Friday, August 29, 2014

An Island Paradise.....San Blas Panama!

With the arrival of new friends Allison and Ray from Virginia to Panama it was time for a road trip to get us out of our daily routine.  And when I found an "oferta simple," similar to a "groupon" or coupon that was too reasonable to pass up, a destination was decided upon. For just $45 per couple we booked a trip to the San Blas Islands, home to the Kuna Indians. The archipelago of San Blas consists of 378 islands and cays but only 49 are occupied by the Kuna. Located on the Caribbean coast of Panama we had to first get permission to enter their "comarca" or reservation before proceeding to the port of Carti to meet our boat.

Here are a few of oursnorkeling videos, from Clyde's new toy a Go Pro White Underwater Camera


The port of Carti is about a 2 hour drive from Panama City which makes it at least a 4 hour drive from our house. So our plan was to leave the day before and find a cheap hotel on the east end of the city for the night.  We decided on Express Inn Pty Aeropuerto, a backpacker type of hotel nearby the airport.  Clyde called for a price and was told $50 and with our pensionado discount it would cost us only $25, so we reserved two rooms.  Upon arrival to the hotel Clyde and Ray were told that price was for one person and it would be an additional $10 for the wives, so we ended up paying $35 plus tax. The first room they showed us had the toilet seat sitting on the floor so we asked for another.  The four of us laughed at the d├ęcor of the tiny room with a bathroom the size of an airplane bathroom and a shower even smaller.  But it was just for ONE night and just for sleeping, so we sucked it up and paid for the rooms.  The price of the room even included breakfast, although we'd be leaving too early to take part.  But a sign on the wall did spell out in English and Spanish the choice of the free breakfast:  Bread......sliced or square with butter and jelly and free coffee too.  It didn't mention toast just bread....plain and simple and we regretted having to miss such a hearty, unhealthy breakfast!
We headed out for dinner and made our way back to the rooms early enough to chill out and get to bed early. After all we'd have to wake up at 4:30 to leave the hotel by 5:30 for our adventure to Kuna territory.  But as it turned out the hotel staff talked loudly in the hallway all night long keeping us from getting more than a few hours sleep. 

Express Inn Pty. Backpacker Type of Hotel
Near Tocumen Airport, Panama City, Panama

The next morning we left the horrible hotel bright and early around 5:30 am.  We did manage to suck up some free coffee along with some free cookies to take along for later on that day. The road to the Kuna comarca was long, steep and windy and required a 4x4 vehicle so we took our Toyata Rav 4.  Ray and Allison have a brand new Nissan Xterra which would have done just fine, although we're not sure if the Kuna police would have agreed. Before being permitted onto the reservation we all had to show identification and pay a total of $19, some money for the car and some for each passenger. Clyde was asked a bunch of questions, some of which we understood and some we didn't but we were allowed to proceed.  After what seemed like an eternity we arrived at the Port of Carti, hoping that our ship had come in and was awaiting our arrival.

Suddenly we were surrounded by hundreds Kuna people and our white skin stuck out like ghosts in the night.  Since I booked the trip online through Amazing San Blas Adventures none of the people there seemed to be expecting us, but after a few phone calls a boat came for us along with a bilingual guide.  We had the boat and the guides all to ourselves and we headed out along the crystal, clear waters of the Caribbean Sea. Soon we were immersed in a paradise of islands dotted with palm trees and encircled in white, sandy beaches.

Boats Lined Up To Take Kuna And Tourists To The Islands
Port Of Carti, San Blas, Panama

The Blue Side Were Bathrooms For 25 Cents
There Was A Bucket Of Water Near Each Bowl That The Attendant Used After Each
 Use, No Flushing Toilets.  Notice The Solar Panels For Electricity In Front

Welcome To Carti Port.....Let The Adventures Begin!

Our first stop was an island that was home to 1,000 Kuna where we stopped for breakfast.  Our guide asked the young girl cooking what our choice was and we were told chicken with either plantain or hojaldras (fried bread) along with coffee.  We all choose the hojaldras and a while later she brought out four plates with sliced hotdogs in a sauce alongside the fried dough. Confused we questioned our guide about the chicken and he told us there was no chicken, but instead salchichas guisadas (sausage stew). The Kuna people are self governing and I'd read it was improper to refuse to eat the food they serve, so I choose to play it safe and eat the food. Besides the fact that I was hungry it wasn't that terrible, just not something I'd eat if there were other choices.

