Sunday, 19 March 2017

More to Panama than hats part 2

So heres the last few days in the lovely Panama City

Monday – Planned as Movie Monday and a chance to rest – turned out to be less about watching movies and more about looking on the internet at my new porn obsession – camper vans! In case we haven’t mentioned it we are planning to buy a campervan and explore a bit of Europe although its looking increasingly like that will include some Nordic travel and Eastern European countries. Anyway, I have been sucked in to this seedy world of swivel seats, leisure batteries, fold out beds and cassette toilet fittings. I find I have been staring at various seating arrangements or comparing the benefits of pop-tops against fixed high roofs. I am thinking mileage versus outlay versus practicality and am pondering this for hours and do not even realize the time. I am trying to wean myself off of this because I am not so far down the rabbit hole that I can’t see how it will all end- breaking into caravan parks, molesting virgin T6 campers in showrooms, jail time and therapy.

Today we decide to walk, cycle and shop a bit and start by walking half way across the city- through the business district, nice residential areas, landscaped gardens and on through virtual slums with a very different sort of citizen on display than those in the tourist areas. Its funny how the radar goes up when in these areas. Not because the folk are threatening, or treat you any different. It’s just those irrational scaremongering stories that keep us fuelling the expensive tourist traps rather than spreading the wealth in little corner shops or cafes. People in these areas are generally just poor – nothing else. But traveled as we are we do still go to Amber alert just in case and it makes me angry at myself as we have never had a problem anywhere in the world – irrespective of where go.  Anyway. Eventually got to the start of the Amador Causeway picked up a couple of bikes and pedaled out to the islands at the far end. Here you see moored tankers awaiting their turn to enter the canal, astounding super yachts in the harbor and duty free shopping where stuff was more expensive than in the city and we bought a very expensive Bounty Bar.

The Panama Bio Museum - Funky!
The government is really trying to do things right with all these new developments and the Causeway is another case of good planning with wide roads, walking paths and bike tracks all running side by side so no one gets forgotten. We dropped into the Smithsonian Museum on Noas Island and wandered along its diminutive trail which, even so, produced a sloth, raccoon, vultures, pelicans, hummingbirds, a terrific iguana and some small displays housing frogs, sleeping sharks (I thought they had to move but these two were definitely cuddled up and stationary) and a collection of frogs.

Iggy the iguana at the Smithsonian
Fairly tired by now we waited for a bus. I then irrationally ran back to the museum to get a drink and as soon as I was gone the once an hour bus came so we had to walk further…..grrr. Eventually another passes us and takes us to Albrook Mal. A behemoth of a place whose dimensions I cannot even guess at but in excess of Bluewater and Lakeside put together (These are big malls in UK for those not in the know). We were tired and lost in shopping land and only wanted to get home but every few steps Rachel was assailed by shop staff proffering free samples of soap, nail polish, hair treatments, free make up and anti wrinkle creams. I have never seen her looking so dejected and undermined. I certainly feared for the shiny, bubbly young gay man who without thinking asked what she did for her eyes? I won’t comment further on that note.

Two tankers going through the Mira Flores Lock on the Panama Canal
 The Panama Canal. So construction was started in 1881 by a bunch of French people including the guy who was responsible for the Suez Canal and Monsieur Eifel of tower fame. But 20,000 Panamanians died of yellow fever and accidents and costs ran away with themselves and the company went bust. The Americans step up and buy the bits and pieces for a third of what it had cost and finish the canal. It's a huge success and big money maker but Pres. Carter eventually signs it back over to the Panamanians who in 2000 take control and have made a healthy living ever since. Recently they have had to expand the operation to build adjoining and bigger locks because ships have outgrown the existing provisions. Up until now the locks have been 304m by 33.5m and could take a ship measuring (unbelievably) 294m x 32.3m. That's 400mm spare on each side of these huge tankers!!!! The canal makes a shed load of money – Various amounts are quoted but its between $1 billion and $1.2 billion dollars a year. Why? Because it's the only way to avoid the 8,000 mile journey circumventing South America . It can take 8 hours to get from the Caribbean to the Pacific. Do it by sea and its two weeks. Even the $58,000 average tanker cost is small change when held against two weeks of fuel, wages, delivery times and dangers in rounding the Horn.

