La Isla Bonita

Our departure from Ecuador was not at all what we expected. After checking in online the night before we left Cuenca with TAME Airlines, we show up at the airport only to discover the airport is closed and our flight to Quito is cancelled. The sudden realization we are going to miss our connecting flight to Panama City settles in. Now what?

In our last post, we told you about a plane that slid off the runway on landing and got stuck in the mud. Well, that stuck plane was still there. So, Cuenca’s airport was closed. Apparently it remained closed for a week.

TAME issued new tickets to fly to Quito, but we’d have to get ourselves to Guayaquil to board the flight. Oh great. No problem, Guayaquil is a three and a half hour drive over the Andes.

Fortunately there were several confused travellers with the same problem that morning. It didn’t take too long to find a group with a couple of spare seats in a van that was leaving for Guayaquil in about 30 minutes.

After three hours of light hearted discussions in Spanish and broken English, we were good friends and arrived safely at Guayaquil airport. However, this meant we needed to change our connecting flight from Quito to Panama City. Credit cards can be so helpful at times like this.

Finally we’re off to Quito and our connection to Panama City went smooth. A few hours later than planned, but all was well once again.

One thing we’ve learned about travelling in South and Central America is flight connections can be a bit tricky. Most international flights originate early in the morning or very late at night. An airline may have two flights a day to Quito or Lima or Bogota, but it sometimes requires a night in the air or an overnight en route.

Such was our case in trying to get to Belize. I learned that COPA Airlines has direct flights from Panama City to Belize City, but only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So, although we’d already spent one day in Panama City, we opted to spend a couple of more days in the Casco Viejo (old quarter) area until the Tuesday flight to Belize came around.

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Restored building – Casco Viejo
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View of modern Panama City from Casco Viejo
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Waiting for the squatters to vacate
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Plaza Simón Bolivar, Casco Viejo

Panama City is the largest city in Panama with a population close to two million people. The city is the political and administrative center of the country, as well as a hub for international banking and commerce. There’s seldom a dull moment here and the city’s history is fascinating.

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A former Spanish dungeon

The city was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century. The Spanish Conquistadors then moved south and north in Central and South America, bringing an end to the Incan empire. During the process they relocated most of the Inca’s gold and silver back to Spain.

Fast forward to the early 1900’s and you have the building of the Panama Canal. As recently as 1989, the US invaded Panama while pursuing Manuel Noriega. (I wonder if Saddam Hussein was watching the news?)

Today you can read about the news of Mossack Fonseca and the Panama Papers, 11.5 million leaked documents that detail financial and attorney–client information for more than 214,488 offshore entities.  Anyone we know?

Its May 3 and we are on our way to Belize. Once we got our bags in Belize City it was a short ride by taxi to the dock and then a water taxi took us to the island of Ambergris Caye and the town of San Pedro. This beautiful island is home to the world’s second larget barrier reef and some of the friendliest, gracious people we’ve met in a very long time.

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Front Street – San Pedro, Belize

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Although our house sitting gig did not turn out as expected, we found an amazing self-keeping cottage at a hotel in San Pedro. With a pool and a long stretch of beach, we dropped our bags and stayed put for close to six weeks.

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Our rasta friend Marlin
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Another rastafarian .. Moya
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Our buddy – Brown

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Is this the retirement spot we’ve been looking for? We met several Americans, Canadians and Europeans who certainly felt so. Although not as inexpensive as other places we went to, we were very comfortable. While there are lots of real estate listings here, a long term rental would probably be our first choice. But, before signing on, we want to explore more of Belize, particularly a few spots on the mainland. That will be something left for another adventure, further on up the road.

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After nearly six months of wandering, we are headed back to Calgary tomorrow (yikes!). This is our last blog post for a while. Best wishes to all our followers and stop living vicariously… get out there and see this amazing world !

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Let’s Go To Peru

Long before leaving Canada, we had talked about making a trip to see Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas. Once we were settled in Cuenca, I started making the travel arrangements.

