Friday, February 21, 2014


[Kyle]Our day was planed as a pretty easy one; a long lingering lunch that was really an excuse to use the restaurant’s wifi and a visit to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute – well, the Punta Culebra part of it anyway.

From the STRI you can even see Begonia (along with all sorts of other cool things!)

The STRI occupies most of the land on Isla Naos, with the buildings and parking lot at La Playita carving space out on one edge. They focus on marine life, with tanks from the Pacific and Atlantic, and a beach area active with crabs, worms and birds. They also have a section of dry forest. Although small they do a pretty good job of explaining and recreating the various ecological zones in Panamá. We got to see the usual birds along with aquariums and touch tanks with rays, sea stars and even a moray eel.


The main attraction for us was a higher than normal density of hard to find animals like green iguanas and two and three-toed sloths. After all of that searching in Shelter Bay, we finally got a good look at these interesting creatures.

Yes, if you look closely, there IS a sloth in that tree

As we were leaving, I spotted a pair of them sleeping in the shade of a thick, leafy branch about 20 feet up. One of them suddenly stirred and started climbing. We figured he was looking for something to nibble on, but after a while, it seemed like his only motivation was a dogged determination to get to the next branch. As soon as he would reach his goal, he would spot the next branch over and start heading over there. For half an hour, we craned our necks upward to see him explore practically every part of the big tree. He would climb way out to the end of one bough and stretch as far as he could to reach the next one over. I swear I could see him wishing he could do a thirty-foot leap like a capuchin so he could get the whole tree explored in a minute.

This sloth really entertained us with what seemed like pointless climbing... YAY!

While we were there, Maryanne was able to follow up on some earlier emails and meet with the Director about volunteering for them while she is here {Maryanne: I’m very excited!}.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


[Kyle]Maryanne wanted to get the lay of the land while I was still here so we spent the next day learning the bus system and going to the Albrook Mall.

Albrook is THE main bus terminal in Panamá City and also the biggest shopping center I have ever seen, ever. The place is complete chaos.

Yep! Just one of the MANY food courts at the mall

We started by focusing on our needs. We topped up our sim card for our Panamá phone and found the gigantic grocery store. Mostly, we were there to see what sorts of things they had, so we didn’t buy much. We then went for about a three-mile walk while never going outside. There are so many stores that sell stuff nobody needs {and a few selling stuff that we wanted anyway!}. We walked by at least five different food courts. At one point, we even saw a little electric train to transport people from one side to the other.

It was overwhelming. By the time we left, I was completely malled out for the rest of the year. Poor Maryanne is going to have to dive into that mess to top up on perishables before we leave. I’m glad we did the super big shop in Colón. It would be a real nightmare trying to get three carts of groceries home on this side.

[Maryanne]This mall is so big (the biggest in Central America), and even has a Hotel for when you get totally lost and can't find your car to get home!

Casco Viejo

[Kyle]Still being the weekend, we decided to go see Casco Viejo (Spanish for the old Costco) {yes folks, kyle IS joking here...}, which is the medium old part of town, post 1671, after Captain Morgan sacked the even older part of town (Panama Viejo). The marina, which was normal on a weekday, was filled with people standing next to coolers and waiting in a wide line for the ferries to Taboga. Since Casco Viejo was only about three and a half miles from La Playita, we decided to walk the distance.

As soon as we got to the road on the causeway, we intercepted the route of a triathalon being held. One ultra fit person after another zinged by us as we walked. It reminded me of my marathon days and also made me feel tremendously out of shape. At the other end of the causeway, where the runners switched to bikes, we found a guy selling shaved ice for 75¢ ea. After shaving the ice off of a big block, he added the requested flavors and then dribbled on condensed milk. While that seemed strange to us, it was actually a very nice touch.

Panamania Shaved Ice drink has a few extra toppings (and calories) compared to the Italian Grattachecca I had in Rome

We walked with our ices to the Balboa Yacht Club. They have a nice restaurant/bar, but otherwise it didn’t seem appreciably nicer than La Playita, certainly not $140 per week nicer {although they do have showers and laundry which we are lacking!}.

A walk along the causeway and beyond held some interesting views - Kyle is particularly taken with the older buses in Panama - recycled USA school buses tricked out by the driver.

