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Panama Travelog

November 2018

Episode 1 – Viva Panama

So, back on the road again. After 15 years it feels good to tie up our boots and hoist our packs on our backs. For those of you who followed our big trip this will just be a short one, only 5 months. If you’re keen and want to read about our 2002-2004 travels try

We start out with the same fears and apprehensions that we had before our flight the Caracas in 2002. Having read all the travel warnings and dangers we even contemplated cancelling. We did, however, adjust our original plans so we skip Nicaragua (FCO says “necessary travel only”) and El Salvador (not much there, really) and only doing a bit of Honduras and doing it with a travel group. So, first stop ...

Panama City

We flew via Mexico City so our flight to Panama was over Central America and had good views of the mountains and smoking volcanos and a great view of the canal and Panama City as we came in to land. PC has lots of reasonably priced decent hotels and we got one in the centre of the financial district just around the corner from the Metro station. Panama’s new, clean, bright, fast, air conditioned subway is a delight (if only London was so lucky). And, at only 35 cents a ride, a real bargain -- and convenient, because it uses a prepaid card system that can also be used on the buses.

Panama is a big modern metropolis (with all the traffic congestion that goes with such a place). The tourist industry seems to be built around wealthy day trip cruise passengers so we ended up using the Metro and buses to make our own way around. Working out the bus system was a challenge as there doesn’t seem to be any route or time information posted anywhere. It seems Panamanians just know where to stand.
On our first full day we made our way to the number one thing to see – the famous Panama Canal and the Miraflores locks. Here there’s a visitor centre with views of the locks and a museum detailing the history of the building of the canal. We watched several big ships going through the locks and, in the distance, could see even bigger ships going through the new longer/wider locks that opened in 2016. Unfortunately we were there in the rainy season and it poured (and thundered) so hard they even delayed some of the transits. The Panamanians, however, appreciate the rain as it is their “gold” – it fills the lakes that keep the canal functioning.

As early as the 16th century the Spanish were crossing the isthmus on a road they built to transport gold mined in South America. This crossing was slow, arduous and dangerous and in the 1850s a railway was completed -- the most expensive railway per kilometre ever built – supported by the demand from gold seekers heading to California in the 1849 gold rush. Bolstered by their success building the Suez Canal, in the 1880’s French engineers proposed a sea level canal to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. A company was created, stocks and bonds sold, work commenced, fraud and corruption followed and that, combined with a lack of understanding of how malaria and yellow fever were transmitted (22,000 died) and the hard rock and dense jungle of the isthmus rather than the soft sand of the Suez eventually killed the project. In 1904 the Americans bought the remnants of the company and by planning a lock based canal, massive mosquito control and health efforts, and using bigger and more powerful machinery succeeded, in 1914, to complete the canal. (Sadly the opening was somewhat overshadowed by events in Europe that year.) Today, over 400 million tons of cargo on 14,000 ships transit the canal every year.

The next day we went to see the old city, which was the new city that was built in 1674 after the old old city (dating from 1519) was sacked by the English pirate Henry Morgan in 1671. Casco Viejo declined into slums as the wealthy and prosperous Panamanians moved into the modern suburbs. It’s colonial architecture is now being restored with boutique hotels, trendy bars and restaurants. There’s much to see here including churches, plazas, and an interesting museum that outlined the history of the Panama Canal. Unfortunately, to get there, we had to walk through a bit that is still slum and Jackie was on edge but we made it unscathed.

Using the rock from the digging of the canal, a 2 kilometre causeway to some nearby islands was built to protect PC’s harbour. This flat narrow strip of land is now popular with joggers, cyclists and walkers escaping the noise and pollution of the city. Here we visited the Smithsonian Nature Center and saw our first sloths and learned about efforts to help endangered frogs suffering from chytrid fungus. We also saw the multi-coloured roofed, Frank Gehry designed Biomuseum (didn’t go in – impressive from the outside, poor ratings for the inside).

We even found time to keep up with our Harry Potter – “Fantastic Beasts - The Crimes of Grindelwald” opened this weekend.

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El Valle de Anton

So, we managed to suss out our first intercity bus and make our way to El Valle. Less than three hours from PC is this small town in the crater of an extinct volcano surrounded by green forests and jagged peaks. Its proximity and fresh and (relatively) cooler air means it is popular with Panama City dwellers. We stayed in what is supposedly an orchid garden/nursery but, sadly, it’s the wrong time of year and there were only a few blooms. But we did see square trunked trees! (well, sort of square-ish). At the zoo we saw tapirs, monkeys, jaguars, coyotes, frogs, lots of birds and much more. Thanks to its geography and geology, Panama is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. It was nice to see these animals up close but we felt rather sorry for the bigger animals, some of whom had clearly been driven mad by captivity in small cages. Other things we did was a visit to the Butterfly Haven and waterfalls that included a swim surrounded by rain forest.

