Friday, February 20, 2015


Hola Amigos! I went on a small spontaneous adventure recently, so thought I'd share the story and try to get back into the bloggin groove. I wanted to take advantage of having two days off in a row (something that doesn't happen too often) so I decided to leave El Valle for a little change in scenery. 
Hasta luego El Valle, you beautiful place. 
I've been wanting to go SCUBA diving since coming down here, especially since I haven't gone in way, way, wayyy too long (Almost 2 years!!). So I did some super last-minute googling to see if I could find somewhere decent to dive that wouldn't break the bank. It's not often that you have two oceans to choose from when deciding where to dive nearby! Luckily on Saturday morning before I left, I narrowed in on the perfect weekend destination - an old Caribbean seaport where there were plenty of dive spots, historic forts to explore, and a cheap pirate-themed hostel called Captain Jack's. Vamos a Portobelo! 
*Cue Pirates of the Caribbean theme song*
 Portobelo is located in Colon province, located just a couple hours northeast of Panama City. The journey involved 3 different bus rides. From El Valle to Panama City, (2.5 hours, $4.25) then on towards Colon (1.5 hours, $3.10) and finally from a small junction town just before Colon called Las Sabanitas where I caught a busted old retired school bus eastward to Portobelo (1.25 hours, $1.15). With transfer time included and stopping to pick up everybody and their new-born child, chicken, grandmother on the way, the whole journey took about 6 hours.  
Rough outline of the journey (took much longer than 3 hours) 
That last bus turned out to be one of the better parts of the trip. I got to where I thought I needed to wait for the next bus, but immediately figured I'd better check. Just as I was looking for who might be most helpful, I felt a tug on my Camelbak. I turned to see a kid in a Scout uniform! He was pointing to his own Camelbak proudly.

Regular water bottles are for sissies. 
This totally threw me off. I knew there were scouts in other countries, but I never expected to actually see them. Their troop of about 10 boys and girls were dressed in uniforms not too much different than the one I used to wear every Tuesday night (and many weekends) while growing up. I asked if they were scouts, and of course they were. I proudly told them that I was a Scout in the U.S. - but held back blabbing about how much scouting influenced my life and how happy I was to see other Scouts in a different part of the world. In my mind though, memories of scouting trips were flooding back.

Brothers in Scouting - more mature through the years?? 
I asked about the bus next, and they told me they were going to Portobelo as well - they'd show me the way! (A Scout is Helpful). Seconds later a brightly painted school bus pulled up, aka a Diablo Rojo (Red Devil) as they are affectionately called here. Supposedly these are old U.S. school buses that have failed inspection, and have passed on through to the other side where they can show their true colors...  

This is what a School bus drop-out looks like
This bus for Portobelo was probably one of the most crowded buses I have seen so far - when it arrived the aisle was totally crammed full of standing people. Even more people were waiting to get on. I figured I'd just wait for the next one. Instead, the scouts grabbed me and urged me to follow them (A Scout is Kind). They started getting on the bus from the back - through the emergency exit, (A Scout is Brave) which was very smart since that cut out the entire line. I followed suit... and we were off!

Up, Up y Arriba! 
While crammed together at the back of the bus, I chatted with their leader about my time in Scouts and told him I was an Eagle Scout, but mostly I listened intently to him tell me about the Scouting program down here (A Scout is Friendly). He told me about the different events he has taken their troop on recently, showed me photos from past Court of Honor ceremonies, etc. Since these months are the equivalent of summer break (kids are off school here from Dec - March) - they have been making lots of trips recently.

While chatting with him, I couldn't help but think about how incredibly thankful I am that I have been speaking Spanish on a daily basis since I arrived down here in October. By this point I am able to converse and comprehend much much more than I was able to a few months ago. Without this key to the culture, this interaction would have been very different.  

By the time he had gone through his entire phone gallery of scouting photos, the bus started to thin out a bit - and we found empty seats in different parts of the bus. He let me take the first seat that came open (A Scout is Courteous) and later went towards the front of the bus for another open seat.  The scouts got off the bus a bit before we got to town, with the intention of hiking in while picking up trash. Litter is a huge problem down here, so this was an awesome service. (A Scout is Clean

Arriving in Portobelo 
I waved goodbye to them through the window as the bus pulled off. They yelled back "Nos vemos por allá!" (See ya there!) I slid over to the window to get a better view. I'd read about 2 or 3 sentences about Portobelo in my Lonely Planet, so I knew I could expect to see some old forts there. This place was once the largest Spanish port in the Americas, used as a transport point for almost all of the gold that came out of South America during the 15th century. Sure enough, as we got closer I caught a glimpse of some of the former glory of this famous seaside city. 

