Panama: rain, rain go away!

17 – 20 December 2011

Our visit to Panama started with a three hour wait in the middle of the night trying to clear customs. We had decided to take a 15 hour overnight bus from San Jose to Panama City but hadn´t anticipated such long delays on entering Panama. It was the most tedious border crossing we have experienced yet on our trip, culminating in the entire bus having to remove their luggage from the bus, pile into a tiny room, line up the bags for uninterested sniffer dogs, and complete a primary school-like role call. Finally we were allowed over the frontier and continued on our way to Panama City.

After finding a hospedaje on Central Avenue, we set off to explore the city. Sadly, the weather we had been fleeing from in Costa Rica followed us south and we had heavy rain for much of our stay in Panama. (Apparently that´s a good thing though, as they need the rain water to keep the canal operating properly.) As we explored the wet streets of Casco Viejo (the city´s historic centre), we stumbled across an amazing ice cream shop, Granclement, close to the seafront. With a vast array of flavours to choose from, it was just what the doctor ordered to take our minds off the rain and the fatigue from our journey.

The next day we set off early, with the intention of getting to the Miraflores visitor centre on the Panama Canal between 9 and 11am which is supposed to be the busiest period for observing the boats pass through. Our plans were scuppered though by our understanding of the public transport system. Nobody we asked knew of the bus the Lonely Planet recommended which went straight to the Lock from downtown and instead they suggested we take a bus to the terminal and change there. So, we happily jumped on the bus marked Terminal, not realising it had just come from there and was now headed out east. Realising our mistake about an hour later, we caught another bus back in the right direction, this time making it to the bus station. Unfortunately, we were now too late for our planned boat watching slot so we killed time in Panama´s largest shopping mall until the afternoon´s slot.

When we did finally arrive at the Miraflores Lock, it was well worth our persistence. The site offers an excellent visitor centre which recounts the history of the building of the canal as well as the expansion plans which were recently begun. The Lock has a viewing platform so you can see vessels passing through the locks and understand how they work. While we were there, we saw a container ship, cruise liner and oil tanker all pass through. It costs the average ship $110,000 to use the canal but I suppose that´s money well spent when you consider the alternative.

Our final evening in Panama was spent by candelight. On returning to our hostel to pack our bags for the trip to Colombia, we discovered there was a power cut and we were given a candle to last us until power was restored. It was certainly interesting, though not necessarily romantic, getting all our things together with the light of a single candle. What with the rain, the transport issues and finally the power – I think we were both ready to move on to our next destination, Colombia!


Pura vida in Costa Rica

10 -15 December 2011

We arrived in Monteverde after 11 hours (1 boat trip,1 taxi ride and 5 bus journeys) just in time to see the sun setting, rewarding us with amazing views as our bus climbed up the hill to our destination. Actually, it was quite a relief to make it there in one day as numerous people had assured us that it would be impossible, but luckily a confident local woman directed us and instructed the driver to let us out at the right spot to make our final connection.

Monteverde is a small town perched high on the hills of Tilaran in central Costa Rica and is home to many natural reserves and cloud forests. The town is well known as an ecotourism destination and is also famous for having some of the best ziplines in Central America. So our first stop the following day was the Aventura canopy tour.

We caught a bus up into the cloud forest where we were harnessed up and given basic instructions on how to use the lines and, importantly, how to brake. We worked our way across a series of ziplines through the misty cloud forest, each getting progressively longer and faster – then it was time for “The Superman”. Our harnesses were adjusted so that we were attached to the line by our chest with our arms free to “fly”. The experience was incredible, it really felt as though we were flying over the top of the forest looking down over the trees. For our final descent we took the infamous Tarzan swing – supposedly the highest in Costa Rica at 148ft high. With a rope attached to your harness, you simply jump off a platform into nothingness – it is like leaping off the top of a 13 storey building. Thankfully, I didn´t know this in advance or I probably wouldn´t have had the guts to do it! I can safely say that this was the most terrifying thing I have ever done, but it also gave me an incredible adrenalin rush!

The next day we took a hike around Bajo del Tigre and the Eternal Children´s Forest – an area of rainforest saved thanks to the efforts of children around the world. The weather had started to take a turn for the worse but that didn´t stop us enjoying the lush vegetation and many trails around the forest. In the evening we were outdoors once again, this time with a guide, exploring the Santa Maria Reseve. Armed with flashlights, we wandered around the reserve in darkness searching for signs of wildlife. We weren´t disappointed, our guide pointed out tarantulas (very large females), vipers, a racoon and a two-toed sloth (hanging from a branch enjoying his dinner). Being able to see these nocturnal animals in their natural habitat was incredible and wouldn´t have been possible without taking a guide.

