Panama

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Panama City has been loads of fun and in between paperwork and getting our car ready to ship we have been checking out a few things, if you are ever in la ciudad de Panama we suggest that you:

Get Spiritual
I was pretty intrigued when we rolled up to a large, white egg-shaped building with nine-pointed stars decorating the grounds.  Situated 11km from the center of the city, the Baha’i temple offers services on Sundays and provides information about this relatively new faith during the rest of the week.  On a very general level Baha’i’s believe that humanity is a single race and that the day has come to form one peaceful global society (Amen!).  They look at religious leaders such as Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster, Christ and Muhammad as prophets whom are all viewed as messengers of the same God.

Baha'i Temple

The basic teachings cover things like: gender equality, unity of religious truth, universal education and that true religion is in harmony with reason and science. More can be found here if this forward thinking group has piqued your interest.

Check out the President’s pets

Wander the colonial neighbourhood of Casco Antiguo, (backdrop for the latest Bond flick Quantum Solace) — past buildings of another era, the lovely Paseo las Bovedas and the busy fish market.  Eventually you will come across the guarded entrance of the Palacio de las Garzas, Panama’s presidential home (though the past three presidents have chosen to keep their residence elsewhere and use the Palacio solely as an office).

Old and new Panama

To get a closer look an officer will lazily peruse the items in your bag before gruffly sending you on your way.  As you wander closer you will notice three large birds on the premises.  These white herons were introduced by President Belisario Porras in 1922 to adorn the Andalusian-style interior courtyard.  You can peer through the metal bars to see the birds preening as important visitors come and go within the building.  Don’t get too close though…


Harrassing the Herons from Kels M on Vimeo.

Shop till you drop
The insanely large Albrook mall is so big that it could take over three days to cover the area.  Crammed with inexpensive clothes, trinkets, a few high-end stores and a tonne of shoppers this complex has everything and anything.  With bins of clothes marked at $3.99 it is hard to leave empty-handed.  Knock-off stores like Conway (Target), Moose (Abercrombie and Fitch) and Pink (Victoria’s Secret) line the corridors with what may or may not be actual merchandise from these well-known brands. Keep an eye out for the mannequins which tend to be a little bit different from the ones at home.

Conway ladies are cold

Find a Fonda
Eating is a pleasure in Panama city.  Any type of cuisine can be found but the best deal is to hit up the small cafeteria-type eateries called fondas.  Not much to look at, these restaurants serve up a solid meal (rice, lentils, your choice of meat, and salad) for around $2.50 USD.  Throw in a chicha (juice, preferably maracuya/passionfruit) for $.25 and you have yourself a stellar and filling meal.

$2.50 food

Ride a Red Devil
Careening around corners and swerving in and out traffic, these jazzed up school buses are the city’s best, and most entertaining, form of transit and it is truly thrilling to get off one alive.  Running everyday from 5am to 11pm, the Diablos rojos charge $.25USD per ride, allowing passengers to commute cheaply.  One wild driver even managed to get the laid-back Panamanians screaming, “Que pasa?!” (What’s up?!)

Diablo rojo

We caught the ferry from Bocas to meet up with our travel buddies Chris and Kristin in a little town called Santa Catalina on the Pacific coast—which is also home to a really good surfing break (named after the town) and it’s touted as having the most consistent surf in Central America. A long walk out over volcanic rock and then it’s a fair paddle to a beautiful but shallow reef break offering fast lefts and rights, when we arrived the waves were about shoulder high. We camped in a nice spot called Oasis right on the beach with plenty of shade and fresh coconuts falling scarily close to our tents, like manna from the sky. Try boiling a cup and a half of rice in the juice drained from two freshly fallen coconuts in a thin camp pot … best eaten under undiluted galaxies.

shady-camping

A few tranquilo days later we headed inland to camp with a rasta yogi, known locally as ‘Swami‘ and his rainbow gathering crew, the cheapest accommodation we could find in a town that’s centered in the crater of an extinct volcano, called El Valle, about two hours outside of Panama city. When the Panama Canal was owned and operated by the States a few Panamanian officials were getting fairly good kickbacks and we were told that this is where their kids bought up large chunks of fertile land, building grandiose houses with rambling manicured lawns set amongst awesome tropical landscaping. We had read that the town hosts an interesting arts and crafts market and were a little disappointed to find it much of the same and our only real discovery worth reporting was the Maracuya (passionfruit) juice served in a small out-of-the-way cafe.

For those headed this way with a car make sure you arrive EARLY… around 6:30am, the ferry from Almirante to Bocas leaves at 8am sharp (Monday through Saturday) there will be a line up for miles and each driver will be vying for a limited number of spots. Marlin was the last car on, made it by the skin of his little black bumper, accompanied by some fruit and vegetables, we were only one car away from having to spend an extra night to catch the ferry the next day.

Last one on

Bocas del Toro is the biggest town on the main island of the Bocas Archipelago and it’s seriously Caribbean although tourism has run rampant in the last six years and the prices and scenery definitely reflect that. We chose to stay at the beautiful La Veranda, a 100 year old home, on the outskirts of town for only a little more than the price of the dorm beds in town. The ambiance of the second floor, large wooden veranda complete with rattan rockers and lazy fans helped lull us into the slow vibe of Bocas.