There’s a visitor centre at the Mira Flores Lock. This particular lock drops the ships by 26ft and is very impressive. Big doors that could hold King Kong, Millions of gallons of water being pumped hither and thither. All sorts of machinery doing stuff and a viewing platform for us observers to watch it all from. It is impressive, unhurried and smooth running. It is no mean feat to move these massive ships. But move they do. One after another after another – 40 each day.

View of Panama from mirador in Metropolitan Park
More days walking about and drinking in the sights and sounds of the city and walking all the trails in the Metropolitan park – 2.5 hours and saw two butterflies and a lizard – Rubbish! 

Now this is strange! One night we thought we would go watch a rooftop sunset have a cocktail and get a pizza. We debated height of roof versus happy hour offers and settled for 8 storeys and $10 open bar for 3 hours at 1400rooftop. We arrive at 6.30pm just as the sunset disappears but resolve to enjoy the still glimmering light over the rim of a Margarita. Man! These were strong. Unlike most happy hour offers where the mix seems watered down these seemed to be alcoholed up. We had another. Then three huge Cuba Libres. So not a vast amount  of drinks in theory considering we can normally drink 3 Rum and Cokes of an evening. At 8.45 there is a loud bang and the lights go out. (We find out later that it's the city’s main station overloaded and plunged the city into darkness for 5 hours and gave rise to looting and other unsavoury goings on that had not been seen for 25 years). We, in the meantime, were already feeling giddy from the loud music booming out to us and the other desperate money saving couple 4 tables away. So decide enough is enough and leave. However, the moment we stand and start to walk to the exit the full force of the alcohol hits. We have to walk down the emergency lit stairwell and end up a bit lost in what might have been a restaurant or basement or both. 

Hang on Rachel
Rachel is constantly lurching and laughing and gabbling on about peeing whilst putting expletives between every other word. Something she is prone to do whenever she drinks more than a lady should. I am hardly any better but think it fun to record some of our antics (not very well) and by doing so can light the way with my phone flash. The few bits that are watchable are a testament as to why older people should not loose control. It is not agreeable but can be accepted in the young. For those who consider themselves within the middle spectrum it is undignified. F**k it! It was still fun.

In précis. She falls over in reception, I film her having a pee from above (I was lighting the toilet for her but this was an added bonus). We stagger down stairs, lay down on a pavement, fall in a bush, laugh our tits off the whole way, cross a busy 6 lane road, zigzag and zagzig our way up roads, get lost, get found, find Jesus, rest in a church doorway and eventually stagger back to our own room. It took 1¾ hours to complete a 20 minute walk.

We had great plans for the Saturday – We WERE going to go to a village on the Caribbean coast to watch a festival about devils and masks. Rachel however spent 24 hours throwing up, moaning, holding her head and swearing the most commonly broken oath that she would never drink again… I give her three days!

And so we are coming to the end of our time here. We have had one final mammoth walk about the town and along the front. We had Lobster Ceviche and chips at the fish market overlooking the Pacific Ocean then watched Kong from the front seats in a very busy cinema where everyone talked all the way through – and this is after they have queued for 30 minutes to get tickets.
Tomorrow we start our monumental journey back to England with a 15 hour bus ride through Panama to San Jose in Costa Rica to start us off.

So. By for now. Hopefully see you back here for our adventures from in Europe . It’s been a blast!

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Panama, Canada, Cabana, Banana part 1



Panama. What a great place to end our adventures in Central America. I write this after having been here for almost two weeks and have loved pretty much every day. And whilst we are now looking forward to going home I do wish we could have spent more time here getting to know the country and people better. Who knows if we will ever get back but given an opportunity we would both jump at the chance. So before I finish I guess I better start huh?

Most people, after coming through Costa Rica to Panama, head to Bocas for more beautiful beaches. But, having beached our butts off over the last few months and come to realize its “prawns” we decided to head into the Western Highlands and the town of Boquete.

“Prawns” - A phrase we have coined for when the idea of something is better than the reality due to extenuating circumstances – for example: Prawns are tasty and succulent. But, to eat a prawn you have to get messy. You have to push your fingernails into their underside, crack their shell in two and rip it off their body. You probably have to extricate some eggs or legs and certainly scrape away something that looks like a line of shit. You then eat it in 2 seconds and are left with stinky fingers that need to be intensively washed to rid yourself of the smell. That’s Prawns!

