Guatemala….a coming of age story!

It would have been sacrilegious to have gotten so close to Guatemala and not seen the impressive Mayan site of Tikal. Since we had a couple of days to kill before catching our flight from San Salvador to Cuba, we decided to embark on our final ambitious couple of days of traveling….and what a couple of days it was!

With our bellies full, clothes washed and day packs ready, we left Lena and family in Ataco to make our way across the border to Guatemala City; to figure out if a trip to Tikal would even be possible.

After negotiating our way through what has to be the ugliest, dirtiest and most dangerous city we had been in, we managed to get to the bus terminal in the heart of the red light district of Guatemala City.

Given our limited time and budget, we decided to take two consecutive night buses to make the round trip to Tikal. The realisation that this amazing journey was coming to an end had suddenly dawned on us both and so our last ever night bus was somewhat of an emotional experience….although this was feeling was short lived and replaced by that of rage due to the pesky family of 4 squashed in behind us!

We arrived in the town of Flores early in the morning to be quickly whisked away to the site of Tikal, deep in the jungle bordering Belize and Mexico.

Arriving at the site before 7am was truly a magical experience with the entire site covered in a dense mist.

The main section of the site spans about a kilometer, with towering pyramids poking above the jungle’s green canopy. At this time of the morning, it is quite literally howling with animal activity.

I managed to climb my way up to temples no. IV; the highest at 64m high, just before the mist began to clear. Unfortunately Dre and I managed to loose each other so I had no body to share the moment with or to take any decent pictures of what was one of my most memorable travel moments 😦

Seeing the other huge temples appear out of the mist surrounded by nothing but dense jungle was just breath taking. Being so high above the canopy, all the noises of the jungle some how seemed to be amplified….I was sure I could hear the sound of the rare puma making a kill.

Of course, when Andre finally made his way up to the top he obviously had to rain on my moment by informing me that is was in fact the sound of a howler monkey :(…the only other thing to ruin the moment was an obnoxious American suffer dude who was insisting that it wasn’t the sun that caused skin cancer but the sun screen and that he only ever put things on his skin that you could eat…clearly a dismal attempt at chatting up the uninterested Australian girl that like me, just wanted him to shut the fuck up so we could enjoy the scenery!

We spent the next couple of hours wondering around the site which although is not as impressive as Machu Picchu from an architectural perspective, does allow for your imagination to run wild, particularly since it’s only 25% excavated!

The shear size of this lost city is totally mind boggling… Walking around brought back a memory of one of my favourite cartoons as a child….”the mysterious cites of gold”…I really did feel like Sebastian that morning.

Tikal is the best understood of any Maya cities and as with the Egyptians, has a long dynastic ruler list; explaining all the tombs, monuments, palaces and temples.

The Maya peoples never disappeared, not even with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors and the subsequent Spanish colonization of the Americas. Today, the Maya and their descendants form sizable populations throughout the Maya area and maintain a distinctive set of traditions and beliefs.

Unlike the Aztec and Inca Empires, there was no single Maya political center that, once overthrown, would hasten the end of collective resistance from the indigenous peoples. Instead, the conquistador forces needed to subdue the numerous independent Maya polities almost one by one, many of which kept up a fierce resistance. Most of the conquistadors were motivated by the prospects of the great wealth to be had from the seizure of precious metal resources such as gold or silver; however, the Maya lands themselves were poor in these resources. This would become another factor in forestalling Spanish designs of conquest, as they instead were initially attracted to the reports of great riches in central Mexico or Peru.

Mayans are noted for the only known fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas, as well as for its art, architecture, and mathematical and astronomical systems.

Since our night bus back wasn’t leaving until 9pm we had more than enough time to explore the town of Flores. It is spectacularly located on an island in Lago de Peten Itza and is what Cuzco is to Peru, in that it is set up to carter for the tourist trade en route to Tikal. It is a charming place that has a 500m causeway that connects it to the lake shore town of Santa Elena.

With so much time to kill, we found ourselves eating copious amounts of the tastiest food (decisively more Mexican than we have had before) along with numerous coffee stops whilst enjoying the beautiful sunset across the lake.

After yet another night sleeping on a bus we arrived in Antigua feeling some what jaded and excited about the thought of resting for a while in an actual bed. Unfortunately we were unable to find a room available until the afternoon and so agreed to freshen up and get some breakfast before cracking on with the day.

Looking at pics below, you can understand why Antigua is Guatemala’s tourism showpiece. A former capital, this town is jam-packed with historically significant buildings and relics and is a place of rare beauty….which surprising considering it has been flattened by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes throughout it’s history.

After a couple of hours we were pretty much done with Antigua and so decided to solider on back to Salvador that afternoon to spend the night at El Tunco and rest by the beach the following day.

In order to avoid ever having to ever go back to Guatemala City, we decided to cross over to El Salvador along the cost and the border crossing of La Hachadura. Given that this isn’t a usual traveler route to take, we found ourselves at the crossing used by all the large cargo lorries. Thankfully we were able to just walk past the insane queues of lorry drivers waiting to clear customs, which given the sketchiness of the place (made even worse by the thought of sunset approaching) was a welcomed bit of luck.

Unfortunately this is where our luck seemed to end since we hand some issues with border control; something we were expecting given the complete lack of any stamp in our passports from our previous crossings into the country. By the time we had explained our route up through Honduras and our quick visit to Guatemala we had missed the last bus to the beach town we had been longing to reach.

After trying to see if there was absolutely any way of getting to El Tunco, we finally gave into the fact that the only bus leaving the border town was to Sonsonate. We were told that this was the place where all the gangs of El Salvador lived and so we were not best pleased about the thought of staying in a dingy, expensive motel for the night only having to leave the next morning.

Since it was beginning to get dark and I was feeling a little on edge anyway, I had taken the smart move of hiding all my credit cards in my shoe and my iPhone down my pants…just in case the bus was robbed en route (something that we hear is very common in El Salvador).

As we drove along the cost we were both frantically looking through the guide books to see if there would be any way to get to the beach….we even toyed with the idea of just getting off at the last junction and hitching a ride for the rest of 40km journey.

We both quickly dismissed the idea as being a ludicrous risk to take, especially so late on in our trip…we had somehow managed to avoid any trouble over the past 6 months and still have all our valuables (I.e camera and iPad); getting mugged just before we were about to leave would be something that would take a while to come to terms with.

As we edged closer and closer to the junction in question we both began rationalising the idea of getting off and standing on the roadside to hitch hike. Since there were another 3 buses due to follow, I thought that it wouldn’t do us any harm trying and then hopping on the last bus to Sonsonate as a last resort.

The more I thought about it the more I wanted to be able to say that I was most defiantly a seasoned traveller, having hitch hiked in one of the most dangerous countries….at night! Within a second of telling Dre that I was game if her was…we found ourselves at the junction of the main road and the pitch black road that continued along the coast line.

