A Travellerspoint blog

Reflections on Central America

A few thoughts on CA as we ready to set sail for South America

Some notes to wrap up the Central American experience.

On traveling with Ariel and Jordan: I must say they are really amazing travelers and healthier than I. Jordan's main focus throughout the trip are the bugs quite simply, any bug. Ariel is still more impressed with shiny fancy malls, and fabulous hotels than anything else so I guess I have raised a princess. In that case I hope she takes me along for the ride once she is able to afford the extravagances. She does love all the animals both domestic and wild that we have seen along the way. She has also done a good job writing in her journal and reading everyday. She is doing well and Spanish and can communicate with shop and hostel staff. If anything stands out it is how comfortable they are in these foreign environments including mix bag of hostels we have stayed in. I worry about school as it is really difficult to study and focus on assignments in small rooms, buses, and hostels surrounded by people. Hopefully I will do better in Colombia. Or maybe I won't and I was not cut out for teaching.

Every country is different from the culturally distinct Guatemala to the polish and vibrance of Costa Rica and Panama. And they were all safe to travel through although I must admit I received less males gazes when the kids were right by my side. So in fact a woman traveling alone is better off with children.

The gastronomic experience: Started high in Mexico but slowly declined until we hit an all time low in Panama. As we moved south we noticed less fruit and vegetables being used. Strangely the fruit and vegetables section of supermarkets is really small and sad even though we are in a region where it can be grown abundance.

The scenery: Extraordinary and taking the bus is a great way to view it. Live and extinct volcanoes dot the country side amidst think jungle. The patterns of blown up volcanic tops leaving distinctive crater bottoms behind become familiar. The oceans are never too far away and where you have oceans you have beaches.

The climate: It's hot and dry or hot and humid. Then occurs the strange phenomenon of air con abuse. A long distance bus turns into a refrigerator so bundle up once on board. This goes for rooms, stores and restaurants, sometimes you have to stand outside to warm up while you order a meal. No wonder is hard to acclimatize!

People: They are helpful and kind everywhere, this place has a bad rap it cannot shake. And just when you thought it was safe someone throws in a coup for good measure. Thanks Honduras!

Hostels and backpackers: We meet the same people along the way in different hostels and countries. It's interesting watching the highway of backpackers of all ages. Tourism is down, they say due to the world economy, but this crowd is like a colony of red ants marching along steadily, a path up and down the continents. They are honest, cooperative, frugal, and accepting of conditions. The point of the hostel is not necessarily the comfort of bed and sheets, space or cleanliness. It's the cooperative of information, space, camaraderie and tools in a low key mature environment without hangups.

Money: It's more expensive than I imagined but then again there are three of us to keep equipped, fed, housed, moving, healthy and entertained. I hope I have done the right thing with this year rather than fix the house, buy a better house, invest in something, go to school. I hope the kids can draw on this experience in a healthy way when they are older. I hope they respect and understand why I did this and do not resent that I may be jeopardizing a year of their education.

Driving: I won't be biking in Central America any time soon so let's hope things are a tad better as we move south.

Architecture: Old and new, well preserved and crumbling but always more interesting than anything in Alberta. We loved looking at the architecture in different towns and cities.

Locals and foreigners: Locals treated us way better than foreigners that owned business that we used such as budget hotels and restaurants. To a local children are not a reason to put the price up, to a foreigner it is an extra person and the price goes up. The attitude is often up and looking down on many. That's not to say it was always the case but it was often enough that the kids noticed! Colonialism is not dead just changed.

Pictues of people: Why don't I have good cultural pictures of indigenous people or the everyday interesting person along the way? Well, a lot of people don't want their picture taken, it's intrusive and zoolike. It's also quite rude to snap a persons picture without their permission. Imagine yourself walking down the street in Canada and someone snapping a shot of you! I would love to have shots of the women in Guatemala and Panama in their everyday clothes that are quite cultural. I may at some point post a blog entry with downloaded pictures as they would do quite well.

