We arrived in Panama City on 22nd March and already had our goal, to reach Cancún in Mexico for our flight to New York in 40 days by May 1st. Now, we could have flown to a couple of places or even directly to well travelled Mexico but where's the fun in that we thought? By now we'd had a taste of overland travel. In our minds it seemed far easier to take a bus for hours and hours at a time than to fly. All that waiting around in airports, checking baggage and what not, nah. I'd got it into my head that we could visit every single Central American country in our short time, it's a cluster of relatively small countries, how hard could it be I thought.
And so, our journey began in Panama City and as a treat for starting the 'second part' of our trip we gorged on avocado topped veggie burgers covered in every condiment imaginable and fries at an America style burger place. With an NBA game playing we felt like we were in New York already and enjoyed the fast food in comfortable air conditioning. The next day our first priority was getting a new camera to replace our beloved and much missed stolen Canon. Luckily we knew what we wanted, and just up the metropolitan streets of Panama City was a big technology store. We tested out the Nikon that we'd researched online, Craig managed to persuade me to at least consider something that wasn't a Canon. I found the idea hard at first, I've always been a Canon girl. My first SLR was a second hand 35mm Canon I bought at college, now splattered with purple paint thanks to some 'experimental painting' from my art foundation days. But a Canon was out of reach being much more expensive than any other camera brand. The Nikon looked great and I begrudgingly had to admit seemed to have better features than our Canon. So, with our new camera in hand we decided to take a trip to the Panama Canal which we did have some difficulty finding thanks to the huge bus station. We were pointed here, there and everywhere until we eventually found the correct bus and made our way to the Miraflores section of the canal which is on the Pacific side. We paid the $15 entrance fee and walked to the top viewing balcony where a catamaran was waiting to be let through. How the other half live I thought as I watched the yacht dwellers mill around on their multi-million dollar boat. The water levels drained and rose in perfect order until the gates opened and the catamaran sailed through with ease, up next was a huge cargo ship which looked like a giant in the canal. We wandered through the on-site museum though we couldn't stop for long as our time was running out. The short film about the history of the region and the building of the canal left me with a tear in my eye. When France started construction of the canal in 1881 thousands of workers died, many to yellow fever and malaria. Problems with engineering and the death of workers led to the project being abandoned until the United States took over in 1904 eventually opening the canal for business in 1914. Since then control has been handed over to the Panama government and work to enlarge and improve the canal has been ongoing. On our walk to the main road and bus stop we crossed a bridge and I noticed a sign with a symbol of a crocodile. I looked down at the muddy river bed and sure enough saw a huge wild crocodile snoozing on the riverbank, scaly skin shaded under the bushes. We returned to the bus station which is right next door to one of the biggest shopping centres I've ever seen. As we walked through it the shops seemed to go on infinitely. We found a food court full of American fast food chains and decided to have a baked potato from Wendy's. I miss jacket potatoes from home, with lots of butter, an unhealthy amount of cheddar and of course baked beans. I thought a nice potato from Wendy's would help quell my craving but unfortunately the bright orange goo on top of the tiny chewy potato did not satisfy. Surely American cheese has to be the worst in the world right? We filled up on Cinnabon for dessert which didn't disappoint and caught the metro back to our quiet hostel amongst the city's sky scrapers.
With little time to spare we left Panama City the next day and travelled for 10 hours by coach and chicken bus (no chickens present) to Boquete in the highlands. Arriving after 9pm it was dark in the little town and we found our hostel with ease. With luck we had a four bed dorm to ourselves which was lovely. What wasn't lovely was the huge cockroach running around on the floor. I moved to a top bunk and turned off the lights. I could feel my neck and shoulders itching and turned on the light, there right next to me on the wall was previously mentioned cockroach which scared the absolute life out of me. Alongside that the itching had been bed bugs, large enough to see crawling on the pillow. It was the stuff of nightmares. How am I the one who always encounters bed bugs? Do I just have the worst luck when it comes to biting insects? By this time the whole hostel was asleep and we had to wake up one of the owners, luckily she was very understanding and moved us to a dorm next door which was bug-free. By the next morning the whole room had been fumigated and sealed off, and our fee for the night had been waived. We made pancakes for breakfast with the hostel supplied mix and caught a colectivo to the start of the Pipeline Trail which is a couple of kilometres outside the town.
We walked through the forest catching sight of pretty birds and admiring huge ancient trees. The walk was easy if a little sweaty thanks to the humidity and was made more fun by rickety wooden bridges over the river which shook as we crossed. At the end of the trail was a waterfall which we sat by, watching people come and go. The return walk was downhill slightly and so even easier than the way up, we squeezed (literally) into an overcrowded colectivo for the quick journey back to Boquete and then had veggie tacos for dinner.
Bocas del Toro
Our last stop in Panama was at Bocas del Toro where we would hopefully experience some Panama beach culture. Before we could enjoy sandy beaches we'd have to get there first. As we left our hostel a bus was passing to the next big town of David so we jumped aboard, we then - after some confusion - found a chicken bus to Almirante where were dropped off on the side of a road, a taxi took us to the colourful docks where we boarded a speedboat to Bocas Town on the island of Bocas del Toro. Travel isn't always a picnic but with time and patience you always get to where you want to go, eventually.
The calm waters were interrupted by our boat, creating spray and waves aplenty. We arrived on the island and walked to our homestay which was out the way of the busy tourist packed strip. The following day we were unsure what to do. Our plan had been to visit a local beach called Red Frog but while researching we learned that there had been several reports of muggings at gun point there and most frighteningly the mysterious death of a female tourist in February, just one month ago. We took a walk to the boat dock to see what other options were available and found a boat tour leaving in 10 minutes to a dolphin rich area and beach. We had to dash around to take cash out and retrieve our swimming things before the boat left but we managed it. We spotted dolphins out at sea and starfish right by mangroves before arriving on the island paradise of uninhabited Cayo Zapatilla. The sand was white and sugary with an island centre dense with palm trees. We wandered along the beach until the clear warm water became too irresistible and we dived in. Our afternoon breezed by in a mix of swimming, splashing, frisbee and sandy beach picnic and was sheer paradise. Reluctantly we jumped back on the boat and sped through the mangroves stopping to see wild sloths hanging from branches. Once back in Bocas Town we ate dinner at Om Café an Indian restaurant on the decks edge, our table looked over gently lapping water as the sun set. Our beautiful Indian meal topped off a fantastic time in Panama; a country that we didn't expect to love this much. The variety of cosmopolitan skyscraper strewn Panama City, quiet and nature filled Boquete and perfect sandy paradise of Zapatilla meant that Panama might just be one of our favourite countries.
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