Five steps to home

We are just packing up after our last night in Panama City and thing up loose ends, including catching up with publishing the blog. We fly with TAP to Lisbon at 2020 tonight and should be back in London at 1525 on Sunday. If the coach tickets are sorted we should be in Chepstow at 1910 where a taxi should be waiting to take us home.

Here is the latest update.

Thursday 26th February 2015. Day 172 Chile connection

Awake at 7.00am we expedited the packing, carefully checking weights of hold and hand baggage and working out what sleight of hand might be required if hand luggage was weighed. Final washing up and disposal of rubbish achieved we sat and waited for Ricardo who was to take us and our luggage the short distance to the airport terminal. He arrived in good time and we were soon checking in, having said our farewells. Traversing the x-ray hurdle we joined the short queue for our usual economy seats. The hold luggage passed the weight test and hand luggage remained unchecked. Although scheduled for 1.10pm today the flight apparently would leave at 1.40pm, so we had a good 90 minutes to sit in the check in area, watching the waves of people pass through to check in, and reading.

Eventually we received the call to enter the departure lounge. As this was an internal flight we had no need for passport control or more security checks. Once aboard we settled into our seats and as we took off had our final view of the island as the coast slipped away beneath us and the plane headed resolutely eastwards over the rest of the Pacific.

The flight was uneventful with a meal and in flight entertainment, Muppets and Frozen, keeping us amused. The coastline of Chile appeared beneath, with the Andes beyond us and soon we turned to make the final approach to the airport. We landed just after 8.30pm, still in daylight. Trekking to the baggage reclaim area we waited a good while for our luggage to appear on the carousel and it was almost 9.30pm when we headed for the exit. In his innocence Eric had thought that booking a shared minibus seat would ensure a problem free pick up, with someone waiting to guide us to our transport and he had neglected the simple backup of printing the reservation confirmation. Next time he will remember to pack a printer for such eventualities. The lack of this vital piece of paper led to a frustrating time, as did his inability to speak Spanish. Nobody seemed to be expecting us at either the company’s desk in arrivals nor at the minibus stand outside. Eventually Eric was able to negotiate a place on a minibus which, on review, cost only a little more  than the prebooked price.

It was now almost 10.00pm and the minibus headed along the motorway towards the city. Having dropped off two other passengers it became obvious that, despite the gps, the driver had become a little disorientated. Eventually we were deposited at the Bella Vista apartments and after a little discussion with the porter, who had enough English to be useful, an envelope was found with our name on it. Using the key inside we found our way to our apartment where we fell into bed, despite not having any dinner and, in our real time, it was only 9.15pm. The room felt pretty warm so we were glad of the fan to aid sleeping.


Friday 27th February 2015. Day 173. Santiago simply

We did not enjoy a particularly good night’s sleep as, although we were on the 6th floor, being back in a large city, and the party quarter, with clubs and restaurants, to boot, we found the noise unsettling. We dragged ourselves up, without a proper breakfast, and Eric headed off to the office to settle the bill for our stay. The good news was they accepted credit cards, the bad news was we were to pay a dollar rate and the dollar was strong against the peso. Once the bill was settled and advice given about local amenities Eric rejoined Joyce and we then headed out to explore our immediate environs, with the aim of finding a supermarket.

The lack of breakfast was taking its toll and Eric has to come clean to his devoted reader that we settled for brunch in the American Embassy, McDonald’s. The inner person satisfied we pushed on and investigated some supermarkets where we made basic purchases to cover breakfasts, lunches and one evening meal. Eric was happier with the pricing system having now gained a handle on the exchange rate and accepting that the $ sign meant pesos and the apparent decimal point was in fact a thousand separator. The second supermarket we visited provided us, and the staff, with some entertainment as we navigated the system that involved ordering an item, leaving it with the assistant, taking a chit to the cashier, then bringing proof of payment back to reclaim the goods, all enlivened by the fact that the fresh food then had to be weighed and go through the same rigmarole.

