Category Archives: Panama

An Epic Sail to Colombia

If you didn’t already know, it’s impossible to connect Central America to South America by automobile.  In southern Panama, the Pan-American Highway terminates in several hundred kilometers of jungle, native villages, and rumored guerillas.  Other than making the long trek through what is called “The Darien Gap,” you can either hop on a boat or plane to connect yourself to Colombia.  With a plethora of other backpackers out there with a similar need, chartered sailboats were in high supply, albeit expensive.  The 5-day sail connecting the Caribbean side of Panama with Cartagena, Colombia costs $375…ouch, a huge dent in my travel budget.  Yet along with the passage came the opportunity to explore the Kuna-inhabited San Blas Islands, perhaps the most intriguing part of Panama.  With airline prices fairly high and a failed attempt at hopping on a cargo boat in the Panama Canal, I shelled out the dough to Captain Paul and stepped aboard his 51-foot vessel, Ave Maria.
Paul and the seven other passengers from Switzerland, Holland, and Australia turned out to be easy-going folk.  After hearing a deluge of stories of drunken incompetent captains who offer the same charter, I was pleased to find out that he had been sailing Central America for two years, and this was his twelfth chartered voyage.
The only problem was that I booked my space from the other end of Panama, from Isla Bastimentos off Bocas de Toro.  To get to Ave Maria I had to take two boat taxis, an eleven hour overnight bus ride, a 3 hour jeep, and a third boat taxi to the vessel.  Once on board, we paid up, turned in our passports, and were on our way.  Combining the engine with sail, we cruised to our first island in the San Blas, to retrieve water, and to check out how the local Kuna folks live.
The indigenous Kuna occupy 40 of the approximate 400 islands in the San Blas archipelago.  Given exclusive rights to the islands by the Panamanian government in 1930, they are probably the most autonomous (and one of the most isolated) indigenous groups in Central America.  Adhering to their traditions, the women bead their legs and wear outstanding colorful dress.  The population rarely penetrates developed Panama, and instead relies on fishing from dugout canoes, hunting, and the sale of handmade molas (blouses) to maintain its economy.  Though as waters have become overfished, the islands are reluctantly embracing tourism and are consequently becoming more and more connected with the outside world.
There are thousands of islands in the San Blas, the vast majority are void of any human influence.  But when the Kuna occupy one, they take it over completely.  Isla Miria was a bustling metropolis, with palmed roof houses stacked against one another, and a population density surpassing that of midtown Manhattan.  The corridors connecting the houses reminded me of corn mazes from the states, and the island was just small enough to make for a great game of hide-and-go-seek.
I strolled the dirt corridors, subtly taking photos, and nodding my head to the distant and apprehensive Kuna.  Only the children took interest (as they always do), chatting in brief stints of Spanish, and politely guiding me to the nearest dairy bar, a small house that makes its own delicious vanilla ice cream.  Just when I was starting to feel invasive in this small community, I came across a group of United Statesans.  Shit.  A missionary group, no less. Their group leader Chris greeted me in his Texan accent and went on to explain the program:
“We’re just here to love them.  Now we help in as many ways as we can…a group of girls just went off to do dishes in fact.  And in the morning we teach the children all about Lord Jesus.  And we are living just like they do for the week.  We’re all sleeping in hammocks.”
Doing dishes…great.  Connecting with other cultures…phenomenal.  But teaching the kids about Christianity?  Sounds like there were some ulterior motives here, and I could not believe the tribal leaders, who were known to be so adamant about preserving their culture, were allowing it.  I had one more 50 cent ice cream and waved goodbye to the children of Miria.
Sailing through hundreds of city block-sized tropical islands we anchored at a gorgeous multi-colored archipelago, just 50 meters from the island of Chichemelli.  The first island felt remote but this one felt like another world.  There were just a few houses and palm trees outnumbered the local Kuna population by about 500 to one.  The following morning while others went off to snorkel and spearfish, I got nosy once again and poked me head in someone’s beach.  The children came through yet again, inviting me to play in the waves, take pictures and snorkel together.  Their curious parents came out, were surprisingly friendly, and asked if I had any spare magazines in Spanish for their children to study.  They told me that their children boat taxi to school for 4 days a week in a far-off, more populated island.  But because the taxi is so far, they spend their four nights there with local families.  I definitely felt that all of these Kuni island habitants were part of a greater community.  I swam to the boat and returned with a drybag full of Panama City newspapers and my Spanish copy of The Little Prince.  I now like to think of the children, sitting on the beach beneath the magnificent stars of San Blas, perusing the pages of Saint-Exupery’s classic, and wondering about other worlds far away.
The following two days were more of the same, spear fishing in blue tropical waters, sipping rum, and falling asleep on the cockpit each night to the sways of Ave Maria.  On day 4 we were to set sail and cruise the open Caribbean waters for 40 straight hours to Cartagena.  At least, that was our intention…
We developed a 2.5 hour watch system for our first night of sailing so that the captain could sleep with the steering set to automatic.  I was therefore surprised to see Paul at the helm when I arose from the cabin at two in the morning.  He explained that he was just trying to save the battery.  We cruised on through the night, and after an hour’s rest in the cockpit I woke up to silence.  The engine was out, no wind, no movement.  We were now floating aimlessly in the open Caribbean sea, no land in sight, and no power to propel us there.
