Panama – all about the “Islas”


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Published: April 29th 2012
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“Man travels the world in search of what he needs and returns home to find it”

George Moore, English Analytic Philosopher




"Travel only with thy equals or thy betters; if there are none, travel alone."

The Dhammapada

So this is it. The End. My final Central America blog. The journey started 3 months ago in Mexico and now finishes in Panama – a country I will remember for all the time I have spent on its beautiful islands – be it on Bocas del Toro, Isla Coiba or the archipelago of San Blas. In fact come to think of it, I don’t seem to have spent much time on the mainland at all…

I left you last from the beaches of Isla Bastiamentos (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bastimentos_Island) and the blue waters of deserted Turtle Beach (no turtles yet unfortunately) after a few days with my brother Adam and his lovely girlfriend Faith. Bocas del Toro province is Panama’s main tourist draw where primary rainforest meets banana plantations that stretch for miles and the waters of the Caribbean Sea are designated marine parks. It was a fabulous few days and Sandy & I felt quite choked as we hugged them goodbye.

It makes me sad when I think how back in London, we get so geo-centrically stuck – not wanting to socialise or leave our ‘patch’ of the city. I confess I can be a terrible geo-manipulator – West is Best after all (!) but there have been so many times where less than flexible friends find coming from one part of London to another such a hassle they literally won’t do it. Here, in the middle of Central America, a million miles from the constraints of our urban reality, Adam and I hooked up through compromise and flexibility – key tenets of life I think and concepts that I wish were more applied to the fast paced city race of London. So often, on the road these past few months I find the mind-set of travellers so much more resonant and appealing than the mind-set of the world we get caught up in when living the 9 to 5 life. Is there not a middle ground?

After a few days of doing very little in Bocas (a deserted white sandy beach with tropical waters on one side and coconut trees filled with torpid sloths on the other – why would we ‘do’ anything!), we left the coast behind and headed inland to the gorgeous highland cloud forests of Chiriqui province. Recommended an off the beaten track hostel called the Lost n’ Found Lodge (http://www.lostandfoundlodge.com/lostandfoundlodge.com/Eco_Resort.html) which “offers a utopian take on jungle living”, the bus dropped us on a deserted road in the Talamanca range of mountains with sweeping views down into the plains, and above us dense cloud-forest – trees literally dripping with lush bromeliads. A path led upwards into the woodland and following the yellow and red hand-painted signs we ascended the slope in search of this Panamanian Shangri-La. A relatively tough 20 minute hike at altitude and with our packs on rendered us a little ‘moist’ and breathless when we reached the Lodge. Here in the midst of the Reserva Forestal Fortuna a peaceful home awaited us.

Founded by a couple of travelling Canadians some 6 years ago, the lodge is an isolated eco-sustainable community where wild white faced capuchin monkeys swing through the trees, veggies are grown on-site and the air vibrates with the wings of hummingbirds feeding on sugar water. The Lodge owns a fair few hectares of the reserve and hiking trails have been mapped out following in the El Camino Real - the trail that linked the plundered cities of the Incas with the Panama port city of Portebelo. Sandy and I attempted their challenging treasure hunt, an Indiana Jones quest that led us through giant strangler trees and hidden caves – we got through 3 of the 7 clues but the 45 degree upwards trek through the forest was really tough and we underestimated the length of time the whole adventuret would take. Although we managed to get up n’ over the mountain and down to the river, after 6 hours we decided to turn around. Neither of us wanted to get stuck in the forest in the dark with no torches and hungry jaguars prowling the night.

Our second night in the Lodge was spent in their onsite bar drinking a lot of rum and playing Jenga with forfeits….we felt like 17 year olds again but our fellow players were young and cute and so who were we to object to a bit of enforced kissing and shot downing with nubile young boys. ;-) One of them (when he found out my somewhat advanced years) went out of his way to stress that a 9 year age difference was nothing ;-). All fun fun fun….as was a night-time cuddle with their resident orphaned and rescued kinkajou (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinkajou), Rocky. For those of you wondering what a kinkajou is (as I did), it is an arboreal rainforest mammal, also known as a honey bear and similar to a racoon or coati.

We could have stayed much longer in this tranquil escapist place (it was fun feeling 17 again as we have spent so much of this trip feeling really old compared with our fellow travellers. Most soon to be 37 year olds I know are not jaunting round the world) but the clock was ticking and having decided to have a go at getting to Parque Nacional Coiba (http://www.coibanationalpark.com/ ) off the Pacific Coast we needed to push on.

I am not sure if it was the overzealous consumption of Ron Abuelo until 3am the previous night whilst playing Jenga with dares (great fun – you should try it!), the obscenely large chocolate ice-cream consumed whist waiting for our bus or the voracious driving on the winding mountain roads of the Pan-American Highway but at one point I had to slide open my window and lean out to empty the contents of my stomach. The first mouthful of vomit - a long streak of brown (pure ice-cream) hit the side of the collectivo and splattered down its length. Filled with embarrassment I stretched out further to retch whilst mindful of possible decapitation from oncoming vehicles. I am not sure if you have ever tried “considered vomiting” but it’s quite a feat… concentrating on where you aim whilst coping with the ghastly physical sensation of chucking your guts up. Quite a skill, although the driver did look quizzically at the brown trails of sick smeared along the side of his van….

