A Fish out of Water

Last week, I began my Central American journey in the surprising metropolis of Panama City. An amalgamation of colonial buildings, towering skyscrapers, urban parks and (of course) that damn canal. This week, I make my way west towards the mountain region of Chiriquí – in an attempt to summit its largest treasure (no, not Miss Panama).

Day 8 – Panama City, Panama

I must begin this week by giving a mention to Martin and Denise (from Uruguay and Germany respectively), who gave a superb late-night tour of the city yesterday – offering a quite incredible view from the fifty-second floor of Martin’s apartment block. Couchsurfing pulled through again. We also visited the office at the centre of the ‘Panama Papers’ scandal – I could have sworn I saw Dave Cameron’s old man coming out the back door?

On to this week, and it was confirmed this morning that I will be able to attempt to summit Volcán Barú in a few days’ time (weather and nerve permitting). This is superb news, as it was the only activity in Panama that I had researched prior to my arrival – who wouldn’t want to trek up a dormant volcano in ninety per cent humidity? It is also one of the very few places on earth where you can glimpse the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans simultaneously – although I don’t hold out much hope of doing so during the oh so rainy season.

Given how woefully poor my fitness is, I deemed it necessary to begin my preparations in earnest by hiking up Ancon Hill. The highpoint of Panama City, and under U.S control for much of the last century, it provided the perfect illustration of how much pain I will be in when I crawl up Barú. Even the Panamanian rodents (agouti) couldn’t stop laughing at me.

Day 9 – Panama City, Panama to David, Panama (another year older)

My last five birthdays have been in Vancouver, Chicago, Daegu, Sofia and now Panama City respectively – a motley collection of cities I’m sure you’d agree. But having burned the midnight oil yesterday evening, and with a night bus scheduled later, today’s celebrations were markedly more subdued. Plus, my mocking of how dry the wet season was in Panama has come back to bite me in the face – it is moist my friends.

Following my dusk arrival at the bus station, I was immediately relieved that I once again had the assistance of Lisseth: to buy our tickets and direct us to the correct vehicle (of which there were millions). I am effusively aware that I will have to navigate central American public transport by myself in the not-too-distant future, but why not delay that moment just for now. Hell, it’s my name-day for goodness sake. The eight-hour ride to David was as sleepless as you can imagine, and we were extremely grateful that Lissy’s father was awaiting our arrival at the other end. And rest.

Day 10 – David, Panama

Have you ever been awoken by the fragrant wafts of sloth-on-the-grill? Nope, neither have I (of course they don’t do that here you buffoons). I was, however, awoken by the far more pleasing aroma of fried plantains and scrambled eggs. A hearty breakfast was required as we braved the sodden weather for a day trip to Boquete – the location from which we will begin our ascent of Volcán Barú in two days’ time.

This would be our reconnoitre mission – to survey the beast we will tame come Saturday morn. Although in order to recce our volcano, it would be useful if we could actually see the damn thing – the rain would not oblige. I have been informed that the rain here is quite different from anywhere else in Panama, and even has a name of its own: bajareque. Which basically translates as ‘death by a constant sprinkling’. It was relentless.

We sat in the shadow of Barú (at least where we thought it would be) and contemplated our options. To climb or not to climb, that was the question. However, our contemplation was cut-short by a ravenous group of coatimundi. The Panamanian equivalent of the racoon, these poor guys were force-fed loaf after loaf of stale bread by a hysterical group of Chinese tourists. After watching for fifteen minutes, I honestly couldn’t tell who were the intelligent mammals, and who came from China. We escaped back to a sports bar in David to watch my beloved Eagles in the hope that several cervezas would help clarify our decision.

Day 11 – David, Panama to Volcán, Panama

Whilst the beers didn’t help clarify, hurricane Michael did. The remnants of the U.S. storm put pay to any hope we had of hiking Barú, and a new challenge would be needed for tomorrow (thanks for nothing America). As for today, we decided to undertake a tour of Cerro Punta: a mountainous area (as Wiki explains) famed for its farms, steeds and… oh, is this for real?! Bloody bajareque.

