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Bocas del Toro Travel Guide Part 1: What to Do & What to Eat – Bocas del Toro, Panama

This post is part 1 of 2 in the series Bocas del Toro Guide

Christopher Columbus arrived in Bocas del Toro, Panama in 1502. In the 17th century, pirates used the sheltered bays in the area to repair their ships. Rumors of buried treasure persist. British author Graham Greene finally got to Bocas in the early ’80s on his third attempt to reach the area. These days the conquistadors, pirates and old-school adventure travel writers are long gone, replaced by a growing number of tourists. Here’s part 1 of our 2 part  Bocas del Toro Travel Guide. This one is focused on what to do and what to eat. Check out part 2 to find out where to sleep in Bocas del Toro on any travel budget.

Getting to Bocas del Toro and Bocas town

Generally speaking, when people say Bocas del Toro (Mouth of the Bull) they’re referring to the whole Bocas del Toro Archipelago of nine islands. But it gets confusing since the main town in the archipelago, located on Isla Colon, is called Bocas town. This is where you will get off the ferry from Almirante on the mainland (30 minutes, US$5 per person in an open sided motor boat) or off your flight from San Jose, Costa Rica or Panama City.

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas del Toro in Panama is not short on charm, as this guest house proves.

Bocas town wouldn’t exist at all if not for the United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita Brands) which created the town as part of its now defunct banana operations in the area. Today, Bocas town still has more bicycles than cars, though a vehicle ferry makes the run between Isla Colon and the mainland daily. The number of buildings in Bocas town has increased but they’re still mostly small, wooden structures (there’s a five storey maximum) simply built and brightly painted in true Caribbean style. Electricity is supplied from massive, and massively unreliable, diesel generators.

Bocas town has the charm and pace that beach towns in Belize wish they had and a smaller price tag to boot. It’s like a Central American version of Key West from 50 years ago and it makes the perfect base for exploring the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, which we did for two weeks.

Panama Beer  - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Beer on the beach, just another day in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

What to do in Bocas del Toro, Panama

Playa Bluff: You have to work a bit for it–a five mile (eight km) bike ride from Bocas town (about 45 minutes)–but your effort delivers you to one of the most beautiful beaches we have ever seen. The sand at Playa Bluff is gold. The beach is wide and flat. And nearly deserted. Shade-giving sea grape trees hug the high tide line. The waves crash mercilessly, so much so that you can’t actually swim at Playa Bluff. No problem. That allows you to focus on settling into the chair or hammock you’ve claimed and downing your cold beverage of choice, supplied by nearby Playa Bluff Lodge. If you had your heart set on swimming, we hear Mimbi Timbi Beach, further down the coast, has a naturally protected pool.

Playa Bluff  - Bocas del Toro, Panama

We told you the sand on Playa Bluff, in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, is gold.

Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach): You’ll need to catch a public bus (US$3 round trip from the small central park in Bocas town) going to Boca del Drago (Mouth of the Dragon) if you want to visit Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach), and you most certainly want to visit Starfish Beach unless you’ve got something against giant, bright red starfish. They’re common in the archipelago but they love this beach in particular for some reason. Buses leave town for Boca del Drago on even hours and come back from Boca del Drago to town on odd hours. From Boca del Drago you can catch a water taxi to Starfish Beach (US$1.50 per person) or walk for 30 minutes along the coastline.

Starfish Beach - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Two of the starfish that congregate in the calm, warm, shallow bay off Starfish Beach in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago in Panama.

Playa Estrella - Bocas del Toro, Panama

A water taxi waits to take travelers to and from Starfish Beach (Playa Estrella) in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago in Panama.

To be honest, we were expecting to be tripping over starfish but there were only a dozen or so around when we were at Starfish Beach. The smart ones fled. We watched in horror as person after person picked up the fragile creatures for photos or just for the heck of it despite signs all over the area telling people to keep their hands off so they don’t kill the starfish.

Don't touch the starfish sign - Starfish Beach, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Despite warning signs like this all over Starfish Beach, many, many visitors still insist on touching and picking up the starfish which can be deadly.

Enterprising locals have set up makeshift kitchens on Starfish Beach and we were delighted with our fresh grilled fish lunch. Fried chicken and even lobster were available too (US$7-US$12). We rented beach chairs (US$4 each for the day) and enjoyed cold beer (US$2) before getting back into the crystal clear, warm, protected water in the bay. It was like floating in a salty, warm pool full of pipefish and humans tormenting starfish.

Starfish - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Don’t touch the starfish in the bay at Starfish Beach!

Red Frog Beach: The most famous beach in the area requires a 15 minute water taxi ride form Bocas town (US$5 per person plus US$3 per person to walk through the private property at the dock) followed by a 10 minute walk to reach the beach itself. But famous doesn’t always mean fabulous and Red Frog Beach left us a bit non-plussed. It’s wide and the surf is swimable but we found Playa Bluff to be much more beautiful and much, much less crowded.

Red frog Beach - Bastamientos Island,  Bocas del Toro, Panama

Red Frog Beach in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago in Panama before the arrival of the day tripping crowds.

Yes, we saw the red frogs for which the beach is named. They’re strawberry frogs, actually, and visitors are so anxious to see them that local kids gather them up and charge you to take a picture of them. We’re fairly certain the captured frogs were dead by the end of the day. Luckily, we saw some in the wild too.

Strawberry poison dart frog - Red frog Beach, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Red Frog Beach gets its name from the strawberry frogs which live above the high tide line.

There are some hotels on Red Frog Beach, notably Palmar Tent Lodge and its bohemian tented beach safari vibe with solar power, outdoor showers, purified rain water and daily yoga. In late 2013 a mega resort called Red Frog Beach Island Resort & Spa opened as well.

Day trip to the Zapatilla islands: Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park was founded in 1988 and was Panama’s first marine park. It protects a vast area in and around the Bocas archipelago, including Zapatilla 1 and Zapatilla 2, a pair of neighboring island so named because someone thought they resembled a pair of shoes (zapato means shoe in Spanish and zapatilla means little shoe). The only way to visit the Zapatillas is on a day trip in a long motorized wooden boat with a driver (around US$40 per person including mask and snorkel plus US$10 per person park entry fee).

