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Panama City to the San Blas islands

canals, hats and Caribbean islands

We are fed a good sandwich on the plane and are soon landing in Panama City. A huge queue at Immigration slows us down and nobody asks to see our onward flight information. We decide against the taxi and armed with instructions on how to get to our hostel, Panama by Luis, we are directed to the bus stop. As we cross the road a plane comes into land some 20m above our heads! We must change bus twice, but actually it takes us 3 buses and much asking of locals for help to get to the area called San Francisco, plus you cannot pay with cash on the bus, and so we must ask other passengers to swipe us through the backpack unfriendly turn-style by the driver and we give them the 25 cents it costs per fare in cash. The buses become jam packed and the traffic is abominable as building works goes on everywhere. The skies are cloudy and it is a humid 34 degrees c. We make it in about 2 hours and after check in with the friendly and helpful staff into our windowless room we open a cold beer and do our laundry.
The AC in the room is savage and in the morning C is wrapped in the sheets like an Egyptian Mummy. We have breakfast of coffee and pancakes and plan our trip to the islands known as San Blas. These are in the Caribbean and some 2-3 hours from Panama city. The afternoon we spend in Casco Viejo, the pretty, old city of Panama. We buy a bus pass and take the bus through the high-rise down-town of banks and insurance companies and telecoms, passed the modern waterfront where fancy blocks of flats give waterside views, and sit in traffic in the packed bus beside large malls and concrete flyovers. We alight an hour or so later at the fish Market and the smell hits us from across the road! A busy Market on the ground floor and upstairs is a restaurant with some of the best ceviche (marinated raw fish/seafood) in town, spicy too! After eating we walk to the old town and go into the hulking hostel called Luna's Castle. Here we get information on trips to the San Blas islands and they are cheaper than from Luis. The hostel has a huge downstairs cinema, so we think we could come and stay here the night before the trip departs. We walk the pretty well maintained streets and plazas and pass the shell of a building that once belonged to General Noriega, which was destroyed during the US invasion. Walking one street out of this tourist area and we are confronted with dirty streets of rubbish and homeless people sleeping on streets.
Next day we ask for a better deal with Luis for the tour to San Blas which he will investigate for us. We first take a cab to the Canon repair centre to see what is what with the broken G10 camera. The lens needs to be replaced, which will cost over half what the camera originally cost and takes at least 2 weeks to repair. So we still have a broken G10. Then we bus to Albrook Terminal and taxi to the Miraflores Escluses, which are a set of locks on the Pacific end of the Panama Canal. We look at the interesting museum before watching 2 boats slowly make their way through. It is a slow operation taking over an hour but it is thrilling when you know the overall picture. The whole canal takes 8-10 hours and costs the boat 300-400k. New larger locks are due to open in 2014, on the centenary of the opening of the canal. It takes us over 2 hours to get back by bus in the thick traffic. Luis has not been able to get as good a deal so we say no thanks. So in the morning we checkout and squeeze onto a bus with our packs and an hour later check-in at Luna's Castle. They only have an aircon dorm next to the bar and so we opt for the fanned dorm upstairs. The cinema projector is kaput! Nooooo! So we blog and ready ourselves for the early 5:30am departure to Isla Diablo as a massive storm beats down outside. We play table tennis and C shows her demon grit and storms to a 5-2 lead over E. To be continued!
The room is warm despite the enormous thundering fans that rove back and forth chilling you for 8 seconds as it waves in your direction, but at least the hum blocks out the sound of the bar.
We are in 4wd Jeeps by 6am and at the booking office of LAM tours soon after. We pay our various fees and get supplies from the supermarket, namely water, a large bottle of gin, a 6 pack of tonics and limes, which costs much more on the islands. The drive to the port takes 2 hours and we travel up and down some very steep road sections, through cloud and rain before descending. Broken cloud and mist drift eerily over the green forests and we can see the nearest islands in the San Blas group. At the port we pay another 2$ tax and receive a yellow poker chip that must be returned on our return. We unload our packs in the light rain and a barrel of a man in tight surf top and shorts with long hair and wispy goatee speaking excellent English directs us to our boat with a big smile and joke. He is Aaron and he is part of the Kuna tribe that inhabits the islands and of the family that run the setup on Diablo island. We are with a Swiss couple, Luka and Esther, and a Venezuelan family. We drop a German lad off at a big old German boat, some 110 years old that sails to and from Cartagena in Colombia with tourists. The fibreglass boat slams into the waves as we take 45 mins to reach Diablo in the overcast and windy weather. We arrive on the desert island, E's first Caribbean island, and we are shown to our tent for 25$ per person per night including all meals. This is by far the cheapest option and the only way we can afford to stay here on our daily budget. The tent option is not well advertised and C's planning and investigating pays off. It is soon lunch and a plate of shrimp and coconut rice goes down a treat. Chef is a transvestite and member of the local family, and like Aaron, quite a character. It is Sunday and there are many boat trips visiting here and nearby Isla del Perro, which has a small shallow wreck. Chef has to serve 53 covers for lunch, and not surprisingly is later drunk. We snorkel and sunbake before G n' Ts at sunset (the tonic is stored in the fridge for 3$). Dinner is delicious fish and later as we chat at the table the chef dances and cartwheels to the sounds of a small radio playing.
