Saturday, 4 February 2012


Panama: yes there are hats.
I stepped off the boat in Portobelo and wondered what was in store for me in Panama. I knew it had a canal and some hats, but there must be something more.

Portobelo is a confusing town. It’s not the size: it’s a tiny place, with only four or five thousand inhabitants; it’s the fact that it was once so very important on a global scale and is now a mere fishing village. There’s not much in the town itself to hint at its glorious past, there being no lavish plazas or remnants of colonial buildings. But just outside the centre are the crumbling remains of huge fortresses, constructed by the Spanish to protect the port from British attack.

They weren’t very great at preventing them, as British privateers successfully ransacked the town not once, not twice, but, erm, many times, stealing the town’s riches, which ranged from gold to slaves. Portobelo was the main port on the transport route through the Spanish empire between Central and South America and as such was an inevitable target. I couldn’t help wondering what it must have been like to be a soldier posted there, knowing that at some point you were going to be invaded and you were probably going to lose. The most famous attack of all was that of Edward Vernon in 1739, who totally ransacked the place, resulting in a complete redesign of Spanish defences. It was such a famous and pleasing victory to the British that towns across the British Empire changed their names to Portobello.

Today Portobelo is a sleepy village with an African feel to it, a result of its history of slavery. I trekked through the surrounding jungle hills past spider monkeys, massive ants and wild beaches, occasionally catching glimpses of the port hiding on the edge of the bay. I wondered if Portobelo isn’t being taken back into the forest whence it came.

I hitched a ride to Panama City with the owner of the hostel in Portobelo, Captain Jack himself. I was initially very impressed with the capital, its gleaming skyscrapers towering overhead, expensive yachts bobbing in the harbour and the wide, clean streets. But it’s somewhat of a front, or, as a Hungarian man in the hostel would tell me, it’s like an empty bottle. It looks good on the outside, but there’s no substance, no core. You pay high prices because it looks pretty, but the service is terrible. (I experienced one such example upon entering a suspiciously highly rated hostel, arguing with the owner about his hidden charges and walking out again.) If you look beneath the surface, there are signs that the city has developed rapidly, leaving an undercurrent of poor living standards and old customs. Notice the Diablos Rojos (Red Devils), the old buses that still plough the streets, packed to the rafters with locals going anywhere and everywhere for next to nothing. The authorities are trying to shut these operations down due to their not being in keeping with the desired modern image. (This would be a travesty, as these lavishly decorated vehicles are travelling works of art!)

Diablos Rojos! Functional works of art.
This is not to say that there aren’t interesting things to do in Panama City. I CouchSurfed for a night with a guy who showed me around the old town, Casco Viejo, which is in a state of change because all the rich people who own the buildings are now moving back, realising that this is what tourists want to see and reclaiming their buildings from the poorer people who rent at low rates. We climbed Ancon hill for a view over the canal and the city, and spent a day trekking through Parque Metropolitano, an actual rainforest within the city limits. We also passed through the rough parts of the city, which exist right next to the modern high-rises as if entirely forgotten about as modernity grows like a parasite around them. My host was typically hospitable and welcoming (typical of CouchSurfers, not necessarily Panamanians!), and made me laugh when he told me that the coldest it had ever been in the city was 23°C! How could one live like that? That’s a hot summer’s day in England.

Panama City
I escaped the city for a couple of days by taking a boat to Isla Taboga, just a short way off the Pacific coast. One of the best things about it is the journey there, because you pass queues of huge ships waiting to enter the canal. The sight of them lining up, their sheer size, is incredible. The island itself caters mostly to day trippers but has a few hotels on it. Unfortunately, they’re all ridiculously expensive. Unperturbed, I marched through the town to the far end (maybe 500m away) and asked some locals for advice. I was taken to a little house up the hill where a smiling old man in a hammock showed me to a private room for just a few dollars a night. Success! I spent the day lounging on the small but pretty beach marvelling at the passing tankers until the tide came in, then eating amazing food in an American man’s house cooked by his private chef. Life’s ok.

Isla Taboga, off the coast of Panama City.
Back on the mainland, I was reunited with my favourite Galapagos shipmate. We swam in the infinity pool in Donald Trump’s hotel (no, we didn’t stay there), ate amazing ceviche (that tasty seafood mix I’d first tried in Peru) at the large fish market, and watched a film at an open-air showing in a convent-turned-artists’-workshop in the old town.

