Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Angel Falls - Venezuela

Shortly after the Lost City Trek in Colombia I headed into Venezuela ultimately to see the tallest waterfall in the world.

The trip began in a single prop Cessna flight from Ciudad Bolivar over the Gran Sabana to Canaima Parque. I was sitting co-pilot as we dodged clouds but hit a few for a freefall feeling like a ride at Magic Mountain. As we approached the runway you could see the set of six waterfalls that tumble into the lagoon of Canaima. Truly a spectacular sight and I was pumped to begin this beautiful and amazing adventure.

The water in the lagoon is a dark tannin-stained water from the Carrao river that reminded me of Guinness beer, black in the deeper sections and reddish-brown (see pic) as it washed up on the pink sandy beaches lined with palm trees. We set off in a boat through the lagoon to Salto el Sapo which you can walk behind and witness the pounding pressure of the falls from inside. As with the rest of this adventure the pictures don’t do it justice.

We took a boat down the black river, through the jungle, along pink sandy beaches and table top mountains with waterfalls jetting over the side and down the cliffs. Eventually we pulled up to a basic lodge filled with hammocks and tables set for dinner. For dinner we all sat at our candle lit settings sharing past travel experiences and planning new ones. Of course everyone but me spoke 3 to 5 languages and all from Europe (Germany, Italy, Spain, and France). While I was in Colombia I quickly learned that people from America do not go to Colombia and Venezuela because of unsubstantiated fears about drugs, guns, dictators, etc. It’s a shame that they miss two of the best countries in SA.

On the second day we took another boat and then hiked a while to reach Angel Falls. This is the highest waterfall in the world at 3,212 ft (979 m) over 20 times taller than Niagara. As you look up and try to follow a section of water down the side most of it (60%) drifts off into the jungle before making it down to the pools below. Standing at the base of it was inspiring and for once we were silent (even the Italians) as a sense of awe washed over us. It wasn’t a difficult journey like Ciudad Perdida (see blog) but it was more about accomplishing something and feeling small in the world again.

After Angel Falls I headed back into Colombia (see blog).

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


After Panama (see blog) and Costa Rica (see blog) I flew to Cartagena, Colombia and spent the next two months seeing as much of Colombia and Venezuela (see blog) as I could.

The good stuff: Thanks to Hollywood and the perceptions created by the movie industry Colombia is a well kept secret and not usually part of the 'gringo trail' through South America. This is one of the most beautiful and geographically diverse countries in the world rich with culture and beauty. The people here are some the most genuine, helpful, and friendly souls that I can only compare with Costa Rica and parts of Asia at this point. Prices for hotel and food are relatively low. I started to look at condos in the Boca Grande area of Cartagena with prices from $15k to $40k compared to Panama City of $80k to $600k. After living in Central America for a year I was very surprised at the lack of drug usage in Colombia not to mention the lack of people trying to sell it on the streets. Another American myth down the drain. The beaches on the Caribbean side are gorgeous and the central portions of the country are filled with lush Andean mountains ranges.

The NOT so good stuff: I didn't find anything I didn't like in Colombia except the people trying to sell stuff in the Cartagena area can be a little pushy.

Where to go: Bogota is a wonderful city of almost 9 million people that are some of the friendliest in the world. The bus stations and airports are spotless, safe, and with great food and shopping. The city itself is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world packed with the latest styles of clubs, restaurants, hotels, shopping, etc. Cartagena is the most touristy but still worth it. Please check out the (Cartagena blog) for more info. Barranquilla and Santa Marta are OK to visit but you'll want to spend most of your time in the Tayrona Park area. Please see (Lost City blog) for more info. Manizales is a quaint city that's great for visiting the Zona Cafetera and Los Nevados National Park which is home to the huge Volcano of Nevado Ruiz (over 16,000 ft high). Medellin and Cali I think are the best cities in Colombia, each with about 2 million people, including some of the most gorgeous women on the planet.

Where NOT to go: Allegedly there are some areas near the Darien Gap and eastern areas of the country where guerillas protect coca fields but I have no first hand experience with these areas.

After Colombia I went through Ecuador and into Peru to hike the famous Inca Trial to Machu Picchu (see blog).

Friday, November 11, 2005

Lost City Trek - Colombia

I traveled from Cartagena (see blog) to the town of Santa Marta to book the trek to the Lost City.

Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) was built between 500 and 700 AD by the Tayrona Indians who hid the city so well that not even they could find it. Eventually it was reclaimed by the jungle but recently discovered in 1975 by a treasure seeker and his son. There are only two ways into Ciudad Perdida – one is a helicopter and the other is a 6 day trek through the jungles and slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia. It started with the gathering of an eclectic group of 11 in Santa Marta (5 teachers from Cartagena, 3 Dutch people, a Spanish guy, a German girl and myself). We boarded a 'chiva' (see pic) in Santa Marta and rode it up the muddy cliffs, getting out pushing on occasion, to a remote town in the mountains. Soon we were ankle deep in mud trekking up and down (and up and down) walls of mud through the jungle and across the rivers stumbling onto little villages and views of Colombia that made even the biggest feel small. For some people fatigue started to set in on day one but by day three we were all feeling it. It was near the end of the rainy season so the mud and the rivers were thicker than usual not to mention the mosquitoes were out in full force. The park is filled with paramilitary guys in camouflage and fully automatic rifles who are there to protect the crops and farmers within the Tayrona park. The US has been spraying the coca fields in Colombia so now they're growing it in the protected National Parks. Sounds bad but it's a local cash crop that even the locals can't afford to buy because of the US/Euro demand that drives up the prices. Even the paramilitary guys that I talked to only wanted a smoke and didn't seem strung out like 70% of Belizeans or 90% of the people in Jaco, Costa Rica.

Each night we would arrive at a structure filled with hammocks and tables. Most people would try to get there before the rain started which seemed to be around 4pm. Some would lag behind and show up drenched but still in good spirits. We would unpack, put on dry clothes, eat dinner, and then off to the hammocks for some bullshitting and sleep. Each morning we would wake around 5:30, pack up, grab café y comida, put on bug spray and wet boots, and head out.

We soon figured out why they lost this city and at times you wish it would've remained lost. In one day you cross the same river 7 times on the way there and 7 more on the way back. The first time is in a metal platform suspended 100 ft up, pulled across with a rope by people on the other side. The other 6 are by holding your pack over your head and stumbling (waste high at times) through the rapids along a rope or by making a human chain. Depending on how much it rained the day before you may be in for quite a ride. The final crossing of the Buritaca River brings you to the base of the 1,600 slippery moss covered steps. At this point my ankles were the size of softballs and I was feeling the effects of my slow recovery from Dengue Fever (see List of Bad Travels blog for more info) in Costa Rica, not to mention my size 12 boots stepping on little Indian steps. We climbed this lost stairway through the clouds and up to the 150 stone terraces, nestled into steep slopes over almost 1,000 acres which was once the foundations of homes to over 3,000 people over a millennium ago. Many of these terraces are still covered by dense jungle and allegedly still contain the treasures of the dead buried within.

On the last day there was a trip to the local tarp covered 'cocaine factory' tucked away in the mountains. The little old man who ran the tour seemed like the happiest guy in the world (see pic) to show us how to make the paste that would later be processed into cocaine and shipped. The paste 'can' be smoked at this point but is deemed 'illegal' by the drug cartels since it cuts into their profits and is punishable by death.

After Ciudad Perdida I headed into Venezuela to see Angel Falls – the highest waterfall in the world (see blog).

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Cartagena, Colombia

After Panama (see blog) I flew into Cartagena, Colombia to start my South American trip.

This is one of the best cities I have visited so far and considered by many as one of the World's most beautiful, fascinating, and magical cities. Dating back to 1533, Cartagena was founded by Spanish conquerors as a main port to bring Europeans and their goods into South America. Cartagena is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the best venues for any tourist looking for a good rest with a Caribbean and Colombian flavor. The city was one of the first sanctuaries of freed African slaves in the Americas and is currently populated by an ethnic mix representative of the country's own variety and is the most visited city by tourists in Colombia, so the infrastructure and security are above average.

I ended up staying in the Boca Grande area for a month. It reminded me of Cancun because when you see it from the plane it's a four block strip that extends out for miles lined with new hotels and restaurants. The beaches are perfect with the exception of persistent vendors. If you want to get more of genuine Colombian feel stay in Old Fortress or El Centro area which is surrounded by a wall built in the Spaniards in the 16th century. The wall was built because the wave of pirate attacks over the years before and now serves to protect the living museum of Spanish architecture inside. The streets are packed with shops, cafés, restaurants, bars, and hotels. There are a few clubs that sit high on the wall with great views of the Caribbean and lights from the Boca Grande hotels. Across one of the bays is a huge fortress (Castillo de San Felipe) designed by the Dutch engineer Richard Carr and built in 1657 by the Spanish for protection against pirates while shipping gold out to Europe. You can get lost in the labyrinth of tunnels or walk along the top to get some of the best views of the city.

The people in Cartagena are some of the nicest in the world and will stop to help with directions and transportation reminding me of Costa Ricans. In just one month I left behind quite a few friends and plan to go back some day.

My next stop is Santa Marta for a few days and then a 6 day trek to the Lost City (see blog) in eastern Colombia before heading off to Caracas, Venezuela.

