Published: March 7th 2012February 22nd 2012
Monday 13th Feb - Bocas to Panama City
A 5.45am alarm and we were off to the tiny little municipal airport of Bocas. It felt like a bit of a sell out taking the plane and avoiding the 11 hour bus ride but what the heck, for a mere extra 50 quid we'd travel in comfort at speed. Our inflight meal consisted of a glass of Orange Juice and a packet of cheesy crackers which had a fluorescent orange filling and looked like they'd been dipped in Uranium but were actually quite tasty. We got fleeced by the taxi to the hotel who charged us more than double than if you walk out of the airport to pick up one. Panama City was indeed very different to every other city in Central America with it's towering, shiny sky scrapers which act as great camouflage from the ocean from all the crumbling tenaments and shanty towns behind them which represent the real Panama. We had 1 night booked at Casa Areka in the plush part of town but we were right to be a little hesitant about the place from the reviews we'd read as it was the proverbial craphole and
not the fine establishment it masqueraded as on its flashy website. After surviving a night there we moved on to a far better place at the other end of town near the nice old quarter, Casco Viejo. This was after our pm recce to the new place where we were given an enthusistic tour of the hotel by the slightly camp and probably gay, ever so cheery receptionist. The contrast between old and new Panama was light and day and we were most definitely on the traditional european culturists side.
Tuesday 14th Feb - Panama City
Our new hotel the Santana was a big improvement on Areka but it was located in a no go area according to Fodor's tourist guide for US pensioners which we didn't find much use. However, call us picky or British, despite our hotel being clean, comfortable and offering reasonable food, the lack of customer service and just general care towards their guests let this place down massively as were later to find out. Somewhat oddly the hotel seemed to be owned by Israelies and almost exclusively frequented by them as well which felt a bit strange given how we'd founf them on
Expedia like anyone else would. We enjoyed a lovely Italian meal in Independence Square on Valentines Day evening and were served by an excellent young Panamanian guy. Almost forgot, we did manage to have a very enjoyable day visiting the Miroflores lock on the Panama Canal. What an amazing sight and what an incredible average fee of $100,000 to pass through the canal. They reckon they make $6 to 8 Million a day! Couldn't also believe that the French spent 20 years trying to dig the ditch but gave up and walked away with nothing, only for the yanks to ride in on a white horse and finish it taking all the glory, not to mention the surrounding land of the canal as their sovereign territory for nearly 100 years. No wonder the poor little froggies hate them so much.
Wednesday 15th Feb - Panama City
Today was our 1st visit to the Luna's Castle Hostel in search of a boat to Colombia. Seems like there aren't many leaving at the moment but we're told we can get on the next one in a few days called Lyka. However after a bit of research on the internet we
find some very bad reviews about the Spanish Captain and his son, who are said to be very lazy and offer their guests a poor show. Being picky and British and not wanting to tempt fate we declined the chance to meet the Captain's son later that day and listen to his proverbial tosh. We made our 2nd visit to the Multicentro Mall in downtown which would be 1 of 2 malls we frequented regularly that I embarrassingly have to admit. We paid $2 each to see Adam Sandler's new film Jack n Jill which was very funny, especially as he managed to get Al Pacino to send himself up. Food at McD's was not good and Stacie was not happy with her choice. We seem to be finding that Panamanian women can be purposely very unhelpful and hard nosed and that the men are far more polite and respectful.
Thursday 16th Feb - Panama City
This was one of those days where we seemed to do very little and accordingly achieve very little. With our boat to Colombia we'd gotten into the habit of emailing lots of captains and hostels about spaces and questions we had and then waiting for their responses which took an age to come through and in the meantime left us in limbo. In hindsight if we really wanted to do it we should have just taken a chance and booked it but as it turned out in the end, after getting back many emails from captains advising us against making the trip in the traditional rough seas at this time of year, we were very pleased to have opted for flying.
Friday 17th Feb - Panama City
We again began our morning ritual of walking round Casco Viejo looking for a nice and reasonably priced bakers or cafe in which to have some breakfast, knowing full well we'd been unsuccessful the previous 3 days. Well sort of anyway as we had managed to find 1 cafe during this time with a rather limited menu which restricted us to either a croissant or sandwich with crusty dried up bread. Having gone for the croissant the previous day we plunged for the dried up sandwich which was just swell as you might imagine. Today we ventured to the more upmarket mall Multiplaza Pacific which wouldn't be out of place in Dubai, our 2nd trip here and we went for the safe option of a really good Chinese again from their really good and varied food court. Films on offer were slightly limited so we gave George Clooney's new film 'The Descendants' a try even though Stacie doesn't particularly like him. The less said about it the better, as it was a shocker, extremely depressing and flat and if you ever get the chance to watch it, don't!
