Thursday, 22 August 2013

Stradling 2 continents - no such thing as a central American anti-climax

Hello all. I am pleased to be able to announce that this post finally comes to you from South America, 5 months later than I originally thought it would; but that's all good.
So having arrived in Panama City with extra time on our hands, which should translate into us exploring every orifice of the city, we pretty much laid back and slipped into a vey easy way of life that didn't require us to work ourselves too hard.
We based ourselves in the old quarter of the city (as did most backpackers), Casco Viejo which is currently undergoing a complete transformation from a destitute, dangerous and run down suburb into an upmarket, boutique area which soon only the very wealthy will be able to afford to live. Not sure what will happen to the original residents?
This area consists of 16th and 17th century colonial architecture which fortunately has remained intact during the regeneration, or has at least been rebuilt in the same style,
and combined with the numerous churches and plazas dotted between the maze of cobbled streets and alleyways it is just a great place to hang around.
Seriously, the president of Panama lives here, so it must be decent!
Our hostel also had a lot to do with our lack of motivation. Our room set on the fourth and top floor of the hostel, it was huge and had 2 balconies, one overlooking a busy plaza whilst the other looked out over the ocean to where the various ships were exiting the Panama Canal. Also Panama is one hot and humid place but up on our 4th floor we didn't notice a thing as with the doors open we could rest in the breeze of breezes.

The room
The view

Day 1 sums up our stay - we spent the day in Casco Viejo and wasted it in the pub. Panama had made it to the final of the Gold Cup - the Central and North American version of the European Championships and would play the USA in the final; so it was a big match. Unfortunately Panama lost a really boring match 1-0 so we didn't get to witness any manic Latin celebrations; although we did manage ourselves to get really p*ssed.
Later that night being a little peckish I popped to the shop and found myself on Calle 13. Anything above Calle 12 was deemed to be off limits and meant that I was in the ghetto. Fortunately there are armed policeman everywhere in Panama City so with 2 quick flashes of the torch I was passed from one copper to the next and eventually got myself back to a worried AJ at the hostel who was wondering what had become of me.

We spent over 2 weeks in Panama City and life sort of passed us by as follows:
  • Casco Viejo - exploring the old city, its Panama City Canal museum and its many cafes - mainly because both of the above had strong air-con
  • Across the bay from Casco was the 'new city', a skyline of glinting glass, skyscrapers and buildings that wouldn't look out of place in London or Asia. Amazingly the vast majority of these were for residential purposes but I never did figure out where the actual working part of the city actually was. Being residential equalled consumers which in turn meant shops and shopping malls and so for 5 days of our 2.5 weeks I found myself being dragged around 1 of the 4 huge malls; not good. Actually I coped with it all quite well. Do you know why? I will tell you - air con!!! Also each one of them had a cinema playing English movies so an afternoon and evening was spent here

  • Connecting Casco to the new City was Cinta Centura - a 3km stretch of regenerated waterfront walkways. The area is designated as a green zone so as well as walking to the city through well maintained gardens there are basketball courts, footy pitches and free gyms where every night the locals come to workout and play. We even got our trainers out and went for a few runs along the waterfront, that is if we weren't walking around trying the local wares from meat pasties to snow cups
  • We visited Panama Viejo - the original Panama City that lies a few kilometres to the east of where the city now stands. The city was sacked in 1671 by Sir Henry Morgan who at that time was a privateer but as the Panamanians / Spanish had forewarning that Morgan was on his way the residents had already hidden most of the treasure, including a vicar who had painted a golden altar black to disguise it. Left with little booty Morgan burnt the city to the ground. It was after this that the city was rebuilt in Casco Viejo where we were now living. The ruins were ok and probably not worth the visit but it was one of those things that we needed to tick off the list

  • The Panama Canal! We got ourselves an hour north of the city to the Miraflores Locks, the highest point of the Panama Canal where we could witness the vast cargo ships moving through locks as they travelled from the Atlantic to the Pacific or vice-versa. You know that cargo ships are big but it is only when you are stood on the 4th floor of the viewing platform still looking up at the ships that you realise how massive they are, both in height and length. The largest that cargo ships are currently built to are to the maximum dimensions of the locks of the Panama Canal and are known as Panamax; their length being 290 metres by width 32 metres - big, big boats!! We got to watch 2 panamax ships pass by us and I can assure you that they are bloody huge. Learning the history of the canal was also interesting but quite sobering when you read that it killed nearly 20,000 men during its construction
  • We didn't have many nights out on the booze but we did put aside some money for a Saturday night out to Calle Uruguay, Panama City's party street. It says a lot when the highlight of the night was sitting on the street eating a kebab at 1am watching the end of Dirty Dancing on a TV with no sound!
  • We also tried to get out to Isla Flamenco, an upmarket part of the peninsular but we took the wrong bus and 2 hours later got off at the end of line in who knows where? We promptly crossed the dirt road and got on to a bus directly back from where we came from and unfortunately for me we got off at a mall; AJ was happy

Before we knew it our 2.5 weeks in Panama City were at an end and to say goodbye in some sort of style we bought a very expensive bottle of wine and sat in a bar close to the presidents home overlooking the bay and the glittering city.

