After the 10 months in South America, Central America was one exhausting prospect! There was so much to do and I felt that I couldn’t do it justice (I definitely didn’t do it justice!). I certainly hope to return as I only got halfway through due to political drama and running out of time…
Anyway, I was on a boat, from Colombia to Panama, so let’s take a quick look at Panama before we talk about the San Blas Islands which is where I was heading.
When Panama gained independence from Spain it joined the Republic of Gran Colombia along with Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. They broke up and Colombia and Panama became New Granada, then the Granadine Confederation and the Republic of Gran Colombia and eventually in 1903 Panama became independent. It consequently celebrates two independence days from Spain and also from Colombia.
Venezuela once fell out with Panama, calling it a ‘US lackey’ due to its unusually close US ties. Unusual for a Latin American country anyway, as relations between many of them have been highly strained. Old leader General Manuel Noriega was deposed by Bush after he was found to be involved in drug trafficking.
It has the lowest population of any of the Central American countries and has only won one Olympic medal, for the men’s long jump. In the narrowest spot of Panama, you see the sunrise over the Pacific and set over the Atlantic sea and this is the only place in the world that you can do this. In terms of wildlife, Panama has more birds than the US and Canada combined so it’s yet another Latin American blessed with an array of wildlife. Let’s hope it looks after it.
San Blas Islands
On the morning that I left Colombia, we all got shared taxis from our hostel to the port to board our yacht. The captain of the ship was a grumpy, alcoholic Spaniard and he was assisted by an Argentinian woman who was working in exchange for the trip.
The passengers included a very tall Barcelonian man, two Israeli couples, two Swiss guys and me. I didn’t get a cabin so I slept downstairs or on the deck. Sleeping on the deck backfired on the first night when I got hit by a wave over the side of the ship much to the amusement of the captain and one of the Israelis.
The first 24 hours of the trip were pretty uncomfortable and I felt sick. Luckily I wasn’t actually sick, but one of the Israeli girls was throwing up for hours. I never actually saw the captain sleep as he had to man the boat, he said that the beer helped him to stay awake, which was good as he was constantly drinking. I never saw him eat either. He had a dog called Chirri who didn’t wee or poo for two whole days before we reached the first island. Impressive.
We had our first stop after one of the Israelis claimed to have seen a dolphin. I think he probably did but I was bitter that I missed it. After we stopped on the second day I went for my first swim and some of my red hair dye ran out into the water, the lead Israeli was very unimpressed. The first island we visited was very small and I thought about how nice it would be to live on a tiny island in the sea and just read under a palm tree. The dog went off immediately to find herself a nice hole in the sand. Its really tiring being on a boat so I slept a lot. It was strange being on a yacht somewhere so beautiful I felt like a millionaire, apart from being with a bunch of strangers and not having a room. I just slept on a sofa like a vagrant.
At one point we were moored in a spot near an island and an American guy approached on his dinghy chug-chug-chugging along wearing his life jacket. He wanted to speak to the captain and I think we can safely say there was a culture clash. The Argentinian translated for our captain as he only spoke Spanish. The American didn’t speak Spanish despite having a yacht moored in Panama. He opening gambit was along the lines if ‘I think your boat will swing out and hit mine if you stay here’.
I don’t know anything about sailing but this was clearly bollocks. Argentina’s response was ‘Hello, how are you? I’m Argentina and this is Spain. What do you want to talk to us about?’ She translated the response back to Spain, who interrupted ‘No, I understand everything. We’re not moving.’ The other Europeans and Israelis looked on in collective dislike for this prick. Needless to say, he got his dinghy back to his yacht and we didn’t go anywhere.
There are around 360 San Blas Islands which are home to the Kuna people. They inhabit 49 of the islands which span 170 miles. The Kuna have political autonomy over their islands and directly benefit from tourist dollars. One of the Swiss guys in passing said that he would buy souvenirs when he was on one of the islands. They held him to his empty promise by turning up at our boat and demanding he came with them to buy stuff. The good news is that money spent in the islands goes towards motorboat oil, health, permaculture, and education.