Primary form of transportation
Once in town, I headed towards the local hostel first so I could drop off my backpack before heading back out to explore. Located at the end of a hilly side street just a two minute walk from the town center, this was a very unique spot. I headed upstairs to find a balcony full of all sorts of folks (gringos) eating lunch, day drinking and carrying on. Captain Jack was behind the bar slinging drinks, and seemed quite busy, yet relaxed. He fit the part of "Captain Jack" well - appearing on first glance to be a kind old seadog with graying, lengthy locks tied back in a ponytail. Seemed like a dude that rarely let anything ruffle his mellow. I ordered a Balboa from him when he turned my way, and took a moment to soak it all in.

Happiness is a cold beer
The beer tasted great after the long journey, an appropriate way to celebrate arriving at my destination. Then again, the journey is the destination! It's all about the experience, man.... ;-)

I eventually clued Captain Jack in to the fact that I planned to stay the night, and when time allowed he had one of his kitchen workers (who turned out to just be a traveler that hung around long enough to get put to work) show me a bunk below deck. It legitimately felt a bit like the belly of an old pirate ship down there, with clothes and bags strewn about the bunks, dim lights coming in through small portholes, and faint urine smells coming from the bathroom. It's all good, I was only planning to crash there for a night, not move in. So I dropped off my bag, slathered sunscreen on my neck, and headed out to explore the town. 

My first mission was to check in with the 2Oceans Dive shop that I would be diving with tomorrow. I wanted to meet the divemasters and figure out what time I needed to show up, how to pay, etc. This turned out to be a longer task than expected since I had to walk about 30 min down the road to get there. I would have taken a taxi, but none passed by me. The divemasters were very nice, and were pretty happy when they discovered I could speak Spanish. So I arranged to meet them at 7 am for breakfast in town, and then they'd drive me back to the shop. Sweet deal! After a bit more chatting, I happily told them chao and walked back to town. 

Proud to be a Scout!
Back in town, I walked past the plaza and saw the scouts from earlier hanging out there. I headed over to say Hola, and they got pretty excited when they saw me. We chatted a bit about what we'd been up to for the past couple hours, and they told me they'd just finished picking up all the trash in the plaza - proudly pointing to 3 full sacks of garbage. I congratulated them and asked for a photo with their troop to show my friends. The leader yelled out "Selfie! Selfie!" and gathered up all the kids. Thankfully we didn't actually take a "selfie" (not at all a selfie fan) since I asked a nearby gringa to take our photo. 

The kids gave me a hat to wear for the photo, and then after a couple calls of "Uno mas!" we let the poor woman off the hook. She seemed to find the whole spectacle quite entertaining. Then their leader had the kids split into patrol groups and give their respective Patrol yells. If this wasn't awesome enough, they then lined up as a whole troop and gave a series of cheers specifically to honor me. (A Scout is Cheerful) I don't think I could possibly have had a bigger smile on my face. (Scouts are Awesome!

They told me to keep the hat I wore for the photo, which instantly became one of my favorite souvenirs. I invited them to come to El Valle to see the frogs I work with, and all the kids were begging their leader to plan a trip. He seemed pretty keen on it, and we exchanged numbers before splitting ways - so hopefully I'll see these kids again on familiar turf. 

Searching for Pirates from the ancient watchtower 
With my heart full of joy and a smile from ear to ear, I wandered down to the seashore to explore some of the forts. Shot some cannon photos with my Nikon :-P, and then recalled that my Lonely Planet had mentioned an overlook in town where an old watchtower was located. Wanting to check it out while there was still daylight, I followed the road uphill until I spied a small set of stairs leading up to the grassy knoll overlooking the bay. I stood there peacefully, imagining the view that the Spanish soldiers who once stood here might have had while keeping guard over this precious treasure cove. 

Portobelic Panoramic
I love sitting in historic places, and simply letting my mind wander back in time. The fact that this place has so much history of pirate activity made it even better! From my vantage point, I spied a fort just to the right of the town center that I hadn't explored yet. So after a bit more mind-wandering and peaceful pinnacle pensiveness, I strolled back down the stairs to head over and check it out. 

Largest fort built in Portobelo 
Walking around, I could tell this fort was particularly larger than the other one I'd visited. Called Fuerte San Jerónimo, this was the largest fort ever built to protect the bay. Some of the 18 or so cannons here have been in the same place since the Spanish troops abandoned them in 1821, when Panama gained independence. 

An ancient outlook on life
In a corner of the fort, I saw two younger local guys chilling on one of the rocky and hardened coral ledges. In the friendliness mood of the tropics, I said "Que Sopa?" to them while passing by. To those that know Spanish - here this does not mean, "What soup?" but actually, "What's up?" Panamanians incorporate A LOT of English words into their slang. They hollered something back as I walked on that I didn't hear, so I turned to clarify. Next thing I know they were offering me a swig of rum while we chatted about our Carnaval plans. Another awesome interaction that would have in no way been possible without knowing Spanish. 

