The Falkland Islands or Las Islas Malvinas?

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Ushuaia

As soon as you set foot in Ushuaia at the southernmost tip of Argentina (known as El Fin del Mundo), you are immediately aware that feelings about the Falklands still run very high. For a start, the airport is called “Aeropuerto Internacional de Ushuaia Malvinas Argentinas” (literally Ushuaia – Argentine Malvinas International Airport), Las Malvinas being the Argentinian name for the Falklands. Even while waiting for our luggage, I saw the first of what would be many signs declaring that the Falkland Islands are Argentinian. For example in the centre of town down by the coast is a huge banner declaring “Las Malvinas son y seran Argentinas” (The Malvinas are and will be Argentinas) and inside the port, we saw an official rather stern sign declaring that the islands have been under “the illegal occupation of the United Kingdom … since 1833“. Apparently even on utility bills or government notices there are banners repeating this assertion although we didn’t see any of these first hand. It does seem to be a big deal though here in Ushuaia, the self-proclaimed capital of the Falkland Islands.

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Ushuaia

I can’t now remember if my own knowledge of and interest in the Falkland Islands was sparked by the news coverage of the war in 1982 itself or from subsequently reading about Adrian Mole’s obsession with the Falklands War in the Sue Townsend books that I so enjoyed reading as a child. Either way and especially given it is home to several species of penguins, it was somewhere I had always wanted to visit and had placed it firmly on “The List” for this trip (despite the impracticalities of actually getting there and/or getting around when you arrive and all the corresponding costs). So when our last minute Antarctic cruise deal came up for the belts and braces package including the Falklands, Christmas really had come.

We had 3 “landings” in the Falklands when you transfer from the ship in groups of 10 in inflatable zodiac boats and spend time on shore. In the Falklands, all 199 passengers could be on shore at the same time but in both South Georgia and Antarctica, numbers are restricted to 100 people per landing while the other 100 would go zodiac cruising, everything being weather and sea swells permitting at all times of course.

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Zodiac cruising

Our first landing was at West Point Island owned by a Falklands Island couple. And of course within minutes of meeting fellow Brits, to what does the conversation turn? Perhaps somewhat unbelievably given our geographical position, to Brexit of course (!) with the farmer expressing his disappointment that the 3000 or so Falkland Islanders (unlike Gibraltans who have the same status as residents of a UK Overseas Territory) did not have a vote. To be fair whether the Falkland Islanders had been eligible to vote or not was not something I had ever previously considered. He felt that if they had been able to vote, Falkland Islanders would have shored up the remain vote. But maybe that is just in their psyche having voted overwhelmingly (99.8% (3 leave votes) with a 92% turnout) to remain with the UK in their own far more relevant referendum in 2013. Now that is what I call a decisive referendum result.

Stanley

The Falklands felt very British indeed complete with its red phone boxes and another passenger even reported having seen a Waitrose delivery van too! Wow: home from home. Although they have their own bank notes and coins, they are 1:1 in value with UK currency which is also legal tender there (albeit the reverse is not the case). On our second day in the Islands, we visited the capital, Stanley, which the Argentineans insist on calling Puerto Argentino although there is pretty much zero Southern American influence here: it really is British all the way and we were warned most clearly before leaving the ship that although US dollars would be accepted alongside sterling of course, Argentinian pesos would be firmly rejected! We were also able to send some postcards for only 66p a shot which seemed like quite a bargain given it costs 67 pence to send a domestic letter in the UK (and a horrifying 170 pesos (about £3.50) from Argentina). Whether or not they will actually get to their destination is perhaps beside the point.

L: Government House, Stanley; R: The Iron Lady (in the background the sign says “Thatcher Drive”)

While the exhibition in the interesting Prison Museum in Ushuaia presents one side of the story of the Falklands Conflict (focusing heavily on Margaret Thatcher’s somewhat controversial order to sink the Belgrano), the excellently presented museum in Stanley tells a completely different story focusing on the terror and real life disruption caused by the invasion. And if you are in any doubt as to how the Islanders feel, a walk down to Thatcher Drive with its proud bust of the Iron Lady or a trip to the gents toilet in the Victory Pub where you can find General Galtieri in a toilet seat should leave you in no doubt! On both sides of the South Atlantic Ocean, it is clear that passions on this subject still run high. Fascinating.