Paul explained to us that both the batteries had died, and that we would need to spend the day powering them with his generator.  We thus spent the next 8 hours burning up under the direct summer sun, reading nearly every page of the plethora of Colombian guidebooks that we had brought in our backpacks.  I was getting bored with Colombia even before arriving there.  Come mid-afternoon, Paul had a confession to make.  In a well-manipulated, crafty speech which I think was purposely intended to confuse us, Paul informed us that all electrical backups had failed.  There was to be no power for the rest of the trip, no radio, no GPS, no running lights, no pump to use the bathroom.  When the water was running the kitchen would be the only operable system on the boat.
Over the next several hours, the other passengers became very upset and there were a few shouting matches with the captain, but I was secretly grinning inside my head.  Prior to boarding the ship, I felt a bit ashamed about boarding a chartered trip; it felt too comfortable, too humdrum, not at all in sync with the rest of my travels.  But this now had all the ingredients to be an epic journey, and I, unlike my fellow passengers (and most of the world), live for epics.  Having more experiences with adventures gone wrong in the mountains, I was less familiar with surviving the sea.  I did however once lose an engine on a 20-day sail in the Canadian Coast Range with Gretchen, Dave, and Clive, but armed with ingenuity and an indefatigable spirit we survived, and in the meantime, had the time of our lives.
Too hot to sleep by day, and with increased winds and challenging navigation, it was just too exciting to retire below in the evening.  The captain, a fellow Dutchman, and I  spent the next 50 hours with essentially no sleep.  Days were frustratingly still, and one could jump off the vessel and swim at a faster pace than the boat.  But by evening we were cruising at speeds up to eight knots amid large swells. As long as we had ample water, which I think we did, we would be safe, just a little bit late to Cartagena.  Unfortunately the crew’s confidence was jarred when Paul desperately sent out emergency flares to far-off vessels with the hopes that they would call the local coast guard and get a tow.  After these failed attempts he assured us that he had arrived to Cartagena at night before and figured he could easily navigate to the city harbor lights for a tow into the marina the next day.  Not the case…
On Day 6, I could tell that Paul was lost.  Always relying on his GPS unit in past trips, he had no paper charts for the area, which in my mind is completely irresponsible.  We knew the approximate heading for Cartagena, and if we headed just below our target we could navigate along the coast.  But any sailor knows that navigating only by compass will not dictate your precise location.  You’re susceptible to drifts and you need a tafrail log to record your mileage, and of course a chart is indispensable.  Without modern technology, a good sailor can pinpoint her coordinates with a sextant and a few star logs.  I had learned this skill some ten years ago, but unsurprisingly, there was no such equipment on board.  I steered for almost the entire day, recording bearings, times, and approximate speeds the entire time, but no one on board knew I was actually doing this.
That night Paul recognized the lights of Cartagena and we were relieved to know that we should arrive there before daybreak.  And then he recalled a reef, and we were heading right for it.  He called for me to adjust the steering to prepare for a difficult tack.  The winds and waves were particular strong at this hour and Paul was in a state of panic. In his delirium he managed to somehow break the support for the mains’l boom, rendering our stabilizing sail useless.  I turned the steering wheel to the far right, but with no momentum in the boat, steering was useless.  “Have we lost our steering?” he yelled.
“Yup,” I replied, and then he went silent.  He hopped down to the cockpit, with an absolutely terrified face.  As his ship spun out of control in the wild open sea and drifting to a reef, Paul reached into his pocket, lit a cigarette, and desperately attempted a call from his cell phone.  Apparently the captain forgot that we were a half-day voyage from any sort of cell tower.  Great, we had lost our batteries, our engine, our navigational tools, and now we were losing our captain.  For the first moment of our trip, I felt like the other passengers standing by the deck, who were astonished, paralyzed, and scared.
Paul came to the helm with a wrench, wanting to make some adjustments.  Why didn’t we just reset the sails, gain momentum, and steer on our way?  It seemed so simple.  I soon realized there was a miscommunication here.  When  Paul asked if we had lost our steering, he intended to ask if the steering was broken.  He went into a state of shock because he mistakenly believed that we had lost our last element of control of Ave Maria.
With a renewed clarification, he asked the rest of the crew to retire to the cabin (with the exception of a few who were still vomiting off the hull).  And so the three of us sailed and tacked, sailed and tacked for the rest of the night, heading for the lights that Paul thought was Cartagena…
It wasn’t Cartagena.  We found ourselves in the Rosario Island Archipelago (not sure which island exactly) on the morning of Day 7, some 2.5 days later than our expected arrival to Cartagena.  Another passenger Daniel saved the day by pulling out his Lonely Planet guidebook to Colombia which had a small map of the Caribbean coastline.  How silly it seemed to be navigating 20 miles of coastline with a small-scale tourist map, but it was our best option…and it worked.  After realizing that the captain was simply too exhausted and literally so incompetent that he didn’t know which way was north, the crew took control of the map, and we navigated ourselves to Cartagena Harbor, maximizing what little wind we had.   We followed a cargo boat into the harbor and hired a local boatman to haul us in the 8 miles to the city marina, ending the trip in the late afternoon.
After a failed attempt to acquire a refund, the crew settled down and was ready to enjoy Colombia.  I splurged and got a 15 dollar hotel room with a television.  Cartagena, a charming colonial city, would serve my recovery well and I soon became rejuvenated enough to enjoy perhaps the greatest country of them all..
The calm before the storm...

