Archive for the ‘Central America’ Category

Colón, Panama – Colón: city of misery and violence

Dienstag, Oktober 11th, 2011

Colón is an island. An island made from poverty and misery, hopelessness and decay. Colón is eight by 16 streets large. Eight by 16 streets unworthiness and dirt, crime and violence. It isn’t a slum in a city, the city IS a slum. The island is surrounded by outrageous wealth, which doesn’t allow any drop to seep through the guarded fences. First, there is the Panama Canal that washes riches worth billions into the pockets of the already rich ones. Altogether four harbours belong to the big goods turnover sites on this planet. And the free zone lures businessmen and profiteers from all over the world. Only few of Colón’s 65,000 inhabitants have the opportunity to get a poorly paid job in one of these economic areas. The other employees come from better areas around Colón or commute from Panama City. The unemployment rate in Colón is estimated at 60 %, which inevitably leads to prostitution, drug problems, and crime of violence.

The population is mainly black, mixed with some Indians and inhabitants of Chinese origin. For the railway and later the canal construction Afro-Caribs were hired as cheap workers who had hoped for making some money to return to their home countries as made men. Therefore they didn’t integrate culturally and most of them didn’t even learn Spanish. Later the same fate overtook Chinese guest workers. After they weren’t needed any more they were left to their own devices. Without money to return to their homes, without education and income, they stranded in Colón. The government, which colour it might have, shoes few interest in changing the city’s highly explosive situation. To be fair one must admit that this is valid for most inhabitants as well. They don’t take efforts to improve their situation. Resignation spreads through generations, and school, education and improvement of the personal prospects stand in the end of their list of priorities.

Today we arrive in Colón by train. There is one passenger train in the morning from Panama to the north and another to return in the evening. Commuters use it as tourists do. The single ticket is 22 $ pp. Expensive though, but those views aren’t available from the road: Several times we get close to the Panama Canal and the shipping, we go right through the green jungle, and we cross Lake Gatun on a dam. After one hour we reach Colón.

There’s a ray of hope in the spiral of misery: the Sisters of Mercy. We immediately recognize them as they pick us up form the train station with their car, despite they don’t wear nun’s habit. A practical jeans skirt, a simple polo shirt and open-toed sandals replace the warm and impractical uniform. There is no headgear. Sister Barbara and Sister Dina are the only nuns that care for the house called MUCEC, founded by Barb, how she calls herself. Both of them dedicated their life to children and women, to the poor and the poorest of Colón. Who now imagines sanctimonious church types who kindly and graciously distribute alms, is completely mistaken. They are sympathetic, and generous with their love. Otherwise Barb and Dina are a resolute, well coordinated manager team in their daily fight for financing the project.

The social organisation wasn’t always located in such a big modern house. The new one exists only for ten years. Principal concern of the Sisters of Mercy is the promotion of neglected, abandoned or undernourished infants in early childhood who otherwise might end up on the street. So some small geniuses are discovered, and retarded girls and boys can be specifically treated. The kindergarten looks after different age groups. If the joy of learning is aroused, there is a good chance that the kids finish their school education, and maybe even visit a university later on. The complete education system in Panama is free, in case of need the facility supports with school uniforms.

The sisters look for neglected children in town, follow hints and try to convince the mothers to leave their offspring in the home’s care during the day. Mothers who bring their kids on their own accord are never refused. When the children go to school later they may still come for homework tutoring. Whether kindergarten moppet or student, the Sisters of Mercy make the distribution of food their main job. Each kid gets two meals per day, and often enough these are the only two meals of the day.

Panamanian structure of society causes that fathers – except upper class – rarely feel responsible for their offspring. Even most married men have one or more mistresses with whom they also father children. Without mistress a man isn’t a terrific bloke. The divorce rate is high. So the majority of Panamanian children just have one, the female parent. The problem of Colón’s mothers is that they grow up without education and self-esteem. To nourish their kids is their daily challenge. And so MUCEC also attend to the mothers, tries to convey self-confidence, to be able to learn something and to use it later on. They teach the women sewing, knitting and other craftwork that they can sell if they want. A lecture every Friday is about themes that could interest the mothers: health and hygiene, education, yoga and other fitness training, or it might be a Christian topic as well.

After we visited all care centre groups we go outside. Sister Barbara shows us “her” world. There are three Kuna women sitting in front of the door, sewing and selling molas, knitted pictures with geometrical forms. The Caribbean Indians proudly wear their coloured traditional costume: a blouse that’s decorated with molas, a short tight skirt that’s just a cloth wrapped around, as well as uncounted rows of thin bead chains at their underarms and calves. Their short uniform haircut is a bit requiring getting used to, sometimes they throw on a headscarf as sun protection.

Only few metres further the entire misery of this city opens. Half collapsed houses are still inhabited, even if the floor already shows a dangerous hole. There is nearly no house in a better state. Each flat consists of one tiny room where the whole family cooks, eats, and sleeps. Partially simplest wood sheds were built that fulfil the same purpose. They don’t have bathrooms. For each 50 to 60 inhabitants there are two or three common loos and the same amount of showers, which don’t work. People here never learnt what a flush is good for. Running water is an occasion. Immediately bathrooms are stormed to wash kids and clothes. Despite of all the dirt the people wear astonishingly clean clothes.

Sister Barbara introduces us to the people of Colón as family members. Not to protect us, that isn’t necessary in her company. But thus we receive more respect, we may take some photos, and one or the other door opens to have a glimpse. Who can afford it puts a bunk bed into the room; the others sleep on the floor. There is little furniture only, at best some mats and a gas cooker. The people might not have money for food, but who can make it possible buys or pinches a television, plus there’s a satellite dish. Electricity that’s very expensive in Panama, is scrounged somewhere illegally. Most inhabitants don’t pay rent.

Barbara speaks to a very young woman. She has two children and prostitutes herself. “What shall I do”, she says, “how shall I feed my babies?” “Very simple”, says Barb, “don’t get babies.” This came from a Catholic nun! An elderly woman sits smoking on a plastic chair on the sidewalk. Exactly this woman begged from Barbara some clothes a couple of days ago, she couldn’t afford them. The Sisters run a thrift shop in their house where they sell donated clothes for a symbolic price. But they never give it; the chance of exploitation would be too high. Those who can’t even pay 25 cents clean the stairs or wipe the floor. Barbara conceals her indignation and talks to the old woman whom it is obviously embarrassed to be caught smoking. To spend money for luxury items instead of buying essential fool happens frequently. Another woman known as destitute crosses our way. Red coloured braids peep from her headscarf. There is honestly earned money as well. A man sells produce for very low price. A woman rented a ground floor room, cooks soup, and sells it for 50 cents the plate. A family breeds chicken. They are slaughtering the cock that was run over by a car.

