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La vida loca! Wished you were there? We did, so here we are on our big adventure! A year in central America, to make sense of this vida loca...

Daniel and Rachel Hit the Road: How Many Mouths has a Bull got?

PANAMA | Wednesday, 24 September 2008 | Views [2090]

Zapatillos Cay

Zapatillos Cay

After three and a half months in Costa Rica it was time to say goodbye to Rancho Mastatal and start our Central American journey.  We spent a few days back in San Jose (after a surprisingly uneventful bus journey to Puriscal – the road was even worse than normal, but no landslides, and the amazing driver managed to get the bus past the sink holes / appalling corner gullies), and then headed up the way to the Caribbean coast and the surf town of Puerto Viejo.  You´re immediately struck by the differences from the Pacific coast – it seems much more laid back, if anything it´s hotter, and there is a much bigger population of people with Jamaican ancestory, who speak English and Creole.  We only had one day in the town before catching the bus to the Panamanian border, but spent the evening at a great bar/restaurant run by a crazy dutch guy who spent the whole evening jumping around to music, whilst pouring us wine, having philosophical discussions and smoking spliffs.  Oh, and we also had a rather nice meal.  If we hadn´t been on the way to somewhere else, I would have been tempted to stay the week just to eat there every night…

The next day we got to the border at Sixaola.  I couldn´t believe it, we got to the customs building and we queued for…2 minutes.  Unheard of.  Then we had to walk across a pretty rickety road/railway bridge, with rotting planks over a churning river.  Now this is what crossing a border ought to be about.  For a change it was Rachel who was a bit concerned about the whole looking through the planks at the river below thing, whereas my usual vertigo-inclinations didn´t kick in.  Once over we had another perfunctory stamping of passports on the Panama side (and no tourist visa fee for Brits – go UK! – in your face, Americans!).

Then we were whisked off in a bus by some guys who persuaded us that the water taxi from Almirante was much more frequent than from Changuinolla (the alternative).  They lied.  However, we did get to have a 40 minute drive down hilly roads at speeds I didn´t know mini-vans went to.  Honestly, it was like being in something out of Outrun (for non-1980´s computer game geeks, that was a rather fast driving game, where you swerved to avoid oncoming traffic etc. – this experience was much the same, but without the crashes).  Panama has a good road system, and the Panamanians make full use of this fact by using it like a race track.  After a two hour wait for the ´more frequent´ water taxi, we had a fun motor boat trip over to Bocas Del Toro.

The Bocas Del Toro archipelago is in the Caribbean and is centred on Colon Island and Bocas town, which is a small but sprawling grid of traditional houses (think wooden clap-board with balconies, verdandas and woodwork that approximates something you might see on a swiss chalet).  This is interspersed by a vile development spree as rich foreigners (ahem…Americans) develop plots with nasty anywhereville concrete hotels and mansions that seem to bear no heed to the vernacular, or the fact that they´re on an island with limited service supplies (we had very limited water in our hostel for three days, and there is no good waste disposal - the local council dumps it on land down the road, or burns it).   Oh, and while I´m on rant mode, every third business is an estate agent with even viler multiple chalet/second home water-side developments proposed on their front windows.  Nasty – see it now folks, before the retirees move in and start playing golf.

Saying that, away from the horrible development spree, the islands are fantastic.  After working out how the water taxi system works (ask a boatman how much, then say no and walk away and the price miraculously halves), getting around the islands was fun.  We spent a couple of days bumming around on white sand beaches with lovely aqua-blue, warm water, and walked around some of the surrounding islands, which are really only just above sea level, with forest interiors and very sandy soils.

The real highlight of the islands is the snorkeling, however and we swam above fantastic coral reefs, teeming with fish, crabs, worms, sea slugs, cucumbers, jellyfish – everyone´s seen coral reefs on nature programmes, but experiencing the real thing still took my breath away.  The life here is so…alien – I think it’s the closest thing you´ll ever come to viewing a different planet.  Even the corals themselves are breathtaking, with so many colours and weird shapes.  There wasn´t much obvious bleaching, which was good, although there was some damage where boat hulls had broken off some of the pipe-like corals.  You could swim in these reefs for hours and still see new creatures and fish.  It brought home how fantastic these environments are in the context that they are now threatened from rising ocean temperatures – they may not exist for our grandchildren to see.

Toward the end of our trip we also took a longer trip to see a bay where schools of dolphins live, and then over to the east end of the archipelago to the Zapatillas Cay islands, which are part of a marine national park.  It was nice to see dolphins in the bay, but it was less nice to have four or five boats chasing around pairs of dolphins, until the dolphins got tired and dived.  I hate to think what its like in the high season.  If I was a dolphin I think I´d be getting annoyed.  This and the coral damage we´d seen previously brought home the balancing act that needs to be achieved between tourism and conservation.

The Zapatillos islands are the closest thing Rachel and I have come to what your imagination conjures up when someone mentions a desert island.  They really are untouched, with beautiful beaches overhung with forest.  There were no reefs near to the islands, but plenty of bigger fish in the surf and in clear waters off the beach.

Rachel came face to face with a metre-long Barracuda (I kid you not).  These guys are long and thin with scars down their backs and an innumerable number of teeth sticking out of their mouths.  Rachel shouted at me to swim over to her.  Normally, I have to admit that swimming in water with fish anything bigger than a dinner plate makes me nervous.  There´s no rational reason for this – just that I feel vulnerable in their environment.  So, if I´d seen the Barracuda by myself, my most likely reaction would have been to swear loudly and get the hell out of the water.  As it was, once I got over the shock of seeing something of a comparable size to me, it was fascinating to float, and swim next to him/her.  “That´s a big fish” I said. “I know!”, said Rachel, swimming quickly in the opposite direction.  We spent quite a long time sizing each other up.  I´m not sure whether Mr Barracuda saw me as a threat, just some interesting gangly mammal, or a potential meal stop (I guess he could have munched on my appendages, had he desired).  When I turned away, he´d swim towards me a bit, until I turned to face him again and he´d think again.  Eventually he swam toward the beach, and I followed about 2 metres to his side.  Then I got distracted by a stingray bombing away below me, which I followed, unsuccessfully, and I lost him (Rachel saw an even bigger stingray – nearly as big as her!).

When our time in Bocas ended, we got the water taxi back to Changuinola.  This is the old HQ of Chiquita Bananas in Panama, before the banana trees all got a fungus and died – the route takes you down the canal used to transport the bananas.  The Panamanian need for speed applied, as usual, and as we swerved at high speed to avoid flotsam and trees, I couldn´t help but hum the James Bond theme.  All we needed was a dude in a boat behind us with an eye-patch, a black turtle-neck jumper and a rocket launcher, and we´d be there.

By the way, the Caribbean coast, especially on the Costa Rican side of the border, is big on bananas, so instead of seeing the monoculture oil-palms, like you see on the Pacific coast, you get the same with banana trees.  And all the hands are covered in blue, pesticide-coated plastic bags.  Think about that the next time you buy your non-organic bananas from Tescos.

Dan getting down to business

Tags: baracudas, bocas del toro, coral reefs, desert islands, inappropriate development, panama border crossing


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Argh!  Well, maybe not pirates this time, but dig the colour-coordinated bandanas!

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