Thursday, April 17, 2008

A man, a plan, a canal, a camera, and no palindrome

Yes: Panama. What follows is a brief pictorial of the Gang of Seven's travels through the world's most famous skinny country. It spans 12 days, four different states, two oceans, one canal, three puddle-jumper flights and three bus rides. Interestingly, I didn't ride a single elevator the entire time. Hmmm.

Anyway, let's get to it.

When we were in Panama City--at the beginning and end of the trip--we stayed in an older section of the city called Casco Viejo. There was a lot of history piled there, much of it crumbling, some of it restored or in the process of restoration. Narrow streets, cobblestones, ornate architecture and crumbling facades were the rule.

All that remained of this church--more than three centuries old--were its front walls and a partially enclosed courtyard. Note the tree growing from the top.

Four of the Gang of Seven in one of our Panama City apartments doing what we did every night: Try to take over the world. Or, alternatively, drink huge amounts of Balboa lager.

There was a school across the street about a half-block from our apartments, La Escuela de Simon Bolivar. The building is a former meeting hall where the South American revolutionary staged rallies. One afternoon the city's power went out and the kids--hot and without anything to do--poked their heads out the window.

Across from the school was the Parque Bolivar, which included a giant statue of Bolivar and, in this picture, two of the Gang of Seven playing backgammon. The square had restaurants and bars on two sides, apartments on one and a government ministry building on the other.

A few blocks away from the Parque Bolivar was a former prison used, hundreds of years ago, to hold political prisoners. Now it's been redeveloped into a museum and restaurant. On its roof is a walkway from which you can look out at the harbor. That's where this Kuna (an indigenous tribe) woman is standing, dressed in traditional clothes. This is the only picture of a Kuna you'll see here, as the folks in Kuna Yala discourage photography of people.

Another example of the semi-ruins in Casco Viejo. This is an old hotel--who knows how old. In the background is downtown Panama City.

Beneath the ruins of the hotel was this arched breezeway thingy. Hard to tell what it was used for... there appeared to be some doorways that were blocked by debris. The person in the far background is Friend of the Blog and Taker of the Author's Photo Christine.

What would a trip to Panama be without a visit to the canal? This is the Miraflores locks, in which ships enter from the Pacific side heading toward Lake Gaitun and eventually the Caribbean. The Gaitun side is on the right here--the lake itself is considerably higher than sea level. The system is entirely gravity-operated; there are no pumps.

Next we went to Kuna Yala (literally "Kuna Mountains" in the native language), or San Blas, an indigenous autonomous zone in the northeastern part of the country. It's an archipelago, and all the residents live on islands of varying sizes. The airstrip we flew into, however, is on the mainland. Here you see a DeHavilland Twin Otter landing on the strip, hacked from the jungle and marked by sticks topped with white plastic bottles.

From the airstrip we were taken by 15-foot motorboat to the island where we would spend the next few days. This is the dock where we landed. In the background is one of the two uninhabited nearby islands. Beyond them is the open Caribbean, crashing against a massive reef system.

This is where we slept: Three thatched huts set over the shallow water. They had gravity-fed plumbing and chemical toilets, which was nice. A boat brought in two drums of potable water each day. This photo also shows how small the island, called Dad Ibe, was: Maybe 2,500 square feet. More palm trees than people.

This is the open-walled hut at the other end of the island in which we ate. Three Kuna came in by motorboat every morning to do the cooking.

For a challenge, we swam to the nearest uninhabited island. The head on the left is me.

This is the shoreline of a Kuna village we visited on a much larger island.

As you might imagine, the Kuna, living on islands and all, are quite used to traveling by boat. Some are fiberglass, some are handmade, some are powered by motors, some by sail. All are piloted expertly in seas calm and heavy.

After two plane rides and one eight-hour wait in Panama City, we arrived in Boquete, in the northwestern part of the country. It was mountainous, a big change from where we'd been before, and its distinguishing feature was a giant dormant volcano called Baru. We crammed a bunch of stuff into Boquete: A visit to a coffee plantation, a zipline trip through the jungle canopy, and a hike through the jungle. That's what we're doing here, hiking through the jungle near Baru, headed toward a waterfall buried in the dense vegetation.

The aforementioned waterfall. It probably dropped 300 or 400 feet.

From Boquete we got on this bus to head to our next destination, El Valle de Anton. You might notice that the bus had a name: Golden Boy. Most of the buses we saw in Panama had names like this. In Panama City, it was even better. The intra-city bus system was entirely private, with individual operators owning each bus, usually a retired school bus. The buses were tricked out like hot rods and all had Anglo women's names, like Sylvia Marie, Nicole Kristin, and so on. Although I did see one named Marc Antony. Seriously.

Because there were seven of us and we were remarkably polite, the bus agreed to drop us not at its scheduled stop, but at Las Uvas, the village closest to El Valle de Anton. Then we had to wait for a bit for another bus to swing by and haul us the rest of the way. Here Friend of the Blog Pete rests by the bus stop in his stlyish-yet-practical campesino hat.

El Valle is exactly what it says: A valley. Specifically, a circular valley that happens to be the floor of an extinct, 5-kilometer-diameter volcano. It's beautiful and has some grand old hotels frequented by vacationing Panamanians. The oldest and grandest, sadly, was being renovated whilst we were there. This is what was left: A grand facade, a grand fireplace and a grand mountain.

El Valle is so beautiful that even Atlas and Balboa can live side-by-side in harmony.

And finally, we returned to Panama City and the uneven streets of Casco Viejo.

Thus concludes A Pictorial Trip Through Several Parts of Panama. I hope you enjoyed it. And I know I don't have to tell you what the soundtrack should be.


Pete said...

don't forget the seco con leche.

what a great trip. let's play two!

M. Gants v4.0 said...

Ah, very cool. Thanks for posting the pics - they look great.

I didn't realize you were going with a bunch of friends too - always fun to travel with a few pals :)