Last stop in Panama

Panama City

6 April

I had arranged to have breakfast at 7am as we wanted to catch the 8am bus to Sona, which connected with a direct bus to Panama City. This particular bus was quite critical to catch as there wasn’t another until 12 noon.

We eventually got breakfast at 7.40am, by which time I was beginning to get a little agitated. However, I need not have worried, as we managed to get to the bus stop before 8am and the bus didn’t leave until 8.15am anyway! It is a bit of a problem with the buses here as you never quite know the exact time they are supposed to leave (even if the timetable tells you) and then they are likely to leave at a different time anyway. It is a bit disconcerting for an anxious Western traveller!

Road to Thomas's house at Lagartero Bay
Road to Thomas’s house at Lagartero Bay

The bus to Sona was very slow initially as it stopped and started along the way, filling up with passengers, but we still got to Sona before 10am, only to find that the bus to Panama left at 10.30am and not 10.15 as per the timetable! We had time therefore, for a quick visit to a cafe for Thomas’s second breakfast and then to go to the supermarket for snacks.

Going over the Bridge of the Americas
Going over the Bridge of the Americas
Waterfront park in Panama City
Water front park in Panama City

The bus to Panama was quite comfortable, had a toilet (the first bus with one since Mexico) and was supposedly air conditioning, although this didn’t seem to work except when we stopped. It was therefore, quite hot on the bus as none of the windows opened either, so we were both fairly drowsy.

It was actually quite a boring trip, through Santiago and down the Pan American highway, which travels mainly along the flat, dry plains. Although not a chicken bus, we did actually have some parrots (in a cage) along for the ride. We had one stop for lunch at a roadside cafe but the queue was too long for us to bother, so we contented ourselves with bananas and biscuits. Highly nutritious!

We arrived in Panama City at about 3.30pm and got a taxi to the hotel from the bus station, which seemed to be quite a way out of the city centre. The hotel I had booked was very disappointing, the room being a soulless concrete box with no window or indeed any redeeming features, so not exactly appealing or the sort of place we wanted to spend much time in.

Panama City
Panama City

We went out for a walk along the water front in search of something to eat and drink. Apart from the park, the area we found ourselves in was completely deserted and it proved quite hard to find anything open. (Probably because it was the financial district). The park, however, was well set up for walking, cycling and roller blading and was obviously well used. We eventually stopped at some sort of fast (slow) food chicken place and then visited the large supermarket up the road. There must be a lot of Americans living here, given the content of the shelves! After that, we strolled back to the hotel where we found that the internet had decided to connect and had a relaxing evening watching television and catching up on internet things.

Panama

7 April

Thomas had a bit of sorting out with his passport to do today, so after breakfast we dropped off the laundry down the road and then went to a large shop where we were told he could get passport photos. Having done this, he went off to the Consulate and I decided to get a much needed haircut in the shop, which seemed to sell just about everything, including haircuts!

Street in Panama City
Street in Panama City
Revolution Tower in Panama City
Revolution Tower in Panama City

After standing in the salon for a few minutes and being ignored, I suddenly realised that the reception desk was outside so went and booked in (essentially, got a number so that I was next in line). It was a bit of a bewildering system to an outsider as, when my number was called, I then had to go and pay, which I couldn’t do because the eftpos machine wasn’t working (which I wasn’t going to use anyway).

A very helpful English speaking man, with very long dreadlocks, offered to explain anything to me that I didn’t understand, which was wonderful, as I became somewhat alarmed when the hairdresser produced the men’s clippers. I really didn’t want a number 1!! She assured me it was only a number 3 and proceeded to shear me like a sheep. The haircuts are getting more interesting as I go along… Thankfully, it all turned out well, and she did use the scissors afterwards. It was also the cheapest haircut ever – a grand total of $4.

Buildings in Panama City
Buildings in Panama City
Panama City construction sites
Panama City construction sites

I spent much of the rest of the day walking around the city, which I concluded that, apart from the waterfront, wasn’t a city conducive to walking. The buildings are a very big mix of old and new and there seem to be cranes constructing new ones everywhere. I was heading for the air conditioning in a shopping mall and got a bit lost at one stage and ended up walking over wasteland, following a local, who then hopped over a barrier onto the road when the footpath ended in a pile of rubbish. I followed suit.

Waste land in Panama City
Waste land in Panama City

By the time I arrived at the Mall, I was very tired so sat and had a coffee and a cinnamon bun, which was far too sickly sweet to finish. However, thus rejuvenated, I strolled around the shops, which seemed to be mostly designer stores. So much for the cheap shopping in Panama City!

Ships on the horizon waiting to enter the Canal
Ships on the horizon waiting to enter the Canal

I wandered along the waterfront and back to the room, where Thomas arrived soon after. He had not achieved his purpose, as he had to get a police report to say that the passport had been lost. He was sent from pillar to post and the place he had been told to get it had a queue a mile long so he had decided to go back early tomorrow morning.

Black sky in Panama City
Black sky in Panama City

We went and picked up our now washed and dried clothes and stopped at the small cafe next door to the hotel for dinner. This was run by a delightful family, there was no menu and the choice was beef or chicken. They all, even the young daughter, practised their English on us, whilst Thomas, at least, persevered with his Spanish. The chicken, when it arrived, was one of the tastiest meals I had had for a while.

Outside, there were police milling around as there was a big political rally happening up the road. It seems that Panamanians are very passionate about politics and as there is a General Election at the beginning of May, there are flags supporting one or other of the parties on houses and cars all over the country. The current President has apparently achieved a great deal during office but is only allowed to stand for one term.

It was an early night tonight as we were both tired after our exertions of the day.

Panama City

8 April

Metro in Panama
Metro in Panama

I spent the entire morning in the room catching up with emails, internet etc and waiting for Thomas to return from the Consulate. Another complication was added to the passport saga, which meant further trekking around the city to another office later on. (An interesting little aside – the Honorary Consul hasn’t had to speak English for 2 years, which may give an indication as to how many New Zealanders pass through Panama, who require consular services! She also didn’t seem too familiar with the procedures for lost passports.)

We decided to go on the brand, spanking new metro to Allbrook Shopping Mall. Indeed, the metro is so new, Panamanians were taking pictures of the train and themselves on it. There were a number of staff around to help with the acquiring of a transport card and loading it with money, and also, at the end of the day, to instruct people to move along the platform and restrict the number of people actually on the platform! It all looked very, very clean so I would have to wonder how long that will last? There is currently only one line open and some of the stations along the line that had obviously not yet been completed. However, it is obviously extremely well used.

Allbrook Bus Station
Allbrook Bus Station

Panama City certainly seems to have streamlined its transport as we got off the metro, crossed a bridge to the main ‘Terminales des Autobuses’ and then went across another bridge straight into the mall, which is reputedly the biggest in Central America.

Neither of us like shopping, especially in big malls but I had wanted to come primarily to replace my t-shirts, which I am now sick of the sight of and are looking somewhat the worse for wear. Thomas took one look at the size of the place and decided not to stay, so we had some lunch and he went off to complete the replacement passport process.

Food Court in Allbrook shopping Mall
Food Court in Allbrook Shopping Mall

I wandered around the shops (or rather some of them) and wondered who bought all the items in the stores, which were bulging with stock for very small people. I will admit that Panamanians are not very tall, but they are, generally speaking, not the thinnest race on the planet. Why then, is it, that everything I tried on, including the large sizes, were too small for me? There were several times I picked up clothes that thought might fit me, only to find I was in the maternity section! As far as I am aware, I have not suddenly put on several inches around my waist and hips over the last three months so maybe the Panamanians are deluding themselves (or maybe I am?).

Allbrook Metro Station
Allbrook Metro Station

I caught the metro back at a very busy time so there were hordes of people on the platform but I was the only foreign face, so obviously the tourists haven’t found the metro yet. Thomas, who had the room key, wasn’t back so I sat in the reception area and waited for him.

After a bit of much needed rest and recuperation, we went out to find somewhere to eat and ended up in a Mexican restaurant. The area we are staying in is not a particularly good one and there is definitely a lack of eating places, so we had to walk quite a way. It was near a supermarket though, so we replenished our supplies of mangoes and papaya. Afterwards, he went off to the internet cafe (internet being totally unreliable in the hotel) and I came back and read.

Panama City

9 April

Today, we decided to go to the Miraflores Lock on the Panama Canal where we could watch the ships going through as well as go to the Visitor Centre that houses a museum and has a 3-D film about the Canal.

Grain carrier going through the Miraflores Lock
Grain carrier going through the Miraflores Lock

Having vetoed the proposal from Thomas to get a taxi, we walked down to the main road along the waterfront and got a Metro Bus to Allbrook Bus terminal (the centre of the universe as far as bus transport in Panama is concerned). We had read on Google, the fount of all wisdom, that we could get a ‘Diablo Rioja’ i.e. local bus specific to Panama City, that was heading to Gamboa, our destination for tomorrow, that went via Miraflores. The Diablo Riojas (or ‘Red Devils’) are the brightly painted old school buses that are individually owned and operated and are decorated according to the owner’s inclinations. Apparently, the City is trying to phase them out and, having seen the black smoke belching out of some of their exhausts, I am not surprised. They certainly add a little ‘je ne sais quoi’ to the landscape though!

