Cruisin’ with Captain Carl

Captain Carl.

The guy’s self-proclaimed moniker is enough to sell me on this day-long adventure.

The first image that pops into my head is of a cartoon Panamanian Capt’n Crunch- epaulets and all. There’s a bravado to deeming yourself captain that I appreciate, and even more so when I learn you live on a houseboat in the middle of a lake in the Panama Canal. There is much I don’t understand in the set-up and I’m not entirely convinced ol’ Carl isn’t running from something (taxman? ex-wife?), but he’s got one heck of a gig going and I wanted to be a part of it for a single day.  (As a side note, when we asked Captain Carl what he did before this, his reply left no room for follow-up questions, “Same thing. Different place.”)

Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

After being in Panama for a few days and having thoroughly seen the canal and lock system, having raided the well-stocked grocery store, and having wandered and eaten our way around the capital city, we were looking for something with a bit more nature for our last day in the country. We met with the travel concierge at the hotel, but were unimpressed with the tour options for the price given, so fell back on a last minute bit of advice we had gotten from a colleague in Caracas- check out Captain Carl’s tours.

Not loving the hotel-provided options, we pulled up Captain Carl’s website and after browsing the photo-heavy pages (seriously, not good for loading on a phone overseas), we decided to go for it. This was about noon on Friday and we booked for a 7AM pickup on Saturday. Money paid and shuttle set, we still were not entirely sure what we were getting ourselves into, but it was outside the city and seemed promising.


Captain Carl’s tour is hard to explain, but it boils down to being a “must do” when you’re in Panama. After driving about half an hour outside the city, we were left at a dock with six other people, where life-jackets were promptly handed out (I tied mine together, thank you very much) and we clambered into a boat with a canvas awning. The eponymous Carl was our boat master, wildlife spotter, and overall champion of the day.

The all-day tour started with a trip up the Panama Canal where we passed massive freighters chugging by as we were in our dingy-sized boat with a motor. I wish I had a photo of the size difference- David and Goliath, boat edition.

Soon though, we peeled off from the main channel of the canal and headed up into the fingers of the lake that is at the heart of the canal. Not far off the main drag, Captain Carl handed out peanuts and told us to hide them on our bodies in a place not easily seen.

It is well documented on this blog that I will touch any animal I can get my hands on. (As a matter of fact, I may have tried to take a lonely kitten home after work today but he was having none of it. If only he knew what he is missing out on- imported cat food, fancy American clumping kitty litter…he could have been living the 1% life for cats, but instead he hissed and glared at me. Your loss, Mr. Gatito.) But yes, if there is a chance to get up close and personal with critters, I’m there.

So yes, I will hide peanuts if it means I can entice some adorable fauna in my direction.

Okay. Peanuts in the shorts? In the rash guard? Maybe just tucked under my thigh?

With peanuts stashed, we headed out boat into a mangrove cove where within seconds our visitors arrived on the boat. Monkeys, used to the gig, knew we were laden with treats and jumped down from their tree perches. Since they were meat-eaters, we were told to avoid smiling, as it would be interpreted as baring out teeth, but come on! How does one feed a monkey, dangling by its tail from the canopy of the boat, peanuts and not grin. Impossible.

From there, we headed back out into the lake on our way to find more monkey families, but along the way had to stop to visit a special friend of Carl’s- Pablo Escobar. Pablo is a loner monkey that lives along a finger of the lake that Carl has basically trained to come get food when he hears the boat. Pablo can catch flying peanuts with grace, a la Benihana, although sometimes he seems to figure the effort isn’t’ worth it and wait to dig them out of the water below. When asked about Pablo’s family situation, Carl says they are kindred spirits, both exiled from their tribes- just another brief insight into who/what Carl is.

That’s not the end of our monkey-time though. The best was yet to come!

(Regular readers of this blog will know that monkeys have not always been my favorite wildlife in the past- we’ve had…well…let’s just say a few run-ins, but Panama restored my faith in our furry cousins.)

