Panama for ages 

Before we left Santa Catalina and Coiba National Park, we ate at Chano’s, a tiny restaurant across the dirt road from our house. We didn’t know what we were walking into, but we showed up and Chano came over and told us he had tuna, bass and lobster, oh wait, no bass, flounder. We were all quite hungry and eagerly downed some beers while waiting for our dinner. About an hour and a half later our dinner finally came out and it was worth the insane wait. The dishes were amazing, clearly crafted with love as well as skill. The picture doesn’t do it justice, but there was salad, fruit, potatoes and the main (lobster or fish) covered in an amazing sauce that Chano just whipped up for the night.

We then headed to a tiny mountain town that I can’t remember the name of. Kathryn had found a little park there with a waterfall and a zip line. I didn’t want to zipline but I got to hike up most of the way with everyone one else before the guide told me to turn around and go back to the bottom, which was kind of a bummer. The hike up was incredibly cool and our guide was very good at spotting animals. He showed us some Jeffrey’s Tamarind Monkeys, a butterfly with transparent wings, and a million ants on a mission. After I left, the other guys saw a really cool orange and black bird but all I saw were some more butterflies. I did get to the bottom in time to see the others on the zip line though.

John on the zipline

transparent butterfly

After Kathryn, John and Chris zipped down in front of the waterfall, we went to the natural swimming hole created from the waterfall run off. The park service surrounded the pool with a stone wall and some steps and we jumped into the first cold water I’ve felt in months. Unlike the ocean, the waterfall run off was actually cold! It was glorious.

And then Chris spotted a keel billed toucan lunching in the trees. We got to watch him for ages while he constantly repositioned himself for maximum berry access. Here are some bino photos I took of him. I love him.

After swimming we spent a leisurely evening at a fancy bed and breakfast run by a French couple. We celebrated John’s birthday dinner at a super fancy authentic Italian restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Everything was so good but we ordered a little too much and Kathryn and I couldn’t finish our gnocchi so we got little to go boxes. I woke up at two am and couldn’t get back to sleep for a while and was salivating a bit over the gnocchi, but two in the morning seemed an inappropriate time for a pasta snack, so I went back to sleep.

The next morning we enjoyed a tasty breakfast prepared by the Madame of the house and then it was time for Kathryn and John to return to cold, wintery New York, a fair bit redder than when they had left.

About fifteen minutes into our trip back to Panama City I remembered the gnocchi! And mourned. I’m still in mourning now and think about it often. All I can hope is that a cleaning lady had a nice snack.

After we parted ways with Kathryn and John we spent a couple more days in Panama City working on the bikes. Around the corner from our moto friendly hostel, Panama House Bed and Breakfast, there was a brand new KTM dealership. The very friendly sales guy there sent us down the street three blocks to the Husky shopped, called Ride, where they actually carry oil and parts and such unlike the brand new KTM dealer, which only has bikes at the moment. This will probably change soon and if you’re reading this and looking for a KTM dealer in Panama City, they’re on Via España at Avenida de Brazil. But if at all possible you should go to the Husky dealer cause Gustavo there is awesome. It’s 3 blocks SW down Brazil on the left.

This was the first proper motorbike shop we had been to in ages and we were very excited to stock up on bits. After changing the oil it was also time to change my sprockets and for some reason my front sprocket was Fort Knoxxed on. We tried everything: piece of wood through the rear wheel, heat, two foot extension tube on ratchet. Nothing. So we popped it back down to Ride and Gustavo managed to get it off (after some struggling too). Now that the work was done we had some fun by taking a day trip to Taboga, a small island just off the coast of Panama City, popular with locals for day drinking on the beach.

Within minutes of our arrival we met a Canadian and two Americans who, having recently returned from their respective mother countries, were assessing the repairs needed to bring their sailboats back into operation. Captain Pete, the Canadian, had his boat docked in Taboga, but the motor wasn’t working, along with a few other key elements. He needed to get it back to Panama City to get the motor fixed, but when you have a sailboat without a motor you have to go old school pirate style and actually sail, which is impossible if there is no wind. So Pete and his crew, Jeff and Kevin, were waiting for the wind to pick up and passing the time drinking on the street, where we met them. Pete kindly offered to sail us back to Panama City, warning that it would take between three and 21 hours. So obviously we were stoked for the adventure!

