Showing posts with label central_america. Show all posts
Showing posts with label central_america. Show all posts

Monday, March 21, 2011

Honeymoon Redux V: Panama!

And now we come, at last, to the beginning of our trip!

Exhausted, with me getting over a nasty cold picked up in New York (I think it was wedding stress finally come to a head - I also spent the first week of our honeymoon annoyed at the angry red line of zits marching across my jaw, a sure sign of burnout), we arrived in Panama City at about 11pm. Panama City is the safest and most developed of the urban centers of Central America, which is why we chose to start there. Regardless, it's not a place where you want to land at 11pm - although a friend of mine who not long ago landed in Manila at 3am had it much worse.

We caught a taxi into town, all of the collectivos being done for the night. Driving through the red light district that rings the old city at midnight, Brendan said, "Why do I have the sinking feeling that this looks like some of the nicest parts of cities we're going to see later?"

I grimaced, because I knew he was probably right. He probably was, but we miraculously managed to avoid spending a night in any of the other major cities save Tegucigalpa, and there we got ourselves to a decent hotel before you could say "thugs with guns are going through our luggage".

We stayed in the Hospedaje Casco Viejo ("hospedaje" being Latin American Spanish for "crazy cheap place that foreign backpackers stay in") which was pretty nice. Great location, safe enough inside Casco Viejo, with bare-minimum rooms that are fine for US $20 a night, good tourist info and free Internet and wifi. The bed felt like it was basically a square of styrofoam three feet deep, but hey.

We took our breakfasts in Cafe Coca Cola which, despite this guy bagging on it, has exactly what you think it has: cheap, filling breakfasts that deliver exactly what they promise and really good orange juice.

We spent the first day, still exhausted, wandering Casco Viejo, visiting crumbling churches and old colonial buildings. A bunch of children in a gazebo near the Cathedral of Panama were crunching on these things - I forget the name - so we got some too.

It was like Taiwanese shaved ice, only VERY VERY PINK, and it tasted as pink as it looked. Ask me what the "flavor" of it was, and I'll answer "Pink. Pink with sugar".

Brendan in the old city - yes, I posed him like that and he's such a good sport that he actually did it.

We never made it to downtown Panama City - I got the feeling it would look close up much like it does from a distance:

Whereas charming (and slightly grimy) Casco Viejo has a lot of back street charm.

...but isn't always all that nice:

It's advised not to wander too much at night, though as a pair we felt OK in this part of the old city. We enjoyed the Cathedral of Panama by twilight before heading out to dinner.

The next day we walked straight up the pedestrian shopping street leading out of Casco Viejo to Plaza Cinco de Mayo. Every other way out of Casco Viejo is, to be frank, a slum - this is the only reasonably safe way out on foot (which is why a lot of people who stay in Casco Viejo take taxis).

From Plaza Cinco de Mayo, you can catch a bus to a terminal way out in some urban offshoot, from where you can catch yet another bus to the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal. It's touristy, but totally worth it (and a bit of a long walk from the road).

Even today, it's still a technological marvel, and yes, the sailors on the cargo ships get a kick out of waving to people as they go through.

And yet, people still hang laundry from the sign.

The next day we caught a bus to David and transferred to a minibus to Boquete. We stayed at the Pension Marilos - a bit out of town but highly recommended. They have two friendly dogs and a parrot named Ricky (Me: "What's your name?" Ricky: "RICKY!" Me: "Are you a good bird?" Ricky: "RICKY!") and comfortable digs. Reserving in advance is a good idea.

Boquete is cooler, and in the hills. In the rainy season you get dewy, cool mornings and overcast, rainy afternoons every day. On our first day we trekked up to Cafe Ruiz past several homes owned by wealthy American retirees - it's not a myth: Boquete really is a major retirement hub. On the upside, it helps the economy. The downside? Areas that were once coffee farms are now gated communities for rich, old folks and the locals can't afford to live on their own land - a similar problem is cropping up in Costa Rica.

We took two tours with Cafe Ruiz - the coffee tasting, in which we drank a lot of coffee and discussed flavor profiles and such 'n such (I'm a total sucker for that stuff if it means I get to drink coffee), and then a coffee plantation tour.

We learned about coffee growing at Cafe Ruiz from beans... drying and roasting.

We were given free coffee beans as souvenirs (their signature light roast which is delish) and I also bought some Panama Guessha/Geisha coffee - $10 US for a bag that would make one pot - which is one of the rarest and most expensive varietals in the world.

I had my buddy at Drop Coffee (滴咖啡) brew it for us (he did it for free - the "fee" was that he got to drink some, too) and I will say it was...basically...the best coffee I've ever had. Sorry, none for you!
Friendly dog at Pension Marilos - he matches the parquet

The next day we went zip line touring with Boquete Tree Trek, which was loads of fun. One of the guides brought along his five-year old, who's been doing this since he was about three (so it's perfectly safe):

Aww, isn't he just Mr. Happy?

