Author Topic: Viva La Revolución! Time-traveling to Cuba with Something Fishy, whYME, and CITH  (Read 27545 times)

Offline rangersin4

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hey @rangersin4
you can forward it to my pm..
Ill even throw in a few likes...
Can't. Had to sign an NDA  ;)
It's EPIC though, will be well worth the wait!

Offline thaber

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Offline rangersin4

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http://thehill.com/business-a-lobbying/338059-trump-to-ban-individual-educational-trips-to-cuba

Glad you made it
I'm going next week, but I called up Norwegian (I'm going via cruise) and they said they're not going to be affected, at least not immediately.

Online Something Fishy

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[Something Fishy] So we went to sleep at 11... and were up at 12:30. Grabbed our gear, some food, and went downstairs hoping against hope that Elvis is there for us.

Lo and behold, he was.

We packed into his '53 Dodge and were off. The camera gear in the trunk, whYME and CITH in the back, and me upfront because it supposedly has more room. Ha! I spent the rest of the trip scrunched up, with my knees hitting the stick shift whenever I moved .

In any case, the car was epic. Side-view mirrors? Seat belts? Meh, who needs those? But a color TV playing non-stop Salsa music videos, jerry-rigged into the dash, that we had. The seats were covered in plastic like your grandmother's old couch, but that was not an issue due to the ice-cold AC.

Until, of course, the AC died, and before long we were sitting in a pool of sweat. What now? We roll down the windows of course! Elvis pulls off to the side of the road, unloads half the trunk, and emerges with a pair of pliers in hand. Opening the passenger door, he sticks the pliers into a hole on the side and starts turning like mad. Slowly, agonizingly, the window begins to lower. The entire process is repeated on whYME's window, but on CITH's no amount of turning makes the glass budge a millimeter. Poor CITH is still sweaty to this day.

Leaving Havana:




According to Google, the ride from Havana to Vinales should take two and a half hours. Problem is of course that Google doesn't know that the transport in question is a jalopy from 1953, so we ended up put-putting along for over four hours each way.

But regardless of all this, the ride was a ton of fun. Elvis was fantastic and kept up a constant prattle. It wasn't long and we got seriously overtired and were attempting to sing along with the Salsa on the top of our lungs, to Elvis' great amusement.

So there we are, driving down the highway in the middle of absolutely nowhere, not a light or car to be seen for miles around, when Elvis lets loose an incredible collection of Spanish profanities. The weak beam of an ultra-cheap LED flashlight was shining in his face, and we could just make out the silhouette of a blacked-out police car on the shoulder.

Uh oh.

This is not good. Not good at all.

The officer orders Elvis out of the car and warns the three of us to remain inside. The two of them go off to the side, and ten minutes go by... Fifteen... Twenty... Every now and then Elvis comes in to rummage under his seat for a different document.

Elvis is now hauling our camera bags out of the trunk, one by one. Long minutes tick by, as the officer closely examines every item in our bags.

In the meantime us hapless Americans are left to ponder our fate all alone in the dark. Would they send us to Guantanamo? The gulag? Would we get to call our wives? I had promised mine to stay out of trouble!

And then all of a sudden Elvis climbs back in the car with a huge smile:

"Eh, only 20 CUC!"

And off we went.

Turns out that we were about to be hauled in for questioning, under charges of "suspicious activity". (I mean, three Americans and a local guide out in a place and time where tourists really have no business being, and loaded down with $10k worth of camera gear... is that suspicious?) Eventually Elvis realized that this is not going to end well, so he decided to finish this in the typical Cuban fashion: a nice little bribe. Apparently what amounts to a cop's full month's wages was enough to "prove our innocence" and convince the law that we were on the up and up ...

This little adventure meant that we were running even later than we had already been, but before long we found ourselves in Vinales.

