After several weeks in the San Blas Islands (there’s only so much time one can spend in paradise) we moved along the Panamanian coast to lovely Isle Grande. It was a gorgeous spot with brightly coloured Caribbean boats and buildings, rainforest clad hills and a bustling waterfront scene with loads of atmospheric bars and cafes – a complete contrast from the quiet and cafe free San Blas.
Best of all, we managed to hook into free wifi on board. Wifi is a lifeline for cruisers – we all like to stay in touch with family and friends and keep up with current events. We’d been starved of wifi in the San Blas so it was great to find it in Isle Grande. There is nothing nicer than sitting on Bandit and skyping family!
We’d sailed from Porvenir in the San Blas with French Canadian cruisers Jacques and Edith. First morning in Isle Grande Edith swam over and announced we were walking up the hill to the lighthouse, designed by none other than Gustav Eiffel. It was a steep hike through lush jungle. The lighthouse structure was not something that would have pleased New Zealand’s OSH (Occupational Safety and Health) being old, rusting and devoid of guard rails but the views from the top over the island, sea and mainland were magnificent.
From Isle Grande we sailed to Portabelo, once a Spanish stronghold but today only crumbling ruins of the once magnificent forts remain. We took a walk through the rather seedy and shabby town past rubbish where vultures perched picking at dog carcasses. We soon learned that Panamanians simply dump their rubbish where it suits and, at some stage, a truck comes and collects it. With tropical temperatures things can get a little smelly. Once again Edith got us out walking and exploring the forts around the sheltered harbour.
We left Bandit in Panamarina near Portabelo for two weeks while we did some land travel. First up was a couple of nights in Panama City where we eased ourselves back into the first world by staying at a luxury hotel (cheap internet deal) with endless water, satellite tv (for the Australian Open) and magnificent views over the city. The touch of luxury was well deserved because our next stay was in a dorm room in a hostal in the agricultural city of David. We hadn’t booked and arrived at David to find it full. Enquiries revealed the annual Flower and Coffee Festival was on in nearby Boquete. Frantic phone calls to various hotels came up with the same response – “full” – so the hostal it was. Ah well, it had a swimming pool and a big screen tv for more of the Australian Open.
We did a day trip to Boquete for the festival and it was intriguing to see Panamanians in long, billowing and colourful traditional dress. Boquete is where much of Panama’s coffee is grown and it is set in a beautiful valley in the mountains, but it was a touch too touristy for us. It was much cooler than stifling David however.
We also visited the tiny mountain retreat of Sante Fe, up a picturesque winding road from Santiago past tiny villages, cattle ranches and banana plantations. Santé Fe really was lovely, much nicer than Boqeute – no modern cafes, supermarkets, bars or tourists here – just lots of outdoor activities and hiking trails.
Taking local advice we headed to an organic finca (farm) out of town. Maria and Chon were amiable hosts but didn’t speak a word of English so we had to work very hard at our Spanish. The couple grew all manner of fruit and vegetables including coffee and Chon demonstrated the entire coffee picking, drying, sorting and roasting process to us, then made us a fresh cup of his delicious brew. Maria meanwhile was cooking us lunch – homegrown pork, crispy plantains, fresh broccoli, tomato and choko salad and beans and rice – yum! We needed a good walk to work that off and so headed to the nearby river for a cooling dip.
A blog about Panama would not be complete with a few photos of the wonderful chicken buses – the most decorated we’ve seen since Guatemala. And yes, we did ride on them – some trips more memorable than others! The worst thing about chicken bus drivers is they tend to race with one another so you are in for a thrilling ride with lots of horn tooting and yelling out the windows!
We’re now in Shelter Bay marina busy working our way through the endless list of jobs that need to be done before transiting the Panama Canal in a few weeks. More about that next blog!