Friday, 22 May 2009

As promised to myself…

Google map:,-75.499377&sspn=0.020899,0.043774&ie=UTF8&ll=11.273703,-74.223976&spn=2.639474,5.603027&z=8

…I’m doing something useful with my PADI certification: today was day for diving and relaxing in Taganga, close to the Natural Park Tayrona, in the Caribbean coast of Colombia.

The pictures are a bit “blue” because the water at depth filters out the red, and I haven’t worked the pictures digitally yet. (Any pointers on how to do that, by the way?)

To be honest, the coral is not half as impressive as in Honduras, where I took the course. But I’m being snobbish here… ;-)

Getting ready for the dive. And hoping the beard won't make the mask leak (it didn't)

Doing my best at buoyancy control here (Rag, my instructor, would be proud of me!)

Happy face. And no, there is nothing wrong on my beard - just water drops! It takes longer to dry than my hair...
Going back to shore, at speed (and a Chilean standing on the boat, insisting on doing what he's asked by the instructors not to)

Now, isn't this a nice colonial old-town

(Tuesday-Thursday, 19-21 May 2009)
Google map:,-76.096802&sspn=2.685936,5.603027&ie=UTF8&ll=10.45135,-75.787811&spn=1.328876,2.801514&z=9

The outskirts are really vast, contrasting high-end hotels in modern high-buildings closer to the water, with typical and uncharacteristic Latin American one-storey constructions elsewhere.

Yes, the city centre is touristy, but it’s what is really charming about this place. As to tourist presence, I’ve seen worse elsewhere. Even if, I’ve to say, I haven’t missed at all those crowds of British men wanting nothing else from their “one week trip in Colombia” but to stay the all time in the same hostel, in the same place, just getting drunk.

Where have I seen this before? Hum…

P.S.1: Man, South America is indeed a big place, or perhaps it’s Central America that it’s really small. Distances are a completely different ball game here – 13h bus ride from Medellín to Cartagena. Massive – really massive – and beautiful Andes landscape. Small and poor little villages. Frequent military road blocks, for increased safety. 13 long and sleepy hours…
P.S.2: Very nice Colombian open-air movie showing at Cartagena’s University. Tip: for interesting happenings, well away from the crowds, trash the guidebook, drop at the local university and find out what’s going on… As to the movie, “Los niños invisibles”, narrates the story of three kids who, in a small rural village in the 1940s, embark in witchmen’s adventure to become invisible and spy the girl of their dreams. Not being seen by those around you doesn’t turn out to be as fun as anticipated, and that thought can somehow hit home when you’re travelling alone: there are moments when you feel like you’re invisible to everything and everyone. And that is not always as fun as you wish it would be…

Nice hostel - plain room, but a swimming pool (a blessing in such a hot and humid place!), cared-for design, kitchen for guests' use, wi-fi internet and pleasant terrace. All for $9 per night. The secret: go for places called "Art hostel" and get them in their month of opening... Ah! And dump the guidebook (once again) and look for expats' local publications...

Gusti: welcome to Medellín, Colombia

(Sunday-Tuesday, 17-19 May 2009)

Google map:,-84.940109&sspn=1.329404,1.757813&ie=UTF8&ll=6.326218,-76.096802&spn=2.685936,5.603027&z=8

Red-brick buildings, everywhere. Shanty towns that in Central America are invariably tin-bright, here go uphill with the construction materials still on show, giving the idea they’re not finished yet. Even the more upscale neighbourhoods are red-brick, when not from the brick themselves, from the paint.

Drug stores named “Drogas rebajas” – interesting choice for a place like Medellin…

Mobile top-ups being sold by the minute everywhere in the street (seems to be a major source of employment here – so many Colombians spend their day in the street, with a signpost and a mobile in their hands, ready to top-up your cell phone via SMS in exchange for cash).

Old couples dancing in the park, surrounded by a circle of people that play and sing for them, or just watch and applaud.

Bums sleeping everywhere in the city centre – even during day light. Drunk or wasted, or both?

Spanish spoken with a curious Italian accent (at least that’s what it seems to me)!

Interesting museums. Botero’s art in the street – you can feel the strength of Colombian culture, much more than any of the Central American countries I’ve visited thus far.

Posh nightlife district. A modern metro system (proudly unique in Colombia). A pleasant university.

