, exhibit sexual dimorphism: the females are much smaller and duller than the males.

Jardin

Speaking of Jardin, we’ve decided to stay here for a month. It’s a gorgeous pueblo, and we fell in love with it the moment we arrived. We even got the kids enrolled in the local schools and Everett’s joined a soccer team and Paheli’s taking ballet. I’ll update the blog with more stories as we further explore the city and surrounding countryside.

Cartagena, Columbia

Cartagena, Columbia

Colonial meets Caribbean.

Bureau-crazy!

Fortunately, I had the pleasure of sharing this pain with our new best buds and fellow overlanders, Wendo, Chris, and Tyler. For two full days (8am to 5pm), in long pants and closed-toed shoes — not allowed inside government offices without them — we trekked across Cartagena through swampy heat, sweating pit stains the size of basketballs, to fill out papers and wait for God-knows-what. Our van eventually emerged from its container. No worse for wear.

The Walled City

The more prominent, more touristy area of the city is behind a doubly fortified wall built by the Spanish, as are most of the churches and colonial structures. It’s gorgeous and quaint inside. Worlds and (literally) miles away from the stark white, Miami-like towers flanking the walls. In this way, and in many other ways, Cartagena reminds me of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Spanish, despite their faults, at least built sweet cities.

Fun fact: Just ten to fifteen years ago, the walled part of the city, the old town if you will, was nearly in ruins. Due to crime and lack of tourism. You could buy a colonial house for as little as fifteen thousand dollars. That same house today will cost you over a million. Man, if only we’d had the foresight….

Blue-and-yellow Macaw

Caught this guy (or gal?) munching on berries during one of the many boring, bureaucratic waits. Didn’t have my fancy camera at the time.

The Most Interesting Conversation(s)

Before we left Idaho, Everett’s kindergarten teacher passed along her sister’s contact information in Colombia. We reached out to her in Panama.

Andrea and the kids were able to lunch with her, Patti, a retired schoolteacher, and her husband, James, a nearly retired DEA agent during one of the two days I spent filling out forms I didn’t understand.

Andrea WhatsApped me as soon as she finished, still beaming from the conversation. I was jealous. Then she told me that James, current Assistant Regional Director for the DEA Andean Region — the cocaine capital of the world! — wanted to meet with me — the current Cheetos cheese puff champion of the world — for drinks. I was stoked.

The Meet And Drink

It did not disappoint. I, with the confidence inspired by a Club Colombia Negra, brazenly asked every question that I’ve ever wanted to know about drug trafficking. And James, with the confidence inspired by career-long civil service, answered the questions he was allowed to answer. Here are a few of the highlights from the conversation:

  • Colombia is still the biggest trafficker of cocaine in the world, even more so than the Pablo Escobar era. It’s just not as reported because (thankfully) the crime has significantly decreased.
  • The drug cartels in Mexico are controlling most of the drug trade in the Americas. And they’re bad bad dudes. Make the Cali and Medellin cartels look like ninnys.
  • One of his agents caught like four tons of coke while we drank our two beers.
  • Do this math: Cartagena has had five mayors in the last seven years. All jailed for corruption.
  • Bushels of coke are grown in Bolivia and Peru as well.
  • Speedboats and semisubmersible submarines smuggle drogas from southern Colombia to Central America.
  • The Ecuador / Colombia boarder on the Pacific is ground zero for cocaine distribution from South to Central and North America.

Then, just five minutes after this conversation, I got offered (didn’t buy Mom and Dad!) coke on the street. What a world.

Playa Dominical, Costa Rica

Playa Dominical, Costa Rica

Our last stop in Costa Rica.

Beach Score: 6 out of 10

Not the most scenic beach. Though it’s probably because it looks like many of the other surf beaches we visited — namely Playa Grande, Playa Guiones, and Playa Santa Teresa — and thus its score suffers from redundancy. The sand isn’t whiter. The views aren’t prettier. It did, however, seem to have some good waves. If that’s your thing (as it was with my father-in-law, who caught several).

Craft Brew Score: 7 out of 10

We ate comida and imbibed cervezas one night at El Fuego Brew Co. The design of this place is awesome. Completely open floor plan overlooking the jungle and with filtered views of the sea. Modern yet tropically rustic. A rainstorm plummeted the brewery while we ate, drank, and were merry, firing smells and slights and sounds down from El Fuego’s metal roof and making the merry that much merrier.

The beer was tasty albeit flat. As has most of the craft beer we’ve tried thus far in Central and South America. Perhaps it’s just a Northern hemisphere thing. Northern hemisphere temperament. US and European beers have a more carbonated kick. And proper carbonation — and temperature, on the frontier of freezing — seems necessary in tropical climates. Drinking flat, warm beer near the equator is the equivalent of drinking a slushy near the Poles.

Whale Tour Score: 8 out of 10

Spent one day spotting humpbacks in the waters outside of the Parque Nacional Marino Ballena. While we didn’t see as many whales as when we visited Bahia De Magdalena in Mexico, it was a fun and scenic (where the picture above was taken) tour nonetheless. See video of a mom and her calf below.

Cafe Score: 9 out of 10

Unfortunately we discovered this place after we dropped Andrea’s dad and sister off at the airport. Cafe Mono Congo. Perched just up the mouth — would that make it down the throat? — of the Rio Baru and Pacific Ocean. The coffee and tea, brewed through a traditional chorreador, a wood stand holding a cloth bag, was exceptional. The breakfast burritos were the best we had in Central America. The service impecable. The vistas incredible. We saw Fiery-billed Aracaris, Cherrie’s Tanagers, Bluegray Tanagers, and Yellow-Throated Toucans in our short visit.

Bird Score: 10 out of 10

These Yellow-Throated Toucans were having a good time in this mango tree. Managed to catch one catching a piece of mango.

The Resplendent Quetzal!

The Resplendent Quetzal!

After three failed attempts — once near Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, once in Monteverde National Park in Costa Rica, and once in Santa Elena National Park in Costa Rica — we finally saw one! Four in fact.

Parque Nacional Los Quetzales

We decided, or I suppose I forced, we’d give spotting the quetzal one final shot. One final cloud forest. So we chose the park with the name that alludes to its prominent feature. We also decided to hire a guide (we’d hired one in Guatemala as well). While our guide didn’t actually take us into the park — just a quick hike off the road, which kinda felt like a ripoff — he ultimately delivered. A moss-wrapped avocado tree where two males and two females were eating breakfast.

They were younger quetzals, as demonstrated by the length of the males’ (the more brightly colored ones) tails. Older males can have feathers up to three feet long — Moctezuma’s headdress in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City is made of quetzal feathers. They were breathtaking nonetheless. Check out these beauties below.

(The shot above and the first five below were taken with a Nikon P900; the bottom photo and video were taken with an iPhone through a Swarovski telescope, which is a remarkably crystal clear device. I suppose that’s where that description comes from. I’ve literally never seen anything like it.)

The Cloud Forests of Costa Rica

The Cloud Forests of Costa Rica

Or at least two of them.

We’ve ventured near cloud forests thrice on this trip: camped near one in Mexico, hiked near one in Guatemala, and intended but got blockaded near one in Nicaragua. We’ve ventured into cloud forests twice (thus far) in Costa Rica.

Biodiversity

Despite occupying less than 1% of the world’s woodlands, cloud forest contain 15% of the world’s biodiversity. Or some remarkable stat like that. I can’t remember the exact numbers from the brochure I read — and Google isn’t helping at the moment — but, basically, lots of bio stuff happens in little space.

Monteverde

We went to Monteverde to witness this biodiversity. Or at least Andrea and the kids did. I went to see the Replendent Quetzal, a brilliant bird that eluded us in Guatemala, and to save you the drama, continues to elude us in Costa Rica…. We did see lots of clouds, however.