The calm before the storm...

If you didn’t already know, it’s impossible to connect Central America to South America by automobile.  In southern Panama, the Pan-American Highway terminates in several hundred kilometers of jungle, native villages, and rumored guerillas.  Other than making the long trek through what is called “The Darien Gap,” you can either hop on a boat or plane to connect yourself to Colombia.  With a plethora of other backpackers out there with a similar need, chartered sailboats were in high supply, albeit expensive.  The 5-day sail connecting the Caribbean side of Panama with Cartagena, Colombia costs $375…ouch, a huge dent in my travel budget.  Yet along with the passage came the opportunity to explore the Kuna-inhabited San Blas Islands, perhaps the most intriguing part of Panama.  With airline prices fairly high and a failed attempt at hopping on a cargo boat in the Panama Canal, I shelled out the dough to Captain Paul and stepped aboard his 51-foot vessel, Ave Maria.

Paul and the seven other passengers from Switzerland, Holland, and Australia seemed to be easy-going folk.  After hearing a deluge of stories of drunken incompetent captains who offer the same charter, I was pleased to find out that he had been sailing Central America for two years, and this was his twelfth chartered voyage.

The long voyage to the San Blas Islands

The long voyage to the San Blas Islands

The only problem was that I booked my space from the other end of Panama, from Isla Bastimentos off Bocas de Toro.  To get to Ave Maria I had to take two boat taxis, an eleven hour overnight bus ride, a 3 hour jeep, and a third boat taxi to the vessel.  Once on board, we paid up, turned in our passports, and were on our way.  Combining the engine with sail, we cruised to our first island in the San Blas, to retrieve water, and to check out how the local Kuna folks live.

