Sunday was probably one of my favorite days here in Panama. Six of us crashed in an apartment for 3 or 4 and we woke up at 7 am to start our adventure. Carlos and I went to pick up our rental car over at the Thrifty right by our house. Even though its just a hold of $250, I always feel like I’m signing my life away with those kinds of contracts. In a very non-Panamanian way, we were all in the car and on the road my 8 am, sharp.
For better or for worse, since I had signed I drove the whole way there and back to the Caribbean side of Panama. Driving for me means getting to see all the scenery in front of me but missing everything that goes by. It also means I did not have to be scrunched in the back with 4 people. Teehee, sorry guys :)
Our first destination was the ruins at Portobello. It was almost too easy to find as we twister and turned along the coast and drove literally right by them. The approach into the area was just as fun as actually being there because we came over a hill, hugging the mini mountain and all of a sudden saw a beautiful blue bay, the ruins, the boats anchored in the bay, and all the buildings surrounding it. Everyone in unison “ooohhhhh.”
The ruins themselves were super neat too. There was not a whole lot of history there to know about them, a guide would have been helpful, but they were still fun to explore and of course take lots of pictures. I personally loved the view of the bay looking out to the Gulf. Meh, let’s face it, if there’s water involved, I like it. We spent some time there, ended up having to pay “parking” which was probably more like a tourist fee in an empty field and hit the road again to the beach.
With our very basic map it was easy crossing the isthmus and finding signs to the beaches. Where we ran into trouble was in the twisty, hilly back country where we thought we might have made a wrong turn, which is difficult because there are very few options as far as other roads to take. We saw signs for different beaches and followed figuring we’d get somewhere eventually. After driving for a while and not seeing water we made the mistake of turning to GPS. I may be a traditionalist, but I rarely rely on GPS because I know I can read a map and can navigate well. I also happen to be rather stubborn. Either way, we were about a 50/50 split in the car saying that the map was out of proportion to the GPS and we had to go inland before we’d hit the water again and the others saying that according to GPS we were in the middle of the forest, not on a road, and heading more inland.
Don’t get me wrong, at no point we were actually fighting or even very frustrated because the scenery was beautiful and the roads twisty and fun. We kept thinking we were going the right way because we would see the Red Devil buses carrying people to beaches. Once when we were heading down a twisty hill, a bus came down the other side and was a bit in our lane, all at once we screamed as we passed and the bus dove back on his side. Sweet mother of buses here in Panama who drive however they want! Either way, we stopped to ask for directions probably 3 times. Twice we were going the right way, the last time we were more or less right because we were in between two beaches but decided to head back to the more touristy, original destination. Before leaving the countryside, I made everyone get out of the car and take a picture of the gorgeous view, also to remember being lost out there.
Back at the cross roads we decided to eat since we were all a little car sick and had been trapped for a couple hours trying to find the beach. The decision was pizza before hitting the last few kms to Guaira.
On the final stretch we paid a few more “tourist fees” which was basically locals dressed up in the street dancing or just plain being in the way and not moving until you give them some money, Not much but definitely not official tolls.
Once at Guira, apart from the signs, we could tell we arrived because of all the people on the “beach” and all the Red Devil buses stopped on the side of the road. We parked and checked it out. While the water at Guira was clear and inviting, there was not much beach because it was close to high tide. Basically pack and not much room to enjoy, we all felt uneasy about trying to squeeze in and have all our stuff with us. It reminded me of “hillbilly beach” ( in an endearing way) in Tampa, FL where locals who don’t want to waste their time getting to a better beach drive up, drop their stuff and grab whatever piece of sand they can along the bay, just off the highway.
Luckily there is another option waiting for you at the docks of Guira which is what makes it a fun beach destination. There are tons of dug out boats that take people over to Isla Grande and the beaches just across the bay, which is what we decided to do since it was only $5 round trip, a little more reasonable than the Jet Express to Put-In-Bay. So we hopped in one and jetted over. Gotta love the extremely fashionable and well-fitting lifejackets. I do have to say that everyone around that area was very friendly. Our boat driver gave us his number so we could go back with him and even offered for us to pay then which I thought was pretty trusting giving the number of identical boats. I was impressed but we paid and ended up going back with someone else anyway.
