Panama City

A City of Contrast, Contradiction and Disparity

Many of us from the US have long-held a fascination with Panama, and especially the Panama Canal, which was managed by the US until 2000.  This engineering marvel has been operational for nearly 100 years.  When you see how expansive this 80 Km canal is – it stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, it is difficult to believe that it was constructed 100 years ago.  Today it continues to move 14,000 ships through this passageway every year.  The technology is modern and has an elaborate quality control system so it doesn´t fail.  In addition, the canal is currently being expanded so that in 2014, ships as wide as 55 meters (?160 feet) will be able to pass through the canal.  Currently the canal is run solely by the people of Panama.  As you can imagine, the impact on Panama City is enormous, it is a huge center for commerce and banking and there are mega shopping malls that rival those in any modern country. 

As we visited Panama City, an urban community of 3 or 4 million people and with an expansive skyline of modern buildings, the contrast with every day life for the majority of inhabitants of Panama City was at times disturbing.  As we stood near the well-known fish market on Balboa Avenue, a look to the right showed this, which is only a portion of the skyline for the commercial district.  Immediately behind several of these modern skyscrapers was a community of stilt houses right in the water.  With no electricity or other services, their cobbled together stilt houses and boardwalks were at times under water when the tide came in and they sat in mud when the tide went out.  For the very poor such as these people or those who live in tenement housing, there are no publicly supported services as in some countries.

Panama City skyline

 As we looked straight ahead of us and stepped around to look behind us there were dozens (probably really hundreds) of high-rise apartments that looked war-torn, sometimes with no doors or windows and non-functional plumbing.  In this intense 90 degree heat, one can only imagine the living conditions.  Some are occupied by squatters and some actually pay rent for these horrible dwellings.  I tried to photograph a few of these tenements but photos just don´t capture the desperate situation. 

Casco Viejo

Still standing from the same viewpoint, a look to the right shows the beautiful and historic old city or Casco Viejo which has been named a UNESCO world heritage site and which is now being restored to the beauty and regal of Colonial times. (This is also where we stayed while in Panama City).  This neighborhood was allowed to deteriorate to a state which one can´t imagine until you walk through the neighborhoods.  Now as foreign money is being infused in to the old quarter, it is being restored to its original beauty and will likely return to the state of glory of earlier times.

Casco Viejo

 

Only the shell remains from this boarded up 1700´s building in Casco Viejo

 

Restored building in Casco Viejo

Urban disparity is likely a ubiquitous problem, however in this city or possibly in the country (we only visited Panama City and Colon which is much worse than Panama City) the contrast between those who have and those who don´t is so obvious everywhere you go.  Simultaneously there is urban wealth.  For example, people with money take the air-conditioned new buses and poor people take Chicken Buses (they call them ¨Red Devils¨).  

It was very different in Panama, unlike the other Central American countries we visited, there is money in this country.

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Where Central America Shops..

 …for Discarded American Clothing

Early on in our travel in Central America and other developing countries, one of my observations was the number of children and adults who wear clothing with American logos or slogans.  At first it wasn´t so striking however t-shirts from fun runs, athletic teams or corporate events are regularly seen on children and adults in Central America, especially Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.   As I began to observe the shops and markets, it became clear to me that discarded US clothing is a major source of clothing for people in the Central American countries.  What follows is what I´ve learned to date.

PACA Stores or Tiendas

Clothing from donation programs such as Goowwill Industries, packs clothing into large bales or ¨Pacas¨.   The bales are shipped and a wholesaler in the Central American country who in turn sells the bales to local people.  For example in Coban, Guatemala, bales could be purchased for 100, 500, 800 or 1000 Quetzales (7.7 Quetzales/dollar).  The purchaser may have a small storefront or tienda which then is essentially an American style ¨second-hand store¨ where clothing is sold for several dollars per garment.  In Coban, where this photo was taken, there were probably 20 or 30 stores within an area of 6-7 square blocks. 

PACA store in Coban, Guatemala

Public Markets

Another option for selling used clothing is in the public markets, which is where the majority of people shop anyway, whether for fruits and vegetables, household goods or new clothing.  You can always see when a new pack of clothing comes in because women are elbowing for a good spot from which to look through the clothing, just like an US ¨after-Christmas¨ sale.  As you can imagine, this is quite a feat as the clothing isn´t sorted by size or type.  Nevertheless, for people who don´t have the resources to purchase new clothing, getting an early look at a new shipment is probably a pretty good shopping day.

