The road to Santiago

Ricardo (on the left) loading up the bus
Ricardo (on the left) loading up the bus

We left Willo’s just after 9am in our own comfortable, air-conditioned bus with about 3 seats each and took the one and only road out of Baracoa. Prior to the Revolution and the building of the road in 1960’s, the only way into the town was by boat or air.

The route took us up and over and round some very green and magnificent mountains. Unfortunately, it was extremely windy and the bus driver wasn’t going slowly so our guide was sick and I wasn’t feeling too well myself. We stopped at a lookout where there were, inevitably, some vendors of fruit and a coconut and guava sweet, wrapped in a conical shape of banana leaves, which I bought and was very tasty.

On the road out of Baracoa
On the road out of Baracoa

Once out of the hills, the landscape changed completely as we followed the sea. It was very dry and rocky for a while although there was still a fair amount of greenery. We stopped for an hour or so at a cafe at which we had a light lunch and swam from a beach, which had a cliff of fossilised coral and a number of children who had obviously met tourists before and were familiar with their bounty.


On the road again and our next stop was at a lookout to view Guatanamo Bay Naval Base, which could just be seen in the very far distance, there being no way of being allowed closer to it. For the grand sum of 1CUC, we were allowed to go up to the lookout tower, use a man’s binoculars and be shown some fairly old photos of the inside of the Base (none of the torture rooms though).

We continued on to Santiago then, with no more stops and arrived at our Casas at about 4pm.

People watching from the roof terrace
People watching from the roof terrace

There was time to relax before meeting Monica again for a walking orientation tour at 6pm, so I sat up on our roof terrace and listened to the noise of workmen, music, cats and dogs, and admired the view across the city in all directions.

Monica took us up to the square which housed the Cathedral and Town hall, and then around to the Bacardi Museum. The buildings were beautiful neo Classical and reminded me of Wedgewood plates (although none of them were blue). We were also approached by someone who wanted to show us his music place and we said we would come back later after dinner. Santiago is the music capital of salsa.  There is also a heavy Haitian and Jamaican influence as so many people have arrived in Cuba from those islands.

We had dinner at Ana’s, who is the main co-ordinator of the Casas in Santiago and then decided we were all too tired to go out so I have yet to hear any music. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was all that I was to see and do in Santiago as I became sick in the night and spent the whole of the following day in my room.

View from the Casa roof terrace
View from the Casa roof terrace
Roofs in Santiago
Roofs in Santiago
Looking towards Santiago Port
Looking towards Santiago Port

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.