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Inside the gents in the Victory Pub: a pretty clear message

‘Tis the season to be jolly

Given I am a little over the age of 6, it has been a long time since I have woken up on Christmas Day truly excited. But this year I was literally hopping around the room as at 15.00 on Christmas Day we were going to board the Ocean Atlantic, the ship which was to be our home for the next 21 days and which would take us to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and, of course, to Antarctica and the Antarctic Circle. Wowee.

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The icebreaker, Ocean Atlantic

We’d managed to get a discounted last minute deal on a Chinese chartered ship which meant that of the 199 passengers on board, only 18 of us were international “walk ups” with 92% of the Chinese passengers comprising one large tour group headed up by the travel agent, Mr Li.

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And we are off! See you in 3 weeks’ time, Ushuaia!

However we were not the only non-Chinese on board. In fact it was one of our most international experiences to date. The ship itself was Danish with a captain who was Russian heading up a mixed crew which included Central Americans and Eastern Europeans. The catering staff included Chinese and Indonesians and the hotel staff included Jamaicans and Filipinos (and many other nationalities too), all communicating in English of course.

Finally there were the 22 members of the Albatros expedition team headed up by Sam from Quebec with his team comprising of Europeans, Americans and Australians plus 5 or 6 all important Chinese or Taiwanese interpreters (these latter ones somewhat controversially being introduced to the passengers as being from “Taiwan, China”, to rapturous applause). The interpreters had the unenviable task of translating quite technical lectures on geology, geography, history and wildlife etc plus safety briefings from English into Mandarin. While we had been a little apprehensive about joining a Chinese charter, it actually worked in many ways to our advantage as without the language barrier, we had more opportunity to hang out with the expedition team and we also got to hear their lectures first hand so to speak. For example it seemed that many of our British ornithologist’s humorous anecdotes were somewhat lost in translation judging by the audience’s reactions.

Just the odd iceberg or two floating past our port-hole (as they do...!)

And although we were in the lowest tier of cabin, our room was perfect and one of our best hotels on the trip to date with even an unnecessary evening turn down service and nightly chocolates (let’s just say that’s not something you typically get in hostels no matter how clean they may be!). We had a twin outside cabin with a porthole but to be honest we didn’t really spend much time in our room and were more commonly found in one of the various lounges, on deck or in the dining room (not so much in the gym or sauna it has to be said). At 139m long, the ship was spacious enough to accommodate everyone in the public areas and did not feel over crowded.

Peter and I had previously discussed whether we would ever choose a cruise for a holiday in less remote regions, say in the Baltic, the attraction being you don’t have to pack and repack continually yet you still get to move around and see different places. However, we had always expressed concern that we might over eat and not be able to exercise appropriate self-constraint. Well I can confirm that 3 weeks on board the Ocean Atlantic certainly put that theory to the test and we failed completely, falling pretty much at the first hurdle with dinner on Day 1. What with buffet style breakfasts, lunches and dinners serving a wide and ever changing array of fresh and delicious dishes (both Chinese and Western style cuisine) not forgetting afternoon tea with its sandwiches, cakes and scones, essentially we completely pigged out. Ok it was Christmas when we got on the ship and we could perhaps cut ourselves some slack but by January 15th we had long run out of decent excuses!

Pork featured quite heavily on the menu (evidence of the Chinese influence)

And that’s even before we admit to putting our hand in the freshly baked homemade bottomless cookie jar as well, perhaps more than once a day. It is fair to say that our clothes felt a little tighter as the days went on (especially on less interesting sea days when any semblance of self-discipline disappeared almost entirely). We half joked that in order to be able to get us off the ship, the crew would have to lower its stern door (which it would have used when it had been a roll on roll off military vehicle ship in a previous life). Fortunately it didn’t quite come to that but it was a close shave!

L: The afternoon tea spread; R: we were treated to barbecues outside in both South Georgia and Antarctica when we had incredible weather

Feliz Navidad

Exciting times lie ahead for us: we are off on a 3 week Epic Antarctic adventure exploring the world’s seventh continent as well as visiting the Falkland Islands and South Georgia.  In short, we are off to see the penguins about which we are incredibly excited.

Yes, for a second year running, despite still being away from home, instead of taking the opportunity to experience a hot and sunny Christmas, we have again opted for a cold one (again, colder than the UK).

