Category Archives: Central America

Antigua, Guatemala – Impressions

Nestled under Volcán de Agua in the Guatemalan highlands is the colonial city of Antigua. The city was once capital of Guatemala but has had a rocky history, literally. In 1717 an earthquake destroyed 3000 buildings, then in 1783 another earthquake decimated more of the city, causing those in power to move the capital to the safer Guatemala City.

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Because of its location Antigua is a hub to explore Guatemala, with Guatemala City only 45km to the east, the port of San Jose on the Pacific coast an hour south and Lago Atitlan to the west. For those keen enough, a long shuttle ride to the famous Mayan ruins of Tikal far to the north of the country can be organised.

Volcán de Agua…

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The streets themselves are cobbled. But not the perfect jigsaw of cobbles seen in some modern streets, instead a crazy mash of rounded stones that make driving on them in Tuk Tuks a bumpy experience. The city is flat, however, so unless you’re carrying a lot of baggage or just lazy, walking is the best way to get around.

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Beyond climbing the volcano it’s the scattered colonial buildings and churches that draw the most interest in the city. While some of the old churches survived the earthquakes…

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… some were not so lucky although still usable.

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Those that didn’t fare so well have been cordoned off and for good reason.

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The city does have a touristy feel about to it and because of this it’s more expensive than other places in Guatemala. Around the central park there are many fine restaurants and bars. And for the first time in Central America, a working fountain!

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Next I head west to San Pedro la Laguna on the shores of Lago Atitlan.

The World Wanderer

León, Nicaragaua – Impressions and Volcano Boarding

León Nicaragua’s second largest city and was at one point the country’s capital. However, in the 1840s and 50s the capital changed back and forth between León and Granada depending on the political regime at the time. Eventually the capital moved to the city of Managua between the two other cities.

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León is similar to Granada in that there’s a large tourist element. While Granada has its central park with a long road of restaurants and bar stretching down to the lake, León bars, restaurants and cafés dot the city, almost hidden among the markets and shops.

The centre point of the city is the cathedral but at present it doesn’t appear well maintained.

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The building is, however, being restored from the roof down. Tourists are able to climb to the newly refurbished rooftop to see the transformation.

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There are several other churches around the city and many are all need of restoration. From the roof of the cathedral there’s a good view across the city and along volcano alley. The shorter dark mound on the left is Nicaragua’s newest volcano and the location of León’s most popular outdoor activity.

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Volcano Boarding
Birthed in the 1850s the small volcano has caused much distress for León, but has also provided the city with a source of tourism – Volcano Boarding.

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The volcano is only 750m high and made primarily from small rocks and black sands. The summit is inaccessible by vehicle, so getting to the top means climbing though the shifting sands with the volcano board on your back and a bag containing overalls, gloves and goggles. The ascent takes only 45 minutes and climbs through the old crater where stains of sulphur surround smouldering rocks.

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From the top there are magnificent views of the surrounding area, including a view to the Pacific coast and along volcano alley.

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We waited for another group to go down slowly before we donned out red overalls and got our 5 minute training lesson. Then our guide waited for us half way down with camera at the ready. One at a time we pushed over the lip and began the slide down, trying not to collect stones as we went. The first part is moderately steep and allows momentum to be built…

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Then about half way down it gets steeper. The quickest time riding on boards is 93 km/h for men and 80 km/h for women. I managed a meagre 60 km/h and even that was exhilarating. The sand dust flowing behind adds a good effect.

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Then at the bottom we are back in the 4WD given a beer and driven back to town.

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Good dirty fun and even though we wore overalls, the dirt and stones get everywhere.

Next, I head north to Guatemala and the colonial city of Antigua.

The World Wanderer

Granada, Nicaragua – Impressions

Situated at the northern end of Lake Nicaragua, the city of Granada claims to be the first city in mainland America settled by Europeans. And while it’s inland and close to the Pacific Ocean it’s still considered a Caribbean port city. This is due to Lake Nicaragua being accessible from the Caribbean Sea by the San Juan river, which runs along the Costa Rican. Indeed, this was the path taken by Caribbean pirates on three separate occasions to attack the city.

