Archive for June, 2009

Flux: Panama City

Friday, June 26th, 2009

As surely as we keep counting down degrees of latitude, do our daily experiences continue changing. Panama city is a jarring conclusion to our Central American traversal.


Given it’s position on the isthmus of the northern and southern American continents and also of the oceans Pacific and Atlantic, this seems entirely appropriate.

In fact it’s a point of intense fascination for me – going even beyond my regular interest in the arbitrary political boundaries that define borders between countries.


Carve a channel down the middle of the nation – in arguably the most ambitious, massive scale engineering project ever undertaken – connect two oceans to forever revolutionize global trade, and you’ve got a place with a thoroughly unique perspective on the world.


After the day’s heat passed yesterday afternoon we explored the old city in detail, enjoying the aspect cast by modern sky scrapers crowding the far edge of the bay, and the container ships slowly entering and departing the Pacific Ocean.


I was struck with the thought that in amongst this Spanish colonial quarter where – the impending tourist boom notwithstanding – a watchful eye has been cast over silent ships that for 95 years have facilitated the fusion of people, culture and produce throughout the world. All squeezed through a channel just 32 metres wide.

The Miraflores locks provided the full canal experience earlier that day, and for me was certainly a highlight of the trip so far.


Elsewhere in the city we’ve been re-acquainted with American style customer service, and some rather excellent food, albeit at almost-USA prices.

We even made up for the last couple of months absence of red meat (and red wine) with an Argentine feast, so enormous that it left my stomach feeling a little worse for wear the next day.

Our trip for some Panama City style casino action also had us ahead of the house on departure.


A few essential items have been purchased – the shopping here is “good” in the American sense, but didn’t live up to expectations in terms of either price or variety.

We’ve traded our Central America Lonely Planet guide for the South America one, and have booked onto the crazy Austrian captain Fritz’s 50ft catamaran for the 5 day trip to Cartagena, Colombia departing Sunday June 28th. Sea-sickness pills at the ready. Speared lobster is anticipated.

So don’t be alarmed by a short period of silence whilst we’re on the high seas ;-)


Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

It’s undoubtedly a pretty wild place here in Bocas.


We spent a few nights in “town”, which is the major settlement on Isla Colon. It seemed a delightful place to arrive after 12 hours of buses, taxis and corrupt immigration officers at the border. The gringo influence is strong, and consequently there are numerous sleeping and eating options.


The six of us wound up in an enormous room with a private oceanfront deck, and it was a fitting end to our time traveling as a group. We celebrated Jess’ birthday with champagne and piñata – the space proved to be an ideal venue.


Stories abound here of foreigners buying up land to live their caribbean dreams, years later encountering a corrupt judiciary undertaking land grabs on behalf of mates or other moneyed interests.

To be honest the concept of chasing the gringo tropical paradise here seems moderately insane. The barriers that exists even to such mundane tasks as having trees sawn into usable planks are enormous. Let alone the non-existence of western oriented industries such as competitive telephony providers, good coffee (ironically), and service to justify the ubiqutious service charge.


But – as always – great place to visit!

The rest of our group has since departed to Panama City, whilst we’ve boated over to Isla Bastimentos for a more serene pace.


Much less development over here, and a very interesting local culture comprised largely of migrants from the West Indies who speak an English / Spanish creole. An incredibly friendly lot, too.

We’ve hooked back up with Ryan and Daria from Canada – we’re going to chase coffee and good beach tomorrow morning, and well probably move mostly in step onto Panama City in the next few days.


Nicaragua to Costa Rica

Monday, June 15th, 2009


My lethargy toward blog posts is already in evidence – I haven’t written since Utila, Honduras.

In some respects we haven’t done a whole lot since then. Scuba diving was a substantial experience; but since then we’ve covered a lot of distance by bus (perhaps covered more hours than actual kilometres), wandered around colonial towns, rode motorbikes on beaches and around volcanoes, rode a horse named Bryan, and…

Ok actually we’ve done plenty. I’ve just been lazy. Internet has been sporadic.


Nicragua was thoroughly enjoyable to travel through. The itineraries made a lot of sense, the distances weren’t huge, the people friendly and the coffee & chocolate rather good.


The scenery varied sufficiently to keep someone with a short attention span interested.

This morning we departed the Isla (Island) de Ometepe on a very slow ferry. The island was formed around two volcanoes (one mildly active) inside Lake Nicaragua – an enormous fresh water body in excess of 8000 square kilometres.


A fascinating place, in some ways a window into the agrarian lifestyle / economy that, realistically, persists in most of the world today.

