Portuguese Residency Visa for Canadians

Are you considering a move to Portugal? We spent three months there last year and loved almost everything about it. So much so that we decided to move full time and establish our home base there.

IMG_3831 (2)

Drawbridge across the harbour, Lagos

The first step in gaining residency in Portugal is to obtain a Residency Visa. It allows a 4 month stay while you look for long term accommodations, and apply for a 1 year Residency Permit. While there is some paperwork and costs involved, it is one of the easier countries to obtain residency in of several that we looked at.

IMG_5192 (2)

Late afternoon at the Sagres Fortress

The process described here is what we just went through applying for a 4 month Canadian Portuguese Residency Visa. This is for applicants in the Pensioners Category, but it could be more challenging if you are looking for work in Portugal.

IMG_5483

A small street in Silves

You must apply in person at either the Embassy in Ottawa or one of the Consulates in Montreal, Vancouver or Toronto. We went to the Portuguese Embassy in Ottawa. You can email or call to make an appointment. They have limited hours and a small staff so it is best to set this up well ahead of time. This link will take you to the page listing all the Portuguese Embassies and Consulates.

IMG_9354

Portuguese Embassy in Ottawa

Once you have a meeting set up you will need to begin assembling the forms and paperwork necessary for the visa application. The applications are sent to Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras (SEF) in Lisbon for approval. While this may seem an involved process for a visa, keep in mind that this serves as the basis for the Residency Permit which you will apply for once you are in Portugal.

IMG_3081

Castelo de Sao Jorge, Lisbon

This is the link to the portal to start from and will bring you to a page headed “Visa”. Click on the tab at the top menu “Long Stay Visa”. Click on “Common Documentation” to open up a list of required documents and information.

Here is a short explanation of what we provided for each element (we left the translated titles so you may chuckle at some of them).

1. Completed Application form – This is the “Application for a Schengen Visa” which is available under the FORMS tab (top menu), go to the British Flag and click on “Visa Form”. Note: we filled in this form in the office and it might be a good idea to leave areas blank until you meet in person, as there are areas on the form that don’t need to be filled in. ALSO on the form it has “Intended date of arrival in the Schengen area” and you can’t enter Portugal before the date you specify. So leave that one blank until you discuss it with the consulate official. However once your visa is approved you can travel at any time for up to three months.

2. A valid travel document – They took a copy of our passports.

3. Two identical photographs – You can use any local shop that takes passport photos. The office only took one and it didn’t need to be dated on the back.

4. Ticket that assures the return – We didn’t have to provide this and it is not applicable.

5. Travel medical insurance – Our current insurance covers us for the first 40 travel days. We were told SEF may not ask for it, but they took a copy just in case. We were told this length of time for insurance was fine as when we get our residence permit we have to enroll in the Portuguese health care system. Note: We need to confirm how long after receiving your Residency Permit your Portuguese Health Insurance becomes valid – we think it is about 3 months.

6. Authorization to the Portuguese Criminal Records by SEF – This is a form that they printed out for us as we couldn’t print the form from the portal. It is a one page document with a paragraph authorizing SEF to do a Criminal Records Check.

7. Criminal Records Certificate from Country of origin – There are several companies in Canada that are certified by the RCMP to collect fingerprints and send them electronically direct to RCMP Headquarters in Ottawa. We used CSI Screening in Halifax and an Internet search will find one in your area. In addition to collecting your digital fingerprints they also complete the form requesting the RCMP for a full Criminal Record Check. Note: this is not the same as the “expediting services” in the US. We also asked if it could be forwarded to us by registered mail but the RCMP only use regular Canada Post service. We were told it would take 10-15 business days, however we met with them on a Friday afternoon and received our clearances in the mail from the RCMP one week later. The total cost for the two of us was $195.

8. Documents related to accommodation – You have to provide an address and a contact in Portugal. It can be a rental agency, hotel, or a mailing address if you know it. They will ask for some form of confirmation which can be a deposit, rental or lease agreement or an email confirmation.

9. Documents proving that the applicant possesses sufficient income – We have a pension and provided the latest annual statement which was fine. The stated income required is 1100€ a month per person.

10. Minors clause – Not applicable for us.

The total cost for this was $258 for both of us. Notes: They didn’t take credit cards at the Embassy in Ottawa so we used debit card. While we were in the office they also took photographs and electronic fingerprints.

IMG_3752

Looking inland from Meia Praia, Lagos

All of the information will then be sent to Lisbon for review and approval by SEF. You will be notified when they have the approval from Lisbon and you have the choice of either returning to the Consulate or Embassy and having it inserted in your passport in person OR you can mail (courier) your passports to them to have the visas inserted and sent back. We used Canada Post Express Post and included a prepaid envelope for the return.

IMG_3498

At the bottom of the initiation well at Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra

We applied on June 23rd and were told we could expect them by the end of July. We put on our form August 20th as our intended entry into Portugal which we were told would be fine. We received a call on July 27th that our Visas had been approved and they confirmed we could make plans to leave at anytime.

IMG_2524

The side streets in Lisbon are worth taking extra time to explore

Our one way tickets are now purchased and we fly to Portugal on August 9th. We are very excited to begin a new chapter in our life and look forward to sharing more stories from Portugal. We plan to change the format of our blog to better show what life is like in our new home and would love to hear of your own experiences.

IMG_5722

 

Advertisements
Posted in Canada, Europe, Preparations, Travel Tips | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Lockeport, Nova Scotia – “An Island to Sea”

IMG_0138

IMG_0266

“Chasin Crustaceans” – what a great name for a lobster boat!

Lockeport is a traditional Nova Scotian fishing community which has experienced a rise and fall similar to many other smaller coastal towns. Located in the Southwestern part of the province, Lockeport was founded as the Township of Locke’s Island in 1764. Its strategic location midway between New England and the rich fishing grounds of the Grand Banks caught the attention of two fishing families from Massachusetts, the Lockes and the Churchills.

IMG_0026

Courtesy Shipsearch Photos

The 1800s were the golden age for many of the towns in this part of the province as they served as a trading base between the rich fishing grounds of Atlantic Canada and the West Indies. Salt cod and lumber were carried on large sailing vessels to the Caribbean, returning laden with molasses, salt and other goods.

IMG_0025

IMG_0199

View to the original homes from the same vantage point as the previous postcard view

Other towns such as Yarmouth, Shelburne, and Liverpool thrived during this period and several passenger steamers ran between the area and New England. Small fortunes were amassed and rum-running later flourished during prohibition in the United States.

IMG_0028

S.S. Boston in Yarmouth c1907 (courtesy Shipsearch Photos)

Lockeport’s economy grew steadily resulting in the construction of hotels, warehouses, and several fish plants. However, with a downturn in the fisheries and several fires, the town faced serious problems in the late 1890s. In 1907 the Township of Locke’s Island incorporated as the Town of Lockeport and was able to receive Provincial funding. The town recovered to a certain extent throughout the early years of the last century but today it remains a greatly reduced version of its former self.

IMG_0191 (2)

One of the old waterfront buildings no longer in use

IMG_0240

Significant restoration has occurred along South Street

Tim’s mother (Helen) was born in Lockeport, and the family connection has brought us to Lockeport on several occasions. Every summer she rents a cottage and enjoys relaxing by the beach and getting caught up on the changes to the town. We also spent time there with Erik when he was young. This strong family connection drew Anne, her Mom, and Erik to scatter her Dad’s ashes in the surf.

