February 20, 2011

Nicaragua to Panama

I'm excited to say I finally made a trip to Central America. I've been wanting to do this for at least 12 years and just never did for one reason or another.
My girlfriend, Lisa, and I flew into Managua, Nicaragua and took two (albeit too) quick weeks to travel through Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, then flew out of Panama City, Panama.
We left Las Vegas at 11pm and arrived in Managua about 2:30pm. The skies were sunny and warm. We cleared customs and got outside the airport where the chaos of the crowds enveloped us in a challenging and fun sort of way. Before arriving we read that Managua wasn't really a good place to hang around for a few reasons. We price haggled a little with a taxi driver for the trip to Granada then settled on $30 for the two of us. Nicaragua is the 3rd poorest country in Latin America, nevertheless, we were both a little surprised at the dramatic scene of poverty on leaving Managua. Air thick with pollution, skinny little horses pulling carriages, dogs too weak to get out of the way, smoking buses, tattered bicycles, most everyone barefooted, 4x4 toyota pickup trucks loaded to the max with pineapples and bananas, ramshackle buildings and huts, proudly painted bright colors.

At an intersection there was some guy offering to wash windows, but our driver declined. He resorted to blowing Lisa a few kisses. Her pretty smile probably made him feel like the richest man in Managua for a few minutes.

Granada, Nicaragua 
It took about an hour to reach colonial Granada where the scene was much more relaxed. We found a room about a half block off the main square. For $20 each it included two nights and the use of the kitchen and breakfast. Seems the main activity to do in Granada is go out drinking in the evening. There were lots of locals and tourists alike that would do the same. We walked and explored, ate dinner, and I took a bunch of photos of doorways and stuff.

We lost track of time and the tour company closed that we wanted to talk to about the Volcano Mombacho south of Granada. We had a few mojitos with fresh mint leaf, at 70 cents a piece, then went to our room and sacked out, finally ending a long day of travel.

Volcan Mombacho, Nicaragua
In the morning we found the tour company open and signed up for a guided tour to climb the volcano. We also opted for a zipline canopy tour. The company we went with was Mombotour. They were recommended by Lonely Planet and very justifiably so, they run a really good operation. The guides have at least 6 months of unpaid training before they can take a tour out. They obviously are heavily vested in their profession, and love what they do and where they live. The guide crew picked us up in Granada in a toyota land cruiser.

We drove an hour or so, up a very steep grade, to a mountain top, cloud forest, coffee plantation. It was a wonderfully beautiful place in the clear mountain air with unusual views all the way to the pacific coast. The company had a pot of delicious coffee, next to a prehistoric metate that the ancients supposedly used to grind coffee beans.

We did the zipline tour first. The cables ran between huge trees, high above the ground, and over the tops of the coffee trees growing in the shade of the forest canopy. I was a bit nervous about the safety of the zip lines, but the systems were very safe looking, apparently set up by a Canadian tramway company that also installs ziplines in Costa Rica. They even took measures to protect the trees from damage by the anchor systems.

After the ziplines the guides said to hang out on the porch, and they'd see about getting lunch ready. It took a couple hours, but we didn't mind because the views were amazing, and the coffee was delicious. When they brought lunch I was amazed. The meal would've cost $15 in the states. After lunch we sat around, and drank more coffee, then they again made sure we wanted to do the long hike that was famous for it's 5000 stairs. The hike we wanted to do was longer and the government required a guide. We saw white faced monkies, howler monkies, and sloths. A couple different kinds of orchids, and a bunch of stairs because the terrain was too steep for a trail. One of the volcanos had steam coming out of the crater, but apparently nobody thought much of it. There was even a small coffee farm in the crater.

The guide was very familiar with, and passionate about his jungle world. He lived his entire life at the foot of the Mombacho Volcano, and had no desire to ever leave his beloved Nicaragua. He taught himself to speak very good english, and realizes the opportunity that exists in Nicaraguan tourism. He said that last year Nicaragua had about 1,000,000 tourists. That number is up from 500,000 from the prior year. I told him that I was impressed with his company and Nicaragua for doing business in as environmentally friendly a way as was possible. He was very aware that tourists come for the natural beauty, and it is important to preserve it. His pride of place, and love of life impressed me deeply.
After hiking we caught a ride down the mountain with the guide crew, and back to Granada. The driver dropped our guide at his volcano home surrounded by banana trees. Then he dropped us at the market in Granada.

