Sunday, January 1, 2012

6 Months in Central and South America for the Price of a Car

Crimson-fronted parakeet eating mangos in San Jose, Costa Rica.
We sure do miss waking up to parrots.
Happy New Year! As we're coming up on a year since the start of our 6-month journey volunteering and traveling in Central and South America, we wanted to reflect on our time away. When we've talked with friends, family, and strangers about our trip, they often wonder how we did it. So we'd like to share a few of our thoughts here on why and how we managed to take 6 months off to explore, along with a graphic of how the costs worked out, percentage-wise. This is longer than our usual entries; we wanted to go a little more in depth.

When we began this blog, we mentioned a little about our motivations for taking this trip. It was very difficult deciding to leave jobs we loved for an uncertain experience far away from home, friends, family, and our two cats. The timing was far from perfect, but we realized we would never find an ideal time to leave: this trip wasn't something that would fit naturally into our lives; we needed to carve out a place for it. We spent plenty of nervous nights figuring out whether we could handle it financially, wondering where to go and for how long.

Economical Program Choices

Once we started seriously looking into volunteer bird banding opportunities, it became much easier to envision our trip. We found Fauna Forever Tambopata and Kekoldi Indigenous Reserve, both of which were very appealing.

Fauna Forever was intriguing because we'd been thinking about visiting the Peruvian Amazon for a long time, but the cost of going as a tourist is eye-popping. We felt that the hands-on banding experience would be great, and the website made it seem like a fun organization (nice work, Dave!). The program costs for a month and a half were far lower than we'd have spent on even two weeks as tourists.

Kekoldi seemed like a neat opportunity for as many months as we liked of hands-on experience, in an area of Costa Rica we'd never visited. Program costs were extremely reasonable, with excellent economies of scale for longer stays like ours. We liked the idea of learning more about the Bri Bri people's way of life and supporting local efforts to conserve their forests and bird species... and we'd already been thinking of making Costa Rica a large part of our trip, since we love the country so much.

While we were excited about the prospect of many months in the field with birds and other wildlife, we knew that we didn't want our time abroad to be all "work." We knew we wouldn't be able to afford a whole year away from home, but felt that some amount of time beyond our programs would be doable. We ultimately decided on a full month-and-a-half "phase" at Fauna Forever, three months at Kekoldi, and 6 weeks of travel to make our trip exactly six months.

House Concerns and Other Money Matters

We're pretty good savers, and make saving a priority (thanks for the skills, parents!). Food and travel have been our main splurges...along with our 2007 home purchase (no thanks, economy!). So spending a portion of our savings on a one-of-a-kind travel experience didn't overly intimidate us, but the idea of leaving our home either A) empty and accruing ungodly mortgage payments, or B) inhabited by strangers who might cost us even more in damages, was not at all palatable. We initially tried dealing with a real estate agent to list our place as a furnished, short-term rental, but that went nowhere and left us feeling uneasy, since our departure date was fast approaching.

Here's where our Massachusetts bird banding friends came in and introduced us to our then-tenants, who are now good friends, Barrett and Marcela. Barrett wrote A Bird-Finding Guide to Costa Rica, which became indispensable for us there and in Panama as well, and Marcela is a Tica--we were thrilled to meet her mother while in Costa Rica. Finding Marcela and Barrett was an incredible stroke of luck for us: our trip coincided with their need for a temporary place to live, and as soon as we met them, we knew our house would be in great hands with such nice people.

Aside from the monthly mortgage expenses not covered by rent, we paid many of our travel costs before we even left: both programs, gear, and our roundtrip, multi-leg airfare (BOS-LIM-SJO-BOS).

Airfare, as you'll see from our chart, was one of our largest expenses (and our largest negative environmental impact). We tried not to fly too much; aside from our main tickets, we needed to book a flight from Lima to Puerto Maldonado, the jumping-off point for our Fauna Forever program. The trip to Brazil from Costa Rica could have been done more efficiently and cost-effectively if we'd planned further ahead; as it turned out, that airfare was almost exactly half the cost of our total airfare.

Our combined program expenses came in second place, but by comparison, take a look at our time traveling in Costa Rica, and to a lesser extent, Peru and Panama, as *budget* tourists: 4.5 months of programs providing meals, lodging, and meaningful experiences, vs. a quarter of that time sightseeing and taking some guided tours: similar costs.

Brazil, another substantial expense, was a special case. We knew it was an unnecessary expense, but we realized (thanks to your help, poll-takers) that we might not have another opportunity in the near future to return to the Pantanal, which we'd loved in 2009, to spend time with Ailton, and hopefully see jaguars and other amazing wildlife. This turned out to be one of our best decisions of the trip, and we don't regret the cost at all.

