My itinerary might be a bit bizarre--a week in the Peruvian Amazon, a week in Panama City--but I had a great time.
PERU (THE AMAZON)
My first week was spent in the Amazon outside of Iquitos, returning to the Explorama lodges.
Blissed out. That's how I feel in the Amazon; if you've seen the expression on the face of a sloth, that's me. Perhaps it's the amazing shades of green everywhere in the trees and plants, maybe it's the huge constantly changing sky, maybe it's the spangled cotingas, maybe it's the lovely people...whatever the case, it was wonderful to return to the Amazon rainforest; I felt as if I had come "home".
I flew PHL to MIA to LIM to IQT (Iquitos) with an overnight in Lima airport; it really wasn't bad, (midnight to 5AM) as Lima airport has recently been extensively renovated and has the airport tax to prove it. I am glad that I didn't bother with a hotel for this time, though, as with arriving a bit late I would have barely gotten there before coming back. In Iquitos I was welcomed back by Explorama and got on the boat down the river 50 miles or so to Explorama Lodge, where I stayed two nights; the following day was another 50 miles or so to Explornapo (always my favorite of the sites) for two nights, with one night in the Tambos camp and then two nights at Ceiba Tops, the 'luxury lodge'. (The others are more like the best camping trip ever, with cold showers and little bats sometimes flying into the bathrooms'so cute! The accommodations are quite comfortable, with mosquito netted beds and kerosene lamps lighting the way at night.)
There was a lot packed into this week (and I have the ant bites to prove it) but some highlights were:
1. Visiting the village schools. I went to two with a group representing Conapac and the "Adopt a School" program (which you can read about in a link from www.explorama.com ) and saw the happiness with which very basic school supplies were received in the one or two room schools. Explorama is very involved with this program as education is essential in preserving the rainforest from the old practices and newer threats. I also visited another school with Armando, my guide, (the best guide ever as far as I'm concerned, but then, I've only been to 38 countries or so) where we gave the books I had brought to a very respectful little group of first to seventh graders--one teacher, one room--and some more to an eighth grade who was having their English class outside. (I was a little envious of their classroom.) We sang "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes" for a little English practice.
2. Swimming in the Amazon. With the pink dolphins. And the most silky soft chocolate pudding mud...It was amazing. (Note: the piranhas aren't everywhere...just try fishing for them! I didn't catch any, but the boat driver did. All that kept happening to me was that they'd eat my bait. But anyway, you have to visit particular fishing spots for them, which we did on another day.) By the way, this isn't a prepackaged 'swim with nervous dolphins in a cage' deal; the dolphins just happened to be swimming in the same general area that we were and seemed to be fine sharing the spot with us. The mud was an absolute spa special type; I'd love to have brought home a bucket or two, but that's not too practical.
3. Going up in the canopy walkway three times! You're in the tallest (emergent) trees, so you can see for miles and the birds are flying all over...like the turquoise spangled cotinga, for example. There are bromeliads and lianas vines and just a whole bunch of things that make a geography geek very, very happy. We walked through the understory to get there, of course, and saw monkeys along the way. The last time visiting the canopy was in the morning coming back from Tambos Camp, which was a little clearing in the midst of the forest with platforms and mosquito netting, plus an enchanting candlelit dinner table with food cooked over an open fire by Jimmy, the chef.
4. Riding on the front of the boat through the backwaters, with the sun shining so brightly and the clouds making pictures in the water, after visiting the Island of Monkeys where I found out how strong those prehensile tails really are! (When you have monkeys hanging off of your arm by their tails, you find out.)
5. Visiting the giant water lilies, and seeing them in bloom, and then a small visit with a sloth. It was a baby one that was a pet, and when it saw me from its tree it put out its hands to come and be held. It must have recognized my expression.
This is just a small bit of my week, and probably nearly incoherent (since blissed out and then an airplane aren't conducive to clarity) but I wanted to share it before going on to Panama, which will be a rather more citified experience, to say the least.
