Colombia - Panama
03.23.2011 36 °C
The journey to Capurgana was the journey from hell. There was no direct bus. First, we took a bus to Monteria, where we met Stephen from Vienna. We then changed to get on the local bus to Turbo. The driver assigned our seats, which were at the back and made for very short people. The road was not really a road; Franck called it a dirt road...well, it took us about 5h00 hours to cover 150 km. We eventually made it to Turbo, a town where you would not dream staying more than 12h00. We were here in transit to take a "lancha", which is the local motorboat, the next morning.
We arrived in Capurgana after a 2h00 boat ride in the Caribbean sea, which was very bumpy. I listenned to the owner of the hostel and got the best seat, which was at the back in the middle of the row (please, remember that if you ever take a lancha for your own safety and comfort).
Capurgana is a little town on the Caribbean sea , where the main activities are resting and fishing. We initially planned to stay one night. We then decided we were very tired and needed some rest. We spent three days in paradise. We stayed at the hostel Los delphines, which I highly recommend. The owner, Hannibal, was lovely and the food, mainly fish, was excellent.
Hannibal suggested we go to Sapzurro the next day, which is an 1h00 walk through the jungle from Capurgana. From there, it is possible to go to La Miel, which is the closest beach in Panama. Unfortunately, it is not possible to enter Panama fron La Miel as it is isolated from the rest of the country by the unsafe jungle, the Darien gap. We hence headed to Sapzurro early the next morning. We saw more animals than in the Amazon. It took us almost twice the time as Franck stopped at every bird noises. He did see some toucans and a tiny yellow frog with black spots. He was then amazed by the spiders and the spiders's webs. Even I did think we were in some Indiana Johns movies.
Sapzurro is a very small town, which deserves risking getting bitten by big spiders and other insects. It is colourful and simple, basically few houses by a white sand beach with a few coconut and banana trees.
We then made our way to La Miel, again uphill to the border and downhill to the beach.
We were welcomed by military officers who claimed to be allergic to my camera. The weather was cloudy and the currents brought a lot of garbage from the nearby islands. The beach was okayish but very dirty.
We then decided to return to Capurgana by boat as we were exhausted from walking in the jungle. At our suprise, the boat dropped us in Sapzurro. We refused to pay and walked back through the jungle. While walking back, we saw a big wild animal passing by that got really scared after noticing our presence. It was brown with a pointed nose and a stripped tail [Franck: a coati]. We then saw a few monkeys that were jumping from branches to branches. This was priceless and made us forget the pain of walking in the jungle, which was hot and humid.
We then met Stephen for a pleasant evening at the local bar, which was owned by an old Colombian man, who could have been a member of Buena Vista Social Club. He slept behind the bar. The beers were really cheap and the music was local. At 21h00, he pretended running out of beers as he wanted to call bed time. The next morning, we went to El Cielo, which were supposed to be really nice waterfalls where you can swim as we were told. On our way there, we realised that what we thougt was a football pitch was actually the airport. This was the smallest airport I have ever seen. Kids were crossing the runway to go to school.
We then entered the jungle and crossed 14 little rivers and got our feet wet. The walk was nice but we were quite disappointed by the site as it was just little ponds that did not deserve the entrance fee. I admit however that I did enjoy the swim after walking in this heat.
The next morning we left early to get the boat accross the Panamean border to the small jungle town of Puerto Obaldia. The 45 minutes journey was a little bit scarry as the 10-people boat was shaken by high waves that crashed into the boat and got us all drenched.
We eventually got there safely and were welcomed by emigration officials who thoroughly searched our bags before getting our passports stamped. In a second attempt to reach the San Blas archipelago since Cartagena, we enquired about boats that could take us there from Puerto Obaldia. One guy was willing to take a group of up to 7 people to an island in the archipelago about 2h30 away in a similar boat to the one that we took to cross the border. Unfortunately we were about 9 people and the the guy said that he wouldn't leave until the following morning, assuming that the weather would improve. Charlotte and I decided to get on the flight to Panama and try to arrange our trip to San Blas from there. Thankfully, we made sure to travel to Puerto Obaldia on one of the 3 week days when a flight was leaving for the capital as we didn't want to get stuck in this unattractive town. Since we hadn't booked the flight in advance, we had to wait until all the passengers had checked-in to know if we could get two spaces. Luckily we grabbed 2 of the last 3 seats available on the tiny plane from Air Panama.
We waited at least 6 hours in front of the airport and finally boarded the plane at about 3.30pm.
The 1h flight was quite scenic as we flew over the jungle and saw Panama city from the air upon arrival.