So Boquete is in the Western Highlands and sits at 1200m. It is without doubt the windiest place we have ever been. It rattles across the area at a fair lick. Bending trees, scattering dust and shaking doors 24 hours a day. Our AirB&B host uses a volleyball net as a washing line so that the clothes are supported against the mesh rather than flapping on totally inadequate pegs. Point of fact It takes less than 20 minutes for clothes to dry from a washing machine in these conditions. Our host is Carlos and worth a mention because he is a 10 year old boy in a mans body. He is Tigger from Winnie the Poo. He acts and speaks like a cartoon character on Speed. But, for all that he is generous, considerate and lovely. Upon entering the house he says “Put your bags here, quick, now, I show you, rooms, house, stuff is boom, bang bing bang!” Or something like that. 

In-lounge climbing wall
The underside of the stairs to our room is studded with climbing grips. Our room is large and airy but we skip through that as we are led through a small window out onto a windswept roof area with a hammock acting like a windsock in the gale. There is also a horizontal spiders web arrangement made of elastic rope to recline on (uncomfortably) over a 20ft drop to the rockery below. We exit the roof space by a fireman’s pole and find a tightrope slung between trees, a Wendy house (but he has no children) and an incredible dog house he bought cheaply (but he has never had a dog). The house and garden is a sort of assault course with and various other balancing objects and weights scattered about and all a bit surreal.

We are 4km outside of the town of Boquete on a quiet side road off a dual carriageway. There is a bus stop at the end of the road and here you can wave down buses, shared taxi’s (you never know who else they will pick up) or collectivo’s and get dropped in the centre for 60 cents.

It turns out that although Panama has its own currency – The Balboa. They do not print their own money. It is linked to the dollar and all paper money is in US dollars with the Balboa only used in coin form.

Chris by a "Lost Waterfall"
Anyway, the town is pleasant with a nice square but little to make you go wow apart from a swift flowing river that tumbles over rocks beside a decorative garden. We are here to walk and there are plenty of trails to follow either along dusty roads, little used tarmac roads or into the hills along trails. There is not much different to report from other walks accept we did one called “The Lost Waterfalls” which follows a river and presents you with ever bigger and more impressive waterfalls and all the ensuing spray to soak you to the skin. Very nice.

On another day we happen upon a basaltic rock face where it is possible to do climbing but we were sadly let down by the climbing company who were supposed to get back to us and never did. Oh well, my big toe is still not recovered from the break and my nail is about to fall off anyway so climbing shoes could have been a problem. Everywhere we go there are flowering shrubs hanging down and birds singing. We stay in Boquete for several days but eventually the wind changes and like Mary Poppins we get blown down to the Capital. The mighty Panama City.

Women of Panama we salute you. You are bottoms and busts and bootilicious. It is difficult to walk down a street without having your eyes drawn to a cleavage or expansive lycra covered ass jiggling its way through the city. So Rachel tells me! Plainly there are all different shapes of women but I think we will both remember Panama as a place where women celebrate their femininity in all its glorious sizes and contours. Magnificent!

The favorite pastime of motorists here, apart from picking their noses, is beeping their horns in traffic jams. Beeping them at even the smallest infraction or slow down on the roads. This is bizarre since the city is congested nearly all of the day and consequently they achieve no more than possibly repetitive hooter hand.

Panama City
Panama city is without doubt an amazing, world class city with everything to entertain, beguile and surprise the traveller. Enormous shopping complexes, towering edifices of sculptured concrete and glass , slums, incredible engineering feats, parks, nature trails and much more. So. Where to begin….

To use the public transport system you need a Rapi pass card. Pretty much everything costs 25 cents whether you take an air conditioned bus or ride on the one route only, but quite lovely, subway (other lines to follow shortly). The only down side of traveling on this is the manic last-man-standing attitude to getting on. Irrespective of people coming off of the train-  those with places still to go are clawing at the doors almost before they have opened. Something probably due to the fact that there is a remarkably short time between stopping and starting .again

Anyway we are staying in a nice AirB&B in an apartment block with a pool so can start each morning or finish and afternoon with a swim.

The F&F building
We spent our first day following the “Impressive buildings” route about the city which involved lots of walking and lots of looking up. Trump Tower, the spiral F&F building, Mystic Towers and Towerbank to name just a few of these imposing monoliths. We of course stopped for food – A delicious Kebab and nosed about the plentiful shops. One place being the Soho Mall which was 4 floors of marbled, air conditioned, refined, expensive and empty shops – Guchi, Guess and God knows what other high class brands all with idle staff guarding the undisturbed displays. Quite extraordinary.