Public Market in Granada, Nicaragua

In several cities, and again in public markets, we saw pick up trucks of shoes only or as in the following photo, a large tarp was laid out with a huge pile of clothing dumped on the ground.  Any piece of clothing could be purchased for $0.50.

Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala: Shopping in the Hot Sun

 In the US, I´ve heard and read about the controversy –  if you donate to places to Goodwill or other similar donations services, the goods might be ¨sold overseas¨ and won´t get to the people who need the goods.   I can´t say that I understood why this is controversial, possibly I don´t understand the whole story. However after seeing that the vast majority of people in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua benefit directly from this phenomenon, it is apparent to me that the clothing that we discard is getting into the hands of people who appreciate and value what we eagerly discard as no longer useful.

If any of you have more information to help me understand this phenomenon from another viewpoint, I´d love to hear your thoughts.  Until then I stand firm – having discarded US clothing available for resale is working for the people.

Nicaragua: Leon, Granada and San Juan del Sur

 

In our short time in Nicaragua, we only had enough time to visit three cities; Leon, Granada and San Juan del Sur. Each one was very different, making it difficult to describe the country or to generalize about our experience but we got enough of a taste of the country to know we would like to return.

You’ve already heard about how difficult it was to get into the country but once through the border, we headed directly for Leon, which was an easy ride on relatively flat roads – a first for this trip.

Leon:

This city is one of the two remaining (and larger) of Nicaragua’s colonial jewels. This city of about 150k people is not only filled with colonial architecture and grand churches, but is also a market town.

 Every part of the city has a public market, big or small. These markets are accompanied by great street food often grilled in an old tire rim set on a stand of some type. In this area of the country, horse and cart is a major means of transportation; the city streets are willingly shared by cars, buses and horse and cart. The people of this region are friendly and kind; always willing to help a couple of confused N. American travelers.

While tourism is increasing in this area, aside from young backpackers, we really didn’t see a lot of English-speaking travelers. One of the notable characteristics of Leon is how well tourists are integrated with those who live there, how tourism hasn’t taken over daily life and the fact that there’s not a souvenir shop on every corner – or anywhere for that matter. My least favorite thing was the intense heat – daytime temps near 100 and it didn’t cool down at night.

Granada:

Named for it’s sister town in Spain, this colonial city is smaller and slightly more industrialized than Leon. It is suppose to be a haven for tourists. In reality it is a city where property and businesses are being purchased and run by expats from Europe and the US and thus driving up prices. Tourism is well developed – Parque Central and the surrounding restored colonial buildings are lovely however when you walk three or four blocks from the tourist areas, there is one of the poorest areas we have seen to date. Nearly all of businesses around Lake Nicaragua seem to have failed. It was difficult to see if this was an impact of declining tourism in the past several years or ??

Granada Restaurant: Nicaraguan owned?

 We were pleased to stay in a newly opened hotelaje and restaurant operated by two sisters and their two cousins. We’re hoping Saguan Joche, a family owned business, will be highly successful.

Street performers on La Calzada (kids)

La Calzada, the recently restored restaurant row (similar to Barcelona’s La Ramblas) is lively at night with street entertainers, music and of course great food and drink. My personal opinion is that Leon tops Granada although a visit to both is a necessity.

San Juan del Sur:

This lovely little beach town was a great place to hang out for a few days. Totally a tourist spot and beach town, we made this stop so we could hit the beaches before Semana Santa. The beach is long and wide, and a favorite swimming spot for locals and tourists. The town is filled with great seafood restaurants and other very inexpensive local eateries. We usually ate breakfast for $2.00 or $3.00 if we splurged on a smoothies made from fresh fruit. Overall a great place to veg out.

I heart Nicaragua and hope to return some day.

More Drama at the Nicaragua Border

(photos will be posted later)

OK, this one will be short – if you´re going to listen to me complain about the Nicaragua borders, I owe you some information about the beauty that lives between the borders.  Will save that one for the next time.