We walked along the waterfront towards Old Costco {yes, kyle IS still joking}. The neighborhood began to deteriorate considerably. We ended up skirting the edge of some abandoned buildings at the edge of the slums. We knew it wasn’t much further, but we were beginning to get nervous about our surroundings. We passed an intersection and about half a block later, some kid around thirteen started yelling at us, asking us where we were going. I turned and waved a hand in a gesture of, “No, thanks. Leave us alone”. He paused for a while and then started calling out to us again. I turned around and gave him the two-handed Italian, “C’mon, What’re you bugging us for?” I noticed then that he had a stick about the size of a baseball bat and he was following us. He kept yelling at us and we just ignored him. I stole a backward glance and noticed another kid with another stick behind the first. We were approaching a heavily populated construction site guarded by police with military weaponry. We knew we would beat the kids to the site as long as they didn’t break into a full run. We kept walking like we belonged there and were able to bid the police, “Buenas Dias” as the kids turned back.

Our street ended, requiring us to go one block in to keep on our course. At the next intersection, the neighborhood worsened. We could see an even worse high-density shantytown further on. We were starting to feel very conspicuous, like rabbits in a field of coyotes. Some of the people in front of the shantytown started walking our way.

“Oh, shit. We have to get out of here, now!” we tried not to look lost as we turned back.

We were still in sight of the police we had passed a block before. Maryanne spotted a vacant cab and flagged him down. For three dollars, he drove us the remaining ten blocks to the Panama Canal Museum, saving us a walk that looked like it was going to cost us a lot more.

When Kyle is ready to swing $cash for a cab, even I know it is time to get out of dodge..., this picutre omits the braying pack of kids

There are several Panamá Canal Museums in the Panamá City area. This one was supposedly the real official one. It was really well done and they clearly had a decent budget for the exhibits, but the museum focused on what had to be THE most boring aspect of the canal’s history – all of the paperwork involved in it’s years of operation. They had original copies of all of the pertinent treaties signed during its various administrations as well as original purchase orders and memos decreeing who was to be responsible for what section.

Conspicuously absent was any of the information we were actually interested in seeing, like how the canal was built or how any part of its infrastructure worked. I was hoping to fill my brain with impressive factoids about what an impressive piece of engineering it was, but instead, all I learned is that bureaucrats can take the fun out of anything.

The central plaza - Plaza De La Independencia and the Iglesia Cathedral - on the weekend the square was filled with stalls (and bicycles) selling tourist memorabilia

Having finished with that, we left the air conditioned museum and stepped into the steaming square adjacent. Casco Viejo is in the midst of a major renovation. The area is a juxtaposition of gorgeous 17th and 18th century architecture and crumbling ruins in a various states of decay between functioning buildings with just enough exposed brickwork to have an artsy feel and ruins with only part of the outside wall standing. It was all extremely charming and seemed to have just the right amount of each level of dereliction. Since the climate is very hot here, most of the buildings have big airy verandas, mostly of wrought iron, that make the place feel alternately like part New Orleans or part Charleston, depending on where we were. {Maryanne: I felt the place had a Cuban feel to it (especially in the areas most neglected), and as we'd turn a corner into a new plaza, we'd then decide it had an Italian feel to the place... Whatever the feel (which I guess is Panamanian), it was an amazing place to wander around it}

Scenes from our walk about... Casco Viejo is a real mix of derelict, ancient, modern, slum, chic, and beautifully renovated. It's a UNESCO world heritage site too

We had an aimless, zigzagging amble back and forth across the district, using our sense of, “Ooh, let’s go see what that is!” to guide our way. When we got hungry enough, we tried a couple of highly recommended inexpensive places in our Lonely Planet guide, but they were both closed. We resumed our wander, now fueled by the urgency of hunger. We passed by a Cuban bar that didn’t seem to sell food. We continued on, but both simultaneously decided it was too interesting to pass up. We needed to get off of our feet for a while, anyway.

A very fun stop at the Havana Club Bar!

I had an amazing mojito. Maryanne had a Cuban beer – Palma Christo. I felt so naughty having a sip. There was Cuban jazz playing and the only four other patrons were all wearing Panamá hats. It really felt like we had stepped into Cuba.

