David to Bocas del Toro, and return to David, Panama 03-08 to 03-29 2007

Filed under: Panama — Aaron and Amy at 3:48 pm on Wednesday, March 28, 2007

After spending two days in David researching the cost of new brakes and a new generator, both prices were prohibitive so we decided to wait until we get to Panama City.  (They wanted $ 5500.00 for a new generator, specifically designed and fitted for our RV, and the Ford dealership wanted $2,300, 2100 parts and 200 labor, for new brakes).

Upon leaving the grocery store, I spotted another RV in the parking lot.  You normally don’t see many RVs south of Mexico, so they really stick out like a sore thumb.  A gringo walked towards our RV with determination and I could only assume he was the owner of the RV coming to say hello.  He and his wife were moving from Baja, Mexico to Panama City where they will open a tattoo and body piercing parlor.  They had time restrictions and had made the drive in about two weeks.  We were able to speak briefly before they had to leave for Panama City.Both in Costa Rica and in our first few days in Panama we were absolutely inundated by gringos coming up to the RV to say hello and find out what we are doing down here in an RV.  It must be because there are so many gringos in these two countries, but we have never had so many gringos come up to us!  It can make a trip to the grocery store last four times as long as it needs to!  Most are shocked we have driven all the way from the U.S. and everyone wants to hear all the horrible stories of bad experiences that we have had along the way.  We always enjoy explaining that we have had no problems at all; and that border crossings and bribe propositions are not as bad as all the stories you hear.  (Except for the police in Nicaragua). We were closing up the RV and getting ready to leave for Boquete when some of our friends we met in Costa Rica (also in RVs) pulled into the parking lot!  We stopped and chatted with them for a while and got their tips on Panama (they were starting their north-bound journey).  As we were talking ANOTHER RV pulled into the parking lot!  We thought, “This is crazy!”  This gathering of RVs hasn’t happened since Antigua, Guatemala when we ran into three other RVs, all of whom have become good friends.  The last RV to pull in that morning was a Dutch couple that has been traveling from Europe to South America and is now on their north-bound journey to the U.S.  He built his rig on the back of a Land Cruiser, which is built for off-road traveling through Latin America!We said our goodbyes to all our friends and headed to the cool mountain air of Boquete.  The small town is nestled on the side of Panama’s only Volcano, called Baru.  It has an abundance of hiking trails in beautiful forest renowned to be home to the Elusive Quetzal; the national bird of Guatemala that is so difficult to find.  We arrived and found a suggested camping spot down by the futbol field and the river, which was free.  It was a great spot for the dogs, especially since they could play in the river.  Just after sunset we went to town for dinner.  The Boquete Bistro looked nice but was full of gringos and a bit pricy.  We opted for a small restaurant on the square with the locals, who were all bundled up in hats and sweaters.  (It was about 65 degrees.)  Boquete wasn’t exactly the charming village with flower-lined streets that we were expecting, but it was definitely a retreat from the hot temperatures of the Panamanian Pacific.  There is a beautiful hiking trail (called the Quetzal trail) going around a part of the volcano from Boquete to the town of Cerro Punta, which takes about 6 hours one way.  We didn’t have time for the entire trail that day, but we wanted to hike a little bit of it and turn back to Boquete.  We got directions and took a bus to the trail head, and were pointed in the right direction.  There was a German girl that was also going to hike for a couple hours and turn around.  It was a beautiful hike to a small waterfall, but it was not the Quetzal Trail.  We found out afterwards that the correct trailhead was up the road a bit.  It was a beautiful hike and we were entertained by many new bird sounds, but we never saw a Quetzal.  Some of the birds sounded as if there was someone sitting in the trees above us playing a lovely flute.  We soon realized we had no idea what the Quetzal sounded like, and therefore would not recognize it unless we saw it!  