Panama & Costa Rica
(May 25 - June 10, 2009)
PART 1 - Discovering Panama City (Panama)
Despite my many travels over the last 12 years, I had anticipated my trip to Panama more than usual. Lisa and I met in the Miami airport, after she flew in from Germany and I travelled from San Francisco. Part of our eagerness was the anticipation of seeing Fabi, Lisa’s childhood friend. I traveled with Fabi and Lisa 9 years ago in Indonesia. Now Fabi lives in Panama City and was meeting us at the airport. Our journey through the airport seemed endless. Each and every international passenger was checked for signs of swine flu with a thermal imaging camera, so the line through customs took twice as long as usual. After an hour we finally emerged with our bags and met Fabi, who had hired a car to bring us to his home.
As we drove through Panama City I was shocked to find that it is completely Americanized. Skyscrapers filled the sky in the spaces not occupied by McDonalds, Church’s Chicken, Curves Gym, Dunkin Donuts, and other American franchises. If it weren’t for the sweltering humidity I could have been in Los Angeles. When we stopped by a grocery store the illusion deepened--it was exactly like Safeway with American products on every shelf. It was disorienting, especially since I expected culture shock.
We spent the evening eating on the patio amid the sounds of the jungle, torrential downpours, and many mosquitoes, all of which bit me and then told their friends of my arrival. At least everyone else was safe from the mosquitoes while I was around. Their feast continued the next day as we toured the city. Fabi lives minutes southeast of the Panama Canal, so we were technically in South America. We began our exploration at the Panama Canal which up until now I had not had any interest in. I had never considered the fact that it cuts through the continental divide so the elevation of the canal is 85 meters (280 feet) higher on the Caribbean side than the Pacific side. Ships take an average of 12 hours to pass through the canal after waiting hours or days for their turn to enter. The most intriguing part was the locks. Three sets of locks allow ships to change elevation from one side to the other by either filling or emptying huge tanks of water while the ship sits within it. By this process the ship literally steps up or down before continuing their journey. The Americanization of the city should not have been too surprising, since Americans completed the canal in 1914 and maintained control until the end of 1999.
Pictures of the construction of the canal depict the growth and destruction of Panama City as the area was settled, attacked by pirates and then resettled. The ruins of the incarnations of Panama City are scattered along the coast so we spent much of the rest of the day exploring the city. We found a taxi to take us on a tour through rich areas with huge houses and the poorest slums with high rises filled with tenants living without running water or electricity. These differing areas of town sit adjacent to each other; all you had to do was cross a street to be on the other side of the economic divide. We were dropped off in Casco Viejo where we wandered through historical buildings, some crumbling and reclaimed by nature and others preserved in all their glory. The contrast was beautiful, and I was interested to learn that this area of town was settled after Panama Viejo (the original settlement) was destroyed by pirates in 1671. Buildings bear a resemblance to the French quarter of New Orleans and large watch towers protect the city from the sea, but this area was abandoned as the modern city was constructed close to the ruins of Panama Viejo.
While we relaxed in Casco Viejo enjoying the sun and drinks we noticed a commotion at a nearby table. A couple of men sat near us and people started flocking to them. The waiter was flushed and excited, men were running home to get their babies to pose for pictures with this man, and we were clueless. Soon the waiter came over and started gushing about Robert “Mano de Piedra” Duran, a four time world champion Panamanian boxer. I have never seen so many man crushes. Guys were falling over themselves to have pictures with him, so we decided to do so as well – why not. After that adventure we continued on to Panama Viejo to tour the city destroyed by the infamous Captain Morgan. Now all that remains are the stone outlines of the building and a single tower that once overlooked the settlement and sea beyond. It now provides an amazing view of the entire city, old and new, rich and poor.
We were hungry by the time we climbed down from the tower so we headed to a restaurant by the sea for Panamanian seafood and fried plantains. We watched the sun set over the ocean and skyscrapers as Panamanian music played in the background. When we returned to Fabi’s place we repacked our bags for our next adventure. In the morning we were headed to the San Blas islands where we were going to need very little luggage. We tried to sleep a few hours before our 3:30am ride arrived.