Sister Barbara came as young nun first in 1964 from Brooklyn to Panama. In 1971 she went to Chiriqui. The Indians that live there asked her to teach them reading. Consequently they realized that benefits for overtime or Sunday working as pickers that they are lawfully entitled to get were not paid out to them. Their foreman withheld the bonuses. The big landowner held Barb responsible for the resulting riots and complained to the bishop. She didn’t make really friends there, but she didn’t consider returning to the United States. The chance she got was 1985 in violent Colón. Appalled by the misery of an entire city – that became worse after the withdrawal of the Americans – she began immediately setting up the MUCEC project, her life’s work. Still today she puts all her energy into the daily fight for financing and hence survival of the home. Sister Dina is a child of Colón. The psychologist joined Barbara many years ago. Both of her parents volunteer in the project as many other socially committed citizens do.

Who wants to contribute something to support these two incredible women and their work, even if it is very little, finds our e-mail address on our website. We will forward the centre’s email address with pleasure.

Colón, Panama – Arminius is travelling

Montag, Oktober 10th, 2011

On this bad day we have to temporarily say good-bye to Arminius. We bring him into the harbour of Colón, to Manzanillo to be correct, where our agent awaits us. He takes us to all offices, we have to pay 48 $ harbour and disinfection fees, and the customs bring a drug dog to sniff at our truck. The whole story takes three hours. The agent takes us to the bus terminal where we immediately can enter the express bus back to Panama City. It isn’t recommended to hang around at the bus station, the area isn’t too trustworthy. The icy air-conditioned bus takes 3.15 $ pp, but needs two hours for the 70 km / 45 mi in the evening traffic. An entertaining horror movie is on that stands out due to be especially bloodthirsty. Since the volume is loud it is difficult to evade the horror. Fortunately, there are no kids on board.

Our hosts Sue and Lew were so kind to offer us one of their rooms so that we can save the hotel costs in Panama City.

Panama City, Panama – A Panama Canal tugboat in action

Sonntag, Oktober 9th, 2011

Our host Lew returned from his journey. Today he fulfils our long-cherished hope to get a ride on a tug boat on the Panama Canal. He has late shift and no passengers are allowed at dark. But he arranges to get on his boat, the Cacique, during his off-time for a couple of hours. The task of a tugboat on the Canal isn’t usually towing. All freighters, passenger and warships go under own power through the passage, into the locks, and out. Because everything has to proceed as fast as possible there is not enough room especially for the big Panamax ships to manoeuvre. It is the job of the tugboats to support the big tubs in getting into the right direction. They might pull with ropes if connected or simply by shoving them from the stern or side. For protection the tugboats have a thick rubber bumper around.

The pilot who is present on every boat crossing the Canal coordinates everything and gives order to the tugboat captains as well as the train drivers in the locks. He knows the special physical performance of the Panama Canal. It must be globally unique that the pilot doesn’t advice the captain how to manoeuvre but overtakes supreme command for ship and crew and gives order (and accepts responsibility).

From the south end of the Panama Canal we bring a Panamax container freighter to the Miraflores Locks and hurry back. The tanker now is shorter, so both tugboats – two always work together – fit with it into the locks and we can experience this locking process once more from “ship perspective”. Afterwards the tugs assist the tanker to park between the mooring buoys on Miraflores Lake where it has to wait for the evening to continue, because in the meantime direction of travel on the one-lane canal has changed like always at noon. Our Cacique berths now as well at the quay and has an hour for maintenance until the traffic from the opposite direction arrives and the tug has to start working with the ships again. We take the chance to leave the ship.

Cartagena de Indias, Colombia – Flight to a new continent

Samstag, Oktober 8th, 2011

We fly to Colombia. RoRo ferries don’t take passengers due to insurance reasons. Best price offers COPA Air by internet booking (around 30 $ less expensive than at the counters in many malls), the second supplier Avianca is most of the time more expensive. Prices change, a one-way-ticket is around 350 US$. We fly via Bogotá what extends travel and flight time, but is a bit cheaper. We fly over the Darién Gap and know now that we definitely don’t want to drive there, in the rainy season it’s quite impossible. The hilly jungle landscape is criss-crossed by uncountable meandering rivers; larger and deeper areas transformed into swamps.

At the ATM machine in Bogotá I withdraw 1,000,000 Peso or COP and become millionaire. That corresponds to about 550 US$ – too many zeros for my concept. Another possibility to get from Panama to Colombia is a mini-cruise with a sailing boat through the San Blas archipelago. These Caribbean islands belong to the autonomous precinct of the Kuna Indians and are relatively untapped by touristic means. The sailing ship Stahlratte seems to be recommended by many travellers (, they transport motorcycles and bikes as well. Unfortunately there is no suitable cruise for us.

We take a room in the hotel Oceano that has bearable prices and a convenient location somewhat close to the harbour. Rooms are simple, modern and very clean with TV and air-con. Despite price-fixing arrangement via our agent in Cartagena the administration asks for more than double the price, but this can be solved quickly. We get the double room including breakfast and taxes for 57 $. Rooms to the main road have a balcony; at the back without balcony it is quieter. The restaurant is acceptable.

Panama City, Panama – Robbery at police parking lot

Freitag, Oktober 7th, 2011

We have to be at 10 a.m. at the police station to get our number plate and VIN number checked, what is necessary for exporting the vehicle by ship from Panama. Afterwards Interpol allegedly checks if the vehicle was involved in any criminal act in Central America. We will receive the result respectively the export permit in the afternoon. One of the officers insists for an unknown reason that we park in the end of the lot – later on this won’t be without consequences. Because here is a passage to the road behind the parking where on the opposite side one of Panama’s very bad slum areas begin. At any time after 10 o’clock the officers of start to inspect the vehicles, ours is the last one. It doesn’t take long time, and I already want to get into our truck.

