I am sitting in an Internet cafe in Alajuela, a tiny town north of San Jose that is just a five minute cab ride from the International Airport. At 8am tomorrow, I will board the first of three planes bound for Seattle. What an incredible journey and experience it has been. I plan to write an epilogue of sorts when I get home (I'm sure I'll have more perspective then too!) but for now, here is the last week of my time in the beautiful country of Panama.
I last left you in the mountain town of Boquette, as I was de-Bocasing and coming down from the high of constant sun and parties. Boquette was a very quiet town. And quite chilly and rainy. Sadness! However, saying that, it really was beautiful and surrounded by lush cloud forest and Volcan Baru...the highest point in Panama. It was also famous for its whitewater, and Abraham and I decided to do a raft trip for the following day.
The alarm sounded at 6am, and we dragged ourselves out of bed to ready for the big day. I was very very sleepy, but the sight of extremely hot rafting guides in the van soon woke me up. he he. It was a two hour ride to the river, which we were told was in peak condition, for it was well into the rainy season, making some of the class IV rapids more like Class IV.5ish.... We'll see!
The trip turned out to be very thrilling indeed. This was probably my sixth or seventh experience doing this, but I can honestly say I've never been through water this rough before. There were definitely moments where if you fell out of the boat you would have to kiss your own sweet ass goodbye. Curtains. Abraham did fall out of the boat, but luckily it was not in one of those places. It all happened so fast, and I went to move over to drag him back in the raft but found myself pinned down by the guy in front who had also fallen over by the ferocity of the water. Once all were safe and back in the boat, it was all a bit funny.
We were well and truly smashed by the end of the 3 hour long trip which included several portages and a lot of very heavy paddling. Lots of fun though, and once I had gotten more used to the constant rapids (there was no waiting between them like I'd found floating on other rivers, the thrills just kept on coming) I was able to relax a little more and just enjoy it.
By the time we got back into town, we both needed a nap which was glorious. Then we decadently returned to Boquette Bistro, and this time fell upon the Baked Brie and Chicken Teriyaki. Yum.
On our second day in Boquette I was starting to have difficulties deciding on my next travel destination. I had heard that Santa Catalina was a pretty coastal town that offered access to some of the best diving in Central America at Isla de Coiba. However, communication with the scuba company, or indeed any hoteliers down there was proving fruitless. On top of that, I was told it was an epic 8 hour journey there. Abraham and the girls were leaving for Panama City on the overnight bus, and if I went with them, I would have just enough time to visit the islands of the Comarca de Kuna Yale and the city before needing to come back to San Jose. It was either Coiba or the islands. Once I found out that a two tank dive was going to cost me $140 plus two days of travel time...I opted to head out that night to David and on to Panama City.
Trying to decide what to do that day, we stumbled across a place that rented scooters, and they looked like they would be a cheaper (not to say more fun) option for visiting some of the local waterfalls and hikes in the area. Abraham was very excited to try them, and since I could barely stay upright as I tried to drive one down a side street, we agreed that he would drive and I would be the passenger. We donned cute little helmets, filled the tanks with $2 of gas..and off we went into the hills to explore.
This was another "first"". I love doing things for the first time, and the scooters were a blast to ride and offered a unique perspective on the countryside around us. Abraham was loving the speed and corners, that is, until we were faced with giant hills where the tiny little engines sounded like they were issuing their last dying breath and at one point we were forced to dismount and push. Miraculously, we found the trail head to a 2 hour hike the owner of our hostel had recommended. It was a very pretty walk and I was enjoying the effortless way I seemed to be climbing uphill with the abundant oxygen in the air.
Driving back down to town I was determined to give "holding the reins" by driving the damn scooter myself another try. We fell about laughing as I crashed and burned several times, screaming along the way because there was a semi coming. At one point, Abraham had to reach over me and grab the brakes because we were "going down". But I was determined and after learning to trust the bike itself (kind of like riding a push bike for the first time) I managed to drive all the way back to town, switching before traffic got too intense. Thank you for putting your life in my hands, Abraham!!
