PANAMA

Trip Start Jul 31, 2005
1
59
118
Trip End Feb 18, 2007


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Flag of Panama  ,
Friday, August 25, 2006

The Lying Planet

Before leaving Costa Rica, we read in the Lonely Planet that we'll have to pay a whopping 26 US dollars departure tax, even if leaving by land. Thinking this amount was a little bit unreasonably high, we started to consider paying a Coyote to smuggle us through the mountains. It could have been a option, if it weren't for the endless rain, and the weight of our rucksacks.

So when we were checking out of Costa Rica, we found out, just to make a change, that the LP had got it wrong, and you only have to pay this charge if leaving by air. Normally we are cursing the LP every time they make a fuck up. Especially when you spend ages trying to find a restaurant or a hostel, which has been put in completely the wrong place, on one of their pathetic maps. This time, however, it was slightly easier to forgive them.

The Wobbly Wooden Border Bridge

This is the first international border which we have crossed which closes for two hours around midday so the staff can eat lunch, no matter how many cars or people are waiting in line ready to cross (hasn't the concept of lunch cover and staff rotation reached these parts). Luckily we were warned so turned up later in the afternoon.
The two border posts are separated by a single lane, narrow railway bridge which traverses a river and is in no way suited to the amount of pedestrian's or vehicles that it has to handle. The pedestrian side walk had completely collapsed into the river, so we had to step along wooden planks down the middle of the track, occasionally cowering in the frame of the bridge to let trucks past. The whole bridge had many parts missing and occasional missing floor planks, leaving you staring straight down into the fast flowing river.

Border Pests

We were quite relieved to get to the other side, but as soon as we stepped foot on Panaman soil, we were greeted by the usual pest who tries to strike up conversation with you in order to get commission on a taxi or bus service.

We know that the last boat from the port town of Changuinola to our next destination, Bocas del Toro is at 5:30pm and it's already 5 o'clock so we've no time to loose. We tried ignoring the hustler, and when he still didn't bugger off, we literally told him to f**k right off and leave us in peace, which seemed to work. Oh we love being fluent in Spanish!

Dash for the Ferry

So we jump straight in a cab, and start nervously counting every second on our watch, at the same time trying to pressure our taxi driver into driving as fast as possible so we can make this last boat. The poor guy did his best, and probably wrecked the bottom of his car in the process, flying over Panama's potholed roads, it kind of made us feel a bit guilty. Still, a traveler's gotta do what a traveler's gotta do, and we get to the jetty with just minutes to spare. Unfortunately for us, the boat only had one space left and they were adamant they weren't prepared to overload the boat, even for a small bribe. We were told to get a cab to the next town, Almirante, and that the last boat from there would depart in 30 minutes time. Not wanting to loose a day stuck in some dead-end port town, we jump in a cab and hope for the best. To continue our run of bad luck, we got stuck behind truck after truck, on an extremely bendy road, and with limited opportunities for our driver to overtake. So we didn't feel very optimistic, when we arrived at the jetty some 15 minutes late. Sometimes however, the Latin American lack of punctuality works in your favour, and this was one of those times, and we made the last boat of the day, just seconds before it left.

The Cool Laid Back Caribbean Vibe of Bocas del Toro

We arrive in the island of Bocas del Toro. Bocas del Toro is a cool, laid back island, just 30 minutes off the coast of mainland Panama. Just like most of the East coast of Central America, it was settled by large numbers of migrant workers from the Caribbean islands, especially Jamaica, so it feels a lot more Caribbean than Latin and many locals speak English as their first language.

It's been a long day, so we head out for a beer with a Canadian chap who we met on the boat. We find this really cool bar, the type of bar that you only really find on Caribbean islands. The bar is called El Barco Hundido (the sunken ship in English) and part of it has been built on stilts, out into the sea, and around a sunken ship, which they light up at night. So occasionally throughout the night, very stoned people jump out of the bar and into the hole with the sunken ship. At that same bar, we also bump into a group of Catalan girls who we met in Costa Rica, so we had quite a party.

