Sunday, January 3, 2010 - Belize City, Belize: Welcome to Belize! As we exited the airport and wound our way through the narrow streets of the older parts of Belize City, our first impression was that of moldering wooden shanties lining the streets. Upon closer inspection it becomes apparent that these merely reflect a tropical existence on a hurricane-prone coast.
When we reached our hotel in the historic district, the Radisson Fort George and Marina Hotel, we were welcomed with tropical rum punch. After settling in, we assembled for a cocktail party hosted by Zegrahm Expeditions, Harvard Museum of Natural History, and World Wildlife Fund. This provided an opportunity both to meet the staff and our traveling companions for our upcoming adventure. We then enjoyed traditional dishes of Belize for dinner in the Cahal Pech Room at the top of the hotel. Everyone was happy to retire shortly thereafter in anticipation of an early start in the morning to explore the Mayan site of Lamanai.
Monday, January 4 - New River Cruise to Lamanai: After an early buffet breakfast we headed off for the New River. As we boarded covered boats for a leisurely 90 minute trip to Lamanai, the overcast sky cleared to a tropical blue. The guides were extremely keen-eyed and knowledgeable and with their guidance, bumps on a leaning tree trunk became rows of tiny bats, a floating stick became a juvenile crocodile, and scruffy brush became the famous dye-producing logwood. They were quick to point out birds too and, of course, having Greg Homel as the trip’s ornithologist assured sightings of a lesser nighthawk cryptically blending into a tree limb, a polyandrous northern jacana walking on vegetation along the shore, the blackheaded trogan, and a snail kite right at the Lamanai landing, where it was dining on apple snails.
Taking a lesson from the snail kite, we first enjoyed a wonderful picnic before visiting the ruins and archaeological sites. Lamanai is especially significant because of the length of time it was occupied. It represents all phases of the Mayan culture and was inhabited well into the period of contact with the Spanish. Our guides led us along paths through the rain forest all the while identifying culinary and medicinal uses for the various plants, trees, and fruits. Soon the greenery opened to reveal the Mask Temple where archaeological excavations are ongoing. We then made our way to the N10-43 pyramid, which is the tallest building on the site and almost completely reconstructed. Many of us braved the vertiginous climb and were rewarded with an impressive view which was well worth the effort. The return cruise rewarded us with an excellent sighting of a black-collared hawk and a plethora of other birds including mangrove swallows, silver-backed anhinga, and ringed kingfishers. From here, we embarked the lovely Le Levant, welcomed by cocktails in the lounge and the first of many fine meals as we set sail for Half Moon Caye.
Tuesday, January 5 - Half Moon Caye and Lighthouse Reef: This was a race against the weather to ensure everyone had the opportunity to do what they most wished. The scuba divers headed off to the renowned Blue Hole Natural Monument at Lighthouse Reef with our Divemasters, Natalia Baechtold and Stephane Regnier, and Charles our local dive guide outstanding for his long thick dreadlocks into which were woven myriad silver charms. Although the sinkhole plunges to about 450 feet, there are stalactites visible at the safer 110-130 foot limits. Though the dive time was necessarily brief, there was a diversity of colorful aquatic life to watch at shallower depths.
Meanwhile, the birders made their way to the viewing platform in Half Moon Caye Natural Monument to observe the westernmost and largest colony of nesting white-morph, red-footed boobies. At nearly 4,000 residents, they proved an impressive sight. This was made even more intriguing by the presence of their arch-enemy the magnificent frigatebird nesting alongside with no apparent animosity; the males displaying their famous red gular pouches (one of the times when size does matter). Since the platform could only support a handful of visitors at a time, the rest of us walked the island with Thomas Baechtold, Richard Cahill, and Silvard Kool, our malacologist, learning about shells and cahune palm trees, until it was our turn for a view.
We then set sail for Roatán, Honduras. Any disappointment with the weather was quickly dispelled by Greg’s excellent lecture on the diverse bird life seen so far. We were also treated to a piano concert by Silvard, who happens to be a professional musician as well as our resident expert on shells. This was a wonderful preamble to the captain’s welcome cocktail reception.
Wednesday, January 6 - Roatán, Honduras: We awoke this morning to find ourselves anchored off Coxon’s Hole, named for the pirate who frequented this area. There were a number of choices today as our divers, birders, hikers, and walkers headed off to explore this 50 square mile island.
The Carambola Botanical Gardens provided us with a relaxing introduction to the flora of Roatán. After an initial demonstration of a number of herbs, leaves, fruits and their extracts we followed trails through part of the 40 acres of protected forest (here some headed off with Rich to take a trail to the top ridge of the island and were rewarded with views of the ship and St. Anthony’s Key). On a small rise, we were served fresh fruit in a streamside pavilion while hummingbirds darted through the foliage.