Having arrived at Allbrook, it took a little bit of investigation to find out where the bus went from and we then had to buy a transport card that would allow us to pass through a turnstile, as the ones we had already got apparently weren’t valid for this. That done, we boarded a lovely pink bus and waited about 10 minutes for a driver, by which time, I think, everyone on the bus was dripping in the heat. As soon as he arrived, we were off with a roar and a bump and out into the traffic.

Grain carrier exiting the lock
Grain carrier exiting the lock

It only took about 20 minutes to get to Miraflores and then another 5 or 10 minute walk to the Visitor Centre. Whilst we were walking, a very nice air-conditioned Metrobus passed us, much to Thomas’s disgust, as we could obviously have got this one from Allbrook, rather than the local bus. However, it all added to his experience and we had a practice run for tomorrow when we will have to catch the local bus again to travel to Gamboa.

Grain carrier exiting the locks and heading for the Bridge of the Americas
Grain carrier exiting the locks and heading for the Bridge of the Americas and the Pacific

When we arrived at the Centre, which has 5 levels with Observation areas on each, a ship was just going through the lock, so we watched that for quite some time. We then had a sandwich, after which we went into the Museum, which we were able to see part of, before going into the theatre for the 3-D film. This was interesting for us, particularly, as neither of us had been to a 3-D film before. The film itself, however, was more a bit of self promotion than something very educational or informative.

Ship approaching to go through the lock
Ships approaching to go through the lock

Once this had ended, we went back and saw the rest of the Museum by which time, it was 2.45pm, the time we had been told the next ships would be going through the locks. I had read that the busiest time for ships is between 8-11am and 3-6pm and our experience today would certainly bear this out. There were no ships between when we arrived, at about 12 noon, until these ones.

Car carrier in the lock being watched by the tourists
Car carrier in the lock being watched by the tourists

We watched the tugs go out to pull 2 car carriers into the lock. Ahead of them, were a catamaran and a sail boat that had been tied together and which were pulled through the locks by line haulers (men attached to ropes!). The larger ships went through under their own power but had vehicles attached to them to prevent them hitting the sides of the Canal. It was certainly a very tight squeeze!

The lock gate opening
The lock gate opening

We stood and watched for quite some time as both the car carriers went right through the locks. As they were leaving, a container ship had just entered at the other end and there were more ships waiting to go through later. Apparently, ships coming from the Pacific side go through in the mornings and those from the Atlantic side pass through in the afternoons. There are about 35-40 ships using the Canal in each 24 hour period. The big ships have priority during the day, whilst the smaller vessels usually go through at night. It takes 8-10 hours to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Two car carriers and two yachts in the lock
Two car carriers and two yachts in the lock

It is the Canal’s centenary this year and they are hoping to have the Canal extensions completed. These are to allow larger ships to use it. (The Nicaraguans have just agreed to build a new Canal, funded by the Chinese, in Nicaragua, that will large enough for even the biggest ships to use, so it will be interesting, in the future, to see how this affects the Panama Canal.)

Car carrier and yachts in the last stage of the locks
Car carrier and yachts in the last stage of the locks
Two car carriers in the Miraflores Lock
Two car carriers in the Miraflores Lock
Strange man dresses as a chicken
Strange man dressed as a chicken (I have no idea….!!)

We caught the Metrobus back to Allbrook, where we spent a little time in the shops whilst Thomas looked, unsuccessfully, for some shoes. We then decided it would be easier to have dinner at the Foodcourt, rather than go back to the hotel and try and find somewhere to eat in an area that was seriously lacking in cafes.

Once back at the hotel (on the Metro), we settled in for the rest of the evening, reading and watching some TV. (Alas, no internet in the room, yet again!)

Gamboa

10 April

Thankfully, today, we left our cell of a room and headed out of the city to Gamboa for a few days. This is on Lake Gatun, which is the ‘middle’ part of the Canal between the Gatun locks on the Atlantic side and the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks on the Pacific side. It is in the Saborania Rainforest Park, which is renowned for bird and plant species that may not be found elsewhere in Panama. The Smithsonian Institute also has a research centre here.

Spot Thomas in the Food court
Spot Thomas in the Food court
Road and rail bridge into Gamboa
Road and rail bridge into Gamboa

We left the hotel at about 11am and set off for Allbrook bus terminal, a place with which we seem to be coming remarkably familiar! Unfortunately, we had just missed a bus and the next one wasn’t for more than an hour, so we sat in the food court and thought about having some lunch. The hour passed easily enough, reading, people watching and eating. I took a photo or two and was told off by security, as this apparently wasn’t allowed. (Even though I had seen quite a number of phones being used as cameras.)

Being unfamiliar with the bus system, meant that we went to get on the bus about 10 minutes before it was due to leave. However, it might have been a good idea to get there earlier as, of course, it was very full by the time we arrived. Travelling with a back pack on a full ‘Diablo Rioja’ is not the most ideal situation but there is no other transport to Gamboa, so it had to be done. Luckily, it wasn’t too much of an issue, as I was just told to put my pack down the back and I managed to find a seat relatively near, so could almost keep an eye on it. Thomas had put his bag by the driver, which was a bit more problematic, as the bus was standing room only for most of the way and therefore it was impossible to watch.

Smithsonian Institute at Gamboa
Smithsonian Institute at Gamboa

The driver, like some of the others, had little regard for the comfort of the passengers, going fast around corners and braking hard when necessary. He obviously liked the sound of his horn and, at one stop, hit the side of the bus stop, pulling a strip of metal (?) off of it. He didn’t even bother to get out and have a look, but just drove on!

A lot of the passengers were school children and at one stop, a lot of primary school children got on, who managed to squash their way into any available seats. At one point, I happened to glance at Thomas, who had a little girl in front of him, just staring at him, whilst he tried to ignore her. I laughed out loud and all the children around me, stared at me, wondering, I am sure, what on earth I was laughing at.

Our room
Our room

When we got off the bus in Gamboa, Thomas’s first words were “I am not going back on that” but, unless he is going to walk, he does not have a choice. We found our way to the Gamboa Bed and Breakfast that I had booked on Sabrina’s recommendation. It was wonderful. We were warmly greeted by Mateo and his wife who spoke no English, which meant Thomas had lots of Spanish practice. Lucky for me that he was with me as, otherwise, I would have been totally lost.

Gamboa house (our room was on the upper floor)
Gamboa house (our room was on the upper floor)
Bromeliads growing on the tree branches
Bromeliads growing on the tree branches

Our room, which was across the road from their house, was in fact part of another house, so we had a big lounge area, as well as the bedroom. There was one other room but nobody booked in, and so we had the place to ourselves. What a difference it makes to the mental well-being to be surrounded by trees instead of concrete! The rainforest is right on the doorstep, so we anticipated seeing lots of birds and animals.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon reading. Thomas fell asleep and eventually we went for a walk at about 5pm when it had cooled down a bit. This took us past part of the Smithsonian research area, the construction of a new part of the Institute and to the ‘Tienda’ or shop, where we bought supplies for the evening. There doesn’t actually seem to be anywhere to have dinner here so it could be sandwiches for the next couple of days! We then spent a little while watching a ship go through the Canal before heading back to our abode.

Ship going through the Canal at Gamboa
Ship going through the Canal at Gamboa

The evening passed quickly, as it tends to do when you have a good book to read. I am now converted to ebooks, which I can download from the Auckland library, which I am hoping is not going to realise that I am no longer resident and cancel my membership!

Gamboa

11 April

I got up early and went for a walk down the hill to check out what was going through the Canal this morning. I only saw one ship and nothing else was lined up, so came back and had some breakfast, having checked to see if Thomas was awake. Mateo was very chatty, as usual, this morning, so I have been very fortunate to have Thomas with me to translate or I would have missed a lot of information.

House in Gamboa
House in Gamboa
Agouti in Mateo's garden
Agouti (spelling?) in Mateo’s garden
Thomas on the Pipeline walk
Thomas on the Pipeline Walk

We had noticed yesterday, when we were walking around the village, that the houses were nothing like the standard Panamanian houses. This, Mateo told us, was because the Americans had built them all, when they were building the Canal, for the American families working on the construction, using Californian redwoods, no less. Admittedly, they are all looking somewhat the worse for wear now though!

After breakfast, I read whilst Thomas did some exercises and then we headed for the Pipeline Road, which was a couple of kilometres walk away and a renowned bird observation place. There is a Canopy Tower, which we decided we didn’t need to pay $20 each to climb, especially given that, by then, it was then nearly midday and therefore not the best time to be observing birds, and also, given my powers of wildlife spotting, I probably wouldn’t have been able to see anything anyway without someone pointing it out to me!

We walked for a while in the rainforest and agreed that we had seen more bird life in Mateo’s garden than here, so turned around and began walking back to the village. We met a French boy along the way, who decided to walk along with us, and we left him at the bus stop to go back to Panama City, whilst we wandered down to the jetty to find out about a boat trip for tomorrow.

Public jetty in Gamboa
Public jetty in Gamboa

We were immediately hailed by Ali, who nattered to Thomas in Spanish, from which conversation we gathered it would be $40 each for a two hour trip and we would see a lot of wildlife. This seeming a little steep in price, we walked back across the bridge to the opposite side of the Chagres River and enquired at the hotel jetty about trips. As we approached, a coach load of tourists arrived, donned life jackets and set off in a couple of boats. If this was not enough to deter us, the prices here most definitely were, so we decided to go with the local boat operator and Thomas phoned Ali later to confirm. We sat at the jetty for a while and had a beer before going back to our room for a bit of rest and recuperation (reading for me and reading/sleeping for Thomas!)