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Captain Pete

We went off to kill time over lunch and some more beers. After a few hours and the 3pm ferry departure we were getting a bit nervous that the wind wouldn’t pick up. We couldn’t wait much longer because we had to get the 5pm ferry back unless we wanted to risk spending the night on the island, which we didn’t. Furthermore, we hadn’t seen the guys since we departed hours earlier. But luckily, just as we were starting to give up hopes of a sailing adventure, Jeff and Kevin found us and moments later a flag outside fluttered feebly, and that was all the encouragement we needed to set off. IMG_0036

Without a motor one also doesn’t have lights. As it started to get dark, Captain Pete hung a head lamp from the back of the boat, and ordered Jeff, who was driving at the time, to find the red and green special sailing flashlight and tape it to the front of the boat, lest we be creamed by an freighter waiting to enter the canal. Jeff promptly handed me his beer and the wheel to handle the flashlight situation. Now I was driving. At night. Scary. The captain said he wasn’t worried because I seemed to be the only one not drunk, and therefore somewhat responsible.

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If you look less scared on the outside, you may feel less scared on the inside

The captain took over as we neared the harbor and attempted to make our landing. I say “landing” because without the motor we have to rip the sails down and throw the anchor all at exactly the appropriate time so that we cruise to a halt close enough to, but not too close to, all the other boats in the harbor. And let me tell you, can I lower a sail or what?! I’m a pro. Natural born pirate.

After we arrived safely, had a lovely dinner with the crew, and got back to our hostel we were ready to be done with the city for a while. The following day we headed up to Puerto Lindo, a small town on the Caribbean, just north of Portobelo, a historic pirate port where treasure chests actually wash up on shore after big storms.

We were told Portobelo was kind of boring if you had to spend more than a day there so for some reason I thought Puerto Lindo, a tinier town, might be more entertaining. If I didn’t rely so heavily on confirming the existence of hotels or hostels I would have driven the extra six km to La Guaira, the last little town on the road, and the place where you can catch a boat to Isla Grande, a big island (duh) and a popular tourist spot. What we didn’t know at the time of planning is that Puerto Lindo doesn’t really have a swimmable beach, it has a dirty harbor. In fact, all of it is dirty, but it has a bit of charm stuck in there, and more importantly, there are three hostels there that have websites. So we stayed at the cheapest one, Hostal Puerto Lindo, and it was great, i.e. clean and cheap.

Our first night we met a couple, Austin and Amy, who are friends with the lovely owners of the hostel, Bea and Kique. Austin is from the US/ Cuba, and Amy is British, so we got to have an actual conversation. Amy and Austin run an adventure tour company out of Puerto Lindo and they gave us great advice on what to do with our time there.  Their great interest lays in hiking around the jungle, and for that they need a machete. Luckily they have transportation for it.img_6889

Along with jungle exploration, Austin also has an interest in mushroom foraging, and he set us to work while we were in the area. We found one hallucinogenic mushroom, and then we spotted these guys which are apparently quite rare in the area and have a short life span, so it was a lucky find.IMG_0031

We ended up booking a trip with Austin to go on a hike and travel to a beach, Playa Blanca, accessible only by boat. The beach was gloriously deserted… for a couple of hours, until some dudes on ski doos showed up. But while it was just ours we did some awesome snorkeling. Among many other things, I saw some cuttlefish, and a bigger fish, about 18″ long with a snout, white with beige stripes and I cannot identify him, so ask your fishy friends. He was just chillin’ near the bottom. We also saw tons of different types of coral, which was amazing. In the Pacific we were mostly looking at rocks with a bit of coral here and there, but now we are in the Caribbean, baby. And the water was surprisingly colder than the Pacific. Not cold by any means, but less hot. That was an interesting surprise, and a nice one, as it is much more refreshing. It is also much saltier. Why is that?

