Wednesday, October 29, 2008

¡Habla Ya!

As mentioned in Rach´s previous post, we´re taking some Spanish classes for a few weeks in Boquete. We were feeling like our beginner´s Spanish wasn´t really enough so we had a look (Google) for a Spanish school in Panama. Luckily, we found Habla Ya, which has turned out to be a fantastic place to learn. We´re in a small class (4 people including us) with a great teacher, Janeth. It´s intense; 4 hours a day entirely in Spanish. It´s massively improved our Spanish though and we´re definitely enjoying it. We get more than enough chance to practise at home with the host family with whom we´re staying (post on them coming up!). We´re even managing to watch and (mostly) understand some TV, e.g. "Los Simpson"!

These two jokers, Carlos and Julio, actually set up the school. They have kept us entertained while studying with poker games, meals out and nights out in bars, one of which was particularly hectic (see below...).

The staff are great and there's a very sociable atmosphere between the students. Our classmates are Kary, from the USA, and David, from the US Virgin Islands. We're all at about the same level and keen to join in in class, which makes it a lot more fun and effective.

On Saturday last we went out for a meal with some staff & students from the school for a meal, followed by some drinks and dancing at a couple of local bars. We had an ace time, just check out the photos...

We enjoyed the first week so much that we decided to definitely do three weeks altogether. That means we'll be here in Boquete for Rach's birthday, which will be fun! We'll be sad to leave.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008


After over a month of travelling, we decided it was time to stop for a while and take the time to really get to know one place in Panama. We are now taking two weeks of intensive Spanish lessons in Boquete in the Chiriqui highlands. Although we are getting plenty of opportunity to speak Spanish in Central America, we thought we could do with some more lessons to give us extra confidence. More about classes later, but first Boquete. It is a truly beautiful spot high up in the mountains, making it cool and fresh; a welcome change from the heat and humidity of Bocas. However, the weather here has its drawbacks too; every morning is clear and bright but by midday the clouds hang low over the mountains and the rain begins. As we sit here now, there is the usual afternoon downpour outside, which will probably last for hours. Luckily we have lessons in the afternoons so it's bearable!

Can't complain too much about the climate here, the regular rain and sunshine means that everything is lush and there is life everywhere. Flowers like this gorgeous orchid grow in hedges and gardens and the mountains are carpeted with cloud forest.

We spent a lovely (relatively rain free!) day walking in the mountains near the Rio Caldera. It's a perfect river with clear sparkling water, waterfalls and rapids. It's best to see it this time of year, too, because the rainy season means it's at its full force.

There's a large idigenous population in this area, largely Ngöble-Bugle people who live high up in the mountains in wooden houses or communes with several small dwellings grouped together. The women wear lovely embroidered dresses, as you can see on this little girl, and the children are very inquisitive and friendly.

Because of the altitude - most of the farms are around 1500m above sea level - and the climate, Boquete produces the finest coffee in Panama (some say the world!). During our stay here, we're living with a fantastic Panamanian family who have a coffee farm (more about them in a later post).

We're really enjoying a bit of routine and stability here and are in no rush to get back on the road yet. Boquete feels like home for now and we're thinking of staying for an extra week!

Rachel x

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Adventures of the spade #3

The relaxing mood of the Panamanian Caribbean coastline is certainly infectious. Even the spade is joining in!


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Bocas del Toro

After a two day journey from Chitre, with an overnight stop in rainy David, we arrived in gorgeous Bocas del Toro. It`s an archipelago just off the very North Westerly corner of Panama, near the Costa Rican border. The journey was pretty stressful, winding along narrow roads through jungles and over mountains in a mini bus, but the scenery was spectacular. We also saw a sloth crawling (very slowly!) across the road next to the bus! Don`t worry, the traffic stopped to let it get to safety.
So, Bocas... we`re staying in the main town on Isla Colon, the biggest of the islands. It`s a great place, really relaxed with pretty wooden buildings and sea front bars. The water is incredibly clear and you can watch countless fish swimming around the jetties. I took this photo within minutes of arriving on the island in water taxi.

This was our view at lunchtime today- not too bad, I suppose!

These colourful wooden buildings are typical of Bocas town.

We`re staying in a lovely hostel right near the water front, Hostel Hansi. We think it`s the best place we`ve stayed so far, with our own little balcony, a well-equipped kitchen and all spotlessly clean. We`re staying for about five nights, so it`s great to have such a nice base.

A couple of days ago we took a water taxi to the brilliantly named Playa Wizard on another island. It has to be the most perfect beach I`ve ever seen- a long stretch of sand with gentle water and lots of shade to protect us from the scorching sun! The best thing was that there was hardly anyone on the beach except us. After a while, a couple of local boys came riding along on horses. It was a really strange, but beautiful, sight.

Yesterday we went on a tour of some of the main sights in the archipelago. We had a little boy called Mario accompanying us - we think he`s learning the ropes to be a tour guide one day. He was such a serious child and, though he was only 10, the other guides joked that he was more like a 45 year old!

If you look closely at this photo (remember if you click the picture it will show it full size)and you can see Rob's head getting sun burnt!

We had a snorkelling stop off on the tour. Not a lot to see besides coral and small fish but deliciously warm clear water.

