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Panama

Panama

Curious what backpackers do in Panama? Discover travel destinations all over the world of travelers writing a travel blog on FindPenguins.
  • Day170

    The inside of the oven. The fires of hell. The surface of the sun. None of these come close to the burning temperatures in the urban heat island of Panama City.

    Great Scott it's hot. The weatherman says it's 35°C but feels like 45°C and he's got to be leaning on the cooler side. There's a punishing sun, car exhausts and traffic and not a breath of wind. At times, I feel anxious - if there is a phobia of heat, I have it. Our only saving grace is that Panamanians actually appreciate that it's hot and have the financial resources and sense to install air conditioning. Phew!

    We're staying in Casco Viejo, east of the CBD in Lunas Castle hostel. It has dollar beers, unlimited free pancake breakfasts and air conditioned rooms - why would we leave? It also within walking distance of the old city which (as is true for all 'old cities' in central america) is actually the newest part of the city - comprising many completely refurbished heritage buildings, iced with Audis and Mercedes and attire fit for a ball. In this case, high end retail, restaurants and hotels occupy the area causing in influx of wealth and a resulting price bubble - $25 dollar mains and seven dollar beers. Hence our activities in this area were limited to drinking coffee and Canal museums. Fortunately for our pockets, the wealth deteriorates to poverty over the space of about a block. A dirty plate of rice and beans only metres from cavair and valet parking - how odd.

    Luckily for us, Panama has Uber and cheap taxis (all with AC) for convenient transport which we used to get around. We ticked off the canal (I'll give you a new footprint for that) on the first day with Mike and Char and followed it with a Panamanian baseball game. As professional as it appeared, there can't have been more than 1000 people there, most of which were pushing beer, popcorn or paraphernalia. The game was relatively uneventful save for a brawl (between the players) and the promise of catching a foul, which unfortunately never came to fruition despite our best efforts.

    The next days we spent wandering the city. We climbed to a look out point to experiment with the new camera and also walked the causeway - at the wrong time of day it appeared as we were the only souls there. We also spent time checking out the CBD and attempting a hotel pool crawl. Following information from a blog, we were able to sneak into two of the three pools we tried. This made for a great afternoon spent lounging around, finally able to appreciate the heat between regular dips.

    Our final hours in Panama were spent preparing for our boat trip to Colombia. Supermarkets, washing, repacking and cashing up were all necessary for the next part of our journey! It's coming up in the next blog but in the meantime I'll have you know we're safe and sound in Cartagena, Colombia. It's also time to say a more permanent goodbye to Mike and Char. They've flown out; Char to London and Mike to NZ. We'll miss them but not as much as they'll miss each other. But we know they both love a long haul flight so they'll be united again shortly no doubt. Ciao amigos!

    I'll also have you know I wrote a blog about the Panama Canal which somehow got lost in the etha. You'll be lucky to see that again. I feel your pain Char!
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  • Day170

    I couldn't resist. Just for all you who pretend like you don't like engineering when you really love it; I present seventh of the industrial world.

    Let's not get overly technical. After all, when ash turns to dust it is just a dirty great big hole in the ground full of water - right? Wrong. Because ash is still ash and that canal brings you more presents than santa ever has, more petrol than you could stuff down the guts of your V8 and of course a mountain of food - literally. Yes, the Panama Canal is unanimously the frieght pedestal and icon of the world. But it wasn't always so...

    Back in the day when Panama wasn't Panama and Colombus was gallivanting around disrupting all the native americans, a trail was being founded. A simple, very much unbeaten path was etched into the dense jungle in a tiny little corner of what was then known as the 'New World'. It didn't take long for the natives to lead the white man along this trail to a peak on the isthmus of the Americas - a point from which the proximity of two oceans could be truely comprehended. It didn't take long before this path was traversed by mules (and later - briefly - camels, who weren't genetically fit for the jungle) laden with goods as they established the very first trade route between the east and west coast of the New World.

    As trade on the route began to gently gather momentum, boats began shortening the walking distance by transporting goods up the rivers from what are now Panama City and Colón on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Panama respectively. It wasn't until the Californian gold rush in 1849 did the true significance of the route hit home. When transporting gold through Mexico became a little too notorious (sifty Mexicans) a railroad was proposed through Panama - the narrowest part of the isthmus. The meagre 80km length of track was constructed in only a few years in 1855 following the original trail essentially to a tee. This railway (and the sea passage either end) stood for some time as the fastest route across the Americas.

