There is Beauty in the World…

To wrap up our final post on our 3-week trip to Panama, we thought we’d end with a little slideshow highlighting some of our favorite moments. A couple of weeks ago, I watched the season finale of Ugly Betty, which I love, and the song that capped off the show and the series was Macy Gray’s new single. I’ve been listening to it non-stop since the show and it seemed the perfect soundtrack to our trip.

Enjoy! Click to see our first, second or most recent posts on Panama. And, as always, thank you for your love and support! If you like what you see here on our blog, we hope you leave us some love. Your comments always bring such joy to our hearts.  Peace! Chris & Andy xo

San Blas & Bocas del Toro

After exploring Panama’s cities and mountains, Andy & I were ready for some beach time. The guide books talked about Bocas del Toro, a group of six densely forested islands, as being Panama’s principal tourist draw card. This made us a little trepidatious about going there, since we prefer to visit less visited places. But, we ventured to Bocas anyway.

There are some gorgeous places to stay on the less inhabited of the six islands, but we were saving our splurge for San Blas, so we stayed on the main island, Isla Colon, where accommodations were more reasonable, but still overpriced for what they offered.

And, while Bocas wasn’t really our scene, we had a couple of fabulously languorous beach days both on Colon and on the smaller, less inhabited Isla Bastimento, a five minute boat ride away. This next photo was taken at Red Frog Beach, on Bastimento, which has one of the nicer beaches in the archipelago. The beach had tons of tourists later in the day…we got there early to soak in the natural beauty…

We visited Playa Estrellas, Starfish Beach, on our second day in Bocas. It wasn’t a particularly fabulous beach. It was good for children, since it was shallow and very calm, with tons of starfish everywhere. But, there wasn’t much of a shore line for parking your butt. It didn’t really make sense to spend too much time at this beach as there wasn’t much to do or see, so visitors came and left relatively quickly. The woman in the photo had biked all the way from town, which took her 4 hours over muddy, unpaved roads. I’d guess she was in her 60s…a total rockstar in my book!

We made the most of our time at Starfish beach, then walked back about a mile to where the bus dropped us off to do some more chillin’. There by a beach-side restaurant, we spent the rest of the day, playing cards and swinging in hammocks till the last bus of the day came to pick us up. In this next photo a bunch of sea birds sun themselves on pilings just off shore. We tried taking the photo from shore, but it was a much better perspective wading in up to our waist. We’ll do anything for a good photo.

Our visit to Panama ended with 4 heavenly days in San Blas, an archipelago of some 365 islands off the north coast of the Isthmus, east of the Panama Canal. Home to the Kuna Indians, the islands, some of which are no bigger than 30 feet in diameter, are part of the comarca Kuna Yala, along the Caribbean coast of Panama. Most of the Kuna island dwellers live on just a few of the islands, though several, like Isla Pelicano seen below, have one house made from bamboo and palms, that is inhabited by a single Kuna family. Like many visitors to San Blas, we flew from Panama City to the Kuna Yala captial of El Porvenir on the mainland, then took a short boat ride to the island of Whichub Wala, the most densely populated of the islands. Home to some 400 Kuna, you can easily walk from one end of the island to the other in less than three minutes. The Kuna rely heavily on tourism, fishing and the exportation of coconuts, lobsters and plantains to survive. Being so densely populated and having plumbing only in the hotels for tourists (although the piping goes directly into the ocean), the water around the island is too polluted for visitors to swim. So, our hotel guide, Orlando, took us and other hotel guests on daily boat trips to visit some of the less or not at all inhabited islands in the Kuna Yala. Isla Pelicano was our favorite island (seen below) so we spent a couple of days here, chillin’ under palm trees, snorkeling, reading and just enjoying the incredible views and the crazy aqua-colored water.

Below a Kuna woman looks out her window. Most of the houses not directly over the water were made entirely out of bamboo and palm. But, the hotels and those houses that were over the water, like the one below, used wooden frames and corrugated steel for the roof.

San Blas is an absolutely stunning region of the world, with pristine uninhabited islands and water like none we’ve seen before. But, with a growing reliance on tourism, there are new problems, namely with waste disposal. It was hard to see discarded plastic, aluminum beer cans, and other waste used as a sort of erosion control on the perimeter of the more inhabited islands, especially for a people who, at least from what we could understand, have a faith/culture that seem to feel a real connection with Mother Earth.

