Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Leon to San Pedro Sula

So I'm here in San Pedro Sula today. Got here last night. SPS is the fastest growing city in Central America...and for that reason I want to get out of here as soon as growing cities in Latin America usually mean disorganization, crime, and exception here. Only came through here to pick up my cousin at the airport, and then we'll head over to the beach at La Ceibu this evening.

The trip up from Nicaragua was not too bad. I had thought about getting one of the express-direct buses that will carry you between the major cities without stops...all the tourists take these, but decided not to since the express buses that come through Leon (ah yes, I did spend 3 uneventful days in Leon, chilling out at the house/hotel of a guy I met during the climb of Concepcion) go to El Salvador and I wanted to go to Tegucigalpa. So rather than the bigger bus, I managed to take a series of vans that got me across the border and near Tegucigalpa. The vans are a good system...they leave whenever they're full and take you direct. They're more cramped and uncomfortable, but since the trips are never longer than 1.5 hours or so it's not too bad at all. And faster. Completed the trip to the Honduran capital in a larger, local bus that covered 90 miles in 4.5 hours. Ouch. Arriving in Tegucigalpa after dark. I hate arriving in these bigger cities after dark but managed to do the same thing last night here in SPS.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


A lot of people work for themselves in Latin America. The streets are full of vendors selling clothes, food and drink, pirated CDs and DVDs, and the like. Here in Nicaragua you see a lot of people selling nuts. Many taxis are unofficial with the drivers working for themselves. One gets accustomed to people entering the buses before they leave or during the trip in an attempt to sell candy or drinks or knickknacks. And the bus stations will be full of people selling different items.

It certainly isn´t very efficient to have 100 different people selling different random items in a bus station, rather than one large store with 3 employees. But then a larger store requires a certain amount of capital and investment. Studies have shown that small loans of money to small businesses in developing nations have boasted of impressive returns. In fact, this type of lending to small businesses in developing countries in a field in and of itself, microfinance.
I got to thinking about all of this after reading an article in an old The Economist magazine, er newspaper, that I picked up. The article was about the ´new´ middle class worldwide, whose development everyone thinks is important. The general view of the middle class worldwide is of a group of budding entrepreneurs, but in the opinion of the authors these people are not very entrepreneurial and would rather have a salary and work for someone else. Having your own little petty business seems to fit with the lifestyle down´s pretty laid back, you don´t really have to work very hard; just kind of sit around and talk with your friends in your little stall and hang out until a customer comes around. Many of these businesses aren´t very´ll be ignored when you walk in and have to call attention to yourself to get service. When you work for someone else you are usually going to have to work a little harder I would think.

I perceive Americans as they´d rather work hard for a set number of hours in a day and then enjoy their freetime, whereas down here work and play are more intertwined, and/or they don´t care as much about earning money. I don´t know though...with the advent of cell phones and Blackberrys, and people becoming more and more connected and accessible, perhaps our work and leisure hours are becoming just as mixed as the shop owner chatting with his friends at the sidewalk stall. But I´d say our work habits are probably more influenced by the fact that we´re a developed economy than some sort of cultural difference. Owning their own petty business is more of a situation they are forced into rather than what they really want...and for this reason they don´t often invest in the business to really grow it.

One of the more capital-intensive businesses that you see all over the place in Latin America is the pharmacy. They´re on nearly every corner it seems, which makes me want to draw a comparison between the people here and the Iraqis I worked with who thought pills were the answer to every problem... At any rate, a pharmacy kind of has to be located in a building to give it a bit of a sense of respectability...nobody wants to buy aspirin from a guy running a corner stall. And just as the locally-owned pharmacy has given way to the nationwide chains in the States, eventually these corner vendors will be replaced by larger enterprises. In Panama this seems to have happened...but not so much in the poorer countries like Nicaragua and Peru. Political and economic stability certainly provides a nice foundation for these types of investments.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


Managua...the city that was...or could have been. The photo is of an overturned citymap. I think it pretty well sums up the state of tourism in Managua.

Got into Managua around mid-day. I didn´t want to spend a night in Managua as I had heard it was expensive (relatively), dangerous, and just generally not tourist-friendly. So instead I decided to walk and cab around the town for a little while. This is one big advantage of traveling backpack is so small I can easily carry it around all day if I need to even in this heat (April being the hottest month here)...thus, no need to check into a hotel just to drop off my stuff.

