Panama 2010: island and rainstorm adventures

Note: This posts comes from an email I sent during a trip to Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama in June 2010.

Hello everyone, one last time…

This is my last night in South/Central America, and I have mixed feelings about heading home tomorrow evening. I’m gazing out the bay windows at the view of downtown Panama City and loving it, but I am also missing my view of the Capitol.

Our plans got changed a bit in the last couple of days. Although I ended my last email saying that I was about to go to the Canal, that didn’t end up happening… Greg and I both felt a little strange (I thought perhaps it was due to the fact that I’d been wearing several layers of heavy-DEET insect repellent for 20 hours, but Greg is not a mosquito magnet and felt similar), so we decided that instead of going to the Canal, we would choose to be lazy for the rest of the day. I picked up a new book, established myself in a hammock, and remained there until it was time to watch “Spaceballs” in the theater. After that, we ordered a pizza (Panama City is essentially the United States, so there is Dominos here) and spent the rest of the evening making new friends in the hostel. This place really is awesome… I could stay here a long, long time without getting tired of the shared showers and dorm room.

Yesterday we made pancakes and then started out on a journey to a nearby island. However, when we arrived at the docks, we learned that my guidebook (published in 2004…) was more than a little out of date and that boats to the island were in fact over for the morning. Thinking quickly, we ordered the cabbie to take us to the Canal instead, so Greg, Emily (our new friend from Montreal), and I spent the rest of the morning at the set of locks nearest to Panama City. We walked through a four-floor exhibit in the museum and then went to the observation deck to await the arrival of one of the many, many cargo ships we’d seen hanging out near the entrance to the canal. We did get to see a boat go through the locks, but it wasn’t a cargo ship… it was a small passenger boat (that tours the canal) and an even smaller sailboat. It was more than a little anticlimactic, but it was still very cool to see the process. It’s truly an amazing feat of engineering! I took some video and some pictures that you’ll need to check out on Facebook.

We returned to our area of the city for lunch and went to a cafe that provided us with a menu that said “just let us surprise you – you’re on vacation, right?” After choosing our meat course, we sipped our steaming (?) cold beers and awaited the delicious series of dishes that appeared on our table: salad with a very tasty dressing, a vegetable tortilla (quiche to most of you, but for anyone who’s been to Spain, this was tortilla, not quiche), and then typical Panamanian rice with our meat (fish for me). All of this, plus an apple crisp for dessert, cost us $9 – win.

Although I felt like a nap was in order following that meal, we grabbed another cab and went to Panama Viejo, which is the site of the very first Spanish settlement here. There is not much left at all – it is like walking around Roman ruins except that this stuff isn’t more than 500 years old. It was burned down by pirates (really!) and not replaced. We had a fun time climbing up the stairs of the cathedral’s bell tower, and I attempted to revive my French by talking to Emily… I did better than expected but proved that I have indeed lost most of my skill in that language.

Back at the hostel, Greg set about taking out his braids, which were starting to look a bit ragged. Given that our braids have been a major point of conversation for us, this was a pretty big deal, and a small crowd assembled to watch and/or help. It was around this time that we finally got to see why this is called the rainy season in Panama. Yes, it’s been cloudy the whole time we’ve been here (and most of the rest of the trip, too), and yes, we survived some flash flooding in Caracas… but it was POURING here last night for several hours straight. Because we didn’t want to be lame and order pizza TWO nights in a row (plus apparently you can’t order pizza when it’s raining… not that we checked…), we donned our rain jackets and headed out into the wet with three French speakers who all had different budgets and interests for dinner. We eventually settled on a place and enjoyed a meal that proved that I am not allergic to shellfish (unlike my dad and brother) – hooray! I polished off a great plate of shrimp, squid, mussels, and scallops.

This morning we got up early and headed to the smaller of Panama City’s two airports for our trip to Isla Contadora, one of the many islands in the Pearl Islands chain about 50 miles south of Panama City. We flew in a single-propeller plane and sat two seats behind the two pilots, which was definitely a new experience for me. The airstrip on the island runs the entire width of it – this island is about a mile long and maybe half a mile wide, if that. Oh, and did I mention that our boarding passes were plastic cards, not tickets? It reminded me of the bathroom pass I used in my classroom.

Anyway, we hopped off the plane and started walking around without any particular agenda. The island has a bunch of different beaches (separated really only by rocks or a bit of cliff), so you can essentially just pick a direction to walk and find one. We arrived first at Playa Larga (Long Beach), where there was not a soul on the quarter mile of sand. We found an abandoned ferry at the end of the beach and climbed around in that for a bit; it was like excavating a plane crash… I half expected to find a skeleton somewhere! Seats were strewn about, windows broken, walls ripped out…

…and this proved to be the case for many things on the island. What looked like it had once been a beautiful hotel lay in ruins behind us on this same beach, and as we continued exploring, we happened upon a few more abandoned buildings. We found the next one after it started pouring rain. Take a moment and picture this: I am wearing a white skirt with flip flops and carrying a bag that is by no means waterproof, my umbrella is conveniently under my bed up in the dorm, and it is raining like it’s time to build another arc. We spent the next 30 minutes literally standing under a broken piece of roof covering the remains of what might once have been a community center of some sort. I spent the next two hours walking around in my bathing suit with my soaked clothes inside my soaked bag. Apparently I’ve lost my ability to plan ahead for all weather contingencies.

We next encountered what is the only legal nude beach in all of Panama, but as it was still raining, we didn’t take advantage of that. (Plus, really… it’s only a nude beach if there are other people there who are nude. Otherwise, it’s just skinny dipping.) I quickly fell behind Greg, who was wearing athletic sandals that lent themselves to climbing over rocks and up embankments. When I caught up, I was covered in mud, leaves, and various scratches from tall plants that had given me a warm welcome to the island. We eventually found a road again and walked towards nothing in particular until we eventually ended up on the other side of the airstrip. It was still raining at this point, but we managed to find an accommodating hut on a beach in front of one of the island’s cute hotels and sat there until it finally cleared.

My guidebook, though outdated, provided us with a recommendation for a place called Gerald’s Restaurant, which boasted a host of international and local cuisine. A number of things had already happened up to that point that I hadn’t expected; I certainly had not planned on eating bratwurst on a small island, but that’s what I did… the German section was the most impressive part of the menu, so I took advantage and thoroughly enjoyed my taste of my other homeland’s cuisine.

The rain appeared to be over for the time being, so I headed back to the beach in front of the hotel, hung up my clothes to dry, and lay down on the sand. This beach was deserted, too… there are only 300 inhabitants of this island, and given the weather, what few tourists there were did not choose to come outside today. I think this is too bad for them, because I might have found my new favorite beach in the WORLD today. I have three components for the perfect beach, and so far, only one (La Pared in Puerto Rico) has had all three: clear water, sand, and waves. Isla Contadora has clear water and sand, but the waves are very small… I don’t know whether to count them as such or not. However, I am willing to award some bonus points for the fact that the beach was deserted and clean… that was not the case in Puerto Rico. The water was also a perfect temperature, and I stayed in for quite a while… long enough, in fact, to get a little sunburned (because in my infinite wisdom I had decided it was too cloudy for me to be at any risk of overexposure to the sun).

Eventually it was time for us to head back to Panama City, so we checked in, received our plastic boarding passes, and once again climbed aboard the tiny plane. This time we sat directly behind the pilots, which was both cool (up close view) and scary (the co-pilot at one point clutched the wall in fright when the plane dropped a bit – not reassuring). I kept my gaze mostly out the window, looking for whales – Greg saw some earlier from a different part of the island. I found none but did manage to take out all of my braids as well, so once again I blend in with the masses.

Tomorrow is our last day; my plan is to find a post office and generally enjoy the day by sleeping in, eating one last good meal, and relaxing. I’ll be home around midnight tomorrow and may just start uploading photos the moment I get home – at this point, I think I have about 400.

I hope you’ve all enjoyed these posts and feel that you’ve traveled vicariously through me. It’s been an awesome experience. To sum up: I would like to return to all three countries – Venezuela, to see what the rest of the country is like (particularly its beaches, which are supposed to be amazing) and eat more arepas; Colombia, to visit Bogota, Medellin, Cali, and pretty much everywhere else; and Panama, to try to see Isla Contadora in the sunshine… it was pretty today but would be 100 times prettier in the sun.

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