We carried our spoils back to the apartment and took stock. We were able to Skype briefly with Andy and Annabel and then headed out at 4.00pm for our first tourist visits in the immediate locale. We first looked for a tourist office where we booked a tour to Valparaiso for Monday, the day most tourist sites are closed in the city. Outside a street vendor, selling knitted finger puppets, caught our attention and we were attracted enough to buy some of his wares. We then found the Patio Bellavista, with its restaurants and shops. Joyce enjoyed an Italian ice cream while Eric used the ATM. We again attempted to change our Tahitian money but the agent just looked at it and smiled as he passed it back.

Having enjoyed the refreshment we headed further along the street, past numerous restaurants and cafes with their street tables. Reaching the foot of Cerro San Christobal we turned east to find the Santiago house, ‘La Chascona’, of Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize winning poet, which is now a museum. It proved a fascinating warren of structures built at different times, initially for his lover, then as a home for them both. It is furnished with an eclectic range of furniture, household fittings and art and very much reflects his individual taste.

From here we returned to the foot of Cerro San Christobal and rode the funicular to the top, Eric having no trouble in convincing the ticket lady that he was eligible for the Senior rate. The journey up was quick, taking us up 300 metres vertically along a 500 metre track with one intermediate stop for the zoo, and we stood on the balcony to enjoy the view over the city, catching glimpses of the surrounding mountains through the smog. Joyce declined the invitation to join Eric in a stroll to the very top, remaining seated in the amphitheatre, the hill, at 880 metres, is crowned with a large statue of the Virgin Mary, which on its 8 metre pedestal, stands 22metres above the summit.

On the descent we stopped for a drink before passing the Tudor Hall, which houses the machinery for the funicular. A swift descent on the funicular and short walk brought us home just after 7.00pm and we enjoyed ham rolls and coffee for supper. The daytime temperature of about 25C had been comfortable and opening the balcony doors drew in the cooler evening air so that we did not need the fan on overnight.


Saturday 28th February 2015 Day 174   Santiago sampler

Another noisy night meant that neither of us were enthusiastic to get up this morning. We eventually roused ourselves and after breakfast we headed off to the nearby metro station to enjoy the challenge of another public transport system. The experience proved remarkably straightforward as it is a flat rate to travel, which can be accessed by purchasing a ticket on the station or by buying a BIP (beep) travel card. We opted for the former and soon found ourselves on a L5 train bound for the Plaza de Armas, two stops away. Eric got confirmation of his senior status when a young lady offered him her seat, an offer quickly refused. The ride was very smooth as these trains run on rubber wheels.

On reaching the Plaza, quite busy on a Saturday morning, we admired the northern façade comprising the Central Post Office, National History Museum and Municipal Offices. We then visited the Baroque Cathedral, dating from 1745. It has an impressively long navel, with a lantern over the altar.

From the Cathedral we found Museum of Pre-Colombian History and spent a happy two hours, including a coffee break, exploring the archaeological remains of the Andean cultures, reminding us of old friends such as the Olmecs, Toltecs, Aztecs and Maya from Mexico, the Ecuadorean cultures and the Chauvin, Chimu, Nava and Inca from Peru. Also included was a fascinating subterranean display on Chilean prehistory which included some more pieces from Easter Island, as well as introducing us to new cultures such as the Mapuche, who survived both the Incas and the Spanish while embracing the opportunities offered by the introduction of the horse.

Lunch, on a bench in the Plaza, was accompanied by the distant drumming of two one man bands and the oration of an itinerant preacher. After lunch we looked for the church of San Domingo, only being able to admire the façade, before retracing our steps past the Museum. The Art Deco style is well represented by some of the major buildings in this vicinity. Once past the Museum we were able to view the Courts of Justice, the old Congress building and the Palacios Larrain Zanartu. The latter has been gutted, leaving only a façade, and the interior within the surrounding walls used for market and shopping units. As we left the Palacios we passed more Art Deco architecture in the form of bank buildings. A short stroll brought us to the Presidential Palace, Palace de la Moneta, fronted by the Plaza de la Constitution. Police were very much in evidence, as they had been throughout our tour, but Joyce felt far less intimidated than during her first visit 35 years ago, during Pinochet’s dictatorship.

