Last year, I had the privilege of traveling through Central America all the way to Panama! It was one of my husband’s dreams to go to Panama someday — which he was never able to do. So, when the idea struck us (my daughter and I) when we were in Guatemala last year, that we could take a bus trip through Central America and see some of the sights, ending up in Panama, we looked at our finances and decided we wanted, and could even afford, to do so!
After looking at our calendars, we decided we had about two weeks to experience the rest of Central America. We booked hostels along the way, and looked at some possible activities in each location. We planned to spend one to three days in each location along the way, and also some time in Panama. At the end of the trip South, my daughter was flying back to Florida, and I was taking the “express” bus back to Guatemala.
So, with plans in hand, we packed our bags and headed to the bus terminal in Guatemala City. We each traveled with one big suitcase and our computer bags. Most hostels have Wi-Fi available, so we knew we’d be able to continue to look up things to do in each location. Where they don’t have WI-FI, there is usually an internet cafe nearby. We were even able to have a private room in each location, so we weren’t worried about our computers disappearing while we were gone from the hostels exploring the sites.
We enjoyed a variety of activities along the way! One unexpected pleasure was meeting some college students in El Salvador. We were at the bus station, asking where we could find an internet cafe that would have a printer. A couple of students offered to take us to their university, where there were a lot of internet cafes nearby. We ended up spending most of the day with them. They took us to get our paper printed, gave us a brief tour of their university, and even their gorgeous Catholic church, where they volunteered with the youth ministry. For lunch, they took us to Burger King — their choice, not ours, but since they were our hosts, we were NOT going to say no! (We prefer to eat local food when we are traveling.) And by the way, there was a guard in the Burger King parking lot, making sure no one broke into cars to steal either whatever was inside, or the cars themselves — and he was armed! We commented that we were surprised to see so many people armed in Central America — so they arranged to have our pictures taken with the armed guard! After that, they took us shopping for souvenirs at a shopping mall, where we met some of their friends and family members! They informed us that it was good for them to practice their English, which was excellent! All in all, quite a surprising day — unexpected, fun and interesting.
In Nicaragua, we enjoyed going window-shopping at a huge market. Before going there, we had seen some information online about there being all kinds of things for sale there, including tiger cubs (yes, wild cats!). We never say those, but we got through only a fraction of the market, so it is quite possible we were just in the wrong area to see them. However, there were plenty of other things to see! Getting a cab from there was pretty interesting — we were inside the market area when we decided it was time to leave. We found a cab, and asked the driver if he knew how to get to the place we wanted to go next. He said he did, and that he would take us there for a reasonable price (always negotiate a price BEFORE getting into a taxi!), so we climbed in. Because the market is so packed, he bumped into several cars getting out of the market — and obviously this was what was expected! That was an Ah-ha moment, when we understood why all the taxis were so banged up!
While we were in Costa RIca, we enjoyed the opportunity to go up to an active volcano. The round trip was an all-day affair. Besides the volcano itself to see, there were trails to hike, and a souvenir shop. I purchased my drip coffee maker — a gorgeous, light-weight, fold-able unit with a cotton filter. Definitely my favorite way to make coffee — I LOVE the Antigua, Guatemala coffee made in my Costa Rican coffee maker!
On to Panama City, Panama. What a gorgeous city! People had told us it reminded them of Miami, Florida. That is true. But there is also an old part of town which is being refurbished. We stayed in the old part of town. That area was such a mess with all the re-construction, that it was difficult to get around. When the taxi dropped us off, we were several blocks from the hostel, and he told us where he THOUGHT it was — wrong! So our experience there started out as an adventure! But it was definitely worth it! What a beautiful area! And we were very close to the bay, so we ate one evening in a restaurant on the bay, where we could enjoy seeing both the old city and the new city in the distance, along with the bay!
Of course, while we were in Panama, we went to see the Panama Canal — and met up, accidentally, with a woman we had met on the bus. What a delightful day! Her friend that she was visiting, told us a lot about the Canal (there are lots of pictures and information in the observation building at one of the locks) and about Panama, as well. We spent several hours there watching ships of all shapes and sizes going through the locks. I no longer remember how many locks they have to go through to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific (or vice-versa), but the number that sticks in my head is 8 — or that could be because it takes about 8 hours to get across. It is also an expensive endeavor. There are a lot of ships which are too large to go through the locks, so Panama is in the process of building larger locks to allow larger ships to go through. So while watching ships go through the locks, you become aware that there is construction in the distance — but it is too far away to be able to see. Our friends went with us back to the old city, and we enjoyed dinner with them. The next day, we enjoyed hanging around in the old city, exploring and window-shopping.
When we parted ways, my daughter spent the day hiking in a national forest there before catching her flight back to Florida, after making sure I got on the proper bus back home to Guatemala. My bus trip back was exhausting, but fast. On the way back, I rode the express bus, which meant that we didn’t get off the bus for 36 hours, except at border crossings. The bus stopped at various pre-arranged locations to pick up food for their passengers. One was a McDonald’s, another was Burger King, and another was a local (yeah, finally!) restaurant. When we pulled into the hostel/bus station in El Salvador, I had about five hours before the next bus took off for Guatemala City — the last leg of my trip. On the way back home, I was happy to have my kindle with me! They played movies at various times during the trip, but if they were in English, they turned the volume off and just flashed the translations on the screen. If they were in Spanish, they were noisy. So it was interesting to try to figure out what was being said……but it is tiring to always translate! So out came my kindle for relief!
Border crossings both directions were irksome. We had to present travel papers at every stop (passports, bus ticket), and at most stops, they did random luggage inspection. Sometimes, they opened every suitcase. Sometimes, they had dogs to sniff out drugs or other illegal substances. It was a tedious process, especially in the 36-hour trip, because there were a lot of borders! I always preferred to use off-bus facilities where possible, and obviously, most other people (women, at least) did, too. And we apparently were expected to eat at one of the border crossings on the way back, and I didn’t pick up on that — no announcement was made — so I was glad I had carried some food with me that I could eat.
During our trip, we stayed only in hostels or the cheap hotels associated with the bus company. One of the nice things about staying in hostels, is that you meet people from all over the world. And we have at least one thing in common — we like to travel, and we like to travel on a budget! So there are always a lot of questions about what’s good to see and do, and what places you recommend or don’t recommend. And great stories are shared, as well as the not-so-great ones. One caution — ALWAYS have a lock with you so you can lock up your possessions in a locker while you are out of the hostel. All in all, I highly recommend the experience to anyone interested in a little adventure!