#17 – Panama, Panama City & San Blas

As a perfect Cuban send off I nearly missed my flight, despite arriving at the airport with about 4 hours to spare, only making it on to the plane with about 5 minutes to spare. Long story (not actually that long) but I got to Panama.

If I’m honest I didn’t really expect to like Panama, and with my low expectations I was pleasantly surprised with a very flash hostel in the new, high-rise and banking area of Panama. It was eerily quiet as I walked around, and as it turned out, it happened to be a bank holiday. A particularly pesky bank holiday too, as it was also an alcohol prohibition day due to the national elections. Bloody democracy – it was a tough day.

A little ashamedly revelling in the normality and comparative luxury of having actual shops where you can buy actual things – choices of where to eat, and even the option to cook your own food. The selection was a little overwhelming to begin with – a strange feeling. As I was pondering this, a bird landed on my head. I mean actually landed on my head, as I felt its feet dig in to my head. Before I really knew what was going on, and as my brain said ‘there is a fucking bird on my head!’ it had flown off.

Standing perplexed, I looked around and saw some locals across the street absolutely killing themselves with laughter while making making bizarre bird noises while pointing at me. I had no option other then to join in the laughing. Like a bird taking a dump on your head, did this also mean I was due some good luck? As if to confirm this, another bird actually shat on me about half an hour later. Que suerte.

Birds aside, I left the hostel for a quick walk to explore the surroundings and ended up on an unplanned 6 hour cross city trek. Starting off in the new part of the city, I followed the coast around, slowly making my way to old Panama. En route I passed some modern football courts and workout areas, which seemed largely untouched. One of football courts had a group of locals playing – this was my chance to get my Panama football card. I meandered over, and they beat me to the question – asking if I’d like a game.

The problem, again, was that I was wearing a pair of flip flops which had been repaired by some loose string. I poured some water on to my feet and tried to step on to the court but the heat was almost instantly unbearable. I looked around and spotted a guy sitting down who looked about my size (not sure how I judged shoe size by his appearance but I did). I asked if I could borrow his shoes for 1 game, or at least that was what I attempted to say.

He thought about it for a moment, almost weighing up the pros and cons to the situation, and agreed to let me use them. 20 minutes later and my team had won a hard fought 2-1 victory. I was a complete mess of sweat as I handed back the shoes, and although the humidity was stifling I carried on wandering my way over to old Panama, in search of air conditioning, drink and food.

After having a quick look around old Panama I caught a short taxi to the entrance of the Panama canal, and after sitting and watching a few boats come and go, I spotted a pay phone as I began my walk back. So impressed by the location of the phone, I fed in the shrapnel in my wallet and attempted to ring home. ‘Dad, I’m by the Panama canal!’ Sadly the call only lasted a few minutes, but it put a spring in my step as I headed back to the hostel.

The next morning I left Panama City for the boat tour that would take me through the San Blas islands and onwards to Colombia. It turned out to be 80% guys, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and mostly English – which again isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But unfortunately in this instance, it was a bad thing.

With my lack of research – entirely my own fault – I’d envisaged a large sailing boat, but we were actually piled on to 2 smallish speedboats, with everyone rushing to avoid the back, which we soon learnt became a very wet place to be.

There was about 30 or 35 people in all, and as I was getting to know an Irish couple before boarding the boat, a lad behind us shouts out ‘Sun’s out, guns out!’. – Ah shit I thought, the singlet wearing lads-on-tour posse had arrived. I had imagined the trip to be a pretty relaxed affair after a hectic and demanding Cuban leg, it turned out that the lads had other plans.

Bottles of run in tow, it became a bit of a Blackpool stag weekend atmosphere, and although it didn’t spoil it entirely – and the islands themselves were undeniably beautiful, it tainted it somewhat. The first Island we came to after a couple of hours in the speedboat was probably the best. The sort of place you see on a film, but never think actually exists. Only a hundred metres or so in diameter, the sand spit had crystal clear waters that would make it easy to see even the smallest penis if you were skinny dipping. Starfish (pointless things) dotted the seabed, and after snorkeling around there were a dozen palm trees for shelter – it was certainly a fine spot.

Sadly it didn’t really get any better then this for the next 4 days, as we visited a handful of empty islands and also a couple of island villages where the local ‘Kuna’ people lived. The Kuna have a fascinating history, though none of it I can remember, and were very welcoming. I remember at one point swimming in the sea while a rowdy game of ‘knock the beer can off the stick with a frisby’ game was happening on the beach. For some reason both teams started to trade insults, getting louder before one guy shouts at the top of his voice ‘drink your beer you (look away now) SHITCUNT!’. Perfect timing as a boat of Kuna passed the island – me waving hesitantly to them – them looking bemused and dumbfounded past me at the beach antics. We aren’t all like this, honest.

