A Travellerspoint blog

The Carribean dream?

semi-overcast 40 °C

Hello Readers!

The last two weeks in Panama has given us some fantastic experiences. After spending a night in the transport town of David, we took a bus to the sleepy town of Boquete, a popular place for retired Amercians, it is neither historic nor modern and resembles the town featured in the film Forrest Gump. To our surpise, we really liked the mid-America feel of Boquete, now with new money as the result of a number of successful coffee plantations that have thrived over the last decade.

We visited a lovely plantation famed for growing Geisha coffee, named as such because of the Japanese love of this blend, and who, on one visit, signed a 5 year export deal with them. We were given a tour of the plantation and discovered how the beans are grown, harvested, packaged and exported. This plantation is particualrly inspiring mainly because the owner bought the land against all sense and support of his family. He had little money to fulfill his intensions to grow coffee as he couldn't afford the equipment to grow, harvest and roast. Yet he had a knack for machanical engineering and invented all of the machines and contraptions from recycled car parts, shopping trolleys, tyres and the like, all of which are still in use today. 90% of the coffee is exported to the States and Japan, which explains why Ross and I have yet to drink any decent coffee since being in Central America (we're counting on Colombia!).

We were keen to white water raft here, and the cheeky sods are selling 'white water rafting' jaunts knowing there is no white water. We later discovered that the dam has ruined the river, which now serves as a tranquil stream for nature lovers. I only cottoned on to this just as we were about to hand over US$60 a pop, when a traveller described her white water rafting experience as 'nice'. For anyone who has had fun on the white water, you'll know something's up when it's called 'nice'!

Instead, we took a bus 4 hours North to Bocas del Toro (Costa del Sol 20 years ago) onwards to the 'quieter' Isla Bastimentos. Bastimnentos might be sleepy but it certainly has an edge and the local store has its' fair share of altercations. Bastimentos has a strong Carribean vibe but this is no Barbados...it's just our Carribean dream on the cheap. The island is accessed only by boat, for which they charge a premium to anyone appearing to be a tourist, while locals who join our boat get to travel for free...it's nice to feel welcome!! We are staying in a cheap guesthouse run by a pair of apparent alcoholics (English guy, Colombian wife) who took no time upon us checking in to offer us weed, cocaine and just about anything else we may desire. The husband has several unfortuante facial twitches (hard drug usage I think), similar to that of Ozzy Osbourne, that are so bad, Ross thought he had a medical problem...I guess he does, but he seems to have his own medicine.

The wife is frequently drunk, sniffs far too much to pass as a common cold and has already during our stay managed to accidently stab herself with her own machette. Her only concern was that she had stabbed her 'fighting hand' which could impede her chances in fighting with a fellow Mum at the school their 7 year old attends. They are desperate to go out partying with us which we have gracefully avoided. We are astonished at how they are managing to run a relatively successful business with little effort and often being incoherent. Though it's been entertaining at times, their Daughter is clearly affected by it all and is quite a madam, which makes it all a bit sad.

Nonetheless, we are having an amazing time. The beaches are simply stunning, truly Carribean, with clear shallow waters for miles out, literally. We have visited Dolphin Bay where we got close up to Dolphins playing around the boats, one with her baby. We have a few photos, but the film is much better and we'll upload it as soon as we can. We saw some beautiful fish when snorkelling and although there is not enough surf (sorry Phil!), the body boarding has been great fun.

We both agree that if we were tourists rather than travellers, we probably wouldn't choose this as a beach destination, but as backpackers, we feel so lucky to be enjoying the Carribean beaches here and I think this has been the most beautful beach we have visited on our trip so far...if only it had the vibe of Zipolite in Mexico!
We will be here for the next week or so, but it's Ross's birthday just before we move on to Colombia, so I'm sure he will give you all an update before we go.

Take care for now,
Love
Charlie and Ross.
xxxx

Posted by charlieandross 11:18 Archived in Panama Comments (1)

Dubai of the Central Americas

rain 30 °C

Our three day trip to Panama City come about due to the fact that neither Charlie or I were particularly happy about paying $600 plus to fly from San Salvador to Bogota. Instead, we have opted to cross the Darien gap via ferry. The new ferry (which is Greek owned and opens on May 31st) travels from Colon to Cartegena and is the safest and cheapest option available to us. So, whilst we had to spend the best part of a day trawling through shopping malls in Panama City to find a tour operator who would sell us tickets for the ferry, we also managed to squeeze in a little time to explore the old part of town - Casco Viejo.

Casco Viejo is currently being restored to its former Cuban/colonial glory; quiet, full of charm, minimal tourism, the most amazing ice cream parlor we have visited yet (Basil, vanilla pod and chocolate flavours) - this place really was the real deal. Managing to somehow keep the OTT touristic element away, keeping the local residents housed within the city walls, and restoring the existing architecture - the city council have done a temendous job at retaining the historic values.