It was now August 13th and time to make our way to South America. There were 3 options on the table to get from Panama to Colombia:
  1. Cross the Darien Gap - still seen as a suicidal mission due to needing 7 days to trek through dense unknown jungle as well as avoiding guerrillas and drug smugglers who reside in this no-mans land; so not really option at all
  2. Fly - but where is the adventure in that?
  3. Take a boat - and there were 2 possible boat trips. One was to sail for 5 days through the San Blas islands and then  make a 45 hour open ocean crossing to Cartagena on the north coast of Colombia; or the second was the backpacker option of boating around the San Blas islands for 4 days and 3 nights before making our own way through the frontier towns on the Colombian border and onto the more renowned places
We decided on the latter option listed above and I can happily state now that it was my number 1 highlight from central America with the sloth experience a close second.

Our trip started at 5am in the morning with a Jeep pick up to take us to Carti where the boat was waiting for us on the Caribbean coastline. We were still hanging around at 5:50am although there was one Jeep sat there for 20 mins waiting to pick up a Manuel. I thought I would just try him again and it turns out the car was for us, even though he insisted my name was Manuel Adam Lambert!
It just didn't make sense and I am still confused.
Anyway, we were belatedly on our way and picked up the rest of the group consisting of:
  • Zoe - tour leader from London who was super chilled out even though her 6 months of travels to date has seen her robbed 3 times, twice at gun point and once at machete point
  • Chris - Scottish lad, drinks a lot (of course!), a top guy and nephew to a member of the Guillemots (a band I like)
  • Jamie - an Aussie and Chris' partner in crime. Definitely on the list of people to meet up with when I am back in Australia
  • Kirstin - another American who is going a long way to changing my opinion of her fellow countrymen
Our tour wasn't purely about the business of getting to Colombia, oh no, we decided to incorporate some pleasure into the journey. We would be boating around the San Blas Islands of Panama, an archipelago of 378 islands and quays, of which only 49 are inhabited. The remaining 329 are just little pieces of perfection dotted about in a turquoise ocean. The islands belong solely to the indigenous Kuna Indians and for 2 of our 3 nights we would be staying in two separate Kuna villages.

Day 1 - after stopping briefly at the first inhabited Kuna island to go to the petrol station for boats we headed out to island number one. As a first stop it set the bar very high - I mean we are talking about an island similar size to the one we stayed on the Belize and I counted that I could slowly circumnavigate it in 5mins and 50secs. The island was typical of those in this part of the world, you know, the standard white sand, coconut leaden palm trees and packed coral reef in the clear oceans - yawn, yawn.
As we had a very full itinerary and were tight on time we were allocated a mere 6 hours on this island and we killed our time by snorkelling, sleeping, eating lunch and chatting away with the rest of the guys in our group as well as the 2 new recruits who met us on the island, Larry and Sarah from Aus who would become good mates over the next few days and are still bugging us now in Colombia!
From here we took a short ride over to the island of Nalunege where we would be spending the night sleeping in wooden huts over the sea.
Dinner with a Kuna family would not be ready for a few hours so we entertained ourselves by walking around the village taking in the thatched tribal like homes, observing the Kuna people close up and we were quite lucky as there was a very rare meeting of all the chiefs taking place that evening; as well as have fun with the dozens of kids that seemed to be everywhere and wanted their photos taken.
One boy told all of his mates to watch him as he walked up to me and then let out a massive fart before proudly looking back at them. I found is quite funny.