...riding with his dad, of course.

Boquete has one of the longest zip lines in the world, with one stretch of line that is several hundred meters long and thoroughly exhilarating.

It's also exhausting, and my arms, legs and chest (chest?) ached for days afterwards, long after we arrived in Costa Rica.

Brendan recovered more quickly.

The next day we grabbed a bus back to David (a small city near the Costa Rican border which inexplicably has a TGI Friday's) and were at the Costa Rican border by noon - more on how we wandered into a band competition in my previous post.

I do wish we'd spent more time in Panama, and would definitely go back to explore everything we missed. The Golfo de Chiriqui, the Parque Internacional la Amistad, the San Blas Islands...maybe not Bocas del Toro, though. Or maybe just for a weekend.

It's not a commonly considered vacation destination in its own right, the way Costa Rica and Guatemala are, but I would say in many ways that Panama was as rewarding as either of those countries and worth a visit in its own right.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Honeymoon Redux II: Honduras

When I think of the Honduras, I can't help but think of this photo or one like it (from the Sydney Morning Herald years ago, who got it from Reuters). Look at that picture now and ask yourself:

"Which one of those two had a worse 2009?"


Traveling in the Honduras is a bit of a paradox: it's one of the most dangerous (if not the most dangerous) country in Central America, with a reputation for armed robberies even on luxury buses, a long tradition of carrying concealed and not-so-concealed weapons, a Caribbean coast overrun with drug runners and a capital city that every travel guide advises you to take taxis in rather than walk (some say it's OK to walk around in daylight, but none advise this at night).

And yet, for us, it was one of the easier countries to get through. We didn't stop much, though, considering the reputation of the place - we're not big fans of being robbed at gunpoint on our honeymoon.

To be fair, Honduras wasn't that unsafe. We went straight from Granada to Tegucigalpa in one day (that is one long bus ride, let me tell you) with a stopover in Jicaro Galan. We spent the rainy night in Tegucigalpa at Hotel Linda Vista - so chosen because it is in the more upscale neighborhood of Colonia Palmira - we didn't feel personally at risk there. Do book ahead if you want to stay there - you can call once you arrive in Central America.

We took the first overpriced taxi that appeared at the bus stop in Tegucigalpa - rainy, dark, and in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city (which is one of the most crime-ridden cities in the region). It cost $10 USD, but it was worth it for piece of mind.

The taxi was so ancient and rickety that it shook in odd places whenever we hit a pothole - both Brendan and I were convinced that it was going to start slowly falling apart, random pieces falling off down the road, and at the end the last wheel would give out and we'd be left standing in the street with the driver, confused but unhurt as a long trail of taxi parts littered the road behind us.

The next day we had breakfast and immediately boarded a Hedman Alas bus to Copan Ruinas near the Guatemalan border. The security check to board the bus was stricter than at most airports I've visited (and I've visited quite a few) - they checked two forms of ID, took our pictures and matched them to our name and ticket, inspected and x-rayed our bags, handled our bags (we were not allowed to touch them until we reached Copan Ruinas, even when we stopped in San Pedro Sula) and patted us down with hands and metal detectors.

Hedman Alas had probably had some problems with gangs and armed robberies and instituted the new measures to improve the safety of their passengers. Which was...comforting.

Central Honduras is a gorgeous place, with hilltop vistas, pine trees and soaring views through the mountainous, vertiginous countryside. I did feel that if we stopped in some of the small towns we passed that we'd be fairly safe, and would like to return someday to explore those areas, even though I'd take pains to avoid Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula.

By the way, don't take a rickshaw from the bus station when you arrive, or if you do, bargain them down to about $1 US. It's not $3, 4 or 5 as they try to tell you. The usual in-town price for a ride is a buck...but honestly, if your luggage is light you can walk into town and find a hotel fairly easily. We did, as a rickshaw followed us insisting on "$3! Normal price I tell you!" (It reminded me a bit of India in that way).

For all those worried about safety in Copan Ruinas - don't be. People will overcharge you for souvenirs and rickshaw rides (especially right off the bus), but that's about it. ATMs and even the local coffee shop are guarded by semiautomatic-wielding security guards, and you are basically safe: Copan Ruinas and Roatan (an island off the Caribbean coast) are the two main tourist draws, so the tourist police have a strong presence there, which tends to keep funny business at bay.

We had planned to spend a day in Copan Ruinas but after our two-day long bus trip (for which it rained the entirety of one day - so much so that across Nicaragua villagers were coming out to look at the swollen waters under the bridges we crossed) we decided to budget two days, and take the second day to (mostly) relax.

