After three days in Coiba we came back a little bit crusty, bug bitten (in my case), and very pleased with the whole adventure. Back at the dive shop we fulfilled the age old ritual of drinking a few beers and stamping log books, our DM Cory (from Calgary) spent some time with us generally chatting, which was very nice. A tropical downpour started unannounced and a white horse galloped by. The image was a little surreal. Then a white truck from our hotel that night showed up, also unannounced, so we did not have to walk in the rain. Now that is service. We passed however, since, you know, beers and divers. Then we ate pizza at the topless mermaid place and it was very good. We spoke with our new dive buddy Bonne who was also eating there (granted the amount of places to eat in Santa Catalina pretty much insures you will run into people you have already met) and we met an Australian surfer dude pretty much traveling around the world surfing and working odd jobs here and there. That guy was on to something. We meet quite a few of those travelers that seem to be on an extended walkabout, Europeans and Australians, not a bad way to spend your days, not at all, my North American mind wonders at the financials of it though. My repressed surfer self is more like meh, they’ll figure something out. It seems a very different world to me than when I backpacked across Europe in the late 80’s… When most of the people we have met so far would not be born for almost a decade…
Luis, the aforementioned congenial owner of the Sol y Mar hotel drops us off the next morning in his white pick up truck at the Santa Catalina bus stop. We have to cross the country from coast to coast, preferably before 1800, it is now 0800 and the last pieces of luggage are being tied to the bus’ roof. People we spoke to are not overly optimistic about our chances of making it on time. Es possible, they seem to say, but like in a lot of other places “sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t”. It’s not only the length of the journey itself but the four bus changes and the unknown of what to do once we reach Almirante. I’ll end up taking eleven pages of notes on that journey, I’ll try and give you only the best bits.
The first bus is 90% gringos, young gringos. Santa Catalina is a pilgrimage spot for surfers and divers, they all look so frickin’ young. I wonder if I ever looked that young. The bus is packed, seats are full and fold down seats are occupied as well. Luggage is heaped on the roof, the precarious looking mountain grows with each passenger. I expected some people to be standing up for the ride, which should last two hours, but no, the population fluctuates, people wave the bus down and passengers hop on and off. One young local is too tall to stand upright, he needs to keep his head bowed for the next hour as he stares intently at his phone. There’s no internet to speak of around here and phones are clearly people’s lifelines. Apparently you can encounter the local indians, in their traditional dress, waving their phones on top of hills looking for better signal.
This is clearly horse country, through out the journey we will see very few dirt bikes or atv’s in fact almost none, but lot’s of horses and rodeo arenas. Cowboy culture is alive and well in Panama.
The police presence was very discreet in town but more noticeable on the highway, we encounter several checkpoints where papers are randomly checked or where we are simply waved through. The officers range from guys in plain clothes with a badge around their necks to storm trooper looking paramilitary with extra long nightsticks strapped to their backs. It looks like sometimes stuff goes down.
The music on the buses is a weird mix of Spanish rap, accordion solos, trumpets and syrupy ballads. We get intimately acquainted with the stars of reggaeton over the next ten hours. Joey Montana’s Picky is still stuck in my head. A Latino/Caribbean/electro remake of Dyer Maker plays, it is wonderfully weird, I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed Led Zep so much. Complete with scratching solo.
After two hours of hilly country roads we reach Sona. We are on schedule. Quick bathroom break. Charles told us about pee soaked bus seats in Peru. It’s a good idea to manage your bladder accordingly to the bus schedule. Just to be on the safe side we drink very little water that day and eat only a small bag of plantain chips bought from a very surly vendor.
The men’s toilets at Sona were, in true bus station style, super gross and smelled like evil and rotten eggs. Apparently it was better on the ladies’ side. It made me smile that caballeros was translated by knight.
Gen takes a great picture of two strangers sharing a smile.
We hop on the bus to Santiago, this will be a longer ride but we are on schedule. I dare not be optimistic at this point so I direct some thoughts to my saints of travel. The bus is packed, luggage fills all available space, including under the seats and in the alley. Moving is not an option.
Strangely a little forest of air freshener trees hangs from the ceilling.
Another couple of hours of rumbly roads and isolated buildings. Occasionally a large swirling cone of black vultures over a field indicates the presence of a carcass of some sort. As we reach Santiago we are still on schedule, we don’t know it yet but things are about to go sideways.
We change buses again and get seats behind the driver. The steering wheel is covered in actual carpet. Also he has a screen to watch music videos should he be bored.