That’s why I don’t pay full attention to my surroundings and I don’t notice two Afro-Americans approaching me rapidly. Suddenly one of them tugs at my purse and tries to snatch it away. Idiot! That doesn’t work, the bag is tightly attached to me and has one strap across my body and another around my hip. He would have to take me as well, but for sure that’s not in his plan. I found this special “handbag” in an army surplus store in the States. If the thief had paid attention he could have seen at least the diagonal strap so he would have known that’s impossible to just pull away the bag. Even cutting the straps is difficult since they are made from very stable Cordura – and it’s two.

Everything happens very fast: Joerg shoves away the second attacker and throws himself between the first one and me. After the first moment of shock is gone we begin to counterattack and turn the tables. We try to catch the unsuccessful purse robbers, roar loudly and pursue them. The two fellows bellow as well, now by fear, and run off like rabbits. They are smart and split up. Joerg is fast, but he chooses the wrong one who’s faster. The other one falls over a parked car and falls onto the street. But I am too slow with my nice sandals that I specially took for the police visit (they are very particular regarding clothes). Both young men disappear in a pathway opposite of the entrance to the police parking lot. We don’t intend to follow them into the slums! Well, at least we gave them a fright.

But what about the officers who checked the cars and stand only meters away on the parking lot? Quite a while after we returned to Arminius, they stroll along really calmly. They waited long enough to make sure not to be involved. They ask us uninterestedly what happened. Then they order us to leave immediately, because this wasn’t a safe place. Ah? A: We just WANTED to leave and B: why am I forced to come to a site that’s not safe? There’s no answer, of course. In view of the fact that the robbery took place in broad daylight in the parking lot of the National Police and the officers had an amazing knack of not being involved into the occurrence, there is a legal question: Does the police collaborate with the bad boys? Hard to say, but a least there must be a certain tolerance to occurrences of this kind, otherwise they would have reacted faster. Of course it is always awkward to have a purse but for the police visit we needed passports and some other papers what makes a bag somehow necessary. In any case this is a warning for other travellers to park in this lot in the very beginning whatever the police say, to keep the doors locked and to safeguard valuables.

At half past two we have to be in another police station, the Secretaría General, on the opposite side of the place of crime. Men have to wear long pants and closed shoes to enter the office (ladies should be well-groomed, can wear a skirt, and nice sandals are o.k.). The strictly looking lady is known for being able to delay the procedure, but today is Friday, she wants to go home at three o’clock, and so she works speedily. We receive the necessary confirmation that we aren’t villains and that we are allowed to export the vehicle within eight days.

Panama City, Panama – A perfect Evelyn

Donnerstag, Oktober 6th, 2011

Evelyn Batista from Wilhelmsen Ship Service / Barwil Agencies in Howard doesn’t disappoint us. She is prepared, has an answer to each question in form of a mostly already printed form. We receive city maps, GPS data for the most important offices, a written and additional oral instruction in which sequence we have to go where. She prepares all necessary copy sets and helps with any other request. Besides, she is just likeable – that’s nearly too much for a not too pampered Central-America-traveller.

San Carlos, Panama – Ferry misdemeanours

Montag, Oktober 3rd, 2011

It’s not really fun what we get to know today: The ferry was again delayed, now to the12th of October. But there’s one good thing – we decide to ask for another shipping offer. The unbelievable happens, the new offer is 500 $ less. Plus, we now deal with the agent whose professionalism is praised by all travellers: Evelyn Batista from Wilhelmsen Ship Service / Barwil Agencies in Howard close to Panama City ( Ironically our first inquiry was sent to Evelyn but was answered by another colleague who made us one of the more expensive offers. RoRo shipping Colón-Cartagena is right now around US$ 61.50 per cubic meter including bunker. Less expensive offers might not include bunker. Prices change all the time depending on the petrol price.

El Valle, Panama – Sunday market in El Valle

Sonntag, Oktober 2nd, 2011

El Valle de Antón is a mountain village around 25 km / 15 mi from San Carlos. Most Panamanians go into raptures over it. It is nice, many prosperous American retirees settled here and nowhere else the Porsche-Cayenne-density is as high as here. But generally I would say the village is overrated. The landscape is pretty, thanks to the cooler climate many plants, fruits and vegetables grow here that don’t flourish in other parts of. Sundays a small but famous market takes part where some fruits and handcrafts are sold. Mainly it is international tourist kitsch, but there are some high quality artesanías as well. Most of them are more inexpensive than in Panama, at least not pricier.

San Carlos, Panama – The beach house

Samstag, Oktober 1st, 2011

Our hosts Lew and Sue own a beach house an hour west of Panama City. They use it rarely, but Robin lives here who returned to Panama after some years of retirement in Texas. Chance would have it that he also worked in the past together with our friend Wallace from Washington State. Robin takes care that the caretaker of the house does his job. He seems to be happy to have some company. The stony Pacific beach is only five minutes away, and there is a chilly pool in the garden. The temperatures here are more bearable than in the city where it is really hot right now.

Panama City, Panama – The Causeway

Freitag, September 30th, 2011

Another popular destination of the Panamanians is Calzada Amador. This dam was also built with the surplus soil of the canal construction and serves as a breakwater for the canal entrance. At the same time it connects several islands with the mainland. There are some marinas, shops, and many restaurants. There are bicycles to rent to run up and down the Causeway. We like the view from here to the ships waiting to cross the canal, the bridge Puente de las Americas, and the skyscrapers shooting up that easily can hide the fact that this is still a developing country.

Panama City, Panama – The Darién Gap: an impenetrable obstacle?

Donnerstag, September 29th, 2011

Why do we hang around in Panama? Why don’t we head to South America? Why do we want to take a ship instead of driving? The answer is Tapón del Darién. Darién is the name of a jungle area in the south-east of Panama and the north-west of Colombia, the only land connection between Central and South America. Unfortunately, there is no road. The Pan Americana stops in Panama and continues 110 km / 70 miles later in Colombia. In-between there is enemy, swampy, impenetrable jungle. Nobody wants to build a road for various reasons: ecology, deforestation, costs, Indigene interests, illegal migration, and drug transfer.

