If you look at a map of Panama, you will see that there is one road connecting the northwest corner of the country with the rest of the country, which, as far as we can tell, consists of the Pan-American highway and Panama City. If you actually drive that one road, you will understand why no one bothered to build another – there’s nothing out there except jungle, bananas, and an occasional wooden house.
We crossed the border at Guabito-Sixaola into this remote corner of Panama with two U.S. ex-pats we met in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. Ricardo and Miguel live in Boquete, Panama (separately, they went through some effort to explain that they are not a couple), and did a border run to Costa Rica so that Miguel could renew his 90-day visa to Panama when he re-entered (he is not yet a legal resident).
We parted ways in Almirante, which is a shanty town built on stilts over the water, and Ricardo was kind enough to leave in Wesley the two bottles of liquor he had purchased at the duty free store near the border. It was like pirates’ booty but we have so far refrained from drinking them in case we go to Boquete where we will drink them with him as payment for not drinking them without him.
Bocas del Toro (BdT) is the only reason to come out here. BdT is an archipelago of mangrove islands “discovered” in 1502 by Columbus on his fourth and final voyage to the New World. It is inhabited by the indigenous tribes that have existed there for centuries, by partying backpackers, and by mosquitoes – the kind that leave marks that itch for days and days.
It is also currently inhabited by our friends David and Imka, who we met in February while working on the farm in Nicaragua. They are at a language school on the main island and we were excited to catch up with them while we drank their bottle of Abuelo rum.
Interestingly, the owner of the most popular brand of rum in the country (Abuelo) is also the president of the country. This is like Jim Koch, the Founder and CEO of Sam Adams beer, being elected president of the United States. Or worse. It’s like the U.S. electing as president a former reality T.V. star and buffoon. Why not? Guatemala just elected a former T.V. sitcom star and comedian as its president.
But I digress. When we were not being bitten by mosquitoes, we did some of the other things to do in BdT – hired a boat to tour the islands, snorkeled, saw dolphins, and enjoyed the air conditioning, We also showed up for a free tour of the facilities at the Smithsonian research center, but the guide failed to show. Instead, we chatted with the U.S. volunteers who are there conducting research on water temperature and sea anemones. I am sure that with all that ails the world you wish I was making that up, but I am not. What we learned: it takes one species of sea anemone a few seconds to turn over in cold water and a few seconds longer in warmer water and you can use the money from a research grant to study just about anything.
Actually, this research is critical to the continued existence of mankind. See, if we continue to negatively effect the ozone, water temperatures will rise so much that sea anemones won’t be able to turn over at all (i.e., they’ll be dead) and the important work they do to keep our oceans free of algae and other nasty things won’t get done so the water will become unhealthy for the fishes and then they’ll die and eventually so will we.
Our next stop was the Lost and Found Hostel. It is set in a cloud forest atop the Cordillera Central and inhabited by lots of flying bugs and partying backpackers. R and I were initially put off by its hedonistic reputation and website warning not to bring children and Coconut and J were not initially excited to land there because it is a 20 minute hike from the parking lot to the hostel. However, we are an adventurous sort, and were intrigued by the advertised Indiana Jones’ style treasure hunt, beer pong, cuddling with “Rocky”, the resident honey bear, and naked Jenga.
The treasure hunt nearly killed us all. It was a long, hard hike through a hot, steamy jungle. At one point J declared, “I don’t know why I thought this would be fun.” and Coconut staged a sit-in. But in the end, we prevailed and claimed our prize – which it turns out we could have purchased at the bar for $3. No matter, we proved to ourselves we could do it when at first it seemed like we could not do it.
We heard the nearly 300 kilometer stretch of the Pan-American squeezed onto the strip of land between the Pacific and the mountains to Panama City was under construction, and since it is the only road going that direction (Panama hasn’t invested a lot of money on roads, or maybe there is just nowhere to go) we decided to leave on Sunday when there would be less traffic. This turned out to be a good decision as there were no cars on the road and very little next to it either. Vast stretches of empty landscape broken up occasionally by a cow and\or horse, and someone selling melons.
Beyond Panama City the road goes to an impassable stretch of swamp/jungle and guerrilla infested area called the Darién Gap. To penetrate Columbia and the rest of South America we would need to pack Wesley into a shipping container and meet it on the other side. But for us, the road ends in Panama City. It’s our final destination before we turn the van around and drive back to Alexandria. We’ve proved to ourselves that we can do it.