There are always things to see and do, and it never gets cold in this tropical area. Hummingbirds of various types are around all year, in addition to many other birds. Cacao, baby bananas, yuca and breadfruit are harvested all year round. Tours to community projects and to farms producing bananas, plantains, or aguardiente (an alcoholic beverage produced from sugarcane) are always available. To give you some idea of what to expect, here is a rough guide to the year in Piedra Blanca:
January - There are still mangoes on the trees, in addition to papayas. The rains will almost certainly start this month if they haven’t already, so the paths may be slippery and access to the higher parts of the forest limited. The parched earth is starting to give way to the brilliant green of young rice plants and the maize is beginning to grow. Later in the month, there might be enough water in the rivers for a voyage in small balsa rafts of the same design used for a thousand years - you’ll have to navigate a few small rapids in the shallows.
February - It’s raining in earnest by now, you’ll need to cross a bamboo bridge if the river is too high to wade through. Lush vegetation is springing up everywhere and whilst access to the higher rainforest may be limited you have a good chance of seeing toucans and hummingbirds lower down the valley. With more water in the rivers, there are fewer rapids but raft journeys are faster, meaning you cover greater distances and see more of the rich scenery of the region. Try the sweet orange flesh of the zapote fruit or enjoy the more familiar naranjilla. Carnival, in late February, involves much dancing, partying and thowing of water and Bolivar is renowned as THE province in which to celebrate it.
March - The vegetation is growing at an incredible rate due to the abundant rains, and the carpet of flowers provides nectar for the clouds of butterflies. Access to the higher virgin forest is usually not possible, and there are days when the road is blocked, but the pools and waterfalls in the lower parts of the valley are just perfect for bathing. Pick tiny wild tomatoes and make the most of the fresh corncobs in season this month. Raft journeys are fast and exciting, but the traditional design of buoyant balsa is stable and practical.
April - The continuing warmth and cascading waterfalls are perfect for the abundant flowers and butterflies - and good for swimming, too. The rains can be torrential and some paths impassable, so your visit will focus on the lower and more accessible parts of the forest and the cultural attractions of the area. River trips can cover long distances in traditional balsa rafts as the current will be running fast. Local industries, such as the production of aguardiente and alcohol from sugarcane, and the harvest of bananas and plantains, offer interesting tour possibilities. The lively weekly markets are full of local produce, for example passionfruit, star fruit and the exotic mamé.
May - May is a great month for rafting - the rivers are full and we can cover considerable distances, but the rains are slackening off so there are more opportunities to photograph the verdant scenery. Access to the higher parts of the virgin forest is usually possible, if a little muddy. Lower down the valley, the cattle are enjoying the lush pastures, the waterfalls and pools are full and perfect for swimming and there are flowers and butterflies everywhere. The rice harvest starts in the lower parts of the region at the end of the month and the mandarins are ripe and ready to enjoy.
June - By the middle of the month, there is little or no rain in the area, but the rivers are still running so this is a good time for journeys in small indigenous rafts. The paths are drying out, making walking and access to the higher forest easier, though the vegetation is still verdant and there are plenty of interesting birds and insects to see. The oranges are ripe to eat straight from the tree, and the coffee harvest is underway.
July- There is unlikely to be much if any rain between now and December. As the level of water in the rivers drops, raft trips are slower and more tranquil, with plenty of opportunities to relax and take photos, but a few small rapids to add excitement. The warm, dry conditions are good for trekking, climbing or tours on horseback. The coffee harvest continues - you can help toast the beans for your morning coffee.
August - As the heat of summer takes hold and the vegetation dies back in the lower parts of the valley, there are fewer insects. The paths are dry and this is a good time for walking and exploring the rainforest trails, especially if you want to climb right up to the Piedra Blanca itself. River voyages in small rafts of indigenous design are at a relaxed pace, though there are a few small rapids to navigate in the shallower parts. Visits to the petroglyphs are available all year. The orange harvest is coming to an end but there are still coffee beans in abundance.
September - With dry paths and access right up to the higher parts of the virgin forest, this is a great time for climbing and trekking, and you might even attempt the long trek down from Salinas to Piedra Blanca. Tranquil traditional raft journeys, if there is enough water, have to descend a few rapids in areas where the rivers are especially shallow. Tours to local farms, weekly markets and the community alcohol distillation tower are available all year and there is always the chance to pick your own bananas to eat straight from the plant.
October - Warm, dry and relatively mosquito-free conditions make for easy access to the higher forest and good possibilities for trekking and climbing up to the white and black rocks. This weather is also good for drying coffee beans. The sugar cane continues growing even without rain, and the farmers continue to press juice from the cane with horse driven mills to produce aguardiente (‘firewater’). Raft trips may not be possible as there is not much water in the rivers - check for the current situation.
November - This is a great time for walking and climbing, with few insects and easy access to the higher parts of the forest. It’s the driest time of year - there are always some rivers and pools in which to cool off, but rafting trips are not possible. As always, you can visit pre-Inca burial sites and Inca stone inscriptions, for example, or search for bargains in the local markets. The first of the mangos are ripening now. The warm dry evenings are great for barbeques and relaxing under the stars.
December - The rains usually start in late December or January, so it will probably be hot and dry for most of the month - good conditions for walking or horseback tours but not enough water to go rafting. If it does rain, it’s not for long and it the weather is still warm. The mango trees are loaded with fruit and nothing beats the experience of eating ripe, juicy mangoes fresh from the tree. Christmas is relatively quiet here, but if you are around for 31st December you can witness the burning of effigies of the ‘old year’ to celebrate the arrival of the new year and a fresh start.