Habitual travellers are all-too familiar with the joyful challenge of planning a long weekend jaunt. The perfect destination has to be close enough that you won’t spend the whole time on the plane, interesting enough to warrant exploration, inexpensive enough to justify the extravagance of a short trip, – and ideally somewhere you haven’t been before.
I became attached to the idea of seeing the Panama canal over a long weekend several years ago, and it was always one of the first places I would scout prices for. Eventually, I discovered that with Copa Airlines, it was actually cheaper to make a second stop and continue from Panama on to Nicaragua, before returning home. The trip quickly fell into place; two Latin American destinations in a brisk 5 days. Challenge accepted.
Panama City’s historic old quarter (or, Casco Viejo) is the kind of place that oozes history. Stories of fires and pirates abound.
There’s a burgeoning street art scene.
And some, frankly, beautiful juxtapositions of architecture and dereliction.
In May, when I visited, it was covered in pink flowers.
Panama’s control of the canal brought it enough wealth to construct a metropolis of skyscrapers, and a consequently outside the old town, you feel like you could be in any major city of the world.
But the main reason I was drawn to Panama was the canal.
And its cheeky, furry inhabitants.
Some more than others.
The famous locks at the edge of the canal, where enormous ships slowly rise or lower to match the water levels and traverse from Pacific to Atlantic, are impressive to watch – albeit slow.
All in all, I really enjoyed visiting Panama, with its picturesque old town and interesting canal (I recommend the Ocean to Ocean tour).
However, all that wealth and all those high rises have left the rest of the city somewhat lacking in personality. After exploring the Casco Viejo and the canal, I found myself feeling ready to move on.
By contrast, I found no shortage of fascinating stories and sights in Nicaragua.
Most flights to Nicaragua land in its capital: Managua. Taking advice from online forums, I continued directly on to charming Granada, on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, with its colonial plazas, isletas, volcanoes – and an appealing scarcity of tourists.
Though emblematic of the country’s challenging and tumultuous history, Granada’s crumbling streets and bustling inhabitants are a photographer’s dream.
Though, I will remember Nicaragua most fondly with my sense of taste. The best fresh fruit I’ve ever tasted. I never knew a banana could burst with flavour. And don’t even get me started on the pineapple and mango.
Another highlight was Iglesia La Merced; the relatively unassuming church with a spectacular view from the bell tower.
Granada was cloudy for most of my visit, but in my last hours, Mombacho Volcano spectacularly revealed itself.
But it’s nearby Masaya Volcano that offers the most impressive sight up close – glimpses of molten lava through a steady stream of thick smoke.
After a few days exploring Granada, I spent an afternoon in Managua before flying back to Panama and New York.
My driver showed me a cathedral where the only singing now comes from the birds, and spoke lyrically of Rubén Darío, the famous Nicaraguan poet whose words grace it.
“If your country is small, dream big”
He also touched on the political unrest. Nicaragua’s most expensive roundabout features Hugo Chavez.
Surrounding Chavez are “trees of life”. There are 134 of these 17 metre tall structures dominating the landscape of Managua. Designed by Rosario Murillo, the wife of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, the trees of life are a conspicuous example of the first lady’s far-reaching influence.
My guide called them “monstrosities” and a symbol of excess due to the immense cost of construction and maintenance (not to mention power for the thousands of lightbulbs. It’s a lot for something completely purposeless, to which the people have no fondness or connection.
“Imagine if Marie Antoinette decorated France with cake”.
All in all, my short visit was an incredible way to get a small taste of two fascinating countries.
And though I found Panama interesting in its own right, it’s Nicaragua that my mind will return to most often.