Since Cuenca is not an international airport, we had to fly first to Quito, then to Lima and then on to Cusco. Through Airbnb, we found an apartment and spent two nights in Cusco with Claudia and her son Carlos. Neither one spoke English, so it was a bit of a challenge making ourselves understood. Our room was small but comfortable and we were within walking distance of the central part of Cusco, close to the historic buildings and main sights. Cusco’s altitude is 11,200 feet above sea level.

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Driving near Pisac
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Cusco Cathedral, Plaza De Armas
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Elvis

Through Carlos, we met his friend Elvis, who didn’t speak English either, but we ended up hiring him as our driver for the short time we were in Cusco.  Elvis took us to several fascinating sites close to Cusco including… Moray, Chinchero, and Pisac. We spent some time and money in the artisan market in Pisac. Elvis also drove us to Ollantaytambo, where the altitude is about 9,100 feet.

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Moray

While in Ollantaytambo, we ventured to Patacancha, a traditional Quechuan community about a one-hour drive up a dirt road. The community has lived the same way for hundreds of years working the land and selling whatever agricultural products they don’t use. The community is known for its colourful high-quality textiles, which are hand-woven primarily by the women in the community, and for their traditional lifestyle.  This was a real treat and well off the beaten track.

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Quechuan residents of Patacancha

There’s certainly more than one Inca Trail and more than one way to reach Machu Picchu. Some keeners opt for the popular 3 nights and four days hike that starts just outside of Ollantaytambo. The Peru government strictly controls foot traffic on this particular route. Hikers must hire a local guide and porters are often enlisted to carry the tents, food and other gear. We were told this trail has at least a 5-month wait list for an access permit.

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Taxis seen in Ollantaytambo and Urubamba

Others get off the train and take the one-day hike, again with a guide in your group. Some, like us, take the train that follows the Urubamba River to Aguas Calientes, which is as far as the train will go. At this point the Sacred Valley is so narrow that train travel is difficult.   After leaving the train you either climb up or go back where you came from.

Once in Aguas Calientes, you follow the crowd to a find the bus that takes you up a winding gravel road (oh to be rallying again… sigh) to the purpose thousands arrive here every day from all over the world – Machu Picchu.

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Machu Picchu

In the 15th century, the Incan Emperor Pachacútec built a city in the clouds on the mountain known as Machu Picchu (“old mountain”). This extraordinary settlement lies halfway up the Andes Plateau, deep in the Amazon jungle and above the Urubamba River. It is suggested the Incas abandoned this city because of a smallpox outbreak. After the Spanish defeated the Incan Empire, the city remained ‘lost’ for over three centuries. Hiram Bingham was credited with rediscovering Machu Picchu in 1911, although some speculate it was found sooner than this.

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Exhausted and climbed-out, we retraced our steps from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes and the train back to Ollantaytambo. This time, we stayed on the train until reaching Urubamba where we stopped for the night. After a hot shower and a good meal, it was lights out.

The return schedule got us back to Cuenca safely but it was an overnight flight and an early arrival. Our landing in Cuenca was the scariest I think we’ve ever had as it had been raining quite a bit and the runway was very slick. Shortly after we landed another flight hydroplaned and slid off the same runway we had just come in on. No one was seriously injured but the plane got stuck in the mud at the end of the runway and as we would find out later, it resulted in the airport being closed for a week.

So we are now packing up and readying ourselves to say goodbye to Cuenca. Our time here was very enjoyable and we could certainly see ourselves living here on a long-term basis.

Our next adventure will be to check out an offer to “house-sit” in Belize.   So we are leaving Ecuador, flying to Panama City for a couple of days and then on to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye in Belize.

 

Short Update

We have had many friends, family and followers enquire about our well being in light of the recent 7.8 earthquake that struck the Northwest coast of Ecuador on April 16.

Your concern for us is very much appreciated.  JoAnne and I are both safe and well.  Our current home in Cuenca is a 9 or 10 hour drive from the epicentre.  Although we felt some tremors, our apartment was not adversely affected.

However, if you have not already done so, please consider a donation to a recognized relief organization currently involved with disaster response in either Japan or Ecuador.  Two examples of organizations are below.

Kindest regards,

Brian and Jo-Anne Cosier

 Canadian Red Cross – Disaster Relief

 Samaritan’s Purse

 

So this is Cuenca….