We arrived at dusk. The guards were chipper enough to let us camp just outside the gate. One even called me “dude”. They also encouraged us to check out the Colibrí (hummingbird) Cafe just outside the park. So we did. Hundreds of hummingbirds, from the cute and endemic Coppery-headed Emerald to the larger and aggressive Violet Sabrewing, buzzed our ears. It was awesome. It would, however, be the most birds we’d see.

We entered the park as soon as it opened. 7am. It was sunny. Briefly. Within meters of entering, the clouds, like an army of weary soldiers, began marching toward the forest. Then it began to drizzle. Then the wind began to whisper. We, like the guards from the previous night, who had remanned their posts that morning, remained chipper. We’ve fought weather before.

We spotted two Bananaquits and one Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush a few meters later. Except for one errant Azure-hooded Jay halfway into the hike, that’s all we’d spot. The entire hike. The allied forces of clouds, rain, and wind assaulted us for the next four hours. Visibility was reduced to a few meters. Yet the hike remained enjoyable. We even crossed a hanging bridge at one point.

As soon as we exited the park, the forces relented. A troop of howler monkeys appeared. A Green Hermit buzzed my ears. We retreated to the Colibrí Cafe for brownies, coffee, and hot chocolate.

Santa Elena

We took my parents — who left yesterday (sad face) after spending the last two weeks touring Costa Rica with us — to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest to see the Quetzal, err, biodiversity. Unfortunately, we saw much of the same: clouds, rain, and wind. Oh, and much more mud.

Santa Elena is an equally impressive forest in terms of terrain, though the trails aren’t as well-maintained. We hiked through mud the entire three hours — Everett and my father both had epic plummets into the mud. But, like in Monteverde, the hike was still beautiful. Otherworldly. Like venturing through a fantasy.

Here Comes The Sun, Doo Doo Doo Doo

If you visit the cloud forests of Costa Rica — and you certainly should! — stay nearby and wait for the weather to break before entering. You’ll see much more biodiversity if you do.

El Salvador

El Salvador

Home of the MS-13. And pupusas (stuffed tortillas)!

Crossing the Border

El Salvador is certainly one of the, how do I say this without frightening my parents, more murder-y, err, less safe, countries we’re traveling through. And border towns are typically less safe than other towns. We were determined to van through. Rápido. Then we saw a three-mile long line of semi-trucks….

We paid a fixer, a local that works for tips and speeds you through the crossing. Other overlanders seem defiantly against using fixers, as if it insults their travel expertise. We’ve loved the service. Saves mucho tiempo. Plus you get a new buddy for an hour or two.

We would not have made it through the border that day without our fixer. He told us exactly what copies to deposit in what rooms. Where to flash our passports. He weaved us in and out of traffic. Hustled. Bribed a few truck drivers. He even at one point held up traffic on a bridge, thus allowing us to pass a dozen semis. Earned his tip in other words.

The Roads

The roads were instantaneously better upon crossing the border. Smooth. Relatively trash-free. Canopied by flamboyantly red Árbol De Fuego trees (brachychiton acerifolius). Lined by an ocean on one side and quaint tiendas on the other. Gorgeous. I suppose, given my preconceived notions of El Salvador, I was expecting worse. Less developed. Bodies hanging from telephone poles. To be robbed at least twice — we even prepped both our fake wallets. But we’ve only had one attempted robbery on this trip….

That One Time in San Felipe

Our third night in Mexico.

Andrea was, as per usual, tossing and turning. Or so I thought. Then I heard her whisper-yell: “Someone is stealing our bikes!” I busted out of the van doors, launched toward the thief with my arms up in what only can be described as the “attacking gorilla” position, and released a guttural, primordial scream that, at least in my mind, sounded like a grizzly — it could’ve been a chirp, however. Whatever it was, it worked. The thief, who had successfully picked our bike lock and removed three of the four bikes, dropped his stolen bag of goodies and ran off. It was probably the manliest thing I’ve ever done — though I may have wept silently for the remainder of that night.

Rancho Carolina

Pronounced Care-o-lee-na, as we were quickly corrected.