On an administrative note, this trip means that you won’t hear from me again here until mid January 2019.

In the meantime, Feliz Navidad and all the best for 2019.

BA

Unfortunately for us, BA didn’t so much stand for Buenos Aires but more for Boring Admin which somewhat deflated the experience of what was my very first day ever in Argentina.  Mind you, it was never going to be a great day given we had lost a night’s sleep as we had flown from Cartagena in Colombia and were on our way all the way down the continent to Ushuaia in Argentina. This entailed a 4 hour or so flight to Lima in Peru with a few hours and then another 4 hours or so in the air arriving in Buenos Aires around 08.00 local time with a 20 hour layover there until our rather unsociably timed 04.50 flight the next day to Ushuaia (entailing a 02.00 wake up call: Ugh).

As usual, a new country gave us the challenges of obtaining local currency as well as getting a local sim card (or “chip”) for our mobile.  Neither should have been quite as hard as the headache they in fact were.

First up, getting cash.  Wow, this is just difficult and ridiculously expensive.  For a start, not all banks (including Santander which can be found on every UK High Street) take international bank cards.  An additional frustration here is that you only find this out once you have patiently waited for quite a long time as we found the queues in all the banks we visited (and boy did we visit a lot) really long.  Then of course there were a number of machines that despite appearing to be operational simply didn’t have money in them: “No tiene dinero” became an all too oft heard phrase.

And finally there’s the big sting in the tail: the double whammy of tiny withdrawal limits and the eye watering huge ATM withdrawal fees.  We had of course read a bit about this online in advance but it didn’t really hit home until we standing in front of an ATM experimenting with ever decreasing amounts when it asked us how much we wanted to withdraw.  Our worst transaction was only being allowed to take out 4000 pesos (c£82) which cost us 389 pesos (c£8) thereby reducing the exchange rate effectively from 48 pesos to 43.5 pesos to 1 GBP.   Our best was 8000 pesos (c£166) for the same charge – but any which way you look at this, a charge of over £8 per withdrawal is just painful.  And for some reason the machines seemed to prefer our Visa card rather than our Mastercard (the latter often returning some sort of nonsense message about our daily limit having been reached despite there being no such thing).

I particularly liked the signs above the ATMs telling you the functionality of the individual machines.  In the circumstances, the term, “extracciones” seemed particularly appropriate given the whole process was akin to a nasty trip to the dentist for a tooth extraction (or worse).

So what are the alternatives?  We’d read that cash (particularly US dollars) is king in Argentina and that visitors should essentially load up and bring enough US dollars to see them through their trip.  While I am sure this is good and well-meaning advice, it wasn’t particularly practical for us given we are on an extended trip and had no practical way of obtaining dollars in Colombia the last country we visited prior to Argentina.  However we still had some dollars from our time in Panama and at Lima airport had managed to find a dollar dispensing ATM but clearly not enough funds to see us through a potential 4 or 5 week (maybe more?) trip to Argentina.  Clearly you don’t want to be carrying around thousands of dollars in cash for obvious reasons.  And also the only dollars we could get were used 20 USD bills and we’ve read that money changers can be pretty strict and prefer USD 50 and 100 dollar bills in absolutely pristine condition (which is somewhat ironic as many of the peso notes we’ve handled are some of the tattiest I have ever seen although these seem to circulate happily).  While we haven’t actually tried changing USD cash yet, we did rather alarmingly see one sign saying only 50 and 100 dollar bills were accepted so I can see another headache coming on shortly.

One silver lining is that, so far (and without wishing to jinx this in any way), our credit card has been pretty widely accepted and without surcharge so that has thrown us a lifeline.  But I guess only time will tell if it is possible to use this everywhere.  Fingers crossed.

And so onto the second challenge of our somewhat trying day in Buenos Aires: getting a sim card.  Clearly going shopping on the Saturday before Christmas was never going to be a relaxing experience and we were caught up in some phenomenally lengthy queues which all added to our pain.  But by the time we had queued for over 20 minutes in 3 Movistar mobile provider shops only to be told that they didn’t have any sim/chip cards and also that international calls (other than via WhatsApp) were not possible, our patience was beginning to wear rather thin.  Finally, we went to Movistar’s chief competitor, Claro, and at least there they could sell us a sim card and we could load our mobile with enough credit to call back home and have a bit of internet access.  But just like with the cash, this just took way longer than it should have done and we had to be really patient with the never ending queues.