Zapatilla Island - Bocas del Toro, Panama

We finally managed to find a stretch of beach on Zapatilla 1 that wasn’t strewn with washed-up garbage.

The day we decided to visit the area the sea was rough which meant we didn’t see any dolphins as we passed through Dolphin Bay. It also meant that it was too dangerous to reach Zapatilla 2 so we had to content ourselves with Zapatilla 1. This was not easy since Zapatilla 1 was ringed with a mini-moat of garbage, mostly plastic stuff probably brought there from Bocas town on the tides including a bunch of flip flops which struck us as ironic. And sad.

The Zapatilla tour includes a lunch stop at a small nearby restaurant. We enjoyed the snorkeling around and under the restaurant’s dock and pier more than what we’d done around Zapatilla 1 (no garbage for starters).We saw soft corals, starfish and baby reef fish. But be warned: meal prices were extremely high at this restaurant. We’d recommend bringing your own food for this long day outing.

Smithsonian Tropical Research Center: The Smithsonian Tropical Research Center about a mile (two km) from Bocas town can be toured as well though we never got to it.

Oggling at the sunset: Any local will tell you that the best place to watch the spectacular sunsets is from Bibi’s on the Beach, an open-air, thatch-roof restaurant and bar on the waterfront on Carnero Island just a stone’s throw across the bay from Bocas town. Water taxis will take you to and fro and there’s a generous happy hour nightly.

Sunset Bastamientos Island - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset in Panama’s Bocas del Toro Archipelago.

What to eat in Bocas Town

Lili’s Cafe, on main street, is a solid spot for moderately priced passable food served slowly on a pier. However, the real reason to come here is to try their famous, fiery-hot housemade Killin’ Me Man hot sauce which gets its considerable punch from habaneros, mustard and a slew of secret ingredients.

Eating in Bocas del Toro, Panama

Main Street in Bocas Town is dotted with eateries like this one.

The Wine Bar, on the second floor of a building on the inland side of main street, has a proper climate-controlled cellar for wine storage (though we’re not sure how climate-controlled the wine’s journey to the archipelago is). They offer a wide range of wines by the glass (around US$4 per glass when we were there)  which change every day. There’s a breezy balcony and interior living rooms and dining rooms for tapas or more substantial plates. Art rotates in and out of the place and there’s life music on Friday nights.

The RipTide Bar & Restaurant has two things going for it: it’s located in a converted ship that still bobs in the water and they offer things like “chicken fried steak and Texas holdem” specials and broadcast events like the Super Bowl which reliably attracts local expats as well as travelers. Don’t expect to try any Panamanian or Caribbean food here. It’s all US comfort food all the way, at reasonable prices.

Cute - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Opening hours can be unpredictable in Bocas Town.

It was too rich for our blood (around US$25 per person), but diners rave about the six course, prix fixe Mediterranean food at Guari Guari. Reservations are a must, it’s cash only and the restaurant is located a mile (two km) from the center of town.

We were disturbed to learn from another traveler that it looks like Chris Fish, a closet-sized take-out-only place we found on the waterfront on main street not far from the ferry docks, seems to have closed. It was our go-to spot for big red snapper sandwiches and huge plates of made-to-order fish and chips with hand cut fries and coleslaw for US$5.50 Ask around and let us know if it’s really closed or merely moved.

Main street, Isla Colon - Bocas del Toro, Panama

This is where our favorite cheap meal place, Chris Fish, used to be located on Main Street in Bocas Town, but other travelers told us it may now be closed. Update, please.

Another good budget travel eating option, also on main street not far from the ferry docks, is the no-frills place with the huge machines out front slowly cooking succulent chicken rotisserie style. You can buy a quarter, half or whole chicken, each one rubbed with a delicious Caribbean mix of spices and served with fries or patacones (fried discs of mashed plantain) along with hot and delicious housemade hot sauce. Get your ice-cold beer at the little store next door.

For a good cheap snack, pick up a few of the meat-filled empanadas at John’s Bakery (less than US$1), but grab ’em early. They’re usually sold out by noon.

There are a few moderately well-stocked Chinese-owned small supermarkets in Bocas town. There’s also the Super Gourmet, an adorable, well-stocked gourmet market. You won’t have any trouble finding ingredients to cook up if your accommodation has a kitchen.

Super-Gourmet-Bocas-del-Toro

The Super Gourmet market in Bocas Town lives up to its name.

Weird Bocas del Toro

  • There’s a guy who walks around Bocas Town at night with a large, intricate paper plane on a string tied to a stick. When the spirit moves him, he starts running down the street to make his plane “fly”.
  • There’s a Chinese temple on the water near the fire station with Chinese characters in red across the front. It’s never been used, but it will never be sold or torn down either. It’s been sealed and sacred since the Buddha inside it somehow remained upright through a strong earthquake in 1991.
  • There’s an old man who collects tin cans. When  he has more than he can carry he lines them up in the middle of main street and crushes each one with a cinder block very methodically.

Bocas del Toro travel budget tip

Whenever we head to a beautiful island location (which is embarrassingly frequently) we get ready for the sticker shock. After all, the logic goes, everything has to be shipped or flown in and the customers are a bunch of geographically captive holiday makers so who cares if we double the price of beer/Band-aids/beds. Imagine our delight when we realized that prices for most things in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago are only marginally higher than they are on the mainland. We don’t know why and we don’t care.

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Beach Bungalows, Perfect Pizza & the Best Road in the Country – Mechapa & Northern Pacific Coast, Nicaragua

Few  travelers make it to León, Nicaragua which is just one reason why León was our favorite city in Nicaragua. Even fewer people travel to the northern Pacific coast north of León, but they should. In fishing villages like Mechapa and on beaches like Aposentillo you’ll find great beach bungalows, perfect pizza and the best road in the country.

Driving on the beaches of Northern Nicaragua

Karen hanging out on the tailgate during a break in our epic beach drive in Mechapa, Nicaragua.

Mechapa, gateway to Nicaragua’s Northern Pacific Coast

Thanks to the completion of a fantastic new paved road, replacing one of the most notoriously brutal dirt roads in the country, you can now drive yourself to Mechapa from Leon in 1.5 hours or 3.5 hours from Managua (it’s tricky and slow by bus as service is limited and stops are many).

