San Blas Islands

As our adventure is coming to an end, we decided to plan one more trip. Our final trip was to the San Blas Islands. These 365 islands are stretched out from Panama to Colombia. Only 40 are inhabited by the Kuna Indians. These islands are run by their own rules and government. After a grueling 3 hour 4×4 ride and 30 minute boat ride, we arrived at Franklins Island. This island, about the size of a football field, is pure paradise. The outside is lined with palm trees and crystal clear water. We were given our own hut, complete with a sand floor and bamboo walls. Meal times were announced by the blowing of a conch shell. The way this island operated provided a worry-free atmosphere for the guests. We spent our free time snorkeling and exploring the other islands.

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We spent 2 nights there but wished we could have spent more time. Unfortunately we “have” to make our flight in the morning. Rumor has it, that San Blas will be under water in less than 40 years due to global warming, which is such a shame. San Blas is truly paradise.

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Tomorrow we fly back home to the United States.

Until next time…It Takes Two 2 Travel.

The Panama Canal Through The Eyes of a Line-Handler

While we were in Bocas del Toro, we spoke with two Canadians who told us about their experience volunteer line-handling through The Panama Canal. Their story sparked our interest and we decided this is something we had to do. They informed us that each boat was required to have 4 line-handlers to pass. Most captains end up paying the locals $75-100 per person; so we figured we could volunteer our services for an opportunity to see The Canal. We posted a sign at the Balboa Yacht Club and within a few days received our first call. We met with a captain named Charles and discussed his boat and what was expected of us. At first, he seemed like a great person minus his chain smoking). We would be sailing on a 38ft Trimaran. He purchased the boat in Mexico 2 months prior and sailed it down to Panama. When he purchased the boat it was not sea worthy and he had spend 5 weeks getting the boat ready to sail. The morning of our departure we met our other line-handlers; local Panamanian boys. Around 8am we left the dock and headed towards the first lock.
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We pulled into the Miraflores lock beind a huge cargo boat with whom we were going to share the lock with. Since our boat was so small compared to the lock and the cargo ship, we tied up to a tug boat to keep us in place while the water rushed into the lock and we were raised 20-30 feet. The Miraflores is composed of two locks and we went through the first.
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After the Miraflores we passed through a lake which serves as a waiting area for the boats before they pass through they next lock. The lock is called Pedro Miguel and the last of the locks going up(three up and three down).
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After reaching the top of the three locks we slowly motored through a long channel and into Gatun Lake, which is an artificial lake created by a dam on the Gatun river. While on the lake one of the cushions from the boat flew off and into the water. While reversing we heard a crack and the boat stopped moving. Charles ran to the back of the boat and cursed. We all knew this was a bad sign. Upon inspection, we discovered that the motor had pulled put of the screws and rotted wood and had fallen in to the lake. Luckily the motor was tied to a rope so it was recovered after some teamwork to pull it back onboard.

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What was supposed to be a one day trip was beginning to seem like it could be much longer. This was not pleasant news to us as we had plans to go to San Blas islands in the next day or two. Since night was upon us we tied to a buoy waited for the morning to decide what could be done about the motor situation. Charles assured us we would be repaired and on our way the following day. The next day passed with no progress and the moral began to fall. As tensions began to rise, we were desperate for an escape. Charles informed us that a transport to shore would cost $170. We were feeling desperate and about ready to pay until a huge catamaran pulled up next to us. We looked over at the boat full of cheer and yearned to be on it and free of Charles and our troubles. After a sleepless night of worry we rose in the morning ready to make moves. Our Panama Canal trip was turning into a prison sentence.

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The catamaran was beginning to depart and we realized this was our only savior. We waved towards the boat and they unfortunately said that they had to get going and didn’t have time to take us. As our mood worsened, we saw them turning around and we frantically rushed to gather our things. Within minutes our situation did a complete 180 and we were on a luxurious 75ft catamaran. We were first greeted and helped aboard by the young pleasant crew. We thanked the captain for saving us and headed back towards Panama City.

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We went back the way we came through the canal however, this time with a much more comfortable ride. The boat was beautiful with 7 cabins, a living room and a full kitchen. The captain was from Australia and very pleasant which was a welcomed change for us. After a successful transit back into the city, we talked with the captain and he offered us an opportunity of a lifetime. He is headed to Australia by way of Galapagos and Tahiti and offered us a place on his crew. After much consideration and lack of money we decided to pass on the offer.

