DAY 5: Puerto Barillas
Today, I had a lot of work to do. And work wasn’t cooperating. I didn’t finish until almost noon, at which time we had to check out of the AirBNB and head to our new location for the next two nights- Puerto Barrillas. By now, the awe, shock, and horror of the previous day’s events had merged into acceptance of the situation, and of the fact that I really want no part of more crazy in my life. Brian is enough of that. 😉 We drove to Usulutan and stopped off at Super Selectos to grab a few groceries to take out to the resort. We knew it was quite a ways away and there probably wasn’t much in the way of facilities. We followed the directions and turned down an 11km dirt road (YES!!), passing through a couple of guard gates on the way down. Checked into the office and followed a guy on a bike through a lovely forested area to our little cabin. Oh man, it was CUTE!!
We had a boat ride that was to start at 3pm, so we walked back down to the office area on the cutest little cobblestone path that crossed a little stream. I was liking this place! We needed sunscreen (still), so we stopped into the little store. A tube of sunscreen was $25!!! Are you kidding me?? Um, I’ll take potential melanoma for $50,000, Alex. We sat in little chairs near the water’s edge and waited about 10 minutes for our boat guy. He didn’t speak English. We cruised along many of the little islands that are a barrier between the Pacific and the mainland, and home to a lot of fishing villages. No access except by boat. I know this, because I used one of my new words I had learned on this trip. Puente. “Hay un puente a esta isla?”. No. 🙂
We pulled up on to a little tiny beachy peninsual thing. Literally about 20 feet across at the most and about 30 feet long before there was a barbed wire fence. There were a ton of birds hanging out here. We got out and walked around (that took about 5 minutes and the trash was just so disheartening). From what Brian gathered, we were supposed to sit out here in chairs that were on the boat and watch the sunset. Um, sunset was a good 2 hours away. I can barely sit for 2 minutes. We declined and headed back. It really was a nice little boat ride, though. It would have been fun to actually get out at some of the villages and wander around.
Came back to the resort and went to the room to get my computer so I could blog. The only wi fi was in the restaurant area. We ordered ceviche (OMG it was GOOD!!) and a plate of beef and a plate of fish. Pretty tasty, and not heinously expensive for being trapped at a resort where there were no other options. Used our phones as flashlights to navigate back along the forest path to our cabin. All in all, an easy, relaxing (for us) day. Which was much needed after yesterday!!
Day 6: Chocolate, Wildlife, Our Soledad, and an Earthquake…
Today was the reason we were at this lodge. WILDLIFE!! When searching for where to see wildlife in El Salvador, nothing really came up. Apparently Medellin, Colombia and El Salvador have made a pact to make this trip as void of wildlife as possible… I searched for sanctuaries, and learned that Puerto Barillas had a monkey sanctuary nearby that we could tour, and a tour of a cacao farm (chocolate) as well. Sounded good, so here we were. And I must say, we were really digging the vibe at Puerto Barillas, which is surprising because we are NOT resort people. This was rustic enough to not feel like a resort, plus, there were no gringos to be seen which helped the matter. We went to the restaurant for breakfast and were handed menus. We had paid for breakfast with our room, but I could seriously not come up with the words to ask what breakfast was included with the room! Luckily, I had my computer, so I typed it into google translate and the lady laughed, read it, and showed us which ones. Sometimes, technology is just easier than fumbling through my limited vocabulary of nouns and verbs! Pagamos! Cuarto! Desayuno! Oy!
After a tasty breakfast, it was time for our cacao tour. It was just us (yay!), the driver, and the one office lady who could speak English. We have done a cacao tour before in Panama, but this operation, although still done by hand, was a bit more efficient. The owner of the plantation showed us his operation, with the lady translating when we needed help (which was most of the time!). He showed us the greenhouse with over 20,000 plants they are using to replace the old trees in the plantation. They will live to be about 70, but start being less productive around 40. Most of the trees in this plantation were ready for replacement. Sometimes they completely replace them, and sometimes they use them to graft on to mature trees which have been cut. It was really quite interesting!
Next he showed us the area where they bring the fruit to be processed. Literally, people bust open every pod by hand, scoop out the beans, and throw the shell into a container (the shells are used to feed cattle- no waste). The insides are put into a bucket, which is then dumped into containers made out of a special type of wood that doesn’t leach into the fruit. Here, it is fermented for several days. It starts out in the top box. The slats can be removed so they can shovel and turn the fruit into the next row of boxes when it’s time. Then, the last row of boxes. When this process is done, they go out to the drying trays. These trays are really smart, because if it starts to rain they can quickly slide them all under the roof- kind of like drawers. Way better than the old way of spreading them out on a huge cement foundation and hoping for the best- especially since they have to be outside for several days to dry. The English speaking lady took one of the completely dried beans from a tray and peeled it for us. The bean tasted like super dark chocolate (kind of bitter). I’m a milk chocolate girl, so that wasn’t really my gig. Then we got to try the bean right out of the pod. Well, not really the bean, but the white stuff around the bean. You kind of suck/chew it off the bean. Man, it was GOOD!! I wanted some kind of drink made from that stuff!!
