Panama Day 6- Isla Coiba

I ended up sleeping on a hammock, since my brother was sprawled out in the tent and it smelled like feet.

I had a light sleeping bag and bug net with me so the bugs weren’t a problem, but I overall didn’t sleep too great my back kept hurting and I got pretty cold in the middle of the night.

The next day, we woke up and cooked breakfast/lunch in the ranger’s kitchen. It was pretty well used and dingy but it worked. We cooked up some rice added cheese and potatoes onion garlic came out pretty good and we had enough for a couple meals.

Before the boat came to pick us up, we went for a little hike. There was a viewpoint that was only about a half hour walk from camp so we hiked over there.
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From here you could see the beach we were staying at.

There was another view where you could see the other side of the island.
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The main island was pretty big; about 10×40 miles. There were some other smaller islands all around it. Apparently until the early 90s The islands served as a prison so it wasn’t declared a national park until after that.

Along the trail my brother found some giant leaves
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On the way down, there was another trail that connected to this one that apparently was a 3 day hike and a lot of people get lost on it. We hiked down it for about a half hour and it felt like true jungle.
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TheĀ  boat was supposed to pick us up at 11:30, but they didn’t come until around 12:30 so we napped in the hammocks in the mean time.
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We were annoyed because right before we left a cruise ship of like 60 old people stopped by and we saw them on the hike. This is when we had thought it was only going to be us 3 on this deserted island. The lonely planet was misleading the way it described the experience we would be having; yes, it was a very lightly inhabited island, however, we were only allowed to stay in one tiny location on this pristine island where everyone else was and all the tourist infrastructure was. I wouldn’t call running water, telephones, cabins, and air conditioning “very little tourist infrastructure.”

On the way back, I opted only to snorkel since the diving was very expensive.

They brought us to two locations, both of which were nice but not the same as diving.
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I only saw fish.. apparently on the first dive there were a lot of sharks at the bottom and they saw a seahorse, second dive a turtle. What I really wanted to see was one of those whale sharks so I was a little let down.
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After the hour plus boat ride back to the mainland, we had to find a place to stay the night. We didn’t want to go back to the place we were at the night before, as it was too far from town. The guy we had camped with, Christopher, opted to stay at the first place he saw in town, Rolo hostel. This place was $10 a night and seemed straight forward enough. However, I had heard there were nicer hostels along the beach.

Downtown Santa Catalina consisted only of the main strip where all the dive shops were etc, and one other road running off that that hadĀ  a lot of lodging/restaurants.

The walk was pretty long and it was dark at this point. It started downpouring so we dodged into a pizza joint for a few minutes trying to decide what to do. It was starting to suck because we had no place to stay, it was raining, and we didn’t know where we were.

When we got back on the road we talked to a couple german guys that said the place they were at was legit and right on the beach, surfer’s paradise.
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We checked in; the place was a kind of shit hole but the guy was nice enough. We had a dorm room to ourselves, although the shower was inoperable and full of mattresses, so we had to use the one next door with no shower head and only cold water (not uncommon to other hostels around here).

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Panama Day 7- Santa Catalina

It was an open air room, and we had been concerned about mosquitoes, but we didn’t get bitten. It was a nice view to wake up to.
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The hostel was in a very nice location, on a peninsula. I had a pretty bad sunburn on my back from snorkeling so was trying to stay out of the sun.
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There was a nice lounge area where we spent the majority of our day with hammocks and lounge chairs. It was good to relax.
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We were trying to decide what to do, as we were a hike from town and we didn’t have any food. Our plan was to maybe check out the beach then stay at the hostel in town. However, we saw some people eating then realized that the hostel served breakfast so we just ate there.

When we found out they also served lunch, we decided to stay for a while. There were no waves so surfing was out of the question, and anyhow my brother had a bad reaction to something in the water and was recovering so I didn’t want to surf without him.

So we walked down to the beach for a little while
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While were were there, we ran into a couple girls we had met on the bus. They told us of the place they were staying that was really nice and only $8 a night versus the 14 we were paying so we decided to check it out. It was called Surfer’s Point.

This place was directly on the beach, versus the other place which was raised on a ledge so you had to hike down.
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So once we checked in here we packed up our bags etc and moved over.

We ate dinner at the in house restaurant they had and met some dutch guy that had rented a car and driven here. He said the car rented by Avis was a complete shit hole nothing worked, including the 4 wheel drive. There was no GPS option and the roads had no signs, and he was in so much traffic leaving Panama City.

We checked out the sunset on the beach but couldn’t see it fully because of the clouds.
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After dinner, we were trying to figure out what to do because there were no ATMs here and we were running very low on cash. We had initially planned on staying one more day here to relax, but we might be limited by our money.

