This was my fourth visit to Panama and my final country in Central America. Its been a favourite for a number of years as the capital combines modern urban life while maintaining its Latin roots. Added to this is the close proximity of great beaches and islands. So fun can be had in the Miami of Central America while resting up in the tropics during the week.
Unlike past visits, I hadn’t a direct frequent flyer points flight from Amsterdam (which always helped) but just as important an easy border crossing from Costa Rica. Prior visits hadn’t taken me to the northern part of the country so I was looking forward to a bit of exploring. The islands at Bocas del Toro and the city of David was on the cards.
In visiting the islands I would also see the Atlantic coast for the first time since arriving in New York last August. In sounds great to wake up to a Pacific sunrise and to drive east for an Atlantic sunset all in one day. Admittedly the achievement sounds bigger than it really is. Panama’s lack of girth makes the coast-to-coast journey doable in a few hours depending on location. Mine took about five hours (ex border crossing).
As I had to drive south from the border to circumvent the Reserva Forestal De Fortuna before heading north again to a town called Almirante (population 9K). Where the ferry service departs. In Costa Rica I’d been given the heads up not to miss the evening ferry (6.00pm) as the town is a “dump”. Kiss of death as my Irish luck ran out. Although the trip was a pleasure ride it was slow going; driving through clouds reduced my line of vision to 50m for a large stretch. Despite pushing hard I knew well before arriving that I’d miss the ferry.
Aesthetically the town was fairly awful but it did have an intriguing factor. There was a West Indies feel to the place. Panama welcomed thousands of West Indies to help build railroads, ports and also the Canal. Over the decades these emigrants assimilated into the population of bigger cities such that they are practically indecipherable from the rest of the inhabitants. Not so in Almirante.
Social anthropologists would be impressed with this veritable West Indies enclave. English is the main language spoken with Spanish a distant second. As I scanned the main street for accommodation I asked an old timer for help. In a typically Caribbean English accent he steered me to the only hotel in town. We chatted for a bit and I half expected his name to be Nelson. I wasn’t completely of the mark; it was Albert. On the way to the hotel I’m sure I passed a cricket field.
A Chinese family owns the hotel. The first floor rooms straddle their restaurant and hardware store. I’m told there has been an influx of Chinese migrants in the past three years – a visa exchange programme in return for Chinese investment in Panama. Most seem to open supermarkets of various sizes. Something I noticed myself as I drove south. The only good thing about having to stay in this town was that I meet another biker.
Sigi arrived a couple of hours later having had a torturous crossing at the Atlantic coast border checkpoint. He’s German but has lived with his American wife in Portland, Maine for the past twenty years. It was great to meet him, as although I’ve met some other bikers over the past 10 months he is the first who is undertaking a similar trip. However Sigi’s trip is split in two: the US to Colombia and Colombia to Chile. Where in between he’ll store the bike for six month before returning early next year. How fortunate to have such a supportive wife. A great guy and I was glad to hang out with him on various parts of our respective routes through Panama and Colombia.
That night we had a couple of beers and exchanged war stories about our journeys. It was both comforting and motivating to know someone else has had similar experiences along the way. We both picked up points that we could later use.
The next day we caught the morning ferry at 7.00am. The main island of Colon has two roads and is the only island accessible by ferry. The others are reachable by small boats. After docking we toured the only two roads on the island. A 10km trek northeast and northwest from the port. One of which was mostly hard sand along the beach. At one point I thought my bike might get stuck but some deft manoeuvring kept me out of the dry sand. We ate a delicious fish lunch at the northern tip of the island. Afterwards we arranged accommodation with the help of the local tourist office.
A small hotel/hostel called Rum Runners was our digs for two nights. A nice coincidence for two reasons. The owners, Aire and Shirley, are Amsterdam’ers who’ve lived on the island for fifteen years. They named the business after their favourite bar on the Prinsegracht. The bar was renovated shortly after I arrived in Amsterdam but its subsequent incarnation as De Werck, became my favourite. In fact I had my farewell drinks there too.