Souveniors. They’re the bane of my travel existence, because I am PAF (picky as fuck). I don’t want some random ass “I came to XYZ country and all I got was this dumb, meaningless dust collector made in China” souvenior. No, they have to MEAN something. And preferably be completely unique- like a carving or piece of art done by a local, that sort of thing. Here we were, Day 6 in El Salvador, and I had not seen one thing that even slightly spoke to me. Until I walked into that cacao warehouse. They had these burlap sacks that they put the dried beans in to ship off to Honduras. I KNEW I had to have that! When we were ready to leave, I asked the English speaking lady to ask the owner if I could buy one. He told her there were bags at the office in town. She said she’d see if her driver could pick one up. I said I’d pay for it, but really wasn’t confident that that was going to happen. The guy then walked into the warehouse and brought a bag out. He said it was dirty and I wouldn’t want that one. OH YES I WOULD! I wanted a dirty one!!! More character!!! I think he was rather shocked by my excitement over a dirty sack. I asked if I could pay him for it. No. And that is how I got my El Salvador souvenior. It’s going to go into a huge frame and up on the wall. And I bet no one else has one. 🙂 🙂 #score
Back in the van to head to the monkey sanctuary. We’re on all of these back roads deep in the cacao, banana, and sugar cane plantations. There are these 3 guys on bicycles with some kind of weird rope/belt thing wrapped all around them. The lady asked us if we’d ever seen coconuts harvested. NO!!!! We jumped out and went over to where they were climbing the trees. It was AMAZING how fast they could climb up! The guy would then tie off a bundle of coconuts and lower them down to the ground with a rope. So interesting to watch!
Head out on the open (dirt) road again and pulled over at what the lady said was the turtle and alligator lake. She said we could go this way to the monkey sanctuary- across a rickety ass bridge. If you have followed my travels, you know that rickety, high, shaky bridges are NOT on my itenerary, but somehow I keep ending up on them! This one wasn’t high or shaky, but it literally looked like any extra weight on any half-rotten board would cause you to plunge (about 4 feet) to your death in alligator infested waters!! She was doing it in wedge heels, so I figured what the hell. But I was nervous…. Halfway through we stood on said rickety bridge to look for gators- scanned the banks, but nothing. On the other side was a GORGEOUS little path through a lush forest. Eagle eye (Alligator eye?) Brian somehow spotted an alligator through all of the brush! I still don’t know how he saw that thing! It was a young one, maybe 4 feet long. The lady said there were some in here that were 12 feet! YIKES!! We didn’t take too many more steps before the forest broke out into calls of what sounded like a duck arguing with a monkey! Research has shown this to be a boat billed heron! And man, they were so cool looking! But they flew into the far trees across the gator lake as we approached. Between the distance and the foliage between me and them, these were the best pics I could get.
We didn’t walk too far before we ended up in a clearing with a little ramshackle house, which was the home of Miguelito- the man who has been caring for the monkeys for the past 20+ years. Before I discuss our experience, let me tell you about this sanctuary. One thing I’ve learned in all of my travels, is that there is no one meaning for the phrase “animal sanctuary”. This one was most like the Proboscis Monkey sanctuary we visited in Borneo- farmers realizing they were destroying an animal’s entire habitat, and saving some of it for them. But it isn’t as much as they would normally have in the wild, so they are also fed by humans to supplement them. But the monkeys are for the most part wild and can come and go as they please. How did they get there, when there apparently wasn’t another monkey anywhere in all of El Salvador (at least that I had seen)? Well, in the 60’s and 70’s there was a personal zoo of sorts back here on the property. A few spider monkeys had escaped. As the land was sold off for agricultural purposes, it was known that the monkeys and other wildlife were surviving on what little patch of remaining forest there was. The various plantation owners decided to protect this strip of land, and today there are about 30 spider monkeys living here (along with the birds and alligators, and supposedly even some wildcats!).
