Sunday, July 12, 2009

Trip to Central America, Days 4-5: Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

The reggae-filled and stoned smiles of Puerto Viejo tell it all.

This is a rastafarian-like paradise, or at least for many travellers visiting this small town on Costa Rica's Carribean coast just an hour's drive north of the Panamanian border at Sixaola.

The hedonistic mood is hard to describe. It is similar to the one in Bocas del Toro, yet whereas Bocas offers a flashier nightlife and more diverse options thanks to it being an archipeligo, Puerto Viejo offers a more relaxed vacation it seems: just kicking back and enjoying it all, in any style, is the name of the game here.

The one thing that is hard to fathom--and what I have mentioned before--is that no matter what people say, Costa Rica seems to be overpriced. It offers the same attractions, generally speaking, as Panama, minus the canal plus a more hilly geography and a tad bit more tropical climate. Yet the country is poorer, resulting in a lower quality of life and level of development. However, what surprises me are the prices, which, for many things, are double those of Panama and almost on par with prices for comparative goods and services in the U.S.

Thus, I cannot say that Costa Rica is overrated. Not by a longshot. However, most likely due to the fact that its government was the first in the region to open up the country to mass tourism, its seems overpriced. Again, for about 50% less money, one can get a very similar vacation in Panama.

Well, almost the same. The women in Panama are definitely not as attractive as in Costa Rica. That's for sure.

Trip to Central America, Days 2-4: Bocas del Toro, Panama

The islands of Bocas del Toro are a must for anyone visiting Panama. Located about an hour's drive and a short ferry ride (in the reverse order, of course) from the border with Costa Rica in the country's north, Bocas defines the future of Panama.

Tourists--mainly backpackers--are to be seen everywhere, yet in lower numbers than in neighboring Costa Rica. Likewise, hostels have been sprouting up on every street corner and in between. Restaurants, gift shops, and surfboard-cum-bicycle rental shops are everywhere, too.

However, what makes Bocas so interesting is its small, compact size yet relative wealth of options. One can take a water taxi to a different island, such as Bastimentos. The sub-tropical climate is great, although Panama's rainy reason is a very long one, lasting nearly 9 months. That, though, need not put off potential travelers, for the rain usually comes down in quick downpours, with most of the rainfall occurring during the night and not lasting more than several hours at the most.

Another plus is that Bocas is replete with water taxis, offering to transport tourists to a different island for just a few dollars. Whether it is surfing, snorkelling, tanning on the beach, or just laying back like a sloth and letting the days roll by, Bocas is the place to be.

It's basically a Costa Rica hedonistic experience are half price.

Trip to Central America, Days 1-2: Panama City, Panama

It may be one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Central America, yet it feels like many different cities in one.

Simply put, the contrasts are striking.

The slums of the Old Town (literally Old Compound), Casco Viejo, contrast to the skyscraper replete skyline (a la Dubai). Beggars roam the streets that are dangerous to visit, according to the locals at least, yet Casco Viejo's architectural beauty is hard to overstate. Its multi-colored buildings have a wiff of Cuba's Havana in them.

The city feels busy any day of the week, as Panama's transport hub. Even on a humid Monday, commerce and globalization are in full blast. And the Panama Canal, located on the outskirts of the capital, is an interesting site. Perhaps not as amazing or particularly interesting as it sounds, but it is definitely worth a visit, not least because it's just one of those sites you have to visit, such as the L'ouvre in Paris or the CN Tower in Toronto.

Prices are refreshingly low for a country of relative wealth. Again, the keyword is relative, since, by global standards, Panama is a poor country. Yet its wealth compares favorably to that of its neighbors, Costa Rica to the north and Columbia to the south.

A conglomeration of many different cities into one, Panama City is definitely worth a visit. True, it may not be the world's most interesting place, but this city better than any other in Central America defines the economic future of the region better than any other. That is, if corruption were stifled and more funds began flowing to the right places, but that is a whole different story.