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Like many Latin American cities, Granada has dual natures. There is the classic touristy area which sees influxes of people from the US during the northern winter months. Then only a couple of blocks from the tourist centre is the poor market quarter with ramshackle stalls lining the streets.

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The tourist area begins in the city’s central square which is a well maintained plaza area two blocks long, with cafe’s at each corner.

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Across from the square is the cathedral.

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Alongside the cathedral there is a long tourist road, with six blocks of bars and restaurants in hope of catching the tourist dollar.

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Because of the road’s length, it’s not uncommon to see a horse-drawn carriage laden with tourists traversing it…

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…past a not so well maintained church…

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…to Córdoba Plaza celebrating the city’s founder…

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…to end at the Lake Nicaragua where ferries leave for Isla de Ometepe twice a week.

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A visit to Granada wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Nicaragua’s most active volcano, Volcán Masaya. While it’s fairly short for a volcano at 600m above sea level, it’s one of 19 volcanoes that make up Nicaragua’s volcano alley. Volcán Masaya weeps acrid smoke constantly from its crater.

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The land around the volcano shows plentiful signs of the devastation it has caused over the years. Around the main crater there are four other craters that were once active, but have since closed over.

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Often a trip to the crater at night gives the sight of glowing lava in the crater, but with the lack of wind at sundown, the fumes made it too dangerous to get close enough. Nearby there is, however, a large lava tunnel over 200 metres long which is now inhabited by several varieties of bats.

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With about twenty of us walking into the caves the bats get stirred and you can see them flying about and whipping past your ears. It’s exhilarating for those of us who love bats, but terrifying for those that who don’t.

This is but a small section of things that can be done in and about Granada.

Next I’m off to the city of Léon in northern Nicaragua to slide down the black sands of a volcano on a snowboard…

The World Wanderer

Volcán Concepción, Nicaragua

The towering cone of Volcán Concepción on Isla Ometepe looks imposing when crossing Lake Nicaragua towards it. The closer the perspective, the more intimidating the peak, which usually has a cap of cloud atop it…

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But on the rare occasion when the clouds do disappear the full cone is visible in all it’s splendour. This was how it was the day before we were due to climb it.

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When looking to climb one of the two volcanos on Isla de Ometepe, I’d decided on Volcán Maderas, Volcán Concepción’s little sister. I was told that both volcanoes take the same amount of time to climb, but Volcán Maderas was muddier and less fun. So, eight of us from the hostel booked Volcán Concepción instead. We hoped for another beautifully clear day but we were to have no such luck.

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We met our guide during breakfast in the town of Moyogalpa and caught a chicken bus for 20 minutes to the trailhead where we began walking along the trail strewn with rocks and sand.

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We followed the track for 30 minutes, stopping to peer up at a group of Howler Monkey’s in the trees. It’s amazing how much noise these small monkeys actually make.

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The trail abruptly became steeper and our climb began. The trail began fairly steeply through the trees on roots and dirt steps. While the climb wasn’t overly hard, it seemed harder because of the humidity. We stopped regularly for 5-minute breaks, although there were no views available through the trees.

The only forewarning we had of coming to the tree line was the cool wind, a godsend in the humidity. When we did break the tree line we emerged into the clouds which again obscured our view. We stopped in a windy spot to decide our next course of action and managed to get a cloudy shot of the island below us.

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Then came the difficult decision: continue climbing to the top covered in cloud the entire time with no visibility or head down to a more scenic viewpoint. We decided to climb a little further but after ten minutes and being battered by cold winds in the dense clouds we turned back, deciding to take the scenic path instead. This upset two of the climbers, both of whom wanted to get to the top no matter what.

We followed a thin trail around the side of the volcano and dropped below the cloud line to a point where we could finally get some decent photographs of the island below and the lake around it.

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We continued climbing around to a large crack running down the volcano where lava had flowed years earlier. We took a break on the hardened lava.

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The lower we climbed, the more the mainland of Nicaragua could be seen on the other side of the lake and beyond that in the distance, the Pacific Ocean.

