Central America Part 1 - Panama

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September 20th 2010
Published: September 20th 2010
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Panama CanalPanama CanalPanama Canal

The big cargo ship just having cleared the first of three locks.
So August 30th (day 347 on the road) and the mad dash for home begins. To be fair we still have 108 days before our flight from Cape Town to Heathrow which makes it sound like we have a lot of time left. However I say mad dash because our flight to South Africa is booked for Nov 12th from JFK in New York giving us 74 days to get from Panama city to JFK (which is a long way going overland) and the intention is to see every country in Central America (all 7 of them) then Mexico and the US and hopefully, if we can squeeze it in at some point, however its unlikely, Cuba.

Panama City

So anyway into Panama City we arrived and thankfully at least with our luggage this time, but at a pretty late hour, so we just went straight to bed as we were knackered. To be truthful I have been tired for some time, travelling takes it out of you. It amazes me that some people who write blogs on Travelblog.org have been on the road for two years plus, that´s just incredible I think, forget the cost, how they keep
Miraflores LockMiraflores LockMiraflores Lock

You can see the tanker going into the first lock and the different water levels up front
having the desire and will to travel without burning out I don´t know.

Anyway getting back to Panama city and Panama. Yeah pretty nice place, in total we spent 7 nights in Panama, 4 of them in Panama city and 3 in a place called Boquete. The main thing to do in Panama has to be what the place is most famous for, the Panama Canal. So indeed one day we did go pay a visit to the Miraflores Locks, just outside Panama city, to see what all the fuss is about or as some Panamanians would have you believe a wonder of the world. We had intended to actually take a trip on the canal but that was just far to expensive for our budget given it was around $100 per person, plus it only goes once a month and we didn´t have time to wait around for it. The Miraflores Locks however were pretty interesting to see. We arrived at 9am sharp and were the first people into the visitors centre, which took some 10 minutes or so as the staff there had to sort themselves out, like getting a float and change for the till. I
Panama CanalPanama CanalPanama Canal

Some guys enjoying having the photo taken on the lock
mean there was a queue of forty or so people waiting to get in and the women at the counter looked disgusted at us for not having the exact entrance fee. Seriously she had no change in the till what so ever, did she figure everyone would have the correct change!

Still the locks at Miraflores were very impressive, they are the first and apparently the biggest of three locks going from the Pacific Ocean side of the Panama canal to the Atlantic Ocean side. The trip takes the boats some 8 hours with getting through the three locks traversing some 80km of the canal as they go and apparently the ships are raised some 85 feet between the three locks, before being dropped back to sea level. Whilst we were there we saw a few very big, we think, oil tankers go through the locks as well as a very big container ship and also some small speed boats no bigger than 30-40 feet also go through the lock. By about 10.30am though the excitement of watching the ships being raised near 20 feet and clear the Miraflores lock had ended as there were no more ships going
Panama CityPanama CityPanama City

At least the new bit taken from the old bit!
through and we headed on in to visit the museum.

Pretty informative the museum was. We discovered that it was the French who first attempted to build the Panama Canal and gave up unsuccessfully in 1893 after more than 20,000 people died from diseases such as Yellow Fever and Malaria. In came Uncle Sam and the Americans 10 years later with their superior machinery and finished the job, they also put in sewage systems, paved the streets of Panama city and pretty much got rid of Yellow fever and Malaria in the region, quite impressive this point I thought. The true people though who built it i.e. the real labour force behind the canal were not French or Americans or even Panamanians but were people from the West Indies and in total it is believed nearly 30,000 people died building the Panama canal, that´s a heck of a number of lives lost and a price paid for a canal or world wonder I think.

Apparently a boat travelling from San Francisco to New York will save 8000 miles of distance by going through the canal and not traveling the Pacific Ocean to the bottom of South America and
The Grand Hotel - Old town Panama CityThe Grand Hotel - Old town Panama CityThe Grand Hotel - Old town Panama City

Looking pretty good for 6 years work wouldn´t you agree?
back up the Atlantic Ocean. We also found out that it costs a small fortune for a boat to get through the canal, anywhere from $1,500 ( for a 40ft cruiser) to $150,000 (the biggest oil tankers) and that Uncle Sam hadn´t built the canal out of the goodness of his heart. We discovered that the 5km stretch of ocean on either side of the canal before entering the locks was owned by the Americans and so it was them that officially administered the running of the canal and collected the many small fortunes the boats were paying to get through it. This all officially changed on December 31st 1999, whilst the world waited for the big Y2K computer crash, Panama finally got full control of their canal. Since this date they have begun building two new locks at either end of the canal that are much bigger in size so that all ships will in the future be able to get through it, as apparently the Queen Mary 2 and some of the US military ships are so big they can´t get in the present locks. This is all going to cost some $6 billion and take 8 years,
The Catedral - Old town Panama CityThe Catedral - Old town Panama CityThe Catedral - Old town Panama City

The Catedral in the main square, look at the mess of the building next to it.
pretty much the same amount of time taken to build Wembley football stadium, have we in the UK got something to be proud off or what, its a world wonder right!