Having never done this before in my life, I wasn’t really too sure what to expect; after the first five failed attempts, I began thinking that this was a horrible mistake.

In order to prevent an argument; proportioning blame to either party, I just kept my head down, avoiding eye contact with anyone passing by, praying for someone to actually stop. My prayers were finally answered and an opportunistic ‘thumb out’ to a large cargo lorry was successful!

After climbing up into the lorry, we were delighted to find a young and relatively attractive lorry driver, only too willing to give us a lift. Sitting in the comfy sprung seats of this huge vehicle, speeding along the cost line, I couldn’t help but feel pretty smug with myself for having pulled this off!

The feeling of elation soon turned into a slight panic as the lorry driver pulled over to the side of the road for no apparent reason. No doubt Dre’s feelings were centred around ejaculation where as I reached for anything sharp…just in case he was a complete nut job.

Thankfully there was no ‘job of any kind since he simply stopped to get some water from a tap at the side of the road 🙂

We spent the next hour our so learning all about the export trade and the tough life of a lorry driver on the road; he works for 6 months straight living in the thing. He drives day and night across the county, unable to take the lorry off the route at any time.

We left our new friend over cum with joy about what we had achieved in the last couple of days and more generally the past 6 months. I most definitely feel that I can now say with 100% confidence that I have travelled hard core!

Western Pacific Coast – El Tunco

Many people think of El Salvador as dangerous and chaotic which altogether isn’t too far from the truth however outside of the larger cities/towns the vibe couldn’t be more different.

The western cost line is particularly beautiful with the vast majority of tourists in the country spending the majority of their time here. Since the country isn’t really on the tourist trail at all, the only foreigners you tend to see are surfers and obviously their groupies who come here for the world-famous surf.

Although we have had just about enough of the surfer crowd, the temperature here is just too unbearable not to be by the sea, leaving us no choice but to make the hour bus journey to the portal town of La Libertad.

This place is a typical grimy portal town and not really a place you would want to stay. The only reason to come here is to catch a bus to one of the many beach towns that hug the beautiful coastline that is equally as stunning as the French Rivera in terms of its natural beauty.

La Libertad does however have a great fish market which is ideally located on the pier where the fishermen dock their boats to unload their catch of the day.

And what a catch it is…we have never seen fish this big! There is also a little stall that sells the best ceviche we have had to date.

We found ourselves stuck at Km 42, also called Playa El Tunco which was the perfect combination of cheap hostel, great people and beautiful sunsets.

It’s also where we found some of the best and most healthy ice creme ever!

El Salvador

We arrived in El Salvador after a surprisingly easy journey on what they call ‘chicken buses’ from Leon. The reason they are called ‘chicken buses’ is quite literal… You’re packed in like chickens and very often have live chickens being transported in the seat next to you!

We had arranged to stay with an old uni friend of Dre’s who has been living in El Salvador for the past 6 years having married a Salvadorian. In the interest of time as well as there not being many points of interest in Honduras, we simply drove right through the country to get to the capital of El Salvador, San Salvador….confusing I know!

San Salvador doesn’t really offer much for your average traveler, but we had a lovely time catching up with Lena and her new family, husband Gustavo and adorable 4 month old baby Matias.

The city itself feels very American with wide highways and large shopping malls filled with a growing middle class, striving to live the American dream of fast food and excessive consumption.

El Salvador has the largest proportion of it’s population falling with in the ‘middle class’ bracket in all of Central America. I think this is mainly down to the fact that many Salvadorians live and work outside of the country (usually illegally and in the U.S), sending 1st world wages to a second world economy.

This type of income accounts for a staggering 20% of GDP! With such a large number of the working population abroad, often leaving poor families behind, it is easy to understand why gangs are such an issue here; the kids are left with extended relatives, often substituting the security usually received from the parents by that of the gangs and their leaders.

Within this context, we decided to give the baby some culture by taking him to the Museo de Arte El Salvador.

The last painting of a map of San Salvador, really struck a chord with me, since it depicted the area we were staying in as Disney land…and I can see why. Home to the upper class society this place feels more like LA, with large mansions and apartment blocks employing thousands of ‘locals’ as cleaners, nannies, chefs and armies of security guards.

Although there is a large middle class by Central American standards, there is still a large disparity between the classes, with the ‘locals’ as they are referred to, earning a meagre $150 a month. To put this into perspective, an educated international working for one of the big 5 firms here can command a 6 figure salary; firmly putting them in the super wealthy bracket.

Before you all go looking for work here, security fears really do put ‘a bit of a downer’ on things. Gangs are clearly perceived to be a problem with most people living in fear of muggings and ‘express kidnapping’; often living within the confinements of their gated communities or secure shopping malls.

To be honest I didn’t really feel in danger at all here; with security clearly being a huge and lucrative sector, I am starting to think that it may all simply be scare tactics employed by, of course, the U.S security firms that dominate the market. Interestingly I learnt that a lot of the gangs were actually trained in the U.S by the C.I.A as ‘death squads’, illegally deployed in Mexico for the benefit of (as per usual) ‘U.S National security’.

To be honest I am getting a little board of repeating the same thing regarding the U.S foreign policy in this region, particularly during the Ronald Reagan era so I am not going to spend too much time going into the civil war here that ended in 1992 killing over 70.000 people…hopefully you all get the general idea…

…U.S squash any form of left wing ideas perceived to be in their ‘back yard’ by what ever means possible, playing their hand in any civil war, resulting in the death of hundreds of thousands with U.S interests being victorious, irrespective of the outcome!

The one thing I will mention is a unique series of events surrounding the murder of 6 Jesuit priests and the rape of 4 American nuns at a nearby university.

These murders, which were committed by the Salvadorian army (funded by the Regan administration) were an attempt to frame the guerrillas (or revolutionaries, depending on what way you look at it), to turn public opinion against them. Ironically it all back fired with the C.I.A involvement in the mission being exposed. Although there has been a huge cover up effort and many of the criminals in question still at large, it at least saw an end to the war and the beginning of the peace process here.

There is a really graphic museum in the grounds of the U.C.A university where the murders took place. Not for the faint hearted, it provides detailed forensic report of the murders with horrible photos of the crime scene!

On a more lighter note we did manage to get out of the city for a lovely afternoon driving along a beautiful mountain route known as the Routa del Flores. Unlike the name suggests, this route climbs through the key coffee producing region with not a single flower to be seen! It doesn’t however take in some delightful towns along the way…

The highlight of us was a charming little colonial town called Ataco which seemed to have murals depicting traditional indigenous life on every wall.

Its also the place where I found my new favourite breakfast…there version of eggs benedict!

Leon – A fight for true independence

Having scratched the surface of this country’s civil war and revolution in Ernesto’s library, I was keen to get to the most liberal city of Nicaragua, Leon, to learn more.