So had the ´lunch for 2´ at Pizza Hut and then walked over to check out the New Cathedral. It´s built like a concrete bunker...for good reason...the Old Cathedral was partially destroyed by an earthquake in the ´50s and then further damaged in the big quake of ´72. But the Old Cathedral is still there in the ´city center´...looking rather lonely...waiting for restoration that will probably never happen...emblematic of downtown as a whole.

´Downtown´ Managua is like that...empty and forlorn; kids playing soccer in an empty square next to the National Museum building. The ´72 quake destroyed much of the city, most of which was never rebuilt. Not sure if this is due to lack of funds or fear, but the result is a city without a city center; the million or so inhabitants mostly live in the outskirts. For the few minutes that I walked around in the old downtown area I actually saw more ¨Student Driver¨cars than cabs. Bereft and forsaken. When I finally did find a cab, I paid him a few bucks to drive me to some of the sites in the area, of which there were very few. Managua sits on the lakefront with Lake Managua...but the lakefront itself has very little development.

The cab driver turned out to be the highlight of Managua as we shared a few observations about the lack of gas in the gas station (Nicaragua´s president being a good friend of Hugo Chavez), and enjoyed a ´nickel bag´ of water sold by the street vendors. Yes, the water comes in a little bag...tear and drink. Well worth´s 95 degrees plus here every day.

Leon Viejo

...or "Old Leon" was the first capital of Nicaragua...back in the early 1500´s. Nicaragua´s capitals have quite the history of destruction - this one was destroyed by an earthquake in 1610 and then buried in ash in the many eruptions that followed over the centuries.

Archaeologists began to unearth it in the 1960´s and it´s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I once heard a tour guide in Vietnam (his name was Mr. Tam, a Vietnamese national speaking fluent English with a south London accent) refer to UNESCO as ¨sugar daddy¨ when talking about its pecuniary contributions to Hue City. At any rate, due to this exalted status I figured it must be worth a look, so I took myself to the nearby town Puerto Momotombo, located on the lakefront with Lake Managua. The trip out involved several different bus rides on the ole school bus. Most of the buses in Nicaragua are former school buses from the States. Not sure if they shift the seats around to get more rows in there, but the seats are a little tighter than I remember from fact, it seems the farther north I go in Latin America the less legroom I have on the bus. I also managed to crack my skull on the low opening when entering the bus from the backdoor. Some things never change.

Got to Puerto Momotombo around 6 in the evening to find that the town has no hotels of any kind. A bar owner on the beach offered me a hammock, but with the high winds I demurred and he was nice enough to find a woman that would rent me a room for a night, which she apparently does with some regularity. As I turned off the light in my cave-like room (I should mention the house had no running water, and was constructed more or less like a barn) I decided to test out my flashlight...and shined my light on two ´bats´circling around in the room. I use the quotes around bats because I was convinced at first that they were bats, and thus ran out of the room, opened the doors and turned on the lights to get rid of them. I then proceeded to get my first use of my mosquito net as I reckoned it was worth the 10 minutes to set up the net rather than a bat-bite and rabies treatment. Slept ok beneath my safety shield of a net. The next day when I told the landlady about the bats she laughed and said they had to be butterflies, not bats. And on second-thought, they probably were butterflies. But they were really big butterflies. Scared half to death by two butterflies.

As for Leon Viejo, I had hoped to see a working excavation site, but it was not to be...nothing to see but a few concrete and brick walls. The photo is a sculpture demonstrating a killing and torture technique the Spanish used on the natives...sic the dogs on them. The sculpture was done in 2001; it´s typical of the construction here in Nicaragua in that it´s falling apart already...or more likely they wanted it to look old...

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Granada is a well-known stop for tourists. I thought it would be a nice little colonial-style town...but it turned out to be a bit of a dump. The colonial-style buildings were still there despite the repeated lootings and burnings by English pirates and our good friend William Walker. It had a nice touristy section too, of course, but the rest was pretty rundown. Walked around for a bit after dark during the one night I spent there, and was greeted by chubby prostitutes soliciting, young kids begging, and older kids trying to strike up conversations for undisclosed motives. I just try to avoid them all.