Aire is also a biker and he gave some good advice for the trip. One of the more valuable tippets related to my leather trousers. Even though aerated it’s hard to keep them fresh in 30+ degree heat. The lining is not detachable. I don’t have to worry about the jacket as I wear a t-shirt that acts as a barrier. Now before gearing up I powder my legs with J&J’s baby talc. Don’t know how I didn’t think of this before.
As for the islands. I can see why it’s a nice place to chill out, island hop and do various water sports for a week or two. I couldn’t do the last two as I had the bike and was under a time squeeze to head south. So two days on the main island was sufficient. I preferred the Sand Blas Islands which I visited previously as its more relaxed with fewer hostels and less Lonely Planet types.
On the day we were to leave, Sigi had a deal with an unexpected hassle. He left his bike (a KLR) a couple of inches short of the hotel’s first floor canopy. The heavy rain that fell during the night filled one pannier that hadn’t been closed properly with five litres of water. The problem been he hadn’t emptied the bag of maps, tools, spares (including electrics) and his first-aid kit. Rightly annoyed he repeatedly cursed himself and the rain.
Not an issue by itself but over the next two hours as he tried to salvage what he could he went on while I was reading. I should have gone for a coffee and left him to it but I didn’t want to show a lack of solidarity with my new biker mate.
The book I was reading – Tuesdays by with Morrie by Mitch Albom. A tragic but inspiring true account of the dimise of a larger than life character. A professor and prodigal student are reunited by the older mans debilitating disease. The professor was glad death didn’t come quickly so he could thank his family, friends and give his view on what’s important in life. A good read for anyone trying to get ahead. The book had sold over 11 million copies so it has struck a cord, including mine.
The only ferry back to the mainland departs at 4.00pm. Which meant another night in the Chinese hotel as neither of us like to drive at night. Next stop was the northern town of David. The country’s third city (population 150K). I spent four days over the weekend while Sigi headed to Panama City after two nights. He was keen to sort passage for his bike for Colombia as he was seriously behind schedule.
The city, which is effectively a town, was pleasant enough. Some nice squares, high streets and fortunately no major chains beyond McDonalds and Burger King. I spent a couple of evenings in a watering hole called Haciendas. A nice place with no external facade so seating extends outdoors and is covered by a two-story high roof. Good fun on both nights and I got to hang out with a cool crew.
Then on to Panama City. I met up with Sigi in a hostel called Panama Passage which is just outside the city limits. I had planned to stay there prior to meeting him as it specialises in supporting “Over-Landers” – people travelling the Pan-Americana either in a 4×4, tour van or motorbike. They also have a network of contacts that assist in booking passage to and from Colombia. The only missing link in the entire Pan-American Highway is a 160km stretch of swampland called the Darien Gap.
The financial and environmental cost of construction has put both Panama and Colombia off building a road. The owner of the hostel is from Montreal and was quite helpful even if a bit of a prima donna. Another advantage of the hostel, all the guests were on a similar trip; either heading north or south, which meant advice could be shared both ways. I met a number of people from Europe and the US who were travelling on four wheels and a couple of bikers too. I even got to meet Vinnie (aka Crashmaster), who is a bit of a legend on ADV Rider (www.advrider.com). He’s been on the road for over three years now but will soon finish up.
Despite the good crew I left after one night. From the second night onwards, I was due to share the room with a couple – me on the single bed top bunk and them on the double bed bottom. Who knows maybe I missed something, or maybe they did but I couldn’t be dealing with that. An hour after breakfast I had a small but nice downtown apartment for USD50 per night.
The apartment was next to the Holiday Inn and five blocks from Avenida Balboa, which overlooks the sea. I was happy to pass the ocean view this time, as it was twice the price. And, for the privilege you get to hear traffic day and night, as even new buildings do not have double-glazing.
