Friday 14th November 2008
10 days after we moved from “Timbers” to Lansdowne Court, we set off for our tour of 5 Central American countries with “Explore”.
A Devizes taxi collected us at 2.00 p.m. and we had a pretty speedy journey to the Crowne Plaza hotel near Heathrow where we had pre-booked a room.
Saturday 15th November (Day 1)
We had been told by the tour company that we should report to the airport at 3.20 a.m. for our 6.20 flight and, although Keren had said repeatedly that there would be no check-in staff there, we felt we must do as we were instructed. She was, of course, correct and all travellers with “Explore” were kept standing waiting until the airport staff arrived more than an hour after we did!
We flew with Iberia via Madrid and on the first leg of the journey found that no food or drink was included and that it had to be purchased from the cabin staff. We weren’t too impressed as we had not been told about this in advance.
We had a long wait on the aircraft on the tarmac after landing at Madrid and then eventually a bus arrived to take us a long convoluted route to the terminal from which we would fly on to Guatemala. Then, when we went to board the flight, we were all kept standing on the transit bridge for many minutes with no explanation. Finally we were sent back to the Departure Lounge and when we pressed for a reason were told it was not permitted to give loud speaker announcements but that we had to wait for an aircraft to come in from Barcelona so that passengers could make their connection with our flight. Eventually we took off approximately an hour late for Guatemala.
When we arrived, we needed to leave the aircraft – going into the terminal with temporary boarding passes to reboard some 30 minutes later. By now, we had met Helle, another member of our Explore group who had once lived in Bradford on Avon. We chatted to her across the aisle during some of this final 2 hour flight to Panama City.
Sunday 16th November (Day 2)
Finally we arrived at our destination – getting to the baggage carousel at 2.30 a.m. English time – a full 24 hours after we had got up to get to Heathrow. We had in fact made up the time we had lost and got in on schedule.
At the terminal we were met by Jackie, our English Explore team leader and she guided us onto the charter bus which would take us to our hotel – in a somewhat rundown area of Panama City. The bus journey took us about 30 minutes and, finally, we fell exhaustedly and gratefully into bed. We had now come to the end of Saturday night after more than 24 hours of travel – we could have reached Australia in a similar amount of time!
After our much needed sleep, we needed to be in the hotel foyer to leave for a city walk at 9.00 a.m. We were met there not only by Jackie but also by our local guide – Estella. A short drive took us to the old quarter, an eclectic mix of smartly renovated colonial buildings and those which were in severe states of dilapidation. The whole area is low rise, being no more than four or five stories high. This is in sharp contrast to the high rise and modern centre of the new city. Panama, independent since only 31st December 1999, has growing wealth based on canal fees (£4 million a day) and tourism which accounts for about 45% of GDP. There is contrasting wealth and poverty although what we saw was not as extreme as we have seen in some countries.
We were greeted by the sight of a school band assembled for special Independence celebrations, this weekend being a long holiday. Nearby was a short but high section of the old city wall.
Our walk included a visit to the cathedral and another church. At the latter we encountered a few girls in traditional costume and our guide kindly arranged for one to pose for us for photographs.
After a walk by the presidential palace (with grey herons) we went for lunch before an afternoon visit to the Panama Canal. We were able to watch one large passenger liner pass through Miraflores Lock before we visited the Canal Museum and a short video on the building of the canal. Torrential rain and lightening meant that all visitors were instructed to go inside and downstairs and we then left for our hotel arriving there shortly after 4.00 p.m.
In the evening we went for a group meal to the Greenhouse Restaurant, travelling there and back by taxi.
Monday 17th November (Day 3)
We had to be ready to leave the hotel, with our luggage, at 8.45 a.m. and minibuses were waiting to take us to the Bus Station. We were not too sorry to be checking out of the hotel as it was somewhat basic although it did have an ensuite bathroom. It was also clean. Of course, at this stage, we do not know what lies in store for us at our other destinations!
We travelled to the outskirts of the city, passing extremely large houses – often in gated compounds. At last we arrived at the Bus Station where Jill was delighted to find a free wireless hotspot. We finally left at 10.20 a.m. on the long journey to David stopping for lunch at a service station enroute – and being allowed just 25 minutes before we set off again. The air-conditioning failed and the road deteriorated somewhat with many potholes having to be negotiated at one point. We also encountered the customary afternoon rain meaning that windows – opened to create a much needed breeze – had to be closed again.
After we reached David, we transferred to a charter bus and our luggage was passed through the back window in the same way that it had in Panama City. On this occasion though, the driver’s helper lifted it for us and passed it inside to the driver. This was good because it was too heavy for Jill to lift and heavier than Adrian should have been lifting.
