In a previous post about Panama I wrote about Isla Grande- this beautiful island in the Caribbean. When it was time to leave Isla Grande, we took a boat to the coast (to La Guaira) and then got on an another quintessentially Panamanian bus to Portobelo. Portobelo is a picturesque, sleepy, colourful (literally) town in Colon Province. See how brightly coloured the houses are:
It’s also full of adorable little dogs:
But what it’s really famous for are the following:
– The Black Christ
– Gold; and
1. The Black Christ
A famous statue of the black christ or El Cristo Negro is housed in a church called Iglesia de San Felipe in Portobelo.
Legend has it that the statue of the black christ was carved in Spain and was being taken to Colombia, but the crew decided to leave it behind in Portobelo because it was bringing them bad luck. Portobelo is now the site of an annual festival called the Black Christ Festival.
Apparently, one third of all the gold in the world passed through Portobelo. All this gold was processed in this spanish customs house built in 1630:
Because there was gold, obviously there were pirates! Apparently, Portobelo was attacked repeatedly by pirates. The most famous one to attack and sack the town was Captain Morgan! As a result, the Spanish fortified the port. The beautiful forts are now in ruins.
Now, I’ve seen plenty of forts in India and Europe, but I found two things to be particularly striking about these forts. First, dead coral was used in the walls!
The other thing that was absolutely magical about these forts was the unparalleled beauty of the Caribbean; I’ve never seen a more gorgeous backdrop to a fort in my life! Here are some of the vistas I am talking about:
What made the forts absolutely gorgeous in my eyes was the contrast between the coral and the Caribbean blue-green; the ocean was such a striking and wonderful backdrop to the textured off-white of the coral walls of the forts.
I can honestly say that Portobelo is one of the cutest, prettiest, sleepiest little towns that I have ever been to. As I said, it was indeed full of beautiful colours.
Apparently, old American school buses are shipped over to Panama and used for public transportation. This is the most sober specimen of such a bus I could find.
Most of them are brightly coloured and decorated. I rather liked the art-work on them.
There is even a gallery in Panama City’s historic Casco Viejo neighborhood called Diablo Rosso gallery that sells painted bus doors by one of the more popular red devil artists.
I wish I’d taken better pictures of them. They are not only done up on the outside but also decorated inside with all sorts of coloured tape and some sort of furry banners. They also play incredibly loud music inside these buses, mostly spanish hip-hop and Reggae-tone.
I think they’re unique and an interesting addition to the roads, so much better than the usual boring buses we see on the streets. Unfortunately, these red devils are apparently extremely dangerous and have caused many accidents. Not only this, they cause a lot of pollution. As a result, they’re on their way out, being replaced by Government owned, clean, modern new buses.
While these new buses are more environmentally friendly and less likely to causes accidents, I think phasing out the red devils entirely would be a travesty. Perhaps the solution is clean, environmentally friendly buses, driven by well-trained, careful drivers, which are also decorated creatively with wild colours. It isn’t my place to say though. I don’t live in Panama and know very little on the subject, it’s just that I thought they were full of character and quite iconic even.
I’ve been missing in action for over a week now, and the reason for this is that I have been away in lovely, warm, sunny Panama. I enjoyed all of my trip, but I would have to say that my favourite bit was visiting the Caribbean coast and some islands around it. This is why my first post is going to be about the beach part of my vacation.
To get to the coast one has to travel by road from Panama city to the Panamanian province of Colon, up until a little port on the coast called La Guaira. From there we took a boat ride to Isla Grande, an island off the coast. We spent two days there; it was both a beautiful and puzzling little place. It was an extremely laid-back and sleepy town, and people seemed somewhat erratic in their niceness and willingness to serve customers. (I feel I must clarify here that we visited the island during the week, and apparently, it gets much busier during the weekends.)
There were for instance, little stores on the island that sold snacks, toilet paper, water, alcohol etc., Now these stores seemed to keep arbitrary timings and on top of this, the store-keepers also randomly, decided not to sell a customer things even though they were seemingly open. On second thought, their decision not to serve you wasn’t random, I think that if you asked too many questions they decided it wasn’t worth the trouble and refused to deal with you. Now, this didn’t happen to me, but it happened to my friends, and I have it on good authority (my friends who actually live in Panama) that this isn’t out of the ordinary at all. One morning for example, two of my friends went over to a store/café and asked if the Cafe was serving breakfast. The lady behind the counter asked what they would like for breakfast. My friends said they weren’t sure, “how about eggs?”, they casually asked. She then promptly told them that both the café and store were closed and wouldn’t even sell them bottled water.
Despite the island’s eccentric (but also friendly) inhabitants, all in all, I enjoyed myself and really liked the place. I would even recommend it to anyone who wants a relaxed Caribbean vacation. It isn’t crowded, it’s fairly inexpensive and there aren’t a lot of resorts, relatively speaking. This is a good thing in my opinion because the place was empty and peaceful. There are also very few foreign tourists here, and most visitors were Panamanians. I would recommend however, that you go during the week, rather than the weekend.
When we arrived, I was disappointed because much of the shore was either rocky or had restaurants and hotels built on it. The town seemed somewhat disorganized and it seemed as though the bars, restaurants and hotels were not making the best of the wonderful natural beauty around them. Most importantly, there didn’t seem to be a nice, sandy beach about, except for little sandy bits between hotels and houses. But after lunch we went out wandering and found a lovely, deserted beach on the other side of the island.
There was a part of the beach that looked like a Peninsula; waves broke on either side of it. You can see it more clearly in the picture below:
It was empty and beautiful, as you can see:
There was a café right on the beach, but oddly it had only one type of beer and only served fried plantains. It didn’t even open until about 4 p.m. This was another example of the inexplicable moodiness of the service industry on the island.
So the next afternoon, we went back to this beach with supplies of our own. We had snacks, pineapple juice and this insanely cheap Panamanian rum called Seco. As we were walking to the beach, we ran into a sole and very out-of-place looking vendor who was trying to sell fresh coconuts on an almost-empty beach. We bought some and while we were sitting on the beach sipping fresh coconut water, my friend Andrea pondered aloud if it would be weird for her to put some rum in the coconut. No it wouldn’t Matt and I exclaimed! The next thing we knew, we were making impromptu pina-colada inspired beach cocktails. Here’s how YOU can do this too, the next time you’re on the beach. (That’s my friend Andrea in the photos.)
First, take a fresh coconut and drink up some of the coconut water in it, to make space for the other ingredients:
Then, add a few generous ‘glugs’ of rum:
Next, add some Pineapple juice to taste:
Swirl everything in the coconut about. Lastly, drink up!