Love to hear comments or requests for more and different pictures.Choco_and_Jordan.jpgPan_bus.jpgHostel_Wunderbar__3_.jpgPan_city_bus__3_.jpgDSC01761.jpgCoatimundi..kal__5_.jpgLa_Nariz__..atemala.jpg

I might think of a few more musings when we settle down and have time to reflect.
If anyone is interested in acommodations I have kept a list of places we have stayed.

Posted by sostrander 05:34 Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

El Valle de Anton and Santa Clara

Away from the City while we wait for a boat

rain

El Valle, a very small town in the mountains, is 2 1/2 hours from Panama City and an easy getaway for us.
Whenever I mention mountains in Central America I am referring to volcanic areas whether extinct or live. In Panama it's the extinct kind which I prefer. This town is peppered with beautiful well cared for homes and property both big and small. I had the impression that the folks here must have amazing pride of place but in fact these are all the country homes of the Panamanian rich. The rest of the town is very quaint and clean so in fact the locals do have quite a bit of pride more so than other areas that we have seen.
Ariel has the sniffles and I am feeling run down so we stay at a very comfortable hotel for two days. Although it's not in our budget the owner kindly gives us a break. The weather is overcast and rainy which takes the guilt away from my lack of energy.
The food at the two nearby restaurants is inexpensive, healthy, and tasty. This is a change from regular Panamanian fare often fried then deep fried. If it's not leathery they will deep fry it again.
The kids and I have fun at the thermal pools which include natural mud facials. Jordan and I hike above the thermal pools into the jungle and find a beautiful waterfall. These trails look easy but the wet rock, moss and ground make it a slippery venture not cool when you're hiking along the rivers edge.
I email other hostels looking for a suitable boat to take us through the marvelous San Blas Islands to Colombia. This has become a very popular way to travel to South America as there is no road connecting Central America to the south.
Some boats are party vessels and apparently the worst offenders can be the captains. Their elixir is not always of the liquid variety so I have to avoid getting stuck on one of these.

The next town is Santa Clara on the Pacific Coast but the weather isn't too cooperative for the beach. This town only has three hotels, really expensive, expensive and OK I can afford this for one night. As well there are few restaurants and they are all of the deep fried kind. My body is definitely on the revolt with this type of food. So one night it is and the kids have fun diving in the large pool. We meet a really nice family who live in Panama City but are from Venezuela. They tell us how their large family have all left Venezuela in the last two years due to security reasons, extreme poverty and they strongly blame Huego for their countries troubles. I have meant and spoken to enough Venezuelans to know we definitely will not be going there. In the night we all heard something drop from the dresser but we fall back asleep. The next morning we discover on the news there has been an earthquake in Panama City 6.2 and we slept through it except for the falling object.
The kids want to go back to the comforts and animals of Mamellana Hostel in Panama City and I need to kick the allergy problems with different meds or something. This won't happen in little puebla farmacias, I think I need a health food store also and an english speaking pharmacist.

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Posted by sostrander 05:12 Archived in Panama Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Panama City: the Great Canal

Crazy buses, fun hostel, and the Canal

sunny

We take the night bus from David and the kids and I manage to sleep the whole way. Miracle. On this bus we also meet a lovely lady and her husband. Rocio and Boris insist we have coffee at their home and drive us to the hostel. We are lucky as we discover the hostel has moved and it's 6am, it would not have been fun explaining to the cab driver that we didn't have a clue.
Mamallena hostel is welcoming and the kids have two new friends as the owner rescued a tiny kitten and puppy that morning. We set off for three days to explore Panama City starting with the Causeway, a man made isthmus connecting three islands to the mainland and towards the canal. Our itinerary includes Casco de Viejo or old Panama which was sacked by Henry Morgan and other warring factions, the seafood market, Miraflores locks, Panama Canal Train, Fort San Lorenzo, Central banking and tower area with it's majestic skyscrapers, and taxing around the city.
Panama City has it's rough areas where cab drivers won't drop you off, police and concerned citizens will escort you out if they find you wandering. The heat of Pan city is suffocating but there is lots to see and the history is fascinating ripe with stories of pirates, gold, American occupation. OK that's a strong word for their ownership of the Canal Zone but don't get a Panamanians started on this subject as they are passionate. Who can blame them?