We dreaded the thought but the only way to leave Nicaragua is to go through the border patrol.  OK, there is another option.  A couple of people tried it and you have never seen border patrol agents run as fast as these guys.  It´s hard to believe that someone would try.

When we left the beautiful beach town of San Juan del Sur via Chicken Bus, we transferred buses and then headed for the border.  When we got to about 5 miles from the border, we passed hundreds of semi trucks who were lined up nose to tail, waiting to go through the border into Costa Rica.  I´m not sure if it´s always so busy but we did hear that the reason is that it was the start of Semana Santa or Holy Week.  This means a week of vacation for Central Americans, not a week of going to church as I did when I was a kid.  Many Costa Ricans head north to the Nicaragua beaches and vice versa.

So after our first experience with a ¨guide¨ as we navigated his crazy border, we were committed to making it through on our own.  After all if we can navigate Chicken Buses, we can make it through Immigration and Customs. Little did we know that the guy who sat behind us on the bus was our personal guide!  As soon as we got off the bus he walked us to the back door of the Immigration office but the guard wouldn´t allow him to get in.  He then told us we needed to get in line with everyone else.  Now this was a line about as long as a football field and 2 or 3 people wide;  in the 100 degree mid-day sun.

Soon our self-appointed guide found us in line.  For $10.00 per person, he could get us to the head of the line and we wouldn´t need to wait.  We declined several times until he gave up.

We were in line behind 2 gringos who are teaching in Costa Rica.  While it was nice to meet several fine young people, this also made us look like an American family.  Soon, 4 men aggressively (like just about knocked us over) butted into the line, right next to the 4 of us.  Immediately Kevin´s instincts took over as he recalled the pushing and shoving of pickpockets in Greece last year.  We moved away from the guys as others in the line tried to stop their line jumping.  The 4 guys stood their ground as we must have seemed like good targets.   We held our bags tight and watched every move but were sure they still wanted to try something.  About 15 minutes later, as we entered the actual immigration office, Kevin saw one of the 4 guys trying to put his hand in the pocket of the young teacher.  His action was quickly averted.  Isn´t this the classic pickpocket story?

While this was occurring, a bunch of people ran through our line, chasing down someone else who had her wallet stolen buy someone.  I guess if you are going to wait in the crazy lines, it´s a great place for petty thieves to prey on unsuspecting travelers.

After the immigration office there were about 3 or 4 more stops before we were legally in Costa Rica.  Still complicated but at least we did it alone this time!

Nicaragua Border: Helped or Hustled?

In my last post I mentioned that we unexpectedly stayed an extra night in Honduras because we couldn’t make it to the border in time to pass through during daylight hours. We had heard and read that the Nicaraguan border is difficult to navigate and since we weren’t on a tour bus or an international bus, passing through the border in the light of day seemed like a sensible decision even though the Guasale entry point is open 24 hours. In retrospect, our decision was absolutely the right one.

Given our dislike of early morning for anything, we were pretty pleased to be walking to the bus by 7am. This bus was an old 20 seat shuttle (of course this meant there were about 30 people on board) with torn and broken seats but it got us to our destination without incident. On the way to the bus station we didn’t pass any restaurants or bakeries, so we trusted the locals to supply food for our ride, and they did. Soon after we boarded a young woman was one of many who came on the bus. A bag of 10 of yesterday’s bananas for 25 cents was just right for the trip with a few left over – we left them on a park bench.

The early morning air was pleasant, possibly even cool, for the one hour ride to “La Frontera” or the border. Before the bus came to a stop at it’s endpoint, a guy pushed open my bus window, popped his head in and scared the $x!t out of me. He and about 5 or 6 other “guides” were poking their heads in the window telling me how well they speak English and how they could help Kevin and me cross the border without problems. They each showed their picture ID so we would know they were legitimate – whatever that means. We kindly told them we would walk through with our backpacks. “Oh no, señor. It is 3 km.” Before we were off the bus one of the guys had already spotted Kevin’s backpack, taken it from the bus and tucked it under the seat of his pedicab. He was sealing the deal to be our personal guide and he wasn’t taking “no” for an answer. After all we were the only “Gringos” on this bus and there were dozens of other guides in the waiting. “There is no charge for the guide service, we just work for a tip.” We had signed on by nature of the fact that by now both of our backpacks were in the pedicab. We hopped in for the ride, not really knowing what had just occurred. And by now our guide’s buddy had joined him so we each had our own pedicab.

