Wednesday, August 28, 2013

South America In 20 Photos

I thought I'd share with you some of my favourite photos from South America that didn't make it into a blog post. I hope you like them and don't forget that they (and many more) can be found in the country albums on the right hand side of the blog.

Ladies shooting the breeze by a window in the colonial quarter of Cartagena.

A yucca-type plant in one of the many ephemeral ponds that form atop Roraima.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Virgins And Volcanoes*

Nicaragua is known as the country of lakes and volcanoes, as it has the latter in abundance, and although the number of lakes may be few, they make up for it in size: lakes Nicaragua and Managua are the two largest (by far) in Central America. Activities in the country revolve either around one or the other. Isla de Ometepe, with its twin volcanoes emerging from the waters of lake Nicaragua like a pair of lopsided breasts, is a popular spot for people to go and chill and do nada, or, if they're feeling the need for physical activity, to scale the crater rim (though in the rainy season nada is about all you get to see at the top). And on the shores of the respective lakes the two great colonial towns of Granada and Leon battle it out for visitors' affections.

The wonderfully named volcanoes of Momotombo and, a little smaller and to the right, cutely-named Momotombito, on the shores of lake Managua.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

America For Americans

I did, finally, go to a national park in Costa Rica. It would have been scandalous not to. Though in the end it turned out to be neither cloud forest nor volcano, which are the usual natural suspects for tourists to Costa Rica. Instead I opted for a dry tropical forest at the Guanacaste biosphere reserve in the northwest of the country. Of course, with my knack for mistiming I of course turned up in the rainy season when the dryness of the forest is not really appreciable. The park is home to the standard roll call of mesoamerican fauna, of which, as per usual, I saw precious little. It's also an important nesting site for marine turtles, and the beaches can see thousands of females coming up to lay their eggs in the season. Instead I saw a few spider monkeys swinging directly overhead (which was pretty impressive), iguanas basking in the sun, and a whole host of crabs infesting the mangroves. I went with my host in Liberia, Laura, a young Aussie girl. A fascinating character who has the fortitude to follow through with her convictions to make the world a better place, she has spent time living in protest zones and organising activist movements. And although I don't see radical activism as a sustainable way forward, I admire her principles and how far she's prepared to go to defend them. It's perhaps fitting then that the national park is also home to the hacienda Santa Rosa, an ordinary-looking old farmstead (well, it was an old farmstead up until a decade ago when some poachers burnt it down, but since it's been lovingly rebuilt) that saw its own protest against imperialism back in 1856, in what was perhaps the most pivotal episode in Costa Rican history, when the Costa Rican army defeated the invading army of the American filibusterer William Walker. His name may not be well-known outside of Central America, but his episode is familiar to everyone here as the start of US attempts at hegemony of the region.

Red-legged crabs scurrying into their burrows amongst the mangroves.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Tico Time

Costa Rica is the most stable, prosperous and visited country in Central America. It's also probably the most boring. Named the Rich Coast by Christopher Columbus it proved to be anything but, with next to no mineral wealth, and not even much of an indigenous population to enslave it became the forgotten backwater of Spain's American colonies. This proved to be beneficial to the country's future stability as it made the agrarian society, made up mainly of immigrants and their descendants, more equal; unlike other Central American countries where a coterie of families controlled the vast majority of political and economic power. It was so far-removed with what was happening in the rest of the colony (it was nominally a province of the Captaincy of Guatemala, but had very few dealings with the leadership there) that it was informed of its independence from Spain by letter a month after it theoretically occurred. Fast forward to the present and Costa Rica has been spared the wars and internal turmoil that have plagued its coregionists. It also embarked on an enlightened, somewhat socialist (though don't tell the Americans), path. In 1949 it unilaterally got rid of its armed forces, the only country of any consequence to have done so in the world (the other ones are all tiny and usually island nations in the South Pacific). Then in the 70's, seeing that it had little to offer the world other than coffee and bananas, a conscious decision was made to preserve the country's forests in an attempt to lure foreign capital via tourism.

In a country devoid of historic monuments the rather ho-hum national theatre from the turn of the last century is the most grandiose historical building.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

In The Zone

Panama is known, of course, for its canal and hats, the latter of which, paradoxically, are actually Ecuadorean. Its strategic location as the shortest route from the Atlantic to the Pacific has always made it an important place on the geopolitical stage, which has been both a blessing and a curse. The country gets substantial revenue and employment just from the simple fact that it is where it is, but that has also made it victim to the whims and caprices of greater powers throughout its history.

Despite the Spanish language American influence is more predominant in Panama. Not just the predilection for  skyscrapers, but also fast food, bland urban architecture, and shopping malls.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Mind The Gap

There are a number of famous roads whose names alone evokes exotic, dreamy images amongst all travellers: the Karakorum Highway, Route 66, the Transfăgărășan, the Pamir Highway and the Panamaerican Highway are all the stuff of legend. The latter extends all the way from Prudhoe Bay, in northern Alaska, to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego ... well, almost. The Panamerican is rightly famous for crossing the length of the Americas and traversing a multitude of landscapes and climates. But what is less well-known is that it's incomplete. It has a chink. The road doesn't link North and South America, instead there is a gap of about 160km across the Panama-Colombia border where there is nothing but impenetrable rainforest. This is the Darien Gap and is one of the world's great travelling challenges. But before I figured out how to get past it without flying, I had one last stop in Colombia.