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Ok, so I take it back. Continental doesn’t rock.

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

After tweeting in praise for Continental I must retract my compliments. See, while they did reschedule the flight I missed free of charge they told me I would have 60 minutes to clear immigrations and customs in Houston and connect to my San Diego flight. I’ve done that before many times so I didn’t think it would be a problem till I actually looked at the tickets and noticed they quoted me the wrong times. My flight landed in Houston at 5:25 and my connecting flight was for 6pm.

I knew it was going to be tight when it took till 5:35 to taxi up to the terminal and deplane, but I gave it the good ole college try, and despite needing to piss so bad my teeth were floating I did in fact clear immigrations and customs, get the train to the other terminal and run to the gate in time. I was already making plans to make a bee line for the bathroom when I was cheerily informed at the gate that “We knew  you weren’t going to make it and we booked you on the next flight.”



Thursday, May 1st, 2008

Here are some random observations on our brief trip to Panama.

The TACA flight from San Jose, Costa Rica to Panama City, Panama took little over an hour, which was a welcome relief from longer visa trips I’d made and a lot better than the 18-hour bus ride it would have been if I’d given in to my anger at TACA and boycotted them. Arriving at the airport we checked out some of the large duty-free shopping area that I’d read about. It was fairly standard airport fare such as spirits, cigarettes and perfumes. I’d hoped to pick up a book to read but the airport surprisingly did not have a bookstore. There were also few eateries and the whole mini-mall in the airport was a repeat of the same gift shops you find in most airports. My girlfriend shopped at a Tommy Hilfiger store on the way back but I’d otherwise recommend you do your shopping outside of the airport as its convenience doesn’t offset the fact that it has little to offer.

We took a taxi to the hotel I’d planned on staying at only to find that it was fully booked, so we let a taxi driver take us to one of the hotels he obviously had a kick-back deal with (based on his sales job on the hotel). It was nothing special and I was sure we could find a much better hotel for the price but I didn’t want to spend the time looking so we checked in.

We were considering a visit to the duty-free zone Ciudad de Colon but it was a long trip (to the other coast of Panama) of several hours and I didn’t think we’d be doing enough shopping to merit the visit so we headed to one of their famous malls (the Albrook Mall) to achieve one of our two goals in Panama (shopping and visiting the canal). The mall was large and definitely much better shopping than anything you can find in Costa Rica, with much larger selection and much better prices. We ate and headed back to the hotel.

The taxis in Panama don’t use a meter, and they use a system of zones to determine fares, but they were very fair and within the city they were usually charging $1.50 to $3 and didn’t try to “stick it to the tourists” once with us, which is very different from many cities in the region that I’ve visited. They did, however, drive like absolute nuts as apparently is the custom in Panama. The regard for traffic laws (like the direction of traffic, stop lights and the basics) is much lower in Panama than it is even in Costa Rica, and the result is a lot of really frustrating traffic jams where everyone is trying to get through an intersection at once and refusing to give an inch. I saw a bus and a car face-to-face and the woman in the car honked like mad and yelled obscenities refusing to back up and let the bus continue its turn in front of her. The bus had muscled its was into the position and couldn’t go anywhere until the woman backed up and gave it space so onlookers shrugged and indicated to her to move or be crushed. She eventually did and we all moved a half car length forward.

The drivers and traffic are cartoonish and comical from afar but frustrating as hell as you realize the roads are fine and the traffic would not be too bad if the idiots would simply understand the notion of turns. As in green your turn, red their turn. Another curiosity were the flamboyant buses. Old American school buses are common in Central America where a lot of autos that are scrapped in the US end up. But in Costa Rica they often stay yellow and there are more typical passenger buses (manufactured in Brazil) that comprise most of the passenger fleet. But in Panama the overwhelming majority of passenger buses are private (as in the guy driving it may be the owner of the one-bus company) and they airbrush the buses and put lights inside. The blacklights inside look like a cheap disco and on the outside they resemble a hippy’s airbrushed van. They were very interesting!

Panama was very hot in comparison to Costa Rica’s central valley so we only visited the old city’s ruins briefly and headed off to visit the Panama Canal. We went to the Miraflores locks and had lunch in their restaurant and took the tour. It is an underwhelming sight as you can’t appreciate the full magnitude of the canal from this one vantage point (though it’s the best) but it was interesting enough. There was a ship in the locks upon arrival so we were able to see what we needed quickly and now I have seen the Panama Canal. I’ve always wanted to, but it’s really the least interesting tourist sight I have seen.