The few hotels on the island of Wichub Wala did have toilets that flushed, but they flushed right out into the ocean and locals use these outhouses, which were nothing more than a hole in the floor surrounded by four walls.

Fishing is a big activity for the men. And, many of the boats they use are made from hollowed out trees. The boats are simultaneously beautiful and perfectly functional.

The Kuna used to wear few clothes and decorated their bodies with colorful designs. When encouraged to wear clothing by missionaries who visited the islands, they followed their body painting designs in their Molas, which are worn by traditional women in their clothing and are a big item to sell to tourists. The good ones, like these below, are hand made and feature more traditional designs. They’re gorgeous and incredibly intricate.

In addition to wearing molas sewn into their tops, the more traditional Kuna women, like this woman below,  also wear rows of beads tied together in patterns on their legs. The bright colors are beautiful and pop against the blue background that constantly surrounds the islands. Below a Kuna woman and her granddaughter watch, with a puppy at their feet, as a boat of young men cast their nets for fish. I love this photo, even with the contrast of the expensive catamaran anchored in the background. The islands, with their natural beauty and the protection they provide from the open ocean, attract hundreds of boaters who drop anchor for weeks, months and sometimes years.

The contrast of old and new in the Kuna Yala is at once arresting and beautiful. Below western clothes hang on a clothesline as the evening sun warms the bamboo house.

This was the smallest island we saw, big enough for just one house. The truly amazing thing about this scene is the woman, who is the cousin of our guide, Orlando, came out of her palm and corrugated steel house carrying a purse and wearing modern clothes. Orlando picked her up to take her to the mainland, about a 45 minute boat ride away, to do some shopping. Can you imagine living here?

The Kuna Yala was exactly the break from modern day reality we needed and the perfect ending to a fabulous vacation. We absolutely loved Panama and will be posting a slideshow highlighting more picture perfect moments from our super fun trip tomorrow. Stay tuned! Chris & Andy xo

More Panama…

To follow up where we left off with our vacation recap yesterday, here is the route we followed during our 23 days in Panama:

After the first two days in Panama City, we took a quick 12-seater flight to the country’s second largest city, David, where we spent the next two days & nights doing a lot of sweating, walking, drinking bottled water, and more sweating. We spent one afternoon wading near a waterfall and met this super sweet girl, who told us she was an Olympic swimmer for Panama and won the silver metal at the last Olympic games…or at least that’s what we think she told us…our Spanish is not brilliant.

Days 5 thru 10 – We started Day 5 by boarding an old yellow school bus for a trip to the mountain village of Boquete, near Volcan Baru. We loved it here and stayed for 6 nights, exploring nearby villages on foot and via scooter. We tried our hands at rock climbing, hiked in the lush mountain forest in search of the illusive Quetzal, sipped coffee at a coffee plantation, and swam in a rock-lined river.

Day 11 thru 13 – We had to take the bus back to David to catch another bus north to the Caribbean town of Bocas del Toro, where we spent 3 nights checking out some of the local beaches. We snorkled, swung in hammocks, saw the native red frogs and even a lounging sloth.

Day 14 thru 16 – Day 14 began with a flight back to Panama City and a 4-hour bus to the sleepy mountain town of El Valle, where we spent three days playing a lot of cards, soaking in mud baths and hiking along waterfalls. We also met a very interesting herbalist, Frank Gruber, creator of the rather infamous Gruber’s Jungle Oil. Created from a blend of herbs he found in the El Valle forest, his jungle oil is meant to repel all kinds of biting insects and even eliminate the sting if you did get bit. It could also be used as a sunscreen, although I didn’t quite understand how that worked, given that it was primarily made from oil. Frank also said it could cure several types of skin cancer and reduce the poison of a viper bite. And amazingly it could also cure acne and be used as a deodorant. Frank generously gave us a bottle, which we haven’t really put to the test yet. But, it was so cool talking to Frank. He was such an interesting person with some fabulous life experiences to share. We could have talked with him for days.

Day 17 – We took an afternoon bus back to Panama City, where we stayed the night before flying to the remote and native Kuna Yala-owned islands of San Blas.

Days 18 thru 21- Sunrise flight to the islands of San Blas, where we spent four heavenly nights on the 400-person island of Wichub Wala. Every day we took a boat ride to explore one of the San Blas’ 365+ islands. We only visited a handful, but it was blissful. We’d park our butts under a palm tree and just wile away the day with some swimming & snorkeling, reading, cards, and a whole lot of nothing.