Well, here we are in Santa Ana De Los Quattro Ríos De Cuenca, or simply Cuenca, living as much like locals as two gringos can. Our apartment is on a busy street called Avenida General Escandon, so its fun to look out the window at the busyness of street life in our community. We are close to many things and our space is quite comfortable with large picture windows overlooking the street and a quiet bedroom further back. We are also blessed to have a washer and dryer in the apartment.

We have been off to a slower start since arriving in Cuenca. Brian had a miserable head cold, but I am happy to report due to my fantastic nursing and great cooking he is back on his feet.

We have been out doing some exploring around town. We can get a bus just outside our apartment that will take us downtown in about 15 minutes or we can walk it in about 40. The first day we went downtown we chose the bus and made out just fine. Downtown Cuenca has many beautiful buildings, narrow streets, parks and magnificent cathedrals. Recently recognized as a World Heritage Site for its splendid inner city architecture. There is so much to see and do here. The second time we went downtown we decided we would walk along the river to see how long it would take us. The banks of the river are park like with lots of green space to enjoy. Every day you can see several locals along the riverbank washing their clothes and hanging out with family. There are magnificent old, tall trees along each side of the river that provides a calming environment from the hustle and bustle of the streets. Lots of people frequent the riverbanks and its path on both sides.

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Another day we caught a cab and went to the Homero Ortega Panama Hat Factory and Museum. Although the hats are actually started in artisans’ homes elsewhere in the area, we saw the finished products and of course the showroom at the end. We had a lot of fun trying on the various hats. The Heisenberg hat from the television series Breaking Bad was made here. They make nice handbags here as well so I bought a bag to go with my hat. Brian is quite striking in his new hat.

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How about a weaved wedding dress, hat, and flowers too?

The following day we went to visit Luis Uyaguari’s guitar workshop. A third or fourth generation luthier with more than 40 years experience, Luis and his English speaking son gave us a personal tour and demonstration how this family has been making handcrafted guitars for generations. They are the oldest guitar making family in Ecuador. We were invited to view their workshop and saw how detailed every step is in the process of making such a quality product. The prices of these guitars start at $1,000 and go up. With strict attention to every detail and inlaid patterns that include mother of pearl, these guitars are made with a labor of love and as they said, a piece of their heart and soul goes into every guitar they make. We came away humbled that we got to see the process of a master craftsman and to learn how much they put into and care about every guitar they make. It can take up to four months to build a guitar from scratch and they have many orders to fill.

Recently, we hired a local tour guide, Edgar Galarza, to help us see several nearby communities and sites. Cuenca, at 8,400 feet above sea level, is surrounded by the Andes Mountains and quite close to Cajas National Park. As well, many smaller communities such as Chordeleg, Gualaceo, Biblián, are only a short drive away. Ingapirca, where the most notable Inca ruins in Ecuador can be found, is only about two hours away by car.

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Edgar

Edgar did a wonderful job showing us these sites. We hiked to several hidden lakes in the Cajas. Stopping frequently for elevation adjustments, we managed to get a few more kilometers out of our old legs. At one point we reached 13,671 feet. The Canadian Rockies are more visually majestic, but I think the Andes win on elevation.

There are several communities near here each with different artisans making shoes, pottery, leather goods and textiles. Chordeleg is one of these towns that still adhere to the guild system established during Spanish colonial times. The guild system required each town to have a certain skill or craft that they specialized in.

The early citizens of Chordeleg were metal workers and today they specialize in silver filigree jewellery. So renowned is this craft, there are models of the jewellery hanging from streetlights. Edgar arranged for us to visit one of these craftsmen, who opened his shop for us one evening and gave us a personal demonstration of how this intricate art form has been handed down for generations. JoAnne came away very happy that evening.

We also visited a local market with lots of vendors offering fresh roasted pork, all in various states of display. In Biblián we visited Our Lady of the Dew church. It was built circa 1895, but amazingly right into the side of a mountain.

