|Friday, November 29, 2002 Dateline: Curitiba, Parana, BRAZIL
know the movie "If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium . . . " you will have some
sense of the recent leg of my trip. Actually, it hasn't been that bad. But after a
leisurely EIGHT MONTHS slowly bicycling through the byways of Mexico, in the last six
weeks I have spent time in or passed through BELIZE, GUATEMALA, EL SALVADOR, HONDURAS,
NICARAGUA, COSTA RICA, PANAMA, and BRAZIL, by bike, bus, boat and plane. As if that
weren't quite enough countries, I also arranged for flights from BRAZIL to California,
then back down to PERU. But I get ahead of myself.
After my last update from San Cristobal de Las Casas, in Chiapas, I hopped on the bike
for a two day 125 mile ride downhill from 6500 feet to sea level, to see the Mayan ruins
at Palenque. I assumed it would be a leisurely no effort romp. As you can guess, the lower
the elevation got, the warmer it got, and, as I was headed towards the Caribbean, it got
VERY muggy. The ride was beautiful. Narrow canyons, rushing streams, incredible vistas as
I descended into new valleys, all the while watching the scenery change to more palms and
banana trees. Unfortunately, after descending INTO the valleys there was a lot more
climbing OUT of them to get to the next one, than I expected. On Day 2 of the ride, at
mile 120, with the sun beating down, and the temperature well over 90 degrees, my body
decided to take a break. First time THAT had happened during the trip. Fortunately, the
embarrassment of having to push my bike for three miles to a mini resort by a waterfall
was greater than any harm done, but I learned my lesson about dealing with tropical
I arrived in Palenque early the next morning, settled in, and rested for my visit to
the ruins the next morning. The ruins are scattered about through the jungle, with trails
connecting the various plazas and housing complexes and ball courts and pyramids. There
are streams and waterfalls and dense trees and hanging vines, and, I am truly horrified to
report that all I kept thinking was: "This looks JUST like the Indiana Jones Ride at
Disneyland!" (One would hope that all this travel would have made me a BIT more
sophisticated. Ah well.)
>From Palenque, I had planned on heading to the Guatemalan border, taking a four
hour boat ride upstream, then to the ruins at Tikal in Guatemala. There are several tour
offices in Palenque (as it is one of the major stops on the famed "Gringo
Trail," on which you see the same group of backpacking Europeans hitting the sites
from Cancun down through Costa Rica). At each office I was told that the road to the
Guatemalan border was closed for the weekend due to Zapatista sponsored demonstrations.
But, the tour folks were getting daily updates from the federal government and the
transportation department about the road status, and expected to re-start van trips any
Early one morning at 5:30 a.m. I was in front of my hotel, bags packed, when, on
schedule, the van pulled up, we hoisted my bike up into the luggage rack and after picking
up about a dozen other travelers, headed for the border. As the sun was rising, and the
mists clearing from the valleys, we were all spellbound by the views. After about 75
minutes we come to a group of 50 locals waving tree branches in the middle of the road,
where they had deposited two tree logs. They offered to escort us to the NEXT roadblock
for either a) a small fee; b) a ride for some of their group; or c) a donation of our
vehicle. Of course, at the next roadblock, we would have been responsible for negotiating
our own transit through to the third roadblock, and so on. Needless to say, our van driver
said "No thanks." So we turned about, and our driver told us we would wait and
see if the government would provide an escort for a group of vehicles. They wouldn't.
Unfortunately, NOR could the government tell us exactly WHEN the demonstrations might
end (if ever). At this point, the other travelers, (a collection of French, Italian,
Dutch, British, and other European types) begin to panic, as they were ALL headed to Tikal
and on time limited vacations. Between us, we come up with a plan to ask the van driver if
we could hire the van for the day to drive us the 700 kilometers to Chetumal in the
Yucatan (Quintana Roo territory), where we could then bus to Belize and transfer to
Guatemala. I was elected as tour leader and translator, and after various negotiations,
additions from another van from another tour office, and other fun maneuverings we
succeeded. We ended the day at the bus station in Chetumal (exhausted, as you can
imagine), but with everyone with bus tickets to Cancun or Tikal, and a big group dinner
that night to celebrate our success. The next morning, they all bused out, and I VERY
GLADLY got on my bike and road across the border into Belize.
After 8 months, it was really strange to NOT be in Mexico. More strange was the fact
that English is the official language of the country. My first day I just realized at an
upscale (for me) little hotel right across the street from the beach, with a big, clean
queen size bed, loads of hot water, and a porch overlooking the sea (run by a former Peace
Corps volunteer and her 35 year old daughter from Mill Valley, California).
