Marinated Crab Cramps

I had intended to write this final post from Panama whilst sitting in a hammock on the veranda of our incredible cabana in Bocas del Toro but our time there turned out to be so much fun and we made so many new friends that I just ran out of time. So here I am, sitting squashed into an aeroplane seat down the back of an Iberia flight to Madrid, trying to write with my eyes closed so I can remember what it was like this morning.

More of that later – my blog is nothing if not chronological so I must cast my mind back even further to bring you up to date.

After a very sweaty walk up the hills on our island near Boca Chica to see the howler monkeys we waved goodbye to Cala Mia. While I paid the bill, I asked one of the original staff of the resort how they were finding the new management. “You’ve seen”, he shrugged, raising an eyebrow and glancing in the direction of the whirling French lady with the wild look in her eyes. And with that, we boarded the boat and returned to the mainland, wondering what the future holds for the locals that work there.

A frenetic taxi driver took us to the city of David in double quick time and we picked up a 4×4 from the airport which would take us up to the mountains for a few days.

We’d booked a bungalow which had a kitchenette so we stopped on the way to buy some steak and sausages. However, when we arrived, the Canadian owner asked us how we were planning on cooking them as the place had no cooking facilities beyond a toaster and a microwave! Tricky.

One of the friendliest people we have met in Panama, Jane – the owner of the Coffee State Inn in Boquete – simply took our food into her house, and cooked it for us. The steak in Panama is pretty poor as it turns out but it was nice not to have to eat in a restaurant for a change.

Perched on the side of a hill overlooking the town of Boquete and Volcan Baru, at a height of 1500m, Barry and Jane’s guest house is a good deal cooler than the rest of Panama which was quite a relief.

The morning brought fine weather and superb views so we set off for a hike up one side of the volcano. A short drive took us to the start of the trail, we paid the $5 fee and drove on, as instructed by Jane before we left. As we bounced around, slipping from boulder to boulder, the wheels seemingly spinning independently from one another, we began to wonder whether we’d driven too far. Eventually, we cracked as the road turned steeply downhill and the rocks got bigger so we parked up and started to walk. The trail entered the jungle and we began to climb but, after half an hour or so, we came to what looked like an impassable obstacle – a raging river littered with large rocks. Eventually, we were helped across by an American guy with skin like leather who’d been camping in the jungle. He lent us his walking sticks to balance and, once across, hacked an enormous branch off a nearby tree with his two foot long cutlass and hid it in the jungle for us to use on our return. Standard.

Thanks to Action Man, the crossing was much easier on the way back and eventually, exhausted, we drove back to town for some dinner at Big Daddy’s. Wow. A portion of onion rings to share arrived – around 15 of them, enormous, smothered in batter, devoured in seconds. Fish tacos followed, with rice and beans, gone in the blink of an eye. In and out in less than an an hour, we fell into bed feeling good.

The next morning, Barry took us on a tour of their small coffee plantation. The man is a font of knowledge on all things from cleaner ants to the optimum altitude for growing every plant under the sun – fascinating. With the smell of newly roasted coffee in our nostrils, we set off for another walk, this time up the main trail that leads to the top of the volcano. We made it to a view point half way up and came back down but it was well worth it and, to reward ourselves, we returned to Big Daddy’s for the exact same meal. Superb.

Feeling refreshed by the cool air, the next morning we took a taxi the 3 hours over the mountains to Bocas del Toro. A couple of boat rides later we arrived at our final destination, a small resort on the island of Bastimentos called Al Natural.

The last 5 days of our trip were spent there and these days will live long in the memory.

First, the place itself. Picture an island covered in jungle and mangrove swamps with a strip of golden sand around the edge. Surrounded on 3 sides by jungle, the front of the traditional wood and bamboo huts are perched over the beach and open to the elements. The walls of the huts are only 3/4 height and so you are essentially sleeping outdoors. The bathroom is in a kind of annex-hut, and contains a living tree which is thrusting up through the floor boards and out through the roof. You sleep and wake to the sound of the sea along with the constant noise of the jungle – birds tweeting, monkeys running around on the roof, insects, err, making whatever noises insects make. The place is called al Natural for a reason.

At breakfast, lunch and dinner, you eat with the other guests at one long table. The guests come and go and the atmosphere is always changing. There always seems to be someone interesting to talk to.

When we arrived, a Canadian couple gave us the lowdown on the place as they’d been there for a few days already. Don’t leave fruit in your room, bats will find it. Be careful of scorpions in your shoes. There were monkeys that came down from the trees at dinner time, tempted by the daily offer of bananas provided by the owners. There was a myriad of different birds and Annika even caught sight of a caiman (a small crocodile) in the mangroves behind our hut. She was assured that they couldn’t climb the stairs and get in but that didn’t stop her wondering.

On the boat over to the resort from Bocas Town, we’d met a Chilean couple who had recently got married and were on their honeymoon. There are many couples who would prefer to spend their honeymoon away from other people. Not Daniela and Nahuel. Or at least we hope they didn’t as we spent a lot of the week with them and had a lot of laughs.

During our time there, we convinced them to teach us a new word, in Spanish, every day. Day one, the word was ‘calambres’ – cramps. Day two brought us ‘cangrejo’ – crab. By the end of the week, we also had ‘adobado’ – marinated and ‘ojas’ – leaves. I’m sure there were more but our favourite was probably the one that we learnt on the boat dock in the dark. Only this one was invented by Annika.

Once the night had fallen, torches were fetched and we all headed for the pier. A few seconds was spent shining a light into the black water before turning them off to see huge areas of plankton glowing neon in response. It was a truly magical sight and caused a slightly inebriated Annika to proclaim that it was ‘Chuleta!’, a word she remembered reading in the guide book that she thought meant ‘Excellent!’. Sadly, as Daniela pointed out, it actually means ‘pork steak’ but the exclamation stuck and was used to express surprise, delight or joy whenever the chance arose.

During our time there, we did two dives and some snorkelling, saw dolphins and flying fish and circumnavigated a nearby uninhabited island on foot. We met more great people including a group of Spanish, a group of French and a German/Slovenian couple who run a restaurant near Barcelona. The Belgian owner of the place joined us for the last two nights and the food, cooked mainly by the dive master from the US and the Argentinian barman was superb.

It was a brilliant end to our holiday. Chuleta, in fact.