Our Table For Breakfast

Traditional Panamanian Breakfast

Walking Tour Of Kuna Village, Approx. 1000 People Live On This Tiny Island

Kuna Woman Carrying Groceries

Four Gringo's Touring Village

Next our tour guide gave us a walking tour of the little island which was home to schools, a hospital, clinics, stores, restaurants and more. It was fascinating to peek into the tiny thatched houses all built so closely together to get a glimpse of what life is like for these people. Unimaginable for us from the Western world that people could live so simply and so far away from civilization, yet so happy with the only life they've ever known.

Kuna Kids In Canoe
Kuna Kids
Kuna Boy On Pier

Another Kuna Village, San Blas, Panama
This Isn't For Show, They Really Live Like This

Back in the boat we drove past many islands, some with houses or lodging and others with nothing. Our driver stopped at one small island to deliver four fresh, fish which we were told would be our lunch later that day. We docked at Isla Perro, or "dog island" for some prime snorkeling opportunities near a reef.  Filled with white sand, picnic tables with umbrellas there were other tourists nearby although none seemed to speak English.  After several hours of snorkeling we made our way back to the beach to do some exploring and take a rest.  I noticed some large conch shells lying on the beach and wondered if we could take one, so Clyde asked one of our boat guides that was sitting nearby.  After all we were on Indian land and I did read that we'd not be allowed to take anything away from there without offering money.  But the guide assured us that the shell was free for the taking so we each grabbed one and stashed it inside the boat for safe keeping.

Never Saw Such Big Shells Found On A Beach.....Approx. 11"x9"x8"

 Allison and Terry.....We Each Bought A Shell From This Kuna Woman
But Still Had To Pay Her $1 For Picture
Dugout Canoe Called A Cayuko, San Blas, Panama
Clyde Took This Picture....Two Young Tourist Girls

Isla Perro (Dog Island), San Blas, Panama 

Our next stop was a swimming area where large star fish supposedly hung out, although we only managed to find one along with some huge sand dollars. Our boat stopped on another island where we found handicrafts, food and drinks for sale along with some great photo ops too. There we picked up some large shells for only $5 each, which was pretty reasonable we thought.

Allison, Terry And "Estrella De Mar"......A Star Fish
Large Sand Dollar
Star Fish Moving Along In Water

Later in the afternoon we returned back to the island where the fish were delivered.  We found them to be fried whole and served alongside coconut rice, patacones (plantain) and salad for lunch.  We dined at our oceanfront table taking in the sights, sounds and beauty of all that surrounded us in this paradise.

Kuna Men Bringing Our Lunch, San Blas, Panama
Our Lunch To Be Cooked Later
A Boat With Teeth Near The Island Where We Had Lunch
Our Lunch.....Pescado Entero (whole fish).....Coconut Rice, Patacones And Salad

Since it was late in the day we asked our guide if there were any cabanas that we could stay in for the night, looking for yet another adventure. Although there were none on the island we were on after a few phone calls he found us some lodging and once back in the boat we headed to see them. Although we expected them to be rustic, we had no idea just how simple they'd end up being.  A Kuna woman in native attire offered us a cabana on her island.  There were two oceanfront thatched huts that housed beds which sat upon sand floors. The bathrooms and showers were rather far from the sleeping quarters and we cringed at having to walk through thick beach sand after dark. At a price of $60 per person which included all meals, it was too pricey and too rustic for our comforts.  Clyde thanked her nicely and graciously told her that her island was beautiful but we had to decline her offer. 

Bathroom Anyone?
Oceanfront Island Cabanas For Rent, $60 Per Person Per Night
Bathroom Elsewhere, Floors Are Sand

Tired from a long day of fun and adventures we made the two plus hour trek into Panama City to find some modern lodging for the night. Desperate for a shower to clean off the sand and salt water we quickly booked rooms at the Hotel Las Vegas. For around $55 after our 50% pensionado discount, we each ended up with a large suite.  Each room included a living room, fully stocked kitchen, balcony, large bathroom and large bedroom with a king sized bed for some much needed luxury. 

