A Travellerspoint blog

Voyage to the Isthmus of Panama Day 6

My mother said there would be cannibals

semi-overcast 22 °C

Day 6 began much like any other day on the Scottish Moors........waking, rubbing sleep out of one's eyes, peering out the castle ramparts at the omni-present mist and listening for the Hound, hoping that he was well sated from a night of gorging on hapless expatriots. Best put on some undies Dear if you're going to stand in front of the open window. Again, this wily woman of mine was correct. Donning a pair of shorts, I left my wily woman to the comfort of her luxurious comforters and stepped out onto the terrace.

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Hang on a second....this isn't the Scottish Moors........sure, the mist was here, but there was no drone of the bagpiper sonorously piping to wake the dead, nor was there a howl of the beast. Is that a blender? Perhaps, though it was difficult to make out across the lavishly manicured gardens of the Hotel Panamonte. A waft of delicately fragranced flower was borne of the light breeze, awakening my senses. Damn these are nice gardens.

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Oh Dear, may I interest you in a coffee and perhaps some cooked meat products? But of course, and after said coffee, adventure awaits us.

A splash of water on the face, a quick dressing, and we were off to the restaurant. The Hotel Panamonte serves a delightful breakfast of pretty much whatever you could possibly want, though we did have to dress accordingly. This was not an undies only place......one should certainly wear at least a collared shirt and shorts. The waitstaff was as professional as we had ever seen, well manicured and eager to please. We could have stayed here all day, especially since there were few other guests making use of the facilities. It was heavenly, the coffee was perfect, the eggs were outstanding, and the cooked meat products were simply magnificent. Once again, Panamanian cooking had served us well.

Stumbling our way back to our suite, heavily laden with breakfast but stimulated by excessive amounts of caffeine, we briefly mapped out a plan for the days' adventures. Oh look, there's the greenhouse for the property.

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A visit to one or two of the expat gated communities, a bit of lunch, more visiting, then perhaps a drive deeper into the mountains. Sounds like an adventure indeed. And so we set off to find Valle Escondido, the Hidden Valley, of gated American and British expatriots. It wasn't particularly difficult to find as there were signs everywhere. Mostly for purchasing real estate, which could well have been an option for us. Little did we know of the snowball of sales pitches we were about to endure. We wandered into the sales office and inquired a bit of the area. A Chinese, Florida-based banshee descended on us, hungrily greeting us as if we had marinated ourselves in bacon grease and hung signs on our necks proclaiming "fresh meat here". It took this she-devil no time at all to whip out maps and plots and price guides about the real estate that was to be had for only the most discriminating buyers. Did we look like discriminating buyers? Perhaps, though I have always found that the "most discriminating buyers" rarely wear flip-flops. But oh look, Sean Connery just bought a parcel in the upper valley. So we could be neighbors to James Bond himself? Well, no, he is going to build a large wall around his property. Really, we're just curious as to what you have here. No, we're not going to sign a contract just yet, nor do we want to see every plot of land that's available. Excuse me, would you please stop gnawing on my arm. Yes, you. Thank you. Oh, you have a gift shop, how lovely. How much was that 2 hectares of lot, and how little can we pay the Panamanian slave contractor to build our very own Taj Mahal? Really, only $300,000. Such a steal. So we only have to set up two offshore bank accounts (to protect us, of course), make payments directly to your company, and keep our gringo mouths shut? Well, that's an impressive sales pitch.....can we just look around a little? It took three .45 caliber shots to the forehead to escape the she-witch, and as she stumbled backwards over the cheaply built diorama of the development, we made our hasty departure. Still, this was a somewhat attractive prison for expats......one would hardly ever have to mingle with the local populace, save having to actually "shop" for food (or even hiring a young woman to do this for you), or perhaps deign to have one of them mow one's lawn. The insanity of the whole arrangement sank in as we toured the grounds. The entire "facility" was designed to keep expats "safe" from what was apparently rampant crime in the Land of the Cannibals. Who knew? There was not only a cheesy gate, lacking an actual guard, but a real clubhouse at the golf course, which no doubt was well armed with the latest in CIA technology, including, but not limited to, anti-personnel mines in the rough, surface-to-air missiles should a wayward condor approach and try to devour your visiting grandchildren, and satellite views of the town, able to watch for sundry domestics not washing one's clothes properly.

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It was time to leave this haven-nee-prison, and so we waved at the virtual guard at the gate and departed for town, but not before purchasing a very nice agate windchime and some tapestry thingies at the gift shop. Shouldn't be a total loss after all.

