Having a San(d) Blas(t)

From Bocas del Toro we took a 10 hour bus into Panama City. We had 1 day and some shopping to do. Incredibly, we spent our entire day shopping at Albrook Mall – a vast, sprawling temple worshipping the consumer gods. Seasickness tablets, beach blanket, quick dry swimming shorts & deck shoes for Jim, and a new snorkel set to replace the ones we left in the Nicaragua taxi etc. Too tired at the end of all that to actually see any of Panama City.

Loaded up with a LOT of dollars to pay our captain, deposited in various pockets and pouches, we jumped on a bus to Colón and then spent a hot 2 hours at the heaving chicken bus station waiting for (or on) our bus to Puerto Lindo where the boat was anchored.

Chicken buses have interesting personalised liveries.. check out the CSI fan!

Sights at the bus station included drunks drinking strange colourless liquid from what appeared to be the same receptacles they were using to fuel the buses, and a million hawkers selling anything from crisps, drinks and fruits to a broken watch and a radio aerial. Eventually we were all packed in tight, and off the bus went.

At Puerto Lindo we met 4 others who’d been on the same bus, and the rest of our 12 person boat crew. 2 from Poland, 1 from Alaska, 1 from New Mexico, 2 from Canada, 2 from Ireland, 2 from Switzerland, and us. Oh, and an Argentinian Captain and French first mate. Plenty of beers later…

… we got a lancha to our boat, the Amande!

There ensued a debate about who would take the 3 person cabins….

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Knicker Bocas Glory

It never occurred to me that Panama would be beachy… in fact I’ve never really thought about Panama. What a nice surprise it is.

I love a good bordering.. and Costa Rica into Panama was incredible. Shuttle for an hour out of Puerto Viejo, backpacks on for a walk across an amazing rickety bridge over a river, prove at immigration that you have booked exit from Panama, into a shuttle for another couple of hours to a dirty port town, into a boat for 30mins and arrive at these lovely mangrove islands (Bocas del Toro islands), a couple lined with houses on stilts. We got off at Isla de Bocas, the main town, at about lunchtime.

Panama is significantly more poor than Costa Rica judging by the shuttle through towns and, in particular, the port town.

But Isla de Bocas is really pretty as you arrive.

Stayed at Hotelito del Mar – right in the centre of town, with a fridge… YAY! Philly and tomato sandwiches for dinner! And as packed lunch the next day when we went on a snorkelling trip! And the next day as breakfast!

Snorkelling trip was cool for $20 each, but not really snorkelling – more visiting, with an older gang of travellers. We went to Dolphin Bay and watched dolphins leaping in the wake of our boat. We snorkelled Coral Key and had lunch nearby (we brought our own packed lunch – philly sangers and apple – since we’d heard it was expensive ($15) and not great).

Then we headed to Red Frog beach and hung out for a while. We met a nice guy that we’d been on the shuttle with the day earlier, had a couple of beers, a swim and Jim and I played beach games (‘hit the coconut with the coral’, noughts and crosses etc). Red Frog is famous for… yes… a species of red frog. Very small (fingernail sized), bright, scarlet red with black spots. They don’t apparently frequent the beach area, but because the locals know tourists want to see them they catch them and take them around for tips. That’s how we know what they look like (although we saw it before tips were asked for and we refused). Sad really. Poor frogs.

As we got out of the boat at Red Frog the Captain had said to us “you have two hours”. We reckoned that meant about 4.20pm. When we got to the boat about 4.25pm, everyone was there and clapped us – apparently we were late, the Captain had said 4pm (to them, at least). An American guy behind us had been trying to convince them to leave without us. Frustrating unjust wrath of our elders, we scarpered when we got back to Bocas Town. Had a nice curry for dinner though, so all was well (poppadums and naan were a bit similar and both resembling tortilla, and the madras was basically paprika.. but, you know, nice to try).

Random sight of the trip. Eating curry, ruminating on Kierkegaard’s theory that

“those who do not bore themselves generally bore others; those, however, who bore themselves entertain others”

.. (as you do over dinner!), looking out at the main road through town, we saw this guy flying his plane!

