Tag Archives: Panama

The times they are a changing

Tuesday 7 February: It was a grey kind of morning, and a dense Darien jungle inundated the teeny fishing village of Sapzurro (pop. 1000) where we dropped anchor in South American waters for the first time. I was absolutely hankering to get on land.

Deb arranged a ‘launch’ (panga / speedboat) with one of the locals to transport us from Ilean to Capurgana (pop. 2000). Both of these villages, because of their proximity to the border – are rich with sailing legends: stories of pirates from Panama, criminals from Colombia, and the wine & wenches who drained them all of their wealth.

Passports stamped, we checked in as a group into the Hotel Los Delphines – rather fitting, given our welcome to country by the beautiful critters. We were all desperate for showers, cold beers & food in varying orders and so went our separate ways for a bit. For the rest of the day we ambled about, bumping into each other by street food vendors, in the pool hall, and down by the sea.

Capurgana is a sweet lil place that reminded me a bit of Little Corn: no cars, no ATM, and town power for only ½ the day – if that. And subsequently, very unreliable WiFi connection.

It’s incredible how reliant we’ve become on the internet. I remember travelling through Europe in ‘98 and carrying traveller’s cheques – now I do my banking electronically. I made arrangements to meet new friends by the Trevi Fountain at a specific time – now I Facebook them. I wrote old-fashioned letters (and faxes!) to communicate with loved ones – now I email them (although I still send postcards!) I collected mail at the next town’s ‘poste restante’ – now I have no idea where I’m going to be from one day to the next. And I made reverse charge calls to my folks from public phone booths (using coins!) – whereas now I Skype them. Oh, the times they are a changing.

I would have stayed longer in Capurgena, along with Pinky & Shannon, except I really needed cash. I needed to touch base with Scott – who was on his way! And I had promised to let my poor old Pa know I had made the crossing safely. I needed to get back to civilisation.

So at 7 the next morning, I was standing on one very disorganised dock, an unwilling participant in yet another brilliant Latin American System. This is how best practice for a Latin American System goes: The more useless paperwork – the better. The more power the bossman thinks they wield – the better. The more other ‘officials’ standing around watching the bossman – the better. And last but not least the more waiting you (as the paying customer) have to do – the better.

It was another back-breaking, tongue-biting, teeth-smashing ride of about 2.5 hrs to Turbo. I didn’t think too much of it when the engine kept cutting out. Men over here can fix anything. But when we ran out of gas in the middle of fucking nowhere, I started to feel a little uneasy. But Whaddya Know! – out of nowhere, a boat with extra fuel appears and topped us up. Like John, the owner of the bar on Little Corn said to me, once – they know how to make you feel grateful for small things.

Turbo was just as the LP described it: a place to get the hell out of, as quickly as possible. It’s a hectic, noisy, filthy place that smelt absolutely putrid and was teeming with touts, sleazes, conmen and beggars. The people from our sailing trip (sans Pinky & Shannon) split into two parties at this point. The lads & Constance were headed for Medellin. While I was headed for Cartagena – along with the delightfully kooky German, Nils and the sour Swiss fellow, who was getting on my nerves.

We got herded to an expensive collectivo where we joined some travellers we had met on the San Blas islands. I chatted with a young Californian girl who looked just like Buffy. The bus took us to a place called Monterria where we ate shit food & got herded into another expensive collectivo, destined for Cartagena.

After midnight, we arrived into Getsemani – the red light district in the old part of town – where a fuck-off street party was in full flight. I checked into the nearest available hostel with Buffy & her crew, right outside where all the action was. An hour later, I literally fell into my bed – which was smack bang in the middle of an awful crowded dorm room on the street-side of the hostel. I dreamt I was trapped inside a sound system that night.

The next day, I moved to the much more resort-y style Media Luna right next door. Into a lovely uncrowded back room. I had a personal admin day by the pool and got an early night.

