I realize the title and theme of this blog is to inform everyone about my "Aventuras en Colombia" but did you know that once upon a time, a man named Simón Bolívar created a great big country called Gran Colombia which included the modern day nations of Bolívia, Ecuador, Perú, Colombia, Venezuela, and Panamá? So technically visiting and discussing here the country that connects South America to the rest of the Americas is staying within the parameters of the title.
For Semana Santa (Holy Week)/Spring Break three good friends from Minnesota met me in Panamá for a week-long adventure of traversing the country and testing my translating ability. While planning, several precedents were set: I wanted to see as much of the country as I could in a week without driving too much while still staying in a few places at least two nights and incorporating the ultimate travel wishes of my companions. Maggie wanted to fulfill her dream of zip-lining through a rainforest. Kim wanted some sun and beach time. Eric wanted to try some Panamanian food "Anthony Bourdain-style" (Travel Channel food guy). Let's see what we can do...
I was able to meet my friends at their gate at the airport outside of Panama City since my short flight from Cali got in before theirs did. We went through customs, got luggage, and proceeded to the car rental where we were introduced to our chariot for the week, a 2009 Toyota Prado. Next challenge? How about navigating the mess of signless streets and dead-ending highways called Ciudad Panamá. I've never driven in Cali but I must have picked up a little aggressiveness via passenger osmosis from careening around in so many Caleño taxis. With several maps and three navigators we only got "lost" four or five times before finding the one road out of the city going west over the Puente de las Americas (Bridge of the Americas). We all breathed a sigh of relief knowing the trip could now officially begin! I breathed a second sigh knowing that that moment would be the longest amount of time before I would have to tackle Panama City traffic and roads again.
The entire week was to be spent in four different locations, all along the Pacific coast of the country. We were to drive through six of the nine Panamanian provinces and visit places in five of them. Of the remaining three, two are on the Caribbean coast and the other is mostly jungle, borders Colombia, and is mostly indigenous communities and some Colombian para-military groups in hiding.
The first stop was to the sleepy ocean town of Santa Clara and, more importantly, the Playa Santa Clara. Long stretches of white sand beaches and steady waves kept us company under some thatch huts in front of our lodging at Restaurante y Cabañas de Veraneras. I ate a lot of seafood on this trip but the best may have been the corvina (white fish) the first night; it was melt in your mouth fantastic.
One afternoon we headed north into the mountains to the small town of El Valle. From a point near here it is possible, on a clear day, to see both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. On a very clear day, however. In the cloud forest 3KM outside of town is a breath-taking hike and canopying adventure. Our guide, Andriano, showed us lost of different insects and flowers on the hike up to the first zip-line, but the coolest thing we saw was a sloth! (In Spanish a sloth is called a "perezosa" which literally means "lazy." I laughed when Adriano told us this; I use this word plenty at Parent/Teacher Conferences.) Of the four canopy lines, the third was the most impressive. It started out so steep that one had to be lowered by another rope attached to your belt or too much speed would be picked up. This one passed in front of an incredible waterfall.
Maggie had a blast. Dream fulfilled: Check!
This is the one province we never did anything in, save for stopping for gas, a bathroom break, and a snack at a roadside super-mercado. Oh, and getting pulled over and bribing a police officer.
First off, Veraguas Province is much like driving through parts of heavily wooded Texas with a lot of hills; there is a lot of vegetation, its very dry and not necessarily lush, but its not a desert either. The poor signage continued from Panama City, as well, and at times the speed limits would change suddenly from 100KM/HR to 60 KM/HR. It is not a good thing when the 60 KM/HR sign is missing/obscured/not seen right before a police officer with a radar gun on the other side of a hill. The policeman actually pulled me and a semi-truck over at the same time which impressed me.
After exiting the vehicle and going over to his car, the conversation went like this:
(Somehow all in Spanish)
Officer Panama: Look, you were going 92 in a 60.
Stetson: OK. I believe you.
OP: The fine is $50.00 You have to pay it before you will be allowed to leave the country.
S: OK. Can I pay it now?
OP: No, because I don't have any receipts. You can pay it at the airport, the border with Costa Rica, or at any [something] government office.
S: OK. Fine.
OP: I need to keep your license, though.
OP: You can get it back after you pay the fine.
S: So you will send it to me?
OP: What do you mean?
S: I live in Colombia but the address on the license is in the USA. Will you send it somewhere?
OP: No, you can pick it up in David. (largest city in Chiriqui Province - but not anywhere near where we were going)
S: Oh. So, it is necessary that we go to David?
OP: Where are you going?
S: Isla Boca Brava. And then back to Panama City.
OP: I'm from near Isla Boca Brava. It's beautiful.
OP: Look, if you pay the fine with me I'll file the report and write a receipt later. Then you can keep your license.
I guarantee there is no record of me getting pulled over in Panamá on file in any police office. However, the last year and eight months of learning Spanish suddenly all became worth it in that one moment. Also, 92 KM is not that fast. Most of you probably drive faster than that on your way to work.
