Panama Wrap Up

Panama is the 5th Latin American country we traveled with the kids and we noticed a difference in them this time.  There was significantly less of the usual unhappiness and intense complaining, even though we moved at breakneck speed to make the most of our 17 days.  We had some seriously grueling travel days, in fact 5 of the 17 days were spent in buses, boats, taxis, and collectivos.  Maybe it's their age or perhaps that we only traveled for 17 instead of our usual 27 days that made them better able to withstand the challenges of budget backpacking in Latin America.  Or could it be that they have toughened up and have their travel legs?   There wasn't even much reaction when we had to wait by the side of the road because of a broken van for an unpredictable amount of time.

Panama was expensive!  We averaged $195 a day which included domestic travel, hotels, food, tours, and souvenirs.  We did take more tours than usual, accommodation costs were high mostly because the kids are counted as 2 real people instead just kids,  food costs were high not because we ate more but just because tourism has jacked up prices big time.  We still found a few $3-$4 meals here and there.  There was also a huge splurge in the Panama City apartment and for the Isla Cobia snorkeling trip.

We met some great people that made all the difference for us in Panama.  First of all, hooking up with the Jacobsens from Tacoma was a treat.  True, we barely know them...but there is something about the connection between our two families that made being with them easy and fun.  The Dutch family we met in Santa Fe and the expereinces we shared were priceless.  They had personal connections to a boat captain in Santa Catalina which got us a safe passage at a slightly discounted rate.

And finally, here's our top 10 fave things about Panama, in no particular order.

Surfing Playa Estero

The families we hung out with

Isla Boca Brava

The Panama Canal

Snorkling Coiba

Jammin Pizza

Seeing whales

The food

Bat Cave

Cute animals

River tubing

So that's it for summer 2014.  All in all a great trip with some awesome memories!  I'll leave you with a few bits of graffiti street art.....


Panama City

We have just 2 days to pack in a lot of sightseeing.  I've surprised the kids by booking an apartment on Plaza Bolivar in Casco Viejo, the old part of Panama City.
The view is amazing and the rooftop pool is adorable.

Panama City is undergoing a transformation.  The old part is on its way to being enchanting like Cartegena, but its not there yet!  Some areas are immaculately restored while others are still burned out shells.

People that had been living in the city prior to the beginning of the gentrification have been pushed to the fringes of the area, making a walk around something that can turn seriously dangerous in a matter of blocks.  We were warned many times to use great caution in the city as the old city is fringed with high density slums.  In fact one night after walking back to the apartment from the market we were followed by a group of men and only just happened to reach the well lit and heavily policed plaza when they gave up.  Most of the area is well guarded by police and special tourist police who are well armed.  We were just on a block that was quiet at the time.  No harm done, but it did leave a bad taste in my mouth for the city.

We came here for the Panama Canal and the 4 story museum and visitor's center did not disappoint, although the admission of $55 for the family hurt the budget.

After the canal we went to the famed fish market and had lunch in the small restaurant above where we could watch the fish mongers and ceveche vendors.

Every market has its shrine.

We left the fish market to find the artisan's market.  One block into our walk two police on bikes approached us..."I am the tourist police.  My job is to help you.  Where are you going?"  Ok, this never happened before.  I know the city is bad, but he wanted to escort us for the 15 minute walk to the market.  I was beging to wonder what I had gotten us into...we accepted of course and followed him through the streets to the market we were looking for.  He warned us not to take out a camera and to keep our bags close.  He said we needed to use "great precaution".  It all sounded pretty dire.  So that's why I have no photos of the market....but as we found our bearings we got a little more comfortable, or at least not super paranoid. 

In our wanderings we stumbled on a Santeria market area.  The altars are so different from the Catholic ones we usually see.  I wish I had a photo of the one made out of menacing metal objects: spikes, handcuffs, barbed wire, cast iron rooster statues and surrounded by candles and surrounded by candles...the walls of the shop are lined with shelves of powders, liquids, bundled herbs, and animal skulls.  One could really get some issues resolved here I think. 

We found great places to eat for $3 and a snow cone street vendor.

The old part of Panama City is colorful, lively, and on its way to being a huge tourist draw.

For us, it was the most uncomfortable Latin American city we have been to in five countries of travel.  We did not love it the way we loved Medellin, Cartegena, Lima, or San Jose.  The renovated areas were so luxe and the people there so posh....that's not so fun for us, but it was knowing that a few blocks away were very dangerous made walking around pretty stressful.  Its not always easy to determine where that line is. 

We had fun in the apartment, people watching on the balcony to the restaurants below and we did have that rooftop pool all to ourselves.

Isla Coiba

We started off early, getting some sandwiches para llevar (to go) from the French bakery.

We've arranged to met up with the family from Holland for an epic journey to Isla Coiba, home of a former penal colony that allowed it to remain free of human development.  Part of the same volcanic island chain as the Galapagos Islands, Isla Cobia has been on my list for a while now.  It's exotic, hard to get to, and has an amazing amount of biodiversity on the island and in the waters that make up the national marine park. 

The boat ride was long, just over two hours.  We arrive at the ranger station and pay the per person 20$ entrance fee.
On the way to the snorkeling spot we were treated to a pod of 4 or 5 humpback whales!  I tried to get a few shots with my dinky camera but it's really impossible to capture the feeling of seeing whales in the open ocean.  Huge smiles across my children's faces today! 
The next surprise was seeing two green sea turtles mating, which the captain said was a pretty rare sight to see.  Again, not the greatest photos, but here they are.

The snorkeling at Coiba was terrific.  Tons of amazing tropical fish, jellyfish, and even a reef shark...spotted only by Luis.  By the time he got our attention underwater the guy was swimming away.  Others in our group saw a pair of hammerheads and more sea turtles.  While I was quite anxious about snorkeling in legendary shark infested waters I soon got over it.  As long as I keep my face in the water I am distracted by the undersea world. When I come up to get my bearings and to make sure I haven't swam too far away I get panicky, surrounded by so much water where I cant always see my kids gets to me.  It also helps that I hold hands with someone for a while.....

A long day ends at a little beach restaurant back in Santa Catalina.

Our last day in Santa Catalina...everyone wants to stay longer!  Its a relaxed surfer town with great waves.  Jack and Maya have been surfing already four hours this morning.  After just learning Maya can catch a wave, stand up, and ride it all the way into shore while Jack continues to build his skill and confidence.  We will soon be off to Panama City to end our trip.  One more bus ride!.....or maybe two.