The beaches of Isla Grande were packed as well but it was so neat wandering through the trees and seeing everyone with their coolers and families and in the water. We go to the end of the south side of the island and set up camp on a little, all-sand peninsula. On the one side everyone was swimming and just chillin in the water, and on the other there was a reef that came up pretty much to the beach, so much to explore! We had to move a couple times as the waves overtook our area but it was still an awesome spot. The water was lovely and we took turns watching our stuff.
One of my first moves, other than into that gorgeous, crystal clear water, was to get a beer from the little shack on our little peninsula. I ended up coming back with beer and a rented mask and snorkel and looking more touristy than previously imagined possible. I would say this picture pretty much captures the blonde girl on the beach amongst all the tan latinos and on top of that she puts on an oversized mask. I´m really not good at blending in.
Super-tourist or not the mask was one of the best $3 purchases I have ever made. It made my camera that much more fun to take underwater pictures and stalk fish on the reef side. I was able to get a couple good ones of fish but the real win was all the pictures of us. Floating, sinking, above water, below, eyes open, eyes closed. An indestructible, waterproof camera was the best thing my parents could have given me. Below the water I even found a bunch of shells which, if I can find reasonable matches for each, I plan to make earrings with. So now all my girl friends know what they´re getting as a gift from Panama.
While I do have tons of wonderful things to say about Isla Grande, Guira, and the whole area, there were a couple things that gave me something to think about as far as development. The first is that on the public part of the island there was not one trash receptacle. People were expected to take it with them when they left. Which of course did not always happen after drinking all day and having to carry things back to a boat to get to the mainland. Even at the restaurant they did not have garbage cans but instead a sign that said take it with you. Needless to say, there was a lot of garbage that got left from food, cans and bottles. Even in the water you could see a bit of glass, cans (especially around the docks) and other junk. I was almost compelled to go with my goggles and start cleaning.
The second thing that made my jaw DROP had to do with alcohol consumption. Not that I am against it on the beach, I am actually very for it and am sad that we did not plan ahead for that like the large family next to us. This family, a group of about 20 or so, was having a great time with their cooler and all ages jumping in the water and spending time together. A nice way to spend a Sunday. We could tell they were from the Colon side because of their accent and mannerisms. The funniest part was this squishy lady who seemed to be the ring-master of the group, sitting atop the cooler and every once in a while causing a little trouble by pouring water on people or convincing some of the boys to throw someone in the water. She also took it upon herself to distribute the beer. To everyone. Including minors. VERY minor. I think one was maybe 10 years old. And she of course passed it out to the notably young moms and dads, who poured it down their TODDLERS’ throats when they complained about being thirsty. Yes. Toddler. I pointed this out to others in our group who also thought poorly of this, but not our place to say.
I would like to note that they were drinking Schlitz which I have never seen in person, only in the sailing house on the old-school advertisement that says, “when you´re out of Schlitz, You’re out of beer” with a classy 50’s pinup. Yay for new experiences.
As the day was winding down everyone tried to get the most out of the sun, sand, and water. For a few it was probably a little too much sun so they took to the shade. We decided to try to beat the rush back and jumped on a boat back to our car. The beach on mainland was still packed and getting rowdier so it was probably for the best that we beat all the drunks out of there. We did end up hitting a bit of traffic on country roads getting back into Colon getting stuck behind buses and the rest of the weekend traffic. Everyone was beat and quite on the way back and we had to stop for another snack at the grocery store in Colon. I would like to note that everyone I have interacted with in a grocery store really values the opportunity to take their time and make your transaction as long as possible. While I am aware of this cultural difference, for some reason it still really annoys me. Or at least it did Sunday because I was hungry and burnt out. With food in my stomach I was more tolerant and the drive back to Panama City was easy.
Even after a long day, it was Superbowl Sunday and I wanted to watch the game. We got home at about 6:30, showered, and I hurried everyone out to go to our favorite sports bar. The goal was to get there early, relax, I would watch the game and they would use internet and have a Pan-american experience (lots of American influence in Panama, they love our professional sports). There were 2 things that went wrong. 1. We did not get there early enough to get a table for all 7 of us. 2. I thought the game started at 8… whoops. Anyway, after going around to about 4 bars trying to find seats and internet, the group went home and Ernesto and I ended up back at our original choice, Superbook. Where a large group was previously impossible, two was doable at the bar. I got to see the whole second half and use the internet. A great game and a great end to a fantastic day.