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Panaaaamaaaaa

The country not the song

sunny 30 °C
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The ten of us that left Fritz the Cat behind on El Porvenir arrived in Panama City after a spray drenched, 2 hour boat ride in a local Kuna fishing vessel, two bus rides and one taxi. We arrived latish and had to split ourselves amongst a number of different accommodation options but everyone managed to find themselves a bed.

The plan for Panama City had always been to see the canal and then get out as quickly as possible, as we had heard the city itself had a bit of an unsavoury reputation. We were pleasantly surprised, the old city, Casco Viejo, where we found accommodation was very similar to Cartagena, except that unlike Cartagena, the old colonial buildings have yet to be fully restored and this creates some great juxtaposition between the crumbling masonry, the bright colours of restored buildings and the a modern CBD skyline across the bay – the likes of which we have not seen since we left Sydney.

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The Panama Canal was originally built by and controlled by the US who held sovereign rights over the canal zone under the original treaty which allowed for the construction of the canal. Throughout the 20th century the relationship between the US and the Panamanian people gradually soured, giving rise to a number of serious disputes and in 1999 the US handed control of the canal to the Panamian government and withdrew their significant military presence. However, the day to day US involvement over the previous 90 years has clearly had a lasting impact on the country, consumerism seems easy and there is an abundance of familiar fast food and fantastic shopping malls. Sounds terrible, but in some ways the city was a pleasant reminder of home after having been away for so long and certainly nothing like the crime ridden hole we had imagined. The range of goods in the stores was better than anywhere else in South or Central America and that meant that I was finally able to replace my broken Ipod at a price similar to what I would have paid back home.

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Other than wandering around Casco Viejo, the first and only must see attraction in the City is the canal itself. Completed in 1914 the canal is an 80km link between the Pacific and Caribbean and is no doubt the economic backbone of the country. It takes advantage of both natural lakes and waterways for much of the journey, combined with artificial lakes and huge cuts straight through the mountainside. With the lakes acting as a huge reservoirs, gravity is used to fill and empty the locks, eliminating the need for massive pumping systems. Boats must pass through three sets of locks to cross the continent, the first near the Pacific Ocean, a further smaller set in the middle and the largest set near Colon on the Caribbean. As big as they are, the locks are not large enough to accommodate all of the vessels that ply the oceans waters and a significant upgrade is currently underway, with a larger set of locks currently being built which will cater for vessels carrying up to 10,000 containers.

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First thing in the morning we visited the Milaflores Locks closest to Panama City to see ships entering the canal from the Pacific ocean. The whole process was remarkably quick and I would estimate each vessel would have taken no more than an hour or so to pass through the first set of locks. We stayed for a couple of hours but after you have seen one vessel you have seen them all and we decided to head back into the city to organise our next bus and buy the aforementioned iPod.

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We headed north from Panama City with our new friends Kuba and Marzenka, a Polish couple who we had met on the trip to the San Blas and who were heading in the same direction as us. next destination was Bocas del Toro, a series of islands right on the border with Costa Rica and one of the only major Panamanian tourist destinations outside of Panama City itself.

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To be honest we were not blown away by the place, the main town didn't make you feel that you were in a tropical paradise and there were more dodgy tour operators harassing you as you walked down the street than there were tourists.

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To actually enjoy Bocas you needed to get out of the main town and we spent a couple of days visiting different beaches and snorkelling spots around the islands. Away from the town it was actually pretty pleasant, however, although the photos look really good, the islands were not a patch on the wild, uninhabited San Blas that we had visited with Fritz and the four of us were happy to leave after a couple of days and head towards the Costa Rican border and hopefully our first taste of the Caribbean coast.

Posted by mwalmsle 18:25 Archived in Panama Comments (1)

Cruising the Caribbean

Cartagena to San Blas

sunny 32 °C
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The route between South and Central America through the San Blas Archipelago by boat is a reasonably well worn path for backpackers and there were private yachts departing every 2 to 3 days. The vessels range in size with some small boats only sleeping 6 to larger boats sleeping up to 20. They all seem to charge roughly the same for the trip, USD$350 – 450 and follow roughly the same itinerary although for us finding a boat leaving on the right date was the most important consideration.

We had booked passage to Panama on a 50 ft catamaran captained by an Austrian called Fritz. As you would expect from anyone who lives full time on a boat he was slightly eccentric. The yacht was aptly named Fritz the Cat and had ten proper berths but Fritz was of course trying to cram 18 people on board, including himself and his crew in the name of capitalism.