We stayed here our first two nights. A black sand beach around the corner from one of El Salvador’s most famous tourist and surf destinations, El Tunco. Probably a great spot for surfers. Not for swimmers. The current was intense. Fortunately, the campground had a clean, cool pool.

Cadejo Brewing

Andrea spotted a brewery around the corner from the campground. I almost didn’t believe her. I didn’t want to believe her. I couldn’t be let down by another water-flavored beer. I have too many other first-world problems to deal with.

Taking all things into consideration — food and beverage quality, atmosphere, service, etc. — it was the best meal we’ve had in Central America. Awesome tacos. Amazing burgers. And great beers. All with incredible views and service to boot. Oh, and the sweet sculpture below.

Motmot

At one point, in the middle of our bliss and as if on cue, the state bird of El Salvador, the Turquoise-browned Motmot, landed on a post below our table. Andrea, disbelieving, asked: “Is that a real bird?” I quickly quipped: “No, the brewery invested in flying mechanical birds.” It was surreal, however.

The Turquoise-browned Motmot has a turquoise brow and wings, a grassy-colored back, and an orange belly. It also has a crazy, long, turquoise and black tail that splits at the end; each end looks like a broom. See video below.

Playa De Esteron

We’ve spent the last three nights, and tonight, at Adela’s Hostel, Campground, and Restaurant. It’s an awesome locale. The beach is wide and flat and has some of the softest latte-colored sand we’ve ever encountered. If the sand were whiter — as mentioned before, I’m a beach color racist — it’d make my top ten list. And the water temperature, unlike most the Pacific coast beaches we’ve visited thus far, is perfect. For Andrea at least. It’s almost too warm for me.

And Adela is a wonderful host. Perhaps the nicest human we’ve met on this trip. She even went out of her to get medicine and electrolytes for Everett, who spent two nights ago upchucking everything in his belly.

Ya Feel Bad

Every El Salvadoran we’ve met has been innately and refreshingly friendly. It’s too bad a few gangs in a concentrated area in San Salvador have converted their beautiful country into the murder capital of the world.

I certainly wouldn’t dissuade anyone from visiting. I’m guessing, based on the prevalence of dying resorts near the beach, El Salvador could use the tourism. And bang for buck: you’d be hard-pressed to find a better beach vacation. Just fly into San Salvador during the day, and then get out as soon as you can. The rest of the country is, somewhat literally, waiting for you with open arms.

Birds of Lago Atitlan

Birds of Lago Atitlan

Hay mucho.

El Mirador

We went to see two things: the cloud forest and a quetzal. We saw one of those things.

The Resplendent Quetzal is the state bird of Guatemala. It lives up to its name. It has a dainty, yellow beak, an awesome mohawk, coral blue shoulders, a royal red belly, and a lime green forked tail that’s as twice as long as its body. It looks like, to me at least, the bird your kids would imagine after being asked to draw and color a tropical bird from some foreign country (see photo above, courtesy of Wikipedia). I’m hoping to see one in person one day….

(Since being in Guatemala, I’ve had this fantasy — which unfortunately demonstrates my ego; it’s also muy Colonel Kurtz of me — about a quetzal landing on my shoulder in some city centre and then the locals, shortly thereafter, declaring me king. The quetzal, which I’d name Buster, would remain on or near my should for the rest of my life and would become my best friend while the two of us guided Guatemala into the most advanced, progressive, and stable country in the world. We’d also eat a lot of Sponches together.)

Bird Noises

No roosters necessary here. A varietal of birds will wake you every morning.

Great-tailed Grackles start the morning with a fire alarm. Followed by a mechanical clacking. Then finish with a broken bicycle bell honk. While they do this, they fan their great tails and flaunt their long necks, fawning for other grackles. Or perhaps the campers. Then Tropical Mockingbirds, a white and grey and fairly clandestine bird, until it’s time to call, will sing through its entire songbook of calls. This takes several minutes. Then finally, the clay-colored thrush, a drab, dirt-colored bird that’s risen to the distinction of the state bird of Costa Rica, will complete a variety of “pretty bird” whistles. These beautiful “noises” will wake you by six.