IMG_0248

Restoration of the South Street house where Helen was born

Its picturesque seaside location, lack of commercialization and friendly atmosphere makes it a great place to visit. The town’s website declares “Come for a visit, stay for a lifetime” and this has indeed been the case for many people looking for a relaxed lifestyle.

IMG_0187

A traditional smaller home in Lockeport

IMG_0268

Along the lower end of Hall Street

IMG_0186

“Widow’s Walks” were common on older Nova Scotian sea captain’s homes

While there are far fewer services than in the past, most of the core services remain including schools, a bank, post office, small supermarket, volunteer fire department, pharmacy, liquor store, and restaurant. Year round accommodations are available at beach front cottages and a bed and breakfast in town.

IMG_0215

The Town Market General Store has most everything you need

IMG_0212

Along Beech Street, the main business district

For such a small community (population of 531 in 2016) there are some surprisingly popular and well attended events. The Canada Day celebrations are known throughout the region as one of the best and feature the ever popular dory races and greasepole. Canadian actress Ellen Page, whose father is from Lockeport, mentioned it on The Letterman Show which garnered huge interest in the town. Other annual events include a Sea Derby, Lobster Festival and the popular Harmony Bazar, a festival of women and song.

IMG_0290

Information and gift shop

IMG_0174

Eiders feeding in the shallows at the east end of the beach

One of the main draws today for tourists and visitors is the world renowned Crescent Beach. Featured on the Canadian $50 bill from 1954 to 1975, this golden sand beach stretches for 2 kms on the seaward side of Lockeport.

IMG_0284

The $50 bill depicting Crescent Beach

IMG_0176

Looking westward on a foggy morning

While the water is refreshingly cold, the beach is beautiful and usually practically empty. When walking along you will seldom encounter more than a handful of people, even in the middle of July.

IMG_0285

Looking eastward towards the town

IMG_0163

Generally kids are the only people you’ll see in the water

We spent three days in July enjoying the sights and people of Lockeport. A cozy cottage at Ocean Mist Cottages for a night and then in the downtown bed and breakfast.

IMG_0167

One of the Ocean Mist Cottages where we stayed

We talked with Helen of growing up in Lockeport and the many changes she has seen over the years. She expresses sadness at the downturn in the town’s infrastructure, but very clearly a strong attachment to the town and its people, and a great fondness for growing up in this special place.

IMG_0273 (2)

Helen, Anne and Tim’s sister Jennifer enjoying an evening campfire

IMG_0154

“Littlebigharbour” miniature ships by Floyd Stewart

The setting is classic Nova Scotia, including the often fog shrouded lighthouses on the offshore ledges, the small strips of sand, the algae and periwinkle encrusted wharves, and the magnificent sea captains’ homes of the late 1800s.

IMG_0209

Carters Island Lighthouse from the waterfront

IMG_0250

The outer entrance to the harbour

IMG_0206

IMG_0243

The original Joseph Locke homestead from the mid 1800s

Significant changes have occurred over the past two centuries but yet much remains the same and we’re sure that the next generations of residents and visitors will continue to enjoy the simple but profound beauty and sense of place of this beautiful coastal community.

IMG_0228

IMG_0161

 

Posted in Canada | Tagged | 2 Comments

On the Road Again: Comings and Goings in Eastern Canada

So here we are back in Canada again, this time for a very specific purpose in addition to catching up with friends and family. As you know by now, we have applied for a Portuguese Residency Visa which is a requirement prior to getting a Residency Permit. We will explain the full process in a later post, once we have received our visas (fingers crossed).

P_20170615_225819

Arriving at the Halifax Airport after a long day of flying

Probably the first thing we noticed upon our arrival in Nova Scotia in late June was how clean and green everything was! It is quite a contrast to the previous five months.

IMG_0049

Backyard in Yarmouth at Tim’s family home

The first three weeks of our time here has been pretty hectic but there were several things we wanted to / needed to get done. With the help of a large rental van we said goodbye to our storage locker in Dartmouth and have stored all of our remaining possessions at Tim’s parents house in Yarmouth. This frees up $145 a month which we will enjoy more at the cafes in Lagos.

P_20170616_122915

She’s thinking of wine at the cafes!

Our driving started by making the trip to Yarmouth in the van with a stopover in the Annapolis Valley to visit Anne’s Mom and sister. Every time we are back in Nova Scotia there are a plethora of logistics to look after, mail to sort, and appointments to book. This time will be no exception but much of what we are doing now is in preparation for the move to Portugal in late August, so with a clear goal it does make some of the tedious bits more enjoyable.

IMG_0027

One of the footpaths at Cape Forchu, Yarmouth County

After a down day we headed back to Halifax where we loaded the van with the remaining stuff from the locker and headed to Sackville, New Brunswick where our son is currently attending university. This is also where we will be based for the time we are here. It is an older home he is sharing with four others, but everyone is away for the summer and it has everything we need. The town itself is very pleasant and has all of the basics within easy reach.

IMG_0061 (2)

Nova Scotia – New Brunswick border

IMG_9447

Our home for the summer in Sackville, New Brunswick

Another drive back to Halifax to exchange the van for a rental car which we will keep until we leave. Then it was off to Ottawa, a 1225 km drive each way to apply for our visa at the Portuguese Embassy. The applications have to be done in person at the Embassy or one of the three Consulates in Canada.

IMG_9377

Chateau Laurier and Rideau Canal – Ottawa, Ontario

One of the big differences in Canada from both Europe and Latin America is that most travel is done by car. Eastern Canada in particular is not well served by train or bus and air fares are expensive. So it didn’t seem unrealistic to jump in the car and drive across three provinces for our appointment. Road trip! The highways are all good, the traffic is light and we are very comfortable traveling here.

IMG_9282

Sadly the only moose we saw was dead on the side of the road

IMG_9285

An Eastern Canada highway icon – The Big Stop

IMG_9298

A Quebec pit stop after all of the Big Stop coffee

This wasn’t a sightseeing trip and we had a purpose so we stuck to the larger but less scenic highways through New Brunswick and Quebec. Buoyed by good tunes and coffee we had a great time even with the many hours of driving. The hours passed quickly enough with a few pit stops along the way and we were soon in Quebec City. This attractive city makes a wonderful place to visit for several days but we have been before so we turned it down in favour of a small village a little further on.

IMG_1900 (2015_10_17 13_44_39 UTC)

Anne & Erik in Quebec City – 2007

IMG_1884 (2015_10_17 13_44_39 UTC)

We splurged for the Chateau Frontenac when we visited in 2007

Fortune smiled on us and we found a wonderful B&B, the Auberge de Manoir Dauth in Sainte-Anne-de-la-Perade, a small village we had never heard of along the Riviere Sainte-Anne.

IMG_9318

Great room, great price and an excellent breakfast – we practically had the place to ourselves

IMG_9303

On the banks of the Riviere Sainte-Anne

We chose the less busy route along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River mainly to avoid the busy traffic and summer construction around Montreal.