After tootling along another side channel of the lake, we pulled to a different stand of trees in the lake, this time with bananas in hand, only to be greeted with the most adorable, tiny monkeys ever! These little guys were happy to eat banana right out of our hands, or did, until one greedy little guy stole my entire ½ banana, which was roughly the same size as he was! I loved having them hop my lap and hang out for a bit and I regretted not having a satchel to tuck one away in as a souvenir. (Yes, I know. It’s not good environmental policy, to steal wildlife and bring them home as pets. I would never do it. But I can daydream about it.)

The morning drew to a close and we put our monkey adventures behind us as we pulled up to Captain Carl’s wonderful floating home- a houseboat built for guests. (What? We could have stayed overnight? Next time, Captain Carl!) It’s four levels of decks and Adirondack chairs, hammocks and swings was a perfect way to relax in the sunshine (with shade options available for those with less lizard-like leanings). Lunch was a fantastic spread of chicken and beef kabobs and a baked potato and some veggies (all of which promptly made their way onto Thad’s plate). It was a much more civilized lunch than I expected from a random houseboat in the middle of a lake in the middle of the Panama Canal.

Our day wasn’t over just yet. The animal sighting boxes were checked, but now it was time for a little outdoor fun on the lake- fun that I don’t remember signing up for, but couldn’t say no to- kayaking.

I thought I was a decent lake kayaker. I have done it many times before and always end up where I need to be. As a matter of fact, I was kayaking on Payette Lake just a few months ago! But, something went all wrong when it became tandem kayaking. Between the two of us, Thad and I ended up with our kayak in the reeds more than once and he may or may not have smacked me in the head with his paddle once. (He says accident. I question it, as he was annoyed with my navigating abilities at that point. We’ll leave it as unknown intentions.)

But, terrible kayak driving aside, we went on an amazing trip up a tiny waterway not much wider than our kayak (which also makes steering hard!) that ended at a beautiful waterfall and pool. We had barely parallel parked our kayaks before Thad was clamoring up the cliffside to jump off the waterfall into the hidden pool. As I waded about closer to shore, I did wonder about the medivac options from this very-off-the-grid locale.

Captain Carl is quirky, but in a lovable way, and he has quite the job, visiting monkeys on a daily basis, kayaking around a lake in the world’s most famous canal, and chatting with tourist from all over the world. This mini-adventure was the perfect foil to our fancy resort hotel and an excellent wrap up to our first escape from Venezuela. I’m sure we’ll be back to Panama and I’m just as sure we’ll be enjoying the Captain’s company in the future- maybe even for an overnight stay!


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Video/photo credit: T. Ross


Old Panama, New Panama, and Bread

When you hear “Panama,” you probably instantly think “canal.” That’s fair. It is a good association. I guess you could also go with hat. We did see a lot of dorky people rocking the straight-outta-the-store-Panama hats while we were there. But, there is more to Panama than just the enormous ditch that cuts through its waistline and a rather dated fashion choice. We only spent a few short days in Panama, but I feel like we found some places we would definitely go back and explore again.

Casco Viejo, the old town, was beautiful. It is filled with super narrow one-way streets that are edged with old building facades of a colonial style- tall and narrow, wooden shutters, bright colors, cast iron railings, etc. It’s not a great place to explore via car, as it doesn’t take much to snare up traffic in that one-way grid, but on foot it is perfect. With no real destination in mind, other than Casco Viejo, we hopped in an Uber after our visit to Miraflores Locks and headed into town. Our driver was young and super chatty (lots of thoughts on Venezuela!) and wound up through the snaking streets of the old town to drop us off in the heart of the action. After pointing out a few good lunch options, he sent us on our way to wander the streets for the afternoon. (Casco Viejo is edged by some neighborhoods that are slightly less than tourist-friendly, so it is probably best for daytime exploration.) We ended up in a little Panamanian pub where Thad had the first of many bowls of ceviche and I had a less-than-stellar hamburger (too much random filler in the meat), but my poor lunch choice was overshadowed by the great venue. We enjoyed a bit of shade and cool air and some icy drinks before heading back into the labyrinth that awaited us outside. Casco Viejo has lots of restaurants, a few small museums, and an outdoor market in a central plaza. After traipsing about for a while, we decided it was again time to beat the heat, this time with popsicles! Popsicles seem to be a “thing” in Panama; we saw several different chains that sold nothing but ice cream on a stick, all with increasing levels of complication and sophistication. Popsicles are not just for children, my friends! Thad went with the “American” flavor, which was peanut butter dipped in chocolate and I went with mango, a flavor option that seemed more refreshing in the hot afternoon sun. I supposed tackling Casco Viejo with a map or a plan might lead to more specific sightseeing, but our unplanned strolls through the various narrow streets was a great way to whittle away an afternoon.

