Wet in Boquete
surreptitious adj. Kept secret.
By the time we arrived in Boquete after all the fuss at the border and the flat tire, it was well after dark. Even more pressing, however, was the fact that I had not peed since leaving the hostel in Puerto Viejo that morning. Despite the fact that I very carefully ration my water intake on such long travel days for that exact reason, by the time I boarded the bus to Boquete, I was practically bursting but still had no time to find a bathroom. By the time I reached Boquete itself then, I was contemplating which would be worse between the pain and the humiliation from wetting my pants.
The second the bus stopped, I burst out the back door, yanked my pack on, and began scanning desperately for a bathroom. Right across the street was a hostel, not our hostel, but I figured they wouldn’t turn down a toilet desperate traveler.
“¿Puedo usar el bano, por favor? Es un emergencia,” I explained to the man who trie to wave me inside.
He thought for a painful moment. “No. Necessitas compar un habitacion.” I needed to buy a room to use the bathroom? No way. I would have sooner squat right there in the foyer.
Next I tried a grocery store down the street but they had no bathroom. “I have to piss so fucking bad!” I yelled as I got back outside, right as another America couple walked by and gave me an amused look. Thank you for taking enjoyment in my misery, I wanted to tell them. In that moment, I knew it was do or die. There was no way I would make it to the hostel, which was three miles up the road until the mountains beyond Boquete, and it didn’t look like I was going to find a bathroom in town either.
I told Chris to watch my pack without explaining what I was doing and disappeared around the corner. The street was dark and to my right was an even darker driveway with two cars parks side by side. The light was on in the window to the house, but I couldn’t see any people. In too much pain to feel any shame, I ducked between the cars, pulled my pants down, and squatted right there in the driveway. After a solid minute of releasing the burning acid in my bladder, I wiped using some of the toilet paper I had stuffed in my pocket (one of the many benefits to having been sick so much and gotten in the habit of stealing toilet paper) and walked shamelessly back to Chris to inform him what I had done.
With that taken care of, we could finally focus on finding a taxi to our hostel. There was one just nearby and after some concerning struggle over getting his trunk open, we loaded in our stuff and headed up the dark and winding mountain road. A little over three miles up seeing only occasional houses dotting the side of the road, we reached Hospedaje Autana Bed and Breakfast. Since we were arriving much later than originally intended, we hoped it wouldn’t be too late to check it.
It wasn’t, and as soon as the taxi stopped, a young man in his thirties with a shining bald head and a huge grin on his face stepped outside to greet us. “Bienvenidos! My name is Angél,” he said, placing emphasis on each English word as if excited to be able to speak it. “Ah! Okay! Okay! I show you your room!” he said, and motioned us inside. “Ahhhh, okay okay!” would become Angel’s patented first words anytime you asked him about something.
We had chosen this hostel because of its low price (it cost us $205 total for seven nights) and inclusion of free breakfast, which was an overall steal at $29 per night compared to the rest of Boquete. While often times price-based decisions lead to some pretty dodgy places and borderline suffering, this one seemed to have led us into paradise. Autana was the perfect little anti-social B&B for us, quiet and intimate with only three different private rooms in the whole hostel. So at most, we would have four other neighbors and Angel. Our room was small, with only two twin beds, on which we would cram into one, but it was cozy enough for us. Besides, the lack of humidity there in the mountains would assure that we would sleep better than we had in weeks, even despite the cramped sleeping arrangements. And since I’m the bed-hog of the two of us, it was irrelevant to me anyway. Hell, we could have been sleeping in a king sized giant bed and Chris would still end up on the very edge.
After the exhausting three days of travel and painful herpes that had been wearing on me, we slept like rocks that night, and didn’t force ourselves out of bed the next day until the hour threatened us with missing breakfast. We drug ourselves to the kitchen, where two other guests were eating before their departure. Angel already had our place set and began cooking eggs and toast for us the second we sat down. From that morning on, we looked forward to Angel’s breakfast, which generally alternated between toast and eggs, breakfast tacos (which tasted a lot more appropriate than they sound), and these thick corn tortillas topped with chopped hot dogs. Again, a lot tastier than they sound. These arepas are actually a traditional breakfast in Venezuela, which was where Angel was from. He had really only recently left Venezuela due to the increasing political unrest and violence there. His fiancé was currently living in America while he ran the hostel in Panama.
