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After the disappointingly flat coastline, Cuenca was a pleasant surprise and we settled in at Posada Todos Santos, home to South America’s best hot shower (according to Joydrive!).

Panama Hats in Ecuador

We wandered the cute streets and came across more than a few Panama Hat shops.  I know…isn’t the Panama Hat from Panama?

Old school hat sizer

Actually, the Panama Hat is and has always been from Ecuador.  Here it is known as a sombrero de paja toquilla to Ecuadorians. This rather large misnomer all started back in the 1800s when the Spanish realized the exceptional quality of these hats and started exporting them via Panama. Then, in the early 19th century the workers on the Panama Canal started to use the same hats as protection from the powerful sun and, lo and behold, the hat quickly became known as the “Panama Hat”.

Hats drying

The Panama Hat can take anywhere from a week to three months to make depending on the quality.  Hats are graded into four categories depending on their weave: standard, superior, fino (fine) and superfino (superfine).  You can buy a standard hat between $10 to $15USD but if you are in the market for a superfino expect to pay upwards of $400 USD.  The best quality hats can hold water and be rolled up to fit through a man’s wedding ring, bouncing back to their original shape!

A hat for Kels... nope

Even cooler, the locals get their hats cleaned and repaired at shops around the city and seeing walls of white hats, each with a name tag attached, it was easy to see how important the Panama Hat is to the Ecuadorian community.

How do they keep them straight?

His name is Carlos Daviz but everyone calls him Lito, he’s a mechanic in Panama City and he knows six English words; Working, Today, Tomorrow, Bucks, Drinking, and Racing. He also knows and loves his VW’s.

We had a broken front shock and we were driving a punishing goat track in the forgotten back blocks of Panama’s Pacific coast – cringing and swearing as a multitude of unavoidable potholes battered our suspension. Sweating over some of the steeper inclines that demanded a preemptive reckless speed, there was no way back, we had to keep going.

That ‘road’ finally exited us onto a well paved, rolling country lane and we glided into Santa Catalina an hour and a half later, which softened the nightmare detour and gave us some hope of reaching Panama City where we could replace the part.

By chance, in Panama City, we ran into Slim Ferguson – an automatic transmission guy, who said he could replace our shock but that he knew a guy who would really enjoy working on our little VW … his name was Lito.

A slight man with a ready smile, Lito walked out of his shop, lifted the hood and whistled through his teeth. Shaking his head with an adoptive pride he looked at the dusty tangle of aging parts and smiled broadly… ‘What a warrior’ he said ‘what a warrior!’ which set Slim into fits of laughter.


Lito worked on our Volkswagen Golf for two days, only accepting payment for parts, ‘thirty-five bucks’. When he was finished he signed the engine and put a Panama flag next to his signature, then he took us on a guided tour of Panama City with his wife.

Cheers Lito, you’re a legend!


Climbing aboard the ‘Sacanagem’ a forty three foot sailboat we were greeted by Captain Hernando Higuera and his partner Maria.  “El Capitan” appeared to be a mixture of Captain Jack Sparrow and your seriously crazy uncle …. he ushered us on the boat all the while constantly tugging up his loose fisherman pants and proceeded to, in a very creative mixture of fluent Spanish and basic English, give us the lowdown on how things work on his sailboat.  Once finished, he brushed his long almost dreaded hair out of his eyes, winked at us and cracked a fresh beer – with that we were on our way to sail through the turquoise Caribbean waters of the San Blas Islands to Cartagena, Colombia.

The Sacanagem

We spent the first couple of days on the island of Chichime. After El Capitan had effortlessly directed the ship through the shallow reef and loosed the anchor he piled up beer, champagne and Maria in the dinghy and paddled off to land to start the first of three days of sailorly drinking.  We went snorkelling in the clearest warm water, catching a glimpse of a sting ray silently rolling through the depths, then headed to land to have drinks and dinner with the Captain.  Arriving on the pristine white sands, we were a bit startled to find a group of Spaniards raucously drinking in celebration of Semana Santa (Holy Week).  Even more startling was the fact that they had eaten an entire pig, offering us the remnants:

Some haunch perhaps?

Dinner (which was much nicer than pig leg) was freshly caught red snapper, garden salad and the most delicious coconut rice created by the Kuna and Maria.

We spent the next day lazing in the sun, snorkelling and perusing the molas available for purchase from the Kuna on Chichime.  El Capitan was anxiously awaiting the arrival of his daughter and seem right depressed until he spotted their boat on the horizon.  Out with more beer and champagne and party number two started… hoping to get fed we headed to the island to join the party where pulpo (octopus) was being chopped up in preparation of our meal.  A bit apprehensive about eating octopus salsa I was surprised to find that, if not for the suction cup bits, it wasn’t too bad.  El Capitan kept everyone entertained and explained the boats name ‘Sacanagem’ … in Portuguese it means ‘orgy’ and, according to El Capitan, una grande fiesta sexual in Spanish. After that description he cackled away, took another swig from his champagne bottle and proceeded to get thoroughly trashed.