IMG_9327

On the outskirts of Montreal

Returning to Ottawa for something other than work was a treat, and we arrived amidst the preparations for the big Canada Day celebrations the following weekend. We loved our suite at The Albert at Bay Suite Hotel which we have stayed at before and highly recommend as a downtown hotel. The city was bright with flags and Canada 150 signs everywhere. We are always proud to be Canadian but walking on Parliament Hill with the busloads of tourists did give us a lump in our throats. A large plate of ribs also filled our stomachs that evening.

IMG_9358

From the balcony of our suite

P_20170624_133233

Getting ready for the big day

IMG_9369

The National War Memorial – site of the tragic shooting in 2014

We won’t say much in this post about our meeting at the Portuguese Embassy except that it went very well, and we left very excited and positive.

IMG_9356

Portuguese Embassy

So much so that we stayed an extra night to enjoy the city, our suite, and a great Thai meal. The extra costs were justified by driving the entire way back home to Sackville in one day – 13 hours. Good planning or happenstance, that day was Sunday so we enjoyed light traffic and absolutely no highway construction the entire day.

IMG_9294

Lac Temiscouata, Quebec

IMG_9430 (2)

Rainbow over Grand Falls, New Brunswick

As most of you know 2017 is a year long celebration of the 150th Anniversary of Canada’s Confederation known as Canada 150. Being back for the summer months during this year has been an added bonus for us. There are many events to take in, but more importantly it has already reminded us of how fortunate we were to be born Canadians and to spend most of our lives here. Extensive traveling has also driven home that fact and we won’t forget our native country and the tolerance, acceptance, and generosity that are such integral parts of the Canadian way of life.

P_20170701_111624

Tim’s Dad and a Filipino Canadian entrepreneur at the Yarmouth Farmer’s Market

So it was very fitting to spend the Canada Day weekend with family. A short three hour drive and we were back in the Annapolis Valley to spend the afternoon with Anne’s Mother and sister at the special Canada Day celebration at the Evergreen Home for Special Care where they both live now. Walking into the large dining hall with Canada balloons, flags, tablecloths and everyone dressed in red and white was truly beautiful. A local band appropriately named “The Fogies” had everyone clapping and swaying right through to the closing with Oh Canada.

IMG_9453

Anne enjoying the music with her Mom and sister

P_20170630_135923

“The Fogies”

Yarmouth is often described as the tropics of Nova Scotia, and while it enjoys milder winters the down side is the damp and cool conditions experienced in much of the summer. Oh and did we mention the fog? Tim grew up here and Anne grew up in St. John’s, Newfoundland so neither of us are strangers to fog and damp weather. But it would have been nice to see the sun on the holiday weekend. That wasn’t to be however.

IMG_0024

Enjoying the view through the fog at Cape Forchu

IMG_0011

There are strong ties between Nova Scotia and New England that continue to this day

Regardless, we enjoyed a barbeque, hanging out in the garage, a few glasses of wine, seeing friends and family and overall just relaxing together. The fireworks were cancelled as was the pancake breakfast but the farmers market went ahead and overall we had a great weekend poking around this historic seaside town, seeing the sights, enjoying good food and just being Maritimers again for a few days.

IMG_0039

Tim’s family home in Yarmouth

IMG_0029

Yarmouth Bar in the fog. Lobster fishing is a major industry here.

We are back in Sackville again and feel as rested as we have in a long time. We are thoroughly enjoying our temporary house and home town, getting organized and feeling very excited about our upcoming adventure and move to Portugal.

P_20170701_111718

 

Posted in Canada, Preparations | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Changing Directions one Step at a Time

When we first started to imagine and then plan our journey through retirement we had a vague idea of what we were hoping to experience, and what we were ultimately looking for was even more uncertain. As we have said before that was quite all right with us and we remain open to what life throws at us. If we dig far enough back in our memories we had idealistic images of tropical beaches, rainforests and a simple village lifestyle. Many of those ideas have come and gone as we have gathered experience and memories traveling through 10 countries and over 50,000 kilometers.

IMG_8967

Burning leaves and yard debris at Playa Matapalo, Costa Rica

IMG_0699

Sunday afternoon walk across the Millennium Bridge in London

IMG_4349

A Christmas market and the Seville Cathedral in December

Just over a year ago when we actually set out, we had a plan to allow ourselves 5 years of slow travel to see as much of the world as we could before we settled into an area for a more permanent lifestyle. The past 15 months have been wonderful and exciting, but they have also opened our eyes to some of the challenges of extended nomadic travel.

IMG_8766

Playa Espadilla in Manuel Antonio NP, Costa Rica

We want to share some of the factors that have contributed to our decision to apply for residency in Portugal, and base ourselves there for the foreseeable future. Probably the most important lessons we have learned are to be open to change, to pay attention to your instincts when they kick in, and to allow yourself time and experience before making decisions on something as major as moving permanently to another country.

IMG_2063

Cascais and Estoril, outside of Lisbon

We have found accommodation near our budget however it has been quite a challenge. Securing monthly prices certainly helps, but even in less expensive countries finding a place that is comfortable, safe, close to amenities, and with decent services is difficult. It has become apparent to us that unless we are willing to travel for extended periods of time in Southeast Asia or Central America we will be unlikely to find accommodations that work for us unless we go to yearly leases.

IMG_9071

Grocery day in Quepos, Costa Rica – we needed a rental car to get there

Changing homes every month comes with downsides. Even at that slow of a pace we are not in a neighbourhood long enough to become a part of it other than at a surface level. Of course you do get a much better feeling of the community than staying a night or two at a hotel but it takes much longer to really get to know the area, the people who live there, and their way of life. When booking accommodations ahead without seeing them in person, they can be lacking in services and can be below a standard that we are comfortable with and it can often be difficult to change or leave.

P_20170209_154508

La Libertad, Ecuador

Relying on public transportation also limits the options we consider. One of the first things we look for is the availability of groceries, walking opportunities, and a little bit of outdoor space. In general we are more used to a rural lifestyle so adapting to life in a larger urban center has required some adjustment.

IMG_3087

In Lisbon we were able to get everywhere by bus or metro

IMG_1090

Enjoying a bicycle picnic in Swindon, England

P_20161009_105606

Montparnasse Station in Paris

This post isn’t intended to be negative, just an expression of reality for us. There are many people who have made the nomadic lifestyle work for them, some on a much lower budget but there are drawbacks that have made us reconsider certain aspects of our approach to travel.

IMG_8009

The huge Allbrook Mall near Panama City, Panama

After spending the past 5 months in South and Central America we feel confident that it is not an area that we want to consider settling into for an extended period of time. This was an important awakening for us, and one that made the entire period worthwhile. Somewhat naively in the past we thought that retirement in the warmth and vibrancy of Latin America sounded like what we wanted. There were many wonderful experiences, places and people along the way that we will always have very fond memories of, but that isn’t enough.

IMG_6049

Local families loved the beach at the end of the day in Ballenita, Ecuador

The sunshine and warmth may seem like paradise in the middle of a cold Canadian winter but in most areas the intense heat and humidity quickly becomes confining and limits the daily activities you can enjoy. Moving to different environments every couple of months takes a toll on your body and it caused us physical adjustments not anticipated. Anne suffers from environmental sensitivities and for much of the time we have spent in the tropics she has experienced hives, muscle pain and low energy making it very uncomfortable. Neither of us were able to spend the time outdoors that we enjoy so much.