We are due to return to Buenos Aires shortly and am sure our next trip will be full of far more positive experiences; by that time we will also be rested and will have worked out the best way to face these (and any other) administrative challenges put in our way!

An all too fleeting visit

It’s fair to say our time in Colombia was brief – all too brief – but colourful nonetheless. In fact we were only there for 3 nights – in the vibrant Cartagena de Indias (to use its full name) – before taking flights down the full length of the continent to the southernmost tip of Argentina, Ushuaia.  In our defence (!), Colombia had never been on our original itinerary but it somehow slipped in there at the end of our sailing trip from Panama City.  And yes it would have been great to spend more time in this fascinating country but – even with an extended trip – it turns out that there is not enough time to do it all.  Shame.

Palenqueras: descendants of slaves who were the first to run away from the Spanish

But what little we did see was all very positive including the temperature.  Here we were basking in December in mid 30 degree temperatures (quite humid too) which is always a strange sensation for Northern Hemisphere inhabitants when you are walking around in shorts seeing Christmas decorations. 

Castillo de San Felipe

We took it pretty easy while we were here – strolling around the beautiful Old City and other neighbourhoods which have seen a certain amount of gentrification in recent years as well as visiting the City’s quite formidable (mostly against the English!) fortifications. 

In fact, it sounds like Cartagena has changed beyond all recognition in recent years: picturesque districts such as Getsemani previously characterised by crime are now the city’s newest hotposts with previous drug dealing spots now the sites of boutique hotels etc etc.  Already there are a lot of tourists here so we may have missed a trick not exploring more of this country but “you can’t do it all” (apparently!).  More’s the pity. 

L: Las Bovedas: M: Site of the final resting place of Gabriel Garcia Marquez; R: house in Getsemani

Fine dining in the Clink

To give ourselves a treat (well it is the season after all), we opted for a fine dining option in Cartagena, Colombia.

But it came with a bit of a twist as our chosen restaurant was called Interno and was located inside the San Diego female prison.

The women working both in the kitchen and as waitresses are current inmates of the prison but are working in the restaurant as part of their rehabilitation programme to imbue them with useful skills they can then use on the outside once their sentences are complete.  The strong message behind this project is to give every woman a second chance and to demonstrate clearly and forcefully how mistakes can become opportunities.  The project also focuses on improving the quality of life of both the prison and post-prison population.

And for us, as well as getting to support an innovative and worthwhile cause, we got to sample some rather tasty food which was beautifully presented.  It was a bit of a rushed affair but I think that was more by virtue of the fact that they seem to run 2 sittings in the evening (which we hadn’t realised when we booked) rather than for any other reason although perhaps they don’t necessarily want you lingering around anyway.


And without wanting to spoil the fun in case your imagination has run wild, the restaurant is sort of attached to the jail rather than set deeply within its confines.  So you are not actually locked in while dining although the food preparation itself takes place behind bars.

All in all, a highly recommended evening out if you are looking for a bit of a treat while staying in Cartagena.

Life on the open seas in no man’s land

Although the setting of the sailing cruise from Panama City to Cartagena via the San Blas Islands could not be beaten, the one thing the captain couldn’t control for us was the seas or the weather.  To be fair, I’m sure he would have done if it had been possible.  

We first set sail from Puerto Lindo in Panama at around 5pm on day one and sailed until midnight through fairly choppy waters with 3 foot swells. Those of us who didn’t have sea sick pills soon took up positions leaning over the railings while those of us that had popped pills essentially were rather zoned out / half asleep but avoided being sick or feeling too queazy. It was much better on deck than down below where you really realised how much the boat was rocking around and, without windows, there was no opportunity to fix your eyes on the horizon. I think everyone was pleased when they heard the anchor finally being dropped around 12 midnight.  No more lurching.

After a few days cruising gently around the San Blas Islands, we began the big journey from the relative sheltered waters across the open Caribbean Sea to our final destination, Cartagena.  Normally on these trips this crossing is done straight through and can easily take upwards of 30 hours without any stops.  However, our captain told us that bad weather was closing in and so in fact we started off a little earlier than originally scheduled and therefore sailed for just over 24 hours before having a 10 to 12 hour stop before a further 8 hours or so of sailing.