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Santa Fé

Well, we’re really proud of ourselves now - three buses including having to flag one down on the Interamerican highway. This gets us to Santa Fé, another tiny mountain town. This place is very hilly and strung out along (mostly) one road – we got lots of exercise as our hotel was 500 metres out of town and it was a steep uphill walk in. There are hikes and waterfalls around but we were lazy and spent a day in the hammocks with our beer enjoying the bright sunshine and pleasant weather. We did get off our butts long enough to do a little white-water tubing (self-guided inner tube float down the river with some category I/II rapids) – just the right balance of fear and fun. We also had a great meal at a fabulous Cambodian restaurant that was on the hillside down a little dirt track.

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Our first “chicken bus”! Actually, it was a posh, comfortable double-decker on which one of the passengers brought a live chicken and a box of chicks (well, we assume chicks based on the chirps). Then we transferred to an actual “chicken bus” (of the American yellow school bus variety) but, sadly, no chickens. This brings us to Boquete, a much larger and more touristy town. And, we arrive the day before Independence Day. TALK ABOUT LOUD!!! Our hotel, conveniently located in the centre of town was directly across from the main square where there was a stage and banks of speakers aimed directly at our room. The band went on until after midnight at which time the restaurant below our window picked up the festivities until 4am. At 6am the kids with their instruments started arriving (and tuning up) for the big parade. This year’s national celebrations were in Boquete and the marching bands, soldiers, police, and every other imaginable organisation started the parade at 9am and didn’t finish until after midnight. OK, so we didn’t get much sleep but the vibe was incredible. This is a big event for Panamanians – the president arrived by helicopter and the whole parade (all 15 hours of it) was televised on national television.

The next day the silence was deafening (and the empty roads felt a bit weird). Boquete has a lovely spring-like climate and is popular with American retirees. There are lots of good restaurants and even a craft brewery (we’ve suffered 2 weeks on lager). We took an interesting tour of a small scale coffee plantation and learned a lot about coffee production. Panama doesn’t produce high volume “Robusta” coffee like its neighbours but instead concentrates on low volume high quality “Arabica” beans. Their famous “Geisha” coffee sells (locally) for over $100/kilo.

We went for a hike into the jungle and saw our first truly wild sloth. On our way back we stopped at an interesting rock formation of hexagonal basalt columns that were created similarly to “The Giant’s Causeway” in Northern Ireland (though these are horizontal).

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Bocas del Toro

Taking the easy option, rather than a series of local buses, we took a direct shuttle bus from our hotel. The scenery coming over the Cordillera Central mountains was stunning. We then boarded a water taxi to get us to Bocas Town in the Bocas del Toro archipelago in the southern Caribbean.

After the cool cloud forest of Boquete (we actually wore our fleeces one evening) we’re back to the hot humid climate of the lowlands, though this being a Caribbean island, it’s not as humid as Panama City. Very much a tourist town, there’s lots to do here (diving, snorkelling, surfing, lying on the beach). We took a boat tour to see dolphins, sloths and starfish. We also had time for snorkelling and tried “Deepboarding” – basically you get dragged behind a motorboat with a small curved board that, tilted correctly, pulls you down to see the coral without all the work of swimming. Peter even managed a few tricks, good fun.

One day we took a local bus to the other end of the island to Boca del Drago. It would be hard to find a more idyllic beach than Starfish Beach anywhere in the world. White sand, palms to the water’s edge, a few places selling beer and whole pineapple rum drinks, a bit of music playing, only a few people and dead-calm, bath-warm, crystal-clear water.

On the night of the new moon we went out in a boat to see the bioluminescence. Plankton, bacteria, seaweed (and many other creatures) in seawater glow (like fireflies), some in response to light, some when agitated. Motoring through shallow bays, our captain would briefly turn the running lights on and off and the seaweed on the bottom would glow in response. Later we went snorkelling in the pitch black. Moving our arms and legs through the water caused little spots of light all around giving us an ethereal glow (like Tinkerbell). Totally awesome. (Sadly there’s no way to photograph the effect, the light is just too dim).

So, other than uploading, sorting and naming the photos and writing this blog, a pretty laid back week on a Caribbean island – life’s tough.

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