Since this is a university town, this place is and has always been intensely political, with its inhabitants playing a vital role in its revolution. We stumbled across a really interesting museum just off the main square which our guide-book completely omitted. A former post office, this grand, albeit decrepit building houses two rooms of memorabilia and information from the beginning of the civil war in the 30s to it most euphoric and bloody era of the 70s; which finally saw the fall of a dynasty of dictators known as the Somoza family.

The museum is run by ex soldiers who insist on providing you with a guided tour, although interesting these guys are quite hard to follow and are not really interested in answering your questions, preferring to simply bang on about the old days like most veterans do.

Since there is over 100 years worth of history to document I am going to save you all from my usual endless waffle and opt for some bullets of the highlights in chronological order. Those of you not interested skip straight to the pics of Leon which is full of political murals that help explain the history of the revolution:)

1821 – Nicaragua gains independence from Spain creating a split in two governing powers, the Liberals (Leon) and the Conservatives (Granada).
1838 – Both Britain and the U.S become interested in Nicaragua and it’s strategically important passage to build an Interoceanic canal through Central America.
1848 – British seized control of Caribbean port of San Juan del Norte renaming it Greytown whilst the U.S gold rush in California added fire to the quest for an Atlantic – Pacific passage.
1857 – Liberals disgraced after inviting William Walker into the country and became a vagabond President. (A Tennessee-born opportunist, he initially came to prominence as a newspaper editor speaking out against slavery and the interventionist policies of the U.S however after he was employed by the Liberals to taking care of their pesky rivals in Granada, he decided to make himself President, reinstating slavery confiscating huge areas of land with close ties to the U.S.
1860 – William Walker was killed and Liberals lose power for the next 36 years after losing the trust of the people.
1893-1909 – Liberal general Jose Zeleya became dictator, antagonising the U.S by seeking a canal deal with Germany and Japan, killing two U.S missionaries in the process.
1909 – U.S begin two decades of political intervention, installing presidents it favoured, ousting those it didn’t via coercive measures employed by U.S marines.
1930s – Augusto C Sandino takes lead of the Liberal rebels fighting against U.S involvement and the U.S backed dictatorship of Somoza who developed a National Guard (Guardia Nacional) trained by the U.S.
1934 – Sandino assassinated by Guardia Nacional, beginning a 42 year era known as ‘U.S surrogate regimes.’
1956 – Despite the assignation of Somoza by Libelist rebel in Leon, Lopes Perez, Somoza dynasty continues with his son resuming power.
1960s -70s – Guerilla groups inspired by the Cuban revolution and united by the opposition to the Somozas combine to create what is now known as the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN)
1972 – A devastating earthquake hits capital of Managua, killing over 6000, leaving 300,000 homeless. The Somoza family embezzles international relief funds, fomenting discontentment with the dictatorship across social classes, thus supporting the rise of the FSLN struggle.
1972 -79 – 7 years of guerilla warfare and 52 days of all out battle sees the fall of the Somoza dynasty and on July 17 1979 the revolution is victorious.
1980s – Trying to salvage what it could of its influence over the country, the U.S authorised $75m in aid to the Sandinista government. By late 80s, U.S becomes concerned about increasing numbers of Soviet and Cuban advisers in Nicaragua with allegations that Nicaragua were supplying arms to leftist rebels in El Salvador.
1981 – Ronald Reagan comes to power and Nicaragua, like many other central American countries, gets sucked into the Cold War. Former Guardia Nacional soldiers form a military group known as the Contras were believed to have been funded by the U.S, threatening invasion of Nicaragua from Honduras. Saninista respond by building an army of 95,000 supported by Soviet and Cuban aid.
1984 – U.S covert operations revealed publicly, resulting in a judgement against the U.S by the international court of justice.
1985 – U.S puts a trade embargo on Nicaragua, persuading other countries to do the same, crippling the economy. U.S congress reject further aid to the Contras, however Regan secretly continued funding them by illegally selling weapons to Iran and diverted proceeds to the Contra. When details were leaked the infamous Iran-Contra affair blew up.
1990 – With the economy in a desperate position, the population became disillusioned with the Sandinsta revolution and opposing party (UNO) backed by the U.S came to power after the ill-fated election of 1990.
Current Political situation – after 16 years in opposition and the usual amount of corruption the FSLN (sadinista) returned to political power in 2007. With some dubious dealings with Chavez and historical enemies like the Catholic church and big business (I.e the U.S) things are still somewhat uncertain in Nicaragua with many people wondering if all the revolutionary hype has any substance at all.

Only time will tell how this story will play out and whether the amount of bloodshed was all worth while…provided U.S foreign policy and internal corruption doesn’t play a hand this country may finally do right by its people and sustain a diversified economy where all Nicaraguans can live in prosperity and safety.

Leon is surrounded by several volcanos which provided a beautiful back drop for this city which as you can see below has some beautiful old buildings.

I leave this country an Leon with fond memories and a true respect for the local man on the street who has fought so hard for things we simply take for granted.

Isla de Ometepe

After spending some of the most chilled out days on the Islas Solentiname, the day had finally come to continue on with our travels across the lake to our next stop, Isla de Ometepe.

It was an early 6am departure back to San Carlos to catch the afternoon ferry which would take us over 9 hours to cross the width of the lake. Thankfully we had enough time to stuff our faces on not just one breakfast but two, at our favourite food joint before boarding.

We had expected that the slow-moving ferry wasn’t going to be one of the most comfortable experiences, but to our surprise, it was to be one of the highlights of our stay in Nicaragua. Having scored some comfy deck chairs we spent the day tanning on the top deck enjoying a good read.

Given the number of beautiful sunsets we have seen, I hadn’t expected to be impressed by one ever again. Yet again this ‘transit day’ was full of surprises, with a perfect uninterrupted sphere being swallowed by the sea against the backdrop of a fiery mist.

After falling asleep under the stars and a moon that was equally as stunning as the sun set, we were woken to the smashing of the waves against the boat as we approached the Isla de Ometepe at about midnight.

Arriving by moonlight just made this place even more magical. The port was a hive of activity with locals loading thousands of bananas, no doubt to be sold at the ferries next stop, Granada.

With only a handful of fellow gringos on board this felt like a truly authentic experience, made even more special by the ride we managed to score to the capital of the Isla, Altagracia; an open top jeep with only standing spaces to make way for the crates of cheese imported from the mainland.

Speeding through the thick jungle of endless banana plantations, with wind through my now quite feminine hair, and the most perfectly formed moonlit outline of an imposing volcano ahead, I could see why the Aztecs called this place the Promised Land.

You can’t help but marvel in the sight of this place; twin volcanic peaks seem to just rise out of the lake, creating the most fertile volcanic soil with rich black beaches.