IMG_8871

Hanging out in Manuel Antonio NP, Costa Rica

IMG_8599

Exploring the countryside near Atenas, Costa Rica

We have met many wonderful people throughout our travels, both locals and expats but there remains a significant divide between these two groups in most places. While we are not wealthy in Canada, the money, lifestyle and things we have mark us as privileged by the standards in most parts of Latin America.

P_20170131_153821

Just off the main street in Montanita, Ecuador

Living behind walls and bars, looking over your shoulder, hiding your stuff and growing skeptical of the people you meet changes you, and not for the better in our opinion. Dozens of stray dogs and cats, excessive attempts to get money from you by one means or another, and poor services all contribute to a very different lifestyle. There are opportunities to volunteer locally and help which requires a lot of dedication and emotional energy.

IMG_5788

Broken glass is a common sight on the top of the walls in many Ecuador towns

Obviously millions of people across the world live in these, and much worse, conditions and thousands of expats have made Latin America their home. So the last thing we want to do is sound like spoiled “gringos”, but we can honestly say that it isn’t for us at this stage in our life. Having said all of that we greatly enjoyed both Playas del Coco and Atenas in Costa Rica and look back at our times there with happy memories.

IMG_8747

Our friends in Atenas have made a great life for themselves

IMG_7769

We enjoyed the mountain town of Cuenca, Ecuador which is an expat favorite

Some well-founded advice that we hear often is worth repeating and we’d echo it strongly. Don’t get caught up in the “live in paradise for $1,000 a month” hype. Spend some time in an area you consider moving to first so you can see if it really will work for you. Rent first and buy later is the add-on that is also good advice. This is even more true for a couple who must share the same the goals.

P_20170209_150233

The lively street market in La Libertad, Ecuador

We are back in Canada now, and have just applied for a Portuguese Residency Visa. We will write a separate post about that process for Canadians after we receive them. For Americans, our good friends at No Particular Place to Go have a great description of what they went through.

IMG_5612

Colourful garden in Praia de Luz, Portugal

What made us take the path to Portugal you might ask. As you can tell from our posts from last fall we loved the time we spent there, both in Lisbon and Lagos. It is safe and relatively affordable, has good services, a temperate climate (no snow!), rich history and culture, and beautiful landscapes. We found the people to be friendly and helpful and in many ways made us feel at home. We just felt very comfortable there. The three months we spent only scratched the surface of this diverse and beautiful country.

IMG_5011

Meia Praia, Lagos, Portugal

IMG_2809

Just one of the many wonderful views in Sintra, Portugal

As a resident we will be free to explore the rest of Europe at a slow pace without having to leave every three months, there is a good health care plan and a relatively easy Residency program (for pensioners at least). We are also looking forward to not having to pack up and move every month. A home base sounds pretty appealing right now. It will allow us to adjust mentally and physically to one area.

P_20161208_141543

Walking the old Roman Bridge in Cordoba, Spain

IMG_5074

The town of Aljezur, Portugal from the walls of the old fort

We have an apartment in Lagos booked from October until the end of January. We will use that time to file for residency, spend time with friends, get reacquainted with Lagos and start to search for long term living accommodations.

IMG_5684

Wandering the streets of Lagos reveals many interesting finds

Portugal and the Algarve are both very popular right now so prices are going up, rental properties are becoming harder to find, and the country is starting to feel the pressure of increased tourism and an influx of expats. From what we have seen however it is a country that we want to commit more of our lives to and get to know much better. As always, we are open to what life throws our way but we will continue to move forward with open eyes and minds.

IMG_8574

 

Posted in Central America, Europe | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

A Glimpse of Carara National Park

Costa Rica is a world leader in conservation with over 25 percent of its land mass under various levels of protection. Their system of National Parks encompasses a broad variety of ecosystems across the entire country. We have visited several and recently returned to Carara, located near the mouth of the Tarcoles River in Puntarenas. It is a small park, but contains a variety of flora and fauna as it is in a transition zone from the dry forests of the Northwest and the rainforests of the south. It can be busy as well due to its proximity to San Jose, popularity as a day trip, and its location on the well traveled road to Jaco and Manuel Antonio.

IMG_8675 (2)

An abandoned bridge on one of the smaller loops

There are two main systems of trails accessible to the public, but most people opt for the one leading from the main entrance and parking lot. In 2015 when we visited for the first time we hired a private guide who took us on the less traveled trail located a kilometre down the road from the main entrance. At the time we felt it was money well spent as he was an experienced guide and could identify and imitate all of the birds that so often are just heard.

IMG_8634 (2)

White ibis fishing in the stream

This time there were 4 of us and the guides wanted $20 USD per person so we opted for a hike on our own. We are getting quite good at spotting birds, animals and insects and so unless we are specifically birding a new area we will usually strike out on our own. The entrance fee for the park is $10 USD per person which is lower than some others.

IMG_8650 (2)

A small lizard catching some rays

The park map shows a short loop trail of about 2 km but we were pleased to find several smaller loops off of the main trail that weren’t quite so busy and followed a small river. There were a few large groups on the main trail the morning we were there, so it was nice to find some areas where we could hear the sounds of the rainforest. As well we found the sound of the trucks and motorcycles quite distracting until we were quite a distance from the highway.

IMG_8626

Green and black poison dart frogs

We finished our walk after about 2.5 hours which was plenty in the heat and high humidity of this area. We didn’t see a large variety of birds, but overall were very happy with the variety of wildlife we did spot including many green and black poison dart frogs, a basilisk lizard (Jesus Christ lizard), an agouti, a beautiful blue-crowned manikin (a lifer for us) and our first ever armadillo. The dramatic backdrop of the massive ficus trees, hanging vines and the flash of butterflies all added to the enjoyment of a rainforest walk.

IMG_8643

This was the first armadillo we had seen

IMG_8682 (2)

The paths are open and easy walking

The park borders on the Tarcoles River which is home to a large population of crocodiles which is the derivative of the park’s name. Just before reaching the entrance to the park, the highway crosses the river and tourists are treated to amazing views of these menacing reptiles from a hundred feet above. We’re not sure which is more scary – the jaws of the crocodiles or the roar of trucks just a foot away as you walk across the bridge which has no sidewalks.

IMG_8709

IMG_8698

There were several dozen crocodiles visible from the bridge

We completed an enjoyable morning with lunch at a nice restaurant in Jaco and a walk on the beach.

IMG_8693 (2)

Erik and Anna enjoying the sand and surf

Posted in Central America | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

A Backyard Snapshot: Playa Matapalo

From time to time we find ourselves in a location with limited internet access. That is the case in our current house sit in Playa Matapalo. We wanted to keep our blog as up to date as possible so we will publish several short “snapshots” over the next 5 weeks while we are here.

P_20170501_121446

The view of our backyard

One of the attractions of Costa Rica is the extreme diversity of habitats and ecosystems in a relatively small country. We are just over 100 kms southwest of Atenas but it seems a world apart. Atenas is in the hills of the Central Valley, relatively cool, somewhat dry, and has what many people call “the best climate in the world”. Playa Matapalo, on the southern Pacific coast however is very hot and humid.

IMG_8063

Our backyard in Atenas

We arrived just over a week ago and will be here another 5 weeks looking after a beachside house and a very lovable dog, Omber. The dark brown beach is visually stunning and stretches for about 11kms northwest and southeast. It is not a great swimming beach, the waves break too short for surfing but at low tide there are terrific rolling waves for boogey boarding.

