Panama - There's more to this country than a big ditch!

Published: June 22nd 2011
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Back to Caribbean Islands - it's a tough life!

We arrived into Panama at one of the more scenic border crossings we have gone through, crossing from Costa Rica by walking over a rickety old railway bridge spanning a wide river. We had just passed through Costa Rica in two days from Nicaragua, quickly bypassing the 'rich coast' due to time being against us by this stage of the trip, and Helen having already been on a few occasions.

From this scenic arrival into Panama, we went straight out to the islands of Bocas Del Toro on the Caribbean coast, hoping to get in a bit of diving and generally getting into the laid back, sun fuelled vibe. Except that unfortunately we did get quite a bit of rain during our time there, Central America slipping out of the dry season with sharp, frequent downpours.

The islands of Bocas Del Toro are a big tourist destination in Panama, both with domestic and international visitors, drawn by the wide range of restaurants, many varied islands to escape to, and a typically relaxed Caribbean pace of life. We spent all our time on the main island, confusingly also called
Helen checks out a starfish on Bocas Del DragoHelen checks out a starfish on Bocas Del DragoHelen checks out a starfish on Bocas Del Drago

The crystal clear and warm Caribbean seas on the North of Panama
Bocas Del Toro, with a main town of, well, you can guess what it's called! We got in a couple of nice dives - while not quite up to the standard of Honduras in terms of visibility, there was some beautiful coral and various fish.

On a rare spell of good weather one afternoon, we hopped on a bus to take us across the main island to the beach at Bocas Del Drago. This stretch of beach is very much your idyllic deserted paradise, with white sand and warm sea that was littered with starfish, clearly visible through the crystalline waters. With the clouds gone, it became obvious to us just how strong the sun in this part of the world is, both of us going a slight shade of pink after only a short spell on the beach.

Getting high to try and cool off

From the heat of Bocas, we escaped to the higher areas and cooler temperatures of Boquete, Panama's very own hill station. At an elevation of 1,000m, temperatures were refreshingly cooler, particularly at night where even long sleeves were needed. The town is only really made up of a couple of streets but there is plenty to do in the rolling hills around and it gave us the opportunity to get back on bikes where we could cycle around without turning into a sweaty heap within 2 minutes!

The only downside of cycling in the highlands of course, is that the terrain is invariably hilly, often with very large hills that seem to go on for a long time and suddenly (and somewhat depressingly) appear around corners. By this stage in the trip, our fitness wasn't really what it used to be, so many of these slogs were pretty hard work, with lots of getting off and pushing. Luckily we were rewarded with great views down over green, rolling hills at the tops of the climbs, and fast rides back down the quiet, twisting roads to the bottom again.

To conquer the hills more easily, we hired a scooter one afternoon, our first since our Laos experience. Our timing, however, left a little to be desired. Helen had rightly pointed out that clouds were rolling in as we walked to the bike hire shop. Optimistically, we took the bike out regardless. Ten minutes after we had taken the bike out and were on our way up a large hill out of town, the rain started to fall. Five minutes after this, the innocent looking clouds had turned into black monsters overhead, the rain pelting down at an alarming intensity. We continued on to the shelter of a coffee shop, squelching in like drowned rats. Here we sheltered for an hour, the rain only showing a slight let up, while we chain drank cups of coffee. An hour later, there was no sign of any change and we were really starting to get cold in our shorts. We admitted defeat and braced ourselves for a wet dash back to town, returned the bike back to the hire shop, having seen pretty much none of the beautiful countryside we had hoped to.

Undeterred, we took the bike back out the following morning, by which time the skies had cleared, and our persistence was rewarded with a great ride over a high loop near town, passing over roaring rivers near the many coffee fincas in the area. It was a beautiful, tranquil way to make the most of the lush greenery and breathe in cool clear mountain air. And we didn't have an accident this time!

Panamanian coffee - officially the best in the world!

Boquete is also a bit of a coffee drinkers paradise, having a large concentration of superb quality coffee grown in the hills around town. Many of the fincas have won awards on the world stage for the high quality of the beans grown in the fertile volcanic soils surrounding town. Locals are hugely proud of the quality of their coffee and we were frequently told Panamian coffee is consisently the best coffee in the world. One local finca, Esmerelda, actually holds the record for the most expensive bean in an online auction, fetching $170 per pound in May 2010! It holds an annual exclusive auction of it's small harvest, limited supply helping push up the price year on year. With such high praise, what more reason did we need to try some?