Days were spent roaming around the island on bikes along the one road that circles the perimeter of the larger of the two volcanos, Conception, which is still active.

Given that the waters are not the best for swimming in thanks to the threat of the famous Bull sharks in these waters, we took refuge in a natural pool called La Presa Ojo de Agua.

I can’t begin to explain how amazing it was to swim in this crystal clear, natural water with jungle all around. As well as sharing this place with all the nature we also stumbled across Father Christmas! Obviously taking some time out from Lap land in this tropical paradise.

There isn’t a whole lot to do of an evening, irrespective of what part of the island you stay in. We spent most evenings wandering around grabbing a bite to eat, trying to avoid the local transvestite who for some apparent reason took a liking to me…with my hair as it is right now the worrying thing is that might have thought I was one of them!

The town of Moyogalpa on the eastern side is home to a fairly large contingent of retired alcoholic expats counting down their last days here, no doubt keeping the trannies busy! This part if town really did feel more like Thailand than Nicaragua.

Cock fighting is also popular here, adding to the felling that you are in Thailand. We unfortunately saw a training game whilst taking a stroll on the beach…not really my cup of tea to be honest!

Islas Solentiname

This archipelago in the southern part of Largo de Nicaragua is most definitely ‘off the beaten track’, with thousands of backpackers simply sailing right past it on their way to Granada or Ometepe. It’s not surprising that these islands aren’t really on many people’s radar, since they were quite literally forgotten about for over 500 years; only appearing on maps since the 60’s and nearly destroyed in a single day during a revolution that saw the third community being burnt to the ground, forcing them to leave only to return in the 60s.

The lake in which these islands sit in is a wonder in itself; the largest fresh water lake in Central America at over 3000 sq miles it is the 9th largest in the Americas, feeling more like an ocean than a lake.

The lake drains into the Caribbean via the Rio San Juan and has had an interesting history with pirates using it as a connection to Granada, which in those times was growing wealthier by the year. It was also a route that the Aztec traders had been using since the 13th century, so it should come as no surprise to hear that it also became strategically important to the U.S around the turn of the last century for the very same reasons.

Before construction of the Panama Canal, plans were made to take advantage of an already existing route connecting the Caribbean to the Pacific (across the lake) and build an inter-oceanic canal; the Nicaragua Canal, but the Panama Canal was built instead.

In order to quell competition with the Panama Canal, the U.S. secured all rights to a canal along this route in the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty of 1916. Being so connected with the U.S (as are both Panama and Costa Rica) I was surprised with how different Nicaragua has felt, mainly because of the complete lack of American influence and the strong national identity its people have.

Arriving at the Islas Solentiname, I soon realised that there was a huge gaping hole in my knowledge regarding Nicaragua’s modern history; namely its revolution against the U.S backed dictatorship of the Somoza family in the 70’s which due to its success led to the termination of this treaty and so the overbearing influence the U.S can have.

This particular period in this country’s history has captivated me, so much so that I intend on doing an entirely separate post on it. What I will mention now however, is that a key figure in this revolution was a former priest called Ernesto Cardenal.

Born in Granada, Ernesto was a keen poet, sculptor and theologian that turned from being a Trappist monk committed to non violence, to a fully fledge supporter of the revolution led by a group known as the Sandinista who appointed him as the countries minister of culture following their rise to power. Unsurprisingly he was chastised, publicly, by Pope John Paul II in 1983.

Ernesto is somewhat of a legend in these parts, since he really founded the all but forgotten community here on the islands. He came to Solentiname in the late 60s to find an impoverished and poorly educated community, helping to erect their first simple adobe church where he gave mass. Throughout his life, Ernesto published countless poems and books in addition to an entire Gospel, known as the Gospel of Solentiname which was made up of interpretations of the Bible by the local community through their own eyes and lives; having allowed them to take centre stage during mass. In addition to educating the community he helped to launch Nicaragua’s art movement after receiving an elaborately decorated shell from a grateful islander and seeing the potential of the people.

Soon, entire families worked together as a community painting and sculpting, producing some fine works of art that really do capture this tropical paradise. These days their works are internationally recognised. We were fortunate enough to see hundreds of paintings whilst on the island, with local women painting on their front porches.

We spent the first couple of days on the smaller, less inhabited Isla San Fernando, that has only a handful of families living on it. The only places to eat where either in the only restaurant on the island or a local woman’s house which turned into a shop come dinner.

With supplies relatively scarce, you had to order your food way in advance; to allow for the local people to cater for you. Given that we arrived in the late afternoon unaware of this situation, as well as the fact that most of the women on the island were in San Carlos shopping for weekly supplies, we were left hungry our first night, having to make do with crackers and tin tuna for dinner.

Thankfully the next day everybody on the island knew that the only two grinos there would need to eat!

We stayed in a very basic but but wonderful shack right on the lake.

Given that there is nothing to do apart from visiting a small museum and art gallery (which can be done in an hour) I used the time to revive my A Level in Design & Technology and begin drawing up some designs for our renovation project in Berlin.

I only really left the desk to go to the toilet and grab some food, although I would be lying if I said that this was only because I was too engrossed in my work. Whilst a beautiful place, it was overrun with wildlife. In normal circumstances this wouldn’t bother me since most of the time the dangerous creepy crawlies tend to stay away from well trodden paths. Given the lack if human activity on this islands for hundreds of years, you quite literally come into contact with snakes, scorpions, tarantula, and huge iguanas!

…and that’s not to mention the thousands of toads that engulf the only path at night! You may be laughing at what a pussy I may sound like at the moment, but trust me if you were walking in the pitch back with only a torch as a light, with the images of the above encounters engrained in your mind, you too would have screamed like a girl when feeling something move over your foot!

On the flip side we did see some beautiful creatures that made being on edge most of the time worthwhile.

Our final couple of days were spent on the larger island, Mancarron. Although not as wild as San Fernando it is equally as pretty with more refined housing.

We got to see the new church that was built by the community in the 70s as well as Ernesto’s house on the top of the hill.

Unfortunately he was not there since he spends most of his time in the capital these days. We did however spend pretty much two days in the local library which was full of the most interesting books, including an entire collection by the man himself.

Given he was a Marxist and revolutionary, you can imagine the type of books on offer here. With this library as the community’s only source of literature and learning, the people here have a slightly different outlook on life that I find hard to explain in words.

The time spent here has most certainly had a profound effect on me, making me even more excited about my impending visit to Cuba.

Costa Rica En route to Nicaragua

Since we’ve already had enough exposure to surfer dudes and dudettes to last a life time, we decided to give Costa Rica a complete miss given that the majority of this sub-culture tend to head along the coast from Bocas via Costa Rica to ultimately get to Cancun.

We literally drove straight through the country in a day, only really touching its lands for the border crossings. We have done some mammoth bus journeys, covering vast distances in South America and thought that this relatively short distance would be done in no time.

