Saturday, October 01, 2005

Panama... our last and southernmost country in Central America

Amie chimes in again...

Panama has been absolutely fantastic and a wonderful ending to our Central American adventure. Since July 7th, when we started in Cancun, Mexico, we have traveled through Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and finally Panama. Panama did not disappoint as our last port of call.

Crossing the boarder from Costa Rica, we arrived in Bocas del Toro, a series of islands on the north weastern Carribean coast. We reached the islands via a water taxi through mangroves along a river which opened into Carribean bays. We arrived first at Isla Colon, which is the main island and most developed. We quickly took another water taxi to Isla Bastimentos, which is a much less populated and more beautiful island.

Just after our arrival, we put on our suits and headed for Playa Wizard, a gorgeous white sand beach flanked by rocky cliffs and bordered by lush jungle. Along the way, we lost the trail and ended up hiking the wrong direction in knee deep mud. Not fun. But, we felt relieved to know that just about eveyone we met had made the same mistake before finding the correct trail. We earned that beach visit.

The next day, we went on an all day snorkeling tour around several of the Bocas. We started the amazing day speeding along glassy still water reflecting a gorgeously clear blue sky. We immediately came upon Dolphin Alley where we saw several groups of dolphins swimming just next to our boat. We continued on to Crawl Caye, where we snorkeled among rainbow colored coral in some of the clearest water I've ever seen.

Barracudas and Nurse sharks were spotted as well. We continued on to Isla Zapatillos, which is exactly the kind of Carribean island that Jordan fantasizes about - white sand, clear shallow water, and leaning palm trees lining the jungle covered island.

It was gorgeous! We continued on to two other beaches along Isla Bastimentos seeing many more dolphins along the way. Our boat captain, Mitch, did some spear fishing on our last stop and caught a foot long Trigger Fish. He skinned it, gutted it, and sliced it immediately after catching it on a rock on the beach. It was quite a sight and a fantastic end to a wonderful day.

We awoke to rain the next day, which was our cue to move on. We headed south to the Penninsula de Azuero, which jutts down into the Pacific. We went there for the Festival de la Mejorana in Guarare, which is a festival celebrating the Spanish folkloric traditions of the city. It was absolutely stunning! This region has historically been fairly isolated from the rest of Panama and has retained its folkloric traditions better than any region in the country. Over the course of several days, there were music and dance performances, bullfights, beautiful costumes, an oxcart parade, fireworks, and parties all night long.

The women wear very elaborate, hand made Polleras (dresses) and flowers made of beads in their hair. These Polleras cost about $700 US! They are exquisite.

Adults and children performed folkloric dances all day as the bands played on. Some of the music was acordian based while another type depended on the Mejorana, a small guitar, and a singer that sounded like he/she was yodeling. This singing was a cross between yodeling and a dog yelping in pain. Very unique, to say the least. Men throughout the festival do this kind of yelping to whoop up the crowd and to express excitement. We kept trying to see what terrible thing had happened before we realized what they were doing! There were fireworks, makeshift bars blasting salsa and merengue, and men drinking bottles of Seco, a Panamanian alcohol. It was total mayhem. In addition, the festival honors the Virgin of Mercedes, or Mercy. The statue of her is paraded through the streets and displayed in lights in front of the church.

She has handcuffs - police style - hanging from one of her hands because she is prayed to by convicts since she is the Virgin of Mercy. It was quite odd to see a religious statue donning handcuffs!

The highlight of the festival was the oxcart parade. About 40 carts drawn by 2 oxen each, parade through the streets of the town each with a group of people singing and playing music behind them. Each cart had a gorgeous woman in a beautiful Pollera dress on top. The most beautiful woman on the most elaborate cart was the Queen of the festival, whom Jordan quickly developed a crush on! hahaha!

We watched the parade from a raised platform just before the stage where they are judged. We drank Seco with our new Panamanian friends and enjoyed the show. By the end of the several hour parade, there were tons of drunk men roaming the streets passing from roving musical group to roving musical group.
The air was full of sounds - acordians, guitars, children playing, men yelping, fireworks, and blaring salsa music.

We even took a turn on one of the dancefloors using the salsa we'd learned for our wedding dance. The dj called out to us, saying "Hey Gringos!" We stuck out like blond sore thumbs. This festival doesn't see many non-Panamanian tourists so we were very unique. The shout-out was a friendly one and was followed by the bar owner inviting us to his table for Seco and Rum. The people here in Panama couldn't be nicer. We found so many people here who have gone very out of their way to be kind to us. We are grateful and have had a fantastic time as a result. We left the festival after several days of celebration exhausted and very impressed. I've seen some festivals in my time and travels and this was definitely one of the best!

From Guarare, we continued on to Panama City, where we are now. Panama City is the capital and home to the Panama Canal. We saw ships passing through the canal the other day and were surprisingly impressed.

We had no idea how elaborate the canal is. It took many years to complete, claimed thousands of lives due to Malaria and Yellow Fever, and is comprised of a series of locks, which are hydroelectronically controlled. While we were there, a small sailboat and a larger marine training boat crossed the Miraflores Locks where we watched from an observation deck. It may not sound exciting, but watching tons of water be displaced by each locked area and huge steel doors opening and closing to allow boats to pass is quite impressive in person.

While in Panama City, we have also seen the Casco Antiguo, which is the old colonial part of the city. It is quite Havanah-esque with buildings in different states of disrepair. Some of the buildings were lost to fire and are completely gutted. Others have layers and layers of peeling paint, which were applied and re-applied over the years. The area is quite dangerous so we could only walk through one area, which is patrolled by police. There is a church there which houses a famous gold altar, the only one not stolen by the plundering pirate Henry Morgan.

Morgan stole just about all the riches in Panama during his attacks. This is one of the few to remain, it is said, because it was hidden by a priest by painting it black so that Morgan wouldn't notice it. Whether this is true or not, is up for debate.

Yesterday, we took a day trip north to the Carribean coast to Portobelo, where there are military fort ruins and a famous Jesus de Nazare/Black Christ statue.

With my interest in Christian iconography, a black Jesus statue was the principal draw. You almost never, if ever, see a black Jesus statue so we made a point to go see it. It was very impressive to see the black Jesus in his purple and gold robe, life size and dragging a cross. There is a festival each year where the devoted come in the tens of thousands, wearing purple robes and walking in a procession. The festival sounds like a cross between a medieval Spanish religious procession crossed with Burningman and Carnival. We hope to see the crazy festival one day.

But, not this trip. That's because we head to Brazil tomorrow! We celebrated our last days in Central America by going to do some booty shaking, Jordan and Amie style. We went to a "hip" club where we saw a female dj spinning heavy house beats to a very beautiful crowd of dancers. We called it quits at 4 am knowing that we have plenty of dancing ahead in Brazil. Central America has been fascinating, fun, and exciting and tranquil. Very impressive.

Brazil.... here we come!


At 9:58 AM, Anonymous wuanda Walls said...

How fantastic!! As you know, I love Central and South America. Most of time was spent in Panama, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela. The black Christ is something I plan to see. They have many throughout the continent. You guys are so adventuresome. I love it!! My husband and I honeymooned in Colombia. Enjoy, enjoy.

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