A Travellerspoint blog

August 2010

Voyage to the Isthmus of Panama Day 5

My mother said there would be cannibals

semi-overcast 23 °C

Day 5. Dawn broke several hours before we managed to crack open our eyes, and there still seemed to be remnants of the previous nights' music humming in our ears. No wait, that's a cricket. Still, sounded the same. Bleary eyed, we looked at each other and knew instantly what we must do: Sex. No, make that coffee. The walls were far too thin for sex, but just right for coffee. Our extraordinarily charming $13/night room nigh spoke to us...."get your asses up gringos and smell the cooked meat products". This sounded odd, coming from four reasonably barren walls, but we heeded the advice as sound. Clean the teeth, splash refreshingly cold water on the faces, and put on clothing. This was again the stuff of true adventure. Mostly because brushing one's teeth in water slightly above freezing is an adventure unto itself. But the cold water did the trick, and we were soon seated in the restaurant ready for some of the finest coffee in the world. The waitress recognized us immediately as the Alcoholic Butchers of the Language, and was kind enough to simply set two cups in front of us, filled with life-giving nectar, and smile. "Mas jueves y jabon?", she slyly chided. Funny girl. It seems everyone is a comedian. "Si Senorita, y dobles", I felt compelled to reply. While she giggled her way back to the kitchen, we sipped the dark brew and gazed upon the gardens, keenly sensing that the mental fog would soon lift. The gardens were again stunning, and the bougainvillia heavily scented the air, clearing our minds. Or maybe it was the caffeine. Nonetheless, we had purpose anew. Food....damn this was good soap. And the Thursdays were prepared perfectly over easy.

What seemed like several days passed before we made it back to the room. The botanists were on the terrace sorting and bagging their most recent booty. "Nice orchids, I'd bet they would go good in an umbrella drink." The boys were unimpressed with our humor, but did go on to explain that these particular orchids were quite rare and required the utmost care to make it back to Florida alive for propagation and survival. Orchids were suffering in the tropics due to climate change, and they must be preserved. Fair enough, but still, those boat drinks....

The boys regaled us with a story of their attempted climb up Death Hill in their SUV, which coincidentally, matched ours but in color. We couldn't help but notice the excessive amount of red clay that had attached itself to every surface of the car. "Couldn't make it up the hill, eh?" No, they couldn't, and save for the assistance of a kind local in a very strong 4-wheel drive truck, their lives had been spared an ignominious death. This bode well, as it's always handy to have a local nearby in possession of a very strong 4-wheel drive when negotiating Death Hill. Where the hell was he yesterday at the great River Muluba Challenge? Ha, we didn't need him for that as we are true adventurers.

We bid the boys farewell and checked out of the hotel. Doctor Gary came out to chat, inquire as to our next destination, and say goodbye. We told him we were headed to Boquete, which brought a smile to his face as he was also soon to be there, but not today. Perhaps we would see each other again.

We artfully packed our 2 metric tons of baggage back into the Nissan and headed down the road. Oh look Dear, the vacas have come to see us off and protect us from the precipitous drop-off!! Funny boy.....hey, you have to make fun, if not of yourselves, something else.

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Santiago was a quick drive, mostly for the 60-degree angle of the road down the mountain. Ah, to have the fresh air again blowing through our hair. Even more refreshing in Santiago itself, where the heat and humidity had returned with a vengeance. Oh, look, another muebleria. Y una carniceria. Not to be deterred from our task, we stopped at the next petrol station for a full tank, such that we could make it to out next destination without needing the blessings of a delightful woman and her 300 children. Tank filled to the brim, we sped out onto the CA1 in search of David. The town, not a person. We whisked through one small town after another, breathing in the scenery, which was not difficult to do as the air was thick with moisture. Several hours of scenery breathing later, we arrived in David, a bustling city of 125,000 or so. Oh look Dear, another muebleria. Enough with the store jargon, please. But Dear, it's an educational experience....fine then, we'll move onto animals. No, look for signs. From above? No, for Boquete, that road has to be around here somewhere. And so it was, we found the road with considerably less difficulty than trying to get out of Panama City. We again climbed high into the mountains, passing such sights as the Volcan Baru, a thankfully extinct volcano. Nothing can ruin a good adventure like rivers of molten lava burying one's hotel. Puts one quite off an afternoon martini. And shortly, Boquete was in sight. Boquete is a quiet little town of 20,000 or so that has been beset by expatriates from the North, most of whom have barricaded themselves in gated communities at the edge of town. So much for soaking in the richness of the country. Granted, Panama is not exactly rich, which is why these expats now call it home.....it's cheap by American standards. But there is more to the country than economic riches.

Driving through town, we spotted the internet cafe, several potentially good restaurants, and the grocery store, perfect for stocking up on seco and cheesy poofs. The streets were quite crowded with both locals and new locals going about the day. And dogs. There were lots of dogs. Seemingly too many for a town of this size, but they too were simply going about their days' business. Oh look Dear, the LP guide says the Hotel Panamonte is quite nice. And $65/night....not too bad. We parked in the lot and bravely sauntered into the lobby. Si Senor, tenemos cuartos. Dos noches? Oh Senor, we only have cabana suites left, but they are very nice. Only $75/night. Sold. The bearers effortlessly unloaded our baggage and brought it to our new abode. Wow, you're not kidding....this is a great room. And a little seating area outside.

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Oh look Dear, the TV Guide says Steve Irwin is on at 9. No, we have to explore, be adventurous. OK, no TV, so where do we go? Where else but to the river? Made sense, this woman of mine was both wily and correct. So off we charged to the Rio Caldera. Say Dear, you do know that a caldera is the leftovers of a volcanic eruption? Yes, of course I do, but do you smell sulfur and see lava flowing in the streets? No, true enough, no lava and no sulfur. A short hike over the garbage and through the ruts and we were there.

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At 3200 feet, we were nigh gasping for oxygen, the air thick with an omnipresent mist. During a smoke break, we spotted the lifeless bodies of 2 rafting guides and five tourists. Damn, nothing in their pockets. Oh well, no harm in trying. For the ID's of course. Beautiful river, even with the masses of detritus borne by the currents to the shores. Funny thing about Panama, as with many Central American countries, garbage is ever-present. It would be a fine place for an enterprising garbage collector.

A short hike back into town found us at the Supermecado Ruiz, the grocery store we had spied from the road. Time to stock up on supplies, as adventurers are apt to do given the opportunity. Seco, some limes, a tin of peanuts, and cheesy poofs, this would tide us over. Securing our repast, we made for the hotel. It was now that we must record our adventures to date.

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Few things in life are more satisfying than booze and cheesy poofs. And Panamanian limes are most curious. They look like regular limes on the outside, but on the inside they have bright orange flesh and are obscenely sweet. Perfect for logging the past few days in the land of cannibals. Many hours passed until it was time for a proper dinner. The hotel restaurant was ready for us. Ah, fresh fish. Not us, it was on the menu. My sweet devoured a piquant chicken with vegetables whilst I opted for seafood. See food, eat food, I always say. We could bear no more by cocktail time, so a few adult beverages by the stone fireplace and it was time to retire. Oh look Dear, Steve Irwin is still on....must be a marathon. With the cool mist blowing seductively through the open windows and casting a light fog throughout the room, we bundled up and drifted off to a most pleasant sleep, no longer gasping for oxygen. And so endeth Day 5 of our adventures.

Stay tuned for a second riveting day in the highlands, wherein we again meet Doctor Gary and find that the hills are indeed alive with the smell of coffee plantations.

Posted by beerman 07:40 Archived in Panama Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Voyage to the Isthmus of Panama Day 4

My mother said there would be cannibals

sunny 30 °C

Day 4. We awoke to the soft strains of a Del Castillo song humming into ours ears......... Bajo del rio, estas llamando...... The music was in our heads, as we were fondly remembering our day at the Rio Muluba. There are few things in life more satisfying than waking to gentle music in your ears. Unless you count a brimming cup of freshly made Panamanian coffee....that's pretty good too. Alas, we had no room service, certainly not for $13 a night, but we woke with smiles on our faces nonetheless. We had braved the river of doom and were saved by the countless blessings of the gasoline woman and her 300 children. Life was good. Breakfast, my dear? Certainly, but first we must dress. Damned civilization, insisting on people being dressed for breakfast. Splashing a very waking bit of cold water on the face, and a bit of teeth brushing, we made our way to the restaurant, ready for another day. We sat at our usual table, which was quite simple as we were the only people in the place. But it felt like our usual table, we had grown fond of that table in the few short hours we had been here. Cafe, si gracias, y tambien jueves y jabon. There comes a time in one's life where one simply must butcher the local language enough to ask for Thursdays and soap. The waitress was considerably amused, but understood that we wanted eggs and ham. It's an icebreaker, this butchering of language. She was so amused that we got double helpings of eggs and ham. Sure, we paid for it, but it was the thought that counted. And the coffee was superb, with a dash of whole fresh milk to top it off. Senores, hoy es La Feria. Verdad? Si, La Feria. Sweet, there was a fair in town, and this we must see. Well bloated from a sumptuous breakfast (soap can do that to you), we ambled back toward our room, but were intercepted by the New York woman. "We're going horse-back riding today", she said with a sort of glee usually reserved for cheerleaders ready for Homecoming. How nice for you. "That's nice, let us know later how that turns out". We tried to contain our sarcasm and smiled, giving her the thumbs up sign. Her boyfriend seemed less enthused, his expression mutely saying "kill me now". We waved as they left, their guide having finally arrived to take them on their tour, quietly muttering "have fun storming the castle". These were not true adventurers these children, more apparent when we saw the poor nags the guide brought with him. These horses had expressions that could easily be read, much like the boyfriend......."kill me now, make glue out of me, I have no will to live". We thought about those poor horses as we strolled back to the room to prepare to visit the fair. "Maybe the one will trip and knock New York over a steep precipice".

And so it was back down the road toward town.
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Oh look dear, the vacas are guarding the steep precipice. Little amused, Gretchen pointed out the path ahead.....up there, and to the right (of course - it's always to the right). 18 seconds later, we were again driving through the suburbs of Santa Fe, guided by the music wafting from the fairgrounds and the vaguely familiar smell of domestic animal droppings. We found a nifty parking space alongside other fair-goers and proceeded to make our way to the center of activity. Wow, now that's a view.
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Along either side of the main avenue were multiple stalls of vendors proffering everything from handmade jewelry to beer and sodas to information on the latest techniques in modern Panamanian agronomy. This was a county fair after all. We visited with some of the folks, each eager in a sense to ask where we were from. The locals were not wearing shorts, Hawaiian shirts, and flip-flops, so we kind of stuck out from the crowd. A couple of beers, and some concerted efforts at explaining that we were from Illinois and we soon blended in.......not. Still, the locals were extraordinarily friendly, not at all the cannibals we were warned of. Several young boys quickly noticed that there were fresh fish in the sea, and clamored over Gretchen showing her their bracelets and sundry jewelry. Si, joven, es bueno, uno por favor......no, solamente uno, gracias. The boys were thrilled to have made a sale of a very nice handwoven bracelet. Further ahead, we found the sugar cane hawkers......using an old hand cranked cane press to make juice for sale. This looks promising. The grizzled old veterans of the cane juice trade immediately took to Gretchen. Ah rubia, quiere jugo? Que es esto?, she replied in her finest Spanish. The men were beside themselves trying to be the one who taught the blond gringa about old fashioned sugar cane pressing. Senora, mira aqui....como esta.....they were insisting that she turn the crank of the press as had their ancestors, though their ancestors likely never wore orange Hawaiian style dresses. The men were smitten, while Gretchen smiled and did her best to understand what they said. What little I could gather, not too many Americans were at the fair, and they were happy to show some of their lives to a willing participant. Plus, it seems the men found her considerably more attractive than anyone else at the fair.
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$0.25 for fresh pressed cane mixed with orange juice. Not bad, so we had two each. We pressed on, though the men were sad to see us leave. Well, maybe not "us" leave.

