Generally speaking, when something is referred to as a "once in a hundred years event" there's probably good reason to be excited. However, news of this event was rather grim. Horrible storms had ravaged the westernmost regions of Panama, causing massive flooding in some of the country's most popular destinations.
It was on Thanksgiving night, here in America, that I first learned of this news - less than 36 hours until my departure for Panama City. My plan all along had been to spend two nights in the capital before venturing off into my travels. And, as luck would have it, two of the other major places I planned to visit, Boquete and Bocas del Toro, both had taken the brunt of these storms, causing great distress amidst the raging rivers, rising tides, and vanishing infrastructure.
Online reports described non-stop downpours the likes of which some residents claimed they hadn't seen in their lifetime, and the Council of Ministers even declared a state of emergency. In Boquete, the Caldera River overflowed its banks, wiping out roads and bridges. The destruction in Bocas del Toro appeared to be even worse. Tides had literally swallowed restaurants from the archipelago, and, in addition to countless displaced residents, travelers were more or less stranded on the islands. Message boards and news sites told varying stories from Bocas, but the general idea was that this was not a great time to be traveling in Panama.
So, after reading all the discouraging news, I found myself in a tough position: cancel the trip, shorten my stay, or go ahead with everything as planned. My initial thought was to just grin and bear it. However, after mulling over my options late into the following afternoon, I finally decided to shorten the my time in Panama by one week, thinking if I couldn't get to all the places I wanted to go, and if the weather was going to be lousy, I'd simply just laugh it off as seven strange days in Central America. Two weeks - not so much.
Now, instead of returning on the 13th of December, I would return on the 6th - rain or shine. And that's exactly what I got. A little bit of rain. A little bit of shine.
NOVEMBER 29 :: PANAMA CITY
It amazes me that more Americans don't travel to Central America. It's close, it's inexpensive, and, depending on where you live, you might not even have to adjust your watch. That's nice. But going back to the cost... my entire airfare to Panama City from Atlanta was only $227 on American Airlines. Albeit, indirect through Miami, but that's still one hell of a bargain. Thus, after all the stress and extra expense of shortening my trip, I found myself at the airport on a rainy morning in Georgia, ready to take on my next big adventure. However, this was already feeling different from my other trips. I was, for lack of a better description... sad. Partly, this may have been because I was leaving my dog, Mikey, for the first time since I got him. I'd like to think he needed me, but I think I needed him. Nevertheless, I felt rather alone. Last year's trip to Vietnam was the first time I traveled with somebody in many years, and it was nice to share the experience with my life-long friend, Nathan. Now, on this day, I sat in the terminal as a 30-year-old man, departing for a mere week-long vacation, leaving my dog behind, and feeling that, perhaps, I was getting too old for this shit. That I should be sharing the experience with somebody. That my life wasn't as simple and care-free as it once was. That I had... responsibility. Fortunately, my anti-fear-of-flying meds kicked in and, hours later, I blissfully drifted down into a cloud-covered Panama City in late afternoon. The pilot explained, "The weather in Panama is, uh... rain."
Tocumen International Airport is a nice, modern facility. However, it's rather far from the city center. So, after buying my $5 "tourist visa" prior to immigration, I prepared for my first relatively big expense - cabbing it into the old city. The set fee in a Taxi should be about $25. However, if you opt to take the group (collect) cab, you should only have to pay about $11 if there are three people riding. There weren't many travelers in need, so I ended up in a van with one other passenger, the cost coming to $15 each. Settled, I finally relaxed a bit as, for the next half hour, I stared out the window at a perplexing mix of old and new, skyscrapers nestled up against slums. Eventually, I ended up at the Luna's Castle hostel in Casco Viejo (Old City). A loud, youthful hostel, Luna's is amazingly close to the water, with great balcony views of the modern, towering New City. As for the actual hostel... really, even at only $12 for a dorm room, it was still fair at best. At least for me. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that many of the travelers had more or less been stranded there because of the storms. By that I mean there was a definite funk to the place, both in smell and mentality. Everyone was just sort of sitting around drinking beers, waiting for the weather to get better before moving on with their respective travels. And, in the meantime, from the dorm rooms wafted a damp, travelers' aroma. Making the best of it, I unloaded my bag, grabbed a couple of the $1 beers from the self-serve fridge, and talked with a few backpackers on the balcony. Nice enough people, but I was feeling a bit old.
