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The Tail's End; Granada to Panama - News - bespk

The Tail's End; Granada to Panama

Posted on Tuesday, 1st January 2013 by Eunice

We spent five nights in the City of Granada; two in the Hotel Colonial, which is just as it sounds; very nice, but rather dated. With two internal courtyards, each containing a pool it was very tranquil.  The room was very quiet and had a Jacuzzi bath- heaven and just what was needed after the past few days.  We spent the time trying to sort out what to do over Christmas, until finally we found a wonderful travel agent in Costa Rica who came up with some very suitable and slightly less expensive alternatives to our own researches .  The car had to stay out in the road, as there was no garage, so we had to pay a man to watch it overnight.  It also got covered in horse manure and dust, from all the touristy horse drawn carriages that will take you around the city; at a price.  We decided to stay for a further 3 days as we're feeling exhausted and wanted to explore Granada some more, so booked into an alternative hotel (Colon Plaza) just round the corner where they have secure parking and breakfast was included at a lower price.  We also liked the idea that they are a non-profit organisation with all the profits they make go to supporting a local school.

Granada is a fascinating city with many original colonial buildings.  It is said to have been the first city colonised by the Spanish in the 16th century. It is not far from where Christopher Columbus landed on the Caribbean side of the isthmus.  Many of the buildings  are currently being restored.  Most are based around internal courtyards into which most of the rooms face, thereby giving extra security and a sense of tranquillity.  Like all Central American cities, the streets and public areas can be very noisy, with lots of parades, fire crackers, loud music and fun.  Granada has a large tourist population, mainly North Americans and German tourists and this is reflected in the type of restaurants available.  There are however some really good ones, serving authentic Nicaraguan food and fusion cooking.  The main tourist street is full of bars and eateries and runs down to the lake (20th largest in the world). 

From here you can take boat trips out to the numerous islets, see the native monkeys, visit the local people and see their handicrafts. You can also climb the volcano, see the lava and luminescence at night as well as go into a bat cave.   We decided to do none of the above and just enjoyed walking around the town, down to the lake and talking to some of the local people and visiting the market.

We left Granada on the morning of Saturday 22nd December and headed for the border with Costa Rica.  This was about a two hour drive.  We passed several volcanos on our way, and plenty of well cultivated fields.  The livestock here are healthy and well fed, although many still graze along the roadside.  We arrived at the border at about midday, and "the helpers" rapidly found us.  Interestingly they all have identity badges and state their intention to help, but when 'gratis' is mentioned they are not so interested.  The car is a real magnet and it seems some like the kudos of being associated with it.  We were through the Nicaraguan side in half an hour, with all our papers. 
Once in Costa Rica there was a real problem with congestion, but the car was waved through and when we finally stopped to check we were in the right place, we were told we were illegal immigrants and had to go back (no £200) and get our passports stamped.  It had all seem to be too good to be true.

The line for immigration stretched around the building and doubled back on itself. We were to find out sometime later that people had been waiting. over six hours to get through immigration. So Eunice, having decided this was a nonsense, walked through into the immigration office. We were both given a form to fill out, had our passports stamped and then had to process the car.
We were found by a man who could get the car’s papers sorted ‘rapido’ for the cost of $20.  The Costa Rica border must pride itself for making things as complicated as possible; first you have to go to an insurance office to get that sorted, then obtain photocopies of all your documents including the just completed passport stamp from immigration, the insurance and return to an office near the immigration.  Once this is done, return to another office, close to where you started from for police authorization.  All this was finally achieved amidst a tropical downpour the first rain that we have seen in four months - quite refreshing.  Fortunately it didn't last for long and once the sun came out it all quickly dried.

Once through the border we passed a long line of trucks waiting to cross the border and causing a 3 or 4 mile long hazard; as like us the cars heading towards the border overtake them.  The area next to the road had become a skid pan with all of the rain, so Guy was very reluctant to leave the firmer surface of the road.  Once on the clear highway it became obvious that the countryside is even more tropical and more reminiscent of the Caribbean, with a similar sort of housing.  Costa Rica appears to be a far more wealthy country than the previous Central American neighbours.  It has no army; this having been disbanded in 1946 (?).    What it doesn't have in military checks it makes up for with police and we were stopped three times in three quarters of an hour.  They were charming and wanted to know all about the car and surprisingly even agreed to have their photos taken with it.  The first time this has happened since Mexico.