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As we neared the bottom, we looked back up the great crack in the side of the mountain.

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And because we hadn’t come back down the same way we’d climbed, we had to walk ninety minutes back across the island to Moyogalpa.

Overall, the hike was not as difficult as expected, although it may have grown more so had we pushed on through the clouds to the top. I’m not unhappy to not have made it to the top, as without pictures it would have been an empty victory.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua – Adventures by Scooter

Lake Cocibolca (also known as Lake Nicaragua) is the 19th largest lake in the world taking up about 7% of the country’s land mass.

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Easily visible from the lake’s western shore, the largest island on the lake, Isla de Ometepe, is home to two volcanic cones, Concepción and Maderas. It’s these two volcanoes that bring much of the tourism to the island.

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There are several ways to get around this 31km long island: by bus, bicycle, scooter, dirt bike or quad bike. While the bus doesn’t go very often, the bicycles can be rough on the hills, the dirt bike requires a prior riding history and the quad bikes were expensive, my friend from the hostel and I chose the scooters.

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After picking up the scooters we decided to ride to the end of every paved road on the island before going to any of the attractions. It’s exhilarating riding down hills at a top speed of 90km/h with the wind flowing madly past, then screaming to halt at the many speed humps across the island, some taking us by surprise as they were unpainted. With the threat of having to pay for any damages, including scratches, we were overly careful.

As we rounded the island we stopped to take in the view of Volcán Maderas still covered in clouds.

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It took only 90 minutes to ride all of the paved roads. The first of the island’s attractions was windblown Santo Domingo Beach with a kite surfer and a cloud drowned Volcán Concepción in the background.

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Next we stopped for a swim at Ojo de Agua – Eye of Water, a natural spring pool on the flat area between the two volcanoes. While the water wasn’t as warm as expected, it wasn’t too cold either. Great for a swim on a warm day!

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As we rode, the clouds cleared completely from the volcanos for the first time in 2 months. Volcán Maderas which last erupted more than 3000 years ago…

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And Volcán Concepción, erupting last in 1986…

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On the way back to town we stopped at the Conservation Park ‘Charco Verde’, and climbed a hill to get a view of Laguna Charco Verde, the largest lake on the island on the lake.

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Then as we walked around the laguna we came across a family of monkeys high in the trees…

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Lastly, we found our way to Punta Jesus Maria for a relaxing beer at the end of a great day.

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After an hour at the beachside, we drove back to town, dropped off the bikes and headed to the hostel for another beer.

There were more places on the island we could have visited, but most were inaccessible to our scooters. These included other beaches, a waterfall, and several other towns. But even though we missed them, we still had a full day and enjoyed the experience.

Next, we climb the cone of Volcán Concepción.

The World Wanderer

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua – Impressions

Thirty kilometres north of the Costa Rican border on the Pacific Coast is the beach town of San Juan del Sur (San Juan of the South). The town is known to tourists as San Juan del Surf because of its proximity to several good surf beaches.

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The oddity of the name is apparent when you realise that San Juan del Norte (San Juan of the North) – situated on the Caribbean Sea, is actually further south.

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For over 130 years San Juan del Sur was a little backwater town in southern Nicaragua, then in 1992 a tsunami destroyed a large portion of the town. Its recovery was helped greatly by the ‘gringo’ invasion, with many migrants arriving from the US, Britain and Canada. Scattered throughout the surrounding hills are many mansions and resorts…

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At the northern end of the cove is the statue of Jesus de la Misericordia – Christ of Mercy.

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It’s one of 17 giant statues of Christ throughout the world. The most famous being Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. La Paz, Bolivia has the tallest at 34m, while San Juan del Sur’s Jesus de la Misericordia is the 9th tallest at 26 metres tall.

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Climbing the hill to the statue is fairly easy, a cobbled road weaves it’s way to the top. While it’s steep at points, it’s not too strenuous and gives great views of the cove and township.