Saturday, October 15, 2005


After Costa Rica (see blog) I took a bus into Panama and ended up staying for a month.

The good stuff: At the very east and west edges of Panama it reminds me of Costa Rica with lush jungle running off into the oceans on both sides, waterfalls and tons of tropical plants and animals. The prices for EVERYTHING are 30% less than Costa Rica on average. The people in the rural jungle areas are very nice and accommodating. Panama City has all the luxuries of a big city in the US/Europe and the best shopping in Central America thanks to the canal and the tax free importation zone (Zona Libre). There's every type of food possible, plenty of 24 diners, at least a dozen casinos and more under construction, high rise hotels, etc. They're building huge high rise condos surpassed only by the building boom in South Beach, Miami.

The NOT so good stuff: Unfortunately, I spent most of my time in Panama City for Spanish classes and getting ready for South America. All my interactions with people outside the PC/Colon area were similar to Costa Rica. But in PC it's a different story. There are two main issues that Panamanians have with the US. The canal thing has been a debacle since 1904 for many reasons and when we ousted Noriega in 1990, 4000 people (mostly innocent) were killed (between Christmas and NYE) in the process, and left the country in a state of riots and looting that threw them into a recession that they're still climbing out of. My advice is to speak fluent Spanish and don't wear short. The disparity of wealth here is more than most countries and the middle class makes up only 10%. The street are filled (packed) with Lexus, BMW, Mercedes, and taxis. There's a fine line that divides the east side of the city with its high rises and the west side which has areas that would amaze even the most seasoned traveler. Most people (75%) make $200/month or less and the remaining 15% are driving $80,000 cars and are usually govt employees or friends of (imagine that) who hide their corruption behind anit-US sentiment and still blame economic issues on US related activities. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has been using cheap oil to spur demonstrations in the streets.

Where to go: San Blas Archipelago, the Kuna's are very friendly people, snorkeling and diving is excellent. Coral reefs and gardens in a multitude of colors and shapes where few have been and yet they are easily accessible. Boquete/Volcán Baru are near the Costa Rican border as is Bocas del Toro. Of course you have to see the Panama Canal to say you went there and then drive toward the Caribbean until you get to Gamboa Rainforest Resort. Casco Viejo is an awesome area of Panama City, take a cab there and make sure you tell the cabby you want to go up the hill to the nice area.

Where NOT to go: Obviously, I'm not a big fan of Panama City and it reminds of some of the reasons I wanted travel in the first place. Save your money and just go to South Beach, Miami.

After Panama I headed to Cartagena, Colombia (see blog) to kick off South America.

Sunday, October 2, 2005

Is regret good?

We all make mistakes. As the world becomes increasingly competitive we push to maximize efficiency and productiveness, pursuing perfection with no room for mistakes. This attitude is reinforced through sports, college, your credit record, driving record, insurance record, family, friends, taxes, career, etc. To avoid mistakes we follow the rules, blend in with the crowd (most of the time), and make sure everyone is happy. “Death is not our biggest fear – it’s taking the risk to be alive” (see Happiness Blog). Living a life unique to us can involve risk and result in disapproval and temporary loss of our sense of security.

The perception of our mistakes plays a key role in shaping our Integrity. Integrity is the value we place on ourselves and refers to the quality of a person's character. To act with integrity is to act in a way that accurately reflects a sense of who you are; to act from motives, interests and commitments that are most deeply your own. The natural tendency when we do something without integrity is to justify our actions and make ourselves right. Or we may say the action was deserved, making the other person wrong. Both of these are avoiding reality by denying our own sense of truth and responsibility for our actions. The problem is not the original mistake but the lie we tell ourselves that causes damage to our integrity and the relationships with others we have wronged.

Regret should not be confused with taking responsibility for our past. Taking responsibility means that we make a concerted effort to change the behavior pattern that resulted in the mistaken choice, and the beliefs and feelings that empowered it. We need to move on by making peace with the past: drop our defenses and the lies we may have told ourselves, face up to the reality of our actions and their consequences, and forgive ourselves. Forgiveness has nothing to do with feeling sorry or apologizing, neither of which changes anything. From a higher perspective there is no right or wrong. There are choices and experiences, cause and effect. True forgiveness can only be granted by ourselves, but judgment gets in the way. We need to separate our inherent worth from our actions. Also, if we can forgive ourselves then we can more easily forgive others.

Absolutes: We cannot change the past - we can learn from it. No one benefits from being punished.

If we regret something, we haven't learned from it and wasted that chance to learn, the only true mistake we can make.

Duane Batcheler

Saturday, October 1, 2005

Key to Happiness?

