In this post I will not go into great details about everything I’ve done since last time I posted as this is a blog and not a novel. I will stick to the cliff notes and the photographs worth mentioning.
Picking up from were I left off; El Valle de Antón.
We only spent a single full day in El Valle. We used most of the day to hike to El Chorro Macho, apparently the largest waterfall in the area. On the way there we deviated from the original trail in search of a less travelled and more beautiful way to the waterfall. It turned out that the path actually took us to the top of the mountain and suddenly ended. Although it took us a couple of kilometers of course, the view from above made it well worth it.
After taking in the view and hydrating, we started descending to get back on track and reach El Chorro Macho.
At first the waterfall was quite disappointing; small and not flowing strong since it hadn’t rained for a while, but we quickly decided that the rules about swimming were to strict and not to be followed. Swimming and climbing the waterfall definitely made it worth the hike.
The rest of the day was spent in the hot springs and back at the cabin.
The next day we decided to leave El Valle and seek greener pastures in Santa Catalina.
We left around 10 am and expected to arrive at our destination after 4-5 hours.It turned out that Panamanian perception of time are quite different from the European norms and in the end the trip took us nearly 10 hours.
As Santa Catalina is a small surfing town 3 hours from civilization, we experienced that we were pretty much secluded from the rest of the world.
The town itself had plenty of restaurants and hostels, but no ATM and only a limited supply of food and groceries; making it the far most expensive place so far ( since you had to eat every meal at restaurants.)
We spent the beginning of our first day switching hostel from Santa Catalina Surfpoint to Surfside Inn, a much cleaner and more backpacker friendly hostel (with kitchen).
The rest of the day passed with surfing, chilling and walking to town to shop the few groceries they had.
We decided that something had to happen, and we booked a snorkelling trip for the following day.
The snorkelling trip took us to Coiba, a UNESCO World Heritage Site to which I had great expectations. According to Tripadvisor, many people had spottet stingrays, dolphins and even whale sharks. Unfortunately the snorkelling trip proved to be a bit of a disappointment; with only 3 meters of visibility and very poor tour guides we only saw fish of different kinds and no live coral. We did see dolphins and sea turtles from the boat but nothing at the snorkelling sites.
Besides the fish, the girls were close to becoming the lunch of Coiba’s mascot, a big salt water crocodile. Apparently they missed the warning signs by the beach and were resting in the water when suddenly a local starts yelling at them and they see the big creature approaching only few meters away. It turned out to be a peaceful one, as it was fed daily by the park rangers. (Although it probably wouldn’t have refrained it from a taste of gringo).
One thing I enjoyed and hadn’t expected didn’t happen in the water, but on the beach. When you walked, the whole beach became alive and moved. It turned out that the beach was littered with Paguridae, small seashells inhabited by hermit crabs.
After the trip it turned out that the tour agency didn’t have a working credit card terminal as they had claimed they would, which left us in a situation were we were unable to pay for the trip due to lack of cash. Fortunately the owner of the shop was going to Panama City via Santiago; so we seized the opportunity, packed our backs and got a lift to Santiago were we could find an ATM and stay the night. The trip by car took under 2 hours, whereas it would have taken us over 4 by bus.
In some ways I was happy to have experienced Santa Catalina, but I was still quite relieved to get back to civilization and people; I think we simply arrived at a bad time with not many backpackers around to make it a better experience. It really made me realize that it is the people and not the place that creates the experience.
The next day we said goodbye to Nicole who had to catch a flight home from Panama City. Astrid and I decided to try our luck in Bocas del Torro, an archipelago on the Caribbean cost. The bus trip was quite a pain since I suffered from food poisoning and felt like I would throw up every second. The first bus I was wearing shorts, t-shirts and flip flops and the air condition soon turned the bus into a motorized freezer. Before the second bus I therefore switched to jeans, jacket and closed shoes, only to find that the bus didn’t really use the air condition. Awesome.
We arrived in Almirante just in time to catch the last boat to Isla Colón and checked in at Hostel Heike around 7 pm.
After dinner we met a group of American girls and two Italian guys and went with them to a bar close by. Most of the bars are located on the water and have holes in the terrace, creating natural pools ideal for swimming and making the nightlife a lot more fun.