And for us and our fellow passengers, none of whom had much sailing experience previously, what a 24 hours!  Especially for our Swiss compatriots who seemed to suffer more than the rest of us (perhaps coming from a landlocked country they were immediately put at a disadvantage?).  Although the captain told us that the swell was only just over 2 metres high, it felt like it was a lot higher and perhaps for the purposes of this blog, I should be reporting some sort of dramatic 5 metre swell (at least). 

However, the real issue was the killer angle at which the boat was positioned throughout this whole 24 hour period of sailing.  This made for a rather challenging time particularly when trying to use the bathroom especially when taking a shower (the water didn’t drain away as the holes were positioned in the centre of the bathroom floor and the angle of the boat meant it never got anywhere near that) or for using the toilet (I found that I sat down on the toilet with an extremely satisfying thump pleased to find the seat!) or even for brushing your teeth when you found yourself pinned against one wall of the bathroom no matter how hard you tried to centralise yourself. 

Let’s just say that getting to sleep that night was also a highly interesting experience: being on the top bunk, I had the additional challenge of trying to get myself up to that level without falling backwards (this proved a bit easier when I waited to launch myself upwards in time with a surge in the boat’s motion) but then the real challenge was trying to stay in the bed without falling out: the rakish angle of the boat meant that I constantly felt like I was about to fall out pretty much all night long.  It really was quite challenging to say the least and not my best night’s sleep it has to be said (when I awoke in the morning, I felt that I had gone a few rounds with Mike Tyson but had probably caught a bit more sleep that I thought). 

It did mean however that I wasn’t looking forward to the next night of travel that much although to be fair this leg of the journey was in fact far smoother and before we knew it, dawn was breaking over Cartagena and we had arrived and completed our journey.

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Daybreak in Cartagena marina

Post script: As I said before, because of the Darien Gap, it’s not possible to travel from Panama to Colombia by land.  Well when the captain gave me back my passport, I felt like there was evidence of the Darien gap or equivalent in play here.  Having been stamped out of Panama on the 13th December, we were then not stamped into Colombia until the 17th December: as I understood it we had in fact either been in Panamanian or Colombian waters throughout so I’m not quite sure how to explain away the intervening 4 day gap in no man’s land.  Food for thought: is this where Lord Lucan has been hiding out all this time?

Ahoy there Captain – Having a (San) Blas(t)

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The tiny San Blas islands

Because of the Darien Gap, it isn’t possible to travel by land between Panama and Colombia.  So your choices are to fly or go by sea.  And what better way than sailing on a 64 foot yacht for 5 days via Panama’s idyllic San Blas islands. Blue skies, pristine white sandy beaches, all palm fringed of course.

And don’t forget the amazing turquoise waters with a hidden treasure trove lying beneath: the beautiful coral and the huge variety of brightly coloured fish, not to mention eagle rays, turtles and dolphins. 

A true Paradise both above and below the water.

We lucked out completely with our choice of boat.  The Quest is owned and operated by an experienced Swedish captain, Goeran, for whom these trips are clearly a labour of love as he sails you around the beautiful Caribbean coast in what essentially is his home, of which he is rightfully very proud.  With only 10 passengers plus the captain and the cook, Isabel, there was plenty of room, both inside and on deck although apart from sleeping, we pretty much spent all of our time on the deck or in the water.  There were 4 private cabins and 2 bathrooms with unlimited fresh water thanks to his desalination machine, both for drinking as well as for showering off the salt water after a snorkel.  The luxury of unlimited showers in 2 bathrooms (and also on deck when you climbed in from the sea) cannot be understated and we were able to put away those baby wipes as they weren’t required on the Quest (unlike on other boats where showers aren’t available; in fact we even heard that on some boats there aren’t even any toilets (but I don’t want to think about that!)).  Not that we actually saw many other boats to be able to gloat over as essentially we seemed to have Paradise pretty much all to ourselves.

L: The view down from the top mast of the Quest

Well almost but not quite.  On our first full day of sailing and snorkelling we moored just off one tiny island. The captain called this island Julio’s island in honour of the local Kuna called Julio who is in in his 70s and who apparently had last left the island in the 1990s (although what had caused Julio to take such a drastic step at that point in time was not known).  Ok I hear you say: what’s the big deal, Julio and his family plus another family live on an island, so what? But this particular island was tiny.  It took us less than 15 minutes to walk around its entire perimeter. But even here you find solar power as well as a sign advertising beer, coca cola and coconuts for sale. And apparently there was even wifi.  Amazing hey!