    Many scientists, presidents, politicians and explorers dreamed the idea that would change the world: a shipping passage through a continent. However, it was the French who dreamed with any reality. Their history with the Suez Canal deemed experience enough for what surely would be a shorter, easier to build canal. That all sounds fine and dandy but drinking red wine and twirling your moustache doesn't move mountains, as they soon found out. Starting in 1881, the French spent 13 years, 22,000 lives and 287 million dollars digging what could not be considered much more than a dirty great big hole in the ground. Rain, rock, malaria, yellow fever and of course, distrupted cash flow were to blame for the failure a project that employed people from every corner of the Caribbean and beyond. The French ultimately threw in the towel in 1894 and spent years afterwards pointing fingers in what in known as the Panama affair.

    Decades later in 1902 the United States saw value in creating the shipping route. They managed to pry the land and the reminants of the dirty, great, big hole in the ground off the French for a petty $40 million dollars. However, apparently the US and Colombia weren't getting on too well at this point and unfortunately for the US, Panama was still under the rule of Colombia. So when Colombia opted not to ratify a canal agreement it ironically left the US up shit creek without a canal. I think we all know the US wasn't going to just roll over - they did what they to best and funded a war: Panama's civil war. A war which appeared to be already brewing as Colombia struggled to control a territory isolated by hundreds of kilometres of inhospitable and rather quite deadly jungle. The war didn't last long - Panama got their independence - and while Panamanians were still singing from the rooftops the US already had turned first earth on the Panama Canal. Of course, the US funding had come with that teeny weeny little treaty declaring them every right possibly required to build and operate a monstrous canal. Panama and eventually Colombia both ended up getting a lousy financial compensation, 10 and 25 million respectively.

    Let's just take a moment to pity little old Nicaragua - the poorest country in Central America. They were supposed to have the canal. When you subtract the width of Lake Nicaragua, the width of Nicaragua is comparable to that of Panama. The US came within a whisker of purchasing the land there before being deterred by risks posed seismic activity. Sorry Nica!

    It didn't take long for the US to get the job done. They picked up the remnants of the French project in 1904, half sunk excavators and all, and even took their advice. The French had been trying to build a sea level canal, meaning ships could literally sail directly from ocean to ocean (or ocean to sea if we're being geographically pedantic). Their work had proven this an implausible solution and they had therefore proposed a lock system to lift ships 28m or so over the mountains. This reduced the required excavation significantly. Less convenient for the ships, but a mighty lot easier for the man on the shovel. The filling of the locks was impressively designed as gravity operated: no pumps are required to fill the locks with water. Water from the upstream lakes is carefully used to fill and drain the locks layer by layer - a process that recycles 60% of the water each time. If they didn't do this, in the dry season I imagine they'd run the lake level down so far as to potentially prevent ships from crossing!

    Ten years on in 1914, 401 years after Balboa first crossed the continent on foot, the first ship sailed the canal. It had taken two dams, one bridge, six locks and the creation of the worlds biggest man made lake (at the time): Lake Gatán. It had also in its wake, broken the dreams of two more engineers and conveniently sourced and mitigated the spread of mosquito borne disease. The damage was another 5800 lives, 375 million dollars and, oh yeah - that problem of how you get across it. The pivoting bridge originally constructed with the canal was rapidly overwhelmed by traffic, creating traffic jams not unlike that of the Kopu bridge on Boxing Day. It took almost 50 years for the now iconic Bridge of the Americas to be constructed as the first undisrupted passage over the canal. Woops!

    Boat traffic through the canal soared in size and number - a testament to the projects success - and US citizens flocked to region to operate and maintain the canal in a US sovereigned area that would later become the 'Canal Zone'. Although it was largely an expat community, this influx of culture is very much a part of Panama today. As the Canal Zone grew in size and wealth (although the US claimed they were operating the canal at cost), unrest grew in Panama. Numerous negotiations over countless Presidencies were had regarding the operation of the canal until a full blown riot in the Canal Zone forced the hand of America. On the eve of the millenium, Panama was handed complete control of operation and maintenance of the canal. Today a third set of locks have been constructed adjacent the original two, a project proudly completed by Panamanians themselves.

    Panama however, jumped at the opportunity to profit from the floating gold mine that passed their shores. Prices escalated to the whopping $300,000 average price for a standard container ship, and up to $800,000 for the biggest of supertankers! Don't worry, if you want to cross in your 50 foot yacht, a little over a grand should secure you that slither of water behind the superfrieghter carrying your new tv. At 35-40 ships a day, that's a lot of money. In fact, that's 4% of Panama's GDP, directly. Indirectly, the Panama Canal is estimated to make up 40% of Panama's GDP. Not Panama City. Panama. The country! So now when you dart back to that skyline photo of Panama City I posted in my last blog, you can picture those buildings as stacks of ships. Better yet, stacks of ship's canal fees. 'Cause that's what they are. Not coffee beans and sure as hell not banana dollars. And if I haven't got you a soft spot for Nicaragua yet, not only did they narrowly miss a gold mine, they're now paying Panama to ship their worthless bananas to you and your smoothie loving mates.

