Friday, 28 March 2014

Panama City - Cloud Jungle and Bocas Del Toro Island in 2wks!



Having reached the shore of Panama via a very bumpy ride in a skiff boat from Big Fish we found our 4X4 for the transfer to Panama City.  We were off on a windy, rollercoaster, steep up n down jungle adventure. To our surprise and joy it was paved (I was expecting a 3hr death defying dirty track trip like in the Amazon basin), although this whole rollercoaster experience was too much for one of our passengers and she got to see her breakfast again.

Arriving in Panama City we were greeted by huge skyscrapers of all different shapes and the hustle bustle of a metropolitan city. 

It was quite an adjustment from a week at sea surrounded by isolated islands and zero civilisation. Casco Viejo (Old Town/Compound) would be our base in a hostel for a few days while we get to know the city a little and of course visit the famous Panama Canal (7th wonder of the world).

The countries rich and wealthy moved here after the attack on the city by Pirate Henry Morgan in 1671, the Spanish moved their city 8km west to the rocky peninsula. This used to be the upmarket city centre for the elite but as population grew rapidly and the city boundaries were stretched it soon slipped into an urban slum. The area had been left derelict for many years until recently and it has been a constant restoration project since, it was awarded a UNESCO site in 2003 which solidified it an new up and coming area where old meets new it with old crumbling walls and ornate balconies.
For the buildings that have undergone resto these are gentrified establishments of cafes, galleries, heladarias, hotels and restaurants. Although a little touristic the old town still has it’s charm and beauty. 

From the lookout point on the edge you can see the construction of a controversial coastal highway around the whole peninsula. We wandered around our first day taking it all in, trying on a few Panama hats that I had waited until now to buy and then shared a pizza. 

We were pretty tired from the boat trip and had a nice chilled night in and watched ‘Behind the Candelabra’, a really great film but probably not the film to watch in a shared dorm as there is quite a bit of gay loving going on we thought anyone who caught a glimpse of the our screen must have thought… ‘why are the weird English couple watching gay porn!’… ohh well!

We took a bus to the Panama Canal to see what all the fuss is about. Upon arriving a massive vehicle transporter ship was passing through. The closer we got to the mirador (lookout point) the ship just kept getting bigger and bigger, massive in fact. 

We caught the back end of it and decided to check out the museum and info 3D film until the next ship was scheduled to pass through in just over an hour. Typically the 3D film was VERY American “WELCOME TO THE MOST AMAZING PLACE… IN… THE … WORLD………. EVER !!!” and quite rightly so because the mini cinema with massive seats was full of middle to old aged Americans. We also went from boiling outside to freezing inside, the thing about Panama and the Panamericans is they absolutely love their Air Con and given the chance would happily live in a fridge. Throughout the day we learnt some pretty interesting facts about this huge man made marvel that finished construction a hundred years ago in 1914 as well as about the new construction currently taking place. Around 20,000 workers died from Yellow fever and Malaria. There was a massive humanitarian push to eradicate the diseases which thankfully due to an American doctor they managed to do and work continued. The Canal stretches 80 kilometres from the Pacific coast to the Caribbean and ships pay a fee depending on the weight of their cargo. The maximum fee to date was $300,000 a few years back for a cargo ship and the minimum paid was $0.36 by Richard Halliburton in 1928 who swam from the east to the west.

After exploring the canal we visited the mall and treated ourselves to a Subway and headed to the Cinema to watch the Book Thief (with Spanish subtitles). A very novel thing to do whilst away, which for a brief moment takes you back to being at home in the UK again.

We managed to see all we wanted to see in a few days in Panama City so decided to head off a day early to discover ‘Lost and Found’, an amazing hostel/backpacker community that sits up in the cloud forest near Boquette in the coffee growing region. After a 7hr bus to the small town of David, transfer for 45 minutes up hairpin roads into the hills we found ourselves on the side of the road in the pitch black with clouds all around and a sprinkle of drizzle on the way. We found a sign to ‘Lost and Found’ pointing up into the hills; out comes the head torch and a jumper in preparation for a 20 minute mini hike up a rocky path in flip flops with our heavy backpacks on. Note to self; flip flops are not sufficient protection from red ants when you stop walking for a breather!

Alas we arrived to a cloud jungle haven hidden up in the Talamanca range with a whopping great view from within the clouds. We were welcomed in by two American hippy dudes strumming on acoustics guitars chilling by the camp fire. “Welcome to Lost and Found, you just hiked up that big hill but now you’re here… la la la la la”, what a friendly welcome, that was the introduction to a hostel that instantly makes you feel at home and amongst new friends which you haven’t even met yet. We made our way up and down some steps leading to the main communal area and reception to be welcomed by one of the two owners who promptly informed us to get the business out of the way first… ‘You must need a beer, what’ll it be?”. Okay … Second amazing welcome in the space of a few minutes. I turned to Han, “I think we are going to like it here!”.