"Vinales" itself is a broad term for the entire region. The Vinales Valley is a large and very rural area where lots of Cuba's famous tobacco is grown; everything around here is even more primitive than Havana. If the capital is stuck in the 1950's, Vinales is still in the 1800's. Also in Vinales are a collection of stunningly beautiful karst formations called mogotes, which are basically tall, steep hills rising right up from the valley floor. These hills and the area around them form Vinales National Park (Parque Nacional Vińales). And to top it all off, the local village is also called Vinales.

It was around an hour before sunrise and on the outskirts of the village, when we had a very bemused Elvis pull off the road and position his car very precisely in some bushes. He had a good laugh watching these crazy photographers pull out cameras, set up tripods, and use their headlamps to light up his car. He had never seen anything remotely like this...

[whYME] I don't think that's why he was laughing . I'm pretty sure he was laughing at me and CITH bumbling around still trying to figure out which way was up meanwhile Something Fishy had set up, taken his shot, packed up his gear and was all ready to move on to the next location .

Eventually we all managed to get our shots and were thrilled with the results.


Photo by Something Fishy:



[Something Fishy] Crossing the road to get a shot of the Milky Way rising over some of the mogotes:



I can't say I'm very happy with this picture, but some errant cows and the ever-closer sunrise meant that we couldn't spend as much time here as we would have liked.

A little bit further on we stopped yet again; the sky was really getting brighter now.


[whYME] To be clear, we stopped in middle of absolute nowhere. There was already enough light in the sky that we were able to make out that there was absolutely nothing around to take a picture of. With no foreground and no background and the sky seemingly too light for decent star shots, CITH and I were sure there was no shot to be had and didn't even even bother trying. Something Fishy, however, insisted that there was a shot to be had and set out prove us wrong.

It was about this time when I learnt never to question Something Fishy when he insists there's a shot to be had:


Photo by Something Fishy:



[Something Fishy] While setting up this shot a number of farmers passed, heading to the fields on horseback. We got some odd looks (from the farmers; the horses didn't seem to mind us).

It was now time to head to our sunrise spot. I had done a ton of research and found the perfect spot, except for one detail: I had absolutely no idea where said spot was. Information was so scarce at the time we went, that there was literally nothing online about this other than some isolated pictures. My usual scouting tools were useless in this case; with nearly nothing to go on, and satellite maps of the area being very low-resolution, all I was able to figure out was a general direction.

But no worries! We had Elvis. I described what I was looking for, and he claimed he knew where it is. He led us through a maze of tiny, twisting roads for nearly half an hour before stopping... at a resturaunt.

"We're here!", he exclaimed cheerily.

Um... are we? There was nothing to see except for the slightly run-down restaurant and some trees. Where was the grand landscape I had ordered?

Meekly, we followed him around to the back of the building, onto a deck and into a little outdoor sitting area.

And... Boom! Unbelievably, this was the exact spot I had been looking for! I couldn't believe my eyes, and Elvis couldn't have been more smug. This guy was worth every penny .

We were up on the edge of a hill, and the entire valley was spread out in front of us. Fields, mogotes, palm forests, little farmhouses. Nothing stirring; only the first rays of the sun beginning to break through the morning mist.


Photo by whYME:



Photo by whYME:



















CITH and whYME shooting:



Group shot with Elvis:



Call the Cuban patent office! Here's how to weatherproof outdoor lighting:



What a lovely setting for a meal:



Once the sun was fully up we left the restaurant and headed back to watch the village wake up.

Our car waiting for us:




Red-legged thrush:



On the road into town, farmers off to work:



Huge grass chicken coop:



Photo by CITH:



A typical road scene: some random chickens, a stray dog, and an old man cutting grass with a scythe:



Seriously terrifying chicken:



The family out for a morning stroll:





Off to market. Photo by whYME:



2-ox power engine:



First view of town:



Some really pretty-looking houses:





Quiet moment:



Main street traffic:







All of the above pictures were taken out the window of the car while driving. Elvis, our ever-loyal guide, was making sure to point out every good photography subject: namely, girls. "Pretty girl over there! Take nice picture! No, no, no! Why you take picture of old horse, look other side! Girl!" After a while he realized that we weren't going to listen to him, so he resorted instead to shaking his head sadly and mumbling under his breath, "And they take picture of old horse!" every now and then.