Fisherman, Machapa, Nicaragua

Fishermen plying their trade in Mechapa, Nicaragua.

There are around 600 people living in Mechapa, most of them involved in fishing or working on the area’s sprawling peanut farms. There are a handful of small closet-sized shops in the dirt-road-town and they peddle the basics. There are no restaurants or coffee shops or nightlife or tour companies of any kind but there is one friendly and comfortable beachfront hotel and, really, that’s all you need.

Redwood Beach Resort & Restaurant, Nicaragua

Beach view from the porch of one of the bungalows at Redwood Beach Resort & Restaurant in Mechapa.

The Redwood Beach Resort  was originally built in 2000 by a man from Managua who planned on building 32 bungalows, a large swimming pool and 16 condominiums. Only a handful of bungalows every got built and he never opened the property.

In 2006 Mike and Stacy Vogelsang, a metal worker and psychologist from Illinois, bought the 22 acre (nine hectare) property, sold everything in the US and became hoteliers. There was no running water, no electricity and no plumbing.

Bungalows Redwood Beach Resort - Mechapa, Nicaragua

Redwood Beach Resort & Restaurant in Mechapa on Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast north of León.

Today the Vogelsangs offer a full restaurant and six homey, comfortable beach bungalows (from US$65 per person per night including three meals a day). All are just steps away from the beach (#4 has the best view) with hammock strewn porches.

It’s the perfect comfy castaway base and your hosts can arrange horseback riding, kayaking, boat tours, fishing and more. Sea turtles also nest here  between November and January. Cold beers are abundant and thoughtfully served in beer cozies.

Redwood Beach Resort - Mechapa, Nicaragua

Sunset on Nicaragua’s Northern Pacific Coast.

The best road in Nicaragua

While Nicaragua’s roads are far superior to those in many of the neighboring countries thanks to the fellow-socialists in Venezuela who provide cheap petroleum (asphalt is made from a mixture high in petroleum), we took one look at the 15 mile (24 km) long wide, flat, hard-packed black sand beach in front of Redwood  Beach Resort and asked one question: can we drive on that?

Come along on our epic 30 mile (48 km) beach drive in Mechapa in our seven minute high-speed recap video.

 

Turns out, the owners enjoy a good beach drive too and assured us that as long as we timed the tides right we could drive for miles. Which we did, driving all the way down to the largest estuary in Central America. We saw plenty of birds along the way and no more than five other people.

Mechapa Beach Nicaragua

Our happy truck unleashed on the beach in Mechapa, Nicaragua.

End of the beach lies Reserva Natural Padre Ramos, Nicaragua

This end of the 15 mile (24 km) beach in Mechapa is home to the Padre Ramos Nature Reserve.

Mechapa Beach Redwood resort, Nicaragua

One of the bungalows at Redwood Resort & Restaurant peaks out of the jungle toward the beach in Mechapa, Nicaragua.

This is yet another reason to explore this part of Nica in your own vehicle.

Perfect pizza by way of Paris

Tipped off by Stacy and Mike from Redwood Beach Resort we made a point of stopping at Al Cielo Cabañas & Restaurant just above the surf breaks at Aserradores Beach while we were in the area. It was created by two friends from France, Xavier and William, who decided to ditch the pace in Paris for the surf in Central America.

Al Cielo Cabanas & Restaurant Nicaragua

Rooms with a view at Al Cielo Cabañas & Restaurant on Nicaragua’s Northern Pacific Coast.

The pair were traveling and surfing along the Nica’s Northern Pacific Coast when they fell in love with a patch of land above Aserradores Beach which had been used to grow cotton. They bought it, cleared it and did much of the construction themselves.

Menu at Al Cielo Cabanas & Restaurant - Aserradores Beach Nicaragua

Everything on the menu at Al Cielo is homemade and delicious but do not miss the pizza.

Al Cielo has eight basic but comfortable wooden cabanas, some with shared bath (from around US$30 per night). All have views of the Pacific and breezy porches and there’s a pool. One of the country’s top surf beaches is just a few minutes away. However, the best thing about Al Cielo is the restaurant.

Pizza at Al Cielo Cabanas & Restaurant - Aserradores Nicaragua

Behold, REAL pizza made from scratch by the French-trained chef who co-owns Al Cielo Cabañas & Restaurant on Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast north of León.

Xavier trained in the culinary arts in Paris and, thankfully, he did not want to abandon his chef whites entirely. The restaurant at Al Cielo is now one of the most exciting casual restaurants in Nicaragua, attracting locals from the nearby city of Chinandega who make the 20 minute drive to the place just to enjoy the food and the views from the open air, thatch roof dining room.

Xavier - Al Cielo Cabanas & Restaurant - Aserradores Nicaragua

Meet Xavier: French-trained chef, baker of bread, surfer of waves and co-owner of Al Cielo Cabañas & Restaurant on Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast north of León.

The menu is small, featuring one pasta dish, one fish dish, one meat dish (like pepper steak for US$8.50), a real salad (for around US$5) and pizzas. And what pizzas! Thin crust made using a slightly modified recipe given to Xavier by a mentor in Paris before he left, real Italian cheese, inventive toppings and all cooked up in a real pizza oven for around US$7. No wonder Al Cielo made our list of Best Food & Beverages of the year. Oh, and don’t miss their Flor de Caña rums infused with goodies like hot peppers, vanilla and ginger.

Infused Flor de Cana Rums - Al Cielo Cabanas & Restaurant Nicaragua

Flor de Cana rum naturally infused with ginger, hot chilies and more at Al Cielo Cabañas & Restaurant on Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast north of León.

 

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Inside Our First House Sitting Gig – Matapalo, Costa Rica

It makes so much sense if you think about it. The world is full of home owners who do not want to leave their homes unoccupied when they leave for extended periods of time because they leave their pets behind or they just feel better knowing that someone is around if a pipe breaks. The world is also full of people looking for a more affordable way to live and/or travel. Now if only there was an easy way for those two groups of people to meet…

To fill that need a number of websites have emerged which act as matchmaking resources through which a home owner can advertise a need and registered house sitters can offer their services. Typically no money is exchanged: home owners rest easy and house sitters stay for free. That’s how we ended up with our very first (but certainly not our last) house sitting gig in Matapalo, Costa Rica.