Heading back to the rental place, the heavens opened and pelted rain upon us. We got completely drenched, whereas our friends, who were five minutes ahead of us, stayed high and dry. But we'd had a great time.
We were to be on the 7pm bus to David, the second largest city in Panama, and then the overnight bus which was leaving at midnight. It was going to be a long night. David was by far one of the roughest cities I'd had the misfortune to spend a few hours in on this trip. Abraham and I walked around for hours looking for any restaurant that might be open, and we were told that everything was shut because it was...wait for it...8:30pm! Date night in David must be really hot and heavy. Eventually, after walking through dark rainy streets which looked like the perfect hangout for gang activity, we happened across a semi decent Chinese place before heading back to the terminal.
How I dislike overnight buses. This one turned out to be not so bad, actually. Somehow, having a seat which didn't really recline very much helped me to fall asleep. Before it had felt like five minutes, we pulling into the bus station in the capital at 5:45am. Dazed and confused, we muddled out and got in a taxi bound for Casco Viejo, the older part of the city where the hostel Abraham had stayed at before was located: Luna's Castle. Since beds weren't ready yet, and Abraham was leaving that afternoon for Colombia, I offered to take him out for a final breakfast together before I made the most of the morning by visiting the Panama Canal. We found the best little cafe and ordered a slamming breakfast of fresh bread, eggs, bacon and goooooooood coffee for $4 each. It was fantastic, especially after that bus journey. I was very sad to see my Dutch friend leave, but he promised to meet up with me, maybe this year, and go diving together in the Red Sea....which I will hold him to!
I grabbed a cab and headed to the world famous waterway, trying to get there for 9am because that was when the big ships usually passed through. It was all rather fascinating though I was a little disappointed not to see any big cruise ships coming through. On top of that, my ex Jonathan, musician extraordinaire had only just finished his gig aboard Princess cruises and had been transiting the canal over the last several months and we'd missed each other by a few weeks. That would have been fun...to wave at him from the cafeteria as he stood on one of the ship's balconies. Kind of like when we met up in Civvitavechia, hey Jonny?? ;-)
I watched two ships pass through the Miraflores locks, one a container ship and the other an oil tanker. Seeing how little clearance the vessels have on either side is really astonishing, and how many people it takes to guide the ships through without hiccup. I really enjoyed the museum exhibits too which detailed future plans for two new sets of locks which would allow for much wider ships..up to 56 metres instead of the current 38 (gee, I hope I got that right...?) They also had a display on all of the bugs of Panama, and displayed dead samples of some of the largest and ugliest beetles, spiders, stick insects, crickets and moths.
By the time I got back to the hostel, my dorm bed was ready for me, and Abraham was still there with a fresh new hair cut. I gave him the gift I'd bought him at the canal...an emergency rain jacket, after what had happened on the last afternoon in Boquette. I bid my adieu, and then took a very needed shower and nap, hanging out in the hostel for the afternoon, arranging my trip for the next morning to head to San Blas (Comarca de Kuna Yale) and more Caribbean Paradise...
The Kuna are an indigenous people in Panama and have retained autonomy from Panamanian government and basically self govern. I was looking forward to seeing them and their beautiful costumes...the women in particular have a distinct look: short hair with a headscarf, lots of gold jewellery, layered very colorful print clothing, and most notably, large and ornate jewellery for the legs which cover from the ankle to the knee. I would be staying on an island called Senidup which was going to be a 90 minute boat ride from the Carti Airport where I flew into.
The flight I booked was only $40 (I didn't know how long I was going to stay so I decided I would probably take the jeep option back to the city) and originally was scheduled to leave at 6am. So you can imagine my relief when I received an email stating that it would be delayed until 10! Yay!