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Beyond surfing and swimming, the nightlife is the other main focus of the town as there are many beachfront restaurants and bars. As a large portion of the tourists visiting are in their 20’s, there are plenty of party hostels with raucous parties raging on until the wee hours most nights. But don’t let that put off the older traveller…

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Overall, the beach town of San Juan del Sur is a great way to spend a couple of days, the surf town vibe is relaxing and fun.

Next, I head to Isla Ometepe, an island made up of twin volcanos in on Lake Nicaragua.

The World Wanderer

Costa Rica – Adventures

With an official end date to my Latin American adventures quickly approaching I’ve had to make some hard decisions. One of these was to only spend a week in Costa Rica, this being on the basis that it’s the most expensive country in Central America.

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From David in Panama, I caught a bus to Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose. The bus ride was around eight hours including the border crossing, which wasn’t as stressful as I was led to believe. Like Panama, when entering the country ‘proof of exit’ is required. This time I had a fake booking set up but was not asked for it.

San Jose isn’t as influenced by the US as Panama City is, and since my plan was to stay in the city only two nights I didn’t spend a lot of time exploring the city beyond finding a restaurant and a supermarket. This still took me past a municipal building.

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Soon after arriving, I arranged for a full day tour to see as much as I could in the short time I was here. I confirmed the time of pick up and was prepared for the early start. The next morning the tour operator arrived 30 minutes early and when I wasn’t ready, left without me. This led me to wonder if I’d heard the wrong time. When the staff member at the hostel arrived for the morning, he confirmed that I had been correct and set about getting my money back. He booked me on another tour for the following day, a cheaper one, with the difference in price covering the cost of another night in the hostel.

The next morning the tour operator arrived at the correct time and we were off. First stop was the ruins of the Temple of the Santiago Apostle Parish. The building of the temple began in 1870 but stalled after an earthquake destroyed part of it. Building again began several years later but again stalled because of another earthquake. This happened several times over the course of 40 years until in 1910 when it was decreed that God didn’t wish the temple built and construction was abandoned.

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Our next stop was Volcán Irazú, the tallest active volcano in Costa Rica. As we drove to the top, the cone was shrouded in clouds so it was unclear if we’d be able to see much. At the top the crater was barely visible through the mist and we put on rain jackets to save getting wet. Like Volcán Barú in Panama, Volcán Irazú can sometimes give views of both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, but today was not one of those rare days. The clouds cleared enough after 10 minutes and we finally got to see the crater.

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After the volcano visit, the tour headed to a restaurant for breakfast then north across the continental divide to the Caribbean side of the country. After a couple of hours in the bus we stopped at Rio Puerto Veijo and got on a river boat for a 90 minute cruise along the river.

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On the trip we spied plentiful birds, including the rare Red Macaw – which are often poached and sold on the black market for US$30,000 each. We then encountered a lone Iguana sitting in the bushes on the side of the river…

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There were also sightings of a Sloth and its baby asleep in high boughs…

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Then a lone Caiman about the length of my arm. Caimans have no ridges along their backs and are much smaller than their larger cousins…

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We heard several Howler Monkeys, although only caught glimpses in the trees. Then small camouflaged micro-bats on the trunk of a tree and lastly, Crocodiles. This one is about three metres long.

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We then stopped at an animal sanctuary that houses poisonous frogs, an Asper snake and a butterfly conservatory. The poisonous frogs were the most interesting. There were two varieties, one black with luminous green spots about the size of your big toenail, and the other tiny and red about the size of your little fingernail. Their poison was used in blow guns by natives of Latin America. Lunch was a traditional Costa Rican meal but included Iguana, which like crocodile, tastes very like chicken. Then it was a 2 hour bus ride back to the hostel.

The following day, I caught a bus to the northern city of Liberia, a hub of tourism in Costa Rica. Like many Costa Rican cities, it has a more modern church…

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During the couple of days I stayed, I made my way to Playa del Coco – Coco Beach, which is a touristy beach town set on the Pacific Ocean. As much of Costa Rica is tropical, even in winter, I enjoyed a swim in the cool waters of the ocean.

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For my last day in the country, I visited Llanos de Cortez waterfall where myself and three women from the hostel enjoyed swimming. This is just one of the many waterfalls in the area…

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Next I head to the beach town of San Juan del Sur in southern Nicaragua.