The new part of Panama City is a very different affair altogether, flanked by huge shopping malls, hi-rise flats and office blocks it was neither particularly easy to navigate through nor that charming. We did visit a few Panama hat stores and although some of them were of excellent quality, they are actually made in Honduras. Not very Panamanian afterall!

Hopefully we will get an opportunity to see the canal on our way back through the city. The drive to David took us alongside a small part of the canal and the sight of these huge container ships slowly working their way along a rather small stretch of jungle-lined water was impressive if not a little surreal!

Love from

Ross and Charlie
xxxx

Posted by charlieandross 10:17 Archived in Panama Comments (1)

Changes & El Salvadorian hospitality at its' finest

semi-overcast 40 °C

Hello Everyone,

Ross mentioned in his last blog that we would be heading to Nicaragua....well, that didn't happen in the end. More often now on this trip our plans keep changing. Money is getting tighter, travel is expensive in Central America; and we still have so many experiences we want to enjoy, so we are getting pickier about the Countries to visit. Surf school was a priority for us, so we crossed the Guatemalan border by bus to El Salvador, aiming for the surf coast.

The journey from Guatemala to El Salvador was comfortable and the scenery at the border dramatically changed to ranch-like countryside, all horses and cowboys! The increase in wealth was prevalent, compared with it's neighbouring countries and the local currency is the US Dollar. Most El Salvadorians work overseas in the U.S and Australia, bringing the money home to enjoy a better standard of living. Tree lined boulevards, American style houses and a flat but well-maintained infrastructure is the norm in many areas.

The El Salvadorian border welcome is notoriously unfriendly....the young woman with eyes like ice and a face like thunder asked us a series of irrelevant questions on the bus, before storing my passport in her shirt pocket and departing the bus! She later returned and handed it back with no explanation. Apparently if you're French, there's a good chance you be told to go back to where you came from. Luckily immigration is not representative of the national psyche.

We stayed a night in San Salvador, but yearning for the coast, we arrived at San Diego, near La Libertad via three chicken buses (our fault - we missed our stop), interspersed with a Spanglish conversation with a chilled out Salvadorian bar owner, before arriving at a lovely guesthouse called El Roble, owned by well-travelled Brit Darren and his El Salvadorian Wife, Seca. The place was wonderful, so chilled, with delicious home cooked food every night around a family table. We honed our skills at ping-pong, tennis, football, French Boules on the lawn(!) and darts!! The place had two swimming pools and everything was lovely including Darren's music collection which we just had to take with us; but most importantly we met some great people who we shared many an after-dinner chat with. Medhi from Iran, Emma from Derby, some ladies from Canada and Andrea from Germany who is working there - we became good friends! This place was like adult 'youth club'! The weather was unbearably hot at times, oppressively humid, so we just enjoyed youth club along with a tiny exercise regime (we mustered a skip most evenings) and a visit to the main town of La Libertad for Ross to watch Liverpool lose to Chelsea.

Darren and Seca took us all to a local annual festival (Festival of the Cross) on Sunday where we watched ordinary men dressed as cowboys as well as genuine ranchers, ride out horse sprints in a galloping display of charged testosterone / 'pin the tail on the donkey' type contest. Odd, but good fun! We enjoyed puposas (small round naan breads filled with refried beans & cheese - a staple in this part of the World) and watched a colourful parade of flower displays through the small village.

Surf didn't happen either! Unfortuantely the waves, rocks and surf were not kind enough to complete novices like Ross and I...so somewhere else on the travels surf will be. So, while our entire reasoning for visiting the Country did not materialise, we had a thoroughly good time and met people we wouldn't have met otherwise, which makes more than half the pleasure of this trip.

After a thoroughly lazy time we took a flight to Panama City last night; Ross will update you shortly on Panama. Tomorrow we head for the Rio Chiriqui (about 7 hours West of the City) for white water rafting. (Incidentally, we're only in Panama to travel to Colombia, but our boat has been delayed until the end of the month, so here we are...again!)

Hope you're all good!

Lots of love

Ross & Charlie
xxxx

Posted by charlieandross 15:31 Archived in El Salvador Comments (2)

Two thirds of the death triangle!

sunny 32 °C

I know that the heading seems a little dramatic, and in all honesty, it is. However we have heard so many stories about Guatemala City, San Salvador and Tegucigalpa (locally known as the death triangle) that we decided to take extreme caution when travelling through the first two cities. Guatemala City is, according to some 'experts', the most dangerous city in the world. Now I appreciate that most cities have their good, bad and indifferent areas but Guatemala City really was something different. For me it felt very isolated and the constant lack of street lighting, non existent pedestrians, and run down buildings very much gave it the feel of a ghost town.