Kuna dwellings on Isla Miria

Kuna dwellings on Isla Miria

The indigenous Kuna occupy 40 of the approximate 400 islands in the San Blas archipelago.  Given exclusive rights to the islands by the Panamanian government in 1930, they are probably the most autonomous (and one of the most isolated) indigenous groups in Central America.  Adhering to their traditions, the women bead their legs and wear outstanding colorful dress.  The population rarely penetrates developed Panama, and instead relies on fishing from dugout canoes, hunting, and the sale of handmade molas (blouses) to maintain its economy.  Though as waters have become overfished, the islands are reluctantly embracing tourism and are consequently becoming more and more connected with the outside world.

There are thousands of islands in the San Blas, the vast majority are void of any human influence.  But when the Kuna occupy one, they take it over completely.

The corridors of Isla Miria

The corridors of Isla Miria

Isla Miria was a bustling metropolis, with palmed roof houses stacked against one another, and a population density surpassing that of midtown Manhattan.  The corridors connecting the houses reminded me of corn mazes from the states, and the island was just small enough to make for a great game of hide-and-go-seek.

I strolled the dirt corridors, subtly taking photos, and nodding my head to the distant and apprehensive Kuna.  Only the children took interest (as they always do), chatting in brief stints of Spanish, and politely guiding me to the nearest dairy bar, a small house that makes its own delicious vanilla ice cream.  Just when I was starting to feel invasive in this small community, I came across a group of United Statesans.  Shit.  A missionary group, no less. Their group leader Chris greeted me in his Texan accent and went on to explain the program:

“We’re just here to love them.  Now we help in as many ways as we can…a group of girls just went off to do dishes in fact.  And in the morning we teach the children all about Lord Jesus.  And we are living just like they do for the week.  We’re all sleeping in hammocks.”

Doing dishes…great.  Connecting with other cultures…phenomenal.  But teaching the kids about Christianity?  Sounds like there were some ulterior motives here, and I could not believe the tribal leaders, who were known to be so adamant about preserving their culture, were allowing it.  I had one more 50 cent ice cream and waved goodbye to the children of Miria.

One of hundreds of unspoiled islands in the San Blas

One of hundreds of unspoiled islands in the San Blas

Sailing through hundreds of city block-sized tropical islands we anchored at a gorgeous multi-colored archipelago, just 50 meters from the island of Chichemelli. The first island felt remote but this one felt like another world.  There were just a few houses and palm trees outnumbered the local Kuna population by about 500 to one.  The following morning while others went off to snorkel and spearfish, I got nosy once again and poked me head in someone’s beach.  The children came through yet again, inviting me to play in the waves, take pictures and snorkel together.  Their curious parents came out, were surprisingly friendly, and asked if I had any spare magazines in Spanish for their children to study.  They told me that their children boat taxi to school for 4 days a week in a far-off, more populated island.  But because the taxi is so far, they spend their four nights there with local families.  I definitely felt that all of these Kuni island habitants were part of a greater community.  I swam to the boat and returned with a drybag full of Panama City newspapers and my Spanish copy of The Little Prince.  I now like to think of the children, sitting on the beach beneath the magnificent stars of San Blas, perusing the pages of Saint-Exupery’s classic, and wondering about other worlds far away.

New friends

New friends

The following two days were more of the same, spear fishing in blue tropical waters, sipping rum, and falling asleep on the cockpit each night to the sways of Ave Maria.  On day 4 we were to set sail and cruise the open Caribbean waters for 40 straight hours to Cartagena.  At least, that was our intention…

P1000114

We developed a 2.5 hour watch system for our first night of sailing so that the captain could sleep with the steering set to automatic.  I was therefore surprised to see Paul at the helm when I arose from the cabin at two in the morning.  He explained that he was just trying to save the battery.  We cruised on through the night, and after an hour’s rest in the cockpit I woke up to silence.  The engine was out, no wind, no movement.  We were now floating aimlessly in the open Caribbean Sea, no land in sight, and no power to propel us there.

The captain knew something that we didn't...

The captain knew something that we didn't...

Paul explained to us that both the batteries had died, and that we would need to spend the day powering them with his generator.  We thus spent the next 8 hours burning up under the direct summer sun, reading nearly every page of the plethora of Colombian guidebooks that we had brought in our backpacks.  I was getting bored with Colombia even before arriving there.  Come mid-afternoon, Paul had a confession to make.  In a well-manipulated, crafty speech which I think was purposely intended to confuse us, Paul informed us that all electrical backups had failed.  There was to be no power for the rest of the trip, no radio, no GPS, no running lights, no pump to use the bathroom.  When the water was running the kitchen would be the only operable system on the boat.