But is the Darién Gap really impenetrable? No. The first successful attempt to cross the wilderness was in the 1960s. Different expeditions with different means of locomotion tried their hand at the Darién: jeeps, dirt bikes or bicycles that had to be carried most of the way. There were even attempts on foot. The numerous rivers had to be crossed swimming or with boats of the local Indians (probably not suitable for a vehicle of Arminius’ size). Since 1997 the expedition tourism came to a standstill because guerrillas ply their dreadful trade and the Darién isn’t safe anymore, if ever have been.

Today, the only option is to take a ship (or an airplane for smaller transportation devices). Most ships leave Colón on the Atlantic side and head to Cartagena / Colombia (or other ports in other countries like Ecuador and Venezuela). There is the classic RoRo (roll-on-roll-off), a LoLo (lift-on-lift-off), or a container ship. Cheapest and safest option is the container, but too small for Arminius. Since there is nearly no price difference we prefer RoRo instead of craning this heavy vehicle, but ferries are rare and regularly re-scheduled. There is no way of passenger transportation on the ship due to insurance reasons. We will have to fly over. For the moment, our RoRo, that has already been delayed once, is re-scheduled again from October 2nd to 7th.

Panama City, Panama – Boat ride on the Panama Canal

Mittwoch, September 28th, 2011

It is great to have friends. Although Lew had to travel abroad he asked a befriended boat captain to take us on a ride on the canal. There is a tourist boat that offers trips, but they start at about 100 $ for a short tour. The Canál de Panamá corporation uses an old crane ship, the Atlas III, for pilot training and for public relations tours with school classes, associations and others. Today a school class from Colón goes aboard in Panama City and leaves the ship after the Miraflores Locks. We kindly can join the tour. The Panama Canal Corporation is not allowed to take any money for that, but there is no way to apply for it, you have to be invited.

On the Atlas III we have the opportunity to see the locking live. What an experience and chance for photos! On our way north we are locking together with a smaller tanker and two tugboats. There are even a complimentary lunch-box and sodas available. After we dropped the school kids we head south again and share the lock chamber with a motor yacht and a working boat. Despite our boat captain Carlos is very experienced, a pilot has to be on board – nothing goes without them.

Panama City, Panama – Panama’s old town and shelter for travellers

Montag, September 26th, 2011

Panama’s old town is called Casco Viejo, a quarter where Spanish and French colonial style left its marks. Some years ago restoration was started and is partially finished. A particularly beautiful place is Paseo de las Bóvedas, a flower-covered passageway built on a fortress wall with a grand view into the bay of Panama and the numerous skyscrapers of the new city. For lunch we meet with Roz, another friend of Wallace. The former teacher runs a second-hand shop for exclusive formal dress where even the First Lady of Panama sells her robes.

Then we head to Panama Passage, a relatively new facility under Canadian/US-American management. It is at the same time guest house, tiny campground, mailing station, help for shipping, obtaining spare parts and much more ( Christian and Persephone, co-proprietors and current managers are very likeable and facilities like that non-existent so far. Beds in their guest hose cost 15 $ a night, camping is 10 $ per vehicle. The only other camping option in Panama City we know is the Balboa Yacht Club parking lot at Calzada Amador.

Panama City, Panama – The Panama Canal, a technical accomplishment

Sonntag, September 25th, 2011

The Panama Canal is still considered to be one of the biggest human accomplishments of all times. The French tried to build it in the end of the 19th century. They had a good engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps, the architect of the Suez Canal, but the wrong plan. The idea to create a canal on sea level was their financial ruin. After Lesseps’ death, 17 years of construction, and 22,000 casualties they had to give up their plans. After negotiations of the United States with Colombia regarding a canal failed, Panama declared its independence and signed the canal contract with Teddy Roosevelt, the work was resumed in 1904. But the Isthmus-Canal-Commission with seven members worked bureaucratic, inefficient, and was too far away from the scene. Workers fell like flies and nobody listened to Canal physician William C. Gorgas who couldn’t prove his theory that mosquitoes were the carriers of the dangerous diseases. After one year the project ran the risk of failure. Roosevelt quickly reacted in appointing a new commission with three heads only and a new chief engineer. Health matters received priority since all kinds of tropical illnesses carried off the workers in epidemic waves. And the train as a lifeline of the canal was extended.

Only in 1906, after resumption of construction work the final decision against the plan to build a canal on sea level in favour of the Gatún plan with locks and an artificial lake in-between was made. The Culebra Cut, a cut into a mountain range, was the biggest technical challenge. With the dug soil the Gatún Dam was built, that kept the largest artificial lake at the time in place. It took 15 years to flood it. Still today, the three-phase Gatún lock works at the Atlantic side, the one-phase Pedro Miguel and the two-phase Miraflores lock in the south with unrevised doors. The lock chambers are each 305 m long, 33.5 m wide and 26.3 m deep and contain 101,000 cubic metres of water. The canal was finished on time in 1914, cost 386 million Dollars and another 6,000 casualties.

The Miraflores Locks have a good visitor centre where we can watch the cogwheel locomotives helping the big ships to stay in place while locking that takes ten minutes each. Every ship has at least one pilot who has to invest eight years in his education, and the larger ships two tugboats that actually don’t pull but help the ships to navigate. Around 14,000 ships pass the channel each year, one million so far. The canal was built for ships no longer than 294 m, no wider than 32.3 m and 12 m draught. To guarantee profitability in future an extension for larger ships than the so-called PANAMAX class was inevitable. Building was started in 2007, and the third lane shall be finished in 2014. Admission fee for the Miraflores Locks visitor centre is 5 US$ for the roof terrace, 8 $ including museum and film showing. Best time for a visit is the morning around 9 am or the afternoon between 3 and 5 pm.

Panama City, Panama – Panamanian Baywatch

Samstag, September 24th, 2011

The beach prepares for the weekend when many urban refugees from Panama invade. We find the Panamanian Baywatch-issue especially nice. An army of apparently cloned rescue swimmers with nearly similar physique and fitness level in diverse chocolate tones is getting ready. Only the Pamela-Anderson-substitutes miss bust size. We escape into the opposite direction, hoping the city is empty.

When handing over the Panama Canal to the Panamanians most Americans went back to their home country. So did Wallace whom we’ve met long time ago in Alaska and visited a year ago in Washington State. Others stayed since they spent their entire life or were even born here. Like Lew and Sue, two of Wallace’s many friends that we shall meet in Panama. They live in a house in the suburbs with enough space to park Arminius, so we make ourselves comfortable.

