July 31, 2016
The Pan-American Highway to Adventure
Sometimes you have to suck it up and take one for the team and take mom along on an adventure. And if it didn’t start out as an adventure, it will evolve into one, if your mom is anything like Indiana Gail. Checking out the Panama Canal was on my bucket list and apparently doing a little recon for a future retirement hideaway or more realistically, an affordable retirement option lured me into joining Nora on our trip to the Isthmus of Panama!
On day one we found out it rains every day in Panama, and not your usual Central American evening shower, when it rains- it really rains! As we drove through the country in the downpours, we saw pieces of bridges wash away, chunks of road disappear right before our eyes, and entire landscapes and roadways change. We were fortunate enough to keep our barely functioning rented Kia on the road and enjoy the scenery albeit wet scenery.
We did have a bit of a white-knuckle drive through the jungle as we made the 5 and a half hour round trip drive from Panama City to David, but it was worth the hassle but then I wasn’t driving. The scenery was lovely and what better way to truly experience a country and learn about the local life?
You have to venture outside the main towns and take risks.
The birds and wildlife seemed content and well fed but still sort of authentic wild, if that makes sense. I have to admit that I liked seeing the hearty chickens pecking their way through big and small neighborhoods alike and never once did I see one tucked under an arm on the bus!
One thing I will say about Panama is they have their own little legal quirks. I wasn’t sure if we were getting shook down by pros or just being screened at a traffic checkpoint that appeared out of absolutely nowhere on the road from David to Boquete. These policemen were very, very concerned that my rented Kia showed proof of insurance on the rental paperwork, but not insurance for the specific Kia we rented.
We were held off to the side of the checkpoint lineup for a good 30 minutes in the very hot tropical sun and were briefed on just how “dangerous” it was that we were here in Panama breaking the law by renting a Kia, that drove like a tuna fish can with a rudder, without the proper insurance documentation.
After several translation attempts (showing them Nora’s insurance from the US), it was clear that we were in serious trouble and they either wanted money or didn’t want us on the road. Possibly both? Whatever the case, I wasn’t going to wait around to find out. I decided to talk baseball to the uniformed gentleman standing outside my car door. Although I might only know 50 words in Spanish, I can stretch those words into 5,000 just by adding what I think might be the right endings and emphasis when pronouncing.
While I am not sure exactly what went down at the blockade, apparently my love for Panama’s own Manny Sanguillen, former Pittsburgh Pirate catcher and superstar of the 70’s, was all it took to turn our dire situation into a cheery welcome to the region. You gotta love baseball!
So smiling policemen waved us on to our next destination – and on we went to Bouquete and we were not disappointed!
First we had a stop in town for a market experience and lunch. We were able to pick up an assortment of soaps, spices, tea, coffee, and other local treasures from the Ngöbe tribe and other health vendors. We had a great time chatting with locals before we continued on to our sustainable coffee farm tour at the Cafés De La Luna.
Let me tell you the most important lesson learned from spending a day at the coffee plantation – treat people right! If Starbucks is paying local coffee pickers $7 – $8 a day and charge almost the same for a single cup of coffee, someone is obviously pocketing a lot more than they should. Just pay the hard working laborers a few bucks a day more to equate a living wage. Include some amenities like water, sewage and power and you will enrich lives! We were delighted to spend a memorable afternoon exploring life on a coffee farm but just as thrilled with the instructor whose mantra we have heartily embraced; “Do things for the right reasons and good will follow”.
After our stay at Las Olas in David where we really enjoyed the solitude of having the resort to ourselves and exploring the coast on the beautiful black sand beach, we had to make the long treacherous drive back to Panama City for our flight back to gringo central. The rain let up enough for us to stop in one of the little towns on our way and we seized the opportunity to check out local life. You can tell a great deal about people by their stores and local set ups. We stopped to buy some yucca chips and maybe some plantain chips to munch on when I found a rack of machetes. None of them were more than $4 US and there were a mess of them! They were all sharpened and ready to use – now I knew I was in the Panamanian countryside!
I left this little country store without a machete, but was quite impressed with the quantity and quality of the machetes tucked away there. I did buy some local juice but spent the bulk of my time just browsing the local wares and foods. There were some interesting and obviously local products, as there were fruits and flavors I had never heard of, but sadly there were also a lot of the larger US corporation products-sodas and candies. It was shocking to see how inexpensive it was for a coke in Panama, maybe 25c compared to $1.25 you’d pay in the US. Just goes to show how much they make and how easily they can do it!
Overall, Boquete was a lovely adventure and would have loved to see more of Panama, but I was also anxious to get back to Panama City. We enjoyed our stay at Las Olas and I was even ready to buy some acreage right away after swapping survival property stories with a Canadian family also doing some land shopping.
What To Do: Depending on your interests, there’s great diving everywhere and maybe you’ll be lucky enough to jump in with the whale sharks! We certainly enjoyed hiking, jungles, rainforests, historic pirate sites and wrecks, cacao farms, and coffee; Cafés De La Luna is a must-visit if you’re in Boquete. While you’re there, try to make it to the Tuesday market, if your travel arrangements permit, and stock up on all your local beach and surf essentials. We were warned to avoid going further south than Panama City, as that’s where the drug traffic tends to take over.
Where to Stay: Las Olas Beach Resort, while both beautiful and completely secluded, was a little difficult to get to (standard rooms ranging from $65-95 per night). Friends and other travelers have recommended Bocas del Toro and venturing out to the Pearl Islands, but the province of Chiriqui (wherein lies Boquete) was a delightful trip.
Notable Layovers: Panama was an easy choice from Florida being a non-flight, but Panama City is a hub for Copa Airlines – they partner with United thus making it a great stop over on your way to anywhere else in Central or South America.