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Jess and I and two other couples travelling on the boat were lucky as we all had double cabins to ourselves. However, if you were unlucky enough to be travelling solo or with friends you were packed two to single berth or were allocated a spot in the saloon, sleeping on a giant sofa along with four others. Fritz was sleeping on the floor or in his cabin and other crew members dossed down as best they could around the boat. The saving grace was that being a catamaran there was plenty of room to lounge around on the foredeck and as the weather was great we were able to stay out of each others hair during the day.

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The trip was advertised as five days and four nights but ended up to really be only four days and four nights as you are dropped off first thing in the morning on the fifth day. The first two days were spent crossing the ocean from Cartagena to the San Blas and the second two cruising around the islands lying around on deck in the sun, reading books and snorkelling.

We had perfect weather but as with any open ocean sailing many of the people on board felt a little seasick. Jess was one of the worst affected, emptying the contents of her stomach a total of three times over the two days and sleeping in the cockpit on the first night. That said, we were lucky to be in a decent sized catamaran and travelling to Panama, rather than in the other direction, as the following sea and breeze made things a lot more comfortable than they would have been otherwise. Sailing into the wind in a 35 ft monohull would have been far more unpleasant.

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We arrived in the San Blas in the middle of the second night and when the sun came up we found ourselves moored in picturesque, aquamarine water with perfectly cliched desert islands sitting just off the bow and the gentle roar of the waves crashing on the outlying reef.

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We lay in the sun for a few hours and then lazily swam into one of the islands to comb the beaches. Strangely, despite the island's perfect appearance from the boat, the prevalent currents have resulted in the shoreline being a dumping ground for Carribean flotsam and rubbish, creating a strange juxtaposition, where every 20 metres you would find a perfect conch shell lying on the sand sitting beside an empty washing machine drum or some other equally strange item of refuse.

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That said, from a distance the islands were beautiful and it was incredibly relaxing lying around on the foredeck looking out at the water. Around mid-afternoon we pulled anchor and headed off to our anchorage for the night. The new spot had lots of marine life, which meant there was some particularly good snorkelling and the following morning I took on the role of the provider, taking the spear gun out to catch fresh fish for dinner. After searching in vain for a huge specimen that I could bring back to the yacht in triumph, I settled for shooting a small parrot fish on my third attempt. Not exactly the catch of the year but not too bad for my first time shooting a spear gun.

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That afternoon we were able to supplement my meagre catch with purchases from the local Kuna people, who would paddle up to the boat selling seafood. We swapped two cans of beer for two lobsters, bought an octopus and what must have been at least a 5kg tuna for about 20 bucks – amazing!

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The next day Fritz offloaded us from the boat on one of the islands in the San Blas, miles from anywhere, in what turned out to be a highly inconvenient location, with limited transport to the mainland. We could have stayed on the boat for another night and gone further up the coast but that would have meant spending more money with Fritz for dubious value. Instead, for about $20 each, the ten of us who disembarked were able to organise a local boat to take us to the mainland, where we could get buses to Panama City.

Aspects about the boat itself and how the services were represented to us could have been better but overall taking the ocean route to Panama through the San Blas was a pretty fantastic and economical way to travel between South and Central America which I would highly recommend and at the end of the day Fritz the Cat got us there as promised, on time and in one piece!

I thought I would post a few comments below in case anyone stumbles across this blog looking for information on Fritz the Cat.

  1. The boat is crowded, no doubt about it. There is not room on the boat for 18 people to sleep in comfort. It is fine if you have one of the cabins but if you have a saloon berth its pretty atrocious especially as you are paying the same as those in the cabins. You are probably better sleeping on deck. However, all of the boats to Panama may be equally crowded and I don't have any other reference points.
  2. The food provided is decent and plentiful but not amazing. Fritz claims to be a chef but the food is pretty basic fare and is the least I would expect. The seafood is good and obviously super fresh when you get it.
  3. The bathrooms get pretty grotty with so many people on board and should have been cleaned each day. Fritz's website states there are 4 bathrooms and showers but one appears to have been converted into berths and another is in Fritz's cabin and hence not available – so its actually two bathrooms rather than four.
  4. Fritz is a nice enough guy and keeps everything organised and running smoothly. Appears to be a competent captain and capable of dealing with problems as they arise.
  5. Overall the boat is well maintained, is a decent size and seems to be a safe way to do the passage
  6. Although advertised as 5 days, 4 nights the trip is really 4 days and 4 nights as you disembark first thing on the 5th morning and only get breakfast. I felt this was a mis-leading representation.
  7. Fritz drops you off in El Porvenir which is in the middle of nowhere and has infrequent transport links to the mainland. We arrived on the island at 10:30am or so and missed the only daily ferry. However, given there were 10 of us we were able to hire a boat privately. You can buy an extra day on Fritz's boat to Portobello but this costs another $75 and didn't seem worth it. The whole 5 day / 6 day sales pitch was a bit tricky as it enticed you to book at the lower rate and then then only found out later that El Porvenir is nowhere and you need to pay more to get to the mainland. While you can transfer to the mainland from El Porvenir independently it is a bit of a pain in the ass and in my mind El Porvenir is not an appropriate default position to disembark your passengers. I would suggest checking whether any of the other boats plying the same route will take you all the way to Portobello for the same price or whether they all terminate in El Porvenir as this would be a relevant consideration.
  8. At things considered we would have still done the trip at the price - it was an amazing experience cruising through the islands and none of the problems were serious or deal breakers. However, we (and everyone else on the boat) thought that many of the things mentioned above that could have been made clearer up front.