Plane was constructed out of paper and cardboard, was incredibly accurate, and even had take-off/landing lights which he turned on when he was about to run and create take-off! It flew for about 10 seconds behind him. Adorable. I sincerely hope someone buys him a plane ticket one day.

BRRR for beers in Bocas was not too bad, about $2 during happy hour, so the next day we watched the rain and face-timed, had some beers at Buena Vista and some jumbalaya, and then had a few more beers watching the American Play-offs. Met Jill E Bean and had a hilarious conversation about meeting people travelling and trying to convince them our profession is “Tickling”. We, of course, roughed out the basics to make it believable. Pro-Tickling takes two forms; combat and therapeutic. Combat allows defence manoeuvres (cup hands to guard for underarms, for example) and special accessories (tickling feathers attached to elbows, for instance, the best being peacock feathers which can be sheathed in the bum crack ready for use). “Ultimate Tickling” takes place in a cage, the first to laugh is the loser. We set a challenge; introduce yourself to someone as a professional tickler and report back on Facebook. Jill E Bean has done it, we have – as yet – failed.

On our final morning we had to get up and take a boat at 7am. Unfortunately, there was no water in our hotel room. And reception didn’t start until 7.30am. So not only could we not shower, a slight inconvenience, we had to write a note and apologise to the cleaner for the lack of a convenience and the resulting Jumbalaya curled up in wait for her.

 

Other important conversations:

While eating a sandwich, Emily sniffs armpits..

“Aaargh, oooof..”

“Blimey, that must smell bad!”

“No, I bit my tongue.”

“Yes, well I didn’t want to say anything either.”

 

“What could we do as a job together when we get back then?”

“Well, maybe a guesthouse.. although my view of that is entirely driven by Gogglebox, that pair seem to just sit there and have nice drinks every night. I’ve clearly got rose tinted glasses about it.”

“You mean rosé tinted glasses.”

 

 

 

 

Costa (very) Rica

Our time in Costa Rica was very brief (5 days), but in that time we saw such a rich diversity of life and fun stuff to do that we’re sure we’d like to go back and investigate further.

We shuttled in to San José all the way from San Juan del Sur. A long journey, we started about 11am and arrived maybe 8pm, via Tica bus – but it was comfortable and had plenty of stops. Scenery suggesting more infrastructure and a better economy – good roads, a lot of road/bridge construction, houses set back from the road with entrance gateways, car ports, hedges. Odd thing to notice, but grass… there was a lot of good, lush grass everywhere. Tellytubby hills, closely cropped verges. As we climbed our way towards San José the scenery turned to sun setting behind mountains.

Stayed at a small downtown hotel (Casa69) which was cute and comfortable. I’m sure San José had lots of interesting things to see, and was refreshingly cool after San Juan, but we were bound for the Pacuare River at 7.30am the next morning so we had a KFC (expensive) and went to bed!

Exploradores Tours picked us up promptly with about 15 others, and off we travelled through the city and out up mountains and through cloud forest to get to the river. Stunning jungle covered mountain scenery, with waterfalls falling down either side of the road into specially constructed gutters. Our guide, Roberto, gave us some info on Costa Rica along the way – over 280 volcanoes, never had an army, cloud forest is in cloud 95% of the time and you distinguish it by plants with gigantic leaves (and so on). Roberto also briefed us on river rafting, the commands and the safety procedures. Bit apprehensive – “if you find yourself under the boat, just use your hands in one direction to find the edge, don’t feel around randomly” – but very exciting.

We left all of our luggage (apart from sun cream and water) at their centre near the river and drove to the water’s edge. Life jackets and helmets on, about 7 people in each of 4 boats.. and off we go!

