From Baja to the Land of Fire #8: Panama City, Panama

8: Panama City, Panama

Tegucigalpa – Leon – Granada – Los Chilles – San Jose – Nicoya – Samara – San Jose – Puerto Viejo – Bocas del Toro – Panama City

29 January 2002

So, very early the next morning at 5:30 I left Tegucigalpa to the Nicaraguan border. After taking two hours to cross the border I was finally in Nicaragua. Several hours and buses later I arrived in Leon late in the afternoon but with enough time to walk around in this hot town. This was a good thing since I wanted to head out to Granada the next day.

Leon is an old colonial town (an old Spanish atmosphere) with the largest (and whitest) cathedral of Central America. Most of the one-story buildings in the center are varied in color, mainly pastels, yellow, green, blue, beige and pink.

One thing I felt quickly was that I felt pretty safe here. I don’t know why exactly, but I did, even when it got dark. So I didn’t have to rush to my hotel like usual once the sun went down. In the evening I went to check my email and during my session I met Arlen, a very nice girl sitting next to me. She was from… no, not Amsterdam again. No, she is a student from Leon itself, a local girl. After our sessions we went to Payitas for a drink and talked for many hours, all in Spanish. You can imagine I was very tired after this effort, although I was very motivated by the opportunity.

She invited me to come with her the next day to a place north of Leon to pick up something. I readily agreed.

So, there I was in the chicken bus the next morning, to an unknown destination, but very relaxed with my local guide. In the first big town, Chinandego, we got out and walked around. This was the town where she was born. This is also the hometown of Flor de Ca�a, a world-famous rum from Nicaragua.

The next bus took us along a terrible road through a dry, bushy flat landscape. We got out in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, but was actually next to a campesino. These are poor villages made of concrete little houses put there by the government. Probably with good intentions.

There we were heartily welcomed by friends of her family from Miami, who had a suitcase with them for her mother. We talked and ate lunch there. There is no running water, and they cook on a grill fueled by wood. Very primitive, and it was also very hot there. That evening we went to see The Princess Diaries at the new cinema. They show all the latest releases, but usually just for one week, in English with Spanish subtitling.

Early the next morning Arlen and I met each other at the bus station, since we were both heading to Managua (I was finally going to Ometepe via Granada). During the bus ride we somehow talked again about the plan that she could travel with me to San Jose, Costa Rica. Arlen had been planning this for some time, and she decided she would do it. We agreed to meet each other at The Bearded Monkey, a backpackers place in Granada, next Sunday.

I decided now not to head to Ometepe that day, but to stay in Granada one night. Well, that evening I started to get really sick, with a high fever, painful joints and muscle aches all over. It was some sort of attack, I didn’t know what.

And I can say that sleeping in a dormitory, like I usually do, with 10 people isn’t much fun when you don’t feel well! I would suggest now, in hindsight, to take a single room right away if you feel a heavy illness coming on. I stayed four nights in the dorm before I was smart enough to get my own room.

Well, the next day everything got worse – and it now included a huge headache. And the next day was even worse, when my headache was traded for a constricting of my throat. This made swallowing difficult and felt like someone was holding a finger down my throat. That evening I was starting to panic. Reading too much in my “Healthy travel book”, I was beginning to think I might have something bad. So I asked for a doctor and he examined me. He thought it was a combination of a flu attack and an inflammation of the throat.

He gave me a recipe with 4 different medicines: one to calm my stomach, some antibiotics, something to bring my fever down and something to control the gagging feeling. The last two had to be injected intramuscular. Which meant two injections in my ass. This was finally done by a medical student from Argentina, one of my fellow backpackers, since the doctor already left!

Even though this night was also terrible, things seemed to get better the next day. The constriction of my throat lessened somewhat. Instead I got a heavy dry cough. I couldn’t stop coughing, couldn’t sleep because of the continuous coughing.

In the meantime I was staying in my own room and Sunday had arrived. Arlen arrived in the afternoon, and she immediately made sure I got a huge glass of hot lemonade with honey. Mmmm, that was delicious, although it didn’t help much against the coughing and I practically kept us awake the whole night. The next day, Monday, we went to a pharmacy and finally bought some cough syrup. This was necessary because early in the afternoon we would start on a long boat trip of 14 hours across Lago Nicaragua, passing Ometepe and finishing in San Carlos.

Well, it was a long boat trip, and beautiful. Seeing the tops of the two volcanoes of Ometepe Island covered in clouds, while a warm red-orange light of the sunset lit up everything from beneath, is one of the highlights of my trip.

It was a very busy boat, and everyone was trying to sleep on any piece of space possible. At 4 o’clock in the morning, Arlen and I arrived in San Carlos, tired but satisfied, until we discovered the immigration office didn’t open until 8 o’clock. Somehow we passed the four hours with three other backpackers and could enter the immigration office, which was no more than an old, dark brown wooden shack. Behind this was a dock where there was a lancha (taxi-boat) to take us through the Rio Frio to Los Chilles, Costa Rica.

Beautiful, lush green riverside with now and then turtles resting on the banks of the river. Somewhere midway, the boat suddenly stopped and the captain wanted to be paid then and there, more than initially agreed upon. Not much choice here, so we all paid.

In Los Chilles we took a hotel and walked around. Not much to see in Los Chilles, but it was very clear that Costa Rica was better off than Nicaragua. The houses looked nicer, no shacks; there was no busy peddling of food and other stuff; the streets were clean. This would be more evident farther into Costa Rica.

Early the next morning we took the bus to San Jose and went to the Hotel Costa Rica Backpackers, where we met up with Nathan, Arlen’s boyfriend. Oh, didn’t I mention this before? You didn’t all think…

That evening the three of us went out for some dancing, and luckily Nathan let me dance a lot with Arlen, who was a very good dancer. Although she made me feel like an absolute beginner, we had a lot of fun.

The next afternoon I finally went to see the movie The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. This is one of my favorite books, and the wonderfully long movie didn’t disappoint me.

The next morning found the three of us drinking coffee in the garden of the hotel, preparing to say our good-byes, since I was going to Playa Samara on the Pacific coast for a couple of days.

Well, when the moment came to finally say goodbye, they told me they were coming with me, as they also wanted some beach and sun.

One six-hour bus trip brought us to Nicoya, the main town of the Nicoya Peninsula, from where we took a one-hour bus trip to Playa Samara the next morning.

We took a rather luxurious apartment near the beach, and I started reading the first Harry Potter book. I just couldn’t resist anymore to know what kind of magic this book really has, so I bought it in San Jose. All we did was rest, eat, relax, read, swim and throw the frisbee around. This last activity made me happy since I had not used it once yet, but had been carrying my frisbee around the whole time.

After two days at the beach we got a bus back to San Jose. After going to see the movie: Los Otros/The Others, we finally said our good-byes, since I was taking the 6 o’clock bus to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca on the Caribbean coast the next morning.