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dannygoesdiving This is a blog & photo journal of the trips that I (Danny) and Jo (wifey) have taken over the past few years.

Panama - not the home of the Panama hat !

PANAMA | Saturday, 20 September 2014 | Views [958]

Casca Vieja

Casca Vieja

Completely off track, however, the Panama hat does not originate from Panama, it originated from Ecuador as early as the 17th Century. Straw hats woven in Ecuador like many other 19th and early 20th century South American goods, were shipped first to the isthmus of Panama before sailing to their destinations in Asia, the rest of the Americas and Europe, subsequently acquiring a name that reflected their point of international sale 'Panama Hats', rather than their place of domestic origin. The term was being used by at least 1834. Just thought I would clear that up ! Now as I was saying:

Our first impressions of Panama were how similar it is the US in terms of its customs procedure, the shops and signs at the terminal and the hotel (www.Reandeaeropuertohotelresort.com) which we chose for no other reason than it was close to the airport. Not a critisism, just an opinion, however a stark contrast to our experiences in Central America to date.

Next morning we picked up our hire car and set off for the supposedly 5 hour (250 mile) drive to Santa Catalina, where we had arranged for a 3 day diving safari on the little known island of Coiba (www.coibadivecentre.com). Getting out of Panama was a challenge but we managed, the skyline is impressive with huge numbers of tall, shiny skyscrapers. Passing over the bridge of the Americas you could see all the huge cargo ships waiting their turn to pass through the Panama canal. The first 5 hours of driving were pretty uninspiring, our only impressions were how dirty the country is in terms of rubbish strewn everywhere - maybe it seemed worse because of how clean Costa Rica is. The next impression was that the people seemed pretty unfriendly and had a facial expression that could be mistaken for hostility; maybe harsh is a better word. All in all we were not being won over by Panama.

Leaving the highway, the scenery started to improve and the road required more concentration. In addition to its windy route you had to keep eyes peeled for a combination of chickens, dogs, birds of prey, horses and children - all of whom seemed to use the centre of the road as an impromptu sidewalk - sometimes you actually had to come to a complete stop allowing for the animals involved to stir themselves and decide to let you pass.
After 6 hours we had decided that Santa Catalina really was at the arse end of nowhere, seriously no one ends up here by mistake as its literally at the end of the road. Just as despair was setting in we arrived ! The vibe of the place was in stark contrast to what we experienced up to that point. This was clearly a surfers and divers paradise - everything was low key with hand painted signs; dogs lazed, people lazed and time slowed down. We found the dive centre and checked in, then found our hotel, which was a real gem (hotel Iguanito - no website).  The owner was a lovely Belgian guy, we grabbed a beer (which came with a tapas) and the decision was made to stay to eat. I had a tapas selection which ended up being the best meal of the whole trip, whilst Jo had a fresh sea bass cerviche. I really wish I had taken a photo of my tapas (and I hate people who photograph their meals !) as it was a work of art, as well as amazingly tasty.  I will do my best to describe it -  running around the edge of the plate clockwise I had: a poached quails egg; a mini chorizo sausage; marinated chicken, beef skewer; spanish tortilla; cheese; salami (all the aforementioned were on a piece of homemade bread); calamari croquette cooked in squid ink and finally a chicken croquette. In the centre of the plate was a roasted pepper, stuffed with sea bass in a tomato sauce. The grand cost was $12.   Afterwards we walked to the beach, listened to the sound of the waves and admired the stars (no light pollution).

Next morning we went to the dive centre, sorted out our shit and headed to the beach. Wading into the water (and trying not to be knocked over by the waves) we climbed aboard the boat and headed the hours journey out to our first dive site.

There were 7 of us diving (only 4 of us were staying on Coiba) and a couple of snorkellers on the boat, along with the captain, a snorkel guide and Kevin, who was guiding the dives for the 3 days.

Dive 1: Coiba - Wahoo Rock. 25.3m, 49 mins.

The dive was around a rock pinnacle, the visibility and topography were similar to Costa Rica. There were a couple of white tips lying on the sand at the beginning of the dive. I was suprised to see crown of thorns (first I had seen outside of Thailand) as there appeared to be very little hard coral around. I later found out that they are indigenous to the area. In general the fish life was again similar to Costa Rica, although less prolific....then half an hour into the dive a humpback whale swam above and next to me, I managed to follow it and keep it in my sights for about 20 seconds before it disappeared from view. WOW. What a start to our diving here.

