Puzzling Panama

Published: December 25th 2017
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View across the volcanic craterView across the volcanic craterView across the volcanic crater

Contrasts with Lanzarote
Geo: 7.54575, -81.7822

Panama 9 - 31 March 2014

At the end of the last blog we had reached The Golden Frog Inn, El Valle, and said it was a beautiful place. We liked it so much we stayed 11 days and only left then because we had to, it was fully booked. Everything about it appealed to us, the view, as we were high up on one side of the crater valley and looked across to the hills on the other rim, the climate, warm during the day, cooling just enough at night so no air-conditioning or heating is required, and the wildlife. But the bonus was 'Happy Hour' when Becky and Larry the owners, and Adrian the manager invited everyone to join them from 6-7pm for drinks and nibbles. It made a lovely social occasion in our day and we met lots of interesting people, some on holiday and others researching whether they want to become residents.

The only criticism we had of El Valle was the taxi situation. We know now that it is a problem in most of Panama outside Panama City. It seems only a few licenses are given out so there are only a handful of taxis in each town. They are always in demand, and in El Valle they disappear off the roads completely by 7pm or earlier if the drivers have made enough money for the day! Luckily, Becky, Larry and Adrian went into the town a number of times each day and gave us lifts.

The town is small, really a large village but it has 4 or 5 very good supermarkets because it is surrounded by weekend houses belonging to wealthy Panama City residents, and the houses range from very pleasant to palatial, usually having large grounds and often stabling for horses etc. There is little sign of poverty and most locals seem to have a good lifestyle as a result of the work created by all the estates.

It was the local patron Saint's day during our stay so there was a 4 day fair, very like an extended village fete in the UK. We stopped by one day and watched the dog show and a cane juice pressing competition. There is plenty to do in the town, with a small zoo (comprised mainly of rescued local wildlife), a Orchid Farm, Butterfly Farm, local waterfalls, hot springs and lots of trails. There is also another 'attraction' called the 'Square Trees'. It is a trail on private land where you pay a small fee to visit and view the supposedly Square Trees. I felt it was a bit of a cheat as I would describe them as 'not quite round', rather than square (see photo).

The 'Golden Frog' is endemic to the area but now almost extinct as a result of a fungus which attaches itself to the chest of some species of frogs and eventually prevents them from breathing. There was a big effort to round up the remaining Golden Frogs (they were housed in a local hotel bedroom for while) and a project has been set up to try and preserve the species. One is on display, the rest are now carefully protected in a purpose built laboratory.

Sadly, the time came to move on to Pedasi, on the south east tip of the Azuero Peninsular. Panama is basically a narrow piece of land running approximately east/west for about 480 miles. The north/south 'depth' varies from 37 miles (at the Canal) to 110 miles at its widest. The Azuero is a large piece of land jutting south into the Pacific. We wanted to visit it as it was the first area to be cleared for farming and now comprises very small rural towns, cattle ranches and farms, a contrast to the other areas visited.

In Panama one main road runs east/west, the Interamericana, and feeder roads lead onto this from the towns. This means that travelling by bus requires a number of changes as it is necessary to get to the Interamericana, travel along it, then at the right junction turn off to get another bus. The total population is only 3 million, so most areas are sparsely populated. We have spent many hours travelling up and down that road which in some places is in very poor repair.

There is not a lot to say about Pedasi, it is very remote but with lovely empty beaches about 3 kilometres from the town. It is awaiting a big tourist boom but I am not sure it is going to happen. A couple of developers are trying to attract retirees as they have in other towns but I think the relative isolation of the area may mean the boom is a long time coming.

After Pedasi we headed to a small hamlet on the west coast of Azuero to Heliconia B & B. The reason for going to another isolated area was that Tanager Travel is run by the couple who also run Heliconia B & B, and they are one of the handful of providers of trips to Coiba. So they start their trips from Heliconia as an early start is necessary. Coiba is a very large island in the Pacific and it is special because until the 1990s it was a prison complex where prisoners were housed in various locations in basic accommodation which they built themselves and they had to produce their own food. They were mostly free on the island as there was no danger that they would escape. Because of the prison the rest of the island remained untouched, covered with primary forest and mangroves and surrounded by hard coral reefs which provide excellent snorkelling and diving.

Getting there is the first challenge. It is a 2 hour (when the sea is smooth) sea crossing in a small boat, 5 metres long. It took us much longer as the wind was strong. On the island there is a Ranger Station where beds in dormitories, sheets, water and toilet facilities are provided, but nothing else. This is why we had to go in a group. Tanager Travel take care of everything, booking the dormitory and taking sufficient supplies for the 2 nights on the Island, including towels, food, cutlery, plates etc even a tablecloth.

