On August 5, our family set out to Volcan, our next destination in Panama. Volcan was a small town in the mountains, near the dormant volcano Volcan Baru. Although we were to stay in Volcan, we were going to do most of our activities in Boquete, a more developed city that was an hour away from Volcan. It was a 5 hour long car ride to Volcan, during which we stuffed our faces with ice cream, Oreos, Ritz crackers, and a bunch of other junk food.
As we were nearing our rental house, we had to navigate through the town of Volcan. It was quite difficult, as it was foggy and raining. To make matters worse, there seemed to be some horse celebration going on. The streets were crowded with horses and riders of all shapes, colors, and sizes. It was an amazing spectacle, but the horses made it really hard to drive.
When we finally burst out of the town, however, we faced yet another obstacle. By now it was dark out, and the steep mountain roads had many twists and turns. At one point, we got to a particularly sharp hairpin turn which left our mom trembling and scared out of her wits.
After a couple more scares, we reached the house, safe and sound. We rumbled up a long, grassy driveway, and finally came to the front porch. We were greeted by the barking of four dogs, as well as our host.
Once we had heaved all of our bags up the curving stairs (the entrance to the rental section of the house was upstairs), Ariana and I got a chance to look around. The place was made almost entirely of wood, and it was absolutely beautiful. As soon as you entered the space, there was a bathroom door to your left, and beyond that, a kitchen. To your right was a dining table, some black leather reclining chairs, and a day bed. Just beyond the kitchen was a tight, winding spiral staircase (also wooden), which lead to a downstairs bedroom and bathroom. Next to the staircase was a sliding door, which lead out to a balcony. The entire space shared a grand round ceiling, which was held up by a support beam down the center.
Ariana and I were giddy with excitement. We just knew we were going to have a good time here.
Every day of the week we stayed in Volcan was amazing. On the first day, we visited a carpenter. He was amazing with wood, and demonstrated how he could write with his chisel. The speed and accuracy he could write with on the wood was better that mine on paper! We were so impressed that we bought an owl he carved, which he signed before out eye. He also turned out to be a poet, so he recited some of his works for us.
On another day, we went on a hike. We walked by several ice-cold streams. At one point, we walked past a little farm, where a hen was crossing the trail with her fluffy little chicks.
One morning, we went horse-back riding. Our mom couldn’t make it, but Ariana and I went with our dad. We went to a farm called Finca Guardia. While there, I saw a giant ox carrying a load of sacks. It had a ring through its nose and everything! We also saw donkeys, cows, and a baby horse. There were even some Shepard dogs running around!
The animals weren’t being treated very well, though. There was some welding going on in the stables, and no one bothered to move the donkeys and horses away from the sparks. In addition, all of the animals appeared to have been branded with the same symbol. I tried not to let it distract me from the amazing ride, though.
Riding on a snowy horse I privately named Nieva (snow), we rode up the mountains. Some of the Shepard dogs trailed behind us. We rose higher and higher, until we were at the top of a large hill. I could see trees for miles around, and the sky was a bright blue. It was one of the best views I had seen so far.
We also went on Jansons’ coffee tour. It was a really good tour. They explained the rich history of their farm, and the process of making the best coffee, which is grown at the perfect altitude. In fact, Panama is recognized for making the best coffee in the world! We got to look at the nurseries, and got to sample the coffee and tea. I’m not a coffee person, but even I could tell that the coffee was high quality. The tea was also very good.
Since we started planning our Boquete trip, one thing we decided we wanted to do was do zip lining. We hit quite a few bumps in the road, however. First, we couldn’t find a space. Then, when we finally found one, medical issues got in the way, and we had to reschedule. On that date, we got a flat tire. We finally went the next day.
Upon arriving at the tourism center in Boquete, Ariana and I were very excited. By the time the bus left for the mountains, we were practically screaming. Finally, we arrived at the zip lining center. We got strapped in, and were ready to go. Then, out of the blue, one of the guides pulled us aside. He measured us, and determined that we would not be able to zip line alone! We would have to be strapped to a guide.
I’m not going to lie, Ariana and I were both really upset. But, all of my reservations were forgotten once I started rushing down the cord. It felt like flying! (Even though my guide was singing something in Spanish.) We did several cords, but I kept having to stop, since my guide needed to help other people along. It was fine, though. By the time we reached the zip lining center again, I was as happy as could be.
At the center. we watched a slide show of pictures, which were kind of funny. Luckily, we got to keep them! On our way out, the guides gave us a flash drive with the pictures on it.
(On the bus ride back, a guy decided the bus was going too slow, so he actually got up and jogged the rest of the way to the station!)
We went to some hot springs, too. We had a little trouble finding them, but it was completely worth it. The spring was owned by an older woman, who made us pay $5 to see the springs. I couldn’t help noticing that she had a lot of exotic pets. She had a horse, some ducks, and even a monkey walking around her property. The day we went was a really hot day, so we weren’t really keen to go into the near boiling spring. We tried it out anyway, though. When it got to be too much, we went to a nearby (5 minutes walk) river. It was really cool and refreshing, but we eventually got really cold. So, we moved back to the hot springs were we took a (sort-of) nap.
One of the main things I enjoyed about Boquete was the Spanish lessons we took there. We used a school called Spanish by the River. I have to say, our teacher was really good. She was funny, multilingual (Spanish, French, and English). We watched movies in Spanish, and learned the grammar for the simple future and past. Not only that, but Spanish by the River was outdoors. They had 9 chickens and two billy goats! There was even a relaxation area, where they provided hammocks, tea, coffee, and pastries. (There was a really good brownie/cookie with walnuts and caramel.) One lesson, the French director made us crepes, and put some locally grown oranges on top!
We even had fun when we were at home. Our host had 2 hectares of property, which she let her four dogs roam freely. I spent a lot of time snuggling with Loki, Zeus (who was disabled), Juno, and Tucker. Our host was also really nice. She gave us some of her home made Greek yogurt, which was very good.
Eventually, though we had to leave Boquete behind. After a week there, we left for Penonome, where we would spend the week at our grandma’s house. Her house has no AC, so it was sweltering. Even worse, the WiFi was incredibly slow. During that week, we mostly just worked on math. We did purchase hammocks for the house, though, so we chilled in those a bit. We even slept in them for the majority of the nights, as they were surprisingly comfortable.
Pretty much every night at our grandma’s house, we had a game night. We played Uno, Farkle, and Spanish Scrabble Dash. Our mom won every time, I always lost miserably.
(I also broke my glasses one night, which was a bummer, since those were the only pair I had brought with me. Luckily, we were able to super glue them back together for the remainder of the trip.)
One night (we were sleeping on the hammocks), my eyes were just drooping shut when Ariana shook me awake. She said she had seen a “weird boar rat creature” and was freaked out. She told me it had gone up a tree. Now, we were both very creeped out, but I managed to fall asleep. In the morning, Ariana told me that she had seen it go over to the mango tree and pick at on of the fallen, rotting mangoes. She also told me that she had had the strangest dream, where she had seen an “Armadillo Xing” sign. We also found that a critter had gone through our trash. Ariana looked up the traits of an armadillo, and sure enough, we had a match. The 9-banded Armadillo sometimes goes through trash, can climb, is nocturnal, and eats insects and fruit. Not only that, but it matched exactly what Ariana had seen! It appeared as if Ariana had known what it was all along.
One day, we decided to go to the beach. This wasn’t the first time we had gone, but it was one of the most memorable. For one thing, we got a sweet little tiki hut, which had hammocks and everything. Next to our hut was another family, who happened to have two adorable puppies, which we got to pet.
We also got a bit of a fright when we couldn’t find Ariana. In Panama, the waves are a lot higher and stronger, which means strong riptides. One of our favorite beach activities was getting washed up by the waves. But when Ariana went down to the beach to rinse her bathing suit, it took her an awfully long rime to come back. Our mom was scared that Ariana had been pulled out by a riptide! Luckily, we found her sitting back at the tiki hut, wondering where we were!