After showering and changing clothes the four of us headed out for a late dinner at La Tasca de Duran, restaurant and bar. Owned by the famous boxer Roberto Duran who's movie we served as extras in last year, we had hoped he'd be hanging out there but were told only on the weekends.

Today we enjoyed a free breakfast with our choice of toast, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, fruit, cereal and juices at the hotel before hitting the road for home. Now back to our normal reality we've been honored to be invited into a world we could never imagine exists.  We found the Kuna people to be warm and welcoming allowing us a glimpse of life as only they know it.  I can't imagine living in a world with so little choice of food, drinks, who to date, where to go to school, and all the other freedoms we've come to accept as must haves.  But what the Kuna people lack in choices and material things they possess in the beauty of nature that's all around them.  They bathe in the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea, eat fresh fish daily, dine on locally grown produce and enjoy the riches that nature gives them.  Surely there's a lesson to be learned from all of this, the simple lesson that things don't buy happiness, something we see in our daily lives living in Panama......along the gringo trail.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Seeing Panama Through Your Eyes......

After nearly three years of living in Panama, we had our first house guests from the US.  About four months ago through email I was telling my sister in NJ about a cruise we took and the islands we'd visited.  She started whining about wanting to travel and I bluntly said something to the effect of, "you're not getting any younger, how much longer do you think you have to travel, so why don't you take a trip now?"   I suggested she get a passport already and  come visit us in Panama. To our surprise she took us up on the offer and brought along a girlfriend who's fluent in Spanish too.

My sister Maryann in her sixty-some years of life had never before been out of the US so we knew she was in for major culture shock. Her first dilemma came while going through immigration at Tocumen Airport here in Panama.  We forgot that they'd be asked where they were going in Panama by the immigration agents, and all they knew was Chame.  Although since there's NO mail system in Panama there are NO addresses so Chame should have sufficed.  But since Maryann speaks no Spanish and the agent spoke no English so neither understood the other.  Had she let her friend Nancy do the talking in Spanish things might have moved along a bit easier.

Restaurant Next To Our Hotel, Panama City, Panama

First Night In Panama at Pomodoro Restaurant, Panama City
On the left....Nancy, Maryann and Terry on the right
We Closed Down The Restaurant

Las Vegas Hotel and Suites, Panama City....
The Hotel is Attached to Pomodoro Restaurant

Outside View of Hotel Las Vegas

Since they're flight came in late at night we decided to spend a night in Panama City and do the city tour the next day.  Our first stop was the famous Miraflores Locks where they watched in amazement as a huge ship passed through the canal.  After that we explored the Amador Causeway where we stopped for lunch at Mi Ranchito Restaurant.  Next we walked the cobblestone streets of Casco Viejo where we peeked into the warehouse of an artisan making floats for Carnival. They browsed through the many souvenirs made by indigenous people and picked up a few trinkets to take home. Our car climbed Cerro Ancon, the highest point of the city for a breathtaking view of the city skyline before heading over the bridge into the interior of the country.

Escalator Up To Miraflores Locks Building
Clyde And I Always Take The Stairs

Miraflores Locks, Panama

Miraflores Locks, A Ship Passing Through The Locks
Nancy Posing With Devils, Casco Viejo, Panama

This Guy Was Just Hanging Around The Street
Artisan Market

Kuna Indians Or Mola Ladies As We Call Them

Terry, Nancy and Maryann in Casco Viejo Outside Artisan Shopping Area

Museum Of Bio Diversity, Amador Causeway, Panama

View From Amador Causeway
Terry, Maryann and Nancy at Amador Causeway
Checking Out A Heliconia Plant
We Found This Little Guy On Top Of Ancon Hill, Panama City

View From Ancon Hill

Nancy, Maryann and Terry on Ancon Hill with View of City in Background

Maryann continually felt bad for the poor Panamanians walking along the roadside, since many are too poor to own cars. She didn't understand how they could walk in the blazing tropical heat with kids and grocery bags in tow.  We tried to explain that life for Panamanians is much simpler than our life back in the states. Panamanians work to live instead of living to work like us Americans do.  They're perfectly happy making just enough money to take care of their family for the week, then chillin' in a hammock with a cold beer. They don't have mortgages, car payments, credit card debt, gym memberships or other bills common to those of us in North America. If we can learn just one thing from the Panamanian culture it's that money doesn't buy happiness.  Many Panamanians have very little in the way of material possessions yet they're insanely happy people. 

