We don’t always know where we’re going or how to get there. Other travellers can often point us in the right direction; sometimes we rely on taxi drivers, almost always a mistake.
As Deborah mentioned in our last post, our very generous neighbour at the hostel in Panama City gave us a ride to the regional airport for our flight to David, the closest we could get to the highlands by air. Once in David, we needed to get to the bus station to complete our journey for the day. We told the taxi driver we were heading for Guadalupe, which the print-out map we had from the lodge seemed to indicate was near the larger community of Boquete. In hindsight, we guess all he heard was “Boquete”; he delivered us right to the bus door and rushed us on board. The packed and noisy bus dropped us ninety minutes later in the little town of Boquete. So far so good. A taxi driver by the bus stop, in consultation with other drivers and locals, assured us it would be an $8 taxi ride to the lodge. Turns out, he took us out of town to a park with the same name as our lodge, obviously not what we were looking for. After consulting with yet another driver who obviously knew the area better, he had to confess us there was no way to get from Boquete to Guadalupe except by going back to David and getting on a different bus. Fortunately a bus back to David was about to leave for the 90-minute return trip. This time we dealt with the bus driver in David ourselves and made sure he knew where Guadalupe was, and could take us there, which he did in just over two hours. In fact the lodge was very near the main Guadalupe stop, a welcome sight after spending most of the day in transit.
The Los Quetzales Eco-lodge in Guadalupe, near a number of national parks in the highlands, was perfect, and we had the place to ourselves. Our wonderful third-story room had a small fireplace for the cold nights; breakfast and a guided hike were included in the morning. The area is also known for fruit and vegetable production, including strawberries, onions, carrots, cauliflower, and more, all cultivated by hand on steep hillsides – there are no level valley floors here, it is all hillside. We were glad we had booked three nights, a dramatic change of pace from dreary Panama City. Lots of interesting birds, cloudbursts and sunshine, hummingbirds everywhere, and great meals at the lodge.
From Guadalupe we took a series of rural buses over the highlands and a water taxi to get to Isla Colon, the largest of the islands on the Caribbean Coast of Panama that make up Bocas del Toro province. The island is less than 20 kms long and a just a few kms wide, and mostly undeveloped, a situation that will likely change as Panama tries to attract more tourists in competition with its neighbours to the north. There is a small town centre, a main road that leads from downtown across the island is where most of the hotels, hostels, and restaurants are located – and just behind the tourist facade are local neighbourhoods, mostly old wooden buildings, some built many years ago for banana plantation workers and now looking rather run down.
We stayed at a small rental condo about 3 km from downtown, good for getting us out for a walk to and from the bars that were offering all kinds of happy hour specials. Our favourite was at the front of a hostel for surfers; happy hour featured 50 cent beers and one or more other specials. In one corner there was always a group of guys that looked like young hippies out of the late 60s, taking a break from wandering the streets selling bracelets and necklaces. The rest of the tiny bar was packed with young people fresh from surfing, diving, and soaking up the sun. It was a happening place. Oh yes, the margaritas we had one night were extremely strong – the shirtless surfer dude behind the bar just emptied the tequila bottle into two glasses and added a bit of lime juice. Clearly not the owner!
We walked a lot, and one day took the bus to the other end of the island to check out the beach at Boca del Drago (mouth of the dragon). Not a very big beach and not much sand, but around the corner we found another small beach that featured warm sand and warm water – the perfect place to spend an afternoon. The next day to went on a boating excursion to get out to a bay where dolphins feed and do some snorkeling in the Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park. We did spot a number of dolphins, and the snorkeling was okay – but the day did not live up to the tour office description – something we’re getting very used to during this year on the road. Fortunately it was only $20 plus the park fee, and for that price we’re happy just to get out on the water and see what there is to see.
We were also very happy our building had a small outdoor pool that we had almost entirely to ourselves – we submerged ourselves at least twice a day to escape the high heat and humidity we were experiencing (along with intense thunderstorms most nights).
It was then time to say goodbye to Panama and head up the coast to Cocles Beach, just south of Puerto Viejo. We arrived here Monday and our home for the next month is a fairly new 2-bedroom house set in the jungle near Cocles Beach. The kitchen and living rooms are on the main floor, open to the outdoors; the bedrooms and main bathroom are on the second floor, and there is an open wrap-around porch on three sides. There are other houses visible through the trees, and you can hear locals and other visitors, but it is the howler monkeys that make the most interesting noise –a deep long growl that sounds like you’ve wandered into Jurassic Park – but they’re just minding their own business high in the trees along the road. We expect to have lots to report, stay tuned!