Category: Stories

Islas de San Blas, Panama

Islas de San Blas, Panama

Find your beach….

Sailing to Panama

I’m fascinated by sailing. Partly because I have a healthy fear of the ocean. And it’s healthy to confront your fears…right….right?! Part of that’s because it feels primordial. Sailboats were constructed as early as 4000 BC. And part of that’s because of the romance. Finding that hidden white-sand beach. For these reasons, I got my sailing license this year.

Also for these reasons, we decided (or I forced us) to sail versus fly from Panama to Colombia. We arranged a private sail with six other overlands.

The Experience

The experience was incredible, not only because of the sailing and the islands but also because of the people. Despite being the definition of close quarters — thirteen humans, one boat — we all quickly became best o’ buds. The other overlanders — Wenbo and Xi, a couple from China traveling in a Jeep Compass, Chris and Mark, brothers from Colorado traveling in a vintage Landcruiser, and Tyler and Meghan, a couple from Colorado traveling in a diesel Ford 150 and truck camper — tolerated us just enough that, even after the five-day sail, we rented an apartment in Cartagena for four nights. It took us that long to get our vehicles out of their shipping containers.

The crew — full-time captain Ayelen from Argentina, former nurse and current explorer and first mate Thomas from France, and sabbatical-ed medical doctor and aspiring gelato entrepreneur and current deckhand Sergio from Italy — was experienced and uber-friendly. They comforted us on our extremely uncomfortable sailboat, a 44-ft regatta-style monohull se llama Victory. We hit two epic storms in route, the first and second to last nights. Thanks to a good crew and good drugs, none of us vomited. Though few slept. We were certainly wet for wear. Every cabin leaked. Victory isn’t watertight.

The crew also prepared amazing meals in a kitchen about the size of a washing machine. All of us were amazed how fresh and funky and fantastic everything was, despite at times being in the middle of the ocean. One night they even arranged for twenty lobsters to be caught and cooked by some of the indigenous Kuna Indians on one of the islands. That meal alone would’ve been a fifty spot in the US.

A Swallow on a Winch

This guy rode along for a few hours.

(Photo courtesy of Colorado Chris.)

Beach Score: 9.5 out of 10

This is where they film the Corona commercials (seemingly). It’s like one Corona beach after another. You can truly find your beach here. There’s one for every day of the year.

We visited four islands in total (saw many more) — can’t remember any names, though I suspect many don’t have them — the last two were the most idyllic. The last one also had a reef encompassing one side of the island that was more scenic than anything I’ve seen thus far on this trip. Spectacular snorkeling.

Wild Night

Parenting is challenging. Especially when you’re around your kids twenty-four hours per day seven days per week and for the last (almost) three hundred and sixty-five days. Occasionally, however and of course, your kids give you these insane bursts of joy, insane bursts of pride. Paheli did that on one of the islands one night.

We’d been sailing, snorkeling, and swimming most of the day. Most of us were pooped. But we decided to burn the night away anyway. We made a massive bonfire from fallen palm branches.

A dozen songs later, Everett and Andrea retreated to Victory. Paheli wanted to stay. Despite my eyelashes feeling like miniature dumbbells were attached, I agreed. And I’m stoked I did. Paheli stole the show! She danced, she sang, she danced more. She got other people to dance, culling folks one at a time or all together — she was very specific about whom could dance and when — into her electric dance vortex. A legendary performance.

(Photo courtesy of Colorado Chris.)

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.)

Costa Caribe, Costa Rica

Costa Caribe, Costa Rica

We spent almost two weeks — and I struggled / hated myself for typing this next word, but it just seemed like the right word — chillaxing on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. Despite raining nearly 75% of the time, it was epic.

Sloths, Sloths, Two Toed Sloths, Three Toed Sloths

Everett’s song about sloths, performed below, has been stuck in my mind since he penned it. We may have the next John Lennon on our hands.