That afternoon we headed back to Albrook Mall we were close and we have a Multiplaza Mall in Costa Rica and though I’d like to have seen the Multicentro Mall (the largest in Central America from what I’ve read) I’m not big on shopping and took the lazy route. My girlfriend shopped for clothes while I looked for electronics. I didn’t find a lot of the items I was looking for (but I’m a geek and am looking for very specific high-end stuff) so I ended up doing that boring “watch your girlfriend shop” routine.

In the mall were the oddest mannequins I have ever seen. Nearly all of them had DD chest sizes and would look like exaggerations even on porn actresses. I thought it was bizarre but my girlfriend thought my interests were not cultural when I tried to point them out to her (I didn’t need to, if you caught one out of the corner of your eye you might flinch thinking they’d explode). The populace wasn’t thusly endowed so the clothes on the mannequins were often stretched till they were nearly threadbare. I really don’t get this marketing and can’t imagine that it works well.

All in all, it was another perfunctory visa trip, and from a Costa Rica resident’s point of view I can recommend Panama for it’s great shopping but can now say with relative certainty that Costa Rica’s neighbors to the north and south are simply nowhere near as interesting to travel in as Costa Rica.

TACA Airlines - One of the Worst Airlines I have done business with

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

I’ve traveled extensively in my life but never had to deal with an airline like TACA. The typical experience with TACA is unintelligible customer support (in their own language), a phone system that drops your calls when on hold or transferring at nearly a 50% rate and simply lazy incompetent staff.

Last trip I took with them (to Nicaragua) involved a checkin time of nearly an hour. That wasn’t an hour waiting in line or anything. It was nearly an hour at the desk waiting for them to get their asses out of their hands and get a simple, baggage-free checkin done. During that time the other 4 members of the staff huddled around one of their cell phones leaving the growing line behind us waiting the whole time as well.

Today I am calling TACA to pay for my tickets tomorrow. They tell me that I should pay over the phone because doing so at the airport would require arrival 4 hours before the flight. Now I’ve been calling them for about a week trying to pay them, but their credit card processing service is invariably off line and every time I’ve called so far they have dropped the call while transfering or holding, requiring me to start all over again.

This is the most ridiculous level of competence I’ve seen in an airline in all my life. A damn shame they don’t have enough competition in the region to make this change.

But if you can, avoid TACA!

Manuel Antonio (Quepos), Costa Rica

Sunday, March 2nd, 2008

Ok, so on Friday we decided to go to the beach (Manuel Antonio, in Quepos)  on a whim and took our dog Harry.  He vomited a bit on the way (he gets motion sickness) but he enjoyed the trip and eagerly took in the sights.

It’s a long drive, several hours, and we left pretty late so we got to the beach at around 11 and started looking for a hotel. Luckily, one of the first hotels with vacancies said having a dog would be no problem so we checked in and all headed out to dinner.

Dinner proved to be more challenging, as it was now past midnight and most kitchens were closed. But we found a restaurant/bar whose kitchen was still open and their food was not bad at all. They had no problem with Harry (the tables are on a covered, but open, deck) so he joined us for dinner (from under the table).

Harry woke us up early the next day, and we checked out and headed for the beach. We had a quick breakfast at a beach side restaurant and then hit the sand. We rented some chairs and a big beach umbrella that were setup all across the beach and took orders from the various waiters serving drinks across the beach (that’s alone is one reason I prefer living outside the States) and drank beer while Harry discovered digging. He’d tried digging at home on a tiled surface but at the beach it actually worked and he frantically dug a fairly impressive hole. This kept him busy enough for us to relax until he saw a large rottweiler run into the surf and roll around in the water. Harry went nuts and challenged the dog to a duel. We had to hold him back as he barked and thrashed and tried to get loose to quote “kick the dogs ugly ass”.  He’s a Maltese and loses his fights with our not-yet-fully-grown cat so I played it safe and held him off the ground.

I rented a jet ski for an hour and spent some time circling some islands right outside of the national park (where I was not allowed to go) which was a lot of fun, and then we headed back. The trip back was in the daylight, and the two narrow rusting metal bridges you need to cross to get to Quepos looked even more derelict than at night. Thankfully, they are being replaced with new bridges and it shouldn’t take the 15 to 20 minutes it sometimes does to get across in the future.

In San Jose, I had a bit of bad luck and was stopped by a traffic police. I hadn’t renewed the “right to circulate” (kinda like registration) for the car yet and the cop played hardball saying he may have to take my license plates. He was, of course, expecting a bribe but I would rather not pay into their corruption (I think tolerance for corruption is a huge impediment to economic progress in developing countries) and he took them away and ticketed me. Now I’ll have to go through a lot of hoops and pay a lot of fines to get them back and since I don’t have time or patience to do so I’ll end up paying someone else to do it. He would have let me walk for 10 to 20 dollars, but now I’ll end up paying a couple hundred and not being able to drive my car a week or two and paying a lot in taxis. The good angel on my shoulder (as opposed to the lil’ demon who gives the bad advice)  is avoiding me because he knows I want to kill him right now.