With Lissy’s sister’s friend giving the guided tour, we pinballed from farm to fishery to touristy village – with all about as vacant as Donald Trump’s thought processes. This was just fine with me: I was first in line for Panamanian skewers, unopposed for a selfie at the town sign, and at the front of the queue to tickle the sea bass (that was at the fishery). As day turned to night (as is customary in this region), we were dropped off at the humble house of Lissy’s uncle – where I was bombarded once more by Panamanian hospitality (as well as braised beef, lots and lots of braised beef).

Day 12 – Volcán, Panama to David, Panama

A 3:50 am alarm means one of only three things: either you’re on the way to an airport to catch a flight, on your way to a rainforest to glimpse a waterfall, or on your way to hell for waking up at such an ungodly hour. Thankfully we befell the second category, and so began our six-hour journey deep into the wild region of Ngäbe-Buglé.

We were travelling through hostile native territory and had to have our wits about us. That isn’t true, I’ve just always wanted to write it. The natives here had cars, satellite dishes and obesity – just like in the west (also not true). After a relatively short, muddy hike we found ourselves overlooking the quite magnificent Kiki Waterfall – a staggering wall of water and noise that (due to recent, relentless rains) appeared almost at capacity.

We slid and rappelled our way closer and closer, until all sensation of dryness was a long-forgotten feeling, before finally reaching the bottom of the valley. We were then able to slowly manoeuvre our way behind the plummeting sheet of water, a quite thrilling undertaking even for an adrenaline evader like me. I can honestly say, without a hint of sarcasm for a change, that it was one of the most astounding experiences I have ever had. We then continued our search for further falls (with a good level of success), before starting the long journey back to David – with a face like Mick Jagger after a long shower.

Day 13 – David, Panama to Bocas del Toro Town, Panama

Today I had to say goodbye to Lisseth and her incredibly welcoming family, as I headed north to the Caribbean coast – my would-be destination: Bocas del Toro. An island famed for its surf, sand, seafood and (of course) the red poison dart frog. My route to the island involved a twenty-minute walk through the small village of Almirante – which is a hell of a long time carrying two hefty backpacks in the mid-afternoon sun. Despite the sweaty hardship, I suddenly realised that this was the first time I had been thrust into the lives of poorer Panamanians – something that politicians from the ostentatious capital should do more often.

Humbling instances like these are exactly the reason I avoid hotels or restaurant chains or guided tour companies and endeavour to spend my minimal wealth with the little guy – even if only to buy a beer, or a banana, or ten grams of Panama Red (having the local children call you ‘Gringo’ every three seconds is a tolerable price to pay). Anyway, I reached the water taxi on the other side of town and made the thirty-minute trip to Bocas Town before finding my hostel and introducing myself to its magnificent dog: Tora. Will explore the island at the crack of dawn.

Day 14 – Bocas del Toro Town, Panama

Well, that was the plan, but an almighty storm moved over the island during the night and I felt that leaving the hostel would have increased my chances of being struck by lightning to undesirable levels. Instead, I ruminated on life in the stilt-structured hostel, recorded a video, swung in a hammock for several hours and played cards with Tora until the rains subsided and the task of exploring the island didn’t feel like the beginning of Saving Private Ryan.

The airport runs almost the full length of the island, although I use the word ‘airport’ incredibly loosely. The fence surrounding the runway is holier than John Paul II, whilst the small patch of grass alongside it is used as a baseball diamond by the local kids. As a plane arrives, the game is paused as the players amble to the side of the runway until the aircraft has barely cleared their craniums before they begin pitching again – in anger that the plane disturbed them at all.

It doesn’t take long to discover that the island is a completely different animal to the rich capital, or the wet mountain regions in the west – with diverse ethnicities and a Caribbean culture to boot. It felt as if I was walking the streets of Kingston, rather than of a Central American country. With reggaeton blasting from every other shack and the aromatic tangs of fresh marijuana lingering in the Zephyr, I leaned over to my faithful companion and uttered: “Tora, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”


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