One of the most enjoyable days in Penonome was the day we visited El Valle. The road there had a lot of twists, but it wasn’t anything we couldn’t handle. Once we got there, we got a chance to look around the artisan market. People were selling all kinds of exotic fruits, but that isn’t what interested me the most. On the other side of the market, people were selling all kinds of crafts and jewelry. Some of the most common crafts were wooden animal carvings, paintings on bird feathers, and switchblades with carved clay handles. Ariana and I bought matching leather bracelets with our names on them. I wore the the one with Ariana’s name on it, and she wore the one with my name on it. That way, we said, we could always be together.
After the market, we decided to go on a bike ride around the town. We didn’t just ride any old bikes, however. Our family rented a four-person bike. It looked like two tandem bikes side by side, with a steering wheel and a little roof. We rode around for a bit, eating pastries we had purchased at a local panaderia. Finally, our dad decided that he would let Ariana and I drive for a little. It was actually really scary, because we were on a road with actual cars. It was really hard for me to drive in a straight line, especially with a ditch on the right and cars on the left. My parents (especially mom) were not happy. They didn’t think we were doing that bad, but they still got scared, especially when it began to rain.
Our dad quickly took over the wheel. As he drove, water collected in our roof, which we were now very grateful for. Soon enough, though, a bump in the road dumped the water all over us, and we were dripping wet. When we finally got back to our car, we had to wait out the rain before we could move on to our next activity: A hike up La India Dormida, or the Sleeping Indian, which was a nearby mountain. (Before we set off, we bought a bracelet at the market for Ariana’s friend.)
La India Dormida looks like the profile of a sleeping woman, complete with arms, hair, and a nose. You can read the legend behind why here. In order to climb the mountain, though, we needed to hire a guide. We drove with the guide to the mountain, where we began our journey.
It was a rather steep climb uphill, but it was completely worth it to see the beautiful waterfalls. Eventually, we reached the tip of La India’s nose. It was a beautiful view. We could the the entire town of El Valle spread in front of us, and a mountain vista behind. (Our mom scolded us when we leaned off the side of a cliff, however!)
As soon as our week in Penonome was over, we were off to Panama City. I was a little nervous about going there, because we were giving up our rental car (We got a new one for every section of our trip.) Instead, we were going to rely on taxis, uber, and other public transportation methods.
When we arrived at our new rental house, it was still around noon time, so I was awake enough to look around. We were staying in a condo-type space, which was attached to other cookie cutter condos down the street. Our space had no yard space whatsoever, but it had three bedrooms, along with WiFi and AC. We didn’t spend much time there throughout the week, though.
On our first day, we just looked around the city a bit. We found an old theater that was absolutely stunning. It had a high, circular ceiling, which depicted angels and flowers. A large crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling. The stage itself was very large. It was framed in “gold” carvings, similarly to the walls, which had balconies hanging off of them. A worker told us that the place was being refurbished, so there weren’t any shows going on. That was okay with me, though, because just seeing the theater was a treat.
Something else we had planned for Panama City was visiting the nature monument Barro Colorado. I learned a lot there. (I talk about my findings in Its a Jungle out There: An Exploration of Panama’s rainforests.) In this post, I just want to talk about the actual experience. The jungle itself was really beautiful, but a couple of things disappointed me. First of all, they had put concrete blocks in the ground to mark the trail. Also, aside from spiders, Ariana and I didn’t see all that much wildlife. Yes, we saw a toucan, some bats, leaf cutter ants, a frog, an agouti, and some tadpoles, but based on all the articles I read, I felt like I would see a little more. Something we really wanted to see were monkeys or sloths, but whenever our guide smelled them (yes, monkeys have a sweaty/fruity odor) she would yell “venga! Venga! Donde estas, chicos?” (Come, come! Where are you boys?) I’m pretty sure that scared any monkeys away.
Luckily, we got a chance to see some sloths at an urban park we went to. They were really slow, and barely moved, but they were really adorable. We learned why at Barro Colorado. Apparently, sloths live on a diet of leaves, with provide minimal energy. So, sloths hardly ever have enough energy to move a quickly as some other animals.