As we ate breakfast, our attention would occasionally invariably turn to the small analog television set in the kitchen. This television was pretty much always turned to some channel that seemed to play American films from the 1990s, except in Spanish. I got the pleasure of seeing a Spanish dubbed version of Vertical Limit, a movie very near and dear to my childhood. You see, I saw that movie in theaters with my parents when I was around six years old; because normal parents take their six year old to PG13 movies about climbing tragedies on Mt. Everest. Honestly, it’s like they wanted me to turn out the way I am. Anyway, before the movie even began, I somehow managed to knock my two front teeth out on the flipping movie theater seats and spent the entire film in the front row with ice on my face. Because once again, I had parents that decided that was a better alternative than just taking me home.
After breakfast, we headed in to Boquete to explore the place that we would call home for the next week. While our hostel was over three miles away from Boquete itself, we decided to walk rather than wait for the bus that came every 45 minutes. It was a lovely day outside, if only a little cloudy. Plus we had another intention for our walk; You see, Boquete is home to pretty much the only outdoor climbing spot in all of Panama and it was conveniently located about one mile from our hostel in the direction of Boquete. Our walk to town was really more so a walk to the climbing with an extension to get groceries afterward.
We reached the fork in the road (one of two on the way between Boquete and Autana) and turned left up the opposite fork rather than down into town. A short walk up the road and we encountered the first climbing wall, a place called Gunko, one of a few different walls in the area. It was a beautiful basalt formation comprised entirely of stratified columns that exploded out each end of the wall. On the ends, the climbing was up these protruding columns, making for such an overwhelming sight that I could hardly image finding the holds. In the middle, it was a smooth wall of ripples where each column stretched across the formation. These columns, we had read, were formed by a volcanic explosion from the Baru volcano, the force of which had not only spit out this entire chunk of wall we were looking at, but formed the stream-like columns in the rock by the sheer force of the explosion. Science aside, it was an incredible formation, even by pure aesthetics and I was excited to try climbing on it.
That day, however, we hadn’t brought any of our gear, meaning to merely scout out the area so we could return another day. Now that we were there, it was harder to tear ourselves away, and I’m sure if we had brought our gear just in case we would have ended up climbing. Screw groceries. Who needs to eat?
But we hadn’t so we said goodbye to the formation and headed back down into Boquete. The closer we got to town, the farther away it all felt and we were slightly regretting our decision to not get a ride. Finally, however, the main square of Boquete came into view, including the side street I had turned into an emergency toilet the previous night. We walked into the grocery store and began deliberating about what sorts of things we might need to last us for the week.
Grocery shopping in Central America was always difficult. Most stores were pathetically small and even those that appeared large on the outside were appalling sparse inside. While there were entire aisles dedicated to different types of dish soap, the actual grocery section of the grocery stores were rather lacking in variety. Maybe it was just the fact that I had come from America, land of the 100 types of pasta to choose from but the lack of variety and choice was extremely difficult for us. As people who typically like to eat healthy, it was even more so. Nothing in Central America was very healthy, especially not portable snack food. Want a box of granola bars with even a passable amount of protein in it? Better be prepared to pay like $8 for five of them. We did what we could to eat healthy, which pretty much meant living on a steady diet of canned tuna, eggs, and plain avena, or oatmeal.
While lack of choice was pretty much a constant in Central America, every country did different ever so slightly on things like price. Ever since e had hit Nicaragua, we were desperately missing the cheaper prices. In Panama, groceries were oddly expensive even though we had seen overall costs go down. One liter of milk, for instance, cost us $1.75 in Panama whereas we used to pay $0.50 for the same thing. Yet some things, like junk food, was incredibly cheap, which wasn’t exactly good heath-wise, but it was good to satisfy those evening cravings for cookies and milk that we consistently had.
With our pack loaded up with groceries, we left the store and caught a minibus going up the mountain, a ride that would cost us $1 each. Consistent with the rest of Central America, Panamanian public transportation seemed to hate the idea of wasting any space, even space that didn’t really exist. Even though we had been lucky enough to get the front seat with the driver rather than the sardine can of the backseat, we were still squished four across on a bench seat that probably was only wide enough for two. At least this ride would only last about 5 minutes. We had been equally as squished in Guatemala for hours.