    Reducing the two week journey around Cape Horn to eight hours was undoubtedly the most significant advance in trade since the invention of the ship. Watching said ship pass effortlessly through said canal with inches to spare is priceless. Thank school for engineers. Thank Panama for your bananas.
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  • Day174

    Island paradise and ocean hell.

    You may be wondering why we're getting back on a boat to get to Colombia. Well, the truth is, if you're not a drug runner or part of a cartel, the Panamanian jungle that spreads across the Panama-Colombia border is a no go zone, traversible only by those with a death wish or a bag full of cash or powder. There are only a few roads which are suitable for 4x4 and monitored by almost nobody except cartels. They are undoubtedly the most dangerous roads we would have come across on our travels and I'm not even sure we could find a vehicle to travel in if we tried. Hence to get to Colombia we had the choice to fly or to boat.

    We booked a cabin on a 50 foot monohull out of Porvenir, along with eight other passengers, three crew and a dog - our destination: Cartagena, Colombia. The trouble with Porvenir, is that it isn't much more accessible than anywhere else in the jungle. It involved a 5am start, several hours squished into the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser, paying fees to the local tribes people and a boat ride down the river and across the bay to one of 360 San Blas Islands. Now that I mention it...I'm not even sure we went to Porvenir.

    You may be thinking 13 people living on a 50 footer is a tight fit. Well you're right, but not uncomfortably so and to my surprise it never really felt too crowded. We had a great crew of a captain, a deck hand and a Argentinian cook who treated us to some of the most delicious food on the trip - impressive considering she was cooking for 13 in a boat kitchen which was last stocked up back in Colombia.

    Our captain and mate spoke soley spanish and our cook spoke some broken english so on the whole communication was very poor. Some of the others on our boat were a great help translating but they weren't always there and our nautical jargon in spanish was zip (it's now barely improved). So we didn't really know where we were going, where we were or when we were leaving but it didn't matter - the San Blas Islands are so beautiful you wouldn't ever want to leave. Actually I lie, a local Kuna tribesman told us he was bored to death and he would love to leave. Fair enough, he was living on an island which would make Tom Hank's desert island look like a continent.

    We spent our first night at anchor between two tiny islands and behind the protection of the reef. This reef was littered with wrecks, one of which we snorkelled and another (the San Blas ferry) lay listing high above the tife for all to see. Apparently it tried to follow a catamaran through the reef. It's a hundred and fifty foot ship! Too much coco loco for that captain.

    The next day we sailed to customs (with dolphins on the bow) where the captain cleared us out of Panama. While we were wating the local Kuna paddled their tree trunks out in an effort to sell us all kinds of junk. They literally boarded out boat and set up shop. Safe to say I was overboard and miles from the boat before that played out. Whilst sailing out our mate Ray got his fish on and caught us tuna to have as sashimi for lunch. Cheers Ray!

    We had two more nights at even more picturesque anchorages. We spent hours swimming and snorkelling in the warm and outrageously clear Caribbean Sea. It was world class snorkelling; awesome reefs both shallow and deep with all the usual creatures and coral. There were also starfish and conch and sandy bottoms which make for great rock running. When we weren't in the water, we were reading, eating, drinking, kayaking or exploring the islands (where permitted). Volleyball and bonfires of palm leaves also notable affairs.

    However, island paradise does not last forever and we had some 30 odd hours of open sea miles to cover to get to Cartagena. We left at dawn, in a building 15kt breeze, close hauled motor sailing the whole way. The wind built as did the waves and the boat got wild. Everyone was drugged up to their eyeballs with anti-nausea and were subsequently absent minded, sifting around in zombie-like drowsiness. Several were sick, including our chef and one poor girl Mary, who didn't leave the vomit station for the entire trip.

    We passed the time sleeping and listening to podcasts and generally drifting in and out of consciousness. I also noticed that autopilot wasn't working so these guys were steering the whole time! Late in the night, we woke to bickering from our neighbours. Their hatches were leaking and bilge water was splashing up from under the floor boards. This alerted us to the fact that ours too were leaking (as with every other cabin in the boat!). Apparently the bilge pump didn't work as the captain was literally bailing the boat with a cup and a bucket in the middle of the night in what could be described as a stormy sea. What?! To say this was concerning was an understatement.

    When I got up the next morning, I realised just how rough it was. A few big waves crashed through the splash guards and straight through the cockpit, providing explanation as to why everyone on deck was so wet. Lucky for the warm wind and water! The boat and it's crew were in quite a state. I failed to take any photos of any of this but I'm surey words speak bettee than photos this time.