After a few days in Monteverde, we decided to travel on to la Fortuna – an area known for having one of the most active volcanoes in the region as well as plenty of outdoor activities. Unfortunately for us, the weather continued to deteriorate and we had heavy rain for the duration of our stay in la Fortuna. Dense mist also reduced visibility in the town, which meant that, despite being only a couple of kilometres from Volcan Arenal, we didn´t get a single glimpse of Costa Rica´s most visited site. However, not wanting to be confined to our hostel, we caught a taxi to the nearby Baldi Hot Springs – a complex of around 25 outdoor pools. We happily spent a few hours in the rain sampling all the different temperature pools (from 93 to 152º F), relaxing under the waterfalls and recharging our batteries after our days spent hiking and carrying heavy packs.

With no sign of the rain letting up, we left La Fortuna to head towards Panama,stopping briefly in the capital, San Jose, to break up our trip. The city was beautifully lit up for festive season and had an enormous Christmas tree laden with lights that made us feel very festive as we neared Christmas.

Nicaragua: land of lakes and volcanoes

2 – 9 December 2011

After a brief stopover in Choluteca (apparently the hottest town in Honduras) recharging our batteries after the long bus journey from El Salvador, we continued our journey south to Nicaragua. Our first stop was Leon, the country’s second largest city and a bustling place town boasting a huge cathedral, some 17 churches and an array of large lion statues.

Leon played a key role in the country´s revolutionary history as we learnt from our former guerilla fighter museum guide on an accidental trip to the town’s Museum of the Revolution (accidental as the museum is unlisted in the tourist guides – we were fortunate enough to stumble across it and be beckoned inside). We learnt the history of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and their struggle against the Somoza dictatorship and our guide pointed out the various landmarks in the city which had played a key role in the revolution. It became clear that the Nicaraguans are a very proud people and, despite being the poorest country in the region, there is a strong sense of optimism for their future. Our guide was happy to boast of the country’s free healthcare (if we injured ourselves on the beach, all we would need to pay would be the taxi ride to the hospital), its housing provisions and its offer of free university education for all.

We also made a trip to the Museum of Heroes and Martyrs, a small photographic exhibition displaying photos of many of Leon’s citizens who lost their lives to the Somoza regime. The museum is run by the mothers of the victims and it is a poignant tribute to these soldiers. Most of the photographs were of young people aged from mid-teens to mid-twenties. A good number of them were women.

During our stay in Leon, we learnt that there was a baseball game taking place between the local team, the Leon lions and their neighbours and rivals, the Chinandegan tigers. We picked up a couple of tickets for the game for less than $3 and joined the crowds of supporters (baseball is the national sport and a Nicaraguan passion). It was great to watch the game and try to work out the rules (my first baseball game) and a real slice of local culture. It was a close match but happily the Leones scooped a narrow victory, so the supporters went home happy!

Nicaragua is known as the land of lakes and volcanoes, with around 50 volcanoes and a number of lakes and lagoons across the country. Leon itself has eight volcanoes, and we decided to visit one of them, Cerro Negro to try our hand at “volcano boarding”. We opted to do the excursion with an outfit called Quetzaltrekkers, a non-profit organisation who donates all its proceeds to working with Nicaraguan street kids. It took us around two hours to ascend the slopes, stopping en route to see the various craters which were emitting sulphuric gases and to bury some eggs in the hot volcanic rocks. When we reached the summit, we donned fluorescent yellow boiler suits and goggles and took to our boards (think plank of wood with a string attached to steer with and another block of wood to perch your buttocks on). As we sledged down the steep slopes, we were sprayed with volcanic rock, leaving our faces looking as though we’d been down the mines. The first time we went down was a little slow, so we (naively?) decided to hike back up the volcano for a second go. We stopped off to eat our beautifully cooked eggs on the crater edge before hitting the boards again. This time, with a little more confidence, we lay back and zoomed down the slopes – a real adrenalin rush and exhilarating experience!

