Route Canal

Welcome curious souls to yet another one of my rambling journals. Over the next ten weeks, I hope to keep you satisfactorily entertained with tales from splendid Central America – all the way from Panama City to Mexico.

A journey of over eight thousand kilometres and comprising hundreds of active volcanoes, dense jungles, countless Mayan ruins, incredible biodiversity, pristine beaches and numerous drug cartels – this part of the world has something for everyone! I will be without my beloved vehicle this time, so will be relying on colourful chicken buses and the kindness of local drivers to get me and my backpack around – wish me luck…

So, without further ado, let’s begin my tale in the exotic location of Keynsham, just outside Bristol – before what was to be an epic day of taxis, buses and flights halfway around the world.

Day 1 – Keynsham, United Kingdom to Panama City, Panama

At precisely 4:03 am on October the 2nd, 2018, my journey began. Bleary-eyed and highly-unsure if I’d packed everything I would need for the ten-week voyage – actually, what on earth does one need for ten weeks in a jungle? With my prior ‘research’ feeling woefully inadequate, I checked my passport for the fortieth time and boarded the first of two buses to Heathrow Airport. Then came flight number one to the quite spectacularly awful Newark Liberty International Airport just outside New York.

After a highly uncomfortable nine-hour flight, the last thing I wanted was an airport that is about as organized and appealing as Theresa May’s Brexit plan. The queues were staggering, and I was fortunate that my connecting flight was delayed, as I would have missed it otherwise. Newark’s only saving grace is that it overlooks Manhattan, a far more pleasing sight than the interior of the building – which needs destroying and starting again. Forget building a wall, start with your bloody airports!

The second flight was far more survivable than the first – United Airlines didn’t kick a single person off my flight, huzzah! As we drifted over the Caribbean Sea, the night-time skies began to illuminate with lightning-charged clouds that surrounded the plane from all angles – it was quite a relief to touch down in Panama City. It was a full twenty-four hours after the morning alarm that I finally arrived at my hostel – beleaguered and spent.

Day 2 – Panama City, Panama

I awoke to find myself in what felt like a damp sponge. The air con spluttered and coughed but provided about the same amount of cold air as a Norwegian blowing on your shoulder. I stepped out of the shower and instantly needed another one. Continually peeling myself from myself, I realised that this would be the norm for the next ten weeks.

I decided to take a precursory walk around the city and quickly regretted it. The midday sun beat down on my chalky arms and legs, whilst I copiously perspired from head to toe – a far from pleasant sight. I quickly realised why the streets were dead, nobody goes outside in the middle of the day – unless you’re a braindead tourist. Realising that my skin was starting the melting process, I hid inside the hostel until the sun had completely disappeared before risking a stroll along the seafront. It’s a pleasant walkway, and the city looks rather appealing when lit up – but no more appealing than any other modern metropolis. Looking forward to leaving the city limits in the morn.

Day 3 – Panama City, Panama

My first venture outside of the city centre was towards Metropolitan National Park. I was assisted by local Panamanian Lissy, who very kindly offered to show me around some of the cities popular, and not-so-popular, sites. Upon entering the park, we were told by a ranger to expect encounters with wild sloths, anteaters and armadillos – facts which excited me greatly, although did not surprise my travel companion, as you can find them around almost every corner in Panama. The fact that sloths are one of Panama’s largest scourges already makes it more appealing than any other country I have visited.

We carved a short, but sweaty, route through the forest – picking out turtles, bird-eating spiders, titi monkeys (as I was reliably informed) and gargantuan butterflies the size of a baby’s face, before reaching the summit of the park. The view overlooked Panama City, as well as the Pacific Ocean and the surrounding jungle – a location I cannot wait to contract malaria in. However, whilst I’m city-based I may as well make the most of it and watch the NFL in a sports bar with big screens and cheap cocktails? This jungle life is a breeze…

Day 4 – Panama City, Panama

Day four and I’m really starting to get used to the heat and humidity here. For that is what I would like to write but it is simply not true. I am a sweaty, broiling mess. Today we headed to Amador Causeway, Panama’s booming boardwalk filled with restaurants, shops, and a rather famous bio-museum designed by none other than Guggenheim-creator Frank Gehry (although he may have spent slightly less time, and been considerably more inebriated when creating this one).

The museum is worth a wander, as Panama has about as diverse an eco-system as any country on earth (with the exception of Luxembourg). As well as several interesting galleries, the air con inside the museum is worth the admission price alone. Maintaining the condition of prehistoric fossils requires a constant, cool temperature – the rocks also need a cool room…

I was then taken to Panama City’s fish market, which was my first real taste of local life, as well as fish. With a small crowd vigorously vying for our business, we quickly haggled with one such gentleman who offered us free beer and we were sold. Those that know me, know me. And those that know me well know that I am not a food person – but I can honestly claim this meal was a spectacular triumph. Quite possibly the best pan-fried Panamanian fish with garlic and plantains to date. I will return, although (to avoid being mobbed) looking less like a tourist.

Day 5 – Panama City, Panama

Five days without seeing the Panama Canal is almost sacrilege. Go six, and you’re banned from ever setting foot in the country again. So, I made the short trip north to Miraflores Locks to fulfil my tourist duties and was pleasantly surprised. Having toured the museum and watched a short film on its history (basically detailing how America screwed them over from day one – oh how times have changed), I took my place along the railings and awaited the arrival of a boat, a big one.

The crowd awaiting a Panamax (the very largest ships) was quite staggering, and the clearly-high PA announcer was doing his very best to whip the hordes of tourists into a boxing-match style frenzy – whoops and hollers all around (must have picked it up from the Americans). Admittedly, it was an impressive sight – watching a fifty thousand tonne vessel descend twenty-seven feet (as you can see I was paying attention) into Miraflores Lake. Having taken enough selfies to satisfy even the vainest of Kardashians, my tourist duties were complete, and I could remain in the country, phew.

Day 6 – Panama City, Panama

Another scorching day, and another senseless decision to visit the ruins of Panamá Viejo at midday – at least it was quiet. The site is home to the remains of some of the very first buildings built by the Spanish back in the 1500’s and is now a World Heritage Site. A climb to the top of its central cathedral offers some stirring views of the old town and of the surrounding bay. I wonder what the early settlers would make of the modern city that now girdled it? I’m sure they would be thrilled.

Being the only tourist brave enough to visit at this time of day, I was at liberty to wander the grounds, photograph the elusive iguanas and even receive a free tour of the museum from an extremely bored-looking guide. Having discovered that the only person to sack the historic city was Welsh pirate Henry Morgan, I felt a strange sense of pride that only a local pirate’s pillaging can provide. Then it was back to the pool for beers, burgers and a boisterous Panamanian birthday party, with every guest over the age of sixty (possibly seventy) – who says hostels are for the young?

Day 7 – Panama City, Panama

I was told not to come to Central America in October because visiting during the rainy season would “be a miserable experience”. Well, one week in and I haven’t so much as seen a drop of rain since the flight, with taxi drivers telling me that summer seems to have started two months early – I still haven’t made up my mind if that is good or bad news.

Anyhow, I still hadn’t visited the Old Town (Casco Viejo), and today seemed like as good a day as any to do so. Colonial buildings galore, the old quarter is what I naively imagined all of Panama City to look like. It has undergone massive renovation over the last decade, but still around fifty per cent is in drastic need of repair – which makes it all the more appealing in my view. Graffiti, wooden balconies, blinding traditional attire and local women shouting at their husbands in the street – finally a proper welcome to Central America.

J

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