Thursday, January 26, 2012

Central America Overview

Hola from Central America!  In 2008, Beth and I spent a little more than four weeks traveling through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala.  Click the link to read more.

 We spent a little more than four weeks traveling through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala.

 Our first stop was Panama, home of one of the world's great engineering marvels, the Panama Canal. The Canal raises and lowers hulking ships by use of a series of "locks", such as the one pictured. Over 14,000 ships a year pass through the Canal (an average of 40 a day), each one taking an average of nine hours to complete the passage and paying a fee determined by the weight of the vessel. The average fee is $33,000, and the highest fee is $200,000. With the passage of each ship, 52 million gallons of fresh water are released into the ocean. Needless to say, it rains a lot in Panama. The Spanish first tried to build a canal in the 1500s. They failed. Then the French tried in the 1880s. They failed. Finally, the U.S. aided Panama in declaring its independence from Columbia, and as compensation, the U.S. was granted the rights to build and own the Canal "in perpetuity." The Canal was completed in 1914. Over 27,000 people died during the French and American efforts to build the canal (most from malaria and yellow fever). Fulfilling a treaty signed by President Carter, the U.S. ceded control of the Canal to Panama in 1999.

To some, the Casco Viejo section of Panama City (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) has a dilapidated charm, reminiscent of Havana. To others, it's just dirty. Overall, Panama City is known as the most cosmopolitan city in Central America, and has a skyline reminiscent of Miami. Residents joke that Panama City is the ´Miami of the South,´ except that more English is spoken.

In Panama, like in Miami, the U.S. Dollar is the official currency. But, while the Panamanians didn't want to be bothered with designing and printing their own bills, they do have their own quarters (two of them are pictured, on either side of the North Dakota quarter). However, U.S. coins are still gladly accepted. By the way, I received that North Dakota quarter in Panama. How many Panamanians do you think could find North Dakota on a map? (Then again, how many Americans could find North Dakota on a map?) Perhaps because of the prolonged U.S. presence in Panama due to the canal, we saw many people wearing hats bearing the logos of U.S. sports teams, with the Yankees being easily the most popular.

These are ¨geisha¨ style arabica coffee beans from the Cafe Ruiz coffee plantation in Boquette, Panama. Although Panama is not a major coffee producer in terms of volume, it produces some of the world's highest-quality coffee. For instance, Donald Trump pays $500 a pound for Geisha coffee beans from Cafe Ruiz. The soil on the plantation is especially rich because it is located at the base of a volcano (apparently volcanic ash is great for fertilizing soil) and the growers intersperse 60 different types of plants and trees among the coffee plants.

At Cafe Ruiz, workers sort through the raw coffee beans, weeding out inferior beans. At this point in our three-hour tour, we met the 80-year-old owner of Cafe Ruiz, who was working the assembly line on a Saturday.
 By the end of the tour, Beth and I were so convinced of the excellence of Cafe Ruiz coffee, that we started working for them! (We quit about ten minutes later.)
 After my ten minutes of hard work, I decided this was the perfect time to sit back, relax, and drink my very first cup of coffee of my life. It tasted awfully bitter to me, but at least I wasn't burdened with the desire to sleep that night.
 I ate many great meals on this trip, but every once in a while, I was afraid my meal might eat me!
The Caribbean islands known as Bocas del Toro (in Panama, near the Costa Rican border) not only feature great seafood, but beautiful beaches, abundant dolphins, and good snorkeling.
 This is one of the lesser-used border crossings between Panama and Costa Rica. Pedestrians (such as us) crossing the border have to walk across a single-lane bridge beyond the pictured truck. You have to wait for a break in the line of upcoming trucks, and then make a dash for the other side of the bridge before the next truck comes. But the best part is the fact that you have to run through the pictured flaps, where trucks are sprayed with insecticide, designed to keep some destructive Costa Rican bug from getting into Panama. I don't know about you, but if I'm going to have my shoes shined, I'm going to have it done more than ten feet away from a continuous stream of insecticide.

Here is Costa Rica´s most active volcano, Volcan Arenal. Arenal has been producing ash columns, explosions and red streamers of molten rock almost daily since 1968. Because hikers have been killed by explosions, no one is allowed any closer than the spot where I am standing. (The rocks around me are long-dried chunks of volcanic rock.) Unfortunately for my ability to take photos, it starting raining just after this photo was taken and I had to put the camera in a plastic bag. But fortunately for those of us standing there, the rain cleared away the smoke around the top of the volcano, and, once the sun went down, allowed us to clearly see the lava and molten rock shooting from the volcano. It was amazing. Almost as amazing was the thunderous sound the rocks made as they shot from the volcano and crashed to the ground. On another topic, if you look closely at my convertible pants (meaning they unzip to form shorts), you can see that they are stuffed with all sorts of items, including passports for Beth and me, credit cards, maps, and an iPod. I have worn these trusty pants while traveling since 2003, and after five years and three dozen countries, I have finally decided to retire them. (I made this decision while sewing up a rip in the pants for the fourth time on this trip.) Moment of silence, please.