But better luck was to unfold. The apartment had two bedrooms which the agent had locked the door to the second. However she forgot to take the key for the second room off the ring. Not one to miss an opportunity I invited Sigi to take it which he did the following day as he’d already paid up at the hostel. After settling in and unpacking I walked around the city.
There was a certain comforting familiarity with rambling the streets I knew well. I walked along the now finished boulevard on Avenida Balboa, to Calle Uruguay and Via Espania. On the latter street, I visited the RAY supermarket where it was good to see that the beer, breakfast cereal, milk and toothpaste shelves haven’t moved since my last visit two years ago. In addition, I was fairly chuffed to be able to help a couple who’d asked for directions.
Continuing the nostalgia trip I headed to Pomodore for dinner. A nice Italian restaurant which is not expensive at all. This time I couldn’t sit in their garden as a tropical downpour was on the way. Another reason I like the place is that you get to choose the type of (homemade) pasta with your dish. Despite all of this I regretted the timing of my visit.
First time on the trip I do something remotely sneaky and who should walk in the door. None other than the apartment agent – Sharika, her husband and their young son. A nice family but I wasn’t in the mood, since I wanted to finish my book but mostly because I was kind of cheating on the apartment. To make matters worse they sat in the table right next to mine.
Where she should have either invited me to join them or more preferably sat at the far end of the restaurant. Like me I guess she was caught off guard. As it was, the proximity made for idle chitchat from time to time. I did feel a bit friendlier when I showed her son how to make paper aeroplanes, the good ones that fly a long way I might add.
I ignored the ominous coincidence in meeting Sharika et al and still let Sigi share the apartment. I knew if she found out I’d come up with some transparent excuse that wouldn’t be challenged and we’d pay up. In the end it worked out so we got the pad for USD25 pn each. Super-duper. The money saved was duly spent on the lash.
Good to see that Calle Uruguay remains the strip. Many of the same bars and clubs are still there but a new one has been added. Ceilo. An up market roof top bar/club with swimming pool. We headed there one night to check it out. Great place but full of posers and wannabes. After two USD9 drinks each we headed to Prive. An old favourite.
Sigi introduced me to Cuba Libras and we introduced ourselves to all and sundry. Spreading the good news. It turned out to be a great night that lasted well into the small hours. I even had to go back to the apartment to get more cash, as I hadn’t brought any cards. A safety measure to avoid possible lose.
While out that night I noticed the only negative development since my last visit. Each bar and club had an armed policeman either on the door or inside. Sometimes both. An effect of shootings over the past two years. It’s reassuring to see the police taking precautionary action but on the whole a sad situation. I never felt concerned about safety in previous visits.
Two other evenings were spent in The Londoner. A proper boozer of the Anglo-Saxon calibre. I first came here six years ago when I visited my buddy Jan Aire when he was on a sabbatical of his own. That time we watched The Six Nations. This time was for pool and Guinness. First night Sigi and I shot a few games while the second night I played a few Americans and a Colombia student. I beat the Americans but Andres introduced me to Colombian billiards.
A curious game which apart from the fact that it’s played on the same table and with the same balls it has no other resemblance to the traditional game of pool. By now I’m use to the variations of the game with Americans playing scratch on fouls, with no double faults, naming pockets for shots etc. In Colombian billiards, you play the numbers not the patterns. The player with the most points wins. Both players have to pot the balls in ascending order. The other two main rules are: you keep the points if you pot a ball after the one being played, a foul allows the opponent to reset the white behind the line and to replace, on the eight spot, any fouled ball potted. Prior to this I’d never played a game using the numbers and actually never wondered why they were there in the first place.
Andres won 3-2. We agreed a rematch in Colombia, as he was due to return from visiting his mother by the time I got there. As it turned out Aremina, Colombia was too far off my route however I did play this game in a proper billiards hall in Pereira, Colombia where I decided I don’t like the game. More about that in the next blog.