The divers had headed first to Maria’s Canyon, also called Mary’s Place, a series of open canyons full of narrow fissures and a plateau dotted with soft corals and sponges including gorgonian fan coral. A second dive included a reef where all were delighted to see a sea horse as well as colorful reef fish like the Creole wrasse. Meanwhile, the birders returned with tales of wintering North American birds such as the summer tanager, prairie warbler, and northern parula side by side with Caribbean specialties like the white-crowned pigeon. In addition, there were endemic races such as the Yucatan and mangrove vireos and Canivet’s emerald hummingbird.
After a pasta party lunch on the ship, the majority of us were off to high adventure…literally! The afternoon was spent zip lining and even those of us not so keen on heights found it an exhilarating experience as we leaped from platforms, some halfway up tall trees, to glide through the forest and over meadows on a series of eight runs descending the hills to our starting point. Bragging rights all around! En route back to the ship we made a short stop at Arch’s Iguana Farm, a family run enterprise that rehabilitates parrots, raises tarpon, and is a haven for iguanas and a solitary coatimundi that had been confiscated from animal smugglers and was being housed temporarily.
Thursday, January 7 - At Sea: Few of us spent much time lounging today as there were four very diverse lectures. In the morning Susan Langley, our archaeologist, spoke about Mayan beekeeping past and present and provided a tasting of honeys from the regions we are traversing, and Silvard made intriguing analogies between coral reefs and ocean rain forests. Commandant Regis Daumesnil invited guests for a tour of the bridge, explained navigation through history, and demonstrated how it was currently managed on Le Levant.
After lunch, Thomas invited participants to bring their cameras and learn how to move beyond the “automatic” setting and improve their photographic techniques. Kevin Clement, a Zegrahm director and our naturalist, provided a look at biodiversity in the neotropics. What can one say about any of Kevin’s presentations except, never a dull moment!
Friday, January 8 - Isla de Providencia, Colombia: What a little jewel! This tiny outpost of Colombia lies off the coast of Nicaragua and is the permanent home to about 5,000 people. Our intrepid hikers set off with Rich for an ambitious three-hour trip to the highest point on the island. For the birders among us, we were happy to see black-faced grassquit and white-crowned pigeon as well as the thick-billed vireo usually only found in the Bahamas, Cuba, and Grand Cayman, intermingling with Central American birds like the green-breasted mango hummingbird.
Those of us keener on water sports enjoyed a variety of dive and snorkel options. The divers had a religious experience when 80 feet down they encountered an eight-foot statue of Jesus amid the sponges and anemone patches with blue Creole wrasse, shrimp, groupers, and a green moray eel in residence nearby. The snorkelers managed to visit three locations, Morgan’s Head where there was a plethora of small colorful reef fish like damselfish, then Hippies’ Reef where they saw stingrays, porcupine pufferfish, and were delighted with rainbow squid. A final shoreline snorkel off Crab Caye produced sightings of more small fish and sponges.
The land tour visited a local convent school, then proceeded on a circuitous tour of the coast with stops at a variety of scenic overlooks and beaches, as well as an arts and craft shop where we had the chance to try delicious hibiscus-and-ginger popsicles. Arriving back in the main square, greeted by a band, all our disparate groups reassembled and had time for music, refreshments (including local beer), and a turn about the town and its small shops. We returned to Le Levant for a Mexican-themed lunch.
We set sail for Costa Rica and spent the afternoon learning about some extraordinary pirates from Susan and more about the role of the region as a land bridge from Greg. We then enjoyed a special captain’s dinner followed by a fabulous triple concert in the lounge with Jean Charles Vaneck, the ship’s pianist, Silvard, and Daniel Roure, the ship’s doctor, who has two jazz albums to his credit.
Saturday, January 9 - Puerto Limón, Costa Rica: Arriving in Puerto Limón, we set off through the countryside for Moin where we embarked on Mawamba boats to cruise the Tortuguero Canals, in Tortuguero National Park. The park’s raison d’être is to preserve the breeding grounds of green sea turtles. Although it wasn’t breeding season, the canals offer a stunning array of wildlife. We made one roadside stop as we wended our way to the village of Tortuguero through the Costa Rican countryside to view our first two-toed sloth dozing in a tree, little did we know that we would see several more, one virtually at the bow of our canal boat before the day was over. The canals were also busy with monkeys, caiman, and Montezuma oropendolas with their telltale vocalization and colonies of bag-like nests. We also came across the famed emerald basilisk, or “Jesus Christ lizard” nicknamed for its apparent ability to walk on the surface of the water. At one point, Kevin and our guides headed into the riverside growth and emerged with poison dart frogs carefully held on leaves (and sporting myriad scrapes and insect bites into the bargain). Other avifauna included the bare-throated tiger-heron, green kingfisher, as well as our friend the northern jacana moving from leaf to floating leaf.