After Leon, we caught the bus to the attractive colonial city of Granada. Unlike Leon, Granada seems to have honed in on its tourist potential and consequently (and slightly disappointingly for us perhaps) attracts hoards of tourists and has a much more international flavour. We spent most of our time in the city simply wandering around the streets soaking up the atmosphere. From Granada, we made a day trip to nearby Masaya – a town known for its handicrafts and markets. We strolled through the markets here as well as exploring the neighbourhood famous for its hammock workshops. The town borders the lake Masaya, and we enjoyed fantastic views of Volcan Masaya from the Malecon that runs along the edge of town and the lake.

The next stop on our trip was Isla de Ometepe, an island formed by two volcanoes rising from Lake Nicaragua. We opted to base ourselves in the main port town of Moyagalpa and explore the island from there. Our arrival coincided with the religious festival, “la Purisima” – a celebration of the Virgin Mary. Locals had set up an altar in the street to the Virgin Mary and were reciting prayers and singing traditional songs and letting off firecrackers and rockets in celebration.

Over the next couple of days, we explored the island on bike and moped. We visited Punto Jesus Maria, a small jut of sand (much larger earlier in the year) protruding into Lake Nicaragua where we swam in the lake and chilled out under the trees. We also made the trip to Chaco Verde, a nature reserve on the edge of a lagoon with abundant wildlife (sadly we didn’t spot any of the monkeys that live there) and beautiful views across the lake over to the mainland.

Our favourite spot however, was an incredible natural spring, called Ojo de Agua. Here we swam in crystal clear spring waters, set amidst lush vegetation and swung from the rope swings, dropping into the lovely cool waters.

The island was a lovely tranquil spot to spend a few days, and we certainly could have spent more time here visiting coffee plantations and hiking (a strenuous eight hours ascent) the volcanoes. Unfortunately, we had to push on as we have a plane to catch in Panama and lots to see in Costa Rica first…

Salvadorean sea dreams

Back in London, as we planned the key things we wanted to see and do on our trip, I got excited at every mention of sea turtles we found in our guide books. Disappointingly however, it seemed we were never going to be in the right spot at the right time of year to see them. So, I was surprised and thrilled when we learnt from our hosts in Juayua that it was the perfect season for us to “liberate” baby turtles on the Pacific coast of El Salvador.

We hopped on the bus from Juayua to the small fishing town of Los Cobanos, a quiet spot with a sandy beach, dotted with black volcanic rocks. We went along to the local ecological society who talked us through the sea turtles nesting process and explained to us the different types of turtles they see in the area (carey, baule, prieta y golfina) ahead of the liberation.

We were up at dawn the next day ready to release some baby turtles. The incubation area was a short walk along the beach and (after an initial panic over some of the turtles having already been released accidentally before we arrived) the man in charge began clearing two nests of newly hatched turtles. We were presented with two basins containing around 120 baby golfina turtles. They were tiny, but had big beady eyes and little flippers that they were beginning to paddle in anticipation of their release. We took the basins over to the shore, close to the outgoing tide and lined the turtles up on the sand, naming them all as we went (Mildred, Terrence, Samuel, Timmy, Reginald etc). We watched as they instinctively crawled towards the sea (some faster and more eager to escape than others), helped along by the lapping waves. As they swam out to sea, we saw their tiny heads bobbing up and down on the waves. The turtles who survive (sadly many don´t as there are so many predators out there) will instinctively return to the same beach they were released from in 20 – 30 years to lay their own eggs.

After our wonderful experience in Los Cobanos, we continued down the coast to another beach, this time a surfers´haunt called Playa el Zonte. We stayed in a lovely resort with a beautiful pool and gardens, several parrots and a huge but very realistic model iguana, which was sat on the edge of the pool. It wasn´t until we sat by the pool the next day and saw the iguana chase a maid across the gardens at quite a speed that we realised it wasn´t a model at all – but a very regal and impressive lizard who just happens to spend most of his day completely still in the same spot!

We decided that since we were at a surf beach, we should give the sport a go, and so signed up for a lesson with a local instructor. We were told the lesson was about learning to “pop up” and, after 10 minutes experimentation on a yoga mat, we hit the waves. We had an instructor each helping us, but learning to stand up on a moving board was not an easy task.  After around an hour or so in the water, I had managed to stand up and ride a wave about half a dozen times (which felt like a real acheivement), although it was pretty hit or miss, rather than me having perfected any technique. In spite of my eyes stinging from the water, and being exhausted from repeatedly walking back out against the waves, it was an exhilarating experience. We may not be naturals at surfing, but we are pretty keen to give it another try later on the trip!