On our third day we sailed to a cove reputed to be a hideout of Captain Morgan himself.  Before arriving we stopped in Porvenir to stamp passports and, in the process, picked up two young guys from Korea who spoke neither English or Spanish but had a Sacanagem business card in hand.  Presumably (since no one on the boat spoke Korean) they had been waiting for days to find the boat.  They joined us all on the ship putting our number to an intimate 12.

We left Captain Morgan’s cove early the next day heading straight into the wind, which made the two day journey to Cartagena a wee bit rough to say the least. However, according to Maria and the Captain, this wasn’t the worst voyage by far.  I kind of liked it, but for a few it looked like it was hell on water.  Everyone but the Captain was taking Dramamine, although for some this didn’t seem to be enough and the Captain’s beers seemed to last a little longer than usual.  But, amidst the uncomfy hours, there were moments of beauty — three times dolphins came close to the boat and swam alongside jumping and playing.  Being one of the only ones awake at times I snuck in some Spanish practice and chatted with El Capitan who constantly referred to me as flacita (skinny one) or just “you!”

We have heard that sailing from Colombia to Panama with the favourable winds is a little easier, but for us it was an amazing adventure, the San Blas are the most stunning Caribbean Islands we have seen and we intend to return one day soon.

A little background info on the islands we sailed through and more to come soon about the actual sailing trip!

San Blas Beauty

The Kuna Yala Comarca is a section of land on the Caribbean side of Panama 232 miles (373 km) long and includes 389 islands known as the San Blas Archipelago.  Totally autonomous from the Panamanian government, the Kuna people are led by a Sahila, a person who is both the political and spiritual leader of each community. Up until recently, coconuts were the currency used by the Kuna and to this day coconuts remain one of their most important exports. (They are the best coconuts I have ever tasted!)

Lady in charge

Perhaps one of the only tribal matriarchal societies in the modern world, the inheritance passes through the Kuna women (a pretty rare occurrence). A Kuna groom is expected to live in his mother-in-law’s home and work under his father-in-law for many years. The women sell their handicrafts to tourists and bring home the big coconuts making them the primary breadwinners for the their families (molas can range from $20 USD and up). The division of work is more traditional with women taking care of the cooking, sewing, water collection and cleaning while the men take care of gathering coconuts, home repairs, sewing clothing for the males in the family, weaving baskets and carving utensils.

Kuna lady and Tom

Tom buying molas for us

Protectors of the Kuna culture, the women continue to wear traditional dress while the men have adopted western clothing.  The womens’ stunning apparel consists of sarongs, beautiful molas (reverse-applique fabrics attached to a blouse), gold nose rings and my personal favourite beaded arm and legs bands in distinct patterns. (Even better, to an admitted jewellery addict, the beading is sewn on – worn until it falls off…really cool!)

Traditional Kuna Dress

Beaded legs

Quite small in stature the Kuna are the second smallest people in the world next to the African pygmies. And, for some unexplained reason, the rate of albinism is extremely high in the Kuna people.  Albinos are referred to as “Moon Children” and are believed to possess high intelligence as well as special powers. Albinism appears more often in men and, since they cannot work in the hot sun, they are expected to contribute to society by assisting with the work of the women.  On a similar note, Tom and I happened across a Kuna women who was actually a man however she was busy at work creating molas and offering to sell them to us.  I asked our captain about this and he confirmed that the Kuna are very accepting of all people and transgenderists are not unusual within their communities.

Time & Beer


We had some time to kill while we were waiting to sail the Carribean … the national beers were cheap and colourful, so we decided to have a sampling.

Panama has two big breweries each offering two products. The largest, holding most of the market share is Cerveceria Nacional which is actually owned by a Colombian company Grupo Bavaria which is a subsidiary of international beer giant SABMiller. SABMiller almost had the smaller brewery Cervacerias Baru too but the deal was blocked when they couldn’t show that the cost savings made from the transaction would be transferred on to the consumer, Cervacerias Baru has since been taken over by Heineken International.

To keep things fair and to remain impervious to whatever branding we had been exposed to we decided to have a blind tasting. Our only consensus was that the bottled beer tasted better.


ATLAS - from Cervaceria National
Ringing in at 3.8 % this lighter, flowery larger mainly drew comments concerning its lack of flavour. Atlas has a slightly sweeter taste that doesn’t last long, good fizz levels, not bad on a hot day after cutting the grass.

BEST COMMENT: Tastes a little like makeup.


BALBOA - from Cervaceria National
A fairly solid 4.8 % Balboa is the darkest of a light lot, not much scent but a little more depth. Pours well and pretty easy to drink – an all round contender but not very distinguished, good for a laugh.

BEST COMMENT: Fat bottomed beers you make the rocking world go round


PANAMA – from Cervacerias Baru
Surprisingly tasty and at 4.8 % not a complete lightweight but a little brackish on the backend. Makes up for its lack of depth with an evasive effervescence. Panama is that British friend who’s loyal but a bit of a prat.


SOBERANA - from Cervacerias Baru
A yeasty 3.8 % Soberana wasn’t our favourite. A pale, weak brew that needs a little more time mature.

BEST COMMENT: Ragwater and yeast burps

All said, the Panamanian beers leave a little to be desired but at around 40 cents each who´s complaining?

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