PART 2 - San Blas Bliss (Panama)
The 3am wake-up was rough after only 4 hours in bed. I must have had seven dreams about trying to wake up in time to catch our ride to the Cinco de Mayo Plaza in downtown Panama City. By the time we really had to wake up Lisa and I were exhausted but excited. We shouldered our relatively light packs and headed out to meet our taxi. Despite the early hour, our ride was there as arranged and we drove to the plaza to meet our 4x4 shuttle to the San Blas Islands. The trip to San Blas would cross over the continental divide so it was necessary to have a 4x4, but the cracked windshield, missing bumper, and generally overused appearance was disconcerting. We sat in the back seat as the driver, who only spoke Spanish, connected his portable DVD player and started “The Day After Tomorrow” in Spanish. I wondered if he was trying to draw our attention away from something. A couple locals also climbed into the car and we headed south.
Soon the reason for the distraction was evident as the car started to shake like it was having a seizure. No one else looked concerned but Lisa and I glanced at each other apprehensively and then returned our attention to the movie. The seizures continued but we were in for the long haul, for good or bad. A couple of hours into the trip the sky was still dark and we turned east toward the mountains and the Caribbean Sea. The rough dirt road climbed immediately and then became a bumpy roller coaster ride. Luckily the seizures stopped as soon as the driver switched to four-wheel drive. The sun began to rise over the mountains as we climbed through the damp jungle. Red soil kicked up behind the car and glowed in brilliantly colored layers on the sides of the road. As the sky brightened the view expanded into endless pristine jungles too thick to penetrate. The road continued its sudden climbs and drops with cliffs on either side. Our driver was good and obviously experienced in driving this so called road. Parts of the road were washed out, cut with deep rivulets, and plagued with blind curves. Other shuttles to San Blas blazed past us despite the treacherous conditions.
High in the mountains we came upon a wide river. As we veered to the right I looked for a bridge, but instead the car drove down the bank and straight into the river. I held my breath as we crossed the waters and drove up the bank on the other side and into deep mud holes that invoked images of mud wrestling and stuck cars. Our driver maneuvered flawlessly and the view opened up to the turquoise Caribbean Sea in the distance. After 4 hours of shaking and bumping we arrived at the coast. The biggest town along the coast is Carti and is inhabited solely by the smallest airport in the world and large groups of the native Kuna tribe bartering for rides back to Panama City.
Our driver arranged for us to take a boat to the nearest island; so we climbed into a brightly painted long boat. The mangroves clogged the shores and large birds swooped over us looking for food. I was sure there were crocodiles about as well, though none showed themselves as the sun climbed higher in the sky and the temperature shot up. After a short ride into the Caribbean we arrived at a Kuna-inhabited island. This native tribe controls the San Blas islands and maintains their traditional way of life, with a few amenities from the civilized world. The people live crowded on small islands in tight knit communities and wear exceptionally bright clothing unique to their culture.
There we hired another boat to take us to Isla Franklin, the accommodations recommended by Fabi. We rode across serene blue waters and arrived at a tiny white sand island covered with sparse palm trees. It was perfect. The accommodations were minimal, but you don’t need much in paradise. Our cabin was made of thatched palm and wooden branches bound with vines. Simple beds and make-shift tables completed the room.
There is not much to do on the islands, so we spent our time reading, napping, basking in the sun, swimming in the warm salty water, and eating bland but plentiful meals. The frequent thunder showers and star filled nights made up for the lack of electricity and showers. We were settled in by mid-morning and got some breakfast before catching up on lost sleep. Time passed slowly as we relaxed into the simple life and acquainted ourselves with fellow travelers, most of whom were Israelis traveling after their required stint in the army. Many of them were mentally scarred by their road trip over the continental divide; they were in nicer cars with less skillful speedster drivers.