As an already nearly empty bottle dwindled, I moseyed on and sat in one of the old gun ports for a spell  - letting the inner warmth from the satisfaction of interacting with locals (and the rum) wash over me while watching the sunset. Life is good. 

Later on, back at Captain Jack's I had a fun evening sitting at the bar and exchanging stories with fellow travelers - a favorite past time of mine. Cold beer and good stories, is there really anything else you need?? This local in particular is chock full of folks with fascinating tales, since it tends to cater towards sailors, many of which seemed to be on a journey around the world. Lots of the sailors were just stopping in Portobelo for a bit before heading on through the Canal to continue their journeys in the Pacific. As much as I love a good yarn, I didn't stick around the bar too late since I had an underwater date the next day bright and early.

Local watering hole and hostel
The next morning, I left the hostel around 6:45 am to hunt down some breakfast before diving. I went to the local panderia (bakery) to meet the divemasters, but sadly the power was out. Unfortunately, this means they weren't able to cook their normal breakfast menu, or anything for that matter. Fortunately, they had started baking super early before the power went out, so there was some bread hot and fresh out the oven. I stuffed a couple slender bread loaves in my stomach for about a dollar, waiting for my ride to show. But they didn't come.

Fun fact: This ancient cannon was found off-shore in the same waters where I'd be diving
So I at 7:30 I headed on my way. My plan was to taxi to the dive shop, but when I talked to one of the local drivers - he told me there was an accident on the road and no cars could pass, since a telephone pole had fallen down over the road. This explained the power outage, and why my ride never showed up. So I walked again, and came upon quite a spectacle when I reached the scene of the accident. This is a perfect reason not to drink and drive!

Cuando manjea, no toma (Don't drink and drive!)
I'm pretty sure everyone was OK, thankfully. Luckily, this didn't affect my plans much at all, since the Dive boat only needed gas to run obviously, and there were plenty of tanks already filled. I rented some gear and set up my tank, and thankfully the process came back to me as if I had just gone diving yesterday.

We did 2 dives, both very relaxed reef dives, not too deep (~60 ft max), with plenty of tiny critters to see. Sadly I do not own a GoPro or a camera that can be taken to these depths, so I have no underwater photos to share. Take my word for it, it was pretty. Not the most amazing diving I've ever done, but any day spent diving is a damn good day. "Life is better, down where it's wetter!"

Amateur sketch of  wildlife seen while diving ;)
Some highlights included massive sponges, tiny blemies and other colorful juvenile fish, and some spiny lobsters. On the first dive, I lucikly managed to witness something truly fascinating.

Diving along, I spied a blue tang laying on it's side on the reef, breathing heavily but not moving. I thought, "Woah, am I watching a fish die?" I swam a bit closer to get a better look. As I got next to him, the fish suddenly wiggled violently and darted off, swimming far away. Hmm. Suddenly from a hole beneath where the fish was resting, a small spotted Moray eel poked his menacing face out - searching for who was responsible for his lost dinner. Felt slightly bad for the little guy, but was pretty stoked that I got to see him. Eels are some of my favorite creatures to spot while UNDA DA SEA.

While doing our safety decompression stop at the end of the dive, a little remora playfully swam around us, which was really neat. Soon enough it was time to surface. Between dives we cruised over to a nearby playa (beach) to wait out our required surface interval while muching on some snacks and drinking fresh fruit juice. It was nice to soak up some sun while the excess Nitrogen left our bodies.

Relaxing by a local beach between dives
For our second dive we went to a different local, where the visibility was remarkably better. The current was moving along, so we did a drift dive - which meant the boat would come find us at the end of the dive using our little signal tube, instead of us having to fight against the current to head back. Another fun, relaxing dive! Very few things are as enjoyable as breathing underwater, floating weightlessly over a reef watching fish and other creatures go about their daily lives. It's literally another world. If you aren't certified, you got to get on dat man.

Life is good, mon
We finished our dives and got back to the shop around 2 or so, enough time for me to have a late lunch/early dinner meal before making my way back to the city. Or so I thought. I left Portobelo around 4 and reversed my bus trip, but this time the journey between Las Sabanitas and Panama took much longer since I wasn't on an express bus. The bus made many, many stops - and I didn't get into the city until 7. By then, the last bus back to El Valle for the day had already left.

No worries! I booked a hostel in the city last minute, and called my boss to let her know I'd be an hour late to work in the morning. No hay problema! The hostel I stayed in was quite relaxing, perfect after quite a few hours on a cramped bus and a day filled with sun. The next morning I caught the 6:30 am bus back to El Valle. Greaaat Succceess!  [Borat accent]
Next post Preview : Partying with Primos !!
Stay tuned for tales for my most recent adventure - Cousins and CARNAVAL!! Until then, Peace Out!


  1. Verrrry niiice! That beach looks amazing! I gotta get me a diving license

  2. Thanks dude!! You definitely do man. Then come visit!! Until then, have fun ditch diving :P