One thing I definitely noticed was the greater influence of Mexican culture: in Panama, it felt very South American - wetter, a bit more humid perhaps, and laid-back. Here, the cowboy hats were out in force, as were the mustaches. Brendan asked me if he should try to blend in by wearing jeans with a pistol slung in a holster, a giant cowboy hat and a bushy, no thanks. It was also true that carrying guns was much more "done" here - we didn't see many people openly slinging firearms in Panama or Costa Rica, but by the time we hit Honduras, everyone was packin' heat!

On the first day, we visited the Ruinas themselves - Mayan ruins of the ancient capital of Copan. The ruins are famous for their intricate, detailed carvings and inscriptions. Though there are some flat pyramid-style structures and a few high walls and a staircase or two, you won't find the towering, massive temples of Tikal here: the emphasis is on smaller pieces, but with much more design and flair. To be honest, as someone who creates art inspired by mehndi designs, I preferred the aesthetics of Copan to those of Tikal.

As you can see in many of the carvings, the remnants of paint still cling to the stone: it is believed that many of these were brightly painted in their day.

You can also see that the people of Copan were fascinated by death and death rituals - frightening old, demonic faces and skulls are found in all sorts of places across the ruins (which span two fields) and the Copan Ruinas museum (which is definitely worth the price of admission). The Mayan use of skulls and other death symbols is stronger here than at any other known site of ruins - if I'm wrong on that, please do leave a comment!

Copan Ruinas is perhaps best known for its Petroglyph Staircase (also called the "Hieroglyph Stairway")- a tall set of stairs covered in inscriptions, many of them worn down from generations of people being allowed to climb the stairs. The stairs are now off limits to further preserve the petroglyphs, and covered by a protective tarp that is somewhat mood-smothering, but they're still awe-inspiring.

Simple called "The Old Man Face", this is one of my favorite carvings at Copan Ruinas.

The backs of god statues are covered in inscriptions/petroglyphs: I'm not sure what they say because I am not familiar with Ancient Mayan - fancy that - but they're cool nonetheless. The front of the statues look remarkably like Hindu god sculptures in India (I'm no conspiracy theorist, though).

Another thing I noted is how much the decorations often resemble Shang dynasty Chinese art with their angular, almost keyhole-like designs. Again, not so into conspiracy theories and the eras were totally off - I think it's more that angular keyhold designs with details and squared-off swirls is an aesthetically pleasing configuration that two cultures happened to think of at different times. It happens!

A petroglyph. In Copan Ruinas town you can buy silver-pewter reproductions of these petroglyphs strung into necklaces. They're gorgeous but expensive (a little overpriced if you ask me, for something that is not sterling)

On the second day we visited Macaw Mountain - a natural rehabilitation center for injured or mistreated birds. The $10 entrance fee goes to fund the rehabilitation, so it's well worth it. Included is a free tour (it's nice to tip) and it's a lovely place to wander around by yourself or have a coffee, too.

It was a great place to relax on our second day without stressing too much - a necessary bit of unwinding considering our long bus and van ride to Tikal the next day.

The highlight was when some birds were allowed out of their cages and placed on us:

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Simpsons...messengers of cultural understanding

I just want to point out that nobody understands Latin America like The Simpsons.

Just sayin'.

Top left is a photo I snapped in Copan Ruinas, Honduras of Chaco, the Mayan rain god. Top right is a photo I snapped in Lanquin, Guatemala of a TV playing in the lobby of our hotel. Below, you can see how they compare to The Simpsons' take on Latin American culture.

A Few Photos from Guatemala

Sorry I have been so horrid at updates...we got really busy in Guatemala (hey, what can I say, it was fun), then the trip home was hectic with lots of lost sleep and plane changes, and then we jumped back into work and I came down with an upper respiratory tract infection and inflame tendon in my right yeah. There's that. I am so backlogged on "stuff I need to do online", photo editing, getting what I want on my new iTouch (YAY!), correspondence, and yes, blog updates that I don't know where to begin.

And of course thank you notes, which are starting to go out. Gotta get that done.

A lot to write about but in the meantime, enjoy a few photos - the few I've managed to have time to edit, from Guatemala - Semuc Champey and Lanquin.

Sunset in Lanquin
We stayed at this place - called El Retiro - in Lanquin (rather, just outside it)

The church in Lanquin

The pools of Semuc Champey - touristy (very popular with Israelis for some reason) and hard to get to but 100% worth it. Pure paradise. I kid you not. You should go to Guatemala just for this.

Lanquin streets - locals walking around in the town center.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Photos from Copan Ruinas, Honduras

In the main market area

Skull stones at the Mayan ruins

A rabbit glyph (I think) on a statue of a ruler of Copan called "King 18 Rabbit".

Wall glyphs in a ruined Mayan temple

Altar decoration of a new ruler taking the ceremonial baton from a previous ruler