As I had just a week for Panama, I stayed in the Panama City area; I didn't need to do beaches, and did primarily want to see the canal. There's a lot more of Panama I'd like to see someday, but I'm glad that I stayed put for the week. It was hot enough that I wasn't moving tremendously quickly, and the history and nature available right within the city were enough to keep me busy for quite some time.
Buenas tardes. I have now crossed the Panama Canal...halfway. No, I'm not in the middle of it somewhere; I took a bus to Lake Gatun, about halfway across, and came back on the boat. It's an incredible spectacle, and the boat going down in the lock (or the walls "rising" to meet you) is an incredibly cool feeling. Those huge gates swinging open and shut as they've done for almost a hundred years are just amazing.
The canal saves ships about 9? days travel time from the Pacific to the Atlantic and vice versa, so it's not a surprise that we saw so many lined up for the 8 or 9 hour transit (with a waiting time of 24 hours today; of course it varies depending on number of ships.) The largest ships to go through, the "Panamax", pay upwards of $100,000 toll, but those days saved would cost about $80,000 a day operating costs so it's a pretty big bargain! It's all fresh water; the rivers were diverted to fill the channels, and the main reason for the locks is because of the difference in tides, not, of course, sea level--those are both the same, naturally, but the Pacific tides are considerably more dramatic than the Atlantic's.
The partial transit boat goes out each Saturday (and some Thursdays, I believe) and costs about $100 for transport to or from the boat, depending on its route, a ride of about 4-5 hours, lunch, and a guide. I'm really glad that I did this, even though the Miraflores Locks Museum certainly gives you a thrill and a wonderful view of the canal's workings. The full transit via tourist boat is once a month, and to me would be a bit too much; it's hot, let's face it, and there are about 300 people on a standard ferry sized boat.
I'm staying in Panama City, Balboa section, in a b&b on a lovely wooded hill where the animals still roam; it's a great location for peace, but not too close to the actual city. I figured I should probably transition gradually; I'm not really ready for full-blast city yet, which Panama City certainly is; it looks like Manhattan from the water. The place is La Estancia ( www.bedandbreakfastpanama.com ) on Cerre Ancon; it's got that colonialist feel to the neighborhood, as this is where the 'Zonians' lived. The Canal Admin building is on the hill.
It's actually a decent location for getting to many of the things I wanted to do, but you do need to depend on taxis'and the prices can vary a bit on those. Best bet is to know and discuss up front what you will pay, as there are no meters and there is a fair amount of inconsistency (not usually more than a couple dollars difference, but it adds up.)
I am now a light shade of red as the Panamanian sun has been doing quite a job, interspersed with some pretty dramatic thunderstorms!
Isla Taboga is an hour's ferry ride from Panama City; it's a frowsty fairy tale island of pastel houses and flowers everywhere, plus the chance to go wading in the Pacific. I had climbed to the top of "The Hill of the Cross" (just me, the cross, and some, um, vultures, actually; a little ominous on a steep hike, ya know?) so the wading felt quite lovely. Some of the fairy tale could use a bit of refurbishing, but the views can't be beaten. There are other hikes on the island and some b&b's, but there's not a whole lot there; I went over on the 10:30 ferry on Sunday and back on the 2:30, and still explored most of the island. If you want to do some actual swimming, though, there's an earlier and later ferry, and during the week I believe it's only the earlier and later ones. I ended up on Amador Causeway, with the lovely sea breezes and people going past on rented bicycles and four wheeled tandem type bicycle thingies and just lots of lovely seaside type stuff.