The one thing we didn’t quite count on was the antiquated system used at the border crossings! We crossed the border at a small town in the middle of the jungle which required us to leave the bus to stand in line with what seemed to be just about every other gringo in the country.

If the mid-day heat wasn’t enough to kill me, listening to the amount of shit being discussed both in front and behind by exactly the surfer types I had been attempting to avoid, nearly sent me over the edge. After 2 hours in the second of three separate queues, we had made it to the front of a kiosk type window with one official actually ‘working’ and everyone else chatting. Taking nearly 15 minutes to type in a few letters in his computer, the long-awaited stamp was in and we were free to walk across the border, over a bridge that has seen better days.

Of course once on the other side there was yet another queue to go through Costa Rican immigration. It was the first time I had been thankful that the Americans have left such a stamp on a country, since this was an organised and efficient immigration office with people actually working. The only problem was them being too good at their job and giving us trouble since we had no documents showing our flight out of the country. After explaining that we didn’t even want to stay in their expensive, KFC ridden country, but simply wanted to drive through, we were allowed in with a mere 3 day visa.

With a number of other minor set backs, we arrived in Los Chiles (the next border crossing) at 10pm, forcing us to spend the night in a sleazy cheap hostel that in addition to being a one hour motel, had a drainage pipe running past the window that my bed just happened to be beneath. The next morning we had to wait until 1pm for our “colectivo” boat which would to take us across the border through dense jungle along the Rio San Juan to our first stop in Nicaragua, San Carlos.

Having dealt with all the shit of yesterday’s border crossing, this whole experience couldn’t have been more pleasant. For starters, we managed to score free WIFI in a cafe for the morning which allowed for some long overdue admin; resulting in the confirmation that we would be able to start our renovation project in Berlin a lot sooner than expected; although this was good news, it does mean that we would now only have about a week in London to catch up with friends before heading out to Berlin 😦

Once on board the local collective boat, we knew we had made the right choice to wait around, since we were the only gringos on the thing; always a sign that you have managed to do as the locals do, which is very often the cheapest option. The boat ride lasted a good 2 hours, passing through some dense jungle on either side of the river, providing some great wildlife watching (monkeys, kingfishers, cormorants, eagles as well as a whole bunch of other birds I wouldn’t possibly be able to name). We too were subjects, since many of the locals seemed to stare at us in amazement, particularly two girls that clearly took a liking to us…if only they knew!

We arrived just as our connecting ferry (one of only two that leave every week) to the Archipelago de Solentiname was leaving! Given our refusal to take tourist specific transport, we were quite literally stranded in San Carlos for 3 nights.

The Lonely Planet describes San Carlos “as less of a tourist destination and more a place to wait for your ship to come in.” Whilst you couldn’t disagree with the comment given that there is pretty much nothing to do here, we actually had a really enjoyable stay.

San Carlos is an archetypal port town, with hard drinking sailors, commercial fishers and herds of people in transit. Since most gringos are only there for a couple of hours, they very rarely leave the lakefront. Given that we were there for a considerable amount of time (by usual standards) we obviously walked around the entire town (multiple times) and began integrating into the community a lot more than usual. Our integration really had a lot to do with the amount of food we consumed over the three days! Andres particular love affair with the local desayuno, which is their typical breakfast, earned him a small following since he seemed to eat it three times a day!

Whilst we didn’t make any life long friends, we did become very fond of the owners of the three establishments we spent most of our time in; the Internet cafe, the restaurant, run by father and son duo ( Carlos Senior and Carlos junior) as well as the mother and daughter duo who ran a nightly Fritanga, which is basically a make shift BBQ on the street just outside their house. These two were a hilarious team that reminded me of the ‘Two Fat ladies’, Nicaraguan style.

Nicaragua is dirt cheap; we have been living very comfortably for less than £30 a day for the both of us, eating three substantial meals a day, accommodation with cable TV and hours upon hours of Internet time. Ironically, although our hostel had cable TV and free WIFI, we were forced to learn how to live with only bucket showers…trust me after a while this just became too much to handle…you never quite feel clean.

Although cheap by Western standards, the majority of people here are very poor, with entire families often living in self-made wooden shacks with little more than a room, bed and multiple rocking chairs where people tend to just sit all day long. There is however, a strong sense of community here with church playing an important role in society. What I did find quite strange was the number of different types of churches around, there is everything from Christian to Evangelical as well as a strong Jehovah community which to my mind is more of a cult than a religion.

After watching the town go by for hours at a time, it finally dawned on me that all the old Americans I had seen walking around in groups of three, dressed in chinos and shirts were not tourists but missionaries; helping to explain all the churches.

Whilst I am sure that they do some good in such poor countries, I can’t help but think there is somewhat of a sinister hidden agenda. Particularly when you come across one of the locals, who at first simply appears to be interested in speaking with a foreigner; one would think to open ones mind to what lies outside their borders. Only to realise that they are not in the slightest bit interested in what the world has to offer but instead are only concerned with how they can convert you to their ignorant and narrow-minded beliefs.

The one good thing I can say about these missionaries is that they have clearly donated a lot of clothing over the years. Luckily for us it is then sold on in second-hand stores that can rival the best vintage shops found in London – for a fraction of the price! If our backpacks weren’t already massively overweight they most definitely are now.

Bocas del Toro

This archipelago of 6 densely forested Caribbean islands and scores of uninhibited islets straddles the border between Costa Rica and Panama and is a real gem that has found its way to become my favourite place so far, reasons for which I will touch upon later.

With the New York times travel section recently touting Panama as its #1 destination, specifically outlining Bocas del Toro; unfortunately the secret has leaked, and there’s no sign of the development slowing.

The real-estate boom has bought bulldozers and bullying interests, particularly from the government who has been selling off large chunks of the islands to foreign (usually American) firms to either develop large hotel resorts or to look for natural resources within its rich lands.

The locals we have met here, openly debate the merits and downfalls of increased tourism with differing views depending on the specific group you speak to. After being captivated for nearly two weeks by this beautiful, laid back place, I too began questioning the effects of not only tourism but more generally the ever present American interests on Bocas, which I think acts as a good proxy for the rest of this country.

Panama receives over 2.2 million tourists per year, which considering is over half it’s entire population is a huge amount. In addition to the average two week holiday maker, there are a large number of expats, mainly from the U.S. building condos across the entire coastline.

As I thought this through, it occurred to me that Panama is used to being a transition point with it’s strategically positioned canal accommodating over 10% of the worlds commerce passing through. While the Americans have come and gone from the canal, that waterway still attracts plenty of investment backed by the prosperous banking community, particularly with the current plans to extend the canal with a $5.3b investment underway.