There are some ridiculously cheap drink deals on Bocas del Toro (two beers for a dollar etc), so we're certainly making up for our lack of nights out in Costa Rica. But this place hasn't just been about partying. We also did a day trip to the gorgeous island of Zapatilla, and on the way there, saw dozens of dolphins and spent some time snorkeling. The afternoon however, was spent chilling out on the island's great beach.

After getting our fill of sun for the day, and with an hour to kill before our boat left, we decided to walk around the "small" island. Though the island looked pretty small when we were approaching it from our boat, when we started to circumvent it, we started to realise it was a tad bigger than we were expecting. About 45 minutes into our walk and the position of the sun indicated to us that we were probably little over half way around, so our island stroll turned into a full scale run around the beaches, in order to get back before our boat left. Whew! Last time we're trying that!

Marc's Mineral Water Shower!

As soon as we get back from the beach, Marc rushes to one of the two shared showers which we have at the hostel. Have to be quick as there are some German tourists staying here:-) Now, Bocas del Toro has a water shortage problem, and as soon as Marc had soaped over his entire body, the shower water ran to a slow drip and shortly after completely stopped. After 10 minutes of praying for it to come back on, he had to shout to somebody in the corridor to go and get Patty, who of course found the situation totally amusing and was rolling around in stitches on the floor outside the bathroom. Patty went to speak to reception, who told her that sometimes it takes several hours before the water starts flowing again. Marc, not wanting to stand there for that long, with a thick layer of soap slowly drying against his body, asked Patricia to go down to the local supermarket and buy as many bottles of mineral water as she could carry. Marc eventually managed to wash all the soap off with this pricey water, so this will go down in trip history as the one place where it cost us more money to have a shower than we paid for the room.

Time to Cool Down in Boquette

Although, certainly not in a rush to leave behind the cool vibe of Bocas del Toro, we eventually move on to Boquete, tempted by the opportunity to spend a couple of days in a cooler climate. Boquette, is a nice, small, highland town, surrounded by lush green mountains. This was the perfect place to exercise our legs, which had ceased up after so many days laying on the beach in Bocas. So we take a hike into the local surrounding mountains for some great highland views. From Boquete, we spent practically the whole day travelling to get to Panama City.

The Capital and the Canal

Panama City is Central America's banking capital, which gives it a pretty funky high rise skyline, some well oiled locals, and some great restaurants and shopping facilities. Though the city also has several areas which are plagued by poverty and crime, and we were warned by our taxi driver who took us from the bus station, to avoid certain areas altogether, even in the daytime.

Siting in the midst of Panama City's high rise banking centre is a partially restored old town. Walking around there made a great escape from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city. It juts out into the sea and has little traffic, many squares and some very beautiful colonial buildings. One of the main reasons we wanted to visit the capital though, was to visit the Panama Canal. An amazing engineering feat and a must see if you're in Panama. We took a taxi (we're not flashpackers, it's just that taxis are really cheap in Panama) up to the first set of locks called Miraflores.
Here there is a visitors centre with details about the history and future of the Canal plus a viewing platform where you can see huge ships move through the locks. We watched a Panamax boat go through the locks, which at around 65,000 tons, is the largest possible vessel which can go through the canal.

Observations about Central America

It's been a long haul from Los Angeles down to Panama City, but a fascinating journey. We've passed through 7 different countries, lowland deserts, highland deserts, modern tourists resorts, dozens of colonial cities, volcanoes, cloud forests, lovely beaches and lush tropical rain forest. One thing we found really nifty about Central America is that in every country, you can go from a hot humid beach climate, to a much cooler mountain climate with totally different scenery, in less than a couple of hours.

Marc's favorite country: Mexico, scoring high marks for the variety of scenery, nice colonial cities, good food, tequila cocktails, and great beer.
Patty's favorite country: Guatemala, scoring high marks for the friendly people and interesting Mayan Culture and great highland mountain scenery and as the place where she worked as a volunteer.
Friendliest people: El Salvador.
Worst people: Honduran Mainland (on the Bay Islands the people are more attentive and friendly).
Cheapest country: Nicaragua.
Most expensive country: Costa Rica.
Best roads and public transport: Mexico.
Worst roads and public transport: Costa Rica.

South America here we come!
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