Returning to the harbor, we found ourselves dwarfed by three monster cruise ships and calculated that all guests, crew, and staff of Le Levant could fit into one of their lifeboats, and returned to our ever-so-personal home with relief.
Although we were scheduled to move onward, our Expedition Leader, Jeff Gneiser, had worked with the captain and cruise director, Lynne Greig, to permit our spending the afternoon at nearby Cahuita National Park. At the park, we divided into groups that wished to go birding, enjoy the beach, or take a long walk to an interpretive kiosk. We enjoyed several opportunities to see howler monkeys and white-faced capuchins cavorting through the canopy as well as to view traveler palms and other flora. Costa Rica is one nation that developed a conservation ethic very early and boasts 186 protected areas; nearly one-fifth of the country’s area.
Sunday, January 10 - Escudo de Veraguas, Panama: Often compared to Palau, Escudo de Veraguas is the quintessential tropical paradise. We spent the morning exploring its shores by Zodiac; threading between the surreal rock formations dotting the waters off the coast. Here and there palm-thatched fishermen’s shelters were nestled among the trees. Stopping at one of these we had the extreme good fortune to see a pygmy sloth, one of the three-toed varieties, which being 20% smaller than its mainland counterpart represents the dwarfism one sometimes finds in island animal populations.
Some of us had the incredible luck also to see the Escudo hummingbird. This recently described bird is the only endemic full species of bird on the island and is related to the rufus-tailed hummingbird which is 33% smaller. Therefore, unlike the sloth, the Escudo species is an example of island gigantism. There are numerous endemic subspecies of birds on the island and seeing a Nearctic species of semi-palmated plover that migrates across hemispheres within feet of the endemic hummingbird whose entire range is only five square miles proved an interesting juxtaposition.
After lunch, we returned to the island for beachcombing, swimming, and snorkeling and reveled in a lazy afternoon of sheer relaxation. Back on board we enjoyed Rich’s lecture on the Panama region as a crossroads of the world as we hoisted anchor and sailed for the San Blas Archipelago.
Monday, January 11 - Charcon River, Acuatupu and Holandes Cay, San Blas Archipelago: We began the morning with a daybreak Zodiac trip up the Rio Charcon which proved our best chance for watching crepuscular bird activities. Despite squally weather, we were able to watch keel-billed toucans, mealy and red-lored parrots, and blue-headed and orange-chinned parakeets. One of the highlights was a female lineated woodpecker drumming high overhead as we headed back to Le Levant.
Rich provided us with an introduction to the present indigenous people of Panama in preparation for our next stop at the island of Acuatupu in Kuna Yala; the lands of the autonomous Kuna people. Known for their molas, appliqué textile work, this was an opportunity to purchase keepsakes and see the traditional dress of the women. Many of the Kuna are involved in the raising and harvesting of coconuts which are sold to ships from Colombia who come for the express purpose of purchasing them.
During lunch the ship repositioned to Holandes Cay, also known as Wreck Reef, although no wreck was seen and the origin of the name could not be determined. Some of us enjoyed snorkeling amid the colorful reef fish that included blue-headed wrasse, blue chromis, and yellow-tailed damselfish, as well as several types of puffers. Others were able to enjoy walking the island’s paths and picking up a few more molas, while the birders reported such humid region specialists as chestnut-headed mangrove warblers and migratory yellow warblers, as well as some more typical of Panama’s more arid Pacific coast like the Panama flycatcher and sapphire-throated hummingbird.
At the end of this long and eventful day, most of us were happy to turn in early as we headed toward Cristóbal to position for our daylight transit of the Panama Canal.
Tuesday, January 12 - Panama Canal Transit: Whether it’s your first or 21st transit of the Panama Canal, it’s always an event. In addition to bringing aboard our pilot in the wee hours of the morning we had the good fortune to have Patricia Holmes, a resident Panama Canal interpreter, join us. She provided commentary throughout the day on the landmarks, stories, and facts about the construction of what has been justly called the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” She also provided the Web address for locks’ live cameras so we could let the folks at home know when to tune in to watch us being raised and lowered at any of the Gatun, Pedro Miguel, or Miraflores Locks. The captain generously allowed access to as much of the forward bridge deck as permitted by the pilot, providing excellent viewing and photographic opportunities of the massive 1,600 ton pairs of gates opening and closing. Positioned in the locks by two pairs of “mules” on tracks, we could feel the surge of water under the ship as throughout the day we were raised and then lowered 85 feet.
