Tuesday 7 Feb
Panama City, Panama
Panama did not feature in our plans for Central America until we found out it might be cheaper to fly to Ecuador from here than Costa Rica. We thought we'd just bus it down, see the canal and go.
On first impressions there was nothing to suggest doing otherwise. We stayed a couple of nights in the second city, David, a car oriented furnace where the biggest attractions are shopping malls and casinos. We spent a very amusing night with a cabaret singer and a couple of drunks but you had to be there.
Panama City caught us by suprise. We expected and industrial town focused on the canal but found a glittering cathedral of commerce and skyscrapers surrounding a beautiful bay and green hills which fight for prominence with the man made skyline. At the centre it has a natural forest bristling with birdlife and monkeys from where you get a fantastic vista and the mammouth container ships lining up for the canal.
Walking around this very modern city you would sometimes get a glance of women dressed in small, brightly coloured dresses with orange bands up their forearms and around there ankles. They were indigineous Kunas from the north east and are by far the most incredibly costumed people we have come across on our travels so far. The contrast between them and their surroundings left us quite speechless.
Another suprise was the old town situated on a small headland north of the centre. It was built by the French at the turn of the 20th Century when they firsted attempted the canal (they failed and the job was finally completed by the Americans). The beautiful old buildings now sit crumbling slowly into the sea.
The canal also joined the list of unexpected delights. Contrary to popular perception it is actually very pretty. The banks are covered in lush green forests and this only changes when you encounter the locks. Everyone has seen these locks either on television or in photos, but to actually see two gargantuan container ships entering and sinking down into the double set locks at Miraflores is a spectacle which our mere 180 degree vision is barely capable of taking in. It took a long time for the smiles to leave our faces after spending a day watching the canal at work.
So we were in Panama looking for cheap flights but we were also toying with the idea of getting a boat, either a ferry or a yacht, down the Pacific coast. We spent most evenings at the Balboa Yacht Club trying to find out if anyone was heading our way and met some lovely couples who invited us onto their boats in the morning so we could talk to all the cruisers on the VHF radio "net" (bit like an online message board). There was an English couple from Devon, Barbara and Mike, who fed us Marmite on toast and real English tea and a couple from the States who introduced me to peanut butter and Jelly; all retired and now spending their lives cruising around the world. Whilst this sounds very romantic the reality is that they spend most of them time in ports waiting on repairs.
Admittedly it was a long shot, but we persisted for a few days and just as we were about to give up and book our flights we met Captain Richaard Otter.