Doing nothing is an ability we took to easily, and after a couple days we forced ourselves to leave the island and go snorkeling. We hired a boat to take us to Isla Pero (Dog Island) where we spent a couple hours snorkeling around a sunken ship now covered with bright corals and fish. The pristine white sand, teal waters, and palm covered islands made the perfect setting for our outing. As storm clouds began to gather we headed back to our island home to continue the lazy way of life.
After 3 days in paradise we repacked our bags and set up our ride back to civilization. The 4am wake-up call was no easier on the island, but we pulled ourselves out of bed, dressed in the dark, and boarded the boat back to Carti. Stars still graced the skies as we rode through the ink black waters filled with bright green sparkles. Phosphorescent algae lit up the water stirred by the passing of our boat and looked like neon green stars at the hull. They faded as the sun rose behind us, turning the clouds gold and the sky blue. When we arrived in Carti we sat and waited for the plane. As time passed the sand flies discovered my arrival and they began to bite my legs in mass. By the time our plane arrived I was covered with hundreds of itchy little welts. We escaped the banquet and boarded the plane, which flew us over the dense jungles we had driven through only days before. In Panama City, Fabi picked us up at the airport and we piled into the car which turned northwest toward the next chapter of our adventure in the mountainous coffee plantations of Boquetta.
PART 3 - Panama Panoramic (Panama)
We crossed the entire country of Panama on our road trip north. Once again we were privileged to have a local driver navigate the roads and dodge the Central American drivers. Few drivers in Central American stay on their side of the yellow line, if there is a yellow line at all, so native road skills were much appreciated. For hours we drove over the highlands, through the valleys, and towards the Pacific Coast. Fabi used to live on the beach in Las Lajas, so we detoured off the highway to have lunch with his friends. The café by the ocean was an open air cabana with a panoramic view of the large waves crashing in. Lunch was amazing; every bite was decadently flavorful. I could have stayed there all day - basking in the sun, eating, and walking on the white sand beaches covered with sand crabs. Our detour was brief though and we piled back into the car.
On our way to the highway we took the opportunity to pull over and admire some of the work Fabi has been doing in the rain forest. Fabi works for a company that replants sustainable forests. The replanting of forests is not unique, but sustainable replanting is only practiced by a few companies and it was fascinating to see the difference. Most reforested land is planted with a single species of tree that will be harvested once the trees mature. The problem is that disease can infect the trees and wipe out the entire growth. Sustainable reforesting involves planting a variety of trees and other plants to recreate an ecosystem that looks like a young but diverse forest. If disease destroys one species there are other species that can later be harvested and the investment won’t be lost. In other words, the plan is to not put all your eggs in one basket and provide a habitat for the animals of the disappearing rainforest. This is an amazing service that is found in few places around the world.
Back on the highway we said goodbye to our private driver and boarded the first bus into the mountains. Bus transportation lacks the comfort of the car but it is slower so you get to take in more of the landscape and spend quality time with the locals. The ride was slow but we made it to the city of David before dark and transferred to another bus that brought us directly to the mountain town of Boquetta. This last bus was an old yellow school bus, like the ones we rode in elementary school, and it was packed full of people.
Outside, the humidity rose as the sun dropped in the sky. Soon it was pouring rain and the windows had to be closed despite the steamy odorous conditions of the interior. The sky grew dark as the rain came down harder and then we came to a complete stop on the wet, dark highway. We strained to see what was happening ahead but the thick rain impeded our view of anything but flashing lights in the distance. We sat there for an hour with no movement until the cars started to slowly creep forward. It became apparent that a multi-car accident had shut down the highway.
The bus continued toward Boquetta but the rain never let up. Finally, houses and storefronts began to show up along the roadside. We arrived at downtown Boquetta in a deluge and had to jump out of the bus, grab our bags and run for shelter. We and our bags were soaked through before we could make it to the shelter which was less than 20 feet away. We covered our bags with water proof layers and shouldered them for our walk through Boquetta. We headed for the accommodations described in the guide book but when we arrived no one answered the door. We stood in the rain and luckily someone appeared just as we were about to give up. The hostel was adequate so we decided to stay. We were too wet and hungry to be picky. We laid out our belongings to dry and headed back into the rain to find food.
