Exchange rate Balbao to Dollar: 1 to 1
After passing through the frontier coming from Ecuador, I took a bus straight to San Jose (10 dollars for a 6 to 7 hour ride). Once arrived in San Jose, I decided to take a walk to my hostel, thinking that the bus station was really quite close to where I wanted to be. The hostel I wanted to stay in was near the Avenidad 10, Calle 21. Since the bus station was Avenidad 11, Calle 16, I thought that it would just be a short stroll of 5 minutes to my hostel.
Turns out that the street numbering in San Jose follows a slightly different logic. The streets with paired number are in the west and the street with unpaired numbers are in the east. The same kind of numbering is applied for the Avenidad. That meant that I was at exactly the opposite part of town. I did not realise this until a LOT later…
Luckily San Jose is not very big (not more than 5 km in length) but the walk took me through some of the worst neighborhoods, with the streets being lined by homeless people. Also the amount of craziness in that part of town seems, from simply walking through it, to have been abnormally high (several different obviously crazy and mentally retarded people spoke to me and helped (?) me to find the right direction). I have understated the danger I was in as this blog was originally written for my parents to read (I saw more than one syringe lying next to bed spreads with blood on it…).
To put not a too fine point to it, the mentally retarded and crazy persons are rejected from society and usually end up homeless. Going through these parts of town showed the real poverty that still exists in Coosta Rica. It also contrasted nicely with the rather posh (for a Central American country) shopping district.
On the other hand, after that walk checking out the prices of Costa Rica, I was quite confident that it would be possible to travel this country with only 20 dollars. I agree it would be hard, but the price levels here are round-about the same as the ones I experienced in Malaysia. It would definitively be worth returning here. The meals are round about 2 to 3 dollars (in the capital city!) when eating the local food, however the accomodation is rather expensive. I paid 13 dollars for the hostel, once I had found it. At the hostel, I also met again a friend that I had met in Guatemala at Lago de Atitlan. I talked to him for a bit but went to bed pretty soon afterwards.
(the next couple of days have been written up 2 weeks after they happened, therefore they will be quite short)
I woke up pretty early and met a really nice Norwegian girl who was still suffering from jetlag. This was the first travel for the girl (whose name I have already forgotten) and therefore I chaperoned her in the morning a bit through the city on the look-out for breakfast. We walked from one side of the city to the city center and there looked for food. San Jose is far removed from being called beautiful place. It is quite an ugly conglomeration of buildings, quite small and very polluted. Basically the typical capital city….
Nothing really special, apart from that it did indeed look better than Guatemala city or Tegucigalpa, much much smaller than either. It takes about an hour to walk from end to end.
Unfortunately, I had to leave pretty early already because I had to catch a bus to Panama. As already said, I had booked this bus beforehand but I doubted that I would have needed. When I arrived at theTica bus terminal, I was relieved to find out that the bus was not full. The bus driver compensated for the lack of customers by cranking up the air-con and turning the bus into a meat locker... On buses with air-con, long trousers as well as a pullover are generally a must.
The border passing was really uninteresting, nothing special happened in the bus.
We arrived at 2 am in the morning in Panama city.
I had met beforehand a guy and a girl from Costa Rica starting on a travel around the world (at least the girl was) so we just shared a cab. As I was to realise over the next day, the taxi fare varies widely between locals (or rather spanish speaking inhabitants of central america) and tourists. What I usually do (I can only pull it off because my spanish is now good enough for simple conversations) is that I say that my parents are currently living in the current city and I am also living in that city. Usually that will give me the normal price. If that is not enough, I inform myself beforehand what the normal price for a taxi is and then, if the taxi driver makes a fuss, I just leave the money on the seat and walk off (remember to take your luggage before paying!!!)
Anyway, we payed three dollars that night to get from the airport to the hostel Luna's castle.
The hostel was completely booked out without any space left so we just slept on the couches. It really wasn't a problem for me. In the morning however, a lot more people had come in and were waiting for a bed in this hostel. The hostel situation in Panama city is catastrophic. The demand goes far beyond the supply and all hostels are usually booked out.
In those cases, it is good to put yourself together with a couple of other people and then to take a room in a hotel. It usually works out cheaper than taking hostels. In the morning, I left with Carolina and Jose (the guy and girl from Costa Rica) to find another accomodation. We had already looked up a couple of hostels that we wanted to check out but got pretty lost after a short while and a police car took us with them and delivered us to the right address. I forgot my bag in that police car and never found it back...
After checking in to a hostel for 8 dollars a person (compared to 13 in a hostel), I went to visit the casco viejo (old and colonial part of Panama city) which absolutely fascinated me with its stark contrast between rich and poor. Some houses were beautifully restored, while houses often right next to them were run-down living quarters while even others were complete ruins. All in all, it is really worth visiting and represents one of the biggest attractions of Panama city.
In the evening, Jose, Carolina and me took a taxi (2 dollars for all) back to the hostel in which we started off (Luna's castle) which incidently has an amazing bar in the cellar.