Easy rapids at first, slipped off my perch almost immediately – INTO the boat luckily – but that was enough to learn how to stay in place for the remainder. Every 5mins or so you come to another rapid. They have names like “Ai ai ai” or “Double Drop” or “The Cemetery”… and were just the right mix of easy to hard (up to level 4) for beginners. Some just bob you up and down but you can still sit and look up, some are long and VERY bouncy and you have to keep paddling to stay upright, others we had to duck into the boat to ride out in safety. We must have passed hundreds in the 4 hours we were rafting. On a few occasions we were allowed to get into the river to drift along in the fast-moving current, tipping our boat upside down on purpose for fun. Your raft mates have to haul you back into the boat by your life jacket.

So, the activity is great fun. Would prefer to kayak next time I think, bit more scary.

BUT – the scenery is absolutely stunning, its like a film set. It was serene, dream-like, floating along between rapids. Navigating between huge boulders and canyon sides that climb as steep rock face to mountain-top jungle. Waterfalls cascade down either side into the river (some you take a shower under), old rickety bridges cross here and there, a pulley & cage system is still in use. The indigenous people still live here as they ever have, fishing the river and taking from nature (heart of palm, sour palms etc). We, unfortunately, didn’t see much wildlife (no monkeys or sloths or cougars) – but plenty of birds and butterflies.

After the raft we had a great lunch and were shuttled on to Puerto Viejo with our luggage, saving a trip back to San José and transport costs. Fell asleep immediately in the shuttle. Ha ha ha.

Puerto Viejo was hot, humid and raining. Oh, and muy caro! Costa Rica literally means “rich coast” and it fully lives up to its name. Lots of tourists here.

We stayed at a more expensive hotel on the first night because the hostel we wanted wasn’t available. Night of luxury we thought. WRONG! The cabin was tiny, dark and smelled really strongly of ammonia. Its outrageous the price they get away with. Too tired to argue, we dealt. Felt very sorry for the couple in the adjoining room – suspect it was their honeymoon, and not only did they have to stay at Coco Loco Lodge, but said it had rained every day for the past 5 days.

It rained all the next day.

But we didn’t care. We moved to a lovely big room in a hostel (Pura Vida) with a great communal area of tables and hammocks, with loads of humming birds darting in front you, amazing bright turquoise spotted frogs on the lawn and pretty birds fluttering by.

“I hope there are hammocks on our boat from Panama to Colombia”

“Imagine hanky panky in a hammock”

“‘Hammocky Panicky’. No.. wait.. that’s not right.”

“Really?”

$45, compared to $74 a night at Coco Loco. Loco prices, but not as loco as Loco.

Scared ourselves by doing the budget. Depression mode ON.

Coping mechanisms include:

1. Food planning: Pringles for breakfast (fruit in supermarket also very expensive), and dinner at Sodas. A soda is a sort of cheap cafe style restaurant, they do pinto gallo (tipico breakfast with rice and beans), burgers, Carribean chicken and rice, some pasta dishes etc for a decent price (£3-5 a meal).

2. Beer planning: Beer at the supermarket was $2 a bottle, and, not wanting to discover what bar prices were (Puerto Viejo is certainly not lacking bars and night-life. We think!), we preferred a couple of cans in the room if we fancied a beer in the evening.

3. Writing out a list of things we’re thankful for over here to lift our spirits:

  1. Fresh Washing. When you wear everything a few times, when they get damp and smell terrible but you can’t dry them because its so humid, the smell of fresh, clean and dry washing is magical.
  2. Internet in your Room. Lying on your bed researching rather than getting up early to connect before everyone else is up.
  3. Non-Floor Rucksack Space. Its really annoying dipping in and out all the time, or packing, when its on the ground. A spare bed is Heaven.
  4. Hot water. A lot of hostels, even hotels, don’t have hot water. Not first thing in the morning thanks.
  5. No smell. Or clean smell. Just not ammonia, or sewers.
  6. Circadian Rhythm. Never waking up to an alarm. My natural rising time is 7.30am. Jim’s is… different. On the rare occasion we’re getting up early for transport, I wake up just before the alarm via some sort of ESP. Emily Sensory Perception.
  7. Advertising Artifice. Not being forced to waste mind space on it – for work, or entertainment (because we don’t understand the ads even if we see them!).

There, that’s better.

We hired bikes on our last day and cycled the 12km or so up the coast, stopping at the beaches along the way. Cocles is first, a busy sand bar with swimming and surfing waves. Then there’s Chiquita, bit too much coral/rock for swimming. We stopped to swim and read at Punta Uva.

Only perhaps 10 people on the stretch of beach we chose, couldn’t see other beaches or people.. lovely. A howler monkey family came past the trees lining the beach.

“What wildlife can you see?”

“I can see a white ape!!!”

“I can see a rude cow.”

Saw a toucan and more monkeys on our way to the next beach, Playa Grande. There were strong waves, great for surfing but not swimming so we sat under the trees on logs and ate our empanada picnic watching the crabs and the 2 surfers. No one else around.

The road to the final beach (Manzanillo) became a bit hilly on our clunky bikes so I(!) decided we’d give it a miss.

What a perfect way to spend a sunny day.

We’d love to come back for a 2 week holiday, do some kayaking, cloud forest and jungle tours, learn to surf and party (that will be a quick lesson!) at the beaches with the benefit of holiday funds.

San Juan del Sur(e)!

$25 dollars each got us a comfortable shuttle bus from León through Granada (beautiful Colonial style city), San Jorge (the port for Isla de Ometepe, from which you can see the amazing island formed by two volcanoes) and on all the way to San Juan del Sur in about 6 hours. In an ideal world we would have stopped at both places for a couple of days, but time and money make the rules here.

It was so comfortable that we giggled all the way.

“You could add a Venn diagram to your blog. Venn-erate.”
“Venereal”
“Oo, why did you go there?”
“I thought we were just doing words beginning with ‘ven'”
“Venting”
“Ventriloquist”
“…. you took the words right out of my mouth…. and you didn’t get my first joke did you?  2 for 2”

It is interesting to watch the change in countries as you travel by shuttle. You only see a snippet of the country, of course, but outside the cities and tourist spots. Guatemala was mostly corrugated shacks, dirt yards and some breeze block structures. El Salvador had more tiled roofs, bigger houses, flowers and fairy lights. Nicaragua has plenty of shacks, but fewer – more tiled/brick buildings with gardens and barb wired boundaries. It is important to remind yourself how most people inhabiting this planet live, and how lucky we are. Its clearly better in some countries than others, you can see the a small differential here but most of the World is significantly less well off than us. Nearly half the World population lives on $2.50 a day, 1/6th in extreme poverty (under $1.25 a day). If we did this trip again, we would choose fewer countries and spend time volunteering.

Arrived in San Juan and walked down the beach into town.

Geared up for tourists. Prices to match. Lots of waterfront restaurants, although the town is still quite small and we could find a couple of cheap eateries with local food.

It has come to our attention that a lot of travellers are sporting moustaches. And not because the ladies no longer have access to beauty salons. Its a curious trend, obvious in its clamouring for identity as opposed to aesthetics. We spent the evening developing a new game… Merv Hughes Cookie Duster Challenge! Its cricket, but you win runs by spotting a tache. Black or brown is one run, grey is a 4, and blonde is a 6. If you spy a ginger one, however, you’re out and its the next person’s go.

Jim is now on 20. And all because older American (or German like Clemens, the owner of our hotel) men have their own trend going on – “the silver lip surfer”. We have had to readjust the scoring in response. Those greys are relegated to 1-pointers.

We spent a good deal of time battling with the terrible wi-fi trying to book onward travel, hotels and a rafting trip. Eventually managed it and went out for a day/night on the town. Plenty of Nica Libres (Flor de Cana rum – yum!- and coke) at Republika chatting to the expat gang.

Not much else to report about San Juan. It has a cliff top Jesus we didn’t end up having time to hike up to, and some nice beaches just outside of the town (Hermosa, Maderas) which we wanted to visit but were reluctant to pay the $35 dollars quoted for transport.. phew!

