I stood looking out over the Panama Canal searching for inspiration for the Time as a Traveller post. My first natural response after seeing the museum and the movie was of course ‘great feats of human engineering’. But then I watched a huge container ship navigate the canal, and I thought of… water. Yes, plain, simple Water. Despite the mass hydraulics and various fancy mechanics that enable the canal to function, what it really comes down to is the power of water. Something that in small amounts trickles between your fingers, but in mass quantities has the power to move container ships weighing thousands of tones.
And so this is where I begin. With the beauty and power of water, and the abilities of something so simple to create great change…
The Pan American highway stretches about 48,000 km from Alaska all the way down to Ushuaia in the south of Argentina… With one exception. A teeny tiny 87km gap, call the Darién.
This small stretch of jungle shouldn’t be underestimated. Whether it be drugs, guns, corrupt military, random bullets, fierce wild life or the occasional kidnapping… the Darién is inhospitable in every sense of the word. well known its dangers. (Dark Roasted Blend do a great article summing it up at http://www.darkroastedblend.com/2008/09/darien-gap-most-dangerous-absence-of.html )
Personally I’d love the opportunity to travel through the Darién, what adventurous traveler wouldn’t? But In an area where you’re more likely than not to get shot, kidnapped or eaten there aren’t really any options for crossing it by land that would leave you with a positive outcome.
And I happen to value all four of my limbs and am pretty keen on keeping the rest of my body bullet free.
Which leaves you with the options of flight or boat. I had an awesome experience traveling by boat from Cartagena to Panama aboard the Stahlratte in 2010, but have since learnt that this is the exception, and definitely not the rule when it comes to other boats making the crossing.
So on Journey 2012, continuing with the theme of Freedoms and in the spirit if keeping those for as long as possible, we decided on a flight.
We arrived in Panama City on a flight from Cartagena via Medellin. It was relatively uneventful except for Anthony’s decision to shave whilst sitting on the pavement outside the international terminal in Medellin… Oh and we did come across the mythical ‘ass implanted underwear’ at a store also in the Medellin international airport (to the dismay of the boys).
Arriving in Panama City we managed to choose the slowest immigration queue possible, with the broken machine and the new staff member, so by the time we got to baggage claim the turnbelt was turned off, the people gone, and three lonely backpacks huddled together in the middle of the airport floor waiting to be claimed by either us or customs. Exiting the airport we found what appeared to be an official taxi, the driver with a uniform and all, who then took us out to the parking lot and handed us over to his friend. This friend of his happened to drive a beat up yellow car that shared the same colour as a taxi, but was not in fact a taxi. Being three of us we got in, and actually made it to our hostel unscathed and with all our belongings.
The most popular hostel in Panama City by far is Luna’s Castle. The only problem is that it’s always fully booked… whether there are beds available or not. So getting a bed there is usually a game of chance with the mood and organisational capabilities of whoever is on the reception desk at the time. So instead we went straight for Hostel Villa Vento, a new place in the middle of the city that we knew had spare beds. And we weren’t disappointed. The place came complete with real mattresses, air conditioning, good Wi-Fi, a comfy lounge area with even comfier couches, and a manager named Barry.
The following day we spent our one and only full day in Panama City checking out the ‘must do’s’ and begging with a small Chinese woman at the launderette to please please please get out clothes done by the evening so we could leave the next day. Which takes me back to the beginning. The Panama Canal.
Later that day we took a walk through Casco Viejo (the old town) which seems to be in a constant state of reconstruction, there are building works going on everywhere. I’m not sure how far it will go, but it would be a shame if the old part of town lost its character.
We took a path home that went out onto the boardwalk around the water and through the fishmarkets. The high rise city ahead was a stark contrast to the old town we had just left behind, and to be honest I much preferred the old Casco Viejo. On our walk back we got horrendously lost as every high rise looked the same and the rain came in.
We arrived at the launderette just before it shut and happily received a huge bag of clean laundry. Tomorrow, we leave for the San Blas Islands…