Tourists at Gamboa
Tourists at Gamboa
Hotel jetty at Gamboa
Hotel jetty at Gamboa
Ship on the Canal
Ship on the Canal

Next on the agenda, was another wander down to the Canal to watch the ships, having first replenished supplies at the shop. Thomas main mission is to see a Maersk ship pass through but so far this has not been accomplished, and, indeed, it wasn’t this evening either. We are having difficulty working out when exactly the ships are most likely to come through here, given that we were told the busiest times at Miraflores were 8-11am and 3-6pm. However, our logic doesn’t seem to be working and it is very hit and miss as to whether there are ships or not.

Mateo had also told us this morning that there was a kayak race today from Colon to Panama with the kayaks going through the locks with the big ships. However, there was no sign of them either. It was obviously not our lucky day, but there is always tomorrow…!

Mateo and Beatrice's verandah
Mateo and Beatrice’s verandah

After that, it was back to our accommodation for an early night. As we walked past, Mateo called us in to meet his son, who spoke some English and who looked after the emails and website enquiries for them. We were given some ice cream whilst we chatted and were also introduced to a German and Italian couple who were staying in the cabins. It seems we have got the ‘use when required’ part of the accommodation, as there are two cabins attached to Mateo’s house and we are in a house across the road that doesn’t actually belong to him. However, this has worked very well for us as the cabins look quite small and we have got a substantial space to ourselves.

Gamboa

12 April

We got up very early this morning as we had booked the boat trip for 7am, thinking that it would be a good time to see the wildlife. We had allowed half an hour to walk down to the jetty but, as we were walking past his house, Mateo called out to Thomas and said he would drive us down, so we arrived very early for the trip.

Manuel, our boat driver on the Canal
Manuel, our boat driver on the Canal

Ali was, of course, nowhere to be seen, although there was quite a lot of activity on the jetty. Manuel, who was apparently a friend of Ali’s, took us out, so we assumed that Ali was just the salesman! It was a beautiful morning and we sped under the bridge and then followed a ship up the Canal, past Gamboa village, until we turned off into a swampy tributary, where we saw crocodile trails going into the water and even a tail, the only part that was visible of the reptile itself. It was enough to make me think twice about hanging my hands over the edge of the boat!

Rainforest on the Canal
Rainforest on the Canal
A blue bird in the Rainforest
A blue bird in the Rainforest
Capuchin monkeys
Capuchin monkeys

The rest of the trip was spent cruising up and around other tributaries, which were all part of the Gatun Lake. We saw a sloth, hanging upside down from a branch, asleep, (not sure how or why it doesn’t fall off!), howler monkeys, and some capuchins that practically landed in the boat, they were so keen to have a look at us. There were also a number of different birds pointed out to us. The vegetation was typical of the rainforest and very dense in places. The water was also at an extremely low level, and there were a lot of logs etc exposed that will not be visible once the rainy season starts in about a month.

When we arrived back at the jetty, Mateo was there, having brought the Italian/German couple down for their trip, so he gave us a lift back to the house, where we had a very welcome coffee or two and breakfast. It is quite alarming to realise how coffee dependent I am and that I need two cups in the morning to be able to function properly!

After breakfast, it was time for a bit more reading. At my current rate, I am getting through one book a day so it is a good job that I downloaded a number of them. Thomas has been forced to read the one physical book that I had brought, which he has classified as a ‘girl’s’ book but is reading out of desperation.

On the Canal
On the Canal
A structure on the Canal
A structure on the Canal

At midday, we walked down to the Canal again, via the shop, and took up position in our usual place on the other side of the railway line. For some reason, there were a number of soldiers around today, controlling the traffic on the bridge, amongst other things, and we were told by a couple of them that we couldn’t sit where we were because it was on the wrong side of the tracks. We reluctantly moved on but, instead, climbed up to a spot above the bridge where we had an excellent view of the traffic going across the bridge and of the Canal going towards the Pacific.

As it was Saturday, it was quite busy on the bridge and Mateo had told us that people get impatient waiting for the lights (it being a one lane bridge) and there has been chaos when the queues from both sides decide to go at the same time and they meet in the middle. This was presumably why the traffic was being controlled. There also seemed to be a number of kayaks around, so we think the race might have been today, as well as lots of tourist buses filled with people who had been out on Canal trips.

The rail/road bridge in Gamboa
The rail/road bridge in Gamboa
Looking up the Canal towards the Pacific
Looking up the Canal towards the Pacific

We spent quite an entertaining hour or two watching the activity beneath us before we decided we had had enough and walked back to our room. The rest of the day was spent reading (just for a change!)

Panama

13 April

We got up leisurely and had our last breakfast on Mateo and Beatrice’s veranda. It is such a peaceful haven, sitting watching the birds in the garden and Mateo and Beatrice were so welcoming that I was sorry to leave.

Thomas with Mateo and Beatrice
Thomas with Mateo and Beatrice
Thomas feeding a squirrel
Thomas feeding a squirrel
Cashew tree
Cashew tree

We packed up and walked down the road to the bus stop, where we waited, under a cashew tree, for some while for the bus to come. The trip back to the City wasn’t quite as traumatic as the one coming. As it was Sunday, there were far fewer people on the bus and no school children. We sat at the back with our bags, nontheless, and were treated to the full blast of the loud music emitting forth from the large speakers behind our seats. We also felt every bump in the road!

The driver raced along, stopping and starting, in the usual fashion and by the time we reached the city, the bus was full. We had intended to catch the metro to our hotel but when we saw the crowds of people heading for the station, we changed our minds and hailed a taxi instead. Travelling on a packed metro with a back pack really didn’t seem like a bright idea. From the taxi driver, we learned that the metro was free for a month, the Government having given this as a pre-election favour and apparently, as I read later, it was damaging the taxi drivers’ businesses, as they were now having to chase fares.

House with election flags
House with election flags
View of the new road around Cascjo Viejo
View of the new road around Cascjo Viejo
View towards the City
View towards the City
View from the hotel in Panama
View from the hotel in Panama

Our hotel was a vast improvement on our last one in the City and had the most spectacular view from our 6th floor room over both the modern and the old cities. It was also beautifully spacious. However, the air conditioning unit was a little old and extremely noisy (to put it politely) and the water was a bit temperamental about coming out of the taps, which was somewhat problematic when you are covered in soap in the shower and the water stops!

Thomas was getting desperate to go for a run but didn’t have any running shoes so we ventured out into the street to try and find some. Having gone to the department store and stocked up on supplies but not found any shoes, we walked back and eventually found a pair at a shop close to the hotel. I was getting very tired and scratchy (who, me?!) by this stage so was very keen to get back. The area we are in is a little dodgy and having been to the money machine and done so shopping, I was definitely more heavily loaded than I was comfortable with being.

View from the overbridge
View from the overbridge

We packed the shopping into the fridge (another excellent bonus of the hotel) and walked down to the waterfront park so that Thomas could run and I could sit and people watch. This is always fascinating to me and on a Sunday, in what must be the busiest park in the City, it was even more so. There were people everywhere, the Panamanians obviously loving to stroll out with their families. It was extremely noisy with car horns blaring and a couple of groups of drummers practising. Luckily, there were separate lanes along the path for runners/cyclists or Thomas would have been fighting his way through the crowds.

Playground in the park
Playground in the park
Drummers practising
Drummers practising

I wandered around and had only just sat on the sea wall when Thomas returned. We ambled back to the hotel and indulged in a rum and coke, the first for quite a few days, and did nothing for the rest of the evening.

Chiriqui Indians at the waterfront
Chiriqui Indians at the waterfront

Panama City

14 April

Today we decided to visit Casco Viejo, which is the old part of Panama City. It is actually very close to where we are staying but it took us a while to work out how to get there. The bus routes are very hard to determine and it seems that you just have to look at the front of the buses as they approach to see where they are going and stop them if they are the one you want. It is all a bit tentative and haphazard. (Later this evening, I actually found a website showing the bus routes but it was a bit late by then!)

Casco Viejo

Naturally, we got the wrong bus and ended up walking through one of the more salubrious areas to get to the old town. It was all quite dirty and smelly but there were some quite intriguing little shops along the way, including one full of the materials that the Kuna ladies, from the San Blas islands, obviously make their dresses. We are getting used to these areas though as it is very like the one we are staying in.

Casco Viejo, itself, was very interesting as there are some buildings that have been restored and are functioning as very smart restaurants and cafes, as well as museums and Government buildings, and yet right next door there are buildings that are in the process of being restored or are still ruins or slums. There is obviously a major initiative to restore the buildings, as there is a great deal of work in progress.

Cathedral in Casco Viejo
Cathedral in Casco Viejo

Once we had wandered around for a while and had had a much needed shot of caffeine in an overpriced tourist cafe, we walked along the waterfront to the fish market to have some lunch. The market is adjacent to the jetty where all the fishing boats off load their catch and there are a number of small cafes/food stalls where ceviche of various sorts and filet of fish with plantains is the staple menu. Not surprisingly therefore, we had ceviche (for me) and fish (for Thomas) for lunch!