We saw our first sloth within the first hours of arriving at the beach. I decided to stroll to the granite cliffs jutting from the north end of the beach, witnessed some folks oddly ogling a tree, and then saw the sloth. Sloths actually. The mom (actually, that’s sexist: it could’ve been the dad) was carrying a baby that, like the algae that gives the gray-brown sloth its green hue, seemed to be growing from the mom’s fur.

The baby and mom (or dad!) eventually — eventually — climbed, upside down remind you, over two palm trees to sniff and/or communicate with a third sloth that, unbeknownst to our eyes, was cuddled up in a crevice of a mango tree. Then they began climbing out of site. We never saw them again. Haven’t seen sloths since.

E’s Sloth Song

Winch

Two paths lead to the campsite. One on sand. One on mud. We chose mud. We chose unwisely. Our winch, which had remained complacently dormant in our front bumper, got its first workout.

Arrecife & Punta Uva

We camped on Playa Arrecife, named for the large reef (‘arrecife’ means ‘reef’ in Spanish) protecting the playa, ensuring only gentle waves coddle the shore. This was, using my perfect beach criteria discussed here, the second best beach area we’ve visited on this trip. Soft, like marshmallows beneath your feet, sand, lush jungle vegetation, and spectacular snorkeling. Only the beaches near La Paz have been better.

We also visited the neighboring playa, Punta Uva, a couple times. It’s considered one of Costa Rica’s best. And it deserves the accolades. A recessed cove encased by jungle cliffs. Felt very lost-on-a-deserted-island-esque.

Cahuita

We visited Cahuita Nacional Parque, just outside of the town of Cahuita, on our way back toward the Pacific Coast. The guard, after extracting the remaining colones from my wallet — parks are expensive here — showed us two venomous toxic yellow Eye Lash Vipers a few meters beyond the entrance. I was feeling pretty good about our hike.

The hike was cool, temperature- and sight-wise. It rained, on and off, mas or menos, most of the hike. Even when we took a break to swim in the ocean. From what we could see, as we winded along the windy path kissing the beach, the park is beautiful. Wild. Captivating. The type of beach and jungle that would claim your soul, prevent you from returning to reality if you stared too intensely into it eyes.

We hiked in our snorkel gear to check out two of the reefs beyond two of the more scenic beaches we’ve experienced in Costa Rica, Punta Vargas and Punta Cahuita. Unfortunately, once we got there, signs warned us that you can’t snorkel in the reefs without a local guide. Too bad they didn’t have the same signs near the entrance…. Oh well. Dems da breaks.

Playa Negra

The following day, we visited Playa Negra just north of Cahuita, named for it’s volcanic black sand, which was quite possibly the softest sand we’ve ever felt. The beach is also flat, wide, and long, making it the perfect beach to harness your inner negligent parent and let your kids roam free (as our kids did).

Between bouts of negligence and scouting sloths in the surrounding trees, Andrea and I did swim with the kids. During one swim, both Andrea and I got bit by something. Me in the buttocks. Andrea in the calf. Andrea’s bite drew blood. Later that night, we corned our hosts — an affable North Carolinian and Costa Rican (Tico, as the locals say) couple — and, likely dramatically, told them about our encounter with the nefarious sea beast. Our hosts were bewildered. They’ve been swimming in the same stretch of sand for twenty years and have never been bit. Dems da breaks.

Nicaragua

Nicaragua

You take the good with the bad. Or so we’ve experienced.

Aventura Una

We hustled to Nicaragua. We’d been told by some Australian and German backpackers in El Salvador that the political situation in Nicaragua was getting worse. Borders were getting blocked. Violence. Blockades were increasing. If you’re going to go, they said, go through the northern border. Then they flew to Panama….

We drove straight through Honduras in one day, joined by our new best buddy from Washington, Uncle Steve. Five hours of driving, five hours of border crossings. The El Salvador / Honduras was fairly straightforward. The Honduras / Nicaragua border was taxing, literally and figuratively. Took almost three hours. And no one was there. After going through the car X-ray, Nicaraguan officials spent almost an hour searching for Andrea’s blowdryer….

Aventura Dos

We camped in Somoto Canyon. Andrea had contacted a tour company there, partly to ask if it was safe to cross the border, partly because it was close to the border, and partly because it looked like a fun tour.

