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Panama

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

    Some snorkeling to see starfish and the colourful reef.
    Then a stop in Dolphin Bay to watch for - yes correct dolphins. We only saw two.
    Then abit of a look at the various islands and finally over to a small island with our bring your own lunch.

    The guide told us to go to the supermarket and put together our lunch for our island chill out. Couldn't find anything I would want to eat so ended up with white bread rolls and nutella! The tomatoes were rotten and the avocados rock hard. And the processed meat was just plain scary!

    The best part of the island was very crowded so we walked around trying to find a place that wasn't packed. Our tour guide was clueless even though he had been to the very small island dozens of times. And of course you can't set up under a coconut tree and they were everywhere! We ended up in an awful spot where you really couldn't swim for fear of being hit by a floating tree branch!

    Eventually the guide went on a scout and found a proper place so we moved camp and then I just stayed in the water most of the time. Just so nice with the palm trees and blue water. If you are out of the water for 5 minutes you get so hot you have to go back in.

    On the boat ride back we went sloth spotting and amazingly saw a really active one eating lots of leaves. Normally they are only active at night. We were able to get really close and stare at his face. They are gorgeous creatures and move very slowly due to the lack of protein in their diet.

    Then back to town on the speed boat - central american style! Great ride as you can look at the mangrove swamps and the isolated houses. Some are shacks and others are mansions owned by retired foreigners. If you migrate there you don't have to pay taxes for 20 years but you have to invest some money which most people do by building houses.

    Dinner at another nice restuarant on the water. It had some things on the menu which we couldn't order due to where we were sitting!! Random!

    Then to finish off the day some gelato!

    In the last photo you can see I am taking no chances with the sun with my total cover up!
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  • Santa Catalina to be precise. And our rooms have kitchens but no bathrooms!

    Long drive south. Dozed most of the way. Getting hot again now so out will come my over priced dress. I need to get the wear out of it as I have just seen the Australian conversion on my visa statement.

    I might have to live in it when I get back to Sydney.

    Some of the group are making dinner tonight for something different.

    Our cabanas are very cute - all in different colours. Its like being in a dolls house. Mine is orange.

    The beach is ok - more for surfers. Black sand. Its about a 5 minute walk from the hotel which is in the middle of no where.

    I have a quick dip but the waves are too much hard work and I want to rest so find a place with a view and settle in. No internet though. It takes about half an hour to get served. Fries and a smoothie!

    Tomorrow we are going on a full day tour which is good otherwise I might go abit stir crazy here!

    No internet no tv no book air condiitioning that doesn't work properly and in the middle of no where without a bathroom. Not happy.
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  • But I can't attach any photos because my phone storage was full so they are all on my camera.

    But I have videos which I am going to make all of you watch! Ships slowly going through the canal on a loop I think!

    We hired a van today and went to a view spot to check out the city. Then to the old city to walk around. It was so hot and humid that I went through two litres of water!

    The old part of the city is lovely and they are doing alot of restoration work.

    We also drove by the very poor part of Panama City where we were advised never to walk at any time of the day.

    Next was the Panama Canal and it really was exciting watching the huge cargo ships go through the locks. What an engineering feat.

    China and America are the countries that use the Canal the most and it can take between 8 and 10 hours for the ships to pass through the canal. It generates about $2.4 billion in income each year!

    Then onto the biggest shopping mall in the Americas and the 14th largest in the world! And it was packed. So easy to get lost!

    Have to fill in time tomorrow before my flight so might go back.

    Then the farewell dinner and I am so overjoyed never to have to see most of these people ever again! Thank goodness for the nice ones who helped make it bearable.

    Finally back to the hotel. Wonderful air conditioning, wi fi and peace - what more could I want!

    Have the dreaded task of packing tomorrow.

    In one of the shots you can see the ships heading for the canal.
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  • 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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  • These photos are from my waterfall hike with the group. The last waterfall was a very steep grade 5 hike in mud which I could have done but too slowly for the group so I headed back down the trail by myself.

    So the photos are the result of me being left alone in the jungle with my phone!

  • We changed our plans and instead of going to Boquete we took a bus and then a taxi to a hostel called "Johnny fiestas" in Las Lajas. The hostel is placed at a huge beautiful lonely beach and has opened only 3 weeks ago. The owner, Matt, is a 27 year old guy from California who is living his dream. We only booked one night and then wanted to go to Boquete, but that has to wait, we gonna stay here longer. The first night we got really drunk (again) with Matt and the bartender and had a swim in the ocean at 4am. The best thing was that when you moved, the water lighted up because of some kind of plancton. Plus i have never seen so many stars in my life before. The next morning: waking up with a hangover is not bad if you get a coffe and a smoke a cigarette, then go for a swim and have breakfast afterwards! We spent the whole day at the beach and bought a hamburger for dinner for only 2$. We can stay as many nights as we want in a tent for 5$ a night, which is super cheap (i think its because we're drinking buddies now) We'll stay here til the 25th and then go to Bocas del Toro or our plans will change angain, you never know when you're backpackin, which is why i love it so much.Read more

  • Chill day. Got up at lunchtime after abit of internet time. Lunch then a nap!

    Went for a walk in the afternoon - so peaceful and the light was lovely.

    Ordered dinner for 7.45pm and at 8.35pm still waiting! Chased up my glass of red and they said they had run out of glasses! I offered to wash one myself!

    Might fall asleep at the restaurant table!

    The dog photo is for you Luca - he came up in the jeep with us and his name is Scooter.Read more

  • Lovely day today - day tour with snorkeling and beaches.

    Its beginning to feel like this is what I do - get up, get on a boat, tear around the ocean checking out islands and snorkeling, have chicken and rice for lunch then a swim and a rest on a few island beaches! Then every few days I sit in a van for about 6 hours!

    Today we swam with reef sharks, turtles and schools of colourful fish. Visited some lovely island beaches and saw jumping dolphins on the way back to town.

    On one of the islands we saw lots of white face monkeys.

    And hows this for weird. We are out in our boat cruising up the coast when we see a motor boat with three guys and a horse! The horse is lying down with its legs tied and hanging over the side of the boat. Our guide told us the horse was drugged so they could transport it! No idea where they came from as there was nothing on the coast for miles!

    Have a look at the town lawyer's office! Combined with a coffee shop.

    Nice relaxed evening with home cooked pasta with the leftovers from last night - a pretty good meal!
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  • 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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  • 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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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