Fish market
Fish market
Cafes in the fish market
Cafes in the fish market
Panama hats
Panama hats

We then felt we needed a rest so headed back to the room, taking our lives in our hands, crossing the road where there was continuous traffic flowing. We eventually followed some Panamanians, who just put up their hands to make the traffic stop so they could cross, an action that seemed somewhat foolhardy to me, but had the desired effect! On the way back, Thomas stopped at a street barbers and had an entertaining haircut. However, they obviously saw the foreigner coming, as he was charged more than I had been for mine!

Apart from venturing out to get cold drinks and kebabs from a street stall, we spent the remainder of the day in our room where I could sit on my bed and watch the traffic and people without having to be in the thick of the noise, smells and heat.

Panama City

15 April

I awoke early to the sound of horns tooting. It is not a quiet area and even though we are on the 6th floor, we can still hear everything that is going on in the street, including the jackhammers that were hard at work at 1am! Hopefully, this means they have made some progress on the road below and will not be turning the water off again today (as they did yesterday).

Sunrise - view from my bed!
Sunrise – view from my bed!

This morning, we took the metro to Allbrook bus station, which is still a bit of a mystery, as it is not clear which bus goes where, so it was somewhat of a miracle that we found the one to Amador. Thomas had decided that he wanted to go for a run along the Causeway and I wanted to go and have a look.

Marina at Amador (Isla Flamencos)
Marina at Amador (Isla Flamencos)
Ships and boats at Amador
Ships and boats at Amador
Amador Causeway
Amador Causeway

The bus took us right to Isla Flamenco, which is at the far end where there was very little apart from yachting marinas, a resort or two and some cafes. There was also a good view of the ships queueing up to go through the Canal. We haven’t quite worked out why the ships are not sent through the Canal faster when there are so many waiting, but there must be a reason and not just Panamanian inefficiency, which is the reason Thomas tends to favour. There do seem to be a lot of times when nothing is passing through though.

Thomas went off for his run and I walked back along the waterfront hoping to find a cup of coffee. However, none of the cafes were open (after all, it was only 11am!) so I continued walking until I met Thomas coming back the other way. We were both extremely hot and dripping by this stage and in dire need of some rehydration. However, there was nowhere in sight, so we waited for the bus to take us back to the food court at Allbrook Mall.

Bridge of the Americas from the Causeway
Bridge of the Americas from the Causeway

The bus driver on this route, was probably one of the worst we have had. She (unfortunately) drove as fast as she could and seemed a little reluctant to pick up any passengers. It was sheer good fortune that she deigned to pick us up as she certainly left passengers behind at other stops.

Very colourful museum under construction
Very colourful museum under construction – designed by Frank Gehry
Kuna lady from whom I bought my mola
Kuna lady from whom I bought my mola (she is wearing one round her waist and others are hanging on the wall behind)

The foodcourt was the first stop and we eventually got some fruit smoothies after an exceedingly long wait at the stall. I did a bit of shopping afterwards and then we got the metro back. For some reason that we didn’t understand but the Panamanians thought was very funny, the train didn’t stop at our station but just carried on so we had to get another train back again. It was all very strange!

Thomas then went back to the room whilst I ventured into a handcraft market across the road. This definitely did not appear to be a foreign tourist type of place but seemed to cater more for Panamanian visitors. (The area is not on the tourist route.) It had a lot of the mola type needlework that is made by the Kuna tribe women (and yes, I bought one) and there were a number of people sewing in very small rooms. Some of the shops were also selling the dresses that the various tribes wear.

Fishing boats with Casco Viejo in the background
Fishing boats with Casco Viejo in the background

Later on, after I had ventured in to the internet cafe to print out my airline ticket, with Thomas’s help, we went back to the fish market for dinner. On the way, the heavens opened unexpectedly and we got a little wet to say the least but the shower didn’t last long. The menus hadn’t changed since yesterday so we had ceviche and fish (not that this is a problem!). For some reason, there have been many more people around today and queues upon queues at the money machines. A number of shops have also been closed because of a religious festival.

By the time we returned to the hotel, there was really only time for sorting out and packing up before bed.

Boquete to Santa Catalina

29 March

It was a very long travel day today, involving four buses and a taxi, as I went from Boquete to Santa Catalina, on the Pacific Coast.

I set off from Casa Pedro at 8am, very pleased to be on my way. Having waited outside the house for a while and having decided that no taxi or bus was coming, I started walking but, luckily, a taxi appeared before I had gone 20 metres. As is their custom, the taxi driver continued along the road away from town and did the loop that I had walked on more than one occasion. It is rare that they will do a journey just for one person, so we picked up three more passengers along the way. I couldn’t complain though as it only cost 70 cents!

Bus from Boquete
Bus from Boquete

A bus for David arrived very quickly, and a little while later, we departed. For some reason, all the bus drivers were in a hurry today, and we hurtled down the hill towards David faster than I realised a school bus could go, with the driver jamming on the brakes if he spotted someone by the side of the road, who looked as though they wanted to be picked up. (People stop a bus anywhere along the route here, not just at a bus stop.)

Last view of Volcan Baru
Last view of Volcan Baru

David is a very busy bus terminal with many small buses going in all directions. I wandered around, hoping that I would see one that was headed for Santiago, and very shortly spotted a small bus terminal across the road. As I started heading in that direction, a hustler for the bus company called me over and ushered me towards the bus, so it turned out to be a very straightforward transfer.

David bus station
David bus station
Dog in sack
Dog in the sack

This bus was fairly full and there was only one other foreigner on the bus. She and I were both very alarmed when a sack containing a dog that had been on the bus from Boquete, was strapped on to the roof along with the luggage. The Panamanians didn’t seem to find this unusual and, as we travelled along, I tried not to think about the poor animal above my head. However, I pleased to say, that when it was removed from the roof and the sack, it didn’t appear to have suffered any adverse effects, so maybe Panamanian dogs are used to this mode of transport!

Santiago was another main terminal for local buses, as well as ones to Panama City and there was no problem finding one to Sona, which was my next stop along the route. I arrived there at 2.15pm and then had to wait for the last bus to Santa Catalina (there are only 3 buses a day), which left at 4.30pm. I filled in a small portion of the time visiting the supermarket and then, luckily, the bus arrived early and I could sit on it and read. By the time it left, however, I was getting a headache from the heat and the very loud Panamanian radio station that was blasting forth from a speaker above my head.

School by bus stop in Sona
A school next to the bus stop in Sona – complete with barbed wire!

The bus arrived in Santa Catalina just after 6pm and, coincidentally, Darcy, the owner of Coiba House, the B and B, where I was staying, happened to be by the bus stop, so walked with me down the road to his house. Well, was the wait in Sona worth it, or what?! The house sits above the beach and has a beautiful outdoor area overlooking the bay and the beach.

View from the patio in Santa Catalina
View from the patio in Santa Catalina
Sunset in Santa Catalina
Sunset in Santa Catalina

As I arrived, the sun was starting to go down, so I had a very quick shower and spent the rest of the evening on the patio, revelling in it and feeling like I was in heaven. There were a lot of little geckos running around the walls and some very loud noises that I found out later were made by a cycad type insect (very large and fly!). I also had quite a long chat to Darcy and his very bright four year old daughter, who could probably be classified as precocious!

A Canadian family arrived a while later, and I spent some time chatting to them before going to bed. It couldn’t have been a more perfect ending to a very long, hot and sticky day.

Santa Catalina

30 March

I had a very relaxing morning sitting on the patio, observing the comings and goings of the dive boats and people in the bay below the house. The Canadian was in a big hurry to leave this morning so the family hardly had time to enjoy their breakfast and beautiful location before rushing off again. In contrast, I prolonged my departure as long as possible, reading and chatting to Darcy and then booked another 2 nights for the end of the week.

Early morning in Santa Catalina
Early morning in Santa Catalina
Patio at Coiba House
Patio at Coiba House

Thomas arrived with a friend and a puppy at about 1pm and drove me to Casa Maya, my next accommodation, still in Santa Catalina.  This is a lovely self contained studio unit but, unfortunately, nowhere near the beach. Tierney, Thomas’s friend, took the dog off to find some internet somewhere, and Thomas and I caught up on what he had been doing and what his plans were.

We then walked down to the beach, which was about 1km away and which wasn’t a particularly pleasant beach. It was right by the river mouth and the tide was high so we couldn’t walk across to the beach on the other side.

The river crossing in Santa Catalina
The river crossing in Santa Catalina
Thomas feeding the puppy
Thomas feeding the puppy

Santa Catalina began its popularity as a surf spot but now seems to be the launching point for boats going out to Coiba island, a National Maritime Park, where the diving and snorkelling are apparently spectacular. Tierney and the puppy joined us for a while and she and I went for a quick swim whilst Thomas teased the dog. The water was warm but the conditions definitely did not compel me to stay in for long.

We walked back to Casa Maya and they went back to Lago Bay, where they were working, dropping me off at the shop on the way. I made one or two vital purchases (coke for the rum and milk for breakfast) and then strolled back to my room, where I did very little for the rest of the evening (just for a change!).

