Friday, November 30, 2012

Island for Sale

Just outside of Granada, on the northwest side of Lago Cocibolca, lie hundreds of fun-sized islands. Las Isletas, over 350 of them, are the result of a massive explosion over 10,000 years ago, which gave nearby Volcán Mombocho its rather haggard silhouette.

Touring the isletas the cheap and dirty way, we paid less than half the price of what the tour companies were asking. What we got was a ride in a motorboat from a teenage kid who just pointed out the obvious. And it was a lovely way to pass an hour.

Massive tropical trees sprouted from the diminutive islands, dipping their branches out over the lake. Birds dipped and dived, skimming the surface of the water. Awkward, gangly herons stalked about, trying to look elegant in white. Water lilies stretched their open faces toward the midday sun. Monkeys vaulted through tree branches.

Once one of Nicaragua’s poorest neighborhoods, the millionaires have started to move in, mansions popping up here and there to supplant the patched together houses with weatherworn paint. Hammocks and laundry hung about in the sun, as a number of the islands are inhabited.

And everywhere, islands presented themselves as a real estate option, just waiting for their new resident to boat by and fall in love. Maybe one of these days (years) we’ll have the disposable income to just choose an island, throw up a hammock and some Swiss Family Robinson–style dwelling, and spend our days, drink in hand, on our own private island. One of these days. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Volcanically Blessed

Nicaragua’s Isla de Ometepe is a slight to behold. The island juts majestically from the hazy blue of Lago de Nicaragua, or Colcibolca (‘the sweet sea’) in the indigenous language of the area, Central America’s biggest lake. Its twin volcano peaks rise from the water, a figure-eight-shaped island cinched in the middle by an isthmus formed from an ancient lava floe. 

Of the two volcanoes that make up this incredible island, Maderas lies dormant, while Concepción is active, and has frequent mood swings, its constant billowing smoke a reminder that, yes, you did build your town below a volcano.

But, neither the island nor its inhabitants have been blasted skyward or covered in blisteringly red molten lava. During its last big eruption in 1957, the president sent boats to evacuate the island, but no one chose to leave. And, surprisingly enough, even when sending towers of flame 15 meters into the sky, Volcán Concepción has been kind enough not to kill any of the natives (at least not in this century). Since then, periodic showers of hot ash and spews of molten rock have occurred every decade or so; the native population just sits back and watches the show.

The risk seems to be worth it to the locals. Beautiful land, sparkling lagoons, rolling fields, and a brick ‘paved’ road lie beneath the roiling clouds that surround the peak of Central America’s most symmetrical volcano. Horses, cows, and the required stray dogs mill aimlessly about. And, though the tourists roll in on a regular basis, the beauty of the land and the stronghold of local communities haven’t been eroded just yet.

Mother Nature and the gods of tourism seem to be smiling upon Ometepe. And it doesn’t hurt that their volcano seems to be friendly.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Hiking in Hindsight

Thailand might have spoiled us a bit, but Costa Rica is not a budget-friendly country (at least not when your budget is backpacker-small). Knowing that much cheaper, less-touristed Nicaraguan awaited us just over the border, we kept our stay in Costa Rica short.

To get the most bang for our buck, we headed to the tourist Mecca of Monetverde and Santa Elena. Not only was the area chockfull of activities, but we had hopes that competition might keep prices low.  

Surprisingly cold, windy, and rainy, Monteverde was, less surprisingly, also fairly expensive. Overflowing with eco-tourism gimmicks (ziplining, canopy suspension bridges, bungee jumping, night hikes, day hikes, and so on and so on), everyone claimed to have the best deal, the best view, the best wildlife. There were butterfly gardens and orchid gardens, frog exhibits and snake exhibits, a bat jungle. When we arrived at the hotel, each attraction was pricier than listed online. And when you went to buy tickets the price jumped again. Admission to the cloud forest reserves in the area was $19 per person, double that if you wanted a guide.  The greed was exhausting.

So we found the one free thing to do in town.

The trail, really more of a muddy road, left from the far edge of town and wound its way up to the local television channels’ towers. It wasn’t in the rainforest reserves, but on a cloudless day the view from the top was supposed to be excellent.

Fortunately, we had a single clear day during our time in Monteverde. After leaving town and making all the appropriate lefts and rights, we found ourselves at the trailhead, joined by a determined little dog. Tail wagging and heads held high, we started off.