The highlight was Ingapirca, the largest known Inca ruins in Ecuador. Since the Incas worshipped the sun, the most significant building here is the Temple of the Sun, an elliptically shaped building constructed around a large rock. The building is constructed without mortar, as are most of the structures in the complex. The stones were carefully chiselled and fashioned to fit together perfectly. The Temple of the Sun was positioned so that on the solstices, at exactly the right time of day, sunlight would fall through the center of the doorway of the small chamber at the top of the temple.

We started this adventure many months ago asking ourselves the question… “Can two Canadians really retire in South or Central America?” In Ecuador, the short answer is yes, absolutely. Although we have only been in Cuenca for about a month, it is clearly an affordable place to live for two retired Canadians. In our particular case we don’t have substantial retirement savings or long service company pensions. However, we have some modest savings and our Canada Pension benefits are sufficient for us to live comfortably here. We have met a number of other Canadians who have been here for years and have used CPP to qualify for Ecuador’s Retirees Pension Visa. This visa grants you permanent resident status.

Rental apartments or condos that would fit most North American standards can be found here for various prices but a decent place with 900 – 1,100 square feet, 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms goes for about $350 – $500 per month. Larger places with 3 bedrooms average $500 – $600 per month. Some rental accommodations come furnished, some do not. Some are more centrally located than others and individual tastes and other amenities will obviously affect your rent.

If you don’t wish to rent, you can purchase similar places for $95,000 to $150,000. Detached houses are also plentiful and prices vary according to size and location. Food prices are not that different from Canada. Locally produced meats, bread, dairy products and produce are quite a bit cheaper. Anything imported is generally more expensive. Utilities are very inexpensive and because of the moderate climate you are not spending anything on heating bills or air conditioning. Health care is quite a bit cheaper, as well as cell phone and internet services.

Like other oil exporting countries, Ecuador is struggling under current world oil prices. The government is therefore laying substantial taxes on many imports, particularly liquor. Chilean wine is plentiful and reasonably priced but decent whisky is not. Panamanian rum is very cheap.

Brian had his teeth cleaned recently for $45 and was quoted $1,600 to replace 4 old veneers with crowns. A similar quote before we left Calgary was $10,000. Bus fare is $0.25 and taxis are very plentiful and cheap as well so you could likely live quite well without the added cost of a car.

While retirement here is quite affordable, there is the emotional side to such a decision. Since leaving Canada, it has not all been sunshine and roses for us. We have had some very tough days. We deeply miss our two daughters and the home and lifestyle we had in Calgary. Yet, our circumstances in life can and do change. It is true that what happens to you is not as important as how you handle it. So for us we must answer a bigger question. “Can two Canadians handle living in another country with a very different culture and language while so far from friends, family and all things familiar?” As we ponder this, we covet all of your prayers for us as we discover what lays ahead, further on up the road.

Welcome to Ecuador

Lo siento, we have been putting this update off long enough. Time has really slipped away on us since leaving Panama. We have been in Ecuador for 10 days and we have so much to catch you up on.

We arrived in Quito on March 13 and began a seven-day adventure that was an organized tour arranged through Gate 1 Travel. Jo-Anne and I have never been big fans of organized tours, but we took a chance on this one and I’m glad we did.

We were met at the airport by a representative from Gate 1 whose name is Paul.  A very handsome English speaking Ecuadorian with a smile and an aura that told you instantly this person was going to become a good friend and so it was. Paul took care of all of us as a shepherd tends his flock and that smile never left his face. A week with Paul as our tour guide cured any stress we may have felt before the trip. Each and everyone of us on that tour was special to Paul and I cannot express enough what an amazing employee Gate 1 has in his commitment and dedication to his job.We all loved Paul!

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Our tour guide Paul

Then there was our driver Jonny. He was as special to us as Paul.  Another handsome Ecuadorian whose commitment to his job really showed. We travelled safely to our destinations every day because of this man.  We owe our lives to him actually.  Many a twisting turning road he drove on, taking us to spectacular heights of over 14,000 feet in the mountains and down again.  Many places on the side of the road were sheer drop gorges.  Other places the road had eroded or a recent mud slide had occurred and Jonny each time skillfully maneuvered our massive tour bus through each obstacle and got us to our next stop along the way. We all loved Jonny too and we’re very thankful at the end of each day for his amazing driving skills.  Did I mention how good he was at backing up?

