Wednesday, July 29, 2015

We have decided to go north

Before we started this trip we knew Panama would be our first "fork in the road." Continue further south? Go somewhere else like New Zealand? Well, we made our decision to go north. Go north to Colombia and continue our journey through the Americas. Yes, as it happens Cartagena, Colombia is north of Colon, Panama.
   Elise made the decision a few days ago to continue the trip on to South America. She has been doing an incredible amount of research on Colombia and Ecuador during our respite here in Playa Coronado. I asked her how she came up with the decision to go and she said there were several factors. Reading current information and meeting other travelers who were recently there were her biggest factors. There are also a lot of blogs out there of fellow travelers and Elise was intrigued by their photos of Cartagena.  Elise is correct in saying other traveler's opinions matter as we have not met any travelers to date that have been to Colombia and said don't go there. We don't anticipate staying long in Colombia, maybe two or three weeks while en-route to Ecuador.  Elise has consulted the UK state department on travel to Colombia as they have helpful maps of green/safe areas. The US state department had the usual alarmist rhetoric that said the small towns and rural areas are still not safe (except the coffee district).  Elise found the travel advice on the US State Department website to be unhelpful because it makes EVERY country sound so dangerous.
   We already booked the ferry to take the 4Runner and our 4 souls over on August 4th (a lot of 4's so hopefully that's good luck). We also booked our hotel in Cartagena for 5 days, the hotel is within the historic walled city. We chose this hotel because there is parking, a kitchen, and we can walk everywhere within the historic district. Per a request from a blog regular, she wanted us to add links where possible of where we are staying to aid in future travels. So, on that note, here is the Cartagena hotel,


El Terremoto

Last night I was in bed watching Central American news (Noticias CB24), the kids were watching "Jessie" on the Disney Channel and Elise was taking a shower. This is our fairly typical wind-down scene before bed. I felt the bed moving back and forth so I called for the kids just in case the were playing "Spy kids" on me. They weren't messing around and that is when I realized we were in an earthquake (El Terremoto). The pedant lights in the kitchen were swaying, in fact, the whole building was swaying. Being on the 23rd floor had a whole new meaning, a new claustrophobic and totally out of control feeling. The kids got spooked and wanted to leave the building. Leaving, however, was not practical as our earthquake attire consisted of me wearing boxers, the kids in sleeping shirts, and my wife wrapped in a wet towel. Imagine the time it would take to go down 23 flights of stairs. Anything that could have happened would have happened well before we got out. It was a scary reminder for us that fate can play a larger role in our lives than we give it credit.


Sunday, July 26, 2015

El Valle

This is Mike...
We went to El Valle about a week ago but haven't input an entry as we were having so much fun hanging out with the Coloradans. They left for the states yesterday morning and we are going to miss them a lot.
El Valle is often compared to Boquete maybe because the climate is similar but they are very different. Boquete is cooler in both temperature and attitude than El Valle. The vibe in Boquete is Hippy-ish yet practical and is still one of our favorite spots to date on this trip.  
The hills had steep spots but nothing like this sign would suggest. This sign would have been useful however, near Lago Atitlan, Guatemala, where it felt this steep and where we did lose our brakes.
The farmer's market in El Valle is pretty straight forward.
Zoe scratching her head looking for the best deal on bananas.
The hills around El Valle are pleasant but not wild like around Boquete.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Good times and good people.

Meeting new friends and sharing good times. We used to have regular get togethers in Texas with our neighbors so getting the chance to hang with cool people again was great. The dinner consisted of homemade pizzas created by the kids. Fresh caught oysters were provided by Andy Sherman and his trusty screwdriver. Fresh mixto ceviche from the local market and nice Rum drinks. The kids had the run of the joint playing fashion, cooking and general mayhem. Good fun for all.
Andy and Kerstin making sure the food is rolling along

Andy got the oysters off the rocks with his screw driver, they were delicious.

Ceviche mixta from the local market, yum.

Dennis with the kids while they were waiting for their pizza creations to bake

Master chefs Sierra and Zoe showing off their creations.

Let the eating begin.