Almost immediately, the trail started switchbacking its way skyward, heading up at a near impossible angle. Fortunately fueled by a hostel-made breakfast, we made our way slowly higher. And higher. And higher.

Despite the harsh incline and the muddy conditions, we were in one helluva beautiful situation. All around us, critters flitted, crawled, and soared. Numerous blue morpho butterflies, iridescent azul wingspan bigger than an outstretched hand, floated past us, refusing to pause even momentarily for photographs. A large, brown agouti trotted across our path, only to be promptly chased off by our eager canine friend.

Three kilometers later, we managed to reach the summit, but only with the help of a trick we learned during our coffee tour in Colombia: walking backward. We did probably 60 percent of our hike walking uphill while facing downhill. Given a fairly level surface and even incline (because humans cannot turn their heads around like owls), it is infinitely easier to walk backward when going uphill.

What should have been a climactic moment gazing out across Costa Rica, catching a view of the nearby(ish) volcano, turned out to be shrouded in cloud cover and dappled with rainfall. But the hike, free and solitary, was an adventure in itself. Journey, not destination, right?

Friday, November 16, 2012

Making Macaws

Traveling through Central America is making one thing very clear: I am a sucker for a conservation project. Full to the brim with so-called ecotourism options, Costa Rica has more than its share of ecological options.

The problem comes down to one of choice. But, without an overarching standard, governing body, or way to realistically cross-compare, it becomes immensely difficult to tell what is a genuine, eco-friendly, positive impact project and what is just plain old, money-hungry tourism. Faced with such a choice, I was relieved to find a project that seemed like it was focused solely on the creatures it is meant to help, rather than trying to turn a profit.

Tucked away in a residential corner of Alajuela, The Ara Project, or Finca Hatched to Fly Free, is a macaw conservation effort to rescue, breed, and re-populate Costa Rica’s resident species. It’s basically what you get when you add a couple of expats with a passion for birds and zoology, sufficient acreage, and a government with a large number of  rescued native macaws and no place to put them.

Scarlet and Great Green Macaws, the two indigenous species in Costa Rica, have suffered incredible loss in population. Deforestation, poaching, the exotic pet market, and the price the feathers alone can receive, all combine to severely threaten these magnificent birds.

Making matters worse, the great greens’ lifecycle revolves solely around one tree.  It is the only place they nest; the nuts are the only food they will eat. Thanks to the tree’s value for hardwood furniture, these once migratory birds are stationary, their population has dropped to only 200, and only enough trees remain for 30 nests.

Beginning in the 1980s, Costa Rica’s macaws in need of help, those rescued from poachers, injured, or no-longer-wanted pets, were sent to this property. Naturally curious, incredibly intelligent (think 5-12 year old child), social creatures, macaws need contact with other macaws. So, once rehabilitated, health checked, and approved, the birds were put into communal cages. And, due to proximity and natural desire, the birds started pairing off and decided it was time to start up the breeding portion of the project.

Thanks in part to the birds (and their libidos), a handful of volunteers, and some biologists, the project has a full, healthy population in captivity and are slowly introducing the macaws back into the Costa Rican ecosystem. And, the Ara Project has been wildly successful. The birds have started mating in their natural habitat. The great greens released have acquired a more diverse feeding and nesting palate. Education programs have cut down on poaching.

More importantly, macaws are once again part of Costa Rica’s present, as well as its future. Grandparents who watched the macaws slowly disappear have seen them returned in large numbers. Children who have never had the opportunity to see such vibrant displays of avian plumage are given the opportunity. And in nature no less.

Now that’s something I’ll donate money to. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Conservation, Captivity

There is something about zoos that is at once inherently sad, yet touches on our most basic curiosities. For many people, a captive environment is the only place they will get an up-close view of certain animals. It gives us a glimpse of their otherwise mysterious behavior, sounds, and activities – bewildering, endearing, dangerous, intelligent.

A tapir’s searching snout, the rambunctiousness of baby raccoons. Jaguars stretching in enlarged mimicry of the average housecat, the familial resemblance in the depth of primate eyes, the familiar fingers. The elegant span of a peacock tail, a toucan’s splendid multi-colored beak, iguanas lounging in streams of sunlight. Without seeing this beauty, would we have the desire to preserve it, to ensure its continued existence? Would it be vital, or merely background noise, the faraway cry of something disconnected from our selves?