The World Wanderer

Volcán Barú, Panama

Barely 37km from the border of Costa Rica is Panama’s tallest mountain, Volcán Barú. At just under 3,500m, it’s still considered high altitude but is really just a molehill compared to 6,000m tall mountains of Andes. Volcán Barú is commonly climbed for the rare possibility of seeing both the Pacific Ocean to the south and the Caribbean sea to the north. It’s rare because the view to the Caribbean is often blocked by a layer of clouds.

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There’s two ways to the top of Volcán Barú, either taking a 4×4 vehicle tour or to hike. The hike is difficult and long at 13km from the trailhead to the peak (with a 1,750 climb in altitude) before 13km back again. What makes it a challenge is most people begin climbing at midnight, aiming to see the sunrise from the summit after walking 6 hours in the dark. Hiking 26km makes for a long day at the best of times, but beginning at midnight makes it just nasty. I even tried to nap in the afternoon, but only managed an hour, which was nowhere near enough.

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Getting to the trail head is fairly easy, with one of the hostels offering transport for US$5. Then after a very short briefing, we were pointed off along a wide track and told to just keep climbing no matter what forks in the trail we see. Except for 3 short descents, the 13km was a steady climb along the wide rocky trail. When you’re hiking at night all you have is your head torch and the ground directly ahead of you to look at.

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We were lucky to be walking under the full moon, so it wasn’t always necessary to use the head lamps. But even in daylight there would be little to see, as there are trees along both sides of the trail. We did come to several locations where we looked down upon the township of Boquete. The lights were beautiful but fleeting and too distant for good photos.

Getting to the summit for sunrise was not my aim, so I took is more slowly. When sunrise did hit, I was still half a kilometre from the summit but was able to watch it, seeing the same view as I would have from the top.

Unfortunately it was around this point where altitude sickness struck. It felt like someone had split my head in half and prodded at the insides with their fingers. As I climbed the last of the trail to the radio tower buildings at the top it grew worse and I started to feel ill.

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The last 500 metres was steeper than the rest and when I made it to the top I found the howling wind rough. I found a secluded spot and put on some warm clothing. When dressed, I looked around the buildings and took photos of the surrounds.

To the south was the city of David and the islands in the Gulf of Chiriqui beyond.

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To the west, Costa Rica.

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On the other side, I discovered the buildings were not at the absolute summit, as there was a rocky outcrop that climbed perhaps 30m higher. To get to the top was a rocky scramble, but with the state of my head and stomach I decided against it. The cross on top is the highest point in the country.

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From the northern side of the summit I was out of luck with seeing the Caribbean sea but instead clouds fading away into the distance.

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While I sat huddled out of the wind, one of the girls from my hostel found me and sat with me while I brewed a cup of tea using my hiking stove.

The walk down was very long but straightforward. The trail descends for most of its length except for three points where it climbs. Half way up the first and longest of the three climbs, my tiredness gave out and I lay down on a large rock for a power nap, letting my friend walk on alone. I woke forty minutes later slightly refreshed and no longer feeling the altitude.

The rest of the walk was more of a stagger although I did manage to catch my friend again. We discovered there were many wild flowers growing along the trail but was too exhausted to take photos beyond this one…

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We passed some of the lookouts and caught daylight glimpse of Boquete…

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We eventually made it to the end of the trail and exhausted, booked a taxi through the ranger before being whisked away back to the hostel for a shower and a well deserved sleep.

Overall, the hike up Volcán Barú was okay. I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t suffered altitude sickness at the end and if we’d started at a more reasonable time. While walking at night was fine – it’s cooler out of the sun and there isn’t much to see anyway – the main difficulty is the length. To make the hike more enjoyable, I would make it a two-day hike, camping just below the summit, climbing to see the sunrise early on morning two before the long walk back again.

The Lone Trail Wanderer.

Boquete, Panama – Impressions.