We walked through a couple of misty cloud forests and wildlife reserves in Santa Elena and Monteverde, which featured some amazing flowers, trees and critters. To a large extent, these preserves owe their existence to a 1949 decision in Alabama to jail four Quakers for refusing to be drafted into the Korean War. This decision led to an exodus of Quakers from America to Costa Rica (a country which did not, and still does not, have a standing army), where the Quakers pushed for the creation of these preserves.

Sometimes I would be so busy taking a photo of a flower or butterfly that I would lose track of where Beth was. (See her in the middle of the photo?) But thankfully, I would always catch sight of her in the forest before she could get away.

 This quirky restaurant in Santa Elena, Costa Rica is the "Treehouse Restaurant." That tree is alive; the building was built around it.

The tourist boom in Costa Rica led to the creation of an "ecotourism" movement of questionable ecological value: canopy tours. The "Extremo" canopy tour we took involves sliding at high rates of speed across four kilometers of "ziplines" strung high above the forest canopy using 18 platforms. For good measure, this canopy tour throws in a rappel and a "Tarzan swing" (which was a highlight). The above photo shows Beth on a zipline, approaching one of the platforms.

Welcome to the amazing Mayan ruins of Tikal, in Guatemala. Not only does Tikal feature the tallest Mayan ruins in the world, but it is different than any other major Mayan ruin site in that it is still deep in the jungle. To the left of the head of the guy who wouldn't get out of the picture, you can see a few of the taller ruins poking above the jungle canopy. (By the way, that's sweat all over my face. It hit a hundred degrees on this day.)

This is the centerpiece of the Tikal ruins, the Temple of Great Jaguar, which was built in 700 A.D. and housed the tomb of a Mayan ruler. Across the courtyard (to the right of the camera) is a mirror image of this temple (though less well-preserved), where the ruler´s wife was buried. This temple is 144 feet tall. Tikal features four ruins which are taller, including the tallest Mayan ruin in the world, at 208 feet. To the right of the temple is a Mayan innovation, a ball court. The Mayans used these courts to play sports with rubber balls, and these games had strong religious significance. The lucky winners of the games were tied up and sacrificed on the round altars shown in in front of the large temple in the photo. The Mayans considered this lucky because anyone who was sacrificed was believed to get a better afterlife. I suspect that for the average Mayan any sort of afterlife would be better than the life of hard work, heavy construction and warfare which they endured. By the way, the city of Tikal (which, during its height in 700 A.D., had a population of 100,000) was the basis for the Mayan city in Mel Gibson´s movie, Apocalypto. Also, Tikal's temples were featured near the end of the original Star Wars movie, as a rebel base. Speaking of movies, I explored the Tikal ruins on the same day the new Indiana Jones movie was released, which seemed fitting. (Thankfully, I encountered no rolling boulders or pits full of snakes.) Perhaps all of the tourists were at the movie theater on the day I visited, because despite these being arguably the grandest Mayan ruins, I sat on one temple for almost two hours, eating lunch and reading a book, and I didn´t see another person.

 The four tallest temples at Tikal are over 180 feet tall and 2000 years old, and were constructed without the benefit of metal tools, wheels, or beasts of burden to carry heavy loads. Of course, after so many years, some of the (very steep) stairs have not fared well, such as the ones pictured.  If these temples were located in the U.S., I doubt the public would be permitted to walk up the "stairs"--it would be a lawsuit waiting to happen.