    Relief from the elements came in the form of flat water and sunshine as we weaved through the islands off the coast of Cartagena in the late afternoon. As the drugs started to wear off there were at last some smiles creeping through the weary faces. We were treated to a delightful harbour tour of Cartagena on our approach to port and more importantly; land, glorious land! If feel for whoever had to dry out that boat. First stop South America!
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  • Day135

    I had spend my last night in Germany in cologne with Alena, one of my best friends from school. She gave me a ride to the airport the next morning and was the last familiar face I saw before going on my big adventure. 135 days later I met her again in Bocas del Toro, Panama!
    As we both didn't know exactly when we would get to Bocas we figured we would just meet at the hostel. As I had forgotten that there was a time difference between Costa Rica and Panama I arrived a little later than expected. When I got to the hostel I had a message from her saying that she was going for a coffee with Gregori, a guy who was working at the hostel who she had met when she was in Panama a year earlier. I asked around at the hostel if anybody had an idea where the went and some guy told me to try the german bakery. And this was where I found her. It was totally weird but also super nice meeting her again on the other side of the world!
    We stayed for a while having another coffee with Gregori before heading back to the hostel where we went to the roof with a bottle of wine and talked about everything that had happened since I left. I really enjoy meeting so many new people on my trip and you can have really interesting conversations with people you barely know. But talking to Alena who knows me since 20 years was a whole different thing and it felt great.
    Later we went to an Italian restaurant and had a huge pasta for dinner. As Alena was only traveling for 3 weeks she was of course on a different budget. But as I had saved a lot of money volunteering in Nicaragua I decided to treat me well for a few days and not be to cautious about money.
    The next morning it was raining so we weren't to sure what to do. After breakfast at the hostel (free pancakes) we walked around town for a while and Alena showed me what she remembered from last year. We also walked through a few less touristy streets and made our way to the airport where Alena wanted to check the prices for flights to Panama City.
    When we got back to the hostel it had stopped raining completely and it didn't look like it would start again soon. So we decided to rent bikes and go to Playa Bluff. Finding a bike that fit Alenas long legs wasn't too easy but she found one that was kind of ok. So off we went on our beach cruisers stopping along the way for some drinks and snacks to take with us. The first part of the way was easy along paved roads. But after a while the road became pretty bumpy and partly even sandy. But we took it easy and even pushed our bikes whenever the hills were just a little to steep for us :)
    When we arrived to Playa Bluff we found our space on the long and beautiful beach to lay down all by ourselves - another upside to being here in low season.
    It never fully cleared up that day but it didn't rain again and we spend a few hours chilling at the beach.
    At night we went to a small local restaurant a guy from the hostel had recommended and had traditional caribbean fish soup with coconut milk. I liked it a lot.
    After another bottle of wine on the rooftop of our hostel we went over to the party hostel "Selina". The crowd was pretty young here but the location was nice right at the water and we had great fun dancing. We checked out two other places later on but didn't really get back into the dancing vibe.
    The next day we went to Isla Bastimentos (additional post). At night we had really good burritos at a nice place along the main road and drinks at another place with a terrace to the water we had seen the night before.
    Alenas favorite place in Panama had always been Boquete. And even though she had just spent a week there, she still felt like she needed to go back there one more time. She had been talking about it since we met in Bocas. And the good thing about knowing someone for so long - you know if something is really important to that someone. So as I also didn't feel like I would miss out on something here in Bocas and I was excited for her to show me her favorite places in Boquete in person we decided to catch the shuttle the next morning to go to Boquete together.
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  • Day162

    Beach bums and bites.

    Getting to the border at Sixoala was surprisingly quick but insanely hot. Cat and I are now resorting to our sportswear for travel days and usually handwashing immediately afterward. Trust me, we've been the horrific sight too many times by now to care what state we appear in during or after these trips!

    Sixoala is just like every other border town. The only difference is the Panamanians and Costa Ricans have conspired to make this the most confusing yet. Instinct tells you to walk along the straight road and over the obvious bridge. Customs has it otherwise. You snake your way up, down, around and under the roadway and bridge, ducking into pharmacies for your exit fees and taking directions from old mate on the street who you really don't want to talk to 'cause he's definitely not official and you'll no doubt end up paying him for something you don't want to pay for. But we got there in the end, not happy about the fees but glad to have found a chicken bus and to have dodged the (only slightly) more expensive shuttle. Not quite yet a sheep in the herd!

    After some bus time to get to the coast, we took a water taxi out to Isla Colon on Bocas del Toro, a group of islands on the Caribbean coast of Panama. It started in some awful waters in Almirante and ended in the crystal clear water of the Caribbean sea. Bocas is hot. Muggy too. And when we were there, the closest thing to a breeze we got was the back draft of the planes as they upped their thrust on takeoff. We attributed this to the lack of energy we had in Bocas. Sleep was everywhere and everyday; on the beach, on the couch, in a hammock - wherever it had the chance, fatigue struck like the plague. We didn't resist it nor did we feel guilt and it was delightful! The problem with sleeping at every stop, is that you quickly become an unsuspecting meal for all kinds of biting insect - sandflies and mosquitoes we presume, the most persistent culprits, and Cat the tastiest victim. Your hydrocortisone cream, mother, has earnt it's keep!