The people do tend to treat you like a walking cash machine. But I just can´t see rewarding someone with money for bothering me. And the way I see it, their governments need to learn to deal with their own people. Not my responsibility. Of course, that doesn´t do much for the poor soul on the corner begging...but then I´m more into long-term solutions rather than temporary fixes.

As far as responding to the begging goes I still haven´t gotten my standard operating procedure figured out other than the not giving money part. I approach different situations in different ways depending on the beggar, time of day, neighborhood, etc. During the day I´m more likely to respond with words if kids are asking. They ask me for a dollar...I´ll put on a bemused expression and ask them for a dollar. This usually brings a pause, followed by words of surprise and then a lot of unintelligible chattering in Spanish. Entertaining, but this type of engagement has always brought more questions and attention. The better approach with kids is just a smile and a shake of the head...once they figure out you speak a little Spanish they will want to talk.

If someone asks me for money as I´m walking past their position or have already walked past I´ll almost always ignore them. Older people, women with kids...I´ll usually give them eye contact, put on a sympathetic expression and walk right on by. Middle-aged healthier looking men that beg or talk to me I´ll look in the eye just to let them know I´m aware of them and not afraid, but I´ll try not to challenge them with my eyes or expression...respectful acknowledgement. At night, I mostly just feign ignorance or deafness and keep moving.

I don´t mean to come off like I ignore everyone though, or treat them with contempt...most of the people, and especially the kids, I smile at and that almost always brings a smile in return.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

San Pedro del Sur

I headed down to the beach town of San Juan del Sur to relax and try to do some surfing. San Juan has a beautiful little harbor with a nice swimming beach. The surfing beaches are a car ride away but plenty of services exist to get you out there and back for cheap.

And Nicaragua is cheap. My bill at my hotel on Ometepe after 2 days and 3 nights was only $38 and that included the room (room only had a bed and fan but what else do you need?), most of my meals, a few beers, and lots of bottled water. My hotel here in San Juan is $6 a night. Meals in restaurants usually run $3 to $4 for a good meal. A beer is under a buck.

Mark Twain came through here and said that San Juan consisted of "a few tumble-down frame shanties" and that the town was full of "horses, mules...and half-clad yellow natives". Twain certainly had a way of putting things. The town has changed and developed, but probably not all that much. Most of the nicer homes are foreign-owned. The locals' homes are still pretty ramshackle. The half-clad people these days are more likely to be foreigners.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Lake Nicaragua

Lake Nicaragua...the 10th biggest freshwater lake in the world...and home to the only freshwater sharks in the world. With the San Juan River flowing out of the lake all the way into the Caribbean, one can cross almost all of Nicaragua by boat. In fact, many Americans did just that during the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s. Nicaragua with its lake and river and the narrower Panamanian isthmus were the two main crossing routes in those days. In fact, there was a whole section of the Panama Canal Museum in Panama dedicated to the misbehavior of the ´49s in Panama. Mark Twain actually traveled through Nicaragua on his way from San Francisco to the east coast in 1866, and apparently really enjoyed the experience. This was all before the trans-continental railroad was completed of course.

The ferry from San Carlos on the east side of the lake over to Isla Ometepe took about 11 hours. With a 2:30 pm departure we arrived very late. I showed up around 1:45 for the alleged 2:00 departure...this would be important as all the good spots to hang your hammock were already taken. I didn´t have a hammock anyway, but could have bought one for $2. People would just string them up whereever. It helps to be in the know sometimes.


The big island in the lake...

It´s two big features are hard to miss...the two large volcanoes looming up from either side of the island. The island itself probably has 40,000 people or so; fairly sparsely populated. It has one ring road that is half'paved with premade small blocks of cement. You´re more likely to see bicycles than any other form of transportation, but there are about 300 cars on the island...and quite a few horses. Ometepe also boasts of a really nice beach on the east side where you can swim in what seems an ocean but drink the water if you so desire. I was quite enjoying myself over there on Santo Domingo Beach, and marveling how I had found such an idyllic location with almost no other human activity in the area, when the gnats showed up. At first I thought I was being pelted with sand but quickly realized it was gnats that were all about me. This fortunately did not happen in San Carlos as I was warned by the note on my door that it could...but they were enough to chase me back to Altagracia on the other end of the island. Nicaragua is, in general, kind of like the sense that things are good...but not quite there where you would want them to be: beautiful beach...with gnat plagues...nice, cheap A-C...bicycle rental...gears don´t work...friendly people...incomprehensible Spanish and shortchange you in nearly every monetary transaction.

