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Tortillas and sugarcane juice in Costa Rica

Travelling through Central America was on my bucket list. After months of painstaking research, I realized that doing it all was impossible. I settled on visiting Costa Rica, in the northwest of the long finger-like country. The Pacific coast beckoned with its black beaches, diverse communities, and abundance of flora and fauna. My adventures were inundated with wild animals, sugarcane fields, and one-of-a-kind experiences.

Here are some of the highlights:

Sweet as sugar

A small town named Filadelphia in the interiors of Northwestern Guanacaste province acts as a gateway to huge acres of sugarcane. Sugarcane is a big player in the country’s largely rural economy. All parts of the crop are used up so there is little waste. Workers use machetes to hack through the tall tough stacks of cane before it goes to the ‘Trapiches’, or sugar mills, to be ground into sugar.

My guide, Ulysses (how epic is that?), points out the sodas lining the main street. Soda is a term for the ubiquitous eatery found at every corner. The sun is riding high in the sky, and from the cool interiors of the sodas, local Costa Ricans raise their hands in greeting. They know where I’m headed. Soon, I see orderly rows of sugarcane and lines of melons on the other side of the dusty road.

“These belong to the company Del Monte. You have heard, yes?” I nod, my mind flying back to my local grocery store. I’ll always have this picture in my head when I see those tins next time, I think.

El Viejo Hacienda

The group made a stop at a hacienda, which lay past the fields and the streams where egrets continue to fish, unfazed by my picture taking. Built in the 1800s, it retains much of its original wood work. I wander into the courtyard, entranced by the view of the surroundings.

“Careful!” warns Ulysses, and I step back in alarm. Snoozing in the sunny courtyard is an iguana, all orange crest and striped tail. I was too busy looking about to have seen what lay at my feet. My heart is in my mouth.

“They’re harmless,” he grins. “They only fight among themselves.”

I’m not convinced and vow to pay attention. But the lovingly restored hacienda works its soothing magic on me. Upstairs are rooms whose wooden floors are scuffed with the imprints of a thousand visitors. The walls hang with pictures of another era. From the upstairs verandah, I see the clumps of weirdly shaped cacti, and beyond, the fields and mountains, misty in the noon haze.

Sabaneros

The group then had the opportunity to learn about the Sabanero (cowboy) culture, native to the region. Time lies still in these parts, I think. I meet El Capitano, the ox who will help in moving the mill press, which will grind the sugarcane to make juice. He’s a robust bull, but docile, on account of his castration, Nina, the young lady showing me around, explains. Then she makes a peculiar howling sound and, in an instant, is answered with the same sound from beyond the canopy of trees. That, she explains, is how the cowboys communicated with each other. Tourists gather around to watch the churning of the old machine with El Capitano’s help.

I cannot help it – I’m captivated, held fast by the sunshine, the scent of woodsmoke, the nectar-like sugarcane juice, and the living groves of tamarind and mango trees. Ulysses leads me up the steps to the modest Casa del Sabanero, with an open hearth with roaring fire, pats of corn dough, and an invitation to bake fresh tortillas. The taste is reminiscent of a simpler time, of sun, of community, of the earth, I think poetically.

Wetlands

The wetlands are only a short drive away. Through densely treed land, the van stops at the banks of the fast-flowing Tempisque river.

“You must see the monkeys. And crocodiles. Big!”

Ulysses’ appetite to let me make closer acquaintance with the stuff of my nightmares is unending, it seems. But I forgive him when I’m on the boat. A cooling breeze, jungle-thick banks, and the brackish waters of the Tempisque river.

“Crocodile!”

Everyone turns to the right. And on the bank, amid the mud, lies an enormous monster. It looked at us balefully with one eye.

“That’s Boss”, claims the boatman.

“How do you know? Can you recognise him?” someone asks nervously.

“He had an accident some years ago – fighting with another male. He’s blind in one eye.”

Our boat dawdles near the bank. Suddenly he lifts up his huge girth and in a second, slides into the water. The speed was frightening. Our boat zips away.

A flock of black necked stilts peck through the water near the bank. And at last, in the trees, a clutch of capuchin monkeys swing. Except for two of them.

“What are they doing?” a curious 10 year old asks.

Silence, and then laughter breaks out on the boat.

“Eh, fighting, I guess”, says the embarrassed mother.

If you are looking for a trip which combines the pleasures of a laid-back lifestyle, interesting experiences, rich diversity in plant and animal life, and smiling people, you need look no further.

TRAVEL: The Darien Gap is no man’s land

By Tania LaCaria

With his backpack strapped on tightly, he traipsed through the humid, overgrown jungle greenery. Careful not to slip on algae-covered boulders, he watched his right foot move in front of his left, never taking his eyes off the ground. Suddenly he felt a jarring shock to his system; he’s thrown to the ground from behind. They pulled his backpack off his arms, tied his wrists, shoved their hands into his pockets and pushed his face into the wet earth. He knew the Darién Gap was a dangerous place, but he was certain he could cross without injury.

Men shouted at him in local tongue, pushing barrels of their machine guns into the back of his head. They wanted his money, his cell phone, and his shoes, but they were careful not to take the GPS he was using – it could lead authorities back to them. As he lay there in his sweat-soaked shorts and soiled t-shirt, he knew he had made a mistake attempting to cross the infamous Darién Gap.

The Darién Gap is not accessible by any road, bus, train or plane for a reason. It is a dangerous place where many curious travelers are left to perish under the thick tropical tree coverage – most of whom end up victims of violent guerilla crimes.

A 48,000 kilometre-long stretch of paved road called the Pan-American Highway will take you all the way through North, Central and South America; except, of course, once you hit the Darién Gap – 321 kilometres of highly dangerous land between south-eastern Panama and north-western Columbia.

The Darién Gap has gained notoriety as a kind of “no-man’s land”. The lack of accessibility should come as a warning to travelers; sure, the Pan-Am highway drops off before the Gap on either end in order to preserve the natural environment, respect the indigenous tribes that live in the Gap and to prevent trafficking of drugs from Columbiainto Panama. The more important reason, however, is that it simply isn’t safe to travel through.

The FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia) guerilla group has been present in the Darién Gap for years, and now, they are virtually unbeatable. The horror stories of muggings, kidnappings and murders almost always trace back to the FARC – this dangerous group now seems to “run” the entire Darién Gap on a platform of fear.

Being a traveler that prefers to err on the side of caution, the thought of crossing the Gap has never entered my mind. But that doesn’t mean I cannot empathize with the curiosity travelers share. What does it look like? How much fear-mongering is the media responsible for? How do the villagers live? I suppose these questions will remain unanswered (for myself) for quite some time.

In the meantime, I will re-direct my quest for first-hand worldly knowledge and curiosity elsewhere — preferably to a destination that will not leave my loved ones muttering, “Curiosity killed the cat.”

 

 

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