Once you get off the boat after 3 days and 4 nights you arrive on land and then you get a jeep to Panama City. The border control was unfortunately closed which meant we had to travel to the airport to get stamped in. This meant a long wait and the airport and our Spanish captain was in a right mood.
Once we got into Panama City my boatmates and I checked ourselves into a cheap hostel. I soon moved hostels into a much cooler one where Sarah and Joe were staying. We stayed in the old town which was built after the original was burned and looted by privateer Henry Morgan so they remade it 5 miles away.
Our activities in PC were mostly insalubrious but we did visit the official Panama Canal visitor centre which is very shiny and you can watch the ships pass through the locks.
When I visited the Panama canal they were making it bigger, wider, faster and stronger. This has now happened and it has unexpected beneficiaries in the form of Barbados and Seattle.Barbados supplied a lot of the workforce who sent their money home and Seattle benefitted as it enabled them to sent timber to the East Coast of the US. William Boeing launched his company from his timber profits and now many people have been inside his aircraft.
The hugeness of the canal means that large and expensive shipping containers are being sold for scrap as only the biggest will now do. Some of the locks are now the size of the Empire State building. You could actually build 19 Eiffel Towers with the amount of steel used.
The Panama Canal was built between 1904 and 1914 and was a massive feat of engineering. Of course, the Panamanians didn’t get control of the waterway until 1999 – why would they? It only runs through their country after all. For economic and military reasons the US wanted to build through Nicaragua instead, however, they were put off by potential volcano activity and now China has got in there. Something which I will discuss later.
It is nonetheless a modern wonder of the world along with the UK’s Channel Tunnel, the CN Tower in Canada, the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Itaipu Dam in Brazil and the Delta/Zuiderszee works in the Netherlands.
The ships pay a toll depending on size and the lowest toll recorded was the 36 cents charged to Richard Halliburton who swam the canal in 1928. One of the highest toll’s paid was by a Disney cruise ship who paid $330,000 in 2008 and ships are only getting bigger.
It is not surprising that the canal generates a third of the countries revenue. The biggest customer is the United States followed by China, Japan, Chile and North Korea.
After looking at the shiny canal, we were in a party mood como siempre so headed to our hostel for drinks. There was a weird guy who worked at hostel who was 40 going on 12 and so we sat in the courtyard drinking with him as he said he had weed. He said he knew where we could get more drugs and so we went with him to a dealer’s house around the corner. It was many floors up in on one the old townhouse buildings and the guy opened the door wearing just a towel.
We got some coke and smoked it with the weed which the old guy called a ‘coco puff’. We were also drinking copious amounts of whiskey. Sarah got so wasted that she could barely make it up the stairs and I was so wrecked that when I closed my eyes it made the sky melt like a wet oil painting. Manchild grabbed my arm and I freaked out just like I did when Max did it even though it wasn’t particularly aggressive. I ran up the stairs and someone was asleep in my bed. I found another one and crashed out, apparently, it was manchild’s but luckily he didn’t get in bed with me or I would have flipped.
The next day he made me a pancake in the shape of mickey mouse’s head which was pretty fucking creepy. We met a couple who had some weed that they wanted to exchange for coke so we went back to the drug dealer’s flat and again, he was only wearing a towel but this time it was a different colour.
We got the coke for the couple as they wanted it to get them through a long bus journey which was odd in itself because why would you want to be wired whilst sitting on a bus? All became clear when the bloke snorted it down, sweating and desperate. He was an addict. Not the first or last backpacker to get addicted to cocaine whilst travelling in Latin America. We had some coke too and then sat and watched a film, legs twitching throughout.
I think it was for the best when me, Joe and Sarah got the overnight bus to David.
We took the overnight bus to David from Panama City. The city is very middle-class with low unemployment and is named after King David from the bible. The interesting thing about this innocuously successful city is that it was the staging ground for the Thousand Days War or Guerra de Los Mil Dias. It was a civil war between the liberals and the conservatives of the Republic of Colombia which included the ‘department’ of Panama. The reason the Liberals were cheesed off was that they believed the Conservatives had rigged elections to maintain their rule.