Isla Coiba is considered to rival the Galapagos and Isla del Coco (in Costa Rica) in terms of its exotic flora and fauna and although it is only 20kms offshore from the surfing mecca of Santa Catalina, getting there took 2 days of bus travel. For me the lure of world class diving in the protected marine Park was too much to not try and have a go at….Due to its isolation the island used to have a penal colony on it where inmates were marooned due to the reputation of the surrounding waters for big sharks. The promise of sharks and the fact that Coiba is home to the second-largest Eastern Pacific coral reef meant that I didn’t even flinch paying $145 for a day’s diving - 2 tanks and over 2 hours underwater where I came face to face with ancient, huge sea-turtles, white tipped reef sharks, jellyfish, and shoals of millions of baby wrasse and sparkling jacks whilst the snorkelers (who paid a hefty $70 thus Sandy decided not to do it) even saw a manta-ray….

This was diving to make you shiver with delight in your wetsuit. To cry out through your demand valve which I do… I literally gasp and gurgle with pleasure when I’m 25 meters below the surface. This is what diving was like 18 years ago in the Red Sea. Isla Coiba shoots into my top dive sites of the world. Expensive yes but a wonderful day and I would have loved to have stayed on the island for longer. However, hundreds of dollars were needed coupled with not enough time and Sandy back on the mainland waiting for me to return from my sub aqua adventures. So I had to make do with only a day in these fish-filled waters.

There is something about scuba diving that is magical… it’s not about going deep and pushing the boundaries. It’s about feeling at one with nature and yet humbled by its beauty. I just love it…my heart rate slows down, my breathing becomes long and calm and I am always the last person to use my air. Here, I was buddied with the Dive Leader and as the others in the Group guzzled their oxygen, she sent them up in pairs and continued the dive alone with me so we were under for over an hour each time. Just call me Jacques Cousteau….

Early the following morning, we caught a bus back to Sona (stopping briefly for the driver to give some contraceptive pills to a Panamanian teenager in a garage…. A contraceptive drug run – well, at least they are trying not to make babies!). In Sona we changed onto a coach bound for the big smoke… Panama City, capital of the country and one of the top 5 places in the world to retire to apparently. Its Casco Viejo (old city), crumbling and dessicating sits across the water from a forest of skyscrapers which tower over the Bay, their lights reflecting into the sea. It was quite a shock to come back into such a large urban sprawl and one that didn’t sit too comfortably with either of us. Thankfully, we were only in the eponymous Luna’s Castle Hostel (www.lunascastlehostel.com ) for one night where for $35 we had a windowless basement room with 2 fans whirring so loudly it sounded like a Boeing 747 was trying to land. The fans just about masked the music from the Relic Bar which pumped out a meaty baseline until the wee small hours making my bed vibrate with the beat. With a 5am start, we both ‘awoke’ (though I wonder how much sleep we had actually got) feeling as rough as a kinkajou’s arse. Small children would have run screaming we looked so worse for wear. I’m sure the nubile young boys at Lost n Found could have coped admirably with the thumping club music and deafening rusty fans all night but we most certainly didn’t and vowed on our return from San Blas, to find an alternative place to sojourn for our final nights in Panama.

But first we had the San Blas Islands (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Blas_Islands) to explore for 3 days of totally, tropical beach-time with nothing to do except, lie on the white sands, snorkel and contemplate the past 3 months of adventure.

The Comarca Kuna Yala is an archipelago off the coast of Northern Panama where, like croutons in a large bowl of blue soup, tiny little islands and cays pop up above the waterline. Palm trees on the sands mark them on the horizon and only 49 are inhabited. They are home to the indigenous Kuna people (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kuna_people) who have managed to gain independence from national government and run their lands with autonomy. Physically distinctive (very small in stature with broad flat aggressive looking faces) and with the women still dressing in traditional clothes, they are quite different to the rest of Panama. They live a very simple life – revolving around the sea and the family unit, with nightly village meetings in the community gathering house. Each island has three chiefs and their authority is recognised by the Panamanian government….this has not been without a struggle. Previously, the government tried to modernise the Kuna by prohibiting the wearing of traditional dress and the “mola” (brightly sewn squares of fabric which the women wear) became a sign of sartorial protest.

TV aerials, mobile phones and even internet have made their way to the larger islands but our island – Naranja Chico, a mere 5 minutes walking in diameter, was a few notches down the technological evolutionary scale with no electricity (except that garnered from solar panels), no flush toilets, no showers – just a bucket behind a set of palm leaves and bamboo palm cabins on the beach with sand as your floorboards.