The surface interval was spent chilling on a sandy beach on one of the islands dotted around the area.

Dive 2: Coiba - Faro. 23.5m, 51 mins

We followed the contours of another island passing a nice group of white tips (5-6) laying on the sand. We had big shoal of barracuda and a couple of old, fully mature turtles (long tails and many barnacles) . In the sand there were numerous banded garden eels, whilst the boulders and rocks were home to lots of morays (a feature of all the dive here).  There was also more hard coral on the rocks.

After second dive we arrived at our little piece of paradise - the rangers station on the island of Coiba. The accomodation was a little basic - dormitory with a shared bathroom and only coldwater for the showers. What it lacked in amenities it made up for with its location. We had  jungle behind us and a palm tree dotted beach, complete with hammocks in front of us. Had a lunch of pasta and salad then went for a stroll, looking out to sea there were small islands dotted everywhere; and on the island itself there was wildlife every which way. We had black vultures and iguanas on the beach, agouti in the short grass, and capsun monkeys everywhere. I even had one come up and grab my fingers. Oh, and don't forget the salt water crocodile cruising in the shallows - yes, seriously !

Dive 3: Coiba - Iglesia. 24.4m, 46 mins

Our third dive of the day and first introduction to the strong currents that you can get here. We pulled ourselves down the line and went with the flow. A couple more white tips, a beautiful green frog fish and to top it off a school of 50+ cow nosed rays.

As we approached the rangers station a family of monkeys jumped out of the coconut tree next to our hut and scurried up the beach, meanwhile a couple of tiger herons waded in the shallows. A couple of post dive beers followed then the solar lighting kicked in for a few hours - giving us enough time to eat and get ready to crash. We fell asleep to the sound of waves gently breaking on the beach.


Next morning we had a light breakfast and then we were off for our first dive of the day. The sea was flat calm, we even passed a humpback whale on the way to the dive site.

Dive 4: Coiba - Checkpoint. 26.2m, 50 mins

There was a nice rock overhang filled with whitetip sharks. Lots of big schools of fish, including spadefish and barracuda. A couple of eagle rays.

Again the surface interval spent on a small beach.

Dive 5: Coiba - Sombrero del Pelo. 20.1m, 49 mins.

More strong currents, I burned through 50 bar in first 9 minutes. We had the usual whitetip suspects and a huge old turtle. There were some nice soft coral formations and tonnes of fish in the shallows. The highlight for me was without doubt the giant yellow frogfish (biggest I have ever seen).

After the dive we headed back to the rangers station for lunch (panamanian soup-tasty) and chilled in hammocks for a couple of hours.

Dive 6: Coiba - A little piece of gold. 12.6m, 66 mins.

Dived around a beautiful little island with a perfect sandy, palm tree fringed beach. A very shallow dive with good visibility and no current. The whole site was a hard coral garden, in places so prolific that it stretched in every direction As far as the eye could see. Huge volumes of fish life, a white tip, several turtles, numerous morays and a huge school of big eye jacks. I got enveloped within the school of jacks which was a real experience. Ended up surfacing on the beach, the plan was to have a beer on the beach but rain prevented us.

Back at the rangers station we had a beer or two and sat watching monkeys peeling back the coconuts and drinking the milk, what a unique experience.

Not sure what woke me up the next morning, it was either the call of the howler monkeys, the sound of the sea or the sound of coconuts hitting the sand; to be honest none of them were a bad way to be woken up.

Dive 7: Coiba - Mali, Mali 23.2m, 58 mins.

The most white tips to date with easily 20+ on the dive, more unusually they were also free swimming, at one point I counted 9. We had 2 giant yellow frog fish next to each other, a couple of octopus and generally a lot of marine life.

We spent the surface interval on 'playa rancherria',  quite possibly the most beautiful beach I have ever stepped foot on - white sand, palm trees and thousands of scuttling hermit crabs in various sized and coloured shells.

Dive 8: Coiba - Don Juan. 14.9m, 64 mins.

You would never guess that we had more white tips, as well as 4 octopus and a big school of big eyes - its almost as of they don't want you to escape there clutches; you swim into them and then they envelope you and move with you. We also had whale song throughout the dive. It was a slightly wierd dive site as it was a mixture of uninspiring barren areas and then sections where there was such an abundance of fish you don't know what to look at first.

