PortoBELLO

Our weekend adventure began bright and early with a 6:30 am boat to Gamboa. Grace had only communicated with the dive company via Whatsapp, so as the hours ticked by, we got progressively more worried that they weren’t coming and our dreams would be crushed. Just as I had given up all hope, Tonia pulled up in a white pickup, hours late, but ready to take us diving in Portobelo. Grace and I got in the car and promptly fell asleep, really opening up our trust in Tonia and vulnerability for kidnapping.

Octopus Gardens. We saw neither an octopus nor a garden.
An hour and a half later, we arrived at the Octopus Gardens, a small hotel/dive outpost right over the water. Portobelo is on the Caribbean coast and has some of the most famous dive sights in Panamanian waters. Without giving us much of a chance to get settled, we found ourselves being fit for dive gear and tossed into a boat by Rafael, our dive guide. The boat took us away from the mouth of the river to a clearer section of ocean by a small island. I was the first in the water, after plopping backwards off the side of the boat. Almost immediately, I thought I was having an allergic reaction to my wetsuit on contact with the water. Instead, I discovered that I must have jumped right onto a pile of jellyfish and had gotten stung on the backs of both knees. Since peeing through a wetsuit onto my leg wasn’t an option, we proceeded forth and did our first dive.
The reef was gorgeous. We saw giant lobsters, tons of colorful coral, and tropical reef fish. And as has been the case with the last fourteen dives Grace and I have done, we got mocked for holding hands under the water the entire time.
I’m discovering I’m slightly prone to seasickness and have been unsuccessful at boat diving without throwing up between dives. I was trying to find a way to discretely throw up, when Rafael caught me and just told me to get in the water and make sure to face the direction of Grace and not him. We kept going and our second dive was really fun. We descended and immediately found a sunken C45 twin engine airplane that the U.S. Army sank four years ago for divers. The plane was completely covered in coral, but still maintained a general plane shape. Even after we were out of our wetsuits and on stable ground, Grace refused to pee on my leg.
We spent the evening in the porch hammock, drinking strange cocktails that resulted from the hotel bar being out of every normal alcoholic drink ingredient and thus improvising. We were invited to a small family’s birthday celebration, but had to discretely dispose of the cake that tasted like dried grass. The next morning, we snorkeled on the reef in front of our hotel. 
Grace.
We took the bus to Portobelo. Panamanian buses are not normal. Called Red Devils, they’re old school buses, rumored to have been rejected by the U.S. for failing safety standards, and are decked out in purple boas, brightly colored tagging, speakers, disco balls, mirrors, you name it. The drivers careen around corners, barrel down streets, and don’t pay attention to stop signs or lane lines. 
Our Red Devil.
 Portobelo isn’t my most favorite of places. While the “city” has an incredible history, it’s pretty impoverished and unsanitary. You walk down the street and will see an average of twenty mangy dogs pooping on the ground. Portobelo used to be the busiest port in Central America: an old, crumbling building housed the gold “collected” in the Americas before it was sent back to the king of Spain. Since it held such a treasure trove, much of its most famous history is that of pirates. Three well-sized forts guarded the city from pirate attacks, and the forts are easily the most interesting and impressive remains the city has to offer. Rusted cannons lay scattered near the walls, that are all made of rocks and giant chunks of coral. The pirate history basically sounds like Pirates of the Caribbean. We also walked past a steep, green cliff that we later discovered is the remains of a castle that is now all but forgotten and covered in vines and rainforest. 
Grace.

Grace, Grace, Grace.
The other fort.

Portobelo

We chose our lunch restaurant based on distance from pooping dogs and percentage of shade. We both ordered the same shrimp meal, but I think I enjoyed mine more as Grace’s had multiple ants added for extra protein. Another ride on a Red Devil brought us back to the Octopus Gardens. This time, we got to watch the music video for “Wiggle” with thirty grandmas coming home from church.  
Upon learning we needed to settle our bill with cash only, we had hunted the few dirty streets of Portobelo for an ATM, and were only told that there “might be one” but it probably wasn’t working. Needless to say, everything worked out and we ended with one euro, three pennies, and a few Croatian coins in our wallets.

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