The persistent rain as we entered the Gatun Locks soon bade us farewell with a beautiful double rainbow before fading into the gloriously sunny weather we enjoyed for the rest of the voyage. Definitely a day to be on deck, we were treated to morning flights of mealy and red-lored parrots, at Gatun Lake we saw the rare snail kite that we last saw at Lamanai, and also flurries of black and turkey vultures (and yes, that’s the correct term for a group of vultures).
We were finally lured indoors in the late afternoon when Silvard treated us to a discussion of the splendors of seashells. Then the evening kicked off with a festive island cocktail party hosted by Zegrahm Expeditions, Harvard Museum of Natural History, and World Wildlife Fund, and a chance to wear those colorful molas from San Blas. The tropical flare was carried through dinner with a Caribbean theme, as we slipped past Balboa and into the Pacific.
Wednesday, January 13 - Mogue River, Darién Province: What a great day! Greg kicked off the morning by providing insights about the little known and seldom seen birds of the Darién region. After an early lunch we boarded a flotilla of modified dugouts for an hour long ride to the coast and up the winding Mogue River. We swept from side to side to facilitate photography as we rode the incoming tide, which is critical to access the upper reaches. Watching osprey fishing we marveled at their specialized talons and saw the irony in the Arctic whimbrel perched in a mangrove. Soon the river narrowed and we could hear the drums of the Chocó Emberá before, rounding a final bend, we reached a landing. Waiting for us were many of the villagers in traditional dress including musicians and a gaggle of children who were shy but curious and who quickly took us by the hand for the walk along the path to their home. They speak Spanish as a second tongue but smiles went miles and language provided no barrier.
The village was a manicured clearing with about a dozen raised houses, open at the sides with palm thatch roofing as at Escudo de Veraguas. We were able to watch demonstrations of sugar cane pressing, corn grinding, and rice hulling. We were formally welcomed and treated to music and dance performances. Jeff presented school supplies to the village head man and we set off to explore. The Chocó Emberá use Jagua Vine dye as body paint and were willing to apply it to anyone who wished; needless to say there were a lot of blue limbs on the ship.
The Chocó Emberá have become guardians of the rare harpy eagle, the world’s most powerful bird of prey. While we all wanted a chance to see one, the nearest nest was two hours from the village and our tidal window was closing. As we embarked downriver, we made a quick stop
at “The Le Levant Riverside Café,” where Lynne and crew dispensed cold towels, brownies, and fruit from a Zodiac for our return trip. The motorized dugouts managed to drench almost everyone heading through the chop to Le Levant and made for an exhilarating end to the day’s adventure. Shortly after, many of us watched the spectacular sunset as we hoisted anchor for Isla Coiba and considered heading off to Salsa Night in the lounge after dinner.
Thursday, January 14 - Coiba Island: En route to Coiba, Kevin explained why it’s a jungle out there, outlining the structure and development of rain forests. After a generous brunch we found ourselves moored and ready to explore.
Two days at Coiba and what different experiences they provided. Although inhabited in pre-Columbian times and involved in the 19th century pearl industry, the island is more known for the penal colony established there in 1912. Since its formal closure in 2004, the tropical climate is doing its best to reclaim the structures, but the harsh and sometimes appalling conditions were evident still. The young officers currently posted at the site had never had a ship visit and were enthusiastic to show us the cell blocks, infirmary, library, dining hall (now generally inhabited by bats), and several other structures before using machetes to slice open coconuts to provide refreshments. Our birders noted a blue-throated goldentail hummingbird, as well as a pair of yellow-headed carcaras, which are recent colonizers of Panama and Costa Rica from South America, and we all watched flurries of brown pelicans in a feeding frenzy over a school of fish near the surface as we returned to the ship for lunch and to reposition off the island’s ranger station.
Its poignant past had one silver lining; it made the island undesirable for development and resource exploitation and it retains about 80% of its forest cover. The Parque Nacional Coiba was created in 1991 and designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005. However, significant exploitation and development remains a threat, held at bay mostly by the actions of the conservation organization that Rich works with, ANCON. For the afternoon we divided for nature walks, diving, and snorkeling. The birders among us witnessed black vultures performing a nuptial ritual; many of these hung around the ranger station like stray dogs looking for a handout. The divers and snorkelers reveled in the abundant life and color for which the island’s waters are well known and there were even a few surprises. When Silvard pointed out a sea hare to us, it resembled a fuzzy dinner roll, but one which could emit a bright violet ink cloud.
