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2012-03 Central American Sampler

James' column for the Sligo Weekender

 
Once a year, or twice if Im jammy, I get the chance to take time out from land-touring to perform on a luxury cruise. In late January I was more than thrilled to swap the Winter woollies for shorts and Factor-20, and fly to Montego Bay to board Fred Olsens Balmoral. Cruises, for me, are an ideal means of sampling new territories. If somewhere attracts, I can always go back.
From Jamaica we sailed straight for that astonishing feat of human ingenuity and courage  the Panama Canal. Since the 16th Century the Spaniards dreamed of linking the Atlantic with the Pacific. In the 1880s the French attempted to transform that dream to reality but were foiled by extreme financial troubles, as well as disease resulting in thousands of deaths. Following Panamanian independence, the US completed the canal in 1914. In 1999, Panama took over full control of this 50-mile long waterway to transform it into the countrys core business (at around $120,000 per large ship its big bucks). Since its construction, over a million ships have passed through this intricate two-lane lock-system. Near Colón on the Caribbean Panamanian coast, ships rise through locks to Gatun Rainforest Lake, and down through locks to the Pacific near Miami-like Panama City.

Our next Central American sampler began at the port of Puntarenas in magnificent Costa Rica. Costa Rica (rich coast) is a country of around 5 million people, and along with Guatemala perhaps Central Americas most popular tourist hotspot (quite literally, 35°C when we were there). This green eco-friendly, stunningly beautiful Central American nation will most definitely be revisited by this keen visitor, solely on the merits of a scenic drive to the breath-taking Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve to marvel at its signature flora and fauna, including whopping iguanas, a kaleidoscopic display of macaws, toucans and humming-birds, to the more menacing sight of  a hundred dozing crocodiles skulking beneath a bustling motorway bridge.

Thanks to the media Nicaragua has always triggered hazard lights in my head  a war-torn country of political unrest, Sandanistan rebels and iffy leaders. We travelled in 38°C heat from Corinto past seven active smoking volcanoes to the uniquely laid out low-rise city of Leon and its Spanish-style Cathedral. We learned that the country was owned and run by a handful of dirty-rich families. We visited some very disappointing, poorly-maintained Botanic gardens, where we were lectured on a ground-breaking Nicaraguan phenomenon  paper-recycling! Our tutors were visibly crushed to learn that we use Recycle bins in Ireland. Yet the peoples pride in their country is infectious. Admittedly I never saw the capital Managua, or massive Lake Nicaragua with its notorious fresh-water bull-sharks. But as I sailed away, with the sun setting dramatically over Nicaraguas volcanic skyline I was sad, as my lasting image of this potentially beautiful country was one of abject poverty, one of the widest divides between rich and poor I have witnessed worldwide, and a country with a long, long way yet to progress.
The surprise of my trip was unquestionably El Salvador. Again I disembarked with pre-conceptions about this most densely populated Central American republic as being an unstable country with hostile neighbours (notably Honduras). However I was unprepared for its physical beauty, and its gregarious jovial people. From the Pacific port of Acajutla we drove past the imposing Santa Ana volcano, and the placid Lago de Coatepeque nestled below. I had the privilege of visiting the Tazumal Mayan Temple ruins at Chalchuapa. Pyramids, tombs and a complex water-drainage system from as far back as 100AD are all well-preserved, as well as a stage where villagers once assembled to view daily human sacrifices, by initially having their hearts ripped out while still alive. It was apparently a great honour to be chosen as a sacrifice, and then burned. Nevertheless, El Salvadors beauty and people will lure me back one day.

A tedious day-trip in Ecuador only served to emphasise my as-yet-unrealised dream of visiting Ecuadors most famous jewel  the Galápagos Islands. And the tour-guide repeatedly refused to answer my questions on Ecuadorian child labour, and how Dolphin-friendly their extensive Tuna-fishing was.

As we flew out of the Peruvian capital Lima it was 10pm, and I was well aware that lurking in the shadowy Andes below lay two of my Bucket-list Top Ten   namely Macchu Picchu and Lake Titicaca, and I realised I will be hard-pressed to see the whole of this mind-blowing planet before I relocate to God-knows-where.

Tazumal Mayan Temple Chalchuapa El Salvador
Tazumal Mayan Temple Chalchuapa El Salvador