Got a taxi on our last day to the Tica bus stop. We got our backpacks out of the boot, and just as the driver pulled away we realised we had left the snorkel gear in the boot. We waved frantically but off he went. Nothing to be done. Pretty annoying as we bought the gear in Mexico intending to save money in Costa Rica and Panama, and had taken it across 5 borders.. only to lose it immediately before we needed it. Gah! Always something when you’re en route…

León – A Tale of Two Cities

Another day, another travelling saga. We had to drive out of El Tunco 2 hours late, in the wrong direction, to rescue a shuttle coming from Antigua that had suffered a late start, two flat tyres, and a bag falling off the roof. Doubled back after picking up an insane amount of people (16!). Upshot was that we arrived in León at 11PM (instead of 4PM) and our hostel had given our room away.

Found an alternative for a night (with pool and air con and a bigger price tag) and then had to try and get our heads around the comparison when booking back into the hostel the next day. It was fine as a hostel, clean but basic. But there was no AC (although we had booked it). No pool. No cool communal area to sit – just some uncomfortable logs. Rough around the edges.

We went out and tried to have a nice day, found Paz y Pan for a really great lunch (proper multi-grain bread that was so good it was like eating cake!), but had to retire for respite back at the hostel because of the heat. León can be ridiculously hot.

However, the hostel offered no respite from 36 degree heat of the city. Stifling. We just sat on the logs in the “garden”, staring and sweating, not talking. I was finding it nearly impossible to accept I had to stay here, but the guy had kicked out the people he let stay in our room so we felt beholden, and we really have to stay on budget. To be frank, were it not for the former reason I would have ignored the latter. What is the point of being somewhere if you’re so hot you can’t move?

Once darkness had fallen, we spent a couple of hours drinking beer in a tapas restaurant trying to jump-start my brain out of some kind of heat malfunction:

“Beer won’t be good for sunstroke”

“But at least I won’t be miserable. Tough choice”

Eventually had a nice night learning the Nicaraguan pool rules at a local hostel/restaurant (“Pool Ocho”) and discussing the Panama-esque Canal they are building with the Chinese through Nicaragua. Not everyone is happy (those that will be displaced) but everyone recognises the potential benefit to the economy.

The night in the hostel was, as expected, uncomfortable. Bad beds, woke up at 5am to shower and cool down, my hands and feet and brain were strangely swollen and stiff. And, as expected, I have an instinctive response to a lack of basic comfort – I didn’t like Leon and didn’t want to do anything the next day. So, we went to the nearest hotel with AC and booked a room.

“You have a syndrome. Princess Syndrome.”

We felt really terrible telling the hostel (he’d made the AC room ready for us and didn’t understand why we were leaving) – but not as happy as we felt moving to a hotel with a great pool, and wonderful room with balcony and queen-size bed, and really cold/quiet AC. Elation!

That day, León became a different city. We swam and read, had a couple of beers, and planned an evening out to sample Nicaraguan steak. I woke up the next day in reflective mood, brain engaged, ready for some investigating and fun. We went to the roof of the Cathedral and we learned how to “Revolution” Leonese style with Rodriguez at El Museo de la Revolucion. Rodriguez, who talked us through their Sandinista and revolutionary history in Spanish (we understood just enough) was in a photo with a rifle as a 19 year old in the uprising against the Dictatorship. Amazing. The Museo, run by Revolutionaries, is very simple – just photographs, newspaper cuttings and a few artifacts in the old Courts of Justice where Somoza hid – but very effective at telling the story.

The day after we went to see modern art at Centro de Arte, Fundacion Ortiz-Gurdian. They had art from all over Central America, and one particular piece (a painting of a coca-cola bottle with traditional colourful woven fabric as the fuse of a Molotov Cocktail) really resonated after seeing a real one at the Museo. Fascinating and enriching.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a shop and bet on which would be the quickest queue:

“My shopping line was SO much faster but you made me stand in this one. I want that time back please that you’ve just cost me.”

“Oh, we’re talking time back are we? I’ll have the last 8 years please.”

And of course on the 5th we watched Liverpool vs AFC Wimbledon on our little balcony.