Dog Fighters

We’ve narrowed it down to three: Black-Capped Swallow, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, and/or White-throated Swift. Our guts, our eyes really, think it’s one of the swallows, based on wingspan alone. But we’re not sure. They are swift. And erratic. They zig and zag and dive and dash like dog fighters in Top Gun. They also get particularly active at dusk. Given their shape and flight patterns, they’re easy to confound with bats.

Hummingbird Haven

For the next three weeks and for last three weeks — yes, I’m behind with the posts — we’ve been staying at a campground slash hotel, Pasaj Cap. Check it out here. It was built from stones and wood harvested onsite, and designed by a French architect, Pierre, with modernist and minimalists proclivities. The landscaping is lush and vibrant. Hummingbirds flutter everywhere. I’ve seen both the Cinnamon and White-eared Hummingbirds just outside our windows.

La Nariz del Indio

We hiked Indian Nose, as the locals say to us gringos, yesterday. Didn’t see many birds. Our guide, Clemente, who is also our Spanish tutor, blamed that fact on the locals clearcutting the forests. I did, or at least I think I did, see a Blue-and-White Mockingbird — I wasn’t confident enough in the spot to claim it in my bird log. I was, however, impressed with the hike. Incredible, panoramic views of the lake (see below).

Otros Pajaros

Quick list of other unique (to me at least) birds we’ve seen here: White-winged Dove, Bronzed Cowbird, Western Wood-Pewee, Yellow Warbler, Blue-gray Tanager, Rufous-collared Sparrow, and Black-venter Oriole. Hoping to see a lot more before we depart.

Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Sweet River. Indeed.

Bye Bye Bikes

One too many topes. One too many crappy roads. The steel on our Yakima FullSwing severed in half, dragging our bikes on the highway. We were fortunate we checked our rear view camera when we did. We pulled over in a small village a couple dozen kilometers outside of Tikal. The rack was toast, ripped in half like a piece of toast. And we couldn’t fit all the bikes inside the van. Thus, the cheaper ones, Andrea’s and Paheli’s, were donated to the village, along with the remnants of the rack. We sold what was left of Everett and my bikes for pennies on the quetzal in Antigua.

The Funny Thing About Expectations

We’d been told from a fellow traveling family that it was a good stop. A great stop if you consider the quality of the showers. It was also a convenient half-way point between our previous destination, Tikal, and our next destination, Antigua. We didn’t see many other options on the map. At least other options that did not involve sketchy roads.

We’re not sure what we were expecting. A nice stop. A warm shower. Perhaps a flushing toilet. We weren’t expecting a gorgeous, otherworldly river.

It felt like floating through a scene in Avatar as we cruised up the river Rio Dulce toward the Caribbean. Limestone cliffs surround you. Volcanos overshadow you. Snowy and Great Egrets, pure white, glide from perch to perch over you. Northern Jacanas, Jesus birds as some call them, with their banana yellow beaks and scary, spidery toes, hop across lilly pads near you. Iguanas swim, yes swim, in front of you. And occasionally, an artfully and architecturally fetching hut, juts from the jungle next to you.

Fun Stops

We made two fun stops in route to Livingston, the town at the cusp of the Caribbean. The first was a restaurant slash place to extract tourist dollars for the local community (a non-profit restaurant, which is pretty cool). Next to the restaurant, a natural hot springs flowed into the river. It lived up to its name. You have to swirl the river with the spring water to make it tolerable. The second was a restaurant slash mini water park. A couple waterslides, a trampoline, a rope-swing, and several jumping platforms extend from the deck of the restaurant. You can eat here. You probably should eat here. But if you’re like the Lingle’s, you’ll be far too focused on the waterslides to concentrate on eating.

The Spanish Again

Spanish conquistadors sailed up the Rio Dulce to invade Guatemala. While, I suppose, it’s a bit sensational, a bit, como se dice, macabre, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would’ve felt like to witness the massive Spanish galleons wind from the ocean through the limestone cliffs, which get quite narrow in sections, to the mouth of Lago de Isabel, where they launched their attack on Antigua. But I’m fascinated by sailboats.

