Home

“Must know”

10.03.11

A friend of mine emailed asking if there’s any information about Central America that I consider must know.  For the purposes of this post we’ll call her “Steph” and this is mostly directed to her, though other people might find it useful (or anger inducing).  She’s already lived in Belize, so I’m leaving out comments about how idyllic Placencia is.

Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are too violent to be of much use right now.

The situation in Honduras has been deteriorating for years, which is a shame because it’s otherwise an incredible place.  The islands are still livable, but even Utila was seeing a serious rise in violent crime (I include muggings as violent crimes, many stats don’t).  When we were there we regularly read stories like “15 factory workers executed in midday”, mostly gang turf disputes in San Pedro Sula.  Are there more peaceful areas?  These days I don’t know.  I do know that routine law enforcement is basically non-existent.  I spent a few months in mainland Honduras in 2007 and even then private security was the only security (and was very, very common).  Things have only gone downhill since (a coup, a devastating series of floods, riots, increased gang activity).

For some reason everyone seems to have agreed to pretend Guatemala is a reasonable place to hang out.  The murder rate was already atrocious (and likely lowballed) before the Mexican gangs got involved.  I swear to god every 3rd backpacker I talked to mentioned either being personally mugged at knife point or knowing someone who had.  Yet they’d still always go “It’s not that bad.”  I spent a few weeks renting a room in a nice house in a gated community a short walk from upscale downtown Antigua.  The owners warned us repeatedly that guys with machetes liked to hide in the bushes and mug people outside the gate.  This was NOT a desolate area and this was a known MO, but nothing was done about it.

I haven’t been to El Salvador.  I’ve heard great things about it, including San Salvador and the beaches, but it’s still a little to dicey for me to take The Girlfriend.  If I were traveling with a few guys I’d risk it.  And while Guatemala and Honduras are on the decline (Guatemala perpetually), El Salvador has shown some signs of significant improvement lately.  Best of luck to them, I can’t wait to see it.

Nicaragua is incredibly cheap and it’s beautiful, though a lot of people are waiting to see how this election goes (how the people react to Ortega’s unconstitutional 3rd term re-election) before putting down roots.

Costa Rica is overpriced and increasingly unwelcoming to gringos.  We didn’t spend much time (just the bus stop layover), many expats we talked to were moving out of there.

Panama is head and shoulders above the rest of the region with regard to standard of living.  Great deals can be found outside of Panama City and Bocas del Toro (too far out for cheap goods to be available), though both of those places are worth seeing too.

Much of the Central American Caribbean is uninviting; it’s often the more impoverished and less secure area.  In Nicaragua you can’t even get there by road, except for one isolated town.  Development sprawls along the Inter-American Highway which runs the Pacific Coast.  That said, there are some real jewels out there, though prices tend to climb since supplies need to be transported so far.  This is doubly true on small islands.

Don’t miss:

Nicaragua: San Juan del Sur and surrounding beach sprawl is right up your alley, though the diving is lame, Leon if you can stand the heat, both Corn Islands (quick flight from Manangua, arduous journey otherwise, either might be your thing, you’ll be glad you went), Isla Ometempe (the two-volcano island in Lake Nicaragua) and Esteli if you can handle the slow life (and it gets slower from there).

Panama: Party in Panama City (if you have the funds), hideout in Boquete to restore your budget and take respite from the heat, see San Blas at least once and check out Bocas del Toro.

If I were going to buy property right now, it would probably be around Laguna de Apoyo, Nicaragua (if possible) or on Bastimentos Island, Panama.

Price of beer in a bar: still unsure, though US$0.35 in the grocery for a 12 ounce bottle.
Song currently stuck in my head: The Sea (Morcheeba)

Time, an abysmal publication, has a confusing piece up about white lobster, which are bricks of cocaine ditched by smugglers because of police pressure or boating accidents. We were told repeatedly by people in a position to know that nearly all of the hotels and restaurants on Little Corn Island were built on white lobster windfalls. Since the tourists starting coming in substantial numbers the drug runners have pushed further out to the nearby Colombian Islands so the Corn Islanders don’t see many “white Christmases” anymore. Mixed blessing, I guess. One day a helicopter flew overhead; later we were told the only helicopters around were DEA and the sound of those blades was a call to action for all of the local fishermen. They take their boats out to the far side of the island and toss out their nets hoping to become millionaires.

The Economist is similarly enamored with this part of the world these days (SPOILER: Guatemala is a lawless shithole, Honduras is heading that way). I don’t really mind the bad press, aside from having to point out repeatedly to friends, family and strangers that assuming the whole region is a narco war torn hellscape is akin to assuming everywhere in the US has a murder rate like New Orleans (which is twice that of Honduras, by the way).

My replacement ATM cards arrived without issue or delay. I was a little amazed, given that there aren’t addresses here and no one can agree what the name of this road is. Chalk up a point for Federal Express.

Panama City instituted a new bus system, which they’re still phasing in. They’re transitioning from brightly painted US school buses with throbbing disco lights and thick clouds of soot coming off the back (“Red Devils“, as they’re known around here) to new, modern, air conditioned commuter buses known as The Metro. We have yet to ride a Metro bus, but only because there aren’t that many of them. Transportation in general can be difficult in this town; as I said there are no addresses. Many of the major roads are one way or occasionally one way without a corresponding road going the opposite direction, making it easy to take a bus somewhere and then impossible to get a bus back. Taxi drivers are constantly trying to rip you off, as always, and their efforts are aided by an incomprehensible zone system for fares (no meters, just this handy guide that you can use in combination with this simple table… I dare you to find a given location, say an address-less mall, on that map) and a list of additions for everything from extra people to holidays (of which there are many). The typical approach is to look for a cab (I haven’t figured out how to signal interest, waving yields mixed results) and wait for a driver to stop or, often, just slow down as he passes you. You tell him where you want to go and he tells you if he’s interested in going there. If he is (about 1 out of 7, I’d say, in our experience), then you ask how much and he either says something ludicrous or he says two dollars. Mostly I just try not to pay more than US$3 for the majority of our trips. I’ll pay the extra 50 cents just so I don’t have to look at that chart.

I know I’m harping on the “no-addresses” thing a lot and I don’t mean to be, but between the fedex and just normal daily getting around it’s a constant irritation. I wonder if they’ll skip over addresses altogether and just go right to GPS coordinates; the equipment is cheap enough that it seems like the way to go. If I had given fedex my two coordinates that’s all they’d need and I’d know there wouldn’t be any confusion. Delivery operations (like Fedex) already rely on GPS, so this would not be a difficult transition. Assigning every residence two coordinates (the location of their front door, for instance) wouldn’t be any harder than imposing any other scheme.

Dinner menu at Little Corn Island Beach and Bungalow (US$) and the beach out front.

Lunch menu (in US$) and hammocks, both at Little Corn Island Beach and Bungalow.

A boat, Lobster Inn, Lunch.

The view from the restaurant at Casa Iguana, the view from a hammock at Derek’s Place, which looks as though Robinson Crusoe opened a guesthouse and hired the Swiss Family Robinsons to build it.