Panama city is a really rising city. The first time I saw the skyline of Panama I thought that I was in New York. Loads of skycrapers on an isthmus surrounded by the sea. Check out the photos, the skyline looks absolutely fabulous.
Upon a closer look, one remarks that the skyscrapers are all either brand new or currently being built: Panama city is about to become a first world city. The reason for this seems to lie, at least in my opinion, in the revenue generated by the Panama Channel. The Panama Channel is THE driver of the Panamese economy. Although it was built in 1912 and opened in 1914, it was controlled till 2000 by the USA who were running it as a not-for-profit organisation (the USA invested the money to build this channel). When the administration was finally given over to the Panamese (after a couple of bloody revolts against the USA), the government decided to run it in a profit-generating way. Now the maths are easy. Skyscrapers take a long time to build. Most of the skyscrapers of Panama City are in a state indicating that a couple of years of work have already gone in. Guess where the money comes from...
Unfortunately, I have had no time in Panama (only 3 days mostly spent in and around the capital) because I would have liked to check out the truthfulness of a documentary that I saw a couple of years back that indicated that the profit generated by the Panama Channel (they move on average 14000 ships a year, generating billions) is not trickling down to the local population. The profit seems to be trickling down to the population of Panama City at least, which is in my opinion, the most interesting capital city I have been to during my travels. Interestingly, Panama uses the Bolboa as a currrency which has been pegged at exactly 1 dollar (has to do with the Panama Channel), therefore they don't even bother to call their currency the Balboa but rather pay in dollars. The only difference is that the coins have a different drawing at the back. Otherwise they are completely the same. I wonder what happens when the international currency changes from the dollar to another currency...
We left Panama city that day to go to a beach located at about 1 and half hours from the city. We had planned to camp down there (Carolina had a tent). Once we had arrived at the beach, we realised that we had arrived at the wrong part of the beach and started to walk the kilometer or so on the beach. At one point, we had to go a little bit in the water, while on our other side there was a wall. Bad luck happened then, and a monster wave came and engulfed me up to my hair. I was drenched completely. Luckily just beforehand, I had taken my camera out of my pocket and put it into my water resistant rucksack. It survived the day as well as my computer which was in partly watertight bag, protected by a few layers of cloth. Jose and Carolina were less lucky. Jose got his mp3 player wet and Carolina her camera. Both were complete losses.
In the end, we asked a Nicaraguan if we could camp in his yard and the people were absolutely awesome. They allowed us to have a shower at theirs, use the garden for pitching up a tent, and then they had a fiesta with us. It was a really good night. The only drawback was the tent. It was laid out for two people but we slept tight like sardines in there, all three of us.
I really wanted to see the Panama channel while Jose and Carolina weren't that interested, so we separated each other and agreed to meet at the hostel Luna's castle. Getting to the Miraflores locks right next to the city proved very easy and the entrance to the locks was still affordable (5 dollars with student reduction: I managed to pass my PADi scuba diving pass off as a student card) and I had an interesting time seeing the locks in action (look at the photos).
The locks are gigantic, a couple of hundred meters long. Notable is also the fact that two (or three) locks follow each other, each lock descending (or ascending) the ships by a further 8m from sea level. The ships have for a very long time been built to the exact dimensions of the locks, making them Panama channel able.
Currently the Panamese governemnent is building another set of locks, this time bigger ones (which are also more modern and have a water conserving system built that I did not have the time to explore) which allow the current sized boats to pass through, which will even increase the profit generated by the Panama channel.
Anyway, the ships is aligned with tugboats to the entrance of the locks. Four or more diesel locomotives are then hitched up to it, which slowly pull the boat into the locks.
These locomotives move at quiet a slow but still noticeable pace of 20 m a minute (don't quote me on that) until they have drawn the ship fully into the lock. The ship is then lowered the first 8 m until the water level reaches the level of the second lock and is then pulled forward with the locomotives until it fits into the next set of locks. The procedure is then repeated. Noteworthy is also that, although the both sides of the Panama channel have two different sets of locks each, the traffic only goes one way at a time. 12 hours in one direction and 12 hours in the other one.
When I got back into the city, I checked out Luna's castle, but was told that Jose and Carolina had already gone to another hostel. I took a taxi with three other travellers to that other hostel, the taxi driver did not find the hostel and then deposited us at another hostel. In the end, it was as expensive to take a room for four people in quite a nice hotel than to pay for the hostel... Nothing much happened that night still.
I went to the airport that day. At the airport, I was witness to a panamese star (Jassie Cordoba) coming back to Panama for the carnival season and making a fool out of herself dancing stupidly. It was quite interesting to see the teenies shrieking. It was funny especially when the star wanted to have a photo with me, thinking that I had come for her…
The next two weeks were spent back in Germany (my dad bought it with airmiles…). My parents had booked a skiing holidays for all of the family and had offered me a flight back to Germany. For obvious reasons, the details of this trip will not be included in the travelling diary.
Follow the travels in the travel guide to Colombia