Surf, ouch reef, the canal, and kickin back and healing in Panama City.
Border crossing was sweet as a nut, after vowing in writing we were not infected swine’s. We pile into a collectivo bound for the closest big city, David. Arriving on dusk and with help from a friendly citizen, accommodation is found. Right on the main square Hotel Iris is a time warp of classic 70’s style. A little wander of the streets we realise that we are the only white fellas in sight and that we are getting curious looks, ok lets head for cover to restaurant 24 for dinner.
Buenos dias. Cheap internet found and we spend all morning organising our lives on the net followed by an arvo bus to Santiago then another to Sona. From Sona we share a cab with a friendly Frenchman the remaining 1.5 hours to the isolated Santa Catalina to arrive in the dark. Santa Catalina is a small fishing village in NW Panama that attracts 2 types of tourists - keen surfers for the rocky right hand reef break and scuba divers for the myriad of diving spots off the national park islands.
Rolo Cabins provide a good budget option with cheap rooms, communal kitchen access (a must for shoe stringin travellers) and a 5 minute rock scramble away from the break.
Steve, frothing harder than a shaken up VB, surfed 3 times in the first day. The early was 2-3ft, clean and fun but got a little crowded as the morning went on. Midday session picked up to 4-5ft and swung off shore, kegs a plenty and heavy with no one out but a few rocks sticking out here and there. The arvo session saw solid 5ft sets, bit onshore, and crowded again, but the lines were longer!
We met 3 Aussie lads from the snowy mountains region that were staying at Rolo and talked about plans to get to Panama City, turns out we were all heading the next day. Despite yearning to remain in isolated paradise we needed to make a move if we were to make it through Columbia and Ecuador and then through Peru to meet Ging Gang (Steve’s mum Julie) in Lima on 7th June. During the day a cracking budget bakery was discovered up the road and a small chunk of Kevin’s Economy booster was spent on croissants, fresh rolls and brownies. We were loaded after a dollar each!
Next morning Steve’s alarm went off at some ungodly hour and he bolted out to the surf to cram in one last early before the 8am bus to Panama City. Surf was epic, Steve was out solo, indo perfection glassy 4ft rights, he knew it was going to be on from the previous arvos conditions. Then disaster struck half hr into the session. Rushing and sleepy Steve muffed a drop, didn’t penetrate, and went over the falls and plummeted through the shallow water to be back slammed into the reef WWF Hulk Hogan style. A quick check of the skull with a hand wipe revealed not just blood but flesh chunks. Back was scratched and bruised up too. Another couple of painfully stiff tin man style waves and concussion kicked in, time to paddle in and limp back to the cabin.
Jess was wondering why Steve was late for the bus and started to worry a little. There he is, in the shower. Looking pale he muttered “there’s been a slight change of plans honey”. Rashie removed to reveal bark off and streams of blood, other streams running down his neck from the head wounds - wish we weren’t so freaked out and took a before treatment photo. Jess applied iodine and antiseptic powder to the back wounds with no issues but when it came to the head gashes and fishing out reef chunks she felt the blood rush from her head and nearly passed out. Steve was now attending a passed out Jess! Steve had his head patched up by one of the Aussie boys. It probably needed a stitch or two but considering we were in the middle of no where sterilisation and a hat to hold it together to clot had to do.
Next came a hideously uncomfortable 6 hour bus journey to Panama City. Steve was heavily concussed and dosed to the eye balls on ibuprofen (6!), his shirt sticking to his wounds. The bus driver insisted on playing rank music super loud all the way. Turned up in Panama City to check out a few accommodations, Steve’s back had seized up and climbed in and out of the car like a 96 yr old. We settled for something a little luxury to help with the recuperation process.
Top floor of the Hotel Acapulco, our room had all the luxuries, AC, cable tellie and lux bathroom plus nice touches like wooden furnishings, French doors and a balcony. On the bottom floor of the hotel was a cheap and sometimes cheerful 24hr restaurant and bar which was frequented rather often for brekkie and cheeseburgers (essential for back injury recovery).