I have been in on Isla Colón since friday and mainly spent the days chilling, reading books, watching movies, going to the beach and having fun at night.
The hostel is great; as always there are always people around for a good talk, someone who wants to go out for a beer, or a group to join in a trip to the beach.
One event that really stood out was the Earth Day at Aqua Lounge. I went there with two Swedish girls to help collect trash at the beach in return for drinks and food.
As we walked the beach, local kids from ages 4-10 came asking for gloves and wanted to help. Later they joined us at the bar and played in the pools the most of the afternoon. Later at night I teamed up with one of the Swedes for a beer pong tournament, and the rest of the day and night we just swam and chilled in different bars.
So far my trip has been nothing but pure bliss; fun, swimming, great people and new culture. I will leave Bocas tomorrow and to to Lost and Found, a cloud retreat in the rainforest. I have a feeling that the internet haven’t found it’s way to the Panamanian rainforest yet, and I don’t expect to post anything before I return to civilization; only god knows when?
So, for the past week I have been volunteering at a beautiful villa in Colón. I have been doing fun and strenuous work, met many new people and have had a great time. But after a week I figured that it was time to move on and seek greener pastures. As I have planed nothing for the rest of the trip I decided to go to Panama City and see what happened. The Austrian couple; Thomas and Susi had told me of Santa Catalina, a laid back surfing village by the Pacific. Besides that, I had also been reading all sorts of great things about El Valle de Antón; a small city located in a lush environment in the crater of a giant extinct volcano.
I left the house early and arrived at Luna’s Castle in Panama City at around 3 pm. After checking in I went to my dorm and met my bunk bed partner Matt, a twenty something year old guy from the east coast of Canada. Shortly after two girls entered the dorm and said their hello’s. They were going out for lunch and Matt and I joined them; hostels are simply the best place to meet new people.
On the way to lunch I stumbled into Nisim – he hadn’t been able to go to Columbia yet, but stayed at hostel waiting for an open spot on a boat to Cartagena.
During lunch I learned that the girls were Astrid and Nicole; of Swiss origin but living and working respectively in Canada and London. They had both taken two weeks off work to travel around Panama. We spent most of the afternoon walking Ave Centrale, eating ice cream and people watching in a nice small plaza.
On the way back to the hostel we went past a kid with an Iguana on his head. I just took it for a toy and took no further notice until Astrid suddenly said “Wow, that’s a real Iguana”. I ran back, had to take that photograph.
The police in Panama City are more like a small army.Later we decided that rum would make the night a whole lot better. We got Flor de Caña and Coke at a small street shop, put it in the freezer and went to eat at the Coca Cola Café. After transforming the hostels table tennis into a beer pong arena and substituting beer with rum, the rest of the night was kind of a blur.
View from the hostel balcony at night.
The day before I had convinced the girls that they should go to Santa Catalina instead of Bocas del Toro. So at the moment I am lying in a hammock in El Valle de Antón, listening to music with the girls and drinking red wine. The valley is nothing short of spectacular and the cabin we have checked into is luxury compared to the hostel. We live at a family owned property; they have a monkey, a tucano and a talking parrot – heaven! Tomorrow we are going hiking to explore the area, bathe in the waterfalls, soak in the hot springs and visit the orchid garden, maybe roast some marshmallows at night. After that Santa Catalina and surfing awaits!
We met José at a restaurant in El Valle, a really happy 4-year old who played at the restaurant while his mother worked.
All the best
So, why the weird heading?
In most ways my trip here was problem free – except for one. When I got to the gate at my first stopover in Charles de Gaulle, I was called to the counter and informed that I wouldn’t be allowed to board the plane, since I had no ESTA Visa. I tried to explain that I was just transiting in the US and that my final destination was Panama City. Apparently that made no difference, and with 10 minutes to takeoff, I felt pretty frantic. Luckily I brought my laptop, and through a WIFI hotspot I was able to apply for the ESTA at the gate. Thankfully the confirmation didn’t take 24-hours, as it might, but arrived 2 minutes before departure. Needless to say, it took a while before I regained my composure and was able to relax.
