What better way to explore the incredible fascinating mountains of Tajikistan than by camping? Hiring your own car without a driver is still quite an ordeal, as they are not used to such requests and it comes with some additional paperwork. I could write 3 pages about the trouble it took us to finally be on the road in our own car. But it was worth the effort! Planting down your tent on the most scenic, totally deserted, spots is amazing. Or camp in an 15th century fortress, with awe-inspiring views on the delta of the Panj river and the towering mountains of Afghanistan just across the river. Picking up hitchhikers is common and please do, it makes for some interesting interactions. This way we met cattle drivers on their donkey who was injured to walk, a student from the city who was studying mathematics & physics simultaneously and many more interesting figures who were surprised to find two white faces when they got into the car with a Tajik license plate.
There is also a big chance that you won’t use your tent as much, as being invited to stay with the locals is a very realistic occurrence. On only the first day of our roadtrip we already got to know the famous Tajiik hospitality. What must be one of the few perfectly English-speaking locals came to our rescue when we are entangled in a discussion with some 20 locals that was about us but did not involve us. He then took us under his wing
and invited us to stay with them and we had the most amazing 2 days ever. We met with a local legendary luthier who makes traditional rubabs, sat in the hotsprings with locals under the moonlight, fished in the panjr river on the Afghanistan/Tajik border, had us prepared amazing food and had long talks about almost anything. Not to mention a friend for life we gained from this experience.
The luthier of Dasht
Days filled with endless landscapes, one more awe-inspiring than the other. Eventually reaching lunar like proportions and almost hard to grasp such explicit natural beauty. At the same time it is desolate, remote, vast and empty. Enough space to drive and drive and empty your head from all Western society induced (mental) cluttering’s that prevent you from forming more meaningful thoughts, think about what life means instead of what is next on your to do list.
The Rio Celeste area
One pro tip to keep warm in the mountains, where temperatures drop quite severely during the night: drink Vodka. There are almost no supply stores or minimarkets but when they are there, they are always filled with incredible amounts and varieties of vodka, whilst failing to accommodate to more needed essentials such as drinking water and fruit and vegetables.
Hummingbirds were abundant near our cabin in San Gerardo de Dota
Be prepared to enjoy the inexplicable joy of being all by yourself in the quiet mountains, interact with locals and subsequently drink copious amounts of vodka. Be prepared to put your diet aside for a while, it will be meat, meat and meat and bread. Stale bread that is. Fresh bread is a rarity that once acquired presents you with a newfound appreciation for being able to actually chew through your piece of bread instead of having to smash it on a rock and maul it away whilst your teeth are grinding under this strenuous exercise.
I think the best way to experience these rough mountains is in your tent. Where you will feel the wind rattling through the camping sheets, the stones poking in your back on your obviously too thin air matrass and the abomination of canned food that let’s you appreciate real food again. A friendly local is never too far away. If you are lucky enough to get invited for a wedding, be prepared to show off your dance moves. Your hosts will not rest until you’ve made a fool of yourself on the dancefloor!
The queen is 5 times as big as the others and can live up to 5 years. She stays in the nest all her life, making new ants. The biggest ants, the soldiers, are only deployed when a threat warrants their use. Smaller threats are dealt with by smaller ants.
Sorry for my long explanation about ants but I find all this very fascinating. It is incredible how these tiny creatures have such a complex and sophisticated social structure. If I ever find myself in the situation of running out of things to say in a conversation at least I have plenty of ant facts to throw in there, guaranteed crowd pleaser I’d say.
Sloths chilling out upside down and Green Ara’s in the sky
Our guide halts and point to something in the bushes. We stare and stare and only after a full minute we see the bright yellow (hardly a camouflage colour you’d figure) Eyelash pit viper stretched out over the leafs. They always look bigger in pictures but the males only grow about 60cm in length while females get 80 cm. These vipers are highly venomous and have an extra sense, the pit, which allows it to ‘see warmth’. This means they can find their prey by their body heat which comes in quite handy if you hunt mainly at night. Sometimes they hunt during the day and are even able to catch the extremely fast hummingbirds!
There is a great abundance of cool reptiles in Costa Rica, such as the ancient looking Green Iguana, resembling a dragon of sorts with its imposing appearance. Despite its fierce look, with the impressive spines running down the back and tail, it gets regularly attacked by hawks, who aim for the eyes. But the Iguana has a trick. It has a round cheek scale on both sides that can trick the hawk in believing it is its eye. It doesn’t mind losing those and it gives him time to escape. Although I can’t find a second source for this so this might be something the local I was speaking to made up to dramatize his story. It did work because I find this a sensational fact. Iguanas also have a special third eye on the top of their heads. This eye, called a parietal eye, doesn’t see images like normal eyes, instead, it senses light and dark and movement. Iguanas use this third eye to detect predators. This defence mechanism sounds a bit more believable.