NOTE: every single one of these photos was taken from the large, tiled, open-sided patio of the house we were sitting including the ones of the baby sloth.

Karen (and the owners’ dog) on the vast open patio of the house we were sitting near Matapalo, Costa Rica–the perfect place from which to enjoy yet another gorgeous sunset over the Pacific with Manuel Antonio National Park visible on the far right end of the coast.

Love the home you’re in

We haven’t had our own home since we left our apartment in New York City in April of 2006 and embarked on our Trans-Americas Journey. While we love the freedom and unpredictability of our life on the road we sometimes miss the routine and control that comes from settling into a home. We don’t want to do it forever, but having a temporary home base allows us to do things we miss–like doing our own laundry and cooking the food we prefer to eat. It also lets us get more work done since we aren’t spending time planning our next moves or driving all day hither and yon. Yep, we just used “hither and yon” in a blog post.

Full time travel is hard work. Really.

We’ve really enjoyed the random opportunities we’ve had during the course of our Trans-Americas Journey to stay with friends long-term or even look after friends’ homes when they’ve been gone. As our Journey approaches its 6th year on the road we know we need to find more opportunities to hunker down in order to save money, stay on top of our work load and recharge our batteries with a bit of domestic bliss–three of the main reasons why house sitting is such a good option for travelers.

Matapalo Costa Rica view

Hills and ocean as seen from the patio of the house we were sitting near Matapalo, Costa Rica.

About a year ago Trustedhousesitters.com, one of the leading websites that facilitates house sitting around the world, gave us a membership. Since then we’ve been religiously monitoring the handy “new listings” email which members receive every day. This is one of our favorite emails of the day since it’s full of dream opportunities around the world. Here’s a sampling of some listings available right now:

  • Six weeks in a modern, tri-level penthouse in the trendy Condessa neighborhood of Mexico City with one dog and some fish
  • Christmas and New Year in a three bedroom seaside home near Malaga, Spain
  • Three months in a unique, open-air house on the beach in Phuket, Thailand
  • A classic Italian farmhouse in Tuscany for the winter with cats a horse and a donkey
  • Two weeks in a stone cottage in rural Portugal with two dogs and two cats
  • Three weeks with two dobermans in a house in Brisbane with a movie room
  • Four months in a modern villa in southern Italy
Matapalo sunset

The large, tiled, open-sided patio of the house we were sitting in the hills above Matapalo in Costa Rica was the perfect vantage point on dramatic skies above the Pacific Ocean. Better than TV.

 

Careful, it’s addictive

If we’re not careful, hours can slip by as we read the details of our favorite new listings around the world. Sometimes we catch ourselves calculating how we could get to the Pyrenees or Tasmania or Malta to take advantage of the dreamiest opportunities on the planet.

Alas, the reality is that we can only pursue opportunities within a reasonable driving distance of our current location in The Americas. That does limit our options. Home owners in Australia and Europe are much more savvy about house sitting than home owners in the The Americas. However, that’s changing and Trusted Housesitters has decided that this part of the world has growth potential so we’re excited to see more and more listings in our region as the site increases their pool of home owners in our neck of the woods.

A match made on Trustedhousesitters.com

House sitting in Costa Rica and pet sitting in Costa Rica are both growth areas because of the number of expat home owners in Costa Rica who routinely return to their home countries for extended periods. When our daily new listings email from TrustedHousesitters.com arrived with a listing for “House and pet sitter needed near Dominical” in a house with panoramic views of the Pacific we immediately responded to the home owners using the easy online form to express interest and encourage them to learn more about us through our profile on the site (which was really easy to create).

Within 24 hours we’d heard from the home owners. We exchanged a series of emails, each of us going over key questions and expectations in detail. Within a week they’d confirmed our assignment and we’d spoken via Skype to go over all the final details. It really couldn’t have been easier.

We arrived at their home the day before the owners were scheduled to leave. This was a really smart idea because it allowed us to get to know each other, get introduced to their dog and cat and learn all of the quirks of the house–from how to handle their killer water pressure to who to call if the animals got sick (didn’t happen) or the toilet stopped working (did happen). We highly recommend the “one day early” approach whenever possible.

matapalo coffee view

Karen waking up with our own private menagerie of sloths, toucans and more–all visible right from the patio of the house we were sitting.

Over the next three weeks the home owners enjoyed their time away and we enjoyed our time in one place getting into a productive routine and indulging in the joys of dog walking and grocery shopping.

Unexpected pluses

House sitting also brings unexpected pluses. In our case, these came in the form of wild animals. We spent hours on the spacious open-sided patio of the home in the jungly hills above Matapalo beach with binoculars and cameras glued to our faces observing three-toed sloths (including a mother and baby), parrots, toucans, aracaris, poison dart frogs, white face capuchin monkeys, king vultures, a jaguarundi and foot long female stick bug having sex with a remarkably small male. It was like living inside our own Animal Planet channel, only our viewing blind was a comfortable, modern house. As we’ve already said, ALL of these photos were taken right from the patio.

sloth costa rica

This is Pablo Perezoso, a male sloth that moved into a guaruma tree less than 100 feet from the patio of the house we were sitting in Costa Rica. Perezoso is the Spanish word for sloth.

 

baby sloth, costa rica

And here is Penelope Perezoso and her new son Pablito. They hung around the house (literally) for four days straight. No, we didn’t get much work done while they were there. Would you?

 

baby sloth

Mother and baby.

 

Three toed sloth

Pablo goes out on a limb for a tasty treat.

 

Three toed sloth, Costa Rica

Pablo showing off his crazy flexibility and strength.

 

baby sloth kiss

Mother and baby share a kiss. That’s our interpretation anyway.

Did we mention the extremely prolific papaya tree that could be picked without ever leaving the patio?

Chestnut Mandibled Toucan, Costa Rica

A chestnut mandibled toucan takes a break and makes a racket in a tree within tossing distance of the house we were sitting in Costa Rica.

 

Fiery-billed Araçari

Fiery-billed aracaris stopped by for a visit–and up close look–too.

 

giant stick bug

Yes, that’s a grown man’s hand behind that giant stick bug clinging to a piece of lighter-colored rope. The large insect is the female and if you look closely you’ll see a much smaller male on her back. They’re having sex, which stick bugs have been known to do for more than 70 hours at a time.