    Our first day was spent biking along the northern coast of Isla Colon in the baking heat to some idyllic Caribbean beaches. Palm trees lined one beach after another, golden sand and blue skies gorged our visual senses and even the monkeys came out to play. The bike ride was along an unoccupied, sandy gravel road, flat and accommodating to the resistance of our bikes and our levels of energy, much to our relief. We spent the day snoozing on Playa Bluff - one of the most idyllic and quiet beaches I've seen. We then crawled home beach by beach taking advantage of the beach bars along the way for unearned food and beer.

    The next day played out much the same, only this time we bussed to the far side of the island and undertook the previous days activities by foot. Playa Estrella was the beach of choice, with plenty of starfish and beachfront restaurants to add to the mix. Bocas did it's best to get us on a tour, but we felt it had little to offer that we had not yet trumped already with our travels around the Caribbean. The life of the spoilt right? On the subject of being spoilt, the Panamanian Balboa and Panama Lager (local brews) are a distant cry from the refreshing taste of a Nicaraguan Toña - oh how I wish we could be reunited!

    Our accommodation (Vista Pista) at the end of the airstrip provided us with great entertainment. From our balcony we watched planes soar mere metres overhead as well as hundreds of kids playing soccer and baseball on the grassy patch at the end of the runway - litterally all day everyday. Incredible how unaffected the planes and players were by each other - they even held sprint training on the runway after dark! We've also had the pleasure of Mike and Char's company, briefly and will continue to enjoy it on and off until Panama as we hit the same spots with slightly different timing.

    In terms of adventure in Central America, we're starting to feel like we've done it all - as you could probably tell by the last few footprints! It's a shame the surf on the Caribbean hasn't come to play as that was the activity we itched for on this side of the country. We've shortened up the parks and nature and have set a bee line to Panama City where canals, shopping, history and culture have a lot to offer us. Our next and last stop before that is Boquete in the Chirique Highlands where we'll enjoy a break from the heat before the high thirties we expect in the capital. Yikes!

    If you're wondering the plan from there, here it is: from Panama City we have buses, 4x4s and a boat back to the Caribbean (near the San Blas Islands). From there we board a yacht with a bunch of others and sail through the San Blas Islands to Cartagena, Colombia. We then have 11 days in Colombia before we fly to Punta Arenas in Chile (very far south and into the serious cold!) where we'll find Torres del Paine and hopefully get some serious hiking in. We'll then be taking buses north, hundreds of kilometers at a time and ticking off as much as we can in South America before the cash runs dry. Big tickets are the Atacama Desert, Amazon River and the aforementioned Torres del Paine! Wine and steak of course will be a welcome change...at least for one night. I cannot wait!!
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  • Day166

    A breath of fresh air.

    Boquete lies in the Chiriqui Highlands in the west of Panama, in the shadow of Panama's highest (but still not that high) peak, Volcan Baru. It's a reknowned adventure sport hub, comprising of the Americans who partake in these and the locals who guide them.

    I like Boquete, if anything because it's cool. Cool enough to give us some sanity between what we faced in our last two stops and what we will face in Panama City. It's also clean and stunningly picturesque. Flowers (the old burgain villia above all!) bloom everywhere, the air smells fresh, the river is clean and the traffic is minimal as Boquete is almost at the literal end of the road. Birds too, chirp audibly at every location. It's just so darn peaceful!

    We met up with Mike and Char again and opted for a waterfall hike - the cheapest activity on the list. It was only a short taxi ride away, but it was almost enough to cost us our lives as the old fart took every corner like it was the final bend on Mt Panorama. Unfortunately we took the first track we came across with a waterfall sign, paid our $5 and went for a walk. It wasn't until we found the one and only waterfall that we'd realised we had done the wrong walk. We backtracked to the road and found the Lost Waterfalls sign we were looking for, reluctantly paid another $7 to begin the hike we were supposed to. The day made for some gruelling climbing and plenty of waterfalls, and ended up being much longer than we anticipated after we walked the whole way back to town - over 20km in fact. As you do, we treated ourselves to a hard earned drink at the (surely american-owned) brewery pausing only to let two nappy-wearing baby monkeys play on our shoulders. Not kidding.

