Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Panama

Border crossing

When the time finally came to leave Costa Rica I rounded up my Italian room mate to come with me cos I hate doing border crossings alone. First you have to take the bus from Puerto Viejo to Sixoala (about 1h15). It's just a local bus so you can get there pretty cheap and basically the driver kicks you off when you're there cos that's as far as he can go. Then you need to walk towards the immigration office before the rickety old bridge to get stamped out. Easy peasy. You just fill out the form, get the stamp and you're off.

Then you get to walk over the bridge, with all your stuff, trying not to fall into the river below.




It's a pretty decent length bridge and of course it was pissing down rain when we went so that just made the crossing even more dangerous. But Lucas and I safely made it to Panama where the fun began.

Yes I know I look like some kind of sea turtle caught up in a shopping bag, thank you. But hey, my bags stayed dry and that was the main thing. Go $2 ponchos!


Now Lucas and I had done some research before we got to the border to see what the scams were (since Central American border crossings are notorious for being dodgy and corrupt). This blog gave the best step-by-step instructions and warnings, that I could find.

Just past the sign above you go get ushered into a hut and pay the $3 fee (or C$2000, which is the equivalent of $4. Go figure). But this isn't immigration. It's just some guys in official looking uniforms. They tell you to go down the bank to the left (which is like 50m away) to get stamped in. It is here the taxi vultures come at you. You can ignore them initially cos officially you're not legally there yet.

We get to the immigration window and the guy wanted to see our tickets out of Panama. Unlike Costa Rica, I knew it was difficult to get into Panama without an outbound ticket so I'd booked a flight out to Bolivia. If you don't have an onward ticket the immigration guys have a nice little racket going where they force you to buy a $15 shuttle ticket to San Jose. I only had a pdf of my flight so had to put my laptop in front of his window. Lucas didn't have anything cos he didn't really know where he was going but he was prepared to pay the $15. However, immigration guy thought Lucas and I were together and while we explained in bad Spanish and some Italian that we just met two days ago, combined with me waving a laptop in his face, he did not ask to see Lucas's ticket. Hooray, a win for the tourists!

So now we had to try and get the bus to Almirante. Despite being prepared for this, it still didn't go so well since the taxi vultures are so forceful. However, you can negotiate with them and we managed to get a colectivo ride for $5 each. This seemed ok since it’s two buses otherwise, which apparently cost $1 and $1.50. But then the guy wanted us to pay him $1 commission since he negotiated such a good deal for us. I’m like “no the price is $5 not $6". Lucas pulled out about 70c worth of colones and gave him that. I think this was more for Lucas’ benefit so he didn’t have a pocket full of change anymore.

The colectivo takes about an hour. Of course we stopped along the way so the police could check our passports. Then the driver got pulled over again for something unrelated to us. I assume the cop was looking for a bribe.

This took us all the way to the taxi boat. These things start off going slowly through the town but then go super fast once you're out on the open water. It was pissing down rain so we had the sides down, but I was on the end so I still got really wet. The boat takes about an hour. If you're prone to sea sickness like me take pills before you get on cos the ride is quite horrible.



Bocas del Toro

Eventually we arrived at Bocas del Toro, which everyone heading north that I met in Puerto Viejo had talked up massively. It is an archipelago of islands in the Caribbean, so by default should be quite beautiful as you can see here

I wanted to stay at Hostal Hansi, which is run by Germans and has a good reputation. Like the previous hostel I stayed in, this one doesn't take bookings so you have to turn up and hope there's a room. My luck was in. I paid $13 a night for my own room. So nice not sharing for a change.

Here's some scary birds eating rubbish and making a big mess around the corner from the hostel.


Basically it rained a lot the whole time I was there so I didn't really get to experience Bocas for what it has to offer. Instead, I enjoyed having my own room and catching up on blogging, tv, etc.

One afternoon it stopped raining and I got a bus up to Bocas del Drago beach, thinking it would be pretty deserted based on what I read. Maybe that info was old, or I went to a different beach, but there were bars and restaurants set up all along it, so there were loads of people there.




After Puerto Viejo, the beach (playa del estrellas) was a bit average. But I did see five big orange starfish and a dolphin. I didn't take any photos since heaps of people were around them so here's one I stole off the internet. The starfish were pretty cool.


