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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Panama City & Casco Viejo

Panama City, or what was supposed to be our first border run. Having skipped town for Nicaragua just one week before, however, technically speaking this trip was pointless. That aside, we were both really excited to take a bus down to Panama City with our good buddy Brad, a classmate of mine during my TEFL course back in Jan/Feb. 

We boarded the bus for a long 15 hour bus ride, made even longer by the 2 hour stop at the border (a much easier crossing this time). 

ready for a looonnnngg bus ride
When we finally arrived it was nearly 5am and we were slightly regretting having booked a place to stay that “night.” We all got a few hours sleep under our belts then met up at the main oceanside boardwalk along Avenida Balboa (Balboa Avenue) and walked several kilometeres into the old city, called Casco Viejo. 

Avenida Balboa Panoramic, Panama City
Avenida Balboa
Along our walk, we noticed the tide was so low that several boats were resting in the mud. Many of them looked completely abandoned. Later that evening as we walked back, however, we noticed something strange that could only have been caused by introduction of the Panama Canal. The change in tide, in only about four hours, was really intense. We'd never seen anything quite like it. I'm not sure I'd have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes.

The same boats: Top: our walk to Casco; Bottom: our walk back
Top: Boats rest in the mud; Bottom: four hours later, the same boats float!
Once there, we found that the buildings in Casco were colonial and the ruins were everywhere. I was in heaven, even saying to Justin at one point “THIS is why I wanted to travel.” The main part of the old city looks very European, with its narrow streets, terraces with flower boxes overhead, and cafes that spill onto the street. 

Casco Viejo ruins, Panama City
Ruins through a gate
dorr, casco viejo, panama city
Pretty doors in Casco Viejo (above and below)

flower boxes, casco viejo, panama city
Pretty Flower boxes along the terraces
Casco Viejo Church, Panama City
Above a doorway to a church 
Casco Viejo Church, Panama City
Jesus says "Rock on"
There was a square full of statues honoring the French, who made the original attempt at the Panama Canal, a street market, beautiful facades with renovations going on behind. 

Crystal in the French Square, commemorating those who made the initial Canal attempt
There were also churches and ruins that were in deplorable disrepare (the government could do a lot to intervene here) as well as shocking poverty behind many of the facades (children would leave their door open and we’d see that behind, there were dilapidated staircases, homes with no roofs, all hidden behind a pretty building face. 

church, casco viejo, panama city
Cathedral in disrepair (you can no longer enter)
church ruins the city isn't working to maintain
Overall, the area was touristy but lovely, with a bit of real, third-world life mixed in. The old city sits right up against the skyscrapers of the current Panama City, which is strikingly American. The contrast is notable. 

Panama City Skyline
Panama City from the market in Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo Skyline
Casco Viejo from Avenida Balboa
One of Justin’s favorite places in Central America was situated right where the old city joined the new. La Rana Dorada (The Golden Frog): a brewery!! The beer was delicious and a welcome treat after the colored water they pass for cervesa in Costa Rica and Panama. (Justin literally bought the t-shirt when we returned to Panama City a week later.)

La Rana Dorada Brewery, Panama City
Justin is ready 
La Rana Dorada Brewery, Panama City
Cheers to La Rana Dorada in Casco Viejo
After just one full night, Brad had to catch the long bus back home (to Costa Rica) and Justin and I set out on our own. We moved hotels to a local place to get a better price. We explored the beach front and old city a bit more, and were lucky enough to get to see the famous Golden Altar at Iglesia San Jose. We tried to see it with Brad, but the church is usually only open on Sundays. We went back just before Easter though and the church was open for Santa Semana (Holy Week--a huuuugggeee deal here). I mean, this alter is plated in GOLD! It was brilliant to see.

Golden Alter, Iglesia San Jose, Casco Viejo, Panama City
Golden Altar, Iglesia San Jose 
Golden Alter, Iglesia San Jose, Casco Viejo, Panama City
Ok, so I added a filter here (guilty) but its really not that big an exaggeration

And, just for fun, silliness along the way:

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Nicaragua Border Crossing

To wrap up our lovely week (our favorite still, and its June as I write this!) with Sean and Joanna, someone (I) got the hair brained idea (sorry) that we should drive to Nicaragua and back, by ourselves, in one day.

Don’t get me wrong, going to Nicaragua, specifically Granada, and back in one day it totally doable. They sell tours all the time for just that. Tours that cost $165 apiece. Well, I (or was it Justin?) decided that this obviously wasn’t worth the cost and we were fully able to take the trip on our own. No guide, barely a map (do google screenshots count?), and no idea what to expect at the border.

Joanna and Sean by Lake Nicaragua
Well, first things first, we learned that you cannot take rental cars across international borders in Central America. No problem we’ll get a cab! It won’t be so bad—just wait, you’ll see. 

The day started uneventful enough. We got up early, left the house (I think it was, I don’t know, 6am…), and were on our way. Other than a pit stop to the side of the Pan-American highway for me to pee on the side of the road (yeah, that happened. Bucket list: check!) the two hour ride to the border was relatively uneventful.