Beautiful women, everywhere. By the way, on that, it’s the second time I’ve the same type of reaction and advice from a cab driver:
* first, some surprise from the fact I’m travelling alone (even if I’m far away from being a unique case on that regard);
* second, jealously for the ability of us Europeans to travel so freely around the world (as you can imagine it’s quite hard for the average Colombian to get a visa into western countries, given the country’s reputation);
* third, a recommendation to be careful everywhere I go, as “there are some nasty people around”;
* fourth, wishes that I get to know the beauty of this country and enjoy myself;
* fifth, and last but not least, guidance to what best Colombia has to offer: “My friend, do appreciate our best treasure – the women, they’re the most beautiful in the world. Appreciate - with respect, but do appreciate”.

Gusti: welcome to Medellín, Colombia.

Are you feeling feverish, dear dwarf?

(Sunday, 17 May 2009)

Now, where is Shakira?

(Sunday, 17 May 2009)

Now, tell me: where is she?

Music island

(Saturday, 17 May 2009)

Google map:,-4.064941&sspn=12.739664,28.125&ie=UTF8&ll=9.959383,-84.230804&spn=0.331386,0.700378&z=11&iwloc=A

Ok, it’s a definite conclusion: Central America is an island on what music is concerned. It’s not only in the buses and radio – wherever you go you only listen to Latin tunes. Even in a relatively OK night club in San Jose there is little evidence of European or American dance music. Just Spanish-spoken tracks. And a bit cheesy too, I’ve to say.

By the way, the word “mini-skirt” shouldn’t be used to describe how Costa Rican women dress up for a night out. The word “belt” is more appropriate. Crazy stuff…

Never again?

(Saturday, 17 May 2009)

There are those episodes in your past life that you recall with some incredulity. “How could I have done that?” “Not in a million years would I do that today!”

But that doesn’t mean you regret them. To regret them, you wish you could go back in time and emend things. Do them differently.

The ones I’m referring to you recall with a smile. You’d never do them again, but you’re happy you did so in the past. And if not in a million years you’d do them today again, not in a million years you’d go back in time to emend them.

Crazy or not, they were too fun for you to paint over them with a brush.

Thoughts triggered in another one of those time travels into the past, during a bus ride.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

That last glimpse

(Thursday-Friday, 14-15 May 2009)

Google map:,-85.094604&sspn=0.332368,0.700378&ie=UTF8&ll=10.957371,-85.317078&spn=1.326654,2.801514&z=9

There are same places that make you stay for a bit longer, just so you can look better at the beauty around you. You try to memorise every little detail: the view, the sounds, how it feels in your body and mind to be there.

And then, when you interrupt that period of quasi-meditation – which can take more than one hour sometimes - and decide to leave, you turn back again to have one last glimpse at the place. You try to take that final and perfect picture in your mind. And you cannot stop thinking “will I ever come back here?”. And incredible sadness involves that thought.

It’s interesting: there are thousands of amazingly beautiful places in this world that I’ll never be able to see in my lifetime, and those are the ones that should make me the sadder; but no, the ones that I’m lucky enough to experience are the ones that feel like irrecoverable losses.

Rio Celeste, in the Vulcan Tenorio Natural Park is one of those.

It was good to leave Costa Rica with one more of those places this country got me used to. Beautiful and deserted. All for myself.

Thank you.

A not-luxurious-at-all-mountain lodge in the middle of almost nowhere, with only another tourist as company. The way I like it

Waterfall in river Celeste. Worth one of those last glimpses…

The place where the water turns “azul celeste” and gives the river its name. People say that when god painted the sky blue he washed his brushes here… Apparently it’s the result of a chemical reaction between the water and minerals in the river bed. The water remains this blue all the way downstream from here

Nice and warm thermal waters in river Celeste. Compliments of Vulcan Tenorio, just next door. Alone here, for more than one hour. Thank you!


(Wednesday, 13 May 2009)

Google map for Tortuguero:,-83.489227&spn=1.264253,2.801514&z=9

Google map for Monteverde:,-84.159393&sspn=0.66461,0.878906&ie=UTF8&ll=10.325052,-84.940109&spn=0.664716,1.400757&z=10

One knows life is made of ups and downs, and that after a long time on an “up” you should expect a “down” pretty soon.

Wait a minute; actually no, you shouldn’t. If consecutive life events are independent from each other (which, rigorously speaking, is not true, as psychology kicks in the way you behave, but is still probably a good enough assumption), a “down” should be equally likely, regardless where you are on your hype-curve of life…


What I wanted to say is that after a few weeks of absolute amazement with Costa Rica – how beautiful it is, how much of it I’ve been having only for myself – there came disappointments.

