The last night we were to spend on the Kuna Yala Islands proved to be quite enjoyable and eventful. A young Kuna who was planning on soon heading to the mainland to attend college lead us around the thin, dirt alleyways of Carti. After the lone authority on the island, a scowling military policeman, tracked us down to check our passports, we got a full tour of the island in about a half hour. We passed the school, the hospital, the church, and many a hammock-strewn front porch.
We ended in a large common space inhabited by about 10 young Kuna men who were having a grand old time with several packs of Balboa, one of Panama's prided beers. They welcomed us in - overwhelmed to have visitors to entertain - and supplied us with Balboas. Before we knew it, they were teaching us Kuna, and we were teaching them English, all through the common language of Spanish. It was pretty darn cool. By the end of the night, we were making jokes and laughing like crazy, which was when I really felt like my Spanish was on-point. It felt good.
We boarded the boat for the last time and headed to the mainland, where we hired a driver from Panama City to take us back to la Ciudad. He proceeded to step on it and drive back up over the steep mountains in his old, manual transmission Land Rover at 110 km/h while texting and passing other vehicles on the skinny, twisty dirt road.
I tried to ignore the my gut reaction, which was telling me to either scream or throw up, and instead to enjoy the total beauty of the landscape. After cresting the last ridge among the peaks, we could see the City through the blue of the horizon.
We made it back to Panama City, found a supermercado, stocked up on some supplies, and while some of the group sat down to eat, Mikey and I went off to find out if we could catch a bus west. We spoke with a man in a ticket booth in the main bus station, and all of a sudden we were being rushed off to a bus - the crew that was eating chasing after Mikey and me lest we get split apart in a place where we had no access to cell phones and a general sense of direction. Our bags were thrown atop the roof of a nice looking white minivan/bus. After travelling on the Diablos Rojos, we were excited to have a respectable bus to travel on to our next destination. Then, the doors opened....
People almost spilled out of the bus due to overcrowding. Nonetheless, we were ushered onto the bus, squeezing in between the seats and next to the driver, and off we went.
Little did we know that this experience would parallel our experiences throughout the rest of Panama, and that Panama has a bus system that FAR, FAR exceeds the utility and ease of the U.S. bus systems. Almost literally the entire country can be accessed via bus in a reasonable amount of time (it helps that the country is only about the size of South Carolina). All one needs to do to get to the next town is to stop on a roadside, and a bus will stop (no matter where you are) within a few minutes to pick you up. If the bus is not going where you desire, they will give you instructions for which bus to catch to get there.
The man who had thrown our bags on top of the bus was the bus helper - one of them rode on every bus and collected the money so that the driver did not have to worry about it. It makes the system very easy, and bus fares were usually in the range of a few quarters.
We crossed La Puenta de las Americas and after about an hour of driving, the driver told us we were at Campana. There was a slight misunderstanding, as we had wanted to go to Altos de Campana - a not-so-popular mountainous national park - instead of to the town of Campana. I don't think a whole bunch of people understood that we actually wanted to go to some of the highest, most remote spots in the country for enjoyment.
Anyway, we determined that we were "only 15 km" from Altos de Campana (a distance that Mikey seems to think is like a stroll in the park, probably since she can cover the entire thing at a 6 minute mile pace without blinking an eye). So - what did we do? Started hiking along the Interamericana - the highway that runs from Panama City to Mexico and is actually a part of the larger Pan-American highway, which runs from Prudhoe Bay, AK (another place that I have been!) to Ushuaia, Argentina.
Luckily, a few minutes later, we were being honked at... a bus was headed up to Altos de Campana! They picked us up, gratis, and we climbed and climbed up a twisting road through what I can only describe as 'The Land Before Time.'
We eventually made it to our campsite, thanked the intern for catching us, and started to set up camp and strip off our clothes that were totally soaked in sweat in favor of something drier that we could sleep in. (little did we know that we would be sweating profusely even while sleeping in the Panama heat. We made a meal ... the first of many of it's kind. White rice, lentils, cans of tuna, and chocolate. mmmmm
In the morning, we got up, determined to hike long distances. And hike we did. We followed an intense clay jungle trail up and up until we reached the top of some peak from which we could see.... well... nothing but jungle. We were still covered by the thick trees and leaves. There were a heck of a lot of interesting and cool plants to check out, though.
We hiked the road back into a tiny town called Chico, on the way finding a few good vistas that we could actually get a view from.
We chatted with an old lady who owned and worked at a cafe until the bus came by and picked us up, and like a whirlwind we were off again.