We purchased food to cook dinner then walked through the busy evening marketplace to our hostel. We made dinner then went to the drinking street for some chillin' out at a place our guide recommended. There were plenty of street festivities, mostly improvisational kids who would do some sort of performance then solicit the crowd for donations.

The place the guide recommended was full of locals sitting at street tables, drinking the national beer so we followed suit.

We discussed where we were going next, which we decided was going to be Isla de Ometepe in the Lago de Nicaragua to check out some petroglyphs, then drank a little too much beer.
The next day we walked backed through Granada to the bus stop where we boarded a chicken bus for Rivas. The ride took a while because the driver would stop every several hundred meters to pickup or drop off someone. Although the bus was crowded and slow it was a fun experience. The driver had his music playing through the bus, people were talking, and I thought it was a rich cultural experience close to the way of local Nicaraguan life.

Once in Rivas we unloaded at a chaotic bus terminal. There were the ever-entrepreneurial taxi drivers trying their best for an extra dime. We found our way to the public toilets in the adjacent market, the ATM machine, and the central square where we chilled out in the shade for a bit. We negotiated a taxi ride to San Jorge for about half the cost of what the taxis wanted at the bus terminal. San Jorge is the main departure port for the one hour ferry crossing to Isla de Ometepe. The Lonely Planet book said that most people just roll through en route to the Isla, so I took it as a que that it may be a good place to hang around. It had a beautiful water front beach with an amazing view of the Isla volcanos. We got a room, dropped our packs, and walked down the beach to a little place where we got more seafood than we could eat for less than $10. Lisa said shes not too hip for seafood, but that this was delicious

The day before there were stiff winds blowing, which I guessed would have the lake stirred up a bit. The winds also played a part in our decision to stay in San Jorge. Because of this I made sure we were signing up for the ferry, and not a smaller launcha, which I thought would've, at least, been an adventure in sea-sickness, besides I didn't trust look of the smaller boats being able to handle big stormy water.

Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua
We wanted to make a quick trip out of the Isla, specifically to see the petroglyphs. Because we wanted to do it fast we knew it'd cost a bit more, so we agreed to pay for a taxi to El Porvenir where there were petroglyphs scattered around a working ranch on the side of Volcano Maderas. They built little structures to shelter the petroglyphs. Many of them were very weathered and difficult to see. I thought one particular was interesting depicting what looked like a Mayan calendar. I also liked the smiley faced dude with two foreheads. The ranch was beautiful and it would've been wonderful to stay and spend a few days hiking, but we decided to ration our time in favor of more beach time later.

We returned to the port town of Moyogalpa so we could be ready for an early start to a long day of travel to Costa Rica. The afternoon and evening in Moyogalpa we explored the town and sat around at the waterfront watching kids, and fisherman, and being lazy in the hammock on the porch of the room we rented for $15.

Our goal for a travel day was to get from Isla de Ometepe to San Jose, Costa Rica. It was an ambitious goal since it was on a Sunday, and it involved a border crossing. We read that it's a good idea to buy international bus tickets ahead of time. We didn't because we felt that so many things can go wrong when traveling; delaying us and possibly missing our schedule, that it was worth it to take our chances. When we arrived at the bus terminal in Rivas we found that no tickets were available on one bus line, but were able to get onto another international bus that ended up being a pretty nice bus for the 8 hour trip to San Jose. The border crossing was easy and facilitated nicely by the bus company.

We made our way through customs without getting our bags inspected at all, but It was a good thing we had proof of onward travel. We were asked for it three times during the trip, first at Costa Rica customs.