Nevertheless, we enjoyed the beautiful song birds as we hiked through the forest with swaths of green moss and vines hanging from the trees.  We were able to take advantage of the cool weather and cook in the RV; so we made several breakfasts and a lasagna dinner that would provide food for several days.On the way back to David (you have to backtrack to David when leaving Boquete), we followed a sign for piedras pintada (painted rocks).  It sent us 12 kilometers down a paved but bumpy road in search of the petroglyphs.  After having lunch at a small restaurant along the road, we continued to ask directions until we came upon a sign by a restaurant for the piedras pintada.  The man in the restaurant pointed us in the direction of a trail leading into a pasture with rocks scattered in it.  He said they are before the stream, so we set out to find them; all the while realizing they may not amount to much.  We followed the path and looked at all the rocks but weren’t finding anything.  We passed a small stream and said maybe they are beyond the stream.  The guy didn’t exactly give us precise directions, and we didn’t know what to look for.  As we crossed another field and stream thinking maybe they are just a little further; Aaron joked, “So how did you guys end up in Colombia?  Well . . . we were looking for these petroglyphs . . . . “Aaron turned back to the RV and I continued walking through the fields looking at rocks.  As I came closer and closer to the foothills of the small mountains in front of me, I thought maybe they were actually on the walls of the hill itself, not just a rock in the field.  I crossed another stream and walked a ways into the next field, but the trail was gone and my flip flops were not the appropriate shoes to be dodging cow pies.  I gave up and headed back.  Just before the restaurant I passed what looked like a small alien head on a rock, with a diagram of a hand giving the bird right next to it.  Aaron greeted me with a smile, and I knew what was coming.  As he stood there with his cold beer in the shade, he told me the bartenders got a real good laugh when he told them I was headed to the foothills looking for the petroglyphs.  Apparently there was only one rock with anything on it, and it wasn’t more than 100 Meters/Yards from the restaurant.  While I would have liked to see some Panamanian petroglyphs, I think the walk was enjoyable and it was fun to be in search of them, not knowing what I might find.Before crossing the mountains to the Caribbean side of Panama, we decided to at least get new brake pads, and would replace the brake discs at a later date.  The same mechanics in David were able to give the RV a much needed oil change as well.  We saw some US military in uniform and hummers in the parking lot of the hardware store.  We thought all the U.S. bases were closed in Panama, so Aaron asked what they were doing here.  They were with a U.S. Army Joint Task Force providing humanitarian aid over a period of several months on the Caribbean side near the town of Chiriqui Grande.  Since we have wanted to do more volunteer work on our trip, Aaron asked if there was anything we could help with, especially since he has lots of tools.  The soldier said he would mention it to the Command Sergeant Major on base and see if they could find anything for us to do.  We were headed to the islands of Bocas del Toro for about a week, and would be passing by their base on our way.  He invited us to stop by and meet Sergeant Major Vila to determine whether or not we could help.  Our last night in David, we parked at the Chiriqui mall again, which allowed me to watch movies while Aaron went out drinking with the mechanics.  It was a good thing we got new brake pads before heading over the Talamancan mountains to the Caribbean side.  We stopped several times to let our brakes cool, which gave us the opportunity to get out and enjoy the damp cold air.   It was a beautiful lush drive into the cloud forests of Panama.  The temperature dropped and the cool air was refreshing as it blew on our faces through the open windows.  A light rain began and we were engulfed in low clouds as they clung to the tops of the trees.  It seemed as if the trees, the lungs of the earth, were producing their life sustaining oxygen and it was being emitted from the tops of the trees in the form of the clouds.  It was a magical setting; one that I am afraid cannot truly be captured by a photograph. Following a recommendation from our friends Chris & Mel, we stopped at Willie Mazu, a private ecological reserve in the Talamancan Mountains, to camp for the night.  