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dream places

Panama

ONE WEEK IN PANAMA

Slowly we cross the bridge into Panama. Beneath us flows the Rio Sixaola, making up the border with Costa Rica. What a lovely view we have of the river and its lush banks; it is not often that one sees such a beautiful border! From the village of Sixaola in Costa Rica we are on our way to Guabito in Panama, where we eat a little before we hop on the next bus. Our trip of a couple of months through Central America is coming to an end and we only have one week left. Instead of spending this week in Costa Rica (our flight back is from San José), we have decided to visit the west of Panama.

Isla Bastimentos

Bananas

The local bus is small, empty and quite luxurious with just twenty-eight seats. After about twenty minutes we arrive in Changuinola where we transfer to another one of these comfortable buses. The airco is on and it gets so cold that we decide to put on our coats. It's a wonderful ride, the forty minutes to Almirante. Before the road climbs up we drive through vast banana plantations. And in the mountains there is rainforest all around, it feels like we have arrived in the middle of a national park. Then comes the descent towards sea level and once again we are amidst the bananas. Near Almirante you see railways and banana trains everywhere. Almirante is… Chiquita! In 1890 three American brothers came to the province of Bocas del Toro in the north west of Panama, and started a banana business. In an extensive area on the coast they planted banana trees. The famous United Fruit Company took over the company in 1899 and extended the plantations up to the border with Costa Rica. Nowadays Chiquita owns the lot. The green bananas that ripen while being transported, are being brought by train from the plantations to the pier of Almirante for export abroad. The town is full of rails. Everywhere trains are being repaired, stored, or are just rusting away in the advancing jungle.
Having arrived in Almirante we walk to the ferries; luckily there is still a boat going to Bocas del Toro, it is already half past five. I must say that this twenty minute ferry-ride and today's bustrips make up for some of the best moments of my trip through Central America. What a beautiful and natural place this is, and such a green country! I wonder why on earth I spent so much time in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, when Panama seems to be the ultimate paradise!

Bocas

In Bocas del Toro we choose a cozy room with a warm shower and cable tv. After dinner in an Italian restaurant on the central square we stroll around the relaxed little town, the capital of the province with the same name. ‘Bocas town’ is situated on the island of Colón, part of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago. This archipelago in the Caribian Sea consists of 68 islands – all largely covered in vast tropical forests – and numerous cayos that mainly consist of mangroves. Isla Colón is the biggest as well as the busiest and most developed of the islands. The United Fruit Company built Bocas with the coming of the banana plantations. But still life in this picturesque town with its colourful wooden houses seems to go by in slow-motion.
During his fourth and last trip to the New World in 1502, even Columbus was overwhelmed by the natural beauty of this region and therefor he decided to name a few places after himself, like Isla Colón (Columbus island), Isla Cristóbal (Christopher island) and the Almirante (admiral) Bay.

Red frog Isla BastimentosNext day we have booked a tour. With two fellow tourists we sail in about 10 minutes to Isla Bastimentos, to the east of Isla Colón. It is obvious why the whole island is being protected by the Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos, as it is completely covered with unspoilt rainforest. From the southside of the island we walk through the jungle to the northern side, where we find a gorgeous sandy beach. We do go into the water, but swimming here is dangerous because of the huge waves. From a rocky mirador we have a great view of the beach, while in front of us the wild waves are splashing high up in the air. We are being told that this is ‘Red Frog Beach’, and indeed we do see the bright red frogs that are said to be endemic to this place.
Back in the boat we sail to a dive location in front of the mangrove coast of Cayo Crawl. My friend is going diving and I go snorkeling. Despite a few colourful fish, it is not very successful. Today the water is quite turbid. Also the dive turns out to be unspectacular; just a few sponges in different colours make an impression on my friend. Coral he did not see. The waters around the archipelago are known to be turbid most of the time - sometimes you can only see up to 3 meters far - because there are a couple of rivers that discharge into the sea on the bayside of the island. Each rainfall in the mountains brings lots of silt to the sea. And in the rainforests of the mainland it is raining a lot. There is even talk of two seasons: the wet and the wettest. Only in January and February it rains a little less, but even then it can rain for a week on end. Now it is February. We try another location, but after five minutes of snorkeling I give up.

Rain and oil

When next morning it is raining, we decide to travel on to the Pacific side of Panama. The watertaxi to Chiriquí Grande departs with one hour delay. During the boattrip it is raining cats and dogs and all of us are sheltering beneath a large awning. There is no way we can see anything of interest. After more than an hour of sailing we have arrived and in the port the bus to David is ready to leave. Fortunately we do not have to linger in Chiriquí Grande; it's a dirty, ugly town. An oil-town. From Puerto Armuelles in the southwest of Panama, where the oil comes in by tanker, goes the Trans-Panama Oil Pipeline to Chiriquí Grande in the north. Thereafter the oil is being picked up once more for transportation. This way the high cost of transport through the Panama Channel is being avoided.Bocas del Toro
During the three hour trip by 28-seater bus to David – a distance of some hundred kilometer – it is raining continuously, but still it is a beautiful ride through a green country where few people live. As soon as we get to the Carretera Interamericana, or the Pan-American Highway, we are nearly there. In David we look for information about the island of Boca Brava before we check into a dilapidated hotel in the vicinity of the central square. In the room we find three uncomfortable beds. Besides, the choice between being bothered by tens of mosquitos or turning on the loud rattling fan, doesn't make it any easier to fall asleep.