Left: the Yellow Eyelash pit viper
Unfortunately, the green Iguana is under threat locally, as the owner of the Costa Rica Treehouse lodge and Iguana foundation informs me later on. Due to hunting by locals, habitat loss from human activity and climate change. The climate change is especially interesting with reptiles because the warmth of the nest determines if the offspring will be male or female. If temperatures are rising, only iguanas of the same sex are born which naturally is problematic for reproduction.
Right: the Green Iguana
This was my short selection of wildlife and nature facts out of an overwhelming abundance that was presented to us. You’re welcome, use them as you please. More nature facts available on request.
Alright, one last one; the Jesus Christ lizard can walk on water.
Walk. On. Water. Look that shit up for more explanation, I’m done now.
Left: the water walker (official name:Common Basilisk)
Here is a serie about monkeys eating. Monkeys love to eat. I love to eat. And I love watching monkeys eat..
All this wildlife makes you feel like a true kind of David Attenborough explorer but you are not the only one here. Some places are filled to the brink with tourists, flowing out of big tour coaches. At the Tarcoles river we made a boat tour with sunrise and were the only ones. But when we returned the guide told us he has 23 tour buses coming today, 23! The transport to Tortuguero national park gave me a mass tourism feeling as well. Tortuegero is surrounded by water and can only be reached by boat.
At the little docking place the tour coaches unloaded the tourists and distributed them on the boats of all the lodges, which sort of gave the impression of cattle transport to be honest. Once you arrive at one of the lodges it is quiet again but running into several groups on the water and in the village is normal. In fact, when we walked around in Tortuguero village there were more tour groups to be seen than locals. Pale legs in sandals and clicking cameras were literally overflowing the village.
I sit down with our guide Jorge in Tortuguero, who’s been guiding tourists around for many years, to discuss this issue. He says that; ‘In high season, which is in summer when sea turtles come ashore to breed, it is the busiest time with all the 11 lodges completely fully booked and the tourist numbers outweighing the local population considerably. The waterways are crowded with the boats picking up and dropping off guests and doing tours’. I ask him about his views on tourism development, as surely it has brought many good things but clearly there are downsides to it as well. ‘Advantages are the job opportunities that it brought and that jobs in tourism have replaced hunting, as the local population now realises money can be made with the preserving of wildlife and nature.
People in Costa Rica basically have the choice to work in agriculture like their parents did, or study longer and work in tourism. There is more competition in the tourism sector because of the high number of people that choose to work in this industry, which means companies have employees up for choosing. As competition is high, so is the level and quality of service. Along with infrastructure improvement these are the greatest advantages that tourism brought. The biggest disadvantage would be the impact on nature. Visitor numbers are higher than nature can carry. Everybody wants to make money, and more visitors simply means more money. More visitors also means more waste, more rooms in hotels, more space needed etc.
Ergo, more pressure on the environment, not to mention the decreasing sense of authenticity with an increasing number of tourists. At one point there were plans to build a freeway to Tortuguero, cutting straight through the forest and over the waterways. In the end the town was allowed to vote for it via a referendum. It was almost half/half but finally they decided against it. The whole charm of the region is that you can only get there by water. It would spoil the views and the experience immensely. The pros were cheaper transport so more tourists could come visit of course, but also facilitating the possibility of building clinics and other high quality facilities. However, the village managed to do this anyway without the road’.
I believe that this situation is the paradox of tourism and a very difficult situation to resolve. When do you say that tourism development should stop because it is causing places to lose its charm, appeal and is diminishing the experience, due to better developed infrastructure and commercialised experiences? Because I for one rather drive on shifty, winding, pothole-filled roads through the jungle to get somewhere than a clear cut freeway that gets me there as quick as possible. I can’t imagine cruising on the rivers of Tortuguero with bridges full of cars and coaches crossing, like the plan once was.
But who are we to deny the local people of developments and infrastructure improvements like that? It is hypocritical that the Western tourist doesn’t want to see development on its destination as it ruins his experience. Doesn’t everyone deserves good infrastructure, an internet connection and proper facilities? Or does not everybody want that? In the end the Tortuegero villagers voted against the freeway development, which surely would have brought more tourists and more money for them. But apparently they value the vibe and atmosphere of their village as more important.
There are so many questions to raise about this issue and I feel that it is very important, as worldwide tourism numbers have been and will continue to grow exponentially. Tourism can be a great tool for bringing development, poverty alleviation and other benefits but one should be extremely cautious about its possible downsides, like rapid and unsustainable development with all its consequences. This has already caused major destinations over the year to lose its charm and even having to implement measures to reduce the number of tourists as they have become a victim of their own success, such as Amsterdam, Barcelona and Venice.