The property is set between two rivers and has several trails that lead to beautiful waterfalls.  We debated about whether or not to take the dogs with us since that would affect whether or not we saw any animals, but we eventually decided that they needed their exercise as well.  We began the trek and were told that it should only take about an hour and a half.  It wasn’t much of a trail, more like footholds going up steep muddy hills.  Very soon a light rain started, and then it was pouring.  We quickly got drenched and poor Skylos who doesn’t like the rain was soaked to his shivering bones!  Skylos was a trooper and kept hiking with us, but every once in a while he would stop and hide under a big leaf, desperately trying to find some reprieve from the elements.  Aaron and I were thrilled, since this is exactly what we were expecting hiking in Central America would be like! We hiked and hiked up the steep hills, wondering if somehow we got off track.  We could hear the water falling along the topography to our left but the trail kept going up.  Soon we realized that we were in fact on top of the waterfall, and must have missed a turnoff.  Khorrah immediately plopped herself down in the cool water to cool off.  Since we stopped hiking Skylos was violently shivering so we started down the path again to get him warm.  We did see another steep path going down to view the waterfall, and wondered if that was where we were supposed to stop.  Aaron climbed down on the ledge and looked up at the 100-foot waterfall that was crashing down to earth right beside us.  It was still raining as we continued our hike down.  Going down in the mud was harder than climbing, and we ended up sliding quite a bit.  It was a great hike, and so refreshing to be in the rain.  We were happy to get home and were appreciative to have the shower to get rid of all the mud!  The following morning we had breakfast at a small thatched roof restaurant called Isabella’s, across the street from Willie Mazu’s property.  From our table we saw several white-faced capuchin monkeys frolicking in the trees across the street.  The cook and Aaron spoke at length about the wildlife of the area, speaking in detail about snakes, spiders and monkeys.  We left Willie Mazu’s and were headed for the temporary U.S. Army base in Rambala, located near Chiriqui Grande on the Caribbean side of Panama.  We arrived at the base and they informed us that the man we needed to talk to, Sergeant Major Vila, was currently at the motor pool which was nearly in Chiriqui Grande.  Aaron spoke with several soldiers and waited to speak to Sergeant Major Vila before leaving for the islands of Bocas del Toro.  Sergeant Major Vila said he would look for work we could help with and by the time we got back from the islands he would probably have something for us to do.  They are building two schools and clinic in nearby villages as well as several roads, but were in limbo waiting for material and he wasn’t sure if they would be doing construction by the time we got back.  He also said that several villages request for work to be done, but it is either out of their scope or too small of a project to send out an entire group to complete.  So even if Sergeant Major Vila couldn’t find anything for us to do, we said we should be able to find smaller projects and complete them ourselves.Upon leaving the village of Rambala for the islands of Bocas del Toro on March 12th, we had an accident on the road to Almirante.  The accident immediately became a large part of our trip, and we felt it should not be withheld from our posts on the website.  It happened, and is as much a part of our trip as any of the positive experiences we have had.  The accident and its aftermath cannot simply be included as another paragraph or even another page within the greater travelogue.  Therefore it is a separate post entitled “Accident in Rambala, Panama March 12-14”.  The post can be found on our website by going to the Panama section and clicking on the title.  If you would like to read about the accident and its aftermath in sequence, please do so now and return to this post when you have completed reading the Accident in Rambala post.  The following paragraph in the travelogue you are currently reading continues on the afternoon of March 14th; after the accident has happened, and we are on our way to the islands of Bocas del Toro.
