We arrived back in Panama at the boat in Shelter Bay a bit over 3 weeks ago, after a wonderful 3 month visit home to Oz. We visited family and friends throughout Queensland and New South Wales and clocked up over 7000 kms in the trusty Nissan Patrol ute, although some maintenance was required on the old girl (the ute, not me). It took us nearly 2 days to get from Australia back to the boat and 2 days to get over the jet lag. The boat was fine and the de-humidifier worked a treat as there was no mould/mildew at all (thank goodness). We spent the first week generally getting organised (cleaning, washing, shopping etc). The weather, although windy, has been gorgeous compared to the heat and humidity back in Sept/Oct. Terry & Laine, our friends from Byron Bay, arrived back in the Marina about 1 week before us, and after doing some maintenance including painting the bottom, put their yacht 'Virgo's Child' back in the water.
We decided to hire a car and drive to David (western side of Panama near Costa Rica) then up to Boquete in the mountains to see the coffee plantations. We picked up the car (a Nissan Xtrail) from Hertz in Colon (we had booked through Budget but when we got there to pick up the car, it wasn't there). John was the designated driver (Sue the designated back seat driver) and as we headed out of the car park and into the street, we did a left turn and came face to face with oncoming traffic. A hasty pull over to the side of the road and a reminder to stay on the RIGHT side of the road we were off. It's quite interesting driving in Panama where there are rules I am sure, but nobody follows them. If you want to do something (like over take on a hill on a solid yellow line) you just need to honk the horn and go right ahead and expect everyone to move over and let you through. Other than a close call with a truck who pulled out in front of us, John delivered us safely from start to end.
We drove to Santiago the first day (approx 4 hrs) and booked into the Galleria situated next to a McDonalds where they had free WiFi, which was faster than the WiFi in the McDonalds in Inverell (home town in NSW, Aust). Santiago is approximately in the middle of the map. We had dinner at the motel and after ordering our meals in Spanish with a non English speaking waitress, ended up with 3 Prawn Cocktails we did not order, or so we thought. Ah well, we put that one down to experience. The next day we started out on the run up to David on the Carretera Panamericana (main highway). We made it as far as the small village of Los Ruices where a policeman, (with semi automatic riffle in hand), stopped us, saying the road ahead was blocked. John thought he picked up the word 'intervention' or similar. When asked how long it would take to clear the road, the policeman said 3 hours. We parked off the road with cars, buses, trucks etc found a spot to sit. On the opposite side of the road was a local police station/compound and about 50 riot police were practicing with riot shields and batons. About an hour later they all loaded into buses and trucks and took off down the road accompanied by an assult vehicle (metal plated bus painted in camoflage colouring). We then found out from another traveller that the Indians had blockaded the highway in protest to part of the new mining legislation which did not give them protection over their land. We pulled out the Sequence but after 6 hours decided to head back to Santiago and plan B.
With the highway still blocked we headed down to Playa (beach) Santa Catalina on the Pacific side of Panama and 2 hours drive south. This is a pretty village catering to tourists interested in diving, snorkelling, fishing and surfing. An international surf comp is being held here this year and Terry & Laines 16 yr old neighbour from Byron Bay is coming over for it. After driving around and looking at 2 other places to stay we finally found the 'Cabanas Rollo' for $55 per night. These were nice and bright, well furnished, air conditioned and over looked the beach. The owners are young and pleasant. We found a little restaurant just up the road run by Edwardo and his family. Main meals were $5, and the food was delicious. This became our eating place for the 2 days we remained in Santa Catalina. The decorations consisted mainly of plastic bottles, lids and thongs strung together.
Driving on country roads in Panama is always interesting from the potholes and one lane bridges to the mobs of cattle being herded by gauchos, even a local kids baseball team being taken to their Saturday morning game. The paddock fences are made from branches that, once stuck in the ground, begin to regrow. Some will be trimmed for fire wood, which is left on the side of the road for sale.
We retraced our track back through Santiago and headed for the mountains to Santa Fe in the hope of seeing a working coffee plantation. We stayed in a very basic hotel called the Santa Fe. It was cheap and clean but had the best food i have in a long time. It is run by 2 younger guys, one an American, the other a Panamanian with a Masters Law degree, who really made our stay a delight. The coffee plantation was closed (Sunday) so we decided to head back toward Panama City to another place in the mountains called El Valle.
El Valle is located in the Cocle province in the basin of an extinct volcano. We followed the map and turned off the highway just past Anton. The map indicated that it was a good bitumen road to El Valle and the lady on the GPS was issuing instructions to continue, although there were occasions that the GPS had us driving overland or on water and she would advise us to "follow the highlighted route". Well we got to a village called 'Cabuya' and the bitumen road changed to a dirt road which very quickly turned into a dirt track then a 4 wheel drive only track heading up the side of a mountain. We had asked a local who had told us that this was the way to El Valle. Once we made it to the top of the mountain, we then started down the other side. The surface was rock and stone rubble which didn't give our vehicle much purchase. Mind you, our mighty Nissan ute would have coped better than the lighter Xtrail. The only other people we met on this track were locals who were walking, not riding or driving. It was a bit challenging but John got down safely, much to the relieved sighs from the back seat. Once in El Valle we headed to the Cabanas Potisi, a place we had found on the internet. It is lovely, with quaint rooms and set in gardened grounds out of the main part of town. We had the guest room at $33 per night, while Terry & Laine had a one bedroom unit/cabin for $45 per night. The Cabanas are run by an American and his Panamanian wife. He was a headmaster and she was a school teacher. The cabins belong to her family and are set on part of the family farm. We visited waterfalls, Indian paintings (not nearly as good as Aboriginal rock art), a zoo and local market. So plenty to do. The area has some very nice mansions and is obviously a holiday come retirement place for rich Panamanians and Americans. The prices are very expensive by Panamanian standards, but reasonable cheap by Australian. We really liked this area.
After spending 2 days in El Valle we headed back to the marina, but took the opportunity to drive up to Fort San Lorenzo, located near the marina in the National Park. It was built by the Spanish to protect the mouth of the Chagres River, which winds it's way up through the jungle. The Gatun Lake (large lake in the middle of Panama linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific via the loch system) was formed by damming the Chagres.
We returned the car to Colon and waited with baited breath to see if they were going to charge us extra for 'scratches,dings etc' apparently very common for 'gringos' who hire cars. We had washed it that morning and had our phone out with the photos we had taken when we picked up the car, just in case. He checked the car and gave it the all clear. All up 8 days cost us $836US for unlimited kms, insurance & GPS. We had organised Teddy (local taxi driver) to pick us up after we had done grocery shopping. We complained that the fruit, veg & meat at the super market was not nice. He suggested the local Colon markets. We parked the car in a side street and Teddy paid a guy to look after it while we went into the markets. It was packed with stalls and people with all the produce out in the open, including the meat. But everything was fresh and they had a wider variety than the regular super market we go to. Came home with stuff we haven't seen in Panama before, including mint & parsley. Made fresh watermelon, apple, yoghurt, honey and mint smoothies. What a treat. Have also included a photo of our basil. I was given some small seedlings 3 weeks ago. We potted them and they have just taken off. We will plant the herb seeds we brought back from Aus in the next week so we will have a boat garden.
We have been told that our shipment of bits and pieces has left Florida (by boat) so we should have them here by mid next week. We are now trying to lock in a date to have the boat hauled out so we can start work on the jobs we need to do. We have been told we may be able to get hauled out on Saturday so we hope this will happen as we are keen to get on with it so we can get out of here and head up to Bocas del Toro.
That's all for now
John & Sue