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Las Lajas & Santa Catalina, PAN


March 31, 2017

We left Norman’s before seven am with the plan of getting to the National Insurance office when it opened at 7:45am (this is required before you renew your vehicle permit [TIP]). We were actually super early but did hit some slow traffic but were still early enough to stop for Egg McMuffins as a treat.

Interesting fact: we’d noticed since Costa Rica that there is less clearcutting there and in Panama. We were told by local gringos, that the government of both these countries subsidizes propane for residents to discourage cutting trees for cooking and heating.

We parked and went to wait at the door so we’d be first in line. The doors opened at 7:50 but there were no employees at their desks. Doug wandered into the back to ask and a woman came out to one of the three front desks and helped us. We were out in about ten minutes; easy peezy for a change!

Then it was off to the Aduana (Customs) to renew the TIP. While Doug parked outside the gate, Fran went ahead, signed us in with our passports and headed into the office. The TIP renewal office is in the back and the woman there was very friendly, and spoke Spanish slowly once we asked her to. We were out of there in less than fifteen minutes! Wow – unheard of in our experience with such offices AND it was free.

We had hoped to be on the road by 10:30 from David after doing the above AND getting groceries so we were waaaaay ahead of schedule (if you can call it a “schedule”).

We stopped by the Super Rey and stocked up and hit the road for the beach; we were headed to Las Lajas, the longest beach in Central America (20km!) and many say the best in Panama. It was just over an hour’s drive and we were at the hostel we planned to stay at by 10:30. The owner was out for the morning and the car gate was locked so one of the dorm guests, Mark (a Brit), suggested we park across the road and the owner would be back before the end of the morning. So we were left with walking the beach, what a hardship!

It’s the type of beach we love: long, clean, very wide at low tide, lots of palm trees and no big hotels/resorts.

We walked for about an hour, then went back to Tigger and got our Spanish lessons and did that before Matt returned.

Matt is a young American man who leased the property last fall, and opened a small hostel/bar with camping out front. It’s directly across the road from the beach which just has palapas (they are actually called “ranchos” here in PAN) and palm trees on it. He’s called it Johnny Fiestas and charges $5 pp to camp. He actually has power outlets in the camping area especially for this and there is a bathroom and shower out back. The place has dorm style rooms, a kitchen area, a nice chilling’ area with hammocks, tables and chairs and decent Wi-Fi. The bar serves $1 beers and other drinks and for food for now he just serves hamburgers and hotdogs.

 Fun Fact: the name Johnny Fiestas comes from the Simpsons: When Marge first met Tammy and her Cheery Red Tomatoes, they went to Johnny Fiestas to gossip their husbands.

So we parked at the front edge of the property so we had a view of the beach and set up. We plan to stay a week or so.

There are a couple of middle aged British guys here, Mark (whom we’d met earlier) and Hugh, the latter kinda works here as he gives surf lessons (Matt also rents boards) and there are two younger girls (one from Quebec named Ev, and the other Russian, who volunteer here for a bed). It’s a pretty quiet place for a hostel which suits us just fine. Others came and went during our stay as well.

The beach again, is spectacular and we walk it at least once a day and we enjoy the water 2-4 times a day in the afternoon. There is some surf but it’s not quite strong enough to enjoy our boogie boards so we haven’t bothered with them. The only con here are the sand flies but they only come out at dawn and dusk and Matt sprays around the chill area (with some chemical free stuff as he has dogs) and that helps but a few always manage to get Fran.

It’s now Tuesday and we are getting low on supplies; there are NO shops within a reasonable walking distance and town is ten km away. There are two places with restaurants and another bar though. Matt says there’s a fruit and veg truck that comes on Thursdays, but we need a few more things than that. Doug decided to walk/hitch into the village on Wednesday and managed to get most of what we needed to continue staying here for a few more days.

Tonight, the owner and four of his guests, drove to Boquete to climb Volcán Barú so Matt left Hugh in charge and we are currently the only guests. Hugh has keys for the gates and most importantly, the beer fridge!

Thursday, we remembered that Doug needs an echocardiogram since it’s been about fifteen months since his last one, and we figured this might be easier and cheaper in David. We had picked up some names when we were there a couple of weeks ago, but done nothing about it. Doug called and was told there were no openings until Wednesday which really didn’t suit us but then they found a cancellation for tomorrow so he took it. We’ll drive back to David (about 90km/55m) and this will allow us to do a bigger stock up to last here at this wonderful beach for a few more days. This type of test costs anywhere from $1500-3500 in the US and we paid $285 in Mexico in December of 2015 and this time it will cost $225. We can submit the receipt to our insurance to apply against our deductible as well (at 80%).

Not sure we mentioned this in a previous blog, but Doug has also “built” a wall to put in Tigger when we ship to Colombia next month. We will be shipping “RORO” which means, no container as Tigger won’t fit in one. As you have to give them keys to “roll on” the vehicle and then “roll off” in Colombia, in order to make the coach secure, he bought a 3/4 “ plywood, the exact size of the opening from the front to the back. It will kinda angle into the where the separation curtain track is located, then we can push it upright and will be secured in place both with “L” brackets on the floor and a tension bar. We can use our chains on the outside to keep the coach door secure and we’ll empty out all belongings from the cab to put them “behind the wall”.

That afternoon nearing happy hour we saw Christine & Mark’s rig drive up. Mark is flying home for a few weeks next week and Christine will be staying in Boquete while he’s away. They will drive up there soon, slip off the camper for her to live in and put the truck in storage. It has begun having transmission issues which they will deal with when he returns and since their TIP is in his name, she cannot renew it while he’s gone. It will be cooler for her temperature wise up there and everything she’ll need is in within walking distance.

