From Canals to the Caribbean

Published: August 3rd 2013
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Blog 30th June - 20th July Panama & Nicaragua

"From Canals to the Caribbean"

After all the excitement of last weeks Galapagos trip I finally managed to pull Jo away from those snuggling sea lions. There was no time to get too carried away with wedding chat just yet as we still have six weeks of adventure ahead of us. Though it has made for a welcomed new and exciting topic of conversation between the two of us, something different from sharing dream stories or stool types (these being the only moments when we are apart). And thank the Lord that Jo did say yes otherwise it would make for a very awkward end to our trip...

We wasted no time returning to 'traveller mode' and the next few days consisted of $2 street grub, little washing and next to no sleep. We leapfrogged our way up through Bogota, Colombia, to reach Panama City and our new playground - the hot and sticky tropics of Central America! Dubbed the Miami of the South, Panama City is modern and very big! With our pre booked hostel annoyingly based out in the sticks we taxied our way across this chaotic high rise town from A to B. Taking in some good food in the dilapidated yet trendy colonial district of Casco Viejo, we then got great views of the sun setting over the city from across the Amador Causeway. The heat and humidity has hit us both hard and we are once again sweating buckets.

The highlight in town is undoubtably the great Panama Canal. I never thought I would get this excited about big boats passing agonising slowly through a huge lock system but I was surprised, it was ace. However, my joy here may also have something more to do with the 'all you can eat' posh buffet which Jo and I succumbed to. There's nothing quite like debating the wonders of such engineering brilliance whilst scoffing your face with your seventh helping of chocolate gateaux.

Another night bus (we can't get enough of these) carried us north west to a small rundown coastal village, a stones throw from the Costa Rican border. Taking a 6am dingy ferry from the mainland, we waved goodbye to this shanty town with overwater loo shacks and bobbed our way over the pristine glass seas to reach a wonderful collection of lush green islands and isletas - we had reached the archipelago of Bocas Del Toro, part Panama's oldest marine park.

Spending four nights here we had some cracking day trips - snorkelling over wildly colourful coral, boating with dolphins and siting sloths in mangrove trees, biking our way out to an amazing beach and even trying our luck riding a wave or two with a surfing lesson. Unfortunately though, the main Bocas town is over developed, expensive, and a top draw for American and international holidaymakers (our stay over the 4th July probably didn't help this). Finding accommodation within our budget was a nightmare. AC became the stuff of fantasy and we found ourselves sweating away the evenings and snuggling up to bed bugs too! The secret of Bocas' beauty is definitely out and with perhaps its best days behind it we felt like we were almost too late to the party.

Moving on we bused it up through Costa Rica (sadly too expensive for this trip) and arrived at the border for Nicaragua. It was here we received our first authentic taste of Central America. From the air conditioned and tranquil passport foyer of Costa Rica it was only a hundred metres or so before we were hit by the wonderful chaos on the Nicaraguan side. Street vendors, food stalls, money exchange hustlers all jostled for position by the immigration door. After the most lax baggage check ever we were finally let loose. Short on time we hopped in a taxi for the next leg. Our cabbie, pulling out just in front of a local bus, did a fine job of cheekily picking up and dropping off extra passengers along the way, clearly offering the express service. And even though we had said we were in a hurry, the driver also stopped to do his grocery shop along the way. We quickly realised two things - that the pace of life is very different here, and that no taxi is ever too full not to stop for the right price.

We just made it to the ferry dock in time for the 90 minute ride across Lake Nicaragua to the mysterious twin peaked island of Ometepe. This fairy tale island was formed by two coned volcanoes rising up out of the lake. Saddling ourselves between the two peaks for a couple of days, we enjoyed some short walks to see petroglyphs and ancient stone statues from an unknown era. We saw more horse drawn carts than cars here and enjoyed taking things slow. Sadly the weather was too poor to hike a volcano and the beach was riddled with sand flies but this didn't stop us having a lovely time. We nestled into hammocks and watched the sun set behind a mysterious and tempered volcano, we certainly couldn't complain!

We returned to the mainland and by this point in our adventure Jo and I assumed we had experienced all modes of transport. Then.. cometh the hour, cometh the chicken bus! There's nothing more surreal than ramming every man, woman and child, with their pets, home furniture, garden plants (and of course their chickens!) onto a old classic yellow American school bus. With our bags precariously thrown onto the roof we nervously crammed our way in. Delightfully we were greeted with smiles in every direction. This fun and lively journey carried us 3 hours into the heart of the country, arriving to Granada on the North West side of the lake.

This once great colonial city is still full of charm with picturesque plazas, churches and cathedrals, and its backdrop setting by the lake and another towering volcano. We were keen to explore the local culinary delights and found ourselves enjoying the country's staple of gallo pinto (rice and beans). The local speciality of 'Vigaron' was maybe a step too far for Jo but I was in my element - steamed mashed yucca, hot salsa heaped on a banana leaf (sounds nice so far), finished off with full fat dripping pork scratchings on top! Yummy.

Traveling Central America in July and August does have one set back, its the rainy season! Everyday, Granada's streets would transform into gushing rivers and we found ourselves caught out on several occasions, wading our way back to the hostel. When the sun did shine we tried to make the most of our stay. We explored the small lake islets surrounding the city, feeding monkeys and stopping by a local village. And as the worlds largest premium producer outside of Cuba, it would have been rude not to check out a classic Nicaraguan cigar factory.

Then, with only a month to go before we would have to return to the real world, it was high time to get in some beach action!

Acting totally on impulse and recommendations we found ourselves flying last minute to Nicaragua's Caribbean jewel - The Corn Islands. Taking a tiny toy plane and a death defying panga ferry ride we landed on Little Corn. "Welcome to Paradise!" came the shouts from the local Rastas at the ferry dock - and they were spot on. With no roads or cars, this small island is walkable in a couple of hours and is home to a wonderful beach, coconut palms, crystal clear waters and a super chilled atmosphere. We made the grand 10 min walk across the island and plonked ourselves in a beach hut for six days. The rain did arrive everyday but each down pour was short lived and quickly followed up with glorious sunshine. The pristine waters made for a cracking respite to cool off after baking in the sun or playing bat n ball.

At last this was also our first opportunity to unleash my hammocks, having carried them half way round the world for six months. They made for fab porch accessories and the perfect spot to sip a Gin, lime and soda (sadly no agua tonica
Our Hammocks! Little CornOur Hammocks! Little CornOur Hammocks! Little Corn

Thank you Caroline and Fergus!
here!). Choosing to dive the morning after a heavy thunder storm wasn't our best idea, but we made up for it with great snorkelling - seeing an abundance of fish, as well as a nurse shark, sting rays and underwater caves. We experienced the highs and lows of food here too, from the delicious and highly affordable lobster tails to the not so grand all rubber conch (never again).

After our few days here it was time to get back on the move. With only three weeks to go now and a huge chunk of the region yet to explore we'd better get our skates on..

Additional photos below
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4th August 2013

Hi Jo and Charlie, and still riveted to your fabulous blogs and totally enjoy them. We went to see your mum yesterday Jo, and sat in the garden and toasted your engagement with bowls of strawberries and raspberries and minted water! Unusual but delightful. She is looking really well apart from her poor hand and arm. It must be very odd for you both approaching the end of your travels, I imagine you return with very mixed feelings. It will be wonderful to see you. Take care on this last lap and continue to enjoy... lots of love, Miranda xxx and Colin xxx

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