Santa Catalina

31 March

Today was a wasted or relaxing day, depending upon how you look at it! I finished reading the library ebook that was about to expire in the morning and then walked into the village for supplies for lunch. I stopped for a coffee and bread at the bakery (or Panderia, as it is called here), had a wander down to the beach, called in at the one and only shop and then returned.

My room on the left at Casa Maya
My room on the left at Casa Maya

Santa Catalina, is small to say the least, with a couple of dive shops, a number of hostels/small hotels, a school, bakery, gift shop and general store. Half of the businesses seemed to be closed at midday so it was very, very quiet (and hot).

School in Santa Catalina
School in Santa Catalina
One of the beaches at Santa Catalina
One of the beaches at Santa Catalina
Beach front at Santa Catalina
Beach front at Santa Catalina

I got back before 1pm as I expected Thomas to arrive between 1 and 2pm. I was hoping for a swim this afternoon but, as it happened, he didn’t arrive until 5.30pm so I spent the afternoon reading. We then decided we couldn’t even be bothered to go out to dinner, so just picked on the food I had got in the fridge. This is one major advantage of having a self contained unit, complete with kitchen! He stayed with me overnight as he has now got a couple of days ‘off’ from his voluntary work but has decided to come with me when I move on to Panama City. He will fly back to NZ from there.

Santa Catalina

1 April

It was another very relaxed day today. This morning, Thomas and I walked down to look at the surf, meeting a friend of his along the way, who was camping on a disused property on the beachfront. The surf was non-existent, as it was low tide and all the rocks were visible. Apparently, it is best in the 2 hours either side of high tide.

Abandoned hostel in Santa Catalina
Abandoned hostel in Santa Catalina

We strolled along the beach to Santa Catalina, after wandering through an abandoned hostel that was perched on the point overlooking the surf, in what appeared to be a prime location. The property had definitely seen better days though!

The centre of Santa Catalina
The centre of Santa Catalina
Petrol station in Santa Catalina
Petrol station in Santa Catalina

We booked a snorkelling tour for tomorrow to Coiba Island and then, whilst Thomas attempted to get a police report for his lost passport (a failed attempt, as they weren’t very interested), I sat in a cafe with a very welcome cold drink. We then strolled back to the room, via the shop, had lunch, and he went off with his surf board.

Near the surf break in Santa Catalina
Near the surf break in Santa Catalina

I followed a little while later, but the rocks were not very conducive for lying on or venturing into the sea, so I walked around to the beach we had been to on Sunday. Here, I happily whiled away an hour or two, swimming, watching the surfers on the beach across the river and lying on the beach.

Surfers at Santa Catalina
Surfers at Santa Catalina

When I arrived back at the room, Thomas was waiting to be let in. After showers etc and chatting to our next door neighbours for a while (he was in the Peace Corps in Paraguay), we went to the Jamming Pizzeria for dinner. This is next to Casa Maya, is apparently always a very busy place and is also owned by the same Italian woman and her Panamanian husband that own my accommodation. Obviously, it is one of the more successful businesses in Santa Catalina. The restaurant filled up very quickly after we arrived, so it was lucky we hadn’t gone any later.

Santa Catalina

2 April

Today turned into quite an extraordinary day. Thomas and I walked down to the snorkelling company at 7.30am, so that we were ready to leave by 8am. There was one other couple there, an American with her Panamanian tour guide, and we ended up waiting and waiting for another 2 people. They eventually arrived at nearly 8.30am and it transpired that the business they had booked through had told them the wrong start time (as well as charging a commission for booking and getting them to buy lunch from his bakery!) This was not a very good start to the day. However, as soon as they arrived, we were off.

Isla Granito de Oro, near Coiba Island
Isla Granito de Oro, near Coiba Island

It was a beautiful day and we travelled parallel to the coast for a long way before heading out towards Coiba Island. This is a Marine Park that is renowned for its diving, particularly, but also snorkelling. The island, which is the largest one of a group, used to be a notorious penal colony, where all the worst prisoners were sent. The prison closed relatively recently and, as a consequence of its history, the rainforest is completely unspoiled and the island is pristine, with only a ranger station and a few cabins where people can stay. Apparently, there is a problem with wild cows (the mind boggles) and dogs, which were let loose in the forest when the prison was closed and are now causing some damage.

Alive with crabs!
Alive with crabs!
The boat man and his much loved mattress!
The boat man and his much loved mattress!

We stopped first at Isla Granito de Oro, a very small island with a beautiful white sand beach, where the principal occupants seemed to be very small, very busy crabs. We snorkelled for an hour whilst our boatman had a rest on his mattress. (It transpired, during the course of the day, that the boatman was very attached to his mattress or a hammock!) The snorkelling was wonderful, with many shoals of fish, large and small, none of which I was able to identify, unsurprisingly, and Thomas also saw a couple of turtles, which, unfortunately, I missed.

Next stop was on Coiba Island itself, where we were supposed to have lunch and pay the park entry fees. Our boatman adjourned to a hammock, and we were left to decipher what was happening. Luckily, Luis, the tour guide, was able to translate for us, so at least we got a little information. The communication coming from the tour company was very poor and some of us thought lunch was included and some didn’t and also, none of us were certain about how many stops were being made for snorkelling. Lunch being included, Luis, eventually, retrieved the sandwiches from the boat, whilst the boatman lounged in the hammock. Somehow, I don’t think we picked the right company!

View from hill on Coiba Island
View from hill on Coiba Island
Capuchin monkey at Coiba Island
Capuchin monkey at Coiba Island

As we were there for a while, the four of us took a walk up the track behind the cabins to a viewpoint above the ranger station. It was all spectacular, with beautiful beaches and rain forest coming right down to the blue ocean and all, as yet, totally unspoilt. The path up was quite steep and if I’d known I was going to be going bush walking I might not have worn my flip flops. We sent Luis in front to deter any snakes and were lucky enough to hear howler monkeys in the distance and see Capuchin monkeys close to the cabins. (They are big scroungers.)

Lunch time view at Coiba Island
Lunch time view at Coiba Island

When we got back, one of the people on our boat, told us that there were some other New Zealanders on the other table. This, in itself, was quite extraordinary, as I had not met any New Zealanders and only a couple of Australians the whole time I have been away. Even more extraordinary was that it was a girl from Katikati that Thomas had gone to school with and whose parents we are very friendly with. Quite amazing!

Mystery bones at Coiba Island
Mystery bones at Coiba Island
Cabins at Coiba Island
Cabins at Coiba Island

The next stop was for snorkelling at a rocky outcrop so we had to jump off the boat into the water. My experience, here, rather marred the day as the current was too strong for me going round the point, and I naturally got into a bit of a panic. However, I made it back to the boat, following Thomas’s advice to float on my back.

Tree canopy
Tree canopy

I had seen a variety of fish before this and thankfully, for me, no sharks or rays, but the others were disappointed that they hadn’t seen these. I’m not sure if it was that we weren’t taken to the right place (not having much confidence in the boatman at this stage) or they just weren’t around today (although people from the other boats had definitely seen them).

Our last stop was at another island with a white sand beach and palm trees, where I lounged whilst Thomas found a coconut and extracted the milk and flesh, which was very tasty. The boatman, having had another lie down, was then keen to go as the wind comes up in the afternoon and the water gets quite choppy.

It's a hard life, but somebody has to do it!
It’s a hard life, but somebody has to do it!

We had a bit of a bumpy ride back but not nearly as bad as I expected, and saw 3 turtles, swimming along quite happily, and a pod of dolphins leaping in and out of the water.

We arrived back about 3.30pm and spent half an hour trying to pay by Visa. What a mission! This had to be done at the Dive Shop down the road and was quite a performance but we got there in the end.

Back at the room, Thomas was just thinking about cooking, when there was a knock on the door and Sabrina (from Katikati) and Henry (her boyfriend) arrived. We had a lovely time chatting over a rum or two before they went off to find some dinner and Thomas quickly made us some pasta before dashing off to meet some friends at the Pizzeria and get a lift back to his house.

On the boat back from Coiba
On the boat back from Coiba

I was left alone and enjoyed listening to the music that was emanating from the Pizzeria where, I understand, they have jamming sessions.

Santa Catalina

3 April

Today was a total non-event (or, in other words, yet another lazy day). I spent all morning on the internet (when it was working) looking for places to stay and researching places to go.

Low tide at the beach
Low tide at the beach

In the afternoon, I walked down to the beach, where the tide was extremely low, so I walked across the river to the other beach, which is vast at low tide and meant it was quite a walk to the water’s edge. There were a few people in the water, who looked as though they were learning to surf. When I went for a swim, the water did not look quite so appealing as there was a lot of brown scum and I didn’t like to think what that might have been!

Local people paddling
Local people paddling

I stayed there for a while, keeping a close eye on the tide as the beach was very flat and once the tide turned, it had the potential to creep very quickly. I moved along the beach once, when a crab that a dog was chasing took refuge on my towel and the dog continued to show a strong interest. It seemed wise to move!

The river at low tide
The river at low tide

It was very hot and sticky today, with a bit of cloud which seemed to make it worse. However, on the beach, there was a gentle breeze, which cooled things down a little. I walked back to my room via the shop (opposite direction, of course) so that was my exercise for the day. I had a chat to Paola, the owner, after which I retired to the air conditioning for the rest of the evening.