The kids in the villages we visited made us feel like celebrities – like a Hollyoaks actor at a University fresher party – some were ecstatic, while the others who were mainly older, had a more relaxed and less bothered approach. The villages looked a bit like floating houses when approached, a metre or so increase in water level would create some serious problems. Talking about less serious problems, we slept in hammocks and quite often the toilet would consist of just a seat positioned over the sea.

A bizarre experience to see your shit drop in to the sea, hearing it splash and be washed away gently by the current, as the wind whips away at your bare ass. It felt natural and wrong at the same time. No one swam near the floating village islands.

After 4 days we arrived in Colombia, and judging by everyone’s expressions as we stepped off the boat, we were all relieved to be back on land. It was an interesting experience, not one I’d be in a rush to repeat again, but equally unsure if I’d have done it again if I knew what it entailed. Covered in sand, smelling dreadful, tired, achy and needing a combination of food, sleep and a shower we arrived at the small but blissful port town of Carpugena. Most of us on the trip decided to stay an extra night before heading on to the next stop and gateway to the rest of Colombia; Turbo.

In Carpugena we were told about a semi-natural wave pool which was about a 40 minute walk away. What we found was a hidden oasis with only 2 other people there, and we (a group of 6 of us from the boat tour who were more chilled out then the rum drinking lads) spent nearly the entire day recuperating.

The following day we took what would be our last boat (and for me the last boat I want to take for a while) across to Turbo. Poisedon had saved his best till last, and gave us another speed boat journey, but this time piled ridiculously with people and bags that it was clearly over capacity as we sped off. The driver maintained an ass-shattering pass as we bounced up, down and around which was at times exciting, while the rest of the time painful with a side of mild terror.

As it careered over the waves, I pondered what would happen if hit a wave badly and capsized. An un-swimmable distance from land – where would the current take us? Would we drift in to land or out to sea? How long would it be until anyone knew we were gone? No phone signal or way of contacting anyone, we would be relying on someone eventually realising we hadn’t arrived at the other port. It was a strangely exciting and yet worrying thought. My estimate was about 4 hours until anyone would realise.

Turbo came in to sight after a few hours, and we pulled up to the jetty to witness something akin to a witch-hunt. The locals had seen us coming – probably knew we were coming – and we were like cattle being herded to the slaughter. We’d been warned about Turbo before, but nothing quite prepared me for this free-for-all. People running around, jostling for position for when we left the jetty, shouting and waving.

Luckily there was a fence protecting us from our predators and giving us about 5 metres in which we could get out of the boat and pick up our bags. They looked like they wanted blood. I felt like Gareth Southgate returning to England after his penalty miss in Euro 96 – except there was no Pizza Hut advert. I would have loved a pizza at the time, thinking about it.

After lots of – for lack of a better phrase – ‘fucking around’, we broke from the touts trying to get us in to their taxis or coaches, promising us door to door journeys for special price, smiling with their gold teeth. We eventually found a local who helped us in the direction of where the real bus terminal was. As she helped us, we were still flanked by the touts who were giving the poor woman lots of flak, and obviously trying to tell her to keep her mouth shut so we wouldn’t find it.

To her credit, she gave them some verbal back, though none of which was comprehensible to me. After arriving a the the real bus terminal, the touts were still not finished, as they proceed to stand in our way while we attempted to buy tickets. Even though there was around 8 of us, they outnumbered us maybe 2 to 1, so it was with a mix of diplomacy and assertiveness that we managed to buy our tickets.

They began to trickle away, visibly disappointed and bizarrely some even shook our hands as they left, as if congratulating us on a rare traveller over tout victory. The next 30 minutes on the bus was complete carnage, with people jumping on and off the bus, lots of shouting, money exchnges for no apparent reason, various weird items being put on to the bus and general chaos. I asked the Colombian woman if this was normal, she just nodded.

The rest of the journey went okay once we had left Turbo, and after about halfway we had to change bus. This reunited the 8 of us with the rest of the lads-on-tour from the trip. They’d been duped by the touts, and it was hard not to feel a bit smug as they moaned amongst themselves, ‘I fucking knew we were getting ripped off Bazza. I facking knew it’.

It was a refreshing feeling when we eventually rolled in to Cartagena, some 10 hours after we had first boarded the boat for Turbo in the morning. It had been a long day, but I was on dry land. We opted for the local bus and the left the lads to flounder around at the taxi rank. My spirit was lifted despite my physical tiredness. There was no rush, no schedule, not stuck with the same people every day for 5 days, I was back in the game – Hola Colombia!

2 comments on “#17 – Panama, Panama City & San Blas

  1. I rember that call well James.. Very short but great to hear your voice on your latest adventure!! Good luck in Argentina…. Cheers Dad x

  2. James
    Your blogs as fantastic, I spilt my tea laughing at the one with the bird on your head xx stay safe Love Theresa & Duanes

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