    The next day was relaxing. Cat and I proceeded to undertake our own 'food tour' of Boquete (really who needs a tour guide on a food tour - just follow your nose!). It began with coffee and cake (of which we ate way too much) and continued with delightful pulled beef sandwiches and an incredible fresh strawberry shake. In between of course there was rest, research and one of my best runs on tour - cool, scenic and quiet up through the hills of Boquete in the twilight. We also enjoyed a delicious meal at Big Daddys grill. There are a lot of American expats living here and it shows in the dining options - at least the employees are still largely spanish speaking locals! Fish tacos and curly fries to die for...yum! Depsite splashing out on this meal, prices are unquestionably lower than that of Costa Rica and for that matter - Bocas del Toro where food prices appear to have been hiked for import costs to the island. A welcome reprive.

    Onwards to the baking heat and hustle of Panama City. An hour on a chicken bus followed by eight on a coach. Looks like I'll be getting some episodes of Narcos under my belt!
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  • Day81

    The end of the road. Mike and I have reached the southern most point and the last stop for us on this trip. Where does the time go?! Panama City is completely different from anywhere else we have been in Central America, but then the city alone contrasts even itself with its many dimensions.

    We're back in the company of skyscrapers, wealth, traffic and genuinely just a full fledged city. It's strange, it's been a while since we've been around this amount of western civilisation. But don't get me wrong, there is a lot of poverty here too. Supposedly a third of Panamanians live below the poverty line and a good chunk of them live here in the slums. And then there's Casco Viejo, the old quarter which is a UNESCO heritage site and rightly so. Beautifully restored colonial buildings filled with boutique hotels and eateries line the cobblestoned streets and sometimes make you feel like you're walking the streets of Paris or another European city. This is the area where we ended up staying at Luna's Castle, a large hostel in a huge creaky old house with one wall which is partly constructed of the original old city walls.

    Panama City is obviously most known for the nearby Panama Canal, an artificial thoroughfare which was built between the Artic and Pacific oceans when it was realised that this was the skinniest stretch of land between the two oceans. The French began building this canal as far back as 1880 but abandoned the task twenty years later after thousands of the workers were unexpectedly dying from malaria and yellow fever. Americans carried on the job in the early 1900s and maintained control of the canal when it opened in 1910, right up until 1999 when the Panamanians got fed up and reclaimed the power of what was rightfully theirs. I guess this makes the heavy American influence here not so surprising. Even the American dollar has taken over as the predominant currency here, partially due to the fact that when foreign workers were coming to help with the canal, the Panamanian currency was useless whenever they went back home so it was easier to use USD. Nowadays the balboa is treated as 1-1 to the USD and generally you only receive the coins as change less than one dollar. Similar concept to the Cambodian riel I guess.

    We went to Miraflores Locks to see the canal, one of three locks that each of the ships must pass through as part of the crossing because the lake the canals join to is higher than sea level. Some 35-40 ships pass through the locks each day as part of their 80km journey through the canal. We managed to time our visit to see two huge ships going through the locks which was really interesting. It's a slick run operation with each ship's controls handed over to one of the canal officials to guide through. Ropes are tied to four little carts that drive on land either side of the ship to pull it along as usually the ship's engines are turned off for this section. These ships honestly must have only had a few centimetres either side as they squeezed their way through each part of the locks. The rate at which the water fills up each section of the locks is baffling too, considering the scale and the thousands of litres this would require. It's pretty impressive. Another lock was opened last year to accommodate larger ships after a majority vote in a Panamanian referendum. It shows they clearly value the income of the canals and the jobs it creates with a sense of pride for their country.

    Sunday mornings are a relaxed affair in Panama City and they have what's called Sunday Ciclova. This is an initiative which we've seen in some of the other big cities in Central America and it basically involves closing off a few of the main streets each Sunday morning so that people can use the area for exercise. Cycling, running, walking, rollerblading, scootering, you name it. In Panama City it's along the waterfront and even offered free fruit, drinks, bike rental and Zumba which they tried to rope Mike and I into! It was awesome to see exercise and wellbeing promoted and all for free, particularly because it's something that's not seen often in this part of the world but it really should be because despite the levels of poverty, there's also some extremely high levels of obesity.

    Always one to love a viewpoint and especially one you can hike to, Mike and I headed for Cerro Ancon which even though it only sits at 200m, is the highest natural point in the city. In true Mike and Char fashion, we continued our walk from the waterfront in the hottest point of the day to tackle it. We walked through a few dodgy areas to get there and probably took the longest way to the top when we did, but it gave us some cool views over different parts of the city. It's safe to say we were sweaty messes after this one. 35 degree heat, 80-90% humidity and minimal water meant we were in dire need of a drink and a cold shower!

    With Panama City being our last stop, Mike and I thought we'd let ourselves have a couple of splurges, one of which was to visit the bar at the top of the Trump tower on the 66th floor. As you can imagine it was overpriced but ironically they didn't take American Express! And while I don't want to support Trump, on the plus side, the bar overlooked the city and the harbour and gave us amazing views as we watched the sun go down and all the city lights turn on.

