May 2004
We are travelling through Central America for a few months including Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama. Our journal is separated by country and while each stands alone they are part of one journey.

From Conception we catch a minibus up the valley through Volcan to Cerro Punta and onto Guadalupe where we stay at a small pleasant lodge looking out to the Volcano. Guadalupe is only a crossroad and Cerro Punta is not much bigger. From Guadalupe we plan a six-hour hike around the base of the volcano across to Boquete, while your packs are transported separately. However, the rain had set in, making the tracks very wet and slippery and while this is a well-marked trail, it didn’t seem like a great idea in the rain, so we catch a bus back down to David and up to Boquete on the other side of the volcano.

Boquete sits in the hills and is a popular tourist destination, it even has a retirement village and golf course, which explains the large number of older Americans wandering around town. It is a nice, cool hillside town with some good restaurants and is also a regular holiday spot for Panamanians.

Panama has some nice countryside and some very attractive immigration and tax rules, which encourages North American, Central and South American migration and business investment. We spent a few days in Boquete taking in the mountain air, restaurants, the scenery, the flora and the fauna.

It’s a one-hour trip from Boquete to David and a long seven-hour from David to Panama City. The bus to Panama was luxurious to what we had experienced in Costa Rica, with plenty of legroom, onboard toilet and coffee machine.

We have a few days in Panama City, so we invest a few extra dollars in some comfortable accommodation. An important activity is a full crossing of the Panama Canal. This can be done with yachties if you handle lines for them, but it is difficult to organise. There is a regular partial crossing each Saturday from Balboa (Panama City) to Gamboa, about four hours and two locks up the Canal. A full transit is available only one Saturday a month. We had already missed it this month, so we do the partial transit. The 6.30 am departure was exciting and there are only a handful of people on the launch, but by lunchtime we have had more than enough and were glad we to get on a bus back to Panama City.

The next day we drive to Portobelo on the Atlantic Coast, the original Spanish trading port for plunder. It still has many of the original fortifications dating back to the 16th century as well as `the Black Christ`, a Catholic statue which they bring out of the Church every October and parade through the town. Every year thousands of Christians visit this tiny town for a weekend of celebrations.

We take another ride to Colon, a grotty and unattractive port town also on the Atlantic, however it is redeemed by being the second largest duty free shopping zone in the world. There are 1,800 stores across 500 acres not including the wholesale only stores, apparently most goods are cheaper here than in their country of origin. The best way to get around with any reasonable chance of finding what you want is to hire a guide for $10, which we did. Stocked up with our goods we leave the duty free area, the guide advises us to unwrap our loot, throw away the wrapping and wear what we have bought. He then asks for an extra $10 explaining this will help the customs officer to go temporarily blind. The blinded official waves us through, we thank our guide and head back to Panama City.

We spent a couple of days in Panama City visiting museums, the historic colonial downtown areas as well as some trips to shopping malls. Taxis have no meters so you just pay them one or two dollars and get out. If they don’t think that’s enough, they yell at you in Spanish, so you give them another 50 cents. We found that the worst thing to do is to ask them the price, because then they know, that you don’t know how the system works, so of course they always double the price.

With hours to go we receive news that our LA -Brisbane leg has been upgraded, great news as we have an eight hour flight from Panama City to LA before we even start the LA-Brisbane leg. It will certainly be more comfortable but unlikely to be as interesting as a Central American bus trip.



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