Enter: nearly two mile long line of semi-trucks. Were we supposed to wait behind them, go around them? Over them, perhaps--who knew? Ultimately we followed a pickup around the line and for the length of the semi-truck train, we drove up the freeway going north in the southbound lane. We only encountered a few cars barrelling full speed toward us, but no matter, they didn’t seem to mind veering around us when we stared ahead wide eyed, saying our final prayers and crossing ourselves (are any of us even Catholic?).

Speaking of being Catholic, here we are heading into the Granada Cathedral
After that trauma, we made it to what seemed bordery-enough. We parked the car. Then got back in, thinking we’d parked in the wrong spot, drove in a giant circle around more bordery official-looking buildings, then ended up eventually parking in the same spot we started in. Waving off the guy that insisted he’d “watch car, keep safe, only twenty dolla” (and then attempted to “wash car, five dolla,” when we said no) we attempted to sort out the confusing mess that is the Nicaraguan/Costa Rican border. No signs marked anything, anywhere. Not in Spanish, not in English, not in any ish. Nothing, nada. We probably walked in and out of Nicaragua without knowing it at least six times before we figured out where the hell we were supposed to go. After about twenty minutes of wandering, Joanna announces “I am not comfortable with this! I want to leave, we should have taken the tour!” All I could think was “I hear you, sister” combined with “Justin (or was it I) got us into this. We are doing it come hell or high-water.” Saying neither of these things, I attempted to ease Joanna’s discomfort by trying to figure out where to get our entry stamps after we finally got our exit stamps.

Needless to say, you have to walk about a half mile to officially enter Nicaragua, pay a random $1.00 fee (we still aren’t sure if that was legit) and then go far to your left through a little, random, totally-not-noticable double door in a wall (seriously, you can’t make this up) and them blamo: you’re in Nicaragua!

Well, welcome to the country north of Costa Rica. Suddenly we are thrust into a taxi cab that is all but falling apart and paying a nominal fee (I think it was $40) to drive for TWO HOURS to Granada. Joanna, if I didn’t say so then, I’m really sorry about that! The airconditioned tour bus would certainly have been more comfortable than being smashed into the backseat of a car with no seat belts and a speed crazed driver. 

So, we were on our way. By the time we made it to Granada, we were all in such sour moods, it didn’t seem to make a real difference. A shame really, because the little colonial town really was adorable. 

See, look at this cute main square!

We were also all famished, so we stopped at the first restaurant we found, right off the main square. Now, having five solid months on travel under my belt, I can tell you now with confidence that you NEVER do this. KEEP WALKING! These places are tourist traps and often serve the worst food. Justin is still complaining about the "turkey sandwich" that he was served. It would never have occurred to him to order it sans ketchup, because, well, it was a turkey sandwich. Alas, it arrived with the lovely red stuff, and yellow mustard to boot (the only food Justin actually hates) so he munched on his french fries instead. The only redeeming quality was that the Pepsis were about $.50 each, compared to $2.00 in Costa Rica. Once we’d filled our gullets we wandered around the square a bit, took a look at the church, and then took a stroll down the main promenade—only to find ALL of the other restaurants. Irish food and Chinese food and American hamburgers, steaks, Brazilian Rodisio, three star Michelin sushi (ok, I may have made that last one up). As we continued walking (the street was cute, after all--see below) Justin just got angrier and angrier. We’d settled on the worst food in the whole city, as far as we knew, and now there was nothing to be done. We settled on getting some gelato from a fancy looking place in the end and tried not to be too bitter.

Guadalupe Church, near Lake Nicaragua
Granada's lovely restaraunt street
Another reason you should take the tour, as we learned, is that your travel is taken care of and you have longer than, say, four hours in the city. We actually spent longer driving to and from Granada than we did in the city. So, so lame. After we each bought a painting (Justin and I are trying to get one piece of art from every country we visit) we met the cab driver again and piled in for the long drive to the border. Much to our pleasure (and chagrin, I think) about half way through the drive home and promptly after Justin was serenaded by a crazy homeless person at the gas station, our cabbie asked “you want air?” to which we mentally replied “as in, AIR, air. As in, 'we’ve had air-conditioning this whole time and you only just now thought to mention it?!' YES, we want air!” No, we didn’t really say that. We said simply “si” and exchanged incredulous glances at each other in silence. It was so hot, any relief was welcome.

Crystal and Sean outside Guadalupe Church
Justin at Lake Nicaragua (looking a WHOLE lot like his dad!)
In the end, we made it safely back to the hotel, toasted with much needed beer, and laughed over our ridiculous day. Only then did I tell Joanna that I completely understood how she was feeling when we entered the border the first time. We looked at the four new stamps we each got in our passport (two exit, two entry) and slept pretty soundly that night, indeed.