But if you want those nicer things Costa Rica is just down the block. I prefer it here....

Volcan Concepcion

I decided to climb the bigger of the two volcanoes here on Ometepe...Volcan Concepcion. VC measures 1610 meters or so and is apparently one of the most symmetrical volcanoes in the world. It is also active, having erupted just last year.

It is advised to go with a guide since people have gotten lost and died on the volcano in recent years. The first one I talked to said unequivocably that we would leave at 5 am to begin the ascent since that is what his other hiker wanted to do...the discussion abruptly terminated. Found Ivan a short time later and he was agreeable to a 6 am start and a $30 payment. Considering the difficulty of the hike and the fact that it took nearly 11 hours, $30 is working hard for your dollar. And yes, dollars are quite acceptable down here for most, but not all, transactions. As for Ivan...I quickly realized he wasn´t going to be much of a guide because he kept attempting to give me excuses not to make it up to the top...i.e. the volcano is active, a third of climbers don´t make it...1000 meters is a good achievement, etc. I really missed my MacchuPicchu guide, Miguel. He, you wanted to impress. And he wouldn´t have allowed excuses to not make it, although I didn´t need any outside motivation. Ivan's idea of telling me about the flora and fauna was to point out a flower and say...¨Look, how pretty!¨

Anyway, back to the hike. The starting off point, Altagracia, is only 40 meters or so above sea level, so we would be climbing up nearly 1600 meters...and back down of course. This would be the most altitude I´ve covered in one day.

The day was hot and the hike was steep...a fight against gravity nearly every step of the way, both up and down. From about the 500m asl point upwards it was like climbing a staircase...only steeper by about 10 degrees. Blessedly, the volcano was covered in clouds from about 800 meters upward...making the hike much cooler and more pleasant with the ever-increasing wind. The clouds did, however, necessitate an hour-long wait and rest period 15 minutes from the top while we hoped for the clouds to clear. During that time an English fellow going with the first guide I talked to the night before went past us on the way down...good thing they left at 5 to get to the top early and have it be covered by it often is until the mid-day suns burns the clouds away.

Left our rest stop around 11:30 and headed up for the last stretch...I immediately noted that the vegetation was starting to disappear and that my hands (the steepness by now had me crawling on all fours) were starting to feel some pretty hot not warmed by the sun as we were in the middle of the clouds. Didn´t take long to figure out the earth was being warmed from below.The air also began to smell like sulfur. So as I lay there scratching and clawing to get up the last few steps, to my eternal ignominy a Norwegian woman using hiking poles blew right past me to the top. Nice lady

We reached the summit around noon and had to wait 20 minutes for the good views. Just when you would think it was going to clear out a bit, the wind would blow more clouds up the mountainside to swamp you again. Clouds on one side blocking the view to the east and steam from the volcano blocking your view to the west. 20 uncomfortable minutes for me...keep in mind it´s a step beyond the summit puts you tumbling into the gas and steam-spewing crater. I didn´t really like being near that edge, but once the clouds cleared out I felt much better and was rewarded with the beautiful view...I had hoped to see both the Atlantic and Pacific from the top but couldn´t really make out the Atlantic. Nevertheless, enjoyed the feeling of being on top of a volcano, on an island in the middle of a lake, on an isthmus connecting two great continents, dividing two mighty oceans.

Coming down was long. We couldn´t really do it much faster than the ascent due to the angle and the rocks. We did get to see a family of howler monkeys and one of the guides was able to converse with them quite well.


