Boogie on Bocas
Peeling myself off the sun-kissed beach, I left Bocas far too soon, but spurred onwards by the awareness that 3 days could become 3 weeks in the blink of a single, hazy eye, and there was some serious business to attend to further inland: You see, Panama has a volcano.... and I realised there couldn't be a better spot for me to wave goodbye to Central America than from the top of its Southernmost summit.
The Last Summit
As soon as were left alone at the bottom of the trailhead with 12+ hours of hiking ahead of us; surrounded by the cacophonous soundtrack of night time wildlife and giant spooky shadows as the beams of our headlamps cut through the thick darkness, I was secretly very glad to have company. This didn't make the trek any easier, though: a tough slog along a 15km 'path' - often just consisting of broken boulders and slippery patches arranged in perfect ankle-breaking fashion - that climbed steeply and covered 2 vertical km on the way to the total height of 3475 metres.
|Cloudy sunrise on the summit of Volcan Baru|
This inability to move ended up working in our favour, though, as a few minutes after sunrise the rain stopped and the clouds gradually dispersed; very, very slowly and never disappearing completely, but evaporating sufficiently to allow the spell-binding panoramas that we'd been promised: views over Barus seven craters, and down, down to the expansive green-brown patchwork quilt thrown over the undulating landscape below - interspersed only intermittently with small mountain villages and larger commercial dwellings. Then, finally, less than 1/2 hour since the unpromising, cloud-ridden start to the day, we were blessed with the fabled vista that allowed us to see all the way from the Pacific Ocean on one side of the country and, miles across the entire width of the land, to the Caribbean Sea on the other. Simply fantastic, and enough of a spectacle to sustain us on the difficult descent back to town.
City & Canal
|High rise Panama City|
I'd tried to avoid most of the other CAm capitals - not on an aesthetic basis, but more because they're just not safe places. Granted, there are still pockets in Panama City within which it is wise to step cautiously, but there is nothing like the underlying feeling of menace that is rife in other cities. Combined with all the modern amenities and attractions, this felt like a suitable place to end my CAm adventure: a shiny reward after 'slumming it' for many of the preceding months.
|Crowds at the Canal|
Apart from a quick visit to a National Park just beyond the canal - very nice to see such greenery and wildlife so close to the concrete and steel of the City - and photographing the Casco Viejo (Old Town) - beautifully picturesque, especially in the late afternoon sun as the colourful, restored colonial buildings create a stark contrast with the neighbouring ruins and distant skyscrapers - much of my remaining time in PC was spent twiddling my thumbs, making good use of the nightly happy hour, and waiting for my delayed boat departure to Colombia. When we finally got going, though, it was undoubtedly worth the wait.....
Getting around the Gap
|The 'Darien Gapster'|
|Basketball with the Kuna|
My chosen vessel was the Darien Gapster, and joining me on this voyage was a varied and fun group of people: 2 other Brits, 4 Americans, 3 Irish, 2 Canadians, and a German. Our two captains - French Canadian and Kiwi - completed the multinational crowd. So, did this trip live up to the huge amount of hype that preceded it?..... In a word, yes.... and then some! This was probably the best trip/adventure/experience (call it what you will) so far on my entire journey. It. Was. Brilliant.
Our 3 days at sea were spent island-hopping along The Comarca de Kuna Yala - home to the indigenous Kuna people, who own the San Blas archipelago that is contained within. The Kuna are a truly remarkable people - the one indigenous group in the whole of Latin America who have won the right to run their entire homeland without interference from the national government. They manage the whole Kuna Yala region: a 226km-long strip just off the Caribbean coast of Panama, containing over 400 unique islands (a few inhabited and covered with thatched-roof, wooden huts, but the majority deserted of any permanent dwellers).
This felt like a fitting way to close the Central American chapter of my trip: almost exactly 5 months since I first touched down in Mexico, and during which time I've visited 7 countries, 33 main towns, learnt to speak Spanish (in my own special way), dance salsa (in a very special way), climbed to the summit of 8 volcanoes, dived to the bottom of the sea, seen the ruined sites of 10 ancient civilisations, spent an unhealthy amount of time on buses, sampled weird and wonderful food, traditions and cultures, been unbearably hot, mind-numbingly cold, surrounded by people, completely alone, remarkably drunk, spectacularly ill, frequently humbled, awed and astounded (often at the same time), met a countless number of incredible characters, made many close new friends, and, as I'm sure you're all aware, recounted all of this in over 30,000 words worth of blog (congrats to anyone who's read every word!). And, we're still only halfway..... bring on South America!!
Many more photos below (click any image to enlarge)....
|Starfish in Bocas|
|My three favourite Alabamians (who will probably hate this photo! :)|
|'Tired & Emotional' arriving on Volcan Baru summit|
|Volcan Baru summit|
|Volcan Baru summit|
|Lush and green in early morning sunlight on Volcan Baru|
|Stump of wood (looking very much like a face, no?)|
|The four relieved volcano conquerers - back at the bottom of Volcan Baru|
|....waiting to enter the Canal|
|Big boats passing through the Canal|
|Miraflores Lock at Panama Canal|
|Harpy Eagle in Panama nature reserve|
|Panama City business district|
|Great light and shadows in Panama City Old Town|
|Panama City Old Town|
|Panama Skyline (over the Bay from the Old Town)|
|Cramped but beautiful streets in the Old Town|
|The old & new in Panama|
|Panama City skyline at night|
|Panama City skyline in the day|
|Kuna basketball - on the San Blas Islands|
|The Darien Gapster crew!|
|En route to retrieve a Coconut|
|Opening a coconut|
|Lunch on a deserted island|
|Our deserted island on the San Blas|
|Camp fire on the San Blas|
|Entranced by the flames.....|
|Moon, reflected on the sea - San Blas|