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“Julio’s” island

The island we moored near on our 2nd day was completely uninhabited despite possibly being marginally larger (think this one may have taken us the full 15 minutes to walk around).   Here we saw an eagle ray in the water as well as colourful starfish. The captain also dropped us off on another part of the reef in the open water although here the snorkelling was a little more challenging in the choppier water and I was pretty happy when I caught sight of the captain returning in his zodiac to collect us (even if this did entail rather an inelegant scramble back into the boat!).

R: The Quest

And to top it all, on the boat we were fed like kings.  The cook managed to produce some amazingly delicious meals from what was a pretty small galley kitchen even when the boat was moving (and let’s face it we probably didn’t help that much by getting in her way as we squeezed past her and her stove on our way to the beer fridge!). From full eggs and bacon or pancakes for breakfast to burritos for lunch, not forgetting the freshest of fresh lobster served in a delicious garlic sauce one night for dinner or the shrimp pasta on another. This is the life……! 

L: The lobster doesn’t get much fresher than this; R: our bedroom for 5 nights

 

The Panama Papers

Our final Central American border crossing took us from Cahuita in Costa Rica across the border right through to Bocas del Toro in Panama, both on the Caribbean side.  Lots of people (tourists included) cross between these two countries every day, there’s nothing particularly unusual about this. 

So why did this border crossing cause us so much angst in the days leading up to it?  The reason is simple: the lack of clarity surrounding exactly what the immigration officials on the Panama side want from new arrivals.  When you start talking to people about your plans and you mention that you are heading into Panama, every conversation turned very quickly to the question “do you have your flight details ready?”

L: Paying the US$8 (officially US$7) exit fee at the Costa Rica side of the border; R: the path up to the Costa Rican border officials

But what flight details are in fact required?

  • Is a flight required or is it just evidence of onward travel out of Panama?  You hear stories that land border officials are no longer accepting an international bus ticket out of Panama as sufficient evidence of onward travel (even though it is of course evidence of just that!).  And what about evidence of a booking on a sailing yacht to Cartagena: is that sufficient?
  • And to where does this flight have to be going?  A general consensus seems to be that its destination should not be in Central America but would a ticket to say Miami be sufficient?  Some blogs even suggest that it is necessary to prove that you have a ticket booked to the country where your passport was issued.  But what if you are say an Australian living in the UK who is just on holiday in Central America with no intention of popping “down under” on your return route to your home in the UK?
  • And does the flight have to be from Panama itself or is a flight from another Central American country e.g. would a flight from San José in Costa Rica suffice? But if that is sufficient, how is that “evidence” of onward travel out of Panama (you’re going to have to get back to Costa Rica to get that flight and that’s probably going to be by a public bus which doesn’t even issue a ticket let alone a ticket in advance)?
  • And what’s the time frame for this flight ticket?  Again if you read things online, some people say that the flight needs to be within 90 days of entry into Panama.  But this is a little curious given that (all being well and assuming that you are going to be let in!), you usually get a six month stay in Panama. 

Of course, I hear you say, just read the official information on the Panama government websites or the travel abroad section on the UK’s gov.uk website.   Good luck with that – the problem is there’s nothing really 100% definitive on either which just means you are left in the lap of the gods.

The problem is that a lot of people who are travelling long term through Central and South America and making up their routes as they go (which is very common) simply don’t have a return flight or even a confirmed plan of their route out of Panama.  While we did have a plan to exit Panama (a 5 day sailing trip to Cartagena), this didn’t exactly fit the bill of a return flight to our home country.

L: the bridge marks the border between Costa Rica and Panama; R: the old bridge (now disused although some people seemed just to wander back and forth at will)

As well as the onward flight requirement, you also read that it’s necessary to have funds of at least USD$500 per person to enter Panama.  Again, it’s not entirely clear what this means – do you literally have to turn up with that much cash in used US dollar bills?  Or is flashing a credit card sufficient?  Some reports say that if you are going to use your credit card, you then have to show a hard copy of a current credit card statement showing sufficient available credit to meet this somewhat arbitrary financial requirement.