Luckily, at dinner, we found out we could pay with a card at this hostel (my card didn’t work at the last hostel). So that re-opened the option to crashing another night. My brother wants to get our move on since he doesn’t like the heat here he wants to head to the highlands.

Our next stop was initially going to be Boquete but we opted for another place called Santa Fe. They are both similar in that they are out of our way a little bit (hour and a half), but beautiful mountain towns with waterfalls swimming holes hiking etc.

Santa Fe seems smaller and less traveled than Boquete, where as Boquete seems bigger and in the lonely planet says its where there are a lot of Western retirees which doesn’t much interest me to hangout with old people.

Panama Day 5- Santa Catalina to Isla Coiba

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We left our hostel Hibiscus Garden 7am in order to make it to the dive shop by 8am. The drive was only about 20 minutes by a hostel provided shuttle, but we had to get food and water before we went to Coiba as we were told there was none available on the island.

Diving was expensive- we were told it was $115 for a two tank dive but oh, they forgot to tell us if we didn’t have our own equipment it was $15 extra, and entrance fee to Coiba was $20, and Tax, plus I rented an underwater camera for $25 and the battery died after the first dive. Thanks, douchebags.
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Anyway- we got on our boat and my brother was doing a “discovery” dive so needed to get instructions
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It took an hour to get to our first diver site which was right on the coast of mainland Panama.
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We descended down the anchor line
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First thing we saw was a (frogfish?) I couldn’t tell what he was
Pointing to at first since it was so camouflage.
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There were plenty of fish and visibility was very good
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Sharks
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Sting rays
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Star fish
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Some other random fish
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We took lunch and stopped at a beautiful beach
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With tons of hermit crabs
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I was really hoping to see a whale shark which are giant but we didn’t see any. There are also hump back whales here from June to September. There are also manta rays and turtles which we caught a glimpse of but I didn’t get a picture. We are snorkeling on our way back so maybe I’ll get some pictures then or fingers crossed a whale shark!

We arrived at Coiba and it wasn’t anything like we had expected.
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From the lonely planets description we thought it was pretty much going to be us 3 on a deserted beach. Disappointingly, this was not the case.

There was running water, cabins, and way more people than we wanted. We were told we had to camp right in that area.
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Looking at the photo I’m sure you don’t feel that bad for us..

We tried to set up our tent in another area but were told to move our tent because this is where the crocodiles liked to lie.
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They had whale shark bones on display
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We took a stroll around the island and saw lizards
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And some weird hampster-rodent
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Went to the end of a dock
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And did some snorkeling
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Tried to get creative with my underwater case
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We spent the rest of the evening hanging out playing card games and passed out early after an exhausting day.

My brother smelled up the tiny tent we rented with this dirty socks and when I went in he was sprawled across the whole floor so I opted to sleep in a hammock. I had a light sleeping bag and bug net for my head so I was good.

Panama Day 4- Panama City to Santa Catalina

We woke up early in the morning to head to Santa Catalina. Since Peter had the same plan, we went along with him.
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We headed to El Tumbes bus station and got our ticket to Sona. It was $10 and supposedly we had to catch it at 830 in the morning in order to make it to Santa Catalina in one day.

Santa Catalina has no direct bus; you have to either transfer in Santiago and take 2 more busses or transfer in Sona and catch a second bus to Santa Catalina.
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The bus was completely full. I was lucky to get the wheel well seat directly below the blasting speaker, whereas others were fortunate enough to get the seats with AC leaking on their heads. They managed to rig something with their curtain to diverge the water which was entertaining to watch.
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I had heard from several people that the busses crank the AC and are freezing; our bus started out comfortable then as the day carried on got uncomfortably hot as the AC began to fall behind the weather.

We stopped for lunch about half way through at some gas station which actually had pretty good food.
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The ride to Sona was supposed to take 6 hours according to lonely planet but it only took us 3.5 even with the stops so we were confused when we arrived at our destination.

We were told the next bus wouldn’t be there until 130 and we had arrived at 12. Lonely planet said a taxi to Santa Catalina would cost $60 but we found a taxi that offered to bring us for $25 and I talked to another couple that said they paid $40 for a taxi.

This would have made sense seeing that the bus was $5 but everyone wanted to wait for the bus for some reason.
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The bus finally showed up and they stashed our luggage on the roof.
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This bus was equally crowded and filled with gringos.
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The ride lasted about an hour and was equally cramped and uncomfortable. It was good having other travelers with us and it seemed that many of them were in the same situation in that they had no accommodation reservations. When I had checked on hostelworld the night before it appeared there were only 2 hostels and they were full but we figured there must be more.