The next couple hours on the bus passed listening to terrible classic country music (Conway Twitty I think). One of the locals finally got up and asked the driver to throw that CD out the window. Much to everyone's relief he turned it off, and replaced it with a nice Latin sounding beat. We arrived in San Jose late and were tired so we succumbed to paying too much to a taxi driver who took us to a cool little hostel run by a Turkish guy. The taxi driver wanted more money when we got there, saying something about a different route we took. It was the only time I got a little feisty with any locals when I told him to eat shit. Lisa spent some time writing, and I went downstairs and drank beer with the Turkish owner. The next day we continued our crossing of Costa Rica by bus, to Cahuita, on the Caribbean coast. The highway crossed steep mountains and occasionally emerged from the thick forest to cross big river flood plains. I've always heard of the rivers in Costa Rica, but I was expecting them to be of smaller volume. These rivers must be very impressive during the rainy season.

As we approached Limon we got stuck in a sturdy traffic jam that added a couple hours to our trip. Everyone got off the bus and started walking along the road. When traffic started moving we were picking up our passengers for miles along the highway. Near Limon it was obvious what a large industry bananas are here. Huge banana plantations, and trucks everywhere hauling containers to the port to be loaded on ships.

Cahuita, Costa Rica
On reading about the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica we found that Puerto Viejo de Talamanca was the more touristy place so we opted to check out Cahuita, which was 17 kilometers north of Viejo.
We planned on staying only one night in Cahuita, but we were there 3 nights. It was such a relaxed place that it was hard to leave the dirt streets, with reggae music coming out of every little nook. Not to mention the miles of beautiful beach that are part of Cahuita National Park. We originally planned to camp on the beach of the National Park, but later found out that they no longer allowed it.

We found a room at a place called Spencers right on the beach for $25 a night. We could lay in bed at night and hear the surf pound the beach.

It seems that Spencers is one of a few businesses run by a family native to Cahuita. King runs snorkle surfing and fishing tours with his panga. The family also runs a cafe called Cafe Parquecito, which serves good fresh food really cheap, to a nice reggae beat. The Caribbean coast has a distinctly different feel than that of the other areas we visited, more of an islands, sort of feel. Lots of fresh fruit, mangos, papaya, pineapple, and bananas were all in season. Everywhere we went served fresh fruits for breakfast, dinner, cocktails, everything. In a Panama grocery store I was amused to see big beautiful pineapples selling for .25 cents for two. In the states they're a third the size for 1.50 a pound.

The night we arrived in Cahuita, we met King. He would be our snorkel guide the next day, he was soliciting for tours from his bicycle. We went out in his Panga with about 8 other German travelers, who didn't know each other. He was a big black guy that wore his life well. All the girls were immediately in love. He had my respect for the same reasons that I respected the guide in Nicaragua. He had been in Cahuita his entire life and loved it dearly. He had no ego, just a knowledgeable, gentle style that was very likable; the same qualities that make a good guide anywhere in the world. The water was a bit murky, but we could still see lots of colorful fish and coral. We went to a couple different places to snorkel then King said in his reggae accent "we swim here, then we go to the point and we eat fruit" it made everyone laugh. Some German guy finished chasing a stingray across the ocean and got back in the boat. We went to the point of land that was part of the national park and beached his boat. King got out a couple of huge pineapples and his hand made paddle. He set the paddle across the bow of the panga, sharpened a knife, and using his paddle as a cutting board he made quick work of the pineapple. He then served it up on the paddle blade. The salty sea water on the paddle added to the delicious fruit nicely.

After we ate too much pineapple we parted the company of the tour, and would walk back to town, about 4 kilometers, on the trail through the jungle. Before going back to town we walked a couple kilometers in the opposite direction between the fringe of the jungle, and the beautiful beaches. Along the way we saw a white faced monkey that was very habituated to people and their food. He walked right up to us and jumped up on the pack that Lisa was carrying. It was a good thing Lisa wasn't bitten or scratched, and it was probably a good thing we didn't camp because the habituated monkeys would've been a pain in the ass to deal with. Thats probably the reason the park discontinued camping. We found some neat little palm trees to hang out under for a while, did some more swimming, then started our 6 km. walk back to town.