Santa Clara, Panama – Santa Clara in white

Freitag, September 23rd, 2011

The Pan Americana is in quite good condition, partially even a four-lane highway. The journey is so fast that we unexpectedly soon reach the next Pacific beach at Santa Clara. Actually this one is public as well, but there is not too much access, it is congested by villas of rich Americans, by restaurants, and an ugly multi-story hotel. Actually the only access belongs to a Canadian couple that offers a parking lot, a bar and soon a restaurant. They ask for 3 $ entrance fee per person incl. parking, 5 $ for camping, and we are allowed to park at the beach. It is soft, white and very protected so that there are nearly no waves. Santa Clara is said to be one of the most beautiful beaches at the south cost. It is guarded, safe and extremely quiet at night: N 08°22’29.9’’ W 80°06’18.1’’.

Las Lajas, Panama – Lonely beaches

Donnerstag, September 22nd, 2011

Las Lajas is a lonesome beach. We just find some simple accommodations and restaurants, most of the buildings are decaying. The quiet kilometres long dark sandy beach is quite pretty. There are some waves, but swimming is o.k. We ask in a hostel if they mind us camping right at the beach, but nobody cares. We meet some pensioners that spend the cold winter here to return to their home countries during summer season. It is very quiet here, but stay away from the restaurants and hostels; they might switch on the music in the middle of the night as soon as guests arrive. (N 08°10’00.7’’ W 81°51’39.2’’)

Boquete, Panama – Panamanian departments, a classic example of inefficiency

Mittwoch, September 21st, 2011

The border-crossing Paso Canoas at the Inter-Americana how the Pan Am is often called here is the most important one into Panama. Again the Costa Rican side is discretely signposted. The lady at the Migración is very friendly and even practises her English at us. In contrast to this lady we are just unreasonable for the Aduana officer. It’s not so much personal, it is the presence of any client that forces him to a different act than to meditate in front of his black computer monitor. That’s not designated in his daily routine. Obviously the poor man can’t even talk. He gives his orders by nodding, a gesture is nearly more than he can spare. Now he even has to get up to have a look at the evidence. But Mr Cool doesn’t have himself under complete control. For a short moment his face fell into astonishment as soon as he detects Arminius. Official again he silently and reproachfully taps on a spot at the import certification. Letter confusion happened with our license plate number. Later we’ll realize that the VIN number wasn’t correct as well, but fortunately he doesn’t check it. We should have paid more attention at entry, this can cause problems. Unmoved I shrug my shoulders: “That must be a mistake”, I say in a terse way. Eventually he signs the papers and we may leave.

Now Panama: Some officers direct the arriving vehicles where to park. Two claim we have to go to Aduana first, then to Migración, the other one the opposite. We follow the majority. The Aduana officer ignores us in the beginning and sends us to insurance office first. We have to buy a third-party insurance, 15 $ for 30 days. Back to the customs we wait again to get to know eventually that we have to get the insurance papers stamped in another office. The responsible officer takes her lunch rest and shall be back at one o’clock. This would be in half an hour. After one and a quarter of an hour an army of travellers that’s stressed out awaits the dearly smiling queen who finishes her extended lunch rest in an excellent mood. In less than two seconds she manages to stamp the papers. That’s all. I can’t believe it. That’s why I waited so long? The Panamanian customs is a classic example of Central American inefficiency.

Back to the glass wall in front of the counter we have to wait more. At a certain point the officer can’t delay our papers any more and finishes them with great difficulties reading the German licences. Another officer has a short look into our camper’s compartment, but the 60 cans German beer from Costa Rica is of no interest. Migración is fast as usual: Fill out a form, smile into the camera, get the passport stamped, ready. Last step is vehicle disinfection for 6 $.

Palmar, Costa Rica – Panama is calling

Dienstag, September 20th, 2011

After being hosted by Aelin, the Peruvian consul in Costa Rica, and her husband we visited the French family of Emmanuelle, her husband Dominique and their four kids. We would like to thank them all for their great hospitality and entertainment.

The Pan Americana gets worse closer to the Panamanian border. Partially one lane or sometimes the whole road is broken off, fallen into Rio General deep below. Our last stop is Palmar, 100 km in front of the border, where we ask in the hotel and restaurant Quebrada Grande for an overnight option. Again, we are warmly welcomed, and we might even choose to park in the parking lot or on a meadow. Also this last night in Costa Rica was complimentary; we didn’t spend any dollar for camping in this country. We may even use their Wi-Fi, but of course we order a dinner as a courtesy. Recommended: Quebrada Grande, N 08°57’53.0’’ W 83°26’31.3’’.

Volcán Irazú, Costa Rica – The vanished acid lake

Freitag, September 16th, 2011

Irazú volcano lost much of its attractiveness during the last years. We admit it disappointed us a bit, compared to our last visit many years ago. It was famous for its large, deep and bilious green crater lake. The eerie effect of the horrid colour was intensified by the clouds of steam stinking like sulphur that made us believe to stand in front of hell’s gate. Today the acidic lake disappeared but a puddle, nearly not to be spotted from the view point. The stretch of water was completely dried out for a while but refilled a bit. A possible explanation for this phenomenon is the increased activity of the twin volcano Turrialba.

Irazú is with 3.432 m Costa Rica’s highest volcano. On clear days (quite rare) Pacific and Atlantic can be seen from here. Clouds move in very early, sometimes 9 a.m., but the national park only opens at eight. The park road nearly touches the edge of the crater. The loop walk to the view point and back over a cold lava ash field takes around 30 min. Another road leads to the highest point of the mountain. Entrance fee is 10 $, camping is not allowed. It is chilly and windy up here, appropriate clothes are recommended. Right in front of the pay station a small road branches off to the right. Follow for about 200 m / yards, with good weather there is a good view to volcano Turrialba.

Volcán Poás, Costa Rica – Huge crater in action

Donnerstag, September 15th, 2011

67 volcanoes with 112 craters are situated in tiny Costa Rica, among them seven active ones. It suggests itself to visit some of them, and the more they bubble, smoke, or spit the better it is. Volcán Poás is one of the active ones. It is easily accessible and therefore the country’s most visited volcanoes. At 8 a.m. we are waiting in front of the entrance gate to open since at around 10 a.m. clouds move in and obstruct the view, especially in rainy season. A loop trail with 3.5 km / 2 mi length leads from the visitor centre at 2250 m elevation to the crater at 2708 m and down again, to the main crater, through magic forest to the lagoon of a side crater, and back through cloud forest.

