Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Panama: a Modern World.

The last country on the list to check off, and we've had all the countries of Central America except El Salvador. And due to recent news of the unsettling unease going on there, I'm not specifically sorry I missed it.

The border moment was pretty funny: up till now, we've crossed each border with a stamp in our passport, all of the countries checking our carry ons as well as the luggage. Sometimes, we could tell what a country would be like merely by crossing it's borders. Costa Rica looked immediately wealthier and more organized, and Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua all had pretty much the same vibe.

Nothing could have prepared us, then, for when we got our exit stamp of Costa Rica, what we saw walking across.
"India", is what Anouk described it with. A flurry of colours and chaos, with people standing, coming and going. You not only haven't got a clue where they're coming from, where they're going or what they're doing, you also have no idea where you're supposed to be.

David was only an hour and a half away from the border, so not too much of a stretch. From there, we managed to easily find a local "chicken bus" to Boquete.
Those buses had been absolute no-go's up till now, because though cheap, they're asking for disaster to strike you. In Panama, though, it didn't only look and feel safe enough: you can't avoid them. They're everywhere, and there's very little other options.

The weather was just right, because of it's location. The village was cute, quiet, though maybe (slowly being transformed into) a little touristy. Not too tacky though, yet.

Because Boquete is known as the Napa Valley for coffee, that's exactly what we did in the pristine little natural mountain village: a Kotowa Coffee tour. Hans, a Dutchie, moved to Panama a rough twelve years ago, decided they wanted to do something different with their lives, and started giving tours around Boquete. Just around then, they met a few coffee farmers who asked if it was an idea to bring tourists there, and a new idea was born.

Hans taught us a lot. From the moment the seed is planted till the moment it's ripe to be picked. The history of the beans, and how many different species there really are as far as coffee plants go. How Columbia is number one, and surprisingly, Vietnam number two. Panama isn't even in the top ten.

The funny thing about him being a Dutchie was that I'd almost forgotten about the directness and humor we have. It becomes very apparent when you're in a different country, in a group that consists solely of a German couple and three Dutch people (Hans, Anouk and myself) that kept making me think " Those poor Germans!".

What was also surprising to me was how Hans expressedly told us it doesn't matter whatsoever where the coffee is from, when you walk into a specialty store. It's more important to know if your flavours are inclined to light, medium or dark roast. Or the American fourth option: French roast. (Don't ask about the origin of the name. The French don't know either.)

Apparently, there are two very important differences when coffee is concerned: there is Robusta (which is considered the crap of the crappiest of coffee), and Arabica (which is "nice", but again divided into 5 different "levels".) Nescafe, apparently, isn't even fully robusta, but lengthened with chemicals and other stuff so that Hans wouldn't even dignify it enough to call it coffee. That broke my heart.

We also had a tasting session, where we tried the different roasts of the same chocolatey coffee. The light roast was called the strongest, though none of us agreed with that. Hans explained that coffee has a body, like wine, and like wine has different "side tastes". Acidic, or "fruity", or nutty. The light roast had enough fruit and nut, so that the body was mild, justy "one of the ingredients". Just 30 seconds of a longer roast makes it medium, where the coffee already loses most of the fruitiness and had more obvious body. Dark roast was where even the nuttiness has been burned away, so that it's mainly body. I don't even want to know what the French roast would taste like. Water?

Afterwards we had a cup of another coffee, medium roast, but with some fruity flavour left. And then, we had a $8 cup of award winning Gesha coffee, something we thought didn't taste like coffee at all, but warmed up fruit punch. 


We decided to skip the night in David and go straight through to Panama City, officially making that our last long bus trip this holiday. We slept in the Financial District the first night we arrived, in a cosy enough hotel, and walked around to try and find some dinner and get familiar with the place.

Panama City, though, is definitely THE most modern city in Central America, at least of the ones we have visited. For one thing, they have a funny little card which works almost the same as our little OV chip card, where we buy it, charge it, use it in buses and trains instead of buying tickets everywhere.

For another, the skyline. It is absolutely amazing! It might as well have been any skyline in the States, and that wasn't just Anouk and myself talking, but also people who have visited, for instance, Miami and New York. We basically spent the first full day exploring, and from then on have been to see the scyscrapers every evening.

For a third: their toilet paper can be thrown where it belongs, after use: the toilet. It took me days to get into the habit of throwing the toilet paper in the bin next to it throughout Central America, because their toilets can't handle it, start regurgitating and become blocked. Now, it took me a good two or three days to undo the habit and get back into a normal routine: I kept looking for the bin!

