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.



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