Zoe playing fashion with the kiddos.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Pure joy

This is Mike...
The girls have found the tide pools to be quite entertaining. One of the pools is about 5 feet deep and usually traps cool fish during low tide. Next to the tide pools is an area of quick sand that they love sinking into to. Thankfully the sinking sands only go to about 2 to 3 feet deep because the girls fully sink to the max depth in under a minute.

Sinking into the sand during low tide

The girls like the feeling of sinking away. Getting out does require some creativity from the kids.

Jumping into the tide pool is good stuff.

The kids like floating in the calm water of the tide pool as well.

Hearing the girls shriek with joy is awesome.

Happy kiddos.

The kids just love horsing around.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Our favorites so far

This is Mike and Elise...
We are receiving requests on what was the best thing we did was so far. Elise and I have been discussing this and cannot come up with a single best thing. It is just too difficult to pick one thing from our trip let alone one thing from each country. Here is a breakdown of our highlights of each country in order from Mexico to Panama:

San Miguel de Allende
San Miguel de Allende
Lake Bacalar
Lake Bacalar
Yal-Ku part of Akumal Bay
Akumal Bay
 San Miguel de Allende is a gem in the hills of Central Mexico, which attracts throngs of North American snowbirds every winter and for good reason. The climate, vistas and historic buildings of the area simply invite one's curiosity to want more. Lake Bacalar (Lake of 7 colors) is also a nice spot and every bit as beautiful as the Caribbean but with fresh water. Finally, Elise's favorite place along Riviera Maya was Akumal Bay, for wonderful views and easy lounging.
Mexico's Achilles heel, is corruption which has penetrated all aspects of their society. Though nothing bad happened to us, we did speak with other people who experienced major headaches traveling here. Even with these issues Mexico still attracts millions of tourist each year which gives you, the visitor, the overall sense of being little more than a number on a conveyer-belt rather than a valued traveler.

Swimming in the jungle on the Mopan River
Kayaking in Barton Creek caves
Making Chocolate the old fashioned way
Visiting the Cayes
A wild Manatee about to submerge
Belize is a small enough country that one could easily see the highlights of this country in a couple weeks. For us, the best spots were filled with nature and wild spaces which always humbled us. We enjoyed swimming in the Mopan river with all of her unknowns and creepy hollows. Barton Creek caves was also a fun family adventure, paddling a kayak into a Mayan burial cave. The girls enjoyed making chocolate, like the ancients, in San Ignacio which also happened to be a great way to learn history as well. All of us really liked the Cayes, sometimes getting there left a lot to be desired but in the end it was usually worth the journey. Seeing rare animals such as the Manatee in their natural habitat is such a nice experience and teaches us all how to be better stewards of our planet. 

Guatemala :
Standing above the acropolis at Tikal
Elise sitting atop temple 4, well above the forest below
El Valle (the valley) on Rio Dulce
A sailor's haven in el Valle
One of the many outdoor markets in Antigua
View of Antigua below
 Guatemala has a lot of potential in theory but falls short in practice. Their slash and burn of the jungle along with zero building standards or zoning impacts our overall view of the country. This is the primary reason we left Lake Atitlan off the list, which was otherwise a scenic spot. Tikal rises to the top of the list with unbelievable size and scope of the Mayan ruins. Tikal is without a doubt our favorite set of ruins in the Mayan world and as a bonus not so touristy like Chichen-itze, in Mexico. Rio Dulce and El Valle were such sweet surprises for us, we never knew they were there, nor how significant they were for regional sailors. El Valle can only be described as "Otherworldly" with its limestone cliffs, flocks of birds and placid waters. And finally, Antigua, the colonial princess of Guatemala is on the favorites list because of its history and its people. Antigua is truly a unique place to visit even if the air quality is sub-par and half of the ATMs are hacked.  
Very well preserved stone carvings around Copan ruins
Old man sculpture near Zoe
The ruins of Rastrojon look pristine thanks to their early demise a millennia ago
Enjoying the water at Luna Jaguar hot springs.
Honduras has two special regions, the Bay Islands and Copan ruins. We visited Roatan, in the Bay Islands, two years ago and now had the pleasure of visiting Copan on this trip. For us Copan ruins are a very close second to Tikal ruins. Copan is known for the well preserved ruins because of the drier climate. Rastrojon ruins are unique because it provides a snap shot in time. The great condition of Rastrojon occurred because a cavern collapsed pulling people, buildings, food, clothing, wood carvings etc. into an abyss. Immediately after the tragedy the Mayans buried the compound until it was discovered a thousand years later. Finally, Jaguar hot springs was such a nice experience for the whole family that it had to make the list too.
On a serious note, it is sad that so much of Honduras is off limits to tourists due to cartel violence. In fact, San Pedro Sula is the most dangerous city in the world outside of a war zone. The epicenter of most of Latin America's problems start with the cancer of corruption. Until corruption is addressed nothing will change, this is the heartbreaking fact for so many good people over there.