 ** We arrived in the town of Almirante, and as we had been warned, we were swarmed with kids and young men trying to help us find a place to park the RV so that we could travel to the islands.  We knew from our friends Chris and Mel that we could park at the bomberos (fire station), so all we had to do was ask for directions and the kids left us alone.  Aaron maneuvered the RV inside the small parking area and soon realized they wanted the RV parked somewhere it simply would not fit.  So what was the solution?  Aaron helped several men pick up the compact car that was in the way, creating enough space for us to pull in.  Little by little they moved the front and then the back until there was enough room!  They knew the owner and said it was no problem, but the car alarm didn’t turn off the entire time we were preparing to leave.  We gathered our bags and found a truck taxi to take us to the water taxi dock.  The fare is quite reasonable, only $3 per person takes you from Almirante to Bocas town.  They did not charge us any extra for the dogs, and it was a full boat.  I stayed up front with the bags under the hull and Aaron stayed in the back with the dogs.  It only took about 30 minutes to arrive on the main Island, Isla Colon (Christopher Columbus named it).  As we got closer we could see all the hotels, restaurants and other businesses perched on their posts above the water.  Most of the buildings in Bocas del Toro town (the main town on the island, now to be referenced as Bocas) are clapboard buildings constructed by the United Fruit Company in the early 1900’s.  Laden with bags full of snorkel gear, cameras, Aaron’s spear fishing equipment and the dog gear; we looked around town for a suitable hotel.  We wanted to get dive certified and knew that we would be leaving the dogs in the hotel during the day, so we needed air conditioning.  It didn’t take very long for us to find Estrella Bocas.  It was very roomy, had a refrigerator and had air which was perfect for the dogs.  We checked out the SCUBA certification shops in town, and chose Starfleet, which was close to our hotel.  They had a promotion going on for Open-Water certification and two additional free dives for $175 US.  After checking certification prices in Costa Rica (around $400), this sounded extremely reasonable to us!    We signed up to start our SCUBA classes the following morning.I was actually SCUBA certified about 8 years ago, but didn’t really enjoy it and never went diving after my certification.  Since Aaron is a skin-diver he has recently become interested in getting certified, so I thought I would do it all over again with him and see if I liked it.  I was a bit uneasy about the rushed 3-day course, but this is how it works when you get certified on vacation.  You are supposed to read the book, watch videos and then do confined water (usually in a pool; in our case it was in shallow ocean water) exercises before going out on a dive.  After watching the videos in the morning we donned our SCUBA gear and got in the water in front of the dive shop to do the mandatory tasks and become familiar with the equipment.  The second day we were starting with two dives in the morning and then watching more videos in the afternoon.  Needless to say, after the first time in the water I was more than a little nervous and wasn’t sure I wanted to continue with the course.  When we got to the dive shop, it was full of people preparing for their dives; our dive instructor, Jose, was running around like a chicken with his head cut off trying to get people and their equipment organized, and there was loud music booming to get people pumped up for the day.  Loud music to get you jazzed was the last thing I needed.  I needed to relax!  Aaron and I talked it out and I decided that I wanted to try the first dive and see how it goes.  I had general anxiety about diving, but I also think I had emotions brimming on the surface since the accident; and I hadn’t had a chance to release them.The first dive was at a boat that had sunk in about 40 feet of water.  Jose spotted something under the boat and put his hand on his forehead indicating a fin.  First he showed Aaron, then me.  A 5 foot long nurse shark was hanging out underneath the shipwreck!  We continued to swim around and on top of the shipwreck, getting used to breathing under water and controlling our buoyancy.  After the dive we returned to the dive shop to get new tanks and wait out the rest of our surface interval (the amount of time necessary to wait between dives).  The next dive had more coral to explore.  Swimming with 40 feet of water above us was like swimming in the land of Dr. Seuss.  The colors of the coral were usually pastel, except for the neon green.  Some of the coral were in the form of vessels, even they seemed like they were taken out of a child’s book.  Some of these coral reminded me of Greek pottery, tall, slender and beautiful in form.  While exploring through rocks and coral we saw lots of lobster, puffer fish, large starfish, and various species of cleaner shrimp and crabs.  The third and fourth dives we finished demonstrating tasks in new locations with the same kind of coral and sea-life.  After we passed the written exam and were officially certified, we had two more dives that were offered as a part of our certification package.  These dives were done with a new dive master, Kevin.  I really enjoyed the last two dives much more than the first four.  There were no tasks to complete, I had a warmer wetsuit, Kevin was an excellent dive master and I was more relaxed in my new environment.  After getting certified we had a celebratory dinner on a nearby island, Carenero.  Upon local recommendation we ate at the Cosmic Crab where we had a great dinner and key lime pie.  