As much as I like to get off the beaten path and explore new places, I am also a sucker for a total-tourist shtick. Boardwalks with their Ye Old Fudge shops draw me in every time. I can’t pass up an opportunity to wander through a souvenir store (although I rarely buy anything). And if there is a chance to touch something weird or ride something crazy, I’ll stand in that line longer than a more sane human would. The Amador Causeway in Panama City gave me just the tourist fix I was looking for. We took an Uber (so cheap and easy, a luxury we do not have in Caracas) to the end of the Causeway and then the plan was to walk back to the mainland. (The Amador Causeway connects a series of islands to the mainland via a narrow spit of land built up to hold the road. At points it is only as wide as the road and sidewalks on each edge and at other points it hits the small islands and has shops and restaurants.) We hopped out of our car at the end and found a restaurant that sat above the water with a small boat marina attached. Lunch was massive shrimp skewers for Thad and a weirdly textured chicken breast for me. (I apparently made terrible food choices the entire weekend.) As we walked out of the restaurant, headed for the Causeway, I spotted an option that beckoned. Pedal carts! (I actually had to Google what these things might be called. I started with bike-carts and went to umbrella-bikes before figuring they probably had an actual name.)

Pedal carts are awesomely touristy!

The one we rented was a bike built for two, although there were options for four-seaters. We paid our nominal fee and made sure we were hiring it for a one-way trip, sorting out where to deliver it back on the land-side of the Causeway and then we were off! I’m pretty sure we made about a foot of progress for every fifteen cycles of the pedals, but we weren’t in it to win the Tour de Panama, but rather for the sightseeing, so our slow pace let us intimately examine every pelican we passed! There were faster ways to get back to the city. And there were easier ways to get back to the city. But there were no more fashionable ways to get back to the city!

Sadly, ranking right up with these previous two adventures, was our trip to Riba Smith, a local grocery store chain. We purposefully packed light when it came to our bags on the way into Panama in hopes of doing a bit of shopping to supplement our cupboards while we were in the country. We were not disappointed! Riba Smith would be a normal grocery store in the United States, but after just a month in Venezuela, it was Shangri-La. There was an entire aisle dedicated to bread. Sandwich loaves. Rolls. Baguettes. White. Wheat. Multi-grain. The choices were vast and glorious. We walked up and down every single aisle of the store, getting an array of random things that are either unavailable in Caracas or ones that caught our eye because they screamed of home. At the end, we did some slight damage to our credit card (not really a problem since it is nearly impossible to spend money in Venezuela) and came out with enough bags to fill up every inch of baggage space we had available. (Also, we looked like slightly crazy tourists walking back into the fancy hotel lobby, hauling plastic bags of food. Just smile and keep walking.)

Panama was just a short trip to get out of town for a bit, but ended up being a lot of fun and definitely somewhere that I am sure we are going to end up again (and maybe again) over our two years in Venezuela. Who can argue with direct flights to a land of bread-aisles?