Under a pavilion at the ranger station, the ship’s chef, Jean Marc, and his staff prepared a tour de force barbecue that defied even the hungriest hiker to try every dish. After our fabulous repast, some of us lingered by a beach bonfire, others resigned themselves to bed and a few of us headed to the top deck of the ship for some impromptu astronomy and stargazing with Susan.
Friday, January 15 - Coiba Island: The hikers and birders set off bright and early for the mile and a half long Monkey Walk across a portion of Coiba proper while the divers and snorkelers headed to the islet called Grain of Gold (Isla Granita del Oro), where the ship set up a Coiba fruit punch stand for us. The hikers witnessed a living textbook illustration of primary rain forest including Spanish cedar and monkey ladder vines with light gaps thickly populated by dense marginal growth just as Kevin had explained the previous day. Some also reported closer contact than perhaps desired when they stood beneath a troop of howler monkeys. The birders sighted the endemic Coiba dove in the understory and also watched the lekking display of the lance-tailed manakin.
The strong current that kept most of us close to the islet seemed also to provide a plethora of undersea life. Those participating in water sports saw some sleepy whitetip reef sharks, green moray eels, guinea fowl puffers, moorish idols, triggerfish, angelfish, big-eyed jacks, sea stars and brittle stars, butterflyfish, and blueline snappers. Some of us saw a couple of green sea turtles as well, both underwater and on the surface as we returned to the ship.
Who could resist Silvard’s afternoon lecture on the motion of the ocean after a morning like this. Then it was time to join the captain for farewell cocktails, but Commandant Daumesnil had another surprise in store when he honored us by performing a sabrage de champagne. This is a rare skill involving the removal in one stroke of the top of a bottle of champagne with a saber. We concluded the evening with another superb dinner of the captain’s design.
Saturday, January 16 - Río Claro & Isla del Caño, Costa Rica: Anchoring early in the morning in Bahía Drake we were off the Península de Osa, one of the most biologically diverse places on earth. Our goal today was the Punta Río Claro Wildlife Refuge. We divided into groups for the three-mile roundtrip hike. Reaching the Río Claro there were local boats for touring the river and hikers saw red macaws for which the area is known, as well as a troop of white-faced capuchins on the beach.
Closer to the shore we saw a black basilisk lizard and golden orb spider as well as a mangrove black hawk, and nesting pairs of Baird’s trogan and slatey-tailed trogan were close to the refreshment table. The shells on the beaches were alive with hermit crabs and it was possible to find flowering ginger and the occasional orchid as we watched local fishing and shrimping vessels ply the waters.
During lunch the ship repositioned to Isla del Caño, an outcropping of the same submerged mountain range that forms the Galápagos. The island is the 700 acre center of the 15,000 acre Reserva Biológica Isla del Caño, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2003. The island is also famous for the presence of pre-Columbian archaeological sites and artifacts including some of the mysterious stone spheres that were found first in interior Costa Rica in the 1930s. After Susan’s discussion of these it was a disappointment to find the sea conditions too rough for landing. Water sports and a Zodiac tour became the order of the day with divers and snorkelers heading off to explore life on the submerged rock formations.
Anyone lingering over dinner hastened to the lounge in the evening for a slide show presentation of our trip created by Thomas and featuring the fabulous images taken by him and Natalia with contributions by Greg and Susan. What a wonderful, but bittersweet way to send us off to pack for tomorrow’s departure.
Sunday, January 17 - Puerto Caldera / San José, Costa Rica: Bidding farewell to our floating home, its crew, and to our friends leaving on the post-trip extension, we rode into the interior. After one last chance to buy some delicious Costa Rican coffee or that wild mola shirt one regretted not purchasing in San Blas, we were heading home. Amid the coffee plantations shaded by the bright orange flowering poro trees, we had time to reflect on the past two weeks. We learned about the birds and the bees (and beekeeping too); about oceans and rain forests and how much they have in common; about the people and culture of the region from the traditional lifestyles along the Mogue River to the high-tech plans for the world’s largest canal; about shells and fish and that pirates can make some positive contributions to science too and, in a lighter vein, some of the zany recaps, usually at Kevin’s instigation, including a talking iguana sounding suspiciously like Natalia, Rich as God adjudicating an evolutionary game show, and of course the unforgettable performance of “Special K and the Mangrove Rappers.”
We can’t help but concur with the common Costa Rican response to most questions: Pura vida, Life is good!