Arriving in the city early evening, after a very long series of bus journeys, we avidly watched the zone signs fly past us as our Toyota minivan whizzed through the city. As a rule of thumb the lower zone numbers tend to be more dangerous (no go for tourists) and the higher zone numbers the safer, more suburban areas of the city. We were thoroughly relived when we found out that our hostel was in zone 12 and in a gated community. The more suburban areas do tend to be gated and also have armed security patroling the derelict streets. It was quite surreal to see men parading around the pavements holding automatic pump action shot guns just in case a 'situation' occurred. God only knows what actually happens if security have to actually use their weapons?

San Salvador proved to be exactly the same, more razor wire lined buildings and gardens coupled with friendly gun wielding security guards patroling the streets. Whilst the city was not typically latin American, the roads were a lot wider and cleaner, the undercurrent of gang violence and the threat of robbery still lingered large.

I guess the picture that I am trying to paint is not only a negative, but a realistic one. The reality of how some of these less developed cities actually function in this part of the world is different to other cities I have visited. Touch wood, we have not experienced any problems in this neck of the world yet, and long may that continue. However the social and political climate, as ever, dictates the way these cities work and for Charlie and I to see a glimpse of this first hand has ultimately been very educating.

I do not think we will make it to Tegucigalpa, and to be quite honest I am not bothered about seeing the city. I know Charlie has an old score to settle with the top dog of the 'zone 7 boys' but I had to remind her that her knife fighting skills are not quite what they use to be...

...so we have decided to head South and take on a Nicaraguan drug cartel instead. I think this is the sensible thing to do in the circumstances.

Love from
Ross and Charlie
xxxx

Posted by charlieandross 10:22 Archived in El Salvador Comments (1)

Fawlty Showers in the Jungle

sunny 32 °C

Hello Readers! We hope you're all doing well and we're sorry for the long delay - we have been in the Guatemalan jungle for a while now, with little electricity, no hot water and in some cases no water at all....stinky!!!

Our journey onwards from Xela, took us to Antigua - one of the most impressive colonial cities we have visited on our travels so far. To be honest, we were a bit over 'colonial cities' - Luang Prabang, Hoi An & San Cristobal, but we couldn't help but try this one out. The architecture in the main streets and squares was phenomenal, not forgetting the most striking interior design in the restaurants and cafes - similar to Seville, we loved the place. The atmosphere was cosmopolitan and perhaps, having been stuck in the highlands over the Easter period, we appreciated this more so than usual.

While we were here, we decided we wanted to get a little more out of our experiences rather than just visiting place to place. We secured some work (unpaid - but free board and meals) with a jungle lodge in Lanquin (8 hours North of Antigua). They knew one of us loved cooking and the other had lot to offer with art and sports projects, but we really had little idea of what we would be doing. Then the fun began! El Retiro (or rather El Retardo as we affectionately call it) is a Guatemalan family-run lodge, blessed with the loveliest location imaginable (river and jungle all around), but cursed with a lack of love from its' owners. It's very hard to explain the day to day shananigans of the place, (it left us in laughable disbelief) but if you think Fawlty Towers / Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares, you'll be very close! The whole experience was hilarious, draining, a learning curve and a place where we met some fantastic people. I thoroughly enjoyed working in the kitchen, re-designing the menu's, building relationships with the Guatemalan kitchen staff through broken English and Spanish (they weren't happy to see me arrive, but were sad to see me go). Ross was working behind the bar, expecting to learn to make cocktails etc but instead made just 8 drinks on an 8 hour shift! They wanted our ideas on improving the place but they told us straightaway that we would be silly to expect that any of them would actually get implemented!! (inertia was the name of the day...every day), so this became 'moi frustrado'! Ross really wasn't enjoying the experience and while I was improving the food and getting good feedback, plus learning some Spanish, we both need to be enjoying this precious time off. What an experience though, something we'll never forget and we shared so many laughs with the other volunteers/travellers.

So, onwards to Semuc Champey we went. The region is stunning. Huge fresh water pools, turquise and crystal clear for swimming, against a backdrop of jungle plants and every shade of green imaginable. The fauna and flora was breathtaking - the photo's do more justice than my words ever will. The night before we shared more laughs and good conversation with a lovely couple from Europe (Barbara from Belgium and Johansson from Germany), that we all hiked to the area together, which was great. Between them they speak approximately 7 languages (really puts us Brits to shame), were cracking company; this was the first time we'd spent any length of time with another couple in 5 months.

Ross & I left the Semuc Champey region yesterday, and tonight we are in Coban, having just had the first warm-ish shower in about 4 weeks....bliss!
This morning, we thought our next stop would be Nicaragua, but we have since decided to take a bus straight to El Salvador to start surf school! Yikes!

Love to you all, keep the messages coming - lovely one from you Phil - big hugs to you.xxx

Ross and Charlie
xxxxx

Posted by charlieandross 20:28 Archived in Guatemala Comments (1)

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