There were a total of 35 on the tour. We started from the Hilton Hotel and our first day exposed us to the old part of Quito, visiting narrow cobblestone streets and exploring most of 16th-century Quito. The highlight was seeing La Compañia Church or the Church of San Francisco and the Cathedral of Quito. We saw a street with seven churches on it but not enough time to visit them all. What we did see was amazing and the stories Paul told us about their history was captivating.

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Here on this street of churches we caught the first glimpse of the locals selling their wares.

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selling scarves 2 for $5.00. I bought 2

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Inside Church of San Francisco, Quito
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Church of San Francisco, Quit

Then, it was off to the Middle of the World Monument, where we stood with one foot in the Northern and one in the Southern Hemisphere.

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Monumento a la Mitad del Mundo, near Quito

 

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Llamas near the Monument

 

Day two had us visiting a water fall in the morning

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and a visit to a local musical group that made instruments including the famous bamboo flutes.  The whole family performed for us.

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The afternoon found us visiting the famous Otavalo market, one of the largest in South America and run by local Otavaleño Indians. JoAnne found a beautiful alpaca cape and sweater and I found a sweater too. That night we stayed in a cabin on a lake that was very romantic. When we came back from dinner someone had lit our fireplace and put hot water bottles in our bed.

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The next day found us driving through the most amazing and breathtaking views.  After a lengthy and slow drive up, up and up into the Andes we reached 14,800 feet above sea level,

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The highest point 14800 feet

and then descended into Papallacta where we spent the night in a lodge surrounded by thermal hot springs.

 

 

 

 

On day three we arrived at La Punta Ahuano, a tiny port on the north bank of the Napo River. From here, a motorized canoe took us to a lodge on the Amazon River where we spent two nights enjoying the sounds, serenity and magnificent foliage of the Cloud Forest and the unique Amazon culture.

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Headwaters of the Amazon… Nervous? Who me?

 

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The first afternoon we took a short canoe ride across the river to an island and walked through the jungle to a traditional aboriginal village of the Quechua.  We were invited into a home given some treats and then had a demonstration on how to use a blow gun.

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No anacondas, right?

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Don’t be rude to your hosts… single malt its not!

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All the next day the two of us and a few others opted out of a strenuous hike and an obstacle course in the jungle for a quiet relaxing day by the pool and a leisure stroll around the grounds of the lodge.

We left the jungle the following day and drove most of the day to get to our last night on the road which was a beautiful old and modern hacienda.

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A few stops along the way.

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Devils Cauldron

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A basket ride across a canyon

We had several other amazing experiences and sights that eventually led us back to Quito.

A visit to a rose plantation was spectacular

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and the end of a wonderful introduction to Ecuador. We said good-bye to our new travel acquaintances and then flew on to Cuenca.

We have a small two bedroom, two bath apartment here that is above a little shop with a picture window overlooking the hustle and bustle of the street and the locals below. We are very comfortable here with modern conveniences. This cute little place  will be our home until the end of April.

Stayed tuned for our adventures in Cuenca.

 

 

 

 

 

Runnin’ Back to Boquete

Has it really been two weeks since we left Pedasi  and made our way back to the lush valley that surrounds our base camp in Boquete? Our base, Los Molinos, is a beautiful gated community with several large estate homes and numerous smaller homes under construction. Our friend and host Richard has a beautiful home there that features a pool and a small casita the occasional guest stays in.  Richard and Brian share Welsh ancestry, maybe that’s why they get on so well.

We came back to Boquete in time to take in the 10th annual Boquete Jazz and Blues Festival. This is a big event for Boquete and features a parade, local nightclubs hosting jams and two days of music in an outdoor amphitheatre. It was mostly a gringo show, produced by gringos, featuring gringo musicians, for gringo entertainment. Acts included Ronnie Baker Brooks (Lonnie Brooks son), Curtis Salgado, bassist Scott Ambush (of Spyro Gyra fame), Marshall Keyes, Tommy Castro and a not so well known but killer guitarist from the UK – Matt Schofield. Canada’s Downchild Blues Band played here a couple of years ago. I’m really glad we attended. Will we be here next year? Hmmm…. Check it out http://www.boquetejazzandbluesfestival.com/

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blues hound
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Ronnie Baker Brooks

With little fanfare February has turned into March. Our tan lines are well defined and we are starting to think about our next adventures in Ecuador.   But before we leave Panama, we wanted to see a bit more of this beautiful country. We decided to drive to Bocas del Toro and see some of this famous archipelago on the Caribbean.

