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Panama, land of plenty

Perhaps not an obvious choice for a holiday but after our manic race against time in Ecuador and Colombia, we felt we could do with a slow pace for a while. We decided Panama felt safe and on closer inspection, offered much more to the tourist than just a canal and Panama hats. We docked in Carti- the small port serving the Kuna Yala region and made our way to the Inter-Americana for Panama City. The police checked us on the way and were surprised to see motorbikes weaving their way across the toy road which leads from Carti back to the highway. These guys check all vehicles taking the road which leads only to the ocean so would’ve clearly been surprised to come across foreign bikes which somehow appeared from nowhere.

The road is full of comedy inclinations and cambers, a frequent feature being the exaggerated U-shaped valley road which causes belly lurches as you realise that half pipes were inspired by this road. The port is not designed to process vehicle entry so our lack of importation papers perplexed the officers but we assured them that our very first stop was the customs official in the airport next to Panama City. Satisfied with our sincerity, they let us go although the subsequent two police checks en route to our destination (less than 150km) indicated a Panamanian love affair with traffic police and a reinforced respect for speed limits by us. We eventually pulled in to Panama City, unmolested and with our importation documents well stamped and recorded after a blistering hour queuing in the midday sun.


Panama City from the canal causeway

We were desperate to see the canal whilst in Panama as that was most of what we knew of the country. A tour was arranged which allowed us to actually travel along the canal and spot ships which, as anorak-y as it sounds, was incredibly interesting and the guides were both knowledgeable and friendly. Alex got up close and personal with some hungry monkeys and massive 30000 container carrying ships were spotted using the brand new locks. We were treated to a brand new ship carrying thousands of containers passing through the canal thanks to the wider system, apparently the charge of $1.2M for this ship to use the canal is a fraction of the cost it would’ve been to go around South America. The canal runs through an area which used to be the US canal protection zone which now exists as a natural reserve and unspoilt jungle. This explains why there is so much wildlife so close to the city- it includes plenty of monkeys, crocodiles, sloths and birds. We saw so many species just in our 2 hour tour on the canal.


One of the newest ships to pass through the canal – previously this would have been too big to fit the lock system

Another essential visit in Panama City was found in Old Town which used to be inaccessible until recent history when the area was renovated and given a new lease of life. Alex’s skill for tracking down tasty treats was re-affirmed with an ice cream from Granclement in Casco Viejo. This was a welcome cold treat in the high humidity and heat of the city.  We also visited the BioMuseo (Frank Gehry) which will be great once it’s actually filled with exhibits, in the meantime… stick to ice cream.


Clearly overwhelmed by the choice, Alex panics and goes for the only clear winner, chocolate


Frank Gehry’s design is inspired by Panama.

Tired of the city traffic and the humidity, we thought we’d cool down with a few days of camping on the beach. Santa Clara was only an hour away and a local restaurant offered their patch of beach for $5 a night which was great as we anticipated front row seats to the ocean every morning and chilled coconut water to sip. As it turns out, Panamanians love a beach party and once we settled into our camp on a deserted beach and prepared our beds for the night, Reggaeton suddenly blared out from the tent which had suddenly bloomed 20m down from the restaurant. We looked out to 2m high speakers mounted around a burgeoning bonfire. The music coupled with the tent being approximately 479degC all night meant that we failed to enjoy the repeated songs which resumed full volume at 8am. Then followed a day where the sun sprang into melting action from 9am and the beach filled with City dwellers barbecuing and swigging beer from the morning on. This culminated in one guy throwing up his day’s intake a polite distance from his friends i.e. right in front of our tent at about 3pm.



Peace at last!

Once the weekend madness was over, the beach became quiet again and most importantly, ours. We woke up to fishermen stringing their nets across the surf as Panama means “abundance of fish” in a number of indigenous languages and not, to our ignorance, a reference to the connection of north and south America. This is startlingly accurate as fish were literally jumping out of the waves despite all the human traffic in the water.


Tackling the net rope


rewarding your assistants is how to get ahead in management

After a few days by the beach we felt it was time to move on. This was compounded by a series of freak waves which almost washed the tent away and all the sand in the previous photos was gone- simply bitten off the beach by the waves leaving a massive sandy valley that the ocean pooled into. This was apparently due to a huge storm out in the middle of the Pacific, which we’d witnessed the edges of the previous night. We had heard of a beach which at this time of year, is perfect for sea turtles nesting and one could witness thousands of them laying eggs in one evening. We made our way towards Islas de Canas to see this spectacle.


Stormy skies on the Pacific Horizon

A beautiful hotel we passed by offered us this view:


…sadly, it came with a $130 pricetag per night so we moved on to a really lovely seaside hostel which was a more affordable $12 per bed. We organised to see the turtles in the evening and turned up the the port of Islas de Canas expecting a boat to take us to the island and instead, because of low tide, walked through the swampy mangroves with our boots off until we could reach the boat! the boat wove its way around the pitch black mangrove and deposited us neatly on a small pier. We were then treated to a freshly caught fish dinner with patacones (Alex’s new favourite food) and once that was over, welcomed onto a horse driven cart for a night time ride along the beach to see the turtles lay their eggs.

The weather was still bad from the mystery Pacific storm a couple of nights earlier and as we trotted along the beach we could hear the gap between lightning and thunder getting shorter and shorter and the wind was starting to pick up enough to make the horse jittery. Just as we were going to give up on the turtles, our driver noticed one heaving away on a small sandy mound. This turtle was magnificent. She’d shored herself up onto the sand and was depositing 80 of her best eggs into a sandy nest. The driver explained she was 25-30 years old and he recognised her from the previous few years she’d been there. That was a heart warming lesson – he really loved his job protecting the turtles. When the eggs are laid, he and the other guardians will dig them up and incubate them so that all can be hatched safely, away from birds and poachers and then released all at once towards the ocean to increase their chances of survival and decrease the volume which get snapped up by sharks and birds on entry into the surf.


A turtle laying eggs

What was truly amazing was the dexterity present in the turtle’s fins- her delicate scooping of sand and subsequent less delicate tamping down of it on the eggs was amazing to witness. You could see the play of bones under the fin skin looking for all the world like a human hand wearing stockings.  Once the laying was over, she hid all traces of her handiwork and flopped back into the water and we retreated back to our hostel on Venao beach and a beautifully cleared night sky.


Venao beach is spectacularly clear


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