A walk along the exterior brought us a good view of the Intendencia Metropolitan followed by the Palacios Ariztia, the University of Chile and the Club de la Union. Crossing the wide street we visited the church of St Francis which is a fine basilica built with large stone blocks and extended using brick. The ceiling, lantern and interior decorations are Baroque.

The attached museum being closed we headed for the nearest metro station, Santa Lucia, opposite the fine National Library. The queue for tickets was fairly long and each transaction ahead of us seemed to involve a great deal of discussion and toing and froing of travel cards and money. Eventually it was our turn, a relatively quick transaction for 2 tickets, although the myopic ticket seller did make a meal of producing the required change. In the coins Eric was introduced a 5 peso coin, which had not appeared before.

The metro, soon returned us to our starting point and after a brief stop to replenish drink supplies, the change from which introduced Eric to yet another new coin, the 1 Peso, we returned to our apartment by 5.00pm in time to Skype Andy and Lucy. Joyce prepared dinner of chicken, baked potato and vegetables and we enjoyed putting our feet up, for the evening.


Sunday 1st March 2015. Day 175 Santiago summery

We slept better and were up by 8.00 am, our first visit this morning was to Santiago Community Church for the 10.30 am service. This church serves the English speaking community of Santiago and is conveniently located near the Metro station of Tobalaba. We took a little longer to travel than we had expected and arrived just after the service had begun. The liturgy was a traditional Eucharist and the American Pastor delivered the Word on the job specification of discipleship.

We reboarded the metro and headed back into the city centre to visit the museum opened in 2010 to record the events and outcomes of the years of the Pinochet military Junta from 1973 to 1990. An audio guide helped us navigate the galleries and we spent 2 hours understanding the impacts of the period. The museum is housed in a purpose built structure which is light and airy, belying its brutal contents.

After a picnic lunch outside the museum we strolled around the nearby park with the Natural History museum set on one side. We felt rather museumed out and merely admired the façade with its moai. Taking the metro again we stopped at the Bella Artes station and visited the Bella Artes gallery, which had splendid glass dome roof and an interesting display of statues. The remaining contents were something of a disappointment and did not detain us long. From the gallery we sought out the Basilica Santo Domingo, which was shut up and covered with graffiti . We were then set another of the dilemmas between ice cream and a hill climb, solved as before with Eric combing Santa Lucia while Joyce visited an ice cream parlour.

A walk through the Parque Forestal brought us to our accommodation and after a short rest we walked the short distance to the Patio Bellavista where we browsed the souvenir shops before enjoying an entrecote in a French restaurant. During the evening Eric tried to activate our National Express open return ticket but could not activate the calendar beyond December 2014, which led to an email being sent to enquire the reason.


Monday 2nd March 2015. Day 176 Valparaiso views

We had booked a tour to Vina del Mar and Valparaiso with a pick up at 8.00am so the alarm roused us at 6.30am. The minibus arrived on time and transferred us to a coach at a nearby hotel car park which took to the tunnel under the centre of the city towards Route 68. This in turn traversed two further tunnels under the ridges of the coastal ranges, the first into the Curacavi valley with a town of the same name and the second into the Casablanca valley with its eponymous town. On entering the latter valley with its extensive vineyards we stopped for a toilet stop before pressing on to Vina del Mar.

Our first stop was to admire the floral clock, with its Swiss mechanism, on the seafront and our second to few the copy of Rodin’s ’Thinker’ recently donated to the city by one of its entrepreneurial sons. Also in the area was the Naval Academy with a very impressive display of naval weaponry. Our third stop was to admire anther moai in front of the local museum and a visit to a lapis lazuli showroom where we particularly admired the tiny penguin statues.

Lunch followed at a very nice restaurant at a very nice price with both enjoying the spaghetti Bolognese. Having completed the meal the coach took us into Valparaiso itself, past the University and up into the hills with the extensive buildings surviving from the heyday of the city, the end of the 19th century, before the Panama canal robbed it of trade. The buildings, in a variety of contemporary European styles, share one thing in common, the extensive use of corrugated iron for cladding and roofing. We drove up on to the steep hills above the port, past Pablo Neruda’s second house, another museum, with an extensive mural celebrating his roots in southern Chile particularly the Mapuche people.