It’s not just people and goods either. A vast majority of the bird population of Panama, which is one of the largest in the world, is migratory, some only staying for a few days, giving a new meaning to the term fly-by-night visitors. Then there are the whales, which pass by every year to spawn. The parallel with other tourists is striking. Not to mention the sea turtles, who lay their eggs and then leave.

In fact, the history of the country has been greatly impacted by those passing through; from Columbus, the first tourist, to Balboa who ‘discovered’ the Pacific, something the local Indians already knew about; to certain pirates, who where known to take advantage of the Spanish gold trade; to the “Forty-niners’, who needed a narrow strip of land to walk across (gold again); to the French and then the Americans, who wanted to cross to some place else by digging a hole; to the retired Americans on some vague three to five year plan; to nervous investors from Venezuela.

As I ask myself the question of whether all this investment is good or bad I find myself torn; on the one hand Panama is now one of the wealthiest countries in Central America with the highest standard of living, however it is also slowing loosing it’s charm and indigenous way of life.

The two main islands in this archipelago provide a good basis for this discussion. The larger island, Colon which is home to its capital Bocas del Toro is the most developed, having been built by United Fruit Company in the early 20th century.

The smaller island, Isla Bastimentos is only a 10 minute boat ride away but a completely different world. Where Colon is a bustling portal town with bars, restaurants and beach clubs all set up to cater to not only the gringo trail but more specifically the surfer trail; Bastimentos is an under developed tropical gem split into two by a dense wild life rich jungle.

Although the great surf and secluded beaches of Bastimentos attract the day trippers from Colon, most of these fools tend to leave before dark; probably because there is only really one local bar on the island in the town of Old Bank.

Whilst on the subject of the surfer crowd, I simply can’t resist having a little moan about this new type of traveller we have encountered here. Although they have provided some welcomed eye candy, the pleasant impression from a distance is completely spoiled when up close, especially when they open their mouths!

Usually made up of spoiled little American rich kids sharing half a brain cell between them all, they are followed by even dumber crowd of spoiled American rich girls who do nothing more than give the surfer boys a huge ego…most likely to compensate for their tiny dicks!

If you haven’t already figured out which island I preferred, the fact that I spent only one night on Colon should make it clear. The effects that tourism and more specifically, American tourism has had on this island are disastrous… no doubt a KFC and MacDonald’s drive through are just around the corner, where local fisherman, hooked on all the junk food will begin trading in their fresh fish and lobster for a quick salt fix.

Bastimentos is home to two distinctive communities, the indigenous Indians (Ngobe Bugle tribe) and the descendants of the black slaves brought in and used by United Fruit (which is basically a state run enterprise) to work the banana plantations that cover pretty much all of the Central American lowlands.

Interestingly, these two communities don’t really mix with each other, which I find quite strange since they both are very different from the people we encountered in mainland Panama and unite against the common cause of over development, as well as the pillage of their ancestral land for the benefit of others. In my opinion the main reason for their indifference of each other is down to that fact that socially they couldn’t be any more different.

The southeastern edge of the island is home to the Ngobe tribe in the village of Quebrada Sal. The community consist of 60-old thatch and bamboo houses, an elementary school, a handicrafts store and a general store and football field. This tribe have lived in the islands way before the arrival of the Spanish, still keeping many of their traditions alive; being one of the only tribes in the Americas to have kept their traditional monarchy.

The historic West Indian town of Old Bank (where we stayed) is home to the black community and only a handful of indigenous Indian.Whilst the Indians only speak Spanish, the black community tend to speak Creole, giving a completely different feel to the island. Being brought up in the U.K, this place is the Caribbean I had always heard about.

The town has no roads, only a concrete footpath lined on both sides with rustic wooden houses. Kids play in the street (apart from the Indian kids who are obviously not allowed to mix with the blacks) whilst their parents watch on their verandas. The women Kaine-roll their men’s Afro into the latest Hip Hop style shipped in from the U.S. Men, young and old, hang out by the water selling the weed they haven’t quite managed to smoke themselves, all washed down with a bottle or two of rum!

Although I may have painted the stero-typical scene, it is hard to describe by words alone, since there is just a vibe about this place that has to be seen to be understood.

Insert video if possible

Until the 90’s most of the adults worked in neighbouring Almirante, on the mainland, to tend to Banana fields. By the early 2000’s only a handful still worked the fields with most of the men taking to fishing, farming small plots or just chilling while the women sell little cakes and things.

As an interesting aside, Almirante was the birthplace of ABBA’s Chiguita banana! 80s classics can be heard all over town with every house playing their music loud. Unlike were I live, this doesn’t bother the neighbours since the entire community socialise with each other daily, often enjoying each others loud music.

The most striking thing for me was the amount of laughter you hear, as well as the fact that no one locks their doors; crime is virtually non-existent. Everyone knows each other, which isn’t hard since there can’t be more than 100 families living along the footpath that effectively is the town.

Although very poor and some what decayed, this place couldn’t be happier…the locals here have definitely done something right. Given that no one really does much, particularly the men, everyone seems to have a lot of free time on their hands. This fact, coupled with the sounds of Luther Vandross and Stevie Wonder, makes for a lot of ‘sexual healing’; which explains the number of kids running around!

Some people obviously do work, whether that be running some form of B&B from their home, or owning a ‘restaurant’ i.e a shack on the footpath with a couple of chairs outside. Our favourite place to eat was at the local chicken joint which to my mind must be the original KFC; this guy was most definitely the Colonel.

On the weekends, the local restaurants and bar on the sea front turn into dance halls where all the local youth meet; the sight of which helped to cement my theory that this town must have been the inspiration for the film Dirty Dancing. I can just see a spoiled little American rich girl from one of the expensive hotel resorts, finding herself on the neighbouring islands where all the local workers live, learning dome dirty dance moves and falling in love with the hotel salsa teacher!

There are also a handful of expats living on the island; having clearly fallen in love with the place, as have I. The majority of them own some form of business to carter for the small tourist trade which is mostly elderly surfer dudes or couples on a romantic get aways.

We stayed at one of the most beautiful hostels (Hollywood Hostel) we have every stayed in, to be fair it was more an Eco lodge run by the craziest couples we have ever met.

The husband (the financier) is a 45 year old-school raver from Brighton that has had a truly colourful life; worthy of an auto biography. Sandra, the wife, is an aggressive but hilarious little 32 year old fire cracker from Columbia. Along with their spoiled little 8 year old daughter, Naomi and Rino, a beautiful boxer/rottweiler dog, this some what unconventional family call this enchanting place home.

Our first night will most definitely go down as one of the most bizarre nights of the entire trip. We should have really foreseen the type of night ahead of us when one of the first things Simon handed us ( before even checking in!) was a dubbie of some of the smoothest green; Inhaling the second hand smoke was enough to send you into the most tranquil of states.

