Bee Says: We arrived into Panama City on a tidal wave of adrenaline. Fresh from our 8-seater aeroplane landing, and filled with relief that we had finally MADE it, that we had (just) survived the most uncertain and adventurous section of our trip and successfully made it from Colombia to Panama. Checking in to our hostel, Mamallena – the sister hostel of the one we spent Christmas at Cartagena in, we noticed helicopters regularly swooping out over the Panama City canal, costing a few hundred dollars a pop, and basked in the thought we had just got the exact same view for a fraction of the price. We had a much deserved beer and fell asleep. The next morning I woke up and couldn’t stop physically shaking… I have never experienced anything like it before. I had a gnawing anxious feeling and could barely brush my teeth because my hands were quivering so much. Nick was shaky too, he looked completely wan and pale, and his back was still so sore he could only comfortably lay on the floor. It didn’t take me long to Google diagnose that we were actually both suffering from some sort of shock reaction to our ordeal. The whole time we’d been on the border crossing journey, we had to stay focused and tough it out… now we were safely ensconced in Panama everything had hit us like a wall. I think I felt particularly floored by it, as I’d had to be strong for both of us, carry our backpacks etc, and at the same time felt entirely responsible for Nick and his health and worried sick about whether he would get better. It was time to call in the big guns and so first I rang my parents who instantly ordered me to go out and buy ice creams, hot chocolate and any manner of treats to cheer us up and induce a sugar high! I then skyped my sister Jess. She sat through about an hour of my recounting the story, snivelling, ugly crying and bawling about the situation, and wailing “even my backpack has become infested with giant aaaaannnts” before she announced that was it. She was booking us into a hotel for a few nights. It was time to get somewhere comfortable for Nick, where he didn’t have to walk 5 minutes to a communal (cold) shower and somewhere we could be looked after, rather than having to make a million decisions a day.
I think by that stage we just needed someone wonderful with an outside perspective to point out how much we needed just a little luxury! We tend to get so fixated on our shoestring budget that we hadn’t even considered something as decadent as a HOTEL especially over the busy New Years Ever period. By that night, my sister had found an incredible deal (only about $20 a night more than our hostel!) at the Double Tree Hilton. On the morning of New Years Eve we woke up in our hostel room, which to put things in perspective, was about a third of the size of our bathroom at the Hilton!, and I made us DIY pancake breakfast. Mamallena is a great hostel and any time usually it would have suited us ideally, but another reason we were glad to escape is that before we could even manage a mouthful of syrupy goodness, we were being interrogated on our thoughts on Scottish Independence. We had attracted the attentions of a well-meaning but incredibly intense Venezuelan guy who loved nothing more than to chat world-politics at high octane pace and volume. The day before, as we physically couldn’t leave the hostel with Nick still broken, he’d cornered us for hours. And this is the type of person who even if you have headphones on and your nose wedged in a book, will still natter away! He was sweet but as we were already pretty frayed at the edges, we were very relieved to be hopping in a taxi away from all that. He helpfully told Nick he may never get full-mobility back and may lose use of his legs (!) as we checked out!
Ahhh our Hilton hotel self-inflicted prison, it was DREAMY. Panama City is hot hot hot, peaking at 40 degrees, and it was glorious to enter our air conditioned piece of paradise. We had huge baths, we snuggled up in our fluffy toweling robes and chomped on the homemade cookies that are presented to you upon your arrival. We had great fun creating our own mini-bar of exported America snacks from a supermarket over the road. We certainly weren’t backpacking anymore!
Nick Says: Reeling from the damage to my back, Jess’s kind gesture was the perfect thing we needed. We had done over 3 months constantly on the road, with little to no home comforts. On my last big trip, which was 9 months, it was broken up every few months by living in an apartment for an extended period of time. We’d had nothing like that, and in addition to hitting the traditional 3 month wall (after 3 months of fast paced travel we were feeling the burn) we were obviously in physical and emotional shock. So being given a free delicious cookie every day and taking three baths (it was for my back, honest) was the perfect antidote. Now, I hear Panama City is one of the destinations to go this year. It may be amazing, but what we saw of it over our time there was basically just a big modern city with no real notable differences from hundreds of other cities. It was novel for us as we’d not been in a big Western style city for a looong time, but as a place to go I wouldn’t be hurrying back. If you know different though, please let us know!
However, it was our choice of destination for NYE, and we wanted to make the most of it. When originally planning on where’d we be, we had imagined Latin American street fiestas, dancing in the streets, fire works over the canal, and all night parties. Realising we had to adapt to our current situation, we decided to downgrade a bit. We’d read there was a rooftop bar on our hotel, so we fixed to go up there and watch the fireworks with a cocktail in hand. Except for the fact there was no rooftop bar, it was the perfect plan. So instead we went up to the roof with beers and chatted to a nice French-Canadian guy called Seb. But then I got pretty tired from all the painkillers I was on, so went down to the room to find that the Indiana Jones trilogy (let’s all just ignore the 4th one) was on cable. So next thing I knew I was in bed watching it, then I was asleep. At about 10pm apparently. HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Our next few days in Panama City followed the same basic pattern, relaxing, bathing, taking small walks to get me mobile again, and going to this incredible Greek restaurant called Athens we’d had recommended to us. We’ve become pizza connoisseurs of a sort on this trip, and this bad boy was one of the very best. Coupled with the laid-back atmosphere, and friendly staff, and this place was a gem. However, all good things must come to an end, and so it was we decided to move on and see some more of Panama. Our chosen destination was Boquete, a highland town in the north. Declared one of the best places to live by Time magazine several years ago, it’s now THE destination for Americans to retire to. You cannot move there for the silver haired crowd. It’s a stunningly beautiful destination though, so you can see why.