Day 22 – Flight back to Panama City for a little souvenir shopping, a dip in the hotel’s roof deck pool and another belly filling meal of meat, rice and beans before heading home on Day 23.

Here’s a map outlining our route:

David was still a city, though not nearly as big as Panama City, so mostly we just walked around and ate. Boquete was one of our favorite places. The climate is much cooler because of it’s mountainous location and there was more to see and do there, even if that meant just sitting in the plaza people watching, as this young boy in the next photo is doing….two seconds later he was texting on his cell phone. Crazy, right?

Coffee is a big industry in Panama and Boquete is one of the largest producers. This next photo was of what we thought was a coffee processing plant. Looks like they dry roast in the sun…

I ended up with a pretty uncomfortable stomach bug and was in some serious need of relief, so we popped in the Clinica Valle Boquete. As awful as I felt, it ended up being a really cool experience. It cost me $5 to see the doctor and get a prescription of antibiotics. The doctor didn’t speak English, but he was wonderfully patient with me and spoke very slowly, enunciating really clearly. I actually felt like I could speak Spanish. As strange as it sounds, my visit to the clinic was a highlight. Plus, it’s always good to see how other people live in a very day-to-day way and while our health care system is no doubt in need of some serious reform, we are blessed to live in a country with state of the art medical facilities. It’s always good to be reminded of that. We took this next shot for a giggle the day after I started feeling better….

Andy spent an afternoon in a rock climbing lesson one day. I still wasn’t 100%, so I didn’t take a lesson. But, our instructor, Cesar, was super passionate about the sport and encouraged me to give it a go. So, in shoes way too big for me, I scurried right up the climb just to the left of where Andy is in this next photo. That was the beginner’s route and the first one Andy did too. The one Andy is on in the photo below is his third trip up. It was a more intermediate climb. We both really enjoyed our time on the rock and are really excited about trying it again.

Just passing time….

Willy the toucan, resident at Pension Topas, where we stayed in Boquete. Every morning began with “Hola, Willy,” as we walked past his cage. It’s just amazing all the beauty that is in nature. His colors were spectacular.

These little munchkins were the children of a guest at the pension and the dog belonged to the pension owners. Kind of a fun perspective…

One afternoon we hiked up into the hills of the town, where many of the native people live. Boquete is beautiful, but the disparity between the haves and the have nots is upsetting. There are many US transplants living in Boquete, in what would be million dollar homes in the states, while the people of the Ngobe Bugle tribe live in ramshackle houses on the perimeter of the coffee plantations. They wash in the river and get paid very little for the back-breaking work of picking coffee, not to mention their exposure to pesticides working in the fields. They don’t own cars and have to walk great distances to get into town to buy food and supplies. Some speak Spanish, but they also have their own native language. We wished we could have spent some time with a family. Here a family crosses the man-made river bridge to make the long trek down the hills into town.

A little boy plays outside his house.

These little girls saw us walking up the hill and were excited to make contact. This shot pulls at my heartstrings. With laundry drying on the barbed wire fence and the girls in their traditional native dress grabbing on the fence with their little fingers, they are still filled with the happy innocence that is childhood.

The girls and two boys we assumed were their brothers ran out to the street to see us. They saw our cameras and wanted a photo, so we grabbed a couple. I loved the first one we took, where they all looked so serious. Andy grabbed the second photo, which I LOVE, where I’m showing the kids what they look like in the photos. I tried asking their parents, who were outside doing chores, if they had an address so we could send them copies of the photos. But, I don’t think they understood us, and honestly, I doubt they had a mailing address. We tried finding a place to print photos in town, but couldn’t find anywhere. Such a bummer.

This young woman washes her clothes in the river.

High in the hills of Boquete, near the start of Los Quetzales trail, the temperature dropped and we were nearly in the clouds, with a rain-like mist that gave such a lushness to the surroundings. It was beautiful!

Later in the trip, we visited Los Pozos Termales, or thermal pools, on the edge of town in El Valle. Our $1 admission let us cover our faces in therapeutic mud, then soak in mineral baths before rinsing off in the outdoor shower. With sunburns from our stay on the beaches of Bocas del Toro, the mud and minerals felt great.

Tomorrow we’ll be posting photos from our stay on the islands of San Blas and the beaches of Bocas del Toro. Stay tuned. Chris & Andy xo