And then you might also need 1 or 2 (again it’s not clear how many) copies of your passport to hand over as well.  That of course means you have to try and find a copy shop that can print out all this stuff for you as it seems unlikely that just trying to show screen shots on mobile phones would be sufficient.  But again, who really knows?

The worry that we might be denied entry for failing to meet any (or all) of these specific requirements loomed over us in the days before we attempted the border crossing, the big headache being the return flight issue.  What to do?  We looked hard for “refundable” flights online but there were so many terms and conditions attached to the definition of “refundable” that our heads quickly began to spin.   After all, if you are going to book a flight back to London that you don’t need and which may not be fully refundable, that would be a rather expensive option. 

So what about reserving a flight but not paying for it?  Copa Airlines allows you to hold a reservation for up to 24 hours without paying for it: would that satisfy a border guard? Given it’s Panama’s national airline, one has to assume there might be some level of familiarity with this booking option and, to be honest you wouldn’t have to be that eagle eyed to spot that it wasn’t a fully paid for confirmed flight: so how could that satisfy the entry requirement? 

What about using a fake flight?  There’s a whole host of websites that allow you to create your own flight booking which you then print out as “evidence” of your confirmed flight.  But here’s the fly in that ointment: a US ex pat living in Cahuita to whom I was chatting a day before we were due to cross told me that the last time he had gone into Panama at Guabito (which was exactly where we were intending to enter), the border official had had taken his flight confirmation number and then actually logged onto the Delta airlines website to verify that he had a genuine booking.  Well that’s not going to work with a fake flight is it?  You’re either going to have to pull out an Oscar earning acting performance in looking surprised, angry or upset (or all 3) that there seems to be something wrong with your booking or you’re going to have to admit that you have effectively lied to the border guard by producing details of a fake flight.  Either way that looks like a recipe for a bottom clenching moment or two. 

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Long queues at the immigration desk on the Panama side

Or perhaps, if challenged and you haven’t already bought a flight in advance, you need to get ready to bite the bullet and book that US$ 105 flight to Miami (the cheapest flight we could find) on the spot (assuming you have mobile data which you might not of course having just crossed into a new country) and be prepared to throw it away (if, of course, a flight to the US would work for a UK citizen).

What a conundrum.  Would excessive tears or some sort of “facilitation” payment work?  But at what point should a “facilitation” payment be offered?  And if you’ve already had to flash US$500 in cash, just what sort of size of payment are we talking about?  The whole thing potentially gets trickier and trickier.

As we approached the border, the levels of angst from the lack of clarity regarding these entry requirements were hardly assuaged by being asked both by the Costa Rican “official” collecting the departure tax of US$8 (although your receipt only shows US$7 – go figure!) and the Costa Rican border official stamping me out of the country both asking if I had my flight details for the Panamanian side when frankly it was nothing really to do with them. 

And so what happened?  Well, we got in didn’t we!  While we were both asked for our flight details, the official processing Peter’s immigration took only a cursory look at his document before returning it, while my official didn’t even pull the piece of paper through the small cubby hole in the glass that separated us and so it just sat on the counter half way between us completely ignored.  And a few finger prints, an immigration photo plus some hearty stamping of passports later, we were both in with a permitted stay of 6 months, no difficult questions asked.

So what exactly is required?  I’m afraid I’m still none the wiser – it seems that this is likely to vary on the time of day when you are crossing (although we were early it was really busy when we were there and there was quite a long queue) and how efficient and/or officious the immigration official decides to be.   Take a deep breath, stay calm, smile a lot and be patient and go with the flow!

In contrast, leaving Panama could not have been easier: we didn’t even have to present ourselves in person at the border and instead the whole exit process was handled by the captain of our yacht on a small San Blas island!

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The official “border” post in the San Blas islands

Hiking around Boquete: the Sendero los Quetzales (minus the quetzals) and the Lost Waterfalls Trail (with waterfalls)

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View from the start of the Lost Waterfalls Trek

Our stay in Boquete (Panama) was really enjoyable and we grabbed the chance to do some hiking after having recently spent quite a bit of time on or near beaches, both in Costa Rica and Bocas del Toro.  What wasn’t entirely clear, however, was whether we needed to go with a guide on these routes which were a few kilometres out of town: our advance research (both online and reading the guidebook) had left us a little mystified.