León has a great history and culture, I really love the city now!

Also makes for a good tan if you have a pool:

“I can’t tell what’s tan and what’s dirt to be honest, León is a swirl of dust”

“Your tan is coming along leaps and browns!”

Relief is a wonderful emotion. We revelled in it for 3 days. Its like the World is suddenly back at a safe distance again, having encroached too heavily on your senses forcing you to focus entirely on your discomfort rather than the things around you, creativity or playfulness (note the lack of jokes and photos!). Yep, Princess Syndrome it is. Comfort is a First World luxury. Comfort allows you to find your centre of gravity and everything else evaporates out into the ether.

And of course, with this realisation that I want to read and investigate and write and play in comfort, comes the notion of “champagne backpacking” and the fear of (shhhhhhh) budgeting. We are going to have to tone down that busy itinerary I have roughed out and do less if we need some basic comforts. Isla Ometepe loses, and its straight to San Juan del Sur to a place with AC and a pool.

 

 

El Tunco for New Year’s Heave

Bussed it down to El Salvador from Antigua on the 28th. Hazel and Carlos got up early (con Puppy) to say “goodbye” – very sweet.

As we crossed the border things started to hot up, literally. Hot hot hot. I spent most of the journey paranoid about the hair dye I had positioned in my bag in such a way that it would be in direct sunlight for the entire trip. Nothing to be done about it, but still my brain paralyses itself with constant attention to the prospect that something will blow up. The incessant focus seems to assuage an urge, scratch an itch – its entirely compelling. Mother’s advice “stop thinking” coming to mind, and instantly being ignored. My brain is like a naughty child intent on needling parents to see where the boundaries begin.

6 hours later we arrived in El Tunco without any holes in the shuttle van roof and other passengers’ bags still intact. The journey was nice actually, tracking winding roads along the pacific coast, reflecting that El Salvador seemed to have a little more infrastructure than Guatemala (more houses with tiled roofs, decent cars/trucks, better roads, roads that seem to have been planned to take advantage of shade from trees).

Spent the first night in Tekuani Kal – great balcony with view of the sea and the surfers, but very rough around the edges for the price. El Tunco is not cheap – $2 for a bottle of beer (according to our classic ‘beer reference relative rating’ – the BRRR!).

Went out for a swim in the most fun sea I have been in. Big waves crashing close to the shore, large enough to knock you over and tumble you upside down and around if you don’t duck under them in time. Laughed a lot. Bit of a scary moment swimming out slightly too far. Jim face-scraped the sea bed. Sand everywhere.

Had a quick look around town – very small, but lots of bars and enough choices for places to eat.

And then admired the sunset… ohhhhh the sunset at El Tunco is out of this world. EVERY night. Majestic.

Obligatory sunset pictures:

Moved to a much nicer hotel (Eco del Mar) the next night – treehouse style, large room, new and neat, fridge and kitchen sink, free breakfast. If it also had hot water it would be Perfection (oh, and if someone also killed all the cocks in the village that sang their dawn chorus from midnight until 7am – and I’m not talking about partying backpackers).

We had wanted somewhere decent to spend the inevitable hangover day after New Years Eve. Which is exactly what happened.

Went to a local bar. Drank tequilas and chatted to people. Kicked off the flip-flop encumbrance and danced in another bar. Home about 2am. Paid for it the next day #unabletomove. Little hurly wurly at about 5ish the next evening. That bad.

The balance really isn’t adding up these days. Too much pain for very little gain.

Had to get up at 5.30am on the 2nd Jan to pack our bags & organise things in time for our 7.30AM shuttle to Nicaragua. Which didn’t end up leaving until 9.30AM.. and there lies another story. Gekko trails is getting another bad review.

 

Other things that happened:

New ad for craft beer (after we had a drink in Mopelia and noted that good beer leaves rings around the inside of a glass):

“Ribbed for HIS pleasure”

New name for Chinese restaurant (we ate at ‘Take a Wok’ every night apart from one, when we ate Frosties (Azucaritas!)):

“Won’t Leave you Wonton”