Wednesday, 31 October 2007


Border to Panama

The north border crossing from Costa Rica to Panama at Sixaola is renowned for being pleasant and hassle free, and it certainly was. Travellers who chose the other crossing invariably had to bribe the border guards for not having return tickets out of the country. We ambled over a one lane railway bridge spanning a river and that was it. The rest of the day was a pleasant journey down a river to Bocas Del Toro, an archipelago off the Caribbean coast.

Waiting for the boat

For one of the most touristed places in Panama, Bocas isn't bad. The streets are clean, there is a pervasive rasta vibe and people are therefore far too chilled to hassle you. The coral reef is beautiful and the water is clean, with the exeption of the area around Hostel Tio Tom whose sanitary system emtpies directly into the sea.

Hostel Tio Tom: Don't swim here!

We were lucky enough to have a few days of sunshine in the wet season. By coincidence we bumped into the three New Zealanders who we climbed Volcan Tajamulco with in Guatemala, who were now trying to arrange a boat to Colombia.

Playa Wizard, where our bag was stolen

Our time in Bocas was spent snorkelling and playing on the beach. Unfortunately our backpack was stolen by a little boy while we were in the water. We knew this might happen and had placed it close to the water and were watching it closely for this reason. We had even paid for the surfboard rental beforehand so we were carrying less cash. Even so, he was quick and disappeared into the jungle, as did Roger for a good ten minutes chasing after him. We approached some locals wandering the beach who were apparently "security" and offered them large sums of money to get our bag back, just to make sure they weren't in on it. They weren't, and everyone was very sympathetic. The next day on a different island complete strangers were approaching us asking us if we had found our bag yet.

Bay of Dolphins


The mangroves around Bocas were remarkable in that they were immediately surrounded by pristine coral - I thought that usually it is too muddy for coral near mangroves. Unfortunately our close encounter with coral involved our boatman skimming over shallow water and probably damaging it, then picking living things out of the water to show tourists who, disturbingly, were not concerned.

Travelling back to the mainland we took on board an extra passenger. Our water taxi stopped next to a tiny dugout canoe in the middle of the shipping channel. A middle-aged, well dressed woman hopped on board and her family paddled the canoe back to shore.

View to Cerro Punta

From there we crossed the mountain range to the Pacific side of the country and ventured into the hills to a town called Boquete. Expats are buying land around here in droves but there's still lots of local culture. We took a horse ride through the hills around the town which was pleasant except for the traffic. There was a coffee factory to visit that roasts coffee voted the best in the world. We also walked the Sendero de Los Quetzales (Quetzal Trail) to a village over the hills. Being the rainy season we didn´t see any of the famed quetzals (click here for a pic) but it was a good rainforest walk.

Sendero los Quetzales


Bamboo roots



On the way to Panama city we stopped at San Carlos:

Rio Mar Beach near San Carlos

Black Sand

We chose some good rainy days to bus down to Panama City. This is a thriving metropolis, more modern and affluent than any other central American city, except perhaps Mexico City. The canal was finished in 1914 by the US and has had a strong interest in regional security since. The canal workers were a mixed bunch and Panama is more multicultural than the rest of the region. The canal itself consists of a series of locks that raise ships to an artificial lake spanning the country´s narrowest point (50km) and they´re lowered again on the other coast.

Panama City

Bridge over the Canal

Canal locks

The city itself has an old town that still has some restoration work to go. Friendly locals advised us when we were about to enter the red light district and put us back on the tourist path.

We didn't notice any earthquake...

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Costa Rica

Leaf Cutting Ant
These ants use the leaf cuttings to culture mould for food

Costa Rica is noticeably different from its neighbours with its peaceful history, enormous amount of foreign investment and villages of gringo ex-pats. Food in restaurants is expensive even before the 13% tax and 10% compulsory tip. The upside is that many areas are set aside for national parks and there seems to be more environmental awareness (judging by the relative absence of litter). We stayed on the beaten track in order to traverse the country quickly, visiting one Pacific and one Caribbean beach.

Grey sand, Manuel Antonio

Manuel Antonio was recommended to us by some Aussies from the Northern Beaches, Sydney, so we knew it would be nice. There is an attached national park that is good for a stroll but we got soaked in yet another downpour. It had been raining most days, we had recurrent colds and Roger was also fighting a middle ear infection, not to mention smelly clothes. Despite this we saw and photographed a few animals - any identifications are welcome.