We collected our bedding and headed down to the dorm. Holy Shit!!! A 24 person dorm… 3 tier bunk beds, 9 of which were doubles, 6 of which were singles. Oh well for $24 per night and our 3rd night free we were not complaining.

We spent the next few days chilling, getting to know new friends, taking in the sights and playing games in the ‘local prices’ bar. 

I even managed to watch the England vs Scotland rugby one afternoon by calling Mum n Dad with FaceTime who propped me up in the sitting room facing the TV (quite bizarre being back home for a few hours whilst up in the jungle).

Afternoon editing

We saw beautiful plants and wildlife...

Me in a stare off with a squirrel

One late morning a group of us decided to head back into civilisation and catch a bus into a near town that has a stunning river canyon that you can swim in. The 7 of us Adam, Michael, Fernanda (the 3 were travelling together), Polly, Kerry, Hannah and I made our way down the hill in search of a bus that should pick us up on the side of the road ‘at some time’. 

What followed was probably the most fun we had all day, waiting for an hour and a half flagging down cars, trucks and even motorbikes in the hope of catching a lift. 

Adam pretty much single-handedly ate out the road side café of their cake and coffee, we all got a bit silly but made a lot of people laugh and smile that day including ourselves.

We eventually made it to the canyon and discovered it was very much a local’s scene as well so very busy. We were near on slap bang in the middle between the Pacific the and Caribbean so this is their nearest cool down spot… its was VERY hot!! 

We chilled, floated down the mini canyon, slipped down natural slides and did a spot of rock jumping. 


Stopped for a snack:

On the way back to the cloud we stopped off to get some veg for a mega feast, that night we all cooked as a group and ate for $1 each with a load left over. 

Mowgli all grown up - Our mate Michael! 

This was followed by Hannah’s and I first game of ‘Cards against Humanity’­, an amazing card game we had heard a lot about previously. Without going into too much detail it basically relies on everyone’s different personalities to individually fill in the blanks to a phrase that we all know with words from the cards in our own hand. We listen to everyone’s selections and the person whose go it is chooses their favourite. It’s the kind of game that produces non-stop laughing and humour for the whole night; I will definitely be purchasing it when we get home. That day was one of our favourite group days ever, we especially bonded with Adam, Michael and Fernanda and we were genuinely really sad to have to say goodbye the next day. 

In the space of 24hrs we had become really great friends, they were a group of kind, caring, interesting, aware and fun people who we clicked with. It was Adam and Michael that sang to us on our arrival into the hostel.

Roasting marshmallows on the camp fire making 'Smores'

On our last day we headed out to find a 30m waterfall about 35mins away by bus. We went with a lovely Dutch couple that were volunteering at the hostel. We found our way, stripped off and headed for the falls. 

The power was immense to say the least, it was so painful on the skin, I was genuinely concerned it would strip off my tan that I had finally got from cooking on the San Blas boat trip!

Next stop – Bocas Del Toro Islands (home to the famously HOT Bocas Sauce) just off the Caribbean Coastline and very close to the Costa Rican boarder where we would be meeting Mum and Dad in about 5 days. 

So long Lost and Found.. we got lost and found great new friends!! 

We decided to stay away from Bocas Island as we had heard it was a bit tourist ready and just a party town, we were in a pretty chilled space after the cloud jungle so didn't fancy anything to heavy. Instead we hopped on another boat to Bastimentos Island. A bit more relaxed with a Rastafarian vibe and ‘the local’s’ island. There are no vehicles on the island so it’s mostly made up of cement footpaths which the children of the island use as their playground, trying to see how many they can fit on their tiny bicycles. The ‘grown-ups’ can be found in groups either on the footpath or the porch of their half falling apart shacks all playing cards, some for money other for who knows. The odd whiff of ganga lingers round most corners with reggae-ton tunes pumping from the homemade stack speaker system they have in prime position.

Here the language is a melodic blend of English, Jamaican and Spanish. As you pass the ladies hanging out on the street if you concentrate hard enough you can pick out the OK English word. We couldn’t help but turn to each other a safe distance away and try to repeat what we just heard. Yup…. We sounded well cool!

We chilled that night and headed over to a recommended restaurant that juts out over the sea. A few beers with the sunset and we were ready for our meal of Caribbean Chicken for me and local fish for Han, obviously each table has its own bottle of Bocas sauce so we both had to have a few more beers to cool our mouths down!