The first thing we saw though was a monkey that couldn’t come and go as she pleased. Meet Soledad the spider monkey- the only woman I think I could possibly lose Brian to! Soledad was rescued from being a pet, and there was no place in El Salvador to take her (seriously, there are NO sanctuaries in this entire country, believe me I researched and researched before we went!). They brought her to Puerto Barillas hoping to integrate her into the wild with the resident spider monkey troop. Well, she had no clue about how to live in the wild, and the other monkeys had NO interest in adopting her. In fact, they harrassed her and fought her. To the point that she had to be separated from them to keep from being killed. That was five years ago, and she’s still caged. They bring in vets annually to check her, and have had promises from other organizations to come and get her, but here she still is. And it’s heartbreaking. These are social creatures. She deserves to be in the wild. But she has no survival skills. And the other monkeys would kill her if she was released. It sucks, but the reality of the situation is that there are two choices- cage her or let her go and die. God, I don’t know which is worse, and as much as my heart broke for her, I can not walk in there with my 5 minutes of experience and tell them what to do. They’re doing the best they know how with what they have. Soledad and Brian took an immediate liking to each other. She pressed her back up against the wire for Brian to scratch her, changing position every few minutes so he could reach another part. When she reached through the bars to touch him when he was standing a foot or so away, we almost both lost it. All she wanted was love and attention. The sadness in her eyes….God, god, god. I’m about to cry right now writing this.
While we were fawning over Soledad, Miguelito was out calling to the forest “Pancho!! Pancho!!”. He’s the alpha male. About 10 minutes later the trees were shaking with monkeys jumping all around. It made my heart break for Soledad even more- to see these free monkeys and be trapped must be hell. And I’ll be honest- I didn’t even care for these monkeys. They made me angry. Why couldn’t they just accept Soledad? Why did they have to be so cruel for no reason. Because primates, that’s why. And as a member of that group, I know how we are. And in reality, they are almost as trapped as Soledad- trapped on a small island of wild, surrounded by farms. Genetically, they can’t be very strong because there is so much inbreeding (Soledad would have been a welcome addition to the gene pool!). Who knows how many more generations they’ll last…
I seriously didn’t want to leave Soledad. I wanted to take her with us. And with my feelings being that strong, I can only imagine how Dr. Doolittle (Brian) was feeling. We left, full of ideas on how to better her life, and knowing we were helpless to do anything.
Back at the resort, we sat down to a cup of hot chocolate- Mayan style- made with the local cacao beans. It was really smooth and really good. While we did that, Brian was facetiming with work. I have photographic evidence now that he can work from anywhere in the world!!
It was still early- like 2 or so. We decided to go for a walk on the property and down some of the dirt roads we had driven down earlier. And it is here that I taught Brian about doodlebugs- aka ant lions. Those little critters that build the cup shaped holes in loose dirt, waiting for an ant to aimlessly wander in. Apparently Brian either a) never had a childhood or b) was imprisoned in Nebraska for his childhood where apparently even doodlebugs know better than to try to exist. (Spoiler alert: It’s b). I taught him how to take a little blade of grass and run it around the hole, mimicking an ant trying to climb out. At that point, the bug starts flipping dirt, and you can scoop your hand in and catch it! I did it on my first try. #tomboy Brian gave it a valiant effort on several holes, but just didn’t have the perfect techinique. I think it’s something that can only be acquired before the age of 10… I then caught an ant and put it in a hole, showing him how the gruesome process plays out in real life. Seriously, we had a ton of fun doing that for 10 minutes. We’re easily entertained!
We walked the grounds and then out on the dirt roads, hand in hand, talking and enjoy the sounds and sights of the forest. In between snapping pictures, of course!
Came back to the resort, and sat out under one of the palapas by the water’s edge so I could blog. All of a sudden, I’m moving, or Brian is moving, or the palapa is moving- HELL IT’S THE ENTIRE EARTH MOVING!! Just this really weird back and forth rocking motion. I’m sitting there staring at Brian like “What is happening?”. It lasted a really long time- like 10-15 seconds. Long enough to realize a) this is an earthquake b) this is not stopping c) we are 10 feet from the water and one of my top 3 fears is a tsunami. It was the biggest earthquake I’ve ever been in (and I’ve lived in Los Angeles for almost 20 years!). Kept updating the USGS site waiting to hear word on where and how big. It finally popped up- 5.9 just off the coast of Puerto di Triunfo- which was litterally the closest “town” to us and was just up the dirt road!!! The epicenter was about 20 miles from us. Further research shows that it was in the same exact location as a deadly 7.7 that hit in 2001. Eeps. (Side note: 3 days later I was sitting home in Los Angeles and ANOTHER earthquake hit!! Seriously, world?)
Blogged for the afternoon, until the no see ums (henious creatures that almost make mosquitoes seem tolerable) came out and started eating us alive. Bug repellent was in the store, but lord knows I wasn’t going to pay the price for it. We moved into the restaurant which was still open to the outside but a little further from the water. We still got bit a ton, but not as bad. Had a lovely dinner (with that awesome ceviche again), and headed back in the dark for our last night in our little forest cabin in lovely Puerto Barillas. We really like it there.