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Evening comes to Bocas Town

Driving from Boquete to Bocas Town was definitely an adventure. The trip took us over the continental divide and the change in scenery was incredible. It really makes you appreciate what human effort was required to build a canal allowing ships to pass over this isthmus. The drive to Bocas took about 4 hours.   The road was treacherous in spots with unmarked potholes just looking for a rim to bend.

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We drove as far as Almirante, parked the rental car at the local fire department, (bomberos) and then took a water taxi over to Isla Colon and the town of Bocas. Some say it looks like Key West, Florida in the 50’s or 60’s. There is no need for a car on this island as taxis are plentiful and cheap. Locals might long board around or ride a bike or catch the local bus. Lots of houses and buildings built right over the water. Boating, surfing and diving is popular here.   We stayed three nights in a lovely B&B called Sand Dollar Beach B&B just a few minutes from town and right across the road from a beautiful beach. The waves hitting the shore lull us to sleep each night.

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Our hosts from Sand Dollar Beach, Mark and Sharon Reeves, invited us to join them on a boat ride to visit the Green Acres Chocolate Farm. http://greenacreschocolatefarm.com/index.php

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Paradise with consequences

It was truly a fantastic tour that took us around several islands and through large tracts of mangroves. Although situated on the mainland, Green Acres is completely off the grid. Check out the web link above. The pictures there are amazing !!

It is a beautiful place and a must see if your road trip ever brings you to this part of Panama.

On A Peninsula Called Azuero

In south central Panama, the Azuero Peninsula is bordered by the Pacific Ocean. The main cities here are Las Tablas and Chitré. A small cape on the western tip of the peninsula, known as Punta Mariato, is the southernmost point on the mainland of North America.

If you like noisy street parties, Las Tablas is the place to be in Panama during the four days preceding Ash Wednesday. That’s when the annual Carnaval happens in this part of Latin America. We opted to pass on these festivities and timed our drive from Boquete to Pedasi accordingly.

 

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Damn owl photobombed our picture !

The little village of Pedasi, (population 2,500 and no traffic light) is where we are renting a small house and trying to live like locals. This area was recently described as one of the best places in the world to retire, so we thought we’d come and see what it was all about.

We’re not completely local though. We’d need a few chickens and a rooster or two to blend in with this neighbourhood. But, the rooster next door does a good job of getting us up early each morning so we kind of feel local. We are sweating like the locals with steady +33C daytime temperature.

 

DSC_0684Since coming here, we’ve met quite a few expats and some very friendly locals. Whenever we’ve passed people on the street its always with a wave and a … “Buenas” or “Hola”. This is indeed a very safe and friendly spot.

We’ve been in Pedasi a week now, exploring the local area and spending our time looking at the beaches, other communities and real estate opportunities. Se Vende (For Sale) signs are plentiful and so are the choices. Building lots can start at $25,000US and go up depending on size and location. Most building lots are ¼ to 1/2 acre in size. Newly built homes can start at $175,000US. Older resale homes can be had for less, again depending on size and location. If you want waterfront property there’s a premium for that, but again, lots of choice. Apparently Prince Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein has a place on the beach near here.

We found two or three nice choices that are move in ready. One lists at $175,000US and is 2 kilometres from Pedasi in the village of Limón. It comes with close to an acre of land and a separate guesthouse that rents for $800 – $900US a month. The other house, situated on close to a half an acre, is in Pedasi and lists for $165,000US. It also has a separate guesthouse that created $20,000US in rental income during the last 12 months.  After allowing for the currency conversion, we certainly haven’t found any real bargains here.

 

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Our front porch

Next week we drive back to Boquete. We have tickets for the annual Boquete Jazz and Blues Festival. Until then, hasta la vista amigos y cuidate!