Santa Catalina

4 April

Beach entrance to Coiba House
Beach entrance to Coiba House

Thomas arrived to reclaim his surf board before I was even up this morning, as he had managed to get a lift into town with someone from the farm. He went off for a surf whilst I got up leisurely, had breakfast and packed up my things. Paola (Casa Maya’s owner) very kindly picked me up at 10am and took me to Coiba House, where I had stayed at the beginning, which saved me a walk in the heat with my pack.

The rest of the day was spent doing very little, just for a change. As people were still in my room, unsurprisingly, and there was a lot of cleaning in progress, I headed for a cafe for a cold drink. I bumped into Thomas who was waiting for a bus (timetables are a bit vague) and he came along with me and then, no bus having arrived, got a taxi back to his house so that he could say goodbye to one of his friends who was leaving and was waiting for him.

The hammock where I spent the afternoon
The hammock where I spent the afternoon

I went down to the beach for a swim and then retired to a hammock to read for the rest of the afternoon. And very lovely, it was too! It is somehow a very different feel to lazing when you can lie in a hammock, with a good sea breeze to make the temperature bearable, a view of the sea and the sound of the waves crashing below (as opposed to hiding in an air conditioned room because it is too hot to be outside.)

Surfer paddling at Santa Catalina
Surfer paddling at Santa Catalina

I stirred myself in the late afternoon for another swim and then sat chatting to Darcy for a while. Once the sun had gone down, I ventured to a local restaurant, where I was the only customer, there was no menu and nobody spoke English. I asked for fish, (one of the few Spanish words I know), got a stream of Spanish back, and said ‘yes’, which is my normal approach, and then waited to see what arrived. Consequently, whilst a bunch of local children and I watched a Disney film about vampires, on the television, (dubbed in Spanish but the pictures told the story) I ate pan fried fish with rice and salad, which is a standard Panamanian dish. However, I am sure no self respecting Panamanian would have paid the price I did for it!

Beach front restaurant in Santa Catalina
Beach front restaurant in Santa Catalina

After that, I strolled down the street, noting that every single restaurant was empty, and spent the rest of the evening reading in my room.

Santa Catalina

5 April

I had not slept very well, so was a little slow today. I had got up to go the bathroom in the night and found it full of crabs. Lying in bed afterwards, I could hear scrabbling and couldn’t rest until the cause had been found (crab!) I hoped it couldn’t climb bed legs and then started thinking about the scorpions Thomas had found in his house, and the spiders….. so I had to get up and examine the room. Apart from the crab, of course, there was nothing, so I tried to settle down to sleep.

Prime beach front property at Santa Catalina
Prime beach front property at Santa Catalina

The morning then somehow just disappeared. I spent its entirety on the patio chatting to a retired American academic from Pittsburg and putting the world to rights. By the time we had finished, it was 2pm so I went for a walk along the beach, where it was low tide, so I carried on along and around the rocks to the point at the far end of the beach. By the time I got there, my stomach was telling me that I hadn’t had lunch and, as it wasn’t a particularly interesting walk, I turned around and came back.

Santa Catalina at low tide
Santa Catalina at low tide

I had a quick swim to cool off and took a stroll into the village. Unfortunately, the cafe in which I was intending to have a drink, was closed so I returned to the house, via the shop. I had a sandwich and then it was back down to the beach where the tide had turned and the water was a little closer so time for another dip.

Sunset from the patio
Sunset from the patio

It was a beautiful time of day to be on the beach, so I sat and watched the comings and goings for a while. There was a family of small boys trying to launch a boat (with little success) and the house next door was winding up to a party for the coming of age of a 15 year old girl, which is a big event here, so the Panamanian music was blasting forth across the beach (and continued to do so for the rest of the evening!).

I returned to the house and sat outside and watched the sunset as I waited for Thomas, who was supposed to be joining me. He eventually arrived at about 8.30pm by which time, I had given him up. He stayed with me this evening as we were intending to catch the early bus in the morning.

Bocas to Boquete

Boquete

20 March

There was torrential rain during the night and it was still very wet and overcast this morning as I prepared to move on. Rather than take the easy option of booking an air conditioned shuttle bus to Boquete, I thought I would do things the difficult way today. This involved a water taxi, Collectivo, bus (air conditioned when not climbing mountains) and ‘chicken’ bus and plenty of potential for waiting for up to an hour at each connection.

Overloaded ferry?
Overloaded ferry?

After breakfast, at the German bakery just for a change, where I had pancakes and wondered again why I had ordered them as they are always thick and dry, I headed for the water taxi. I waited for about 20 minutes for the next one and just as we were approaching departure time, about half a dozen seriously overweight, white male tourists arrived along with their seriously overweight large suitcases/bags. Some passengers had to shuffle around to balance the load, the boat sat somewhat too low in the water for me not to be concerned and some of the locals donned life jackets. A little disconcerting to say the least!

Houses at Almirante
Houses at Almirante

My worries were unfounded, however, and we sped across the water and arrived safely in Almirante where there were a number of taxis and Collectivos waiting to transport the boat passengers. I was directed to one of them and we set off for the short trip to the bus station for David. We didn’t quite make it, though, as the bus to David approached us and our driver flagged it down for me. I was shunted on to it and off we went again, with me hoping that they weren’t intending to drive the whole 4 hours to David without a ‘rest’ stop!

Food stop at Chiriqui Grande
Food stop at Chiriqui Grande

Luckily, we did stop somewhere (possibly Chiriqui Grande) for 10 minutes and everyone rushed to buy food and queue for the toilets, along with the other bus load of people that arrived at the same time. It was a very busy stop!

A misty view en route to David
A misty view en route to David
Small village on the road to David
Small village on the road to David

The scenery, from what I could see of it through the clouds, was wonderful as we drove up and down the very green mountains and past some small, very poor looking villages. We were accompanied by a Sylvester Stallone film that was playing very loudly on the television screen above my head and from which there was no escape. With the exception of me, everyone, especially the school boys that we had picked up along the way, seemed riveted to the torturing, stabbing, electrocuting, drowning and knifing that is typical of a Stallone movie. He should have been dead a 100 times over. Needless to say, there was a happy ending and then we moved on to a Nicholas Cage one of similar ilk, but at least it was in English, with Spanish sub titles and wasn’t quite so loud.

Dam in Chiriqui region
Dam in Chiriqui region
School's out!
School’s out!

As soon as we arrived on the other side of the mountains, the sun came out and the landscape changed to the typical dry terrain of the Pacific coast. We arrived in David at about 1.30pm and the bus station was bustling with people and, of course, buses. The transfer was very simple, as I just had to walk through the courtyard and on to a local bus, which was the inevitable old American school bus. I was the only tourist aboard, which makes this type of travel much more interesting. The bus was ‘directo’ to Boquete but still managed to make quite a number of stops along the way, so wasn’t exactly fast!

View on Pacific side of the mountains
View on Pacific side of the mountains

I got off at Plaza San Francisco, as directed, and made the short walk along to the hostel, which is attached to the Spanish Language school. Here, I was shown to my room and made very welcome by the Dutch manager. I intended to go for a walk into town (the hostel is a little way out) but the wind was very, very strong and it was much cooler than I expected, so I took the easy option instead and had a coffee, visited the supermarket and then returned to the hostel, where I spent some time chatting to a Swiss girl who had cycled all over the place and had spent a lot of time in NZ.

The hostel at the Spanish School
The hostel at the Spanish School

There are also a few teenager-ish boys in the hostel (which is actually very small), who were speaking a language totally unfamiliar sounding to me, but which I suspect is Scandinavian of one variety or another. They are all here to attend classes and I am feeling a little guilty at not learning more Spanish. Boys being boys, they were watching a film on their laptop quite loudly and quite late, which was a little annoying but that is the penalty of staying in a hostel.

Boquete

21 March

River near Boquete
River near Boquete

I was woken this morning by the students arriving for their Spanish classes, so waited until they had all started and then had breakfast in the kitchen. I struggle to cope with hostel kitchens at the best of times, so only ever have breakfast in them. The thought of cooking dinner in a possibly less than clean area, is too much for me!

After breakfast, I spent some time on the internet to keep a certain blog reader in Rarotonga happy, and then went for a walk into town. I took what was, apparently, the scenic route, which was along the river. The ‘road’ was more of a farm track, although judging by the amount of rubbish distributed along the wayside, it was, at the very least, used regularly, if only for the dumping of rubbish. It was extremely windy again and there were constant light showers, so the volcano remained hidden behind the clouds and I could only guess at its location.

Volcano behind the clouds!
Volcano behind the clouds!
Boquete hills
Boquete hills

I did have one fairly alarming incident along the way, however. My mind had registered a stick on the road and, for some inexplicable reason, I stopped a couple of paces away from it. Thank goodness I did, as the stick was, in fact, a large snake and if I had taken any more steps, this blog might have come to a very abrupt end. It was only when I had gone a little further along the road and was recovering from the shock, that I thought I should have taken a photo but, at the time, that was furtherest from my mind!

Main plaza in Boquete
Main plaza in Boquete
The bus depot in Boquete
The bus depot in Boquete

I continued on to Boquete and was quite relieved to get to town – not so much danger of snakes there! I wandered around and had a coffee and wandered a bit more. I wasn’t very enthused, though, as the weather was very inclement, so I walked back along the main road to the hostel. This was a lot further than I thought and the road was very busy, so it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable walk and I was glad to get back.