Northern Belize is an interesting mix descendants of the British colonizers and
Afro-Caribbean immigrants and slaves, Mayan refugees from 19th century conflicts on the
Yucatan peninsula, a fair number of Chinese immigrants who own numerous grocery stores and
restaurants, and a small community of American ex-pats for variety. Sugar cane and tourism
are really the only economic activities. (The whole country numbers about 800,000 people,
and Belize City only 250,000.)
My second day, I headed south from the border and spent the evening in the small
village of Crooked Tree (in the Orange Walk district), where about 150 people live in a
Wildlife Sanctuary down a five mile dirt road off the highway. Everyone knows everyone
else, and a 6 year old kid on a bike gave me directions to the "hotel" where I
stayed for the night. The population is all Creole and spoke English with me, but patois
among themselves, about half of which is intelligible to an English speaker. The village
was beautiful, and I awoke early the next morning to the sounds of the thousands or
millions of birds that live in the lagoons surrounding the village.
The ride down to Belize City, the capital, was fun. En route to Crooked Tree I crossed
paths with a young french couple biking north (only the SECOND bikers I had seen since
back in San Diego last March). We stopped and chatted for a bit, shared road stories and
they told me about a German/Swiss guy out and about biking all over. I encountered him the
next day, and we rode into Belize City together.
Although Lonely Planet had warned me that Belize City is something of a large slum, it
was a still a bit shocking. Like everything else on the trip though, after a little time,
the surprise wears off, and the charm of the place really comes through. I ended up
enjoying my few days there, staying in a downscale hostel type place that used to be run
by the Quakers. The highlight of my Belize visit was definitely my trip out to the Cayes
(pronounced Keys), where I went snorkeling off Caye Caulker. Our guide took us to three
different dive spots, at the last of which we swam with a shark (harmless little tiger),
and about a dozen and a half sting rays, which are incredibly friendly and intelligent.
They don't mind being petted, and their favorite thing is to swim between your legs as you
stand on the shallow sand bar floor. Once you get used to the feel of their
"wings" scraping against your calves, it is an amazing experience.
>From Belize City, (as I knew my December 1 deadline to meet my friend Melissa in
Brazil was looming), I bused to Guatemala, (which turned out to be a very prescient
decision as a good 40 kms of the way was bumpy gravel road, NOT fun on a bike).
Tikal, in northern Guatemala's Petén department, is one of the most famous Mayan ruin
sites, and with good reason. I awoke early on the morning of my 40th birthday for the
shuttle ride out to the site. Spread out over several square kilometers are various
temple, living and market complexes, again, connected by trails through the dense jungle
foliage, with birds and howler monkeys wandering the trees, and cotamundis walking the
grounds, begging food from the tourists.
There are two partially reconstructed high temples on the central Main Plaza; the
highest temple, Temple IV in the thickest part of the jungle; and my favorite, one pyramid
at the center of a section called "The Lost World" which can be climbed. From
the top of the pyramid there is a 360 degree view of the tops of the various temples
rising above the jungle canopy on all sides, and miles in the distance in all directions a
ring of mountains and hills. It is a sight I will never forget, and sitting up there, I
could not have imagined a better place to celebrate the big 4-0. It was nice, also,
because a lone Italian tourist adopted me first thing in the morning as I was sitting at
the museum reading about the site. There had been reports of muggings in the past, and she
said she felt safer touring with someone. Although she spoke no English, and I no Italian,
we were able to communicate fairly well in Spanish, and had similar sightseeing styles.
All in all, a great day.
Back on the bike, heading south, I had another two day, 120 mile adventure from Flores
to Rio Dulce. My overnight stop was at Finca Ixobel. (Fincas are plantations or ranches.)
Ixobel had been run since the 70's by an American ex-pat and
her husband, who was
murdered in the early 90's during the civil war. Carol DeVine still manages the Finca
which has a campground, tree houses, cabin dorms, single rooms, and luxury suites. I
stayed in a single room in one of the wood cabins, attached to a larger dorm room. Our
shared shower was out of doors, and the cabin was basically a step up from a big tent. But
the Finca is beautiful, with great meals, a beautiful central lodge, hammocks everywhere,
monkeys and parrots in a really large fenced enclosure (thirty feet high, 50 by 50 feet
wide) on the front lawn, and a pool, trails, etc.
