Arriving in Panama I reached my 50th country. While I certainly don't intend to stop now, as we farewell Central America I thought this would be a good time to reflect on a few things we've learnt over the last 3 months journeying through this beautiful part of the world. 
  • Central American kids are so chilled out
They never seem to cry on buses, complain when they are waiting in the hot sun and always seem to be willing to help out (even if it is cos they want a tip sometimes!)
  • Ive never eaten so much fried chicken in my life
Pollo Campero and its copycats proliferate more than Dunken Doughnuts in New York City!
  • Its really not that scary!
Central American horror stories that give mums nightmares abound, but bad news sells and we have met fewer people who have had bad things happen to them than the scaremongering leads you to believe. People, in general, are good; the majority of the locals we have met are friendly and more than willing to help us out. Be smart about it and you are unlikely to meet any problems
  • Coca Cola and Pepsi Co have a lot to be held accountable for
Litter proliferates along most main roads and at the beaches (the exception being in Costa Rica). Everywhere we look plastic bottles and bags lay to waste. The fact that soft drinks in Central America have more sugar in them than in other countries is surely contributing to the traditionally thin peoples becoming 'gordo' (although the fried chicken doesn't help either!). Tiendas (shops) across the countries are painted the multinational corporations colours but what legacy are they really leaving?
  • It's possible to get sick of mangos
Who'dve thought it - but at $1 for a bag of 6 they soon lose their novelty. Choconanas on the other hand, could definitely still devour those!
  • Can i please have an orange juice
Outside of Mexico you'll be hard pressed to find a freshly squeezed, non pasturised, orange juice. For countries with ideal citrus growing conditions it baffles me. 
  • Everybody loves a hamburger
With western food's flashy marketing and increasing incomes people are moving away from traditional food staples. Although, when faced with rice and beans 3 times a day for 2 weeks it starting looking pretty damn good to us too. 
  • I want an....ummmm?
In Mexico a banana is a platano, a plantain is a plantain, but when you cross into Guatemala a plantain is a platano and a banana is a banano. Kind of important as one you can eat raw and the other one may make you really sick!
  • Wanna watch TV? Oh, you must want CSI
Apart from the dreary reality of CNN or BBC it seems the only thing Central Americans think us gringos like to watch, as its the only other choice in english, is CSI
  • The wheels on the bus go round and round and round and round
Sometimes its better not to look at the tire tread, and the number of people you can fit on public transport is not defined by the number of seats in the vehice - silly westeners!
  • Bring me a mojito!
Ok, so outside of Cuba mojitos arent actually that easy to find, or that cheap to buy, but every country in Central America has its own brand of rum and the aged varieties at prices which mean we will need a detox when we get home (and have very expensive taste in future)
  • This region is extraordinarily blessed
Lush tropical rainforests, turquoise blue waters, an abundance of wildlife and friendly people. Sure some places have their problems but so do western countries. I would return in a heartbeat, and encourage everyone else to come here 
  • Street food won't make you sick
Well, it might. For a few days. But if you're smart and eat where the locals eat you'll get to sample some amazing local delacacies and be nice to your wallet at the same time. So, pull up a stool, lean on the wall and tantalise your tastebuds
  • Nothing is as it seems
Buses run on island time (unless you're late), the scary man behind you in the alley is really a gentleman making sure you get home safe and the friendly stranger is a 'jinetaro' whose in it for the money you are going to make him. Nothing may be as it seems but opening yourself up to it and relaxing is what makes the journey memorable and gives you those great 'post travel' stories. 

At first it is all infuriating but you soon get drawn into the laid back pace of life and I wonder how we will deal with transitioning back into the hustle and bustle of the western world. Still, a couple of months before we have to think about that...

Adios Central America - Muchas Gracias por todos!

