|We didn't exactly hit the town for New Year's
Eve in Panama City, but a nice fireworks display was
visible from the hotel. New Year's Day was meant to be
one of the most relaxing of the trip: just a five-hour
drive in a rental SUV from Panama City to the coastal
town of Santa
Catalina. It turned out to be one of our most
frustrating. First, the remote ignition starter for the
SUV failed, and we were only able to start the car once
in every 20-30 tries -- not exactly confidence-inducing
for heading to the Panama boonies. Phone calls to the
rental car agency went unanswered. Suspecting the
starter needed a new battery, we traipsed around Panama
City on foot looking for open shops that might carry the
elusive #1632. No luck. Finally, after dismantling and
reassembling the starter multiple times, we managed to
start the car and drive to the rental car depot that
hadn't deigned to answer our calls. Naturally, on
arrival, the starter worked flawlessly.
About half the drive to Santa Catalina is on the Pan-American Highway. Quality varied, but at times it nearly resembled a highway in U.S., with one exception: numerous horrible accidents. Flipped cars, mushed cars, cars on the wrong side of the road, and of course the attendant rubber-necking and endless traffic jams. We later learned that drunk driving is prevalent in Panama on New Year's Day; we should be glad we reached our destination unscathed. We immediately appreciated the funky beach town of Santa Catalina, popular with surfers, fishermen, and scuba divers. We also immediately learned that it might be tough to find an open restaurant that wasn't already overfull for dinner. We lucked into sharing a table at the Chili Rojo restaurant with some pleasant long-term travelers from Canada. The restaurant had a bumbling middle-aged German bartender, and an unbelievably slow cook -- it was literally two hours from ordering to meal. Still, the fish was fresh and delicious.
The next morning we reported to the Scuba Coiba dive shop for our three-day expedition to Coiba Island and National Park. Imagine our surprise when we met Herbie, the venerable dive shop owner, and discovered he was none other than the bumbling bartender from the night before! It turns out Herbie owns the Chili Rojo, and none of his staff were willing to work on New Year's Day. While Herbie filled in as bartender, his wife did the cooking, and she would also be our cook on Coiba Island. Herbie promised "the food will come much faster than last night," and it did.
As with the Roraima trek, the Coiba Island experience was less secluded than we expected. At least 25-30 people were on the island at any time, in addition to the 4-5 resident rangers. There were multi-day groups like us, day-trippers, long-term fishermen, and visiting party boats. Apparently cruise ships even stop by on occasion. On the good side, our basic accommodations in the ranger-run bunk-rooms were considerably better than we anticipated (photo 2), the entire place was nicely organized with a few hiking trails and a small visitor center, and the meals were excellent. The island has a variety of tropical birds, as well as agoutis (photo 4), monkeys, iguanas, crocodiles (though we didn't see them), and ever-present vultures (photo 5) looking for a snack. (Interesting factoid: Before becoming a national park, Coiba was a penal colony. One of the prisoners liked it so much, after the prison closed and he was released, he took a job working on the island.) Scuba Coiba runs a boat out to the island most days so divers can pick their preferred 3-4 day window. In the time we were there, our dive companions were a German, a Brit living in the U.S., and an Italian couple on their honeymoon.
Of course our main reason for coming to Coiba Island was the diving, and it didn't disappoint. Given the relative convenience, we weren't expecting the quality of, say, our recent trips to remote Socorro or distant Papua New Guinea. But our nine dives yielded sharks, manta rays, stingrays, eagle rays, schools of mobula rays, turtles, seahorses, frogfish, eels, schools of barracuda, innumerable other types of schooling fish, good visibility, and warm water. Photos 6-11 are a sample from Jennifer's snapshot camera; Tim's photos will come in due time.
Coiba Island was only the second time on the entire trip when we spent two consecutive nights in the same place; the first was in the cave on the summit of Roraima. It was a trip with an unusual amount of transportation and logistics given its relatively short duration, but our three major activities -- the Roraima trek, Angel Falls, and Coiba Island -- were well worth the effort.