Day 2 - after a tasty breakfast we set off for our second day which in my mind was the perfect day. On the way to the first island of the day a cry went out from our captain as he spotted a pod of dolphins and he made his way directly over to them so that for the next 10 minutes we could sit there as they swam around us and came in for an inquisitive look.
Next we moved onto what our guide described as the 'picture perfect postcard' island and she wasn't exaggerating.
Pelican Island was tiny. Standing only 20 metres offshore in the shallow seas around the island I could fit the entire thing into my photo, that's how small it was.
We all stood about with lunatic smiles on our faces as we surveyed our surroundings, essentially a few palm trees and the ocean before we gathered our senses and made ourselves at home playing frisbee, football and stringing up hammocks between the trees to lie back, relax and read.
The owner island turned up a little later with an esky of cold drinks and a fresh fish lunch which we all devoured with relish.
By mid-afternoon it was time to depart and with some regret we clambered into the boat. We were now faced with a 2.5 hour journey to our home for night but it was far from an issue as during the trip we got to see the San Blas in all is glorious beauty. We passed islands of various sizes but it still blows your mind when you pass closely by an island that is simply made up of a mound of sand and 3 palm trees!
Our home for the evening would be the uninhabited Iguana Island save for the actual owner and a couple of his mates. The island was a decent size but what made this place super special was that this was the only San Blas island with a natural water spring - which sort of blows the mind when we are stood in the middle of the Caribbean Sea.
In fact this island is so special that he was recently offered $500k to sell it but he refused. Why would he sell? He has his home, thousands of coconuts, fresh water and enough money coming in from us tourists visiting every day.
The first thing we did was to go for a snorkel and some of the local Kuna came along for a bit of spear fishing and we actually caught our own dinner - octopus and crab.

We were also so close to catching a Moray Eel but it got away.
Once we strung up our beds for the night - hammocks - we got down to the nitty-gritty business of the evening, namely Coco-loco. Coco-loco comprised of taking a coconut and adding copious amounts of rum to the coconut water - the more the better as the water disguises the taste of the rum.
It didn't take long for the party to start and once the bonfire was lit and our octopus, crab and fish dinner was served it just couldn't get much better, but it did. I was introduced to an American treat that goes some way to explaining their levels of obesity - Smores. A Smore is a roasted marshmallow taken to another level ie. As you heat the marshmallow you sit 2 biscuits close to the embers with a lump of chocolate on top to melt and when you are ready to go you create a sumptuous but diabetes inducing sandwich treat that leaves you wanting more - so we did have smore!
Due to the humidity we all decided to take a late night dip and this was where I got to experience another first in my life - bioluminescence. Bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by living organisms which means that as we splashed about under the moonlit sky the ocean lit up with flecks of luminous green like we were on another planet. Now that is cool my friends.

By the time I climbed into my hammock that evening I was tired but completely satisfied with my day, it was a truly great one, but there was still time to just top it off as Arancha's hammock snapped with her in it just at the right moment for me to watch and laugh; a lot.

Day 3 - was a slow start. Fortunately all we had to do was take it easy as we were not due to leave until after lunchtime but I couldn't relax, I hadn't been to the loo for 3 days and I was uncomfortable. We were told that the ocean around us was our natural bathroom and that the fish would do the rest so this brings us onto the art of taking a number 2 in water! I can assure you it is not as pleasant as you may think and this is why:
  • If you are doing solids and it doesn't break off quickly it will rise up and tap you on the back as it moves in the current - it doesn't matter which way you face, it follows you and will not leave you alone. I didn't like it.
  • I am very thankful I didn't have an upset stomach or I might have been covered in new freckles. I think from now on I will stick to land based poo's.

Once cleaned up and well fed we jumped back into the boat and headed to Caladonia Island, our home for our third and final evening. Once again this was a Kuna inhabited island and quite a big one at that with even more crazy kids than the previous one.
Dinner that night was a real treat as we first had the option of either fish, conch, octopus or chicken before we made our way over to the lobster farm where we could pick out an extra treat for evening for only $6 a kilo - once again proving how cheap life should be even though the Kuna were making a tidy little profit from us westerners.

After a glorious fresh seafood supper we all headed back to our covered decking by the ocean to play cards and drink which all came to an abrupt halt when the gods began to vent their anger in the distance. Myself and Chris headed out onto the pier and sat with our feet dangling in the water as we watched the best lightning show I have ever seen erupt over the islands in front of us and slowly make its way in our direction. Approximately 4 times per minute the skies were ablaze with white hot and purple light but when the lightning bolts arced out of the storm clouds through clear sky and crashed into the ocean in front of us we definitely both sh*t ourselves and promptly retired to the relative safety of our wooden shelter.
To the Kuna we must've looked quite a sight as 9 of us lined up in a row trying to catch that perfect picture of the storm and we all succeed to varying degrees. I have to say that I reckon I got the picture of the night, by pure fluke. At just the right moment I captured the lightning bolt illumination the sky and the island below as what I thought was a moth flying by. On closer inspection I discovered it was actually a bat and the flash had created a shadow against the background that looked as though Batman was being signalled for help. It was a great shot and I would put it on here if it wasn't for the fact that I am actually going to try and do something with this shot - it is seriously that good of a fluke not to!


Day 4 - the skies were still a little moody the next morning as we left to venture to our final island of the tour. This island was a little different from the rest because it rose up to a jungle look out point which a few of us struggled up to take in the surrounding land and reef.
Unfortunately our exploration of this island was cut short as the rains came and we just made it back in time to our previous home for the night before it really began in earnest. 

