Panama City, Panama
Panama and Parting Thoughts
Panama City, Panama
$32 dollars bought a ticket on a ‘direct’ shuttle and boat to Bocas del Toro, the remote island paradise in the north western corner of Panama. The shuttle was an old van filled to capacity and basically dumped us at the border in Sixola. We were swiftly exited from Costa Rica and made to walk across the river via a rather old railway bridge. The bridge was in desperate need of a plank here and a bolt there and it was shared by both pedestrians and 18 wheeler trucks. I am not sure what would have happened had a truck wanted to cross while a gaggle of backpackers were in transit. It was comforting to see a new bridge being built alongside so perhaps there sharing won’t continue for much longer. Entering Panama was relatively simple, pay $3, stand here, wait, get stamp, get bag searched by customs. Being an Australian and crossing borders has definitely worked in our advantage. It may be our jazzy new passports or the fact we ride kangaroos at home, but the customs official just waved us through. Trustworthy Aussies. Unbeknownst to Mr Panamanian customs official, I had smuggled a jar of crunchy peanut butter into Panama. Joel 1, Panama 0.
After the thrill of my first smuggling experience had subsided, we arrived in Almirante. The journey had been uneventful except for the onboard entertainment system, a video screen in the vans dashboard playing various music videos. My personal favourite was Aerosmith’s, ‘I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing’. It conjured up memories of my brother’s wedding, a certain orange monkey suit and karaoke number. But that’s another story. The ferry terminal left a lot to be desired as did the rather small boat that was to safely deliver us to Bocas. A little man hastily grabbed everyone’s bags and loaded/threw them on the boat. He then asked one of our fellow travellers if he wanted to buy marijuana and asked me for a tip. Joseph flat out refused, as the guy really didn’t do anything and we never asked him to do it in the first place. I was more surprised, given my desheviled appearance that the baggage man didn’t ask me if I wanted any pot. Apparently, I still look like the kind of guy who tips and not some young, partying backpacker. I guess I am not fooling anyone.
As we all took our seats in the boat, our little row at the back was rather full. There was a lady and her son still to board and the only space was in the row in front next to a rather grumpy Panamanian. Long story short, he refused to move so we all made room for her in the back row. He then went on a tirade about how that was his seat, he is from Panama, people don’t understand the rules. I had a hard time feeling sorry for him as my pelvis was crushed up against the fibreglass hull. Forty minutes later and three millimetres of bone scraped from my hip, we pulled into Bocas town. In addition to the mainland, Bocas del Toro is made up of nine main islands. The Bocas Town waterfront resembles the set of the 1995 Kevin Costner classic, Waterworld. All the buildings are built over the water and each has a little pier jutting out. Short of a certain terrible actor with gills behind his ears clutching a jar of dirt,, we were on the set. The town itself, once you get past the novelty of the shoreline, is rather disappointing. The main street is filled with hostels, restaurants, and supermarkets. Behind that it is mostly residential. The houses, for the most part, are built on stilts. The surrounding land can only really be described as ‘soggy’, it really was a stagnant water, mosquito breeding ground heaven.
Our plan was to head immediately out to Isla Bastimentos, the most beautiful island in the archipelago. There are not too many facilities there so while Joseph bought groceries, I was put in charge of commandeering a sea worthy vessel to take us there. For $3 per person we caught a small boat out to Bastimentos Island. The captain asked where we were staying and apparently our hostel was on a different part of the island, a part that would cost $10 per person to reach. Of course it was.
After being dumped at a deserted jetty we loaded up our 20kg packs, that felt closer to 100kg in the sweltering heat, and headed to our hostel of choice, Bocas Bound. Back in Costa Rica, I had attempted to reserve a private room at this establishment. Only to discover we would have to print two forms and a credit card authority, fill them in a fax them back to secure the reservation. Finding a printer was difficult enough let alone a fax machine so we opted to try our luck by just turning up. Surley is the word I would use to describe the receptionist. When asked about available private rooms she flat our said no and returned to whatever she was doing on the computer. I am guessing a very challenging game of solitare. An American girl, who was also behind the desk, came to our rescue and offered us a quad room instead. This of course meant we would have the room to ourselves but we’d have to pay for four beds. I had lost most of my body weight in sweat walking to the hostel, so the decision was made to take the room. The room, although it had four beds (bunks), was surprisingly small. I am not sure how four people and their backpacks would have actually fit. The bathroom was also shared. Something we haven’t had to endure since Caye Caulker so it took some readjusting.
The reason we chose the hostel was because it was located just behind Reg Frog Beach. The beach is known for its, well, red frogs. There was a little, muddy path cut that through some very thick, lush tropical jungle and led to the beach. Red Frog Beach is, in a word, stunning. The beach is flanked by two rocky outcrops and the beautiful azure blue Caribbean crashes against the sand in between. It felt incredibly remote, if you could imagine the hoards of backpackers gone. We spent the rest of the afternoon that day on Red Frog beach. This was the nicest day we had on Isla Bastimentos.
