12 Days of our Panama Christmas

On the first day of Christmas, Panama gave to us… one relaxed border.
Saying goodbye to the group in Puerto Viejo was staggered; with Maren heading back to Norway first, then Hannah back to the UK a day later. On our travel day, we silently fist-bumped a very hungover Yardley, assuming we would cross paths in Panama at some point. Lango, Mia and Andy came to wave us off as we caught the public bus down to the Costa Rican-Panama border- and these 3 more than any I know I will see again. (Our final dinner together was spent making plans for our next encounters; James will see them in March, and me sometime in 2018). Within an hour of sticking our heads out of the windows to nurse a hangover, we were at the border – perhaps the weirdest border set up I’ve encountered so far. We had to pay our leaving tax in a tiny restaurant, and then take our receipt to a counter to get our leaving stamps. We were then free to walk across a footbridge into Panama; but we saw plenty of people bypass the whole ordeal with the armed guards not doing anything. Once on the Panamanian side of the river, we were handed a form to fill out and present to a soldier when paying our entrance fees; after which we were told to go to customs “Only if you want the stamp.” I’ve never been given a choice before, and obviously opted for the stamp, and it left me puzzled how a border (with serious drug trafficking problems: I saw two parcels being handed out of windows and taken across in exchange for money in the short time I spent there) could be so relaxed. Confused, we boarded a bus to take us to the ferry terminal, which in turn would take us to Bocas Del Toro.

On the second day of Christmas, Panama gave to us… two free breakfasts.
We checked into the cheapest hostel we could find, and received exactly what we paid for. A lack of atmosphere, lighting, customer service and just a general dinginess greeted us through the doors of Coconut Hostel; but the silver lining was finding Lewis and Kyle (who we had spent time with in Costa Rica) had fallen for the ridiculously low price too. We ate a dingy dinner of rice sandwiches and cheap lager before crashing for the night: and awoke early so that we could grab our free breakfast (a dry pancake and half a ring of pineapple) before checking out and going to Aqua Lounge across the bay. Because we were so early, the chef allowed us to have breakfast there too, despite it only being for guests who had stayed the previous night; so we plugged the many gaps that Coconut’s offerings had left with toast and coffee. Aqua Lounge was an infinitely better hostel and was only $4 more expensive; it was heaving with locals, guests and other travellers at night time thanks to their drinks offers, and boasted a trampoline, rope-swing, diving platforms and slacklines to keep travellers entertained in the daylight hours. Our assumptions about Yardley were correct, and we bumped into him and Swedish-Australian Erik and enjoyed many beers together until hitting the hay.

On the third day of Christmas, Panama gave to us… three bustling bus terminals.
Almirante, Santiago and Chitres. (Las Tablas too, but that was hardly bustling!). Kyle and Lewis were heading down to the Pacific coast of Panama, a sleepy town called Pedasi, to meet their old rugby coach, Pete, and his girlfriend, Jo. They invited us to tag along for a few days over Christmas, with the lure of free accommodation and regular surfing opportunities. However, Pedasi was 400km away from Bocas as the crow flies, and the scatty bus network of Panama would at least double that. We set off at the crack of dawn, catching the sunrise as we took a water taxi back to mainland Panama. A pick-up truck took us to Almirante bus depot, and we haggled with the driver to take us to Santiago for a respectable price. From there, we caught a chicken bus to Chitres, and then a quieter one took us to Las Tablas. Our 14 hour travel day ended with a shared taxi to Pedasi, where we were greeted with a beer before crashing out on the sofas.

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My living quarters from the 23-27th December. Can’t knock the couch-surfing lifestyle!

On the fourth day of Christmas, Panama gave to us… four spinning wheels.
The temperature on the first morning in Pedasi was in the low-30s, and after cooking breakfast (eggs and fruit smoothies) we were keen to cool off in the ocean. We considered all 6 of us piling into the rental car, but we cast our minds back to the police who were pulling over tourists in Nicaragua attempting to extort cash from them in a last ditch attempt to raise funds for their wife/mistress’ Christmas present. Lewis and I decided to cycle there instead, a decision which paid off: within minutes of setting off, those in the car were stopped by police, who turned the car inside out determinedly looking for anything that would incriminate the group. Pete watched ominously over the man’s shoulder, checking to see if he was planting anything. With this hold up, Lewis and I arrived (in a sweaty mess!) to the beach – Playa Destiladeros – an hour earlier than the car group, having completed the 15km cycle in around half an hour. Once we were all present, we played rugby, American football and tennis, drinking beers until the sun set beneath the split. Lewis and I cycled back with shattered legs.