Of course, a visit to Panama City wouldn't be complete without visiting the Panama Canal, just outside the city. We took a while to understand the bus station, the first day we arrived there it mainly seemed very tourist-unfriendly. But we arrived in time to see the grand vessels go through the locks. They'd advised us to go there between 9 and 11 am, or after 3 pm, because those were the time any ships of real size passed through. Well, you couldn't not agree with that: the boats passing were HUGE!

There was a commentator who, besides explaining what was happening in front of our noses, also filled our brains with funfacts that were bound to go into one ear and out the other. For instance, the fact that one man thought of swimming through the canal, and how it took him 23 hours to get through the three locks. And how, for his size and weight, he had to pay the smallest amount of money ever paid to the Panama Canal: 28 cents.

And how there are two main rules to passing through the canal with your ship: 1. You have to have at least one certified P. Canal captain on board. 2. You have to pay (in cash) two to four days before you pass the actual canal.
By the sheer number of boats we have seen waiting around the entrance, and given they only let 6 to 10 of those pass, a day, I don't think the 2-4 day rule is much of a problem. Most of them are stuck there for at least a week anyway.

We also saw a presentation with the history and how the Canal was built in numbers, and went inside the museum (that they happened to be renovating, so we couldn't see all of it). I hadn't given it much thought, nor researched it that much, so I was personally pretty impressed by the weights, sizes and amount of people and years it took to finish the project. They're now already almost done adding two more (bigger) locks to the three now existing.

We also went to the zoo, mainly to keep in the tradition I've had to visit one at least once every trip. Sadly, it was even less populated or visited than the one in Riga, Latvia. I'm thinking we as a super small country are doing something right that big countries are completely missing. If I had a rainforest as my backyard, I wouldn't make my zoo a well kempt garden with two cats (jaguars) and some monkeys. I'd make sure it was the most impressive sight you've ever seen.


Again and again we've been telling each other how we wouldn't have wanted to miss out on Panama, though. Most of our classmates doing anywhere near a similar trip as we have have been stopping in Costa Rica. And I personally think that's a shame.
Though not at all regretting having missed El Salvador, Panama is really on the must-visit list. Especially if you like coffee, scry scrapers and modern technology with your fried rice and beans.

Now, sadly, is the end of our trip. In a few minutes we'll try catching a taxi to the main terminal: Albrook bus station. From there, we take a metro bus to Tocumen, the international airport. I'll try thanking the Subway that was kind enough by offering some wifi in those dire hours of need, almost six weeks ago ( by buying a brownie or something).

Then, it's off to internetless Cuba, and within 24 hours there, a flight to Schiphol, Amsterdam.
See you on the other side!

The Gypsy

Friday, 13 July 2012

Costa Rica: Land of the Rich.

We arrived in Liberia at exactly 23.00. And the first thing I noticed about Costa Rica was the Huge, Optimus- Prime -sized trucks cruising the Panamerican highway. No kidding, if I didn't know Optimus Prime lived in the states, I would've guessed Costa Rica was his safe haven.

Our hotel was named after that part of Costa Rica: Guanacaste. Liberia, as we found out in the morning, wasn't the hotspot or a must see, but already noticably different from other Central American cities we'd visited so far. It seemed, however harsh, cleaner. More wealthy. We walked to the "Plaza Central', which basically everything worth being called a city has here. Then, we checked out, walked with our backpacks to our bus pick- up spot in a Best Western hotel, and then roamed around the small shopping center close to it. For the first time throughout the trip, we walked into an actual store, and tried on dresses and shoes.

The curse of the delayed buses seemed to have lifted since crossing the border, for our shuttle picked us up and was actually early.
So we enjoyed the first sights of Costa Rica in broad daylight, and we noticed something other than the huge trucks. I always thought this surprising of Central America as a whole, but dang: Costa Rica is GREEN!
As in. Really green. A lot of it. Everywhere. The valleys, mountains, planes: everything is covered in gras, trees and bushes. And it's gorgeous.

Also: Costa Rica is EXPENSIVE! Now, money is relative, and of course it matters if you're on a student budget or if you have a "real job". But it's also relative in another way: souvenirs in Europe will cost probably twice as much as they do here, so really, Costa Rica's alright. The problem was, however, that we've been spoiled, sleeping in hostels of averagely $5 a night, and buying food and souvenirs that cost close to nothing. That dream ended right here. xD
Maybe that's why the country's name suits it: "Cost"-a Rica.

Our first destination was Monte Verde, where we spent the weekend (three nights). As the name gives away, it's situated within the mountain ranges, or highlands of the country. Thus, it was chillier than we had had on Utila: a sigh of relief for me.
We had an awesome hostel (actually cheap by CR standards), with nice people running the place, and two cool girls to share our dorm with: Michelle and Taylor.