Unfortunately, on our first evening, the heavens opened up. They stayed open for pretty much the rest of our stay. Not letting the torrential downpour dampen our spirits, we headed off into the jungle for a soggy hike. We did get to see a little red frog hop across our path which was pretty awesome. The rest of the day was spent undercover, in the common area of the hostel. The space was quite large, dry and had a bar so we had everything we needed. Joseph managed to rustle up a Jenga set too. Jenga is a game you can play for about 30 minutes before extreme boredom sets is. With a good 5 hours remaining before it was socially acceptable to go to sleep, we turned our attention to two boxes of trival pursuit questions. Focussing only on the geography questions, we asked each other every single question. I learnt a few things:
Joseph is smarter than me, geographically speaking
The cards were printed before 1989 due to the many references to East and West Germany
The number of questions I answer incorrectly is directly proportionate to the number of beers consumed.
The next day the rains continued so we decided to cut our losses and move to Bocas Town with the hope of entertainment other than Jenga and Trivial Pursuit. We checked into Hotel Olas where for $48 a night you could get a room smelling of urine just next to a bar that played Israeli music most of the day. The rain actually stopped during the afternoon so we headed to the overwater travel agent to book our tickets to Panama City in a few days. The one lady on the entire island that could sell the tickets was off to lunch and would be back in two hours. Rather than go back to little Jerusalem we rented some bikes and set off to check out the beaches to the north of the island. If for no other reason, than just for a little exercise. Upon our return, the lady was still MIA which was about when something inside Joseph snapped. I guess the whole inefficiency of island time and the siesta concept had gotten to him. To be honest, I had had a gut full of it too. Give me online ordering any day ove
r this ‘she’ll be back when she gets back’ ********. Travel meltdown ‘the second’ is what ensued. The decision was made on the spot to get out of Bocas Town and head directly to Panama City the next day.
We would spend the remainder of our Central America time in one hotel in Panama City. Using this as a base we could take day trips to explore the area. I searched online and found us a neat little hotel, Costa Inn, in the allegedly nice part of town, with free breakfast and a rooftop pool for a bargain $50 a night. But I digress, eventually, the Bocas ticket lady graced us with her presence and sold us tickets. Under different circumstances, by that I mean sunny weather, Bocas could have been a fantastic place. I would still recommend Isla Bastimentos as it is quite breathtaking, even in the wet.
6:15am the next day we were on the boat back to the mainland. Our connecting bus, Tranceibosa, cost $32 and promised to deliver us all the way to Panama City in 10 hours. The bus actually was comfortable enough for the journey and I had a bunch of Underbelly episodes to watch so I was looking forward to it. Crossing through the continental divide was steep and covered in thick jungle. Once we passed through to the Pacific side the weather instantly changed. The clouds cleared and the temperature rose to about 35 degrees. Joseph and I smiled at each other with the knowledge that our hotel in Panama had a rooftop pool.
Our smiles quickly turned to frowns when the bus promptly broke down. My laptop battery had also died so things went from bad to worse. It’s amazing just how hot a bus parked in full sun gets when the air conditioning is turned off. All the passengers sat patiently in the solar oven until somebody cracked and got off. Then, like sweaty rats off a sinking ship we all followed suit. I managed to find a spot under a tree in the shade to wait. Eventually a second, much crappier bus, came to take us the rest of the journey. It was just in time too. Apparently a section of the road we had just past through had been closed. There have been a few protests in Panama of late. It’s apparently a debate about mining with the indigenous folk and it seems blocking roads is the done thing. We saw on the news at one of the bus stations someone had been shot in the leg. They were happy to broadcast some graphic gunshot wounds on the midday news.
Fifteen hours after we had departed Bocas Town, we had reached Panama City. Yes, we could have flown direct from Melbourne to LA in less time. Driving into Panama and across the Bridge of The Americas which spans the Panama Canal was a sight. It was night time and all the red and green navigational beacons were alight, guiding giant ships up the canal. Panama City also took me by surprise. I was expecting, like most Central American capitals, a rundown city with a penchant for burning rubbish. Instead, we were presented with a metropolis. Huge residential skyscrapers were lit up and rose out of the coast line, it was very impressive. The tap water was actually drinkable and the streets were rubbish free. Mind you, like there are still places that you wouldn’t go at night and I am fairly sure I saw a crazy man wielding a knife a few blocks away from our hotel.
As we had intended to stay in Panama City for eight whole days, we decided to seek out a gym. All this travelling, eating and drinking had started to take its toll. Plus we were meeting Craig in Brazil and the thought of rolling our tubby carcasses onto the beach in a speedo prompted the decision. Our first morning was spent on a quest for a gym. There were some listed in the phonebook but the addresses contained just street names, no numbers. So we head of in the 35+ degree heat in full sun. I discovered my body’s natural cooling mechanism was in fine working order as I left a trail of sweat puddles in my wake. We managed to find one gym attached to the Intercontinental Hotel for a cool $20 a day. Back at our ‘not so Intercontinental’ hotel we reviewed our finances and decided we should keep looking for a more basic gym. I am glad we did because literally around the corner we found a little place for $2.50. Granted it was no Intercontinental and it was as hot as hell in there, but it had all the equipment we needed to avoid being big fatso whales in Brazil.