Saturday 18th Feb - Panama City
Our options for boating it to Colombia were now very limited indeed. We were half interested in being squeezed onto the Wildcard boat but this morning found out it was full. Neither of us was too bothered after getting an arsey response from the kiwi captain John who said "I don't know what you're talking about" in response to my question about his website which clearly stated the last couple on the boat would probably have to sleep on the floor. Clearly suffering from sunstroke or something similar we again went on our daily ritual of scouring the local neighbourhood for a miracle bakers or deli which didn't exist: Obviously learning fast, we gave up after 20 minutes or so and went into a new restaurant hotel called Tantalo which wasn't properly finished. We were treated like a visiting Royalty being the only patrons in residence at this time and enjoyed an excellent meal and service, whilst being closely observed by the entire staff and builders who were putting the final touches in place. We were even treated to a tour of the enchanting roof top terrace bar by our excellent and extremely likeable waiter Francisco who made a great attempt at speaking English. His dream is to go to Orlando, Florida and visit Harry Potter at Universal and is currently saving up his Balboas.
Sunday 19th Feb - Panama City
We officially gave up on the Colombia boat idea by booking ourselves a flight to Cartagena and a boat trip over the next 2 days to the San Blas islands which would have formed half the trip to Colombia. The next boat leaving wasn't for another week and these can often be delayed so we decided enough was enough. Having had a late start we managed to break the cycle of an aimless walk and instead went back off to the multicentro mall. The one film we really wanted to watch " We need to talk about Kevin", a BBC film, had stopped showing the day before. This gave us the chance to enjoy our 1st Subway since Florida and continue our fast food extravaganza. As we lefty I remembered that rather strangely there was another cinema next to the shopping mall we're in so we pottered off there and watched Tom Hanks film 'Extremely loud and incredibly close'. Again a little on the depressing side with 911 as subject matter but I actually found it to be pretty good with a nice ending.
Monday 20th Feb - Panama City to San Blas
The day started badly having been woken up at 4am, an hour earlier than had been necessary for the jeep ride to San Blas and was soon to get worse. We finally arrived at the boat harbour to San Blas nearly 7 hours later and were ushered onto the boat for the ominously named 'Diablo Island' for what we believed to have the lodgings we were after. Having hastily booked the trip after giving up on the idea of a boat to Colombia we were probably the only people in the large group waiting to go to the islands who didn't have accommodation arranged. The 90 minute boat journey to our island was pretty tough as we were continually spalshed by the high waves along with having the burning sun, beat down on our heads. The scenery however was stunning as we continued to pass one island after another of the 360 odd islands in the archipielago. If you picture a small paradise island in your head, with palm trees, white sands and turquoise waters, you'll not be far off what it looks like. Before arriving in San Blas, I'd read about how the native Kuna people rejected any outside influences, turned away from western culture and reluctantly allowed tourists to visit their utopian lands. This may well be true in part but nevertheless the Kuna person we encountered on Diablo Island was just another everyday scammer trying to fleece us of our money like any other hustler out there. On arriving on the island the only accommodation he could offer us was a couple of hammocks on the beach with a few palm leaves as cover and for the privilege we'd pay him a 100 bucks a night. He insisted on how he was doing us a great favour by offering us the only bedding left, when in fact the favour he was really doing us was making us quickly realise we needed to go someplace else. During the discussion we'd been offered a ride back to the main island for the increased price of 50 bucks having paid 30 to get there. When the boat captain finally realised we weren't going to be fleeced by him either after about 15 minutes and he'd be going away empty handed he relented and said he'd do it for 30. So off we went back to where we came from, picking up another couple along the way. On arriving at the main island which we thought was the place we needed to go we got the feeling that yet again we were in the wrong place. After I abruptly asked the other couple if they were heading back to Panama City and could we buy a lift they very generously offered to take us for free so we made an on the spot decision to cut our losses and head back. It was by far and away the nicest thing anyone had done for us while in Panama and ironically, Javier and his fiancee Jessica were neither Panamanian but Venezuelan and American respectively. We then hurtled our way back to Panama City in Javier's Ford pickup as he did his best impression of Juan Pablo Montoya and were home in time for tea.
Tuesday 21st Feb - Panama City
After yesterdays eventfullness we were exhausted and so a late start was in order. We paid homage with one last visit to the little cafe we found in Casco Viejo and had a wander round town once more. Given our San Blas adventure hadn't worked out as planned we were back in the city a day earlier than planned and luckily able to take advantage of this situation, we had the ingenius idea of moving our flight to Colombia forward by a day. After 8 consecutive nights in Panama City we'd had enough.