Art in Panama City.
On our final day in the capital we visited every yacht club in the vain hope of finding work as line-handlers in return for a free trip along the canal. We then went to the Miraflores locks and watched, mouths agape, as huge container ships passed through, the water level changing with astonishing rapidity and the mechanical ‘donkeys’ dragging the tens of thousands of tonnes of metal through the narrow passage. The Panama Canal: a manmade water passage through the middle of a continent, from the Caribbean to the Pacific. Unbelievable.

A container ship coming down the Panama Canal at Miraflores locks.
And then we found ourselves out of the humidity and in El Valle de Antón, a green getaway just two hours outside of the city. It’s a sprawling town, its buildings spread out and separated by acres of trees. It’s actually set in the crater of a large, extinct volcano, as evidenced by the jagged but fertile hills surrounding the area. Everything seems to have been or is being bought by foreign money: every other building is a hotel and the rest holiday homes for retired ex-pats, while the supermarkets are all named ‘Mini Super Hong Kong’ or suchlike. Our favourite thing to do was to relax in the thermal baths, where special mud is available to layer upon your face for some or other beauty reason. There were two colours, light and dark, so I gave myself a kind of leopard facemask, only discovering afterwards that one shade was for normal skin and other for, presumably, abnormal skin. I only hope I don’t come out in dark spots in the next few days.

The waterfalls near El Valle de Antón.
We hitched a ride to Santa Fé with a cell-tower repair man fond of singing classic songs who serenaded us all the way. He was also, apparently, an ex-bodyguard for the president, a chef and a musician. And his son is a UFC fighter. Santa Fé, another cool retreat, is similar in looks to El Valle except that it’s hillier and more local. We didn’t see hordes of old Americans walking around here, but did get a friendly “Buenas” from passersby (and then laughter behind our backs). We spent a couple of days roaming the area, up and down the steep volcanic hills and along the refreshingly cold river. On one day we went tubing, an activity involving a car inner-tube and a river. It’s fun, even if the rapids are a tiny bit scary. We also rekindled our hatred of dogs, that emotion stoked by several months in South America. Walking back from a hike, we were chased by a dog belonging to a hotel, growling and baring its teeth. It only stopped when we threatened it with stones. I’m utterly confused by the owners of these animals (and yes they are owned: this one belonged to a hotel and the owners looked sheepish as I shouted expletives at them and their animal.) If you don’t care about an animal, why have it at all?

The scenery in Santa Fé
Heading back towards the east (or rather, north) coast, we stopped overnight at a hostel hidden away in the Fortuna Cloud Forest. Reaching the Lost and Found EcoLodge involves getting off the bus in the middle of nowhere and walking for fifteen minutes up a trail through the forest. The first sign that greets guests reads “You have found paradise! Beware of the dangerous monkey.” The lodge acts as a rescue centre for various animals, including Rocky the kinkajou, who only comes out at night in order to attempt to bite the guests. My favourite thing though: the unforgettable view from the middle of the forest across the towering volcanoes as the sun sank into the clouds.

Sunset above the La Fortuna Cloud Forest.
We continued by bus and boat to Bocas del Toro, the one place in Panama that everyone talks about, a collection of islands on the Caribbean coast connected by water taxis. The main town, Bocas, is a fine example of over-tourism. The main street is lined by mock-hippy café after generic bar, hungover gap-year-ers moping in between. Just ten minutes away by boat, however, is Isla Bastimentos, which feels like you’ve stepped into an edgy Jamaican village. The accent is distinctly Caribbean, but the language is a mix of English, Spanish and Creole. Most people are of African descent (a result, again, of slavery). The houses are rustic but poor, with wooden platforms extending out over the water from the only built-up area on the island, Old Bank. We stayed with an English ex-pat in his guesthouse that actually seems to be run by his incredibly intelligent seven year old daughter. The speed with which she swapped between English and Spanish, translating for her parents, was phenomenal. She bossed her father about and told him to look after us, and commanded an old man in the village to dispose of his rubbish properly. We need more like her, because the island is disappointingly strewn with litter.

The wild Wizzard Beach on Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro.
On the other side of the island, however, things are different. After a muddy hike over the hill and through a jungle of painful fire ants, we arrived at Wizard Beach, a wild section of white sand fringed by palm trees totally devoid of development. The water was warm, the waves big and the peace golden.

And then we headed for the border, crossing the absurdly narrow wooden bridge (squeezing against the sides as lorries did the same) and into Costa Rica. Panama was my first taste of Central America, and while I didn’t particularly warm to it, I found the difference to South America highly interesting. And I know that there’s much more amazing scenery and many culture shocks to come!

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