After my night out in San Carlos I was greeted with a cup of coffee with breakfast. I should mention that I don´t drink coffee...I´d finished I think two cups in my life before this event. Hard to say why I haven´t drank more...I guess I´ve never liked hot drinks and I never really had an interest in drinking too much caffeine because I always end up chemically addicted and hate suffering the headaches to get off it. I am, however, well aware of the uses people have for coffee as I´ve seen people drinking it around the different places I´ve worked. Yes, I have worked before...but not much and it seems like forever since.

Anyway, so went ahead and tried it...with a spoonful of sugar added...and...I enjoyed it. Thoroughly. The Nicaraguan coffee tastes incredible...nothing like what I had before. And now I see why people line up at Starbucks and pay so much. I will not be one of those people...but when I´m in a position to take advantage of a caffeine boost and have good coffee available I may have to choose a cup of Joe.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

San Carlos, Nicaragua

Can´t help but laugh when you see something like that on the inside of your hotel room door...thankfully, we were spared ¨la plaga de chayules¨.

Took a longboat up the Rio Frio to San Carlos, Nicaragua. The boat is pretty much the only way to cross the border into Nicaragua from Costa Rica except via plane, or the PanAmerican Highway further west. Ride actually cost about $10, which for an hour long ride is pretty steep around these parts. That driver has a good business going, crowding 50 or 60 people into a longboat and scooting down the river a ways. Learned that local monkeys swim the 30 meters across the river when they need to, although didn't see this.

As for San Carlos...well, nothing really there, but I wanted to take the ferry across Lake Nicaragua to Isla Ometepe so kind of had to transit through the place. They have an old fort (re)built in the 1700´s that was apparently used as recently as the last century to fight against invading US Marines...amazing how many times there have been American troops on the ground in Central America. At any rate, I didn´t go see the fort. My tourbook advised me if I needed to spend the night in San Carlos I should probably start drinking as soon as possible, advice that I took to heart with a nice couple from Barcelona. They made me feel better by mentioning that they don´t really understand the local Spanish very well either.

Out and about San Carlos

After my little coffee baptism I felt sufficiently stimulated to go for a run down the dirt road leading from San Carlos out to the airfield. I had hoped there wouldn´t be many people out and about as I always feel strange exercising in public, but I was to be disappointed...and got some pretty strange looks from people no doubt wondering why anyone would voluntarily exert themselves in the 11 AM heat. Nicaraguans take staying in the shade very seriously. Riding the local bus, people will just flag the bus down from the side of the road to get bus stops really. This makes sense to me...where it´s sparsely populated. But when the get off, they´ll treat the bus like a taxi. One person will get off in front of their home...and then 15 meters further another person will get off...10 meters further another person. I´m not sure if this is to stay out of the sun or out of laziness, but if you can get away with it why not? I should also mention that 11 AM here is really midday or so because the sun comes up incredibly early in Central America. We´re east of much of the Eastern Time Zone in the US and yet here we´re on the same time as Denver right now.

Managed to get out to the airfield without passing out. Had read that the town had it´s own airstrip with two flights a day going out to Granada so wanted to check it out. And it was, not surprisingly, a dirt airstrip. I´ve never taken off from one of those before. San Carlos would, fortunately, not be the first dirt runway for me as I managed to get on the ferry later that day. Had I missed it for whatever reason I would have had to wait for the next one three days later or take my chances with the flight.

Sunday, April 6, 2008


Did the zip-line tour. It wasn´t that great but kind of something you feel like you should was, after all, probably the only time in my life I´ll hang from a cable and zip 750 meters over a rain forest. The Tarzan swing was pretty good I have to admit...the guides kind of had to push me off as I wasn´t ready quite as fast as they wanted me to be. Just wanted to be sure you know. The wildlife/plantlife attractions are mostly lost on me.

I reckon standing near that waterfall in the picture is the safest way to experience the force of a minor hurricane...a waterfall that size can generate a lot of wind in an enclosed area. Tomorrow I´m going to try to make it to San Carlos, Nicaragua on the eastern shore of the world´s tenth largest freshwater lake, Lake Nicaragua. I´m ready to get on out of Costa Rica...all the locals keep talking to me in English and I hate that. I´d say give them another 15 years and this country will be more or less bi-lengual. Costa Rica is also fairly pricey, especially in these heavily touristed areas. In Nicaragua I´ll be more off the beaten path, which should be cheap and uncomfortable.