And now, after much fanfare and exposition, we give you our pie chart of trip expenses. We won't go into exactly how much the whole thing cost, but we will say that for the same price, we could have gotten quite a nice new car. Honestly, we're happier with the way we spent the money on the experience.

Expense Chart

By way of further explanation, the house costs in the chart are our out-of-pocket costs after rent (the rest of the mortgage, the water bill, insurance, etc), and the gear includes the replacement for our poor, broken (now fixed!) Nikon D300s. Most of the gear we bought consisted of hiking shoes, clothing, and one new hiking pack; we'd actually already had a bunch of gear from previous trips. "Travel" includes hotels, lodging, food, bus fare, laundry, and other travel costs, and "incidentals" are the things we realized we needed/wanted while traveling. A note on our hotels: in general, we stayed relatively inexpensively, but found that we generally can't deal with the noise of hostels, making our trip considerably more expensive than if we'd gone that route.

Have you thought about taking a combined volunteer / tourism trip? We'd love to hear about it and live vicariously now that we're missing ours. And we're happy to offer more of our thoughts on any of the places we've been either as tourists or volunteers. Hope you have some fun adventures in store for 2012!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Journey's End

Our last few weeks away were full of travel. Following the Pantanal, we headed to the Osa Peninsula, our favorite spot in Costa Rica. This was actually our second attempt on the trip; we'd gone once in June (after Panama), but some heavy flooding prevented us from getting to Parque Nacional Corcovado. 
Red-eyed tree frog from our June attempt at the Osa Peninsula
Found at La Danta Lodge
This time, we made it to the park, and stayed at Sirena Ranger Station. We met some nice folks and took a lot of hikes. Collared peccary (or, "ze savage pork," as one French girl had called them), multiple species of monkeys, coati, and agouti were among the animals we saw. Best of all, after a brief glimpse at a shy female tapir, we came upon this male tapir as he waded into the river, wallowed for a while, then crossed.
Note the bite marks: another male tapir? Jaguar? This tapir is a little too thin, with heavy parasitism on the ears.
Following the Osa, we made our way back to San Jose, where we met up with the other Mike, my (Emily's) brother. With our rented Suzuki Jimny (no, not Jimmy, JimNy), a two-door 4x4 nearly big enough for three people and some luggage, we headed to Rincon de la Vieja. This volcano has some excellent features, including boiling mud pots at lower elevations. Many of the sights in this region were very impressive.
Close-up of bubbling mud pot
Phallus indusiatus: one of the best mushrooms we've ever seen
Geothermal power plant
Our next stop was a few laid-back beach and mangrove days at Nosara, where we stayed at Lagarta Lodge, a very nice place run by a Swiss couple. Then, we made the bumpy climb to Monteverde, where we spent a few days, followed by a trip to Volcan Poas.
Bromeliad seen from hanging bridges in Monteverde
Following the other Mike's departure, we spent a few days in the mountainous corridor along Rte 2, including a few nights at the friendly, scenic Paraiso del Quetzal. We also went to nearby San Gerardo de Dota in search of quetzals. We saw one very wet male...but perhaps even better, our favorite woodpecker.
Acorn woodpecker. What's not to love about social, chattering woodpeckers?
Misty view from one of the roads in San Gerardo de Dota
Above and below: fiery-throated hummingbirds at Paraiso del Quetzal

From there, back to San Jose to meet up with our good friends Jesse and Eyal. Spending time with them in Arenal was the perfect way to end our trip. 

We just got back on the 21st, and are glad to be home. We''re not done here quite yet, though: at some point, we'll have a few more thoughts about the trip overall, including a list of the best and the worst of our travels.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Pantanal: Creatures and Landscapes

While the jaguars were a major highlight of our June trip to the Pantanal, the beautiful landscape, many other animals, and spending time with our friend/guide Ailton Lara contributed to making this a fantastic experience. 
Capybara (above) and Paraguayan caiman (below) abound in the Pantanal and are a large part of the jaguars' diet. The big family groups of capybara are adorable; we never got tired of seeing them.
It's been a while since we got to write about birds. So many exciting species in the Pantanal! Here are a few that we particularly liked. 
Burrowing owl on fencepost. We also got to
see a pair of great horned owls later in the trip.
Social grooming: guira cuckoos. We're suckers for big, social groups of birds.
And speaking of social grooming...hyacinth macaws! The world's largest (flying) parrot. And cutest?

Among the mammals we saw were red brocket and marsh deer, crab-eating fox, southern tamandua (anteater), and these giant river otters, snacking on delicious fish (catfish and piranha).