On another day in Panama City we visited the Old town of the new city called San Felipe or Casco Viejo, not to be confused with the original Panama city, also known as the old town, called Panama Viejo. Before this however we did actually visit the Mercado Central, which in this case is a fish market. Unfortunately by the time we got there, which was lunchtime, a fair proportion of the fishmongers and people buying and selling fish had gone for the day, saying that it was still pretty busy and we got a good flavour of the place. We also had a very good fresh fish lunch upstairs in the market (chilli prawns in my case and a whole fish in Tracy´s) for a very reasonable price and got to watch what was left of the traders trying to sell what they deemed were bargains.

San Felipe is almost like a peninsula and for the most part it is lovely. It has many beautiful old
Simon Bolivar Sq - Old town Panama citySimon Bolivar Sq - Old town Panama citySimon Bolivar Sq - Old town Panama city

A quaint square and pretty person in the picture too!
Latin American style buildings with pastel colour exteriors and first floor balconys that seem to span the whole length of the buildings. Some to be fair were more than the worse for wear including in the main plaza (Plaza Catedral) the Grand Hotel, which was apparently the grandest hotel in all Panama until they knocked it down for renovations in 2004. In 2010 I can tell you that it still looks a long way of being finished, lets hope they do a better job on the new Canal locks. From one side of the San Felipe peninsular you can see the New Panama city i.e. all the Skyscrapers across the harbour and even on our cloudy day it looked impressive to me. On the other side of the peninsular you can see the Amador Causeway which is the official Pacific Ocean entrance to the Panama Canal and on this day we could see many many boats and tankers all waiting to enter the causeway and the canal proper.

Whilst in Panama it had also arrived at that time where I needed to go to the hospital and get another scan on my arm to see how its healing only
Pretty Building - Old Town Panama CityPretty Building - Old Town Panama CityPretty Building - Old Town Panama City

Notice the way the balcony's wrap round the building
this time the surgeon in Buenos Aires requested a tomography, so off Tracy and I went. This was not as easy a thing to get as you would think as it required a doctors request. Anyway this we got and were told that it would cost $560!! After picking myself up of the floor in shock at the price I had the Cat Scan but had to wait over 24 hours to get the CD with the results and to top it off I couldn´t get a prognosis on the Cat Scan. Very annoying to say the least to have to wait around for the CD and not get any results. The CD is now in Buenos Aires, waiting to clear customs (nothing is ever easy) and hopefully in the next few days I will get to know how my arm is progressing from my surgeon.

This was pretty much it for Panama City, after paying over $500 for the Tomography we couldn´t afford to do anything else really and so on our final day in Panama City we waited around all day for my Tomography CD and thought about what to do next.


In this
The US School bus aka Chicken BusThe US School bus aka Chicken BusThe US School bus aka Chicken Bus

We didn´t take this one, but some are still just Yellow and others more colorful. Not so nice inside though!
case it was Boquete. Boquete is a small town in the Chiriqui province some 40km north of the town of David (Panama´s second or third biggest city depending which book you read or site you google). It took us about 7 hours (I think) on a pretty packed bus to get from Panama City to David via the Pan American highway and another hour to get to Boquete from David. Anyway we arrived in about 7pm on September 3rd.

Boquete is a very small and quite quaint town, I guess most would describe it as quiet and maybe a little boring. There is little to the place really, the main Square is no more than 20 meters by 50 meters and we walked the main road of town in about 20 minutes. The place we stayed was called Pension Marilos cost $15 a night with our own toilet and shower, bargain. Our raison d´etre for being in Boquete was twofold, the coffee plantations and the cloud forest, indeed on the journey from David to Boquete in our old yellow American school bus, now used as public transport all over Panama, I was very much transfixed by the stunning mountain
Coffee bush and beansCoffee bush and beansCoffee bush and beans

Still green so not ready for picking. When they are red they are good to go
scenery and the clouds covering half the mountains in the distance, pretty magical I thought.