And with that the tropical island trip of trips was complete. After being stamped out of Panama we were left with 2 options - either take a free hammock for the night at a hostel that was still an on-going construction project or continue on to Colombia.
Having landed on the final Panamanian outpost of La Miel we decided to technically break the law and stay with the majority of the group at the hostel whilst Larry and Sarah decided to carry onto the Colombia, although we would catch up with them the following day.
La Miel was based around a lovely sandy beach with the dangerous and alluring Darien Gap serving as a back garden. You did feel sort of stranded as this town could only be reached by boat, there were no other exits.
We all made our way twenty minutes walk along the coastline to the hostel which as mentioned is still being constructed with the assistance of any backpackers who were willing to stay in the middle of nowhere and volunteer - Chris and Jamie decided that they would do just that.

The hostel will be something else when it is eventually completed. There is the beach, the hostel and the jungle and nothing else, I mean nothing else.
There is also a fresh water spring coming out of the jungle and the plan is that apart from filling a duck pond this water will then flow into the infinity pool, which in turn will then feed a shrimp farm before running out into the ocean!
The showers are also quite nice - they are open plan and you stand there as cool fresh water spills out of bamboo piping as you watch the ducks playing in the water. How lovely.

Apart from a couple of dolphins appearing close to shore but were too fast and far away for us to swim with by the time we got in we didn't do anything apart from get completely smashed and I really mean smashed.
We drank the place dry of red wine, rum and vodka whilst 9 of us (the owner and 2 other volunteers) danced and sang away to our own mini disco before it all went to another level and 6 of us stripped down to nothing and ran completely pissed into the ocean for a late night skinny dip.

To give you an idea of how drunk I was I cannot remember being sick next to a palm tree, saying half the crap I did and woke up with inexplicable cuts and bruises. Due to my incapacitated state Arancha put me to sleep in a hammock in the bar and thankfully she did because the storm of all storms hits during the night and everywhere else on the property apart from the bar leaked. There was so much rain that the beach had flooded!!
I awoke with a very heavy head but at least ourselves and our bags were dry but there was no such luck for the others. They had essentially slept in the rain and because we were all so drunk they hadn't awoken to move their bags so they were soaked as well.

We were now officially into our final day in central America and the South American promised land lay within sight; practically a 50 metre climb up the hill above where I lay.

We landed into Mexico City on April 4th on a bit of a whim to explore Central America and now on August 17th some 4.5 months later we were leaving. Thinking back to all we have done over that time, the ruins (all 8 of them), the volcanoes, the islands, the sloths, Spanish school, the dozens of colonial towns visited and the fun people we met along the way, how can we not look back on that time and congratulate ourselves for acting upon this fantastic whim; but it was definitely now the time to leave and we were ready.

There is no one way to sum up this region of the world but I think the fact that the gardeners here trim the grass by swinging a sharpened machete back and forth is good enough for me - esta una loca lugar!! (It is a crazy place)
And so, although we did not technically leave at this point (that is for the next blog and occurred an hour later) we climbed the 50 metres up the slope to the army checkpoint and there we stood astride the 2 continents, one foot in North American and the front foot in South America looking down to Colombia and wondering what world of adventures lay ahead of us over the next few months as we head south down through the Andes Mountains, the Amazon rainforest and yes more ancient ruins on our way to the very bottom of the inhabited world.



Thursday, 1 August 2013

Could we organise a p*ss up in a brewery?

So the past couple of weeks have been a mixture of the sublime and the complete ridiculous as we bumbled our way through Costa Rica to Panama City in record and unplanned time, just going to show that even experienced backpacker's can completely balls it up!

So we were leaving Nicaragua full of excitement at the prospect visiting Costa Rica and its plethora of untamed rainforest and wildlife. We arranged for an early morning taxi to take us to the border and the plan was to walk over ourselves and then find a bus to take us to our first destination just a few hours away.
The initial exit from Nicaragua went as smoothly as these things do and whilst I stood around in that 'no man's land' between borders the ticket conductor of a well known and safe bus company approached me and offered us a lift to the very town we needed to get to before changing to head into the mountains. Given that this particular bus only passes through once per day we were not about to turn down such a good offer so we gratefully accepted this lucky break which would turn out to be the first of many that made our shambolic attempt at traveling over the next few days not so painful as it otherwise could've have been.
Mistake number 1 was realised as we boarded the bus to be taken to the Costa Rican entry point when the bus conductor told us to have our passport and exit ticket ready for inspection by immigration. Excuse me, exit ticket??
We looked at each other with an expression of, "Oh Sh*t!". We had no idea that an exit ticket was required but given that we had managed to get ourselves into the USA without one we were confident that we could talk our way in.
Well we couldn't!
Every foreigner was given a grilling at immigration and with no exit ticket from the country you were not getting in. At this point we were getting a little anxious but no overly so; if we were rejected we would only need to find some WIFI and buy something as cheap as possible because we just needed something to get us in.
In the end it did all work out but not quite as would've liked. With an exit ticket we would've been granted 90 days to explore the country; having no ticket and therefore being undesirable we were allowed to stay for 5 days!!

