As a four-decade Certified Travel Agent, international airline employee, researcher, writer, teacher, and photographer, travel, whether for pleasure or business purposes, has always been a significant and an integral part of my life. Some 400 trips to every portion of the globe, by means of road, rail, sea, and air, entailed destinations both mundane and exotic. This article focuses on those in the Central American countries of Belize, Costa Rica, and Panama.
Belize, the first of them, was entered in Belize City. Particularly adventurous in nature, its exploration included an expedition on New River to visit the Lamanai Archaeological Reserve, a Mesoamerican site that was once one of the Maya civilization’s major cities.
Located on 950 acres, it constituted one of the largest such Maya ceremonial sites in the country and incorporated more than a hundred minor structures, a ball court, and some dozen major buildings, the most notable of which was the Temple of the Mask, the Temple of the Jaguar Masks, and the High Temple.
Although most of the other sites offered similar configurations with ceremonial structures and surrounding plazas, the Lamanai site featured those that lined the west bank of New River and the New River Lagoon, with residential structures occupying the northern, southern, and western sections.
Lunch under the dense rainforest umbrella here included the typical Belizean meal: Chicken, rice and beans, and plantains.
Altun Ha, another pyramid-provisioned Mayan archaeological location some 30 miles from Belize City, consisted of a complex of tombs, pyramids, and temples, which all once served as a trading nexus during the Mayan Empire’s Classic Period, from 250 to 900 AD. Meaning “Rockstone Pond” in Yucatec Maya, it consisted of a man-made lagoon.
Ambergris Caye, only a short hop from the mainland in a six-passenger Britten Norman Islander turboprop, was the country’s largest island and offered abundant swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, and other watersport opportunities. Its Hol Chan Marine Reserve, one of the main dive sites in the Belize Barrier Reef located off the eastern shore, featured the 124-meter-deep Great Blue Hole, along with significant sea life.
San Pedro, accessed by a golf cart ride from the small airport, was the island’s main town, and, Ramon’s Village offered an immersion into tropical life.
Styled after the Tahitian cottages on the Polynesian island of Bora Bora, it consisted of cabanas built from native materials by craftsmen utilizing the same skill and techniques the islanders once had in the days of the great sailing ships. A sanctuary nestled in a tropical garden of Royal Palms, bougainvillea, lilies, hibiscus, and numerous other types of tropical flora, it was punctuated with Mayan sculptures that provided a glimpse into the civilization that preceded it in what can only be labeled a Caribbean paradise.
Costa Rica was visited on several occasions. Characterized by volcanos, it offered numerous opportunities to explored and gain insight about them.
Located in the northeastern part of the country, the conically shaped Alajuela Volcano, for instance, was more than 1,600 meters in height and had a crater 140 meters in diameter.
The Irazu Volcano was another one. Because its summit was close to the tree line, the local area wind produced a virtual a moonscape. Its numerous craters were rimmed with gnarled, scorched trees, and its rain-fed mineral pools were brilliant in color.
The Arenal Volcano, stretching to 1,657 meters or 5,437 feet, loomed large and ominous over the pastured green hillsides that surrounded its base, and had been the country’s most active one during the past four decades, its thunder-sounding rumble periodically piercing the otherwise lush, tranquil setting.
As a powerful symbol of the geothermal forces that formed Costa Rica, the Poas Volcano revealed a sulfuric, bubbling, green rain-fed lake surrounded by smoke and steam rising from the fumaroles at its bottom when the mist and clouds parted. Water, seeping through cracks in the hot rock from the lake, continually evaporated and built pockets of steam.
An easterly drive on the Guápiles Highway from San Jose through the Zurquí tunnel transported me from the modern world into the rain- and cloud-forested Braulio Carrillo National Park, whose hiking trails and aerial tramway facilitated views of some 500 species of birds and mammals, such as howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys, tapirs, Deppe’s squirrels, white-nosed coati, northern tamandua, jaguars, white-tailed deer, ocelots, pacas, and racoons.
Unique to a subsequent trip was an off-road adventure. Undertaken in a 1984, it uniquely incorporated an expedition in a 7,500-kilogram Zyl Terra-X6, once a Russian missile launcher truck equipped with two 4.5-ton, 600-mile-range capable SAM surface-to-air missiles, but was subsequently retrofitted with a bus’s cabin. Passing through the Valle Estrella and threading its way through banana plantations, it stopped on the banks of the Bananito River for a picnic refreshment and a viewing of wildlife.
Other noteworthy areas included Alajuela, the Bananito River, Cartago, Limon, the Orosi Valley with its lush vegetation and coffee plantations, and, of course, San Jose, the capital, with its Pre-Colombian Gold Museum, La Sabana Metropolitan Park, the Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Church), and the Casa Amarilla.
Panama was also the destination of more than more trip.
Synonymous with the 40-mile-long Panama Canal, it attracted notoriety when it was completed in August of 1914, allowing large ships to avoid the otherwise 8,000-nautical-mile circumnavigation of South America and facilitating their direct passage between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean by means of the Miraflores and Gatun locks.
A 30-minute drive from Panama City was the Gamboa Rainforest, whose activities ranged from visiting an indigenous tribe, taking a night safari, and spotting wildlife on the riverbanks to staying at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort for ultimate, area luxury.
A 600-meter, almost treetop-level journey in its aerial tram afforded views of local flora and fauna.