Despite having already been searched in Puerto Obaldia and having our passports stamped, the emigration procedure in Panama city took about 3 frustrating hours. First we had to queue to pay for the flight (92 USD each), wait for people to search our bags again, had a short interview with an emigration officer, queue again before being body searched (I had to take my trousers and t-shirt off!) and when we thought we were finally free to go, we were all taken individually into a small room to be questionned and gave again the same information we had already given during the first interview. They waited for all of the passengers to go through this before "releasing" us after 3 long hours. Free at last, we had to bargain hard with taxi drivers to take us to the hotel we had choosen in our pretty bad footprints guide book. The address of the hotel was incorrect but fortunately the taxi driver knew the place and took us there. It was full. the girl at the reception told us that all hostels she had contacted were full and told us to walk a couple of blocks away where some hotels always had some rooms available. We checked-in at hotel Corona for 25 USD a night in a brand new room that smelled of dust and looked like a prison cell with no outside window. We had TV, air conditioning and the most powerful shower from South America... but we also found out later that some "couples" were paying by the hour to stay in this hotel. Anyway, it was clean and functional so we stayed there for 3 nights in total. While walking that night in search of a restaurant we went to a small Chinese place which turned out to be really good and of excellent value but the neighborhood didn't seem particularly safe so we hurried back to our hotel after dinner.
On the next day we headed toward Casco Viejo, the touristic old colonial peninsula of Panama city. This was a nice place - although very run down - with a lot of activity including street performers and top models preparing for the evening fashion show that was taking place in the evening.
Panama city is a city of contrasts with extremly trendy and modern areas that ressembles Miami or San Diego in the US but also with really poor neighborhoods and shabby buses and buildings.
From Casco Viejo, we had a perfect view of the financial district with its skyscrapers rising into the sky from the see. In the afternoon, we went back to the first hotel we went to to get some information about trips to San Blas. The girls we talked to the previous night told us that she could arrange for the transportation but the guy at the reception on that day discouraged us and said he wouldn't organize it for us as the boat trip was too unsafe. We later heard stories about travellers going overboard on that boat. Frustrated again in our 3rd attempt to reach the San Blas islands, we decided to give up and go to Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean coast towards the border with Costa Rica after spending another day in Panama City.
In the evening, we went back to our favorite Chinese restaurant and took a taxi to Casco Viejo to enjoy the night life. The fashion show was on and there were DJs playing music and a lot of free drinks as part of a promotional stunt from several companies.
On the next day we headed toward the "causeway", a group of small islands linked to the city by a few bridges. The main draw to this area is the tax free shop, the view of town and a small protected nature area where we saw iguanas and sloths in the wild while walking into a small forest.
In the afternoon, we went to Miraflores to see the very famous Panama canal. The scenery was not bad. The Caribbean sea on the right and the pacific ocean on the left. We saw two ships crossing the canal from the Caribbean to the Pacific; one was from China, the other from Japan.
In the evening, we headed to Uruguay avenue that is known for trendy bars and clubs...we were quite disappointed as it was expensive and not entertaining at all. We hence went to our favourite Chinese restaurant in the dodgy area of Panama...the taxi driver asked us twice if we really wanted to stop here.
On Sunday morning, we took a 10h00 bus to Bocas del Toro, which is a set of islands North of Panama on the Caribbean side.
We stayed at the very cheap and pleasant hostel Sagitario on the colon island. The island was full of americans and canadians. Some of them have settled there and opened little bookstores and restaurants. We went to the bookstore next to the Om's Cafe, where you can browse through books while having a beer or a rhum and coke. We knew that Maria, the Spanish friend we met in San Augustin and Tierradentro was somewhere in Bocas. The town being really small, we eventually bumped into each other. We spent the next day with Maria and Alex from Canada. We first went to Delphines bay where we expected to see dolphins (90% of the time according to the boat driver); we might have been among the unlucky 5%. We then went snorkelling in Coral bay. We indeed saw really colourful corals and weird green fish with a rond head and thin and long tail. We stopped for lunch on Zapatilla island, which was a deserted island with white sand and coconut trees...another paradise island. It would have been perfect if the weather had not been cloudy with heavy showers. We had few sunny and really hot moments which gave us some nice pictures of the Caribbean islands.
Having smelled Indian food the night before, we realised we haven't had a nice curry fro the past 6 months...we hence headed to the Om's Cafe and enjoyed very tasty and spicy food. The sky was clearing up as we could see stars. We were looking forward for the next day.
We woke up with heavy rain and decided to leave. On our way back, we met Philippe from Cannes who made fun of Franck by calling him Antonio (Banderas)... too bad we were French and got the joke. Anyhow, we ended up talking to each other. Philippe was travelling with Max and Valerie who decided to settled in the town of David, in Panama after spending some time sailing around the world. They told us to stop in David at the hostel Chambres en ville as we did not know what to do (spend more time in Panama in Golfo de Chirique or head towards Costa Rica)...We hence took a bus to David and stayed in Chambres en ville, where we met for the second time the French guys plus one French Canadian. David is not particularly nice. It is however a town where people stop over on their way to Costa Rica, Bocas de Toro or the Golfo de Chirique. We indeed recommend staying at Chambres en ville as it has a really nice garden and a swimming pool. The owner, a little madam, is also lovely. She also has two parrots; one of them can say Hola with the same tune as you would not recognise who is speaking.
We spent the next day in the hotel and ventured out for 3 hours to visit yet another disappointing site - some waterfalls where we were supposed to bathe. The garbage on the bank put us off and we decided to leave for Costa Rica the next day.
We didn't really give Panama a chance! We liked Panama city but as for the rest of the country we weren't in the mood to explore as people were generally not very friendly, prices quite high and the weather quite changing. We haven't heard many good things about Costa rica either and may whiz through the country fairly quickly as well in order to spend more time in Nicaragua later.