Monday, March 16, 2009

Impressions about Central America: budget

For my trip, I kept a running tally of all of my expenses accrued out of curiosity what the average backpacker's budget would look like. The numbers are below, for a total expenditure of $2458 (including airfare) for travel from Jan 19th to March 3rd. This number is verified within +/- 0.5%, based on comparison to expenditures from my bank account.

  • Int'l Airfare: PIT->GUA, PTY->PIT.
  • Theft: Money stolen at homestay and through huslers.
  • Telecommunications: Total costs for cell phone service in Guatemala, and internet.
  • Transportation: All buses, cars/taxis, boats, etc... within Central America, as well as border duties.
  • Food: All money spent on foods or drinks, including meals but excluding modest board in Guatemala for 2 1/2 weeks.
  • Tours/Entrance: All money spent on entrance fees or activities part of tourism. This includes $220 for scuba diving classes.
  • Education: Cost for Spanish lessons for 2 1/2 weeks at $65/20 hour/wk, plus supplies.
  • Room: All money spent on living arrangements, including homestays. This figure also includes modest board for 2 1/2 weeks in Guatemala.
  • Other: All other categories, including souvenirs.

Impressions about Central America

Nicaragua: For the value, Nicaragua cannot be beat. It has the most off-the-beaten-track feel of all of the Central American countries I visited, yet amenities are comfortable. The costs are the lowest in all of Central America, and the wildlife is relatively well preserved. Between the volcanoes by Granada, the hiking in Isla de Ometepe, the amazing surfing and beach scene around San Juan del Sur, and the Carribean pleasures of Bluefields and the Corn Islands, the attractions are all present (although some of the high-altitude wonders of Guatemala and the Mayan cultural finds are missing). The people are also one of the kindest on the continent. Finally, and most important, Nicaragua is much safer than the countries in the north. If I return, I would spend more time in San Juan del Sur and around Granada. I would also travel to the Little Corn Islands.  I spent around $20-30/day while in Nicaragua. 9/10

Guatemala: Guatemala is endowed with much natural beauty, and deserves its title as the “Nepal of the Americas.” However, Guatemala has a major security problem in its cities. While this should not be a deterrent, having to constantly think about one’s security does detract from the travel experience. With that said, Guatemala definitely has the cultural gems of the region and is a fascinating place to see cultural clash – in this case, between the Mayans and Ladinos. The Western Highlands have a beauty uniquely different from the rest of Central America, and Tikal in El Petén is a must-see. I also liked the food best in Guatemala. If I return, I would spend time in Xela and Coban, and try to hike El Mirador. I spent $37/day, including tuition during my stay; I found the costs to be maybe 5-10% more than Honduras and 15-25% more than Nicaragua. 7/10

Honduras: Honduras I found to have a definite different atmosphere from Guatemala; besides the obvious proliferation of cowboy hats, the people are extremely friendly and helpful and the society as-a-whole seems more unified. For tourist attractions, however, I was largely disappointed in the Bay Islands; they were expensive, but admittedly necessary for scuba certification. Copan was interesting, but lacked the “wow” factor of Tikal; however, the wildlife at Copan was quite stunning. Safety is an issue but I felt safer than while in Guatemala. If I were to return, I would spend time exploring the area around La Ceiba, which is quite beautiful; I would also try to visit the remote jungle area in the eastern half of the country. I spent around $50/day in Honduras, including scuba diving. 5/10

Belize: With limited time in Belize, there is not much to write about; however, the countryside looked extremely well preserved, the melting-pot culture is a must see, and I have only heard good things about the Caribbean Caye Caulker beaches. I would incorporate Belize as a week or week-and-a-half visit from the States, making sure to visit Caye Caulker as well as some of the inland rain forests; longer time would be cost-prohibitive for backpackers. NA/10

Costa Rica: Cannot comment, however I have heard great things about the rain forests and beaches. In my limited travels through the region there was an extremely noticeable price gap (bottle of Coke in Nicaragua: $0.60 USD, in Costa Rica $1.35 USD). It also seemed significantly more touristy than Nicaragua, and the people less friendly or perhaps more accustomed to gringos and the like. I would also visit Nicaragua on a separate week or week-and-a-half vacation, probably going to Montverde and the Nicosia Peninsula. NA/10

Panama: Panama is another destination I wished I had the opportunity to further explore. It is noticeably better developed than the rest of Central America, yet the prices are affordable; food can be found at Guatemalan prices, and rooming is perhaps at a 50% premium but still cheaper than Costa Rica and Belize. It also does not have the touristic feel of Costa Rica, for example. Panama City is a fascinating metropolis to explore (think a southern Miami). Safety is not an issue. With time, I would definitely venture out to explore the pristine rainforests of the Darien, and attempt to get to the Bocas del Toro. I spent $35/day while in Panama. 7/10

South America: Although I did not venture south, I met many people returning from the region or with plans to go. I heard raving reviews about Bolivia, Venezuela, and Argentina. In particular, Argentina was cited as being surprisingly affordable for its metropolitan sights. Colombia, Chile, and Peru were also recommended. 

Monday, March 2, 2009

Panama City, Panama

Panama City is a fascinating city unlike anywhere else in Central America; perhaps the first giveaway is the skyscrapers and visible downtown so unlike the usual capital sprawl. Although there are some odd contrasts, such as the chicken buses going past huge casinos and shopping malls, as a whole Panama City is a metropolis like its North American counterparts, except with Spanish language and 50% discounts on pretty much anything (much more noticeable when prices are published in USD or B./). It is also safe to walk around at night, something that is not taken for granted in Central America.

I found exploring the city by day and exploring the multiple casinos by night to be entertaining. Caseo Viejo was also worthwhile, if not to see the ancient buildings (after visiting San Juan, Puerto Rico this is not impressive) but the Panama City skyline and the Puente de la Americas instead. Finally, the canal is a must (although whether it is worthwhile is another story); visit the Miraflores Locks before 11am or you won’t be able to see the ships go through.

For getting around the city, the buses are pretty straightforward. There are only a few routes that go along the main roads, and all non-metro buses connect through the Albrook Bus Terminal to the north of the city. A ride costs $0.25, which beats a $4 taxi ride. For living, the Bella Vista area I stayed in was wonderful and quaint; the Caseo Viejo area didn’t look too nice, but La Exposition looked pretty good as well. I would recommend avoiding the Voyeur International Hostel due to its slight bait-and-switch tendencies and poor staff.

Panama City from Caseo Viejo

Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal