Travel Blog for Fredrik and Gunnhild

Panama

Panama City and San Blas/Guna Yala

20150126-1-2Our divemaster drove us to Panama City after our second dive. We were allowed to keep our room until then, so we had time for a quick shower. We checked in to our hotel (Doubletree by Hilton), went out to get cash for our shuttle and sailtrip, and spent the rest of the evening in Istmo brewpub, which was located just a few blocks away. Really nice with some craft beer again! We went home early to repack and try to get a few hours sleep before our pickup at 5.15 am.

We left our suitcases at the hotel, and travelled only with small backpacks. Our shuttle was 45 minutes late, not at all comfortable and with too many people. The last part of the trip to Carti was on crazy steep, winding roads with quite a few potholes. 20150127-1-2And when we finally arrived, we had to wait more than an hour for the lancha (small boat) to take us to Banedup, where our home for the next three days was waiting for us. The lancha had several stops, delivering groceries and dropping off people on different boats. We were welcomed to our boat, Perle (Bavaria 41 ft), by captain Miro (Polish) and the two other passengers, Debora and Stefan (Argentinian). We had a small breakfast and a quick swim before sailing to Green Island. Debora and Stefan are sailing regattas back home, so they did most of the work and we could just sit back and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Small paradise islands everywhere, palm trees, perfect white beaches and crystal clear water.

The San Blas Islands consists of nearly 400 small and large islands (only 40 are inhabited) on Panama’s Caribbean coast. They are home to the indigenous Guna Indians, who since the Tule Revolution in 1925 have controlled the islands and a narrow band of the mainland and have named their territory Guna Yala. No non-Gunas are allowed to live in this area, and they check passports of everyone going in or out. They have their own tribal laws, traditions and culture, and the 55000 Gunas are organized within a strict hierarchy of tribal leaders. Their main income is from coconuts, even though tourism is getting more and more important.

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We spent more than 24 hours anchored outside Green Island or Kanlildup as it is called in the local language. It is surrounded by reefs and sandbanks, so navigation to the island is a bit difficult, but once you are there the waters are calm and the views amazing. We took the dinghy to shore a few times or just swam from the sail boat. It took around 20 minutes to walk around the entire island, and most of the time we were the only ones there. A few other boats were anchored close by, and some Gunas stopped there during the day to cook some lunch on the beach. We did some snorkeling in the area, but it was very shallow, so it was a bit difficult. We did see lots of small fish though, and even an eagle ray when we found a deeper area. On one side of the island there were hundreds of starfish close to the beach. Local fishermen stopped by the boat several times a day to sell fish, lobsters or fruit, and the first day we ended up buying 5 small lobsters, and had a great evening with wine and good food.

20150128-1Our first night on the boat was very warm, so we started the day with a refreshing swim. Some of us went to the island to try some windsurfing, while others relaxed in the hammock or went snorkeling. We also took the dinghy to an even smaller island (Waisaladup) close by. Paradise! We sailed to Western Holandes Cays, where we anchored outside another island named Waisaladup and the neighbouring Acuakargana. On the way there we saw several of the tiny Guna boats, where one person was holding the sail and the other one was struggling to keep the boat from filling up with water. 20150129-1And when we arrived we were met by a small cruise ship planning to visit the same island as us. Too bad! But while they built a small resort on the beach for a couple of hours, we went snorkeling from the boat, and they soon left so we had the island all to ourselves. The reefs here were much better, with loads of fish, a cool flounder, a barracuda and a trumpet fish. We bought some fish from a local fisherman and had another great dinner on the boat.

20150130-1On our last day we sailed back to Banedup where the lanchas where leaving from. Banedup is a tiny island with a bar, two docks and a few cottages for rent. We said goodbye to the others who were continuing to Portobelo (around 8 hours sailing), and relaxed on the beach with a cold beer while waiting for a lancha. Fredrik made a deal with some locals that not only got us safely back to the mainland, but also had a car waiting for us to take us back to Panama City. And we paid less than half of what we paid when booking through the hotel!

20150130-1-2We arrived at our hotel around 6 pm, and enjoyed the luxury of having internet and a real shower again. We took a taxi (3 dollars) to the old town, and had a light dinner and some craft beer at La Rana Dorada, a brew pub we knew from our trip 2 years ago. We were not really used to staying up late with lots of people everywhere after San Blas, so we went for a walk around the old town before heading back to the hotel. Our flight home was at 6 pm, so we had one last day in Panama City. We walked around in familiar streets, had one last craft beer at La Rana Dorada, did some last minute shopping, stocked up on snacks for the flight and tried to take in that our 2 month adventure was over. After 15 hours travelling, we arrived in cold Norway Sunday afternoon and were picked up by Fredrik’s mother, who not just got us safely home, but had prepared an evening meal for each of us to bring home. So sweet!