Before long we had crossed through the entire village and were heading back into the fields. Suddenly... a police car on the side of the road. The officer gets out and motions us to pull over.

You have got to be kidding me.

Once again, cursing like a sailor, Elvis steps outside. This time however, he was back in two minutes later and laughing out loud. Turns out the cop had run out of gas, and wanted to know if we were able to spare some for him to siphon off. Being that our car ran on diesel and the police car on gasoline, it was a no-go from the start and so we were off the hook.

More than anything this little episode brought home how impoverished this little corner of the world is. The government here has so little money that police officers have to literally beg passersby for gas. And of course the officer had no radio nor cell phone... Simply unbelievable.

Between the village and the national park:












Welcome sign for the national park:



The park's visitor center :


(Excuse the terrible GoPro quality...)

A farmer and his "tractor" (or in CITH's immortal words, "pulling oxen through the nose on a sled with no wheels"):








Photo by whYME:



It was about now that Elvis declared that we have to check our fuel supply, and can we please help him unload the trunk? While this question didn't quite make an ounce of sense to us, we nevertheless humored him.

With the trunk empty, Elvis rolls back the carpet, produces a dipstick, and sticks it into a hole in the floor. "Quarto centimeters? Perfecto! Enough till Habana".

So that's a fuel gauge, Cuba style.

Elvis. Photo by CITH:



Stopping in a lovely section of the national park among the mogotes:




Photo by whYME:



Much of the mogotes are hollow, riddled with caves and caverns. Sometimes there would be these huge openings on the side of one, taking all sorts of fantastic shapes.

Angry face. Photo by whYME:











Elvis then took us to see the world-famous Mural de la Prehistoria, or Mural of Prehistory. This enormous monstrosity is painted on the side of Mogote Pita and is over 200k square feet in size. Rumor has it that Fidel himself dictated to the artist exactly which scenes should be painted.

It is difficult to describe it any better than Lonely Planet did, who've condensed their review into a single succinct sentence:


Quote
The huge snail, dinosaurs, sea monsters and humans on the cliff symbolize the theory of evolution and are either impressively psychedelic or monumentally horrific, depending on your viewpoint.

Photo by whYME:



These guys aren't having a very good day, I'm afraid:



On the outskirts of Vinales we came across a propaganda billboard. There are no advertisements in Cuba to be seen; any and all space is reserved for promoting the revolution.

This particular sign points to a memorial for the first revolutionary militia, comprised of local peasants (Malagones). The top half features Fidel's immortal (and nonsensical) words: "If you triumph, there were militias in Cuba".

Whatever it was he was smoking at the time, I'd sure like some.




And with the Glorious Leader's words ringing in our ears, we left Vinales behind and began the long trek back to Havana.

Tons of people loading into a truck, heading to work in the tobacco fields:




Hauling tobacco:



Another propaganda poster: "The Revolution is the Daughter of Culture and Ideas":



"With your permission, it will be easy!" Photo by whYME:



Aaaand then we were back in Havana. We stopped at Elvis' house for a moment so he could pick up something or other, and for us to stretch our legs.

A curious neighbor:




Photo by whYME:



Patina:



I'm not sure I want to know exactly what's happening here - looks like a nurse sitting against the column, while the guy in the background is doing something to his leg while surrounded by a bunch of bug-spray canisters:



Driving back to our apartment:



Yep, Havana has a Chinatown. Go figure. We had wanted to visit it but hadn't had time; it wasn't until I looked over the GoPro footage after getting home when I realized that we had in fact driven right through it. We were simply too tired at the time to notice, having been up for nearly two days now:



Nearly home - there's the Capitolio on the right and the government cigar factory on the left (past the turquoise building):



Elvis dropped us off at the front door, where we said our goodbyes and made up for him to pick us up tomorrow at 6 AM for the ride to the airport.

