December 10, 2022

Resplendent Quetzals, Costa Rica

Nov 2022

Resplendent Quetzals are considered one of the most beautiful birds in the world.  

The male quetzal sports a metre long streamer feather in its tail; two feathers during mating season.  Females do not have these tail feathers but sport the same iridescent green/gold and blue/violet plumage and crimson breast as the males do.

The Resplendent Quetzal is an endangered species; there are about 50,000 left in the world.  Coming across one is quite rare.

We came across a few at Parque Nacional Los Quetzales in Costa Rica.

Getting to see them was not easy. 

We had to climb up to an elevated mound in front of an Avocado tree; and wait for over 2 hours.  The birds were hiding behind the leaves in their hollow nests; and when they came out, were hyperactive, not staying in one place.  At last we got lucky when two males and one female came out to perch on a branch; fought each other for territorial rights and posed for some nice pictures. 

The ten minutes of viewing the bird was worth the investment of a day long trip and hours of wait.

Spectacular birds.

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe/Zambia

Sep 2022

Zambezi river flows eastward (after a long Southward journey through Zambia) and is at its widest, about 1.7 km at the point where it suddenly vanishes by falling into a crack on the surface of earth.  The crack is a narrow gorge with 108 m steep walls on either side.  The river plunges over the sheer precipice to the base of the gorge to continue its peaceful journey through Zimbabwe to its eventual destination, the Indian Ocean.  

Victoria Falls, where the river plunges into the gorge, is thus 1.7 km wide, 108 m steep and is the largest (by volume) waterfall in the world.  Victoria Falls is also the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe.  Zambia has the falls.  The other side, that has the view, belongs mostly to Zimbabwe and partly to Zambia.  

How best can you see this spectacularly awesome waterfall that is twice the length and twice the height of Niagara?

1. Walk along the 1.7 km trek on the side opposite to the fall and see the water plunge into the depths.  You need to move between Zimbabwe and Zambia to complete the trek.  We did.

2. Climb down the depth of the wall (not an easy trek; we had help from three lads with strong legs and strong arms to hold our hands and guide us through), get to the base of the gorge and appreciate the massive volume of water falling from the sky (and do a jet boat ride).

3. Zip line from one side of the gorge to the other to get a view of the falls and the river continuing after the falls.

4. Fly on a microlight (that takes off from Zambia) at very low altitude and see the falls from the sky.  This was the best, and most comfortable.

5. Fly in a helicopter (that takes off from Zimbabwe) at a slightly higher altitude (the best if you are keen on photographing the show).

We did all five with all the options included.

An aerial view (from a helicopter ride) shows you how Victoria Falls is different from other falls.  Water falls into a crack and can be viewed as it vanishes downwards.  You get to see mostly the top half of the falls from the opposite rim of the gorge.  

[Aerial view of Victoria Falls; falling into the gorge and continuing its journey]

[Main falls at Southern end, Livingston island, and Horseshoe falls]

The Microlight flight is a lot more fun.  You are open to elements; can feel the wind, the noise, and the chill.  And get a (literally) bird’s eye-view of the falls.  

[Microlight flight over Victoria Falls. View of Falls, VF Bridge, and River continuing]

The top most gorge has the falls on the western (top right) side; the viewing trek on the eastern (left) side.  Water gathers at the “Boiling Pot” and flows through a gap into the second gorge (right under the Victoria Falls bridge) and bends into the third gorge to continue its journey toward Indian Ocean.  The Victoria Falls Bridge is half owned by Zimbabwe and half by Zambia; and crossing it involves emigration and immigration.

[Microlight flight over Victoria Falls.  View of the opposite rim with its trek & viewing points]

The trek on the opposite rim is 1.7 km long; has 22 viewing points (mostly in Zimbabwe and some in Zambia).  

As we start walking on the trek (from the Zimbabwe side), our first view of the falls at the Southern end (Water flows from West to East and trek goes from South to North).   You see the two rims, Devil’s cataract at the Southmost end of the falls, and the Main falls.

[First glimpse.  The gorge, the flow, Devil’s Cataract, and Main Falls]

The spray that rises, after the falls, as an iridescent mist can be seen from more than 20 km away.  The mist helps sustain a rainforest-like ecosystem (thick with Mahogany, Fig, and Palm) in the immediate vicinity of the falls.

Further along the trek, you get to see the Main Falls.  An awesome view to internalize.

[Main Falls, as seen from trek viewing point on the opposite rim]

The trek is not arduous; but you need to be protected against the spray rising up and drizzling down on you as wind carries it sideways.