We got onto the bus wondering what we were going to do in 5 days and how we would get ourselves to Panama with at least seeing something of note.
At first we thought to just carry on as planned, visit the mountain forests of Monteverde and then figure it out. As the bus pulled away we studied the maps and realised that this would be folly, getting there and away and then trying to get through the country in our allocated time was crazy talk - remember, we were already using up day 1 and day 5 would be wasted getting to Panama.
As luck would have it, being in the right place at the right time and being offered a random lift on this bus meant that all I had to do was walk up to the driver and tell him that we would continue onto the capital San Jose, taking us 4 hours travel further into the heart of the country where we could then sort out our next move as well as eliminate some of the distance required to get to Panama.

After our extended and unexpected journey we arrived into Costa Rica's capital city and got a cab over to the most decent sounding hostel in the guide book. The hostel itself was really nice and know you are in a safe place when you read that it is also a Human Rights office and the walls of your room are dedicated to Martin Luther King and are covered in his articles and quotes.
I also had a dream Martin, it was to spend more than 5 days in Costa Rica - looks like you won, sort of.
Being human rights oriented also meant hippies, equalling breastfeeding older ladies sat on the stairs and you having to sort of step over them and their exposed boob to get out.
Day 1 in Costa Rica was supposed to end with us breathing in the fresh and cool air of the cloud forests of Monteverde but instead we were walking about in a crazy hot and humid capital city, but it was actually ok. San Jose was nothing like I imagined it to be, I was expecting a busy Latin and possibly edgy place but it was clean, very developed in the sense of being overly western and felt completely safe - just a really pleasant place and it would've have been nice to spend more time here; however for once time really was not on our side.
Travel days are always notorious for being bad food wise so we planned to make up for it with a healthy dinner in the city. It was now that our measly 5 days in Costa Rica possibly became a blessing in disguise. Costa Rica is a US tourism hotspot meaning that the prices of everything from accommodation to food is over-priced and we all know that for some stupid reason eating healthily is a lot more expensive than eating McDonald's. Therefore, our dinner that night was not as good for us as planned - but it tasted good and at least it wasn't McD's!

After a brief walk around the capital under the darkening skies we returned to the safety of the hostel and Reverend King and set about deciding where we would spend our 3 days.
We definitely had options and it was a shame deciding between nesting sea turtles and night-time safaris to spot pumas but we had to factor in the time of getting in and out of these places as well as juggling our budget.
In the end we both came to the same conclusion with some ease - we would head to the north east coast close to the Panama border (may as well make life easy at the same time) and ensure that we got to see one of THE animals we definitely wanted to come into contact with on this tour of the Americas; the sloth.

The next day we took the bus to the coastal town of Puerto Viejo and by 2pm we were very happy with the decisions that we had made. We stayed at the Coconut Grove Hostel, a really bright and clean place that had the bonus of finally having a good kitchen in which we could cook. Also the town was just one of those places where you feel that you could quite easily hang about for a couple of weeks and enjoy the eclectic mix of stores, market stalls, eateries, Rastafarians and the smell of 'erb in the streets. Even better was that we were in that very special natural environment of having the rainforest all around us that only comes to an abrupt end because of the ocean.