Alas, the monkey and birds weren't the ONLY nature! My second night there I woke,
crawled out of my mosquito netting, walked out to the bathroom by moonlight, then back to
my room. It had gotten a little chilly, so I went to close the big wooden shutter of the
window. As I swung it open, staring at me, 6 inches away, right at eye level was the
biggest, hairiest, ugliest tarantula I have ever seen in my life. I dropped my hand from
the window, jumped into bed, praying that tarantulas didn't know how to crawl thru
mosquito netting, telling myself to calm down, that the thing would crawl away once it got
light. Much as I tried to talk myself back to sleep, and brave as I like to think I am, it
didn't work. 90 minutes later, at first light, I got up, opened the shutter again, where
Mr. Tarantula had started building a web around its body (or as my friend Nancy called it,
a hammock), so I grabbed my bags, threw them out of the room, packed up the bike and rode
away as fast as I could. (OK, the thing was harmless, I know . . . but still.)
Rio Dulce, my next destination, is another memorable location. About 30 miles up river
from the Guatemalan Caribbean coast, international yachties have built everything from
simple cabins to luxury mansions on the shores of the two lakes that form part of the Rio
Dulce. High speed launches ferry tourists down the river to Livingston, a community of
Garifúna and Spanish speaking Afro-Caribs, on the coast. The ride through the river
canyon, with steep walls covered in trees, palms, and vines is beautiful. Locals fish with
nets, birds dive for dinner, and rain clouds hide the tops of volcanic peaks in the
distance. The next day, I walked four kilometers upriver to the old Spanish fort of San
Felipe which was built to control the, yes, Pirates of the Caribbean, who regularly raided
the Spanish settlements up and down the coast.
>From Rio Dulce, I hopped a bus up to Guatemala City, where I was able to get my
Brazilian visa at the consulate, attend Saturday Shabbat services at the Sephardi
Synagogue (and even got called for an Aliyah), and took a day trip to Antigua, the old
colonial capital before it was destroyed by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and
Again, with my December Brazil deadline looming, and not sure exactly HOW I was getting
from Central America to meet my bike buddy Melissa in Rio de Janeiro (the Darien Gap in
southern Panama, at the Colombian border, is essentially roadless and impassable for
several hundred kilometers), I figured it was time to make some distance. I hopped a bus,
and with an overnight stop in San Salvador, went through 4 countries in 16 hours.
Guatemala City to El Salvador, through Honduras the next day, arriving, eventually in
Nicaragua has come a long way since the Somoza v. Sandinista era. Things have settled
down a lot, and Nicaragua was a fun part of the trip. While downtown Managua on the shore
Lake Managua has been essentially abandoned due to earthquake damage, the Area Monumental
makes for an interesting day's walking tour. Léon was a bit disappointing, but I spent
several relaxing days in Granáda, including a day trip to the top of nearby Volcán
Mombacho. While Granáda, at sea level, is humid and hot at about 95 degrees, the climb up
Mombacho (on foot, as it turned out I came on a day when the tourist Eco-Mobiles weren't
running), takes you up into cloud forest, where it is 50 degrees, visibility is 15 to 20
feet, and it is either raining or near to with the cloud condensation dripping off every
tree, rock and vine. Every standing object is covered in plant life, epiphytes, flowers,
leaves, etc. There is a well-signed trail around the incredibly steep crater, where one
sign brags that there are more species (over 30) living on just ONE tree than in the
average European forest.
Granada is on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, which is really beautiful, including a
section of 300 small islands near the shore, which are home to everything from small
fisherman's shacks to several small private islands owned by wealthy businessman and
government officials who build large second homes. It was interesting to learn that during
the 1849 gold rush, east-coast Americans would sail south into the Caribbean and up the
Rio San Jorge on Cornelius Vanderbilt's steamships into Lake Nicaragua. From there they
would disembark, take a 20km Vanderbilt stagecoach ride to the Pacific shore at San Juan
del Sur, than sail north up the Pacific Coast to San Francisco, for the trip to the gold
fields. This route was one of the top contenders considered (along with several other
locations on the narrow isthmus) for the transcontinental passage eventually constructed
>From Granáda I rode down to San Jorge, for the boat ride in Lake Nicaragua to the
twin volcano isle of Ometepe. Unfortunately it was still the rainy off-season with limited
island tourist transportation, and given my time crunch, I was not able to climb either of
the volcanoes (one of which has a lagoon in its crater), but the island is pretty
nonetheless, and made a nice overnight stop on my ride to the Costa Rican border.
