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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The House of Meat

Flying back to Panama City yesterday afternoon was acknowledging that the trip was almost over. Six days is just not enough.

The cab driver took us back to the Casa de Carmen, where we stayed on our first night. I don´t know if I mentioned this before, but the Casa de Carmen sounds a lot like Casa de Carne (House of Meat), which is located in the same neighborhood as the hostal. the first night we were here, the taxi driver took us to the meat market instead. Just a little lack of communication, I suppose.

The taxi driver, Omar, took us to the right place this time. On the way, he pointed out the home of our famous neighbor, Roberto Duran. The boxer lives in an unassuming house down the street from the hostal. The only unusual thing about the places was the number of alabaster statues he had all around his yard.

With our last few hours in Panama, I had to make a stop at the handicraft market to do some shopping. I don´t know whether it´s because it´s off season here, but I´ve had trouble finding places to buy stuff. I was able to buy a few things before the market closed.

Then we decided to checkout Isla Flamenco for dinner. Isla Flamenco is an island at the end of a causeway originally built by the U.S. Army to protect the Panama Canal. We ate at a cafe at the marina, with a few of Panama City across the harbor.

We hailed a taxi to take us back to the hostal, and the taxi driver said, ¨ Ah! The Casa de Carne.¨

I wondered why taxi drivers thought we needed meat so badly. I guess we should have gone, just to say we had been to a meat market. We did drive by on our way back to the hostal, though.

Monday, April 07, 2008

A howlin´good time at Boca Brava

This morning started not with a rooster´s crow, but with a rustling in the trees, and then the loud, deep cry from a howler monkey just outside our window.

An extended family of monkeys call this part of Boca Brava Island home, and the night before, they were frolicking in the trees, dangling upside down from their prehensile tails to grab a tasty fruit. After their feast, I found one little guy passed out, draped around a branch with his limbs dangling free, totally oblivious to the juvenile monkey swinging by.

Once the show was over, one howler -- he must have been the leader of the group -- stared down from his perch 10 feet above my head, and bellowed at me. Perhaps he was the same fellow that decided to wake us up at 3 a.m.

We came to be on the Isla Boca Brava because it sounded from its description in the Lonely Planet to be off the beaten path, yet only about an hour and half away from the Cielito Sur B&B. Just off the mainland of Panama are a series of several volcanic islands, some of them protected for marine animals.

So yesterday, we got up early, drove down from the highlands to the Panamerican Highway, and then turned onto a dirt road. At the end of the road, was a boat dock. We parked our car there, and for a couple bucks, we were shuttled over on a motorboat to an island barely 100 meters away.

Half of the island is owned by a German fellow, who built a hotel and big game fishing operation there. You can´t make reservations ahead of just show up and hope there is a room available. If not, guests are welcome to sleep in hammocks for five dollars. We splurged on a ocean view room with private bathroom for 22 big ones.

We spend the afternoon going to the beach on a secluded cove, then renting kayaks to explore some of the other little islands. At dinner, we dined on fresh red snapper and mahi mahi with fried plantains, while enjoying the company of a couple from Oregon, Jean Marc and Marie. Interestingly, they came down to go through the Panama Canal crewing on a sailboat owned by someone they found on a message board.

The day was great. I just wish we had more time.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

So that's why it's called a rainforest...

Big surprise. It's raining in the rainforest.

We had a pretty clear morning for a hike in the Parque Nacional Volcan Baru on the Sendero los Quetzales (The Quetzal Trail), so named for it's most famous inhabitant--the resplendent quetzal. The famous bird, known for it's long green plumage, even has an Aztec god named after it (Quetzalcoatl). More endangered species are native to the protected area.

Getting to the trailhead requires a steep, 30-minute uphill climb to a ranger station, where we could rest before heading out on the actual path. The trail itself is the most popular in Panama, but not today. We were the first to arrive at 10 a.m. this morning, and we had the next two hours completely to ourselves.

The trail cuts a path alongside the extinct volcano from the village of Cerro Punta, where we started, and Boquete, a town on the other side of the volcano. The guidebooks all recommended that hikers start at Cerro Punta because the trail is mostly downhill. Ha! What a total lie!!!

We didn't take the trail all the way to Boquete because returning to Cerro Punta would require nearly two hours on public transportation, and two bus changes to get back. So, we hiked only to El Mirador Las Rocas, a lookout point that is about a third of the way to Boquete.

The trail to that point was never flat...either a steep climb or a steep decline, often requiring some maneuvering to prevent slipping....still managed to fall a couple times, nonetheless.

We finally arrived at the look out, exhausted and ready for lunch, which the owners of our B&B packed for us in the morning. The look out platform was well past its prime, with wet, rotting boards.

But oh, what a view! By the time we arrived there, clouds had enveloped the volcano. Nothing to see. And it looked like it might rain at any minute. So, we quickly ate and headed back to the entrance of the park.

About one kilometer from the trailhead, we ran into the only other person on the trail--a German hiker who had bused over from Boquete to do the entire trail downhill (yeah right!) back to Boquete. Moments later, the rain began, light at first. Then much harder.

We were drenched by the time we reached the ranger station and we tried to wait out the storm under a canopy. It wasn't stopping, so we braved the elements for the next 30 minutes until we reached the car. My raincoat was anything but waterproof, and somehow all my clothes underneath it were soaked through.

I took a nice hot shower upon our return to the B&B, and now here we sit--I am on the computer, and Chris is on the covered porch reading a book.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Barrels of Fun

On a piece of paper posted at Cielito de Sur are more than 40 things to see and do in the Chiriqui Highlands, but for some reason, Chris and I had a tough time mustering the strength to do any of them. Instead, we lounged on the grounds of the six-acre property, napping and reading for a good part of the afternoon.