Isla Boca Brava

David with its 75.000 inhabitants, is the third largest town of Panama, as well as the capital town of Chiriquí province and the centre of a rich agricultural region. From the busstation the bus leaves for the one hour ride to Horconcitos, along the Interamericana towards the east. Here we take a taxi for the remaining 22 kilometer over a bumpy gravel road to Boca Chica. We have arrived on the south coast of Panama, de Pacific Ocean stretches in front of us. All we have to do now is wait for the little boat to bring us in just five minutes to the island of Boca Brava, just two hundred meter from the coast.
Along the stairs we walk up to the Restaurante y Cabañas Boca Brava. The owner is a friendly German. For one night there is still a room with shower available, but tomorrow we have to move to one of the cabañas. In the afternoon we walk along the southside of the island to a sandy beach of a dark colour. Here we can enjoy swimming until shortly before sundown and then we walk back slowly to spend some time birdwatching. With my binoculars I spot a long-tailed manakin: a remarkable bird, black with a lightblue back, a red cap and a very long split tail (this is the male version, the female looks much duller). Back at the restaurant we eat fish with fried potatoes and salad. Yammie!
The remaining of the evening we spend it resting in the hammocks. At night there is much noise below our window; there are a couple of monkeys in the trees. From the room we have a great view of the sea and the other islands, that are all part of the Parque Nacional Marino Golfo de Chiriquí.

Isla Boca BravaAs early as six o'clock I get up at sunrise to look for birds. But there is a strong wind and the birds do not show up. An hour later I am in bed again. We wake up with the howling of a male monkey sitting in the tree beneath our window. With my binoculars we can spot him very well. Then we see the whole family: male, female and baby. And while walking towards our deserted little beach again after breakfast, we encounter many more families. The trees are full of monkeys!
Tonight we sleep in the small cabaña. A wooden stair takes us to a kind of mini attic, where there is a thin mattress. For the rest the cabaña is empty. There is a strong wind that blows right across the cabaña. It is going to be a cold night...

Up in the mountains

After breakfast we take the boat to the mainland. A taxi is waiting for us to take us back to the Interamericana where buses going to David pass by every couple of minutes. Even the bus from David to Cerro Punta departs every fifteen minutes, so we do not have to wait long. Via Volcán and Bambito we drive to the interior of Panama within two hours. Slowly the road climbs; with each next village we climb up a few hundred meters more. To our right the majestic Volcán Barú stands alone in the landscape, the only (and sleeping) vulcano of Panama and with its 3478 meter the highest mountain in the country.
Before we know it we have arrived at a height of 1970 meter, in Cerro Punta. With a third bus we climb the last three kilometer to Guadalupe, at 2130 meter to be precise. This is the end of the road. We take a room in the expensive Hotel Los Quetzales, a beautiful lodge with fire-places, a bar, a restaurant, cafetaria, pizzeria, bakery and a room with books and games. Everything is tastefully decorated like in a chalet in the Alps. We, being backpackers, are not used to paying so much money for a room, but as the journey has nearly come to an end, we decide to splurge a little. The room is comfortable and cozy, all made of wood.
Isla Boca BravaGuadalupe is a tiny little village that consists solely of lovely farms and beautifully laid out flowergardens; it is said they want to turn this whole village into one huge garden. The cool climate, the fresh air and the pretty villages nowadays attract many Panamanians. But in the 19th century it was mostly farmers from the USA, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and England that were attracted to this fertile land in order to grow several kinds of vegetation. The land around Cerro Punta consists of fertile, black, vulcanic soil. Approaching the village the houses suddenly start to look very European and the patches of agricultural land look incredibly neat and well-kept. Decades ago a Swiss colony was founded here and among the later immigrants were also quite a number of Croatians. Nowadays, it's the tourists and the adventurers that stick around, for example to open up a hotel or guesthouse.
Once again it is raining, and compared to the tropical coast it is pretty cold up here. Still, we take a walk. Downhill in the rain towards Cerro Punta, where we have some food in a tiny restaurant before taking the bus back up to Guadalupe.

Quetzal?

After a tasty breakfast we take the free 10 o'clock shuttle to Las Nubes at a height of 2280 meter, in the Parque Internacional La Amistad. Of course today as well it is raining cats and dogs, but that cannot take away our enthusiasm. The man that will guide us through the rainforest gives us rubber boots and raincoats to wear. He knows the mountains very well and walks ahead of us. He hardly says a word, but that suits us very well, as we can now enjoy this gorgeous surroundings in silence. If you ask me, there is no path; we climb and descend through dense vegetation. Without a guide we would surely get lost. I can hardly see anything through my glasses anymore, the raindrops are falling down from the glass. La AmistadAnd due to the humidity my binoculars are also totally blurred, I cannot use them. We would love to see a quetzal, a fantastic looking bird with green feathers, a red belly and an incredibly long green and white tail - surely one of the most beautiful birds of the Americas. But unfortunately we have to forget about that with this endless rain. Parque Internacional La Amistad is huge and part of the park lies in Costa Rica, while the bigger part lies in Panama. That is the reason for its name: friendship. Besides small mammals you can find jaguars and pumas in the park. Of the more than three hundred kinds of birds, the resplendent quetzal and the harpy eagle are the most remarkable. Large parts of La Amistad are quite inaccessible, high up in the Talamanca Mountainrange, but the park can be visited from Las Nubes in the south, or from Wetzo in the north. After a three hour walk in the forest the sun finally does show up, just as we are taking off the raincoats and are about to take the shuttle back to the hotel. Suddenly hummingbirds can be seen all around. Quickly I take a few photos of the lush surroundings; in the sun everything looks much greener and lusher still.

Late in the afternoon we eat a pizza and have a rest in front of the fire-place. We play a couple of games and table football. Our last night in Panama… the next day we take - for the last time - one of those familiar, comfortable buses; via Concepción to the border crossing at Paso Canoas.

 

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