 

Poison Dart Frog Costa Rica

One day a black and green poison dart frog showed up right on the patio. Our biggest fear? Don’t let the cat get it.

On a related note, this was the first time these homeowners had retained house sitters and they told us that they decided to list their need on Trustedhousesitters.com because a neighbor had recently used the site and had a really positive experience. As for us, we’re back to scouring our daily “new listings” emails from Trustedhousesitters.com in search of our next house sitting opportunity.

Costa Rica sunset

One last postcard-perfect sunset from the patio of the house we were sitting for three weeks in the hills above Matapalo, Costa Rica.

 

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True Blue – Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

Founded on May 22, 1902, Crater Lake National Park in Oregon was the sixth national park established in the United States. It’s also about to fully open to travelers for its brief but beautiful spring/summer season. If you want to fully appreciate one of the bluest and deepest lakes on earth, start planning your trip to Crater Lake National Park now.

Airstream at Crater Lake National Park

Arriving at Crater Lake National Park in style in our (borrowed) Airstream.

The words “crater” and “lake” are right in the name of this park which is pretty dramatic in and of itself. However, it wasn’t until we arrived at the park’s Rim Village and looked down into the caldera that the full drama of the place finally hit us: it’s the blue.

Crater Lake National Park

Crater Lake, the deepest and bluest lake in the United States.

In 1853 the first European to see the lake, John Wesley Hillman, dubbed it “Deep Blue Lake.” Profoundly unimaginative, but totally accurate. Crater Lake, which was formed almost 8,000 years ago after a massive volcanic eruption obliterated Mount Mazama, is both stunningly blue and incredibly deep–the deepest lake in the United States and the ninth deepest lake on Earth.

Crater Lake National Park

Wizard Island is a cinder cone in Crater Lake, the spectacular centerpiece of Crater Lake National Park in Oregon.

Maybe the color comes from the fact that the water, collected over centuries, is pure rain and snow melt. No potentially polluting rivers flow into or out of Crater Lake. Maybe the color comes from the extreme depth of Crater Lake which has been recorded at nearly 2,000 feet (600 meters) in high rainfall years.

In the end, the reasons are irrelevant. You will be stunned by the color and you won’t care why.

Crater Lake National Park

Aptly-named Phantom Ship Island in Crater Lake.

There are a number of vantage points to enjoy Crater Lake from. We hiked up 9,000 foot (2,743 meter) Mount Scott twice because the views down to the lake were so stunning and so we could call our friend Scott from the top on his birthday.

View of Crater Lake from Mt. Scott

View of Crater Lake from the 9,000 foot (2, 743 meter) peak of Mount Scott in Crater Lake National Park in Oregon.

A nice walk in the opposite direction is the 3/4 mile (1.2 km) Cleetwood Cove Trail which drops 1,000 feet (300 meters) to the edge of the lake itself. It’s steep but worth it for the chance to look right into the incredibly clear water.

Crater Lake National Park

Wildflowers on the shore of Crater Lake take advantage of the park’s snow-free months.

Standing on the lake shore it seemed like we could see all the way to the bottom of the lake hundreds of feet below–and we were nearly right. Record clarity in Crater Lake has been recorded at 134 feet (41 meters). Average clarity is 100 feet (30 meters).

We were very tempted to go SCUBA diving in Crater Lake, which is possible for experienced divers with a special permit. However the prospect of carrying SCUBA gear and lugging a tank up and down that trail was pretty daunting.

Crater Lake National Park

Crater Lake is the bluest and deepest lake in the United States.

Crater Lake National Park

Crater Lake is the bluest and deepest lake in the United States.

Sunset at Crater Lake National Park

Sunset over Crater Lake.

Full moon rising over Crater Lake National Park

Moon rise over Crater Lake.

Crater Lake National Park

Wildflowers in Crater Lake National Park take advantage of the park’s snow-free months.

Crater Lake National Park

Wizard Island is a cinder cone in Crater Lake, the spectacular centerpiece of Crater Lake National Park in Oregon.

Crater Lake National Park received more than 30 feet (nine meters) of snow this past winter. That’s well below the average of 40 feet (12 meters) but, as we post this, park workers are still struggling to get roads cleared and facilities open. The seven mile road up to Rim Village stays open year-round (weather permitting) but check on the park’s website for updates about the opening date for full facilities and when the park road will open to vehicles. This usually happens in June.

Crater Lake National Park

None of our shots of Oregon’s Crater Lake have not been enhanced in any way. The water really is that blue.

Fun fact: The Oregon state commemorative quarter, released in 2005, has an image of Crater Lake on it.

Crater Lake National Park

Now, that’s what blue looks like.

 

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Take the Long Way Home: Trekking to El Mirador – Guatemala

This post is part 3 of 3 in the series Hiking to El Mirador

So far so good. Despite what we’d heard, the two day trek to the El Mirador arcaheological site in Guatemala hadn’t been as hard or as hot as we’d feared and our “rest day” at the site itself was pure pleasure (except for the part about getting peed on by spider monkeys).

However, things were about to change.

Because we hate to back track

We’ve always hated back tracking so we opted to add a day on to or El Mirador jungle trek (making it a six day adventure, not the usual five days) which let us return to Carmelita by making a loop rather than retracing our steps back over the same ground we covered during the walk in.

This sacbe (a raised paved road built by the Mayans) connects El Mirador to Nakbe. This ancient highway was used by the Mayans then and is used by visitors like us now.

After our rest day spent exploring the El Mirador site we packed up camp and headed to another archaeological site called Nakbe. The trail from El Mirador to Nakbe was the most untouched feeling stretch of jungle on the trek so far and we often felt like jaguars must be nearby though we never actually saw one.

We did see a spectacular bird. At first we thought it was a juvenile harpy eagle (a massive and rare bird of prey that we’ve been dying to see in the wild) but it turned out to be a juvenile ornate hawk eagle, which was still a thrilling sighting for us.

We thought this was a juvenile harpy eagle but it turned out to be a juvenile ornate hawk eagle, which is also cool.

Karen and our guide, Alex, arrive at “Nakbe City Center.” Who knew archaeologists have a sense of humor?