But in any case, we got home and the cat hadn’t partied too hard in our absence so all is well.

P.S No, we didn’t go to the national park. I’ve already been several times and we’ll be back soon enough so we didn’t bother walking over to ask if Harry could go. Given his enthusiasm to confront the dogs, horses, and cows he saw it would have been funny to see his reaction to monkeys but that will have to wait till next time.

Nicaragua as expected

Sunday, January 13th, 2008

Our stay in Managua, Nicaragua was uneventful. We stayed at the Best Western across from the airport (literally across the street). We went to the “Metro Centro” which was little more than a mall. I was disappointed in the difficulty in finding a decent restaurant. We ended up eating Pizza Hut there!

From there we went to some other commercial centers and to Managua lake, but there’s really no center of activity in Managua. So we stayed in the hotel most of the time, enjoying the pool, bar and restaurant.

Our exit was problematic, with Taca airlines taking 40 minutes to check us in but at least I renewed my Visa and can put all that behind me.

Pet Hotel

Tuesday, January 8th, 2008

Damn, I left Harry and Fiona at a pet hotel today, as we are leaving tomorrow to Nicaragua for a few days. I didn’t think I’d miss them but I’ve grown accustomed to Harry’s furry little face and have come to look forward to greeting him when I get home.

Coming home after dropping him off, I caught myself calling for him as I walked through the door. He looked so damned sad as I left him, probably more to do with having vomited from motion sickness than knowing that we were leaving him but that’s still the last I remember of the cute lil’ bastard.

I’m off to Nicaragua tomorrow, but can’t wait till it’s all over and we are all back home.

Nicaragua and Visa Problems

Wednesday, December 26th, 2007

As I previously wrote, I was planning a trip to Panama in December, as I have to leave Costa Rica every 90 days for 48 hours as per the requirements of my tourist visa. My fiancé was waiting for her passport to arrive, and it arrived late which ruined our plans for Panama so in my haste to get out of Costa Rica before I’m illegal I booked a trip to Costa Rica’s other neighboring country, Nicaragua.

I bought two plane tickets to Managua and then looked into the visa requirements to enter Nicaragua. I had heard visas were necessary but all the information I saw online indicated that Nicaragua had done away with the requirement to foster tourism. There were a couple of countries (e.g. “Palestine”) that Nicaraguan government websites listed as needing visas but neither the US nor Costa Rica were on those lists so I figured we’d be ok. For good measure I called the Nicaraguan consulate in San Jose, Costa Rica but despite trying 5 different phone numbers over several days was never able to get anyone to answer.

So on Christmas morning we dragged ourselves out of bed and took a taxi to the airport (a friend, who didn’t sleep all through Christmas Eve to take us), paid the airport taxes and were ready to go.

At the TACA desk we were told that US citizens don’t need visas but Costa Ricans need a visa to enter Nicaragua and we were not allowed to board. Furthermore I was told that my tickets were non-refundable. I was so upset that upon leaving the airport I tried to kill myself by eating Denny’s food (just kidding, their breakfast isn’t that bad even if it has enough grease to make someone not on an American diet queasy).

I’m not sure why Costa Rica nationals are required to have a visa to enter Nicaragua, but I suspect it’s some sort of reciprocal action based on the immigration tensions between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Costa Rica has many Nicaraguan immigrants, with some estimates putting it as high as 25% of their population and there are some resulting tensions. I think all this kind of crap is just slightly-modernized tribalism. Countries are just lines in the sand and one should be able to go anywhere they want on this planet if you ask me.

Anyway, I’m now trying to figure out what to do next, and I’ll probably pay $100 to reschedule our flights in order to lose the least amount of money. My buddy Tri had agreed to house sit for our pets and came over on Christmas Eve and I’m a bit pissed that he made that sacrifice for naught.

Happy happy joy joy…. I may even hasten my marriage to get residency so that I’m not forced to make inconvenient trips outside of the country every 90 days.

Planning a trip to Panama

Thursday, December 6th, 2007

I need to make a visa trip mid-December and it looks like I’ll be going to Panama (just looking for something nearby and Nicaragua isn’t as interesting to me. I’m not too excited about the whole thing, as I have to leave by the 15th or so and will have friends in Panama around the new years so I may even go by bus to make it more interesting.

My girlfriend is waiting on her passport so she can go with me but I’m going to get residency in Costa Rica just so I don’t have to make these stupid visa trips.