Central America and the Caribbean 1979

Panama City was another destination that back in 1980 had a reputation of being dangerous for travelers. That said, I managed a pleasant stay there – taking the train along the Panama Canal as far as the Gatun Locks and then coming back. The juxtaposition between the upper middle class American territory of the canal and the decrepitude of Panama City was one of the sharpest divides that I had ever seen.

In retrospect, I am amazed at how many risks I took. The bus station from Panama City going towards Costa Rica to the city of David, was in one of the dodgier parts of town. Even though I had my backpack on, I decided to walk as briskly as I could through the six or seven blocks to the bus station. Later when I was on the bus, passengers told me that somebody noted that a thief with a knife was advancing on me as I walked towards the station. They said that all eyes were riveted as the thief got closer and closer until, shortly before my arrival at the station he could see the armed guard and thus turned away.

I continued up to David and on to Boquete in the Chiriqui Highlands. Once again, a hill station in the tropics felt like arrival in heaven, with its blessedly cooler temperatures.

My experiences in central America belied various travelers tales. I enjoyed visiting Central America, though I found Costa Rica to be among the least pleasant places. I am not sure why. That said, I stayed a while in San Jose, went to Quepos and Playa Manuel San Antonio and up to the mountain town of Cartago. Crossing from Costa Rica to Nicaragua in the summer of 1980 was fascinating. The Sandinistas had taken power less than one year earlier. What I found most surprising was the youth of the Sandinistas. The majority seemed to be teenagers. I stayed first in Granada, then spent more than a week in Managua. For whatever reason, some young backpackers and politicos were interested in observing the Sandinista revolution first hand. It followed many of the tenets of the Cuban revolution with the emphasis on education and health and egalitarianism. There was also socialist propaganda everywhere. Turbulence was already underway in this part of the world. I went up to Tegucigalpa, then took a bus to San Salvador, then in the middle of a civil war.

The juxtaposition between what was happening in the countryside, the occasional bombing in the capital, mixed with fast food joints and people listening to disco everywhere. For whatever reason, they kept playing “Funky Town” over and over again. The following day I continued up to Guatemala.

I was at this point just going through the motions, but I remember my time in Guatemala and Chiapas as about the last point of really being fascinated by what I was seeing. Much of my time was spent enjoying both the architectural ruins and the absolutely fascinating cultural diversity in Guatemala, one of the richest in all of Latin America. I went to the travelers mecca of Lake Atitlan. Once in Guatemala, most other travelers were American on short two to three week visits. I spent some time in Panajachel and Santiago de Atitlan, then to Chichicastenango, Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango and Todos Santos Cuchumatan.

From there I crossed up into Mexico to Comitan and San Cristobal de las Casaas, then up to Oaxaca and Mexico City. Now within the last three weeks, I purchased tickets to Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and back to Toronto.

Jamaica was going through a very turbulent time, and I stayed only in Montego Bay and Negril. I then flew to Port-au-Prince and went up by tap-tap to Cap Haitien, visiting the Citadel and San Souci. Taptap travel in 1980 was excruciatingly uncomfortable. A few days later I continued on to Santo Domingo, just as one of the strongest Category 5 hurricanes, Hurricane Allen, was barrelling towards the capital. Fortunately it just grazed the island and other than a deluge of many centimetres of rain and medium winds, I did not have to go through that experience. In the Dominican Republic I met another young traveler interested in beetles, so we spent time together in a tiny place known as Rancho Arriba. I went up to Puerto Plata and the beach resort of Sosua, then stopped at Santiago, before returning to Santo Domingo and flying back to Canada.

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