A mere three hours after leaving El Mirador we reached Nakbe archaeological site where we set up camp in a cleared area that was once a massive Mayan plaza.

Discovered in 1930, Nakbe is believed to have been a large city (though mere glimpses of it are currently excavated) and important in the region because of its deposits of limestone which were needed to make the pure white plaster the Mayans were so fond of putting on everything from temple facades to bedroom floors.

 

 

 

Modern stairs up the side of an ancient pyramid at the Nakbe archaeological site in the El Mirador Basin in Guatemala.

The view from the top of a pyramid in the Nakbe archaeological site in the El Mirador Basin in Guatemala. That bump on the horizon is the massive La Danta pyramid at El Mirador.

 

We were warned

Getting from El Mirador to Nakbe had been the easiest and shortest day of walking on the entire trek so far. However, our guide Alex was careful to make it clear to us that the following day would require at least eight hours of walking to reach our next camp at La Florida. Even if we left before dawn we’d still be walking through the heat of the day.

Alex wasn’t kidding.

We were up at 3:45 am and had eaten breakfast and packed up camp by 5:00 am, well before day break. We all hit the trail with our headlamps on, determined to cover as much ground as possible before the temperature started to rise.

By 9:00 am it was 80 degrees (27 C) on the trail. By 11:30 am it was 95 degrees (35 C) and the trail had become both hillier and less shady than the terrain on previous days. Even Alex started looking tired and Wiltur, our mule wrangler (or arriero), started singing “No voy a trabajar” (I’m not going to work) in a jovial way. We think he was only half-kidding. We amended it to “No voy a caminar” (I’m not going to walk) and it became the battle cry of the day, something we uttered to ourselves simply to keep going.

By 1:00 the termperature reached 99 degrees (37 C) and we stopped looking at the thermometer. Then the ticks arrived. About the size of a pinhead, the little suckers swarmed out of nowhere and were soon crawling all over us (they were especially fond of Eric’s hairy legs). While giving up was obviously not an option, let’s just say that all of us were ready for the trail to end.

Nine hours after we left Nakbe (eight hours of walking and about an hour of accumulated rest stops) we finally reached La Florida.The mules barely had enough energy left for their afternoon roll in the dust.

A hand made sign on the trail in the El Mirador Basin in Guatemala. Note the use of Mayan glyphs.

 

Finally, a jaguar!

Just another day at the office for El Jaguar, carekater of the La Florida archaeological site and costumed marathon runner.

Our spirits picked up as we were greeted by El Jaguar, the one-of-a-kind caretaker of the La Florida archaeological site. Also know as Miguel, El Jaguar is famous as a marathon runner who runs his races wearing jaguar print shorts and shirts–even his shoes somehow had jaguar prints on them. He greeted us wearing a jaguar mask and spotted short shorts.

Oh, and Miguel trains for marathons by running along the jungle trails we’d just been walking on, only he can do the stretch that just took us nine hours in just three hours. Incredible. He proudly shows us a flip book of photos of him from various marathons, always in his jaguar duds.

Not only is El Jaguar the most interesting caretaker in the El Mirador region, he also operates the nicest camping area. First of all, it’s spotless (even the pit toilet is clean).

Karen and our guide, Alex, in front of the massive ceiba tree at La Florida archaeological site in the El Mirador Basin in Guatemala.

He’s landscaped the area using ornamental jungle plants. There’s even a lime tree. Everything is raked clean and there’s a thatch roof that shades a large area where we set up our hammocks and tents.

El Jaguar has also constructed a small shelter where he deposits bits and pieces he’s found while patroling the La Florida site. Some of them rival what we’ve seen in museums, including an intact, intricate painted bowl with eyes and a nose sculpted into it.

Best of all, there’s a pond nearby which meant it was possible for all of us to take a refreshing outdoor bucket shower and wash the dust and sweat of the day away.

 

Back to Carmelita

It’s a very short day from La Florida back to “civilization” in Carmelita so we all agreed to sleep in. Nevertheless, we were all up by 3:00 am anyway After breakfast we toured the tiny La Florida site. One highlight is an enormous ceiba tree (sacred to the Mayans as a link between our world and the underworld and the national tree of Guatemala).

A unique walk-through structure at the La Florida archaeological site in the El Mirador Basin in Guatemala.

Inside the unique walk-through structure at the La Florida archaeological site in the El Mirador Basin in Guatemala.

The other highlight of the La Florida site is a temple that has been somewhat reconstructed and opened up so that you can walk through it, observing the layers of construction as you go. We’ve never been inside a Mayan building like that and it was eye opening.

By 8:00 am we were packed up and on the trail for the last leg of our journey.Two hours later we reached Carmelita where it did not seem two early for a few rounds of sort of cold beer and some well-earned pats on the back.

We’d completed a trek that was challenging at times and we admit to feeling just a bit proud when Alex told us we were fast–and that was after we’d already tipped him!

 

Outside the unique walk-through structure at the La Florida archaeological site in the El Mirador Basin in Guatemala.

The jungle in the El Mirador basin was full of toucans, inclluding these two above the trail as we walked from La Florida back to Carmelita.

 

 

El Mirador Travel Tips

Before you sign on the dotted line ask your tour operator these key questions:

1. Do you have insurance and an emergency evacuation plan if something goes wrong?

2. What, exactly, will I be eating?

We asked both of those questions and were more than satisfied with the answers from Manuel Villamar of Tikal Connection tour company. In addition to full insurance and plenty of food, Manuel generously supplied his expertise (based on decades in the tourism business in Guatemala) and everything else we needed to get out to El Mirador.

You will be told that you must wear good, solid hiking boots. However, our boots, which we normally love, were too stiff for the trail conditions which often had deep ruts and holes baked solid into the concrete-like earth resulting in severely fatigued, almost bruised feet. We ended up wearing our Crocs with our hiking socks for a good portion of the hike and the roomy, flexible rubber proved much more comfortable and more than durable/supportive enough since we were only carrying light day packs (the mules carry the rest).

You will probably also be told that there is nowhere to shower, but that’s not true. At El Mirador a basic shower building has been set up (10Q or about US$1.25 for a five gallon bucket of water) and at La Florida it’s possible to take an outdoor bucket shower for free using water from a pond near the camping area. Both felt like heaven so bring your PacTowel and some eco-friendly soap.