In the morning we swim over to Isla del Perro and inspect the wreck. The sand bank drops away steeply into a dark blue abyss and we must keep an eye out for passing boats. The wreck is 60 years old and covered in coral and colourful fish. The bow of the boat sticks put of the water. Later we go on a boat trip to a sunken island covered in large orange starfish. We also see a big puffer fish and a lion fish, a particularly splendid and poisonous fish. We are treated to Lobster for dinner!
The weather improves over the next couple of days and we visit the wreck again and the visibility is excellent. We see a huge sea cucumber as big as E's arm, and a school of small squid. The afternoon trip is to a canyon in the reef and Aaron and his team lead us to a rocky overhang. They dive down and there is then an excited shout of 'shark!' there are 3 reef sharks in the shadows! The guys use a length of palm branch to stoke the nest and suddenly a 3.5m reef shark bursts out in front of us before turning quickly and disappearing along the canyon. Wow. We are all a bit stunned as we return to the boat. We stop at another island for a cold beer and relive the moment. Back at Diablo we say farewell to Luka and Esther who return to Panama City. Fisherman come to try and sell a huge 5lb lobster that costs 25$. We decline the offer. Later we have a bonfire on the beach that is over pretty quickly as the dried palm leaves burn so rapidly. E helps with Light Graffiti long exposure photographs with an English couple. We decide to stay an extra day here as there is a tour to a remote island called Cayos Holandeses, 45 mins away. We pass between tiny islands of sand and palm trees in shallow turquoise waters that have so many colours where the outlines of large sting and manta rays can be seen. We drop into the water for a closer inspection and these 1.5m diameter rays fly across the seabed rippling their edges and propelling themselves along. E is just a meter away as it moves passed in the knee deep shallows. We also see a cayman in the shadows of the roots of a tree and snorkel over shallow coral gardens. The water is as warm as a jacuzzi at times. We see more rays on the sea bottom sands while snorkelling round the island. We stop for lunch on the island and several yachts are moored nearby. A superb outing again. Back at Diablo the place is filling up. We chat with Mariona from Barcelona about our future plans and she gives us good advice. We share a green coconut with added rum, perfecto!
We move next day to Isla Iguana and so say a big farewell to everyone. Our new home is quieter and less charismatic, and more expensive as the booked tent does not materialise, but there is good snorkelling off the beach, and in the evening the mini-geckos are not shy and wander by on the table over our books and beers!
We return to Panama City next morning and to the traffic and stormy rains!

Panama by Luis hostel
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E trims the holy beard
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At the Fish Market in Panama City
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Ceviche for lunch upstairs
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Modern Skyline
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Casco Viejo (Old Town)
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Basil icecream yumm
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At the Theatre
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At Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal
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See the drama unfold before your very eyes..
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Diablo Island in the San Blas island chain
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C's bar... mixing G n' Ts
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Our Tent
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C mixing G n' Ts, una vez mas
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Dinner is a Lobster
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Diablo Island in all its glory
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The other bar
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Nearby islands
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Isla del Perro
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View from Diablo over to Perro
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On the way to Isla de las Estrellas del Mar (island of the star fish)
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Behold under water the sunken starfish island
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Drinks on the way back
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Dinner on Diablo
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Sunset and Bonfires
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Trip to Cayos Holandeses and Isla de Tortuga
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Back on Diablo for coconut cocktails
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C models Kuna anklet
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Isla Iguana
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Our hut
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C models an apple
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E models snorkels
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Posted by bumble_bee 16:39 Archived in Panama

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