So on Saturday afternoon we undertook a 3 hour coffee tour of the Kotowa Coffee plantation with Coffee Adventures tour company. This I thought was excellent. The tour was very informative. We got to see the Coffee bushes (in this case Arabica beans) and the whole process of how they turned the beans into coffee, from pealing the beans to drying them to storing them to roasting them. It was also explained to us the different types of coffee beans and what this means to coffee prices, furthermore, what the difference between a light, medium, dark and a French roast is and what it means to the taste of coffee. We also got to see the original coffee machinery being used that the Canadian founder purchased from Aberdeen no less, though these days its used more for a tourist attraction than actual coffee production. The tour finished with a coffee tasting session and a lesson in how to taste it, which is much like tasting wine in that you have to slurp it, get some air into it and then wash it round your
Mi Jarden es Su JardenMi Jarden es Su JardenMi Jarden es Su Jarden

Quite pretty I guess, still it was eccentric in places
mouth, in case you were interested. Being a big coffee drinker and fan myself I really enjoyed the whole tour and would most definitely recommend it to anyone at its $30 per person price.

In an effort to kill time that morning we visited one man´s personal crusade to bring a botanical gardens to Boquete. The place was called ´mi jardin es su jardin´, basically my garden is your garden. It was pretty nice I guess, it had a mountain of fish in the various pools in the garden and some of the plants and flowers were beautiful. However in places it needed a bit of work we thought and it was definitely a little on the eccentric side with life size (very loudly painted) statues of cows and ostriches in the garden not to mention the life size cardboard cut outs of people (as caricatures) he had standing at the windows of his house looking out on the gardens, very weird. Still it killed the Saturday morning

The following morning we undertook a 4 hour private cloud forest tour in the Chiriqui highlands with the same tour company that we did the Kotowa Coffee plant with. Unfortunately
Mini waterfallMini waterfallMini waterfall

one of the couple we saw in the cloud forest in Boquete
unlike the Coffee tour I really couldn´t recommend this at its $50 per person price. Our guide (Terry) was very nice but you got the impression that she was on a nice Sunday morning walk of the local forest and we were just tagging along for the ride, in the end I just let Tracy and her walk ahead and chat and took in the whole ambience of the forest myself. To be honest the forest was beautiful and I did enjoy the hike/walk and some of the views were pretty impressive, the trek was generally a mud or rock path all the way with a few small streams to traverse but it was not to difficult to walk and I just felt it was something we could have easily done by ourselves without Terry. She did point out a few birds and had little snippets of information to give but little is the operative word on this occasion. Anyway it was very nice to visit and I am glad I did it, even if it was on the pricey side.

At this point I must mention the weather, for pretty much every day we have been in Central
Pretty flowersPretty flowersPretty flowers

Taken in the Boquete cloud forest
America (and right now we have been here for 21 days and are in Nicaragua oh and we just passed our one year on the road anniversary) it has rained. When I say rain I mean it has absolutely hammered it down, proper tropical downpours. I guess to be fair it is summer and wet season, so to be expected, but it has meant that either most afternoons as the temperature drops from its near 30 degrees Celsius and 80% humidity (we are sweating, a lot) or evenings it rains and it rains and it rains, generally most mornings are fine and sunny and hot.

Anyway this weather meant that after our little excursion to the cloud forest that we were Pension Marilos housebound for most of the day as it tipped it down.

The following day Monday September 6th we left Boquete at 9am in the morning and made our way back to David (60 minutes) and onwards to the border town of Paso Canoas (90 minutes) and crossed the border into Costa Rica just after midday from where I shall pick up the blog next time.


Additional photos below
Photos: 17, Displayed: 17


Coffee BeansCoffee Beans
Coffee Beans

Two beans per pod, a long way to go before its drinkable though
Kotowa Coffee plantKotowa Coffee plant
Kotowa Coffee plant

The original machinery, still used today, but they have more efficient modern equipment too!

Pretty butterfly on a flower in the cloud foerst in Boquete

22nd September 2010

National Parks
Did you visit the Soberania National Park while in Panama City, or any part of the Gamboa Rainforest? http://www.bellavistaluxuryrentals.com/panama/about-panama/hiking-in-panama/
22nd September 2010

National parks
To BVista, no we didnt visit any part of the Gamboa rainforest or Soberania Park. We didnt have the time unfortunately.

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