The last thing you want during your El Mirador hike is rain which turns the trail into knee-deep goop. The rainy season in the region is roughly June through November. We had perfectly dry weather when we were there in March and it’s exhausting just to think about doing the hike through deep mud. But that’s exactly what the archaeologists do when they return to the site every summer.

The walk into and out of El Mirador is almost entirely flat and much of the trail is shaded under deep jungle cover, though that does little to cool things off.

Glad We Had

Our hammocks. There are precious few places to sit down comfortably at the camping areas into and out of El Mirador and you can believe us when we tell you that after hours of walking through the jungle you will want a comfy place to relax. Our hammocks were the perfect places to collapse plus they broke the ice with our guides. Alex, of course, had his own hammock with him and our mule wrangler Wiltur taught us a clever, quick and easy way to string up a hammock.

Our Crocs. These were the perfect comfy camp shoes and we even wore them on the trail after our stiff hiking boots started to hurt too much over the unforgiving terrain.

Some cash: Needed to pay for the showers we totally enjoyed at the El Mirador site and the celebratory beer at Paty’s little store in Carmelita at the end of your adventure.

Our ExOfficio BugsAway pants and shirts: Though mosquitoes and other biting bugs were not nearly as bad as we’d feared our repellent-infused clothing kept the little buggers away.

If you have your own sleeping pad bring it. The camping gear supplied by tour companies that offer El Mirador hikes is generally fine but certain items, like sleeping pads, are in short supply. You might end up sleeping on a pile of old blankets like we did, prompting Eric to retire to his hammock at night.

 

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A Site for Sore Feet: Trekking to El Mirador – Guatemala

This post is part 2 of 3 in the series Hiking to El Mirador

A “rest day” at El Mirador doesn’t include much rest. That’s because almost everything about what remains of the Mayan city now called El Mirador in the Peten region of Guatemala is spectacular–from the jungle trekking as you travel there (and the resulting spectacularly sore feet) to the cultural, artistic and architectural importance of the area that’s been called the cradle of Mayan civilization.

No guards, no entrance fee, no parking lot. This  is the humble welcome sign for El Mirador in Guatemala–one of the most important (and most remote) Mayan archaeological sites in the world.

 

El Mirador by the numbers (prepare to be amazed)

With up to a million inhabitants at its zenith between 300 BC and 100 AD, El Mirador and its surrounding neighborhoods would have been the largest city in the world at the time. To accommodate so many people, the city sprawled for over a nearly 2,500 square mile patch of heart-shaped jungle that’s referred to as the El Mirador Basin. The city center covered 14 square miles. That’s three times larger than downtown Los Angeles.

El Mirador illustration

An artist’s conceptual drawing of what  the center of El Mirador might have looked like between 300 BC and 150 AD (Illustration by T.W. Rutledge ©National Geographic).

Even the name is dramatic: The Look Out. One reason for the name is La Danta pyramid, which some calculate as the largest pyramid, by volume, in the world. The pyramid itself may only be 230 feet high but its massive multi-tiered foundations contain something like 99 million cubic feet of rock and fill. La Danta’s massive first tier is 980 feet wide, 2,000 feet long and covers 45 acres. It’s even more massive than the Great Pyramid of Giza and makes for a great look out point.

La Danta pyramid view - El Mirador, Guatemala

The view from atop the massive La Danta pyramid at El Mirador looking across the seemingly-endless jungle. That bump to the right in the distance is the El Tigre pyramid at the other end of “downtown” El Mirador.

There are actually three temples on top of the massive La Danta pyramid at El Mirador archaeological site in Guatemala.

 

Scientists at work

El Mirador was abandoned nearly 2,000 years ago. No one really knows why. The site slept and the jungle crept until 1926 when archaeologists found it. These days it’s impossible to separate El Mirador from archaeologist Dr. Richard Hansen, who has been studying the site since 1979, sometimes funding research himself. When he’s not at the site (usually May through September), Dr. Hansen is busy as the director of the Mirador Basin Project.

This nearly perfect stucco frieze was discovered at El Mirador in 2009 and is the earliest known depiction of the Maya creation myth, the Popol Vuh.

Most of this huge city remains unexcavated and there are signs of scientists at work all over the El Mirador site. Plastic tarps protect fresh finds. Rough sheds are packed with tools and supplies. But the jungle still owns most of El Mirador and to the untrained eye the site can seem like just another patch of jungle, save for La Danta and El Tigre pyramids which rise above the jungle canopy in a way that even a layman can see is the work of man. Actually, many thousands of men. It’s estimated that it took 15 million man days of work to build La Danta.

El Mirador - Groupo Leon

Much of El Mirador remains unexcavated like this pyramid in the Leon (Lion) Group.

It takes most visitors two days to walk to El Mirador from the village of Carmelita, unless you take a helicopter in like Mel Gibson did a few days before we arrived. The actor came at the invitation of the Guatemalan government, which pissed off some Mayans who still resent Gibson’s portrayal of Mayans as blood-thirsty savages in his movie Apocalypto (which Dr. Hansen consulted on and which is said to be loosely based on the fall of El Mirador).

Fragments of Mayan life at El Mirador, like this pottery shard, are all over the site.

No such controversy tainted our visit to El Mirador.where we quietly set up camp in an area set aside for visitors. Though the next 24 hours were considered a “rest day”, we didn’t get much resting done with all that Mayan-ness right next to us.

 

Exploring El Mirador

A 1.5 mile (2.5km) trail joins the El Tigre and La Danta pyramids, which hunker and squat at the west and east ends of the city center respectively. We walked this trail many times. El Mirador is essentially never closed and it was an unforgettable experience to walk through the site to La Danta near dusk, watch sunset over the jungle from on top of its massive bulk, then walk back to our tent through the site in the dark. Under those circumstances we could almost see Mayans all around us. Certainly we could feel them.

Sunset view from La Danta Pyramid El Mirador

Sunset from the top of the massive La Danta Pyramid at El Mirador. The jungle covered “mound” on the right is the slightly smaller, yet still huge, El Tigre pyramid.

jaguar paw temple - El Mirador, guatemala

A jaguar mask, part of giant carved panels on the Jaguar Paws Temple at El Mirador archaeological site.

