Sunday, January 5, 2014

2013 Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala


Our hotel close by the old city in Panama, was also within walking distance to the celebrations for Panama’s annual Carnaval.  These celebrations continue for five days and are held each year 40 days before Easter.  The atmosphere was very interesting with daily parades, decorated floats, elaborate costumes, bands, food stalls and people dancing the night away.

Wikipedia: This pre-Lenten celebration takes place at the same time and in the same spirit as Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Four days of revelling, parties and partaking in ‘the pleasures of the flesh’ are justified due to the impending repentance 40 days prior to Holy Week according to the Catholic calendar.

Panama’s Hop on Hop off bus once again gave us a great look at the city of Panama.  Panama  offers lucrative financial incentives and benefits to ex-pats from various countries to come and live in Panama.  We met many European and Americans who have now taken up residence in Panama and enjoy living in this part of the world, with excellent flights out of Panama city direct to various US and European destinations.

A visit to Panama would not be complete without a visit to the famous Panama Canal and museums, where we were able to watch a very interesting and steady flow of traffic coming through the canal.  While we were there an Australian yacht with flag flying proudly passed through on its way to the Pacific.

Lonely Planet:  The Panama Canal is truly one of the world’s greatest engineering marvels.  The Canal stretches for 80 km from Panama City on the Pacific side to Colon on the Atlantic side, cutting through the Continental Divide.  Approximately 14,000 vessels pass through the canal each year and ships worldwide are built with the dimensions of the Panama Canal’s locks in mind:  305 metres long and 33.5 metres wide.

Ships pay according to their weight, with the average fee around US$30,000.  The highest amount, around $US200,000 was paid in 2001 by the 90,000 ton French cruise ship Infinity;  the lowest amount was US$0.36, paid in 1928 by Richard Halliburton, who swam through.

In 2006 Panamanian voters overwhelmingly endorsed an ambitious project to expand the Panama Canal.  One of the biggest transportation projects in the world, this US$5.25 billion mega-project will stretch over seven years and finish in conjunction with the canal’s centennial in 2014.  The new locks will be 60% wider and 40% longer and container traffic is expected to triple.

Prior to entering Panama we were required to have a ticket out of the country, so we purchased a bus ticket from Panama City to San Jose, Costa Rica, with a company called Safe Passage.  We took a northbound bus to Boquete in the highlands and made arrangements to pick up our International Tica Bus in the city of David a few days later, believing that this ticket could be altered or changed easily – this was not the case.  The ticket is an International ticket and must be used to exit the country.  We paid for the extra fare to Boquete and then picked up our International ticket from David to San Jose, Costa Rica.

We arrived in David, took a local bus to Boquete, known for its cool, fresh climate and mountain setting and on a recommendation booked into the lovely Hotel El Oasis for the next couple of days.  On a walk through the little township, Pat spoke with a taxi driver and decided to book his services, which turned out to be a very enjoyable three hour trip through the countryside and mountains that surround Boquete.  Flowers, coffee, vegetables and citrus fruits flourish in Boquete’s rich soil.

On our return to David from Boquete, the Tica bus agency told us we had to be at the David bus stop at 4:00am to meet our bus – of course Pat loves to be early so we were there at 3:20am!  As it turns out, we could have stayed in bed a lot longer, as the bus did not arrive until 7am!  We ended up sitting on that concrete bus-stop bench in the middle of nowhere for 3½ hours! 

Costa Rica

San Jose has a lovely mountainous backdrop and very busy city parks and malls.  Our hostel was close to the city centre, so once again we were able to walk everywhere.  After spending a couple of days in the city we hired a car (4WD was highly recommended) and headed off on our own.  Parque Naconal Volcan Poas is a beautiful volcanic area high in the mountains after following a winding, scenic road and then a brisk walk in the cool air to the crater.  Volcan Poas is 2,604 metres high and at the top is an amazing view inside an active volcano.  We arrived at the lookout but couldn’t see anything for cloud, when suddenly the clouds began to lift and we had a great view inside this volcano crater which is 1.3 km across and 300 metres deep.  We continued winding our way around the mountains and the scenery was truly beautiful. 

Eventually we headed toward the Pacific Coast at Samara and over the next number of days  travelled the bumpiest gravel and dirt roads all along the coastline, visiting the small towns along the way.  Further north, we arrived in Tamarindo and checked into a beautiful place right on the beachfront where we spent a great few days.  The beach here is flat, wide and long so we enjoyed getting out for early morning walks.  These beaches are famous for surfing and people come from everywhere to take board-riding lessons.  The locals told us that as a result of the most recent earthquake, the plates shifted and the waves have now become smaller, which is not great for their surfing reputation with many surfing schools packing up and heading to other destinations.

After leaving the Pacific Coast we headed to Liberia airport where we dropped off our hire car, being very appreciative of the recommendation of a 4WD.


We took a bus from Liberia to the border with Nicaragua, crossed the border and headed toward the ferry which would take us to Moyagalpa on the beautiful Isla de Ometepe.

The ferry, if I can call it that, was antiquated but it is still working well, ferrying people and belongings across Lake Nicaragua to the island.  Pat was particularly amused at the manually operated bilge pump.  Ometepe is an island formed by twin volcanoes rising out of the lake.  The two volcanoes are Concepcion at 1,610 metres above the lake and Maderas at 1,394 metres.  Lava flows created an isthmus between the two volcanoes, thus creating the island, which means “two hills”.  It’s a magical place and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit there.  We booked Rommel and his taxi from our Hotel Los Ranchitos in Moyogalpa and spent five hours driving to beautiful spots, including an organic coffee plantation and the most amazing Ojo de Agua, which is a volcanic fed lagoon with the most amazing cool and clear water.  The family-run hotel was very welcoming and we really enjoyed their company.

The beautiful city of Granada is considered Nicaragua tourism’s goose that laid the golden egg.  The city, originally founded in 1524, has been restored and is famous for its carved colonial portals, elegant churches and beautiful plaza, all topped off by the beautiful location right on Lake Nicaragua.  We checked into the very beautiful Hostel Oasis, which had every facility imaginable and topped off by a beautiful swimming pool right in the centre of the courtyard.  These Spanish towns look fairly unimpressive from the street view, then they open their doors and you’re able to step inside to beautiful buildings and impressive courtyards.

All through these Central American countries, schools abound both in Spanish language lessons and Latin American dancing for the many eager travellers.  People come from all over the world to visit for a few weeks, do immersion courses in Spanish and then learn to dance at night.  Leon was our last stop before crossing over yet some more borders and was the original capital of Nicaragua.


Honduras is the poorest country in Central America and due to the high incidence of violent crime, many people prefer to pass right through, which is exactly what we did.
El Salvador

This has been a very big and tiring day travelling on local buses, taxis, mini-buses, tuk-tuks walking and border crossings, as we’ve actually travelled through three countries, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador.

We made the decision to travel on through to San Miguel rather than stay in the capital city of Sans Salvador.  It was a great decision as right across the street from our bus station in San Miguel was the King’s Palace Hotel, a welcome respite at the end of a big day.  We have become accustomed to seeing armed guards and police on the streets of Central America, which has become a necessity due to the high rates of crime.  When we walk in the streets, we’re mindful of our belongings and were advised to remove any bright gold jewellery such as chains and watches.

Once again we were keen to visit the Pacific Coast, although the sands here are now greyish black.  El Tunco is a very popular beachside town and is a favourite destination for surfers.  The waves along this coastline are ideal for all types of board riders and especially for those who enjoy a long wave.  Surf-board riding schools abound as do young surfers eager to give the sport a go.  We stayed at Roca Sunzal Resort right on the beach and enjoyed sitting in the restaurant on the beach at sunset, which is particularly beautiful at El Tunco.

We took a minibus from El Tunco and followed the Pacific coast north and crossed into Guatemala, the last new country on this trip.


Our first stop was the beautiful city of Antigua, where we came upon a bit of a glitch in our accommodation booking.  We arrived by minibus from El Salvador at 8pm as I had noted to the Dionisio Hotel in our booking, but they refused us entry and told us check in time ended at 1pm.  I have never heard anything so ludicrous before, as most Hotels have 1pm as the actual check in time – it also seems that they may have charged our credit card when we were a “no show” at 1pm.  I will certainly be following this issue up with the booking agents and also our credit card company, perhaps even the local tourism board.  We were not getting anywhere with this rude man at the front gate, so our minibus driver took us back to Zoola Hostel where three Israeli girls who were on our bus, had booked into.