We heard some drumming in the distance travelling over the water so after our meal strolled back to Hostel Bastimentos via the larger dock were at least half of the island seemed to have congregated for band/dance practise. Nearly everyone was there from toddlers to the ol’ biddys. Everyone getting their freak on and having a good time, there was booty shakin’, body krumpin’ and lots in-between. We had heard that rain was pretty regular on the islands and we were just about to experience our first downpour. Suddenly the heavens opened and everyone began to make a mad run for it. We legged it with them into a large shop before choosing our time to make it back to the hostel. What they meant to have told us was what when it rains it in fact DUMPS IT DOWN… tropical styley. 

The next day we decided to take a hike to find Red Frog Beach, aptly named for the abundance of famous red frogs that can be found in the area. We heard about ‘Up in the Hill’ café which serves organic everything and specialising in Cacao products. We began our ascent up the hill, which was short lived on my part due to an unfortunate incorrect judgement of what an unusually strange looking black/dark green rock is and what a mahoosive cow pat looks like. At the same moment of thinking this I take a pretty solid step onto the ‘rough looking rock’ and my flip-flop slides straight into one of the largest cow shits I have ever seen. My flip-flop seemed to have acted like a mini shovel, scooping the green sludge not only under my feet but also up to my ankle. A quick slippery jaunt down the hill to wash my feet off in the stream I had luckily noted on the way up and leaving Han giggling away at the top and then I was back on track. Stupidly I then noticed quite a few ‘odd looking rocks’ the rest of the way. Anyway enough of that shit!

We treated ourselves to a homemade brownie with organic hot chocolates! The place was run by a nice guy and his family. His little kids with their bleach white hair were running around bare foot playing with kittens, dogs and rabbits. What a place to grow up we thought. Amazing!

After our pit stop and a little cuddle with the kittens we made our way to find Red Frog Beach. We must have got lost somewhere because after about 35mintues of slipping and sliding around in the muddy jungle we ended up at Wizard Beach, again aptly named because of all the Wizards that grow up there (or not)! 

We carried on and low and behold began to come across these beautiful tiny little red frogs “we must be close we thought”. It was quite important that we found this beach before dark, as it was the only opportunity that we could get a boat back round to ‘Old Bank’ where we were staying.

Eventually we found it after possibly getting lost yet again, now with mud up to our shins. We climbed down from the Jungle onto the beach, found a bar with beer and took a well-deserved swim in the MASSIVE waves. 

After our boat ride back we found a lovely hostel/restaurant, which served great food and Coco-Loco (Pina Coladas) for just a few bucks. Hmmm.

The following day we headed over to Bocas Del Toro, hired a couple of dodgy rackety looking old bikes and took a 7-8KM ride up the coast to find some nice beaches. Rediscovered how difficult riding on sand is, luckily it was not for to far though. Found a lovely beach side bar and grabbed some food before chilling and sleeping on the beach. 

While in the town of Bocas we found a dive shop and booked ourselves in for a two tank dive the following morning, our first official dive since becoming fully qualified.

Typically we did exactly what you shouldn’t do the night before a dive. Yup, got ridiculously drunk! In our defence it wasn’t our fault. We went back to the same restaurant as the night before for more great food and just the one coco-loco. As we got there we noticed a massive party in full swing. The owner who we met the night before was celebrating his birthday and had invited half the island for a free for all. Naturally we were welcomed in, handed some plates and got free beers! 

This led to some dancing, more free drinks (super strong rum and cokes) and a power cut to the whole island, probably caused by one of these home made speaker stacks that was cranked up to the giga watts. Cut a long story short and I left fully loaded up with a rum n coke in one hand, and the other cradling a full plate of cake and a bottle of beer and lolly in the mouth. Fortunately Hannah was in a similar state and we both wobbled back to the hostel.

So after a can of coke, strong coffee and an apple pie in the morning we were ready to dive! Our first dive was to an old vehicle transporter that was wrecked on the rocks. Fun to explore and we saw a variety of fish as well as plenty of starfish. The visibility was not fantastic but we still enjoyed both dives, especially as it was Valentines Day!

After the dive we jumped in a shuttle to Starfish beach! Loads of starfish just chilling in the shallow waters, you could see them clearly just looking down at your feet. We turned one over and watched it working it’s way back onto it’s front in super slow motion. It was a stunningly secluded beach in a gentle bay with super warm water.

Yet again another picture perfect location. After a delayed shuttle back to Bocas Town and some epic fresh fish Sushi we were back on Bastimentos packing for our trip to Costa Rica in the morning. We were meeting up with Mum n Dad Stevo at the border after 6 months away and were very excited to be spending the next few weeks catching up and getting spoilt… so long hostal living!

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