The roads are not quite as good as they are in Nicaragua, but certainly a big improvement on El Salvador and Honduras.  There was also a very strong wind which made keeping the car on track difficult. After a further two hour drive we arrived at Liberia; where after a detour into the town (Eunice got the directions wrong), we finally managed to find our hotel, located out near the airport on an area which has obviously been developed before the recession struck.  It was very pleasant, if not isolated and the bed was certainly the most comfortable we have slept in for a long time.

In the morning, whilst having breakfast, we had an iguana come to beg for food.  It seemed to appreciate the piece of melon it was given, but Eunice was discouraged from giving it any more (perhaps because the food was from Guy's plate).  We set off at about 10.00 for the drive to Arenal.  It was another windy day, but seemed even worse than yesterday, with the car being buffeted by strong gusts, and dust blown from the side of the highway at times making driving very hazardous.

We turned off the Pan-American Highway and started the long steep climb up the sides of the volcano heading towards Arenal.  The countryside changes rapidly, from pastureland that could be Europe to an area similar to Dartmoor; except the rocks are volcanic.  The road then descends to the shores of the Crater Lake and runs along the side of this.  The area is very touristic and there seems to be a strong German influx here.  We passed a hotel reminiscent of a Swiss Alpine village, and several German bakeries.  At the east end of the lake is a Nature reserve filled with profuse lush jungle vegetation.  It was here we came across a large family of mongoose who were being fed banana by a local man.  Red busy Lizzie's lined the road side and the jungle is full of flowering plants, bananas and bamboo.  You can hear the birds singing in the tree tops, but didn't really have a chance to see them.

As well as being windy; the day was generally wet, as most of the time we were driving through low cloud. This also made the roads quite slippery and after several skids as we went around the corners; a request was made to reduce the speed.  Our destination for the next two nights was a very pleasant large resort, mainly frequented by North Americans escaping the cold for Christmas, and large coach parties.
The accommodation was in bungalows laid out in beautiful tropical gardens; with birds of all shapes and sizes (from the minutest humming birds to beautiful shrikes), most of which seemed undaunted by humans.  There was a natural thermal spring draining into a pool and it was around this that we sat the first evening drinking Mango Dakuries whilst the sun went down.  The resort looks out towards the Arenal volcano, a perfectly conical peak.  Unfortunately during our stay the cloud did not lift for us to witness this amazing sight..

We are now finding being constantly on the move exhausting and so Christmas Eve was a fairly laid back day, whilst we both indulged in private thoughts about missing our friends and families.  It was wonderful to have so many emails from lots of you and thanks also to Guy's sisters who both phoned.  Emotionally this was difficult as despite being in paradise it is the people you are not with who really make the difference. 

After a night of heavy rain clattering on the tin roof of our bungalow, we set off early on Christmas morning for the long 200+ mile drive across to the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.  The day was extremely wet, and despite Eunice's optimism that the rain is over quickly in the Tropics, this was not the case.  We crossed many rivers in full spate.  White water rafting is one of the many sporting activities here. You would have to be very brave to have done this on Christmas Day.  Once we reached the Eastern coast the sun decided to shine, the people and the scenery changed again.

The town of Puerto Limon is a very busy container port for the shipment of tropical fruits, mainly pineapples and bananas.  We had passed several processing factories on our journey.  After this the road turns south and travels along the beautiful coastline which is full of small towns and villages, many of the houses on stilts to keep them out of the flood waters.  The people here have a far darker complexion and are much more Caribbean than those we have seen before.  It is easy to get lost here as the road map we have is fairly useless and there are few road signs.