Winding our way back towards town, the wily one opened her guide book and noticed that there was yet another gated community we had planned to visit. It's just up the road a few miles, then a right. Uh, ok. And so we drove on, searching for the community that could one day be ours. And we drove. And drove. Jesus woman, where is this place? The guide book says it's not far. Soon come. You know what that means, right? Yeah, come soon, got it. We drove onward, passing several times the same bends in the road, growing increasingly convinced we would never find this new haven. There were signs for this place, yet no "place". The gravel roads were becoming as familiar as our own gravel road, and as we approached one particular paved road, the Wily One proclaimed "it's paved, we can go there". This would become a mantra of the Voyage......it's paved, we can go there. Still, an hours' worth of searching brought nothing but signs. No encampment. Oh well, maybe they have "plans" to build something. We were undetered, and so vowed to drive back into town for fresh supplies, as the seco and cheesy poofs were in diminishing quantities. Though we had driven for hours through the "suburbs" of Boquete, it took only a few minutes to find ourselves back in the thick of things. Oh look, there's the internet cafe, we should email the family to let them know that the only cannibals so far have been the she-devil saleswoman. OK, this was a plan. We parked and made our way up the dingy staircase, finding a sole, rather hapless computer geek sitting behind a makeshift desk. Cuanto para el internet, I expertly asked the gentleman. It'll be USD $0.25 for the first half hour, he replied. Hmmm, well versed this one was. And who could beat a quarter for half an hours' worth of internet? We settled in behind an antiquated PC and emailed home. Look Ma, still have both hands. The cannibals haven't taken much of a bite yet, save for the sales-witch. Had we been more modern adventurers, we would have sent along pictures as proof that we were indeed still whole. Alas, modern technology was not our trade. Satisfied that we had made our loved ones back home feel more secure, we strode adventurously to the store to resupply. Along the way, having dodged several hundred of the local dogs (why are there so many dogs?), we ran into an unexpected friendly face. Doctor Gary, wow, we didn't think you would be here so quickly. Turns out, Doctor G had an adventure of his own, having booked passage on a bus from Santa Fe. That must have been exciting, we inquired. No, not really, just like any other bus ride, except with more chickens. We chatted as we shopped, then decided that a nice repast was in order. This looks like a nice place. A lonely looking restaurant nigh beckoned for us to enter. We sat a a "window" seat (they were all window seats), and ordered several beers and some cheeseburgers. Many hours of conversation and laughter passed before we left. We drove Doctor G to his abode, which was a family hosting him for several weeks in exchange for knowledge and a few dollars.

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The day was still young, so we drove to the highlands, rich with coffee plantations. The road was steep, but the Nissan was well up to the challenge. The road quickly narrowed, so much so that the large numbers of workers that were headed home, and several very large trucks laden with the days' bounty, soon occupied most of the road. We pressed on in search of further adventure. Most of the workers were well laden with packs, as they had to walk many miles to get to work and back, and required sustenance along the way. They peered curiously at the two gringos slowly passing them on the road. We smiled, waved, and turned around. There was only so much one could really get out of miles of coffee plantations. Still, simply breathtaking scenery.

Half an hour later, we were back in town and headed for the hotel. We made for our suite, stopping at length to smell the flowers. And there were a lot of flowers, so the length was extensive. Back in the suite, we unloaded our supplies and settled in for the evening. Oh look Dear. I think The A-Team is on. Ha, we don't need no stinkin' A-Team, we need some adult beverages on the patio. And so we sat, gazing out over the rapidly darkening gardens, consuming our cocktails, and reveling in the day. Damn, it really is pretty here. Too bad the expats don't have this view. Or maybe they do, less the pesky locals asking for their days' pay.

And so came to a close Day 6 of our adventures. Stay tuned, once again, as Day 7 approaches and we again have breakfast with exquisite coffee and cooked meat products, and plan for the drive ahead. But first, let's have another cocktail. Seco and milk is really pretty good.

Posted by beerman 11:38 Archived in Panama Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Voyage to the Isthmus of Panama Day 5