It’s absurd that some islands in Thailand now have to be closed off for several months a year to recover from the tourists. Surely not a permanent solution as it starts all over again when the island are open again. Growing destinations should implement sustainable development from day one, which is of course easier said than done as it is more costly and time consuming. But the end result is a tourism experience that is beneficial for both the visitors and the locals, without harming the environment.
The tourism industry in Costa Rica is greatly developed, but I feel that it sits at the limits of its expansion with the possibility of losing its authenticity and becoming more of a mass tourism destination. Although it deserves praises for the way they conserved their nature and the sustainable measurements that are implemented with these amounts of tourist, something many countries could take an example from, as well as the recent announcement of their goal in becoming the first carbon neutral country in the world.
Besides incredible nature, Costa Rica is well known for their coffee and cacao. And rightfully so. Coffee is consumed a lot by Costa Ricans and production dates back from the late 1700’s. The country is perfect for growing the Arabica coffee plant (the only type of bean that is allowed to be grown in Costa Rica), thanks to its high altitude and volcanic soils, that create an optimal micro climate for the beans.
The main coffee growing regions are the Central valley, West Valley, Tarrazu, Tres Rios, Orosi, Brunca, Turrialba and Guanacaste. We visit Orosi, a small town that lies in a valley, with a national park that was almost empty and no big lodges in the surroundings. It is probably the least touristic destination we’ve seen in Costa Rica and very enjoyable. The quaint Orosi lodge where we stayed pours local organic coffee from the Finca Cristina farm which we decided to visit.
“Costa Rica has the perfect climate for growing the prestigious Arabica coffee, which is the only bean that is allowed to be grown here”.
I wish there was smell with pictures. Just imagine the smell of these freshly roasted organic Costa Rican Arabica beans for a minute.f
The owner explains to us that they are a strictly organic farm. Even when coffee rust (an aggressive coffee plant disease that can only be eradicated by chemicals) hits the planation, they refuse to use chemicals. This surely means that their profits are not as big as they could be, but they value this natural way of growing more than bigger profits.
The plantation is nothing like we imagined, it doesn’t consist of a neat line of plants and looks more like a little forest. There are all sort of other trees in between the coffee plants, like banana trees and shade providing trees. They used to sell bananas as a by-product but can’t compete anymore with large scale banana production in nearby Limon.
Now the bananas are for the birds, who in turn eat a lot of insects and thus act as natural exterminators. There are many different species of birds, butterflies and reptiles on the farm that comprise of a natural system that keeps things in balance naturally instead of artificially with chemicals to optimise growing conditions.
Coffee making is a complicated and arduous process, from growing and picking the berries at the exact right time to processing the beans. It is hard work with small profits. But these people do it with passion and care, which comes back in the flavour.
Above: the best way to get around in Puerto Viejo is by bike
In laidback Puerto Viejo de Limon at the Caribbean coast, there are number of cacao and coffee fields you can visit. Unfortunately, I’m tied almost completely to the bed by a sudden hit of a heavy disease that shares similar symptoms from Dengue fever. In an optimistic spur I walk around the property of our cabin with a local. He tells me that in 1800 the railroad to Limon was constructed to transport coffee and people from Jamaica were brought in to construct it. They remained here which is the reason for the Jamaican vibes on Puerto Viejo, conveniently exploited with several reggae bars and Rastafari souvenir shops in town now. Still, the village has a very true Caribbean and relaxed vibe about it that is quite different from the Pacific Ocean side.
While we stroll along the beach, wind rustling through the palm trees and ferocious waves crashing into the rocks far away in the distance, he tells me that Colombus came here ashore and named it the rich coast. Other explores followed and met with Indians and the Indians asked how they can get the stuff the explorers had. They told them to bring them their most valuable possession. The next day a big pile of cacao was lying on the beach. The explorers said this is no use to us, it will be bad by the time we have it back in Europe. We want the gold. The Indians thought they were foolish and gave them all their gold. It is just a stone, they thought. You can’t eat it, it will not keep you alive.
Perhaps this value still reflects in Costa Ricans today, choosing to be happy over making a lot of money. Costa Rica’s GDP per capita is less than a quarter of the size of many Western European and North American countries, but people living in Costa Rica have higher wellbeing than the residents of many rich nations (see this link). America is on the 108th place out of 140, USA’s material wealth isn’t being translated efficiently into sustainable wellbeing for its residents (source). What do you know, turns out material wealth will not bring you happiness! Though it is easy to forget this every now and then when you live in an Western country, but travelling through Costa Rica will surely remind you of this.