We were bone tired, but there's no rest for the weary: we wanted to get to the cigar shop before it closes, so we couldn't take a nap just yet.

The official government cigar factory and shop was just down the block, so we walked over. We figured we'll pay their inflated prices instead of buying on the black market for two reasons: supposedly these street cigars are of lesser quality, and we wanted an official receipt for US customs.

The store was dark, cool, and inviting, and sold both cigars and alcohol.






Famous Cuban rum:



Only $950 a bottle? Meh:



$1700 or bust:



The average Cuban makes $18.66 a month, so it only takes about eight years of work to be able to buy this bottle. Memesh a bargain!

My cigar haul:






The US customs allowance was $100 worth per person at the time. Considering that I don't smoke (to be honest these fancy cigars stink just as bad as regular cigarettes in my opinion), I didn't feel the need to buy more and figure out a way to smuggle them in.

My total however came out to slightly more than $100, so the clerk happily took my money and wrote me a "kosher" receipt.


Cigar store ledger. Photo by whYME:



Back outside we ran into a guy who apparently follows the DD main site deals  :



If I was attracting attention yesterday with my shoes, that was nothing to what was happening today. Wherever we went in Havana people were calling out "Fidel and Che!" and running over to take a cellphone picture with us. Turns out that me in my Fidel cap, whYME in his Che beret, and with our height and beards looked pretty darn close to the real thing and the locals were getting a kick out of it.

Of course, this was tons of fun for us and we had a great time interacting with lots of different people. And we didn't even charge them a CUC for the picture, how very magnanimous of us.

More patina:




Stopping into the saddest electronic store I have ever seen:



YO:



Yet another crumbling building:



Having finished our shopping, we then returned home to prepare for the rest of our afternoon.  Alex had offered insisted that he just had to give us a tour of the Morro Castle (and of course take us to someone who would sell us cheap, "authentic" cigars). We had finally relented and agreed to do his tour that afternoon. There was just one slight problem: having barely slept in three days we were utterly exhausted. We sat down on the couch and began to discuss whether to go or stand him up. Turns out it was quite an easy decision; apparently when you sit on a couch after not sleeping for a few days you don't stay awake very long .

We woke after a couple of hours nice and rested. By this time it was dark outside, so we had dinner and began packing up our stuff for the flight out tomorrow.

After a bit we went out again for a short walk, to get one last good look at this wonderful place.

A pedicab waiting for customers:




Photo by CITH:



Photo by CITH:



We got a beer at the same pizza shop we had stopped by the night before, where the guys got a kick out of something on CITH's phone:



We also paid our respects to what is likely the saddest burger in the universe. Photo by whYME:



On the way back home we bumped into a bunch of drunk Irish tourists, who were apparently incredibly happy to meet us. One of them grabbed whYME and began singing some Irish ballad or something, and before we knew it they were singing and dancing, trying their darnedest to get us to dance along .

So there were are at 1:00 in the morning, on a dark and bustling (even at this hour) Havana street, singing and dancing with a bunch of drunk Irish guys. Suffice it to say it was quite the weird ending to our trip .









Unfortunately for you, I had to trim the real juicy parts of that video out .

Eventually we broke free and off it was, for one final sweaty night sleeping on the floor of a crumbling Havana building.
« Last Edit: July 13, 2017, 02:04:49 AM by Something Fishy »
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Offline Proisrael

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Just one word....Wow!!!

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Great shots!  I especially like the car under the starlit sky and the sunrise shots.
AK,AZ,CA,CT,(DE),FL,HI,(IL),ME,MD,(MA),(MN),MT,NV,NH,NJ,NY,OR,PA,(RI),TX,UT,VT,VA,WA,WY

Offline Moshe123

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AWESOMENESS!!!

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Amazing piece as always!

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wow! the story and pictures are awesome. Very few people get both perfect

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According to Google, the ride from Havana to Vinales should take two and a half hours. Problem is of course that Google doesn't know that the transport in question is a jalopy from 1953, so we ended up put-putting along for over four hours each way.

