My teeth chattered. In my tiny backpack, there were no socks or long pants. The only item I had to stave off the cold was a long-sleeve flannel, feebly wrapped around my tightly curled body. The rest of the bus, donning winter clothing, snored softly under heavy wool blankets. The other passengers had warned me of the frigidity of the bus while we waited to board.
“Esta bien, soy de los montañas,” was my response. The howling winds and driving snow of Mount Hood had nothing on the fully cranked AC of the bus portion of my journey to Bocas Del Toro, Panama. The waning moon lighted the rolling jungles of the countryside as our bus bumped and weaved along the deserted road. I envied my 17 friends, who hours earlier had flown over this landscape and were happily soaking up the midnight heat in Bocas.
Always the thrifty one, I laughed at them and their hour plane ride when there was the option of 14 hours of local transport and a few bucks saved. As I silently cursed the driver, a large bump in the road left everyone aboard momentarily airborne. The hangtime awoke the woman next to me, who felt enough pity on the gringo from the mountains to nudge me and hand me a corner of the massive blanket cocooned around her.
The morning before, despite my lengthy journey from PDX, after an eight-hour layover in LA and five hours in the middle of the night in Mexico City, I had made it to Panama, excited and full of energy. I followed signs to the exit of the airport and forced my way through the wall of thick humid air waiting for me at the door. I skipped past a line of people returning home, lugging heavy bags.
The line of people I had passed slowly caught up to me as I stood staring at a gigantic chaotic roundabout. Dilapidated school buses, blasting Panamanian Reggaeton, covered in advertisements and custom paint jobs whipped around the circle, screeching to a halt for just long enough to allow passengers to throw their luggage aboard and hop on before the bus vanished in a puff of black smoke.
The ticket man shouted out destinations as waiting passengers listened for their route, bags cocked ready to throw aboard. It didn’t take long for the population of the roundabout to be whisked away on their respective busses and leave me, standing dumbfounded, with a whole new group of travelers eager to be on their way. After several pathetic attempts at reigniting the basic Spanish language skills lurking deep in my brain, I hopped on a bus at random.
The ticket man stopped me and repeated the final destination as if saying, “There is no way you are going there.” I responded with “Bus station?” and a shrug. He impatiently pointed me to the other side of the roundabout. My feet hardly hit the ground and the bus was gone, leaving nothing but the lingering yells of the DJ on the radio. The other side of the roundabout proved to eventually lead me, after many more missteps and many kind locals, to the long-distance bus terminal and that ice box on wheels.
Once I had that corner of the blanket, the bus journey flew by and I woke up to see an assortment of motorized canoes and skiffs out the window, the final leg of my trip to Bocas. The sun was shining and I was finally appropriately dressed. I smiled at the other passengers frantically removing layers of clothing before the early morning heat roasted them alive as I stood there smugly feeling my feet thaw. The boat captain collected the $5 fare from the assembled passengers on the dock, and ushered us aboard. In no time, we were rocketing through mangrove forests and past stilted dwellings. Parrots soared overhead the roaring skiff. Commuters on tiny canoes waved as they passed from one dwelling to the next, no dry place for a foot to fall other than the floorboards of the next house and the deck of their boat.
Finally on the islands, I linked up with my army of friends and the fun began. Surfing was presumably the main activity for the week, but it didn’t take long to get laughed out of a few surf shops by locals who insisted the water was going to be completely flat the entirety of our trip. The 17 of us rented bicycles instead and made quite the scene weaving through town and out along the coast, ringing our bells and dodging traffic.
Kyle Donahue grew up in Parkdale and graduated from Hood River
Valley High School in 2008 and Tufts University in 2012. Donahue worked in 2016 for a non-profit in South India and wrote a Travelogue about it in the Nov. 25, 2016, Kaleidoscope.
Donahue traveled to Panama in November with a group of 17 guys — “a few from Hood River, but just a big group of friends from all over there to celebrate a 30th birthday.”
Outside the town there were miles of untouched beaches, reefs, and jungle. We’d find a spot, leave bikes scattered on the beach, cool off in the tepid Caribbean water and hop back on the bikes where it would take minutes for the salt water to turn to sweat.
The next few days there were some small waves, enough to keep us entertained, especially since the break was conveniently located right next to a secluded beach bar. My more talented friends surfed around me while I awkwardly tried to catch waves and avoid the sharp reef lurking just below the surface. When the water flattened out again, we took advantage of our massive group to charter boats for trips around the other islands. Snorkeling and spearfishing along the reefs, exploring the wild jungles and deep caves, and looking for sloths, howler monkeys and other tropical oddities filled our days.
After a week on the ocean, we rented ATVs for a day and took them deep into the jungles of the untouched northern part of the island, powering them through creeks and squeezing between trees exactly as wide as the machines. The last day the waves finally picked up again and we paid a local with a boat a few bucks to drive us out to a deserted break for a final day of surfing with no one but the dolphins and each other to steal our waves.
Interested in writing a Travelogue? Tell us about a recent adventure, overseas or stateside; contact Hood River News Editor Kirby Neumann-Rea at 541-386-1234 or firstname.lastname@example.org. (Please don’t contact us about a potential Travelogue writer; if you know of someone who had did some interesting travel, suggest they get in touch, as it is up to the traveler to write the article and provide high resolution photos.)