Panama is a diverse type of place, with regards to the people (Indigenous, Spanish, African and Chinese descendents, plus the odd whitey), the environment and the economic well being of the people. It makes for interesting and varied travel experiences. During this time, Steve found out that his promised job was not all it was cracked up to be and we decided that we would carry on with our trip south.
After entering Panama via a small backwater crossing, we enjoyed a break from the heat in a small picturesque mountain town called Boquete surrounded by coffee farms and mountains. One day was spent mountain biking through the surrounding area and another exploring a rather rustic hot spring and cooling off in the river.
From here we headed up over the mountain range that divides the Pacific side from the Caribbean side. We spent one night on the top of this huge range, in a beautiful private reserve with sunset views over the Pacific Ocean, islands and much of western Panama. The Caribbean side is wet and humid at this time of year so we were hoping but not expecting some good weather. We headed out to the island archipielago of Bocas del Toro, an area that epitomizes the Caribbean lifestyle. We spent a night on Isla Bastimentos, a tiny and poor town with one concrete sidewalk, no cars, populated by people of West Indian descent that speak their own native from of Creole. The town has a very pronounced Caribbean vibe and we soaked up the atmosphere amidst running children, overhead sloths, pumping calypso music and drumming and dancing gatherings.
In between showers, we took a disturbing boat trip which amounted to dolphin harassment (viewing), and coral reef degradation (snorkeling) and left me disgusted at seeing the destructive power of tourism first hand. This is unfortunately not a rarity in Panama apparently, with the country being increasingly impacted by logging, farming, pollution and other environmental degradation.
The weather conspired against us when we were trying to leave this far- flung corner of Panama, and the combination of gale-force wind and torrential rain stranded us in the town of Changuinola. This is the home of the ‘Chiquita’ banana and the downtrodden town reflects the poor wages and semi poverty that these people live in. Because of the heavy rain, we had no running water for most of the time we were there- you can imagine how gross the airport toilets were after not being flushed for a whole day!
Finally, we escaped to Panama City and were back on the hot dry side of Panama. Panama City is by far the most modern and cosmopolitan capital city in Central America and we found it quite pleasant and relatively safe. Construction does not seem to have been halted by the economic downturn and the skyline is a long stretch of gleaming new or in-construction skyscrapers. Panama City is centrally situated for day trips to many sites and we took full advantage of this fact. We spent a few sweaty days wandering around downtown, the waterfront, Casco Viejo (the old town) and the causeway which offers great views back towards the city. We took a day trip to Isla Toboga a surprisingly nice sleepy island an hour by boat from Panama City. The views from the top of the island back towards Panama City across the hundreds of fishing boats, shipping boats and cargo ships were stunning and the beach was cleanish and safe.
We visited – of course – the Panama Canal and watched the colossal ships navigate through the locks with inches to spare. As a water engineer (nut), Chelsea found it especially interesting (disgusting) to learn about how the whole system functioned. A large lake was made in the centre of Panama to act a water reserve that fills the locks to lower or raise each ship on it’s passage through the Canal. Approximately 114 million liters of water flows out to the sea each time a ship passes through so water management is central to the canal’s operation. We travelled up to the Caribbean exit of the Canal to the self proclaimed ‘largest free port in the world’ where the harsh poverty of Colon’s slums and bustle of free trade exist strangely side by side. On the way back we rode the famous railway through the lake and along the canal.
Our last major adventure in Panama was to travel down into the Darien province (the one that boarders Colombia). We flew into a small fishing village past the end of the road and were shuttled by dugout canoe to Punta Patino- the private reserve we were destined for. There are a few indigenous villages in the reserve and we spent some of our time in these villages, soaking in the atmosphere and way of life (not to mention staring at the topless women with henna-like tattoos all over their bodies) and some of the time hiking through and appreciating the jungle and all the bugs, birds and animals within them. Although I didn’t appreciate all the ticks, mosquitoes, flies and midges that seemed to think I was delectable.
After seeing my folks off in Panama City near the end of January, we spent a little bit of time planning and researching exactly where and what we would be doing next. The broad plan is to fly down to Chile and catch the summer in Patagonia before making our way back up to catch the northern part of South America at the dry(er) time. The act of researching South America has made me realize how wild and exciting it is- we are very excited to get down there!