There are over 3,000 buildings which have been discovered so far in the 47-square-mile Tikal complex. Each building in some way has been reclaimed by the jungle in the thousand years after they were abandoned for unknown reasons by the Mayans.
 Here are more ruins at Tikal. It was incredible the way narrow jungle paths would open up onto building complexes such as this one.
 I spent two ten-hour days exploring the many buildings and surrounding jungle at Tikal. During that time, the abundant wildlife was very much in evidence. Here, a spider monkey reaches for fruit from a neighboring tree.
 On the island of Flores, located in a large lake 70 kilometers from Tikal, there seemed to be an eerie dearth of tourists. The island contained dozens of hotels and restaurants, but there seemed to be no one eating in the restaurants and almost no gringos walking the streets. Pictured is one of many empty ferries crossing the lake to the mainland. From what I could tell, the locals spent their days seated outside their establishments, slowly fanning themselves with restaurant menus, and staring at me as I walked by. I started to feel like the only chicken walking around in a town full of Kentucky Fried Chickens.
 Speaking of food, I tried the pictured "Tacos Maya" at my hotel on my first night in Flores. I enjoyed it so much that I ate it four more times. (By the way, Tacos Maya costs $2. The hotel was $14 for air-conditioning, hot water shower and television with a dozen of English-language movie channels. It was the only hotel in which I stayed on the trip with air-conditioning or television. About half of the hotels on the trip had hot water.)
 On Sunday morning, I awoke to the sound of fireworks. And when I emerged from my hotel, the streets were all decorated as shown, with streamers overhead and palm fronds on the streets and lining the walls. But I couldn't find any people, until I walked to the center of the island...
 ...where all of the locals were gathered in the main square around the island's single church (Catholic). I decided not to venture any closer with my camera, since some Guatemalans are known to be violently opposed to having their photos taken. In separate incidents, two tourists have been lynched for taking photos of Guatemalan children. (Apparently, the locals are afraid tourists will kidnap their children.) I learned from a guy at an internet cafe that this was the "Feast Day of Corpus Christi." I told the guy that I once worked in Corpus Christi, Texas. He responded sternly that "No one is supposed to work on Corpus Christi."

 Back in San Jose, Beth and I saw the new Indiana Jones movie--in English with Spanish subtitles. While the theater was just as nice and modern as those in the U.S., the prices were decidedly old-fashioned: $2 a ticket, $1.50 for a large popcorn. (In case you're wondering, in the photo, I am supposed to be snapping an invisible whip.)
 After seeing the movie, we boarded a bus and headed to Granada, Nicaragua. Unfortunately, we chose to travel on the day when Tropical Storm Alma made history by being the first tropical storm on record to hit the Pacific Coast of Central America--which is right where we were. It added about five hours to our already 12-hour bus trip, and caused all of the water to be out in the city of Granada. But although there was no water coming out of the faucets, there was plenty of water (and water damage) on the walls of our hotel room. The small bar of soap Beth is holding--provided by the hotel--says, "Home sweet home."
 Granada is a beautiful city filled with restored colonial buildings. However, the city's beauty has attracted so many expats who drive up the prices of the nice colonial buildings that the town center has been left with a deserted feel.
 But if you venture a few blocks away from the city center, there are bustling street markets. Notice the white bus has just driven along the pictured street. The bus driver, like most drivers in Central America, expect pedestrians to jump out of the way, no matter how many pedestrians might be walking in the vehicle's path.
 Because we happened to be traveling on Mother's Day, the buses were unbelievably crowded. (Even the locals were griping about it.) See if you can find me in this photo, taken by Beth. I stood on this bus for four hours as we drove from Granada to a ferry dock. During those four hours, I'd guess over 60 people squeezed by me either getting on or off or walking through trying to sell everything from refreshments to nail clippers (seriously). Although it was 95 degrees outside (and hotter inside), and I never could stand all the way up (I was a little too tall or the ceiling was a little too short), and I was worried about pick-pockets, I still had a good time on the bus ride. The situation was so ridiculous that I couldn't help but smile. Plus, I spent much of the ride staring at a sticker (a remnant of the bus' former life as a school bus in the U.S.) which read, "Absolutely no standing while the bus is in motion."

 We got off the bus and went to a ferry dock on the largest freshwater lake in the world, Lago de Nicaragua. At the center of the lake is Isla de Ometepe, which has twin volcanoes.  While on the two-hour "ferry" (really just a very old boat), there were many people with Mother's Day cakes, most of which were uncovered (such as the cake at the bottom of the photo). Considering how much dust and dirt was flying around this boat, I wouldn't have been surprised to learn that the pictured cake began the day with white icing. Moreover, as we were lining up to get off the ferry, a child slipped and fell into the pictured cake, leaving a big hand print on the side of the cake. Let's hope the mother receiving this cake really believes that "it's the thought that counts."

 After getting off the ferry, we hopped aboard another decommissioned U.S. school bus (standing-room only, once again), and rode two and a half hours to our hotel on the island. But during this ride, the scenery was magnificent, with volcano views such as this one from both windows.
 Here was the sunset view from our hotel on our first night. (One volcano is partially visible through the clouds. Our hotel was at the base of the second volcano, which towered over us to the right of the photo.)
I took six flights on Mexicana Airlines during my time in Central America. And while I love the inexpensive fares and the fact that no other passenger seems willing or able to undertake the duties of sitting in an exit row, I was less thrilled about the fact that the airline employees let us check in at the Costa Rica airport and fly to Guadalajara, Mexico, without informing us that our connecting flight to the U.S. had been cancelled the day before. This left us stuck in Guadelajara, scrambling to find flights to the U.S. Thankfully, it all worked out, and we made it back to the land of hot water and drivers who obey traffic laws. It reminded us once again of one of the hidden pleasures of traveling: returning home!

No comments:

Post a Comment