Saturday, April 5, 2008


Arenal is a famous volcano here in Costa Rica...huge tourist attraction as it has spouted lava continuously since it last erupted in ´68. Went out to see it on a nightwalk with a few other tourists. One lady kept complaining that ¨I just can´t believe there´s no insurance if something happens on the trails.¨ Everyone needs that little safety blanket of insurance I guess; heaven forbid we be responsible for ourselves.

Pretty cool seeing lava from a distance in the night...but the better thing was listening to the boulders come bounding down the mountain. The lava hits air, becomes rock, and down it comes - all day, every day. We were over 2km away but could hear them pretty easily. With that and the howler monkeys I felt...well, close to nature I guess you´d say.

Hiked up an adjacent mountain today to get a good look at Arenal...quite a pretty shape to it. A true volcano. Emblematic. The ´mountain´ today that I hiked up was a dormant volcano with a lagoon in the crater. The lagoon was shaped like a football field but probably 200 meters in width. I´ll swim out in the ocean or across a small bay, but I just don´t feel comfortable swimming in an enclosed body of water like that. Not sure why that is.

Friday, April 4, 2008

San Jose

Not a lot to do here in San Jose so I'm going to head out of here this afternoon. In the week I've been in Central America I've only stayed in one place more than one night. But I have to stay moving to cover all of it in only 6 weeks. Nobody really spends much time here's more of a weigh station for people on their way out to the wilderness areas. I spent the day wandering about the far I've seen very few street signs in Central America...maybe one in 10 intersections will have one sign somewhere if you look long enough. And occasionally, you'll see the random sign on a building telling you what street you're on, but mainly you have to navigate with landmarks and by counting blocks...or just keep asking directions.

As far as asking directions goes I take a different approach down here. At home I almost never ask for directions. I generally have a map with me, or a pretty good idea of where I am going so to have to ask directions seems a failure on my part...thus I do not do it. Also I like to figure things out and since the layout of the roads usually make sense one should be able to figure out where they are going without too much trouble. Here, on the other hand, I cannot count on the road grid making sense and more often than not have no map, so I ask directions. Furthermore, it is an excuse to talk to someone and practice my Spanish. However, the help I get is generally very limited in its value. Oftentimes, the locals will not seem to know what the name of the street we are standing on is or will reference points or buildings that I am unfamiliar with. And they generally give directions by saying -go up 3 blocks- or -at the corner go down a block- without telling you which corner or other point of reference from your initial location. But you normally can determine which way is -down- or -up- since a lot of these cities are near the ocean, other body of water, or mountain. I tend to have a hard time with the directions, in any case, and generally just head off for a ways in the direction they point and then ask someone else.

At any rate, the only thing of note I did here was visit the embassy to get more pages in my passport. Surprisingly I got that accomplished in a little over an hour despite the hordes of people inside. Turned out to be an entertaining hour as an older, retired gentlemen sat next to me in the 'US passport help' line and began by asking me with a smirk..."What did you lose your passport?" I informed I was there to get more pages and he mentioned that he had to do that 4 times with his last passport and that it was as thick as a dictionary when it expired. He also apparently fought off armed Mexican bandits with a wrench when they attacked his 'convoy' when he was moving down here, rode 36 hours non-stop from Reno to Omaha on a 600cc motorcycle, and was involved in the creation of a water-powered dune buggy. The head man on the dune buggy project was apparently poisoned by the government because the government is in the pockets of the Saudis. Entertaining if nothing else, although I think the information he had about retiring in Panama was at least half accurate. I also talked with two other guys that had had ALL their stuff stolen (which is definitely something you pray doesn't ever happen); one of them said he didn't have a police report because the incident happened right in front of police so he didn't see the point. CR seems fairly safe but if you don't watch your stuff someone will most definitely relieve you of it.