Over the next several hours, the other passengers became very upset and there were a few shouting matches with the captain, but I was secretly grinning inside my head.  Prior to boarding the ship, I felt a bit ashamed about boarding a chartered trip; it felt too comfortable, too humdrum, not at all in sync with the rest of my travels.  But this now had all the ingredients to be an epic journey, and I, unlike my fellow passengers (and most of the world), live for epics.  Having more experiences with adventures gone wrong in the mountains, I was less familiar with surviving the sea.  I did however once lose an engine on a 20-day sail in the Canadian Coast Range with Gretchen, Dave, and Clive, but armed with ingenuity and an indefatigable spirit we survived (thanks to Gretchen and Dave!), and in the meantime, had the time of our lives.

With no engine all we could do was hunker down and wait for the wind.

With no engine all we could do was hunker down and wait for the wind.

Too hot to sleep by day, and with increased winds and challenging navigation, it was just too exciting to retire below in the evening.  The captain, a fellow Dutchman, and I  spent the next 50 hours with essentially no sleep.  Days were frustratingly still, and one could jump off the vessel and swim at a faster pace than the boat.  But by evening we were cruising at speeds up to eight knots amid large swells. As long as we had ample water, which I think we did, we would be safe, just a little bit late to Cartagena.  Unfortunately the crew’s confidence was jarred when Paul desperately sent out emergency flares to far-off vessels with the hopes that they would call the local coast guard and get a tow.  After these failed attempts he assured us that he had arrived to Cartagena at night before and figured he could easily navigate to the city harbor lights for a tow into the marina the next day.  Not the case…

On Day 6, I could tell that Paul was lost.  Always relying on his GPS unit in past trips, he had no paper charts for the area, which in my mind is completely irresponsible.  We knew the approximate heading for Cartagena, and if we headed just below our target we could navigate along the coast.  But any sailor knows that navigating only by compass will not dictate your precise location.  You’re susceptible to drifts and you need a tafrail log to record your mileage, and of course a chart is indispensable.  Without modern technology, a good sailor can pinpoint her coordinates with a sextant and a few star logs.  I had learned this skill some ten years ago, but unsurprisingly, there was no such equipment on board.  I steered for almost the entire day, recording bearings, times, and approximate speeds the entire time, but no one on board knew I was actually doing this.

P1000147

Drifting to who knows where.

That night Paul recognized the lights of Cartagena and we were relieved to know that we should arrive there before daybreak.  And then he recalled a reef, and we were heading right for it.  He called for me to adjust the steering to prepare for a difficult tack.  The winds and waves were particular strong at this hour and Paul was in a state of panic. In his delirium he managed to somehow break the support for the mains’l boom, rendering our stabilizing sail useless.  I turned the steering wheel to the far right, but with no momentum in the boat, steering was useless.  “Have we lost our steering?” he yelled.

“Yup,” I replied, and then he went silent.  He hopped down to the cockpit, with an absolutely terrified face.  As his ship spun out of control in the wild open sea and drifting to a reef, Paul reached into his pocket, lit a cigarette, and desperately attempted a call from his cell phone.  Apparently the captain forgot that we were a half-day voyage from any sort of cell tower.  Great, we had lost our batteries, our engine, our navigational tools, and now we were losing our captain.  For the first moment of our trip, I felt like the other passengers standing by the deck, who were astonished, paralyzed, and scared.

Paul came to the helm with a wrench, wanting to make some adjustments.  Why didn’t we just reset the sails, gain momentum, and steer on our way?  It seemed so simple.  I soon realized there was a miscommunication here.  When  Paul asked if we had lost our steering, he intended to ask if the steering was broken.  He went into a state of shock because he mistakenly believed that we had lost our last element of control of Ave Maria.