Getting around Panama City is easily done by taxi which is fairly cheap and readily available. Now, the adventurous way to sight see is by crazy bus. I believe Panamanians are far too cosmopolitan, contemporary, and proud to use derogatory terms for these oddities. But when you see the artwork, accessories, and Christmas lighting, and huge mufflers on these rolling thunder buses you have to ask yourself where does this fit in, why doesn't this city have a light rail system. Apparently the new President has promised such transportation and until then you can catch a loud (these put the loudest Harleys to shame) fast, custom painted to reflect your religious, female, or heavy metal fantasy, accessorized with disco ball and shark fins, retired yellow school bus.

Our time with Chris is coming to an end and it's quite sad as we enjoyed backpacking with him. I am sure I will be a little lost without him and the kids will miss him too. I have tried to find a language school for a week while we search for the right boat to cross from Panama to Colombia. Unfortunately schools are expensive here so I will research the boat situation while we see some more pueblas outside of the city for a few days starting with El Valle.

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Posted by sostrander 05:44 Archived in Panama Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Boquete:

Damn the Volcano again!

semi-overcast

Boquete is a charming little town nestled in a valley once an active volcano. The climate here is a relief from the blazing heat of the coast. It takes two water taxis and two buses to reach our destination. Days of travel start early in order to cover ground before the sun reaches his maximum and everything takes much longer than the map projects. Once again the kids are awesome travelers, absorbing rough surroundings without complaint. Jordan is always full of questions and we have to tell him to put his queries on hold as we breathlessly carry heavy loads looking for the next station. It would be a perfect world if all bus stations and ports were in the same building or at least area.

We drop our packs at the first hotel opting for clean, spacious and pricey for one night. The young owner is German and perpetuates the old stereotypes of cold superiority so we know this will only be a one nighter. The grounds and building of http://www.islaverdepanama.com/ are immaculate yet our room has a couple of very annoying design flaws such as a tap reaching the edge of the sink rather than middle therefore splashing you not matter how careful you are. And once the shower is turned on full the hose will whip over and spray beyond the curtain giving the rest of the bathroom a nice little rinse. The next day we head to the comforts of Hostel Boquete on the river, it's run by a friendly gentlemen named Dave. We also meet a character name Richard Livingston, a Panamanian born American, who reminded me of the actors George Papard and Lee Marvin. He instructs us on the cheap reliable dinners and assures us he can provide us with equipment to climb Volcan Baru at 11, 400 feet. The next day we drop too much money on the only Zipline Canopy Tour in the area but it is a blast and everyone agrees it was worth it.