Our original plan was to get certified, then take a couple days to visit the island of Bastimentos.  It has a cave in the center of the island that was recently discovered by a local, lots of jungle to explore and an indigenous village we could visit.  Not long after we arrived on the main island, there were water shortages that everyone had to deal with.  It seems like our hotel had water off and on, but it was normally off.  We are at the tail-end of the dry season, and the reservoir is empty.  Fortunately for us we were diving every day and had a little fresh water to rinse off with at the dive shop.  Weighing the pros and cons of staying to get Aaron certified to the advanced level of SCUBA, or to visit the island of Bastimentos didn’t seem to make much sense if there wasn’t water.  The expensive hotels had their own water storage, but we weren’t willing to pay the high prices.  We decided we would head back to Almirante to get the RV and head to the village where Aaron hoped to fix the roof on a school.  Since they didn’t have any water, our hotel was actually going to close after we left.  Many of the restaurants in town were already closed, while others were using plastic and Styrofoam plates and cups so they didn’t have to wash them.  Our last morning on Isla Colon, there was a good hard rain as we walked to breakfast.  All the rain dances finally worked!  Let’s just hope they keep getting rain so they can replenish their reservoir.  We packed the bags and dogs into the small water taxi and we made it back to the mainland.  The RV had been kept safe and sound at the fire station with no problems at all. It was a short drive from Almirante to the village of Quebrada Pastor, where the first school was located.  We arrived in the afternoon and there were still kids in school.  (The youngest kids go during the morning and the middle/high school kids attend in the afternoon).  We spoke to the school officials and looked at the room again that had evidence of bats in the ceiling.  We were told there was a new roof added and there was probably an 8 inch space between the old and new roofs.  After inspection, Aaron determined that there were probably bats in the entire ceiling, and the guano was only showing in one room.  He assessed what the problem was and that he needed to seal the roof in order to keep bats out.  He placed phone calls to Sergeant Major Vila to see whether the Army had either the funds or extra material we could use at the school.  We finally determined that if the school was going to be fixed we would need to pay for the materials ourselves.  It cost just over $100.  Aaron went to Almirante with a local and they placed an order to have the material delivered later that day.The following morning we woke up at the school to people speaking English and trying to get our attention.  The Army had arrived at the school to perform a 3-day medical clinic for the local villages.  They had doctors and nurses to examine and distribute medicine for dentistry, optometry, vaccinations and OBGYN care.  All the kids lined up to get their exams first, and then villagers came to get their free healthcare.  Apparently when we arrived the night before, it still wasn’t clear to the school officials that we were working independently of the military.  They didn’t understand that we were friends with the military, but were not affiliated with them.  Therefore they didn’t tell us the Army was coming the next day because they thought we already knew.  They also didn’t realize we were paying for the material for the school out of our pocket.  It turns out there were way too many people at the school for Aaron to work that day.  He  and one of the school employees headed to Almirante to arrange for material.  We spent the day chatting with locals and the military, as well as writing the travelogue whenever I got a chance.  Everyone was intrigued by the dogs and the RV; many came inside the RV to see what it looked like while others hung around in the shade of the awning.  Several were extremely shy, so much so I wondered if Spanish was their first language.  Others were hamming it up for the camera, and one kid liked taking pictures himself.  That evening we hitched a ride with the doctors that were headed back to Changuinola.  They dropped us off at Almirante where we had dinner and bought some groceries.The next day the material had not been delivered so Aaron and the same school employee went to Almirante to bring it back in a taxi.  The Army came back at 7:30 that morning to set up the clinic, but there were fewer people since most of the kids weren’t there.  I offered my services to help with any necessary translation at the clinic, but they had plenty of translators on site.  I was able to work on the travelogue and hang out with the locals while Aaron worked on the school.  Like everything else in Latin America, it took Aaron longer to finish than expected mainly due to lack of sufficient help from the locals.  We waved goodbye to all the kids and teachers at the school and were heading back to the U.S. Army base in Rambala. We hoped to stay a couple of nights while we got some business regarding the accident completed.  We stayed four more nights on the ARMY base in Rambala.  Aaron was able to help work on a local’s house that was on one of the clinic construction sites.  The local actually moved his house so the clinic could be built in its place.  There were several items that needed to be fixed, and Aaron was able to complete it in half a day’s work using materials provided by the military.We thanked Colonel Jones and Sergeant Major Vila once again for all their generous hospitality and assistance.  We said our goodbyes to everyone else and made our way back to David on the Pacific side of Panama.

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