Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Hitting the big smoke in Panama City

Leaving the tropical delights of Caribbean island life was always going to be a bit difficult, but it was time to head to the city.

Panama City is the cosmopolitan capital of Central America. And while I had popped into a few cities while travelling through Central America, I never felt safe and these places had a distinct 'you might get shot' kind of feel.

Panama City on the other hand is cool. Now I'm not saying you wont get shot here, but the centre of the town did seem very civilised. I had a wander through some of the seedier areas where we had a taxi driver yell to us to turn around quickly as it wasn't safe, but we kept on wandering. I came out of the local markets alive, and not a sign of a weapon anywhere.

The city shoreline is packed with parks and shimmering skyscrapers. Mmmmm, I was back in civilization.

But the central hub of any city is not where you discover what the place is really about.

I headed to the colonial district of Casco Viejo to discover the true city and it's history. This part of the city was left crumbling into the sea for many years but is now part of a major regeneration project. Feeling like I was back in Havana, I wandered the twisting cobblestoned streets in awe, loving the dilapidated buildings standing next to a funky coffee shops, cute little churches and beautiful plazas. It was obvious to see why this area is now Unesco World Heritage listed.

I could have walked around here for days. In fact I did.

Mmmm, I probably got a bit carried away with the photos then, but the area was amazing.

I also went to the other end of town to see the ruins of Panama Viejo. Yes I know, I'm done with ruins but these weren't the work of the Romans, they are what's left of the orginial city after it was ransacked by Sir Henry Morgan in the mid 1600's.

We might have been told the area was closed for the day but there aren't really any (unopenable) gates, so we wandered around for a while.

But while Panama City itself is wonderful, it is the canal that shot it to world fame when the first ship sailed through in 1914. I spent a morning at Miraflores locks watching sail boats and huge freighters being raised and lowered through the locks. The worlds biggest ever engineering project is truly wonderful, but I did think it was rather narrow. I wouldn't like to be trying to steer a big boat through that little passage. Apparently I'm not the only one who has questioned the width of the canal, a project is about to commence to make it loads wider.

Panama City was also the place where I had to say goodbye to some wonderful travel buddies. That's always sad, but that's life on the road I guess.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Beautiful Bocas .... a panamanian paradise

Sometimes you find a place that suits you. Over the past year I've found quite a few of this places. They typically involve sun, sand and sea.

Bocas del Toro is a place that suits me. A lot.

The name Bocas del Toro is given to the province, the group of islands and the main island. Confusing, I know. This group of islands is amazing. Just over 30 k's from the Costa Rica boarder in Panama it is a short boat ride from the never ending banana plantations on the mainland. It's lucky that the trip is a quick one as my arrival at the wooden shed that is the ferry port coincided with a tropical downpour. I was drenched just grabbing my bag from the back of the bus. But not to worry, I was headed for island life.

These carribean islands are filled with West Indians, Latinos and a few resident gringos so the pace is very relaxed. There are six inhabited islands and loads of others that dot the clear blue waters.

My first stop was Isla Bastimentos. We grabbed a water taxi from the main island and not 10 minutes later pulled up at the verandah/jetty of our home for the next few nights, a cool family run hotel built out over the water.

The water around Bastimentos isn't clear like the main island. It seems that the island picks up all the rubbish fallen in the water from Bocas town. The shore was a bit of a rubbish dump to say the least. But this didn't detract from the charm. And I've seen more than my fair share of garbage filled streets and water ways, so this is nothing new for me. Ramshackled huts and houses are built on stilts out over the water and along the waters edge. Many had seen better days but they were filled with laughing children and relaxed locals.

The beauty of this island is away from the town. The north side of the island is lined with amazing palm fringed beaches. My favourite was Red Frog Beach, although it is more developed than many of the others ....  this is handy is you feel the urge for a coldie on a hot day!

The southern end of the island is covered in mangroves with lots of tiny islands and coral reef filling the marine park area. There is also a spot where you can always find a dolphin or two hanging around.

After a few days of chilling in the hammock, swimming and snorkeling it was time to see what the main island, Isla Colòn or Bocas as the locals call it, had to offer.

There is no beach within walking distance from town so I decided to save money on water taxi's and find a place with a pool. Mmmmm a swimming pools with views of the ocean. I like it. But I did grab a water taxi or two, there was so much to see, I didn't want to miss a thing.

Bocas is a wondeful mix of chilled out locals and even more relaxed gringos. The sandy streets are full of people cruising along on push bikes and there's a load of fun and unique places to eat.

If you are looking to really, really relax, head to Bocas. Mmmmm, think I could live there. Actually, I think I should live there.

Link to all pics

Monday, 8 April 2013

My amazing year of adventure - part 3 .... Central America

Once again, this blog post has been slow in coming. And even worse, I'm writing about places that are yet to feature in my blog. Not to worry, I'll get up to date at some point ....