Boquete

After three days of doing nothing in the rain I left Bocas to go to Boquete in the mountains. I decided to skip the $30 shuttle and take the buses there. This involved first taking the water taxi (still an unpleasant ride) back to Almirante. From there, a bus was waiting trying to load up people wanting to go to David. That saved having to get a taxi up the road to the bus station. On the downside, we were the first boat arriving from the islands so we waited about an hour for enough people to get on the bus. Anyway, finally we left but our driver was a speed demon with no concerns for anyone's safety. The road was so winding with little overtaking room. The only time he slowed down was on ascents where the bus had no power. It was really picturesque through the mountains and rainforest though. When we were going slow enough to see it!

At David I had to change onto a local bus to Boquete. I love that there's a city called David. I reckon everyone knows at least five Daves


The buses that go to Boquete are the old American school buses. This was one of the most packed buses I’ve ever been on. The guy just kept on squeezing people in. 


The journey took an hour and its’s dual carriageway the whole way. This is a bit weird cos the road only goes to Boquete and there aren’t that many cars and Boquete is not that big, so why they need four lanes is beyond me.


There was some independence (I think) festival going on when I arrived. While this is fine, thumping, shit, dance music with way too much base until 4am is not good. It was so loud it didn’t matter where in the town you were staying it sounded like it was next door. One of the things you can do here is a night time volcano climb to be at the top for sunrise. One of my room mates could hear it at the top of the volcano!

I didn't do the volcano climb but I did do some walks. It's a pretty place.






There is a bar/ restaurant owned by some Americans and it does great veggie food. This is the address but I think the name has changed. I recommend the vegan falafel, pita, hummus and salad. Yummo!

Apart from nature walks and the volcano climb there's not a lot of other things to do in Boquete. I met a hot guy from Perth named Richie who was in my room. He was going to Playa Venao on the Pacific coast next, so I went with him and some Germans.

Playa Venao

We left at 7am to get the school bus back to David. Then you get a proper bus to Panama City but it dumps you on the side of the PanAmerica Highway in Divisa. We had no idea where we were so we had to ask some locals about the next bus. They told us to walk 50m around the corner to a connecting road and to another bus stop. Then we get the third bus to Chitre. From here we get another bus to Las Tablas. Then we got a colectivo to Pedasi. By this time we were pretty hungry so we stopped in at the supermarket and bought some supplies. Then we got a taxi to the beautiful Eco Venao. Talk about an effort to get there. Eleven hours, five buses and a taxi. That is the most effort I've made to get anywhere during this trip. Glad I wasn't doing it on my own!

This place was really nice. It has private rooms, a dorm room, a restaurant with good vegan options, and a guest kitchen. Perfect. Being in the trees was so quiet after so many nights of noise and bad sleeping. The only complaint I have about this place is the million mosquitoes you have to fend off.

Private waterfall and swimming hole.


Howler monkey.



Iguana.



It has a private beach. Actually I didn't like the beach too much. Strong currents and too much debris.



You do get to perv at hot surfers though.


You can also do yoga very cheaply. This is the view from the yoga studio. Beautiful. 


If I'd known about this place in advance I would have swapped one of my washed out days in Bocas for another day here instead. It was so nice.

Anyway, after two nights at Eco Venao it was time to ditch hot Ritchie and the Germans and head off to Panama City. Thankfully this was not as difficult to get to, only requiring two buses. I also made a friend on the bus. Some girl from the US who was also going to Panama City and who already knew her way around. Always handy to be with someone in the know.

Panama City

The first thing I noticed about Panama City is the traffic is terrible. Not quite Asia terrible, but pretty bad. This is a fairly wealthy city (given the Panama Canal) but investment in transport has not kept up with demand. That said, Panama City is fantastic. I really liked it. It feels so developed.



I think this building just looks cool.



I also like that since there's a lot of American's here, you get a lot of imported food from the US. That's good for two reasons, 1) choice and 2) ingredients are in English. Of course, coming from the US you have to watch out for their nasties like high fructose corn syrup. Although this is less of a problem if you're buying organic vegan food.

There are heaps of veggie places in Panama City but I actually found myself eating at the hostel a lot. Mostly because I was staying right near one of these excellent organic supermarkets. It's just like Whole Foods, but smaller and even more expensive! Across the road (more or less) was a Kosher supermarket. This was also really good (and cheap) for vegan goodies like falafel mix, a thousand different kinds of hummus and dark chocolate. I stocked up on a few things in Panama for Bolivia since I had no idea what that country would be like.

Obviously I had to go see the Canal while I was there. Unfortunately I went in the middle of the day when it closes for lunch. I thought about waiting two hours since it's pretty far out (so you wouldn't go and come back) but there is nothing else to do. I didn't have a book or anything. But even without a ship, if you're an engineering enthusiast it's pretty interesting.


