Sailing to ColombiaI spend 5 days sailing the San Blas islands and to Colombia. It was a lot of fun, first time on a sailboat and only one time seasick. There is not much to tell, no adventures, just sun, beach and sea... Here are some pictures to cause some jealousy :)
PortobeloI stayed in this little harbour town for almost a week, trying to find a boat to Panama. It used to be a pirate town, 5 old forts surrounding it still bear witness to this. It is a laid back, beautiful place, a good place to hang out and just meet people. Yachties come here for winter, to put their boats and themselves up on dry land for hurricane season. Although they do not stay dry, the favourite pastime seems to be sitting in the one bar (where I was staying) using the wireless and drink. There are people, even whole families who live full time on sailboats, they must be very patient people living together in such a small space and probably do not shower very much.
These people are not the rich part time sailors, but "gypsies" with boats, sailing by themselves all the way from Ireland, only stopping at the McDonalds, which I was told exists in the middle of the Atlantic. I am half sure that this was "Seemannsgarn", but Davie started playing guitar and singing really well after a few rum, so who cares.
I also met a crazy redneck (his word, not mine) from an eastern Texas who had been raised a creationist (they seem to be following me, these creationists), but managed to dedoctrinate himself. He had traded up to a small sailboat after being miserable kayaking in Florida. As he had bought the boat cheap he had to spend the next two years repairing it from top to bottom and learned how it worked on the way. The first time he ever sailed was leaving Florida. Kind of an extreme learning by doing, but he made it to Portobelo and offered me to have a look on the boat. What might have been a romantic date was cut short by me reacting very un -ladylike to the rough weather. The boat was anchored in the harbour, but shaken (to me) around quite a bit and almost throwing up made me a bit nervous about having to spend the next five days on a boat.
Finally a real city again. I never went to Guatemala City or Tegucigalpa as I everyone told me to avoid them if possible. Managua is not much of a city either, after an earthquake it was decentralised, leaving an empty city centre and suburbs. San Jose is not a nice place, it just seems like an endless sprawl of dirty streets and impossible to find busstations.
Panama City is everything that makes a city a city. Each part has a completly different feel. There is the sparkely business district, a place of designed living where the real life takes place in the smoking corners next to the buildings or behing the electricity box where the cleaning staff has his lunch and cats sleep in the shadows surrounded by pigeons. The high class cafes are empty and people huddle around the food carriages coming in from lower downtown.
Lower downtown is defined by the typical array of dirty streets, small shops and low hanging electricity lines defying all safety standards. These are the streets you might want to or avoid walking at night. In one people might be coming out to play, shops being open to cater to the night crowd and beers being drunk on plastic chairs under beach umbrellas on street corners. Others might be deserted and the only person you meet is the one that robs you.
An then there is Casco Antigua, combining the above with the Historical Centre.
It is crumbeling, there are ruins everywhere, next to nicely renovated houses, mostly hotels or restaurants, while the locals live in dark rooms in the crumbeling houses. One has a view of the glass towers of the business district from here.
Close to the city at the entrance of the Canal is the causeway. It has shops, reastaurants and amusement venues for the yachties and rich Panamians, but also space, fishing places and a beautiful view on the city and the waiting ships for the rest of us and the pelicans.
PicturesFinally I developed pictures, so here are pictures of Nicaragua: murals in Esteli, random placessuch as the mountain reserve where I saw the volcano errupt and Ometepe.
Of Panama there are pictures of the cloudforest on the way up Volcano Baru.
Taking a cab in Central America, the good the bad and the uglyThe good
Cabbies can be surprisingly honest. Often when I forgot to ask the price beforehand, they did not end up overcharging me. In San Jose, the only place in Central America where cab drivers use a meter, some used theirs without any argument and drove as far as I could tell straight to the destination.
I also met quite a lot awfully nice cab drivers, who ended up telling me their life stories, giving me advice about what to do in the places I was. I found this especially to be true in Panama City, maybe it was due to my Spanish improving to the point that I actually could have a conversation, though.
When I visited the Causeway in Panama City one cab driver that had driven me earlier that day waved at me merrily when he was passing in the opposite direction, which was nice.
Although some cabbies give a fair price overcharging is quite common, so it does make sense to ask a local before hand.
Another thing in Central America is that addresses are strange. Knowing a street name and the house number does not mean the cabbie will understand where you are going, street signs and signs in general are absent (if I ever have a lot of money I will donate it to Central American countries to put signs up) and addresses are referred to as "100m from that grocery store" or the like.