The owner of Zoola was so understanding and helpful.  Unfortunately the private rooms were booked out, so for the first time in my life I checked into a dorm room, but fortunately there was only one other person there, who was very happy to have some company.  The hostel, which is  middle eastern in design, is a great place and we were able to get dinner there, as well as have a delicious breakfast included.  The management couple at Zoola Hostel are from Israel and have set up an amazing business, I wish them both well.

Businesses such as the Dionisio Hotel need to be aware of today’s computer savvy travellers who are able to, and do put information out there in relation to good or bad experiences, which in turn will give an indication to others who may wish to visit.  We often use Trip Advisor website and I will now be adding a review on the Dionisio Hotel and also a recommendation to Zoola Hostel.   We did book into another hotel the following morning and were warmly welcomed by the owner, Victor, who was more than happy to show us his hotel, tell us about his beautiful city of Antigua and explain some of the famous attractions.  In fairness, I have to say we have had very few bad experiences in all our travels.

Antigua is considered to be Guatemala’s showpiece and was a former capital before Guatemala City.  It is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is enjoyed by both international travellers and Guatemalans.  Lonely Planet:  Perhaps the real miracle of Antigua is its resilience.  Despite the destructive forces that have conspired against it – earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and floods, followed by virtual abandonment and centuries of neglect – the town has re-emerged with a vengeance, buoyed by the pride of its inhabitants.

Major sites here include the Parque Central and numerous Churches and Monasteries – I think we went into 5 Churches all within a small area.  From the rooftop of our hotel, we could look across at all the buildings and see the beautiful mountains behind.  The markets are vibrant with people and colour – the traditionally dressed Mayans are in the town selling all their beautiful bright coloured cloth, trinkets of every kind, beautiful leather goods and of course the mandatory t-shirts.  The Mayan are very short in stature and I’m amazed at how the women carry their babies on their back, wrapped up in cloth.  When the baby wakes, it’s just a matter of slipping the cloth, complete with baby under the arm and they’re ready to be breastfed.

We took a minibus from Antigua and headed up the mountains to the beautiful Lago de Atitlan and the little village of Panajachel, which is right on the lake.  The little village has numerous hotels, restaurants and travel agents, which do obviously keep many people employed.  The little hotel we stayed in, is also run by a Mayan family.  The little Mayan ladies have their brightly coloured goods wrapped in large cloths, which they wrap up, tie and then place on their heads for easy carrying.

The following morning we went to the jetty and took a little ferry boat to the village of San Marcos where we have checked into a beautiful little room overlooking the lake.  The view is picture postcard perfect, with the lakeside only 20 metres from our door.  This afternoon I have been bringing my blog up to date and Pat has been enjoying the sun (for a change).  Pat has gone up for a sauna so when he returns we’ll walk up to the village for dinner.

There was a major blackout that evening, but we did find a little restaurant in the village alive with candlelight and the delightful couple were cooking all meals on gas – it turned out to be a great evening and the food was delicious.  San Marcos has become a centre for many alternative style people who believe that it has a particular spiritual energy.  It has therefore become an excellent place to learn or practice meditation, holistic therapies, massage, Reiki and other spiritually oriented activities.

The next day we took a ferry to the village of San Pedro and checked into a hotel room high on the hill with magnificent views across the lake from our balcony.  We walked up 77 steps (I counted them every time) from the street to reach our room “with a view”, which we enjoyed for the next couple of days.  Guatemala is renowned worldwide for its fabulous coffee and we were lucky enough to meet a couple from Vancouver who are in the coffee roasting business (Bean around the World) and they helped increase our knowledge of the humble coffee bean.  We took a morning ferry to the large village of Santiago the following day and visited the Church at the top of the village where Father Stanley Francis Rother, a missionary priest from Oklahoma, beloved by the local people, was murdered by death squads in 1981.

We took a minibus from San Pedro, said goodbye to beautiful Lake Atitlan and headed to Guatemala City where we’re spending our last days in Central America.  Time now to rearrange our gear, repack our bags and prepare for our flight home after a stopover in Los Angeles.

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