The weekend ended up to be a splurge, but worth every penny.
Now, up till now, Bamba Experience, the mexican agency where we had booked our hop-on-and-off bus ticket from Cancun,Mexico to San Jose, Costa Rica, had provided us with several tours. The last one was our first activity in Monte Verde: A Canopy Tour.

And for the first time, I didn't act tough or fearless. It seemed rather like bungee jumping to me, and a lot of heights. Taylor had joined us, which was fun. Nobody coudl help taking away that dread I felt, though. Of course I knew I would regret not doing it, and I had my adventures in Semuc Champey (see Guatemala) to encourage me of a certain bravery.

It was worth it!
The ziplines were high, roped in between mountain tops. The gear we had to wear was heavy enough to be comforting, and the crew was reassuring, despite their dark sense of humor. We got to enjoy the green nature of Monte Verde from a new angle :). There were lines you had to break all the way, some where you didn't have to break at all, and some we had to double team in, so that Anouk and I got skilled in that together.
After about twelve different ziplines came the Tarzan Swing, the "bungee jump" where you jumped (or got pushed) off a platform and then ended up swinging.  
I got pushed.

Last, and best, was a zipline of 1 km. The longest in CR, extending all the way over the valley back to the reception. There were two ways to rush down it: 1. The "normal" canopy way, in an upright sitting position, with your hand as a break behind you. 2. The "Superman", where you paid them $5 more so you had an extra belt around your chest, which enabled them to strap you to the line tummy down, hands outstretched.

Worth. Every. Penny.
Whilst I zipped down the line I didn't only feel a strengthening of Superwoman powers, I also realized that this would be the closest I'd ever get to the sensation of flying solo. With or without wings.

That evening we went on a Camina Nocturna (or Night tour). We got picked up by a shuttle, and ended up in a small group (the guide, a spanish couple and the two of us). Just the sensation of being in the jungle at night, in the pitch black dark, made the tour great. We also saw capuchin monkeys, a lot of insects, a beautiful bird (not a quetzal, unfortunately), a tarantula and a possum!

The next day, we got picked up by yet another shuttle, to a Finca (farm) up north. There, we were each assigned a horse for our tour. It was awesome! I got to ride Campion, who definitely lived up to his name. Whilst almost every other horse had to be called or reprimanded at some point or other, mine just obeyed every command I gave him. A good feeling, for sure. :)

We rode past sugarcane plantations, coffee ones and banana trees. We had a climb (or our poor horses did), and passed creeks, hills, little "alleys" throughout the place. Matilda, a danish girl, and I were in the front, and we were amazed at how we were just riding through a jungle, and at some point: through the low hanging clouds.
We saw toucans, and even a wild cow in labour. I'm not sure whether the calf was still alive, though. 

We had bought our groceries the day before, having agreed that if we wanted to splurge on activities, we would have to budget our food. Pasta it would be, with tuna, preferably all week. But Taylor had told me that she'd had lunch that filled her well past dinner time, so I asked what? Sushi, was her response, and mine was: don't tell Anouk!
Like my cravings and missing of chocolate, Anouk had ranted on and on about sushi. Thus I thought it only fair to surprise her, and almost frustrated her at my vagueness. When she found out, though, she was happy. And she was even happier in the evening, after we had had our sushi rolls of spicy tuna and rainbow (marlin, salmon and tuna). Nomnomnom.

I was quite reluctant to leave, though looking forward to the next place: Manuel Antonio. The hostel was cute, as much as its owner and her four amazing dogs. (Even animals, I noticed, are fed and treated better in Costa Rica than we've seen so far, from Cuba onwards). We didn't do much on the afternoon of our arrival, but then again, it started raining. A good opportunity to rest. And Solangel, the pretty owner with the longest hair I've ever seen, not counting Rapunzel, invited us to use her tv, no problem. Anouk preferred lying down, but I accepted, and enjoyed a good hour and a half of no-brainer tv shows (part of something called the Grimm, and a show called the American Ninja Warrior finals. Hah).

The next morning we got up early, and at 07.00 started to walk to Manuel Antonio's National Park. It turned out to be an amazing (and quiet) hike. We'd decided not to take a tour but go by ourselves, walked all the trails we thought exciting, and ended up hiking all morning. (I can still feel my calves and shins hating me). We saw plenty of monkeys (capuchin and squirrel monkeys), as well as birds that were as noisy as they were pretty. Little lizards would shoot out in front of our feet, and as far as "new" animals, a green snake, raccoons and crocodiles may be added to the "Seen" list.

Then, as a sort of reward, we ended up on the beach, where the Pacific Ocean lay calm and peaceful and beautiful. We swam, and Anouk sunbathed while I napped in the shade, and then we swam again. We were deadtired at the end, after what we calculated was about 12 kms walking, and took the bus home, and enjoyed a calm evening in which we repacked to leave in the morning.