The Coconut Grove Hostel

The local Aussie Bar

The following day was the highlight of our Costa Rican 'city break' (I have spent the same amount of time on a break to Rome) and probably would have been top of the list even if we had have stayed for longer. We took the local bus 30kms along the coast to a mangrove area that served as the setting of the Sloth Sanctuary.
We wanted to ensure we did this one thing properly so we booked onto the Insider's Tour - oooohhhh.
The Sloth Sanctuary is a family run institution and we were actually in presence of greatness, as far as sloths go. Her grandson and guide Jeffery told us that she is the sloth equivalent of Jane Goodall (Gorilla's in the Mist), nobody knows more about them.
When she moved to Costa Rica from the US in the 1980's a local brought her an injured sloth for no other reason that as she was western she might know how to save it. From that first sloth, successfully saved (her name was Buttercup, and we met her) more and more sloths were brought to her for help and the sanctuary that currently has over 150 sloths grew from there. A vast majority of the 150 are now residents and can't be released back into the wild and a lot of it has to do with humans being complete c*nts.
There is nobody else on this planet that knows more about the sloth, a lot of which is still unknown, which is why David Attenborough has visited as well as Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel.
Our tour began with an introduction to Buttercup, who appeared very blasé in our presence and then moved onto the education part of the tour with the rest of the public or 'Non Insiders' where we got to touch our first sloth, in a completely plutonic way, as well view some youngsters, again all above board.
The Insiders (that would be just me and AJ) were then 'whisked' away for lunch and in the 35 degree heat and 100% humidity were treated to cream of asparagus soup followed by a grilled cheese sandwich - an odd combination and not really welcome in such temperatures even though it was tasty.
After lunch it was time for the mangrove and jungle river cruise - an hour of being rowed through very narrow and mosquito infested waterways by a captain who either had one eye or kept falling asleep because we kept hitting the banks head on or passing through creepy crawly filled low hanging bushes that should have been avoided. Still, it was all good and we got to see Howler monkeys, hundreds of crabs, some luminous orange and blue, a tree frog which I had to duck to avoid touching because we were in a bush at this point, some lizards and a jumping spider that plagued Arancha in her section of the boat for the entire trip.
The very relaxed Buttercup
Heading directly for another bush

Finally it was time for the good sh*t, the actual 'insiders' bit of the day. We were taken behind the scenes and here is where we got hands on with Samantha - a moment that will always be one of those special ones.
Just for information there are 2 fingered and 3 fingered sloths. 3 fingered have a flatter smiley looking boat (boat race = face) whereas the 2 fingered have more of a snout, bear-like boat.
Samantha is a 3 fingered sloth and more commonly found in Costa Rica whilst 2 fingered sloths are more common in the Amazon in south America.
It is hard to describe the feeling as Samantha slowly made her way over to each of us and actually herself made the signals to indicate that she wanted a cuddle - it was surreal and felt like a real honour to be able to get this close to such a magnificent and still mysterious species.
Even basic facts such as the gestation period of the sloth is still a mystery and we saw the live webcams set up by the Discovery Channel on one particular enclosure that was currently housing a rescued sloth found to be pregnant. As the primary objective is to treat the animal and release it if possible there is a chance that this sloth will be released before it gives birth as 'domesticating' it cannot be risked - which scientifically would be a bit of a bummer to miss the birth.

After the meet and greet with Samantha we were taken up into the actual house of the Sloth Queen to view the newborns in the incubators. These little bad boys were really cute and I was very surprised that when we did get back to the hostel that AJ didn't produce one from her bag; "Surprise!".
All in all it was a great day and is definitely up there as one of the best.

Unbelievably as I walked back to our hostel (AJ was shopping) I came across an actual wild 3 fingered sloth making its way from one tree to the next right in front of me - a seriously rare event as they don't move that much and so are hard to detect.
What a day! (And AJ also got to see it later)

Poison arrow frog
Already onto our final full day in Costa Rica we took the advice of Heidi, the complete stereotype German frauline owner of our hostel and hired bicycles to explore the surrounding area. The plan was to spend a whole day out and about but a torrential downpour wiped out our whole morning. However, this was not a problem for us because the rains brought out another local who we had wanted to see - the poison arrow frog. Although they can't kill a human coming into contact with one of these small and beautiful black and luminous green frogs can give you some nasty symptoms if you handle them and they feel threatened.

Once the skies cleared we belatedly hopped onto our bikes and headed off to find what Heidi promised us was 'paradise'. Unbelievably the first thing we came across on the bikes was another wild sloth high up in the trees and even better was that it was a 2 fingered sloth meaning that whereas it would be brilliant to see a sloth in the Amazon it now doesn't matter as we have seen both types in their natural habitat; as all wildlife should be.
Wild 2 fingered sloth
Wild 3 fingered sloth

Our piece of Costa Rican 'paradise' was the area of Punta Uva, a rugged piece of coast where you could look either side of you for as far as you could and see only jungle fringed beach with a river running out of the jungle wilderness to meet the ocean - yes Heidi you called it and you called it well!
There is always room for football in paradise

That night was a full moon meaning that Rocking J's, a legendary party hostel in these parts was throwing its monthly full moon party. Having been told it was a party of epic proportions we were disappointed to find that the hostel was relatively empty due to low season and it would not be one of those nights. Still, I doubt it could've matched the original in Thailand but you never know.

That was that, our time in Costa Rica was up and we had to get out or face the consequences. Our brief time there was very positive and I know for sure that we will come back one day, but probably for a holiday because in order to get the most out of this country you need a lot of dosh.