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Photo credit: T. Ross

A 5th Grade Dream Fulfilled

The Panama Canal has been a fascination of mine since I first watched that old black and white movie about it when I was in elementary school. My brain places me in Mrs. Papapietro’s fifth grade classroom overlooking the basketball courts at Washington Elementary, but it could have been a year before or a year after that. All I know is that I could have watched that scratchy movie over and over. The grainy fast-forward-y footage of men running around, rail lines chugging through the long hole, and rock spewing up in huge explosions was fascinating. The fact that these people were cutting a path from one ocean to another was unbelievable to me, but also not-so-far-fetched, as I was born into a world where men had walked on the moon. Incredible, and yet still totally credible to my young mind. (Also, there was a bit of heart-warming patriotism knowing that the French couldn’t finish the job and the United States swooped in to save the day. At least that’s the way the story went. Granted, that’s an extremely simplistic view of the entire undertaking, but for a 5th grader, it was all “rah-rah America!” All I needed was a flag and a slice of apple pie and I could have rivaled Uncle Sam for patriotic supremacy, at least in the world of Caldwell elementary schools.)

Without giving away exactly how many years it has been since I was that scrawny fifth grader dreaming of world travel, let’s just say that three-ish decades later I finally stood above that famed canal and watched ships make their way from the Pacific to the Atlantic. (Now that I think about it, it was totally 5th grade because that was also the year we had to memorize the oceans and the continents and take the test on them and I was terrified I wasn’t going to pass, which meant having to go in at lunch to retake until you did pass, a situation that caused my gold-star-obsessed self some major anxiety).


Who knew that container ships could provide hours of entertainment?

Miraflores Locks is where the visitor center is and where most tourists go to see the transit happen. For your entrance fee, you get a fifteen-minute video of mostly canal propaganda, which we don’t need because at that point, we’ve already paid our money at the window! I doubt there are canal-refunds.  The movie felt more like an advertisement for the visitor’s center than information about the canal. Good thing I took 5th grade history! You also get access to the four-floor museum. Unfortunately, when we were there, the first floor of the museum was closed for renovations and even more UNFORTUNATE was that the place was filled to the brim with screaming school children.

Now, don’t get me wrong. My background is in education and I am all for kids getting out of the classroom for learning experiences (heck, I was desperate for that exact fieldtrip when I was in the 5th grade!), but OMG. This was utter chaos. I am pretty sure the adult-to-child ratio was 1-9074 and the one adult in each group pretty much just hung out with their own child. On top of that, not a single uniform-clad student seemed to have any type of learning task to complete. As far as I could tell, the objective for the day was to run screaming through the museum, jamming the elevator (seriously, the firefighters had to come rescue a group of them), and ignoring anything that looked slightly instructional. Mission accomplished.

Oddly, there were no ships in the morning. (Apparently, we were supposed to check the schedule before coming to visit. We did not.) But, our tickets were good for the whole day, so we went out to see more of Panama City (possible blog post coming) and then came back in the late afternoon to watch the evening transits. (Who knew the Panama Canal was a one-way street?) When we came back, the school kids were gone for the day, hopefully out terrorizing their neighborhoods instead. We were able to stake out places at the 3rd floor restaurant and enjoy an icy cold beverage as the ships made their way from one massive ocean to another.

It was fascinating to hear how much the ships pay to go through (up to one million dollars, all of which much hit the Panamanian bank account before they are scheduled a time to transit) and to watch the enormous cargo containers stacked one upon another. Honestly, the only thing I could think of as those rolled through was how many of them contained State Department HHE shipments. (Not ours this time, since it went Miami to Caracas, but maybe past ones floated though. Such a cool thought!)

So the big question of the outing is, “Was the Panama Canal everything my 5th grade self hoped for?” I think it is a resounding “YES,” but with a caveat or two. First, I need fewer screaming youngsters next time. Second, I’d love more history/better video. I suppose I should just go to YouTube and find a documentary or two to watch, and I will definitely do that before our next trip to the canal. (I see one, if not more, adventures to Panama, as it would make a great place to meet up with friends/family who don’t want to do the Caracas-thing.)

A man, a plan, a canal- Panama. The palindrome drew me in as a kid as continues to beckon to me as an adult. I’m not done with you just yet, Panama!

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