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I’m writing this post on a very hard bed in a $30/night “hotel” in the town of Changuinola, Panama. If you’ve ever eaten a Chiquita banana it likely came from Changuinola.

Those of you who know me well know that #1 I would never be at a $30/night hotel, and #2 if I were, I likely would not admit it. Let me explain how we got here.

We were supposed to check out of our hotel at Bocas del Toro tomorrow, but realized that we should probably get to Changuinola earlier so we could pick up our car to drive the 4-5 hour journey to our next stop at Los Quetzales Lodge in Guadalupe, near the Boquette volcano area to begin the birding portion of our Panama adventure. Turns out, no matter how much research one does ahead of time, you really don’t know how things really work until you get there. After a couple of days on the island and with a little bit of intel from locals we figured we should get to Changuinola a day earlier to get our car and make the drive through the mountains so we didn’t have to search for the Lodge in the dark.

Just after checking out of Playa Tortuga–our Bocas accommodations–it began to rain. No, correct that–it was a downpour. 20120323-173910.jpg

I almost aborted our dive plans today because of the rain. No, I’m not chicken. It’s just that I get easily chilled on the boat when I can’t get dry. (Blame the whole scleroderma / reynaud’s thing I’ve got going on.) But I’m glad I did the dives anyway. It was warm in the water and Panama–Bocas del Toro in particular–is a great place for beginner divers, which I still consider myself. (I only had 30 dives under my belt when I arrived. Now I have 36!)

The water here is calm and tranquil. I took advantage of that and practiced putting on my BCD in the water rather than strapping it and the tank onto me in the boat. I actually like the backward roll off a boat, but I hate standing with that tank and BCD. Not sure I could to the BCD thing in the water at othr places. Sometimes the water is just a little too rocky for me. But in Panama it was nice.

Visibility in the water is not spectacular. It’s no Belize or Cozumel, that’s for sure, but I saw some new species, including loads of star fish, trumpet fish and squid.

The other good thing about diving in Bocas is that it’s so economical. We paid only $54 pp for a two-tank dive. Plus, the boats are smaller, which means fewer people/divers in your group. The attention you get is so much more personal. We dove all three days with Bocas Water Sports. Loved them! They’re a PADI operation and the owner, John, from the States, is a hoot.

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We had lunch at Under the Palm Restaurant after our dives. If you’re ever at Bocas del Toro I highly recommend it.
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It was away from Hostel Row and the food was pretty darn good and it was quiet. It also has the most awesome bathroom in town with really soft, Charmin-like toilet paper.

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Following lunch we made our way to the water taxi to get back to the mainland. Water taxis are pretty cheap–only $5 pp. I was a little worried that our luggage at the very back was going to fly off at any moment. Not sure it was strapped down. Wondered what I would do if it did end up in the ocean. Trying not to worry, I turned my attention to the mangroves and the occasional motorized canoe going by. (At one point, I spotted a little family of three in their canoe. Mom was in the front paddling and older brother in the back paddling while little sister was in the middle with a little white bucket bailing out water. Not a good sign.)

As soon as the water taxi arrived at Almarante we were met by three very enterprising young men, about 16 years or so who asked us if we needed a taxi and as soon as we said yes, each grabbed one of our bags and started walking. “We’ll get you a taxi,” one of them said.

We obediently followed the three on a gravel road for about five yards, then one of the young men hollered to a yellow taxi, which was about 30 yards away and about to go another direction, but he backed up and then drove toward us. Like little worker bees, the young men dumped our luggage in the trunk of the car and I gave then each a $1 tip for their help. Quite the little operation they got going there.

Off we go! It was to be about a 40 minute drive to Changuinola and only costs $20 by taxi. Bargain. Except as soon as I got in, I noticed no seat belts. I was hoping that we didn’t need them, but this wasn’t my first time as a passenger in a Panamanian taxi. Hence my nerves. The drive was hilly and thank goodness the road was good, even if the drivers weren’t. For awhile there I thought I was living the real life version of my favorite app game, “Tiny Wings,” and resisted the temptation to yell out, “Wa Hoooooooo!”

At one point, it began to rain pretty seriously and so our driver pulled over and reached into his glove compartment to pull out a wrench. “Holy cow,” I thought. He’s going to kill us Clue style or the car is dead. Just roll with it.”

Glad I rolled. Turns out the only way to get the windows up was by wrench. He opened my door and where there was no handle crank to roll up the window he used the wrench to turn the little piece of protruding metal so the window would go up. “Automatic windows!” he exclaimed.

Ha Ha! His car might be a piece of crap, but he’s got a sense of humor about it. I should too. (Though I have to tell you that as we descended from every hill I was praying they guy’s brakes were working.)

He made his way around the car and did the same for Steve’s window. Okay, so now it will be warm in the car (no air conditioning, natch), but hey, the guy made sure we didn’t get wet. He deserves a good tip!

Our driver did get us to our hotel in Changuinola safely and I did give him a good tip. We chose the hotel because it was where the Avis rental car company is. We would stay the night here and then leave first thing in the morning with our car for our long drive to Los Quetzales Lodge.

Turns out, Avis, in spite of my initial confirmation upon booking several weeks ago and second confirmation from them via email just 3 days ago, there is no car. There’s an Avis representative, but he has no cars. (What the what?)

SO glad we left Bocas to get here a day earlier. Otherwise, we’d be in a world of hurt. Turns out, there’s a bus that goes to David City, where there’s an airport and it’s just outside of where our next accommodations are, so the agent here (who clearly has nothing else to do since he has no cars) called David City Avis and got us a car booked. Well, fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, I’m sitting on a very hard bed (it seems to be a foam mattress on plywood) writing as our scuba gear and swimsuits dry out–we have it all hanging around the room, so we look very third-world ourselves and Steve is sleeping/snoring while I type and eat a package of Chips Ahoy cookies. The air conditioner is so loud that it’s actually drowning out Steve’s snoring and I can’t help but be amused by the wall art in our room.
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Why a $30 hotel? Folks, it’s truly the best place in town. We had no choice and remember, we’re not in Panama City. Changuinola is still pretty third-world. Maybe second-world at best. All I care about right now is that we got here in one piece, we have a place to sleep, we have transportation via bus to David City and we have a rental car waiting for us there. I do know that Los Quetzales lodge has a spa. I’m so booking a massage once I get there.

Now time to watch “Hillbilly Handfishin'” in Espanol on the telly (“Pescadores Lunes!”) Seems to be all that’s on. I’m just rollin’ with it.