Up ahead was a novel setting of agricultural marvel. One doesn't ordinarily think of other countries and what they do to grow food, so this was quite interesting. There were a number of different displays ranging from basic vegetable crops to aquaculture. Corn, beans, cabbages, and fish. Fish? Yes, the Extension Agents were working on bringing aquaculture to Panama. We chatted with several of them on the latest techniques in aquaculture, as best we could in present-tense Spanish. They were quite enthused that we had heard of their ideas, and we exchanged some information that could be useful to them. Using agricultural waste to feed the fish could provide a dual cropping system to the people and provide several times the food as a traditional system. This was refreshing to see, as we both have a fair knowledge of the benefits of multi-use agriculture. Still, I liked the cabbage display, even though it seemed that the beetles had already wreaked some havoc on the poor crucifers.
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We continued to stroll along, stopping only occasionally for another beer and to chat with a horse or two, even a few goats. The fair was easily the rival of any to be had in the States, albeit somewhat smaller in scale.

Hours passed, and when we had seen it all. It was time to return to the hotel. We took our time returning, savoring the sights and sounds and smells around us. 38 seconds later, we pulled into at the hotel. It seemed to be cocktail hour, so we splashed a bit more cold water on our faces and made once again for the restaurant. We considered dressing for the occasion, much as William Powell and Myrna Loy would in the Thin Man movies, but decided against it as we had left our tuxedos and floor-length gowns back in Illinois. Another cold beer, plus a heaping helping of chicken with something (that Panamanian specialty), and we were set for the evening. All we had to do was wait for the floor show, and it appeared before we ever expected. First to arrive was Doctor Gary, who we regaled with our tales of the fair. Gary was quite fascinated with our adventure - oooh, fresh fish my dear. We told him of the fair, and he in turn told us of his adventures wandering the countryside. Several beers later, the New Yorkers returned, walking somewhat gingerly. They (she) told us of their horseback riding tour. We tried to listen interestedly, to no avail, until the woman told us that the surrounding hills were so steep that she felt sorry for her horse and dismounted so as to walk the horse and not be a burden. We could only imagine this horse laughing itself silly that it got to walk, unburdened for a change, while being led by someone who quite possibly would have been devoured by tigers in another time. Perhaps the mall would have been more of a challenge, though to be fair, she was here after all, well out of her normal climate. Her boyfriend downright devoured several beers in a row, perhaps grateful that tomorrow would bring something different. Next in the show were the two botanists, fresh from an adventure afield. They proudly told of the various orchids they had captured, and noticing that we had the same make of vehicle as they, asked if we had tried to drive up the treacherous mountain they tried. No, but it looks like you picked up some mud along the way. They had tried to negotiate a particularly steep hill and were unsuccessful. To their good fortune, several locals in a robust pickup truck rescued them and towed them back down the hill. Leaving their SUV behind, they went with the locals back up the big hill and found more specimens than they had seen previously. The walk back down the hill was truly an adventure unto its own for them, but they had their bounty.

Once again, hotel management was quite pleased with the consumptive abilities of their guests, and late into the evening, we stumbled back to our room. Sleep would have been a fine option, but alas, it was only that, an option. The fair was rolling into a high timbre, and the music levels had grown increasingly loud. There had to be 5 different bands striving for supremacy in the "can we be louder than you?" category. Granted, the music was nice, but it soon took on the urgency and decibel level of twenty million cicadas hell bent on mating. Still, sleep eventually came as the music died down to a low rumble, somewhere around 4am. And so endeth Day 4 of our adventures.

Stay tuned for the riveting forthcomings as we try to decide whether to head for Bocas Del Toro or Boquete....really, it's riveting. Really riveting. Honest. Would I kid you about a thing like this? No, not much. Maybe a little.

Posted by beerman 12:16 Archived in Panama Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

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