Shannon came found me the following morning. She & Pinky had arrived late the night before. He had bailed to hook up with a girl he’d arranged to meet here. Shannon was leaving on the 13th, so she & I spent the next 3 days hanging out, having heart-to-hearts, eating lots of g-o-o-d food, chatting with locals, and having lots of great big belly laughs.

Shannon’s a bit of a rarity. She’s only just 25 but such an old soul in many ways. She’s a bit of a dag, which I think makes her incredibly cool. She’s well-travelled and well-read and as such, has lots of interesting things to say. But she’s also a very good listener. Those who she chooses to shine her light on, light right back up at her. It’s a lovely thing to behold.

She reminds me a bit of an amazing woman I used to know called Annie. An angel sent to save my stupid teenage ass, and who ended up having a massive influence on the person I became.

That night we partied with Buffy & her crew. We sampled some of the *local fare* and did a bit of bar hopping, winding up at a cool lil dig with live music & lots of dancing. Next day, we ate a delicious 3-course meal in a beautiful European bistro. I flirted with the cute waiter with gorgeous skin, and a big shiny smile.

We also took a tour to the volcanic mud baths … the whole experience was a bit “different” to what we had both been anticipating (ie, how many tourists can you fit into 5 square metres & sketchy masseurs trying to cop a feel). I got mud in my punani. As my mate Dave would declare, “Now, you don’t get to say that everyday.”

We topped it all off with a wonderful last night of wine & cheese (blue & swiss!) night in the Plaza de los Coches (Square of the Carriages) and a chat with a talented Brazilian artisan whose work we had both fallen in love with. I just kinda moped about the day she left, and then cheered myself up by researching a plan of sorts for when Scott comes. Not long now!

I met a sweet man from San Diego and made plans to go to Playa Blanca with him. It’s supposed to be the best beach near Cartagena and is the weekend playground of many Colombians. And it was just lovely (not quite San Blas, but lovely all the same) … more pristine white sands, more turquoise waters.

We met up with a couple of other solo travellers, and scored ourselves hammocks for $3 / nite. The only downsides to Playa Blanca were getting harassed by hawkers, and the exorbitant prices of meals. But there is nothing like the sound of waves to put you to sleep, and waking up right on the beach will never lose its charm for me.

I ran into Guy and Marcus (the sound English brothers who were on our yacht) and we hung out on the beach for the day, which was a bit of a bonus!

I had started coming down with an intense sore throat thing and was feeling a bit achy in my glands, and didn’t really fancy sleeping out in the open for another night. So I cut my trip short to come back to Cartagena.

I’ve been back two days now and have just been chilling out, drinking lots of water and getting some rest. Re-charging for the Carnival in Barranquilla. Apparently it’s the second biggest in the world, after Rio de Janiero in Brasil.

I’ve decided to go for just one night. I don’t have accommodation sorted (standard). So I’m going to pull an all-nighter. The first in a long time. I’m a bit scared. But also super excited. Plus I have sparkly blue nails! All I need now is some feathers, and I’m good to go.

Panama

Shannon arrived later that afternoon from Honduras, and her, Pinky & I spent the rest of the day giggling like a gaggle of teenagers. I can’t tell you how sweet it was to hang out with these two beau’ful people again.

We’d only met two months ago in Ometepe, but you form strangely close bonds with some people you meet on the road. You’ll piss yourself laughing with them like you’ve known each other forever. You’ll share your history with them as though they were your new best friend. You’ll heap shit on each other as though you were family. Both Pinky & Shannon were my kind of people. Gregarious, interested, and good humoured.

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We were staying in Casco Viejo, the old falling down part of town which clashes synergistically with the shiny skyscrapers uptown … we spent many hours walking around on uneven streets, poking around in dilapidated buildings, and photographing cool & quirky graf. I really liked Panama City. It’s a very visually stimulating city. And the people are a truly interesting blend of many different cultures. I loved standing in line at the supermarket wedged between little Kuna ladies in their traditional dress and a giant Caribbean man.

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One morning, the three of us visited the Museum of Contemporary Art which is small but definitely worthwhile if you have a couple of spare hours on your hand. Afterwards Shannon & I went and saw the Canal. I’m not sure what I was expecting but to perfectly honest I wasn’t all that impressed.

Look, it was big. And I can see how it’s an ‘engineering marvel’. But watching the Queen Elizabeth (the cruise liner, not the monarch) move through it was a little bit like watching paint dry. We watched the toy tug trains guide the massive cruise liner along the canal. We watched the water drain rapidly from an upper section of the canal into a lower section of the canal. And then we watched the cruise liner ‘sink’ into it.

Riveting. Stuff.

Fortunately there was a little bit of comical relief. We watched from the grandstand and every so often, after some particularly ‘inspiring’ commentary about the Canal and its history – the largely large American crowd would erupt spontaneously into applause. Sending Shannon & I into fits of giggles. Had it not been for her, I think I would have been scraping out the inside of my eyeballs with a toothpick.

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Though English and American respectively – Pinky  and Shannon, inspired by this brilliant piece of YouTube satire, decided to get their bogan on & help me celebrate Australia Day on Wednesday night with lots of drinking & shouting.

Shannon came up with the great idea of modifying a piñata so it resembled a VB can. I diligently went about reproducing the famous logo whilst consuming ½ a dozen of Panama’s finest local brew, the Balboa. Shannon hauled that thing around all night, god bless her.

On the ill-advice of a couple of other Aussies we had met – we found ourselves in a completely empty Irish bar that didn’t sell Guinness or Jamesons: Go figure. We had a shot of tequila and left.

We got lost on our way out & found ourselves in a cinema complex where I spotted a ‘los Muppets’ poster that I simply had to have. The only problem was I didn’t spot a Little Security Guard who was skulking around waiting for his moment of glory. He scampered off to get the Big Security Guard – who would presumably deal with me appropriately. Poor Little Security Guard looked absolutely crestfallen when the Big Security Guard took an instant liking to me, and ended up posing for a photograph with said poster & me. ManananUp.

At the end of the night, we eventually found a place which would let us hang up the piñata for a good old whack. There is a great photo of me doing my best Lucy Lui in Kill Bill impersonation but I think it was Pinky who took out the honours in the end. Happy Straya Day.

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We spent a lot of time trying to organise a boat to take us to Colombia via the San Blas Islands which was a lot harder than it needed to be. There are a lot of uninformed, disorganised and just generally useless ‘travel agents’ representing the various boats / captains who take travellers on this route. Definitely a business opportunity there for someone willing to act as a go-between and aggregate all the information on one user friendly website.

We had somehow managed to get ourselves invited to the re-launch of a sweet lil artsy bistro where musicians and free hors d’oeuvres were circling all night. We did a bit of bar hopping that night and ended up losing each other in a cool pop-up bar underneath an old stone archway. We all got very left-handed that night. Lots of thigh-slapping. Lots of silly photos. Lots of fun.

We eventually booked a boat that was due to depart on the 1st of February. But we had also met a petit lil Austrian by the name of Constance and agreed to try & change our plans so we could join her on a boat she was organising due out on the 29th.

So we spent the 28th legging it (complete with regulation hangovers) to Portabello via Colon. Poor old Pinky was in a right state. Chicken buses are not your friend when you’re feeling unwell.

We arrived into Portabello as the sun was setting. We checked into a cool lil dig with views of the harbour, a place called Captain Jack’s – the namesake of a salty ole seadog. Jack was maybe in his 60s and wore his long greying hair in a ponytail & somehow managed to get away with it. He had a weathered but gentle face and an easygoing nature. I liked the man instantly. He had literally travelled the seven seas and had a trove of tall tales to share. Jack told me about a place called the Cocos Keeling islands which has now been added to my Travel Wish List.