It is idyllic and the snorkelling was exceptional. We spotted a very large Eagle Ray briefly (more than 3 metres long including tail) at the start of a snorkel then a few minutes later I looked to my left and he was just hovering by my shoulder. We floated along together for 3 or 4 minutes before he decided to swim away. That was special!

The second day we set off for the other side of the Island for a hike and boat ride through the mangroves. Immediately the wind increased dramatically and the journey became uncomfortable to say the least. The waves were huge. We crashed down with tremendous force jolting every bone, and we were soaking wet (but warm). It crossed the boundary from exciting to scary, and a couple of times hit terrifying. Two or three times we were suddenly thrown into a tunnel of water with waves much higher than the boat a metre or so away on both sides. The captain tried very hard to ease his way through while the mate bailed furiously. I kept my eye on the faraway shore to know which way to go if I had to swim as I really doubted the the boat could remain in one piece given the battering it was taking. But it did and we arrived safely, if shaken. Kees, our leader said it was the worst he had experienced. By the time we had to return it had eased a little, still uncomfortable but manageable.

We stayed on at Heliconia when we returned from Coiba so that we could go birding with Kees. We had a good day but by the end all three of us were exhausted. There was no let up as we had to start our journey back to Costa Rica the next day. We travelled to David, Panama's second city, and stayed there at Purple House Backpackers Hostel overnight. It was fine for sleeping in but we would not have wanted to stay longer. It was so hot all day and night.

Then the next day we had one of our most challenging journeys ever, simply because it is impossible to get accurate information about which buses go where and the times. Everyone told us something different and the info on line is simply wrong. We had emailed the companies but they don't reply. At the ticket offices the person on duty never knows anything about the routes, only the drivers seem to know and it can be 2 hours before one arrives with a bus. We made it eventually but it was tough especially for Jim who likes to know where he is going and how to get there.

There was a bus from David to the border, then a reverse of our earlier border crossing which was easier this time as we knew where everything was. Then a bus to Niely, wait 2 hours, another bus to San Isidro, wait an hour and a half, bus to San Jose, getting off at Kilometre 80, where a vehicle was waiting to take us the last 8 kilometres on a dirt road to Trogan Lodge. It took 13 hours in all and was in the high 30s all the way without any air-conditioning, but as we have had high temperatures for weeks it was not to big a problem.

The sun set as we arrived at the Lodge (definitely an improvement on the Purple House!) and then I started to lose contact with reality. It was surreal. As the sun disappeared it turned COLD, the Lodge had wood fires lit everywhere, and a gas fire switched on for us in our room and hot water bottles in bed! We are 2,500 metres high in the Lodge.

As we are now back in Costa Rica I will end this Panama blog. However, now we are safely out of Panama I wanted to tell you more about how we overcame the problem of getting into Panama when our flight home is from San Jose. If you remember, the requirements to enter Panama are that you must have $500 cash and a flight ticket from Panama to your country of residence. As our flight is from Costa Rica it did not meet the requirement. We had been warned in Drake by experienced travellers and given a rather basic proforma to fill in with our details and appropriate flight details. Jim was dubious about using it because he is law abiding and doesn't even break rules never mind laws. Also he thought they might have had the identical ticket presented to them too often. But surprisingly, once he realised there was no alternative he set to and spent 2 hours producing a document (in colour) which was better than any genuine e-ticket. Once printed our problem was solved except it nearly came undone as Jim had selected a flight on which we would have to change in Madrid, as with our real flight from San Jose. I passed through immigration ok, but they challenged him as Madrid is not his country of residence. He managed to persuade them that the final destination was London. After that effort I think he might have found a new career.

Panama surprised us in a number of ways. It seems a more complex country than Costa Rica, having the Canal, Panama City with its skyscrapers, primary rainforest, wilderness, cattle ranches, cowboys with their horses, fincas, indigenous groups like the Embera, Woonan, and Kuna (who have their own territory), tourist areas, and ex-pat communities and the off shore islands including Coiba. There are very wealthy people here and the facilities they demand such as 5 star restaurants and hotels, but the infrastructure has huge flaws so that there are power cuts, and even the water supply stops – for 4 days one time in Boquete. As a country to visit it has something for everyone.

All for
now, more from Costa Rica next time.

Additional photos below
Photos: 43, Displayed: 30


2nd April 2014

I didn't know that colour squirrel existed!
2nd April 2014

It looks beautiful and peaceful

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