I was meeting two friends that I'd made in Bocas del Toro on Isla Senidup. The transfer there went pretty smoothly but on arrival, I came to be informed by my friends that despite the fact that the island itself was only the size of a football field, there were two owners of two distinct set of huts. Turns out, I had reserved the huts on the wrong side of the island... No problem, right? Well, apparently, the two owners have kind of a war going on between them, and during my 3 day stay, it felt very much like I was in an episode of Lost, and I was one of the "Others", because the two groups of backpackers staying on either side didn't seem to mingle that well. Given the size of the island, it was a little ridiculous.
As was what happened when I first got there. Explaining to the owner that I wanted to stay with my friends on the other side of the island, he got very agitated and started demanding that I pay, and at one point, he and his 3 buddies had me cornered in a straw hut screaming about money and threatening to throw my bags in the ocean. The fact that this was supposed to be the idyllic paradise "get away from it all" island didn't seem to be applying to my first encounter here. It turned out just to be a language mix up because all they had wanted was for me to pay for my boat transfer, which was easily accomplished by handing over $7. Phew.
Those 3 days were a very strange, wonderful and unique experience. I've visited many incredibly isolated and beautiful islands in my life...but I've never stayed on one that was this basic and untouched. And it was so cheap..one of the cheapest things I've done in my entire 3 months. The price was $20 a night for your hut, including breakfast, lunch and dinner! The days consisted of sleeping in till about 9am, walking around barefoot everywhere (even the straw huts had a sandy floor), eating meals in the communal straw hut, reading in hammocks looking over the crystal blue waters, snorkeling around the island's reef about twice a day, sunbathing, napping, drinking, taking another swim, chatting to other travellers, playing cards, another nap...you get the picture? That first day I also took a day trip over to Isla Perros and had the distinct joy of snorkeling an artificial reef created by a shipwreck of a vessel that had the sense to sink in 20 feet of water. It was incredible and the visibility was great as was the variety of the fish.
It was a really relaxing time and I enjoyed the company of my fellow islanders muchly, especially Katherine and Fabio (who owned a restaurant in Casco Viejo which they invited me to come visit when I got back to the city) and a Brit named Gabi who, like me, escaped England to go work abroad in Austria 8 years ago. She especially liked my singing, and in the evenings, I would become a human jukebox and sing songs on the beach around a fire as we listened to the only other sound which was the waves lapping the shore. Of course you all know how much I must have hated that. :-)
The afternoons on the island also brought thundershowers. It was a unique place to watch the lightning, especially in the evening when it lit up the entire sky. On my last morning there, we had a violent thunderstorm about 3am which lit up the whole island like it was daylight. Rain pouring in to my hut woke me up pretty suddenly...I had to switch bunks to avoid getting wet. My friends had left, and I admit to being a little frightened by the power of the thunderclaps which lasted for hours. What a memory though.
The only sad thing that happened during my 3 day stay in Paradise (other than the violent welcome I received) was that I accidentally dipped my camera in the ocean. Oops. It has stopped functioning, and whilst I may still be able to fix it, I am relieved that this happened near the end of my journey and not near the middle. At least my memory card is safe and had lots of pictures taken during the one really good day of weather on Senidup.
That jeep ride home was pretty rough going as we climbed up and over the central mountain range of Panama before arriving back to the Pacific coast and the city. I ran into Gabi back at the hostel and we happily scampered out to grab dinner at Cafe Havana before she got a night bus to Bocas del Toro which was her next destination of choice. We happily chatted over mojitos, ceviche, and Cuban sandwiches...and Gabi tried to convince me to grab my bags and come back with her to Bocas. I must admit that I was very tempted indeed, especially since I had to head back to Costa Rica in any case. However, since I'd already given money to someone to buy me my bus ticket to San Jose and I hadn't really seen Panama city yet, I reluctantly declined.
