The great Central American divide


Another two new countries and more lessons to learn, or should I say master because communication is key, even at the local Costa Rican Chinese restaurant where everyone speaks fluent SpanChese.

So to my surprise Chow Mein Hong Kong-style was a real find after being pizza’d out for the past week in Panama.

It took about an hour to fly from Panama City to San Jose and the two cities couldn’t be more different. Panama is a hot and sweaty thriving metropolis under continual construction. Yellow taxis whirl by beeping potential customers. There’s one price for you and then add $1. It is their way of finding out whether you’ve just got off the boat.

It is cooler in Costa Rica and the red taxis in San Jose appear on first take to have fewer banged up bumpers. Only a million or so people live in the capital compared with Panama’s thriving three million.

Both cities have a lot to offer. There’s no denying Panama is beautiful, if you know where to look. It has its dangerous [peligroso] communities gringoes need to avoid at all cost, or is it just to benefit the taxi drivers who say they have to circumnavigate the area [at an extra cost to you]!

DSC05064But in a cute B&B [] at the base of Ancon Hill, inside a gated community that once housed American officers working on the Panama Canal, that’s all forgotten. You’re surrounded by rainforest where sloths hang out high up in the trees, monkeys race up and down vines to pinch fruit as native birds push them off their perch and tiny near-transparent gekkos fly through the air. If they land on you accidentally they let you know via a sting in the tail.

It is exotic. And that is just in the built-up areas. Go up to Gamboa Rainforest Resort (pictured), even higher above islands where mountains once stood before the flood gates opened in the form of the famous canal and the view, as well as the diversity of plant and animal life, are breathtaking.

Locals say Panama will be thriving for another 10 years. It’s population of three million are split into three groups. Those that speak English [the city’s entrepreneurs] and have excellent paying jobs, those who speak Spanish and have good paying jobs, and the rest who don’t … have jobs.

DSC04920But it is the jobless who squat in some of the best real estate in town. If you want to buy in, you need to relocate them. Prices have tripled in 10 years but to foreigners it seems reasonable, especially for renovated flats. Less than a few hundred thousand for a decent apartment with water views, less than three hundred thousand for only water glimpses or no glimpse at all. Buying into homes away from the historical sector seems better priced at a couple of hundred thousand.

And working in Panama is easy I’m told if you have a job in mind. Panamanians prefer you apply for a visa for a chosen profession. Otherwise line up and wait, wait, wait for that general working visa. If you can prove you’ve got ongoing income and a lazy $100,000 to invest, you’ll go to the top of the immigration queue.

Do you know the way to San Jose?

I’ve only arrived in San Jose. The area where I’m staying is industrial [de la Iglesia Sagrado Corazon de Jesus] yet surrounded by shrines to Catholics. It is Sunday and the bells haven’t stopped ringing in tandem with the blare of car and train horns.

Guesthouse Hotel

Guesthouse Hotel

The guesthouse [] I’m in couldn’t be more different to La Estancia B&B. The room is stark in comparison. You get the sense it may have been a nun’s quarter in its recent past, until you turn the corner into communal areas to discover tiny enclaves of open green courtyards and lounging areas where facing couches with colourful cushions back onto plain walls painted with murals and carvings that pop!

I’m only here for two days before joining a host family for the next five weeks while I volunteer teaching ESL at Escuela Nueva Laboratoria. Orientation starts tomorrow and I can’t wait to begin helping co-teacher Silvia with grades 1-6. Apparently the kids are excited I’m coming all the way from Australia to help out. Of course, they hope I brought a Kangaroo or two with me. I can’t promise a live one, but I don’t think all 30 of them will be disappointed when we meet because I brought a Koala along too!

And of course if I get any spare time, I plan to check this city out. I’ve been here before but only for a few days in 2008. I never got to the Peace Museum, or the National Museum, nor the Interactive Museum, or the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design and did I mention the famous Museo de Jade? I’ll try to fit in the butterfly garden if the Children’s Museum is closed. If I’m here to help educate, I get a feeling I’m the one who’ll walk away with the education!

Judy Wilkinson is a freelance writer-turned web and app producer who is currently writing a children’s ebook while teaching and blogging her way through Central and South America.

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