Eventually we managed to reach our destination for Christmas night.  This was in a jungle retreat, set high up in the rain forest and only reachable in a four wheel vehicle as the road is very steep and rough.  This meant having to leave the yellow peril about 1.5kms away at the bottom of the hill, in a secure parking area.  Guy was not best pleased about this as he felt the car was more than capable of doing the climb and also he needed to do some maintenance on it.  Very tired and grumpy, after a late lunch he retreated to bed for a much needed sleep.  Our accommodation was in a small two storey building set into the jungle, the sleeping area looking out into the tree tops. Toucans fly through the branches, and the howler monkeys serenade you morning and evening with their lion like roars.  There was a hammock on the veranda and it was very pleasant just to lie here and listen to the wilderness.

Sleep in the jungle was easier than anticipated and apart from the tree frogs, the rain beating on the roof and a few other strange noises, we both slept reasonably well, but the previous day had taken its toll on both of us.  Eunice decided to take a walk on the wild side and headed off into the jungle along a couple of the many tracks set out in the resort.  The going was steep, wet and very slippery in places, but it was well worth the effort, as the scenery and wildlife was amazing. 

By the time she returned she was soaked from all the humidity and effort of all the scrambling.  After a much needed shower, the rest of the day was spent quietly reading by the hot tub and talking to some of the other quests, from Europe, North and Central America.   The meals here are all vegetarian and are eaten as a community which is good as it brings people together.  Many of the guests were here on their own, attempting to escape from the pure materialism of Christmas today.  The centre also offers twice daily yoga and transport to and from the beach each day.  The main dining area looks down through the forest to the coast below.  A truly wonderful resort and we would have benefitted from staying longer.

Early on the 27th with our bags repacked, we headed back down the hill for the journey across the Costa Rica/Panama border.  This is a much quieter crossing than the one on the west coast, on the Pan-American Highway and we were grateful for that.  Whilst getting through immigration and the papers sorted for the car we met an Australian couple who have been travelling the world on motorbikes for the last six years. Bill and Trish then quizzed Guy; for his boss was keen to acquire an Austin 7. There was a choice of two; a late mag engine car and an early coil engine car. The details on his iPad. I advised the former over the latter. I wonder if I shall ever hear the outcome. Perhaps best not to? Six months seems a very long time to us; heaven knows how we would cope with six years.

We were out of Costa Rica without any problems and drove over the incredibly scary looking bridge that crosses a wide dark red river into Panama.  We had decided to divide and conquer, Eunice standing in the immigration queue, whilst Guy sorted out the papers for the car.  When she joined it the queue was long and it took over an hour for her to get to the front, but still there was no sign of Guy.   Immigration was abandoned and a search found him held up in the Insurance booth;  where apparently they did not recognize/acknowledge the car, despite having shown him pictures of it on the computer.  Somehow, with our less than adequate Spanish and a request to see her superior officer, the whole situation was rapidly sorted.  We both went back to stand at the end of yet another long immigration line.  Three hours later, and with many rubber stamps on several documents as well as our passports, we were in Panama.  This was something to celebrate: our first border crossing without being "helped".

Unfortunately it was much later in the day than we had anticipated; as well as being hampered by constantly losing our way, (the roads did not appear to go in the same direction as indicated on the map). We drove round the first town after the border several times, heading off in the wrong direction yet again. So we stopped to ask directions and eventually Saint Serendipity appeared in the form of an extremely kind man, who got in his truck and told us to follow him so he could show us the way.  It was a blessing as firstly we would never have found it by ourselves, secondly we would never have been able to follow the directions and thirdly when he had shown us where to go he advised us that it would be better to turn around, stay in the town overnight and set off the following day as the roads were rough and difficult.  We finally reached the town of Changuinola.  Then it started to rain heavily so we knew we had made the only sensible choice.

He had not been joking.  After a night in a clean and basic hotel we felt more up to the challenge.  The road rises and falls with the land, passing small rural settlements where the people live in stilted houses made of wood, with thatched roofs.  They exist on subsistence farming and harvesting bananas and coconuts.  Very few have transport, but there are plenty of taxis and a frequent minibus service.  All of the bus stops have strings from which you can hang your produce whilst you wait.  Through the plentiful vegetation you get the odd glimpse of the archipelago of the Bocas del Toro that lie just off the coast.  

At the town of Rambala a right turn takes you inland and onto the only road that crosses the isthmus.  This has been the most difficult drive to date as the road twists its way up over the central ridge of the country, through many hairpin bends and steep rises where it was necessary to change down into first gear, until we reached the height of 6,867feet and crossed the continental divide.  Due to the steep slopes and heavy rains the road is liable to subsidence and one finds the car plunging into a large dip at a precarious angle, just when you least expect it. 

The area is a designated National Park and it is easy to see why.  There are abundant flowering shrubs, every tree plays host to a myriad of orchids and other saprophytic plants and the ground is covered with Busy Lizzie's and orchids - the most vivid reds and oranges.  Then there are the many waterfalls.  It was a shame that the weather was not better, for the views are no doubt spectacular.

The descent is even more exciting and very shortly after reaching the summit the brakes became so hot that they were useless.  Even Guy, not known for using the brakes on his cars, had decided that in this case it was necessary or we would be plunging off the hillside.  Changing the car into first slowed us down enough to allow them to cool down, but meant that we popped and banged our down the mountain..  Fortunately this is Central America and loud noises are expected.  Part way down was a large crater reservoir from which energy is harnessed and we had driven out of the cloud so were able to see some of the vistas; in the distance the coastline on the west side.  We passed through areas reminiscent of alpine meadows, but where they were growing oranges; the small children selling them along the roadside.

It is difficult to believe that you are in the same country as you reach the Pan-American Highway on the south west side of the country.  Here it very westernized and busy.  As we turned right to go to David, the nearest city, we were stopped by the police, an unpleasantly aggressive character, but as he could not find fault with our papers let us go.  By this time it was nearly four o'clock and the rain was threatening.  We found a pleasant hotel in David, settled in and then went for a walk around the town, stopping at a very nice coffee bar that smelt heavenly.  Well you would expect good coffee here!

After an early night and much needed sleep we were back in the car for the push to get to Panama by New Year’s Eve.  Considering the road is the main arterial route for the country, it is in a dreadful state of repair.  Made out of concrete and with many potholes it made being in the car like riding a bucking bronco.  The traffic density did not help, especially as nearly everyone wanted to drive alongside us for the photo opportunity.  This freaked Guy out as the car is unpredictable about its sense of direction, even on a relatively flat road and one bump could have been catastrophic.  Thoroughly saddle sore we reached the town of Santiago and found the extremely colourful Hacienda Hotel, full of vivid Mexican art work and every room and wall a different colour.  As expected loud music was blaring out, but after the last two days driving we were exhausted and just glad to stop.

On the 30th December we set off for the final leg of the journey in Central America.  From Santiago onwards the road is much better and all dual carriageway, but the traffic more dense.  This made the driving a bit easier, but being very tired the day seemed extremely long and the miles stretched out.  It was difficult not to get irritated by the constant parping of car, bus and truck horns.  Fortunately we had a good supply of travel sweets!

As you head towards the capital city the last vertebral ridges of the central mountains get smaller and head towards the ocean.  In areas it is easy to gauge what the Darien Gap must be like, as the coast is very swampy.  To get into Panama City you have to cross the mouth of the Panama Canal.  This was quite exciting and it certainly is a spectacular sight.  As usual when in a large city and tired we got lost, despite having researched the directions the previous day.  The only resolution was to find a friendly taxi driver who would show us the way to our destination.  We have decided to stay in an apartment for the next few days as we both need to stop, have a break and take stock of the next steps.  This will give us a chance to refresh, enjoy some domestic bliss and make some plans.

It seems very apt that as the year draws to a close we have reached the end of a continent.  Central America has been most challenging in all sorts of ways and feeling outside of one's comfort zone is never pleasant.  On a plus side the majority of people have been extremely kind and helpful, and when you are at your lowest point you often feel better after a night's sleep.  So as the old year draws to a close we want to thank everyone who has helped and supported us.  We have today put a further £425.00 directly into the charities for whom we are fundraising, bringing the total of donations given to us on the road to £800.00 ($1200.00 approx).

Very best wishes to you all for 2013.  

THERE IS A NEW PHOTO ALBUM to accompany the story. (GO to the heading Journey and the photo album lists drop down); ENJOY!

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