Hiking, rafting, zip-lining, and horse-riding are the order of the day in Boquete. So that meant I couldn’t really do much. My back had got worse after the 8 hours of travel, and I was getting pretty down to be honest. Maybe the crazy Venezuelan guy was right?! Luckily though, Bee had booked us into one of the best guest-houses we’ve been too – Valle Primavera. Run by the frankly saintly Nevys, it really felt like we were back at home being looked after. Sadly crutch bound after damaging her ankle, once she learnt about my back she wasted no time in recommending me an American chiropractor who lived nearby. With the average age of the residents, he must be doing a roaring trade.
Dr Dru kindly fitted us in for the next day, which was a Sunday (I got the feeling it was a massive favour to Nevys). While Bee went for a much needed massage with Dr Dru’s wife, I went into the good doctors operating room. He was not what I expected at all. Young and super friendly, he chatted away about his and his wife Jasmine’s last few years of backpacking through Central America, including running a hostel on the Corn Islands, where we hope to be in a few weeks. He was full of great advice, and also seemed to get straight to the root of my back problem. Using Soviet lasers to help heal the muscles (he did explain this properly to me, but all I took away from it is that the commies developed it in the 80s for their athletes) I started to think positive thoughts again. it was also surprisingly pain free, which was not what I expected. But how mistaken I could be. As he lulled me with travel talk, he was manipulating my back (which he later confided to me was in a horrific way) and then suddenly pushed down on my vertebrae, hard. I screamed and almost fainted.
Bee Says: I was having a great time with Jasmine, who reassured me that despite the gruelling effect travel has on your back (heavy bag, cramped buses, hours of hammock lazing) mine was in reasonable shape, probably because I have kept up my yoga. I was just starting to nod off when a huge roar from downstairs had me startled into a sitting position! The only only time I had heard that noise from Nick was when he originally hurt his back on the boat. Luckily, five minutes later I could hear him laughing, so knew that I didn’t have to go and beat Dr Dru up and carry Nick out over my shoulder. Our appointments ended and back at Valle Primavera I could already see a marked improvement in Nick’s posture and a decidedly less amount of wincing as he moved around. Thanksfully, this has only improved and little by little, he is resembling his usual fit self and less the crinkly American retiree residents of Boquete.
Even without being able to hike into the mountains, we could still appreciate the beautiful cool air, the lush green trees and the clouds that clung to the town like cotton wool. We did plenty of walks… but they mainly were to and from two places. The first was sugar and spice, home of the most incredible baked muffins and good wifi, so we could download the latest episode of Sherlock. Joy! The second was Mikes International Grill, which was always showing American sports, one night we got to watch the Super Bowl qualifier amongst rowdy fans. This was obviously the local spot for most Americans, and served up fantastic BBQ and cheap beers. One night as I sat munching Buffalo wings and Nick chowed down on The Hog (pulled pork), two gentlemen sat down next to us. Almost immediately we overheard one of them say the conversation was too confidential to have at the bar (…so you chose to come and have it next to two nosy blog-writing Brits?!) and they then proceeded to have the shadiest chat we have ever heard. There were code words, there were meaningful nods and eyerolls, there were squeezes of the shoulder. We have since become convinced they were organising a hit man, but perhaps they were just attempting to swap retired-person rose-gardening tips without losing their macho cool?
We arrived in Boquete a little bit broken. We had definitely lost our travel mojo and a giant question mark still hung over the rest of our trip, as Nick needed to be a) reasonably active and b) able to carry his backpack before we proceeded too far with our itinerary. It really was Neyvs and her mum (mamalita la bonita!) who got us back on our feet and ready for action once more! They were the Michael Caine Alfred to our Christian Bale Batman. Serving us breakfast on their little porch, helping me create regular ice packs for Nick, helping us plan our route to Costa Rica, nothing was too much trouble for them. One day as we sat chatting an English-Spanish mixture on the porch, mamalita asked if she could sing to us! About 30 cm from our faces she burst out in perfect Spanish opera and sang about four numbers before taking a little bow. It was surreal, but so special! Then she announced to Nick “You are very nice”. (he is, you know).
We were sad to leave Boquete, but really felt like Panama had been our recovery room, and we desperately needed to get back into the travelling properly and start making the most of every day again. What better place to zing us back to life that Costa Rica… with its Disney-movie wildlife, cloud forests and paradise beaches. With a 5am start, a near-miss with waiting at the wrong bus stop, we were finally zooming away from Boquete in an old yellow American school bus. Next stop… San Jose!