I rode a horse for the first time. Didn’t enjoy it much to be honest. I’ll take the motorbike option any day; on this particular day a 150cc Li Fan chinese dirt bike. Fun ;-) Don’t often get an opportunity to ride on beaches.


So after another full days’ travel (it seems impossible for transit days to take anything less than the entire day) we are here in the capital of Costa Rica, San Jose.

And what a contrast it is. We could be in absolutely any city; Melbourne even. It was raining and – imagine our collective shock – slightly cold. Around 20 degrees right now I think, which after our tropical acclimatization really does feel chilly with some wind.

Nothing too exciting here – interesting to me in just how much more devoloped and richer a place it is than the other Central American nations we’ve seen, but a commercially focused capital city it remains. The little things like slip lanes on freeway entrances reminds me of what the broad term “development” encompasses.

Sadly we’re not spending any time in the “real” Costa Rica. Time constraints for our travel buddies, and the costly nature of this place has encouraged us to pass right on through tomorrow morning to Panama. Specifically Bocas del Toro; a collection of islands in a Caribean paradise just in time for Jess’ birthday.

[Jess Writes] Beer & Dancing Pony Festival

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009


Upon arrival into Granada, Nicaragua it was loud. A cacophony of
amplified sound attempting to make as much noise as possible. Latin
Americans are really good at making noise.

We happened upon what we decided was a Beer and Dancing Pony
festival. Granada is a pretty colonial city and this event centered
around the main plaza and down straight past our hostel to the lake.
Hundreds of horses pranced in all their tassled and studded finery
down the cobblestoned streets. Revellers embraced Tona beers (event
sponsors) and even the cowboys clutched cans of beers atop the horses.

It was a great visual and aural spectacle. Whirling street performers,
café tables on streets and locals dragged out their rocking chairs to
the street to be amongst the action.


Later that night we discovered that the festival was actually a
national police celebration and most of the horse riders were in fact
police from all over the country. I wish we knew that we would’ve felt
a little safer in the crowds perhaps.

Now we are relaxing in a lovely homely hostel and preparing for a look
at some volcanoes and a stay in a jungle lodge.


All Scuba-ed Out

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

We finished our diving today with two “free fun dives” that were offered as part of our PADI Open Water course.


Fittingly, the final dive was the most enjoyable owing to the large amount of interesting coral and fishies. Choppy waves at the surface not so enjoyable, but the dramamine anti-nausea tablets worked splendidly.

I’m not in a huge rush to do any more diving just yet – it’s already starting to feel a bit “same old”, and quite a bit of effort goes into the actual prepare, boat, gear up, dive, return, clean up process. I expect after a break and a different location we’ll be keen to do it again.


So with that in mind, we’re leaving the island tomorrow morning. The group of 6 has successfully reconvened, and we’re heading South to Nicaragua. It’s probably going to be a long and painful series of buses to get there; and there doesn’t seem to be much worth stopping at along the way.

We’ll be leaving the Caribean shores to visit the Pacific coast. Should actually be some sand there, and some surfing, but the cold water might be a shock.

I still haven’t managed to shake my “in a rush” attitude toward life. If anything, around here I’d be better off deliberately killing time and drawing things out because the time supply is so plentiful, and activities in the heat of the day tiresome.

So after a couple of hours just now drinking coffee, reading books and enjoying the trade winds, I’m feeling good about keeping the pace slow. But am fully aware that I’m only pretending to not be in a rush. It’s a lifelong habit that will die hard, or perhaps not at all.

Utila is a strange place. The Hondurans who live here are in some respects immigrants in their own land. The Bay Islands (including Utila) were settled by the British who did their thing relocating / slaughtering the natives, and for a long time controlled the territory until Honduras decided it belonged to them.


The Brits made it successful enough to create jobs which encouraged Honduran “immigration” to the islands, which continues today.

The noticeable upshots are that most transactions are conducted in English, things generally work as advertised (no mean feat in Cerntral America), and backpackers dominate the culture.

No doubt it’s very easy as an anglo to spend time here – and I’m sure once the cultural and language barriers return as we proceed we’ll notice how easy things have been this week.

Now to head over to the Argentine food vendor for an authentic choripan; it takes me right back to the promenade in Puerto Madero. We’re going to BYO a pile of brocoli that we sourced last night. Nice.

Bar Babalú


Our regular night time hangout featured an “aquarium” carved out of the dock, where all manner of marine life swam in and out to entertain the drinkers.

Our favorites were the elusive colour changing octopus (“Octo”), and the somewhat scary stonefish who almost never moved, and could only be discerned by the red-eye giveaway from flash photography: