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Panama

So, where did I leave you? Ah yes, Aruba. End of February and I sunny myself in the ABC Islands in the good old Caribbean! I spent three nights in hot sunny Aruba, the most touristy of the three islas. I stayed with an interesting and slightly crazy guy from Brazil, met him on the internet through CouchSurfing.com.  On my first night with him, he took me to a music festival, which took place on the beach – Eagle Beach to be precise – on the island’s north-west side. I stood in the sand and wiggled my ass in time to the heavy beat of strange reggae/techno music with verbal “hands in the airs” and “come everyone, clap yours hands and love everybody”!  The fest finished around 2 am. During the gig I met two lovely girls from Holland, one named Celen, who I’d already made contact with via couch surfing and another named Sharon. They’re both nurses and are working and partying in Aruba for a year or so.

The next afternoon, my host and I went jet skiing, see the video on FB. Great fun. First a local guy took me around which was nice as he took the turns expertly. However, he was a little nervous about having a blind person with him. Then my Brazilian friend took over and we increased speed and I bumped and bounced alarmingly, nearly coming off several times, excellent!!  What a thrill and burst of energy! :) That same evening we again partied on the beach and met up with the Dutch girls, it was less frantic than the festival and less people were out, it being a Sunday. The next morning I headed to the airport by bus and flew to Panama. Country 110! 

I’m writing this on Monday 16th March having been in Panama for 16 days now. It’s an interesting country with a mixture of history, nature, jungle and beaches, also mountains. I spent five days in the capital. Staying with a wonderful kind and funny French guy named Oliv. He has a cool place near the main bus station. I also met a lovely German couple named Jule and Tim. They helped me out a lot, taking me to an office to find out info about a tour and also cooking for me and helping me with my emails. I can type but not read as I don’t travel with a talking iPhone or laptop when on the road, it’s too dangerous – I’ll only be robbed!  I use other people’s equipment and ask them to kindly help me. This works in most places, otherwise, I visit an internet café and ask the local people to help me Skype.  I did a couple of tours around Panama city, doing an Urban Adventure day city sightseeing tour which took us to Ancon Hill, full of nature and with good vantage points to view the entire city. A sloth was sitting in a tree and also a small creature which resembled a large rat. Plus hundreds of birds high in the trees.

Next stop was the mighty Panama Canal, first built by the French in the 1880s and later completed by the Americans from 1903-4 to 1914.  Thanks to a Cuban doctor and scientist who discovered that Yellow fever was carried by mosquitoes, the American overseer of the project on the canal was able to reduce Yellow fever and malaria cases considerably.  We visited one of the locks, Miraflores lock, and saw (heard in my case) a large car transport ship entering the lock and 10 minutes later exit.  A short video inside the museum/visitor centre gives an overview of the canal and its history. 

The third stop took us to Casco Antiguo or Casco Viejo, Old Panama.  Vasco Núñez de Balboa sighted the Pacific Ocean in the early 16th century after which a settlement was founded by the Spanish.  However, in 1671 this city was burnt and mostly destroyed by British pirate Morgan. There followed a second city, Casco Viejo. We visited several churches, including San Jose, with its golden altar and the Cathedral, which is not open to the public as it’s under major reconstruction. 

Our last stop was at Amador Causeway, a 5km long causeway comprised of four islands. These were constructed from rubble taken from the digging of the canal. The Smithsonian Institute of Marine Research is on one such island. This is where we visited to see and touch starfish and the like. Turtles are also on display.  I also did another tour on an amphibious vehicle which enters the actual canal on two occasions and also drove around part of the city. It was explained how the canal worked with its lock system, raising and lowering the ships on each side of the canal over the continental divide. It takes 24 hours for vessels to pass from the Pacific to the Atlantic and vice versa. At present the canal  is being widened to allow faster crossing of vessels and also safer passage for larger shops. In places there is as little as a metre between the side of a ship and the canal wall – they even occasionally scrape the sides. 

After my five days in the capital with okay but not totally friendly locals, I headed to Portobelo and the Caribbean coast for history and jungle.  I stayed at Captain Jack’s hostel, a party place on a hill overlooking the historical and now sleepy town. The food is good but a little expensive. A small Colombian place down the hill and to the left has more cheaper options. However, Captain Jack’s offers good dorm beds and Batillos, fruit juice smoothies, which are delicious!  I’d found a small company online called Portobelo Tours. They offer jungle hikes, kayaking, plus full moon nights in the forest and more. I did a half day kayak with them plus a jungle walk and history tour of old Portobelo. The kayaking was excellent, my guide, Austin from America, took me through the mangroves, thin tree-like structures in the ocean just off shore. The mangroves are low lying trees/grass which fish and birds feed off. They’re great for hiding as I’m sure pirates did in the 16th 17th and 18th centuries. Only small boats and kayaks can enter the mangroves, which are like being inside a giant skeleton. The lower ends of the branches were covered in moss, which felt like a gorilla’s furry legs! After the mangrove we paddled into open water, the sea being as calm and flat as a millpond. We stopped on one island, Palmelo for a rest-bite and to spy on the Capuchin Monkeys on an adjacent island. They squeaked and squealed on our approach.  Once back on the mainland, I dried off and had my hike in the jungle. Really it’s the same as European forest, with different plant species and lots of humidity. My guide, a lovely Scottish lady named Heather took me on an educational stroll through trees and bushes.  I touched huge banana leaves and strange fruits and flowers. Heard birds and smelt various fruits.  One smelt like lemon but was orange.  One of the trees I felt uses the trunk of a larger tree to get to the sunlight like a strangler tree, it sprouts many thin trunks itself.  At one point we crossed a dry river bed, which floods in the rainy season, roughly May to November.  I felt a ‘fountain’ plant, so called because it has leaves that droop very like a fountain or sprinkler spray.  The forest was humid but quiet and away from partying young tourists.  An indigenous festival was occurring near Portobelo and many of the other travellers I met in the hostel from various countries – Canada, Germany, France, Switzerland – had stayed for this. The last few days of the event turned into a party and several people dropped acid! One guy told me about it in great details! :)

I had a quick history tour around Portobelo the following morning, visiting the church which was built just before the Spanish departed in 1814-1820. A large structure able to hold up to 50 thousand people apparently. My guide told me about the Nazareno, or Black Christ, as named by African American soldiers stationed there in the 1940s. A large dark wooden statue of a man, found apparently by fisherman one fine day.  This statue only came to be revered after the entire area had a cholera epidemic soon after the Spanish departed. Portobelo was apparently spared and the locals decided it was this deity that saved them. Every 21st October, the statue is put in a boat and then paraded around the town. It takes all day and pilgrims come from all over Panama and even further apparently. 

Next I jumped on a bus, travelled back to Panama city via Colon and headed to El Valle de Anton (Anton Valley). This was my second couch surfing experience in Panama. I stayed with a cool guy named Jhohnie in the foothills of the mountains. His father builds houses and he has also constructed one for himself. There, I had a small concrete house to myself for two nights. Our first day was taken up ziplining and doing a canopy tour. This was over Chorro Macho (Macho Waterfall) apparently 115 feet high. We walked from Jhohnies’s house into town and to the zipline place, we had an hour to wait, so visited the bottom of the fall while we waited. This involved descending several rock steps and transversing over several bridges.  The sound was delightful to my ears. We also visited a small man-made water pool where kids jumped in from off the rocks.  Back up the steps, I was given a harness and a crash helmet and Jhohnie along with my instructor walked me through the jungle canopy. We climbed many rough rocky steps and trampled over grasses, leaves, tree branches and roots. I was slipping and stumbling all the time. One part was so steep and full of loose soil I struggled to get up. The guys pushed me and I succeeded. Once at the top, I was clipped to the zip wire told to put one hand on my harness and the other on the wire, far away from the wheel. I wore thick gloves to prevent my hands from getting friction burns and protect them from getting trapped on the pulley wheel. I was told to let the wire slide through my hand. This was a brake mechanism. I was down and swung off the plat form, letting the wire run through my hands as I began sliding along. However, I pulled too hard on the brake wire and stopped in mid air, finally I slackened my grip and made it to the second platform. On the next wire, the brake was taken off and I flew along freely, what great exultant fun! There were four lines altogether and the last ride really sent me flying – wicked!! Once the fun was over, Jhohnie and I headed into town, he had a meeting, so I hung out at Heaven’s Cafe. It is owned by the girl I would be staying with the following evening.

Next Jhohnie and I, accompanied by a German traveller we’d met the previous evening, visited the hot spring, about a four minute walk from town. You get your face painted with mud, let it dry in the sun and then jump in the hot pool to relax. It was fun, though the man-made pool wasn’t that hot! After walking back to town we had lunch in a local place – beef soup with lots of veggies, rice and chicken for me and beans and rice for Jhohn. After which we visited the snake centre, where I held a couple of beautiful snakes. They’re not slimy like people believe but smooth, cool and peaceful. In the evening, I met up with Heaven and had dinner and chatted. The Chinese was tasty but way too large in portions.

The following afternoon, Heaven put me on a bus for Uvas, where, with help, I eventually caught a bus to El Cope, a small town in nature. I spent one night with a delightful Panamanian old couple who fed me and the next morning drove me to Chorro Yayas (Yayas Waterfall). A kind elderly guy walked me down the steps and took me to the three levels of large falls. He took pictures for me and I made a couple of videos.  After that, I took a local bus back to the hostel in El Cope. From there I went first to Penonome and secondly to Chitré, a large town or city with noisy traffic and intense heat. I spent one night in a quiet hostel run by an ageing American guy and the next day, took a direct bus to Santiago, where I’ll be for the next couple of days.

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