With a renewed clarification, he asked the rest of the crew to retire to the cabin (with the exception of a few who were still vomiting off the hull).  And so the three of us sailed and tacked, sailed and tacked for the rest of the night, heading for the lights that Paul thought was Cartagena…

It wasn’t Cartagena.  We found ourselves in the Rosario Island Archipelago (not sure which island exactly) on the morning of Day 7, some 2.5 days later than our expected arrival to Cartagena.  Another passenger Daniel saved the day by pulling out his Lonely Planet guidebook to Colombia which had a small map of the Caribbean coastline.  How silly it seemed to be navigating 20 miles of coastline with a small-scale tourist map, but it was our best option…and it worked.  After realizing that the captain was simply too exhausted and literally so incompetent that he didn’t know which way was north, the crew took control of the map, and we navigated ourselves to Cartagena Harbor, maximizing what little wind we had.   We followed a cargo boat into the harbor and hired a local boatman to haul us in the 8 miles to the city marina, ending the trip in the late afternoon.

The tow into Cartagena

The tow into Cartagena

After a failed attempt to acquire a refund, the crew settled down and was ready to enjoy Colombia.  I splurged and got a 15 dollar hotel room with a television.  Cartagena, a charming colonial city, would serve my recovery well and I soon became rejuvenated enough to enjoy perhaps the greatest country of them all..

Bastimentos, Panama

Isla Bastimentos
After a ten hour bus ride and a one hour boat taxi from Panama City, I arrived in Bocas del Toro, an island off of Panama’s Caribbean coast.  It had a Wildwood, New Jersey feel so I hopped on the next available boat to the more remote and tranquil island of Bastimentos.  Bastimentos, with just a few motels and no automobiles, has yet to experience its inevitable blow-up of tourists.  It’s center is demarcated by a single one meter-wide strip of cement that houses a few bars, several boat docks, and a dive center.  Unlike in Bocas, the local black population, who speaks an incomprehensible Jamaican mix of English called Guari Guari, vastly outnumbers the gringo tourists.  An eight dollar room at Hostal Bastimentos would serve as my base camp for the next week.
On my first day, still sleep-deprived from a freezing overnight bus ride, I met up with Rob, the Dutch Pirate (www.thedutchpirate.com), who would teach my PADI scuba certification course.  At $220 a course, Bastimentos is one of the cheapest places in the world to learn how to dive, and as Rob’s 3000th customer, the classes and six dives ran quite smoothly.  To make the deal even sweeter I was taking the class soley.  I highly recommend him.
But unfortunately, my disappointment with Panama continued, as I again struggled to connect with the locals.  I gave into my gringo status, and took up English for a week, and chilled with my fellow travelers in the hostel.  I connected with a Danish couple (which is always a win-win situation), and we spent our nights cooking, sharing travel stories, and interpreting Dylan lyrics.  Graham particularly impressed me.  As a 17-year-old, he dropped out of high school to play for a professional soccer team.  He retired by the age of nineteen, and moved on to full-time traveling and part-time work.  He returned to finish his high school degree at the age of 23, and is now in a teaching university.  As one of the most intelligent and pensive guys I have ever met, he’s going to be a great English teacher.
Bastimentos served as a great place to write, enjoy remote beaches, reconnect with family, and recover from my travels in the Caribbean.  But after a week of just chilling, I was itching to get on with my travels to highly acclaimed Colombia.
Boating in to Bastimentos

Boating in to Bastimentos

After a ten hour bus ride and a one hour boat taxi from Panama City, I arrived in Bocas del Toro, an island off of Panama’s Caribbean coast.  It had a Wildwood, New Jersey feel so I hopped on the next available boat to the more remote and tranquil island of Bastimentos.  Bastimentos, with just a few motels and no automobiles, has yet to experience its inevitable blow-up of tourists.  It’s center is demarcated by a single one meter-wide strip of cement that houses a few bars, several boat docks, and a dive center.  Unlike in Bocas, the local black population, who speaks an incomprehensible Jamaican mix of English called Guari Guari, vastly outnumbers the gringo tourists.  An eight dollar room at Hostal Bastimentos would serve as my base camp for the next week.

On my first day, still sleep-deprived from a freezing overnight bus ride, I met up with Rob, the Dutch Pirate (www.thedutchpirate.com), who would teach my PADI scuba certification course.  At $220 a course, Bastimentos is one of the cheapest places in the world to learn how to dive, and as Rob’s 3000th customer, the classes and six dives ran quite smoothly.  To make the deal even sweeter I was taking the class soley.  I highly recommend him.