One of the guys, Christopher, had a phone so called the place he intended to stay and confirmed they had availability. The name was Hibiscus garden and it was inland from Santa Catalina about 10kms. The road to Santa Catalina was very isolated. The hostel was no different.

After being dropped off we had to hike down a road about 15 mins in the sun and heat to the hostel
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The hostel was very beautiful on the beach and super laid back and very quiet.
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After hanging out in the lounge and having some water, he showed us to our open air loft
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They also had some closed rooms available but chose to stay here because, I mean, look at it it was awesome.

The surprised the place had hot water, (super shitty) WiFi, and some AC rooms.

We went for a swim at the beach in the bathtub warm water where we were told to watch out for crocodiles.
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Dinner there was excellent, best hostel food I’ve ever had. Apparently there is a well known German chef that chooses to work there for pennies just for an opportunity to live in this paradise. The food was about 3x what we normally pay for food here ($25?) But far less than you would expect to pay for it elsewhere in the world.

We had the woman at the hostel call in and reserve a diving trip to the nearby island of Coiba (world renowned diving location) as well as for a night to camp out on the island.

Panama Day 3- Panama Canal

I got up early again and had pancakes and bananas, again, for breakfast. The plan was to head to the Panama canal this morning since my brother was supposedly arriving in the afternoon and he had already been to the canal.

At breakfast I saw Lucinda who had gathered a group together since it was a popular destination. In total there were 6 of us.

We took 2 separate cabs and the driver agreed to $8 for each to the Miraflores locks.
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The canal was a 15 minute drive from Casco Viejo. Full entry was $8 which included the viewpoint, a movie, and the museum.
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There were a few levels for the view point, and it took about 45 minutes for us to watch a ship come through. It was pretty interesting.
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Basically there are 3 locks on each side, the pacific and Atlantic sides. There is a big lake in the middle which is above sea level which is why they need locks to lift the ships then bring them back to sea level.
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The canal was celebrating its 100 year anniversary and they were adding a 3rd channel that is bigger and deeper to accommodate larger ships.
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The ships would queue up in the bay and have to wait 30 hours before they could proceed through the canal. In total it takes 8-10 hours for a vessel to go through and I heard they pay by weight about 20 grand to pass through.
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The museum was pretty interesting and also took about 45 mins to explore. There were 3 levels that went over the construction and upgrade of the canal.
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The movie was short and fairly entertaining but could have done without. It played twice per hour, alternating between English and Spanish. I thought the shipping route map was interesting.
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On the way back the cab wanted $12, since obviously we needed them to get home and they knew that. We jumped in an unmarked taxi which was a little sketchy as the guy didn’t want to get in trouble by the cops for bringing us.

We got out at the fish market down the road and got some serviche, which is basically raw fish mixed with lemon, onions, etc. It was very fresh and very good. Was $7 for that and a soda which seemed very cheap for all that fish, squid, and lobster.
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When we got back to the hostel, my brother was there. I was glad to see he made it.

We hung out for the rest of the afternoon just relaxing. We were trying to decide what to do the next day since we knew we definitely did not want to be in the city anymore.

We planned to head over to Santa Catalina where we could get to do some great diving on Coiba. I was told there are big things to see there like whales and sharks.

Our other option was Portobelo which actually sounded really cool. There were abandoned cannons there sunken underwater with coral and sunken warships you could dive. Ultimately, we decided against this since it was out of the way and we wanted to start covering so!r ground.

Panama Day 2- Isla Taboga

I woke up at 7:30am. I was still super tired/groggy/jetlagged, but I had made tentative plans with John to go to an  island near the city called Isla Taboga. It would be an all day event, and I wasn’t sure what else to do. Rather than sleep all day, I decided to get up to see if John was still around.

Sure enough he was, so we had a hostel provided breakfast of make your own pancakes and bananas. We thought the ferry was leaving at 8:30, but were later told 8am, so we ran out the door. John had also invited one of his roomates, Lucinda who was from Holland. We all ran out the door and caught a $8 cab ride to the ferry to Taboga.
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There was a big line there, and we asked people in line what the deal was.
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As it turned out, the ferry did leave at 8:30 and was to return at 4:30. Only one ferry was listed, but apparently there was another ferry that also came an hour later. Tickets were $14 round trip.

We weren’t sure what to expect there, and since we had trouble communicating, we ran out to get some food and water to bring just in case. There was also an ATM and since I had $2 to my name I took out some money and was happy to find that I had no problems using my ATM card.