We met up with the Aussie boys for a drink and while we were waiting on the street we met a local guy called Freedom. Freedom described himself as a “poet from the upper west side”, he then recited a pretty impressive rap/poem for us in exchange for a dollar. He had talent. He worked the street out the front of our hotel, directing parking and washing cars, his home was the side walk next to his washing buckets. Watching his erratic behaviour from the balcony became one of Steve’s favourite recovery pass times. At night time Jess doused Steve’s wounds in iodine as he screamed like a beeyartch describing the iodine as evil acidic alien spit.
The next day we discovered a major casualty, Steve in his concussed ibuprofen state the day before on the bus had managed to disappear Jess’s prescription sunnies. Shite!!!!!!!!!!! Thinking about the cost we remembered travel insurance and that a police report is necessary. Out on the street Freedom showed us where a tourist police officer was posted. He called for a police van to pick us up and take us to the station to file a report. Once the van pulled up we piled in and watched the events unfold. A security guard from the 24hr restaurant complained to the cops about something Freedom had supposedly done, Freedom was slapped by the cop, cuffed and thrown in the van with us. WTF?
We then drove through the slums of Panama City, not feeling safe at all despite being in police company. Freedom was thrown in a cell, we got our report and got the fark outta there. Freedom was back on the streets that night looking a little worse for wear. They couldn’t pin him for anything so he got off.
Our time in Panama City was spent recovering, shopping, sight seeing and organising future travel plans. We visited two main shopping malls on the search for sunnies suitable for script lenses, an optometrist that could understand spanglish and a laptop because the costs of using internet cafes were adding up to be unviable. The first centre we visited was Albrook Mall. It was absolutely massive, swimming with humans and could be generally described as a shit fight. All the notebook laptops were really cheap and perfect except that they were all loaded with Windows XP Spanish, which could not be changed to English without being uninstalled and reloaded with the English version with an external disk drive - not worth the bother.
The next day we visited the Multi Plaza Mall in the shiny arse business district of Panama City. Unlike the day before shopping experience the Multi Plaza could very well be described as shopping heaven. Except for the fact that we turned up at 9 and the shops didn’t open til 11. Once they were open sunnies were found, optometrist lined up to produce lenses in 4 days and a kick arse Swiss pocket knife bought for $16.
Reality set in that we would be staying in Panama city longer than first planned we had to move from our luxury room to something a little more affordable. Freedom told us about a place just round the corner, Hotel Monarco, that was good and affordable. He would stay there a night if he earnt enough for a comfy bed and hot shower. Lonely Planet obviously missed this budget gem, nice room even if we did share the hotel with a few hourly rate customers.
With Steve still getting around like an old geriatric we still had a few days to fill so we explored the city. Panama city is a place of contrasts. Skyscrapers meet the ocean reminiscent of Miami and money flows into the city from internationals using the canal at US$75000 a passage. The central business district is a mass of flashy glass and steel, the rich and the famous park their million dollar yachts at the marina and hit the casinos and clubs. At the other end of town lies Casco Viejo, the old colonial centre of town built in the 1600‘s. Mostly abandoned in the early 1900’s for the newer part of town, grand buildings lay decaying until a recent movement to restore and rejuvenate the area.
Between Casco Viejo and the business district lies a sprawling ghetto, a significant reminder that not everyone benefits from the millions of dollars revenue the canal provides.
Our hotel was between the business district and Casco Viejo a couple of blocks back from the ocean. We decided to walk along the ocean to Casco Viejo for some sight seeing on our way to the boardwalk. We had a plan to stick to the main roads for safety. Somehow we strayed off the main roads and found ourselves in the middle of the ghetto, the only tourists in sight we started to attract a little attention. Can of beer in one hand thumb out on the other - TAXI!
Once out on the boardwalk, which was made by the material excavated from the panama canal, we wondered around like lost puppies. It provided great views back onto the city and also a good drop of wine.
After a week of cable tv, sight seeing, shopping, and fast food, Steve had recovered to about 80% and it was time to say goodbye to Panama. We booked ourselves a flight to Lima, Peru, which unfortunately meant we missed Columbia and Ecuador. Never mind, next time, it was just good to see Steve with a smile on his face and jumping around like a lunatic again