At the last leg of my journey, from Atlanta to Panama City, I were seated next to an American woman and her mother. They both looked hispanic, and apparently the mother grew up in Panama City close to the Canal. I started talking to the younger and spent most of the trip telling her about Denmark and absorbing as much information about my destination as I possible could. Her name was Kirsten because her father had a thing for Scandinavia. At first he had wanted to name her Sigfried – she was pretty happy he chose not to.
When we arrived at Panama City I was offered me a ride to the city. Kirsten and her mother dropped my off at the hostel doorstep and I saved a 30$ taxi.
When I tried to check in, it turned out that I accidentally booked my bed from the 4th, and that they were fully booked. I found a fairly cheap hotel that only set me back 35$, still thrice the price of the hostel dorm though.
The following day I dragged my jet lagged self back to the hostel and started talking with people over pancakes. I spend the most of the day going to the Miraflores Lock with a girl from Holland, and watched the great Panamax vessels come through the locks.
Nothing so far has been a great surprise, except for the booking error. But the real surprise revealed itself when we got back from the locks and someone suddenly said “Hej Anton” in Danish. It turned out to be a colleague of mine from Denmark and his girlfriend Amanda. I spent the rest of the day with them; asking questions and hearing about their trip through Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. They had been on their way for a little over two months and were finishing off Panama in three weeks time before returning to Denmark. At night we went out to eat, as it was their last day in Panama City before the San Blas islands. Jakob turned 25 the day after, so it was cause for wine and celebration.
On the way to the restaurant we were stopped on the street by a Danish girl named Charlotte who worked as an international trainee in Panama for the Danish company BoConcept. It was a bit absurd and it really baffled me how small the world seemed to be that day. She asked us if we wanted to meet her later for some live music and drinks in Casco Viejo. Which lead me to…
…The Cocaine Dealing Cap Driver
The title of this part speaks for itself, but still requires some sort of explanation.
After dinner we took a cap to Casco Viejo. We got in a really pimped taxi with fender skirts and neon lights. The taxi driver half deafened us with extremely loud reggaeton and asked if we wanted “marijuana and cocaine”. We politely refused, but soon he found his sunglass case and showed us the contents. It was filled with 3 large bags of white powder. I’m guessing cocaine, but who knows? He wasn’t especially unpleasant, I mainly think he liked scaring the gringos.
A guy at the hostel told me that the term “gringo” is derived from the words “green go” because the U.S. Cavalry units wore green stripped trouser when campaigning in the Southwest. The term gringo originally means “green, go home”.
After an interesting cap ride we eventually got of in Casco Viejo. It turned out that Casco Viejo is a really fancy place to go out and that a bottle of wine would set us back at least 50$, while the price to enter most bars was 30$ pp. (Note that an average police officer in Panama gets a salary of around 800$ a month). Another curious thing about Casco Viejo was the substantial amount of police in the area, they seemed to outnumber the number of civilians.
In the end we decided that the 1$ beer at the hostel was preferable to the 3-digit wine bottles and the army of police officers.
Today I’ve mostly chilled at the hostel; eaten pancakes and relaxed. Then I got to talking to Elwood (check out his website here), a chill backpacker from the US. We decided to go to the fish market by the docks and shop some fish for lunch. It was a 40 minute walk in really intense heat, but the cerviche we got there was fantastic and made it well worth the effort.
After lunch I went to the Parque Natural Metropolitano de Panamá, which is a beautiful tropical park close to the city. I went with Andrew, an attorney from South Africa who has taken a year of travelling the world, and Shahmeer (he has a really cool blog, a 20-year old American who decided to go from Seattle to Panama City by bike, a good 8000 mile stretch. He has just finished after about 8 months on the road, very impressive. We went for a good walk in the park and climbed an abandoned crane to get a better view.
Now were back at the hostel, waiting for Elwood to make us Crème brûlée, it’s good to have a chef as a friend!
All in all I have had some good days in Panama City thus far. The city itself is nothing to speak of, but the people here are wonderful.
The Hostal Mamallena is perfect; cheap, good pancakes and very nice people.
Tomorrow I’ll head for the Caribbean to stay with a couchsurfer for a few days and just relax.
I’ll let the road decide!