IMG_8806 (2)

Playa Matapalo looking southwest at high tide

From our shaded back veranda the sand stretches through palms towards the beach and the sound of the waves breaking (often quite violently) is a 24 hour backdrop to our life here. Sloths, white-faced capuchins, opossums, lizards, and many birds keep us company along with the gardeners in the neighbours’ yards and the occasional people walking the beach. Hot, lazy days with violent rain at night has been the norm. Intermittent internet, power, water and telephone are common. Our chores include keeping the sand off everything, the yard clear of all the debris and looking after Omber which combine to provide us with plenty to do.

IMG_8911

One of two sloths who inhabit our trees on a regular basis

Erik and his girlfriend have come and gone, and we will head back to Canada for an unknown period of time in late June to apply for our Portuguese Residency Visa. Until then we will be staying cool and heading to the nearby surf town of Dominical to compose our posts and look after other online activities.

IMG_8811

The beach at Dominical

Please be patient if we do not respond to comments or questions right way.

Pura Vida from Tim and Anne

Posted in Central America, Costa Rica, House Sitting | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

A Decade of Changes in our Visits to Costa Rica

Our current stay in Costa Rica has given us the the time to consider the stark contrast with our first visit here in 2007. The changes in our lives over that time have made us look at travel quite differently.

DSCF2438 (2015_10_17 13_44_39 UTC)

Our son, Erik at 12 years in 2008 during our second visit

We had booked a ten day package that included stops in Tortuguero, Arenal and Flamingo Beach with plenty of activities at each. It was the first winter vacation for all three of us away from the beaches of the Caribbean and Florida. We arrived sick, never shook off the bronchitis we were fighting but went straight out anyway and fell in love with Costa Rica.

DSC_0032 (2015_10_17 13_44_39 UTC)

Yes, that’s us at the back of the raft

Those were the days when two weeks was all we had, perhaps twice a year if we were lucky, and it seemed important to cram as much as possible into that short period of time. As a result we often returned home as tired and stressed as when we left. Plus we had to save for the next six months to pay it all off.

DSCF2839 (2015_10_17 13_44_39 UTC)

Manuel Antonio in 2008

The more we travel the more we have found that we are not much different from many of the travelers of our age. For most, it has only been since their 50s that they have had either the time or the money to be able to travel in the way that they choose. A recent article in Intrepid Travels, The Journal, by fellow Canadian Alison Armstrong provides some excellent insight on changing attitudes to travel as we age.

IMG_8497

An expat band performing in Atenas

There are an increasing number of digital nomads and others who find a way to fund their travels at an early age. We continue to be amazed and surprised by the sheer number and diversity of long term travelers “out there” and by their determination to experience the world on their own terms. Some of the lifestyles are at odds with our preferences but for the most part we applaud their curiosity and ingenuity.

IMG_7641

This restaurant and cafe in Cuenca, Ecuador targets the large expat community there

Back to the present, we have been perfectly content to relax at our hilltop house in Atenas, Costa Rica for the past three weeks. We don’t feel the need to explore, to fit in, or tick off boxes in a guide book. Although there are literally years of exploration left in this beautiful country we can choose to return if the timing is right.

IMG_8290

The very pleasant Central Mercado in Atenas

We are of course older now but by far the biggest change is in our lifestyle. Gone are work commitments, looking after the house and yard, and meeting the expectations of modern North American society. Of course many people are quite content without making the dramatic changes we have, but it has certainly changed our approach to, and appreciation for life.

IMG_8209

Blue grosebeak – Atenas

One major change we have noticed since we began this journey is that there is no longer the sense of wanting something more. This not only applies to all the “stuff” like clothes, gadgets, cars etc. but also to travel. Of course we would love to be able to indulge in an extended African safari, pamper ourselves at an over-water bungalow in the South Pacific, or cruise the Caribbean for an entire year but those are just fantasies that we may or may not make reality.

IMG_7272

We were able to make a trip to the Amazon a reality this year

Our current lifestyle has given us much more freedom and mobility. If we don’t like the weather it will always change, or we can move. If we don’t like the neighbourhood we can easily change that too. And perhaps what is most important is that if we enjoy where we are and the people we are with we can stay longer or return.

IMG_4727

Enjoying lunch in Cordoba, Spain with great friends we met in Portugal

15785678_10155012969678694_135644799_o

The fabulous Markham family – Family Feud winners on New Year’s Eve in Lagos, Portugal

It is these type of relatively simple concepts that have made our minds lighter, our bodies healthier, and allowed us to enjoy more of the simple things that are so often right in front of us. We certainly enjoyed the Eiffel Tower, the museums of London, the remarkable castles of Sintra, and the breathtaking cathedrals of Seville and Cordoba. But apart from all of these wondrous sights perhaps what stands out most are the cafes of Spain and Portugal, the natural wonders of the Amazon, the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean from the cliffs of Cabo de Sao Vicente, Portugal, and the stunning wildlife of Costa Rica.

IMG_5291

Relaxing on a warm December day in Silves, Portugal

IMG_5169

Headland near Cabo de Sao Vicente, Portugal

IMG_7132 (2)

Channel-billed Toucan – Cuyabeno Reserve, Ecuador

As we enjoy the fabulous view across the Central Valley in Costa Rica from our rental home in Atenas we have been pleasantly surprised at how quickly times go by without feeling the need to do more or have more.

IMG_8052

IMG_8075

Watching young doves hatch, fledge and leave their nest, excitedly spotting a different species of trogon, or simply marveling at the changing cloud formations above the volcanoes in the distance all relax our minds and give us peace and contentment. Daily swims provide physical activity, twice a week we venture into town to pick up groceries and practice our Spanish, we communicate with friends and family from the comfort of our open living room, and this is enough for now.

IMG_8329

Keel-billed toucan – Atenas

IMG_8063

Our backyard oasis

In a few days Erik and his girlfriend arrive and we will do some exploring and share with them some of the beauty of this country before we head south to our house sit in Playa Matapalo. We feel relaxed, comfortable and secure in the knowledge that we are living our life the way we choose and that the future is ours to shape in the way that suits us best.

crbeauties28_1 (2015_10_17 13_44_39 UTC)

From Atenas we head to the southern beaches for six weeks of house sitting

We have plans in place to return to Portugal this summer that hopefully will work out, but for now life is good. We will take our new attitude with us and enjoy the time and opportunity that we have – beyond that it is hard to predict – and what this life has in store for us remains to be written. As they say in Costa Rica, Pura Vida (Pure Life!).

P_20161218_121941

Looking westward towards the coast from Aljezur, Portugal

 

Posted in Central America, Slow Travel | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

A Brief Introduction to Quito

IMG_6630

Approach to the airport – Quito is still about 25 kms away.

As our recent visit to the Amazon Basin took us through Quito we decided to take an extended layover and spent two nights in the Ecuadorian capital. It sits at an altitude of 9350 feet on the slope of the active Pichincha Volcano, and on a clear day the views are stunning with mountain peaks and volcanoes visible in all directions.

P_20170217_203724

We were amazed at the physical extent of the city within the mountains

Many people suffer altitude sickness, but the effects on our bodies were minimal. We had slight muscle pain and were a little lightheaded. Drinking plenty of water and taking ibuprofen helps. An anti-nausea pill can also help until your body adjusts.

