Panama – It Ain’t Just a Canal
“You’re going to Panama? Have fun on the ship.” That’s what I heard over and over again from various friends when I said I was planning a trip to Panama with my friend and business partner Shari Upbin who lives in Florida. She’d never been on a trip like this. She was more of a big city, 5 star hotel gal, but willing to take the plunge. When I said I was traveling to rainforests, cloud forests, mountain and seaside towns, and visiting different cultures and, yes, the Panama Canal, eyes widened, ears perked up. Some said “is it safe?”
The bottom line is that some people like to live on a ship doing day tours, and others (me) prefer moving around from place to place - - by puddle jumpers (small planes), water taxis and car, trekking in rainforests looking for birds and animals and learning about the local Indian tribes.
Panama is a fast growing country, building is going on everywhere. It needs to catch up with the multi-national tourists visiting from the States, Canada, Europe, China, Japan and more - - that is, when it comes to services and expectations. Although many Panamanians speak English, those in servile positions usually do not, i.e. workers in restaurants, shops, food stores, hotel housekeepers, transportation employees speak little to no English. Of course, as a New Yorker, I found myself more impatient perhaps than most. I had been warned by Scott, the young gentleman who runs Panama Travel Consultants, and planned our trip so attentively, that the name of the game in Panama is - - PATIENCE!
Be that as it may, and though it sometimes can cause some difficulties and frustration, there is so much to see and do that I quickly learned that going with the flow, wherever and whenever, usually works best.
From the air, Panama City, (6 hrs. from the New York region and you can fly the local airline, Copa – extremely pleasant) looks like a mini New York; the skyline filled with tall buildings, and some very unique architectural designs. Picked up by the local tour operator (Gamboa Tours), it was 20 minutes to downtown Panama City passing through a beautiful waterfront resort area (Amador Causeway), a strip right in the middle of the ocean, to a new small hotel in the heart of the City. There are large hotel-casinos throughout and an area reserved strictly for discothèques to keep the noise in one section of the City. The vibrant, bustling and effervescent cosmopolitan look of the City was evident everywhere. Frank Gehry has designed a post modern bio-museum that should be ready within the next 6 months; his first foray into Latin America.
Want a taxi - - don’t necessarily ask the driver what he’ll charge you as he then realizes you’re a newbie and not savvy. Just get in and pay him $2 for most trips and sometimes a bit more depending on a longer ride. That same $2 ride, when we asked, was quoted as $15.
While waiting for our room to be ready, we walked to a nearby restaurant that served local fare (Manolos), well priced, nicely prepared food, indoor and outdoor dining. One of the things tourists like about Panama is that the City has a treated water system so drinking tap water, brushing your teeth, having ice cubes in your drinks and eating salads are things one doesn’t have to think about. Easy!
A tour (car and walking) around the City the next morning, with a guide, proved valuable to see highlights, giving a good orientation. Especially noteworthy is the attention being paid to Casco Antiguo (the oldest section in this modern City, founded in 1673). The slum area is being gentrified and its residents relocated; the building facades are being fixed but will remain, while the interiors are completely gutted, rebuilt and modernized; there’s a feeling reminiscent of New Orleans, many buildings with little wrought iron balconies. There’s an attractive new Plaza, newly paved streets, new restaurants and shops. There’s a monument to the French entrepreneurs who conceptualized and began the construction of the Panama Canal; an art museum (we saw a Gauguin exhibit), formerly known as Las Bovedas, once used for storing gold; a gold plated alter (a gift from Pope Paul) at San Jose Church, the National Theatre, the Presidential Palace, more churches, monuments and a waterfront. When completed, in a year of two, this will prove to be a major tourist area including hotels.
Following this, we visited the Miraflores Locks Visitor’s Center at the Panama Canal to watch a ship passing thru from a birds-eye viewing point to see the 8th wonder of the world. Inside the Center is a museum exhibit filled with the history of the Panama Canal in photos and information, as well as a 3-D movie. Great way to learn about the operation of the Canal and witness the magnificence of this wonder that is responsible for 5% of all commerce between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. More on this later.
That evening we enjoyed another recommended local Panamanian restaurant, El Trapiche, serving lots of fresh fish and seafood, especially Corvina (sea bass) – deliciously prepared. Basically, one can enjoy a really good meal, with vegetables, potato, salad and a glass of wine or local beer for around $12-15, sometimes the propina (tip) even included!
The next day we were off to experience one of the unique Indian cultures, an adventure I’d been looking forward to. An early morning flight from Albrook Domestic Airport brought us to the San Blas Islands, an archipelago of approximately 400 islands off the Caribbean coast, 49 of them run by the Kuna Yali Indian Tribe, whose numbers are around 69,000. Their villages can be found on some of the islands where they live in a close knit society. The women are easily recognizable by the colorful handmade beads running up their arms and legs and the Mola, hand stitched fabric needlework designs, used to make their blouses that they wear with pareos. These, along with beads, are for sale everywhere.
We were picked up by boat by our guide Daniel, a Kuna, who is studying marketing and wants to be a tour guide. He proved to be extremely open and knowledgeable for a 19 year old, speaking very good English. About 30 minutes later, we arrived on one of the islands where 10 thatched roofed huts on stilts, in the water, lined the waterfront. Walking a narrow wooden deck, we were led to our cabin that contained 2 beds covered with mosquito netting, a small open top bathroom with sink and shower, an outdoor veranda with hammocks over the water, a fan and a light-bulb hanging from the center of the ceiling. It was what we New Yorkers would call a little primitive and roughing it.
Electricity is not always available (it comes on around 5 p.m. and remains on till around 2 a.m.) and the only problem - - no light switch to turn it off, so we slept (or tried to) with this one light bulb shining down on us till it went off. Meals were at a small structure nearby where we were served breakfast, lunch, dinner. Amazingly, instead of fresh coffee, the only thing available was Nescafe from a jar and powdered milk. Oh well! The island had small beach areas available for swimming or snorkeling.
Touring a couple of islands, including a visit to a Kuna community, proved exceedingly educational. They had a rather tormented history. In 1925, the Panamanian police tried to eradicate them all. They had originally emigrated from Columbia. Banding together they presented a united front to the Panamanians in power at the time, stood strong, and were given a home on the archipelago (San Blas Islands) where they have been living ever since. An interesting side story: when we arrived we were ushered to a different island other than the one on which we were supposed to overnight. Why? Because the elders of the group found there were too many problems going on within the community and imposed a spiritual healing ritual of a two-week silence on the Kuna clan. They were to keep silent, children were severely dealt with if they cried, and all animals were shipped to another island. A time for reflection.
In addition, the Kuna have a kind of barter system they live by with the Columbians. Kuna men collect coconuts which are readily available on their islands and trade or receive monies (20 cents a coconut) used to buy what they want/need from “Columbian Mall Ships” that come into their ports with anything/everything available for barter/purchase. This truly is a slice of life out of National Geographic!
Back to Panama City by small plane the next day, we over-nighted at our hotel and left the following morning for Boquette, arriving at a small airport in David, where a driver was waiting to take us to our hotel. Boquette is in the mountains in the province of Chiriqui (named for the local group of Indians); the air is crisp and clean and the temperature drops a bit. Not much. We’d already gotten used to 90 degree days . This town, as Panama City, is a destination for retirees and expats who come from the States, Canada and Europe to live the good life for a fraction of what it would cost here. Our hotel was the beautiful La Casa del Risco, a small boutique hotel in the middle of a private gated community. This was an outstanding accommodation in beautiful surroundings on a mountaintop¸ spectacular views, good food, better than average services and afforded me the opportunity to speak to some of the expats who live in the community and use the services of the hotel (restaurants, bar, swimming pool, Jacuzzi). I learned much about life in Boquette from the now transplanted “locals.” The next morning we were picked up by our driver and transported into town (10-15 minutes) to meet Felix, our guide, for our trek in the cloud forest Vulcan Baru National Park. This proved to be quite an experience trekking up and up, hoping to spot the Resplendent Quetzal (a beautiful blue iridescent feathered bird with long tail) and, lo and behold, we actually saw three! We heard the Howler monkeys, but didn’t see them. We crossed streams walking over thin wooden bridges with shaky rails (or was it us shaking)? We rode in the back of an old pickup painted in jungle motif and labeled “Boquette Mountain Safari.”
On the way back from the morning hike, we stopped in town for lunch, Felix having recommended Big Daddy’s Grille. Delicious local cuisine, the place is owned by a couple from Greenwich, Ct. who decided they wanted a different life. They never ran a restaurant before but for the past 5 years have been doing a great job as the place was filled to the rafters.
We had time on our own in town to hunt thru the local shops and help some young men from Peru earn some money by buying a couple of pieces of jewelry they were making on the street. We spent Valentine’s Day evening toasting our good fortune in having the opportunity to travel in Panama, while enjoying a delicious dinner sitting on the Hotel veranda, listening to live local music.
The following day proved to be yet another highlight, visiting the oldest coffee farm in Panama, Café Ruiz, now in its third generation producing some of the world’s award –winning coffee. All coffee farms in Boquette are ecologically friendly. Many local Indian tribes’ people work on the farms. Our guide, Carlos, has worked there for many years and is now providing the history of coffee growing. We witnessed and learned about the process from seed to stomach, participating in some of the steps. Carlos was especially entertaining and if one day decides he wants another career, could easily turn comic overnight. The best bean? Arabica. The finest coffee - Arabica Geisha (origin-Ethopia), now grown in Boquette, that sells for $40 a cup in Japan, the beans available in 1 lb. bags at $170. It has something to do with the cat poop used to grow the beans! Did you know it takes 5 years for a coffee tree to produce beans?
One of the downsides about the expanding growth going on in Boquette is the fact that developers are coming in and offering the locals huge amounts of money for their land and for some of the coffee farms in order to build retirement communities. Many locals are selling, having never seen so much money. Change! The good and the bad – my view!
Leaving Boquette, we traveled by car down from the mountains to the seaside (about 3 ½ hrs.), stopped for a sloth crossing the road, and waited at the dock for a local water taxi at the Isle of Colon to Bocas del Toro, to our hotel. It’s all a little on the honky tonk side, but we had a room right on the beach, beautiful pool, restaurant/bar in the water and marina where the next day we explored some of the islands by boat; Bastimentos National Marine Park (conserves the coastal ecosystems); mangroves and lovely white sandy beaches for swimming, areas for snorkeling, fishing and lots of other water sports. Dolphins, monkeys, birds are plentiful. We had dinner at the most crowded restaurant in town, El Pecado, good food and people watching. The town has a Jamaican feeling with many Rastafarians and locals speak a mixture of Patois, French, Spanish.
Next day, we flew back to Panama City (a flight I almost missed as the tour operator had spelled my name incorrectly – TUREL – and I wasn’t in the computer – a heart skip-a-beat moment); we were driven straight to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort on the Chagres River located within the 55,000 acre Soberania National Park, our home for the next 3 nights. All rooms are large, with balconies overlooking the river. I was particularly looking forward to the Arial tram ride at the treetops of the rainforest. Peaceful and serene, the beauty of the rainforest was brought to life with many facts conveyed by Juan, our young guide, as we ascended the 127 feet. You can see sloths, birds and lush tropical trees and plants. From the 90 foot tower to which we arrived, we were able to view the entire surrounding areas including the Embera Indian village. This tribe is responsible for weaving beautiful baskets, handbags and making beaded jewelry, and have their own style of specific cultural dress. A boat ride on the Chagres River revealed Howler and White-faced Monkeys and many birds. Relaxing at the giant pool and water bar after morning tours was delightful. It was hot, but we found shade and cooled off in the pool.
Gamboa Resort features 3 restaurants, the highlight being the one open for lunch only at the Marina, the other 2, on premises, are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Different themed buffets are the main cuisine for lunch and dinner, although one can order off the menu.
Missing are night-time activities especially during the week. We were told there would be a movie shown over the weekend. Although there was a discothèque, it was not operating. Gamboa Resort has recently hired an American, fluent in Spanish, who is helping to train wait staff to better understand English in the dining rooms and to also create, market and spearhead ideas to enhance one’s stay at the resort. Special kudos to the Food & Beverage Mgr. Nicholas who has been well trained (college in the States along with restaurant/hotel experience) and was most helpful when needed, understanding the fine line required to please guests.
Our next morning’s activity found us at the marina where we boarded a 300 seat vessel for a ½ Day transit on the Panama Canal that also included lunch. As we cruised through, information flowed giving insight into the history and the workings of the Canal. The boat we were on, the Pacific Queen, pays a fee of $4000 for transit thru the canal, a small yacht $800. The highest amount paid to date was by a large ship filled with many containers paying upwards of $400,000, the average ship fee about $250,000. There are 52 million gallons of water used in this Gatun Lock each time the lock needs to fill bringing vessels up and down as required to reach sea level. There is a Canal Zone Governor so that if one is born here, they are considered an American Citizen. Know who fell into that category? John McCain. The Canal processes 5% of the world’s commerce; 14,000 ships pass thru the canal each year. Two new locks are in the process of being built that required breaking thru mountains at the Continental Divide. This is the only gap in the Divide. The experience: never-to-be forgotten.
TIPS: Do your own research, even if you have a travel agent with whom you are working. Ask questions especially if you’re not traveling with a group but on your own as we were. What sounds great may turn out just as described, or when translated to the local tour office in Panama, can sometimes have glitches that you would like to have worked out prior, if possible. Our travel consultant was like a mother hen; attentive, available, easy to work with but once it all left his hands, he and we were at the disposal of the local tour offices in the various areas in which we traveled. I must praise my travel partner, Shari, who rose to the occasion each and every time! Bottom line: this was a great trip, a real adventure, and a great lesson in PATIENCE! Will I return to Panama? YES!