The reason we got a 4WD vehicle was in order to get to our next destination, the Isla Boca Brava, an island just off the coast of a tiny town called Boca Chica. After turning off the Interamericana Hwy onto a sometimes paved road, we drove for about an hour south toward the Pacific and the Gulf of Chiriquí. Once there, we disembarked at the town dock, hired a water taxi to take us for a five minute ride across the way to the Isla Boca Brava, where one finds the Hotel y Restaurante Boca Brava. (You don't need a creative or unique name when you are literally the only establishment on the island.) The "hotel" doesn't take reservations and, in the chance there is no vacancy in the various rooms, the staff will put you up somewhere in a hammock; we got lodging.
After settling in, we headed for one of the beaches, Playa Piedrita, on the southern side of the island. After a 30 minute hike, we came to a beautiful rocky and secluded beach. It didn't stay secluded for long though, as we were greeted by a large troop of monkeys, some with tiny little babies clinging to their mothers' backs. They really paid us no mind as they traversed the branches of the trees from one side of the beach to the other, disappearing back into the forest. The next morning I went for a trail run and came across the troop again. Some of them were just waking up and one, that I couldn't quite locate, was howling very loudly as I got closer so I opted to turn around.
After breakfast we chartered a pontoon boat out to one of the further islands, Isla Bolaños, for a day of snorkeling, coral sand beaches, and sparkling waters. The snorkeling was interesting and I saw my first wild octopus, as well as some brilliantly colored fish and a neon-blue starfish. The beach was also filled with wildlife including thousands of hermit crabs and some sort of iguana-like lizard that may or may not have been hunting the crabs. We spent the afternoon floating in our private bay, reading on the beach, having lunch, and just enjoying the sun and the view of mainland Panamá off in the distance. On the way back to Isla Boca Brava our pontoon was joined by a school of dolphins who swam alongside and leaped into the air in front of our craft for about ten minutes.
Kim's pristine beach and glowing sun: Check.
Back at the lodge, we enjoyed another dinner of good food and drinks, as well as a liberal helping of aloe to pretty much everywhere. We talked with one of the managers of the establishment, a German guy, who told us the owner and his wife, also German, are trying to sell it as it is becoming "too commercial" and they feel guests are expecting too much - more than a rustic hotel and restaurant might be willing to offer, anyway. So, if you have $30 Million laying around, it's all yours! If not, and you are in the area, make this a part of your itinerary before someone else buys it and turns it into a great big luxury resort.
Los Santos Province
The turn-off of the Interamericana for Boca Chica was our westernmost point in the journey, especially now that a trip to David to reclaim my license was no longer necessary, so we jumped back on the highway and head east toward Panama City again. I was very careful this time in Veraguas Province and Eric, as my chief navigator, helped me look for the sometimes elusive speed limit signs.
When we got to the end of the province we headed south again, this time into the Azuero Peninsula to a town in Los Santos Province called, appropriately, Villa de los Santos. It is here that Panamá officially declared it's independence and the people of the entire peninsula are very proud people to be living in the birthplace of their country. There are many festivals throughout the year in the scattered towns throughout this region, including the Semana Santa festivities held in Villa de los Santos.
We found and checked into our hotel, hung out by the pool for awhile, and then headed into town for dinner and some people-watching. Dinner was had at a small tienda across from the main plaza near the church, were the night's service was being held. I love stumbling upon restaurants where there is no menu - just a plate that they serve. Eat it, or don't. It's like dinner at home as a kid. You don't like what Momma's cooking? Fine! Go hungry. This particular establishment served grilled chicken. You could get it by the quarter: 1/4 bird, 1/2 bird, or whole bird. All grilled and seasoned to perfection by the old lady with the scarf around her head and hips that could move a mountain who has probably been doing this her entire life.
Shortly after dinner two things happened: the stomach ache that was most likely a little amoebic friend in Maggie's intestine decided it didn't like the chicken and she needed to go back to the hotel, and the church service ended to allow the Wednesday night festivities to begin.
A year ago, after crawling out of the Amazon jungle, I happened upon a Semana Santa parade in the town of Leticía. I was excited about making this a two-year tradition. The procession in Villa de los Santos was a little different that the one I saw last year. First of all, this one was at night and there were no Stations of the Cross to visit along the parade route, just three bed-sized floats with flowers, lights, and statues depicting Christ and a couple saints being hoisted and carried through the streets. The crowd still moved as one and there was still a member of the church clergy on a megaphone telling the Easter story. This time however, it was nearly impossible to hear as the drone of the generators used to power the lights on the floats drowned out the voice of the speaker. I'm not Catholic, but it was a moving experience to watch and walk with this age-old tradition move through streets that have seen probably over 250 of these ceremonies.
The next day, Maggie's amoeba having calmed down, we again headed back to the Interamericana, leaving behind Los Santos Province and passing through Herrera Province. It is here that one of the first Panamanian towns, Parita, is found. Located just off the main route into the Azuero Peninsula, Parita is tiny grid of cobbled and gravel streets with modest brightly colored houses book-ended next to each other. In the town center there is a surprisingly large church with the bell tower positioned untraditionally over the entrance and not one of the front corners. The guidebook told us that this is the only church in Panamá, and much of Central America, to have such a feature. It also mentioned that church-goers do not linger near the entrance as they are still skeptical of it's structural integrity.
On the way back into Panamá Province, we stopped at a notorious roadside diner that many Panama City residents stop at on their way to their fincas or beach resorts. The establishment was a few steps above a shack or some temporary building one might find at a State Fair so it was funny to see BMW's and Lexus's parked in the gravel parking lot. But that also told us we would not be disappointed. The restaurant is known for it's bollos (cornbread-like rolls with different flavors like chili, cheese, chicken, coconut, etc.) and chicheme (drink made of milk, corn, and cinnamon). Well, when in Rome! I actually have had a version of the bollo back in Colombia, though I believe it is called something else, and while I wouldn't drink them all the time, the chicheme wasn't as gross as it's list of ingredients leads one to believe, just a little chunky.
Eric's roadside culinary attraction that Anthony Bourdain would love to visit? Check!
Putting off the inevitable, the dreaded return to the city of few driving rules and fewer signs finally came. Fortunately for us, it seems that the last part of Semana Santa, Panama City residents leave town so traffic was significantly reduced. This did not make it any easier to find out hotel; after making three loops around the same neighborhood, mostly because the location of the hotel was marked incorrectly in the guidebook by a block and was in the crack in both maps, we found the elusive Hotel Costa Azul - which was neither blue nor on the coast, but I digress.
We settled in, then headed out for a nice dinner at Palms restaurant for both Kim and Maggie's birthdays. The chef at Palms was incredible. She had managed to create some delicious and inventive meals that made you savor each bite. I had a plate with pork wrapped in bacon on top on a stack that included a tiny crepe, and apple slice, and a portabella mushroom. This was all topped with candied shredded carrots. At the end of the meal the chef came out to meet us and it turns out she is from Barranquilla, Colombia. Small world!
The next couple days were filled with more delicious food, including a fantastic sushi dinner (Maggie and Kim wanted to try sushi with plantains since I had talked about how much I loved getting that here in Cali) and a great Lebanese restaurant (which, incidentally was the only thing open on Good Friday).
On our last full day in Panama City, we ventured to an area called Casco Viejo, or the "old compound." This area was, essentially, the city's second try after the original settlement, Panamá Viejo, was destroyed by the infamous pirate Captain Morgan. Panamá Viejo was the first European settlement on the Pacific side of the Americas (north and south) so Casco Viejo is still one of the first. It reminded me a lot of Cartagena in terms of it's architecture and sea-side location; it has a very enchanted European feeling to it.
It is here that we encountered many vendors selling various souvenirs, including pieces of fabric called "molas" which are crafted by the Kuna people of the Kuna Yala Province along the Caribbean coast. The women selling the molas were dressed in traditional attire and seemed out of place in this old city setting. According to the guidebook, the Kuna do not like to have their picture taken, in their province anyway, so I respected that wish, but their skills with creating these pieces of layered fabric are incredible! Kim bought four small molas to frame for her nephew.
Last but not least, though a tad out of sequence, on the list of things to do when one visits Panamá, is to see the Canal. Before we returned our Prado, we drove the half hour north of the city to the Miraflores Locks, the only set of locks on the Pacific side. (There are two sets on the Caribbean, but this is the most accessible and tourist-friendly.) I've been to some internationally known landmarks and been disappointed, such as the Statue of Liberty and the Mona Lisa, but the Panama Canal does not make that list. It really is an engineering marvel. Every ship constructed today is designed with the dimensions of the Canal in mind. Some of the enormous ships that passed through the series of locks while we were there had literally inches to spare on each side as they passed slowly to the ocean. It takes about eight hours for a ship to get from one coast to the other and can cost upwards of $200,000 depending on the size of the vessel.
The most interesting thing I found about the Canal system was that, while a boat is in the Canal, if it is a huge ocean-liner, it has to have a Panamanian captain. For this reason, all of the large ships flew the Panamanian flag as they passed though, as the original captain has to temporarily give up command. We ate lunch on the terrace of the museum's restaurant and watched several ships of impressive size from all over the world exit toward the Pacific, saving countless hours of travel.
People were skeptical of the Canal's future success when the U.S. handed over complete control of it to the Panamanian government in 1999 but it has continued to run successfully and there is actually an expansion project underway due to be completed in 2014, which will increase the number of crossings and decrease the amount of water needed to move a ship through the locks.
All in all, I really liked Panamá and I loved traveling around with some good old friends and practicing my Spanish. If I have trouble finding a job as a teacher I might have to considered the travel agent/personal tour guide gig!
I kept inadvertently comparing everything to Colombia in my head and I have to say that by the end of the trip, I really missed it. Panamá is nice...but it's no Colombia. I know they used to be the same country, but I think it is okay that they gave this part up; Colombia still has all the good stuff!