Constance’s boat fell through, so she and a pair of really sound English brothers by the name of Marcus and Guy decided they would hop on ours. We would be joining a group of four crazy assed Dutch boys. One kooky German (are there any other type?) and a serious looking Swiss would complete our crew.

There was very little to do or see in Portabello (apart from some expensive excursions to surrounding islands). So we spent the next 3 days getting to know our fellow passengers. Everyone apart from the German & the Swiss blokes were in their early – mid 20s. And they all liked to party. Hard. It seemed unlikely I was going to sleep until we got to Colombia. (And in all likelihood probably not then, either.)

Pinky, Shannon and I, while preparing in Panama, had acquired ourselves alter egos and more critically, boating attire.

Captain Pinky Pants would be wearing his pretty little hotpants and a Captain’s cap I insisted he buy. Seaman Scartits and my good self (First Mate Vaginamite) would be wearing some fetching wigs in a nuclear orange and a ladyboy purple, with some glittery Elton John-esque sunnies in the shape of cocktail glasses, topped off with some truly sexy Panamanian souvenir fans.

Over the course of the next few days, we bonded with and gave our fellow passengers names also: Longstance Silver (Constance), Stickygangwanker (Guy), Roger the Cabin Boy (Marcus), Major Hornypants (Rick), Swaffel-buster (Jim), Rapey Kiss (Michiel), iPhone (Melvin), Gayscale (Nials) and Bendover (Benjamin).

At the eleventh hour, the original captain of our boat fell so ill, she decided she couldn’t do the job. Captain Jack went on a manic mission to find us another crew in under a day, which is no mean feat. Another female Captain and her husband who was her First Mate came to our rescue.

We met Debbie and Wayne on the afternoon of the 31st and our hearts sank a little when they informed us our departure would be postponed until the 2nd. She needed to take Ilean out for a test drive. She wanted to get to know the boat and any little quirks she might have. It seemed fair enough, but we were all now super keen to get south. I had originally thought I might get to Colombia by the end of July!

We saw Debbie and Wayne mid-morning the next day, and they said they were happy to get the boat packed up & have us stay on board that night for an early morning start the next day.

Colombia, here I come!

 

Up until Thursday 2 Feb

(welcome to the) Hotel California

After another long day on the road, I arrived in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca all hot & sweaty. I fell straight off the bus into the nearest hostel. It was totally lacking in personality but it was cheap. And convenient.

I had a few happy hour beers, a feed & a jibber with the cute bartender at the local reggae bar. Later, back at the hostel I met a few fun Aussie lads who were leaving the next day & were playing a drinking game with dice called ‘Chase The Ace’. Yes: I know I’m probably too old for drinking games. No: I don’t give a rat’s. Shits & giggles!

The next day, I had a chat to the local dive operator (shit visibility & not really worth going out). Still, I quite liked the feel of this place so I decided I’d stay on for maybe a week anyway… party a bit, explore a bit, chill a bit.

I went to check out Rocking J’s – a hostel recommended by LP, but to be perfectly honest – it was just a big backpacker’s barn. At the bar, I ran into someone I had met on Little Corn. A nice enough Aussie who was (motorbike) riding from Canada to Argentina with a couple of mates. I made plans to come back later for beers and maybe dinner.

A group of us went to a beautiful Japanese restaurant which promised “edible art”. All you can eat sushi for $20. Expensive feed in Central America but I was super excited. Turns out, some of the best sushi I’ve had.

However the meal was almost ruined for me by two of Easy Rider’s yobbo mates. They got hammered, spent the whole time swearing like they were at a cage fight, and complaining really loudly about the food. They’d never had sushi before. They didn’t know how to use chopsticks. Which is fine. But they were just stupid ignorant fucks about it.