On our random route we also stumbled across the official residence of the President - the white house in Panama. Apparently he rarely resides there, but has great views across the water to the modern Panama City.

We continued on until we found a pizza place on Simón Bolivar Square run by real Italians. When our waiter learned we understood some Italian, he did a whole back and forth with us that was just beyond our level. In the process, he sold us a bottle of Sicilian wine to go with our meal. We had started by looking for one level above cheap street food, but ended up having a pretty pricy meal. The meal was pretty mediocre, although the staff was endearingly optimistic. What we really paid for was the setting on a beautiful afternoon in the perfect little square.

Pizza at Parque Bolivar

Before leaving we took a waterfront walk to peruse (and purchase) some native Panamanian items and spotted the old jails (gaols) now converted into art galleries and restaurants (and a wedding chapel!)

We took a cab back to the Balboa Yacht Club with the idea of having a couple of drinks with the sailors there. The crowd turned out to be a lot of tourists and the place felt like a Chili’s on a busy night (we keep forgetting it's the weekend!). We skipped it and walked back to La Playita along the causeway.

The walk home reminded us of Italy or Greece. Everybody seemed to be out on an evening stroll with their families. Everybody was smiling and enjoying themselves. Parents were teaching their little kids how to ride bikes, lovers were cuddled up on benches or at the bases of trees watching the sunset, groups of friends on rented pedal cars were trying not to crash their way down the path.

We made it home just as the last of the light bled out of the sky. We tried to stay up longer, but we had walked too far and had too much sun. We found ourselves quickly nodding off, so we called it an early night.

[Maryanne]Please don't worry, we've since established the bus routes so that we don't have to walk through any uncomfortable neighbourhoods for any future visits!

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

[Kyle]Owing to the exertion of the previous day, we planned to do not much apart from some high quality loafing. The one thing that I did want to do was install our new LifeTag system – an electronic man overboard device. I figured it would be pretty easy: read the directions carefully, drill a few holes, and splice a few wires – done.

In truth, the job wasn’t all that bad. Our main trouble came when we installed the optional switch to give us the option of not having it on all of the time the instruments are powered. The system consists of two transmitter/receiver types: one type for the boat and one type worn by one or each of us. If the boat loses the personal signal, it screams like crazy. If the personal transmitter/receiver loses the boat for more than ten seconds, it stops transmitting to save the battery. In this way, shutting off the boat’s system will save the batteries on the portable units. Thus, we can use them when they are truly needed, such as when the weather is really bad or there is only one of us on watch.

I decided that instead of a flip switch, which I thought would stick out too far and be easy to catch on, I would install a nice, low profile rocker switch. It was a good idea, except that instead of a medium-sized hole, we would need a small rectangular cutout through the intervening bulkhead. The hole was too small for a hacksaw blade, so I ended up drilling a lot of holes and then using the dremel to connect the dots. Then I filed away the edges of the cutout to make the edges smooth.

The whole switch operation turned out to require more time and energy than installing the rest of the system. That was okay. These things happen. Our real problem was that the boat and I were covered in a heavy layer of fiberglass dust. We took care of the boat with a brush and dustpan. Even though it was dark by then, I jumped in for a swim, soaped up, and then jumped in again.

Poor Kyle working while he should have been enjoying his anticipated day off!

Somehow, my nice, lazy day ended up finishing late with me in desperate need of a bath. Even afterwards, I spent the night covered in the itchy, scratchy stuff that I couldn’t get off.

[Maryanne]My contribution to the day was much less... I read a book, and occasionally poked my head in at the work Kyle was doing and offered helpful comments such as "shouldn't that wire go here, and not there?". The Lifetag system was a Christmas present to ourselves (kind-of), and will set of really loud alarms if either of us fall overboard, and also marks the 'lost person' position on our chart plotter so we can turn the boat around and go back easily. We have some long passages planned this year, and I will sleep better knowing that I won't be waking up to an empty boat any time soon, and if I do, it will be really soon after he tried to jump ship without me, and I can haul his ass back into the boat!

[Kyle]About an hour after sunrise on Saturday, the first party boat showed up at Taboga. We could hear them approach from about a mile away. Their sound system was already blasting terrible dance club music. Fine. It’s Saturday. We weren’t sleeping. For some reason, if I imagined it was coming from a beach bar instead of six jerks who had unilaterally decided that the island was going to listen their stuff, it seemed less inconsiderate, so I just did that for a while.