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After snorkeling Austin hacked open some baby coconuts and we had a fresh drink, which is the best thing to wash salt water out of your mouth. Then we headed into the jungle. During our hike we saw some insanely large spiders, a tiny blue poisonous frog, and a black hawk. Austin also showed us the third stage of a coconut. First it’s a baby and it has very little flesh, but lots of tasty sweet juice. Then it’s a young adult and the sugar goes into the flesh and the juice is less tasty, but in turn you can eat lots of delicious flesh. These two stages we are very familiar with. The third stage is parenthood. If you leave a coconut in its shell it will sprout to make a new coconut tree because it is, after all, a giant seed.  This is obvious, but obviously I had never thought about it. When it’s in the sprouting stage all the sugar from the flesh feeds the sprout in a weird starchy form with the texture of compostable packing peanuts and the flavor of angel food cake. It’s incredibly weird but we were lucky enough to have Austin and a machete with us to make it possible to eat. This sprout base goes off incredibly quickly so can only be eaten fresh, probably why no one (Chris and myself) knows about it.

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With our remaining time in the area we checked out the town I mentioned earlier at the end of the road, La Guaira. We decided to walk there which took longer than planned and was quite hot. But once we arrived we saw that there are in fact hotels there and it has a delightful beach at the front of the town. I recommend staying there if you are in the area. Also make sure to ask around to find the local Comedor. This is the best way to eat in these small towns. It is most often a woman, usually named Maria, who cooks food out of her house and will make you a delicious plate for about three bucks. But they never have signs, so you have to ask a local. Worth it. There are a few boats at the one small dock to take tourists to Isla Grande, the large island only a five minute ride away.IMG_0027

So we took the boat ride and mistakenly ate at the first place we came to instead of at Maria’s in town, and then we got kicked out of the private resort beach after spending $30 on mediocre lunch. So we walked along the island to Sister Moon Hotel all the way at the end where we had some beers but were told we couldn’t go in the pool (lame). The ocean isn’t really swimmable around the hotel because of rocky cliffs and shallow water. But it is pretty but I wanted to swim in the bloody Caribbean some more. On our way back through we stopped at a bar that I can’t remember the name of for another beer. It was a big orange building with an octopus on it. The proprietor was painting a room and grabbed us some beers and showed us to the back patio which had a ladder into ocean and a perfect little kelp free, coral free, deep enough area for swimming. He told us to holler when we wanted more beer and went back to painting, leaving us to enjoy our paradise patio by ourselves. I am sad I cannot remember the name of it because it was perfect.  IMG_0032

So we spent the next few hours drinking and swimming and having deep conversations about life. Then we hitched a boat back to the main land and asked an idling truck if they were headed to Puerto Lindo. They were, so we jumped in the back with some guys who looked like they had spent the day working in some capacity, possibly related to the truck that was giving us a free ride.  We all drank beers on the short ride back to our hostel and then it was time to leave the sleepy town and start heading towards the boat that’s going to take us to Colombia.

Before we leave Puerto Lindo I need to comment on the situation mentioned briefly before, regarding the dirtiness of the town. First of all, it’s not just Puerto Lindo, it’s the whole area. There’s garbage everywhere. I understand that there is no system in place for dealing with garbage, there’s no garbage truck, there’s no official dump, and that makes it difficult to deal with, and puts a lot more pressure on the individual. But nowhere else that we have been has there been so much garbage littering the streets and the waterfront, the rivers, the oceans, people’s yards, everywhere. On our walk to the next town over we noticed that the people who live outside of town keep their yards free of garbage, but the people in town don’t at all. Maybe because there are too many people who can be blamed for making the mess? One can’t honestly blame tourists because there are so few. But who to blame? The government for not giving them a waste disposal system? Panama isn’t a poor country. There’s road work everywhere. There are government systems in place.

Also keep in mind that at this point we have driven through most of Central America. Some roads are dirtier than others, many have piles of garbage on fire, others have clearly delineated dumps standing behind signs stating “Don’t Throw Garbage” (in Spanish obviously), but no other place where a human population lives was so noticeably covered in garbage with such a seemingly unconcerned attitude from the residents. I can’t understand why this small pocket of Panama is so much filthier than the rest and why the people who live here haven’t come up with a solution. It’s hard, yes, but is there no desire? Is it too ingrained in their lifestyle at this point? Why? How?

Who knows? We are off to Colombia.

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