    Considering Panama City sits on the Pacific coast, you can imagine it has some amazing seafood. There's a local fish market which is situated right on the harbour so the fish goes straight from the boat to the restaurant, fresh as can be. This was the best time to have ceviche, considering we'd been somewhat avoiding it the rest of this trip but it was well worth the wait! Fresh and lemony. Yum!

    Cat and Rich caught up with us again so we went with them to a local baseball game. Supposedly Panama had a professional league at one point but it only lasted a year so this was just a local league. Our uber driver took us on probably the longest and most congested route to the stadium but thankfully we managed to get a refund on some of this afterwards! The stadium was almost empty but there was still a good atmosphere considering, and it was a fun game to watch even though none of us a particularly big baseball fans.

    Our time in Panama has come to an end with a somewhat hair-raising taxi ride to the airport. 100km/hr feels scarily fast to us now after terrible roads have kept all our transport to 80km/hr at best. Pair that with a taxi driver who is tailgating and/or not looking at the road half the time, no seat belts in the back seats and you've got yourself a nail biting journey. Thankfully our taxi driver Alex made up for it in chat so we enjoyed talking to him in our broken Spanish which he matched with his equally poor English.

    Mike and I are flying back to Costa Rica, San José to be exact. Just for one night before we both go our separate ways - Mike back to New Zealand and me back to London for a little while. We were pleasantly surprised with our one hour Avianca flight having not only snacks and drinks for free but movies and tv programmes too! Spoilt. I have to say it's somewhat soul destroying to know how long in driving hours it took us to cover the same distance, but at least we didn't have to go back on ourselves via bus. We're are topping it off by splashing out for a nice hotel and dinner for our last evening before starting the big couple of days of travel, Mike especially! Whoopsies.

    Final post for the trip coming soon...
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  • Day138

    Due to absurdity this journey deserves its own post :)
    You know I normally prefer public transportation to tourist shuttles as even though they are usually a lot quicker they are also a lot more expensive and what I have is time what I need to save is money. But as I was traveling with Alena and her time was limited we took the shuttle. As I had already bought my ticket for the boat to get of the island when I came we were on 2 different boats but met on the other side and jumped in the airconditioned mini-van with WIFI which was supposed to bring us to Boquete in 3 1/2 hours. All went well till we suddenly stopped without any obvious reason. Our busdriver also didn't know what was happening so he just passed by the other cars waiting till we made it to the front of the line and saw what was going on: some people were blocking the street with 2 cars and some rocks and a big banner. First we thought this was some kind of joke and it couldn't take more than half an hour to move them. But we had to realize that no one was even trying to move this people. So one lady, who seemed to be their head, kept sitting on an old fridge in the middle of the street and nothing happened. After an hour we got out of the van again and explored the area around. There were some little stores along the street but we kept on going till we got to a Chinese supermarket with chicken feet and beer. Probably the real reason we left the car. The beer. Not the chicken feet.
    After another hour Alena started to get really upset. She wanted to get to Boquete and it was hard to accept that we couldn't do anything but wait. We talked to our driver and he tried to explain the situation to us. Apparently there was another road between 2 towns that had been closed ages ago. Now some people wanted to open this road again but the bus companies stopped this as right now the bus from David to Changinola was the only way to get from town to town. So people blocking the street were trying to harm the bus company. Unfortunately the busses were the only ones that weren't really bothered by the blocked street as they just had a bus coming from both sides. They swapped over people and luggage, turned around and made their way back (of course this happens when I'm taking the shuttle). Also it was sunday and no one who could do something was working. So basically the whole blocking didn't really make scene.
    He also said that the people blocking the street were indigos paid by the government to do so. But he kind of lost us at that point. Maybe this degree of corruption is to high for us.
    At some point Alena got really annoyed and decided to go for a run (after 2 beers). I was amazed by how relaxed I was with the whole situation. I guess this is what traveling Central America for 5 month does to you :)
    After Alena was gone for a while people suddenly started to move. We couldn't really figure out what had happened but suddenly they moved the cars and started carrying away the rocks. Our driver didn't wanna let anybody go past us and squeezed back into line. Everybody jumped back in the car. But we were still missing Alena! The cars started moving quite slowly as everybody had to get back in line. But we were like the third car passing the blocking and everybody just wanted to keep moving. But where was Alena. Suddenly one of the guys saw her right in front of us coming down the road. So we opened the door and barely stopped to let her jump in. Once the door was closed our driver started speeding down the road like crazy. He probably tried to make up for the 3 hours we had been standing around not moving at all. Alena opened her last beer and was finally relaxed again. Even though we would make it to Boquete later than planned, we at least had some story to tell!
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  • Day73

    Much R&R time and probably the last beach I'll see for a while! Gasp.

