Fast Forward to Panama

Trip Start Sep 07, 2011
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Trip End Dec 22, 2011


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Flag of Panama  ,
Tuesday, October 4, 2011

My trek to Lake Atitlan crapping out proved to be a blessing in disguise.   Landslides feeding off heavy rains have somewhat blocked the road from Xela to lakeside Panjanachel.  With the elements eating roads alive, what would have the trails on my trek been like in all this cold rain?   Leaving this question rhetorical is probably smarter than seeing it with my own eyes and muddy shoes.

As badly as I want to trek to the lake, I know I can easily return to Guatemala one day for a third try which will be the charm. Offbeat places further down the road in South America offer more excitement at this point and I am just about Guatemala'ed out.  My plan to wind my way over to Nicaragua's sleepy San Juan del Sur on the Pacific coast has been jettisoned.  I got to thinking why spend all this time and money to go somewhere that is really just same, same but different than Holbox Island when other places I don't even know yet lurk out there.   

In addition, a boat trip from Panama to Colombia is coming to fruition around the 8th and being on the trek would have cost me timely passage to Panama to join up.   Crossing between these two countries is not possible on land as no roads cut through the wild Darien Gap.  I have read that native indians can cut a path through the jungles but the journey will more than likely meet a quick demise from mosquitos and druglords.

With safety in mind, a very expensive flight and sailboats are pretty much my only options.  Much like an Atitlan trek, these boats sail only when enough people are signed up.  When "ready" is, no one knows!   If passage comes up at the right price with good recommendations, it's best to interview the captain and get on the water.  Sometimes striking while the iron is hot is the only way to keep moving even if it means a little bit of triage whacks the wishlist of other places to see.

A few countries standing between Guatemala and Panama hold little interest for me to again visit, and a multiday bus journey is one laborious option to cross them.  But why waste precious days in transit with overnight stops in Managua, San Salvador and San Jose?   By the time all is said and done, the costs will have added up quickly for places offering nothing more than a quick hotel stay in some downtown I have already seen.  Things would be different for sure if some specific life altering spot existed in El Salvador I am dying to see, but with only a couple of months available I need to pick and choose carefully.

A flight on TACA from Guatemala to Panama City via San Jose hit the fast forward button on my plans to go overland from Cancun all the way down to here.   Believe it or not a last minute ticket was $15 less in business class than economy so this normally chicken bus, hostel, street food traveler actually landed in a new place by a nice quick luxury ride for a change.    Even though I am not a normally big drinker, I availed myself of all that ticket entitled me to...free booze on board, freeze booze in the lounges, free booze everywhere.   Well, not too free I guess.   I did buy the ticket.   My arrival in Panama City was unlike any other I have experienced and looking back the details remain a bit hazy.

When I added up the expense of first class buses, hotels, hostels, taxis, food, and at least a week on the road (I wanted to stop in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua), flying was actually cheaper and I got a pretty sweet deal online.   So easy yet foolish many travelers are to step over a dime to pick up a penny, but sometimes we just need to look at the big picture to see how costs add up in the longrun.  Besides, how the hell does one get a taxi at 5am to the bus terminal in Xela to begin the journey out of town?   The 8am shuttle direct to the Guatemala City airport is much easier and more comfortable. Oh wow, I am changing.   I realize I have sacrificed a potentially great adventure for comfort and convenience. Is old age starting to affect me??!!

Putting these few uneventful days in Guatemala to bed without passing on at least one more bit about their culture just wouldn't be right so here goes.  From the word backpack, muchillo, comes muchileros which Guatemalans call those who wear the ones of the 60 liter size variety.   They just don’t understand why poorly dressed people schlep 80 pounds of crap on their sweaty backs.   You know the types from your adventures in Europe.   Some giant red backpack with metal frame overpowers their movements as they clumsily exit the train station for that 2 kilometer trek to the hostel.  

The Vietnamese have a similar concept called "tay bao lo" to derisively describe this same phenomenon.  How amazing that continents and cultures apart, same same but different unites and hits again.  What is it that the typical backpacker does to attract heaps of local scorn?   Is it the goofy clown pants, knit caps in 95 degree weather, filthy dreadlocks or general unkempt appearance?  The Vietnamese just don't understand how people can afford an expensive plane ticket but not some decent apparel.  Quite amazing that tay bao lo shock the modern Vietnamese into submission yet our bombs couldn't back in the day.  I get the same impression here in Central America that the local people just don't know what to think about these modern day conquistadors bearing daisy duke shorts and fedoras.

I seem to have found a pecking order to all this madness as well.  I am looked down upon by the muchilero crowd with my rolling bag with handle rather than clumsy backpack.  Any ole day I’d rather take the scorn of fellow travelers whom I have nothing in common with than the amusement of locals whom I really want to get to know.  And I know taking a plane rather than a death defying chicken bus ride widens our cultural gap even more.  I really am just nipping at the fringes of this whole fascinating subculture of tay bao los wandering aimlessly around the world.  To each his own for sure. Travel is something very personal that means different things to us all. My meaning is to see something local while avoiding most of anything I can find back home (except a nice plane ride).

How I got here:

Shuttle from Hostel Don Diego to Guatemala City Airport - $28 - 6 hours*
TACA Airlines from Guatemala to San Jose to Panama City - $359 - 4 hours
Taxi from airport to Panama by Luis guesthouse - $25 - 40 minutes

* Normally 4 hours but a chicken bus that wrecked, exploded and killed many shut down the highway for 2 hours. Taxi, bus, taxi combo on same journey would have been $25.   $3 more buys seamless door to door service rather than an 8 hour local journey.

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