We`re not in Guatemala now Dr Ropata (AKA El Salvador Part 1)

24 – 29 November 2011

El Salvador was not a destination on our original itinerary, but as we travelled south, we met a number of people with only positive things to say about the country, so with a little tweaking we re-jigged our route and caught a bus to Santa Ana.

We arrived after dark and the bus dropped us at a gas station on the outskirts of town. Feeling disorientated, we asked passersby for directions on how to get to town and were given at least four different sets of instructions – each person was adamant they were right and the others were wrong. One even arranged for their son in law’s cousin to come and drive us to town. As we were trying to extricate ourselves from the situation (at this point feeling quite apprehensive about the prospect of taking a ride from a stranger, after dark, in a country with one of the world’s highest homicide rates), along came the immigration cops. Thinking we were about to get harassed for a bribe to get out of the situation, it came as a pleasant surprise when, after a couple of questions, they hailed a cab for us, directed the driver to our hotel and made sure the driver gave us a fair price. Actually I think the whole incident displayed the friendly and helpful nature of the Salvadorenos, of which we were to experience more. If we weren’t worn out from a full day’s travel, we probably would have appreciated it more!

The next day after trying, and failing to see the sights of central Santa Ana (we caught a bus, at least three passengers directed us to where we wanted to go, spoke to the driver on our behalf and told us to sit behind him so he could tell us where to get off, but he forgot and then the bus broke down – so we gave up) we instead took a trip to Lago de Coatepeque. Coatepeque is a volcanic lake around 15km from Santa Ana and home to some very rich Salvadorenos, apparently. We found a lovely restaurant with a jetty out into the lake where we sipped fresh lemonade and swam in the lake, soaking up the beautiful location which we had almost entirely to ourselves. Tourism in El Salvador is undeveloped compared to its neighbours: this meant that we rarely saw other westerners on this leg of the trip, but the downside was that getting around and finding places recommended in the guidebooks was much more of a struggle.

One feature of travelling in El Salvador that never failed to amaze us, despite the regularity of its occurrence, was the procession of traders on the public buses. The buses typically leave from around the town market, but there is no need for you to visit the market itself – it will come to you. When we left Santa Elena, it took us around 20 minutes just to escape the bus terminal. During this time, we had a steady procession through the bus, with traders selling everything you could possibly want and more. The (non-exhaustive) list included fruit, soft drinks (distilled into plastic bags), cakes, bread, vests, biscuits, socks, vegetables, superglue, belts, wallets, padlocks. You name it, we were offered it – and almost everything cost less that a dollar! Then there were the preachers, the beggars and the particularly interesting narco-evangelists (think preachers telling you why its critical that you buy the vitamins/medicines they are hawking and how they will cure all your ills). Its a wonder the buses ever get to their destination!

Our next stop was Juayua, a pretty town set in the mountains and on the much acclaimed Ruta de Flores. The town is famous for its weekly food festival where you can try local delicacies including iguana and guinea pig. We were offered roast snake, but decided to turn it down, instead opting for another culinary delicacy called pupusas. These are similar to tortillas, but filled with beans and cheese, griddled and served with hot sauce – delicious!

While in Juayua, we hired a local guide and went on a tour to los Chorros Waterfalls – a series of three waterfalls interconnected by subterranean tunnels which support a hydro-electric plant a few kilometres out of town. There, we swam in the pools with the local kids and made our way blindly through the tunnels, exiting through the waterfalls – an amazing sensation. That afternoon, it was back on the bus (cue another dozen or two traders peddling their wares) and on to our next destination, the Pacific Coast.

Guatemala: Antigua to Atitlan

After our legs had recovered from all the climbing at Tikal ruins, we put them to work again, this time exploring the streets of Guatemala’s former capital, Antigua. After a devastating earthquake, which destroyed much of the town, the country’s administrative centre was relocated to Guatemala City, but many of Antigua’s residents refused to leave the city – and it’s not hard to see why. The city is made up of quaint pastel coloured houses and churches, set on a grid of cobbled streets and overlooked by three volcanoes. Here for the first time in Guatemala, the people we encountered (especially the women) wore the brightly coloured  hand-woven traditional dress. It’s the perfect city to stroll around, soaking up the atmosphere as well as relaxing in the parque centrale, where much of the city’s action seems to take place.