Poás’ main crater with its 1.5 km diameter and 300 m depth is regarded as the earth’s second largest crater. In the middle of the imposing hole with barren black, red, beige and brown walls is the 40° C / 110° F hot crater lake that has an unhealthy glaucous colour. From some fumaroles on one side violent snow-white sulphur-clouds arise, which the wind fortunately blows away from us. Poás is weird and wonderful. Laguna Botos in the side crater is shallow, cool and is fed only by rainwater. Its emerald green water appeals much more to me. The trails are paved or gravelled and easy to walk. With stops for taking photos and visit of the volcano museum in the visitor centre two hours are reasonable. Entrance fee for everything is 10 US$ plus parking fee (depending on vehicle size, Unimog 2500 Colón).

Next volcano to visit tomorrow is Irazú where we find another kind restaurant owner who let us park there. But Nochbuena in 2900 m / nearly 9000 ft elevation is not only a restaurant, they have hiking trails and an incredibly well-done museum as well. It is absolutely worth the 4 $ / 2000 CRC pp. The exhibition about volcanoes in general and especially the Irazú is created with love and expert knowledge. The 10 min video (Spanish with English or German subtitles) shows spectacular shootings of Irazu’s eruptions. In 1963 Irazú intensely spit ashes for two years, killed the livestock, destroyed the agriculture and brought the country to a standstill. But Costa Rica’s today’s fertility origins in those eruptions. Momentarily Irazú remains quiet.

Zarcero + Sarchí, Costa Rica – The blooming broomstick

Mittwoch, September 14th, 2011

Costa Rica is a land of abundant nature that was recognized and protected in early days. Soil is rich, agriculture prospers, and coffee, banana, and all kinds of fruits and vegetables grow. The Ticos claim that if one throws a broomstick away it’ll start blooming after few days. Garden artist Evangelisto Blanco in Zarcero uses this ample nature for his special kind of art. In the 1960s he started to prune bushes and hedges on the Plaza Central in front of the church and to trim them into many different shapes like arches, dancing couples, animals, faces, motorcycle drivers, helicopters and many more. The small town became world-famous.

Not far away is Sarchí, Costa Rica’s craftwork centre with a confectioner-style church. In front of it the world’s largest oxcart was erected some years ago, listed in The Guinness Book of Records since 2002. Like its smaller examples it is painted and decorated with colourful ornaments. Today one can buy oxcarts as souvenirs in all different sizes.

For tomorrow we plan to visit volcano Poás. Camping is not allowed in the national park, but we find a restaurant high up on the mountain that’s called Tipico de Montaña. The friendly owner allows us to camp on his parking lot with a splendid view over the capital San José and the other cities in the valley, attractive especially when lightened at night. For dinner we get a typical Casado, consisting of rice, beans, meat or fish or chicken, salad, vegetables and usually fried plantains.


Rio Celeste, Costa Rica – Azure in the jungle

Dienstag, September 13th, 2011

Jungle rivers have to be muddy-brown, opaque, and dangerous home of crocodiles, parasitic unicellular organisms and other suspicious creatures. That’s why Rio Celeste appears completely abstruse and inappropriately coloured in the middle of the rainforest. The colour of the river is a slightly milky fabric softener-blue as if a baby bath towel got ready to swim. We never saw a river colour like this, which is so special that it seems completely incomprehensible that we didn’t find this private park in any travel guide or map – it was a tip of baker Tom.

A nearly four kilometres long rocky and muddy jungle path (to be walked back as well) leads to the most interesting spots: a waterfall that pounces into an also blue natural swimming pool; a hot spring where one can cool down immediately after in the refreshing river water; a small lake that is of such shrieking turquoise that it appears unreal and where swimming is not recommended due to high mineral concentration; and finally the so-called teñideros where the river changes its colour suddenly as if it were aligned using a ruler. The water is initially clear and flows over brownish rocks where it must take up so many minerals that it all of a sudden gets this fabric softener-azure.

Estimate at least for hours for this hike, better longer to enjoy an extended jungle bath. The swampy trail requests for sturdy hiking boots (sometimes even rubber boots) that should be at least ankle-high if only because of the poisonous snakes that busily cross the path now and then. Huge butterflies and tiny hummingbirds fly around. The private park Rio Celeste with its hiking trails can only be accessed from hotels and lodges. The hotel Catarata Rio Celeste offers public entrance with big parking lot, information, and guide if requested, for the usual 10 $ entrance fee. You reach the park from the road at Katira north of Guatuso via a 12 km long rocky trail where you climb from 120 to pleasant 650 m elevation. The manager Don Pedro allows us to camp here for free: N 10°42’11.5’’ W 84°58’39.0’’.

Caño Negro, Costa Rica – About monkeys, sloths, and caimans

Montag, September 12th, 2011

The National Park Caño Negro can only be accessed by boat. So we are playing tourist today and booked an excursion with microbus, boat, and informed tour guide. River Rio Frio passes through the nature preserve and is enclosed by dense jungle on both sides. The river banks are an ideal habitat for herons, cormorants, and Anhingas or snakebirds, how they are called as well. They keep their whole body underwater while swimming, only the long and bent neck and head stick out like a snake.

Bats and reptiles are numerous: Up to three metres long caimans sunbathe on tree-trunks, round carapaces of freshwater turtles poke out of the water; basilisks, a kind of iguana that can run on their hind legs over the water surface like Jesus thanks to air cushions under their feet, wait on branches jutting out of the water for fruits to fall from the trees. Basiliscus lizards can dive if they think that’s safer than running. The green iguana on the banks are already too big to have a lot of predators and usually don’t flee unless they are young. In the treetops spider and howling monkeys romp about. The slowest or non-moving tree residents are sloths and accordingly difficult to determine. A tarantula fell into the water and tries to rescue itself walking over the river.

The excursion to Caño Negro cost 55 US$ incl. transport, entrance fee, snack, lunch, drinks, and tour guide. That’s a standard price in the area of Fortuna. We were very happy with the organizer Canoa Aventura. There is another option to go to Los Chiles on your own and try to rent a boat. From there you’d also ride on the Rio Frio, but you won’t reach the national park. The fuel costs together with the likelihood to pay the boat alone due to a lack of other interested parties would make the individual trip more expensive.

Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica – German beer

Samstag, September 10th, 2011

A German bakery attracts us magically. We have discovered it yesterday, obviously signposted for miles. Tom’s Pan offers many different German sausages, stew, other famous dishes, Wi-Fi and more. We can buy bread, delicatessen, and souvenirs. But form your own opinion about prices, size of portions, quality and freshness of the meals. Then Tom, baker and confectioner from Germany who saw many travellers passing by, discovers and invites us to his home. There more German beer is available and precious information what we should see in Costa Rica and what we might want to skip.

Arenal volcano, the reason we came here, on the list of the earth’s most active volcanoes in the fourth instance, doesn’t erupt anymore – since nine months. It was famous for spitting glowing lava every few minutes. We can skip the expensive night walk, because the spectacle was especially impressive at dark; just exceeded by the earthquake-like tremor, which precedes every eruption, and the hissing spew that accompanied it. Years ago we were granted to experience this imposing occurrence, but this was unfortunately before introduction of digital photography.

Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica – Pure life

Freitag, September 9th, 2011

The emigration from Nicaragua at border crossing-point Peña Blanca is a bit long-drawn-out, but done in half an hour. First we have to pay 1 $ pp special charge for whatever (we get a receipt) at a pay station at the entrance, and another 2 $ for the emigration stamp. Behind the building where we park, the Aduana man roams about and checks that the exported vehicle corresponds to the papers. This has to be confirmed by the police. The officers roam around; we have to somehow get hold of them. Leaving Nico-territory passports are checked again and the import paper withheld.

The so civilized Costa Rica has the – until now – worst organized border crossing with completely missing signposting and not selected courtesy. There is a lot of running a round, but we make it in 90 minutes. We pass the disinfection sluice gate (5 $) and as a result miss the insurance agency which we wouldn’t have identified anyhow due to missing signs. The customs officer in his cottage sends us back on foot. It is a bit confusing since he mixes left and right (a Central American disease). Beside the office of the nice insurance agent (14 $ for three months) we get the copies requested by the customs officer. Just back the man sends us to Migracion to get the immigration stamps and back to the copier since he also needs a copy of the stamp (apparently only of the vehicle owner). We use our own copier this time, that’s faster.

Then we have to fill a form where all drivers have to be mentioned. For the first time a customs officer enters our camper cabin, but not for long. Do we have a laptop? Sure. No refrigerator? Oh yes, but the content isn’t interesting. What is behind the door? The bathroom, but he doesn’t want to see it. The Aduana building is a bit remote to the right. Here it emerges that the second driver has to produce a passport and stamp copy as well, but there is a copy station right on the opposite side. The temporary import paper is handed over to us and a small handwritten piece of paper. Don’t throw it away, it will be collected when exiting the border area where passports and importation certificate are checked again. This officer is of the friendlier kind, he greets us with the country’s motto „Costa Rica – pura vida“, pure life. The complete procedure was complimentary.

Road conditions of the Pan Americana improved significantly since our last visit about 15 years ago. The attractions are a bit remote, so that we quickly retreat to also acceptable side roads. In Nuevo Arenal at Lake Arenal there is a recreational area that’s administered by the town council where pick-nicking, swimming, fishing and camping is without any costs. The gate is locked between 6 pm and 6 am, then the site is guarded. View to lake and mountains are dreamlike, although Arenal volcano is not visible from here (N 10°32’13.7’’ W 84°53’36.6’’).

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua – The ticket and beach camping

Donnerstag, September 8th, 2011

The Pan Am takes us south where we have an encounter with the police. We won’t find out if they would have liked to get a bribe since the situation develops into the unexpected. They stop us since Joerg passed a truck despite a continuous line. That’s true. A useless continuous line was painted on a two kilometres long straight road. All drivers pass the slower trucks there since it is the only opportunity on a long stretch. We do so. But that wasn’t correct. We don’t trust the policemen and hand over only copies of the requested documents. The officers don’t realize the car license to be a copy but the driver’s license. One officer asks to get the original but Joerg insists that he already has it. When the policeman tries to rip the license some tensions occur. We write down the badge numbers of the guys and mention the German embassy, when it becomes suddenly official. Joerg gets a proper ticket that we have to pay in a bank in the next town (around 11.50 $). With the receipt we return and get back the slightly damaged driver’s license; herewith the problem is solved.

In front the border to Costa Rica there is the question where to overnight. The La Flor National Park is expensive with 45 $ (10 $ pp entrance fee, 25 $ camping), and it is usually difficult to find something at the beach. Close to San Juan del Sur we find two options to the north at Pacific beach Playa Madera. The beach has two accesses. Keeping to your left at the junction @ N 11°17’51.2’’ W 85°53’19.6’’ you will reach a small parking lot after some hundreds of metres (max. vehicle height 3.5 m). Camping is FOC and said to be safe. Another option would be to ask in the restaurant to park in their attended car park, but its surfer bar is open until midnight. The beach consists of course pebbles here.

If you head right at the junction instead you will reach Camping Matilda @ N 11°17’51.5’’ W 85°54’53.1’’. It is not a designated campground, but an empty lot in front of the sea is good for parking (maximum Unimog size, the access road is narrow and the turn into the lot sharp). The hostel on the other side of the feeder road provides bathrooms and showers. Access is o.k. with some clearance. With facility use we are asked to pay 200 NIO, for parking only 100. The sandy beach is good for swimming, although there are some non-treacherous waves, but no undercurrents. It’s just great here!

Granada, Nicaragua – Colonial romanticism and beggars

Mittwoch, September 7th, 2011

Granada is the unquestionable centre of tourism in Nicaragua with a historic old town and lavishly restored colonial buildings. Among them is the yellow cathedral with red domes, landmark not only of the city but of the entire country. For 1 US$ / 20 NIO we are allowed to climb up the narrow spiral staircase to the belltower of La Merced church from where we have a wonderful 360° view to the city and the lake. Close to the church we find Tio Antonio Centro Social that belongs to La Merced but is religiously independent. The social institution has opened a hammock manufactory with handicapped or socially excluded adolescents. Their doors are always open, so that we can watch the production of high-quality hammocks from organically dyed cotton. Even if there is no room to store a hammock, the visit is worth it. All purchases come in useful to the kids.