As we walked along the streets the restaurants began to close for the night. We managed to find one place that was staying open, and we gratefully ate an American dinner – pizza and beer. We went to bed happy to be dry and looking forward to seeing what Boquetta actually looked like.
PART 4 - Boquetta Beauty (Panama)
We awoke to church bells sounding and a beautiful day in the Panamanian continental divide. The only active volcano in Panama loomed over the city and the steep hill sides were covered in green coffee plantations. Fabi, Lisa and I wandered into a café and enjoyed breakfast. Unfortunately I was in the throes of an allergy attack. Not pollen allergies. No, my time in the valleys and on the coast had left me with so many insect bites that itching had reached systemic proportions. My entire body itched and at that moment I would have preferred to be immersed in water, so I did the next best thing and bought allergy medication at the nearby grocery store. Trying to take my mind off, the insane need to scratch my skin off we decided to tour the town on foot. The coffee plantations and a botanical garden were just outside of town so we hiked up the road and stopped at the Casa Ruiz coffee plantation and enjoyed fresh coffee. There is nothing like drinking coffee at the source. The crisp flavor of the bean exploded in our mouths as we relaxed with a view of coffee beans ripening on the bushes.
We finished our coffee and continued our uphill trek to visit the botanical gardens. Ponds, flowers, and wandering stone paths covered the yard of the residence, blanketing the landscape in thousands of colors. Bridges were suspended over the ponds, tchotchkes hid among the foliage, and a full scale windmill towered over the blooming expanse offering a view of the gardens amid the mountain river valley. I was struck by the varieties of hibiscus, rose, and hydrangea. It was truly spectacular. We decided to continue our tour and headed back into town. We had just entered the outskirts when we were overcome by the heat and decided to stop at a restaurant with an incredible view of the river valley. We had the back deck to ourselves as we each ordered a margarita. Soon the downpour began. Water fell from the sky by the ton and the wind whipped down the valley. Trees bent under the gale and within 30 minutes it was over and the blue skies were back. Rested and cooled we continued our walk, only to notice that the effects of the margaritas were noticeable, not a small feat when traveling with 2 Germans. We walked toward the bridge only to find it was gone; the region had suffered intense storms last winter and the scars were still apparent. Landslides etched the hills; many bridges lay in the river, no more than pieces of crumbled concrete and twisted rebar. Continuing down the hill we found another bridge and were able to cross the river.
We rested by the river, sitting upon boulders the size of cars overlooking the cold mountain river winding through the grey rocks. Now on the shaded side of the river we headed uphill in search of a picturesque view of the volcano and the Pacific Ocean beyond. The road was steep and we soon found ourselves looking down on the town. We passed colorful houses, a school and locals but never stopped our relentless climb. After more than an hour the road transitioned into dirt and wove through the steep coffee plantations. I cannot begin to imagine trying to harvest the coffee berries when one look down would convince me I was going to literally fall off the mountain. It is of course harvested by hand, and people carry heavy baskets increasingly laden with berries regardless of the treacherous slope. The view was worth the uphill effort, with coffee in the foreground and Volcano Baru looming above the distant ocean. Boquetta lay nestled in the valley below. As we took pictures our stomachs began to grumble. We were to meet another friend of Fabi’s for dinner so we reversed our trek and descended into the valley and made our way back to our accommodations to prepare for the evening.
We met Fabi’s friend, another native German, at the town center and went to a Mexican restaurant for dinner. The food was delicious and after dinner we ventured to Zanzibar. The Zanzibar bar was decorated with soft fluffy couches and pillows, making the place cozy and unique. We clustered around the piece of art that doubled as a table and talked until the hour grew late. If an establishment like this existed in Sonoma County I would be a regular. Soon our evening wound down. We returned to our temporary home to pack our bags again. We had only planned a couple days in the relative cool of the mountains and were now returning to the sweltering coast. In the morning we shouldered our now dry packs and boarded another school bus headed to the Caribbean.