We felt really lucky to have seen so much wildlife. At the beginning of the trip, we saw a tapir (our favorite--more on those to come in our upcoming entry on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica). This one was wallowing chest-deep in broad daylight, but when we slowed to look at it, took off too quickly for a photo. On our way back to Cuiaba, we got a few more surprises. An ocelot--the first we've seen in the wild--ran across the road in front of us (also too rapidly for pictures). What a thrill. There was just one more animal we'd been craving a glimpse of, but it seemed like too much to hope for, given its rarity in this part of the Pantanal. We stopped at dusk by a field for some landscape photos. A few local people were passing, and we heard them say two magic words to our driver: "tamandua bandera." Lo and behold, there it was:
 The giant anteater. Every bit as unusual, shaggy, and fantastic as it looks, and more so. 

Above is a view of the Transpantaneira, the dirt highway through the northern Pantanal, with Ailton and Mike sitting on one of the many wooden bridges over the seasonally flooded land. The water levels were on their way down during our visit, but a high percentage of the land was still inundated.

Below, land that was decimated by a fire started by a rancher attempting to clear part of his land several years ago. It grew out of control, as fires often do, and blazed into the park, leaving few trees standing, and fewer living. 

Navigating through lillies at the mouth of the San Pedrinho River, where we saw the giant otters
and the pair of jaguars.
Us with Ailton. We highly recommend trips to the Pantanal with him and his company.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Jaguars of the Pantanal

What an excellent trip to the Pantanal we just had. Thank you all for your sound advice encouraging us to go. We'll need to post a few entries about it because there were *so many animals*--we'll start with some of the best. While staying at the Pantanal Jaguar Camp in Porto Jofre, Brazil, on a tour with our friend/guide Ailton Lara, we were able to see not one, but 4.5 jaguars in five days.

This male jaguar was our first and most frequently seen (on three days for us). Our first look at him was through some foliage, but he soon came out onto the riverbank to relax.

We felt extremely privileged to spend time observing him. Eventually he wandered into the foliage and we headed up the river to look for more wildlife. 

On a small, beautiful river, we saw a female jaguar sunning herself on a bank. She got up and walked along the forest edge, and we then saw a second head pop up: her mate! Ailton explained to us that when jaguars are breeding, they spend about a week, maybe a little more, together, mating, resting, and not much else. 

After laying around for a while, the female would get playful and roll over on her back with purring/growling. Then, she'd get up and walk by the male, and they'd kind of try to bite each other. He'd get the message and follow--and then it was all over in about 10 seconds, with some yowling, swiping of paws and biting. He would jump away and she'd roll over onto her back or side again, and then they'd both rest for a while. This happened at least three times while we watched...and we heard more after they went deeper into the forest. Here are a few close-ups of the female.

Over the next few days, we saw the lone male again, along with a brief sighting of another male jaguar--this one was blind in one eye. Photos of him didn't turn out so well. And then, there was our .5 jaguar the morning we were leaving: it was sitting on a river bank just a short boat trip from the camp. Ailton spotted it, and Mike was able to catch a glimpse of it before it headed for the forest, but only for a brief moment. No photos of that one. Instead, here are a few more of the male we'd first seen.

Highly recommended for anyone who likes seeing rare wild cats in their natural habitat. Next post: other fantastic wildlife from our trip, including the one we'd wanted to see about as much as the jaguar...

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Quetzals and Kinkajous

What's this cute thing? Read on and find out.
If you stay long enough in Costa Rica as a tourist (three months for most visas), you take a mandatory vacation out of the country for at least 72 hours to renew your visa. Most people choose either Panama or Nicaragua, and Bocas del Toro in Panama seems to be the most popular spot. Being budget-conscious and curious about the mountainous Pacific side of Panama, we opted for the Chiriqui province. We had an excellent time, saw plenty of birds, and the scenery was beautiful.

We spent our first two nights in a very comfortable guest lodge, Hostal Elvita, in Cerro Punta. The family who runs it is incredibly nice, and we had a fun game of Monopoly with one of the girls.
Part of the garden at Hostal Elvita.
Cerro Punta is full of beautiful flowers.
Above and below, other landscapes in Cerro Punta.