Goofing off at a local reef

Goofing off at a local reef

The kids were the only locals who would hang out with me.

The kids were the only locals who would hang out with me.

But unfortunately, my disappointment with Panama continued, as I again struggled to connect with the locals.  I gave into my gringo status, and took up English for a week, and chilled with my fellow travelers in the hostel.  I connected with a Danish couple (which is always a win-win situation), and we spent our nights cooking, sharing travel stories, and interpreting Dylan lyrics.  Graham particularly impressed me.  As a 17-year-old, he dropped out of high school to play for a professional soccer team.  He retired by the age of nineteen, and moved on to full-time traveling and part-time work.  He returned to finish his high school degree at the age of 23, and is now in a teaching university.  As one of the most intelligent and pensive guys I have ever met, he’s going to be a great English teacher.

Cooking with Graham at Hostal Bastimentos

Cooking with Graham at Hostal Bastimentos

Bastimentos served as a great place to write, enjoy remote beaches, reconnect with family, and recover from my travels in the Caribbean.  But after a week of just chilling, I was itching to get on with my travels to highly acclaimed Colombia.

Morning runs to beautiful Wizard Beach

Morning runs to beautiful Wizard Beach

The Caribbean to Panama

My return to the real world took place in Panama City.  Coming from the simple, import-deprived Caribbean Panama City, the banking capital and cosmopolitan center of Central America, was quite a shock.  In fact many people equate Panama City to Miami, except that there is a lot more English Spoken in Panama City.  Billboards, fast food joints, street violence (I saw a full on fight my first day), casinos, and swanky discos, all made me a bit queezy, and two days there was more than enough.
Fortunately, I stayed in the most interesting part of the city, Casco Viejo.  As a UN heritage site, it is the old city center.  Once dilapidated and poor, it is now gentrified and quite up-scale.  It is a barrio of striking contrasts.  In just a few city blocks, you can walk your way from a 250 dollar hotel room to a dilapidated 400-year-old church, and then encounter the poorest, most makeshift house in Panama.  With so many crumbling ruins, a friend and I joked that it was a good thing that Panama didn’t have many earthquakes.  However ignorance served to punish us and that night we awoke in our dorm room to a magnitude 6.0!  My first ever tremor and quite the experience!
After a visit to the impressive Gatun Locks, the biggest locks of the Panama Canal, it was time to travel to Bocas and learn how to Scuba Dive.
The Panama City Skyline From Casco Viejo

The Panama City Skyline From Casco Viejo

My return to the real world took place in Panama City.  Coming from the simple, import-deprived Caribbean Panama City, the banking capital and cosmopolitan center of Central America, was quite a shock.  In fact many people equate Panama City to Miami, except that there is a lot more English Spoken in Panama City.  Billboards, fast food joints, street violence (I saw a full on fight my first day), casinos, and swanky discos, all made me a bit queezy, and two days there was more than enough.

The ruins of Casco Viejo

The ruins of Casco Viejo

Fortunately, I stayed in the most interesting part of the city, Casco Viejo.  As a UN heritage site, it is the old city center.  Once dilapidated and poor, it is now gentrified and quite up-scale.  It is a barrio of striking contrasts.  In just a few city blocks, you can walk your way from a 250 dollar hotel room to a dilapidated 400-year-old church, and then encounter the poorest, most makeshift house in Panama.  With so many crumbling ruins, a friend and I joked that it was a good thing that Panama didn’t have many earthquakes.  However ignorance served to punish us and that night we awoke in our dorm room to a magnitude 6.0!  My first ever tremor and quite the experience!

After a visit to the impressive Gatun Locks, the biggest locks of the Panama Canal, it was time to travel to Bocas and learn how to Scuba Dive.

Two vessels going through the Gatun Locks.  The one on the left paid $260,000 for its one day passage through the Panama Canal.  The channel in the distance opens up to the Caribbean Sea.

Two vessels going through the Gatun Locks. The one on the left paid $260,000 for its one day passage through the Panama Canal. The channel in the distance opens up to the Caribbean Sea.