San José, our "ultimo destinacion de Costa Rica", was better than we expected. Everyone who had been there had told us they hadn't much liked it. It had been sleazy and shady, they'd said, and we were expecting some sort or second Tegucigalpa. We were pleasantly surprised, therefore, when it turned out to be a bit like Amsterdam. We had a hostel in the "good side" of town, walked along the most famous (and crowded) shopping street to find the post office, roamed about a market where they'd promised us souvenirs that were cheaper than anywhere else (they were not).

We were happy, this morning, to be leaving. Not because it was an awful place, but because it is a crowded capital. A good one, though, if you ask me.
And now, here's to an eight hour long busride, all the way to Panama! :D

The Gypsy

Friday, 6 July 2012

Nicaragua: A taste. (Of chocolate)

I have a funfact about the Bay Islands: THE Blackbeard, terror of the seven seas and one of the richest and craftiest pirates in the world used to come to shore at the Honduran islands. It was here where he found the privacy to hide his treasures, and the mad men to accompany him on his voyages.

Coming from Utila, we had to stop at Tegucigalpa (or Honduras City) after an eight hour bus ride, simply because nothing was heading straight to Nicaragua.

It was the shadiest neighbourhood, and a taxi brought us from the busstation where we got dropped off, to the busstation we would be picked up from the next morning. We weren't planning on doing much walking, but at the station they weren't very helpful when we asked for a hotel in the neighbourhood. And when we stumbled onto the first hotel sign we saw, it was the lousiest hotel we had stayed in so far. Just to keep off the streets, which oozed a dangerous atmosphere, did we agree to stay in the roach-swamped buggy place. Everywhere we could see, they had iron doors and padlocks, even shut tight by day, only opened to allow the entrance or exit of a potential customer. And if it wasn't padlocked by day, it got so by night. Not a very hopeful sight.

The next morning, we had to get to the station before the sun came up: we genuinely considered asking for a taxi to take us instead of walking those five minutes. Once at the station, though, we were relieved. Just 8 or 9 hours more, and we would be in Granada, Nicaragua....

... or so we thought.

Fourteen complete hours later, and half a dozen of stops, with a bus driver that seemed to be taking "speed limits" too literally, we arrived in Granada: the bus stop in the outskirts of town. (Aka: middle of nowhere).
These streets were filled with people who had an entirely different aura about them: something relaxed and welcoming.

We scouted for a hostel from our Lonely Planet list: the first one we tried had space, so the Bearded Monkey it was. We went for a short walk to pin some money, explored the square: Parque Central, and walked into the Euro Cafe, deciding almost immediately that we should have some kind of food there.

In the morning, we explored some more. We had the most varying and fulfilling breakfast we'd had since Cuba. I went on a serious quest for a flag: up till now, I had managed to buy one for dad from every country. Granada, though, seemed not to be very helpful. No one had flags, and if they did, they were as big as a towel. It was only in a small shop in which I expected an apologetic shake of the head that they brightly told me I was in luck, they had one left!

That done, we signed up for a Chocolate Workshop close to our hostel. Best thing we did :)
We learned about the cocoa plant, the different types of them, the pods, and the entire process, from the fermentation and drying all the way to the moulding of said chocolate. From step three, roasting, it got interactive: we were given a ceramic pot full of cocoa beans to roast, then peel, and grind into a paste.

Then, we learned about the chocolate drinks made and drank by the Mayans, the Aztecs, and finally the Spanish. The entire workshop I was reminded again and again of the movie: Chocolat. Not a bad thing, seeing as one of my favourite actors stars in said movie. After making the drinks, we got a bowl of chocolate paste, in which we could "dump" ingredients to our liking. I chose chili and cashews. That we spooned into a mould, which went into the fridge. After receiving a certification, we were told to pick up our bar of chocolate in the morning.

Anouk and I had dinner with a Danish girl named Maya, who didn't feel like going out to dinner by herself. We ended up going to a Chinese restaurant, a very happy choice.
We played the This or That? Game, in which I ended up having to make up all the choices for the two of them to answer.

The next morning it was repacking, breakfast, picking up our bar of chocolate, and then waiting for the time to go to the bus station. Around 14.00, was the plan, because the bus was planned to leave at 14.30.....

....or so we thought.

We had wifi. We had yahtzee. And books. And our chocolate. If we hadn't, we would've probably been quite unhappy.
But even with all that, the five hours we waited felt like ages more. We were gleeful when we could finally claim our seats in the bus.

The bus ride to Liberia in Costa Rica shouldn't take more than six hours. But we'll see. We've learned to expect very little in the last few days. Fingers crossed.

Ps: faster than expected. We got dropped off in Liberia at 23.00 exactamente :)

The Gypsy