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Central America: Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador

Part One

I saved, I planned, I researched, and I ignored every single piece of advice I got (most of it unsolicited- all of it bad). Taking a multi-month solo trip was one of the scariest and most adventurous things I have ever done, and I have never regretted it. Don't get me wrong: I doubted myself pretty seriously as my flight touched down in Panama City and it hit hard that I didn't have a booked ticket back.

As the panic died down and I stepped off that plane, I had another realization. I was free. In a way that I had never been before, I was independent. No time-restraints (only financial ones), nobody to decide my plans but me, no cell phone, and no limits. 

As a woman in America, all you hear about when you tell people that you're going to go travel alone in a foreign country is how dangerous it is. My experience couldn't have been further from that. Keep your head down and your wits about you, and you can handle practically anything. Be conscious of where you are, who you're with, and your surroundings, and you'll most likely avoid nasty situations. 

I visited all seven Central American countries in the spring of 2014 and loved each and every one of them for vastly different reasons. I'll follow up with more in-depth stories about the particular countries and cities, but here is an overview of my adventure. 

1. Panama

Panama, to me, was one of the more diverse countries on my trip. I didn't spend too much time in Panama City, it was winter where I had came from and I wanted to see the Ocean and put on a bikini ASAP. What I did see of Panama City was well kept-up and organized, sometimes with neat signs giving some historical background. Also had ceviche for the first time at a dock downtown and was throughly impressed. I did visit Portobello (history nerd over here), Boquette (and toured a coffee plantation- so interesting and delicious), David, and Bocas del Toro (a party town but I went to a smaller island and loved the secluded caribbean vibes). 

Isla Grande. 

Isla Grande. 

Learning lesson Highlight: Panamanians speak a very fast Spanish with heavy slang use-age and to be honest, I couldn't understand them AT ALL. I had landed with a fair amount of confidence in my Spanish and within a half-day of attempting to navigate Panama alone, it had completely evaporated. I met two girls from Ecuador a couple days into my trip and we were traveling together for a few days when one of them confessed to me that she didn't understand Panamanian Spanish either. I felt instantly relieved and also a little embarrassed that I hadn't asked anybody else if they were having trouble also. I suddenly realized that I wouldn't understand somebody who was speaking English (my native language) with a heavy accent different than mine and lots of slang either - and maybe it wasn't just me. So, I got right back to practicing what Spanish I did know and tried to ignore the 'I must sound so stupid' feeling I had before. 

Panama Canal: There was seriously less than two feet on either side of that big boat. 

2. Costa Rica

The most popular of all the Central American countries with overseas visitors, Costa Rica was the most tourist-y of all the places I went. It would have been a relaxing pitstop in the middle of the trip, but I was only a few weeks in and I wanted a more authentic experience. Avoid the resorts and you'll still get a semi-local experience, although the smaller beach towns are already flooded with backpackers. I got to enjoy both the beach at Montezuma and the Cloud Forest in Monteverde - I would recommend both.

Although the bus we took from San Jose to Monteverde was one of the top three scariest transportation experiences of my life. A should-only-be-one-way-but-is-not, slanted, dirt road on the edge of a cliff in a bus... even the lady next to me who was from Monteverde shouted 'ay dios mio' more than once. 

Montezuma, and our hostel on the beach. 

Montezuma, and our hostel on the beach. 

 

Experience Highlight: I'd heard that a man in Montezuma sells ceviche out of his trunk downtown sometimes, and that it's too die for. He's there around 2 most days, sometimes doesn't get there as late as 4, and has no signs or other indication that he's selling something. After 4 days of searching (and a couple awkward encounters of asking strangers in my broken Spanish if they were selling ceviche) we found him. The ceviche blew my mind, I ate three cups at fifty cents a piece, and have told this story a hundred times. Worth It. 

3. Nicaragua

My unexpected favorite of the trip, Nicaragua has much more to offer than I expected. It's neighbor to the south gets most of the attention, but I thought Nicaragua was incredible. The people here were extremely hospitable. The food was fresh, simple, and delectable. Both sides of this country touch their respective oceans and although I didn't make it to the east, I know I'll come back to see the Corn Islands. 

San Juan Del Sur at sunset. 

I spent St. Patricks Day here in San Juan Del Sur, and it was a blast. The bars and hostels line the beach and I watched the sun set over the ocean every night. I'll admit that I drank a little more than I intended during my week here, but with incredible taco trucks lining the streets at night, my hangovers were minimal. 

Unexpected Highlight: The markets in Managua. It spans dozens of streets, floods into buildings and back into alleys. Hundreds of people come and shop here when the markets are out. You can find anything and everything (fresh avocados the size of your head or a fake pair of Beats headphones or sunglasses for your baby - you name it). It's loud, overwhelming, and wonderful. Vendors are shouting prices at passerby, dozens of people are bargaining intensely, dogs and children are underfoot, and it seemingly never ends. I spent an entire day wandering the stalls. 

4. El Salvador

I got the hardest time from friends back home for planning to go here. A lot of 'are you crazys' and 'never knew you had a death wish' comments. I don't think El Salvador deserves quite the reputation that it has, although reading about the history there will make you understand where those comments stem from. I had a lovely experience here. The people I met were genuinely shocked to see an American girl traveling alone. Their initial surprise was quickly followed by tons of recommendations: where to eat, where to shop, where to go, who to stay with. It seemed like everybody I met here had relatives in the United States that they wanted to tell me about, and I loved it. 

Food Highlight: Pupusas! Handmade, thick corn tortillas typically stuffed with meat and fried. Delicious, cheap, and everywhere. I'd never had one (or even heard of them before) and my first pupusa is a food-experience I won't soon forget.