Being only 40kms from the Panamanian border we didn't rush to get ourselves moving the next morning and fortunately it all worked out for us again.
The plan to catch the public bus to the border was dashed when we were told at the bus stop that there would be no buses for a few hours due to a student protest that was blocking the roads. Normally we might have decided to stay another night as we liked the town but we had to be out today.
Left with no other choice I decided to check with a few local tourist companies who were offering shuttles to the Bocas Islands in Panama and found that they could get us as far as the protest, we would then walk around the protest before jumping into a cab and carrying on to Panama.

By the way the students were protesting about the right to have free bus travel to school - I think that's a 'fare' cause. (Get it?)

I found a company who agreed a discounted rate to drop us off a town along the way to Bocas as we wanted to head south away from the Caribbean and because of our tardiness we would be on the delayed 8am bus that was now to depart in 1 hour (midday).
You would think that we might have learnt our lessons and I did check online and found no requirement for an onward ticket, so you can imagine my look when the woman booking our minibus told us that we would need one to get into Panama.
(By the way I now know that we definitely need one for Peru which is in 3 countries time - so I am learning!!)
Fortunately we had looked into our departure from Panama so I now had an hour to get online, book our exit, send a deposit and call the company to get them to send me a confirmation email stating both of our names and that we would be exiting Panama before then emailing it over to the lady to print it off for us.
It all went smoothly enough and we set off for the final country in central America with minimal fuss.
The traffic backlog at the protest was mental and seemed even more ridiculous when all that was blocking the road were about 40 students playing football or sitting about chatting with a barricade of banana plants.

Walking into Panama
Leaving all that behind we got to the border and were stamped out of Costa Rica before having to traverse the longest rickety bridge by foot with frequent views down to the open water below before being stamped into Panama.

Once again it was all as easy as peas and we were in country number 9, and they didn't even ask for proof of our onward journey! Tut tut.
At this point our lucky streak kicked in again because we were supposed to be dropped off in a town on the way to the harbour, for those traveling to the islands, but the driver forgot. When we realised that we were at the harbour we reminded him of our requirements and he was able to drop us at an alternative bus stop and within 5 minutes the hourly bus to Panama's second city of David turned up with only 2 spare seats.
If we'd have been dropped off as originally planned we would've missed it and it was already getting late - it isn't advisable to get to a new city after dark and sort out where you are going to stay.

The drive was longer than we realised but it didn't matter as we drove high up out of the humidity into the hills where it was fresh and were able to watch the sun set over this new land in a blaze of red glory. Panama has always been on my list of must visits and I have no idea why but I was really happy to be here.
Arriving in David we randomly chose a hotel out of the book as we just wanted to eat and rest before moving on again the next morning because this was purely a transit stop.

Bye bye finger
We decided that we would visit the mountain town of Boquete, the starting location for the Los Quetzales Trail - supposedly the most scenic walk in the whole of Panama and also home to the Quetzal bird, which I really wanted to see - so far I had only seen a stuffed one in the museum.
Boquete was not exactly as described in the book and was somewhat of a disappointment except for the bus ride there and seeing this blokes soon to be dead finger (see pic) - Ow!!

We were expecting more of a hilltop sanctuary with an authentic Panamanian feel but what we found was a town saturated with retired American's. Apparently a well known magazine published an article a few years ago describing Boquete as the perfect place to retire - so the yanks did just that. The only advantage of this happening was that they brought their need for home comforts with them so we were able to eat breakfast at a proper bakery with real bread (sorely missed) and go to a pub run by a really interesting American couple who met whilst they were both posted in the Antarctic for 5 years on scientific duties.
For me this remains the best thing about travel - you get to meet people whose experiences really open your mind up to the possibility of doing anything you want.

Unfortunately the weather didn't exactly do its part and a Tin-tin themed hostel can only do so much, so after 2 days of hanging about we decided to scrap the Los Quetzales Trail and head south to the Pacific coast for a few days of sun and beach action.
Hostel in Boquete
Our little house

It was now Friday 26th July and our boat to Colombia and a new continent (originally we were supposed to be there 3 months ago!) was booked for August 13th. We wanted to spend at least week exploring Panama City so that left about 10 days to explore the south coast and hopefully find a cabin on the beach with a kitchen and a hammock where we could sit around, chill and be self sufficient for a while.