Looking for surf we hired a boat to take us to Red Frog Beach on Isla Bastimentos. A boardwalk shortcuts across the island and as a local worker scuffed past us in his rubber boots, Tom asked where the red frogs were at. He walked directly to a tree, bent down and then presented us with a Poison Dart Frog.  They are so tiny!  Ok, we weren’t supposed to hold them but the young guy said it was ok.  (This was pretty dumb and we do not endorse it at all).

Red Frog

The red frogs are native to parts of Central and South America and live in rainforests.  They emit a funny chirp noise and their bright colours can range from vibrant red with black spots to  dark blue with pale blue markings which are meant to ward off predators. There are more than 100 species of Poison Dart Frog and the colours can vary within the species, they do carry a poison (which is why you shouldn’t touch them) but only three are apparently really dangerous to humans.  From what I could gather they need to inject their poison, which is lucky for Tom and I, since we just held them (DUMB). Interestingly the toxins are derived from creatures they eat like ants or mites, so should you choose to have one as a pet and control it’s diet, it could potentially be poison free. Generally their toxins can’t permeate our skin, however, I did have rather numb, red looking fingers (and a serious panic attack that I was going to die) after touching that damn frog and would NOT touch one again.

Warning Poison

One more interesting thing to note, it seems that the resort development aptly named Red Frog Beach, is rumoured to be encroaching on the habitat of its namesake and contributing to their declining numbers.

Bocas del Drago

Happy to be alive the next morning, Tom and I caught a bus and headed to Bocas del Drago which is on the other side of Isla Colon. It was all that you could imagine a Caribbean beach to be.  Bleached white sand, turquoise clear warm water and huge palms. If we had known how beautiful it was we would have opted to stay here, away from the hustle of Bocas del Toro.  After enjoying the serenity of the place, and the company of some great Aussie gals, we negotiated a boat ride back and took in the sights of the island lifestyle before packing up wee Marlin and continuing on our way.

Beautiful Bocas

When it rains…

Sometimes things just go wrong…  maybe we needed a slap back into reality after leaving the realm of everyday life and spending a little too much time in the alternate travel universe.  We were stranded in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica with a couple of rather large issues. The first being that the only bridge into town was half washed away by the unusually heavy tropical rains and had subsequently been closed. Tom’s surfboard needed a major repair after he lost a fin and its box surfing in Nosara; on top of that, Marlin was having some trouble with the alternator and his battery had died. Oh yeah and it had been pouring rain for 4 days.

Washed away

This is part of bringing a car with you and we both knew that we would be bound to have some mechanical issues, especially with an older vehicle and although our Spanish is progressing, our mechanical terminology is a little thin, which makes dealing with car problems all the more fun. We did manage to find a rather interesting mechanic, one with a penchant for all things pirate. His first mate was an efficient Tico teenager whom we called Smee, jumping to attention, repeating orders and being generally subservient, he was incredibly conscientious providing tools and parts on cue. It was a pleasure to watch them work and we both felt that Smee held an enviable position.

Pirate Mobile

Pirate Mobile

As it turns out the plaque del Dios, the god plate, had malfunctioned causing the regulator to burn out (maybe one too many river crossings the week before).  We were sent from the pirate to another mechanic, an older gentleman who had a spare god plate. He charged the battery and to showed Tom which part needed replacement as well as how to install the part.  The regulador was the key to getting Marlin running smoothly again, it regulates the charge back to the battery (or so we think).

With Marlin working, Tom’s board fixed and the bridge opened for light traffic we felt a definite change in our luck.  We took a risk and headed for the Panamanian border, which had been closed for two days because of the flooding.  The god plate must have been working because the border opened an hour after we arrived and we cleared both Costa Rican and Panama immigration in under 30 minutes!

Bridge to Panama

Insane Bridge to Panama

Knowing we needed the regulador we burned rubber to Changuinola, home of the famous Chiquita banana, a town of about 50, 000, 45 minutes south of the border. We rolled into the nearest gas station to fill up and Marlin died. I manned the car while Tom went off to find a new regulator.  Returning fairly quickly we switched out the part but, since the battery was completely dead, we needed a jump to get started.  Enter absolute chaos.

Somehow we had a policeman, two gas attendants, a truck driver and some random guy all trying to sort out why the car wouldn’t start.  The policeman, a rather amusingly frantic fellow, had to try the ignition for himself… just in case.  Then the truck driver who had been ordered to give us a jump by the policeman attached the jumper cables to the wrong terminals in his hasty obedience. Tom was looking a little stressed as he had noticed that the cables were mixed up but didn’t want to get the truckie in trouble with the cop who was dancing around the car looking anxious. The truck driver decided the terminals needed cleaning and the policeman whipped out a twelve inch hunting knife to help scrape away some of the corroded metal. While they were doing that Tom quietly reversed the cables on the truck and the next time Marlin came back to life.  We thanked everyone profusely and were on our way.

Thinking that we should double-check that the battery was receiving charge we headed straight to a nearby mechanic for a multi-meter. After a bit of testing, some insulation paint, a lot of good will and a minor earthquake we got the alternator fixed and the battery charged. We spent the night in Changuinola and were up early the next day headed for Bocas Del Toro, a group of Islands in the Caribbean sea off the coast of Panama.

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