Boquete valley
Boquete valley

The rest of the afternoon was spent doing very little apart from playing Scrabble online with my friendly opponent in England and reading. In the evening, Marjolein, the hostel manager, had invited me to go out to dinner with the Spanish students, some of whom were staying in home stays and some in the hostel. This proved to be a very enjoyable evening, with a mix of nationalities, the majority being Dutch, and, whilst there were only two of us that were native English speakers, the common language was English. (Who needs to speak another language!?) I discovered that the unidentifiable language that the boys in the hostel had been speaking was Icelandic so it is not surprising I didn’t recognise it. It was well after 11pm by the time we returned to the hostel, which was well past my bedtime!

Boquete

22 March

It was an early start today for yet another quetzal hunt. Feliciano, our guide for the day, was ready to leave at 7.30am. He had arrived with the inevitable machete and his left hand in a big bandage, a result of a prior incident with this implement, whilst tending his coffee plantation. It didn’t seem to handicap him though!

Start of the Quetzal trail
Start of the Quetzal trail
Farm at the start of the Quetzal track
Farm at the start of the Quetzal track
In the forest
In the forest
A Quetzal!
A Quetzal!

He confirmed, from my description, that the snake I had encountered yesterday was likely to have been a Ferdinand and venomous. (For future reference: as a general rule, if the snake moves slowly, it will probably be poisonous and if it moves away from you quickly, it is likely to be harmless. This snake took its time!) Apparently, the snakes are moving up the valley because there are so many fires down on the plains.

We, being Marjolein, the Dutch hostel manager, and Christina, the Swiss cyclist and I, were driven by Feliciano’s son about 13km out of Boquete to the start of the Quetzal trail. It was a blue sky day with little wind, which was a lovely change after the last couple of days.

On the Quetzal track
On the Quetzal track
View point along the Quetzal track
View point along the Quetzal track

We started off doing a little detour into the forest, where there was some beautiful bird song but no quetzals. After we had progressed further along the trail for quite some way, we suddenly heard the very gentle sound that the quetzal makes and were lucky enough to spot not one, but three, including two males together, which is apparently very usual. As can be imagined, we were all, including Feliciano, quite excited to see them, and it made all those mosquito bites worth while!

They are quite spectacular birds, about the size of a large wood pigeon, with red breasts, a patch of white and their backs are either blue or green, depending upon how the light catches them. Unfortunately, my camera could not quite cope, as it does not have a good enough zoom to be able to capture them in all their glory, so all I have got is the black silhouette, showing its long tail feathers.

We continued along the trail, somewhat reluctantly, meeting a few other hikers along the way, one or two of whom were not very suitably attired for a hike in the forest.

Lunch spot - Feliciano, Marjolein and Christina
Lunch spot – Feliciano, Marjolein and Christina

We stopped for lunch at a clearing (and a very welcome break it was) at 2,200m and afterwards, continued on up what seemed like a vertical track with some very steep steps. Feliciano expressed his disgust on more than one occasion at the workmanship that had gone into the construction of the fences and picnic tables along the way and considered there was a lot of money being wasted by the Government. The whole day had turned into not only a hike, but also a language and political lesson.

View at Cerro Punto
View at Cerro Punto (close resemblance to the Kaimais!)
Humming bird
Humming bird ( yes, it really was that colour!)

We arrived at the top near Cerro Punto, where Feliciano’s son was waiting and extremely disgruntled at having had to wait for an hour for us because we were late. The views here were superb and reminded be very much of the Kaimais at home.

There were some soldiers staying at the Ranger’s hut, who apparently came from Darien and were all dressed up in balaclavas etc because they thought it was so cold here! There were also a lot of  the most beautiful little humming birds in one of the shrubs with orange flowers, so we stopped to watch them for a while.

Cerro Punto
Cerro Punto

On the way back to Boquete, which was about an hour and a half’s drive, we stopped at a strawberry place for, not surprisingly, strawberries, which were very tasty.

View at Cerro Punto
View at Cerro Punto

We arrived back at the hostel about 6pm and I then got a taxi to my next abode on the other side of the town. This is owned by an American and his very quiet Panamanian wife. It turned out to be not at all what I had expected from their website. The room (or ‘suite’, as it is called) is actually part of their house. I could use their kitchen but was not comfortable doing so, although that was what I had originally intended to do.

Unfortunately, I have booked for a week, so will have to stay.

Boquete

23 March

I spent the morning doing what I do best at the moment, which is wasting time on the internet, although it was not all wasted as I Skyped my sister and researched the next move.

The road into Boquete
The road into Boquete

I eventually decided that I ought to do something a bit more active, so walked the 4km into town, which was actually a much more pleasant walk than I anticipated as there was a pavement the whole way, the scenery was very attractive and I didn’t encounter any snakes. I had also thought it was going to be cold and had taken a jacket but, in fact, it was a beautiful day, with blue sky. (I obviously hadn’t looked out of my bedroom window properly!)

Serious vegetable growing in Boquete
Serious vegetable growing in Boquete
On the walk into Boquete
On the walk into Boquete
Indian ladies from Chiriqui in Boquete
Indian ladies from Chiriqui in Boquete

The town was reasonably busy, given that it was a Sunday. There were quite a few tourists, as well as local people, including the Chiriqui indians in their brightly coloured dresses. Some people were in the plaza just chatting whilst others were obviously out shopping. The Indians apparently come to Boquete to work on the coffee plantations, primarily for the picking season, and then go back to their villages when the season is finished.

I stopped for a coffee at ‘Sugar and Spice’ and then went to the supermarket for essential supplies i.e. wine and another shop for sunglasses. Mission accomplished, I wandered back to my hostel, where all the relatives, who had been staying, were leaving and so it became a lot quieter. (Hopefully, the internet will also speed up without the children playing on it!)

Boquete hills
Boquete hills
Satellite dish next to the shrine
Satellite dish behind to the shrine – nothing like a bit of incongruity!

I caught up with the blog, spoke to Thomas, had a (plastic) cup of wine and generally wasted a bit more time before having dinner, cooked by my hostess, Marilin. This was good plain fare with lots of vegetables, which suited me well tonight. After a chat to Peter (my host) and an attempt to watch some news on the television (obviously the wrong time of evening for news) I retired once again to my room.

Boquete

24 March

This morning I went on a very informative coffee tour to Finca Dos Jefes. I was collected, along with a Canadian and Panamanian couple, by Gary who took us to the farm, situated on the road up to Volcan Baru.

Coffee plantation sign
Coffee plantation sign
The end product
The end product

He, firstly, gave us a presentation on the history of coffee and the economics and process of coffee growing, before taking us for a walk round the plantation. They are fighting a constant battle against a rust fungus and, at the moment, are replacing a lot of trees each year. The picking season was coming towards the end and there were large tables of coffee beans set out to dry.

This is a comparatively small operation that really makes its living by selling roasted coffee beans and conducting tours. There is apparently no money at all for the small coffee growers selling the green beans, as the large coffee companies dominate the market. For this reason, many of the growers in Boquete have pulled out their coffee plants and have changed to growing vegetables instead.

Tables of coffee beans drying
Tables of coffee beans drying
Coffee bush in flower
Coffee bush in flower
Coffee picker
Coffee picker

Coffee beans on the bush and drying
Coffee beans on the bush and drying

Once the tour was over, we went back to the cafe to sample coffee, comparing a medium and dark roast, which were quite different from each other. We all decided we preferred the dark, so adjourned inside to roast some for ourselves, which we were then able to take home. The roasting takes about 15 minutes and then the beans are left to dry for about 8 minutes before they are packaged. Whist waiting, we were offered a beer – this was turning into a very good value tour!

House on coffee plantation
House on coffee plantation
Cafe de la Luna
Cafes de la Luna
The roaster
The roaster
Beans at varying stages of roasting
Beans at varying stages of roasting

Gary then started driving us back to town, but stopped a little way along the road and pointed out a track that he thought I might prefer to take (having mentioned that I like walking). It was a shortcut that the schoolchildren take and I think I startled one or two smaller children when they unexpectedly came across this strange foreign woman on their track!

Gardens in Boquete
Gardens in Boquete

I went back to my room briefly, and then walked into town again. I had a very late lunch, a bit of a wander around and then walked back up the hill to my accommodation. I felt that I had done my exercise for the day by this stage so spent the rest of the evening doing very little.

Boquete

25 March

I walked a different way into Boquete this morning by taking a road going the opposite way out of my Casa, up to Los Arcos and then around on the other side of the river valley, which was not quite as populated as the side I am staying on.

Los Arcos
Los Arcos

It was another beautiful morning and the scenery was very attractive, with high green mountains towering above. Once on the other side of the river, there seemed to be a number of very large houses, no doubt belonging to some of the multitude ex-pat Americans that live here.

Not a local's house!
Ex-pat house?
Disused coffee processing place
Disused coffee processing place with the ubiquitous barbed wire
The most un volcano-like volcano I have seen - complete with radio masts!
The most un volcano-like volcano I have seen – complete with radio masts!

I encountered some (or even, most) of these at the Tuesday market, which must be the weekly meeting and social point for said ex-pats. There were a number of jewellery stalls, (some even run by locals), a second hand book stall (fatal, for me) and a few fruit and vegetable stalls.

