Wednesday 2 November 2011

Panamania! - The Closing Chapter on Central America

With its long, skinny arm snaking down to South America, Panama acts as a bridge between the two distinct regions of Latin America. This caused mixed emotions for me as I entered the north of the country from Costa Rica and slowly moved towards my Central American exit. I was hugely excited by all that still lay ahead - in Panama itself, but also because I was now so close to all that South America has to offer. This excitement was blunted somewhat by occasional pangs of sadness as I realised this also meant I would soon be leaving the region that has been my home for the last 5 months (much longer than first intended) and I have grown so immensely fond of during my time here.

Boogie on Bocas

Bocas Beach
As we all know, the best way to deal with confusing, melancholic and sentimental thoughts such as these is to get very drunk. Which made my first stop in Panama - Bocas Del Toro - a perfect introduction. Very similar to the place I'd just left in Costa Rica - Puerto Viejo, where my laptop was borrowed, permanently, with the aid of a knife - I was a little concerned that this wouldn't be the best location in which to wash away the bad taste CR had left in my mouth. Luckily, the tourist crime here isn't as rampant as Puerto Viejo (it's still there if you go looking for it, but doesn't arrive in your lap regardless if you take sensible precautions) and the combination of 30p beers, great company, awesome snorkelling, and long nights/early mornings dancing like an idiot and generally behaving inappropriately, provided the perfect mental listerine. Who even needs a laptop when they're travelling, anyway! :)

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

Unremarkable trailhead
Volcan Baru is accessed from the lovely mountain town of Boquete; a place with plenty to offer in terms of rich, natural surroundings. But I was there with only one activity in mind and inquired about volcano-climbing before I'd even unpacked my bags at the hostel. I was told that summiting the volcano required a tough overnight hike (allowing you to be at the top for sunrise) that would leave at 11.30pm and probably not make it back to the hostel before 12pm the next day. The trek was highly demanding physically, but not in terms of money (no guide was necessary) - my idea of the perfect volcanic excursion. Walking all night, alone, in the dark, was an exciting prospect, but I have to admit grew increasingly daunting as the departure time drew closer. I was actually quite relieved when three other people signed up to join me at (quite literally) the eleventh hour.

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
Finally, 5 hours after setting off, and with a final scramble up a sheer rock face, we were crouched down together - sharing body heat and wearing every item of clothing available - as we tried to deal with the freezing cold and driving rain on the summit. The sunrise we were all waiting for - not just for the spectacle it would be provide, but also for the much-needed warmth - took an age to arrive, and when it finally did come, so did more rain, and clouds; preventing any sort of real view. Completely exposed at the top, we hunkered down further and grew closer together, frustrated at natures refusal to awe but as yet unable to summon the energy to begin the long walk back down.

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
Final CAm volcano mission accomplished, I made tracks to my final stop in Panama: Panama City. I'd been looking forward to reaching this point, not because it marked the end of my time in CAm, but because Panama City is a unique capital in the region. Thanks to the huge income (and exploitation) brought in by the iconic Panama Canal, the city has developed into a bustling, modern metropolis - with a skyscraper-filled skyline that would look more at home in LA or Manhattan rather than in still-developing CAm. I usually don't like arriving in a new city after dark, but there couldn't have been a better introduction here: First, the giant, steel 'Bridge of the Americas' looms into view, traversing the entrance to the Panama Canal and providing a grand, elevated entranceway to the city proper. Then, that skyline appears - emerging out of the dark and reaching high into the sky with a thousand twinkling lights; their effect doubled as they reflect off the bay below, turning it a shimmering shade of gold in the process. Breathtaking, especially after the general mundanity of other big cities in the region.

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
Wasting no time, I set off to visit Panama's globally-renowned claim to fame early on my first day. Constructed over the course of a decade, nearly 100 years ago, the Panama Canal was (and still is) an incredible feat of engineering. The waterway is 80km long - cutting straight through the centre of the country, and providing an invaluable shortcut between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans that saves 13,000km worth of voyage for each ship passing through. To give you an idea of the huge scales involved here: when first opened, the dam built to stem the Rio Chagres was the biggest in the world (as was the artificial lake it created) and, if one of the giant locks had been stood on its side it would have been taller than the world's highest building at the time. The importance of the canal hasn't waned in recent years, in fact it's status has constantly increased: Ships today are built with the dimensions of the Panama Canal in mind, and around 14,000 pass through every year (paying an average fee of $30,000).

Locks open!
I had heard people say that visiting the canal was a very boring and ultimately missable experience and I can imagine it would be if you just went to the locks and blindly watched boats very slowly moving up and down. But you really need think about the size of everything involved - ships weighing tens of thousands of tons - and the physics of raising and lowering these vessels over 50ft inside the locks - an act that releases 52 million gallons of fresh water into the ocean every time. Do this and it's hard not to be transfixed by the astounding engineering accomplishment.

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'
Travelling from Panama to Colombia throws up a few challenges; in terms of logistics, budget and time. It's practically impossible to pass overland - the infamous 'Darien Gap' spans a vast, forested area between the two countries. On the Panamanian side, the (slightly ironically-named) Interamericana Highway stops suddenly about 50km before the border and doesn't start up again until a further 100km into Colombia. This leaves 150km without a road and the only way to pass overland is by foot - already a daunting prospect in terms of the distance, the vastness of the jungle and the prevalence of tropical diseases, but when you factor in the large presence of guerrillas, paramilitaries, smugglers and bandits too, it becomes a no-brainer: this is the drug industries illicit smuggling playground and attempting to walk across is a frankly suicidal trip. Of course, in our wonderful capitalist world, this is great news for the two airlines that fly between Panama and Colombia - with no road access they are free to charge extortionate fees for the 1 hour flight.

Basketball with the Kuna
However, there is one last option: travelling by sea. Entrepreneurial boat owners in the area have spotted a hole in the market here and many now offer 3-5 day trips between the two nations. In recent years it has become something of  a rite of passage for backpackers to circumvent The Darien Gap by sea. The boats offer more than just a direct route too; taking in at least a couple of days on the idyllic San Blas islands along the way. Travellers all over the continent rave about this adventure, so I decided this would have to be my mode of access to Colombia too.

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).

Coco Loco!
We visited a number of different islands; both inhabited - where we'd stop for fresh sea-food served in local homes and then spend the rest of the afternoon losing at basketball against the cheeky and overly-energetic Kuna kids - and uninhabited - where we'd play volleyball in the pristine, turquoise waters and snorkel for hours, entranced by the neverending, untouched coral. Our last night of the journey was spent camping on a deserted island. We made our own blazing fire on which to cook dinner and roast marshmallows, and around which we sat until the early hours drinking rum from coconuts, freshly plucked from the treetops. We were like a group of increasingly-tipsy Robinson Crusoes; like the cast of Lost without the plane crash, frequent deaths and shit storyline - hidden away on our secret, white-sanded, palm-fringed, paradisiacal island. It was blissfully serene, perfect. I could have stayed for days, weeks.... (months may be pushing it without a working toilet), but you get the idea - it was f*ckin brilliant! :)

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)....

Bocas beach

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!

San Blas

Kuna man

En route to retrieve a Coconut

Opening a coconut

San Blas

Kuna sailboat

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


  1. Group of Robinson Crusoes? How does that work?

  2. Brillante amigo! Espero que tu viaje siempre traiga lo mejor que esa mundo pueda ofrecer :)

    -Mustache man (Travis)

  3. Beautiful images are shared here for travelers to travel at panama city at Central America, stay at hostels in panama city beach as here one may get adventurous travel.

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