I need to divert for a minute to comment on the 3 km border. Having gone through a good number of immigration points in my life, it seemed illogical, maybe not true. Usually one needs to stop at the patrol for the departing country and then go to another building within eyesight to gain approval to be allowed admission to the arrival country.

Honduras Departure:

The pedicab trip began by riding past dozens and dozens of semi trucks and some cars in a very long line, waiting to pass through the border, while being approached by men with huge wads of money who wanted to “help” us by exchanging money for us. The claim was that their rate was “better” than the money changers on the Nicaraguan side. Refuting their claims, our guides said they would tell us when we met up with the money changers who were legitimate (i.e. their buddies) and would give us a good rate.

There were no directional signs to tell us where to go. Our guides wove in, out and around the semi’s and finally got us to the Honduras departure line where dozens of locals were completing paperwork. The guides watched our luggage while we were approved for departure. The process took only a few minutes.

Arrival in Nicaragua:

We hopped back into our pedicabs and rode about another km, again there were no signs or directions. On the way our guides said that the entry fee would be $12 US. This was good to know since our tour book said $7 and there was no posting as in most countries. The posting of entry fees may not be necessary but it certainly makes one feel like the assessment is legitimate. We will never know if $12 was the real number or if the money just lined the pockets of the border patrol. In recent days we talked to two guys who paid $15, so maybe we got the blue light special.

When we got to the Nicaragua border patrol, one of the guides again watched our bags and the other took us in through what seemed to be a back door. He stayed right with us and seemed to keep an eye on how much cash we had. Since we hadn’t been using US currency we had to dig to get it and we had a side discussion before pooling our remaining dollars to come up with $24 for the border tax. What we didn’t know is that our guide watched carefully to see how much money we had – interestingly that in about 10 minutes, that was the amount he would strongly suggest for a tip.

We again got into the pedicabs for the third leg of the journey, passing through one more checkpoint, Our guides smiled at and greeted the patrol who waved us through. Finally we were in Nicaragua. The guides waved down a bus to Leon. As we were trying to get on the bus the guides were continuing to negotiate for a larger tip, even specifying that I had eight more dollars in my change purse.

We got in the bus rode away, reflecting on this surreal experience. It was 9:30 am and we were exhausted from being helped and hustled; and more than ready to move on.

There’s no Starving on a Bus Ride in Honduras

By American standards, driving 120 Km north in order to go 50 Km east seems a little crazy.  However with the short supply of good roads coupled with the mountains (I guess there is probably a relationship between these two factors), that is just how it is in Central America and specifcally Honduras.

Essentially our plan was to only visit Copan to see the ruins, however it is on the western border, and in order to get to Nicaragua, there really is no direct or easy route.  So we took the long road, which got a little longer than we anticipated.  This was also the trip where we made the transition from ¨traveler¨ style buses to local buses, because in Honduras there is an option besides using Chicken Buses.

We thought our trip from Copan to San Pedro Sula in N. Honduras would be a quick ride as it was only 125 Km.  In fact this last traveler bus was pretty posh with lay back seats and airplane-style service.  They checked and recorded our passports and even took our photos before boarding the bus.  For a trip of about 80 miles, I was sure we would make it in 2 hours on our executive style bus.  Oops, I forgot about the mountains.  Three and a half hours we rolled into a bus mall in San Pedro Sula where we made our first mistake.

We searched for a bus to go south toward Lake Jogua (on the road to the capitol city of Tegucigulpa) before going to an ATM to get some cash.  OK, so maybe we forgot.  At any rate we found out where the bus was loading to go south and a nice gentleman whisked us on the mini-bus (like the type of bus which shuttles you from an airport to the parking lot) which soon took off.  The temperature is above 95 and this bus is from about 1970 which means the air has not worked since 1973.  We were never so happy as to start moving so the hot air could blow in our faces.