Our first try was Playa Las Lajas and so began the next round of us sort of messing it up but being rescued by St Christopher and his travel magic - even though we don't believe in such hoodoo.
Back into the city of David we caught a bus to Las Lajas and didn't realise until we were dropped on the road side that the actual beach was a further 13kms away. Fortunately a taxi was on hand and being a decent guy he didn't rip us off and took us to the cheapest place along the beach. There really wasn't a lot of information online about where we could stay and upon arriving we knew why - it was deserted of all human existence.
We arrived at the Cabana Panama, basically 5 wooden huts and an open sided thatched bar on the beach. I am so gutted that this place was an absolute sh*thole because it could've been beautiful and just where we might have stayed for days and days.
Rusty key - says it all
The owners (a German guy and his one eyed Panamanian wife) were dirty and lazy and their property matched. They told us to wait whilst she cleaned the cabin and once we got in it was clear that she had been cleaning with the good eye always facing out of the door. How do you miss the clump of hair and cotton bud blocking the shower plug hole and all of the dirt on the floor and how long have you not cleaned for if everything is covered in cobwebs and on the walls where there aren't holes for the cockroaches to emerge at night there are trails upon sand trails from the ant colonies?
The front door key demonstrates it all!
If it was $10 per night then fair enough but $25 is taking the proverbial when we compare it to everywhere else we have been to in terms of price and cleanliness.

It was such a shame. Walking off the edge of the bar area you stepped onto a beach of epic proportions - miles and miles of nothingness; just sand, palms, vultures, driftwood and perfectly breaking waves with ample whitewash for beginner surfers like us to frolic in. There was nothing and nobody - how rare and special is that?
Knowing that we wanted to stay in this area we set about finding alternative lodgings and could find only 2 alternatives - both of which were not suitable. The other issue was that there was no tienda (shop) nearby for us to buy food meaning that we were at the mercy of our cabin owners, which at this point was not a happy prospect.
I think AJ also wanted to hang around to play with the 4 puppies that followed her about wanting attention.

Yum yum
Having already decided that we must move on the next day (and once we make our decision we generally can't change it as mentally is has been set) we sat down to discover that the owner was actually a really good chef and we ate like kings as we devoured a huge freshly caught fish.
We also met a Belgian couple who had emigrated to Boquete (the previously visited town) and were building an investment property 300 metres further down the beach.
That is one sad fact about Panama - development. I feel like we have visited at just the right moment to see it before it possibly all goes wrong and special places like this, whilst not completely destroyed, will lose that touch of magic about them.
To confirm that we would be moving on we returned to our room and had to spend 20 minutes locating and fighting cockroaches, some of which had scuttled out from under AJ's bag. The crab who had made his home with us was welcomed to stay for the night - how random.

If this was the end of our trip and we had some investment money this place would get serious consideration. These lazy f*ckwits are sitting on one of the best backpacker destinations I have been to and the potential here can't be emphasised enough. Yes there is a lot of work but I want the place - minus the roaches! Anyone got any spare capital?
So much potential

This next day really took the biscuit (such an odd phrase) from this period of indecisive travel. Still wanting a beach location we moved a couple of hours down to coast to Santa Clara - a place we had read had lots of self catering Cabanas to rent.
Being away from the town the same taxi driver came to pick us up from where he had dropped us off only 18 hours before and he did us a favour by dropping us at the bus stop directly behind the required bus on the Pan American Highway.
(You do know that the Pan American runs from Alaska all the way down the Argentina? Now that is a road trip)
Imagining Santa Clara to be a more developed location we expected the bus to drive along the promenade and we would jump off wherever we saw fit.
Once again it was not to be and we found ourselves covered in dust as the bus pulled away from us at the roadside with nothing around us on the highway. Fortunately at that moment (I don't know how it all works out) a taxi came up to drop a local at the bus station and he took us down to the beach.

We lasted precisely 1hr 20mins at Playa Santa Clara. There were exactly 2 places to stay, one place was full but the crap room would be available the next day and the other was $90 per night; plus there were no kitchen facilities, only a really expensive sea front restaurant!
There was nothing to be done; a full 9 days before expected we would be heading for Panama City, all we had to do now was get back to the highway that was 4kms walk away along a windy uninhabited road and it was raining and muggy.
Arancha announced that she would manifest us a cab out of thin air and 2 minutes later one appeared who just happened to be dropping some goods off at the restaurant. Seriously, we were at the end of a track where only people visited in their own cars - there never should've been a cab here.

Straight out of the cab and onto the approaching bus to the capital was surely pushing a lucky travel streak wrapped around this abysmal travel week too far so I was happy that we wouldn't need to waste our good travel karma anymore for the next couple of weeks.

After only getting 5 days in Costa Rica and traveling to 3 non distinct destinations in Panama (although Las Lajas really had a lot of offer) we approached the capital of Panama City and crossing the Bridge of the Americas over the Panama Canal with the high rise city skyline glinting in the setting sun over the Pacific Ocean in front of me the previous few days paled into insignificance - I was where I wanted to be, in the city I have long coveted and having all this extra time may actually not be enough!
The skyline of the 'new' Panama City
So, to answer the question could we organise piss up in a brewery? Probably not, but I reckon it would all still work out for the best anyway!!