After an evening of rest and an early night to bed trying to regain some of our energy from the exhausting days of travel, we woke up the next morning rearing to go. It had been well over a week since we had climbed last and we were eager to get back on the wall. After scarfing down breakfast, we loaded up our climbing gear and headed back down to the wall. We warmed up on La Frontera, an easy 5.7 up the corner between the smooth face and the rough columns, before moving on two different 5.9s on each different face. The smooth slab was difficult because there were practically no holds and most of the time I was doing full body wedges and traversing back and forth to make it up the climb. The columns were tricky in their own way because, as I had predicted the day before, finding the holds was an impossible task because everything looked like a hold, whether it actually was or not. When you did find them though, they were all nice, deep jugs. We moved on to some harder stuff, Chris sending a slick 5.11 while I struggled on a 5.10a called Evolution. Being on a slight overhand, I struggled again and again with one key move getting over the overhang until I got so frustrated that I had to come down. Frustration is every my problem with climbing, especially on routes I feel like I should be able to do, and the more frustrated I get, the worse I get at climbing. It’s something I’m trying to work on, in conjunction with Chris pounding over and over in my head that there is no such thing as a route I “should be able” to do. It’s a work in progress.
After that, we called it quits for the day, thankfully not only because I was cranky but also because some dark clouds had started to roll in and were now sprinkling. Chris barely got the 5.10a cleaned before the rock was too wet to really climb. The hit and miss rain would define our next week in Central America. Despite the fact that we were technically in the midst of the dry season, an uncharacteristic tropical storm had formed just north of Central America. As it approached land, it was official classified as a Category 1 hurricane and given the name Otto. The headline news that evening read, “Otto Now A Category 1 Hurricane; Forecast to Make Very Rare Thanksgiving Hurricane Central America Landfall”. Because of course it would now that we were in a place where there was a lot of things we wanted to do outdoors. How very our luck.
And on the subject of luck, here’s another succinct demonstration of ours; Back home, we used to buy value sized Great Value honey roasted peanuts. We ate them like candy. Then we randomly found them in a grocery store in Panama, the very same thing justlittle more expensive. The overcharge was something we were more than willing to pay for a little taste of familiarity. We eagerly opened the peanuts only to find them horribly stale, despite the fact that the expiration date bore the year 2017. We had finally found something to eat that excited us and that was the end result. For those who think I exaggerate about my bad luck: case in point.
The next morning we woke up to rain and a wall of fog that had socked in the hostel, but that just meant we had an excuse to lay around that day and have the first true rest day we had had since Nicaragua. We spent the morning and much of the afternoon laying in bed in our pajamas, listening to the rain on the roof and absorbing the peace of the area. Sometime late in the afternoon, we began getting just a little stir crazy and decided to take advantage of the brief reprieve from the rain to take a walk farther up the mountain loop toward Quetzal National Park and Bajo Mono, a region of cloud forest with three supposedly very nice waterfalls. After hiking a mile or so up hill in a very light drizzle, a white pick-up truck pulled over and rolled down the window. Expecting to see a Panamanian guy, I was surprised by withered old white man behind the wheel.
“Need a ride? I can only fit one inside the cab but the other can ride in the bed.” Chris hopped in the bed and I clambered in the cab. The man handed me a pile of papers that had been sitting on the passenger seat. “Hold these for me,” he said, then started driving again. We told him where we were going, which was a little past his destination, but he said he’d take us there anyway. “I like to do what I can to help the disabled.” Disabled struck me as an odd choice of words but hey, who was I to complain to the guy who had just saved us from a long and wet walk.
Over the next few miles, he introduced himself as Jack, originally from California, which was now “overrun by granolas”. My grandpa would have liked him. He had lived in Panama for years working as an architect and developer. When I told him I was writer, he seemed to pause.
“You know, whenever we get writers they always say how beautiful and perfect the place. No one wants to be honest. If you want an honest look at the country, I’d be glad to give it to you. The truth is that everyone here tries to make a living by stealing from everyone else. That’s why the whole place is collapsing.”
I was incredibly interested in what it was like to live in Panama as an America. “Do you speak any Spanish?” I asked.
“No. I hate the Spanish language. Years ago I was working with a foreman who spoke only Spanish and I had a translator in between. I asked the translator to bring me a shovel and the foreman comes back with a stick. I told myself right then and there that I couldn’t be bothered to learn such an inefficient language.” The mistake made sense to me, considering pala is shovel and palo is stick, but something told me Jack was far too stubborn and set in his ways to let that piece of information change his mind. Like most elderly, Jack seemed about as willing to change his opinions as a rock.
Either way, it was refreshing to get an American’s honest and in-depth opinion on the area. So often when you meet other gringos, they’re quick to tell you how much they “LOOOOOOVED” Central America and how much fun they had. The truth is, Central America can be gritty and brutal and it’s not all cervesas and fiestas. It can be, but it’s not always. At least Jack was willing to concede to the opposite side as well.
Jack dropped us off at the road to Bajo Mono, handing me his card if I wanted to get together for lunch for an honest interview. We weren’t going to be in Boquete for long, but I hoped it would be long enough to take him up on the offer.
We hiked up the road toward Quetzal National Park, and arrived at the trailhead to the waterfalls, but turned around realizing there was on way we would have enough daylight remaining to actually complete the hike. Plus our discovery that it cost $3 each paid to a guy whose property the trail crossed was significantly demotivating. If we had time and a rain free day, maybe we’d return. We went home for an early night until we were awoke by some extremely late arrivals being shown around the hostel.
We didn’t meet our late arrival neighbors until the next morning at breakfast. Charlotte and Roi were a young couple from Israel currently living in L.A. Yet another demonstration of the small world phenomenon, when Charlotte added me on Facebook, we discovered a mutual friend, someone I had known from speech and drama back in high school who now lived in L.A. Of the millions of people in L.A. she knew one of the two I think I do.
The more we talked with Charlotte and Roi, the more we all got along. We invited them climbing with us for the day, and despite the fact that they had never climbed before, they eagerly accepted. Despite the gray clouds in the ski, we headed down to the climbing wall. We had pretty much accepted the fact that it was going to rain more or less constantly while we were there, but we were still determined the make the most of the experience.
As we walked down the road, a white truck pulled in front of us and stopped. Surely it couldn’t be… But it was. The window rolled down and there was Jack looking at us. “Oh it’s Amber!” he exclaimed. His passenger seat was this time occupies, but he signaled for to hop in the bed of the truck and drove us down to the road fork. We waved him goodbye and I wondered about the odds of that happening.
We started on the same 5.7 we had last time, figuring that would really be the only climb Charlotte and Roi would be able to do, being beginners. Charlotte took to climbing right away and made is farther up the climb (in tennis shoes) than any of us expected. Roi struggled to get off the ground and promptly gave up. After Charlotte made a few more attempts, Roi was inspired and managed to pull himself up a few moves. Even though neither of them could actually send the climb, they seemed to be having fun. Once they were, finished, they encouraged Chris and I to get in a few climbs of a harder grade. We sent one of the 5.9s then moved back onto the 5.10a I had struggled with so much the previous day. I came to the crux, the move I had continually fallen on, and breezed past it on the first go, going on to send the entire climb. Chris lowered me to the ground with a huge grin on my face. That, I was reminded, was why I loved climbing. Only in climbing could something bring me so much agony one day and so much joy the next. In completing that climb, I felt as if I had become a stronger climber mentally, and it was an important moment in my climbing progression.
Throughout this entire time, pretty much from the moment we arrived at the wall, it had been raining. Luckily, the leftmost section of the wall was overhanging just enough to shield the lower section of the wall and two feet of the ground. We piled our stuff and flaked our rope there, slowly watching as the wet marks encroached upon it all. By then time, we were on the 5.10a, everything outside out little 1.5ft by 10ft strip was soaked. When I cleared the overhang, I found myself climbing on wet rock, but still managed to finish the climb and clean the gear.
Charlotte and Roi needed to go to town to get groceries so we parted ways at the road fork. By that time, it was dumping rain and we took shelter in a small covered bus stop while waiting for cars that we might try to flag down for a ride. Naturally, no car passed for a solid 20 minutes. Finally, we spotted a vehicle in the distance and it got closer, we found it to be none other than Jack and his faithful white pickup truck. He spotted on the side of the road, looking like drowned rats and pulled over. If ever we looked “disabled” it was probably that moment. He laughed as he let us both in the cab this time and we chatted the whole way back to our hostel.
That evening after Charlotte and Roi returned, they approached us eating a disgusting amount of pasta. “Hey we have some chocolate. Do you want to smoke it with us? We just tried it a couple days ago and it’s really good.” Smoking chocolate? Cocoa leaves? I couldn’t tell whether we were being offered something more like pot or cocaine. I looked at Chris, who doesn’t do drugs in the slightest. He shrugged. We could always partake without really partaking. And why not? We were in Central America and we hadn’t done anything crazy yet. It was a very backpacking thing to do and it brought me back to Europe days. “Hey want to do this random possibly stupid thing with people you barely know?” Yeah, sure.
Smoking chocolate was a lot like smoking a joint, except there were zero physical effects. It tasted mildly of burnt chocolate and that was about it. Either way, it was a nice social circle, and we hadn't really accepted on hopes of getting high. We just wanted to hang out. As we settled down to watch the movie Up that evening, I thought about how much I missed this. That was one thing I really liked doing in Europe and in Central America, I had yet to really have the chance. Not only did socialization become vastly different now that I was traveling in a couple, but Central America never really presented us with opportunities to hang out with other travelers. So often, we were alone in our hostels or the only gringos around. This was really the first time we had bonded with other travelers.
Unfortunately, as happens with those travel forged bonds, they quick break due to their tenuous and temporary nature. The next morning, Roi and Charlotte left, moving on to somewhere warmer and hopefully drier. We quickly set out to try to get in some more climbing that day. The weather looking briefly nice and there was even a small ray of sunlight peaking through, so we jumped on the opportunity. We did a few of the same routes as the days before and moved on to some harder ones. I was emboldened by my eventual success on the 5.10a and moved up to a 5.10c, which I sent on the first go. The only reason I can’t exactly say it was an onsite was because I belayed for Chris on it first. I was elated. I had never had actually completed a 5,10c before and to do so after being extremely out of climbing shape was a real achievement.
A Thanksgiving day miracle, celebrated by a grand feast of canned tuna. But I didn’t care. I didn’t need turkey and mashed potatoes to be thankful for the fact that I was in beautiful place with the love of my life (though I guess I wouldn’t have complained about a slice of pumpkin pie).
The down pouring rain wasted our last full in day in Boquete, but it at least gave us a chance to pack our things and finally do some laundry. Angel, being the sweetheart that he was, offered to do our laundry for us for free if we just bought the soap. In fact, he would even go to town to buy the soap for us if we paid him for it. A whole $0.80 cents later, we had packs filled with fresh, clean laundry, which was good considering we didn’t know when we would have the chance to do it again until the work away in Ecuador.
But we couldn’t leave Boquete without one more grand adventure and story to tell. Discovering we had no food left for dinner, we hitched once more into Boquete (alas no Jack this time) to pick up some last minute groceries for our last night when we realized we didn’t have enough and took a cab back. After a solid three minutes of trying to explain tothe cab driver where Hospedaje Autana was and showing him a map (seriously, it’s a single loop through the mountains with two minor forks and you go left both times), he finally quoted us $2 and we got in the cab. About halfway up, he slowed down and told us it was different from where he thought. HOW? We showed him a fucking map! To go to Autana, he explained, it would now cost us $5. We argued that he had quoted us $2 and we wouldn’t pay more. The $3 was less important than the principle of the matter. WE were tired of being ripped off and so when he pulled the cab over on the side of the road, still about a mile and a half from the hostel, we got out and started to walk.
Unfortunately, he had pulled onto a slight side hill so when I got out, my door slammed shut involuntarily. He was not happy about that. “Puta!” he yelled at me, telling me to not slam the door. Chris may not have spoken much Spanish, but puta he understood and immediately came to my defense. The cab driver then began yelling at us for not paying him the $2 to that point, which we had and left on the center console. I angrily pointed at it and turned to walk away. As he drove ahead of his, we scowled and made, using less than sound judgment, a couple rude hand gestures at him. He stopped the car in the middle of the road and got out. Oh my God, this is how I die. Murdered by an angry, insane cabbie in the mountains of Ecuador. We ignored him, continuing to walk as if he weren’t stop and he got back in his car and drove away. It was getting dark now and we had armfuls of groceries. Even worse, every time a pair of headlights approached us from behind, we assumed it was the angry cabbie and bailed to the ditch should he decide to just run us over and mug our poor dead bodies for his extra $3.
In hindsight, it was bound to happen. We had gotten through all of Central America with no real confrontation or any really mean people. With our time there coming to an end, we clearly needed to break the streak.