We were dropped off on one of the streets and began a walk down hill towards the sea, giving us a chance to admire the architecture and decorations of the house, often with murals. On reaching one of the funicular termini we descended to the port and walked along the commercial street, with imposing stone built buildings, originally financial institutions but some now housing the Chilean Navy. Reaching the dockside through a pair of imposing towers we embarked on an ex fishing boat, one of many tied up or offering harbour tours. We spent 30 minutes on the water admiring the antics of the local seals which used flats topped buoys as sleeping platforms, as well as the floating dry dock, the container port and the Chilean naval vessels.

Once back on dry land a short tour of the souvenir stalls brought us to our coach which returned us to Santiago. On the way back into the city we saw remnants of the marginal shanty towns, now being redeveloped.

A shuttle bus took us to our hotel where we finished off our grocery stock for supper before packing. We had received an email from National Express which told us our so called open return was only valid for three months and therefore we could no longer use it as planned. Eric immediately began an email conversation challenging this and asking for a refund while buying a single ticket to ensure we could get back to Chepstow. He also booked the taxi to take us from the coach stop to St Arvans.


Tuesday 3rd March 2015   Day 177 Santiago segue

The taxi company was due to collect us at 8.40am and we were outside on the pavement with our belongings at 8.30am. When nothing had appeared by 9.00am Eric went to the concierge to request a phone call to the company. Just as the call was made the minibus pulled up. The transfer to the airport, via the sub city tunnel, was relatively fast and we pulled up at the taxi office to pay. There was some confusion as we had not been able to use the booked service when we arrived and they tried to charge us for it, and then the full price for a single transfer. In the end they accepted the reduced fare and we arrived at International Departures by 9.40am, only to find that COPA airlines were not listed on the check in boards. Fearing the worst we enquired at Airport Information and were reassured to be given the desk numbers. Being a little early for check-in for the 12.20 pm flight there was only a short queue to join. Check in was relatively painless, with no weight issues, and we took advantage of the extra time to finalise our souvenir shopping, finding a lapis lazuli penguin to spend our last pesos on. We also made two attempts to convert our Tahitian currency, again to no avail. The tellers simply looked at each note, as if it were Monopoly money, and then returned them. Eric swears the second chap laughed on consultation with a colleague.

Passport control and security were very quick and we made our way to our gate via Dunkin Donuts for an elevenses break. Having walked all the way to gate 11 it was then changed to gate 15, right next to our coffee stop. Embarkation was efficient, with the plane less than full, and we left on time. The flight was straight forward, much of it over the Pacific, although we did pass over western Ecuador before crossing water again to Panama. In flight entertainment was very up to date and we enjoyed ‘The Imitation Game’ and ‘The Theory of Everything’ and Joyce also watched Philomena. We landed ahead of schedule and passed quickly through immigration, although there was a longish wait for luggage, which duly arrived on the carousel. We were out into the airport concourse just after 5.00pm searching avidly for the promised board with our name on it being held aloft by the taxi driver. 5.30 pm came and went with Eric prowling the halls like a caged lion, avidly reading each brandished sign and finding a wealth of names, unfortunately none of them ours. Eventually at 5.50pm our driver arrived, claiming parking problems had delayed him.

The run into Panama City was straightforward, despite being in the tail end of rush hour, and we were soon standing outside Autograph Lodge. It took a few attempts at ringing the bell next to the gated entrance but eventually we were admitted and shown to our room having confirmed the pick up time for tomorrow’s tour by the receptionist’s phone. Tired after the travel and having lost two hours we elected to have an early night. We were very grateful for the air condoning as it was still a hot and humid.