We visited the nearby town of Somoto first to grab cash and groceries. Most everything was closed. A national day of protest. A few drunks stumbled through the streets. A few policemen cowered in the crevices. It was eerie. Post-apocalyptical. But we were told everything would be open the next day.

At dusk, we pulled into our camping spot, a grassy lot on the river adjacent to the canyon. A gorgeous spot. The river rolled through, Ringed Kingfishers fished, and cows grazed next to our van. All seemed right in Nicaragua. We figured, as has often been the case on this trip, everything was overblown. Just a mini protest. We’d restock on Doble Queso Cheetos mañana.

Aventura Tres

Andrea had booked a hike into the canyon. Or so she thought. Our tour guides met us by the Rio Coco at the crack of 8:30am. They brought life jackets. We’d seen some locals cross the river the day we arrived. It was swift, but no more than most the rivers in Idaho. We just figured they were being overly cautious. They didn’t make us sign waivers after all.

They weren’t being cautious. After stumbling within feet of entering the river, swallowing mouthfuls of Coco and pride, I realized life jackets would be necessary. For us gringos of course. The Nicaraguan tour guides, with our kids on their backs, just skipped across the river sans jackets.

The hike wasn’t so much a hike, in the traditional sense, at least in the traditional sense to us Idahoans, as it was a rock climb up a river. We scaled cliffs. Jumped boulders. Dove and swan across sections of the river. At several points, I felt like I was horizontally rock-climbing: reaching for finger holds while my body was being pushed parallel by the river current (Andrea and the kids were in tubes at this point).

In total, six Nicaraguans helped five gringos (our family and Uncle Steve) and one dog (Steve’s dog Lilley) hike/trek/climb/swim up the river through the limestone- and jungle-walled Somoto Canyon. Our reward for the effort: a leisurely float, in our life jackets, down the Rio Coco.

After the “hike”, our guides invited us to their house for a traditional Nicaraguan lunch and the World Cup. It was awesome. The entire experience was the most adventurous, and perhaps enjoyable, activity we’ve done on this trip. We were digging Nicaragua.

Aventura Cuatro

We were instructed by our tour guides — a family of seven brothers and two sisters! — to stay in the northern part of the country. The chaos was in the south, they said. While that meant we’d have to avoid many of the sites on our to-see list, including the cities of Leon and Grenada and the entire Nicaraguan Pacific coast, we weren’t willing to date danger. Flirt? Perhaps.

The roads were clear and beautiful, like driving through a tropical version of the Highway 55 in Idaho, until Estelí, Nicaragua….

Semi-trucks created a multiple blockage in the center of town. We were able to 4×4 past the first blockage. Fairly easily. Then a local on a motorbike lead us around the second. By the third (see video below), we had to hop over a curb, skirt a precipice, and then narrowly squeeze between a power pole and a semi-truck. By the fourth, locals demolished a cement pylon on the side of a cliff to help us pass. It was nuts. Nerve-racking. We lost our minds and the pipe to our grey water tank (which broke on the pylon, spilling stinky Lingle water all over the street). The line of semi-trucks was at least ten miles long. Drivers were sleeping in hammocks beneath their trucks. Millions of dollars of lost commerce.

We hit an additional nine blockades that day. Six the following. Only that first blockade was walled by trucks. The rest by bricks and militia. Masked and armed militia — armed with bomba guns (house-made grenade guns? we were never sure, but that’s what they called them) and regular guns (pistols and rifles) — manned the blockades. Mostly young men. A few enthusiastic women.

The militia entered our van on six or seven occasions. They never threatened us. Never asked for money. Didn’t steal anything. They were searching for armas. Seems like they’re stockpiling for coup. Nicaraguans no les gusta Ortega.

Aventura Cinco

We’re in Costa Rica now. Safe. Staring at sloths.

