March 09, 2016

Backpacking Central America

Words + Photos : Zhanna Jacquier

I couldn’t tell you if the anticipation of a new adventure keeps me awake at night because Trip Advisor and packing gets in the way. This time, however, I managed to get dressed, find a hostel in Casco Viejo and sleep one hour before leaving the house–in that order. I came to life as soon as I laid eyes on the beautiful skyline of Panama City, the first stop on our backpacking tour of Central America

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Panama City, Panama

Upon our arrival, the receptionist at the Magnolia Inn gave us a map, graying out the areas to avoid. We left our bags in a shared room and, map in hand, strolled through the streets searching for our first meal. In a few short minutes I found myself with a chewy octopus salad, wondering how on earth I let myself order it. My adventurous spirit got out of hand for a moment. My husband, Gary, and I grabbed guacamole and tortilla chips from a local grocery store on our way back that night. I learned my lesson and, next time, I’ll ask for recommendations.

Next time, I’m going straight to The Market Place–a semi-permanent food truck, where I’ll I can sink my teeth in a scrumptious fish taco.

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Casco Viejo, Panama City

Casco Viejo, the historic district of Panama City, sits on a small peninsula thirty minutes from the airport. There’s an undeniable contrast between the rich and the poor in Casco Viejo–the city’s ongoing restoration and old traditions bring out the differences. On one end, there are fancy hotels and beautiful restaurants, and on the other, there are squatters, homeless people and stray cats that have been gathering long before the wealthy rebuilt the city.

We came across an old man sitting on a bench with his banjo. He played and mumbled a lovely tune about Panama, but his songs ran short. The more money you drop in the container, the longer he would sing. I could have dumped in a bucket of nickels just to hear him all day.


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The Panamanian Jungle

Gary and I tried to balance the time we spent in cities and nature, but our passion for the outdoors won more often. We took a six-hour bus ride to the Lost & Found Hostel, located deep in the Panamanian jungle. We spent the next few days getting lost in the jungle, following rivers, sharing meals with travelers, waiting for the rain to pass and watching humming birds drink sweet water.

We almost settled on a remote island around Bocas del Toro, as the salty air and worn out hammocks kept us there. Bambuda Lodge has their own Brazilian chefs. With their skills, we didn’t have to leave the island to find food. The only time we left that week was to take a PADI scuba diving class. We spent three days studying and discovering a new world. I can’t tell you how many corals I broke the first day. Don’t worry, I eventually found my buoyancy.

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Costa Rica

Having heard so much about Costa Rica, I was sure we’d spend most of our time there. But after our adventures in Panama, Costa Rica seemed expensive. We stayed away from most of the organized tourist attractions–the zip lining in Santa Elena and group tours in La Fortuna. Instead, we cruised through the hippie town of Puerto Viejo on rented bikes and climbed a twisted tree in Monteverde.

Jumping from hostel to hostel, we collected a few friends who eventually joined us on a couple hikes in La Fortuna. One hike, in particular, was an extremely wet one. The weather looked promising, but turned once we reached the crater at the top of a volcano. The dark clouds quickly covered the sky and the floodgates opened. Mud streams raced down the volcano, washing away our tracks. It felt liberating to walk under the heavy rain–it’s perhaps the only time I truly enjoyed being drenched.

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Nicaragua

Fellow travelers and hostel concierge kept mentioning Ometepe Island throughout our trip. We crossed the border to Nicaragua and traversed the waters without a place to stay in mind. We paid a couple bucks to ride the chicken bus, which is the cheapest way to get around. Chicken buses can be found everywhere in Nicaragua and are school buses, that have been transformed or decorated, and can fit a whole town. In other words, you’re a chicken in a congested cage, on wheels. By the time we arrived on the other side of Volcán Concepción, we wore each other’s sweat.

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Ometepe Island

As a tourist, it’s difficult to get an authentic cultural experience. A few days here and there makes it hard to get anything more than an observation. Ometepe Island was perhaps our first experience where we felt really welcomed by people who gained nothing from us being there. As we walked in the streets, we noticed many people sitting outside with their doors open. Their days seemed long, but stress free. One local man in particular offered to show us around the area. We walked passed the homes of people he knew and stopped to say hello to his older brother, who had monkeys living near his home.

We walked for a good hour through a dense forest where the coffee plants blend with weeds and shrubs. He even brought a natural balm to heal our mosquito bites. He smiled when he explained the process of harvesting coffee. We talked about many things– from ancient trees to the new canal China wants to open. The $50bn project will connect the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean in Nicaragua. It will boost their economy, but people are afraid of the environmental damage it will bring. At the end of the day, we ate with his friends and laughed until it was time to go.

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Granada

We ended our adventure in Granada after a nauseating boat ride from Ometepe Island. The city certainly has its charm –the colonial styled buildings, the colorful doors and the busy streets. I must say what impressed me the most was the hammock shop, Tio Antonio. It’s a non-profit organization that employs the most disadvantaged and disabled. Each hammock is beautifully handcrafted and often custom made, not to mention affordable.

Granada was our final stop in Central America, a short one at that. Two nights seemed hardly enough but we felt that four weeks worth of warm foreign memories was enough to keep us satisfied until next time.

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