We did a tour of one of the fincas surrounding town, the small boutique Finca La Milagrosa, run by a very passionate local guy over an area of only 9 acres. After a description of the variety of beans grown on the estate, we were taken to the processing plant, essentially a shed with a collection of primarily
Cheesy shot with differently roasted coffee beansCheesy shot with differently roasted coffee beansCheesy shot with differently roasted coffee beans

It was either this or we did the Nescafe shake photo!
home made machines, using an assortment of pieces of piping and parts of washing machines and jeeps to power the various machines. It was quite fascinating to see how it had all been put together - we could quite picture the lone genius inventor at work!

Some of the beans that had been dried for a number of weeks beforehand were then put in the roaster, the bulk of which was made from a coffee station that you get at a hotel breakfast buffet. 20 minutes later, with a smell of burning in the air, some beans were extracted, a light roast. Only a few more minutes gave a medium roast and a few more for a dark roast. A pretty quick process after all the preparations to get the beans ready for that state. The final product tasted as you might expect, a pretty good brew, but we'd have to say, in our opinion, not as mind blowing as we might have hoped.

Dodging the showers in Panama City

Panama City was the first big Central American city that we have stayed in. It is not a typical one, however - as soon as we
The old and the new of Panama CityThe old and the new of Panama CityThe old and the new of Panama City

The French embassy in the foreground with the new Panama City behind
drew into the outskirts we felt as if we were entering New York - a gleaming city of skyscrapers greeted us, along with shiny shopping malls and the latest in design and technology everywhere. As Panama was once part of Colombia, the rest of Central America has never considered Panama as one of them, and it is clear that it remains quite distinctly different - neither Central nor South American. It is clearly much more advanced and wealthy than any of the Central American countries we have been through, but also has a very rich history of varied colonial influences, as can be seen in the myriad ethnicities that make up modern Panamanians.

Generally the impression is that most of the capital cities in this part of the world are dangerous and there is not too much of interest to see. We found Panama City to be fairly safe in the areas we were in, although of course there are areas to avoid, particularly at night. In fact rather than gunshots, the only noise we would hear at night was the regular loud bang as ripe mangoes from an overhanging tree fell onto the tin roof of our bedroom.
The liberator gives a camp poseThe liberator gives a camp poseThe liberator gives a camp pose

Simon Bolivar statue in Casco Veijo
Quite a shock the first night it happened, but it had the advantage of a free supply of ripe mangoes to have every morning with our pancake breakfast.

Travelling through Central America, each country has its own little quirks that you would never know until you are there. The things that keep the travelling interesting. So a little tip if you ever go to Panama - every single hostel claims to provide a free pancake breakfast. This consists of a large bag of pancake mix from which you make up your own American style pancakes - don't expect a huge buffet style spread! Initially this was quite a treat, but after a week and a half of pancake breakfasts every day, not only had we become slightly expert at making them, but we were definitely looking for ways to mix up the flavours a little - the daily mango harvest being the perfect change in Panama City!

It's pretty likely though that our over-riding memory of Panama City will be the daily downpours that occurred despite the extreme heat. The rain was very intense while we were there, meaning for the few hours it would fall each day
Main cathedral in Casco VeijoMain cathedral in Casco VeijoMain cathedral in Casco Veijo

He old part of Panama City
we were essentially confined to our hostel. We learned after the first day never to go out without an umbrella. When showers weren't falling, we spent the rest of our time melting as we walked the streets due to the intense humidity of the city.

However, beyond the environmental issues in Panama City, we found we really liked it. It's a really vibrant, interesting, multi-layered city. In particular, the old town area of Casco Viejo is a lovely area to stroll around. In contrast to the ultra-modern city with wide streets and many glass skyscrapers across the bay, Casco Viejo sits alone on a promontory, as if time stopped there a long while ago. Narrow streets are lined with French styled houses fronted with balconies. Streets give way to leafy squares, often containing an old style church. It has a wonderfully old town, colonial feel about it and refreshingly different from all the Spanish colonial towns we have passed through in recent months, due to the more mixed influences over Panama's history.

On the tip of the peninsula is the French square, where the French embassay is still housed in a classical old style building, looking out over
A car transportation tanker just about fits through Miraflores locksA car transportation tanker just about fits through Miraflores locksA car transportation tanker just about fits through Miraflores locks

The ship on the left is lowered to the level of the ship on the right, before enterring the Pacific
the ramparts of the sea defences and a beautiful old square. From the sea wall it is possible to see the tankers lining up, waiting for their turn to enter the canal from the Pacific side. We also liked the beautifully restored National Theatre where Margot Fonteyn danced while she lived in Panama.