First, Tortuguero. Often called the “mini-Amazon”, it’s a beautiful tropical rain forest by the northern Caribbean coast. River canals and a lagoon surround it and make it accessible only by boat or airplane. And there is a bonus: it’s one of the most popular places in the world for turtles to come to shore to nest. That even though I couldn’t see one, as this was the season for the "Leatherback” species – the biggest of all, measuring up to 3m long! – which comes in small numbers: up to 2 or 3 per night, in a beach which is 30km long, so…

It’s nice to kayak in the canals on your own, but it’s hard to spot any animals that way, as they just stand still in the middle of the green and you can’t really distinguish them. And riding the canals is not as “interactive” as hiking on a trail by land, where you can see things moving around or crossing in front of you – or you can just deviate from your path and get closer to them.

The alternative is to go with a guide in a canoe, as these guys know exactly what type of food each animal eats, and it’s easier for them to spot and finger point the wild life for you. It’s incredible how they can see things several meters away which are the exact same colours as the surroundings. Sometimes I had my nose almost glued to the damn animal and still couldn’t see it. It makes you wonder whether the things are made of plastic, have been there nailed to the tree forever, and the guide knows those fixed spots by heart. But no, the animals are for real.

But going with a guide makes you always feel like you’re going through the exact same path as all the other tourists – either in other canoes or in the numerous motor boats that cruise those waters.

Yes, the place was a bit crowded with tourists, and experiencing it as if you’re buying a pre-packaged experience doesn’t do it for me. It makes me feel stupid and really ruins my idea of travelling.

This is probably an emotional and over-reaction, but I just left Tortuguero feeling it falls short on its huge potential. It would be so much more interesting if you could just hike freely in the jungle, creating your own experience of it. It’s for a good a reason you can’t do that – to protect the wild life – but the way you end up experiencing Tortuguero can make you feel like you’re watching a beautiful National Geographic documentary on TV or through an aquarium window. Beautiful, but still through a screen.

Even when you’re kayaking on your own, you end up inevitably visiting the same places you went in the guided tour, as there aren’t that many canals you can navigate in the park. After a couple of hours of exploration of what I thought were new and exciting water paths, I suddenly started recognizing the places I had been to earlier in the day with my guide: “where have I seen that fallen tree before?”

And then, second, there was Monteverde. It’s one of the most popular places in Costa Rica for its rain cloudy forests. That popularity is typically enough for me to stay away from the place, but the idea of staying in one of the ranger stations in the middle of the park – one full day of hiking away from everything and everyone – was good enough to excite me.

Tough luck – I came all the way to Monteverde to find out that the stations are closed for maintenance during the rainy season. So, the only thing you’re left with are a few short trails that go through beautiful forest – that’s true! – but that are so short and well marked that make you feel like you’re walking in the a botanic garden of any city in this world. Not exactly my type of nature walk…

I still ended up having some fun while hiking outside the national park. I was looking for "Cerro Amigos", the highest point in that small region, but have apparently followed directions wrongly and ended up walking – and getting lost – in a completely different area. The place had many trails along the surrounding hills, none of them marked. So, I had the genial idea of memorising my turns on my way up – “I’ve turned left, and right twice, and then left again…” – so that I could reverse my steps on my way down.

Key take away: don’t do that. There are many crossroads you don’t even notice on your way up, and you’ll also often wonder on your way down whether or not you had considered a crossroad a certain part of the trail where there seems to be a junction with another very poorly marked path - "did I even noticed this before and considered it?". Needless to say that if you use the right sequence of “right, left, left, right” in the wrong crossroads, you end up in a completely different place. Ah! And walking without a compass in unmarked trails in deep jungle which is always covered in mist and clouds is not smart either.

It ended up all right: just two hours of some excitement with dusk approaching at a scaring pace. But next time, bring a compass and mark your turns with a sign on the trees or something.

You live to learn. And learn to live…


Where's Wally?

