It’s not enough, two weeks. It’s not enough in Panama. It isn’t enough anywhere, really. But that’s what we do when we go on vacation, isn’t it? And sometimes, we don’t even have two weeks, so we make the most of it. That’s what I did. I started with four sunny days in Panama City. I visited the Panama Canal, Casco Viejo (the Old City and its markets), Punta Paitilla (the New City) and Cerro Ancon. The highlight of my visit, however, wasn’t in these areas, but rather in-between them.
As I was walking down from Cerro Ancon after taking in a beautiful view of Panama City and the Canal from the top of the hill, I unexpectedly arrived at a busy highway that I decided I needed to cross (I rarely travel with a map). I stood on the road side for quite some time contemplating my predicament when a water boy suddenly appeared pulling a white cart. Before I could understand anything, the boy took me by the hand, his cart of water by the other hand, and together we ran across the dangerous road. Then he disappeared as mysteriously as he appeared and I never got a chance to buy a bottle of water from him.
The water boy helped me cross the street that leads to the biggest shopping mall in North America, Albrook. This was also the bus station, from which I left the city the following day and headed to the islands of Bocas del Toro. It was Christmas Eve and I jumped on a night bus from Panama City to Almirante, from there a pickup truck to the marina, then a motor boat to Bocas Town on the main Island Colon, and then a smaller motor boat to Isla Carenero. Not wasting a minute, I dropped my things off at the hostel (a wooden building on stilts off the side of the island with cracks between the floor planks big enough to lose small valuables to the great sea below) and then hired a small boat to look for a dive team that might allow me to tag along for the day. After searching at Isla Carenero and Isla Colon, I almost gave up hope when we passed in front of Isla Bastimentos. There, my boat driver noticed a small group loading up a boat with air tanks and immediately set our course toward them. Luckily I was all out of clean underwear and wearing my bikini as a last resort and so was ready to jump on the dive boat without delay. Despite the low visibility in the southern Caribbean Sea, I felt so lucky to have joined a dive group on Christmas Day that I will forever remember the sea anemones and crabs of Panama as the most beautiful I have ever seen.
Following a string of good luck and sunny skies, the rain inevitably started falling. It was perfect for a little rest and relaxation after a sleepless night on a bus and a couple of dives during the day. To regain my energy, I sat in the hostel all day, watching rain drops falling on the water around me. I didn't get off the island. I didn't even leave the hostel. I only moved from one hammock to another and from one book to another. It was a good day.
The next day I moved to a different hostel, this time on Isla Bastimentos. As I quickly found out, all the houses on this island are built on wooden stilts over the water. They have two entrances. One entrance is straight from the boat and the second entrance is to a narrow concrete pavement that is made only for walking - the island is too small for cars or even bicycles. There are about 5 houses on the island that serve also as restaurants, but only one restaurant is open for business at a time and it is always a surprise which one it is. And there is one grocery store which, considering its tiny size, has quite a variety of products. What I found to be the most interesting, however, was trash collection day. There is actually a trash boat that goes house by house once a week to collect the garbage. Apparently there is a lot of skill involved in maneuvering a small and stinky motor boat between people's backyards.
Trash collection day, however, was not the highlight of my stay. In fact, the highlight was hiking in the rain and mud for over an hour in order to get to a secluded beach on the other side of the island. I gathered two more crazy people from the hostel and the three of us went on a wild adventure climbing up one side of the island and sliding down the other side (sometimes literally on our butts, sometimes sinking in knee deep mud and almost losing our shoes to its strong suction. To be honest, I was hiking in crocs – that’s why I was sliding so much – and in every mud pit I stepped I felt like my foot was going to come out bare and my crocs forever lost in its depths. And one time, it happened. But luckily one of the guys noticed it right away and plunged after my croc just in the neck of time, inserting his arm almost shoulder deep into the mud and saving my irreplaceable piece of footwear) until we finally arrived at a magical white sand beach that exists only in the movies. If the sun were shining, then I would definitely say that I was dreaming because deserted beaches like that are not supposed to exist. We were the only three people on that beach. We may have been the only three that have been there for days! The sea was raging because of the wind and rain, the palm trees were swaying from side to side and the rainforest further inland was somber and dark. We stayed to appreciate the view a little bit and then turned back around for our return journey. At that instant, we noticed a small and shiny red speck on one of the green leaves of the forest. We approached it cautiously and on that leaf and also on the tree trunk next to it and on the rock next to that and on the mud around all of that were little red dart frogs that I thought existed only in myths until now. Apparently they do exist!
The following day I decided to look for the sun elsewhere. I took a boat from Isla Bastimentos to the main island of the archipelago of Bocas del Toro and from there another boat to the mainland city of Almirante and from there an express 4-hour bus to the big city of David and from there a slow local bus to the small town of Boquete. Behind me, the sun was shining on the islands I had just left as raindrops started to fall on the windshield of the bus to Boquete. This small town in the mountains of Panama is mostly known for the volcano that hovers above it - Volcan Baru. It is a dormant volcano, so there is no steam blowing out of it or any danger of eruption any time soon, but it is the highest peak in Panama, so of course I would be attracted to it. Not to mention that it's named after my sister, as she so aptly pointed out.
But -- it rained. I spent three rainy days there without getting a glimpse of the volcano. On the first day, I bumped into some rock climbers and joined them for a while. Apparently, this is the only sport climbing region in the entire country of Panama, developed by one of the climbers I had just met. On the second day I followed the climbers’ advice to visit some impressive natural hot springs not far out of town. It was the perfect way to spend the final day of 2010. The first day of 2011 was less impressive and therefore will not be mentioned here. Early on Jan. 2 I left Boquete and put a rushed and rainy vacation behind me.