It was cloudy or raining much of the time (5 meters per year of rain in this region!), which contributed to the lush colors of the countryside. Most of the region is deforested due to agriculture or cattle ranching, but the agriculture is small-scale for the most part rather than huge monoculture farms.
Sr. Lucinio Serrano Morales, 89, who still runs his agricultural
business in Cerro Punta down the road from here
View from the road in Guadalupe
The cloud forest attracts some tourism (mostly birders in search of the resplendent quetzal), so hopefully that is helping with forest conservation efforts. This part of Panama also hosts part of the binational Parque Internacional La Amistad (spanning into Costa Rica), which we visited on one of our mornings. We didn't see the quetzals there, but the next morning, we took a guided tour to the area between La Amistad and Volcan Baru and saw three, including this male at and near his nest, feeding a chick that was too small/far to photograph.
We enjoyed that area so much that we decided to stay in one of the cabins there, belonging to Los Quetzales lodge. What a neat building! Two stories, circular structure, spiral staircase, gaslights, and overall fantastic atmosphere. The photo doesn't do it justice.
While we were there, we also got a nighttime visit from an animal we've always wanted to see: the kinkajou. Two kinkajous, in fact. One of which is featured at the top of this entry.
If they seem too close to us and our cabin, it's because they are. Unfortunately, some guests feed the kinkajous at night (we didn't--they came because they thought there might be food around). We were still guiltily glad to get such a good look at them. They're possibly the cutest mammals we've ever seen.

Another neat thing about the Chiriqui province: loads of hummingbirds wherever there are feeders. The feeders at our cabin were constantly full of fighting, zipping, sipping hummingbirds of at least 5 species including Violet sabrewing (bully of the group), White-throated mountain gem, Magnificent hummingbird, Green violet-ear, Magenta-throated woodstar, and more (only several of which are shown here).

We're back in Costa Rica now, and from the results of our poll, it looks like food and continued posts about wildlife are the top preferences. We'll post on food soon, but all the neat things we should have photographed, like traditional Bribri meals, unfortunately didn't occur to us at the time, so it might be a little more text-heavy.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Deadly Pretty Frogs, Joys of Banking in Costa Rica, and More

There's still one more day for you to tell us what you'd like to hear more about in our poll at right. Here's a medley of photos related to a few of those topics.

Birds! and other creatures
Here at Kekoldi, we have two species of the small, colorful frogs commonly known as poison dart frogs, in genus Dendrobates. We've heard conflicting stories about these guys: some people swear they can be deadly, others say just mildly irritating to the skin, and one person even mentioned licking one with no results. The general consensus seems to be that the more deadly species in this genus live in other countries. They're both very attractive, ranging in size from dime to half-dollar (different individuals of different sizes; the red frogs tend to be smaller than the green-and-black ones), and tough to photograph since they don't stay still for long.
Dendrobates pumilio. Elsewhere in the country, this one has blue legs.
They transport their tadpoles on their backs, which is amazing to see.
Dendrobates auratus. These seem to vary substantially in pattern
by individual. Some days, we seem to only see this species,
other days, only the red ones.
Another species pair we have is the white-collared manakin and red-capped manakin. These are in the same family, Pipridae, but different genera--there are manakin species throughout Central and South America. We've posted photos of each of these species, but this photo shows the two brilliantly colored males, caught the same hour, together. (The females are very pretty too: olive green in each.)
Left: Manacus candei; right: Pipra mentalis.
Yes, they really are that brightly colored.
People and places... and a random banking anecdote

Our co-volunteer Aaron, during our weekly Monday parrot count.
Aaron just left for a neat new Oregon state government job.
Before Aaron left, we took a few side trips. One was a day trip back to Cahuita with Aaron and Daniel for a combination of hiking and a bank errand. Continuing our horrible luck with optics, one of our pairs of binoculars broke (actually, both did, but Duaro cleverly fixed one pair for us). We ended up needing to order a new pair from San Jose. The transportation actually worked out very well; the money transfer was another thing entirely. Not only did we spend several hours waiting in the bank, to finally be helped by a new employee who clearly didn't know what he was doing, but Mike had to go back two more times because of errors the bank guy had made: once later that day, then again for a special trip to a different branch the next day. At last, we have our binoculars. But we're not looking forward to tomorrow's bank trip to pay for our monthly internet account. Can we do it in less than three hours?
We did finally manage to go hiking that day in Cahuita.
These could also be in the "birds and other creatures" section, but the abundant wildlife is part of what makes Cahuita appealing as a place.
One of the boat-billed heron parents has finally finished
brooding its chick, and enjoys some preening time to itself.
This nesting violet-crowned woodnymph doesn't have that luxury.
We also took an overnight trip with Aaron, Daniel, and Duaro to Gandoca to see nesting leatherback turtles. Sadly for us, but good for the turtles, they don't even allow non-flash photography on the beach at night, so we can't share the immensity of the adult female turtle we saw digging her nest on the shore, or the less-than-palm-sized hatchlings we got to see making their way down to the ocean. The next morning, we took a very scenic boat tour of the estuary, which has one of the only remaining mangrove forests on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Our guide, Gilberto, was excellent; look him up if you're interested in turtle-viewing and other trips in Gandoca.

Notice we don't yet have any photos of food...which seems to be a popular topic. We'll get started on taking some. We've already got a list of some of the most interesting things we've eaten so far.