The return trip from Tortuguero was the best - a beautiful small-boat trip in a flooded river

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Guatemala: business as usual

Why am I not surprised? It’s very sad, but not surprising at all, really…

In Portuguese:

In English:

Btw, this is a fairly ok local newspaper where you can keep following how this story unfolds:

Man, that country does need a deep fixing…

Food for thought

It’s interesting how the Portuguese expression "o que não mata engorda" (something like “what doesn’t kill you, grows you fatter”) doesn’t exist in Spanish, or in English. There is another one, quite close to it: “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” (or “lo qué no te mata te hace más fuerte”). But it's not exactly the same, is it?

Today, when a piece of food fell on the ground, my comment that “nosotros, Portugueses, dicemos que lo que no te mata te hace más gordo” made the Costa Rican by my side laugh. For quite some time, actually. “Not stronger: fatter...” he kept saying to himself.

Was it our - so Portuguese! - pessimism that made us give that negative spin to this idiomatic expression?

Well, here is some food for thought. That can only make you stronger, or fatter, depending on the perspective.

It’s never your fault, is it?

(Sunday, 10 May 2009)

Google map:,-83.489227&spn=1.264253,2.801514&z=9

It’s around 10pm and I’m walking on the beach of Tortuguero with Beto, a local guide, in search for turtles.

We hear the noise of an airplane above us, but you can’t see a thing besides clouds and lightings, which shed light on the deserted beach in a beautiful way. “Damn plane”, says Beto. “I hate them. They pass here every single night, always at this exact hour, and never have a single signalling light on”.

It’s very likely a narco-traffic airplane. Costa Rica is a busy bridge for drug shipments coming from South America and heading to Mexico, and then the US. Less than 2 weeks ago it was a helicopter that crashed in Cerro de la Muerte (not very far from the Cerro Chirripó that I climbed) with more than 400 kilos of cocaine in it. It has been on the news since then, competing head to head with swine flu as the most popular story of the moment.

Of course, Mexicans were to blame in the helicopter crash. When not Mexicans, they’ve to be Nicos (from Nicaragua) or Colombians. Never Ticos (from Costa Rica). The pilot (who, along with the only other occupant – a Mexican, of course!, was killed in the accident) was Tico, but was “beyond doubt” being forced to fly by the drug dealers, as he had his family under threat.

I say "beyond doubt" with some irony, of course. It may well be true, so the last thing I want to do here is suggesting the poor man’s soul wasn’t that clean after all. I’m just reacting to how I’ve heard Ticos comment the episode. “Of course the pilot was flying against his will – those damn Mexicans are the ones to blame!”.

I had heard it before: there is plenty of xenophobia in Costa Rica, and the poorer neighbouring countries are typically the ones to blame for crime. Either them, or the Caribbean black people.

It’s never your fault, is it?

Better Spanish

(Sunday, 10 May 2009)

Yes: I’m finally seeing some improvements. I’ve even been asked whether I’m Spanish (?!). Of course, those are the situations when I wasn’t required to articulate more than 2 or 3 words.

But it’s ok: I’m happy that I’m start distinguishing more often which words are the same as in Portuguese, and which ones are completely different (and for which not even the most worked-on Spanish accent can help me getting a message across).

I do miss the Spanish accent – people talk so differently here. Whenever I hear a Spanish speaking – or a British speaking English, as I miss that too – I focus all my hearing ability on them.

I probably come across awkwardly, as it has worked as conversation starter more than once...

Where did this one come from?

(Sunday, 10 May 2009)

A thought came to my mind today: freedom is like oxygen – you need it to live, but too much of it can be intoxicating.

And there you go: something worth a place in a Reader’s Digest publication or in “Dica da Semana”. Go figure…

Saturday, 9 May 2009

I just love this country

(Friday, 8 May 2009)

Google map:,-83.645096&sspn=0.331318,0.700378&ie=UTF8&ll=9.899863,-83.61969&spn=0.662889,1.400757&z=10

I’ve been on the road for 3 months now, to the day, and what a way of celebrating it: a day-long rafting in river Pacuare. Very serious fun. Amazing. This thing can be seriously addictive. I just need somehow to keep doing this kind of stuff once back home.

The river Pacuare flows towards the Caribbean coast and its margins are populated by the beautiful rain forest that characterises this side of Costa Rica. Big cliffs, waterfalls flowing into the canyon – just beautiful.

A 30km ride, with 40 rapids along the way.

I just love this country. It has so much to offer. Of the kind of stuff I’m looking for…

The (animated) view from the raft. Sorry: you’ll have to turn your head to watch this one… (note: thanks to Miguel, a fellow rafter, whose water-proof camera made this video possible)