These were the sort of boys for whom Japan = snowboarding & pussy. And Central America = cocaine & pussy. And I don’t have a problem with that if it’s coupled with an open, inquisitive mind that wants to learn something about a different culture. But I don’t believe these imbeciles had the capacity for learning anything. To my mind – these are the sorts of Australians who shouldn’t be allowed passports. They give us a bad rep.

It made me miss Todd & Piers (the lovely smart Aussie men that Pinky brought to Little Corn with him). Anyways, needless to say I paid up quick & got the hell out of there as soon as dinner was over. I over-tipped by way of compensation.

The next day I went to look for a different hotel – having been subjected to listening to a couple having sex in our dorm. It just wasn’t worth saving a lousy $4. I wound up at the Hotel Puerto Viejo, on the recommendation of the dive shop owner.

Kurt the owner, was a quietly charismatic Californian. He was tall & fit with dark moppish hair and a strong jaw line (which I’m always a bit of a sucker for). He was aging well for a man in his early 50s. Think Richard Gere meets Kurt Russell.

Evidently, he’s the nephew of a pioneering big wave rider and has surfed Pipeline, himself. I asked him if he’d ever surfed in Australia. He told me when he was ready to die – he’d come & give Shipsterns Bluff a crack.

The place was teeming with half-naked men. Men waxing boards in the yard. Men rolling Jamaican goodness. Men getting into Jeeps to go ride the legendary Salsa Brava. A mix of Caribbean men, Ticos, and imports. All of them with those perfect surfer boy backs. And beautiful brown skin. Man that stuff is addictive. I felt like a kid in a candy store!

The rooms were pretty basic and a bit dark truth be told, but the place had a good ambience about it. And besides, a private room with a fan for $10 was a deal in this town.

I came back with my pack and watched in amusement as four men & a teenage boy tried to check me in. It was a shit show. I think largely because they so stoned (except the lil tacker). And probably because they had better things to do (see above).

Kurt told me he was one of the first foreign business owners in Puerto Viejo, having arrived some 24 years ago. He’d built the place himself. It was a huge rabbit warren of a place – 70 odd rooms cobbled together with lots of mismatching pieces of timber.

It amused me how he answered the phone with the almost arrogant, “Hotel”. As though he was the only one, still.

When he found out I was travelling solo, he reassured me they would take care of me there. And taken care of I was. Morning, noon & night 😉

Puerto Viejo reminded me a bit of Byron Bay 15 years ago. Just a whole lot blacker. And a whole lot cooler. Great waves. Perfect weather. Good reggae. I felt like I was on set of a TVC for an über cool beer.

One day, I hired a bicycletta & rode 15ks to Manzanillo on a nice flat road with the jungle rising up on one side and pretty beaches all the way on the other. I stopped for a swim at the picture perfect Punta Uva. A pretty lil cove with some amazing snorkelling.

I also took some surf lessons with a Rasta, who failed to get me up surfing, but did manage to put me on my arse with some seriously good hashish. Smoking is just a way of life here. People were wrapping up on the bar & smoking openly in the calle. I literally saw a bloke wave to a cop as he sparked up a spliff. Now you don’t see that everyday.

I would have stayed a lot longer had everything not been damn so expensive. And besides – Ometepe Shannon & I had transgressed from just chatting about meeting up with Pinky who was in Panama, to sail to Colombia – to actually making proper plans. Well, one of us made proper plans.

I left Puerto Viejo to catch a bus across the border in the vague hope I could buy a ticket for the plane trip from a one horse town called Changuinola to Panama City. Of course there were no more seats left. And so I ended up on a 10 hour overnight bus trip instead.

I arrived at 330am with no reservations for a room. I was lucky to get a decent taxi driver (not quite ready to take back everything I’ve ever said about taxi drivers yet though) who drove me around town to 4 different places before i found one that would stick me in a hammock until a bed became available. They made one up for me, and at 5 in the morning i crashed out absolutely filthy & absolutely spent.

By mid-morning, I had linked up with Pinky & was having the first beer of the day in a new country. Hello Panama!