We drove onward and upward through Parmoro scenery with vegetation becoming more sparse. The rain was absolutely torrential and we were unable to see the dormant volcano for which the area is famous. We were making for Boquete where we were to stay for one night. Apparently many American retirees live there as the temperature is always cool – never too hot and never too cold. We noticed that there was much signage in English which is probably due to the presence of so many English speakers. Boquete is apparently the fourth most popular place for people to retire to in the world!
The thing that struck us immediately was the fact that the ground was dry and it obviously had not been raining recently.
We were staying in what was once probably a fairly nice hotel but it had gone to seed rather. In our room were two single beds and one double bed and there was a very basic ensuite bathroom – yet again there was no hot water.
In the evening we went out
for a group meal to “The Macchu Picchu” Peruvian restaurant. It was nice
but there was a weird serving regime whereby, although all 17 of us were
seated at one table, Adrian and I received our food some half an hour before
everyone else. As a result, I really didn’t enjoy mine as I felt most
awkward that we were singled out to be served. At the end of the meal, we
all had to wait varying amounts of time for our bills. However it was, in
the main, a very pleasant evening.
Tuesday 18th November (Day 4)
After a fairly reasonable breakfast for just over $4, we had opted to go on a tour of a local coffee plantation with comprehensive explanation of the whole process of growing coffee. It turned out to be extremely interesting with a fascinating talk by an indigenous guy called Carlos who had an amazing command of English. We certainly learned a lot and the tour finished with a free cup of coffee and the presentation of a free jute bag with coffee and other bits and pieces.
The nine of us who had gone on this tour (other options having been a local walk or simply some free time) were picked up by the hired mini bus which had already been loaded with our luggage. We then all set off for Almirante Port where we waited in the rain for a ferry to Bocas del Toro – an island set in the Caribbean waters off Panama’s coast.
Our hotel room there wasn’t at all bad and, what was more, there was even hot water! After settling in for about an hour we met at the nearby Hotel Lima on the seafront where we had a group meal. The food was excellent and there was also a free hotspot which was much appreciated.
We returned to bed at a fairly reasonable time but at around midnight, when we were nearly asleep, found our bed and the whole room shaking violently and did not know what it was – in the morning we discovered that it had been quite a strong earthquake and that those in a local bar had seen the lights swaying and the bar staff quite frightened.
Wednesday 19th November (Day 5)
Throughout the night, after the earthquake, we were conscious whenever we woke that the rain was unrelentless and torrential. By the time that we got up in the morning, it was to find part of our hotel flooded and to discover that we were marooned since the road was underwater on our side of the street. We took the easy way out and ate breakfast at the hotel, then we rolled up our trousers, took off our shoes and waded through the flood waters to go back to Hotel Limbo. Helle came with us and she bought some plastic shoes in the supermarket opposite.
Once at the hotel we joined up with several of the others and sat drinking coffee on the pontoon in the rain. Jill uploaded all her photos to Picasaweb and many of us tried, with varying degrees of success, to take photos of the humming birds that hovered around the specially provided feeders which hung nearby.
We stayed there for lunch as well and then Adrian and I went for a walk with Helle around some of the local area. Adrian bought a black polo shirt and Jill a rather too large poncho before the rain came down again and we decided to capitulate and return to our hotel – arranging to meet Helle for a meal at 7.00 p.m. Once back in our room, Adrian decided to have a sleep and Jill made up the diary before doing some reading.
In the evening we returned to the same restaurant (Hotel Limbo) for another meal. The restaurant like all other buildings on the road projected a low platform a few inches above the sea. Despite the bad weather it seems the waves never become very high, which is just as well!
Thursday 20th November (Day 6)
Overnight it again rained very heavily and continually. We thought we would again have to wade through a stream at the road edge to leave the hotel but it was only one or two steps in the water and then a walk along very wet roads to the ferry. The boat was very modern although small. The bow rose well out of the water and the boat went at high speed for the half hour journey back to the mainland, bouncing from wave top to wave top.
Then another mini-bus for a little under a couple of hours to the border with Costa Rica. Now that was an experience! Everything was run down. We climbed steps with our luggage and queued at the little cubby hole to be recorded out of Panama. Then we walked over a long, narrow, dilapidated wooden bridge to Costa Rica. The bridge ha rails down the middle but we saw no trains! However, part way across we had to squeeze ourselves against the railing above the large fast flowing river in order to allow a large lorry to edge its way past us as it travelled in the other direction.
A little form filling on the other side (what happens to all those forms so beloved of immigration?) and we were on our way into Costa Rica. Another mini-bus and another 2 hours before lunch.
The countryside was not very different at first being tropical rain forest with small houses scattered along the edge of the road. The traditional houses were of wood – much like a shed or summer house but with perhaps a little larger. Usually they are on stilts and we could see why. With the heavy rain they are often surrounded by water which lies on the saturated ground. They lack any glass windows and are roofed in palm leaf thatch or corrugated iron. The homes built more recently or by the more wealthy follow a similar pattern but in concrete.
(The diary continues as a separate document under the title of “Costa Rica”.)