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Panama City Week 1

After a disappointing trip to the deserted beach town of Santa Clara, we headed to Panama City. At first we were very unsure of our decision ….would almost 2 weeks in Panama City be too much time? We were droped off at the busy bus station and greeted by the warm city air. Panama City is divided into the old city and the new city. We chose to stay at the popular backpacker hostel known as Lunas Castle. Lunas Castle is located in the Casco Viejo or Casco Antiguo district of Panama City. Casco Antiguo displays a mix of architectural styles, which in turn reflect the cultural diversity of the country: Caribbean, Republican, art deco, French, and colonial architecture mix in a site comprising around 800 buildings. Most of Panama City’s main monuments are located in Casco Antiguo, including  the National Theater, Las Bóvedas, and Plaza de Francia. Casco Viejo used to be an area regarded as dangerous but it is going through a positve change. Much of the city is being re-done and transformed. The streets are also protected by the Turism Police and the Military which makes us feel more comfrotable. 

The city is very muggy and hot mid day so it is best to explore early. Our first day we decided to do a walking tour around Casco Viejo. We didnt have an exact route, just wondered around. Our hostel provided us with a map and informed us of the “red zones” or the danger zones. As we wondered around we explored the old buildings and ruins. We also walked through the markets and the French quarter. After working up a sweat and a thirst we headed to the Coca Cola Café. It claims to be the oldest café in Panama, opening up its doors in 1875 and a World Heritage Site. It is also the only café in the world to be named “Coca Cola,” a namesake endorsed by the Coca-Cola corporation. This no-frills establishment is known for cheap panamian food. We both opted for the fried fish with fries which cost $5 a plate.

The following morning we awoke to the hot panama sun and needed an escape. We came across The Panama Canal Musuem and decided to give it a try. For a $2 entry fee we entered and greeted by a cool blast of A/C. Although everything was in Spanish, we were able to figure out what most of the things said (or at least we thought so). We learned that infact most of the canal was constructed by the French and then later finished by the Americans. 

After craving something other than rice and beans, we headed to Las Bóvedas. This utterly unique French restaurant is set in the vaults of a 300-year-old fort that housed political prisoners for most of the 19th century. The whole experience was very enjoyable from the setting to our fantastic tunasteaks. 

To feed our constant desire for fresh seafood we explored the local fish market. We were able to smell the market before we could see it. Once inside the building we were greeted by rows of vendors selling all types of fish. There were also famous ceviche stands dishing out the popular snack for around $2 a cup. So far Panama City has been very enjoyable for us and we look forward to the following days where we hope to explore the Panama Canal. 

Exploring The Small Towns of Panama

After getting through the holiday rush we arrived in Santa Fe. Santa Fe is a less developed version of Boquete, however, with real estate buildings popping up it looks like it won’t stay that way for too long. We stayed at Hostal La Qhia in the small mountain town. The hostel was a beautiful Swiss style home with an outdoor kitchen. The wood beams and rock decor was a nice change from the cement rooms we were getting used to. We spent most of our time relaxing in the hammocks; looking out at the mountains. Our best meals came from the small restaurant attached to the bus station offering chicken, rice and beans for around $2.50. On one sunny afternoon we went tubbing down the local river. There were some intense rapids… The closest thing we’ve come to white water rafting thus far!

After a few days in the mountains we were in need of some salt water and warm breezes. We headed to the popular beach town of Santa Catalina. We were told by many books and people that this was the place to be. However, we were greeted by black sand and rough waters abundant with jellyfish, not ideal for us non-surfers (Santa Catalina is the top surf destination in Central America). We had plans of staying many days in Santa Catalina but decided it wasn’t for us after 2 nights. The town offered over priced rooms and a depressing 2 isle grocery store with dusty shelves.

After going back to our guide book, We headed to El Valle in hopes of better luck. El Valle is another beautiful mountain town. In fact, the whole town is inside a volcano crater. The town offers a wide range of hotel options mostly in the upper markets. We were able to rent a room in the back of a local restaurant. The town is a landmark for hikers and bird watchers. We spent the day at the local market and hiking to the waterfall, Charros Las Mozas. The waterfall was a local hotspot and the teenage boys were crazy jumping off everywhere possible into the small but deep pools below the falls. Willy was brave enough to go for a jump as well! We also ventured to the hot springs where we were able to apply healing mud to our faces and then soak in the warm waters.

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