Stepping off the plane at 1030-ish at night in Panama City I quickly removed my fleece jacket as the heavy air warmed me all the way through after a chilly flight leaned up against the window. Shannon was close behind me and we had a hard time containing our excitement over a simple thing like humidity reaching out to greet us. We claimed our bags and made our way through customs with relative ease though the New Yorker in me griped a bit over the chaotic dual line that formed for our entry into Panama.
In the chaos of guides and drivers with signs, family members and friends greeting loved ones and a host of others just clamoring for the business of unprepared tourists, Shannon located our guide. We stood around in the heat for a while wondering what was happening while the airport shuttle guy from the hotel attempted to round up other passengers. As we waited on the curb anxious to see more than the airport Shannon and I stripped another layer of clothing off as the warming humidity became more oppressive and joined a conversation Jaime was having with two guys named Jose from Portugal. As it turned out they were going to our same hotel so we tossed all our gear in the trailer and piled into the oversized van and continued our chatter all the way to the hotel confusing the other van passengers into believing we were all one group. The Joses (in Portugal you actually pronounce it "Jo-Say") were ready to go out and party straight from the airport and while Shannon and I briefly considered it, we were both tired and knew we had lots of fun ahead of us so we passed. Then regretted it. Because one of the Joses had pretty amazing eyes. Oh, well.
Instead we dumped our stuff all over our hotel room in order to dig out pjs for the warmer climate and settled into our only air conditioned night until we returned to the same hotel at the end of the trip. Breakfast was early the next morning and we met the rest of our group. We also learned that the water in Panama is safe to drink. Of course we didn't actually believe this for ourselves for several days because it defied everything we knew about traveling in Central and South America.
While the haze of the morning was still vividly hanging in the air we loaded up Ian's truck to start the road trip part of our adventure.
Getting out of Panama City proved to be challenging. Shannon and Ian sat in the front and Denise, Jaime and I sat in the back on makeshift seating fashioned from a couple of thermarest mats while Buddy alternated between sitting on my or Jaime's laps or sometimes clawing at our legs when he tried to stand. I didn't care. I was in Panama. After landing ourselves in a run down colonial part of the city that has the potential to be stunning, Jaime started asking for directions out the window. People were friendly and at one point we ended up with a brief golf-cart police escort.
But the police only took us back to pretty much where we started and I never saw the fountain I swear they kept talking about so the confusion started all over again. Poor Ian was stressed, confused and frustrated so we asked a few more locals on the street. This time we found an overly helpful guy who turned out to be a taxi driver on his day off. Initially he hopped on the side of the truck and directed us from this precarious position, newspaper in hand.
Then he decided it was probably better if he just squished into the back seat with the three people and a dog already crammed together on the not really a seat, seat.
He kept his head out the window and gave shout outs to his friends and neighbors as he explained to us we were driving past his house. He may have taken us on a little joy ride detour (we'll never know) but he ultimately got us to the main road that led out of Panama City so we gave him a few dollars when we dropped him off and we were off.
We had a brief view of the Panama Canal as we drove over a bridge but nothing to really get excited about.
After a 5-6 hour drive that passed quickly as we got to know one another and as I proceeded to accidentally instigate a nearly heated political debate, we arrived in Santa Catalina. There was also a hot and sweaty stopping point in Santiago where the boys got out to get groceries and the girls remained in car to recover from the conversation. The boys returned with chips and salsa to tide us over for the remaining 90 minute drive.
Once in Santa Catalina we ate a late lunch at the first place we found that was open. While I can't say it was the best food I have ever eaten, I can say it was served at a very pink building.
Where we met this itty bitty little thing:
Before checking into our hotel we had our priorities straight and stopped for ice cream first. Oh, wow. How delicious is ice cream when it is very, very hot?
Then, while Jaime sorted out the hotel situation, we ran - literally ran - to the beach for our first dip in the Pacific Ocean. The sand was black and the water was warm and I was in love with Santa Catalina without reservation. And that was even before we learned that this is where we would be staying:
And before I saw the first of many stunning ocean sunsets:
We spent a good deal of time in the water that late afternoon and didn't get ourselves organized and cleaned up for dinner until fairly late. Our little cabanas were located right on the beach but was technically separated from the rest of Santa Catalina by a fresh water stream flowing out to the ocean. During low tide the stream was easily forded with a four wheel drive vehicle. During high tide, you were stuck as the road out was blocked by the ocean. The really high tide that blocked the road was generally while we were sleeping so it wasn't a problem but there were many visitors to the beach who weren't aware of this issue or ignored it or just plain drove the wrong kind of vehicle into sand. As a result, each night someone managed to get their car stranded on the beach. That first night we attempted to help one such driver but to no avail.
Before we arrived he had accelerated himself into entrenchment in the sand. We pushed a bit and then moved on to dinner. Our first dinner was pizza at a place called Jammer's after a failed attempt to eat at Vianca's (we sat at a table for 30 minutes or so before we gave up being acknowledged). The pizza was delicious although we struggled to adjust to the muggy, muggy air and found ourselves sweating - some more than others (ahem, the boys). When we returned to our cabanas, the tide was higher and the stranded car was gone.
There was one last bit of excitement left in the day as Shannon and I got ready for bed. We had the advantage of a ceiling fan to fight some of the heat but crawling under covers was unappealing. Even so I shook out the light sheet on the bed before crawling in only to be rewarded with the sight of a cockroach scampering further into my bed. Now. There are many creepy, crawly creatures I can tolerate. Spiders may startle me but I can deal with them. In Guatemala we even had a frog jumping past our sleeping bags that I scooped up and tossed out the window. But cockroaches really disgust me above all other icky things. So I freaked out a little. Jaime happened to be walking by and knocked on the door after hearing our screams (okay, probably just mine and not really screams, just slightly restrained shrieks). I pointed at my bed and the cockroach and he took care of it. And I thanked him and was embarrassed over my own girly-ness.
I pulled out my sleeping bag and layed it over top of the bed covers and tried to banish the creeping image that kept coming to mind that the concrete base on which my bed was secured was completely infested with cockroaches crawling all over each other like one might see in an Indiana Jones movie. Somehow I fell asleep anyway.