Feeling a bit restless and wanting to enjoy some of the old city while it wasn't raining, I decided to go for a bit of a walk-a-bout, something that always peps me up and gets me in the travel mood. Nowhere I have to go. Nothing I have to see. Just a stroll through town, seeing, feeling, and smelling the world around me. And for the senses, there's plenty to take in around Casco Viejo - colonial architecture, kids playing in the streets, and amazing views of ships in the water, waiting to pass through the locks of the Panama Canal. Click this photo to see the ships in greater detail.
After strolling about, I eventually ended up getting dinner at a crappy restaurant called Cafe Coca-Cola, where I barely stomached a bad chicken sandwhich and fries. Then it was back to the hostel where, it appeared, nothing much had changed. People were checking email, sitting around, drinking, smoking, and hanging out. However, I was geared up to go out and have a fun evening on the town... just hit up a little cantina, throw a few back, and talk with fellow travelers. By 10pm, the other guests were finally ready to go out. But, by this time, it was raining and, worse, everyone had decided to cab it into the new city to hit up some dance club with a cover charge and bad music. Already feeling sort of old with this crowd, and as what was being planned wasn't really my personal scene, I decided just to go to bed, wake up refreshed, and have a solid day of exploring Panama City. Sadly, it seemed as though I was the only one not heading out. However, an Australia guy in my room had also decided to stay behind, and worded his feelings on that night's planned group activity so perfectly, in a way that only a chill Aussie could. "Mate, I just can't be fucked." (Read: I just can't be bothered.) I've since stolen this phrase, and have found it to be a great way to self-justify staying home and taking it easy. So simple. So right.
NOVEMBER 30 :: PANAMA CITY
Somewhere along the lines of my research I read that travelers wishing to sail from one ocean to the other via the canal could easily find work as a 'line handler' on a private yacht. By law, each boat passing through the canal needs four line handlers, and if they were short, some captains would take on a novice just to meet the hands quota. So, first thing in the morning I took a cab to the Balboa Yacht Club where, sadly, there was less than nothing going on. I had envisioned sailing off for a couple of days on some yacht, capturing the experience of physically passing through the canal locks standing on deck. But, alas, it wasn't to be. One captain I did speak to said my best bet was to put my name in the office and wait it out. That simply wasn't going to happen. Though discouraged, I decided, nevertheless, to head over to the more upscale Flamenco Yacht Club further up the causeway. Maybe I would have better luck there. So, I started hoofing it along the water's edge. Briefly. I hadn't eaten breakfast, and it was rather hot and humid, so I abandoned my walk and hailed another cab. By this point, I had sort of lost my optimism for getting work on a boat, but I was excited to get to this particular yacht club because I had heard from somebody in my hostel that Tom Perkins' personal yacht, The Maltese Falcon, was in the dock. And there it was! The most expensive personal yacht in the entire world. I first became familiar with the name Tom Perkins when I was wowed by his feature on 60 Minutes. More recently, I had just finished reading his autobiography, Valley Boy. The final chapters of his book detail the construction of this amazing craft, and how it's since been the talk of the entire boating world - a true scientific and engineering wonder. What luck that it was docked, right here, right now, in Panama City, with it's giant carbon fiber masts towering into the sky. Totally worth the cab ride, despite the fact that the line handling situation was similarly bleak.
DECEMBER 1 :: ISLA TIGRE
DECEMBER 2 :: ISLA TIGRE
DECEMBER 3 :: BOQUETE
DECEMBER 4 :: BOQUETE
DECEMBER 5 :: PANAMA CITY
DECEMBER 6 :: ATLANTA