I managed to find a couple of books, thankfully, as I am going to be at the beach next week and will need something to do!

After this, I felt I needed coffee and have finally worked out what type of coffee I need to ask for, assuming the cafe does it. I have had difficulty knowing what to order, as there doesn’t seem to be a happy medium between espresso and latte here, long blacks being unknown. Coffee drinking is so complicated, especially in a coffee producing place….!

Sign on the side of a bus in Boquete
Sign on the side of a bus in Boquete
View from my deck
View from my deck

I walked back via the supermarket and then had a bit of a rest in my room before tackling the track up the hill behind the house. I had some difficulty finding the start of the path as they were obviously clearing land to build more houses and had managed to clear the path in the process. I therefore trekked back down the hill to ask my hostess and then back up again to do the walk, so I got even more than I had bargained for.

View of Boquete from the top of the hill
View of Boquete from the top of the hill

I had been warned that the path was steep. It was vertical and very dry and dusty, with absolutely no flat bits. It wasn’t long before I had acquired a little Indian boy as a guide. I had passed their house on the way up and a couple of minutes later, I was joined by Abisima (at least, I think that was his name!). He looked about 7 but told me he was 10. He scampered ahead of me like a mountain goat and then sat and waited for me to catch up. This was quite a slow process on my behalf, so he did a fair bit of waiting. The best view was about three quarters of the way up, so I didn’t even need to go to the top but I did, of course.

My Indian guide
My Indian guide
My guide sliding down the hill!
My guide sliding down the hill!

On the way down, he slid down the dust, as if he was skiing and swung on branches, whilst I picked my way slowly, trying to find terra firma. Even so, I managed to get very dusty and dirty and I pitied his poor mother, who would have had to hand wash his dust covered clothes, no doubt in an outside stone sink or the river.

Once back at the house, I felt I had done enough for one day, so read for a while before having a very tasty chicken dinner cooked by Marilin. Whilst I was eating, a party of 7 Dutch people arrived, who all decided they wanted a meal, so at 8pm, Marilin started cooking again and the new arrivals seemed quite surprised when they were told it would not be ready for an hour!

I went to bed and left them to it.

Boquete

26 March

I had a slow start today and only got going at 10.45am. This morning, I took the same road that I took yesterday, but branched off before I got to town and went to the Explorador gardens.

Road works on the way to Explorador gardens
Road works on the way to Explorador gardens

Marilin had told me about them (although I had also read about them somewhere as well). They are owned by a lady that likes recycling objects in her garden. She obviously also liked smiling faces as they seemed to be a plague of them on buckets, tree trunks, sewing machines, handbags and everything in between! The garden was a little odd, to say the least, and some of the ‘artefacts’ had definitely seen better days, but I was the only visitor and it was very pleasant to wander around on my own. The weather wasn’t quite so good today and it was extremely windy, with the occasional shower, but that is probably better for walking than the heat.

Entrance to Explorador
Entrance to Explorador

Before I started walking around the garden, I stopped for a coffee and a chat with the girl running the cafe, who was desperate to practice her English. Luckily, it was better than my Spanish, as I’d used up most of my vocabulary in the first two sentences. She was very enthusiastic and had her mother with her in case a group came in and she couldn’t manage on her own. (Given the total lack of anyone else the entire time I was there, I would have to wonder on this one…!)

Casa Capo di Monti
Casa Capo di Monti

Cherry tomato pot
Cherry tomato pot

Handbag plant holder
Handbag plant holder
Sewing machines!
Sewing machines!

Afterwards, much to her amazement, I continued walking along the road, which was of a type very similar to the one on which I had encountered the snake last week, so I kept a careful eye out for slithering sticks. Luckily, there weren’t any!I found a path that took me very steeply down into Boquete, where I bought a much needed cold drink and sat in the plaza and watched the people for a while.

View of the main garden
View of the main garden
One of the figures at Explorador
One of the figures at Explorador
Corn juicing machine
Corn juicing machine

Next stop was my favourite cafe where I was intending to have a coffee and buy my mini-baguette for lunch the next day.  It was closed. Disaster! No lunch tomorrow! I headed back to the house, stopping at a different supermarket that was very obviously the locals’ one, unlike Romeros, which is definitely geared towards the ‘foreigners’.

Path to Boquete
Path to Boquete

When I arrived back, Peter was in the process of setting up a homemade machine for juicing corn, with which he was then going to make soup for dinner for the, as I later discovered, the Czech people staying at the house. I was invited to join them, which I did, and had a most unexpected evening.

There were 5 older people in the party and a young couple, of whom only the young couple and one other lady spoke English. Once the older ones had gone to bed, I started talking to the young couple, who were, in fact, travel agents and the tour leaders for the group. They had travelled all over the place, including Katikati, where they made the mistake of stopping at the Naturist Camp to ask for accommodation and were a little taken aback when they realised the male receptionist had no clothes on! They didn’t stay, needless to say, and moved on to Waihi Beach.

They ended up opening a bottle of rum and we had a very chatty and quite late evening, whilst it poured with rain outside.

Boquete

27 March

The day started badly. It had been pouring with rain overnight and I had left my boots under the veranda, thinking they would be safe and dry. They weren’t and I do not like wet feet when I am hiking! Plastic bags on the feet solved the problem temporarily.

I walked up the road and managed to get a taxi, with a couple going up to the Quetzal track, for the 15 kilometres to the start of the Three Waterfalls track. Unfortunately, the taxi driver genuinely didn’t know where the start of the track was or was trying to con me. Both he, and the old crone on the gate who took my $5, assured me this was the Three Waterfalls track. It wasn’t.

Entrance to first waterfall reserve
Entrance to first waterfall reserve

I found one waterfall and walked further on up a very steep hill and some metal steps, after which the track stopped at an Indian’s farm. The men working in the field waved at me to go back and, as I could find no traces of a continuation of a track, I had no choice but to return. I was not happy by the time I got back to the road, especially as another farm worker then told me that the Three Waterfalls track was further up the road.

Waterfall
Waterfall
View from track to 3 waterfalls
View from track to 3 waterfalls

I decided, somewhat reluctantly, that having come all this way, I would go and find it. It was probably only about another 200m up the road. Another $5 later, (the money collector having been alerted by a small boy that a visitor was coming) and I was climbing up yet another steep hill. I just about managed to get to all the waterfalls.

Top of waterfall 2
Top of waterfall 2

The path was extremely muddy and slippery after all the rain, particularly between waterfalls 2 and 3, where there were also ropes you could use to swing yourself up and down the track. I was very, very tired by the time I got back to the road!

Waterfall 1
Waterfall 1

I had been trying not to think about how I was going to get back to Boquete, as there was no real transport and I really didn’t want to have to walk to the nearest village and wait for a bus or taxi to pass by. I was somewhat astounded (and could almost have come to believe in miracles), when I walked on to the road and there was a Collectivo right by the track.

It was quite a circuitous route to return to Los Naranjos, and we picked up a few more people and a couple of very large boxes of lilies, along the way. From Los Naranjos, I walked back up the hill to the house and did absolutely nothing for the rest of the day!

Rope to hold onto on the slippery track
Rope to hold onto on the slippery track
Wet and muddy boots
Wet and muddy boots

Boquete

28 March

The last two mornings I have been woken up by other guests having breakfast and leaving early and, on neither morning, did I have the inclination to follow suit! I had already decided that I was going to have a lazy day today, my last in Boquete, as I had done more than enough walking for one week. I am certainly ready and looking forward to moving on tomorrow and I am hoping there aren’t going to be quite so many Americans in Santa Catalina.

Central plaza in Boquete
Central plaza in Boquete

Marilin, my hostess, suggested a massage today, which I naturally thought was an extremely good idea. Peter made an appointment for me at 10.30am to have a hot stone and deep muscle massage at a spa in town, so I did my diary and then had a quick walk down the hill to Boquete. The spa was run by an Australian, who rather alarmingly, picked up on the NZ twang in my accent, (I still regard myself as having an English accent!) and the massage was given by a Panamanian lady. It was excellent! I have never had a hot stone massage before and combined with a deep muscle one, it is thoroughly to be recommended.

The concrete plaza in Boquete
The concrete plaza in Boquete
Boquete from the bridge
Boquete from the bridge

I came out afterwards feeling very relaxed and went and sat in the plaza for a while. Here, I watched a few classes of schoolchildren playing a fairly basic team game that involved brooms and a ball and that provided them with a great deal of fun. It was a very competitive game!

School children playing a game with brooms and a ball in the plaza
School children playing a game with brooms and a ball in the plaza
Chiriqui Indian ladies
Chiriqui Indian ladies

It was coffee time after that, so I walked down to ‘Sugar and Spice’ for the last time and bought coffee and a mini baguette for lunch. This was followed by a gentle stroll around town, before making my way, very slowly, back up the hill to the house.

Peter and Marilin were mass producing empanadas that had mashed yucca instead of pastry for the outer covering. Marilin apparently makes them for a neighbour when they have parties and today she was making over 100. A new recipe learned for me, although given the lack of yuccas in NZ, I suspect I will not be making them often!

Casa Pedro
Casa Pedro

The rest of the afternoon was spent doing very little (seems to be a pattern this week). As far as I know, I am the only person staying here tonight, but there are apparently 28 people arriving tomorrow and I have difficulty visualising where they are all going to sleep.