The next day, we had to bid adieu to Joanna and Sean. It was incredible to have them visit us, to go on adventures, and have a little taste of home in Costa Rica. After we dropped off Rudy Bego (sniffle, it was soooo nice to have a car) and waited an hour for the bus to pick us up, it was back to reality. Albeit, a pretty awesome reality, but one unfortunately devoid of home, which we miss tremendously. As I said before, Joanna and Sean’s visits remains our favorite week on our trip so far. Come back and see us again in Europe, guys! We miss you already. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Adventure Day

A few days after trekking up to Monteverde and back, we decided to go on an adventure tour that Sean had looked into before they even left the states. He wanted to go horseback riding and canyoning and zip lining and Tarzan swinging, etc., etc., etc. So, we did just that. We found a great price and drove our rusty, trusty (ok, not so rusty) Rudy Bego out to Rincon de la Vieja (passing the very first hostel/Bed and Breakfast we stayed at back in January, wouldn’t you know it!) and commenced our all-day adventure.

Joanna and her Steed
First we did a horseback tour through the forest. Joanna said she had experience riding horses as a kid, but as soon as she got bucked off one day, she quit (and who can blame her). Other than Jo, none of us had much experience riding. That said, we all took it in stride, so to speak, and did rather well. Sean’s horse insisted on being first and whenever he found himself near the back, he’d race forward to lead the group. Joanna’s horse kept head
butting others if they got into her personal space.

The ride was relaxing and it was pretty clear the horses already knew where they were going, despite the guide having taught us some simple commands before we left (either that or he had some secret horsey signal he was using from the back of the group—perhaps we’ll never know). The funniest part of the short ride was the german couple that joined our group. Either they both had horses that were really unruly, compared to all of ours, or they were so-not-naturals at horseback riding. They were constantly being whipped around, horses running forward, around, under trees that smacked their perturbed riders in the face/arms/butt/you name it). They were hollering combinations of English and (I assume) German cuss words as they held on for their lives. Despite all of this, they were in good spirits when we parted with the ponies and just laughed the whole thing off. Still, it was pretty amusing.
Crystal and Joanna
Justin and his horse
(L-R) Justin, Sean, Crystal, ze Germans and Jo
After we rode we were picked up by a good ole-fashioned yellow school bus and taken to the river to go “white-water” inter tubing. Now, if any of you know my history with inter tubes and hospitals, you’d think it was a wonder that I agreed to this at all (twice I’ve inter tubed down snowy hills —twice I’ve ended up in the hospital—never again!) but the water seemed to be a different beast. Actually, it was a total blast. We were joined by about 20 others who were on a one week adventure trip around Costa Rica, and we were off. The river was amazing, perfect inter tube-sized water falls, twists, turns, slow rolling pools, fast current pools. It was almost as if the river had been built just for tubbing. But no, it was a natural phenomena that just took a little human ingenuity to took hold of and turned a profit (gotta love that). Unfortunately, we don’t have any pictures (who wants to pay $20 for 40 pictures that all look exactly the same) but take it from me, it was scenic, refreshing, and tons of fun.

The next section was the one I was looking forward to most: zip lining! There were 7 zip lines in the course, as well as an optional rappel (you lower down a canyon by rope), Tarzan wing, and rock climbing wall. The first line was the longest at least 7500 meters long (in my memory at least, I think it was realistically more like 500 meters) and you could even go down it upside down. There was no way in hell I was doing that, but you know Justin did (Sean did too, as a matter of fact). I swear Justin even did a Tarzan call as he launched from the platform. Personally, I was too worried that I was going to accidentally put my hand in front of me instead of behind and “oh no, fingers go bye bye”(as the guide put it. The whole course was really a rush.

Justin says "look Ma, no hands!"
Joanna, lovely as ever
Sean, upside down and backward
Crystal's first time rock climbing
Joanna winning the race!
Certainly the most beautiful part was the optional canyon rappel. Not only was it exhilarating, but the canyon itself was absolutely picturesque. Exactly what you think of when you imagine Costa Rica. Beautiful vegetation, turquoise blue water, birds flitting about. It was incredible. After the repel was the Tarzan swing, which the guides took great pleasure in scaring both Joanna and myself into thinking that something had gone wrong and we were accidentally being catapulted to the canyon floor (a good 25 meters below us, as least). Then we rock climbed. I’ve never actually done this before and while it wasn’t the traditional balay-style counter balance act (they actually pulled you from up above) it was still hard work and really rewarding when you reached the top.

Justin at the top of the rappel
She chose down?!
After all that crazy adventuring, we were all incredibly grateful that the last spot on the tour was the local hot spring, complete with volcanic mud bath. We each painted our spouses in fresh, home grown mud, sat in the sun to let it dry, and washed off in the river. Afterwords we relaxed in the natural hot springs and high fived each other in celebration of our awesomeness.

Crystal mudding Justin
Joanna and Sean mudding each other

Drying in the sun
Washing off in the river before heading to the hot springs
I think its safe to say that Sean was onto something with the suggestion of this adventure tour. We all agreed that it was an incredible day and well worth the money. Other than the drive up to Monteverde it might have been my favorite thing we did with Sean and Joanna all week!

A triumphant day!