Another of Granada’s specialties is horse and carriage for sightseeing tours (from 20 $ on). But don’t be deceived by the romantic tranquillity and peace in the historic district. Leaving the touristic area we discover a vivid and lively city with 120,000 inhabitants. Of course supposedly prosperous tourists attract beggars, and especially kids can be unnerving. But in all travel guides as well as in menus of many restaurants we are asked not to give kids anything but to better donate money to local aid organizations that will sensibly use it. Many kids are encouraged or even forced by their parents to beg since they get hold of more money than adults. But this produces in a long term just another generation of beggars. Why learn something if life is that easy? Other kids just don’t feel like learning something, skive off school, and roam around. With the money obtained by begging they buy something useful like a can of glue to sniff. Their life has ended already before it even started.

A cooler night than Granada is promised by Mirador de Catarina, 20 km south-west at Laguna de Apoyo in 540 m elevation. The viewpoint in Catarina is said to be the best in Nicaragua. From here we overlook Granada, Lake Nicaragua, Mombacho volcano, and of course Laguna de Apoyo. The country’s largest and maybe oldest crater lake has a perfect round form. It measure six kilometres in diameter and is 200 m deep with clear blue water. It is not very quiet here; it is a tourist attraction with many restaurants and souvenir shops (they all close at 11:30 pm). We may camp for free, but we have to negotiate the entrance fee. 100 Córdoba for a coach seem to be excessive. We aren’t that big, and only two passengers. The lady reduces to 50. Only the security man needs a tip for having an eye on us. He’s not too happy about 20 Córdoba (1 $), but accepts finally. Mirador de Catarina: N 11°54’47.7’’ W 86°04’11.9’’.

Granada, Nicaragua – Gigantic, unique: Lake Nicaragua

Dienstag, September 6th, 2011

In fact the volcano’s emissions diminish this morning so that we can hike up to some viewpoints and to San Fernando crater without risking our health. This crater is covered with forest and green while Santiago has coloured bare walls and a huge hole from where steam escapes.

The city of Granada just 30 km east is situated at Lago de Nicaragua, a lake of superlatives. It is Central America’s largest lake with 8100 sq km. It houses Ometepe Island, the world’s largest island in a freshwater lake. Not yet enough: Lake Nicaragua is the only stretch of water on earth where freshwater sharks live. Probably they came from the Caribbean Sea via River San Juan and got accustomed to the lack of salt by time.

Like in most cities camping is difficult in Granada. The traveller-known Turicentro right on the lake shore allows access for 50 Córdoba per vehicle and camping as well. Unfortunately there is actually no possibility to do that. The one-way road is too narrow, the only option is in front of one of the restaurants (small lots only). The parking lot we were told to camp in the end of the Turicentro road is behind an open-air live discotheque. Besides the noise to be expected it doesn’t seem to be a good place to overnight. The man who runs the discotheque describes the site as absolutely not safe. We continue to drive down the road where we find a long and wide hard shoulder of gravel with beautiful lake view. It is not attended, as the place in the Turicentro would have been, and it would have been free of charge.

Turicentro Granada, unattended, N 11°55’31.9’’ W 85°56’30.1’’, 50 NIO, or right after at the lake, FOC, along the road, N 11°54’50.4’’ W 85°56’00.3’’.

Volcán Masaya, Nicaragua – Volcanoes stink

Montag, September 5th, 2011

In the early morning a new sound is added to the howling monkeys and the many other unknown sounds. It is a bird type “electronic clock”: “Teeleeleet, teeleeleet, teeleeleet”. Three times, exactly like the standard clock, and after an exactly measured period of time: “Teeleeleet, teeleeleet, teeleeleet”. Can’t anybody press the stop-button? Since nobody does me this favour even I have to understand that the night is over. Sound inventors have to have studied in the jungle. These similarities can’t be coincidence. We wanted to get up anyway to see the parrots with sunshine. This time we might go without guide and without paying another entrance fee. And see, if we don’t rush through the jungle like mad we don’t chase all animals away and get to watch something. The convergence to the Chocoya breeding ground can be noticed according to the background noise, parrots aren’t really known for their delightful singing. Like nearly all parrots the Chocoya are monogamous. Not only that: They spend their whole life together, fly together, leave and return together. Not without announcing that strongly.

Not even 30 km away from here the national park Volcán Masaya is located with two volcanoes and five craters. One of them, the Santiago, is the only permanently active crater in Nicaragua. Poisonous sulphur and hydrochloric acid gases escape permanently from its 450 m wide throat, and sometimes it spits bigger chunks, why the car has to be parked back-in. Sometimes it’s possible to see the lava or glowing stones in the inside, especially during the guided night walks, but right now the surface is – perhaps due to rainy season – more chilled and just dark. Only the smoke and gas production is enormous. Park rule recommend not staying longer than 20 minutes, but today nobody stays voluntarily longer. The wind is inclement and blows the smoke into our face. The eyes start to water. It penetrates into the lungs and causes a tickly throat. I can taste the smoke, a strange mixture of sulphur, battery acid and the perfumed aftertaste of aluminium acetate, then it runs down the throat into the stomach. The head starts to ache. All brain cells shout in chorus “get out of here”!

Since visibility is mist-filled, we keep it short, walk along the wall at the edge of Santiago crater and up the stairs to the viewpoint with the large cross where we can see the lava rock-mottled surrounding and Lake Masaya. There is only one hike allowed without guide to some other viewpoints, but we delay it to tomorrow, hoping for more favourable wind. Chocoyas, the small parrots, live and brood in very poisonous surroundings of the crater walls. Over time they got accustomed to the gases that offer a very effective protection against natural enemies.

The crater looks back to a long tradition of artificially caused deaths. The Chorotega Indians that lived here probably threw virgins into the lava to sacrifice them to the goddess of fire to placate her. The Spaniards used the magma hole to get rid of unbelievers and criminals. The Somoza dictators were particularly perfidious up to make people disappear: Opponents were flown with helicopters above the crater and dropped.

It is allowed to camp on both parking places at the visitor centre some kilometres below the crater. There is a moderately interesting museum. Per person 100 NIO entrance fee plus 50 NIO for overnight. Parque Nacionál Volcán Masaya, N 12°00’11.3’’ W 86°08’54.6’’.