Portobelo

20150126-1Getting from Belize to Panama was a lot harder than we expected it to be. We looked into several different options and routes (via Rio Dulce, via Roatan etc), but finally decided on just flying directly and take a few more dives in Panama instead. For some reason the flight tickets we booked online kept being cancelled. On the third try we booked from Belize City instead of San Pedro, and we finally received a confirmation a couple of days later. It was a long day of travelling though. The water taxi actually left on time at 1 pm (rare). We took a taxi to the airport and had 2,5 hours there before our flight. We had another 2,5 hours between flights in San Salvador, and when we finally got out of the airport in Panama City it was passed midnight (1 hour time difference). Our dive instructor from Golden Frog Diving, Rey, was there to pick us up and drive us to our hotel (Coco Plum) in Portobelo. Checked in and ready for bed around 2 am. Long day!

 

We did 4 dives in two days in Portobelo. Golden Frog Diving was located just 30 meters from our room, so it was very convenient. Rey and the other people working there were great, and we were diving in small groups. The first day we visited the two most famous dive sites in the area, El Avion and Drake Island. The first one is a sunken C-45 aircraft, 20150125-1-3a small two-engine military transport plane. Quite cool, but the visibility wasn’t great. We continued over the reef, had some fun swimtroughs and even went into a small cave and out a very narrow opening in the cave ceiling. Drake Island is where divers are still searching for Sir Francis Drake’s coffin which was cast out to sea here. We were more interested in the beautiful coral reefs (very different in both shape and color compared to what we have seen before) and all the colorful fish found there. The second day we had two dives around Salmedina Reef. Our dive master was great at showing us small details and letting us touch what could be touched without harm (like a strange sticky coral). Other highlights was a huge barracuda, and helping to find and capture lion fish which do not belong here (native to the Indo-Pacific) and are now threatening the reef ecosystems. We also had lunch in a beautiful bay with white sand and crystal clear water.

Since we had not arranged our trip from Portobelo to San Blas and back to Panama City, we didn’t have too much time to explore the city. 20150125-1Portobelo is a lazy harbour town and the starting port for many boats going via San Blas to Columbia. It used to be an important trading port for plundered treasures for the Spanish, and several forts were built to keep the pirates away. We walked from our hotel to the city centre and passed the well-preserved Santiago Battery, which still has 14 of the original cannons in place. Other famous buildings are Casa Real de la Aduana (The restored royal customs house, now housing a small museum) and Iglesia de San Felipe (a church housing Panama’s most important religious icon, the Black Christ), but we didn’t go into any of them. We went to Captain Jack’s to see if it was possible to go by boat from Portobelo to San Blas, 20150125-1-2but ended up booking a hotel in Panama City before and after instead. That way we can leave our suitcases there and just bring what we need. With all travel arrangements taken care of we just enjoyed the social part of Captain Jack’s. Had some great curry, a couple of beers and a few drinks and talked to a lot of great people from all over the world.

Bocas del Toro 2

Bocas is a synonym for relaxing. We started our second day, after another big breakfast by Jack, on our balcony watching the locals doing their local stuff 😉 After a few hours doing nothing, we took a taxi with Tina that we met at breakfast, to Boca del Drago (starfish beach) for lunch, swimming and seeing the starfish. When we got there we found a “restaurant” that got fresh fish in when we arrived and ordered lunch there, then it was time for more relaxing and looking for the starfish. We had ordered a return taxi trip so we were picked up at 4 pm going back to our guesthouse for a shower before we went to our pre-booked restaurant (Guari-Guari), that we were told that was probably the best restaurant in Panama. We were not disappointed, this restaurant had a 6 course set menu that was fantastic!

Our last day in Bocas del Toro was a very wet day, so we spent a big part of it on our balcony watching birds, reading and looking at our happy neighbors filling up cans and bottles with water. A wet Tina stopped by, and dried up on our balcony for a while. A group from our guesthouse went on a boat trip in the morning when the sun was up, and they arrived back very wet wearing garbage bags. They were still very happy though!

In the late afternoon we went into town, walked around a bit and had a late lunch at Raw Sushi bar. We took a water taxi to “Bibi’s on the beach” at Isla Carenero where we met Tina again. Very cozy restaurant on the water “in the middle of nowhere”. We had a great whisky sour and a very strong Mojito, dinner and beer, good conversations and nice views. When we got back to town there were people everywhere, and it turned out to be a Christmas Parade, with loads of colorful floats with blinking lights, Santa Claus throwing candy to the children, TV cameras and fireworks. Fun, but we didn’t stay too long since we had an early flight to Costa Rica the next morning.

Bocas del Toro

We left Panama City by plane from the small and chaotic Albrook airport, and arrived at the even smaller Bocas del Toro airport, where kids were playing soccer at the end of the runway. We were picked up and taken to our charming guesthouse, Bahia del Sol where we have a two bedroom suite with a large balcony.

Our hosts are really nice and told us a lot about the area and what to see and do. After a couple of beers at the public patio, watching the sunset, we took a taxi to the city center and had a great dinner (ceviche and tuna) at El Ultimo Refugio Restaurant.

The next morning we got up early, had a big breakfast and got ready for a full day boat ride around the islands together with some of the other guests at the guesthouse (a Canadian couple, a Finnish couple on their honeymoon and an american girl. All great people!). The boat picked us up at the patio and took us to Dolphin Bay where several very large dolphins where playing around.

