Included in the title to this long two-part post are the words “Chicken Bus.” Many who have traveled are familiar with the cramped, hot old school buses used to shuttle locals and backpackers up and down dusty roads, though I’d wager that the chicken buses we’ve been on are way cooler than the ones you’ve been on. Observe:
They’re called “chicken buses,” because occasionally livestock of various types will accompany human passengers, as this mode of transportation is really the only option available to many people. Jared shared vehicles in Mauritania with goats and chickens, for example, though I personally have yet to actually ride along with animals (alas). Jared promises that it’s not as exciting as I’m imagining, but I think he’s just saving those memories for himself.
Panamanian chicken buses are…colorful, to say the least, and the ones we’ve seen and ridden on are painted with bizarre conglomerations of Disney characters, high fantasy scenes involving amply-bosomed women surrounded by tigers and dragons, Japanese manga, random catchphrases and, wait for it, Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light. Perhaps, in the picture above, you missed the Thomas Kinkade:
Why? Well, why not. It certainly catches the eye and gives you something to look at and wonder about while you bounce and jounce along dusty roads at breakneck speed.
It was a chicken bus that carried us to Portobelo, the place we were to meet up with the captain of the Quest, the sailing yacht that would take us through the San Blas islands to Cartagena. This is a rather popular trip, especially with backpackers, and there are many boats that make the journey year-round. For a bit more than a plane ticket, you get five days on a sailing vessel, complete with meals and snorkeling around islands that evoke Robinson Crusoe and his man Friday. We found our way to the appropriate hostel, an ex-pat paradise perched high on a hill overlooking the town below.
Excitingly, this was the first place one could not drink the water, so we got to use our fancy water filters that we’d been carrying with us since Houston. When I asked the bartender at the hostel if the water was okay to drink, he laughed and said, “No, unless you want massive diarrhea.” In fact we did not, so filter we did. We also started taking malaria pills, unsure of whether or not it was necessary. One site we found indicated that “You would not be unwise” to take the pills, so why not. Water filters + malaria prophylactics = you’re really traveling now!
It was great to arrive early at the hostel, despite what the guy told me in Panama City, for a couple of reasons. First, it gave us a chance to meet some of the other people who would be sailing with us. We met a Belgian couple, three more US Americans, an Australian, and two Germans. Quite the international crew. Second, we had a full day to explore the forts that are the key feature of the town. Portobelo was once a crucial port for the Spanish, a major point for the transport of silver and gold. Like the original Panama City, Portobelo was also sacked by pirates.
With this rich history, and its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site, you’d think there would be more visible effort to preserve the forts, but there really isn’t. According to the bartender (an ex-Floridian who’s lived in Portobelo for the last 6 years), there are a couple of locals who cut the grass and sit outside the small museum to prevent vandalism, but nothing else more “official” has really been done. Portobelo is on UNESCO’s “in danger” list but this is relatively meaningless as it turns out, at least in this case. (Apologies to all the UNESCO officials reading this blog if I’m incorrect here – this is all according to what the bartender told me.) Locals have brought original cannonballs they’ve found to the bar, offering to sell them for $10, and once a North Korean visitor decided that he’d like one of the cannons from the fort to decorate his lawn, and almost got out of the country with it, until the scanners revealed a strangely shaped object hidden in the boat.
Regardless of its status, the forts in Portobelo are really cool. We took a boat across the water to view one of the largest ones. There had, at some point, been efforts to make some informative signs, but the maintenance of these had been abandoned long ago, many of them cracked and illegible from years of rain and the scorching Panamanian sun. Interestingly, though, we really enjoyed just looking around the fort. Additional information would have been helpful, but I don’t know how much it would have added to the experience. Often, when I do have the accompanying information at better preserved historical sites, I feel obligated to read everything and sometimes just skim it anyway, so it was a nice change to just wonder.
After touring this fort, we skiffed back across the bay to view the other two, the custom house, and a statue inside the church portraying Jesus as a black man. The tourism potential of this little town is completely untapped. The main foreign visitors, from what I could tell, were ex-pats and sailors who’d carved out their own little paradise, or travelers like us, who were just passing through. The infrastructure changes necessary to tap into that tourism potential are extreme, however, and I’m not sure that it’s something that the locals would want. Having only been there for 2 days, I certainly can’t make any judgments either way. Our bartender friend, however, seemed to think that it would never happen.
It’s true that, once one tours the forts and sees the sights, there isn’t much “to do” in Portobelo outside of getting sunburned and drinking at the hostel, which is basically what we did. We had a rowdy old time with our sailing mates as the voyage neared and we grew more excited to set sail. The night before departure, we met the captain of the S/Y Quest, Goeran Persson, a Swede who has been sailing since he was 16 and actually built his own boat.
The beautiful Quest, which would be our home for the next 5 days, is a 15-year labor of love, and it shows. As an interesting aside, Persson was once interviewed for a show on BBC about Freak Waves. Apparently, while First Officer on a huge ship near Antarctica, they encountered a 30-meter wave that almost destroyed it. (Our captain is the handsome blond with the great accent.)
This man, who now looks vaguely like the current James Bond, is a sailing badass who, if all else fails, still knows how to use a sextant and navigate by the stars. We were in good hands.
One of our shipmates asked Captain “James” (as we now affectionately call him) what his one recommendation for the trip was. “Take the pills,” he replied without hesitation, “Just take the pills.” Of course, he was referring to seasickness pills. I had brought a few Dramamine for our trip, but wanted to stock up, as did our new friends. Unfortunately, Portobelo lacks a pharmacy. Fortunately, the same guy who sells cocaine also sells seasickness pills, and we happily procured all (the pills) that we needed. As an aside, this is also the guy who can get you delicious pizza.
The next evening we boarded the Quest, ready for our gentle voyage to the San Blas islands.
Unfortunately, the passage from Portobelo to San Blas is not the most gentle in the world, and despite the pills many on board felt quite uncomfortable, if not completely sea sick. The first night, this was a bit compounded by the selections from Phantom of the Opera Captain James blasted after the sun set. “Night sailing music,” was all the explanation he gave. The seasickness did not dampen our spirits, however, and the next three days we enjoyed viewing pristine white beaches, tiny uninhabited islands, and some of the towns of the Kuna Yala people, who have sovereignty over the islands, and who make their living harvesting coconuts and selling souvenirs and supplies to the many yachts and sailboats anchored in the area.
We were especially happy when, on the afternoon before our open-ocean crossing, one man drove up with a boat full of freshly-caught lobster that our Captain had requested for us. Captain knew, no doubt, that it was best to enjoy this meal while anchored in still waters, as the next day would be fairly rough.
I’ve never been on a boat where you could not see land, and I spent most of the crossing staring out into the blue, contemplating krakens and sailors of yore. At one point dolphins followed at the front of our boat. Apparently they do that just for fun, as the boat creates pressure and enables them to go faster. I was delighted by these dolphins, and watched them a whole 10 minutes. Unfortunately, this was the only 10-minutes during the trip that I was exposed to the sun without any sunscreen, and I got roasted. Stupid dolphins. I wouldn’t say that the open ocean crossing was “fun.” I didn’t get completely seasick, but it’s generally uncomfortable as you get tossed around in bed, or thrown up against the wall as you gingerly make your way down to the bathroom. I think that we were all pretty glad when our boat was in sight of Cartagena, the Colombian city from where I’m writing now. Yes, we’ve finally made it to South America – a new continent. Cartagena is beautiful, and tomorrow we set out to explore an area that was once a heavily fortified part of the city. Heavily fortified, of course, because of pirates. They were just everywhere back then.