Nov 2012

Mexico had been high on my list of must visit places forever, so I was very excited on 16 November when I flew from Madrid to Mexico City. As I skipped Spanish lessons and relaxed in the Greek Islands instead, I decided to join an Intrepid tour for much of the next few months.

Mexico City is a very cool city, amazing architecture, great food and loads of crazy people. And my travel group is very so fab. We walked the streets checking out all the tourist sights, spent an afternoon on the water in Belles Artes, hung out with mariachi bands, riot police and sampled the local food and tequilla.

As I travelled through the country, I fell in love with Mexico. Every town had it's own charm, friendly locals and amazing food. I wandered around and climbed some amazing Mayan ruins, soaking up the history.

Puebla, Oaxaca and San Cristobal were my favourite towns. Each was different, but all had the classic town square and some amazing architecture. They also served good tequilla .... my drop of choice selected from an extensive tequilla menu.


I relaxed on the beaches of Playa del Carmen and Cancun, introducing myself to the delights of an all inclusive hotel, all in the company of some fabulous new friends.

December 2012

I started the month in Cuba. What an amazing country, full of people who survive on a very low government wage but who are always happy and always salsa dancing.

Many buildings are decayed and crumbling, but the restored area of Old Havania is vibrant. The streets are full of cars from the '50's, music can be heard from cafes and shops and the locals smoke cigars and chat.

The countryside around the town of Vinales is so green and lush. Paddocks are full of produce, many producing tobacco for the famous cigars and beans for the very delicious coffee.

All to soon it was rime to farewell Fidel and head back to Mexico to join the next part of my tour, from Playa del Carmen all the way down to Panama City.

We stopped for a few days in Tulum to enjoy the magnificent beaches and the wonderful Mayan ruins perched on the cliff.

My travels south were mainly on the Carribean side. I landed in Belize by boat, to the magnificent island of Caye Caulker. This small island has such a Carribean feel, with sandy roads and loads of Rastas. I loved it.

The first stop in Guatemala was Flores, our base for visiting the Tikal Ruins. Just two days after the end of the Mayan calendar, I was sitting at the top of a Mayan pyramid watching the sun rise over the trees and soaring pyramids. Despite the freezing cold morning, it was magical.

I spent my birthday and Christmas Day in a fancy (by my current standards) local hotel in Rio Dulce on the banks of the river. It was a fun few days full of relaxation, laughter and tequilla.

Late December I landed in Antigua, wandering the streets and chatting (in English/Spanish) to the locals.

January 2013

New Years eve was a fun night spent in the strange town of Copan before we headed to Roatan Island. And yes, I know new years eve is actually in December, but more of the celebrations were after midnight so it belongs in this month.

Roatan is another island with a Carribean vibe, cool beaches, dolphins and hammocks. What more could you want really? I'm surprised I actually left this island ... actually, why did I leave this island??

The next country on the list was Nicaragua, first stop Granada. We hung out at the top of a volcano, wandered the markets and of course, sampled the local food. Nicaraguan pizza and ice cream is highly recommended.

Mid January saw me head to the cloud forest of Monteverde in Costa Rica. I was a long way from my beloved beach and it was cold, really cold. But the days were sunny so I headed out, strapped on a harness and jumped on a zip line. What was I thinking! It wasn't fun so I promptly jumped off and spent my time wandering around the much safer forest floor.

Soon I was back on the coast, thank god! A few days hanging out in the beach side town of Puerto Viejo was just what I needed. This town had it all, sandy streets leading to a beautiful beach, a sloth in a bar, a rasta market and a bakery with the best brownies ever. I was happy, so very happy.

But life was about to get a whole lot better.

The Bocas Islands just over the border in Panama are amazing. So good in fact that I left the group for a few days, they headed inland while I island hopped. I swam in crystal clear water, gazed at dolphins, picked up a water taxi when I needed a different beach view and wandered the streets of Bocas del Toro.

I grabbed a flight to Panama City to meet up with the group for the farewell dinner.

I spent a few more days in Panama City, exploring the streets of Casco Viejo where magnificent restored buildings sit side-by-side with crumbling ruins. I shopped in a local markets in the ghetto area and wandered the never ending shops in Allbrook Mall.

No visit to Pamana would be complete without a visit to the canal. What an amazing feat of engineering, and what a cool site watching yachts and freighters slowly make their way through the very narrow canal. Photos to come in my Panama blog post.

A spent a few days in Miami at the end of the month. What was planned as a beach stop over quickly became a hectic few days as I discovered all that Miami has to offer. You will need to stay tuned for my Miami blog post for pics and details.

February 2013

My twelve month loop of the world finished where it started ... back in Rawai, a little fishing town in the south of Phuket. Yes, I am back training muay thai 4 to 5 hours a day in the heat and humidity. It's amazing and I'm loving every minute.

Yes, I am in the ring with a broken wrist. And yes, you need to wait for that post to get the details.

What an amazing year its been. I've seen so many amazing places and met the most wonderful people, many of whom will be friends for life.

And the adventures continue ...