[Trek with 22 viewing points on the opposite rim; partly in Zimbabwe and partly in Zambia

[Horse shoe falls from Zimbabwe side]

Then you get off the trek, drive across the Victoria Falls bridge, immigrate into Zambia and continue the trek on the Zambian side of the rim.  You start with a view of the gorge, the falls, and the opposite rim.
[View of the Gorge, and the two rims from the Zambian end of the Falls]

The trek has to go over sudden break in the rocks.  We navigate one through the Knife's Edge Bridge.

[Knife’s edge bridge on the trek, Zambian side]

[Rainbow falls, how appropriately named]

[Horse shoe falls, from Zambian side]

Crane your neck out a bit, and you can see the jet boats struggling against the current to stay in the same place at the bottom of the falls for a few precious minutes.

[Jet boats struggling through the current far below at the bottom]

Along the trek, you get to see the Victoria Falls Bridge.  One can walk in the gangway under the bridge to see the river rapids down below (and folks doing white water rafting or jet boat ride on the river).

[Victoria Falls Bridge]

The bridge is jointly owned by Zimbabwe and Zambia and is maintained by both the countries.  The Zimbabwe/Zambia border is the midpoint of the bridge (though immigration offices are at either end for obvious reasons).

One can walk across the bridge on the maintenance gangway to have a closer look at the falls, the boiling pot where water gathers before flowing into the parallel gorge, and at all the white water rafting jet boats down below; a walk from one country to another.

[Walk on the maintenance gangway underneath the bridge]

[Water flowing from the boiling pot below the falls to the parallel gorge through a break]

We zip lined from one rim to another; as the operator says, from Zambia to Zimbabwe without passport or visa!

[Wife zip lining over the rapids from Zambian end to Zimbabwe end of the second gorge]

[Wife zip lining]

And then we did the unthinkable.  Signed up to climb down the steep wall to the base of the falls.  The climb down was a very arduous trek that took 2 hours over 500 unrailed steps overlooking the river far below.  We could make it thanks to supportive words and supportive hands to guide us from the Zimbabwe guides.  (The climb up was easy and was done in 1 hour).  Once we got down to the bottom, it was all fun.  Jet boat to the bottom of the falls, wondering at the thunderous fall of water from the skies, and thrilling ride over white water rapids.

[Climb down 108 m, 500 steps to the bottom of the gorge]

[On a jet boat at the bottom of the Falls; ready for white water rafting]

[View of the Falls from the bottom of the gorge]

We have been to Iguazu Falls twice; and Niagara countless number of times.  Among the three, we think Victoria Falls was the most exciting.  So far.

Some fun facts about Victoria Falls:

1. The falls has been receding due to erosion of the rocks.  In future Victoria Falls would be entirely within Zambia; and Zimbabwe would lose its star attraction!

2. Victoria Falls is one of the seven natural wonders of the world.  Others?  Grand Canyon, Great Barrier Reef, Rio de Janeiro harbor, Mount Everest, Polar Aurora, and Paricutin Volcano.  (We have seen five out of seven!)

3. Victoria Falls is the largest (by volume of water that flows through) in the world.  The widest is Khone Phapheng Falls in Laos, about 11 km wide.  The highest is Angel Falls in Venezuela, about 979 m high!  The largest broken waterfall is Iguazu with its 275 cascades separated by vast stretches of rocks at the Argentina/Brazil border.

December 7, 2022

Panama City, Panama

Nov 2022

Panama Canal created Panama the country.  After independence from Spain, Panama region was part of Columbia.  A canal through the region could shorten the journey from Pacific to Atlantic (or vice versa) from 20,000 km to 80 km.  And around 6% of world’s sea traffic would benefit from the canal.  US entered into a treaty with Colombia to build the canal.  Colombia shook hands but dragged its feet in ratifying the treaty.  US got impatient, supported Panama to separate from Colombia, Panama the country came into existence, and US built and owned the canal for 100 years.  Panama obtained ownership/control over the canal in 2000.

Suez canal had it easy.  The Mediterranean sea and the Red Sea had the same water level; there was no need for “locks” to raise or lower ships to higher/lower water level while transiting the canal.

Panama canal was not easy.  Ships need to be raised 26 metres from Pacific to Lake Gatun, and later lowered from Lake Gatun to Atlantic involving in all twelve locks.

Ships take 8 hours to go through the canal; are commanded by Panama’s specialist navigators while in transit in the canal.  Traffic is regulated:  big ships go in one direction for half a day (one at a time); in the other direction for half a day; and small ships go two ways all night.  

The canal contributes to 10% of Panama’s GDP.

It was fun to have an aerial view of the Pacific side entrance to the canal (presided over by the Bridge of Americas) and the modern swanky downtown full of modern skyscrapers.