Previously, the San Blas islands have been well off the radar of most travellers with accessibility a real issue – flying from Panama City being the only option. However, with a semi-paved road now taking jeeps from the capital to Carti, it is much easier to visit the archipelago. Having left the Pan-American behind, for 2 hours we crisscrossed through jungle and into the Serrania de San Blas. A 45 minute boatride took us downriver out into the sea from whence we skimmed the calm bay to our castaway destination. It was truly beautiful and had Tom Hanks appeared from behind a coconut palm shouting “Wilson”, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

The snorkelling just off the beach was some of the best I have ever seen – vast swathes of immaculate coral reefs – dazzling fire coral, enormous bulbous brain corals and the delicate gorgones swaying in the current. Amidst this rainbow of colour, swam vast shoals of jacks, parrotfish and teeny weeny fish in their millions, moving as one, their silver dotted tails glittering when the light caught them. Had the voice of David Attenborough started up, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

If I am honest, I really don’t feel comfortable snorkelling alone. I don’t know whether it’s my diving education – you always have a buddy - or if a certain 1975 film by Stephen Spielberg has something to do with it. It’s utterly irrational; just because you are above the depths with a fellow human doesn’t make you immune to being chomped by a shark. Yet, alone I feel my heart start to race and my imagination goes off on one…. Hence, I managed to persuade a mad Israeli (who’d been on a shamanic journey in a Costa Rican ashram..ahem) to come out and play with the fish with me. We swam out quite far – over the big blue and looking down, the bottom of the ocean had vanished. He too was a bit freaked and so we both agreed to hang out over the reef instead….phew.

San Blas was beautiful and memorable but the basic conditions were tough going especially due to bad timing of both my and Sandy’s gynaecological clocks. We were not prepared in any way and had left all ‘facilities’ back on the mainland. I have dealt with getting my period in some pretty challenging places before (4800m up an Andean mountain for example) but on a deserted tropical island with zero facilities, we were really tested. Thankfully, another female traveller was able to give us some towels but let’s just say it was not a pleasant or easy experience. Perhaps, I should have got the bus driver to deal me some Microgynon and such female irritations would cease to be a problem!

The three days saw us mainly in hot sunshine, clouding over in the afternoons and then giving way to barbaric night storms. One particular monster woke us in the night with a deafening crack of thunder and blasts of lightening so bright it seemed electricity had indeed found its way to Robinson’s Cabanas. I woke with a scream, and then when my adrenalin had stopped pumping I rationalised that falling out a hammock…being eaten by a shark….. or being struck by lightning would all be innovative and memorable ways to depart the Earth…..

After 22 hours door to door travel, I am now back in wet, cold and grey London – the rain is pelting the windows and talk is of double-dip recessions, ironic hosepipe bans, internet dating and unemployment. It is a bit scary….

The past 3 months – Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama have been a blast. I have met the best travelling companion in Sandy, my Dhammapada equal and though neither of us have yet found the men of our dreams travelling the world, we have had so many memorable experiences which have transformed us; Galloping horses along a beach, hiking in cloud-forests, diving in deep dark caves, sleeping in the jungle, climbing active volcanoes (and sliding down them), enduring crowded chicken buses, standing in the midst of Mayan ruins, looking into the bowels of the Earth, swimming with millions of fish, lying on deserted tropical beaches and coming face to face with iridescent tree frogs, sluggish sloths, cuddly spider monkeys, and furious leaf cutter ants… it has been a veritable feast of adventure.

I started this trip feeling a little jaded by travel, somewhat underwhelmed by some of the experiences and wondering whether it was time to take a break from it. The latter part of this trip has reinvigorated my enthusiasm and lust for living it.

Last night, Sandy & I celebrated our birthdays and return to the UK in a pub and the amount of people that either cancelled at the last minute or just failed to show up made us really quite sad. Sure, the weather was lousy but the excuses that came through made me think how soggy people are when they get stuck in their rutted daily lives. I don’t ever want to be that person….. and I don’t believe you have to be.

The world atlas is currently lying on the table opposite me as we contemplate more of this wonderful thing called life…. The Trans-Siberian, India, Nepal or even a return to SE Asia this coming Winter? No decisions are being made at this stage but if Britain (or Germany for Sandy) fails to yield sunshine, a decent job or a relationship, we can confidently say our passports will continue to fill with stamps and I will continue to write and photograph my way around this planet (anyone know any agents or editors who may be interested in commissioning a book from me ;-0).

After all, we could get run over by a bus tomorrow and I don’t ever want to be on my death bed saying “I wish I’d….. “ or “If only I’d…..”.

You gotta live it and it’s up to you to do that......


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23rd August 2012

quite enjoyed that...
as a panamanian, I'm delighted that your last lap in Panama reinvigorated your love of travel...and reminds me it's time to head to Kuna Yala. Thanks for the lovely read! www.cooperativaelnido.com
27th August 2012

Kuna Yala and on!
Hiya Rebecca - Im glad you enjoyed my blog and you feel inspired to travel. Enjoy the archipelago! Thanks for taking the trouble to message me. Hannah

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