The rose tinted specs were soon thrown off when little Sandra (who was in the middle of dying her hair red) got our room ready for the night. Since the cabins were full for the first night we agreed to sleep in the tent out back, which considering that we are now seasoned campers didn’t phase us. What did however, was the sight of this 4’6 woman hacking down a palm tree with a machete that had to be the same size as her. Things were made even more surreal by the way in which she was blindly hacking away at it whilst telling us the most hilarious story about her current hair dilemma.

Having fallen asleep drunk and most likely stoned with the hair dye still on, she woke the next morning vomiting due to what she believes was toxic poisoning. She obviously blamed poor husband Simon for this, since he obviously should have woken her…although strangely she still hadn’t bothered to wash it out yet!

The constant bickering between the two of them provided hours of entertainment, although we weren’t quite expecting to have been chatting until 6am the following morning!

Electricity and water on the island, like Sandra, is somewhat temperamental, with black outs that can last for days. Our first night was one of those days, which meant we had to snuggle in the gazebo by candle light drinking copious amounts of beer.

Since it was still Carnival weekend, Simon was clearly in party mood, making frequent journeys into his room; which at times felt like 10 minute intervals. Given he has lived a life of excess, ingesting every chemical out there, it was difficult to follow his conversation in the first place let alone with him leaving mid sentence, only to return saying something complete different.

This Ozzy Osborne carbon copy (the only real difference being that he is bald) eventually gave us the tour of the main private house whilst on one of his little journeys. We both soon realised how he could afford this place and be living the dream; having not worked at all through out his life.

As you can probably guess we were feeling mighty rough the next day, but being in paradise quickly spruces you up. Beautiful beaches tucked away behind lush jungle with some of the best waves sure as hell beats being tucked away in bed in rainy London with your only move being to open the door for the Domino’s Pizza guy!

We were fortunate enough to be staying in the cabin at the back which had a huge loft style room along with private kitchen and veranda. The best part of it all was the fact that the entire walls of the loft were made simply from mosquito mesh; creating the feeling that you were quite literally sleeping in the jungle, but with all the luxurious trappings you would ever need. With views of the sea and the most spectacular sunrise and sunset I could have stayed in the room all the time.

I think one of the reasons for us enjoying this place so much was also down to the fact that for the first time in 6 months we were able to get back into a routine of sorts. Andre as usual would wake a good two hours before me, meaning that I would wake to a substantial breakfast.

After chilling in the hammocks for a while to digest the food we would begin the daily hike to either Wizard beach or Red Frog beach, depending on how we felt that day…or how hot it had already got. The walks themselves were a treat since we saw a whole host of tropical animals….even a sloth ! something we had been wanting to see since we left London.

After spending hours topping up the tan or catching some waves, we would nap under the shade of the huge tress that lined the pristine, somewhat deserted beaches before heading back to make some dinner (my department) and chill back at the hostel.

We effectively repeated this day for nearly two weeks which surprisingly didn’t get boring in the slightest, especially surprising since Andre usually finds it hard not actually doing something or producing something or someone….usually me 😦

Although I do think that it had something to do with the little man crush he developed on the hunky Canadian surfer (that as well as having a Men’s Health body also had a GQ brain) that was also staying at the hostel. He just happened to be called Andre too which to be honest stirred up all type of thoughts in my mind…everyone needs a phone upgrade every few years don’t they? 😉

You can thank all this free time for this mammoth post which I would be surprised if anyone bothered to read to the end. For those of you who have, I just have one last little interesting fact about Bastimentos before ending your misery; It is the only place in the world where a particular species of frog lives.

Known simply as Red Frog, these little fellas are the only fogs in the world that are not nocturnal. The reason for this is because they have no predators given that they are poisonous, which you can obviously see just by looking at them.

Whilst they wouldn’t kill you if you touched them they would if you ate them!

By garyabela Posted in Panama

Carnival 2012 – Las Tablas

This pre-Lenten celebration takes place the same time and in the same spirit as Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Four days of revelling, parties and partaking in ‘the pleasures of the flesh’ are justified due to the impending repentance 40 days before Holy Week.

The centre of attention at any Carnival celebration are the beautiful Carnival queens, dress in colourful and loud costumes that are changed twice daily. They wave, blow kisses and dance to the beat of the big brass bands that follow right behind their impressive floats.

We had heard that Panama’s most popular and well attended Carnival is in the town of Las Tablas (Pop 8,000), in the province of Los Santos. The population of this small town swells to an estimated 100,000 people who come to enjoy the decades old battle between “Calle Arriba” (Upper Street) and “Calle Abajo” (Lower Street). These two opposing bands put on an incomparable show driven by a rivalry between the two camps over who has the best queen, the best floats and the best costumes with sometimes some quite colourful exchanges between the camps.

Given the lesson we had learned re the difficulty in finding accommodation in Panama City without a reservation, we thought it would be wiser to go the day before the Sunday showdown to a neighbouring city; to be sure to find accommodation and make the day trip out to the small town.

Our guide-book explained at the city of Chitre was a 3 hour drive from the capital and so we head to the bus terminal with what we thought was plenty of time to arrive whilst it was still day light. The bus terminal in Panama City is huge with one of the biggest American style shopping malls I have ever seen attached to it. Being so modern you would have expected that the systems employed to manage the departures would be equally as modern and efficient.

We bought our ticket expecting to have a departure time, seat number and gate to which to leave from. What we got back was something entirely different; a blank ticket with simply the destination hand written! We were then told to join a queue that seemed to go along the entire perimeter of the largest bus terminal we had seen thus far!

After spending the first half an hour in the queue bitching about the stupidity of the system and generally the complete lack of service here, we decided to ask a local behind us if we were in the right place to get to Las Tablas and whether all routes had to queue in the same line?

The young girl laughed explaining that this was just the queue for Las Tablas and that there had been a queue here for the past three days! Given the popularity of the Carnival in this particular town, buses would be running for 24 hours over the 4 days to cope with the sheer number of people. When she asked if we had a reservation for a place to stay, to which we obviously replied, no, she laughed even harder explaining that she had made a reservation 6 months ago!

This is the point we both realised that we were in for a pretty rough couple of days with most likely a bus bench for a bed. Four hours later we had moved the 200m and actually boarded a bus. Of course the only road to the town was completely grid locked with traffic; resulting in us arriving to the city of Chitre (40 mins from La Tablas) at about midnight. Given our usual luck with these things the bus terminal was about 2km outside of the city in the middle of nowhere, just off the main road. We couldn’t even find a taxi driver to take us into town because without a reservation they said it would be impossible to find a place to stay.

Sitting on the curb like a homeless hippie we had both prepared ourselves for a couple of uncomfortable hours sleep on our backpacks. Before accepting defeat and curling up for the night, we asked one last driver. Finally a little bit of luck came our way; he had an annex that although was in the middle of construction had a shower and a blow up mattress that he could give us to stay for the night.