Cappucino Monkey

The Caribbean town of Manzanillo is in the northeastern corner of the country where we spent a few days snorkelling, beachcombing and drinking rompope (eggnog with rum).

Puerto Viejo

A well fed snake


Monday, 8 October 2007


We had intended to enter Nicaragua and head for the hills but picked the wrong border crossing and left ourselves without any good transport options in that direction. The border crossing from Honduras was the worst so far. Before the bus had even stopped it was surrounded by men running, and our bags were untied from the roof racks and taken to a pedicab before we could leave the bus. Then we were surrounded by people shouting at us with barely any room to move. We chose another pedicab driver but he ripped us off anyway. On the bus we met three American girls who had been mugged at machete point the day before!


Being unable to find a route from the border to the highlands, we travelled down the Pacific coast to the cities of León, Managua and Granada. These are all bustling cities although Granada has become a tourist mecca, similar to Antigua in Guatemala. As such, it's a convenient place to spend a few days. Leon and Granada are full of crumbling churches that haven't been restored since an earthquake in the 1700s. Granada is plagued by frequent power outages. Almost every night at 7pm the buzz of generators will start. There were also many street kids who chatted to us and ate leftover food from our plates.


From Granada we crossed Lake Ometepe on a three hour ferry to Isla de Ometepe, a beautiful island made up of two enormous volcanos. We stayed in a clean and comfortable lakeside resort for US$4 a night each. A few travellers arrived at the same time, one being a German whose father is Nicaraguan. While we feasted on incredibly ecomonical fresh fish while he introduced us to many local customs, including the best way to drink the local rum, Flor de Caña (with soda and lime).

Isla de Ometepe

Approaching Isla de Ometepe

Happy Roger

We hired bikes and traversed the island to the San Ramon waterfall which flows down the side of one of the volcanos. After a sweaty and bumpy ride back it was time for a swim in the lake, home to the world´s only freshwater shark (!).

Luisa and cow

Funny bug

Washing clothes in the lake

We caught a shorter ferry to the mainland and headed for the Costa Rican border, sharing a cab with a friendly American.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

El Salvador

El Salvador is a richer and more developed country than Guatemala with fewer tourists and a smaller indigenous population. The people are impossibly kind, the friendliest we have met on all of this trip so far, and we are wondering whether we should have stayed longer...

The relative prosperity of El Salvador is attributed to US aid (in exchange for Salvadorian troops in Iraq?), the huge number of legal and illegal of Salvadorians sending money home from the US, and the hardworking mentality of Los Salvadoreños, although Guatemalans appeared to be equally hardworking as far as we could tell.

We saw a insightful film, "Voces Inocentes", based on a real story about the civil war in the 1980s from the point of view of a 12 year old boy who is trying to avoid being recruited by the military.

Juayua is a small mountain town where we went on a day walk to "Siete Cascadas". The walk passed through coffee plantations and small trails through forest. We were impressed that it also involved walking in rivers with ropes (!) and ended with a swim here:

Roger at one of the Seven Cascades

Next we headed to the Pacific Coast where we again found immaculately clean accommodation for US$15 a night on the beach. Roger spent hours surfing the right-hand point break with another Aussie while Luisa talked to the pet birds.



Since we were eager to cover some territory and head south we went to Honduras in a day involving a taxi, two buses, a pickup truck, a bus and another taxi. This left us in the sweaty town of Choluteca where things felt distinctly more tropical. In the morning we enjoyed a typical breakfast of cheese, eggs, friend plantains, beans, avocado and tortillas. The food here is bland compared to the spicy delights of Mexico, but we are not complaining.

Back of a pickup to Honduras

Typical breakfast

Guatemala: Lago de Atitlan and Antigua

After two weeks in Xela we left to wallow in a superbly beautiful and clean hotel on a cliff overlooking Lake Atitlan and its rim of volcanoes. The water was surprisingly clear and we were able to swim, kayak and swing from hammocks all day. Roger even had a bout of food poisoning so we got to stay an extra day in luxury with the helpful waiter bringing drinks to the room!

View of Lake Atitlan from Hotel Casa Del Mundo

View of hotel

Kayaking on the lake

From there it was a brief stop in Antigua, mainly to climb the active volcano Pacaya. There we got to have fun with lava, roasting marshmallows, lighting cigarettes, etc. Antigua itself is a beautiful colonial styled city full of ex-pats from the US, which means good coffee and fantastic delis where we even found a quiche. Yum.

Pacaya Volcano

Luisa playing with the lava

Street market and crumbling church, Antigua

The Arch, Antigua