We keep talking about Nicaragua, however. While we’re certainly bummed we did not get to see much of the country — it looked every bit as beautiful as Costa Rica — we’re mostly concerned for the people. Supplies are running out. When we visited the grocery store the day after the national protest, only about ten percent of goods were left of the shelves. ATMs were already out of money. It certainly felt like, within a matter of weeks, something drastic is going to happen. We just hope, whatever happens, conditions improve for the masses. La gente. Some of the nicest people we’ve yet met. It’s crazy how one crazy dictator can affect so many lives.

¡Viva Nicaragua!

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.

Raghetti

Raghetti

Ever feel like you’re tightroping that wire between getting messed with and going crazy? I recently did. Every morning for about a week, the clothes on the bottom rack of my shelf had become unfolded and formed a trail from the rack to the staircase. I figured it was Andrea — she’s certainly been schooled in the Lingle art of surprise — but I was waking up before her, and I wasn’t convinced that skulduggery would supplant sleep in her order of priorities. Then I literally captured the culprit (see picture above): Raghetti. Pirate dog. Named after the Pirates of the Caribbean character that lost his eyeball.

Raghetti is a Chihuahua rescue. I commend my in-laws’ compassion and vision when selecting him. Raghetti is not, how do I say this politely, a fetching fido. His right eye is not closed in that picture; it’s just not there. He is not licking my sweat shorts in that picture; he has lost control of his tongue and it permanently droops from his mouth. He has also lost all his teeth. What he’s lost in teeth, however, he’s gained in fleas. Lots of them. He spends most of his waking hours, which for a dog that seems more comfortable in a catatonic state is only a few hours per day, attempting to lick those fleas from his body. The fleas, based on my cursory observation, seem mostly concentrated in his nether regions.

Raghetti is also the house rooster. Every morning, at the first sniff of sunshine, he wakes the house with an onslaught of simultaneous sneezes/burps/snorts/farts. Prior to Raghetti, scientists did not know that was physically possible. It’s quite the alarming and disconcerting sound. But it does the job.

Another impressive Raghetti trait: the ratio of his daily poop weight to his actual weight. It’s gotta be darn near even. He poops at least four times per day (twice on each of his bi-daily walks). This is, from what I can tell, another scientific marvel.

Yet despite these somewhat unflattering characteristics, one cannot help but love Raghetti. He’s like Sloth from Goonies: if you can look past his face, and catch him during one of his three waking hours, you just want to hug him.

Beers in Oceanside

Beers in Oceanside

What’s this place you ask? A place where dreams and headaches are made…..

Much like its mother location, planted in a nondescript, significantly off-the-beaten-path industrial park in Escondido, this baby locale is not obvious from the street. Had not my in-laws told me about it, I would’ve missed it. Again. It was actually open earlier this year when we visited, and seeing as it’s located just a few blocks from their house on the thoroughfare to downtown Oceanside, I’d already walked by it a half dozen or so times. Likely thirsty. Certainly ignorant. Yet there it was. A beer and garden oasis hidden behind tangerine-painted cinderblocks: Stone Brewery.

Stone’s Ruination Double IPA is one of the best IPAs around — and that’s not an exaggeration; thanks to my good buddy Brad Smith, the most data-driven beer drinker I have ever met, and his two-hundred-plus IPA spreadsheet, I can conclude, both empirically and analytically, that Ruination is a top five IPA. Stone’s Arrogant Bastard Ale is also as good of a good-to beer as it gets.

Feeling festive, however, this time I ordered Dr. Frankenstone’s Monster IPA. The beer-tender told me it was a double-hopped mixture of Ruination and Stone IPA. I think I told him to shut up and then slapped him. Can’t be sure. My excitement largely overrode my head drive that night. Then I lounged in the industrially-decorated and lush garden, while attempting to ignore the two kids that faintly resembled my own kids climbing the rocks and screaming behind me, and indulged. It was, to stick with the theme, scary awesome. So I ordered another. My father-in-law, a beer snob in his own way, was equally impressed with his dark wheat beer, Witty Moron.

Stone’s Tap House is a must stop if you’re in Oceanside and can find it. And since writing this entry has worked up a thirst, I may go find it now. Tell my wife — I don’t think she actually reads this blog — where I am in case I go missing.