With the gym found, Joseph and I happily settled into a little routine. In the mornings, we would battle with a mass of greedy Panamanias over the breakfast buffet. It was almost as if each person had a personal challenge to take as much food away from the buffet at a time. I was eventually greeted by a slither of runny eggs and some kind of chopped up sausage. I opted for fresh fruit, yogurt and cereal which was not surprisingly, unpopular with the others and that suited me just fine. After breakfast, we would head down to the gym for a smart workout, this was also the time I would sweat my guts out. There is something to be said for doing a workout in a sauna. Once gym time was over we would freshen up and head out for whatever daily activity we had planned the night before. These activities would tend to last a few hours and our afternoons would be spent lazing around the rooftop pool.
Probably my favourite little activity was the trip to the Miraflores locks on the Panama Canal. I am kind of fascinated by feats of engineering, buildings, dams, bridges, you get the idea. So the Panama Canal has always been high on the list. The Miraflores locks are the first ones a ship reaches from the Pacific Ocean side. Ships are raised 8 meters in three stages here. There is a visitors centre and a Panama Canal museum onsite. When we first arrived we were lucky enough to see a huge ship going through the locks, being raised and heading on her way to the Atlantic. It’s a slow process but was awesome to see. We entertained ourselves at the museum and watched a little Panamanian propaganda on the canal before heading back in a Taxi.
On the subject of Taxis, Joseph has become quite the little negotiator. Sick and tired of being rolled in taxis, he has made it his mission to get rock bottom cab fares. Admittedly, it’s a bit frustrating when a cab can cost between $3 to $10 for the exact same trip. Again, not a lot of money but it’s the principle. The other infuriating thing is they’ll collect other passengers, locals, and charge them 75 cents for the same bloody trip! So Joseph would hail down cabs, talk money and either accept or reject the offer. I just nod or shake my head like a non Spanish speaking fool while the negotiations were happening. His skills came in handy for all of our little day time excursions. Not only did we go to the canal, we visited the old part of town, San Felipe, the Amador Causeway and the largest shopping mall in all of Central America. I won’t bore you with the details of the mall and you could probably give the Amador causeway a miss. There is a nice view from the causeway looking back at the city though. Also the causeway connects the mainland to two little islands. It’s about 6km long and was built from the rocks excavated during the canals construction.
San Felipe is worth a visit. We’ve been told the neighbourhoods surrounding the area are a bit rough, but there are police and guards everywhere so you feel like a safe little tourist wandering around. San Felipe or Casco Viejo was built around 1671 and is a world heritage site. The buildings are in the process of being restored to their former glory and the whole place is quite captivating. I remember thinking it would be a nice place to stay if we were ever to return. But I didn’t see any gyms around or pools so perhaps it wouldn’t have suited our diva like requirements. As the whole area juts out into the Pacific, it also provides a nice view back towards the city.
Our eight days in Panama flew by and before we knew it, we were packing our bags and heading for Brazil a little skinnier and a little more tanned.
Hola! Joseph here. As this is our last post from Central America, we thought this would be an opportune time to include some interesting travel tips that we have learned along the way. In no particular order:
1. Toilet paper goes in the bin. It’s gross and stinky, but the toilets really will clog, which can be a bit embarrasing.
2. Travelling by chicken buses is extremely cheap, but absurdly uncomfortable. You will save money, but may end up losing your sanity if you have to travel too far.
3. Hot water should not be expected ever. Think of it as a little surprise if it is available.
4. Suicide showers are scary, but very common. They are also the only way that you might get any semblance of hot water.
5. Learn Spanish. It helps enormously.
6. Surprisingly, it is very easy to find WiFis. The connection is not always the greatest, but they are readily available.
7. Take your malaria pill in the morning to avoid weird dreams.
8. It can be surprisingly cold in the highlands.
9. Expect every bus to take at least 30% longer than quoted.
10. If you are trying to book a hostel or accomodation on line before you get there, don’t be surprised if you can’t find too many places. Often, when you look online, there are only a handful of hostels that are listed. As soon as you get there, you will usually find heaps more, many of which are much nicer.
11. If a town always quotes prices in US dollars, it is going to be really expensive (comparatively speaking).
12. Learn to negotiate and don’t be afraid to turn the first offer down. That said, if two dollars makes the difference between a 6 hour bus ride and an hour cab, for heaven’s sake, you’re on vacation.
13. Avoid beef burritos in Tamarindo, Costa Rica.
14. Take the more expensive ferry to Ometepe Island, Nicaragua.
15. If you’ve seen one colonial town, you’ve seen them all.
16. Beer is often cheaper than water and colder.
17. Each country will genreally only have one or two national beers, but here is a list of our favourites: Mexico-Corona, Belize- Belikin, Guatemala- Gallo, Honduras- Barena, Nicaragua- Tona, Costa Rica- Imperial Silver, Panama- Atlas.
Stay tuned for the next installment of our adventure…Brasil!