PART 5 - Caribbean Waters (Panama)
The bus ride from the mountains of Panama to the Caribbean Sea afforded us amazing views. We wove through steep hills covered in thick tangles of jungle. The storms the year before had decimated the highway and some sections of the road were still missing, having caved into vast mudslides. Landslide scars slashed the hills and high water lines towered above the raging mountain rivers.
It was a long bus ride. Fabi, Lisa and I left Boquetta in the early morning and didn’t arrive at the Caribbean until mid-afternoon. The storms had taken their toll on the coast as well. Some of the major ports were still closed and the skeletons of houses that fell apart under the weight of the water lined the streets. We managed to board one of the few boats still transporting people to the Bocas del Toro islands. Our destination was Isla Bastimentos and Tio Tom’s guest house. Tio Toms is owned by native Germans who built it directly over the waters of the Caribbean. In our rooms we could hear the water lapping several feet below the floor boards, and even the toilets drained directly into the water below. It was clean, comfortable, and hospitable.
Lisa and I settled in and then rushed to the other end of the small coastal village to check into the Scuba Diving School, the Dutch Pirate. We had made reservations months ago and yet we were surprised to find homework waiting for us. There is nothing about the Caribbean that makes you want to do homework. You could easily pass the day in the hammocks, drinking beer, eating the occasional meal and staring out to the turquoise waters. We didn’t want to read our 80 pages of homework but we got comfy in the hammocks and started reading while we waited for Jonas, Fabi’s friend and another native German, to arrive from Costa Rica.
Just as the sun was setting over the Panamanian mainland, Jonas arrived at the dock. We agreed it was time to put down the books and enjoy a large meal. We went to a local restaurant and ordered large amounts of food and beer. Needless to say we didn’t get much of our “homework” done that night. Our lack of studiousness caught up with us the next day when we arrived at the Dutch Pirate and met our dive master, Rob. We began our diving certification course by watching educational videos, finishing our reading, and taking a quiz, which allowed us to get fitted for the scuba equipment.
Many of you know that I have a slight fear of the open water, or more specifically the things that can eat me in the open water. My first attempt at scuba diving Lake Atitlan in Guatemala a few years ago did not go well. Despite the lack of large carnivorous animals, I was overtaken by panic attacks and never got to experience the underwater world. Hyperventilating into a scuba tank made that a little difficult. Somehow Lisa convinced me I should try again, in the warm Caribbean waters this time. I had reluctantly agreed and now that the day was here my nerves were on edge.
We donned our diving suits and moved our equipment onto the boat. Our first dive site was called Donkey Dung, for reasons I never learned. We got into our diving get-ups and waited for our turn to get into the water. My heart was racing. I hate going into water upside down and the idea of purposely falling into the water backwards made me ill. I propelled myself off the boat and surfaced with a gasp. It was oddly comforting having the source of air strapped to my back. We began our initial decent and I immediately started to panic. I was hyperventilating and flailing. Rob came over and calmed me down. I started breathing normally and very slowly descended until I was kneeling on the white sandy floor of the sea.
We stayed in a group and learned some safety techniques – taking off the mask and putting it back on under water was not enjoyable but necessary. Once we were comfortable we began to explore the area. Vividly colored corals grew abundantly, tropical fish in every color darted about playfully, and anemones shyly popped in and out of their homes. The sensation of every breath filtering through the mouthpiece and the weight of the tank on my back filled my awareness. The colors were a blear of beauty but my attention was on my breath and the sensation of floating. We were in the water for less than an hour but it felt like ages. Time slowed with our breath as we enjoyed the underwater world. I was captivated by the experience and though my fears were still at the surface, the rush of adventure fueled my excitement about our next dive. On the boat ride back to the Dutch Pirate we found ourselves exhausted and starving. We cleaned our gear and returned to Tio Toms to change before having dinner at another local restaurant. Once again we had homework to keep ourselves busy for the evening. Despite our exhaustion we relaxed with our reading and talked excitedly about the dives planned for the next day.