We were starved as we only had a little travel food like crackers and cookies, but the good news is that you will never starve on a bus in Honduras or Nicaragua.  From the time passengers started loading on the bus and until we arrived at our destination, there was a steady stream of entrepreneurs with food or drink in hand.  They hop on the bus at one stop, sell their wares and get off at the next stop.  During our 2 hour ride, I am sure that no less than 30 venders got on the bus, selling everything from small bags of ice cold water, soda, cookies, coconut milk or cut fruit in small bags, plums, tomatoes, home-made cookies, sandwiches, chiclets, candy suckers, donuts, fried pork rind, coconut nests (i.e. cookies)  and probably some items I don’t yet know the name of.

Since this was a public bus, we weren’t quite sure of where to stop near Lake Jogua, however several very kind Hondurans were eager to help us and it seemed that they were looking out for us.  One woman struggled to tell us where to get off as there was a hotel right at the stop.  Decision made.  We got off at the stop right next to Chalet de Laguna, which is on the very pretty Lake Jogua.  This hotel, however is part of what looks like a resort and convention center – not exactly the type of place we have been bedding down.  This was a resort only with no town within about 5 Km and for sure no taxi service.

The woman at the reception desk showed us a beautiful room for $80.  Very nice, but we asked for something less expensive.  She then showed us a cabin for $40.  We agreed to take it and when we went to pay, we remembered that we hadn’t gone to an ATM.   When we asked her for the location of the nearest one, her expression was priceless.  This wasn’t ATM country. In fact the nearest one was probably 80 Km away in San Pedro Sula.  Oh, yes, the VISA card, which we haven’t used to date but it worked for the night.

The next morning we stood at the side of the road in front of the Chalet and got on a public bus to Tegucigulpa and on south.  This one was an old tour bus with tired seat coverings and much more, but it got us there.  The stream of vendors continued, even though the bus made a mid-trip food stop.

Tegucigulpa to the Nicaraguan Border

Once in the capital city, we quickly found a bus that would take us to the Nicaraguan Border however there was a little time to transfer which meant no time for an ATM but the buses are cheap.  Our goal was to get to Choluteca which is about 45 minutes from the border.  There we would need to get another bus.  However about 15 minutes into the ride with another old tour bus packed with passengers,  we stopped at a gas station and the driver disappeared.  About 30 minutes later he reappeared with grease up to his elbows.  There was no explanation but we needed to wait for the next bus which meant we had to stay in Choluteca, Honduras and we missed the opportunity to cross the border.  Oh, and there was an ATM in Choluteca!

Copan Ruins and a Quick Trip through Honduras

From Guatemala to Honduras

In one day we made the 400 Km. trip from Quetzeltenango, Guatemala to Antigua and then on to Copan, Honduras by way of a shuttle bus.  The ride was boring – sometimes the roads were good.  That means not bumpy or full of pot holes and not riding on steep winding roads.  I guess the roads were bumpy enough, as my bag and one other continued to fall off the roof of the minivan.  Finally one of the other travelers offered up a piece of rope so the driver had enough to adequately secure all of the bags.

One of our general rules is to not get into a town after dark but on this trip we weren´t able to accomplish this as we thought/were told the second leg of the trip was 4 or 5 hours and it was 7+.  The good news is that the trip through the border couldn´t have been easier.

Upon arrival in Copan or Copan Ruinas, a town of about 6,000, the bus driver kindly dropped us off in front of a hotel (likely a friend or connection?) which just happened to have rooms and they had a restaurant of sorts.    As soon as our minibus slowed down,  about 5 members of the hotel family were offering us a room and boasting the wonderful accomodations, hot showers, hammocks, etc.  Tired from a day of travel and not being familiar with the town, we were pleased for the offer, and at a price of $15.00.  That is until Kevin was sound asleep and I couldn´t sleep because it sounded like street traffic was coming right through our room.  Exhausted from not sleeping, by morning I couldn´t wait to hop into the shower.  It was warm for about 5 seconds and then turned ice-cold.  We found a new hotel.

Copan Ruins

Not having heard much from fellow travelers about these Mayan Ruins, we weren´t expecting to be awed.  Most of this Mayan city has not been excavated but what is there is spectacular.  The beautiful hieroglyphics and estrellas are amazing.  Here are a few photos to whet your appetite for this ancient site.

The rest of our short visit to Honduras was quite an adventure and is worthy of a separate post.  Stay tuned.