Day two was another architectural feast but this time into the past –Casco Viejo is the old part of the city that is being systematically gentrifyied. Shoddy facades are being filled, gutted buildings being restored, rusted ironwork being treated and roads being brick blocked and beautified. The result is fantastic. It has that New Orleans feel but without the blues and Jazz. Instead latino music wafts from the shuttered windows and open doorways allowing one to glimpse at the high ceilinged and wooden floored rooms in these delightful buildings.

Casco Viejo
Enjoyed our first Raspado today – a cup of shaved ice grated off a large square lump which is drizzled with strawberry sauce and condensed milk.. Yum yum and very refreshing.

Sunday is the get fit day in Panama City. Until midday certain streets are closed to traffic and bike rental stalls and drinks stalls are set up so you can rent very good bikes for $4.00 an hour. Kitted with helmet and a banana for refreshment you can then bike through some of the city or along the pacific promenade and the Amador pathway to a collection of small islands joined by bridges just off the coast. Unfortunately we got up a little late to get all the way out to the islands and left that for another day. We did however cover some 20 or kilometres along the front with the sun shining on us and gentle breeze cooling us as we went. A great way to pass a few hours and very novel being able to utilize all three lanes of these major roads with no care for traffic.

Fat bottomed girl you make my rockin' world go round
As if that wasn’t enough exercise we dropped off the bikes and then walked 4 kilometres back to the Fish Market where there are lots of food stalls selling fresh fish and in particular Ceviche. Raw fish, lobster, Prawns etc served in cups with chopped onion and lots of lemon juice. Apparently the lemon juice breaks down the proteins in the meat and gives it that cooked texture. We opted for one prawn and octopus mix, one lobster dish and one raw fish. Absolutely delicious.. Even though the sky looked threatening and it had rained during our lunch we started walking home – another planned 6kms – but a torrential downpour stopped us and we sheltered in a bus stop until a bus going completely the wrong direction with no stops passed, stopped, collected our soggy selves up and dropped us off 10km from where we had started. Just what we needed since our phone (and therefore maps) had run out of power. Ho Hum – all in a day’s travelling.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Beaches and Borders

Last stop in Costa Rica was to be the beach area of Limon on the Caribbean side. I checked out a lovely little town, quiet, a few restaurants and guest houses with a nature reserve right next to it, called Cahuita. Then, I cocked up our Airbnb and booked us in to a place in Puerto Viejo. I should have this travel thing sorted by now! I'd read that Puerto Viejo is much more lively and full of hostels and surfers...and it was. But our place was just on the edge of town in a quiet road with a superb beach literally across the road. The area of Limon is a string of beaches all running into each with two nature reserves along it and a few little coves scattered along the way. 

To get to the beach we walked 150 metres to the main road, across it and through the jungle for about 100 was beautiful. Wide sandy beach with lots of trees giving shade. When we arrived the water was so still it was almost surreal but two days later they were huge crashing waves that the surfers loved. On our walks to the beach we saw some cool birds, including a toucan, and also two cute little sloths that were always in the same place everyday. 

We also managed to find a free hike!! Woohoo. We caught the local bus the 13 kms to the end of the beaches and walked across a little bridge into the reserve. No one selling tours or asking for entrance fees just a tour guide on the bus trying to scare us that we would get lost and there are lots of spiders and snakes. She was right, there were loads of gigantic spiders, but we risked it. It was a scenic walk with the sea running along side us most of the time so pretty difficult to get lost! There was one last Costa Rican attempt to coax money from our touristic pockets. A crappy toilet block which you could use for the bargain price of 500 Colones (about 70p)

Next was the Costa Rica/Panama border crossing. I'd read so much about it being difficult with the border patrols being really awkward. Asking for proof of money, return flights from Panama to your home town, dubious exit taxes and easy to miss immigration office. So we got prepared, all the paperwork and smart answers. First bus of the day to the border at 6.30am so they are fresh and not too busy. And yep, you guessed it. No problems. The exit tax from Costa Rica is paid in a little tienda window and does look suspicious but we found it. To get to Panama you have to walk across a bridge over a river and this used to be a fabulous looking old bridge but it's now been replaced, shame. Then you pay your entry tax into Panama and get a sticker from a little lady in a booth. She points vaguely in an offhand manner to immigration for official stamp (??!) But you've come out into a street in a town. Immigration is not signed and is down some stairs, around a corner and two streets away. The immigration men were very smiley, spoke some English and wished us a joyful welcome to Panama!