After navigating through narrow canals between the mangrove islets we snorkeled for one hour in Coral Cay just off Isla Bastimentos. We also had lunch at a famous local restaurant built over the sea there. The tour continued to a bay where we saw several sloths in the trees, and finally we spent a couple of hours at Red Frog Beach, named after the red poison dart frogs that live in the forests by the beach.

In the evening we went to a cozy wine bar overlooking the main street and the bay with Kim, the American girl from the boat ride. We spent the evening drinking wine, sharing travelling experiences and watching the street life. She was leaving the next day, so we had a goodbye-beer on our balcony before going to bed.

Panama City 2

The rest of our time in Panama city was spent sightseeing by foot, with plenty of pit-stops in places with air-condition (and often beer). Casco Viejo has a lot of beautiful buildings, but a lot of them are empty and in bad condition. Foreign investors are now restoring some of them, building hotels, jazz clubs etc. We visited the ruins of the church and convent of Santo Domingo with the reconstructed 15 meter arch, Arco Chato. Legend says that this arch was the reason why the US decided to build the canal through Panama instead of Nicaragua with it’s volcanoes and possible earthquakes. We stopped by the cathedral (build between 1688-1794), the church of San Jose with the famous Altar de oro (a massive baroque carved alter covered in gold), the fish marked and walked down the pedestrian street La Peatonal.

On our last evening in the city we ended up back at our favorite pub, La Rana Dorada, where we met an American-Bulgarian couple, a Finnish couple and an american girl living in Panama. We introduced the Finnish couple to our guide, Karloz, so that they could go on a city tour with him the next day. We went for dinner at Monolo caracol, a great restaurant with no menu. Great small dishes just kept coming. Delicious!

Panama city

Panama city

After 19 hours of travelling and now sleep the night before, we arrived at the airport more or less on time, everything went smooth through customs and we found our driver that we had ordered from the hotel. Karloz told us that we had to wait for another couple that was arriving soon, so we went outside and was hit by the warm, humid weather. It was around 32 degrees Celsius. Since we went through the airport so fast, we had to wait for a while, but then we had the opportunity to change to some lighter shoes and relax. Ross and Sarah that we were waiting for was a great couple that we have spent more or less all the time together with until now. When we arrived at the hotel we got checked in and met up with Ross and Sarah on a brewpub (La Rana Dorada or Golden Frog) two blocks from the hotel and actually managed to stay awake until 11 pm.

The next day Ross and Sarah had booked a city tour with Karloz, and we decided to join them. We started the day by driving to Panama Viejo, which are ruins from a city founded in 1519 by Pedro Arias Dávila, and was burnt down and abandoned after the Welsh privateer Henry Morgan attached the city in 1671. Panama was after the attack rebuilt a few kilometers to the west in what is now called Casco Viejo (where our hotel is located). The next stop on our tour was the causeway islands Isla Naos, Isla Perico and Isla Flamenco. The road out to the islands are made of rock extracted during the excavations from the Panama Canal. The islands had several yacht clubs and american style restaurants and was not that interesting, but the view of the city was fantastic. Then it was time for the Miraflores locks, the first lock on the Pacific side of the Panama canal. The lock consists of two chambers lifting (or lowering) a vessel 16,5 meters. It was an amazing sight to see the big container ships moving through the locks. Our city tour continued to Ancon Hill, the hill was under american jurisdiction during most of the 20th century, so it has not been developed as the rest of the city. Today it is a protected area, with a great view over the city. The tour ended with a walk around Casco Viejo which has a lot of beautiful buildings in a mix of architectural styles and lots of charming squares and monuments. Karloz took us to a hat shop, where Fredrik ended up buying two Panama hats. In the evening we had a few beers with Ross and Sarah at a roof bar and a great dinner with wine.

Looking forward to Christmas

This Christmas will be celebrated in Central America. We will fly in to Panama City from Amsterdam; from there we will go to Boca del Toro. This should be perfect for watersport.

After Boca we will leave Panama for Costa Rica where we will start with turtle watching :). Then we will travel inland up to the cloud forest and volcanos. After six days we will travel by bus to San Jose and from there we will fly to Cuba.

If we can manage to get a casa particular in Santiago de Cuba we will fly down and celebrate New Year and National Liberation Day (January 1st) there, and from there go to Baracoa which are the oldest city in Cuba. The last days we will go to “Tobacco land”, Pinar del Rio, where we hope to meet up with José and Daniel who we met the last time we visited Cuba.


Destination Arrival
1 Panama City, Panama 8 December, 2012
2 Bocas del Toro, Panama 11 December, 2012
3 Liberia, Costa Rica 15 December, 2012
4 Tamarindo, Costa Rica 16 December, 2012
5 Monteverde, Costa Rica 19 December, 2012
6 La Fortuna, Costa Rica 21 December, 2012
7 San Jose, Costa Rica 25 December, 2012
8 Havana, Cuba 26 December, 2012
9 Santiago de Cuba, Cuba 28 December, 2012
10 Baracoa, Cuba 2 January, 2013
11 Havana, Cuba 4 January, 2013
12 Pinar del Rio, Cuba 5 January, 2013