A country divided
Another border crossing brought us up from the steamy jungle and into the mountain fresh air of Boquete, Panama. We camped beside the river at a clearing just large enough to parallel park the van. Colette threw rocks into the babbling river, and we relished the breeze that drifted off the water, even layering up with a sweater as the sun dropped into the forest.
As we stretched our legs in the morning, a rainbow appeared amid the clouds, seemingly pointing us to where we should go hiking!
There were endless precarious river crossings and bridges. On one such bridge, we met a Ngäbe family. Our attempts to communicate in Spanish were met with looks of bewilderment.
Panama is a country divided in two by the famous canal, but also divided by the most visible class system we have yet to see, with virtually no “middle class.” Most indigenous, of which Panama has 7 tribes, work on small fincas, estates, as subsistence farmers. The average yearly income for Ngabe is $429.
The rolling hillsides with farms evoked a Tolkien-esque shire. Bromeliads weighed heavily on the boughs of trees as misty clouds traveled overhead dappling the greenery with bursts of sunlight that broke through.
An exhilarating rush of cool mountain air into the lungs and breathtaking scenery was a wonderful way to start the day. Quads burning, we made the near vertical hike up steep hills.
Ngabe girls, wearing their nagua dresses, a style which was introduced by missionaries in the 1960’s for modesty. Loincloths were the traditional attire. The ric-rac patterns, dientes, used to adorn their colorful frocks represent animal teeth, dragon scales, the mountains, and the rivers flow. Like most indigenous cultures we have encountered, the boys and men wear a western style of dress, usually t-shirts and jeans; for the Ngabe, that includes rubber boots for the nearly year round rain.
Mini potatoes and giant carrots, along with many varieties of beans, yucca, rice and corn grow in the rich terraces and are placed in giant mesh bags for market.
Santa Catalina is Panama’s premier surf location, 2 hours south of the PanAm Highway. A wrong turn put us 1.5 hours behind- so instead of arriving before dusk, we arrived in darkness. All beaches in Panama are public access, so we posted camp up above the high tide line. The blasting sun rays woke us up, reflecting and intensifying off the black sand. We packed up camp, and as it was low tide, crossed the river to Oasis Surf Camp. Our lift kit from GoWesty provides extra clearance and peace of mind. Dozens of palm and mango trees shaded the cabins and campsites where a cool breeze flowed off the point. Mid-day, Adam hiked and then paddled out for 1/4 mile to La Punta for some juicy waves. Emily & Pegah caught some sweet little rollers right in front of camp in the sandy bay.
The sunset transformed from nice to glorious, casting rays of amber and goldenrod into the peach and violet sky. It was one of those majestic sunsets that just take your breath away.
For our third night at Santa Catalina, we moved back across the river and set up at the swath of dry beach just above the leaf line of high tide (which turned out not to be high enough for that evenings fluctuation). Behind us, our road buddies Ben & Pegah with their rad rooftop tent.
Adam spotted a far off break thru binoculars and after some investigating, discovered it was a heavy point – Punta Brava. As Emily & Colette slumbered, he packed up and hiked out for a dawn patrol session. He was relieved to see a solitary surfer in the distance walking in the mist of morning to the same wave, as he was told not to go alone. The olas were a few feet over head, thick and fast. Paddling through the rocky labyrinth of low tide, he made it out, and traded waves with the other early riser.
As the dramatic tide recesses, a vast sandy playground is revealed for the multitudes of mollusks to twist and turn, leaving trails of their adventures. Colette is amazed at the patterns on mother natures canvas.
New buddies Kelly & Elizabeth, were on the friends of friends list, so we rambled up to Valle de Anton for a visit. Their amazing pad is right on a slope abutting the cloud forest, in the second largest inhabited volcanic crater in the world. Rad new friends, insane casa, epic jungle…. and the resplendent jade vine hanging on the entry gate.
Renamed by Colette the mono-name “EliKelly”, we all set off on for a long hike. They asked if we wanted to do the popular hike, or their favorite new local route which started in their yard… obviously we went local. Terraced ponds of berros, watercress, grew along many parts of the trail. Requiring a near constant flow of fresh water and good sunlight, this detoxifying food grows abundantly in this mountainous paradise. We gathered a few handfuls from the fields, giggling that said handfuls would cost $30 at WholeFoods.
A guayacan tree, the Jamaican national flower, blooms. Everything seemed to be an exaggeration of itself, the yellow flowers yellower than yellow, the blue sky bluer than blue…
Around each corner there seemed to be a different microclimate, as we passed from riverbed to canyon, field to cloud forest. Many plants seemed familiar, as we have seen them in the states as houseplants or featured in pricey tropical flower displays: heliconia, impatiens, angels trumpet, coleus, and pink splash to name a few.
Back in town, we visited the local market, which hosted a bounty of produce and artisan goods. Below, the striking calves of a Kuna Yala indigenous woman, whom traditionally inhabit the San Blas Islands. This autonomous nation is set off Panama’s Caribbean coast in an archipelago of 378 islands, which may be submerged by the rising sea levels caused by global warming in 50 or so years.
We stocked up on fruits, veggies, and bevvies to prepare for happy hour and dinner.