On our second day in the city, after a fantastic three course lunch for just £1.60 each (thanks Nick for the tip!!), we set off to climb our first volcano, Volcan Pacaya. It was a steep ascent to the top, but well worth the effort. It felt rather like walking on the moon: surrounded by clouds, with black crunchy rocks underfoot, no living plants and smoke rising from craters – very mystical. Of course, what do you do when you get to the top of an active volcano? Toast marshmallows of course – yum!! That and find a crater to climb into for a fully clothed sauna (we were assured this was perfectly safe!!)

After a few days in Antigua, we continued our journey to Lake Atitlan, where we based ourselves at the (slightly Americanised) Panajachel. Atitlan is a volcanic lake, and the deepest in central America. Its a beautiful sight but is sadly pretty polluted so not ideal for swimming. We headed straight off to one of the largest markets in the region at Solola. This market is a local affair, rather than being aimed at tourists, which was nice as it gave us a glimpse into the traditions of the local people, although we came away empty-handed.

We also took a trip across the lake to a much smaller town, San Pedro, which had a laid-back hippy vibe. Despite Lake Atitlan being firmly on the backpacker route, both San Pedro and Pana were surprisingly quiet. November should be the start of high season but we were told that the American embassy was discouraging travel to Guatemala which resulted in tourism numbers being very low this year. It’s sad for a country which relies fairly heavily on tourists pumping money into the economy (everything costs a lot more if you’re a gringo) and yet good for us as well, as it means we get to enjoy a more tranquil experience.

Before leaving Guatemala, I must confess to dragging Neal around every crafts store in the area/country. The vibrant colours and textures of the fabrics really made an impression on me and I was determined to bring home a slice of it. The only problem being that I couldn’t decide which I liked best (they were all very unique) so of course, I needed to assess all my options before making any final choice!



Guatemala: ancient cultures to aquatic adventures

Having left Belize at 8:30am, we finally arrived at our first destination in Guatemala, Flores, just in time to catch the sun setting over the lake as we swang in hammocks on our hotel roof. After spending the last few days in a wooden cabin, it was lovely to have a proper roof over our head again – even if hot showers do seem like a distant memory! Not that we got to enjoy a lie in, as the following morning we were up at 4am and on our way to the ruins at Tikal.

Located around two hours from Flores, at over 16 sq km, the ruins at Tikal are one of the largest Mayan sites in Latin America. They are also quite unique as they are located in the midst of dense jungle. However, only around 15% of the ruins have been excavated so far meaning that you catch vague glimpses of pyramids, completely covered in vegetation, poking out from amongst the trees. We arrived early as we were told that we would have the best chance of spotting some of the animals that live in the area at first light. We were in luck! Our guide, Luis, knew the site like the back of his hand, having worked there since a child. He also knew how to imitate bird and animal calls and spots signs of recent activity. With his help, we spotted howler and spider monkeys, a tarantula, a rare weasel, toucans and lots more. The peak (literally) of the visit was climbing Pyramid 4 , one of the tallest structures of the Mayan world. The views from the top were spectacular – miles and miles of lush green vegetation as far as the eye could see, interspersed here and there with Mayan temples, poking through.

After our time in Flores, we headed south to a tiny village called Semuc Champey that we´d heard a lot about from other travellers. What was meant to be a 6 hour drive turned into a 9 hour saga and the final kilometres of our journey took us along one of the most pot-holed tracks I´ve ever seen (or rather felt, as it was dark by this point). Despite the length of the journey, the scenery we passed through was amazing; dramatic mountains and valleys all covered by leafy vegetation.

Our accommodation this time was the loft of a little wooden cabin on stilts, situated on the bank of a river and surrounded by hills where cows grazed – very idyllic. Despite having another day of terrible rain storms, the next again day we were able to make the excursion we had come for. Semuc Champey is a natural phenomenon comprising a series of pools, waterfalls, natural bridges and caves. Our guide led us between the pools, each a different colour of green, jumping, sliding and climbing through the waterfalls which separated them. Later in the day, we visited a cave close to the waterfalls. We were each given a candle which we held in one hand as we used the other hand to swim around the pitch black caves and natural pools – a fantastic sensory experience and a real highlight for us.

Returning to our hostel after the adventure was an experience in itself. We had travelled there in the back of a pickup truck and were returning the same way. However, this time rather than just being five tourists, we were joined (read crammed like sardines next to) by the locals and their wares. We shared the truck with mothers, children, suitcases, buckets of garlic (too close to my nose), bales of firewood, stems of bananas, cool boxes and I don´t know what else – what a way to get immersed in Guatemalan life and authentic if nothing else!!

From Semuc Champey, it was on to Antigua – but that can wait till another day…