But there’s more to El Mirador than its two giant pyramids. Perhaps predictably, the Garras de Jaguar (Jaguar Paws) Temple at El Mirador features a large panel carving of jaguars. What’s not predictable is the amount of color still left on the panel. And new treasures are being found every year at El Mirador.

Detail of Jaguar temple mask

This detail of the Jaguar Paws Temple mask shows what remains of the original pigment.

Another El Mirador mystery (there’s a pyramid in there somewhere).

 

It’s good luck when a monkey pees on you, right?

Monkey pee, monkey do.

When we weren’t exploring the site (mornings and evenings were cooler) we were at our camp site just steps from the entrance to El Mirador hanging out in our hammocks (see Glad We Had, below) and drinking delicious, spicy, invigorating tea our guide Alex made from the leaves of the Ramon tree.

Karen also turned 45 at  El Mirador, and a troop of spider monkeys celebrated by peeing on her as she tried to take a nap. No respect.

 

 

Into a secret tunnel (don’t tell anyone)

After our full day at El Mirador it was time to break camp and continue our jungle trek. Now that we’d reached the site we had to make the return trip back to Carmelita and we’d opted to add on a day and return via a loop that includes Nakbe and La Florida archaeological sites instead of just back tracking out the same way we came in.But first we were in for a treat.

Part of a tunnel archaeologists are using to study staircases and carvings recently discovered under the Jaguar Paws Temple.

Behind an innocuous looking locked wooden door under the Jaguar Paws Temple lies a hidden world. Once inside the door our flashlights revealed a network of tunnels which we followed, gawking at  long-abandoned staircases and elaborate carvings with a remarkable amount of color left on them. Despite the fact that teams of archaeologists have been swarming over the Jaguar Paws Temple for years this areas was only discovered four years ago.

The experts believe the carvings in this hidden area were on a smaller temple that was ultimately covered over and swallowed whole when it was expanded to create the Jaguar Paws Temple. What they have more trouble explaining is why some of the carvings face south when most known Mayan carvings face north.

Part of old mask covered with color which was recently found buried within the Jaguar Paws Temple at El Mirador archaeological site.

This was, by far, the most Indiana Jones experience we’ve had at a Mayan site (and we’ve visit nearly 60 of them). We honestly expected that big boulder to come rolling down after us at any minute. The feeling was heightened by the fact that we weren’t supposed to be in there. The area behind the wooden door is technically off limits to everyone but archaeologists. If you’re discreet about it you can sometime persuade one of the site’s caretakers to escort you in for a tip. It made a great 45th birthday present, that’s for sure!

 

Pending protection

Whether motivated by eco-ethics or the lure of tourism dollars (between 1,000 and 3,000 people visit El Mirador each year) the Guatemalan government has afforded some protections to El Mirador as part of the El Mirador-Río Azul National Park which is located inside the 8,000 square mile Maya Biosphere Reserve.

The region has also been nominated for UNESCO status and protections. On the other hand, Guatemalan government officials have also been talking seriously about putting in a tram or other form of mass transit through the jungle to the site…

El Mirador Toucans

Toucans in the canopy above El Mirador archaeological site in Guatemala.

In December, the Guatemalan government was presented with a plan for the future management of El Mirador drafted by the non-profit group Global Heritage Fund in collaboration with Dr. Hansen and others. The plan aims to control activity at El Mirador over the next 15 years in ways that allow for sustainable science and sustainable tourism.

 

El Mirador Travel Tips

Before you sign on the dotted line ask your tour operator these key questions:

  1. Do you have insurance and an emergency evacuation plan if something goes wrong?
  2. What, exactly, will I be eating?

We asked both of those questions and were more than satisfied with the answers from Manuel Villamar of Tikal Connection tour company. In addition to full insurance and plenty of food, Manuel generously supplied his expertise (based on decades in the tourism business in Guatemala) and everything else we needed to get out to El Mirador.

You will be told that you must wear good, solid hiking boots. However, our boots, which we normally love, were too stiff for the trail conditions which often had deep ruts and holes baked solid into the concrete-like earth resulting in severely fatigued, almost bruised feet. We ended up wearing our Crocs with our hiking socks for a good portion of the hike and the roomy, flexible rubber proved much more comfortable and more than durable and supportive enough since we were only carrying light day packs (the mules carry the rest).

You will probably also be told that there is nowhere to shower, but that’s not true. At El Mirador a basic shower building has been set up (10Q or about US$1.25 for a five gallon bucket of water) and at La Florida it’s possible to take an outdoor bucket shower for free using water from a pond near the camping area. Both felt like heaven so bring your PacTowel and some eco-friendly soap.

The last thing you want during your El Mirador hike is rain which turns the trail into knee-deep goop. The rainy season in the region is roughly June through November. We had perfectly dry weather when we were there in March and it’s exhausting just to thinkabout doing the hike through deep mud. But that’s exactly what the archaeologists do when they return to the site every summer.

The walk into and out of El Mirador is almost entirely flat and much of the trail is shaded under deep jungle cover, though that does little to cool things off.

Glad We Had

Our hammocks. There are precious few places to sit down comfortably at the camping areas into and out of El Mirador and you can believe us when we tell you that after hours of walking through the jungle you will want a comfy place to relax. Our hammocks were the perfect places to collapse plus they broke the ice with our guides. Alex, of course, had his own hammock with him and our mule wrangler Wiltur taught us a clever, quick and easy way to string up a hammock.

Our Crocs. These were the perfect comfy camp shoes and we even wore them on the trail after our stiff hiking boots started to hurt too much over the unforgiving terrain.

Some cash: Needed to pay for the showers we totally enjoyed at the El Mirador site and the celebratory beer at Paty’s little store in Carmelita at the end of your adventure.

Our ExOfficio BugsAway pants and shirts: Though mosquitoes and other biting bugs were not nearly as bad as we’d feared our repellent-infused clothing kept the little buggers away.

If you have your own sleeping pad bring it. The camping gear supplied by tour companies that offer El Mirador hikes is generally fine but certain items, like sleeping pads, are in short supply. You might end up sleeping on a pile of old blankets like we did, prompting Eric to retire to his hammock at night.

 

Read more about travel in Guatemala

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