Overflow so the locks don't fuck up.


Looking towards the Pacific.



 Looking towards the Caribbean.



 



Construction work going on the background is for the new locks that will let super ships through.


I thought it was pretty cool. Wish I'd timed it better though to see a ship go through. Oh well.

I stayed downtown where all the cool skyscapers and veggie places are. I liked it here. It felt businessy. However, there is an old town, which is where most of the tourists stay. It's nice too.










San Blas Islands

Arguably Panama's premier tourist attraction is the San Blas Islands. The main backpacker way to get between Panama and Colombia is to take a five day boat ride from Panama through the San Blas, then two days on open water to Cartagena (or vice versa). As I've mentioned many times previously, I hate boats and couldn't imagine anything worse than spending five days trapped on one. Plus the trip is expensive and you really have to do your research to get a decent boat cos there's a bunch of dodgy ones. Avoiding this trip is pretty much how I ended up going to Venezuela since heading east into somewhat dodgy territory seemed preferable to heading north on some crappy boat.

Anyway, now it was my turn to go to the San Blas. First you take a jeep for a few hours to get to the sea. Then you still have to take a boat. Thankfully it's a reasonably short trip from the main land to the first lot of islands. And you get to sleep on an island. Much better.

Now a word of advice for anyone contemplating this type of trip. Always wear your togs in the boat and keep your clothes in your bag (which is stowed somewhere dry). I cannot stress this enough cos you get saturated every time you get in it. Also wear sunblock and a hat cos there's no shade and you will burn like a mofo if you're unprepared.

I booked a one night two day trip. Figured this would be enough since most of the islands just have sand on them. Plus it's really expensive.

Apparently there are about 365 islands (one for each day of the year) and some of them are deserted. 

Some only have one hut and one family on them.


This one only has one tree on it.


As you'd expect, it's a tropical paradise and the water is beautiful.










Our host was another hot Aussie from Perth named Jamie. Here he is working hard to open some coconuts for us.


Speaking of coconuts, there is a HUGE risk of getting hit by one on these islands. You do have to be really careful cos you would definitely get a concussion if one fell on your head. I also heard someone broke their arm one time too. Ouch.

Life. Is. Hard.



One island is called Isla Perros (Dog Island). There was actually a dog there.


The local people who live on the islands are called Kunas. They are heavily involved in the tourism industry since that's basically their only source of income. Some guys helped prepare our first lunch. Jamie had put my bag of vegan snacks (which were clearly labelled) in the esky to keep them cool but they took them and ate them. I was so annoyed. First, cos it was my emergency food. Seriously, who fucking steals labelled food? Second, they were expensive. Jamie reimbursed me the money, but it's still an inconvenience. Imported vegan snacks are not easy to come by outside of the US so when you find them it's like striking gold.

In another dodgy Kuna story, I met up with my Dutch friend Josine from Boquete. She was a day ahead of me and joined our tour on her second day/ our first day. She told me that the night before some Kunas were sitting around drinking with some English girls. One English girl was getting pretty friendly with a Kuna but her friend was tired/ bored so she went to bed. Later on when the friend was asleep one of Kuna boy's mates crawled into her bed (obviously thinking he should get an English girl too). She freaked out as you would. Then he tried his luck with Josine! Anyway Josine and the English girl got the American couple in the next hut to come and stay in their room for the rest of the night for their protection. In the morning the English girl (with excellent Spanish) had a massive go at the elders and all they did was vote him off the island. No apologies or anything. How dodgy is that? Doesn't help there's no locks on any of the huts.

Here's another puppy.


Here's a starfish.


The accommodation we stayed in was comfortable but basic. However, there weren't enough beds for everyone in our group so they had to open up the school and put some hammocks up. It's a learning and sleeping experience combined!


The main island was interesting. I like that there is solar energy everywhere.


But then all the sewage goes directly into the sea.


Plus they are pretty cruel to animals. I had a bit of a go at one of the elders for this. 

I think it's safe to say that I didn't think much of the Kuna people given all the shit that happened in the two days I was there.



Hmm...


This is not where we stayed, but it demonstrates the level of facilities. If you think it's all five star luxury in the San Blas you're in for a shock. If you want that then stay on a luxury yacht.


Obviously visiting the San Blas islands is like being in a beautiful, tropical, dream and I'm so glad I went there. They are stunning. However, two days is enough cos there's literally nothing else to do except lie on the beach or go snorkeling. It gets old quickly. I missed my laptop.

Next stop: No more beaches for a while :( It's back down to South America and my second least favourite country after Cuba, Bolivia!