We did finally decide to pay a visit the archaeological zone of Barriles (or "barrels"), which is located on a private farm just outside the village of Volcan. The pre-Columbian site was discovered in 1947 and subsequently excavated by a team of National Geographic archaeologists. Unfortunately the only description at the site is the article that appeared in the magazine a few years later. Otherwise, we had to guess what things were all about. What we did surmise is that ash from the Volcano rained down on this area and a culture disappeared as a result.

When we drove up, we were greated by a pack of friendly Dalmations. A woman emerged from the house and invited us up to the porch. She didn't say much at all and she said there were no guides to show us around. She said we could go out back to the museum for a look around. Hmm...okay.

All I saw in the backyard was some rusting farm equipment hanging in a large shed. We wandered further back on the property and found a big ditch--probably where most of the artifacts were found. Wandering back, we stumbled upon a small sign that said "museo" and walked in. An underwhelming collection of artifacts sat on shelves in a room no bigger than my upstairs bathroom.

It appears many of the more interesting artifacts are in a museum in Panama City, so what remains in situ is a collection of pottery shards, some tri-footed pots, statues and grinding stones. Also on the property is a collection of petroglyphs etched into large stones, some of them barrel shaped (thus the name of the site).

Potholes, Pedestrians and Public Buses

From Panama's Chiriqui Highlands, visitors can see both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, from a lookout on the Baru Volcano, which rises 11,400 feet above sea level (Panama's highest point). We haven't seen much since it's been raining on and off today (as expected in a rainforest). But, interestingly enough, the countryside reminds me a lot of what I've seen of Ireland in pictures.

We arrived in David this morning on an hour-long puddle jumper flight from Panama City (and yes, I had my backpack with me, thank goodness). Chris and I decided we'd take a stab at driving here. I was a little nervous at first, but driving out in the countryside isn't too bad at all, compared to the crazy drivers in the big city. Potholes, pedestrians and public buses seem to be the only threat. The Panamerican Highway that stretches throughout Central and South America skirts the city of David. And the speed limit through this section anyway is 45mph.

I drove only a few minutes on the highway before taking a turnoff toward the town of Volcan, where we dined at the Restaurante Izel, which only served one meal. The "comida corriente" is typical of most local joints in Panama (and other places in Latin America). The meal generally consists of beef soup followed by a plate with either beef, chicken or fish, rice, beans, and plantains. Except, we didn't have the beans. We had tomato and broccoli instead. I don't think I've ever had broccoli in Latin America!

From there, we headed up the volcano, passing dairy farms and Swiss chalets that seem way out of place here. After eating broccoli, though, nothing surprises me. We passed a trout farm that advertises "Pesque y pague" (fish and pay). The guidebook says you can fish 5 kilos of trout for $5.

A little further along the road is an Argentinian grill on the side of the road, and then the strawberry stands began cropping up. Apparently, strawberries are a major staple of the region, and they are always in season. Roadside stands offer snacks of strawberries in cream...yum.

We finally arrived at Cielito Sur B&B, and were greeted by the three resident chihuahuas--Honey, Onyx and Tinkerbell. The B&B is perfectly suited for birdwatchers (although we are not). Many different kinds of hummingbirds were buzzing about, including a Violet Sabrewing, with a slightly curved beak, a large, mostly purple body and a white-tipped tail. A birding group from Florida told us stories about all the specimens they had spotted over the last few days, including the famous quetzal. Apparently, a guide named Narino knows where the nests are located. Maybe tomorrow he can show us!

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Lock and Key

A 5:45 a.m. flight is bad enough, but then we had to deal with a bumpy ride all the way down to Houston. I thought the plane was going to break apart from all the turbulence. We rocked left and banked sharply to the right. The captain said we were the guinea pigs because so few flights had gone out before ours. UGGH.

The second half of our trip to Panama was more pleasant, until I got off the plane and found out my backpack didn´t make it with me, even though Chris's did. This is the second trip in a row in which luggage has been an issue. After that last mishap with Jennifer´s bag in Morocco, I decided to pack my basic necessities in my carry-on bag, including a change of underwear, my bathing suit and snorkel mask. What more could I need or want?

Unlike the baggage fiasco in Morocco, Continental promised to deliver the bag to me at the posada. In fact, as I write this, I´m waiting patiently for the bag to arrive. One misstep, though, and I´ll be out of luck until Monday afternoon. We fly to the town of David tomorrow morning.

The problems with our luggage didn´t deter us from seeing as much as we could today, while we are in Panama City. The city is huge, cosmopolitan. SUVs are everywhere, and so are the American retirees.

We took a taxi ($10 one way) 12 kilometers outside of the city to see the most famous engineering marvel of the 20th century--the Panama Canal. The Miraflores lock, a series of three water chambers that transfer gigantic barges from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean by lowering the water level (39 inches a minute).

From there, we went to Casco Viejo, the old part of town. We dined alfresco in the Plaza Bolivar at a restaurant called Ego. We shared tapas--carne al cilantro (beef kabobs) and a fig, camambert and proscuitto salad.

Across the square, a crowd was gathering at the Teatro Nacional, a 19th-century playhouse. A man told us that it was opening night of a dance performance sponsored by BMW. In front of the theater, a brand new red BMW was raised on a platform with spotlights shining on it.

And then fabulous people began to arrive in their SUVs and fancy black sedans. I looked down at the only clothes I may have in Panama (if my backpack doesn´t arrive) and decided we should head back to posada to wait, and rest.