Zoos educate visitors and can provide a sometimes necessary tool for conservation, protection and propagation of species, provided that there is adequate space and cleanliness, as well as proper treatment. But, when does our innate curiosity and desire to help cross the line from conservation and education into the realm of mere captivity and entertainment? What is protection and conservation? How little space is too little, how many animal roommates too many?

In El Valle’s Nispero Zoo, as in many zoos across the globe, this fine line is walked. However, tucked away within the zoological property, and funded in part by visitor admission fees to the zoo as a whole, resides a conservation project absolutely essential to the survival of some of the country’s most emblematic and endangered amphibian species.

The area surrounding Panama’s El Valle provides the habitat for an astounding (but dwindling) variety of amphibians, including the national symbol for conservation, Rana Dorada, or the Golden Frog. However, due to an invasive fungus that has been wiping out the area frogs, the number of species has dropped from 68 to 40 in recent years.

In an attempt to stem the losses, the fine folks at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center have taken to rescuing infected frogs, toads, and salamanders and treating them with an anti-fungal solution. This led to the development of a clean room atmosphere in which to house the amphibians, as well as an education and exhibition room, at least until some sort of solution to the spreading fungus is discovered and the frogs can be released back into their natural habitat.

Frogs, particularly the tropical variety, are infinitely variable and fascinating. Such spectrum of color, from vibrant and dangerous to subtle, earthy disguise. Massive, bulbous eyes and globular fingers and toes hide within their environment, tucked away in leaves, blending in or providing sharp contrast.

I, for one, am proud to visit the local exhibits, the fruit of conservation efforts to protect native creatures. But, without the surrounding zoo, and the ethical dilemmas that go hand-in-hand with a zoo’s existence, would the conservation center remain afloat?

Without a simple answer, I will at least try to direct my money in the way of conservation rather than entertainment, preservation rather than exploitation. Because, should we deny our animal brethren a helping hand, their entire future could be in peril.

Monday, November 12, 2012

From Rich Soil

El Valle de Antón, a quiet town just off Panama’s well-worn tourist track, has unique geological roots: a volcanic caldera, which filled over time to form a lake, which sprung a leak and drained, leaving behind a valley full of nutrient-rich volcanic soil.

In addition to the soil, a horticulturalist’s dream sold as ‘tierra negra’, the area surrounding El Valle is home to a wealth of flora and fauna, making it a vital piece of Panama’s ecological bounty, as well as a lovely stopover for several days of conservation-related activities.

El Valle’s Orchid Nursery is essential in maintaining the more than 1300 species of orchids, some 200 of which are endangered, native to the area around the valley. Thanks to concerted efforts from volunteers, funding from Panamanian and Japanese orchid growers, and helping hands from local farms and residents, the Nursery is able to propagate, relocate, and protect the local orchids.

When I think of orchids, I typically think of the two or three varieties I am used to: white or purple, sometimes pink. And even if the color varies, the shape is typically similar. I had absolutely no idea of the plethora of shapes and size, the sheer variety that’s possible in the world of orchids.

From as big as the palm of your hand to tiny as the head of a pin, in colors vibrant and muted, the orchids provided visitors with a visual feast. Sprouting from mossy trees, growing nestled in the earth, or being cultivated and tended in pots, El Valle’s orchids displayed deep, flamboyantly-colored throats and lush petals with a dramatic flair. Well worth the donation to see to it that these bold actors of the floral world flourish.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Ciudad de los Gatos

Panama City is a vibrant clash of old and new. Towering skyscrapers, stretching out to sea on filled-in land, glass reflecting back the blue of the midday sky; while in the slums and old sections, building facades crumble and decay, dilapidated history. Everywhere construction clogs and clangs, the revamping of a prospering metropolis.

Casco Viejo, a small oceanfront quarter, was once the entirety of Panama City. Now practically falling down, the old city contains hollowed-out shells of former buildings, empty windows staring blindly on narrow streets, weeds overgrowing windows. Bordering on being a slum, its roots in history.

And everywhere, mixed in among the rubble, stalking pigeons, relaxing in the parks and churches, were cats. As we walked about the old city, taking in the history and seeking shelter from the daily rains, more cats. Outnumbering stray dogs, Casco Viejo’s cats were more numerous than we had previously encountered.

As a cat lover, I find this to be a good sign for things to come in Panama. Just as the presence of a handful of boutique hotels and restaurants in Casco Viejo speaks to a bright (expensive) future for the historic area, so too the presence of cats speaks well for our future, however short, in Panama. If the cats are sticking around, the Panamanians must be doing something right.