My first visit to Casco Viejo took a large part of the day. Casco Viejo is the second site of Panama City's beginning; the first got overrun by pirates once too often. The "new" Old City has dungeons and decaying convents and draping ironwork...very photogenic; I won't say how many pix I took, but I did have to go find a photo store to get two new batteries for my camera. I had lunch (roast chicken) at Caffe Coca Cola, the oldest in the city from its menu, and went up Avenida Central, a pedestrian street of discount open front stores (from which you can feel PC's astoundingly cold air conditioning flowing out) until I found a place that might have CR2 lithium batteries'and lo, it did! Yay! (Yeah, I know, nobody uses them anymore.) The street was quite crowded; I walked from Santa Ana Square to Plaza Cinco de Mayo without any harm or even any qualms, but it is a place to be aware in.)
The next day I saw the locks from the other side, from Miraflores Visitors' Center; not quite the same as being on the ship, but very interesting exhibits and live action narration of the boats going through. I took a taxi to and from (about $10 each way) and spent three or four hours there in the afternoon, seeing three boats go through in that time in between visiting the exhibits.
Mi Pueblito, at the bottom of Cerre Ancon, is like a mini Epcot of Panama without the rides (or crowds.) It's got a Spanish style town with a square, an idealized AfroAntillean section, and a Kuna village to visit. It's nice to wander around, and eventually, it seems, there is someone to guide you if you look hard enough.
My final day was a gorgeous day of sunshine and intensely blue skies...well, until I climbed to the top of the hill (or mini mountain) I was staying on, then it poured rain. But that felt pretty good, actually. Anyway, in the sunshine in the morning I went down to the Pacific again, to an old walkway (Huberto?) in the old part of town, Casco Viejo, and amidst the many birds there I saw a pelican with its sad eyes and bulging mouth, flying right past me. And did I take a picture? Nope, too busy enjoying watching the pelican. But I do have pictures galore, I must admit, of a lot of other things, particularly the riotous flowers. The tiny plaza of Carlos V right off of Plaza del Francia is ablaze with color. The Plaza itself is pretty interesting, with memorials to the French who attempted canal building. A souvenir store, 844 'Indigenas Galerias' I believe, had the best prices for a lot of things, including postcards (4 for a buck) plus very nice staff. The Kuna Indian ladies are everywhere in that area selling molas, the appliqué colorful fabric creations, for upwards from $5.00.
Another missed picture was in Parque Metropolitano: it's a forest contained within the city, and a blue morpho butterfly flew across my path right near the beginning...before my camera was ready. But the hike was lovely, with a high lookout giving a view over the city and even to Cerre Ancon. It was a very empty park; I didn't even see any park workers/guides until I got to the exit. In the morning I had gone to the ruins of the original city, Panama la Vieja: stones and holes mostly now, but the tower of the cathedral is still standing and climbable. It was destroyed by pirates in 1671; Panama was extremely piratey. There's a museum that's has some good explanations, about a half mile before the tower.
To celebrate the Fourth of July, I had dinner at McDonald's. (Irony is my favorite literary device.) The old style apple pies are available here, too, which makes this, oh, about the 30th country or so that has the good one rather than the nasty cardboardy things that are now available in the US. I think perhaps litigation laws are a bit different in most places...
There aren't too many restaurant reviews here; in the heat, I tended to eat one main meal in the later afternoon (breakfast at La Estancia is quite good) and then just snack in the evening. I went to the huge Nikko Café for my last night's meal; it's very cheap and within walking distance of Cerro Ancon, but, well, let's just say it's not worth a special trip unless you're really into eating cheaply. I had a lunch at restaurant the Miraflores Visitor Center; it was decent, but of course the views are the main reason to go. One restaurant I really did enjoy was L'Olivo, in the San Francisco area of town (I walked there from Panama la Vieja, just looking for someplace to have lunch.) It wasn't, again, someplace of breathtaking wonderfulness, but very nice for the price and with a good staff.
I enjoyed Panama and would, as I said, like to see more of the countryside sometime, but the Amazon really has my heart; I was ready to go the opposite direction on Friday morning, but north I came'duty calls, and one can't live in Paradise forever.
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A Bit of Peru (the Amazon) and Panama (the City)
My itinerary might be a bit bizarre--a week in the Peruvian Amazon, a week in Panama City--but I had a great time.