Next stop: Colombia
 
 
We enjoyed (read: didn't) an overnight bus from Bocas to Panama City, arriving at 4.30am. We met an Austrian girl on our shuttle into Panama from Costa Rica so the three of us caught a taxi to a hostel in the old town and fortunately they had beds available so we all crashed out for a few hours before getting up to do some sightseeing. 

Panama City suprised me. All of the other capital cities in Central America have been hustling, bustling places that I wanted to get out of pretty quickly (if even stop in at all) but while I'm sure some parts of town are less desirable than others (just as in any big city), the main CBD, waterfront and old town all have a very cosmopolitan feel to them. 

There is clearly a lot of investment going on here. A $1 billion metro system is being built, and the waterfront promenade is bulging with peope running, cycling, playing sports, and families enjoying the open spaces. The current bus system, while still confusing to newly landed foreigners, seems to be very efficient and cheap with prepay cards like you use in the UK or NZ. Its really nice to walk around Casco Viejo (the Old Town) and see the beautiful old buildings being brought to life again. And while the mass rapid urban development that has gone on over the last 10 years has brought its own set of problems (12,000 new hotel rooms adding more strain to the antiquated sewer system for example) the city has a positive vibe, and seems to be looking forward to the future and what it will hold. 
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2 leisure boats and a big ass ship
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Miraflores control house and earthworks for the new locks in the background
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Ty and the rest of the crowd watching the locks in operation
A visit to Panama wouldn't be complete without a visit to the infamous canal. A monolithic engineering achievement the Canal changed the way world trade is conducted and continuous to influence life and business on a daily basis. The original idea for a waterway linking the Atlantic and the Pacific came about in 1524, when Spain's King Carlos V ordered the survey of a route, however it wasn't until 1880 that the French started digging. After removing 59,747,620 cubic meters of rock, and 20 years of struggles with the jungle, diseases and finances they were forced to give up and it was 1903 before Panama seceded from Colombia and signed a treaty with the USA which allowed them to purchase the French Canal Company's land for $40 million and  begin creation of the canal we know today. 

One of the major challenges that the construction workers faced was the fight against yellow fever and malaria.  In order to try and defeat the epidemics strategies including paving the streets in Panama, screening doors and windows, fumigating houses one by one, providing a clean water supply and sewarage system and draining marshes, wetlands  and stagnant waters to prevent the breeding of mosquitos were put in place.

Dry excavation lasted 7 years and more than 153 million cubic meters of rock were removed from the Culebra Cut (the most challenging part of the canal), using more than 60 million pounds of dynamite. To put that in perspective they could have built 63 Egyptian pyramids with the material they removed. The canal is about 80km long and ships are lifted 85 feet by three locks. All of the lock chambers are the same size and it takes 100 million litres of water to fill them! An average journey through the canal can take about 8 hours, with ships normally being in the Canal waters for 14-16 hours including waiting and paperwork time.
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The canal in action as a giant ship passes through the Miraflores locks
The height of each lock is the equivalent of an 8 storey building and to contain the water in the locks, steel gates 20m wide by 2 meters thick were built and the originals are still in use today. The gates weigh up to 700 tonnes (the same as more than 300 elephants!). These days the canal handles more than 13,000 ships a year, under the flags of 70 nations, although it is the USA, South Korea and Japan who are the most frequent customers. Boats pay tolls based on the amount of water they displace when going through the locks. The average toll for ships passing through is about $100,000, which sounds a lot, but many ships save about 10 times this figure by avoiding the several week long journey around the bottom of South America. The largest toll ever recorded was $419,000 by a Norwegian cruise ship and the smallest was 36 cents when a guy swam through them in 1936.

In 1977 US president James Carter and Panamanian Chief of State Omar Torrijos signed the Canal Treaties which set a date of December 31st 1999 for the total transfer of the Canal back to Panama and end the US military presence in the country. On the day, thousands of people celebrated in the streets. 

As vessels have got larger and larger, there are a percentage of the world fleet that cannot fit through the canal. Some boats, known as 'Panamax' leave literally centimetres on either side when they pass through. In 2006 the Panamanians held a referendum about expanding the Canal and on Sept 3, 2007 the Canal Expansion works began. The $5 billion project is expected to be completed next year and will mean that vessels with the capacity to carry up to 12,000 containers will be able to pass through (compared to the limit of 4500 containers now). The new locks will be 40% longer and 66% wider than the existing locks, exquivalent to four soccer fields, and their depth similar to that of a 10 story building. 

Don't get me wrong - Its a pretty impressive sight, and quite rightly one of the modern wonders of the world, but if you are not into modern engineering or shipping, once you've been through the museum you really don't need to spend a lot of time here. 

Next stop: Colombia
 
 
Arriving into Panama I hit my 50th country, well ahead of my deadline of my 50th birthday! But I certainly dont intend to stop now and look forward to the countries ahead of us on our journey home. 

We organised a shuttle to take us from Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro in Panama. The border crossing on the Carribean coast between the two countries is infamous for its rotting wooden bridge sitting high above the river that you must walk across. Its a little less daunting these days however now that there is a much sturdier steel and concrete construction for the trucks to use beside it. Still, we had to watch where we were stepping, lest we plunge through for an unplanned swim. 

We had expected to have to pay $3, or maybe $6, USD to enter Costa Rica, but when we went through we werent asked for anything - yay! We had noticed a sign saying that officials at this border do not collect currency but it was in really bad spanglish so we figured maybe that was it, but one of the girls in the group told me later she had had to pay. Oh well, luck was on our side for a change!

After our driver practiced his rally skills between the border and Almirante we hopped onto a local speed boat to head out to the Island archipelago of Bocas del Toro. 
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50 countries!!
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Some local houses in Bocas
Bocas has become a firm favourite on the tourist circuit in Panama and its easy to see why. Bocas' laid-back Caribbean vibe is enhanced by the archipelago’s spectacular natural setting. The islands are covered in dense jungles of vine tangles and forest palms that open up to pristine beaches fringed by reeds and mangroves. Beneath the water, an extensive coral reef ecosystem supports countless species of tropical fish (although diving visibility is poor), while simultaneously providing some seriously gnarly surf breaks (including one responsible for breaking our hostel owners back!). We had googled a place to stay before leaving Puerto Viejo and had decided on Pukalani Hostel. It was a few minutes out of town and seemed a little more chilled out than the party hostels in the centre which was what we were after. The travel gods had a different plan for us it seems though. Hopping in the free shuttle the owner, Juan, informed us that once a month for the full moon he does a party at the hostel which most of the island attends and that we were in luck it was tonight! Well, time to celebrate hitting 50! 

Pukalani has a beautiful set up with rooms all looking out to the ocean and overlooking the pool for geusts to use and a pagoda over the water with a bar and pool table to hang out. In proper spanish style the party didnt get into full swing until about midnight, but the DJ was set up, fire artists were on display and everyone was having a really good time. An older american 'swinger' couple obviously hoped they could entice some of the younger clientele to join them in some extra curricular activities as they got butt naked and wandered around chatting to everyone, which provided a good amount of entertainment! no photos though - sorry to disapoint! haha.

We met a really lovely American couple called Brandi and Chris who haddn't really done the 'hostel/backpacking' thing before and had initially planned to spend 19 days chilling in Bocas but all the talk of the amazing things we, and others at the hostel, had seen and done saw them change their plans and decide to go exploring. I hope they have a good time!
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Pukalani by night
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Ginormous rhino beetle - theyre endangered so this is pretty cool
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Bocas town from the water
We had intended to do a few day trips out to the other beaches and islands surrounding Isla Colon (the main Island), but our attempts were thwarted by the weather (rainy season seems to have finally set in) and the fact that I developed quite a bad pain in my back/side. Ty managed to go out in the boat with Juan one day and snorkel off a wreck and go kayaking around the bay another day so at least he managed to see a few sites. 

Next stop: Panama City and its infamous canal