Sendero los Quetzales: these trees are so high

In the end, given that things in Panama are pretty expensive (although marginally cheaper than in neighbouring Costa Rica), we elected to have a go DIY-style.  And this proved to be a perfect decision and, in the case of the hike along the Sendero los Quetzales, saved us US$138, and for the Lost Waterfalls hike, a further US$36 between us!  In both cases, despite some contradictory information, the trails were clearly marked and easy to follow and getting the collectivo minibuses up from town was also easy.  We also lucked out on our return journeys as although the minibuses apparently only go once an hour, as if by magic they seemed to arrive just when we needed them.  The arrival of the collectivo was particularly welcome when we finished the Sendero los Quetzales as by this time, it was pouring with heavy rain and we were pretty drenched.

L: The ranger’s hut at the start of the Sendero los Quetzales; R: the “view” from the mirador (viewpoint)

So transport and hiking trail wise, there was definitely no need for a guide.  But with one, would we have seen more wildlife?  Possibly especially on the Sendero los Quetzales, but not definitely (especially after the weather had closed in) and from what we read the eponymous quetzals (brightly coloured birds) are pretty hard to spot on this trail anyway.  And of course we’d already been lucky enough to see them when we were in Monteverde in Costa Rica. 

By the time we got to our turning point (the viewpoint), the clouds had descended and we didn’t get much of a view but walking the trail through the rainforest was fun and we pretty much had it all to ourselves.  Although there wasn’t so much fauna to see, there were lots of beautiful plants to admire (albeit admittedly we weren’t able to name many of them: some of them must have been orchids though I’m sure of it). 

River crossings on the Sendero los Quetzales (even some of the bridges were a little dubious!)

The start of the trail took us across small rivers, sometimes on bridges (including a rather rickety rope bridge with a slightly rotten wooden floor), sometimes without any obvious way to get across which entailed a bit of a balancing act on rather slippery stepping stones (and, on the way back, a wade across the ice cold water in bare feet).  All in all it was a 5½ hour hike (there and back) with a fair amount of pretty steep climbing as we got nearer to the “view”point. 

The next day we walked the Lost Waterfalls route.  I still have no idea why they are called Lost Waterfalls (we thought that perhaps this might indicate a lack of water) but (a) they were very easy to find (all were very clearly marked) and (b) there was an impressive amount of water pouring over the cliffs to form each of the 3 waterfalls.  Clearly found and not lost at all (and certainly not by the owner of the private land over which you walk and are charged US$7 for the privilege!). 

The Three Waterfalls: 1, 2 and 3 – we found them!

In some ways, although shorter (about 2½ hour round trip), we probably preferred this hike: yes it was muddy (not least because of the torrential downpour during the previous night: it doesn’t half rain in this region) and in parts, entailed a bit of a scramble up and down the steep paths (albeit with the help of some strategically positioned ropes), but walking through this part of the rainforest was beautiful and each of the 3 waterfalls was impressive.  Again, as we’d started early, we were on our own until we started making our return journey, but even then there weren’t that many people walking this trail (and no one with a guide – it’s just not necessary).  If it had been warmer, we could have thought about taking a dip in the pools at the bottom of the 2nd or 3rd waterfall but it would have been a rather bracing experience so we gave it a miss.    

While in Boquete we also visited a coffee finca (estate).  We’ve been in Central America for almost 4 months and although we’ve consumed gallons of the black gold, we hadn’t actually got round to finding out a bit more about this key industry.  So in Boquete off we went to a small finca where they produce only Arabica coffee (apparently Robusta coffee which you find in most coffee chains and restaurants is very much second class) and they do a lot of the sorting of the coffee beans etc by hand: it’s all a really time consuming process and a labour of love.  With the temperate climate in Boquete (not too hot to burn the coffee beans) and the altitude of 1500m, apparently these are perfect coffee growing conditions and we were told that Panamanian coffee had been voted best coffee in the world for a number of successive years.  Now I don’t want to be cynical but I’m sure I heard something similar when we were in Guatemala (“statistics, statistics”), but to be honest, not being a huge coffee drinker myself, I’m probably not in the best position to judge.  However, I’m happy to admit that I’ve been enjoying some nice coffee while I’ve been in this region and it was interesting to understand a bit more about the process.

Coffee beans (green ones are not yet ripe; red ones are ready for picking; others are being dried in the sun)