The day after we are loaded down with old sleeping bags, camping mats, warm clothing, and sugary food for the trek up the beast. You must be on the peak at 6am or else you probably won't see the Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and half of Panama as it is often shrouded in clouds. We will climb it one day, (approx. 5,500 feet) spend a night in the "HUT" and then down, sounds easy for experienced hikers of all ages especially with our Rocky Mountain training, Right? Excuse my language but it is a bitch of a climb especially with all the antiquated gear. Jordan is a jackrabbit but Ariel sluggishly moves one foot in front of the other like Chris and I. The road is rocky and washed out, the humidity is like a blanket of wet stones on my head.
When we arrive at the HUT seven hours later we realize our definition of HUT is vastly different than the Central Americans. The HUT has a tin roof (good), no walls, no doors, half the floor boards are ripped up for fire wood, garbage is strewn everywhere, the outhouse is a toxic waste site. The whole thing is disheartening and we are cranky for it, snapping at each other. The temperature drops, we humorously watch clouds float by our faces and Chris and I don't get a wink of sleep as we toss and turn on the uneven floor boards that are left. The next day we reach the top in time for pictures and to watch the cloud curtain roll in. Somehow my pictures don't turn out and I forgot to download Chris on my computer. We meet a young backpacker from Ireland who walked up at 11pm in the dark alone and he walks down with us for company. He grabs my weighty pack and insists on carrying it all the way down. Jody Lipsey said there were angels all around us the night before we left on our trip and this is one of those moments when I know exactly what she meant. We arrive at the bottom and Richard is there to drive us back to town, we comment on the state of the SHACK and he makes note of this, I hope it makes a difference to people going up. It should be done in one shot with no weight and not suitable for children due to the length of steady hiking up and down. Our Irish fellow assures us that if the kids can tackle the beast they will be fine doing the 4 day guided trek up Machu Picchu.
Later on that day we have a soda at a restaurant in town, a thud on an overhead entry window alerts us to a bird who continues to fly into the open doorway. Amazingly we are standing a foot away from a stunning toucan. These birds are shy and prefer living high on the top of jungle canopies, and they are as beautiful as pictures portray. We snap of pictures and videos before the owner catches it and wisks it away to the wildlife refuge on the edge of town. It's now time to leave Boquete and head for a few days in Panama City before Chris' plane.

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Posted by sostrander 04:30 Archived in Panama Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Bastimentos: Caves and more waves

Creole, Wadi Wadi, Latin and many others

sunny

On Isla Bastimentos there are several different local groups of people and one of them is Creole. I really love listening to this accent as it seems to be a blend of Spanish, English and French. We stay at a very charming hotel on the water owned by a Creole family called the Caribbean View, it's not quite in our budget so we will leave tomorrow. The food is awesome but not cheap.
The owners have very cute grandchildren who enjoy playing with Ariel and Jordan. We head off into the jungle for a muddy stroll to Wizard beach where toucans are calling up a storm. They are much smaller than I had imagined. Wizard Beach is once again almost empty and Chris is amazed at the waves which roll in from all directions and create a riptide in spots. Our evening is lazy but we do find our next accommodation called Raphael's house on the water. Although there is no air conditioning it does have two bedrooms, a large well equipped kitchen and an awesome deck with couch and two hammocks that hypnotize you into a water lapping slumber.
The next day we are off on an adventure with Luis, Zuly, and Nya (the cutest kid),who are part of the family that own the Caribbean View Hotel, for a boat and caving adventure.
Luis pilots us to the other side of Bastimentos and then through mangrove channels. It's crippy quiet through these tunnels of mangroves which open up into the jungle. We notice small tree canoes (hollowed tree,canoe with no seems) parked along the side of the banks because we are now in the indigenous area of the jungle. Luis parks the boat and we walk along a path that is semi farmed by such a family. We pay a small fee to walk across their land towards the cave. Along the way Nya spots many Red Tree Frogs which are poisonous but beautiful. Although the kids were excited at the idea of the cave Ariel soon discovers her greatest fear at the mouth of it, spiders! We hold her hand as we strap on necessary headlamps and head into the bat filled chambers. The walls and features of the cave are incredible with smooth mounds and stalagtite decorations overhead. The water is crystal clear as we wade in up to our hips to reach further into this wonderous world. We turn back as the passages become to tight and claustrophobic for some of us. This is definitely one of the highlights of the trip. On our way back through the jungle we come across a three toed sloth and he gazes at us with horror. Fortunately for us it took him fifteen minutes to escape our close lenses and watchful eyes.
In tribute to Mr. Sloth we spent a slothful day on the Raphael deck with a break to hike to the top of Isla Bastimentos and a very interesting shop called On the Hill. The next day we are off early for a water taxi to Almerante and a bus to Boquete, a mountain town in north central Panama.
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Posted by sostrander 06:07 Archived in Panama Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

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