We had our final lunch on Coiba before loading up our bags and then heading out  for the last dive of the trip.

Dive 9: Coiba - Frijoles. 20m, 50 mins.

Surface current was so strong that they pulled us on a rope to the front of the boat and the mooring line, then had to pull yourself down the mooring line. Even at the bottom the current was so strong it was necessary to pull yourself along using the rocks as handholds for the first 10 mins. It was well worth the effort though; looking up at the height of the current strength there was a huge school (100's) of barracuda motionless in the current. Turning the corner which started to send us with the current, I looked up to see a large school of swimming whitetips (lost count at 20), mixed amongst them were blue spotted jacks - this was one of my highlight moments of the trips. There was a similar scene a few minutes later, with even more sharks swimming in and out of cave overhangs; I would estimate seeing over 50 sharks on this dive alone. Add into the mix the volume of additional marine life we saw and your talking one of the best dives of the trip.

So the diving was over and it was time to head back to dry land, we had a forgettable meal at a restaurant recommendation we had received, spent another night at Iguanita (we would have eaten there but the restaurant was closed) and the next day headed to Pedasi, where we arranged for an evening tour in the hope of seeing nesting turtles. It was about a 5 hour drive, which passed uneventfully; our B&B (www.bedandbreakfastpedasi.com) was in a beautiful setting just outside Pedasi and from our rear patio windows we had an ocean view. Pedasi itself was a nice little town with a bohemian feel, again it would have been nice to spend more time here (other than lunch in a local bakery) had the opportunity arisen.

At 5PM we set off on a 45 minute drive the the village of Canas for our 'Isle canas turtle tour' (no formal website, we had rebooked ours through the B&B which had advertised it on their website). We simply followed the road until it ended at the waters edge, parking up we looked for the boat that we were told would be waiting to take us to the Isle (only way to get there).  All we could see though was a small open topped fishing boat with wooden planks as seats manned by an old weathered man in a panama hat; he rowed to shore and beckoned us in - this was our ride ! A 45 minute boat ride followed through the mangroves, we sawnoone  else, there were no lights indicating anyone else existed and it felt the most remote experience of our trip. The boatman spoke no English and anyway seemed too busy bailing the water out of the boat as we travelled to the community where we were to meet our guide. Arriving at the dock we were greeted by Cesar, a young lad who spoke passable English (we got by on a combination of his English and my Spanish) who was to show us around. We started with a meal at a locals house (fish, rice and salad), then once it was truly dark we headed to the beach were the Olive Ridley turtles nest at this time of year.

Walking along the beach was a leap of faith in itself, it was overcast so no moonlight to guide our way and torch light is not allowed (except for ranger who protect the turtles) so as not to interfere with the turtles making their way up the beach. The beach was flat and there were no obstructions to worry about tripping over, it was very spooking though as at the last minute you glimpsed a person on a pushbike cycle past you on the beach (also with no lights).  Cesar told us that you found the turtles by looking for their tracks as they come ashore to lay their eggs - that and the odd light from the rangers who monitor the nesting process to make sure it happens undisturbed (eggs not stolen) and that the turtles safely get back to the waters.  After about 15 minutes we came across such a track, even in the dark (eyes having adjusted) it was easy enough to make out the texture difference in the sand, Cesar asked us to wait whilst he checked out the situation, coming back to say that a ranger was monitoring the turtle and we could proceed once the nest had been dug and the egg laying process had commenced - disturbing the turtle prior to this could disrupt the process. Finally we got to approach the turtle, gently scooping sand away from the edge of the nest we got to see the batch of eggs as well as watch them being laid.  The eggs themselves looked like ping pong balls and were leathery, yet yielding to the touch.  It took the turtle about 10 minutes to lay all her eggs, if this process had been fascinating, then the method of covering the eggs was simply amazing. Firstly she would scoop sand back into the nest with her rear flippers, then using her shell underside she would pound the sand to flatten and compact it. You could audibly hear the shell everytime it impacted on the sand. She kept repeating this process for about 10 minutes until she was content that the process was complete. Then turning her back on the next generation of turtles she headed back to the ocean - I was surprised by how quickly she moved on the land, displaying a much greater dexterity than I was expecting.