Costa Rica is well known for its natural beauty, national parks, rain forests,
volcanoes, etc. In fact, the town I stopped in my first night in Costa Rica was on a hill
about 12 miles from the Pacific with a phenomenal view of the coastline´s rocky bays,
islands and small beaches. The riding was pleasant, through "dry tropical
forest," with numerous bridges crossing the many rivers. I did make it to one
National Park, where I hiked through "semi humid tropical forest" (I swear I am
NOT making these categories up: in fact, there are a series of posters that show the flora
and fauna of these two forests, along with "rain forest," and "cloud
forest") to a turquoise pool at the bottom of a 60 foot waterfall. I swam in the
pool, and stood on a rock beneath the falls where the water pounds on you. (Didn´t stand
there long though.) The afternoon, I joined three British tourists, and we did a loop
trail past volcanic formations, including fumaroles, mud pots, and the like. While I heard
monkeys, no sighting that day.
Again, feeling a bit of time pressure, I headed for San Jose, the Costa Rica capital,
and relaxed for a few days, visiting the Jade and Gold museums, nearby colonial city of
Heredia, and, of course, got my usual city mall and movie fix.
I did a capital city to capital city bus, leaving San Jose at 10:00 p.m. and arriving
at the Panama border at 5:00 a.m. the next morning, where we waited an hour for
immigration to open. From the border it is another 10 hour drive to Panama City, a bit
long, but very pretty, traversing volcanic ranges and tropical lowland.
The END of the journey is really exciting. Though Panama now owns and controls the
Canal, the Zone on either side still looks like the U.S. Military Base it used to be (with
buildings that gave me flashbacks to my posts in Fort Benning, Georgia and Frankfurt,
Germany). After a few miles of army standard, we approached the Canal and the entrance to
the Bridge of the Americas, a tall, iron bridge spanning high above the Canal, with a view
to the right of the Pacific and the ships lining up for transit, and off to the left,
Balboa port and the Canal proper.
Panama was, for me, a fascinating country. The mix of influences and peoples:
indigenous, Afro-Carib, Spanish, and the long U.S. military and commercial presence are
ALL evident in the people, the buildings, the feel of the place. The history of
Columbus´four trips and subsequent Spanish exploration, and Panama´s role as a
throughpoint for gold and riches extracted from Spain´s South American colonies is also
present. Too, in another Disney reference, I finally "got" the Pirates of the
Caribbean. I visited Viejo Panama, the 16th and 17th century ruins of the original city,
and also Casco Antigua, the second city, established on a peninsula at the south of the
present city, which was bordered on three sides by the Pacific, and on the fourth by a
moat, in order to defend against the British, Dutch and other pirates who routinely raided
the Spanish settlements. Though Casco had become a slum, the old colonial buildings are
being beautifully restored, and the 20 or so blocks have a magical feel to them. I predict
in about 10 more years it will be quite a tourist destination.
Of course, the big highlight of the visit for me, was my time at and IN the Canal. From
Pacific to Caribbean (because of the geography of the Central American isthmus, that is
essentially from SOUTHEAST to NORTHWEST, an oddity that causes the sun to rise over the
Pacific and set in the Atlantic/Caribbean), the Canal goes from bay, to Miraflores locks
(rising about 30 feet in level), to Miraflores lake (short and narrow), to Pedro Miguel
locks (rising another 45 feet), into the Gaillard cut, which slices the continental divide
and into Lake Gatún a huge manmade lake that constitutes about half of the Canal´s
transit, created between 1910 and 1914 by the damning of the major river. On the far side
of Lake Gatún, the Gatún locks lower ships back to sea level for passage into the
In the middle of Lake Gatún is a former hilltop that is now an island: the Isla Barro
Colorado, which is home to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, created back in
the 1920´s as a living biological laboratory. Limited number of tourists are allowed on
the island, and I was lucky enough to get a ticket. I woke at 4:30 a.m. to catch the 5:30
a.m. bus to Gamboa, just past the Gaillard cut at the entry to Lake Gatún where the
Panama Canal Authority Dredging Operations are headquartered. A one hour boat ride took us
from the Dredging Operations docks to the Island. En route, of course, we passed several
really REALLY large container ships in transit, quite a sight as they towered above us.
On the island, we visited the research facilities, labs, visitor center and then spent
several hours on trails on the island. We really lucked out, seeing a troop of about 30
howler monkeys, and two different troops of red spider monkeys, also with about 30 members
each. The spider monkey troops each had half a dozen mothers with babies clinging to them.
It was really mesmerizing to watch the monkeys playing, feeding, resting, climbing and
swinging, and, of course, watching us watch them. Our guide was a biology researcher
specializing in primates (so, obviously informative about the monkeys), but also quite
knowledgeable about the other animals on the island (for example, there is a large puma
population which is tracked and their eating habits studied), and also knew alot about the
various plant life. It was an amazing, informative and tiring day.