Nestled in the mountain plains 60km from the border of Costa Rica is the mountain town of Boquete (‘Boc-ket-e’). At 1,200 metres above sea level, the township is cooler than the rest of Panama and this makes it a popular holiday destination for both locals and travellers alike. It’s also one of the leading retirement locations for US citizens outside of the United States.

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Boquete is next to Parque Nacional Volcán Barú and is the primary starting point for those who wish to climb the volcano, the tallest mountain in Panama. The mountains around Boquete contain many short trails but the only real hike is the volcano climb, although it’s not the best of hikes as there’s little to see along its 26km length.

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Every year in mid-January Boquete hosts a flower and coffee festival that runs for ten days. It’s a very popular occasion with people coming from all over the country to party late into the night at the dance hall. Feriado Las Flores y del Cafe – literal translation: Holiday Flowers and Coffee.

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The fiesta is less crowded during the day, which allows better access to see the impressive flower displays.

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There are plenty of things to do in Boquete besides hiking and the festival, these include horse riding, visiting coffee plantations and farms, and the Aguas Calientes – hot springs.

For $2 you can spend all day on the property where several pools have been crudely set up. The crudeness gives it character, and if you get too hot there’s a river nearby to cool off in.

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Overall, Boquete has a vibrant energy about it and is a great place to hide away from Panama’s year round heat.

Next, I cross the border into Costa Rica to the capital of San José.

The World Wanderer

Bocas del Toro, Panama – Impressions

Not far from the Costa Rican border on the north-west Caribbean coast of Panama is Bocas del Toro. Meaning ‘Mouths of the Bull’ in spanish Bocas del Toro is one of Panama’s primary holiday destinations for both locals and travellers alike.

Bocas del Toro refers to many places: first the province, then the archipelago within the province and the provincial capital on Islá Colón, which is also known as Bocas Town. The island is named after Cristóbal Colón, the spanish name for Christopher Colombus, who visited the islands in 1502 looking for a way through to the Pacific.

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Getting to Islá Colón is easy, either catch a 30-minute water taxi across the bay from the town of Almirante or fly in from the Costa Rican capital, San Jose. You can’t miss Bocas Town when crossing the bay as most of the shoreline around the town is utilised by hostels, bars and tour operators.

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The town itself feels very much like you’re in a surfing town. January being high season, the town is bloated with tourists, most of them early to mid-twenties, surfboard clad and heavily tanned.

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I call Panama the 51st state of the US, not only because there are so many americans here or that the US dollar is the currency, but because most people speak english, in a U.S. accent. Bocas del Toro is no different, with its upmarket hostels, shops and eating places, including a fantastic indian restaurant that I just had to visit twice.

While on Islá Colón, one of the easiest way to see the islands is via a sailing tour. They take a group out on a pair of catamarans to several choice spots around the islands.

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This included two different snorkelling spots, which would give me the opportunity to test out my new underwater camera. The first part of our mini cruise was to a bay they have nicknamed Dolphin Bay because of the dolphins that come to play around the boats.

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Then it’s off to the first snorkelling spot. Flippers aren’t really needed as the water is not deep and you float around a coral reef surrounding a mangrove island in a place they call Starfish Bay.

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While there I swam with a pair of jellyfish. Cool to look at under the water, but I wasn’t letting them get too close.

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The water was not the clearest, but at our second spot, there were more coloured fish and I got some shots of the brightly coloured coral.

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There are several beaches on the islands that are well visited by tourists, but at an expensive US$5 to get to the sand, I decided against going.

For the three days I spent on the island, I managed to stay in three different hostels. On arrival, I discovered the hostel I wanted to stay at was full (you can’t prebook online), so I booked in for the next two days and went searching for another hostel. The following day I discovered my booking was no longer there. This time they located another hostel for me and ensured I would get a bed the following night. On the third day I finally got the bed I wanted and spent the day just relaxing on the side of the channel.

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During the midday hours it gets rather hot in Bocas del Toro, even in winter, but all you need do is roll out of the hammock and into the sea to cool down. Then in the evening they set up a band and we rocked out to the sounds of Sublime, Blink 182 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Next, I head back to David for the night, then up to the town of Boquete, a tourist town in the mountains.

The World Wanderer