Wednesday 4th March 2015 Day 178. Panama panorama

We slept surprisingly well, but woke a little chilly as the aircon had been set at 18C. The alarm went at 6.30am and we were in breakfast by 7.00am. Our tour guide Ross, an enthusiastic and very competent young Zimbabwean, arrived around 10 minutes early but we were ready and boarded the minibus. Two hotels later our party of 6 was complete and we headed through the heavy traffic to the Ancon Hill where we enjoyed extensive views across the city to the south east. Panama has a thriving economy, growing 10% per year and tall buildings are shooting up. There were large numbers of ships queued up for the Canal in the distance, and we could see the Bridge of the Americas and the start of the Panama Canal and its infrastructure to the north east. On the way up a nekkie, a squirrel sized animal, ran across our path on the extensive one way section.

We then drove to the Miraflores locks and the Visitor’s Centre where we enjoyed the dramatic views of the huge ships in the pair of locks. At this time of the day the ships travel from the Pacific to the Atlantic, the one way travel determined by the narrowness of the Culebra Cut, which traverses the continental divide. At 10.30 am and pm the flow reverses. From the viewing deck at the top of the 4 storey building we descended to the auditorium for a 3D film on the history and workings of the canal and then visited the museum which explained the abortive French attempt to build a level canal, with initial work on the Culebra Cut which was thwarted by mudslides and the huge death rate from malaria, Yellow and Dengue Fever. The successful US intervention, with the linking of a shallower cut to the artificial Gatun Lake and the double flight of locks, Miraflores and Pedro Miguel at the Pacific side and the single Gatun locks on the Atlantic side, was also explained. The operation of the locks, a precision operation given the size of vessels relative to the lock itself, depends on the use of lock side locomotives to tension the ships during lifting and falling as well as into and out of the compartments, with the aid of tugs, and a Panamanian pilot, who takes complete control of the vessel. It takes around 8 minutes for the locks to fill or empty and the ships are booked in to a specific time slot. In between the locks the vessels sail under their own power, although accompanied by a tug. The whole feat of engineering and the operational logistics are most impressive. It has only been closed twice, briefly, during its 100 years operating history. The capacity of the canal is being increased to cope with even larger vessels, with a new set of larger locks and the widening and deepening of the Gatun lake channel, by dredging and raising the water level by 1.5 metres. This is now due to be finished by 2017, having missed the planned completion during the centenary of operations last year.

From the Canal we drove along the causeway that links four islands to the south west of the city and enjoyed the views from the Isa Flamenco, before stopping for lunch at a restaurant on the causeway between Isa Perico and Isla Naos. After an excellent lunch of pork chops and Créole salsa we walked through the Smithsonian Tropical Research facility on Isa Naos, where we saw a number of three toed sloths and their young. We also visited the aquarium, turtle pool and frog reserve.

Our last visit, via the bypass road around it, a viaduct over the sea, was to the World Heritage site, Casco Viejo, the second foundation of the city, built after the sacking of the first city by the pirate, Henry Morgan, in 1671. This area is being renovated and we enjoyed the walk through this area to look at a range of fine buildings built in decorative Spanish colonial and some French architecture. The tour even included a stop at the local ice cream shop, which was much appreciated.

We were back at our hotel by 6.00pm after which we took a walk to the nearby Subway, where Eric enjoyed his first meatball sandwich experience.


Thursday 5th March 2015. Day 179 Hilton highlight

We had thought about visiting the island of Taboga but the comments on Trip Advisor were less than compelling, we would have gone for half a day, but with only one ferry run, 8 hours seemed too long a stay. As a result we decided to confine ourselves to the city. After breakfast ar 8.00am we left the hotel at 11.00am intending to walk to the coast. Reaching the Via Espana we visited the Carmen church then headed coastwards again, investigating the possibilities of a pause in the Hyatt and Bristol Hotels, to no avail. Eventually we found ourselves at the newly opened Hilton and visited the bar, with its extensive views over the bay, for a refreshing thirst quencher. The day was developing into a particularly hot one and we were told it reached near 40C during the afternoon.

From the Hilton we devised a two pronged plan, with Joyce spending a few hours in the air conditioned comfort of the Multicentre shopping mall while Eric took a taxi to visit Panama Viejo, the archaeological site of the original Spanish city. The tourist map in our possession proved to be inadequate but after a moderate walk and one request for directions we found it. On investigation it offered sufficient attractions and facilities to keep Joyce amused so Eric headed out again to look for a taxi. The first driver quoted $20, which seemed a trifle excessive but a little further along the street he found one for $5, much more reasonable.