After our day in the city we drove into the interior to show Maryann and Nancy a different side of life in Panama. From the busy PanAmerican Highway we turned off into the countryside in the tiny town of Chame.  Our house sits surrounded by smaller cement block homes in a Panamanian neighborhood. Since Maryann loves being outdoors she spent much of her time on the covered porch or bohio taking in the humid, tropical air.

Venus Guarding The Side Door Into Our House

Coco Posing For Picture With One Ear Flipped Back
Our House, Chame Panama

Outdoor Living Area On Porch, Side Of House
The rest of the week was spent sightseeing other areas of the country.  One day we drove through Colon and past the massive Free Trade Zone, one of the largest in the world.  Then we headed out into the jungle to explore the ruins of old forts and castles perched high alongside the Caribbean. The rustic town of Portobelo is home to the church of the Black Christ, a statue that's caused some controversy over the years.  We took them into the mountains another day to see how some of our friends live with scenic vistas nestled among the clouds.  And no vacation would be complete without a sampling of some of the locals foods like plantain and yucca washed down with local rum and beer. 

La Joya de Chica Mountain Lodge, or Phil's place in Panama

 Our Friend Phil with Maryann and Nancy
Maryann and Nancy, Sora, Panama
Posing In Front Of A Beach

Ruins Of An Old Fort
 Another View
Nancy, Maryann and Terry at Fort San Lorenzo, Panama

Posing With A Cannon

Fort From A Distance
Iglesia de San Felipe, Portobelo, Panama
Also Known As The Church Of The Black Christ

The Ladies In Front Of The Church
The Black Christ, Portobelo, Panama
Someone's Pet Monkey In Portobelo,
Maryann Sticking Her Finger Into Cage To Pet Him
The Monkey Didn't Like Her Touching Him, So He Turned His Back On Her
Cobblestone Streets Of Portobelo, Panama

Another View Of Fort
Playing Soccer Barefoot....Yes Kids Play Outside Here!
Another View At Fort
Kuna Indians Selling Their Goods With Nancy and Maryann,
Portobello, Panama

One night Clyde arranged for a private party to be held at La Ruina, a local restaurant owned by another gringo.  There Clyde opened up "Clyde's Tiki Bar," as he entertained with an assortment of  island-drinking songs while playing his guitar. Since the menu offered "ropa vieja" many of us had to try some for dinner. Literally translated as "old clothes," ropa vieja is shredded beef mixed with vegetables served over rice.  Here Maryann and Nancy had the opportunity to meet some of our expat friends from all over the world.

Clyde Entertaining Friends at La Ruina Restaurant,
 Gorgona, Panama
Punta Chame Resort, Also Known As "Wayne's World"
Bath House
Pool And Bohio

Floating In The Pool

The week ended with a shopping trip for us girls to Westland Mall.  The ladies were amazed to see the low prices on so many things sold here and each picked up a few things to take home.

Having house guests made us realize things about Panama that we've become accustomed to over the years.  The water and electric go off sometimes for no reason at all and we felt a slight embarrassment having to explain this to our guests. Toilet paper isn't flushed in Panama due to septic problems throughout the country.  Go into any public restroom and there's usually a sign in Spanish asking the patron not to flush paper.  Next to all toilets here there's a trash bucket full of dirty toilet paper.  Strange at first but then it just becomes the norm and something we're used to living with now. Small lizards called gecko's run around our house like they own the place and can be heard chirping throughout the night. They've become like useful members of the family since they eat the bugs helping to keep the population down. Chickens roam freely along the streets as do stray dogs who are hoping for a free meal. It's common to see locals riding by on horseback as their means of transportation or spot cows walking down the middle of the road. 

Our adopted country of Panama is a beautiful country full of rolling hills, majestic mountains, miles of coastline and lush tropical jungles. Yet it also lacks some of the conveniences we took for granted back in the states. But to live a simpler, cheaper life we've come to accept the quirks here and live happily ever after despite them.

Things Are Different In Panama....Not Wrong,
Just Different As the Above Equation Explains

A big thanks to my sister Maryann and her friend Nancy for coming to visit us and allowing us to show you our life in Panama.....along the gringo trail.

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