Most of the gringos take the bus to Panama city. We are now mostly among locals, good looking people by and large. As we hit the highway instead of speeding up we slow down. The roads are under construction and we weave in and out of lanes. The driver is quite cautious with his suspension and drops down to first gear before going over every crack in the pavement and there are a lot of cracks. I see the speed gauge and watch the clock. It’s not looking good for our connection in Chiriqui and thus the boat in Almirante. Also the bus never stops in Chiriqui. For reasons unexplained he drives on straight to the town of David. Ok, new plan. Get from David to Almirante. The bus station at David feels a bit like An outpost at the edge of the world. Indiana Jones would feel at home there, yet it’s the second largest city of the country. Vendors of all sorts, cops in body armour, smallish indians with exotic haircuts, cowboys and bmx kids. A weird mix. We miss the bus to Almirante by not much. I try to see if I can get some fruits or something, nope, fried and baked goods mostly and I can’t explore the station for too long. I left Gen with the bags and who knows when the next bus will come?
Turns out our stuff is already stowed under the seats of the next bus, which, a little bit incongruously, has a shocker sticker on its door, next to where an elderly lady sits.
We are officially late, I hope that the roads are faster, that we have less pick ups and that by miracle/chance we make it on time for the last boat. We get going for the last leg of the land journey. This is our fourth bus today and by now are the only gringos on board. At this point we are both tired and hungry, but the beauty of the scenery keeps us captivated. We drive up the mountains that make up Panama’s spine and through dense jungles. The road up and down the mountains is a series of switchbacks lined with steep cliffs. On the road to Almirante the police check points multiply.
About three and half hours into that journey the bus stops for a food break. I can’t wait to hit the road again, it’s getting close to 1700 and we have no idea where we are. Gen chats up the bus crew, a driver and the guy taking the money from all the people that hop on or off, including at this time school kids on their way home. She asks how long to Almirante, the ticket master says an hour and twenty minutes. Fuck, that’s too late. The bus driver shakes his head and he says “one hour”. He accompanies this simple sentence with a vigorous sweep of the hand that puts an end to any other possibility. One hour. If the boat is late maybe we’ll make it, but it’s not the kind of thing you can count on. I speak with my saints some more.
We really don’t want to spend the night in Almirante, apparently it’s not the safest or the prettiest.
Clearly the driver takes his words to Gen seriously. We get on the bus, he puts the pedal to the metal and we start making time. When you make a promise to a lady like Gen you keep it. He drives like a bat out of hell and all the passengers are bouncing around in their seats. He overtakes slower trucks without hesitation. We’re not complaining. We fly over a dam and coming down the mountains we look for glimpses of the ocean that would indicate we are getting close. A lone road sign for Almirante appears. We see sunlight reflected off waves, but the bus makes a sharp turn in the opposite direction. WTF?
Our directions for that journey were a bit sparse. They just ended with “at Almirante take the boat to Bocas Del Toro”. I (naively?) expected the bus to drop us off in the general area of the docks. Turns out not to be so. We come to an abrupt halt in a dusty gas station. Ticket master says “Almirante” and takes some money from us. Something like 8 bucks each, buses are cheap. I ask him with my very rudimentary Spanish donde es el puerto? He points at a taxi and says something too quick for me to understand. It’s 18:11, we made up some lost time but the last boat was leaving at 18:00, still we need to find the docks, apparently that’s where the only decent hotel is. There’s one taxi at the station and the driver is already talking to a customer. Still, can’t hurt to ask.
A young man that has that general look of being up to no good closes in on us as I reach the taxi. I gather that he’s offering for his buddy or brother to take us to the docks. The taxi driver jumps in and an argument ensues. The gist seems to be “fuck off young man or I’ll report you to the police”, I get a legit vibe from the driver. We get into his cab with the other customer. The typical cab in these parts is a yellow four doors pick-up truck. Easy to throw your luggage in the back. No mention of fare, no meter, he drives. As he does so he tries to get on the phone with the boats but he can’t get through. Nice try though.
We get to the ramshackle docks, it’s about 18:20 or so. There’s still a boat. I can’t believe it. A crewman tells us “la ultima barca”, the last boat. We made it. The saints came through.
We get on the boat and are bathed with engine exhaust and the smell of swamp, but we are elated. We put on the life jackets and for the first time that day relax a little.
And after finding our house in the darkness (more adventures) we got to relax some more. It was well deserved.