When we booked a trip of 2 weeks to cross half of Central America we knew we would have to make sacrifices and not see or do some of the things we wanted to do. That's the reason for the quick crossing of Costa Rica. Even if we'd have taken six months to do this trip I think we would've still had to make those decisions.
As much as we loved Cahuita, we knew it was time to go. We would try camping again on the archipelago of Bocas del Toro, Panama. We packed up, and walked to Kings family's cafe. We got a quiet breakfast of eggs, with rice and beans. We sat in the morning shade, drank coffee, and read about the particulars of the Panama border crossing, then walked to the bus stop to wait for the bus to the border town of Sixola, Costa Rica. As we were leaving the cafe we said hello to King who was patrolling the dirt streets on his bicycle looking for his next crew of tourists.

The bus to Sixola made quick time, speeding through massive banana plantations. The border crossing to Panama was easy, and quick. I was really surprised at how fast we moved through. This border crossing is what I'd imagine some of the remote Asian borders are like. The physical border was a broad river with thick jungle on both banks. The bridge was a rickety affair, one narrow lane wide, with thick planks of wood for the driving surface. We shared the bridge with, among others, a Dutch traveler singing "if your going to San Fransisco", and an orange semi truck that wanted us to get out of his way.

checking out of Costa Rica

On the Panama side we quickly cleared customs and got a collectivo style taxi to the little town where the water taxi departs to Bocas del Toro.

Bocas del Toro, Panama
We again made quick connections at the harbor, entering a world of boats, and were on a fast boat to Bocas in no time.

We arrived in Bocas del Toro town about 3:45. We made such good time throughout the day that I thought we could possibly catch a ride to some deserted island and camp that night. With some work we discovered that we'd have to charter a special boat to suit our needs at a rate of anywhere between $90 and $140. That wasn't going to work so we, instead, arranged for a trip the next day for $25 each, round trip. The only thing special about our arrangement is that the boat, already on a tour, would leave us on a deserted island. We'd catch a ride back the next day with the next tour. Leaving the next day, we decided, would work out better because we had a lot to do. We needed to organize our gear, buy food and water, and check on camping permits at the park office. We also needed to book a regional flight to Panama City so we wouldn't be late for our homeward flight. With plans made to meet the boat at 9:30 the next morning, we got a room for the night at the Mondu-Titu in the so called tree house, changed clothes, and got a plate of fish for a late lunch for about $4 each. We went to the local grocery store where I had about the most challenging experience of my life trying to outfit a night of camping. We got some pitiful food for dinner and breakfast, but it would pack well enough. We also got a 1 liter box of red wine, which would prove to come in quite handy for some deserted island, sunset watching.

tree house

I think the night we spent camped on a deserted island (Cayo Zapatilla), off the coast of Panama, was the highlight of the trip. It was an experience straight out of a childhood dream. It was definitely one of my goals for the trip and I couldn't be happier about the way it happened. We were pretty much just lazy for most of two days. We did a bunch of swimming, and got too much sun. I didn't have to look far to my caveman ways, that helped me open a coconut. Behavior that I don't think impressed my sweetie. I wouldn't recommend opening a coconut with a pocket knife. My inner caveman also allowed me to make fire. Since I'm a feign for coffee it was necessary to heat water, since the airlines won't let people pack a stove.

Cayo Zapatilla

We debated for a while about staying another night on the island. We didn't exactly have enough food and we drank all the wine the night before, so it would've been a bit more like Gilligans Island. We thought we could try a surf lesson the next day if we went back to town so thats what we did. As it turned out it was a very, very, good thing we went back to town that night. We got the last room at Hostel Calypso on main street. We dropped our filthy packs, went out for a look around Bocas, and signed up for a surf lesson for the next day.

We got lucky by not really having any rain the whole trip. Even though we traveled during the dry season everyone talked about how wet it was everywhere we went. On looking around it was easy to tell that these people knew how to deal with rainfall. Sometimes the engineering of little gutters and spillways for rain water run off was quite impressive. It seemed that corrugated steel roofing was a popular material that people would use on most buildings. Late that night I woke to a loud pounding on the tin roof. Even though it was loud it was kinda peaceful especially since we weren't still out on that island.
Now I gotta preface this with a little perspective: I grew up in Oregon, I've lived in Georgia and North Carolina, I've seen the rains that cause flash floods in Utah, I know what a good soaking rain looks like, but I can't remember when I've ever seen rain like what came down that day. We got up in the morning and sat on the covered porch, with coffee, looking at the rain, astonished with how lucky we were that we didn't stay another night out there on Cayo Zapatilla. We walked to the store to get a few groceries for breakfast, then came back and made pancakes and eggs.