    Mike and I had a relatively stress free border crossing from Costa Rica although it was slightly like a treasure hunt at times, trying to figure out where the office booth was that we had to attend next as it was all a bit haphazard. I swear we ended up having to see about 5 or 6 different people, one for each stamp, each fee and passport check. Lucky there were many a kind local who pointed us into the right direction each time and thankfully didn't ask for tips. A couple of decent signs wouldn't go astray, just saying.

    Bocas del Toro is our first stop in Panama, which also happens to be our last country for this trip. Where does the time go? Panama looked very far away on the map back when we started in Mexico in January, but here we are, 10 and half weeks later.

    From the border it took a taxi, a bus and 2 boat trips until we reached Isla Bastimentos, one of the nine islands that make up Bocas del Toro archipelago. In all honesty we made a bit of a mistake by choosing to stay on this island in the beginning. Although the accommodation itself was nice, the surrounding area wasn't. We thought we would be able to swim off the jetties by our cabaña but it looked as though pipes from the houses were pumping some of their kitchen waste out there, potentially even the toilet waste too. In saying that the water was still mostly clear but it was still a firm no from us. With that we quickly realised it was going to be annoying and expensive staying there when most things we wanted to do or needed were on the main island - Isla Colon. Thankfully our cabaña was part of a group of 10 cabañas owned by the same people, so they were happy to allow us to move to the main island for the same price after our first night.

    Our move to Isla Colon gave us a smaller room but we had more freedom in terms of everything else, especially with the free use of bicycles from our accommodation. The island is actually quite large and the town itself is more built up than any of the other islands we've been to on this trip. Isla Colon has proper roads and all sorts of vehicles, hotels, guest houses, restaurants, surf shops and a weirdly excessive amount of supermarkets (really more the size of dairies).

    Much of our time here was spent lazing about reading and chilling out, living on island time. Mike and I are shattered at the moment from moving around so much and generally just not having a huge amount of downtime, so this was well and truly welcomed. Aside from a couple of nights in Ometepe, it is also the first time it had been just the two of us since we were in Mexico, way back at the end of January. It's crazy how at the beginning of this trip we thought we might be doing the whole time alone and it has ended up that we have had company from our friends more often than not!

    We did manage to the leave the hammock for a couple of adventures, one of which was taking the bicycles to Playa Bluff which is about 7km from where we were staying. The bike ride took us around the coast, past many smaller beaches and at one point the road turned to sand which certainly made things interesting. We reached Playa Bluff to find a huge stretch of beach at least two or three kilometres long, golden sand and clear turquoise water. And only one other person there that we could see. What! We were expecting this beach to be busy as it's one of the main beaches of the island, so I really have no idea where everyone who is staying on the island goes all day. Not that we were complaining.

    Rich and Cat have caught up to us again, or rather they are one day behind us so we are going to be playing a bit of cat and mouse with them for the rest of our time in Panama, crossing over at each stop. We met up and shared stories of our previous two weeks over a few cervezas at their cabaña which overlooks the airport runway and the soccer pitch that is right next to it. Who needs a TV? Cat and Rich sound like they enjoyed their extra time in Nicaragua and the fleeting visit they had through Costa Rica. The two of them are gearing up for the next stage of their adventure, which is to tackle South America. That one is going to have to wait until next time for us!

    Bocas del Toro was a good stop for some chill time but we are already missing the cleanliness of Costa Rica. It's such a shame people don't know how to look after these places well. Once again taking New Zealand's cleanliness for granted and the fact that people actually care about the environment. I feel like I talk about this a lot but it's sometimes just so hard to comprehend the mess that some of these people live amongst. You wonder if they realise or if that's just what they're used to. Either way I hope it will change someday.

    Anyway, enough ranting for now. We're heading back to the mainland, to the mountain town of Boquete and hopefully to a cooler climate!
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You might also know this place by the following names:

Republic of Panama, Panama, ፓናማ, パナマ, 파나마, ପାନାମା, ปานามา, ປານາມາ, ប៉ាណាម៉ា, ประเทศปานามา, สาธารณรัฐปานามา, i-Panama, Orílẹ́ède Panama, Pa-na-ma, Panamá, Panamà, Panamā, Panamaa, Panamaja, Panamän, Panama nutome, Panamo, República de Panamá, بنما, پاناما, پنامہ, פנמה, Παναμάς, Панама, པ་ན་མཱ, པ་ནཱ་མ།, Պանամա, პანამა, पनामा, पानामा, પનામા, పనామా, ಪನಾಮಾ, பணாமா, பனாமா, പനാമ, পানামা, ပနားမား, පැනමා, 巴拿马

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