Postcard time

Last weekend Christine, Rachael, David and myself decided to explore the more tropical aspects of Panama with a trip out to Santa Catalina, on the Pacific coast of the country. Christine and David are both avid SCUBA divers, and Rachael and I contented ourselves with snorkeling. The trip from Santiago out to the coast, in our friends’ adorable, under-powered little “Volkswagen Polo” (or the Pollo; the Chicken Car, as we affectionately called it) was an adventure in itself. The car seemed to have some difficulty starting at random intervals (a bad battery, David the driver and general mechanic/engineer minded fellow, was thinking) and we weren’t sure if we’d have enough gas to make it. We consulted with some friendly villagers out somewhere in the jungle, and they confirmed that there simply were no gas stations here. You flagged down a pickup truck that had some jugs of gasoline in them, and that’s how you filled up. Whoops. Guess we should have done that back in Santiago.

(Meanwhile, the horrible-yet-horribly-popular old Latin American “Reggaeton” song of “Da Me Mas Gasolina” (Give Me More Gasoline) bounced around in my head.)

Weaving and wobbling around the potholes merrily on underfilled sport-rimmed tires, we crunched into Santa Catalina around 6pm, and met the cheery European women running the dive shop right away before finding our AirBnB, in order for the divers to be fitted for their suits and other gear, and for the snorkelers to try on our flippers.

What a view from the patio outside our bedroom doors!

At the AirBnB, we met Luis, a shaggy haired, surfer-looking young caretaker for the owners, and the family of four cats they kept – all adorable, and some more friendly than others. Mister Mormont, the solemn face, flat-eared patriarch, his seldomly-seen girlfriend Mia, and their two adorable sons Nahamet and BooBoo (the latter named by the homeowner’s daughter). BooBoo and Mister Mormont were the most friendly of the bunch and constantly wound themselves our ankles, purring. Mister Mormont, despite his huge and muscular tomcat body, had the cutest little “mew!” when he wanted to be pet.

From L->R – Mormont, Nahamet in the plant, Mia presiding, BooBoo licking

We had an early dinner (things shut down early in these tiny, sleeper surfer towns) of octopus and fish and lots of cheap local beer and turned in, listening to the sound of the waves crashing on the beach a mere 50 meters from us.

Bright and early the next morning, we met our Austrian dive guide Sophia and our fifth tourist member, another Austrian named Sasha, and clambered onto the extremely small fiberglass boat to be carried out to our dive sites. This little thing did not handle waves in a comfortable manner; we were getting 3-6 feet of air with every crest and I could feel my vertebral discs compact with each impact. Some of our party were prone to sea-sickness; staring at the horizon, scanning for whales, seemed to help.

The trip took an hour or so, and after 40 minutes….we saw three! I wasn’t able to get my Samsung smartphone out in time, nor did I have a good grip on it with all the bouncing we were doing – sans wrist strap. Christine had been dreaming about seeing whales for years and the dream was finally fulfilled; one of the whales even did the dramatic, movie-style tail flip as it dived under. I’d seen whales before, but never such a nice photo-op flip before. Shame we don’t have any pictures, but I’m hoping Rachael and David can share their GoPro shots eventually. They had a nice wrist-mounted holster for the GoPro so they might even have some steady, non-bouncing footage!

Rachael (hopefully) got some great underwater shots

Sasha, David, and Christine went in, and Rachael and I were joined by a quiet Panamanian guide named Saldus. Last time I went snorkeling was at the Red Sea in Jordan in 2015, after our Dead2Red victory. Branden and I both discovered that mustaches do not make for a good mask seal, but I had forgotten since then so I spent a lot of the snorkeling that day hacking up saltwater and dumping out the contents of my mask. Oh well; I like my mustache more than I need perfect snorkeling conditions. I saw some animals I’d never seen before though; a swimming sea turtle, a couple of white-tipped sharks, and a Longtail Ray.

I also saw the rare, beautiful rubber-encased Land Turtle

Between dives, we stopped by Isla Rancheria to have some fruit and water. We saw alligator prints in the sand, both adults and small ones but probably thankfully, no alligators. What we did see was thousands of hermit crabs of all sizes scuttling industriously around the beaches. Some were no bigger than my pinkie nail; the largest were maybe the size of a computer mouse. One lucky little crab even seemed to have made his home in a lovely little conch shell.

Every black dot you see is a hermit crab

We had lunch on the largest island and the national park’s namesake, Coiba. We didn’t have time to walk around and explore; apparently there was a resident alligator named “Tito” that could sometime be found nearby – he even had a sign above a fence that said “Tito beyond this point” – sadly for curious tourists, he wasn’t around at the moment. There was also a weird bird with a peculiarly muscular neck. We only hung out on the island long enough to eat our Curry Chicken sandwiches, included with our dive payment, and then it was back out to the boat for one more dive.

Weird Necked Bird

What kind of bird are you, anyway?

Let me tell you, if you are having trouble keeping saltwater out of your eyes and nose due to an incomplete seal, eating a 1.5 chicken curry sandwiches (Rachael didn’t want half of hers) is maybe not a good idea. It was an unpleasant last snorkel for me, plus we were next to a rocky atoll that had some scary levels of surface currents. I tried to swim back to the boat but the water was moving twice as fast as I could and was constantly pushed back out beyond the gap of the two rocks in the water. Finally I signaled that I just wanted the boat to pick me up. That was enough snorkeling for the day.

Urgh…that’s enough for today

But then, we still had to get back to Santa Catalina, and this was….a bit of an experience. It had been drizzling more or less nonstop all day, but now the skies opened up and it began to pour. This, combined with the restless chicken curry in my stomach, the 6 foot bounces (in the front of the boat it was that bad; Christine was so sick she retreated farther back where the bounces weren’t as high), and the high rate of speed, made for quite a ride. At least I had my windbreaker – waterproof it was not, but poor Christine and Sasha only had their wetsuits.

Bumpy Ride Back

Okay everyone, plaster rigor-mortis grins on your faces!

Well, we all made it back to shore without losing our lunches to the sea, and shaky-legged it back to the Coibahouse (and me determining, with great sadness, that although the Samsung Galaxy S7 does just fine in fresh water, it’s not truly waterproof in salt water….more like “water resistant, with unintended consequences” like the cellular radio dying, giving me a high-powered PDA instead of a phone). Well, that was an expensive lesson, but at least I got some pictures of a sea turtle, so that made it all worthwhile.

Mister Mormont was sad about the phone, too