 El Salvador:
The most beautiful shells of the vacation were found in El Salvador
Primitive beach communities
Great waves of all sizes are all over the place down here.
El Salvador did not work out for us, but I certainly can see the appeal for solo travelers and surfers. The country is still in transition after three decades of civil war and it could take many more years to rebuild the tourist infrastructure. Recently, the longstanding truce between the government and gangs in the country collapsed. Chaos is the best word to describe what is happening in EL Salvador. This is such a sad example of paradise lost. We did enjoy the beaches and shells though, enough to include it on the list.

Main Cathedral in Granada
The Caldeza, a pedestrian zone, in Granada
An old school hearse in Granada
Playa Marselle in the San Juan del Sur area of Nicaragua.
Buying fish directly from the fisherman on the beach.
Nicaragua is still either our favorite or second favorite country depending on how we feel about Panama at the moment. Granada is such a charming colonial town with all the comforts of a big city. Elise and I both like how only 5 to 10 minutes outside of town and you felt like you were in the countryside. The beggars in Grenada are a pain in the rear, but if you can stand your ground they eventually go away. San Juan del Sur and surrounding beaches are a must see for any surfer or beach goer. This is where nature meets the sea and where humans are a sideshow. The baby flying manta rays jumping all around us were a hoot to see and swimming with the bio-luminescence in the dark unforgettable, but as it happens, there weren't any pictures, just memories. The beach lifestyle is not for everyone but certainly agrees with us.  

Costa Rica:

Our view in Paquera from Hotel Vista Las Islas
Paddling kayaks in the dark until we saw bio-luminescence all around us.
Rincon de la Vieja national park
We enjoyed the Paquera area of the southern Nicoya peninsula. The bio-luminescence in the water under our kayaks and the glowing ray that swam beneath us was awesome to witness. The millions of butterflies we encountered in the forest near Paquera were a surreal experience and perfectly punctuated our time there. Costa Rica deserves high marks for the way they maintain their wild spaces for the enjoyment of all. National parks are special places and Rincon de la Vieja is special among Costa Rican parks. For Elise and I, the higher altitude and volcanic activity of this park put it right on our list of favorites.  Even though we have been to Costa Rica several times Costa Rica still reveals her wonders each time we go.

The trees in the mountains around Boquete
Starfish beach
Panama City
The view from our master bedroom at our condo
The soft bi-colored sands of Coronado
Panama is such an amazing place and we are happy to be settling down here for a while to recharge. From the moment we noticed the divided highways in Panama we knew it was a different place from the rest of Central America. Boquete and the highlands are still in our thoughts even though it feels like a lifetime ago that we were there. Special places like Boquete are difficult to find anymore given the urban sprawl of so many places. Though we did not like Bocas del Toro as much as we thought we would, we still liked Starfish beach enough to make the list. Of course, Panama City made the favorites because the big city is hip and growing and exudes energy. Finally, there is Coronado beach, which we love because it has everything one needs for a successful vacation. It is a perfect place to ponder next steps and enjoy the moments between breathe.

There is so much that we did not put on the list but are still worthy visits. In previous sections of our blog more clarity is given to each location and are in more depth. As is often the case, it is not so much "the spot" but how we react to "the spot" that we remember. Elise and I would not change any of these experiences for anything. These experiences have helped the four of us see each other more deeply, more thoroughly, and more patiently, imperfections and all.