An economic crisis made tensions run even higher between the parties. The peace treaties of Neerlandia and then Wisconsin were signed in 1902. Worrying that one peace treaty wasn’t enough. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s famous tome 100 Years of Solitude references this battle as do some of his other works. As a writer and thinker, I think we can guess that his ideologies clashed with those of the Conservative party.
We stayed in a hostel run by an overbearing and passive-aggressive American woman. She didn’t even trust her staff to check us in so they had to call her. I felt sorry for them. We stayed here for one night on the way to Boquete, and one night was enough. She told me off for using the wrong toilet as it was apparently for solo use by a double room which was ridiculous, it wasn’t attached, there was no sign and they weren’t even in. I highly doubt they would have cared anyway.
Sarah and I waited until no-one was around and smoked some of our weed in the courtyard and then went to the cinema to see a Sandra Bullock film. Our next step was Boquete, which is in the same province as David so it was a short trip away the next day.
Boquete is full of American pensioner immigrants. Why here? Because the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP) named it a top retirement spot. Its a green and pleasant land where they grow lots of their own fruit and veg and a river runs through it. It reminded me of El Bolson but with old American folks. The actual downtown of Boq is pretty standard but the surrounding areas are beautiful hence the impetus to live here and get more for your dollar.
The reason we were there was to climb Volcan Baru. The idea is that you climb up the volcano at midnight and you arrive at the summit for sunrise and then walk back down again. Apparently, on a clear day, you can see both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The area has been declared a National Park and it makes up a part of The Mesoamerican Biological Corridor or MBC if you enjoy an acronym. It is been made by the Global Transboundary Conservation Network which is a network created by the IUCN and the World Commission of Protected Areas (WCPA). They describe the network as:
“A concept of sustainable development for Mesoamerica that unites goals of conservation with sustainable development initiatives of local peoples throughout the region. Although the MBC has moved away from its original strong focus on a transboundary system of protected areas and connecting corridors, this remains to some degree at the heart of the MBC. It is a cluster of protected areas and the intervening land.”
So in the typical style of world conservation, this is an ideological but necessary concept to protect vital ecosystems that has been dramatically dialled back into a well-meaning compromise. Saying that, there are 600 areas covered and whilst it may not quite ‘join up’ as a corridor as it should it still involves Southern Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. So everyone is involved and Panama has given the largest area of 29.5% to the territory and El Salvador gave only 1.6% but they have their own troubles.
Important species that inhabit the Volcan Baru National Park include the black guan, black-and-white hawk-eagle, Underwood’s water mouse and the volcano junco. We sat around all day taking it easy and waiting for our trek and booked a taxi. In the end, we couldn’t be bothered so we sat in and ate spaghetti bolognese and took some valium instead. It was mine and Sarah’s last night together before we parted ways and I would really miss our random adventures.
Bocas del Toro
Bocas was founded by the United Fruit Company and it has the Caribbean vibe that runs along this side of the coast. One of the famous things about Bocas is the strawberry poison-dart frog which has many things in the area named after it including the beach it lives on. It is the most toxic of its genus and it is also found in isolated populations in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. There are concerns about the future of the frog as whilst it is not classified as being endangered it is being unsustainably collected for the pet trade and under threat from habitat loss due to growing tourism.
The Panamanian people that live in the island area are still at risk from waterborne diseases caused by poor health infrastructure, such as poor sanitation and this just didn’t seem right to me. The money from tourism should surely go into protecting the environment and protecting people from diseases. Something needs to change to support growing numbers of local people and tourists.
After dragging myself away from Sarah and Joe I got the bus and boat to Bocas town in Bocas del Toro. I stayed in a nice hostel there and had some nice chats. I also managed to get hold of a copy of Marching Powder, the book about the San Pedro prison that I visited in Bolivia. I was in a bit of a funk without my friends and I went to the waterfront in the evening to hide and smoke the crappy twiggy weed that Sarah had left me, it failed to have any effect. I got a sandwich from the sandwich van and spent time in the internet cafe but I still felt down.
I decided the best way to get out of my funk was to head to Costa Rica. I had to get a bus and then a taxi with a load of whingeing tourists and then another bus at the other side to head to Puerto Viejo.