The photos are of cows...what passes for art down here... They are all over the city in different parks and tourist areas. The park with this particular cow is home to a large memorial to the defeat of William Walker. Mr. Walker and his private army tried to make several different Latin American coutries/regions into US states during the mid 1800´s. He was actually tried and acquitted of ¨conducting an illegal war¨ in Baja. In the end, he failed in all attemps obviously, and was executed by the Hondurans at the behest of the British in whose interests his ends were at odds . The Nicaraguans (whom he actually ruled over briefly) apparently celebrate his defeat every year, although I´m not sure why the celebration given Nicaragua´s status as the poorest country in the hemisphere save Haiti. But then a win is a win and national pride is a funny thing...¨it may not be that great...but it´s ours!¨

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Panama Canal

Didn´t really see the Canal till my 4th and final day in PC. Went to the Miraflores Locks where there´s an observation platform allowing you to see the ships as they get lifted up by the water. Some of the fun facts: the 3 different steps of locks on each side (Pacific, Caribbean) lift the ships a total of 27 meters, 70% of the canal traffic is US-related coming or going (mostly coming obviously), they recently started constructing a 3rd set of locks that will be wider so as to accommmodate the bigger and bigger vessels being be finished in 2014. The US ran the canal from 1914 when it opened to the last day of 1999. Kind of hard to believe the US held on to a slice of Panama and kept it as US territory for so much time, although without US technical expertise, organizational skills, and logistical capability the Canal certainly would not have been completed as early as it was or maybe never. The canal is now run by a Chinese company (statistics indicate it´s being run more efficiently than before)...and the expansion of the canal will largely serve Chinese interests by allowing larger and larger ships through, thereby achieving economies of scale in transportation costs. The result of all this being we get to sell ourselves to our good Chinese friends even faster.

The largest ships pay up to $300,000 or so today to cross, depending on weight. During US administration it was mainly run on a non-profit basis. One thing I´d wondered is what keeps the Panamanians from price gouging on the tolls since no obvious competitor exists. I can´t answer that question exactly but will say that other alternatives do exist and would become more viable as canal tolls go up. Alternatives include the Suez Canal, railroad traffic across the States, new canals in Colombia, Mexico, or Nicaragua, and even a Northwest Passage ice route taking advantage of rising global temperatures and possibly a Pacific warm water current to melt ice in the Arctic to create an opening in the ice.

I actually stayed a night on old Fort Clayton, which was the US Army base down here that closed when we turned everything over to the Panamanians. Not hard to tell that the area once had military bases...the aligned rows of housing, sports fields, the airfield at Albrook, and the rest are all still there, serving different functions. It all created for me a bit of nostalgia for a bygone era. The Panamanians seem to be making good use of it all.


Drove across the isthmus to see the canal from the Caribbean side. Also wanted to the town of Colon, which is known for its shopping, having a tax-free zone. The propaganda I read talked up Colon pretty good...but it turned out to be a dump. Didn´t even feel comfortable enough to go walking about the town...not that I was afraid mind you but just didn´t see much reason to get out of my Chevy Spark rental car. The Spark was so small I could probably have flipped it on its side singlehandedly if I´d wanted...but it served to get me over and back and around Panama City for a day. Since Colon didn´t turn out to be much I took a little drive down the Caribbean coast to see Portabelo and the old Spanish fort. Not much there, but beautiful beaches...not hard to see why so many foreigners are retiring down here given the beaches and low cost of living (Big Mac value meal is $3.40 including tax). Also doesn´t hurt that they use dollars.

Panama is actually experiencing quite a real estate boom, thanks largely in part to foreign buyers. The skyline in PC is already quite impressive and there are quite a few skyscrapers going up...apparently one is being built from which you´ll be able to see both oceans on a clear day. For me, it´s hard not to think they are overbuilding though, given the global economic climate now.

Arrived San Jose

Spent much of the last three days on buses having traveled here to San Jose from Panama City. Stopped one night in Santa Catalina...left there so fast I didn´t even take any pictures. No real reason to go onward so fast other than the fact that I´m in a bit of a hurry to get to Nicaragua...Santa Catalina was a perfect place for me to surf but wanted to get on down the highway a bit so one day was enough. Last night I slept in David which turned out to be one of the cleanest cities I´ve seen in Latin America...whether this is due to the increased and increasing foreign/retiree presence is anyone´s guess. Crossing the border took an hour and a half...and the landscape does change significantly here in Costa Rica as opposed to Panama...where Panama was flat, somewhat brown, and deforested CR is greener, much more mountainous, and jungley.