In hindsight, I kind of wish I had just gone with her, but then again, it might not have had the same magical appeal as the first visit did, and it would forever alter my perception of it. and the time I had there.
I had two more days in Panama city and I explored. The first day I walked, for miles, around Casco Viejo and took in all the major sights and monuments to a Panama city of yesterday, that is experiencing much investment into renovation and restructuring. In fact, you could generally hear drilling from 7 in the morning from my hostel which made early starts much easier. Right before the afternoon rainy season storm, I grabbed a cab to the bus station (my friend wasn't able to buy my bus ticket without my passport! So I could have gone to Bocas and not felt bad about that!) and bought my ticket for Tuesday night to San Jose (arriving at 3:30pm the next day) then went to catch a movie and some needed air conditioning. It was hot, hot I tell you!
That night I went to visit Katherine's restaurant, Indigo, and dined like a princess. The food was amazing, I enjoyed a passion fruit infused ceviche of Sole, followed by fresh baked goat cheese and spinach spanikopita, and topped off with the softest fudge chocolate cake ever and coconut ice cream. And a bottle of wine. Fantastic. At Katherine's request, I stayed and sang songs too until about 2 in the morning, and developed my Panamanian fan base. They all plotted to keep me there and enter me for Panamanian idol. It was a wonderful night to remember!
My final day I went north for a hike around the Parque Natural Metropolitano and promptly left after 15 minutes and about 1000 mosquito bites! ouch! A cab picked me up and scolded me for walking around the area alone, telling me that it was very dangerous. I agreed, but primarily because of the mosquitoes. I asked to be taken to Ave Balboa, to a spot where I could enjoy a stroll along the water. Of course, I was told. Yeah, my ass. Ave Balboa was completely closed due to construction, and I ended up walking through it to a neighborhood where I could hail another cab, all the while enduring constant whistles and cat calls from the construction workers I passed. I have never in all my travels, met men who felt they had more of a right to vocalize their intentions towards women as I found in Panama city. Nearly every passing car, some guy yelled out to me, sometimes sweet things, other times more vulgar. That's not counting all of the "Chica"", ""Amore!", "Corazon!"" shouts I counted. At times I thought maybe I should be flattered, but the thing is this: the cat calls are not discriminating...they are directed to most all women. Its just an everyday normal thing.
Finally I visited the causeway which joins 4 islands together and has great views of the city, the canal, and the rest of the ocean on the other side. I rented a bike and went for a casual ride, stopping for a delicious lunch of garlic shrimp. After some last minute shopping, I returned to Luna's, showered, re-packed, ate some sushi and grabbed a cab with my fellow traveller, Sarah, for the international terminal.
That bus ride was a nightmare. They had the air con blasting so much it must have dropped below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. I was wearing every layer I had and burying my face into my sweater to stop my nose icing over. Couldn't sleep it was so cold. Then we were awoken by the loudest music imaginable at 5am to tell us we were at the border with Costa Rica. The border crossing took 3 and a 1/2 hours because they strip searched our bus for drugs. I've never stood around just waiting in the heat for so long, when I was so tired before. What made things worse was my last minute realization that my flight home from San Jose could have been changed to return from Panama City!!! I simply hadn't considered this as a possibility until the last day, and then I was faced with having to come back to San Jose because I had left 1/2 of my luggage here!! That's travelling brain for you...where has mine gone I ask you?
I managed to sleep for the next few hours despite the LOUD and horrifically violent movies they seem to always play on buses. We arrived in San Jose and jumped on another bus for Alajuela (the town closest to the airport) and checked into the hotel where I had stashed my things two weeks ago.... After pizza, we came here, I wrote this letter....and now its time to end....go back and pack.....and face the fact that my odyssey has come to a close.
My flight is at 8am tomorrow so I'll be leaving around 6am. I plan to write an epilogue of sorts on my return and provide some overall observations of my time spent here.
I look forward to seeing many of you in the coming days and weeks!!!