The Big Ditch

Nearby to Panama City runs the reason that most people will have heard of the country, the Panama Canal. Due to the incredible geography of Panama, a winding long country that separates the two great oceans, the French initially envisioned a canal to be built across the country, allowing ships to shortcut the long and dangerous journey around Cape Horn. Although they made considerable inroads on the task, they gave up after a long struggle due to lack of money, malarial outbreaks and the extreme environmental challenges involved, to be replaced by the Americans - who employed the more modern tactics of heavy machinery and dynamite to hammer a path across Panama. The Americans, who saw the canal as a huge tactical advantage to have control over such an important waterway, assumed control of the canal from it's opening in 1914. However, the 31st December 1999 saw the Americans hand control of the canal over to the Panamanians, who run it today (one assumes not a drunken millennium NYE mistake that the Americans realised through a hangover on New Years Day!)

It was (and still would be today) a massive engineering triumph to construct such a waterway, over 60km in length. Due to a lake being present along the canal's length that is above sea level, ships are raised up 85 feet as they enter and lowered again as they leave the canal at a series of simply massive locks. Like those on the Grand Union Canal but on a massive scale. Around 14,000 ships pass through the canal each year and to highlight it's importance, ships today all over the world aren't built any larger than the Panama Canal locks, otherwise they would never be able to transit through the canal! The original locks still function today, never having been replaced in the nearly 100 years the canal has been operating. The whole project is really an amazing engineering achievement.

It was at one of these sets of locks, Miraflores on the Pacific side, that we saw the
Tankers lined up through the Panama CanalTankers lined up through the Panama CanalTankers lined up through the Panama Canal

Massive tankers are moved around like tow cars by tiny tugs on their transit through the Panama Canal
canal. At this point there is a good museum on the engineering success story that the canal is, along with a viewing platform. Seeing the massive tankers and container ships enterring the locks, with no more than a couple of feet clearance on either side from the lock edge, is a hugely impressive sight. Vast quantities of water are displaced raising and lowering these giants of the sea, the largest ships requiring over 50 million gallons of water, all done with pinpoint accuracy.

Panamanians are hugely proud of the canal and it is at the very centre of the country's identity. Not only does it provide a major revenue stream for the country (some of the largest tankers pay fees of over $200,000 to transit the canal), giving them a high standard of living, it also provides a sense of pride at the important position Panama holds in world trade.

However, from travelling through Panama, we found that although it is a very important part of it, many of the other great aspects of this fascinating country are a little overshadowed by "The Big Ditch" in terms of how it is viewed internationally. It's a really interesting place
The trucks help tug the tankers through the locksThe trucks help tug the tankers through the locksThe trucks help tug the tankers through the locks

It's a precise job, the largest tankers only having a couple of feet clearance either side of the canal
to discover, probably even better in the dry season! Its geography means there are many diverse points along its length and given more time, we'd love to get a chance to get to know it a bit more. But time is running out on this trip, and so onwards we continue...

Additional photos below
Photos: 23, Displayed: 23


A tanker enters Miraflores locks, Panama CanalA tanker enters Miraflores locks, Panama Canal
A tanker enters Miraflores locks, Panama Canal

The locks form a series of steps, lowering the tanker into the Pacific
The shoreline at Bocas Del DragoThe shoreline at Bocas Del Drago
The shoreline at Bocas Del Drago

The Caribbean coast on the North of Bocas Del Toro
The home made coffee roaster at Finca La MiligrosaThe home made coffee roaster at Finca La Miligrosa
The home made coffee roaster at Finca La Miligrosa

Made from a collection of spare parts
The old and the new in Casco ViejoThe old and the new in Casco Viejo
The old and the new in Casco Viejo

Much development is currently ongoing of the old buildings in Casco Viejo
Finca La MilagrosaFinca La Milagrosa
Finca La Milagrosa

A small boutique finca in the hills above Boquete
The ceiling of the national theatre in Casco VeijoThe ceiling of the national theatre in Casco Veijo
The ceiling of the national theatre in Casco Veijo

A large chandelier in hung in the middle
A garden open to the public near BoqueteA garden open to the public near Boquete
A garden open to the public near Boquete

Complete with it's own observation tower to admire the fake cows from

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