What type of car does Google expect in Cuba? A ferrari?
You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used to start a religious discussion.

Offline Yehoshua

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Wow!! Great TR so far. Really enjoyed reading.

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Wow!! Great TR so far. Really enjoyed reading.
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wow! the story and pictures are awesome. Very few people get both perfect

+1!

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[Something Fishy] It was time to say goodbye to Cuba.

We woke early, shlepped our stuff down the long and dark staircases, and out the door. On our way out we gave our leftover food to some neighbors and passersby; I've never in my life seen someone get so excited over a half eaten container of peanut butter .


[whYME] As we were leaving I snapped a picture of the (incomplete) collection of empty water bottles we had amassed over the course of our stay. Photo by whYME:



We had arranged with Elvis to drive us to the airport, but he was nowhere to be seen. Apparently he was just as tired as we were, and with no plane to catch he was still in dreamland. Oh well.

Luckily for us there were plenty of taxis roaming the street; before long we were packed into an antique Chevy and off to the airport:




The airport looked lovely in the early-morning light:



I know they mean the rum, but still - couldn't have said it better myself:


This sign was the one and only advertisement we saw in Cuba.

There is a supposed 25CUC departure tax assessed at the airport, so we each carefully hoarded our last remaining CUC. We were never charged the fee however, and so we ended up selling the 75CUC to a DDFer headed to Cuba a couple of months later.

Now, too, I had no luck with the customs agent who flat-out refused to stamp my passport. Oh well.

There was a great view of the apron from the terminal. Here's a lovely lineup representing most of Cubana's fleet - all old Soviet aircraft. Front to back, we have a Tupolev Tu-214, Ilyushin Il-62M, Ilyushin Il-96, and two Antonov An-158s:




A slightly-less exotic Airbus A319 that Cubana wet-leases from Avion Express:



After takeoff we had a great view of the airport. It's not big, but definitely nice and modern:



A Cubana Tupolev Tu-204CE:



Old Havana and the harbor:



You could see our apartment immediately to the left of the Capitolio rotunda:



Airshow: next stop, Panama!



Banking low over Isla de Taboga, or "the Island of Flowers" on approach to Panama City:



A bunch of ships waiting their turn to pass through the Panama Canal:



Panama City was a total shock to me. When we passed through here earlier in the week it was the middle of the night and I couldn't really see anything. I had expected a third-world country, but what I saw while landing today may as well have been Miami or Chicago. Unbelievable.

It was pouring rain, but even so we had a great view of the city. In the background you can just make out the canal and the Centennial Bridge spanning it:




We landed around 10:30 AM, and our continuing flight was not until 9:30 in the evening. We had a full day in Panama ahead of us.

As in Iceland, "layover tours" are a big thing here. Copa has a very extensive Central America network, and most flights connect through PTY. With many of these layovers being quite long, and lots of attractions relatively close by, there are plenty of tour companies who are only too happy to take your money. I had researched the options ahead of time, and realized that pretty much everything is both overpriced and overly touristy. Combine that with the fact that we wanted to stop by a restaurant for dinner, and it made far more sense to hire a driver by the hour.

As soon as we stepped outside the terminal we were accosted by tour vendors and drivers. As per my research, we tried to ignore them all and walk to the airport boundary where the non-official taxis could be had for much cheaper. But when it reached a point when our "entourage" simply would not let us pass, I gave up and figured it doesn't hurt to try and negotiate. I was expecting to pay around $100 for 8 hours with a non-official driver, so I announced that we need a driver and we're paying $80 for 8 hours.

Much grumbling ensued, and half the crowd promptly disappeared. The remaining hardy folk began a heated argument, all stating categorically that I'm out of my mind and it would cost at least double. No problem, I said, see ya - I could get the price I want a couple hundred feet away.

That did it... two minutes later we found ourselves in a large, comfortable, ice-cold, official taxi. We had agreed on $100 - my original budget - plus a $10 "tip" for the main hustler. Fair enough.

So what do you do when you're in Panama? You go see the canal of course! One of the three locks in the system, the Miraflores Locks is just outside Panama City and has a great visitors center and viewing area.

Traffic on the main highway was bonkers, so after a while the driver took an exit and took us through a maze of side streets lined with beautiful villas. After spending the week in Cuba, the villas, bustling highways, and billboards everywhere were complete culture shock. We spent the entire drive gawking out the window while catching up with our wives for the first proper conversation in a week.

Before long we arrived at Miraflores. It had stopped raining, but the air was thick with a humidity such as I have never felt before. If I was hot in Cuba... that was nothing compared to this. The visitors center has a board showing the schedule of ship transits, and it wasn't long until the post-lunch break ships began their journey through the locks. We therefore decided to skip the exhibits, although they were supposed to be quite interesting - particularly the working model of the canal. There are a number of indoor and outdoor viewing platforms and levels, and we chose the second-highest so that we'd have both a good view and some protection in case it begins raining again (smart move, as it turns out).

The main control room is directly opposite the viewing areas and sits on the center island between the two canal lanes:




Part of the hullabaloo. Photo by whYME:



Cool bird. Photo by whYME:



Much of the canal runs through Gatun Lake, the man-made reservoir that powers the entire canal system. Problem is, that the lake is 85 feet higher than sea level. In order to move ships between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the lake, a series of three locks are used. Here at Miraflores, ships are raised or lowered 56 feet in two steps. Today, canal traffic was flowing from the Atlantic to the Pacific, so ships entered the locks from the right. The would close behind them, the water is lowered to the level seen in the left of the picture, and then the entire process is repeated once more until the ship is at sea level:



The second, lower chamber with the Pacific entrance beyond:



Photo by whYME:



While we were waiting the clouds became threatening once more and before long unleashed an epic deluge. Even with the protective overhang we got soaked.

Canal workers taking refuge:




The Panama Canal is the only place in the world where a Captain gives up complete control of his ship. Here a specially-trained canal pilot peers out of the bridge. Photo by whYME:



Photo by whYME:



The far end of the locks through the rain. You can see a dozen or so of the large electric locomotives known as mules lined up:



To cross over the canal itself workers use a catwalk on top of the gates. Poor guy could use an umbrella, methinks:



The scale of the gates themselves are nearly impossible to comprehend. Each is 82 feet high, 65 feet wide, and over 7 feet thick. Their weight? A measly 720 tons (that's just about one and a half million pounds, for the mathematically challenged among us).

The most mind-blowing part? These monsters are so perfectly balanced and buoyant, that when the water level is equal on both sides and the mechanics disengaged you can move it yourself with a good shove.

Finally, ships ahoy! The first ships of the afternoon being lowered through the nearby Pedro Miguel Locks:




Here we go:



The Liberian Navigator Umbrio, carrying a load of natural gas:



You could see the "mules" at work. Four or more of those are tied to the ship and guide her precisely through the locks:



Here's the thing with the canal: On the one hand it's unbelievably fascinating to see this colossal system working like clockwork, ferrying huge ships back and forth and up and down, all 100% powered by rainfall and gravity. On the other hand, it is the most mind-numbingly boring thing to see. The tugs move slowly, the mules move slowly, and the water level changes slowly (52 million gallons of water don't exactly drain in 30 seconds).

This is the only thing I've ever experienced that was so interesting and dull at the same time. I definitely recommend that everyone go and this this wonder of the world in action; but on the other hand I wish the entire process could be sped up like ten times or so, kinda like a real-life timelapse.


[whYME] I set up a gopro to film the boat going through the locks, but unfortunately I hadn't treated it with Rain-X so at times the view is blocked by raindrops in front of the lens (it's cinematic, okay?). This video is certainly not going to win any cinematic awards but it pretty much shows what's going on.

Played back at 60x the actual speed it's easy to watch:




Now good luck making it through 2 minutes of it in real time:



[Something Fishy] So while our ship was slowly, agonizingly, lowered, I turned my attention to the crowd on the platform. It had been relatively empty when we first got here, but with the arrival of the first ship along came the hordes:



And when there are hordes there are selfies:



And selfie sticks:



And the ubiquitous dude-taking-pictures-with-an-iPad:



While the hordes in the viewing area were watching and filming the boat go by, some of the boat's crew were ... watching and filming the hordes in the viewing area . Photo by whYME:



Mazel tov, the ship has gone down a level. Open the gates!





Photo by whYME:



The guys on the ship were enjoying the crowd too:





Checking Whatsapp instead of running the canal ?





This futuristic-looking thing is a Kizomba escape pod. Pile into this, let go, and you'll always end up right-side-up in the water. Hopefully a good distance from the now-burning ship as well:



Here's what it looks like in action:



The ship was now in the second chamber, and the lowering wasn't any faster than the first time. Time for a nap to find something else to watch.

Hmmm, pretty good view of the huge new canal expansion they're digging parallel to the old one:




Photo by whYME:





Interesting note: at this point the expansion was not much more than a rough ditch. By the time I came back to Panama two years later (which was this June), the project was pretty much done and already in operation.

Anyway... our ship. It's finally arrived at sea level. Off it goes to the Pacific now, having saved some 8000 miles and 6 weeks of sailing:




All in all, it had taken the ship 45 minutes to traverse the 0.87 miles of the Miraflores Locks. Not a terribly long time in the grand scheme of things, but excruciatingly slow nonetheless.

...And then here comes another one:




Fact of the matter though is that once you've seen one you've seen them all, so goodbye it was and off to our next stop: Ancon Hill.

Ancon Hill is a nature reserve that sits in the middle of Panama City, and yet contains a full jungle ecosystem. Sloths, armadillos, monkeys, and all manner of birds are commonly seen, and the higher points offer lovely views of the city. Being close to both the canal and kosher food made the reserve a perfect place for us to spend a few hours exploring.

Our driver drove us to the base of the hill (the road leading to the top had recently been closed to motorized traffic), and we set out on the way up. The main road, despite being a constant uphill climb (duh), nevertheless made for a fairly easy hike through the rainforest.

It wasn't long before we spotted our first animal, a large rodent called an agouti:




Unfortunately, this would be both the first and last animal of note we'd encounter - the drenching rains earlier in the day has sent everyone undercover. In vain we searched for sloths, monkeys, ...anything exotic throughout our visit.

That is not to say that there wasn't a lot to see. We still had a great time focusing on smaller - yet infinitely creepier - wildlife. That hill had enough spiders to send any arachnophobe into an apoplectic fit.

Golden silk orb-weaver:




Photo by whYME:



Tropical orb-weaver:



Photo by whYME:



Photo by whYME:



whYME getting waaaay to close:



SF trying to maintain a safer distance. Photo by whYME:



View of Casco Viejo:



Photo by whYME:



Photo by whYME:



Canal traffic:



Toning down the creepy-insect index a bit, here's a Thoas swallowtail butterfly:



Random cool fern:



Cool view of the city:



Who knew that palm tree bear red berries? Supposedly they're poisonous:



While it had stopped raining, the weather was still quite dreary. On the top of the hill itself, other than a bunch of antennas and some battered Panamanian flags there was nothing to see. The views from the top were pretty great though - to the right is Panama City's small domestic airport, PAC; to the left is the container and railroad complex, and in the background you'll see the canal:



Photo by whYME:



Photo by whYME:



Through the haze, both the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks, and the Centennial Bridge:



A closer view. You can clearly see the three steps that make up the locks. Photo by whYME:



Bridge of the Americas, also spanning the canal:



Another interesting fern:



Pretty plant life:



Photo by whYME:



Random building in the jungle. Photo by whYME:



As we headed down the hill, other than a bunch of nasty-looking vultures there was no wildlife to be seen. I took a couple of half-hearted vulture pictures, but didn't really expect a remotely-interesting image.

[whYME] So we were walking down the steep hill, and I was about 5-10 feet behind Something Fishy. At one point he snapped a few pictures of a vulture in a tree up ahead of us. Even though I didn't particularly care for another vulture picture, out of habit (and experience -when SF takes a picture it's usually worth it to follow suit ) I snapped a few pictures as well.

Several months later my sister was looking through my pictures and commented "ooh, nice toucan." Knowing which pictures she was looking at, I corrected her, "um, you mean vulture?" "No, toucan." I looked at the picture and what do you know, there in the tree next to the vulture is a toucan!

A while later I was discussing something with SF on Whatsapp and mentioned the toucan:

Me: BTW I assume you got pics of that toucan at Ancon?

Something Fishy: toucan?
Me: lol look a little closer at your pics of that vulture on the way down the hill
SF: Can't figure out if you're trolling me or not
Me: <posts picture>
SF (5 minutes later): NOOOOOOOOOOOO

This is the picture I got:



And this is the picture poor SF got:



[Something Fishy] Boy was I mad! How dare he get that picture and all I got was a horrible branch?! But no worries: I settled the score in the end, and even came up on top. My roadrunner picture > his toucan picture. So there!

(Poor CITH though, he got gypped twice: he had gone down Ancon Hill a few minutes before us and didn't even get half a toucan, and then missed the roadrunner in New Mexico too.)

It didn't take long to get to the bottom, and a few minutes later we met our driver in the parking lot and were on the way to the restaurant. After whYME's positive experience earlier in the week at Pita Plus, we decided to play it safe and head there now.

We were famished at this point, not having eaten properly all day. In fact, this was going to be our first proper meal in a week - we had been living on tuna and junk food in Cuba. We promptly ordered a mountain of food and set to devouring them.

It's possible that it was just the effect of not having had a real meal all week, but that burger was the best I had in my entire life. The sides were incredible as well - fries, onion rings, kibbeh, chicken nuggets, and a bunch of other random things. The food was so good that when I passed through Panama again last month, I made it a point to book a long enough layover to return here.

(The guy in the green shirt is our driver, who we invited to dinner.)







Stuffed to capacity, we made our way back to the airport, had a great shower in the lounge ([whYME]: when Something Fishy says he had "a great shower" he means to say "this lounge has the the best showers ever." - Or at least that's what he posted on whatsapp at the time . Personally I think his perspective was slightly skewed by what we were dealing with over the past week.), and took off into the night headed for good old New York City.

----

The end.


---

[whYME] Not so fast.

As stated earlier, my flight was not until the next morning. I went to the airport with the guys hoping to convince Copa to put me on that flight instead of the morning one, but alas, no dice. I now had to find a hotel for the night.

Although PTY airport has free wifi, it was acting up at this point and I was having trouble connecting. Fortunately, PTY has a landside lounge epically called the Tocumen Royal Saloon. I was able to get in with Priority Pass, and sat there figuring out my hotel in a comfortable chair with a cold drink.

With a 7:40am flight, I clearly wanted to stay at an airport hotel. I settled on the Riande Aeropuerto, booked a room, and caught the shuttle to the hotel. I got to my room and had a great shower. And let me tell you, this hotel has the best showers ever . I then headed to the bar to take advantage of the free drink coupon they gave me at checkin. Back in my room I ate a burger I had gotten at Pita Plus, and then for the first time in a week, had the tremendous pleasure of lying down in a comfortable bed with proper AC and drifted off to a few hours of sleep.

In the morning the hotel had quite an impressive breakfast spread which of course was of no help to me, but I did take a banana and granola bar and headed back to the airport. After all of Something Fishy's ranting and raving about the Copa club shower I had to try it out myself. I had a great shower in the lounge and took off into the day headed for good old New York City.

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The end.


[Something Fishy] ...until the next trip.
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