The 15 minute journey completed Eric obtained a Jubilado (over 55) rate for entry to the museum and park. The museum was small but informative and the site extensive with significant survival of the larger central buildings, mainly monasteries and convents. The Plaza Mayor offered the site of the cathedral with its surviving tower which offered extensive views from the top. Although built on mangrove swamp and burnt by the Spanish after Morgan’s attack, enough remains to give a good impression of a thriving 17th century city. Finding a return taxi, driven by a driver listening to Christian music FM, for $2 was a nice surprise, earning the driver a rare tip.

Once back at the mall at 3.45pm Eric found Joyce in the coffee shop where we had arranged to meet. Eric enjoyed the coffee Joyce had just bought and, after a short pause to draw breath, we moved to the top floor to enjoy an early Pizza dinner.

Our route home seemed to be possible through the rear entrance of the mall but we were thwarted by the chaotic street plan and the uneven, discontinuous pavements. A short cut through the Hard Rock Hotel also proved of no use. As a result we retraced our original route and with a short pause in the Bristol Hotel for a sit down in their air conditioned lounge and a cut through the Metro station to cross the Via Espana, we found our way back to the hotel around 7.00pm.


Friday 6th March 2015. Day 180  Monkey meandering

The last few mornings have seen continued email conversation with National Express as Eric has been passed up the chain of command, being stonewalled at each level. However this morning persistence finally paid off, up to a point. We now have another pair of tickets, as a goodwill gesture, for our return trip. The saga continues.

Having enjoyed Wednesday’s tour so much we had booked another with the same company for today. Ross was the guide on this one which arrived 20 minutes late this time at 8.20am. We again had a few people to pick up, one (David) from the Hilton had been with us on Wednesday, to make up a bus full of 9 passengers.

Once we had the bus full we drove out of the city, past the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks and the Culebra Cut, crossing the continental divide and stopped near the town of Gamboa, the nominal half way point in the canal which is the logistics centre for maintenance and the building of the new sections of the canal. Overhead large numbers of hawks, kites and frigate birds soared over the canal and neighbouring forest.

At the mouth of the River Charest we boarded a boat which took us out under the combined road and rail bridge into the Panama Canal within the Gatun Lake. In the distance we could see a huge container ship heading towards the Atlantic. As we traversed this part of the canal we could see the dredgers ar work deepening the newly widened sections.

After a few kilometres we left the marked channel and started to explore the islands created when the area was flooded. Wildlife observed included Capuchin and howler monkeys, although Geoffrey’s Tamarin proved elusive, snail kites, three coloured hawks, toucan, a variety of waterfowl and a terrapin.

Returning to the Canal we were privileged to see ships travelling in both directions and as we returned to the Charges we witnessed a near collision. Once back in the river we were taken to a village of the indigenous Wounaan, who moved to the area in the middle of the last century from the Darien Gap. They were involved in training US troupes to survive in the bush and since their departure have become actively involved in ecotourism. They have chosen to continue living a fairly traditional life style but men go to work in the city each day and the children go to school. We had a rain forest walk to be shown a number of plants and their uses, a talk about their culture and a demonstration of their dances. Only one of their community has left, she won a school scholarship and went to University in Mexico and now works there as an environmental lawyer. There was an opportunity to buy craft products and Eric succumbed to a bird carving.

Back on the boat we returned to our starting point and the minibus. Ross then took us to a food court in the Fort Clayton, after chicken and chips, we headed back to the city at the start of the rush hour. We passed the tatty tenement blocks of the low income families, most people are in work with only 2% unemployment. We were back in the hotel by 4.00pm to find that there was a power cut, as it was still really hot, we headed out to find a café with air conditioning. The first couple of cafes had no power, but after a little exploration we found the lower end of Via Argentina and a cool café enjoying ice tea while reading. Having relaxed we headed on a little further to the Via Espana then back to the hotel. Power was restored so we spent the evening catching up with the blog and reading.


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