In the afternoon we went out in the rain for a surf lesson. We didn't get one photo of it. Lisa did well getting up on at least 5 or 6 waves. I pretty much sucked, but it was beautiful being out in the big swells while the rain came down. I was fascinated with the feel of swimming under the big breakers. A lot different than swimming in whitewater rapids, but very fun to feel the power of the surf. The guides took us out to a deep reef break where they said we wouldn't hit anything on the floor of the sea, but Lisa made contact with something that put a good scratch on her foot.

Homeward bound
Little did we know that when we woke the next morning it'd be 42 hours before we slept again. What a shocking way to end such a relaxing experience! We cooked a Valentines Day pancake breakfast then packed up to go to the airport. We purchased air on a regional carrier that was a subsidiary of Tica Air. It was a nice change from the assholes that US airlines have turned into since 9/11. When we were on final approach to the airport in Panama City we had a perfect view of the Bridge of the Americas and the entrance to the Panama Canal.

Panama City, Panama
We flew into the regional airport, but we would depart from the international airport later that night, which was over 20 km., across a town of nearly a million people. We got a taxi from the airport into a part of town called Caledonia. Lisa said it reminded her of NYC. We wanted to check out some artisan markets, do some shopping, get some food, then go to the airport later. We managed to stay out of the occasional downpours. As the afternoon waned the market and streets grew more and more busy. I must say that the chicken buses of Panama City took the title of the best chicken buses I saw during the entire trip. These guys put some pride and festivity into these things. We got some chicken and rice with lentils for about $4 for us both. The food in Panama City was probably the cheapest of the trip.


We waited for a break in the rain then made the half block hike to the bus stop. We caught a chicken bus to the Tocumen airport. It was a pretty miserable experience. It took probably 3 hours and was very hot. It cost us 50 cents each for the ride, but I wouldn't recommend it. If I were to do it again I'd go to the bus terminal at the regional airport and catch a more direct bus. We did it because we had plenty of time so we thought why not. It was definitely an experience that made us very glad to see the airport.

This day was already huge beyond scale and it was still over 24 hours from being done. I was thinking most of the day how I was going to find my sweetie a valentines day present. It was well after dark. We had been about 2 hours on the chicken bus, and were stuck at another piece of big city, traffic gridlock, with horns blaring, and motors revving. One of the passengers had a nice Caribe sounding beat playing on his cell phone. Lisa was sitting, smashed against a wall by some dude. I was standing with our backpacks in the back of the bus in the cargo zone. From my position I could see, through the steamy windows, a guy walking through traffic, carrying a bunch of roses. I didn't really think anything, I just stuck my hairy mug out the window and yelled at him. I gave him $2, he gave me one rose, just as the bus rolled out of his reach. I gave the rose to Lisa and I think I was just as surprised as she was, especially when it earned an applause from inside the bus. It was a grueling day, but it was the best Valentines day ever.

We finally got to the airport and filtered a quart of water in the bathroom, which I proceeded to slam. We went to the airport cafe and ordered some fries and a couple beers. They wanted to close, so we went and found ourselves a spot on the floor to wait until we could check in at midnight. The gate area was full of weird security checks. We left Panama around 3am, arriving in Ft. Lauderdale about 7am. Our next connection didn't leave until 4pm so we took the bus to the beach to spend the day there. It was cold in the morning, but quickly warmed up into a nice day for more beach sittin'. We got into Las Vegas around 11pm. Spirit Air didn't say anything about being late so the person picking us up would know. I wouldn't recommend flying Spirit Air for more reasons than what I'll crow about here.
The trip was fantastic beyond what I could explain here. We weren't ripped off, and never felt unsafe. If I had it to do again, I'd do it just the same, especially the part about the person I got to travel with.

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