Panama City, Panama
We were looking forward to our flight. Santa Marta to Bogota in Colombia and onwards to Panama City would kick off the Central American leg of the journey. But we had no idea of the difficulties that lay ahead. We arrived at the small local airport in Santa Marta early morning, getting a little anxious before the flight due to a late cab from the hostel. Arriving at the outside Avianca check-in counter we handed over the booking reference our Taca travel agents in Ecuador had organised some six weeks before. She viewed the piece of paper before looking at us and asking in Spanish where our onward tickets were from Panama. Hmmm onward tickets, what did we need these for? In broken Spanish we explained that we were traveling overland through Central America and were crossing by bus from Panama to Costa Rica. She shook her head and told us that we couldn’t board our flight until we had onward tickets out of the country. We looked at each other with flushed faces knowing too well that we had to get on that flight in order to meet Belinda as planed. The only solution was to purchase tickets out of the country with Avianca, so being ushered over to the sales desk, another Avianca rep organised another two tickets for us out of the country and onwards to Costa Rica, the price, an additional $1000…apparently they were refundable. Feeling nervous and out of time due to the muck around, we ran up the outside staircase, into the crummy terminal and boarded the flight to Bogota an hour later.
Landing back in Bogota, the air was a little chillier and less humid then the Caribbean coast we had grown familiar with over the previous weeks so we quickly un-boarded the plane and ran across the platform in order to take the airport bus from terminal 1 to international terminal 2. The bus seemed to take forever but on arriving in terminal 2 we moved through the airport quickly to check in to the connecting flight. Again we lined up at the Avianca desk but this time we were told that we were too late for our flight! It couldn’t be, this was a connecting flight which I communicated by yelled ‘conneccion, conneccion’ and pointed to our tickets. Realising this, the staff told us to move quickly as our flight was bordering and we hadn’t even cleared customs. Running through the airport, once again the stress levels rose significantly as we pummeled a few slow Colombians on route. A quick look at our tickets and passports, immigration stamped us out of the country and we bolted to the gate. On arriving at the gate we were greeted by a few hundred Colombians that looked bored The plane was delayed an extra hour. Finally boarding the plane we were right to go, but seemed to stagnate on the runway for yet another hour before take off. It was sunset as we started to move over the tarmac and onto the runway realising that all that rushing was not required.
Looking out the window the sun had now set and I could see lightening and storm clouds in the distance and in the direction we were heading. Looking down I could see the lights of Panama shining through the clouds, but funny enough I seemed to see them over and over again. We were circling, not a good sign. After yet another hour of this we were now three hours delayed when the captain piped up over the loud speaker and all I could interoperate was the word “Cartegena” over and over again. We were headed back to Colombia, two hours along the coast from where we first took off some ten hours before that morning. Pulling an air host aside we politely asked what was happening and he explained in English that due to a strong storm in Panama we had circled for so long that we didn’t have enough fuel to land so, in turn had to turn back to Cartegena, refuel and start the leg again. Again we sat back in Colombian territory on the Cartegenean tarmac watching the fuel truck give us some more juice. Apparently it was no problem to refuel the plane filled with a few hundred passengers while some of those decided it would be a good time to call relatives on their iPhones just to let them know they would be late for dinner. Somehow I thought that Australian aeronautic regulations would not permit this type of behavior basically sitting in a metal bomb just awaiting that tiny spark. We took off for the third time that day and crossed the notorious Darien Gap filled with dense jungle, FARC rebels and a load of cocaine and an 1.5hrs later, we touched down in Panama City. A sigh of relief, again we moved through customs quickly, picked up our packs and flagged down a cab for the $25 fare into town and the suburb of Marabella, the upper class area and safest of Panama City where Villa Vento Surf Hostel was awaiting.
As we cruised the outskirts of the city along a well maintained highway, it was evident that Panama City was different to those in South America. It housed modern white skyscrapers of offices and residential condos, gardens were perfectly manicured and there was a bunch of westernised advertising lighting up the billboards. It looked more like a city in Asia then anywhere else and it was clear that the Panama canal and big time American investment had helped this country along. We pulled up outside our hostel which included a nice backyard pool that no one ever seemed to swim in. Jumping on the internet first thing, I sent a message telling Belinda of the issues around clearing Panama immigration and expecting her to have the same problems in LA. And after a day that did not go at all to plan we were too tired for dinner so crashed in the mixed dorm with a bunch of smelly guys and the air-conditioning turned up to the max. It was 26c outside as I shivered in my sleeping bag inside.
The next morning we awoke and organised a taxi to take us back out to the airport to collect Belinda who was flying in from Miami. Awaiting for the cab it was getting late and again as we started to feel a little anxious, the hostel owner came over and told us that “unfortunately the taxi wasn’t coming because the Hilton hotel around the corner block was on fire and burning to the ground.” Are you kidding me? So the alternative was to take the Chicken Bus, local bus, back to the airport which would get us there hours after Belinda had landed. Our bad luck continued. We ran out of the hostel, across a few blocks, under a highway and up over the other side to flag down a cab traveling out of town and to the airport. Sharing with another lady, we complained about the horrendous traffic while the driver floored it. Feeling the same stress levels of the day before, we pulled up at the international arrival lounge ten minutes late and traced around trying to find Belinda, still believing that she had probably not made it onto the flight out of LA. Turning around, there she was, calm and collected and experiencing a comfortable flight over with luxurious accommodation on the way. Apparently American Airlines had no problem with passengers not having an onward ticket, and neither did Panamanian immigration as we we were never asked to show our $1000 tickets out of the country. Was this just a revenue raiser for the airline? Putting it all behind us, we had made it and arrived together in the new city so headed back to the hostel after passing a shocking accident on the highway, a tropical storm and the smoking Hilton. It was time for a round or two of cervezas.
The following morning we awoke to cook our own pancakes and decided that a day in the old town was a good place to start. Casco Viejo, was the beautiful old historic district of Panama City built in 1673 it had stood up to many attacks by pirates over the years now to be listed as a World Heritage site. We walked the old cobbled streets, admiring the pastel colours and passing a lot of reconstruction along the way. Apparently the city was similar to downtown Havana so we decided it was fitting to purchase a Panama hat from the street vendors to look all the part…the tourist part. The old town was a world away from the modern high-rises of the new town and the panoramic views were fantastic.
ip was complete to Panama without a visit to the Panama Canal so after another night in the all girls dorm of the hostel we took a taxi out to view the engineering wonder of the world. Rocking up at the entry we joined the queue of tourists before purchasing the ticket to the viewing deck and museum to hopefully learn something. And that we did. The current canal is 77 kilometers in length and connects the Atlantic Ocean (via the Caribbean Sea) to the Pacific Ocean. The canal cuts across the Isthmus of Panama and is a key conduit for international maritime trade. There are locks at each end to lift ships up to Lake Gatun above sea-level which was used to reduce the amount of work required for a sea-level connection. So after watching a 3D movie and traversing the museum we checked out the locks and a passing container ship. An engineering feat it was.
We had heard of the San Blas islands only through those that sailed from Colombia on the 2-3 day cruise and some incredible, picture perfect photos on Facebook that tamed them a true paradise. We knew that the islands wouldn’t disappoint but the accommodation was traditional Kuna style which consisted of bamboo huts, a shower if you were lucky and a dirty toilet. But we couldn’t leave without getting a taste of these islands so decided to grin and bare the facilities, or lack of and be truly one with nature. Really, how bad could it be?