Kelly loves to cook as much as Emily, so they shared the kitchen preparing a feast.
Exhausted from our big hike, Colette went to bed early, allowing for a fun adult evening. Adam made mojitos with 3 types of lime and Panamanian cane sugar rum started the party. For dinner we had Indian roasted pumpkin soup, tabbouli on butter lettuce and veggie burgers with hummus and hot sauce- every element homemade of course from stock to sauce. For dessert, not that we had much room, palmiers with local cajeta (caramel sauce), manuka honeyed bananas and dry roasted walnuts were enjoyed. Oh yeah… and the last of the mezcal from Oaxaca was taken out as well. ¡Buen provecho!
Kelly is a mixing and mastering engineer, mostly working with hip-hop artists. Check out more of his work at www.almachrome.com!It was also in Valle de Anton that we learned about the ravi blancos, aka white asses. The mountain getaway is a weekend escape for numerous upperclass Panamanians that keep second homes here. The many beautiful, gated homes require constant upkeep in the jungle- gardeners, maids, cooks, horse groomers and the ilk. Kells & Eli have experienced the confusion by the working class whom they have tried to befriend, and the disdain of the privileged that dislike them socializing with the hoi polloi. In February 2013 Kells & Eli are moving to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica- where we will surely visit on our return leg.
“What lies behind us, and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
From El Valle we made it to Panama City to rally for the next leg- shipping our van to Colombia!
The Darién Gap is an infamous stretch approximately 100 miles long X 30 miles wide of virgin jungle that divides Panama and Colombia. Our pals Price & Salman at Pizzanista introduced us to David Smith, who has been an adventurer, pilot and conservationist for most of his life and is doing work in the region. He started CAVU, that “uses a unique combination of flight, film and education, bringing people and communities together to inspire conservation action… When people are informed and engaged, healthy societies and renewable natural resources thrive.” They work throughout Central America, and made a film, Voces del Darien that illuminates the negative effects of logging and road construction in these spectacular lands. Also occupying these jungles are the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces, commonly known as FARC, and are responsible for a number of kidnappings, assassinations, and human rights violations since the 1990’s. There are no navigable roads connecting Central America to South America, thus we chose to load our van in a shipping container as cargo on a barge bound for Cartegena, Colombia- avoiding this dangerous passage.
At one of the many hoops to jump through- we had a police inspection to confirm our entrance paperwork matched with our shipping documents prepared by our agent- as it is not permitted to process without an agents help- further proof that Panama likes the shipping monopoly just as it is!
In the shipping process we met people from all over the globe: Argentina, Denmark, Uruguay, Canadian buds PegahBon (another of Colette’s mono-names) and us from the US.
Heading out to the port city of Colon, we saw beautiful overlooks of the watershed.
In most cities there is a balance of old and new architucture, and we choose to photograph and show the weathered, worn down … however in Colon, there were no new shiny facades. Every block bolstered a bounty of sea worn walls, painted in kaleidoscope colors with balconies laden with sun dried laundry. Our hunt for a marina where we could hitch a ride on a sail boat to Colombia was a fail, as Colon was a rough & tumble outpost with a patinaed charm, and no room for wealthy boat owners.
We scoured Shelter Bay Marina on the other side of the canal and found a little marina where nautical world travelers dropped anchor. We were hoping to sail through the San Blas Islands, which are regarded by many as the most beautiful islands in the world. Many a sailor told us the trade winds were against us and the swell was high, which would be breaking all of the maritime rules, equaling a horrid trip for novices such as us. Bummer. We figured our best bet at this point would be to fly to meet our van in Colombia.
We watched the sun set from this jetty- the furthest point of the Panama canal into the Caribbean.
It felt powerful and remote on the lonely jetty, and we set up camp, as the large vessels waited in line for their turn to enter the magnificent Panama canal.
A drizzle of rain fell as the sun rose in the east, quickly illuminating the sky with a fiery glow.
America handed over control of the Panama Canal to the Panamanians in 1999, as dictated by a treaty signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. The Gatun Locks welcome the the sea faring vessels into the narrow alley, where ropes are thrown down and tied to trolleys, which escort them thru each passage way. As they pass, the locks close behind them, and the vessle is raised to the next station, where the process is repeated. To witness the magnitude of this human venture felt equal to seeing the Great Wall of China or the pyramids of Giza. How many lives were spent carving through land and sea to bore out this passage, so we could easier transport our aluminum foil and rubber bands? What a marvel of human-power. A second canal is currently being created, with massive machines mowing down the forest and goring out the mounds of earth.
At the end of one continent, our time to load onto the container had come. Paperwork sorted & stamped, we entered the port.
We decided to share a 40ft container with Ben and Pegah to cut our cost tremendously.
Such a stark contrast from the natural world we have been surrounded by these past 3 months. Colette marveled at the “big blocks” stacked high, awaiting transport.
At the entry bay… the time has come.
With the container sealed with two of our own locks, and all paperworks sorted, we were released to go. Homeless without our van, we shared a hotel in Panama CIty with Ben & Pegah, and booked tickets for the next leg of the journey. A new continent awaits- South America here we come!