Although it was no Hilton it was better than the bus terminal, we also got a free ride back to the bus terminal in the morning.

We finally arrived in Las Tablas and must have been some of the first people there; we were definitely the only gringos! After an interesting local breakfast of hot dogs and fried stuff the party seemed to get into full swing.

The street became full to the brim with party goers of all ages that would erupt into a state of hysteria when the float passed showing off the local queens and brass bands.

Given that we are firmly in the tropics, the mid-day sun is simply unbearable, even for two sun worshipers like us! The situation was only made worse with the crush of people who simply got stuck in the streets… reminding me at times of the awful tragedy at the last Love Parade in Germany.

The only thing that made it even the slightest bit more bearable was the large trucks position on every corner of the main square that would literally hose down the crowds with chlorinated water!

After a near death experience when one of the large trucks attempting to reverse park around a corner, over the thousands of revellers that just happened to be stuck on that particular stretch of the road (of which I was one!). We decided to call it a day and head to the next major town to catch a bus up to Costa Rica and on to Nicaragua.

By the time we arrived to the border city of David we had realised that it was too late and not actually possible to catch an international bus from any other place other than Panama City.

We decided to take refuge in what has to be the strangest hostel ever; run by an overweight mid-western American that had simply substituted her trailor park for a large hostel in a foreign country. She had everything painted in differing shades of purple….the clue should have been in the name; The Purple House.

The following morning we made a last-minute decision to get in some more beach time before leaving Panama and headed to Bocas del Toro.

By garyabela Posted in Panama

Panama City

Having been confined to a 42 ft boat for the past 6 days, with no personal space, it was nice to reach the main land. It took around 2 hours to reach Panama city from the coast, cutting through some of the most dense rainforest with have seen; which at times felt more like a roller costa ride due to the steep terrain. Thankfully I was still feeling the motion of being at sea, and so the constant up and down was a good way of adjusting back to being on dry land!

It is easy to forget where you are when approaching Panama City, since it feels remarkably like NYC; as you cross the bridge along an insane highway into downtown which is a sea of modern skyscrapers. The only road into the city is choka block with traffic, made even more familiar with the endless sea of yellow cabs honking their way through.

To be honest, everything I have seen of Panama so far, doesn’t feel quite right. Everything seems to be a carbon copy of the U.S; from the large shopping malls, petrol guzzling SUVs to the only ‘restaurants’ around being one of the big three; Mac Ds, KFC or BK! Where has the Panamanian identity gone ?

Panama is one of the most ‘westernised’ countries we have been to so far, with Panama City being the wealthiest capital in all of Central America. To be perfectly honest, unlike some of the other countries we have been to, I didn’t really have any pre-conceived ideas of Panama, which may be part of the reason for my general surprise. Not withstanding the fact that I had been on deserted islands for the past 3 days, and so any urban development would come as a little bit of a shock to the system.

This initial shock has sparked the young historian in me; in order to establish how this country has become what it has, one must understand where it has come from. Even as early as the occupation by the Spanish, this country has been an important international centre, in the most part due to its geography.

Shaped like a serpentine, Panama is the slither that connects South with Central America as well as being the narrowest piece of land between the Caribbean and the Pacific. It’s for this reason that it’s has always served as some form of transport hub and the outlet for the pillage of South America over its history.

It should then come as no surprise that for most of its modern history, Panama was really simply another star in the U.S flag. U.S interest have, to my knowledge, never been so blatant. The U.S actually invaded Panama as recently as the late 80’s in order to oust dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega (who at the time of writing is all over the press due to being on his death-bed in jail). The justification was to bring him to trail in the U.S for supposed drug trafficking….those of you who would have read my Bolivian Culture post will know what my views are on the U.S War on Drugs.

U.S interference in this countries affairs first became prevalent during the gold rush on the West Coast in the mid 1800s. The majority of Americans were living on the East Cost in those times and traveling to California via Panama was cheaper, quicker and safer due to hostile native Indians. As a result the Transcontinental railroad was born which was later super seeded by the Interoceanic canal.

Interestingly the French were first given the contract to build the canal; unsurprisingly the French had bitten off more they could handle (something they would later repeat with WW1) resulting in the contract being put up for sale in 1885. At this time Panama didn’t even exist since it formed part of Columbia, who had refused to allow the contract to be sold to the Americans.

The Columbia’s obviously underestimated the mighty force of this puppeteer, since a civil war broke out resulting in Panama gaining its independence in 1903 with the support of the U.S.

The Panama Canal was completed 90 years ago and has been hailed as an engineering marvel, extending over 80km from Colon to Panama City allowing over 12000 ocean-going vessel transit every year. So significant is the canal to international shipping that the ships world over are built to fit within the dimensions of its locks.

Although we were only in Panama for a day we felt obliged to make the trip out to Miraflores Lock. Trust me if you ever go to Panama don’t bother going! It’s a massive tourist trap that is really not that impressive, the locks on regents canal are nicer!

Whilst it’s not so amazing to see up close I did find out some interesting facts about the Canal;

1. Each lock holds the equivalent amount of water to supply a city of 100,000 people for one day.
2. During WWII over 1400 U.S naval vessels passed through it.
3. It’s the only place in the world where military commanders must turn over navigational control to an elite group of 200 pilots.
4. Even though the U.S relinquished control of the canal, it retains the right by treaty to defend the canal in the interest of national security.

There have been various treaties between the U.S and Panama regarding what is NOW an important components of their GDP. Relations between the two countries have been fractious to say the least. Ironically tensions only came to a head when Panama finally got wise to the fact that as a country they were hardly benefiting at all by its construction which although was financed by the U.S had made the U.S considerable amounts of money on their initial investment as well as involvement in Panamanian affairs.

The old town of Panama city is where most tourist seem to stay which explains why this area of town is currently being refurbished, unfortunately to a point where a lot if its old character and charm is being quite literally painted over. What were once local bars and cafes are being replaced with swanky gringo espresso bars and hotels.

For all the German readers, I thought you might be interested in seeing who we bumped into whilst in the old town, foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle who clearly enjoyed feeling like a celeb with a huge entourage and special festivities in his honor!

Given that we had arrived to the city on the first day of Carnival it was near impossible to find an empty bed without a reservation, which of course we didn’t have. Thankfully we were still with our Captain who took a ride down with us and knew of a former 1 hour hotel in a rougher part of town that had rooms.

Finally Frederico really came through for us since we slept in the biggest bed ever, with air-conditioning and free porn…although not to our taste 🙂 if you have read my previous post you will understand why this was such a welcomed change for us!

Given the insane heat during the day we really didn’t spend too long walking around, however we did manage to get to the fish market to sample some of the finest cevish we have had.

I leave Panama City thankful that I have been but also thankful that I only really spent two days there before heading on to our next adventure….Carnival!

By garyabela Posted in Panama