We knew arriving that there was no way we’d make Santa Catalina that night without an expensive taxi so the four of us split two hotel rooms at $7/each and walked around Santiago long enough to discover there was very little going on. We also picked up some food as we’d been warned that it was difficult at times in Santa Catalina to get food: I grabbed a big packet of spaghetti, some sauce, and raman noodles or the low price of $2. The next town on our way to Santa Catalina was called Sona and there were many buses from Santiago there. However, there are only a handful of buses from Sona to Santa Catalina, specifically one at 8 AM, one at noon, and one at 4 PM. We said goodbye to Raj who jumped on a bus to Panama and we grabbed one to Sona that was just about to leave at 10 AM. Perfect timing. The countryside was a mix of hills, farms, and small towns, authentic and definitely not on the development trail. Promising. Our arrival in Sona gave us just enough time to grab a quick and cheap bite ($1.50) from the bus station before the Sona bus arrived. Even though it wasn’t supposed to leave until 12, it was full before then and left at about 11:30. Good thing we got here with time to spare.
At last we were in Santa Catalina. The town is great, relaxed, undeveloped, and devoid of anything resembling foreign infestation. Small streets lined with shady trees winding up the hill and down to the coast where a dive centre and a small restaurant sat. The problem with places that aren’t developed, of course, is that there isn’t much infrastructure for travellers. The first few places we looked were either full or way too expensive but eventually we found our way to the Blue Zone Hostal. They had two beds left and Ignacio, the owner, had a tent he was willing to rent out for the third of us. Clint volunteered for the $5 tent and Kenny and I took the last two beds. This place is really cool, just a short walk down a dirt path from the beach, up on a hill, with an open layout. In the rain it might not be so pleasant but it was a beautiful day.
Speaking of amenities, internet was basically a non-option here. There is one cafe about 30 minutes walk out of town which has pre-dialup speeds at T1-fibre prices. Still, I had to log on if only to let Brian know that I’d have difficulty making a Friday podcast in these circumstances (we’re supposed to be talking to Frank Black and Eric Drew Feldman about their upcoming album, Non Stop Erotik). Something else I hadn’t mentioned was that, at least according to familydoctor.org, I managed to get myself a stress fracture in my left foot hiking down from Volcan Baru. It’s not too bad for a bit of walking but more than that and it is pretty darn painful. The walk to and from the internet left me again hobbling like an old man and it took me about an hour to make my way back. I also booked myself on a SCUBA dive the following morning with SCUBA Coiba. Two dives are $115 and you stop on one small island and then Isla Coiba as well, which is ordinarily a $50 boat ride in itself. There’s an additional $20 for diving in the national marine reserve but for mantas and whale sharks, well worth it.
The rest of the night was pretty uneventful and relaxed. Kenny lent me his book, Outliers to read and I got about halfway through it. I also picked up a pizza and ate half for dinner leaving the rest for my packed lunch on the boat trip. This was my first time SCUBA diving in the Pacific (obviously Malaysia and Australia don’t count) as well and I was amazed. I’d been warned that the visibility was pretty poor and there wasn’t much to see but there was a bit of reef and a lot of life. And a LOT of plankton, which should have bode well for a whale shark sighting too but alas, the first dive we did not come across one. Flounders, frog fish, and a couple eels, plus the usual parrot fish and other regulars of the ocean world. We stopped at a small strip of sand on a deserted island and had lunch on the beach. One of the girls diving, Rebecca, is from Chicago and in fact manages the Chicago Symphony. We got talking about that and I mentioned my love of John Williams’ music at which point she told me she has met him and had lunch with him on several occasions. And then she points at her foot where she has a tattoo of the Rebel Alliance logo (which she assures me is also a symbol of good luck for a Sahara tribe). So she is going to let me know the next time he’s in town conducting and not only will I go and check it out but maybe – just maybe – I’ll get to meet him.
I don’t quite know how to convey my excitement at this possibility but rest assured it is immense. I’ve been listening pretty non-stop to his music since I was 14 or so and he is the only musician I’d put above Frank Black which might help underscore things a bit. But I digress. Aside from Rebecca, who was awesome, we had a pretty cool group of divers which always makes it a lot more fun. Our next dive was a bit better in terms of life. I have never seen so many moray eels in my life – at least 20! – not to mention the biggest reef sharks I’ve ever seen (and lots of them) and eagle rays. I believe I saw a manta ray as well, but it was quite distant though very large. Still, I don’t think it qualifies as a sighting but just for the sake of recording it. Then we went to Coiba island, which is sometimes called the Galapagos of Panama because it has never been logged and is a protected park. It was pretty though the quantity of life and its shyness leads me to conclude that this is no Galapagos. It is, however beautiful. And when we got off the boat, we were swarmed by media wanting interviews. Do you speak Spanish? A little. OK, good enough, and then some rapid-fire questions for the evening news or some sort of documentary. So now Panama and the world can see how terrible my Spanish is, especially under pressure. Woohoo!
That night, I made my spaghetti, thinking I’d make enough to have leftovers for breakfast in the morning. With my foot, surfing wasn’t a great idea and that left me little to do but relax, and I suspected I’d have quite a few do-nothing days in Panama City as it was, so I planned to leave the next morning. While I was making spaghetti and ‘meat balls’ I finished reading Outliers. I really like sociological books like this and found some of the insights fascinating. I’ve always felt that people who work at something are the people who are good at it, whether it’s math or music or anything else and it was nice to see some correlations of this theory to reality. As well, I always enjoy reading about people who have become ‘successful’ in their fields and there are plenty of stories here, too. Finally, there’s a whole section about cultural impact and flight so I was bound to find the whole thing fascinating.
My spaghetti didn’t have enough sauce and was enough for three people to eat AFTER I finished my dinner. Oops. So I didn’t save any money cooking myself. Afterwards, we all hung out and drank some of the beer Ignacio had stocked the hostel with and Florian, an Austrian guy I’d been diving with, brought out his schnapps that he still had from home. I probably could use more time at a place like this, I decided, but it wasn’t meant to be on this trip. I needed to get to Colombia and get started on South America, I needed to get to Panama and start negotiating with local captains for a good deal via the San Blas islands, and there was the matter of getting some new eye glasses made among other things. So I left in the morning, bequeathing the spaghetti to Clint and Kenny and taking the 8 AM bus to Panama City, the canal, and beyond.