Walking back along the beach we could make out other turtles, both approaching to lay eggs and returning to the waters. A magical experience.  A return boat journey saw us returned to our car and from there an uneventful journey back to the B&B. All in all a successful and rewarding trip.

We were heading back to Panama City to return the car and spend our final couple of days in the capital itself. An uneventful drive saw us reached the City, this was followed by a slow, gridlocked drive through the centre to get back to the airport, catching a taxi we headed to our hotel (www.hotelcentroamericano.com). Weary after a day of driving we ate in the hotel, the food was unmemorable but sated our hunger and was all the better for being accompanied by a couple of beers.

A quick breakfast and we readied ourselves for our guide who we taking us on a full day tour of the City (www.anconexpeditions.com). It turned out to be a very full, but enjoyable day. First stop was the Miraflores locks visitor centre at the Panama Canal, which could easily be a days activity in itself.  We stayed for about 2 hours, during which time we got to view (from the observation balcony) a cargo vessel approaching from the  Atlantic and passing through the miraflores lock system on its way to the Pacific. It was well worth viewing the operation, especially when you realise the basic process has been unchanged for 100 years.  We also took in a 3D video on the construction of the canal before looking around the impressive on-site museum. Next on the itinerary was the Panama Viejo museum which provides a great background to the history of Panama and the work that has been done on the ruins of what remains of the original city that was sacked by the privateer Henry Morgan in 1671. The museum was followed up by a walk around the ruins themselves, including climbing the still standing Cathedral tower, which provides impressive views over both old and new Panama.

Next on the list was Casco Viejo, the historic district of Panama City which was inhabited in 1673 following on from the destruction of Panama Viejo. Our stomachs were seriously rumbling so first stop was a Panamanian restaurant in the Plaza de la Independencia where we had a tasty 3 course meal. We spent the next hour wandering around the district and taking in the sights of the many restored buildings before heading to our final stop of the day - the biodiversity museum. This again was worthy of so much more time than we had available and is well worth a visit, however it was now 5PM and we were seriously starting to flag, calling it a day we were dropped off at our hotel. A great tour with a knowledgable and friendly guide provided us with a great introduction to Panama City.

We chilled for a couple of hours then took a stroll from our hotel to the waterfront, which is an area known as 'cinta costera'. Its a clean, safe walkway that goes all the way to Casco Viejo, popular with locals and tourists alike. There was a real mix of people here, joggers, cyclists, families, couples and groups of teenagers - the place seemed to appeal to everyone. There was a jogging track, cycle lane, childrens playgrounds, tennis courts, food stands, vedors and more - all this with the water on one side, the old city in one direction and the gleaming skyscrapers in the other. We wandered along with no real purpose eventually arriving at an area full of activity, that turned out to be the fish market. There were dozens of cerviche stands and the place was predominantly packed with locals. Plucking up the courage we approached a stand and ordered a couple of tubs of local sea bass cerviche ($1.25 a tub). The cerviche was amazing and after my tapas meal rated as the next best food of the month long trip. Full of cerviche and with aching legs from a full day of walking we headed back to the hotel, had a couple of beers and called it a night.

It was our final day, both in Panama and Central America; we wandered back along the cinta costera to Casco Viejo, a walk of just over a mile.  After the fish market we passed a number of small fishing boats, they somehow seemed a little out of place with the backdrop of modern skyline of Panama.

It was nice to approach Casco Viejo on foot as you got a much better panorama of the old colonial buildings. We probably wandered around the streets for a couple of hours before retracing our steps, stopping off at the fish market once again for some cerviche.

That evening we walked back to Casco Viejo, based on a recommendation from our guide of the previous day we had decided to eat on the rooftop terrace of Hotel Tantalo (www.tantalohotel.com). It was a great recommendation, our final evening was spent eating tapas and drinking wine - from our vantage point we could see the Panama City skyline dotted with lit up skyscrapers in one direction and historic church steeples and roofs in the other. Perfect.

Next morning we were up at 04:00AM for a 07:00 flight to Miami and after a 8 hour layover (shopped at Dolphin Mall) back home to the Turks and Caicos.

Another memorable trip - 30 days, 9 flights, 3 countries; new experiences and great memories. The only question remaining is....where to next ?

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