IMG_7454

City suburbs on the slopes of the active stratovolcano Pichincha

The historic center is recognized as one of the the most well preserved colonial cities in the Americas and along with Krakow, Poland was declared the first UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1978. This area was where we chose to stay for our brief visit.

IMG_7368

Plaza Grande or Independence Square

IMG_7365

Some of the fine colonial buildings surrounding Independence Square or Plaza Grande

IMG_7436 (2)

The Quito Virgin on El Panecillo through the Calle del Hospital Arch

We arrived at Mariscal Sucre Airport which is located about 30 km from the city center. This airport was opened in 2013, replacing the older airport which due to its location was frequently closed because of nighttime fog and the proximity of tall buildings. A taxi costs about $25 USD but you can take a cheaper shared bus service.

IMG_6642

We chose the Hotel Colonial San Agustin, located in a renovated Spanish colonial building and found it to be very clean and welcoming with plenty of character. Arriving after dark and without having had something to eat, we were disappointed to be told it was too dangerous in the neighborhood to go out at night and that most stores were closed early. The young man on the desk accompanied Tim to find an open store to get a few snacks for our supper! We usually try not to arrive too late in a new destination but our flight was delayed more than an hour.

IMG_7340

Hotel Colonial San Agustin on Calle Juan Jose Flores

IMG_7441

The very welcoming lobby from above

After a very good and very inexpensive breakfast, we spent the early part of the next day wandering the heart of the historic center. The narrow cobblestone streets were full of life and flanked by fine examples of Spanish colonial architecture. There was an abundance of interesting shops, restaurants and services throughout the area with several inviting plazas.

IMG_7439 (2)

One of many small plazas off the main streets

IMG_7343

IMG_7431

A whole street was dedicated to pinata shops which were common throughout Ecuador

Fabulous churches and cathedrals rise above the streets and plazas and could easily make for several days of visits. We did go inside of the Iglesia San Agustin and were particularly impressed by the colours throughout the nave.

IMG_7370

On the steps of Cathedral Metropolitana

IMG_7346

Entrance to the Iglesia San Agustin

IMG_7347

The pastel colours were beautiful

In the lower portion of another church, the Iglesia San Francisco, is a wonderful craft market and gallery. Spread throughout the winding catacombs of the church are well presented displays of fine examples of traditional arts and crafts. Jewelry, pottery, hats, chocolate, sculptures and paintings depicting the traditions of the pre-colonial period, along with well documented historical references made this feel as much of a museum as a shopping experience.

IMG_7416

IMG_7415 (2)

We have seen many street venders throughout Ecuador but nowhere to the extent that we did in Quito. Not only were there the usual street food and souvenir venders, but also literally hundreds selling everything from scarves, hats, vegetables, cigarettes, knock off CDs, underwear, plastic boxes, clothes pins and much much more.

IMG_7434

Women sold hundreds of bags of vegetables and fruit in these bags

IMG_7398

Clothes pins anyone? Or on the right you can buy candy.

IMG_7396

Anne bought two scarves from this lovely lady ($5 USD)

IMG_7405

All of the traditional venders and then a row of formal wear stores and some awesome manikins

It seemed that you could get just about everything if you looked hard enough. People carried bags, boxes, knapsacks and plastic bags full of these items. Of course there were many shoeshine boys but also something we hadn’t seen before, and that was men with scales who would tell you your weight. Not sure what they were asking for it but probably a few cents.

IMG_7399

One man was selling your weight and the other we assume sold ladies shoes. We actually saw this several times. We should have asked about the scales!

There was a very large police presence throughout the central area. On every corner, in every plaza and lane were dozens of uniformed police. In fact other than in the train stations of Paris, the most we had seen anywhere. It seemed that their biggest concern was moving the venders along and trying to stop them from harassing people on the street.

IMG_7367

Police were everywhere – on foot, horseback, bicycle, motorcycles and even Segways

IMG_7374

There was one stop that we had to make while we were there and that was to visit El Panecillo and the madonna statue which overlooks the city. The statue was inspired by the famous Quito Virgin and erected in 1976. We took a taxi to the summit of the hill where the statue sits and weren’t disappointed with the views.

IMG_7380

View of the statue from the historic center

IMG_7472

Spanish artist Agustin de la Herran Matorras created this 45 m statue from stone and aluminum

In all directions the city and its suburbs crawl up and down the sides of the mountains with the volcanic peaks serving as a backdrop. This was certainly one of the most jaw dropping scenes we have seen in our travels. There were surprisingly few people there and an hour passed by quickly as we absorbed the spectacular setting.

IMG_7446

P_20170217_200415

A coincidental meeting with Chilean friends from our Amazon trip

IMG_7448

Looking across the historical center to the new part of the city

We only scratched the surface of Quito during our short visit but it certainly is a unique and vibrant city. You could feel the life of the people on her streets, see the history in her colonial architecture and get a sense of native traditions through the arts, crafts and cuisine which were prominent everywhere.

IMG_7420 (2)

Who is enjoying this the most – the little girl, the family or the pigeons?

IMG_7419 (2)

Posted in South America | Tagged | 6 Comments

Our First Travel Fail: Yellow Fever Requirements for Costa Rica

We are both planners by nature and we might be accused of over-planning and not leaving enough to chance. However on our most recent trip from Ecuador to Costa Rica we were caught by surprise and forced into a week long stay in Panama to meet the Yellow Fever entry requirements for Costa Rica.

P_20170318_181445

The Puente Centenario spans the Panama Canal just north of the Pedro Miguel Locks

The bottom line is that anyone entering Costa Rica from Ecuador (or many other South American countries) requires a valid Yellow Fever vaccination which we did not have. We weren’t aware of this and normally the airlines advise passengers of the requirements when they sell you a ticket.  The reason that the airlines are so strict is that they have a responsibility to fly you out if you are refused entry into a country.

IMG_6575

Welcome to Guayaquil

In our case we weren’t advised and as near as we can tell it was due to the manner in which we booked our tickets. We had complicated flights originating in Canada in January, then from Ecuador to Costa Rica and finally returning to Canada in June. We were able to secure a good price and both Ecuador and Costa Rica require proof of departure. We bought our tickets through United but the flights from Ecuador to Costa Rica were on Avianca through Colombia and Panama. It was the Avianca agents who refused our boarding. Imagine our surprise and dismay when we arrived at the Guayaquil Airport and were told that we could not board as our final destination was Costa Rica and we did not have Yellow Fever vaccinations. We had to quickly decide what our options were and choose one!

IMG_5749

After some time with a very helpful information agent we confirmed that our options were to get the vaccination in Ecuador at a health clinic (for free) and stay in Ecuador for 10 days; get the vaccination and try to persuade the clinic to back date the shot over 10 days ago (this happens!); or there was an “exception” that you could leave Ecuador and stay in a Yellow Fever free country for 6 days. We did not want to stay in Ecuador and with 2 hours before our flight, getting to the clinic and relying on a back dated card was too risky.  We decided to head to Panama! Keep going forward! The Costa Rican Embassy in the USA’s site states clearly that if you remained for 6 days in a Yellow Fever free country you could enter without a vaccination.

P_20170320_234741

Off to the ticket counter for Avianca and we were told they couldn’t change or cancel our original leg from Panama to Costa Rica because the ticket had been purchased through United. It was getting closer to our flight! A lengthy call to United and we cancelled the last leg of the day’s flights then rushed back to the Avianca counter and were allowed to fly as far as Panama.