Posted by mwalmsle 17:55 Archived in Panama Comments (1)

Colombias Carribean Coast

Taganga, Tyrona and Cartagena

sunny 30 °C
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The first place we thought we could get some serious sun was on Coluombia's eastern Caribbean coast in Taganga, historically a little fishing village but now a slightly gringofied, well known spot on the backpacker trail.

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Based only on appearances the place is a little grubby but beneath the slightly dingy exterior it was actually a pretty good place to spend a couple of days. We had a nice play to stay by backpacker standards, more a B&B than a hostel and although we headed to the local beach for one afternoon, our first couple of days mainly consisted of pool relaxation, Jess and I locked in a serious tanning battle. On that note, the one trip to the beach did result in some amusement when a local family asked for a photo with Jess, the whitest person they had ever seen.

Although the Caribbean sun was excellent, at some point I managed to scratch my eye, requiring a trip to the local Ophthalmologist, a Caribbean pirate style eye patch and antibiotic eye drops. The unexpected ocular injury derailed our plan to head to National Park Tyrona to camp for a couple of days and instead we stayed a little longer in Taganga until the eye came right and took a day trip into Tyrona.

The scenery in the park was amazing, huge long wide stretches of beach, lined with coconut trees and littered with rocks which looked like pebbles but on a giant scale. The walking tracks take you down the coast and in each bay there are a number of places to stay, from a basic hammock to flashier cabanas. In one place you can hire a hammock right out on a rocky head land on top of the water.

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Visiting for a day was good and gave us a a nice overview but to do the park justice you would really want to stay in one of the hammocks or cabanas by the beach, kick back and do absolutely nothing for at least a full day – that would have been absolutely amazing but my eye wasn't co-operating.

Our next stop was Cartagena, an amazing historical city that conjures classic images of Caribbean colonialism, square riggers, walled ports, cannons, pirates, treasure, plunder and booty. It is Colombia's premier tourist attraction and our final destination in South America.

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Surprisingly there is no road connecting South and Central America and unless you want to bash your way through the jungle on foot you need to fly or take a boat. Flying is expensive and for not that much more you can buy passage on one of the private yachts that ply the waters between Colombia and Panama.

Organising the boat was hassle free and on arrival in Cartagena we secured a double cabin on a boat departing in three days time. Finding decent, reasonably priced accommodation in Cartagena proved more difficult and we spent the first night in a terrible cockroach infested dive. The next morning, to avoid electrocuting ourselves on the exposed wiring of our “hotel” we decided to bite the bullet and move to a more expensive and much nicer place just down the road.

The old centre of Cartagena was by far and away the best example of restored colonial architecture we have seen in South America. A constant target of pirates such as Sir Francis Drake the Spanish developed into what was hoped to be an impregnable fort, through the construction of thick city walls that still surround the city today. Inside the walls, the buildings are amazing, every street is beautifully restored and colourful flowers creep over the balconies. Apart from encountering the occasional American tour group you really felt that you were stepping back in a time and despite being touristy it was no where near as garish as Salvador or Cusco. At night you could even hire horses and carts to take you on a romantic journey around the city.

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We spent our time there strolling the streets, exploring the old buildings, watching the sunset at Cafe del Mar and eating some amazing set lunches at rock bottom prices and looking wistfully at souvenirs we would love to buy but can't be bothered carrying for another couple of months.

The couple of days we had there passed in a flash and before we knew it we were boarding our boat to Central America, more than halfway through our trip.

Posted by mwalmsle 11:18 Archived in Colombia Comments (1)

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