[View of Pacific side entrance to Panama Canal and Panama City Downtown]

[View of Panama Canal Entrance Pacific side, Bridge of Americas, and Downtown]

[View of Panama Canal entrance, Pacific side]

Until Panama secured ownership/control over the canal, income from the canal was miniscule.  After 2000, Panama increased the tariff and used the money wisely to develop Panama City.  Our guide tells us that most of the tall skyscrapers in downtown are less than 20 years old; and were funded by the new extra income from the canal.  Panama’s other major sources of income are tourism and offshore banking services to citizens of the world.

[View of Panama City Downtown from flight]

Casco Antiguo, the old town of Panama City is approximately 350 years old and is full of vibrant plazas and elegant cobbled/narrow streets.  Plaza Mayor is a “big ticket” square in the city and has the city’s Cathedral, a Museum of the Canal, and the famous Central Hotel.

[Plaza de Mayor Cathedral]

[Panama Canal Museum]

[Central Hotel in Plaza Mayor]

The Canal was not an American dream.  Americans needed the canal badly; and completed it.  It all started as a French dream (by Ferdinand de Lesseps, yes, the man who built Suez Canal).  The French design had several challenges and the French ran out of money.  Though Ferdinand de Lesseps himself got a five years prison sentence for bankruptcy, his legacy lives on in the French quarter of Panama City.

[The French Quarter]

[Conjunto Monumental de Las Bovedas, with a walkway on the defence walls of old city over dungeons that now serve as shops]

Panama's Old city, full of vibrant plazas and narrow cobbled streets, preserves its heritage and is sparkling clean.

[Cobbled street of Old City]

[Ruins of Augustine Church in Old City]

[Lustrous Golden Altar at Iglesia San Jose; painted with gold flakes; the Church had a tough time and used ingenuity to avoid periodic raids by English pirate Henry Morgan]

We saw one huge vessel entering the Canal through Miraflores locks from the Pacific side.  Fun fact:  When you are moving from Pacific to Atlantic in the Canal you are moving westward (quite against your geographic intuition) because of the topography of Panama.  The canal runs from South East (Gulf of Panama/Pacific) to North West (Carribean sea/Atlantic).

[Miraflores Locks.  A giant ship navigating through the lock]

Panama has built a parallel new channel a decade back.  The new channel can accommodate bigger ships.

[New locks/channel with a ship navigating through.  Bridge of Americas in background]

The Canal starts at Pacific and connects to the huge Lake Gatun in the middle.  And the second part of the canal connects from Lake Gatun to the Atlantic end.  Lake Gatun has hundreds of islands that host exotic wildlife.  We went around in a private cruise.

[Our ride for the cruise on Lake Gatun, part of Panama Canal]

[Lake Gatun in Panama Canal.  Cargo ship navigates through marker zones]

[Lake Gatun in Panama Canal.  Cargo ship navigates through Canal]

[Lake Gatun in Panama Canal.  Patrol boats keep an eye to keep lanes free/clear]

[Island in Lake Gatun; one of our several targets to spot wildlife]

We spotted several Howler monkeys and Cappucci monkeys.  We could not spot the third: Spider monkeys.  (We spotted them in Guatemala earlier).  The Howler monkeys are quite loud (third loudest after Sperm Whales and Elephants).  Their howl startled us.  The Cappucci monkeys have a black bottom, a brown middle, and a light brown face.  Now you know why they are called Cappucci monkeys!

[Howler monkey; quite loud]

[A troop of Howler monkeys relaxing on a tree; secured to its branches]

[The tiny Cappucci monkey]

We saw a few birds too.

[Mangrove Swallow]

[Snail kite, male]

[Snail kite, female]

And a Lake Osprey, a hawk that has a wing span in excess of 1.8 metres!

[Lake Osprey perched atop a tree looking for fish to catch]

[A colony of white lined bats]

We ended the trip by getting close to a tree to observe a colony of White lined bats.  Our guide, Carlos, explained that white lined bats are very important for the Panama canal ecosystem to disperse seeds, aid cross pollination, and more importantly keep pests under control.

I had one question.  Panama prices between $ 50,000 and $ 500,000 for a ship’s transition based on size.  Could Panama shift to “oil cartel like” monopoly pricing?  Carlos explains that mankind can today construct alternative canals quite quickly through Nicaragua (three times longer) or Colombia (again, three times longer); and therefore Panama would be well advised to retain its “early bird” advantage by pricing sensibly.  Makes sense.  It seems there was a proposal to build a second canal through Nicaragua but its rulers politely declined fearing the trade-off between money and control that Panama had to wither for a hundred years!