Part of Bocas is a designated marine park because of it`s important habitats like these mangrove swamps.

We spent a couple of hours on Red Frog Beach, so-called because of the poison arrow frogs that live in the forest behind the sand. It`s the only place they live in the world and we saw one! It was absolutely tiny, probably 2 1/2cms long and a vibrant red and black. No photo, though, sadly! Another lovely stop was Dolphin Bay (noticing a theme?) where we saw lots of bottle-nose dolphins really close to the boat. Some were jumping right out of the water. Show offs.

Rachel xx

Saturday, October 11, 2008

¡Felizidades Margarita!

This week in Panama, it´s all been about Margarita Henriquez. She reached the grand final of Latin American Idol, up against Maria-Jose from Costa Rica. Across the whole country everyone´s been wearing Margarita t-shirts, badges and hats emblazoned with the phrase "¡Estamos contigo, Margarita!" (We´re with you). We spent a couple of nights in the sleepy town of Chitre in the Azuero Peninsula, which juts out into the pacific ocean. It´s famous for its fiestas and it turns out that we timed our visit very well as Margarita is from that area! We knew that there wasn´t a lot to do in the day so decided we should spend a bit extra to stay somewhere decent and, because it´s not a touristy area at all, we bagged a room with a great view across the main square. Here´s our view, below, complete with national TV crew and presenter in blue t-shirt. They hung about a lot looking bored until the excitement began in the evening...

In the evenings everyone started gathering in the square and it soon broke out into a big parade with drummers (they get everywhere!!), other musicians and dancers. We had a fantastic view from our balcony and I particulary loved the guys who played huge bass drums whilst managing to juggle them in the air and do a little dance! Along with screenings of the final on big projectors in the square and specially written songs dedicated to her, the whole place was a Margarita fest! We got quite swept along by it, I must admit. Of course, the most important news is that she won the competition and is now the new Latin American Idol!

In amongst all this, we did actually go and do some sightseeing around the peninsula. We visited the historic village of Los Santos where the first declaration of Panamanian independence from Spain was signed in the 19th Century. Of course, we couldn´t escape Margarita completely, as this was actually her home town!

This pretty yellow and white building was where they signed the declaration and now houses a small museum about the village´s history.

I think we were the first visitors in a while as an old man had to wake up from a nap to turn the lights on for us! The museum was a bit dull and dusty, but the building was lovely, so worth the visit.

Rachel x

El Valle

We`ve spent about a week visiting small towns and villages in the interior of Panama. There are pretty much no other tourists to be seen, so it provided us with a great opporunity to see a bit more of the real Panama. We started in El Valle, little more than a few buildings strung out along a sleepy road, populated by bicycles and horses, but the location was spectacular. It`s high up in the mountains, but is nestled inside the crater of an extinct volcano, so has dramatic peaks encircling the village. It was wonderful to have some peace and quiet away from the chaos of the city and the only noises we could hear at night were insects and frogs. We`ve both been very aware of how noisy everywhere is in Central America, so far. There`s always music playing, cars honking their horns, dogs barking and, wierdly, everywhere seems to have a marching band who practice at every hour of the day, including sunrise!
The countryside around El Valle is very accessible, so we walked up to see a dramatic waterfall nearby. It`s called El Macho.

We also visited some petroglyphs, which are designs and patterns carved into an enormous rock. Apparently no-one knows who created them or what they mean, but I`m not entirely convinced of their significance and they looked quite like graffiti to me! But we did have a very cute guide who offered his services to take us to the sight, where he promptly whipped out a pointing stick and gave us a long lecture about the petroglyphs. Only problem was, it was all in incredibly fast and totally uninteligible Spanish! Don`t worry, we still gave him a tip.

As you can see below, the clouds hang very heavily around the village and the weather changes in an instant, so we went from boiling hot to soaking wet many times during our day of walking. Mum, it would have been a nightmare for you knowing what to take with you!

Here`s Rob suffering a down-pour...

and here he is 10 minutes later in glorious sunshine!

As you can see, when it rains, it really rains! We took this while spending about half an hour sheltering outside a supermarket until it slowed to merely torrential.

Can`t wait for dry season! Rachel xx

Saturday, October 4, 2008

A man, a plan, a canal; Panama!

So, the famous canal. We thought we couldn´t really not visit it, and we´re glad we did. The best way to see it (according to the rough guide) is by boat, actually going through the lock system, ideally alongside an ocean-going ship, and that´s exactly what we did today. Above is a photo of me, in one of the locks. It´s actually the first of the miraflores locks, which raises the ships 8 metres above sea level. At the Pacific end, the Puente de las Americas (Bridge of the Americas) spans the canal mouth (photo below).

The ships that transit the canal are pretty huge; this one´s around 33 metres wide. It´s actually about 8 inches short of the maximum width that can fit through the locks!

Behind Rachel in the photo above you can see the rainforest through which the canal cuts. Below you can see what the walls of the locks look like from the bottom. The maximum elevation above sea level of the canal is 26 metres, through three locks from the Pacific end.

Unexpectedly, we spotted this crocodile near the canal mouth. He´s chomping on a huge fish!

Bonus points for anyone who spotted that this post´s title is a palindrome!