IMG_6581

Guayaquil Airport

We arrived at Panama City’s Tocumen Airport four hours later (via Bogota) and were happy to be let into the country. We stayed at the Crowne Plaza Airport Hotel that night while we searched for accommodations for the next 6 nights.

P_20170318_180208

Panama City skyline from the north

The costs were already starting to add up. United had a cancellation fee of $168 CAD each, and we were too late to cancel our reservation at the Hampton Inn in San Jose that night. We had a taxi arranged to pick us up the next morning to take us to our Airbnb home in Atenas. And of course we were too late to change that reservation so we have to pay for a week that we didn’t use.

IMG_8005

The Radisson Summit in Paraiso, just outside of Panama City

After looking through where to stay in Panama we decided on the Radisson Summit Hotel just outside of the city. They offered good rates, full breakfast, good birding and a local shuttle. It cost $50 US to be driven there however.

P_20170318_204817

Great view from our balcony

In fact we were very comfortable there and enjoyed our stay. We received many suggestions from friends as to where we should visit while we were in Panama and all of the wonderful things to do and see. There are attractions for sure, but given that we were a little put off and we would be spending a lot of extra money, we chose to stay close to the hotel.

IMG_8044

Saffron Finch

IMG_7910

A nearby trail led to these tracks – after that – who knows?

Meanwhile we scoured the web for more information on the entry requirements for Costa Rica as we wanted to verify that we would be allowed in after 6 days. The only “official” confirmation of the 6 day exception we could find anywhere was on the aforementioned Costa Rican Embassy to the USA and also on their Belgian Embassy site. We couldn’t find it on the WHO site, the Canadian Embassy or the Costa Rican Immigration site. We did find many people who had experienced similar situations!

P_20170320_161330

Waiting room at the government clinic

It seemed like an ideal opportunity to get Yellow Fever vaccinations so after reading a great article on the Tofu Traveller blog we went to a local government clinic and for $5 US each and a short wait we both now have 10 year vaccinations and the official “yellow” cards. It was easy to find and although no one spoke English, we had no problems.

P_20170320_165805

The nurse was very efficient, especially since it was 11:55 (almost lunch!)

We also took the time to visit the Miraflores Locks and do some shopping (mostly window shopping) at the Allbrook Mall. The Panama Canal and the Miraflores Locks deserve a post so perhaps we’ll talk more about them in the future. Unfortunately on the day we were there, no ships passed during our three hour visit. We thoroughly enjoyed the Visitor’s Centre however.

IMG_7924

Visitor’s Centre at Miraflores Locks

IMG_7935

Looking towards Pedro Miguel Locks

IMG_7925

Another step we took was to call the Canadian Embassy in San Jose who called Costa Rican Immigration on our behalf. We were relieved when they confirmed that we would be able to enter after 6 days in Panama. So we booked a flight out on the seventh day (another $400 CAD) and settled in.

IMG_7919

This coati didn’t care if the fruit was for the birds

So on the seventh day we were totally prepared to leave and out of the blue we received an email from Avianca that our flight had been cancelled and they had booked us out the next day, but through Bogata (backtracking to Colombia!). Another day in quarantine! The last thing we wanted to do was go back to Colombia and risk raising additional questions, so a call to Avianca secured us a direct flight early the next morning.

IMG_8050

Despite much anxiety and trepidation we had no problems at all with boarding and we were so happy to be on a plane to Costa Rica. Now we just had to deal with an unknown Immigration Officer.  The immigration lines at San Jose’s airport can be very long (especially when you’re anxious) but it wasn’t too bad when we arrived on a Saturday morning.

IMG_8051

On the tarmac in San Jose

After all of the hype, anxiety and consternation the Immigration Officer barely looked at our passports and the only question she asked was how long were we staying. We showed her our ticket to Canada in June and we were in!!!

IMG_8059

Can you tell someone is happy!

So the bottom line is, be diligent about the entry requirements for any country you are planning to visit. We had been to Costa Rica many times before so we neglected to check on entering from South America. This was compounded by the fact that United neglected to inform us when we purchased our tickets. We are in the process of submitting claims through United, our credit card, and World Nomads (our travel and health insurer). We would like to say a big thanks to the San Jose Hampton Inn who graciously refunded our full night’s charge.

Posted in Central America, South America, Travel Tips | Tagged , , , | 12 Comments

The Amazon Basin Part 2: Making the Most of the Experience

A small lodge provides you with a unique opportunity to experience the rainforest in as natural a setting as possible while still maintaining comfort and safety for its guests. Falling asleep and waking to the sounds of the jungle, the insects, the birds, and often the rain dripping through the trees takes you away from the distractions of the modern world, and is something we would recommend to anyone. Our last post described getting here, and now we are here.

IMG_7088 (2)

Oropendola nests were a common sight along the banks of the river

The Guacamayo Ecolodge understands this concept and provides its guests with an authentic experience. Limited electricity, local food, knowledgeable staff and guides, traditional building styles, and sound environmental practices exhibit an appreciation for this sensitive environment.

IMG_7297

Looking down at the lodge from the birding tower

We arrived with a small group of 6 people and over our first meal we got to know each other and our guide better. As we came to find out over the next several days, we were extremely fortunate to have Gido as our primary guide as he was a wealth of information about the reserve and had a profound respect for the environment. A member of the Siona indigenous people, he added to his traditional knowledge through personal interest, much dedication, and a university education. He was the perfect interpreter for the reserve. For us an added bonus was that he was a keen and knowledgeable birder!

IMG_6904

Gido was one of the best guides we have encountered anywhere

Our first afternoon provided an excellent introduction to the reserve and one of its key features. Heading back along the river we entered an inland lake known as Laguna Grande. Again we were treated to many sightings including long-nosed bats, many bird species, several species of monkeys, and a wonderful view of a sloth!

IMG_6901 (2)

We loved the Laguna Grande and its ethereal feel

IMG_6856

Long-nosed bats

As we entered the lagoon three pink river dolphins were spotted feeding near the surface of the dark and placid water. Reliant on water levels these mammals migrate throughout the Amazon basin feeding on fish. Unlike their more well known marine counterparts, river dolphins cannot jump due to their vertebrae so we watched carefully in order to see them breaking the surface nearby. We were rewarded several times with clear views of their feeding activity.

IMG_7012

You never knew where exactly they would surface next

As we headed further into the lagoon we entered a mystical flooded forest and as the water levels were quite high we were able to take the canoes deep into the shoreline. Anhingas, woodpeckers, flycatchers, parrots, swallows, herons, and many other species of birds were all around us and we were captivated. The abundant wildlife combined with the surreal vision of the giant trees emerging from the lake created a scene that we had only seen in documentaries. This was why we had come here.

IMG_6942

IMG_6868

Then came the time for the daily ritual of swimming in the lagoon in the late afternoon. Canoes from several of the lodges converged on the central part, shut off their motors and anyone who wanted (or dared) dove into the tea-like water to cool off, refresh or fuel their adrenaline. Yes, there are caimans and other interesting residents of the lake but the deeper central portion was perfectly safe and very relaxing.

IMG_6919

Can you tell everyone is having a great time?!