Ram Marina

Hence one reason we chose (or were likely forced, by me) to stay here. The facilities were immaculate, built for the yuppy yachters that dock here after a season sailing the Caribbean. It has laundry, a well-provisioned grocery store (one of the best we’ve seen in Guatemala), nice showers, and of course, bundles of beautiful boats. Most days, I found myself just strolling the grounds, ogling, lusting really, over the various catamarans “on the hard”.

Awesome Stop

This may have been our favorite stop on this trip thus far. Life mimics the tempo of the river here. Peaceful. Calm. Serene. It’s a place where you can, and you want to, just squat in a chair with a book and watch the sailboats meander by.

Tikal

Tikal

Okay. We lied: Palenque is not the Indiana Jones ruins. Tikal is. This is where you can harness your inner Indiana — though, unlike Palenque, they don’t sell fedoras at the entrance.

Calm Ruins

I’m sure Tikal gets overrun. We arrived on a Sunday. We expected throngs of tourbuses and tourists and trash and tiendas. General chaos. We expected to wait until Monday. What we got instead, was a handful of cars, a few buses, and two Ocellated Turkeys.

It was overcast and the Weather app said rain. We’d just polished off some fairly epic chicken paninis at the Jaguar Inn, where we were crashing (they allow overlanders to overnight in the parking lot). Given the weather, and our full bellies, naps seemed imminent. Or perhaps slices of key lime pie and then naps. Inertia for certain. But the more we looked around, the more we were reminded how few humans were around. It felt like having Disneyland to yourself. We couldn’t risk crowds on another day. We packed our raincoats and marched toward the entrance. Andrea grabbed a coffee.

Creature Sites and Sounds

When the Mayans left — reasons are uncertain, ranging from overpopulation to agrarian failures to meteorological drought — animals moved in. And mosquitos. Though I suspect both were there before the Mayans.

White-nosed coatis now roam the streets — a band of coatis passed right by us at one point, momentarily petrifying Everett and Paheli. Spider and Black Howler Monkeys leap through the trees. Red-lored Parrots, Masked Tityras, Lineated Woodpeckers, Keel-billed Toucans, and Montezuma Oropendolas fly overhead.

Tikal is a feast for the eyes and ears. Howler monkeys yell conversations between the trees. Spider monkeys drop fruit seeds from the canopy, which sounds like rain. Toucans croak. Woodpeckers hammer. Parrots squawk (they’re kind of annoying). And oropendolas make that bizarre, mechanical teapot sound heard here.

Sheer Size

Tikal is the largest excavated ruin in the Americas. It felt like it. It’s a twenty to thirty minute walk, down an ancient, crumbling Mayan causeway canopied by rainforest, to the first significant structures. Another twenty minutes to the next. I’m guessing we walked ten miles (at least). And we didn’t see everything.

We also hiked to both the top of the Lost World Pyramid and Temple IV, the tallest pyramid/temple in Tikal and pre-Columbian structure still erect in the New World. Our glutes were nice and taught. Temple IV was also where George Lucas filmed the scene where the Millennium Falcon flies over the Rebel Alliance base on Yavin 4 in Episode IV: A New Hope! We took the photo below from that exact location.

Tikal, with it’s bisecting causeways (named after the archeologists that discovered them), and grouped structures, felt more like a city than a site, unlike many of the other ruins we’ve visited, whose main structures were concentrated in a condensed area. Though Tikal (est. 90,000) never grew to the size of Teotihuacan (est. 250,000), it remained an important, some say the most important, Mayan site until its final collapse.

You could spend days, weeks, touring and absorbing Tikal. Many do. We only lasted an afternoon. It was, however, with the slight rain and slight tourists, just about the perfect afternoon to hike the tens of miles and thousands of steps to witness this archeological marvel. A world heritage site and one of seven wonders of the new world.