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James with the first batch of smoothie.

On the fifth day of Christmas, Panama gave to us… five surfing ‘gringos’.
Yesterday’s beach was idyllic, with only one other fisherman on the whole stretch of sand, but the swell wasn’t great for surfing. Granted, the waves were huge (my beer was constantly topped up with salt-water after each clobbering I received) but they broke too close to shore; so today we decided to venture further afield and go to Playa Venao, about twice the distance from Pedasi compared to yesterday’s beach. Pete owned 3 surfboards, so we took it in turns ensuring all 5 of us had a good few hours on the water. I made the transition from soft-top boards to hard-top boards fairly easily, and vow never to go back to what many consider the ‘beginner’ board. Lewis and I saved a burrito from last night’s home-cooked dinner for lunch, and after a final session on the waves we returned back to Pedasi to cook a pasta bake. We were all drained of energy after a full day of surfing, and a game of pool at local bar, Tortugas, was the final nail in our coffins before we were resigned to our sofas again.

On the sixth day of Christmas, Panama gave to us… six FaceTiming phones.
This was the first Christmas Day I’ve spent away from home; and I didn’t want to make any attempt to make it traditional to avoid comparing it to the family-and-food-filled days I’ve enjoyed over the last 23 years, except for opening a few cards that were stuffed into my rucksack when I left. The plan was to return to yesterday’s beach (Lewis and James would take the earlier bus, Kyle and I would ride with Pete and Jo – and we’d switch on the return leg), surf for a few hours and then grab a Chinese takeaway for dinner. We managed to do tick off everything from this to-do list; and the minutes in between this schedule were spent video-calling families and girlfriends. It was bizarre to see England so cold, whilst stood in 30-degree heat; grit on the pavements instead of sand; and winter jumpers compared to board shorts, but I liked my day all the same and thoroughly enjoyed calling home for a sustained period of time.

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A couple of cards were the only hint of a traditional Christmas this year.

On the seventh day of Christmas, Panama gave to us… seven pints of chocolate milk.

We wanted to give Pete and Jo some space on Boxing Day, after it became apparent that we were gate-crashing their couples Christmas break. They headed back to Venao and we stayed at the house to plan our travel days; armed with a laptop, a notebook and four smartphones. Our planning would be fuelled by bananas, chocolate, ice and ice cream, blended in the kitchen and served as a reward for successful reductions of our to-do lists. Seven pints of the stuff were guzzled whilst we researched bus timetables and booked hostels- and it emerged that Lewis and Kyle would have to set off that very afternoon rather than the presumed 27th. We waved them off and returned back to the Chinese for dinner.

On the eighth day of Christmas, Panama gave to us… eight travellers crammed into a tiny dorm.
We said our goodbyes and thank-you/sorry-for-crashing-your-getaway’s to Pete and Jo over beers and rice last night so we could catch the 6am chicken bus back to Chitres via Las Tablas. A fairly well equipped bus (dare I say coach?) was at Chitres and took us directly to Panama City, where we checked into Hostel Casa Areka – a chilled hostel with good facilities, a free breakfast (pancakes and fruit) and very cheap prices. We cooked up a big batch of pasta for dinner- leftovers served as lunch the next day- before turning in for the night. It became apparent, as everyone else in our dorm had the same plan, how small our room was for the amount of people and rucksacks in it: the door could barely open without hitting a bed, and if more than 2 people were stood up, the other 6 would have to remain in their beds. After briefly FaceTiming Hannah, I curled up next to my rucksack and fell asleep instantly, ready to explore the city over the next 72 hours.

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A stack of pancakes (accompanied by steak, bananas or apples) kicked off every day in Panama City.