I took the bus out to Colon, on the Caribbean side of Panama, to see if I could catch a
ride from some "yachtie" past the "Darien Gap." The eastern-most part
of Panama that connects to Colombia/South America is essentially unpassable. There are no
roads, lots of bandits, and fairly constant guerilla activity. There ARE folks who hike
with guides along some coastal trails to say they have "done it," but I have my
limits. The only yacht leaving out was already full of 5 travelers with beach gear and a
motorcycle, and was headed to Colombia, so I passed.
My friend Melissa and I had decided to play it by ear as to where exactly in Brazil we
would meet. I hadn´t realized it, but Brazil is, umm . . . BIG. In fact, the 5th largest
country in the world. Basically a tad larger than the lower 48 United States. Complicating
matters was the fact that Melissa has a friend she wanted to meet before we started biking
who lives in the North, but had (without telling her) booked a flight to Rio (waaaay down
The travel gods once again smiled kindly on me, the cheapest and only direct flight
from Panama City was to São Paula, a mere 300 miles from Rio. The only thing left to do
was figure out how to get my bike down there. I made a special trip out to the Panama City
Airport, where the Copa Air clerk told me to just wheel my bike up to the counter, pay
$40, let the air out of the tires, and wrap the bike in plastic. Pretty easy!
In light of my familiarity with Murphy´s Law, I arranged to get to the airport three
hours before my flight, and, sure enough, the clerk was wrong. Unfortunately, I had left
the bike box I bought back at my hotel (didn´t want to ENCOURAGE Murphy after all), and
while I have tools to repair my bike, I don´t have everything needed to break it down.
After getting set downstairs to the secure baggage area, and back upstairs, and down and
up one more time, two Copa employees came and cut up some large cardboard boxes lying
around and we "created" a bike box . . . well, sort of. The thing was really
more packing tape and plastic wrap, but, amazingly, the bike made with just a scratch or
two, and I reassembled it that night in my São Paulo hotel room. (OK, I haven´t actually
RIDDEN it yet, but so far, it checks out, and I remain optimistic.)
Adding to my "largest city" list, started with my visit to Mexico City, São
Paula is another megalopolis. 17 million people, and the largest city in South America.
Fun, easy to get around, but not really a tourist site, so I decamped after two days, and
headed 6 hours south by bus (as Melissa and I will be biking North) here to Curitiba, in
the State of Paraná.
Oh, and for you non-Portuguese speakers (like me), that´s pronounced: Koo-hee-chee-ba.
Yes, the "r" has an "h" sound, and the "t" and "d"
get "ch" sound, to the point where I have NO idea what people are saying and
they certainly don´t understand me. On the other hand, besides being an incredibly good
looking people, Brazilians are really friendly, so things work out. My favorite
"Brazilianism" is the "thumbs up" sign, which means just about
everything. I have gotten it when my food was up at a restaurant counter, when I
pronounced "muito obrigado" close to properly, and when I asked if the panoramic
tower was open for a view of town. Everyone uses it for everything, men, women, kids, all
social classes. It´s really pretty endearing.
Today, I took the Curitiba to Paranagúa train which was completed in 1880 and goes
from the mountains, here at 3000 feet, down to Paranagúa Bay, at sea level, crossing 60
some bridges, through 13 tunnels, and passing canyons, mountains, waterfalls and beautiful
forests. It is a real tourist attraction for Brazilians, who besides being nice, are LOUD.
Riding the train was sort of like being at a big frat party, only people weren´t drunk.
Everyone clapped and yelled each time we went through a tunnel, then shouted
"oooh" when we came out the other side and saw some new view. In between, they
shouted jokes and stories at each other.
Tonight, as I finish this off, I am back to the bus station for the night bus (I sprung
for a bed in the bus) to Foz de Aguaçu, near the Brazil/Argentina/Paraguay borders. The
Aguaçu waterfalls (275 cataracts 80 meters high in an area 2 miles wide) are supposed to
be worth the detour. While there, I will see if I can go inside the Itaipu damn on the
Paraná River, the world´s largest hydroelectric project, then bus on back to São Paulu,
head to Rio, meet up with Melissa, and start cycling again.
So that catches you up. Happy Thanksgiving to all. It was kind of funny being in the
Show Estaçao (the mall) tonight, with the huge Christmas tree, the local school choir
singing Jingle Bell Rock in Portuguese, and it´s 90 degrees out . . . but, ´tis the