Another boat showed up with their speakers blasting different music. Not a different kind, it may have been the first guy’s stuff on a five-minute delay. Now we had this war of the sound systems as each boat tried to drown out the other’s music. Five more boats showed up with five more soundtracks. We couldn’t hear each other talk, but we also couldn’t enjoy the music since seven different songs all played at once is only slightly less chaotic than a construction site. We weren’t close enough to any one set of speakers to drown out the rest. In the direction of Panamá City, we could see half a dozen more on their way. Taboga, which was such a nice place during the week, seemed to be going for a lower class Cancun vibe on the weekends. We decided we needed to get the hell out of there.

After a short sail, we were out of the chaos and back in our old spot. La Playita seemed so much calmer, even with all of the ferry and launch wakes plowing through the anchorage. Sunset was much more pleasant there amongst all of the other cruising boats.

Because it’s There...

[Kyle]Actually, that is not technically my reason for climbing a hill. My reason is to see what it looks like from up there.

With only the vaguest rumor that there was a path somewhere that led to the top of at least one of the several peaks on Taboga, we struck out to find it and see for ourselves.

Taboga is swamped by the residents of Panama City at the weekends, but we were hoping for a little more peace during the week - climbing a hill meant we had the place to our selves, I suspect ANY day!

Of course, by the time the expedition was all loaded with water and provisions and loaded into the dinghy for the trip ashore, the sun was getting pretty high in the sky. As soon as we left the beach and stepped into the windbreak of the island’s tiny roads, sheltered by buildings and trees on either side, the airless heat became instantly oppressive. The town was very pretty, though so we didn’t mind having a look around too much. The Catholic Church on the island is supposed to be the second oldest in the New World, dating from 1542, but we were unable to go inside and have a look.

After a couple of false leads, we finally found a map of the island in the unoccupied lobby of one of the island’s hotels. It directed us out of town onto a road with no shade that gradually started climbing along a line of telephone poles that were headed toward the summit. The effort of lifting our weight up the hill in the tropical sun quickly turned a nice stroll on a warm day into an almost unbearable, sweaty slog. Every time we rounded a corner and saw more unrelenting hill waiting for us, we would groan, put our heads down and keep climbing. Every time we had a chance to walk through ten feet of shade or a breeze would make it down to us, it would briefly feel as if we were a hundred pounds lighter.

Oh yes, the top, we were there for the views I recall...

When we finally made it to the viewpoint at the top, we were staggering like shipwreck victims in the movies. The viewpoint was part WWII lookout post, part abandoned radio tower foundation. We could see Begonia and all of the other boats anchored below. Even the big ships looked like bathtub toys. We could see the anchorage at a Playita with The skyline of Panamá City behind. In the distance were the mountains of the Continental Divide, separating East from West.

Closer examination revealed that we were about ten feet below the highest point on the island, which lay a short walk away at the adjacent VOR station (a type of aviation navigation aid). We made our way over there and found 360° views of the Gulf Of Panamá. We interrupted a group of about fifty vultures that must have been waiting for two exhausted sailors to show up.

We disturbed an awful lot of these fellas as we approached the VOR

So that’s what it looks like from up here. With no more up left, we started heading back down. What a different character down has vs. up. We were suddenly back to having a pleasant stroll, albeit a warm one. Maryanne found a trail that looked a little more worn than a lot of the Leaf Cutter ant highways we had seen earlier. We followed it and descended into a pleasant, shady jungle. Vines draped off all of the trees and all of the tropical plants we pay a fortune for in the U.S. were just growing everywhere. Philodendrons carpeted the jungle floor.

In short order, we found ourselves on the town’s narrow roads surrounded by dogs and chickens. We found a restaurant on the beach where we were able to stuff ourselves complete with two ice-cold beers each for $15.

A jungle trail led us back down to the water - and more Catholic shrines

The very minute we got back to Begonia, I was in for a refreshing swim that almost instantly removed all of the excess heat I had been carrying around all day. Time for a siesta, some food from the resident chef and sundowners with the pelicans.