What a Day

Trip Start Sep 07, 2011
1
22
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Trip End Dec 22, 2011


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Flag of Panama  , Colón,
Thursday, October 6, 2011

Sapzurro, Colombia awaits me in about a week and so unspoiled it is that banks and ATMs do not exist.   Since at some point es necesito to find some sort of peso based accommodation, food, and onward transport out of there, I decided to be proactive for once on this trip and exchange some US Dollars into Colombian currency.  

Omar at the hostel emphatically told me "no problem" while scratching out "Centrobank Calle 50" on a slip of paper.   Yes, "no problem."   Just show a taxi driver that piece of paper, pay two bucks and then a few minutes later my pockets should be overflowing with those elusive pesos.    The first two drivers I flagged down shook their heads and drove off.  Was it the address?  Did they not want to transport some big white guy drenched in sweat?  The third let out a huge gasp and waved me into the backseat of his tiny yellow car and acted like he was doing me some sort of tremendous favor.  We arrived at a green skyscraper and I went right into Centrobank to collect my pesos after a patdown and search of my backpack by an armed guard with shotgun.

Well of course Centrobank does not exchange money, or any banks for that matter.   I asked the information desk where I could exchange and all they could offer was "not possible."  They then debated for about 5 minutes and finally produced a "maybe"... The maybe being some hotel across town.   Not wanting any sort of wild goose chase I took a taxi back to the hostel and asked why they sent me to a bum location.

"No, no, no, no.   You don't look hard enough.  It's in the building around the corner," was the defense.  Ok.  I am not telepathic.  If you hand me a piece of paper with Centrobank Calle 50 on it, I am going to Centrobank on Calle 50 and transacting my business inside the Centrobank at Calle 50.  Not next door.  Not down the street.  How the hell am I supposed to know CentroBank Calle 50 is some sort of code for another business near there?   I gave a piece of my mind and said specific business names would be helpful.   Omar just said he had just been there yesterday.   Great, whooptie doo...I was there today and need more than "Centrobank Calle 50!"

So now I got directions to another Casa de Cambio (exchange house) accessible via the #2 bus.   My instructions this time were a vague "get off at Multiplaza Mall and walk some.   You will see many Casas de Cambio for exchanging."   Walk?  Where?  East?  North?  One block or two?  Completely soaked in sweat, hungry, thirsty and about to set it off in there, I left to search yet again. I love an adventure but not some bogus chase de pesos more like some geocache gone horribly bad.

Knowing full well a lack of pesos upon arrival in Colombia will mean eating coconuts off the trees, sleeping on the beach and hitching rides, off I went on another treasure hunt via the 25 cent bus.   I noticed the bus was inching its way towards the area of Centrobank's tower so I exited where I thought I could walk to it.   I figured I'd try again there rather than take a stab in the dark near Multiplaza.  Three short blocks later I struck gold, actually pesos in this case.   Turns out the Casa de Cambio is very discretely tucked away in a safety deposit box/Western Union storefront complete with armed guard and metal detector    Another 25 cent bus ride back home, and I was in business.   I never knew exchanging money could be such a mess and how the hell does an entire bank staff not know three doors down in their skyscraper a casa de cambio spits out pesos?

Now facing the easier challenge of finding my way to Portobelo on the Caribbean coast, yet again I boarded the #2 chicken bus with all my luggage for a standing room only ride across town to the Albrook Terminal.   The only information in my travel arsenal from Omar was find an express bus to Colon but get off at Sabanitas for a transfer to another bus.   This terminal has dozens and dozens of bus bays so who knows where to start.  Poking around in bad Spanish brought me to an exit near a red bus.   Accessing the platform cost a nickel for a clumsy trip through a tiny turnstile with bags.  If you've ever seen Norbit, remember Rasputia squeezing through the turnstile at the waterpark?  Yep, that was me today.  

As luck would have it I sat next to a kind woman who spoke English, and I think she must have taken pity on me.  There I was drenched in sweat clueless as to where I was heading.   She told me she was headed to Sabanitas and would show me where to catch the next bus.    Our bus dumped us off in front of some market where she pointed me around the corner to the Portobelo stop.  Meeting her was a blessing because intuition would not have led me to change streets to find the next unclearly marked chicken bus.

Luck found me again as a chicken bus was about to immediately depart for what I hoped would be my final destination.  No waiting in the rain but no knowing if indeed this was the right ride.  Our driver's tremendous skill level included knowing how to slam on brakes and whip around corners.   I carefully balanced squished between other standing patrons and hung on for dear life and finally made it Portobelo. 

Supposedly Christopher Columbus named this joint Puerto Bello or beautiful port.   My how a few centuries change things.   I wouldn't exact call this tiny town of 3,000 beautiful though the water is.  Two streets of decayed grandeur line a cove, and I may as well be a million miles from all the skyscrapers and malls of Panama City. 

The boat to Colombia should leave on the 8th, possibly a day or two later.   Portobelo is home until then.   I will see what I can get into here with some fellow travelers I have met.

How I got here:

Two minute walk from Panama by Luis to bus stop 
#2 bus from Coco del Mar to Terminal Albrook- 25 cents - 30 minutes
Regular bus from Terminal to Sabanitas - $3.15 - 1:15
Chichen bus from Sabanitas to Portobelo - $1.25 - 45 minutes
Three minute walk from town center to Hostel Portobelo

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