Where Seas and Continents Converge: Panama

Two flights, three buses and four days after leaving Great Corn Island, Nicaragua our little twelve seater touched down on the airstrip of Bocas Del Toro, Panama. We’d essentially made our way due south from one Caribbean island off the coast of Nicaragua to another one off the coast of Panama via a transcontinental journey zig zaging through Nicaragua, Costa Rica and into Panama. There is never a direct route down here it seems. Bocas Del Toro is an archipelago of islands in the northern part of Panama near the Costa Rican border. Virtually undeveloped 20 years ago, Bocas has exploded into a tourist mecca for those seeking a safe, affordable Caribbean experience. For years I´ve dreamed of visiting, having heard great stories of the laid back lifestyle, the beautiful scenery and the “island life” that put Bocas on the map. It was there in spades, mind you but unfortunately so were the gaggles of Caribbean tourists and the high prices that accompany them. High by our standards at least. Having been blown away (and spoiled) by the snorkeling in Caye Caulker, the scuba diving in Utila and the beaches of Little Corn, Bocas just was a bit underwhelming for us and we left after a couple of days instead of the week we’d planned. We seriously needed a break from the heat too. Since leaving Guatemala we’d spent the past two months in heat in the 90’s plus every day and were a little tired of sweating. With that plan in mind we decided to head to the highlands of Panama for a reprieve. What a surprisingly fantastic idea that turned out to be.

Our next destination would be the small town of Boquete in the mountains, an absolutely gorgeous gem of a place with a beautiful river cutting through it, waterfalls, strawberry fields, coffee farms and spectacular valleys around every turn. With year round temperate weather we actually got to wear our hoodies at night, it felt like we were back in San Francisco! We flat out loved it, it was the perfect change of pace. From walking and talking to folks around town we met a retired ecology and history professor from the states who had been living in Boquete for years. He took us out on an educational tour of the area (seriously he squeezed 40 million years of Panamanian history into 4 hours) visiting unique geologic sites, learning about the strife of the local indigenous farm hands, tasting coffee from a local farm and visiting a haunted mansion! He wouldn’t go into the creepy abandoned mansion in the woods but spent 20 minutes regaling tale after tale of all the people that died mysteriously either building it or attempting to live in it since it’s construction a hundred years ago. Obviously the second he stopped for a breath, Laura and I jumped the fence and headed up the trail to explore the place. We wandered through the empty stone halls full of leaves and rubble as the jungle had already been reclaiming the structure for years. It was like something out of a horror movie and we joked about spending the night in there when ALL OF A SUDDEN…. Okay, I’d love to have a story here of a ghost attack or a mysterious image that appeared in a photo when we got home or being slimed or something but that didn’t happen. Or did it?

After a few days relaxing in the cool climate and good vibes of Boquete, we made our way across the country looking for a taste of the urban in Panama City. The multi bus haul took us about 10 hours but also showed us so much of the beauty that is Panama. We were blown away by how spectacular the biodiversity of the country is and we were subsequently blown away as well by how huge and modern Panama City is. The whole country is so dynamic and full of stark contrasts, it constantly surprised us in a good way. If there is one place so far that we could see ourselves living for a few years it would be Panama City. Honestly. It is such a great mix of well preserved old style and sleek new modern. We spent much of our first day walking around Casco Viejo, the Old Town for a taste of history. Having been abandoned by the wealthy for luxury sky rise living 50 years ago, Old Town is in the midst of a renaissance and half of the 300 year old structures are in the process of being restored to their original glory. It is a sight to see. Surrounded by a 30′ stone wall on all sides to protect it from the Pirate Henry Morgan (who had sacked and completely destroyed the original Panama City in the 1600’s), Old Town was declared a World Heritage Site in 2003 and for good reason. Check it out if you can, it is colonial architecture at it’s finest. Our next stop would take us forward a few hundred years and into the future, the Panama Canal. Being big science and history buffs, taking a tour of the Canal really put the grandness of the endeavor in perspective. It took over 30 years to build, cost over 6 billion dollars and more than 30,000 people died to make it a reality. We spent a day learning about it’s history and watching tankers and freighters make their way through the locks. Four little trains on tracks on either side help guide them through with ropes, unreal. That’s one more thing off the ole bucket list.

After a few more days of enjoying the niceties that come with being in a modern metropolitan city (okay it has only been 3 months since we left the States but these city kids were needing this, big time), we made our way north on the original Panama Canal Railroad! Riding in a vintage glass domed car through the jungle alongside the canal was something else. This we learned was the original transcontinental railroad. The two hour ride from Panama City on the Pacific Ocean to Colon on the Caribbean Sea was actually a favorite for west heading Americans during the gold rush to avoid dealing with Native Americans in the central US. It was also a favorite for me since I love trains, especially old ones with wood walled passenger cars and oil paintings of tropical birds. Okay I admit that was a first for me. It was a truly historic journey.

From Colon we then headed west to a small village called Portobelo. Originally named Puerto Bello meaning “Beautiful Port”  by Christopher Columbus when he set eyes on the gorgeous Caribbean bay, Portobello was the biggest Caribbean port of the Spanish in the early 1600’s and it’s believed that more than half of the gold that left the Americas for Spain went through there. The fortifications were impressive but alas, Henry Morgan figured out a way to take the port and leveled the town in 1668. What remains there now is a small town with beautiful waters and some amazing ruins of the previous Spanish forts. We spent several days exploring the ruins, each of which still have lines of rusted canons at least twenty across pointing into the bay where Henry Morgan must have come in from the sea. Also while hiking up to one of the forts we were lucky to see in a tree a family of sleeping nocturnal Owl Monkeys! So cool. Dazzled by our natural surroundings in this undeveloped corner of the country we decided to do some sea kayaking in big ocean swell which we had never done before. It was kinda nuts but fantastic and challenging both physically and mentally.  After that we made our way up a river, kayaking through mangroves with a local guide we hired. We spent a whole day seeing every kind of bird imaginable, lush jungle covered mountains and hearing nothing but the sound of the river and the wind. We really felt completely away from the things of man. Just amazing.

A wild and crazy bus ride back to Panama City (see previous post) and then off to Colombia… South America here we come! Panama you will be missed.

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