It does not help that the Lonely Planet sometimes finds it unnecessary to give the Spanish names of Tourist attractions or even streets and landmarks.
I had to convince one cabbie who tried to drive me to a place, but did not really know where it was to accept payment for the ride, as this was more LPs than his fault.
When my bike broke down in Ometepe and I was walking by myself in the dark the cabbie asked three times the normal price, clearly taking advantage of my situation.
In San Jose cabbies regularly tell their passengers that the hotel they want to go to does not exist or is closed down and even go so far as to drive you to the wrong address to then hassle you to a hotel they get commission from.
One cabbie did that with us and when we pointed out that we know it did exist he pretended to call someone and then drove us to the real place, saying there are to hotels with the name (BS!) and charged us extra for the "longer" drive.
Another horror movie scenario and two oceansI hiked volcano Baru. It is quite a hike, with around 1,700m of elevation. The 13.5km to the summit are quite uneventful, just a steep climb through the forest.
I camped on top and as I hiked to the summit to see the sunset I put up my tent at dusk. As soon as night fell the forest grew quiet. Dead quiet. No cricket, no bird, no sound at all. It was eerie to say the least, there was no one else camping and I felt as if I had stumbled into a horror movie. I started to collect wood and made a fire, just for some comfort. Bamboo does not burn well, especially if it is wet, after all I was camping in a cloud forest.
I did get a fire to burn and ate my sandwiches before crawling into mt tent. I actually had to use all my gear from Alaska again, made me feel good about carrying it through all of Central America as it was quite cold up there.
The next morning everything was different. I went up to the summit and actually saw both oceans and the sunrise. The view was amazing. The view over the Pacific was clear, while the Caribbean was all mysterious, with clouds drifting over.
When I came back to the campsite Hummingbirds were flattering around and the birds were singing. I did not feel like I might get attacked by Zombies anymore. I walked back down and it started raining at some point. I'm glad I camped up there, although it was kind of scary, just walking up and down would have made that trip a bit rushed and a bit exhausting as well.
Bordersjust after I wrote about losing things, I lost something again. This time it was my wash-bag and at first I thought losing my toothbrush is not so wild. Then I remembered that this where I hid my spare credit card. Still, I thought I can notify the bank, not worth going back to Costa Rica for. I laid back on my bed, having retired early as I wanted to hike the volcano Baru the next day, just to sit up again.
My jewelry case was in that bag. And in that case the silver cross that used to belong to my mom. It was pretty much the only piece of jewelry she wore every day and there was no question that I would let it be lost, if I can go back to get it.
I crossed back into Costa Ricathe next day, and crossing the border I thought I could give a little insight about border crossing in Central America.
Going by foot over the border always follows the same system, one finds the immigration office of the country one comes from, gets an exit stamp, pays exit fees if applicable, crosses the border on foot, find the immigration on the other side and gets an entry stamp, again paying for tourist cards, or entry fees.
Having small dollar notes with you is handy, the money changers use a rate far from what is said on the net, but are often the only way to change currency from the country you are coming from(I was stuck with pesos all through Guatemala and finally changed then on the border to Honduras). Make sure you change after you have paid the exit fee...
Here are the borders I crossed.
Mexico to Guatemala over Rio Usumacinta
Mexico immigration is on one side of the river, Guatemala on the other. Get your passport stamped before going on the boat. As I described before the bus driver and border official extorted money from us. Slightly scary and frustrating.
Guatemala to Honduras in El Florido
Nothing special happened here, walkover border as described above. Fines were all the official fines, we got a receipt and everything. I think it was 2 dollar to leave and 3 to enter.
Honduras to Nicaragua at Las Manos
The border itself was the same as Guatemala to Honduras, nothing out of the ordinary. There was a 2 dollar exit fee from Honduras (if you go by plane this becomes 35!) and the tourist card to Nicaragua was staggering 10 dollars. I guess they need the money. We got a receipt, so it was legit.
I did meet the slowest border official in the world, instead of giving us the entrance forms to fill out (like at every other border) he filled them out himself, checking every entry three times. He even managed to stamp slowly. For some reason one does not get a stamp in the passport, but a bunch of papers.
The annoying thing about this border were the two British girls I crossed with. They complained about everything, having to wait, having to pay ("they should pay us for coming here" they said.).
When we got on the bus to Esteli I sat myself away from them, before I could say something rude.