We got another glimpse of a sloth at another STRI sanctuary, but that wasn’t the main attraction. We got to look at some 5 year old sea turtles, and some nurse sharks. We also got to examine aquarium with all kinds of exotic fish in it There was even a place to look at frogs. Some of them were really brightly colored, like the neon green and black poison dart frog. Others blended in with the dirt and leaves. One frog I found to be particularly interesting was the crystal frog. The crystal frog is a transparent green. It is so transparent, in fact, that you can see its internal organs!
As I mentioned in a previous post, we visited the Biomuseo, too. It was recommended to us by a young woman who we met at Barro Colorado. The Biomuseo was colorful, and designed to symbolize the creation of Panama. We went on a wonderful journey, were we learned about how Panama rose from the ocean, and what affect the land bridge had on our world. One exhibit that really touched our mom was a virtual reality exhibit, where you were surrounded by screens and speakers that were trying to imitate the sights and sounds of a real rainforest. It was really beautiful and a special experience.
Something else I really enjoyed was watching traditional Panamanian dancing at La Tinajas restaurant. There was live music, which included an accordion, singer, and professional drummer (he treated us to a lengthy drum solo). They explained the different parts of a tradional Panamanian dancing dress. For example, they told us about how the skirt alone could cost up to 8000 dollars! Not only that, but the gold necklaces worn around the dancer’s necks were passed down through generations, and were a symbol of family wealth. In another dance, two men wore diablico, or devil masks. Originally, these masks were used by the Spanish to scare the Panamanian natives into the Christian belief system, which most of Panama still follows today.
Of course, the dancers themselves were also amazing. They all seemed to enjoy themselves the whole time. The women performed complicated twists of their fan-like dresses, while the men moved their feet in an impressively rapid dance.
One of the last things we did was take a bike ride on the Causeway. Ariana and I wanted to rent a tandem bike, but unfortunately, such a bicycle was not available. Instead, we road regular bikes down the causway. It was a spectaclar view, and we got to see all of the boats drifting around in the water. There was some construction going on, though, and I acciedently got caught up in some netting!
The day after that, our family went to Panama Viejo, or Old Panama. It is the ruins of an old city. It was a short trip, but it was still interesting. We got to climb up an old bell tower and read about the history.
One thing I want to always remember about this trip was the times we talked with our 96-year-old paternal grandfather, Papi Homero. Before the trip, we had only met him once, but we talked with him three separate times during our visit this summer. First, we talked to him briefly at a funeral. While we were in Panama City, we had dinner with him at the mall. Ariana and I had Subway, our parents had sushi, and Papi Homero had a food from a Panamanian fast food chain. ( “He’s 98, he can eat whatever he wants,” said my dad.)
Papi Homero gave us a travel book. We leafed through it, and found it really interesting. On one page, there was a map. Without looking, Ariana and I pointed to destinations on the map, and said we were going to visit them some day in honor of Papi. I landed on several oceans before finally landing on Bolivia. Ariana landed on Lithuania. We also sang “The Girl I Mean to Be” for him, and he sang a song for us, too.
We met for a second time at his apartment. The building was rather nice, but the elevator had just broken (it had fallen down from the 7th floor!) , so we had to take many flights of stairs up to the apartment. (This wasn’t very good for Papi’s health.)
Papi Homero had just moved in with his wife, so a lot of things were still boxed up. His wife, Lali, had four dogs. They were everywhere, and Papi Homero didn’t seem to like it. Luckily, Lali’s eight cats were kept in a seperate back room.
When we got a chance to see Papi Homero, he showed us pictures from his time as an ambassador, and some others of his time as governor of the providence of Panama. There was even pictures of him playing pool with one president, and standing with another! On every picture, he would point at each person, saying “He’s dead. He’s dead. He’s dead. He got assassinated. He’s dead.”
At the end of our visit, we took a picture with Papi Homero, and hugged and kissed him good-bye. As we exited, I whispered “Te quiero mucho, I love you.”
These memories are precious ones that I will cherish forever.