I learned a valuable lesson in ecotourism today. I thought it was all about doing sports in a natural environment so whenever I went white-water rafting or four-wheeling, I was participating in ecotourism. But those are just outdoor sports; they are a part of ecotourism, but that’s not all of it. Ecotourism is much more than that. It’s about connecting with and respecting nature, the local cultures, and doing volunteer work. It’s about experiencing nature without destroying any part of it. Wow! What a lesson! That really wasn’t what I was expecting when we got to Costa Rica.
This morning we ate gallo pinto for breakfast. It’s just rice and beans, but I thought the name for it here was awesome. Gallo pinto translates to “painted rooster.” Where do they come up with these names? After breakfast, we met a tour bus in front of the hotel. The tour guide, Sergio, said that we weren’t far from the spot we were going, but there were a lot of trucks going to and from the port, so we’d be stuck in traffic for a little while. It looked like rush hour traffic back home. I do think the scenery was a lot prettier than back home, though. We passed by a lot of banana and pineapple plantations. It was so green!
We made a left turn somewhere and ended up in a small town. Sergio told us to get off the bus because we had arrived. I asked him where we’d arrived because I didn’t see any water, ATVs, jeeps, trails to hike or nothing of the sort. That’s when Sergio schooled the group about what ecotourism really was. He said that before we could enjoy the fruits of nature, we must pay our respects. First we were going to plant trees to help the environment and to beautify the grounds of a small park in town. Then we were going to help fix the roof of the only school in town. Lastly we were going to travel a few miles to help clean up the beach. I was happy to do all these things. We met some of the local people, who were happy to talk to us and take pictures.
We saw kayaks when we got to the end of the area we were cleaning. I was hoping that our hard work for the day had paid off and we were finally going to get to the sports. Don’t get me wrong, it warmed my heart to help those townspeople. I would love to go back and see them again. But I was ready for a different kind of fun. Turns out I was right. We kayaked down the river. There were all kinds of birds flying around. At times I had to concentrate hard because the water got a little choppy, but it was a fun ride. After the kayaks, we hiked back to the bus. Some people swore they saw spider monkeys, but I didn’t see any. I just kept seeing different species of birds. We passed some gorgeous waterfalls and took more incredible pictures. All in all, it was a great experience!
Most of us are familiar with the Pan-American Highway. It is a series of roads that stretch from the tip of Alaska (Fairbanks) to very bottom point of Argentina (Ushuaia). When it’s completed, it will be over 20,000 miles long. But the part that I didn’t know is that the highway isn’t complete. There’s this thing called the Darién Gap. What is the Darién Gap? I’m glad you asked! I’ll tell you the story of how we found out.
So we were driving south in Panama, following the map the travel agent at the hotel gave us, and we approached a village called Yaviza. This is a tribal village, and the people are blissfully out of touch with modern society. I wanted to stop and take pictures and talk to the people, but it seemed like the others didn’t want to, so I snapped pictures from the window. Now, I was starting to notice that the dirt road we were traveling on was looking less and less like a road. Then we approached a military checkpoint that was blocking the way. I was thinking to myself, “Dude, are we going the wrong way?”
We pulled up to the gate and got out of the car. One military guy told us that we couldn’t go any further unless we had a permit from La Palma. Another military guy asked where we were going and why we were going there. A third military guy starts looking through the windows of the van. This was all happening so fast, and I was feeling a little nervous. Nobody else spoke up, so I explained that we were from the United States and we travel around the Spanish-speaking world performing challenges and getting to know about the different cultures and places the Spanish-speaking world has to offer. The first two military guys walked away as I was talking, but the third stayed to explain the Darién Gap.
Apparently, the roadway is incomplete. There is one small part that is all swamp and marshland on the Panama-Colombia border. You need a permit to cross it, and only a few people in history have ever crossed it by land…and survived. It’s only 99 miles long, but it’s very dangerous. The military guy was saying that most people will put their car on a ship that goes around the Gap and will either fly or take a boat to meet the car on the other side. I started talking to myself again. I said “Self, why would that travel agent send us on the road without a warning about the Darién Gap?” At that point we thanked the guy, got back into the car, and went back to the village. It’s time to plan a new way around this obstacle! Anyone up for an airplane ride?
OK, so you can’t come to Panama without visiting the canal. It took ten years to build, and I was hoping they took their time and got it right because I am terrified of water. Somehow the group convinced me to take a ride on this huge cruise ship so we could see how the canal worked. I’d never been on a boat in my life, yet I let seven other people talk me into getting on a ship. I’m such a sucker, because they bribed me with the meal of my choice afterwards.
So, the canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It’s a set of artificial lakes that are closed off and reopened when the ships come through. The ship enters what’s called a lock and then the reservoir fills with water, lifting the ship up to the next level, like an escalator. Then the ship floats farther down and goes through the same process a few more times. At the last lock the ship is dropped back down to sea level. But here’s the catch the canal is super narrow, so the ship’s captain has to get it right the first time or he or she will slam into the walls of the waterway. The crew members said there are about thirty accidents a year through the canal.
After knowing all this, I was on a ship that had to go through the whole process. I was good until we got to the first lock. I freaked out a little bit when the water started rushing into the lock, but I couldn’t really feel the rise of the ship as we went up. I’ve felt worse movement on a rollercoaster. After that first lock, I was good until we got to the last lock. . I thought we were going to go up again, when all of a sudden we dropped down. Please don’t laugh, but I passed out. When I woke up, I was back in my room and there was a medic holding smelling salts under my nose and someone else was fanning me. Talk about embarrassing! So that was my first and will be my last tour of the Panama Canal.
I must admit, the canal is an easy way to get around, although it’s not a fast process at all. It took about a day to complete the process. We were lucky to have had good weather so we could pass through without problems. They said over thirty ships can pass through the Panama Canal on a good day. If there’s bad weather or an accident, then only a handful of ships can pass. And don’t believe it’s cheap to pass through the canal. Some ships have to pay as much as $150,000 to pass through. But once, a swimmer passed through the canal. They charged him 36 cents!