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The ferry ride was interesting in that we saw a bunch of tankers docked up waiting to go through the canal.
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Soon the island came into view. The ride was 45 mins.
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Right when we got off the ferry, a few guards had us all put our bags on one end of the dock while they came by with a dog and had him sniff all our bags. A little odd I thought for a small island.
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Upon unloading at the beach, we headed to the beach.
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We were offered to rent umbrellas for $5, but instead opted to sit in the shade by the shore. There was a huge pulley, we assumed abandoned there by a shipping vessel.
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There was also tons of rusted iron-ore on shore, which was rusted so badly it looked like rock.
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I don’t know if it was from a ship run ashore or what.

There was a big hill/small mountain at the end of the beach. So we decided to see if we could hike up it. Turned out at the top there was a tombstone.
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The trail was very lightly traveled and there was plenty of bush whacking and giant spider webs/spiders crossing our path. We also saw a bunch of tiny (poisonous?) yellow frogs so stayed away from them and tried to avoid the giant spiders after I walked through one of the webs and had to brush it off.
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There were also so big rusted out tanks along the hike, not sure what they must have been used for? Fuel for tankers?
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Once we got back down, we had an hour or two until the ferry so we wandered around the tiny village.
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At the end of the day, it started downpouring so we waited on the dock under cover for another hour until we could catch a ferry ride back.
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We stopped at the bus station on the way back to look into tickets to our next destination, as well as walked around the giant mall that was there. At night, we went out to the hostel bar again for a little while and briefly checked out bars in the area. It was pretty dead and I was still super exausted I passed out

Panama day 1

I am starting my trip this year in panama city. The plan is to try to meet up with my brother who is staying at a beach about an hour west of the city, Playa Corona.

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I have 32 days this year. After spending a week, or two, or 3 in Panama, my plan is to bus it ten hours north to Costa Rica where I have plans to meet with a couple I traveled with last year, another friend, and my girlfriend.

Outside of this, all options are open.

Taking off just before a blizzard and freezing temperatures, I am looking forward to the 80 degree weather forecasted
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Of course i have the seat in the back left corner of the plane that doesn’t recline for the 6 hour flight.

Reading through the guide book on the plane, some places have caught my eye.
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In particular, Santa Catalina (surf destination/beaches) and nearby Island de Coiba (great dive and watersports destination) have caught my eye. I would love to take some more kite surfing lessons if possible and love diving.

Also the Darien Gap sounds intriguing. Sounds dangerous (scorpions, snakes, drug traffickers) and remote, rarely visited by tourists but with deep jungle and animals. I will have to run this by my brother as its also in the opposite direction that we are heading.
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I am staying at a hostel in Casco Viejo which is 40 mins from the airport. I read taxis are $27 but if I go upstairs at the airport they are cheaper so I thought I would either give that a shot or look into a bus.

I went upstairs looking for a cab. I was told $30 and didn’t see any other cabs so I thought I would check downstairs. Downstairs was too busy again so I went back upstairs. Just as soon as I was thinking I probably was starting to look vulnerable like I didn’t know what was doing I found a cab that told me $20 so I took it.

I started realizing at this point that my spanish was very rusty, and felt frustrated about it so didn’t make much conversation with the driver.

My first impression with Panama was that it seemed much safer than some South American countries. No cabs were trying to “hustle” me into their cabs like a lot of other countries.

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The hostel I was staying at was called Luna’s Castle.
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It is a very big hostel- probably 1-200 people here I would guess. I was given a room in a 10 bedroom dorm for $13/night.
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There is a main lounge area with a balcony with a nice view of the city.
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Panama city has a ton of high rise buildings. It was extremely hot and humid. There was no AC and the air was heavy and stagnant. I was exausted, and starving.

Before bothering to meet anyone, I headed out to try to find some food which was harder than I thought, and I took some pictures on the way.

There were some shitty areas, where I was offered drugs
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mixed in with nicer areas
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I noticed right away that there seemed to be a high cop presence, guarding blockaded roads
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Later I found out that the president lives in Casco Viejo and thats why such a high police presence. Also, the area we are in was a typical “gringo square” in that it is an artificial safe haven, stocked with police, and a safe zone for tourists. Another words, when you wander outside of this small quadrant, it can be dangerous. One girl I met told me that the cops turned her around when she walked too far and another told her to put her money away.
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After walking around for about 45 mins all I was finding was high end sit-down restaurants when all I wanted was some quick food. I ended up settling for a street vendor (only one I saw) with some half-cooked burgers with mustard and relish for $3.50. I wolfed it down. I hate mustard and relish.
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Once returning, I put in some effort and made friends with a guy named Jonathan from Sydney. I went out to the bar at the hostel a little later and met a couple other people. I was so jetlagged after a couple beers I passed out.