On the ninth day of Christmas, Panama gave to us… 9 miles worth of shredded knee cartilage.
The main pull to Panama City for me, is the canal which essentially cuts the country in half just south of the city. Other than that, I’d heard rumours that it was the same sort of city as San Jose of Costa Rica, just a waiting room for travellers killing time before flights, something that I disagree with after having 3 good days here. James needed a day to sort out his visas and book a flight to Australia (after deciding that the attraction to South America isn’t as appealing as he first thought); so I headed out on my first solo adventure, a 9.1km walk (in a straight line) around the bay before cutting up north to reach Mireflores Lock. This coastal detour, as well as the others that I took to look at the fish market, Old Town and avoid an area I sensed I shouldn’t be in, brought this walk up from just over 9km to nearly 5 miles. After tracking the Panama Canal Railway line for an hour, I finally reached the locks and surrounding dams and marvelled in the man-made wonder – a nice change after two months of seeing natural sights. I kept an eye out for crocodiles around the woodlands near the rivers edge before turning back – and got nearly halfway before the heavens opened and I got slightly too wet for it to be refreshing anymore. I hailed down a taxi and checked my phone to see what my final mileage was: 9 miles. The theme of this blog post continues, and I made a mental note to take my trusty knee-strap out of my rucksack again.

On the tenth day of Christmas, Panama gave to us… ten dollars more of shredded knees.
Naturally, I forgot to put my knee-strap on; and after another breakfast of pancakes, James, Israeli Shai and I walked down to GetOneBikes to rent out three bikes for the day. With my knee already groaning after yesterday’s marathon, it was with mixed feelings when I realised I could only afford a fixed-gear ‘fixie’ bike; knowing both how fun they are to ride and how bad they are for my legs. I voted with my wallet, and paid $10 for a full-day of riding and we set off to the Amador Causeway via the impressive Cinta Costera road. After stopping off for a Gatorade on the island, joined to the mainland by a thin road, we headed back to Old Town (or Casca Viejo) for an orange juice/Chinese lunch for James and Shai. James then decided to head back to the hostel leaving us to take on the colossal Ancon Hill on our single-speed bikes. The views from the top were spectacular and well worth the sweat to get up there; and the downhill was equally as enjoyable as my shattered knees tried to keep up with the blistering pace of the spinning pedals. We dropped the bikes off, grabbed ingredients for tonight’s burritos, and retired ourselves to bed before the sun had set.

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On the eleventh day of Christmas, Panama gave to us… 11 storeys of elevators.
This was the day I wished we could have gone to Colombia earlier, as I had seen everything that I had wanted to on my to-do list in Panama City. However, flights were much cheaper if we flew on New Years Eve, so we had to wait until tomorrow. In order not to waste the day; we headed up to the top floor of the Hard Rock Hotel to admire the panoramic views of the city’s skyline and then stopped off on the 11th floor to swim in the infinity pool until we couldn’t ignore the waitress’ “Are you order any drinks?” any longer and felt it was time to leave. Once back at Casa Areka, we played pool for hours, playing each other, some Scandinavians, Germans and another English lad, Banky.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, Panama gave to us… a 12 o’clock check out time.
On our final day in Panama, we caught a shuttle bus at 12.05pm to the Tocumen Airport, having eaten banana pancakes for breakfast, walked into town to find the post office and then had steak and rice for ‘elevenses’. We realised just how early we were for our 5.50pm flight when we arrived, checked in our bags and sat at the departures board which wasn’t even showing our flight yet. Eventually, the minutes ran down and we boarded the Airbus A320 that would take us across the Darien Gap* to country #38, Colombia.

*The Darien Gap is the only significant break in the Pan-American highway. Left alone by the police, run by the cartels and completely lawless; it is one of the most dangerous places on the planet. We met a man in California who had attempted to walk through the jungle of Darien in the 90s but was intercepted by bandits a few days in. His two friends that he was with were beheaded and he escaped to his freedom. “Promise me you’ll fly over it, boys,” he asked us. We were tempted by the idyllic 5-day boat trip around the Gap, which takes travellers from Panama to Colombia via the San Blas islands – but with the tours starting at $450 it was much cheaper to fly with another budget airline.

Thanks to everyone that we met in Panama (Yardley, Eric, Kelsey, Kyle, Lewis, Pete, Jo – you two especially, thanks for putting us up at such short notice – ‘Panamanian Chav’, Saul, Alexandro, Shai and Banky), who made the Christmas period better than I imagined it would have been and to everyone back at home who I spoke to. I hope everyone reading (both at home and on the road) has a safe and happy new year.

If you enjoyed reading this travelogue, please share it around on Facebook/Twitter; read through the other posts from this incredible journey so far; and make sure to subscribe via email at the bottom of the page. Thank you!

 

 

 

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