On the positive side there has been a number improvements in Panama City since my previous visit. The local economy is still robust and construction continues: apartments, an Intercontinental hotel and office blocks etc. An underground metro is also in the planning phase. A first in Central America. Other positives include improvements to the taxi and bus stock.
Old undistinguished cars have been replaced with yellow cabs. This change forced many to upgrade their cars. An ancillary benefit as many were fit for scrap. As for the buses, the old American school buses which were used for public transportation are being phased out.
On the one hand I thought it a shame as the appropriately named Diablo Roja (Red Devils) had a unique character. Always decorated to Central American excess with paintings ranging from religious devotions to hard rock epitaphs plus the obligatory neon and music to boot. I always half expected to see an Otto-like character (from the Simpson’s) to be driving one. After five minutes of further thought I knew there wasn’t a single positive about these contraptions.
These vehicles were acquired from the USA when they pass their sell by date. The US is happy to get money for them versus having to pay expensive disposal costs. To be a passenger on these buses must be awful. To sit on chair designed for kids has to be uncomfortable. In addition, there is no air-conditioning. I suppose the only redeeming feature was the cheap fares. The cost of the new fleet will no doubt be recouped by higher tariffs. I hope John and Jane Doe receive an appropriate increase in wages.
Another highlight in Panama City included going on a bike tour with Sigi. I met him in the afternoon after he’d been to the Panama Canal. I’d seen it before so didn’t join. We crossed the expansive Bridge of the Americas, over the Amador Causeway and best of all rode down Avenida Balboa. Cruising down this 4km stretch and flooring it on the way back with the ocean on one side and the skyscraper metropolis on the other was awesome. Right up there with driving down New York’s 5th Avenue, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and along Vegas’s strip. I honked the horn and fisted the air more than once. Whoha. The next day it was back to more mundane tasks.
With offices reopened after the weekend, I spent a couple of days with two brokers to arrange the passage for my motorbike to Cartagena, Colombia. There are basically three options all with various advantages and costs: fly with the bike directly to Bogotá, on a ship to Cartagena while I fly or a five day island pleasure cruiser/sail boat. After some consideration the second option was the only one, which would be sure to get me to Colombia in time to rendezvous with my two buddies who would fly in from London.
It took about a day and half to finalise the bike shipment. This included the 90m drive to the port, paperwork with customs and the port authority inspection and paperwork and inspection by the shipping line. Remarkably the bike was drug checked by a sniffer dog too. I wonder do people really smuggle drugs into Colombia or if it’s reciprocal pettiness by border control. With all this taken care of I was able to enjoy my final two days in Panama City. However Sigi had a mare of a time leaving the country.
He’d left for the port a day earlier to take one of the sailboats as it was cheaper and he wanted to see the San Blas islands. When he went to the port he was told he could not leave the country as he had illegally entered. The crime – no entry stamp on his passport.
The official told him he’d have to return to the northern border to get the stamp before he could leave. The immigration official refused to take into account that he had the Customs importation document (date and time stamped) as proof of admittance. In addition, he had the Costa Rican exit stamp dated the same day as the bike import papers.
He returned to Panama City to remonstrate with the Department of Immigration to see if they could help. Even a senior officer there told him to return to the border. What mindless robots they are to make a tourist drive for two days each way to get a simple stamp that looks like something a school principal would put in a journal to mark a student late. It was as much their mistake as it was his, I would say even more their issue.
From a tourist point of view it’s an easy mistake to make as with all the hustle at the border and the myriad of things going through your mind you’d assume the official would have stamped your passport on handing it back. In fact, I made the same mistake in Honduras but thankfully the official at the exit border was savvy enough to look beyond this minor breach of procedure. Not so in Panama. Assholes.
He even called the German embassy for advice. A supportive lady listened to the tail but unfortunately they had no power to intervene. But they would update their website to advise future visitors to ensure their passport has been correctly stamped prior to leaving the border. In this part of the world, if the official route does not work there is always the unofficial route.