A night walk is a feature of most trips into the rainforest and provides you with an altogether different perspective on the jungle. Your usual sense of sight is diminished to a small ray of light, your hearing is subsequently enhanced and together these will let your imagination run wild. Additionally, night is when many different species of animals, birds, and insects are at their most active.

IMG_6893 (2)

Before arriving at our trail we motored slowly along the shoreline and were treated to the sight of dozens of boat-billed and night herons taking flight in the shadows. As the light began to fade, dozens of fishing bats appeared, swooping closely overhead and gracefully skimming the water’s surface. All the while Gido swept the shoreline for the bright red eyes of caimans who feed in the early evening.

IMG_6883 (3)

We were completely awestruck at the skill at which the boatman navigated the difficult waters in almost complete darkness with no light. How they unerringly took us through the myriad of flooded trees, mudbanks and other hazards and arrived at our destinations time after time amazed and delighted us.

IMG_6874 (2)

Walking single file through the jungle in complete darkness is a very interesting experience. For those at the front of the line you have the large beam of the guide’s flashlight while those at the rear tend to look over their shoulders and become startled at every sound or perceived movement. On our walk we saw tarantulas, scorpions, and very large crickets, but no snakes. It is an experience we highly recommend to anyone.

IMG_7022

Whip spider

IMG_7027

Scorpion!

On one evening we were astonished (again) at the skill of Gido. We were slowly motoring along the riverbank towards our lodge in almost complete darkness while he swept both banks for the red eyes of caiman. A quiet call to the boatman and we turned towards the left bank and into a fairly large thicket of small trees. Pushing several aside we glided into the shore and there before our eyes was a small boa constrictor curled up on a branch. We still have difficulty believing him that he spotted it from the middle of the river and through the trees. He swears he did!

IMG_6898 (2)

There was a common joke among some of us that the guides placed plastic and stuffed animals, birds, and insects along the river and paths to amaze the tourists, creating a Disneyland like experience.

IMG_6821

A sloth calmly having a late afternoon snack

Evening meals and a cold beer afterwards were great times to chat with our new friends, reminisce about the days’ experiences, and conjure up exotic images of the next day. After the long day spent in the outdoors, the good food, and the amazing night sounds of the rainforest it only took a few minutes to drift into a very peaceful and relaxed sleep.

IMG_6929

Relaxing over the evening meal

Four days pass very quickly and it is amazing how easily you can fall into the rhythm of the rainforest. We were up early for a hearty breakfast and then Gido would have us out onto the boats for our first activity of the day. A full morning of hiking or paddling would last until 1:00 or so before we arrived back at the lodge for lunch. Some days you might have an hour before heading out again. Some people opted out of the afternoon activities and chose to relax at the lodge which was a wonderful experience in itself.

IMG_6945

Preparing for a hike

IMG_6988

All set to paddle back to the lodge

On our last full day we visited a Siona village several kilometres downriver. We passed several lodges, spotted many birds and monkeys, and as always were moved by the beauty of the river system.

IMG_6848

An ancient bird – the Hoatzin (He has claws on the end of his wings and two stomachs)

IMG_7070

Green Forest Ecolodge

After about an hour we arrived at the village. Several women, children, and dogs were on the bank to welcome us. Obviously this takes place every day of the year but it still felt like a privilege to spend time with people who continue to live in their traditional lands, albeit with some modern conveniences.

IMG_7173

Ecuadorian Presidential election signs are even in remote places

IMG_7177

Our welcoming committee

For the most part we were quite impressed with the condition and infrastructure of the village. To us it appeared that they were living much better than a large number of Ecuadorians in many of the towns and villages we had seen throughout the country.

IMG_7178

IMG_7182

This little boy was a delight and accompanied us all morning

They had a large community soccer pitch and a recreation centre. Most of the homes we saw were in good repair and it was far cleaner than many other places we had seen. The most impressive feature was the extensive community gardens, fields and orchards. Pineapples, yucca, sugar cane, bananas, corn, papayas, mangoes, and many many more fruits and vegetables were tended by the women and children.

IMG_7204

Cutting yucca roots after pulling them from the ground

IMG_7213

Always a smile!

Of course there was a demonstration for the visitors. In this case it involved pulling yuccas from the fields, transporting them to a specially created building and then going though the whole process of making making yucca bread. The Siona woman (she sure could handle a machete!) who led us though the process spoke little English but was proud and gracious and even though she does this every day made a great effort to be engaging and friendly. We all helped out and enjoyed the tasty and warm yucca tortillas (gluten-free) with our box lunches provided by the lodge.

IMG_7230

Grating the yucca roots

It was a very interesting and informative morning spent at the village. We were impressed with how the people seemed to be adapting to modern living while retaining many of their traditional beliefs and practices. On the surface they seem to be taking the best of both and making it work for them. There is a mandatory $6 US donation that everyone makes to the village in return for the experience.

IMG_7270

Preparing to head downriver

Our next stop was one that many of us had mixed emotions about. It was the possible meeting and demonstration by a local shaman. We had read many varied reviews commenting on the authenticity of the shaman and the fact that it was simply a show for the tourists. This type of tourism is common throughout the world and the subject of ongoing debate, but in reality he clearly had trained extensively, honored his beliefs and was carrying on the traditions of his people.

IMG_7274

The second village we visited was home to the shaman

Whether you believe in supporting local communities in this manner or not, the shaman that we met and who performed a cleansing ritual was honest, genuine, and proud of his role in his community. We were pleased to leave a donation.

IMG_7278 (2)

A proud Siona Shaman

The last day of a trip like this is always filled with mixed emotions. There were a couple of people who appeared more than ready to move on but most of us were sad to leave the natural, unhurried life in the Amazon rainforest behind. No contact with the outside world, minimalist living, and feeling part of the local ecosystem is good for you both mentally and physically. For us, we were genuinely sorry to be leaving.

IMG_7064 (2)

There was one last reminder for everyone of the true nature of the place we had visited. A large tree had fallen across the river the night before. The hard work and sharp machete of one of the guides cut through it, allowing the boats to continue to transport the dozens of tourists and locals along the Cuyabeno River to the heart of the reserve.

IMG_7316

It was amazing how many ants and spiders came off of this tree into the canoe!

IMG_7317

Waiting for the river to open

The two hour trip up the river passed far too quickly and we just relaxed quietly and contemplated this wonderful corner of the world we were leaving behind. We may never have the opportunity to return again but it will always remain in the forefront of our memories.

IMG_6970 (2)

As we got off the canoe at the reserve entrance, sure enough there were many “newbies” just like we were a few days ago awaiting their chance to experience the beauty, diversity and challenges of the upper Amazon Basin.

IMG_6745

Locals enjoying the water and watching the tourists come and go

IMG_7333

The buses bring groups in and pick up outgoing groups

People we spoke with before and after this trip expressed a range of ideas about this type of a trip. Some were genuinely concerned about spiders and snakes, some about mosquitoes and others didn’t want to be cut off from the their cell phones and wifi signals. As for insects, we saw very few mosquitoes and almost none at the lodge. Sure there were spiders around, some cockroaches and lots of butterflies, dragonflies, and wondrous beetles. We did see a few snakes but had to look hard for them. As for no cell phones or wifi – it was a perfect way to ensure you get the maximum experience possible and does us all good once in a while.

IMG_6875 (2)

Posted in South America | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments