by Daniel Beran
After an easy flight across the Atlantic I landed in Panama, the southernmost country of Central America, to meet up with Dingo and Fudgie for what was supposed to be a surprise visit (at least for Debs!).
Dean kindly greeted me at one of the 500 McDonald’s along the way from the airport…yes, I was “astonished”, maybe slightly disappointed, to see that the great healthy US way of living and standard had also made its way to Central America…didn’t know Ronald was one of the biggest conquistadors out there…
Speaking of history….Panama has an immense past dating back to the early 1500s….unfortunately Panama doesn’t have many traits, colonial relics, etc. from its vast history. Numerous conquistadors invaded and more so destroyed the beauty of Panama, be it the Spaniards, Dutch or even English.
More recently, in the late 1980s, the US had also attacked Panama in order to safeguard lives of US citizens but more so to defend democracy, human rights, drug trafficking and most importantly to secure the functioning of the Panama canal. The attack was also to re-establish a democracy and have Manual Noriega, the military governor and dictator, captured.
Since 2009, supermarket magnate Ricardo Martinelli took power and since then has helped support one of the strongest economies of the Americas – in 2010 ranked second most competitive economy in Latin America.
Enough history for now…back to our visit…
After surprising Deborah we all headed to “our host’s” house (CouchSurfing lingo; Dean can help explain if needed), who were a very nice local family. Three generations under one roof, that sure was an interesting experience! Luckily the travelers’ Spanish is super bueno to have some sort of conversation at table. Even though the “locals” like to practice their English as well! Hats off to our host Juan-Pabs! Great guy!
Was an amazing experience to finally live THE CouchSurfing world and be part of such a unique community! (again for references, history, etc. please contact Dean…but I am converted now and available to HOST in Geneva!)
Had a nice homemade dinner, heard a “few” fun stories from the world travelers and then headed out to watch a local Panamanian band play in the old town area of Casco Viejo! Great night, good music and Cerveza PANAMA, which is easily the best beer in Panama and possibly Latin America for that matter! Thanks Juan Pablo for your wonderful hospitality. In the morning we headed out to a viewpoint to check out the amazing and impressive “Miami” skyline of Panama City…no joke, it looked like Miami…locals even say that it is Miami…only more people speak English in Panama City! Didn’t expect it to be that
developed, that’s for sure…
After driving around with our host, we headed to the fish market for some delicious ceviche (fresh raw fish) and taste of local delicacies. Our tour then brought us to what is considered the “old/historic part” of Panama City, Casco Viejo, which has been a UNSESCO World Heritage site since 1997. Very nice colonial buildings, churches, etc., however, you could clearly notice that A LOT had been destroyed (never restored) over the years! What a pity…
The next highlight in Panama City was the Panama Canal! It almost goes without need of explaining, but for those history buffs it is a 77km ship canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the Caribbean Sea – and is as you can imagine a key conduit for international maritime trade. Here again you could notice the vast history of trade, engineering, strategic routes, landmarks, etc.
Back to a little history-telling…As the canal was originally serviced by rail not water…until the mid 1800s when a Manx-born engineer working for the US government brought forth the idea of the Canal that was greatly encouraged following the French success in building the Suez Canal. The French undertook serious works to establish the Panama Canal. Unfortunately the French rushed too quickly and didn’t undertake enough prior studies of geology, hydrology, etc. given Panama’s tropic weather, rainfall, etc.
In the early 1900s under Theodore Roosevelt, the USA decided to acquire all French materials, constructions, etc. It took the US and its engineers just over 10 years to establish the first, official Panama Canal which opened in 1914. The canal has since been one of the most important trade and economy developments in the world, even considered a Seventh Wonder of the Modern World – with over 80 million tons a year transiting in 1934 to over 300 million tons in 2009!
Given the revenue, size, extent of traffic and employees, the canal obviously represents a significant portion of Panama's GDP. It racks in around USD 7-9 million per day! The canal is currently being enlarged and the project will be finalized by 2014 which should allow more traffic as well as the passage of longer and wider ships.
All in all a unique and amazing visit of the docks, canal and the so-called “locks” of the canal! It was quite incredible to experience up close the beauties of trade, business, shipping, etc.
We then headed into town with our taxi driver who was as lost as a chicken with no head…we had to explain how to get back…Not that Debs was reassured, reassuring if I may!...but Dean and I finally got ourselves back to the city of Panama…were after a great day of Panama City visit we undertook some grocery shopping in the local “WalMart”…yes, again even the supermarkets were very US-centric and even stocked with the good old Borden cheese (Dean, don’t forget that pictures are not allowed in Panama supermarkets!)…Family friend Travis Borden was very proud to see that we had taken a picture of his family’s cheese product!
We then had a somewhat early night as we were heading out to San Blas Islands early the next morning…
San Blas Islands
A driver picked us up around 7am the next morning for a good 6-hour road trip through the amazing rainforests, mountains and small roads across to the Caribbean coast to discover one of the 365 islands of the archipelago of San Blas, which are quite possibly some of the most beautiful islands in the world. Check out the photos on the travelers’’ website!
We were met at the long tail boat terminal (lol) by Kuna tribe representatives (not sure how you say “mafia individuals”!) with whom we were embarking on for a two hour boat journey. The little speedboat circumnavigated around so many islands we didn’t know where we were headed…they would say “mas, mas”…and finally after a few pit stops to pick up necessities, food, petrol, 5 Brazilians and hand out each and everyone’s cut along the way, we arrived at our island!...We arrived at an island paradise destination…a 50m x 50m (probably even smaller) island….inhabited…on which we camped out for 3 days…
The local Kuna tribe cooked for us (lobster, fresh fish, etc.) kept us warm and safe when the torrential rains kicked in and even shared the relaxation of doing NOTHING! Definitely a needed break, at least for some!
So we enjoyed discovering and adventuring around a couple of the 365 islands at our disposal…
Dean and I even got out our Boy Scout skills and made great fires on the beach each evening…around which we caught up on fun stories, great adventure story telling by the two travelers and all-in-all disconnecting from the outside world! A definite must if you have never been. Could only dream of being back there now! It was a very rudimentary experience and great getaway with the local “mafia”…great business for the Kuna tribes…given their ownership of the islands and the “independence” they have from any government regulation – own “toll”/border, a sophisticated system of car, boat drivers, cooks, dollar counting, etc. The MOST important skill the Kunas need to know is how to count money!!!
After a 3 day getaway on remote islands, we decided to head back to Panama City and freshen up at our couchsurfing family’s house (again, see how couchsurfing can be helpful! They even host you for a shower after a 3 day adventure island experience) before heading out to the next destination called David!
After a good 6 hour bus ride we arrived in the capital of the Chiriqui Province, David…we quickly found a hotel right next to the bus station which was perfect considering David was no more than a stopover en route to Boquete, the coffee capital of Panama!
The following morning we decided to discover by foot the streets of David. Unfortunately, not much was to be discovered and visited in this western city of Panama. We were definitely the only tourists among the 80,000 people, so it was a nice change from back home! Nonetheless a little substance was missing to this place…
By mid morning we were on the bus to Boquete, which was only just over one hour away (so it was disappointing that we had missed the last bus the night before!).
After a brief bus ride north from David…we arrived in Boquete, small town on the Caldera River…thus home to amazing waterfalls, rainforests, hot springs and even world known volcano Baru (which we didn’t experience much given the heavy rain season!)…there were however other ways of keeping ourselves busy given the extent of coffee plantations in that area! This region is probably most famously known for producing some of the best coffee in the world!
Upon arrival we walked around and again had the hostel inspection process to attend to …really think they should write a book of all their experiences and travels…share their stories and all!
Back to the story…
So, we finally found a nice little hostel…fully equipped for the 55 Skype sessions a day as well as a kitchen to cook the real local way! Yes, Dean and Debs also know how to cook Latin American food!
We hung out and looked at what we could do since the weather was “unfortunately” not appropriate for walking, hiking and discovering the wilderness of this densely-foreign populated location…with US retirees going to enjoy the comfortable climate, clean air, tranquility and “cheapness” of rural Panama!...the local joke going around is some tourists asking if they are in “Se Vende” town given all the signs around the place on the properties for sale!
Well, back to THE coffee experience in Boquete, through an amazing visit of the Ruiz family plantation. A family tradition since 1920, we were all delighted to discover the ins and outs of coffee…through a 5 hour visit – from coffee plantation and all the stories with it, to factory, to tasting…The tour began in the “trees” with a thorough overview on plantation, growing, etc. as well as the very sad stories of foreigners buying properties and constructing/building gated communities on former coffee plantations…However the tour guide Carlos continued his exceptional lecture and explanations around the coffee making process (for all “X” steps of the process please refer to Dean Morrison for detailed theory/practice…). Funny stories from Carlos also included his explanation of the famous USofA coffee he calls “No es Café”, aka Nescafe made by all the “rests” of coffee beans, branches, etc…good to know! You would never drink instant coffee again after taking such a tour!
Definitely the BEST tour I’ve been on in my museum, exhibition, sight-seeing, etc. career! A MUST if you ever head that way…
So after two days in the RAINforest, we decided a little more beach would be appropriate at this point in time…especially with the chance of rain given the season! But well worth a shot…so we headed back to David (had to head back that way as it was the central connection terminal for the region) to the take a bus to Bocas Del Toro (which means Mouths of the Bull)…where we weren’t sure which Island to hang upon…but Bastimentos seem to be the ideal spot?!...or so we thought!
Bastimentos - Bocas Del Toro
Our bus led us to a port town called Almirante where we waited for a “speed” boat to lead us to Bocas Del Toro to then take a smaller boat to Bastimentos…a relaxed, tranquil getaway…or again…so we thought!
Bocas del Toro, a province of about 125,000 people consists of mainland as well as nine main islands…including Bastimentos…which we decided to set sail to!
…Upon arrival at port…we had clearly gone from the Panama Coast to Caribbean Islands! It was incredible! A mix of Martinique, La Reunion, Jamaica, etc. Amazing change of decor…
We had checked a couple of hostels prior adventure, but the travelers rather discover them in person! You know Deborah…or is it maybe Dean?? We decided to stay at a hostel called Beverly’s Hill (not to be confused with Beverly Hills), which was owned and run by Simon, a cockney speaking, West Ham supporting (including matching hammer’s tatts on each elbow), Jewish guy! It was a “not only cigarette smoker” hostel if you get my drift…first time ever greeted by the owner who was smoking something other than cigarette tobacco, but hey it was Bastimentos which is very chilled out! A very interesting chap and for more stories, history, favorite football teams etc. please refer to Dean Morrison.
After being bluffed/blushed, I don’t know what…We decided to set adventure on this curious island…where worshiping beer and a very RELAXED lifestyle enthused over productivity and serving three poor tourists something to drink and eat after a long day’s travel! We finally found a beautiful spot to dine and enjoy the view on the water…with some Caribbean delicacies…definitely wasn’t the Central American/Spanish cooking but great change of scene and somewhere different!
We then put our Columbus hats on and set out on an adventure to the opposite end of Bastimentos which was amazing…They scenery was incredible, the rain forest mix with beach was definitely flabbergasting!... we were however told to watch out for pickpockets!...so always had an eye out for “something”!...but nothing much on the horizon luckily! We made it safely in both directions!...Optimal security (unlike Costa Rica…see Ali “Security” Auber’s account of safety in next blog…)!
All in all we simply relaxed and chilled out on the beach as well as adventured into the main island of Bocas Del Toro and decided to have a pizza challenge as we felt like “Western” food…so checked out 2 different places and were astonishingly impressed by quality!...not Italy either! We also enjoyed a few hours in one of the casinos playing roulette! Funny stuff and great memories. We were also impressed by the development of such an area…there’s an airport with planes flying right over your head by the water?! Quite freaky…felt almost like a “little” Mallorca (less developed) but nonetheless very striking, didn’t expect it at all for an area of about120,000 people!...but most of it was luckily protected in areas…so hopefully not too much tourism…well probably too late!
All in all, a great way to end our stay in Panama before heading over to Costa Rica…where I believe another guest blogger, Ali Auber, will give her impressions of the Costa Rican adventure!
It was a pleasure to be able to join my sis and beau frère out in Central America…too bad couldn’t make it to Colombia and not have to write the blog since Jon did an exceptional writing piece of art on that country!
Take it easy and hope you enjoyed my scribble…