I wrote this early in my travels and it sounds a bit cheesy to me now but may still have some use for someone. Much of it came from reading the book "The Four Agreements".

We are born with the capacity to learn how to dream. But the people who lived before us taught us to dream the way society dreams with its many rules. This is reinforced throughout our life by our parents, teachers, jobs, friends, government, religion, etc. Most of us have not chosen our moral values, at first we may rebel, but eventually through immersion we form perceptions of what is right and wrong and faithfully agree (to believe unconditionally) to become part of society. Some people in society are ruled by fear (paranoia, greed, anger, jealousy, hate, revenge, envy, etc) and it starts to cloud their perceptions, limiting freedom, and create an image of perfection that is unobtainable. In India they call this “mitote maya” which means illusion. They cannot see who they truly are; they cannot see that they are not free. Death is NOT our biggest fear – it’s taking the risk to be alive. In our pursuit of perfection and pleasing others we may wear a social mask and lose our identity and integrity (see Integrity Blog).

Ignorance is bliss and most people will defend their way of life to the grave. Anyone who challenges it is considered a threat to themselves, friends, family, and society because change would involve risk and jeopardize safety not to mention implying that their existence to this point was aimed at an illusion. However, people who have a strong sense of self seek alternative points of view and constructive criticism from others. Their minds are fertile, have open communication, a pure intent, don’t judge others, higher self esteem, strong integrity, and are more proactive than reactive.

As we learn that some people are driven by ignorance, fear, and the pursuit of perfection may have a different perception than our own, we also learn not to take their views or actions personally. We start to become liberated from the judgments of others. We gain identity and develop our own set of principles to use as a center for making decisions. As this “principle center” strengthens we become immune to things outside of our control and our ultimate happiness/fulfillment becomes obtainable. We step off the emotional rollercoaster that is driven by money, acceptance from society, relationships, career, possessions, pleasure, physical appearances, or other uncontrollable influences.

When we live our lives according to principles we set for ourselves instead of rules set by others, out of love instead of fear, we unlock personal freedom driving passion and fulfillment for ourselves as well as others.

These ideas are common sense, repeated by many, and easier said than done. So why do some of us still live in a mental prison? Because we’re not aware, we resist change, and we don’t take action due to fear. We need to be aware of who we are, our potential, how we’ve been influenced by others, and the fact that we are the only one in control of ourselves. Then we have to change our perceptions of right and wrong to match our personal principles, and act out of pure intent also known as unconditional love. Awareness is easy, the hard part is changing.

Duane Batcheler

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Costa Rica - 2005

I've been to Costa Rica three times now – the last being for three months in June 2005.

The good stuff: I've been to almost 30 countries so far and this place has some of the nicest people and best geographical diversity. The jungles here are immense with a great set of active volcanoes and waterfalls, and littered with monkeys, iguanas, parrots and blue butterflies. One of the things I like best is driving over the mountains and seeing the jungle from 6,000 feet up. The beaches range from super fine black volcanic to blinding white on the Caribbean side. Some good food in the big towns and shopping is nominal. There's crime in the big city and some petty stuff in the other towns but very safe overall. Immigration is cool and you just have to leave the country for 72 hours every 90 days.

The NOT so good stuff: Hotels, food, car rentals, and real estate are getting very pricey. The rainy season is wet but usually for only an hour a day. The lack of road signs and slow buses on windy mountain roads when it's pouring rain can be frustrating. Also, I was infected with the Dengue Virus while in the Pacific side and it was one of the most excruciating things I've been through (see List of Bad Travels blog).

Where to go: Wow, this could be a long list so I'll try to keep it short. Tamarindo – very touristy beach town with good food, casinos, and great surfing. Manuel Antonio/Quepos/Osa Peninsula – is a must see for first timers. Huge national park with lot's of animals and great beaches. Jaco is another beach town that is not quite as touristy but working on it. This town has great food, cheap hotels but is full of prostitutes and drug dealers not to mention the police are usually stopping tourist to see if they have their passport. Still a safe town – don't get the wrong impression. Monteverde/Santa Elena – gorgeous area, don't miss it and it's close to Arenal which has a great lake and an active volcano. Puerto Viejo is one of my favorites on the Caribbean side and has great food, extremely cheap hotels, and is the most laid back town in the country. The nightlife is great with Reggae bars and outdoor theatres. You can take a great two day trip across to Bocas del Toro on the Panama side. This place is awesome and worth the cab and ferry rides. I missed at least 12 other towns but unless you're going to be there for a month this is more than enough.

Where NOT to go: Of course the capital San Jose – however it is the only place for shopping and shitty American fast food. Puntarenas and Puerto Limon are the dirty port towns on the Pacific and Caribbean side, respectively.

After Costa Rica I took a bus to into Panama (see blog).