The sailboat captain knew someone who could help. His name of course was Jack – Captain Jack. For USD100, he could “arrange” a stamp, which he was reasonably sure would work. In the end, the unofficial route succeeded and Sigi enjoyed the islands once he safely left the port. We met up in Cartagena a week or so later.
As I rounded up my trip in Panama I thought about which Central American country I liked most. While I’ve enjoyed all countries visited the contest came down to either Costa Rica or Panama. Both have great beaches, mountains, national parks etc so it really came down to which capital I preferred. It’s a close call, as I like them both for different reasons.
Panama City is a lot of fun but it’s a big commercial city and the fact that it’s compared to a miniature Miami is enough for me to like San Jose more. The latter is also fun however it retains its distinct Central American character. People are a little friendlier, there are no skyscrapers and you know you’re in Latin America. Overall my three month sojourn in Central America has been a tremendous experience.
The beaches, national reserves, mountains, rainforests, cities, food and people are fantastic. But its funny how the small but annoying things stick in your head too. Of course the positives by far outweigh the negatives but I’d thought I’d share them anyway. While the points below did not occur in the majority of cases, they were frequent enough to know that they weren’t isolated incidents. In no order of annoyance:
1. Politeness. At first I thought some receptionists, counter staff and sales assistants were unfriendly to tourists but I observed that the locals were treated similarly. I know the Anglo Saxons are considered over polite by other nations but the basics were not always present here. A number of times my “Hola” was met with either a nod or no reaction at all. In the case of the latter, I repeated the Hola but louder until I got some reaction.
Other times, when paying a bill or checking out I would say Gracias only to receive an “OK”. On one particular bad service day I thought Gracias was a word only used by tourists. While I wasn’t staying in the Intercontinental or Hyatt a diploma in hostelry is not required for basic manners – even in local language.
2. Overstaffing. Every retail outlet whether food or product is chronically overstaffed. I know wages are low here but so are the prices. The labour surplus should result in an extra bonus or profit to a manager or owner. Or better still – lower prices for the customer. It wouldn’t be so bad if it led to better service. The worst impact for the customer is in eateries.
Waiting staff practically loiter around the table looking for things to do. A burst of action happens when there is a glass to refill or plate to remove. In a group it’s even more annoying as they remove each plate when done rather than wait until all have finished the course.
3. Car alarms. These security devices are hyper sensitive beyond necessity. A passing car seems to be enough to trigger some alarms. Quite annoying if it happens when you are trying to sleep. However I did turn this around into a source of amusement. My record now stands at seven cars alarms that I’ve been able to set off in one overcharged run down a street. Only attempted during office hours of course.
4. Litter. However bad polluting the streets is, to do so on a beach is horrific. If children were the only offender it wouldn’t be completely as bad. I cannot fathom what goes through some people’s head. Man, we wouldn’t dare do it as kids.
5. Hot water. Something normally taken for granted is often a luxury in this region. Not to sound like a shirking violet, I’ve swam in the Irish Sea at Easter and off Stockholm’s archipelago in winter, but taking a cold shower in the morning is a bit too bracing.
6. Pedestrian crossings. In general, these white markings let people know where they can cross the street while also requiring motorists to give way. This second message does not apply in Central America. Contrary to western road principles the pedestrian is the lowest ranking of all road users. On a busy street you have to take a deep breath and dodge the cars or wait until a red light a couple of blocks always stops the traffic.
I hope I don’t sound like a wiener but while travelling it’s natural to compare the similarities and differences to what you’re use to. This was my fourth visit to Panama and if I didn’t like the region I could have ridden through in less than ten days. The only real complaint I have about Central America is its distance from Europe.
The minimum flight time is approximately ten hours if you live near a European hub. Otherwise you can double the travel time if connecting flights are needed on both sides of the Atlantic. And, if you only have a two-week holiday, to lose two days travelling is a big sacrifice.
My advice – work overtime, defer days, call in sick but find a way to come here for three or four weeks. You won’t regret it.
28 June 2011.