We enjoyed a beer with them, went for a sunset swim and after showering had another happy hour before dinner. It’s pretty hot here and they don’t have AC so they’re only staying the one night as this will be the last time we see them until maybe are all in Colombia in the summer.

Today a cyclist came into the hostel as well; Fabian is Swiss and is enroute to Brazil; he began his ride in Cancun.

Little video Fran took on beach:

So after brekkie, we unhooked and headed into David for Doug’s appointment, the bank and groceries. Fabian needed some supplies so we offered him a ride into the village where he could hitch hike back from like Doug did a few days ago. We arrived at the hospital early, checked in with reception and were told the doctor was running a bit late due to a procedure he was performing. Fran left and went to Mickey Dee’s for AC and internet and Doug finally met her there around 2:15 as the cardiologist had not shown up until 1:30 so he had a long a$$ wait. Anyway, echo is done for another year and all was good.

We returned to Johnny Fiestas and stayed there until Sunday morning. Fabian was also leaving today so we gave him a ride about 50km to our turnoff to Santa Catalina; he was most grateful for the comfy ride. Good luck Fabian!

Today is Palm Sunday (beginning of Holy Week/Semana Santa) and along the way we had to stop in a small village where a procession of about 50 people was walking to the church carry palms.  We did not take photos as it felt invasive.

We arrived at Santa Catalina in the early afternoon, parked at Surfer’s Paradise Hostel for the next two nights. This place is up on a small cliff with a staircase down to the ocean. There is supposed to have some great surfing but the beach is rocky so you have to make your way, pretty far out to do it. The owner and family are very friendly and helped us book a snorkel out to the nearby Isla de Coiba National Park for Monday.

We then walked into the village to check it out; it was a darn hot walk and upon returning Fran changed and went down the staircase to check out the beach for a bit to cool off. There was no shade down there and the beach is not sandy so after trying to walk out and getting knocked over while sitting on a rock (but at least she got cooled off!), she returned to the rig. There is a lovely breeze up here and we set up our chairs to enjoy the view and stay cool.

There is a bar near reception and we went out there at happy hour and met a few surfers staying here.

Isla de Coiba used to be part of the Galapagos archipelago, millions of years ago and has some unique species. From 1918 to 1998 it was used as a penal colony several species were depleted by the dogs and cows living on the land. The site became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2005 and the flora and fauna is recovering. There are several reefs around the island and hits 37 counterparts. Coiba is the largest island in all of Central America.

We were up early on Monday to walk into town to the beach to get on our tour. As usual for Latin America what you are sold is not always what you get. We’d been lead to believe that we would get a tour to the park with three snorkel stops, lunch and a beach stop. The captain told us it was two snorkels stops so when we and two other couples mentioned that they had also been told three, the plan changed. Our guide, Miguel, was a fellow from Portugal and although very friendly, did not turn out to be the best snorkel guide.

It took over an hour to get to the Isla de Coiba (about 20km off shore) and along the way we came across a small group of bottlenose dolphins and saw one turtle in the ocean for a brief second. The first spot we stopped at was idyllic; white soft sand, palm trees and turquoise water; it was a small islet off the big island. We took a few pics, got our snorkel gear and entered the water. With our typical luck with underwater cameras, again, ours decided to die! So disappointing, again! The water here is pretty clear and we saw SO many fish, many in large schools we would have had a lot of awesome shots.

Miguel took off right away with a few of the girls, but never said “okay everyone follow me” and we felt he was going too fast so we lingered as we went around. Doug saw a shark, then we both saw one and although others said they saw a turtle, an eagle ray and an eel, we did not. We also saw some of the largest sea urchins we’ve ever seen. The guide should have kept us all together and we could have all enjoyed everything.

The next two stops were not as good for variety but we did see a shark at the third one.

Below are pics I have “stolen” off the web of some of the things we saw (there are more the gallery associated with this post):

The lunch stop was at a ranger station and you could hike up to a mirador. Sadly, our lunch of all the groups, was the worst. We got a ham and cheese sandwich on a bun and a bottle of water! All the other boats seem to have pasta salads and more, and a variety of beverage options. Not impressed.

After the third snorkel we were taken to a lovely beach with swaying palms and there is a Smithsonian research institute here. We were told we could go over to the end of the beach and snorkel there; we were the only ones who did. We saw a few ginormous schools of small silver fish and small schools of larger fish. The water was rather murky there so visibility was not great and our snorkels were leaking like crazy by this time. (We had been told that all equipment would be supplied so despite having our own, we only brought our own masks – another disappointment and we were the only ones with snorkel problems.) Fran did see a ray on the way back that was in the sand then took off.

After enjoying a sit on the beach (no seating provided though), a cold drink (which we had brought) and some pineapple (supplied), we returned to Santa Catalina. So it was a pretty good day, not outstanding as hoped to see more snorkeling (and didn’t plan on a busted camera!) but certainly way better than our Bocas boat trip with better weather as well.

Upon returning to the hostel, we showered and enjoyed a Corona celebrating Fran’s third anniversary of being retired. We went over to the bar and there chatted with another young Swiss man also named Fabian! From the bar deck we could see some surfers catching waves and watch the sun set. As he was leaving here tomorrow heading back to Panama City to fly home, we offered him a ride to the larger city of Santiago which we would pass through enroute to our next beach. We arranged to meet at 8am the next morning.