Sounds impossible right? After being locked down in Panama city for so many months, then stumped by endless difficulties getting number plates for our imported American car, it sounded like a serious break for freedom, which we were delighted to take! Less than 2 hours on the road took us from Panama’s high-rise modernity on the Pacific, all the way to the low slung, laid back Caribbean. With colourful, rundown buildings, ruined forts and beautiful little coves, it felt like another world entirely.
With Coronavirus cases rising here, we were desperate to see some of the country before Panama gets locked down again. Apart from escaping to Europe for 2 months, we’ve only left the city three times since January: two little day trips to Isla Toboga and Gatun lake, and once to pick up our car from Colon! We’ve only bought two tanks of gas in 9 months… and the second one is still half full! When we arrived here, we were warned not to get stuck in a bubble living in Costa Del Este. We laughed thinking that could never happen to us. Then the Pandemic hit, and this little enclave became our world. Stuck like fish in a tank. Fancy tank, but still…
Our day trip was suggested and organized by Damselfly Travels. Early one stormy Saturday morning, Louis, our bilingual guide and driver, picked us up in his reassuringly aged Toyota Landcruiser. He was cheerfully confident the weather would be completely different on the other side, which it was. As we drove down out of the mountains (whose constant rain make the Panama Canal system possible) towards the coast, the oppressive clouds gave way a beautifully warm clear Caribbean day.
We drove through rundown, sleepy Portobelo, once the centre of the world in terms of the Spanish gold route to Europe, to a little place called Puerto Lindo. We boarded a boat which meandered slowly through the mangroves following a tranquil, turquoise channel of water to the tiny slip of beach at Isla Mamey. We had a lovely couple of hours swimming and snorkeling. So good to be back in the clear, warm waters of the Caribbean. To the kids, that feels like home!
Back at Puerto Lindo, we were taken for lunch at Fonda de Gloria, the front room of a local lady, just up an alley way from the beach. She had prepared us fried fish (heads and all) and “patacones” (plantain fritters which Ed and I ate slathered in scotch bonnet sauce). As the rain began to fall from nowhere, our sun dazed kids slumped down happily in her sitting room, which looked like it doubled as the local bar, to watch Spanish cartoons. We had no excuse but to have another cold Balboa and watch the street go by.
When the shower passed, we peeled our dozy children off Gloria’s couches and drove up the road to Portobelo. We visited the Black Christ statue at Iglesia de San Felipe, the last structure built by the Spanish before they left Panama. We wandered through the ruined fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site built by the Spanish during the 17th and 18th century, as they endeavored to protect their transatlantic trade route, shipping home immense riches freshly plundered from Peru. Many (mostly English!) boats have been sunk from these moss-covered battlements and cannons: pirates, privateers and Navy vessels from the War of Jenkins’ Ear; an ear that was chopped off by the Spanish. What with sunken Spanish galleons and their glittering cargos, the number of dive operators along the coast is not surprising. We need to come back!
The kids were dropping again under the sun, so we paused for an insanely pink donut at Antonella’s waspy pizzeria. Then, Louis took us to find the next part of our adventure, a three-hour kayak trip with Francesco from Panamore Tours. He was a bundle of fun and energy, immediately engaging the kids, full of passion and history about Portobelo and the surrounding area. We set off in three tandem kayaks, taking one child each, plus his small black dog who, to the kids’ delight, kept jumping off and swimming between the boats.
We paddled round the ruins then up two different rivers. First, we went through a tranquil mangrove forest, where the only sounds were bird calls, the soft splashes of our oars and the occasional shriek from the kids (and me!) about crabs, spiders etc. At one point, my son clambered off his kayak and immediately got one croc stuck in the thick mangrove mud. We sat in the dappled afternoon light giggling as he made a huge of fuss putting his hand in to pull it out, as would have I, though I would never have dreamt of getting out of my kayak!
Then we went through some beautiful, sleepy farmland where I was struck by the strange juxtapositions of Brahman cattle (originally from India), jungily vegetation, gorgeous flowers hanging over the water and salsa music drifting on the breeze. We saw crested kingfishers, ibis, heron and a large splash which Francesco said was a Cayman: a small kind of crocodile! This was a slightly alarming thought as the kids kept intentionally falling in, though I felt reassured that the small dog didn’t seem too bothered.
After a gorgeous three hours on the water, we slowly headed for home. The kids’ had long since given up, and instead were trying to stand up and ride the waves from Francesco’s boat, my son was half asleep on my husband’s, and I was lagging a bit at the back! After a quick shower and cold beer (how we longed to stay for Francesco’s evening special – lasagna!) Louis swept us off back to the city, navigating the dark, pot holey roads and blinding oncoming lights brilliantly. Such a pleasure to have a driver! ‘