Nicaragua to Costa Rica
This was the most stressful border, not because it is fuller than the others, but because everyone kept hassling me. As soon as I got out of the bus a tourist guide jumped on me, pulling me to the immigration, talking excitingly and pressing the exit form in my hand. Meanwhile money changers were waving wads of money at me.
After I got my exit stamp, I tipped the guide, hopeing to get rid of him, but he was replaced by a lady from the bus company, pulling me towards the bus. I was busy putting the money away I had exchanged, trying to follow her at the same time, missed a step and fell flat on my face.
Everything fell out of my hand, I was afraid for my passport for a second, but Nicaraguans are nice, everyone helped me up and was concerned I had hurt myself, passport and money all staying with me.
When I arrived at the bus I had to wait 15 min for it to leave.
On the Costa Rica side I had to buy a bus ticket back to Nicaragua to be allowed to enter, which I disgruntled me even more. The nice American lady sitting next to me on the bus told me to roll with it after all I was on holiday in a beautiful country and I can't change it anyway. I noticed I was turning into the English girls, which shut me up quickly.
Costa Rica to Panama
This is the border I will be crossing for the third time today, as just retrieved my wash-bag. And lucky it is. This border is fun, it is a free zone, which means it is riddled with malls, little shops and food stalls. The whole atmosphere has something of an amusement park, Costa Ricans and Panamians coming here to shop. And migration is quick and hassle free on both sides, border officials being used to people coming over for a day.
The ticket I had to buy in Costa Rica has been useful, to enter again into Costa Rica and also to enter into Panama, as I need a return ticket for that as well, and for some reason a ticket from San Jose (CR) to Managua (Nic) seems sufficient.
10 days in Panamaor more or less, originally I thought I just go immediately to Panama City and then up to Cólon and Portobelo (where the sail boat leaves), but then I read the guidebook, so here is my new itinerary:
Cerro Punta (4 days)
hiking up a volcano in tropical heat, it is going to be so much fun, especially as I will probably take camping equipment with me to go camping at the top (sunset/sunrise!) From the top both the Atlantic and the Pacific ocean can be seen, so it is worth the climb. The hiking treck is 23km and is called: Sendero los Quezales
there are also more more hiking opportunities from cerro punta if I feel diligent.
Near Boquete (end of trail)there is a sanctuary for orphaned animals called Paradise Gardens
Golfo de Chiriqi (3 days)
Another hiking opportunity and a place to see lots of wildlife, one of the prettiest coastal areas in Panama. It is also a place to see turtles, so maybe I should do this instead of
Utila, or Utila instead of this
Panama City (2 days)
the Parque Natural Metropolitano offers a good view over the city and the channel
I will take the train from PC to Cólon along the channel and from there to Portobelo and the hostel where the sailboat leaves (in Puerto Lindo)
If I have to spend some time waiting for the boat I can go diving to an old boat and plane or enjoy the rare sight of a black sanded beach :)
I have to remember that it will not be possible to get money out after Cólon, but best to get it in Panama City, Cólon has one of the highest crime rates in Central America, because of a free trade zone, which increased the income gap dramatically!
And then my 4 day sailing trip to Colombia starts!
The Darien GapThe Panamericana has a gap between Panama and Columbia, real adventurers might try and cross it by bike or foot or SUV, but despite my interest in the local culture I feel that being abducted and killed by rebels and or drug traffickers might put a damper on my traveling experience. I do not want to fly, I dislike flying and find it too technical a solution to get from A to B, especially for this trip, the way is the goal!
I found two alternatives to dying in the jungle:
1. Take a sail boat
Pro: sail boat + Caribbean, there will be visiting of remote islands, bonfire on beaches, snorkeling etc.
Cons: Spending a week on a boat with backpackers, the price: 400-500$ which is not much more than flying and includes food, but still
2. Take waterbased "public transport", small motorboats transporting locals on the coast of Panama and Colombia.
Pro: much cheaper (probably around 100$), a less organised adventure, no groups
Cons: time consuming, messy, unreliable (waiting around in harbour towns unsure when the next ferry leaves)
Fortunately both options do not have to be organised in advance, which means I can go and see what my wallet and schedule sais, what I feel like and what people tell me on the road.
Sailing general information
Sailing one company and links to hostels (who can help with finding a boat)
Sailing two hostels in Panama with contacts
Ferry: map (the schedule is more wishful thinking I guess)
report of one who took the ferry