My mother said there would be cannibals

semi-overcast 23 °C

Day 5. Dawn broke several hours before we managed to crack open our eyes, and there still seemed to be remnants of the previous nights' music humming in our ears. No wait, that's a cricket. Still, sounded the same. Bleary eyed, we looked at each other and knew instantly what we must do: Sex. No, make that coffee. The walls were far too thin for sex, but just right for coffee. Our extraordinarily charming $13/night room nigh spoke to us...."get your asses up gringos and smell the cooked meat products". This sounded odd, coming from four reasonably barren walls, but we heeded the advice as sound. Clean the teeth, splash refreshingly cold water on the faces, and put on clothing. This was again the stuff of true adventure. Mostly because brushing one's teeth in water slightly above freezing is an adventure unto itself. But the cold water did the trick, and we were soon seated in the restaurant ready for some of the finest coffee in the world. The waitress recognized us immediately as the Alcoholic Butchers of the Language, and was kind enough to simply set two cups in front of us, filled with life-giving nectar, and smile. "Mas jueves y jabon?", she slyly chided. Funny girl. It seems everyone is a comedian. "Si Senorita, y dobles", I felt compelled to reply. While she giggled her way back to the kitchen, we sipped the dark brew and gazed upon the gardens, keenly sensing that the mental fog would soon lift. The gardens were again stunning, and the bougainvillia heavily scented the air, clearing our minds. Or maybe it was the caffeine. Nonetheless, we had purpose anew. Food....damn this was good soap. And the Thursdays were prepared perfectly over easy.

What seemed like several days passed before we made it back to the room. The botanists were on the terrace sorting and bagging their most recent booty. "Nice orchids, I'd bet they would go good in an umbrella drink." The boys were unimpressed with our humor, but did go on to explain that these particular orchids were quite rare and required the utmost care to make it back to Florida alive for propagation and survival. Orchids were suffering in the tropics due to climate change, and they must be preserved. Fair enough, but still, those boat drinks....

The boys regaled us with a story of their attempted climb up Death Hill in their SUV, which coincidentally, matched ours but in color. We couldn't help but notice the excessive amount of red clay that had attached itself to every surface of the car. "Couldn't make it up the hill, eh?" No, they couldn't, and save for the assistance of a kind local in a very strong 4-wheel drive truck, their lives had been spared an ignominious death. This bode well, as it's always handy to have a local nearby in possession of a very strong 4-wheel drive when negotiating Death Hill. Where the hell was he yesterday at the great River Muluba Challenge? Ha, we didn't need him for that as we are true adventurers.

We bid the boys farewell and checked out of the hotel. Doctor Gary came out to chat, inquire as to our next destination, and say goodbye. We told him we were headed to Boquete, which brought a smile to his face as he was also soon to be there, but not today. Perhaps we would see each other again.

We artfully packed our 2 metric tons of baggage back into the Nissan and headed down the road. Oh look Dear, the vacas have come to see us off and protect us from the precipitous drop-off!! Funny boy.....hey, you have to make fun, if not of yourselves, something else.

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Santiago was a quick drive, mostly for the 60-degree angle of the road down the mountain. Ah, to have the fresh air again blowing through our hair. Even more refreshing in Santiago itself, where the heat and humidity had returned with a vengeance. Oh, look, another muebleria. Y una carniceria. Not to be deterred from our task, we stopped at the next petrol station for a full tank, such that we could make it to out next destination without needing the blessings of a delightful woman and her 300 children. Tank filled to the brim, we sped out onto the CA1 in search of David. The town, not a person. We whisked through one small town after another, breathing in the scenery, which was not difficult to do as the air was thick with moisture. Several hours of scenery breathing later, we arrived in David, a bustling city of 125,000 or so. Oh look Dear, another muebleria. Enough with the store jargon, please. But Dear, it's an educational experience....fine then, we'll move onto animals. No, look for signs. From above? No, for Boquete, that road has to be around here somewhere. And so it was, we found the road with considerably less difficulty than trying to get out of Panama City. We again climbed high into the mountains, passing such sights as the Volcan Baru, a thankfully extinct volcano. Nothing can ruin a good adventure like rivers of molten lava burying one's hotel. Puts one quite off an afternoon martini. And shortly, Boquete was in sight. Boquete is a quiet little town of 20,000 or so that has been beset by expatriates from the North, most of whom have barricaded themselves in gated communities at the edge of town. So much for soaking in the richness of the country. Granted, Panama is not exactly rich, which is why these expats now call it home.....it's cheap by American standards. But there is more to the country than economic riches.

Driving through town, we spotted the internet cafe, several potentially good restaurants, and the grocery store, perfect for stocking up on seco and cheesy poofs. The streets were quite crowded with both locals and new locals going about the day. And dogs. There were lots of dogs. Seemingly too many for a town of this size, but they too were simply going about their days' business. Oh look Dear, the LP guide says the Hotel Panamonte is quite nice. And $65/night....not too bad. We parked in the lot and bravely sauntered into the lobby. Si Senor, tenemos cuartos. Dos noches? Oh Senor, we only have cabana suites left, but they are very nice. Only $75/night. Sold. The bearers effortlessly unloaded our baggage and brought it to our new abode. Wow, you're not kidding....this is a great room. And a little seating area outside.

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Oh look Dear, the TV Guide says Steve Irwin is on at 9. No, we have to explore, be adventurous. OK, no TV, so where do we go? Where else but to the river? Made sense, this woman of mine was both wily and correct. So off we charged to the Rio Caldera. Say Dear, you do know that a caldera is the leftovers of a volcanic eruption? Yes, of course I do, but do you smell sulfur and see lava flowing in the streets? No, true enough, no lava and no sulfur. A short hike over the garbage and through the ruts and we were there.

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At 3200 feet, we were nigh gasping for oxygen, the air thick with an omnipresent mist. During a smoke break, we spotted the lifeless bodies of 2 rafting guides and five tourists. Damn, nothing in their pockets. Oh well, no harm in trying. For the ID's of course. Beautiful river, even with the masses of detritus borne by the currents to the shores. Funny thing about Panama, as with many Central American countries, garbage is ever-present. It would be a fine place for an enterprising garbage collector.

A short hike back into town found us at the Supermecado Ruiz, the grocery store we had spied from the road. Time to stock up on supplies, as adventurers are apt to do given the opportunity. Seco, some limes, a tin of peanuts, and cheesy poofs, this would tide us over. Securing our repast, we made for the hotel. It was now that we must record our adventures to date.

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Few things in life are more satisfying than booze and cheesy poofs. And Panamanian limes are most curious. They look like regular limes on the outside, but on the inside they have bright orange flesh and are obscenely sweet. Perfect for logging the past few days in the land of cannibals. Many hours passed until it was time for a proper dinner. The hotel restaurant was ready for us. Ah, fresh fish. Not us, it was on the menu. My sweet devoured a piquant chicken with vegetables whilst I opted for seafood. See food, eat food, I always say. We could bear no more by cocktail time, so a few adult beverages by the stone fireplace and it was time to retire. Oh look Dear, Steve Irwin is still on....must be a marathon. With the cool mist blowing seductively through the open windows and casting a light fog throughout the room, we bundled up and drifted off to a most pleasant sleep, no longer gasping for oxygen. And so endeth Day 5 of our adventures.

Stay tuned for a second riveting day in the highlands, wherein we again meet Doctor Gary and find that the hills are indeed alive with the smell of coffee plantations.

Posted by beerman 07:40 Archived in Panama Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Voyage to the Isthmus of Panama Day 4

My mother said there would be cannibals

sunny 30 °C

Day 4. We awoke to the soft strains of a Del Castillo song humming into ours ears......... Bajo del rio, estas llamando...... The music was in our heads, as we were fondly remembering our day at the Rio Muluba. There are few things in life more satisfying than waking to gentle music in your ears. Unless you count a brimming cup of freshly made Panamanian coffee....that's pretty good too. Alas, we had no room service, certainly not for $13 a night, but we woke with smiles on our faces nonetheless. We had braved the river of doom and were saved by the countless blessings of the gasoline woman and her 300 children. Life was good. Breakfast, my dear? Certainly, but first we must dress. Damned civilization, insisting on people being dressed for breakfast. Splashing a very waking bit of cold water on the face, and a bit of teeth brushing, we made our way to the restaurant, ready for another day. We sat at our usual table, which was quite simple as we were the only people in the place. But it felt like our usual table, we had grown fond of that table in the few short hours we had been here. Cafe, si gracias, y tambien jueves y jabon. There comes a time in one's life where one simply must butcher the local language enough to ask for Thursdays and soap. The waitress was considerably amused, but understood that we wanted eggs and ham. It's an icebreaker, this butchering of language. She was so amused that we got double helpings of eggs and ham. Sure, we paid for it, but it was the thought that counted. And the coffee was superb, with a dash of whole fresh milk to top it off. Senores, hoy es La Feria. Verdad? Si, La Feria. Sweet, there was a fair in town, and this we must see. Well bloated from a sumptuous breakfast (soap can do that to you), we ambled back toward our room, but were intercepted by the New York woman. "We're going horse-back riding today", she said with a sort of glee usually reserved for cheerleaders ready for Homecoming. How nice for you. "That's nice, let us know later how that turns out". We tried to contain our sarcasm and smiled, giving her the thumbs up sign. Her boyfriend seemed less enthused, his expression mutely saying "kill me now". We waved as they left, their guide having finally arrived to take them on their tour, quietly muttering "have fun storming the castle". These were not true adventurers these children, more apparent when we saw the poor nags the guide brought with him. These horses had expressions that could easily be read, much like the boyfriend......."kill me now, make glue out of me, I have no will to live". We thought about those poor horses as we strolled back to the room to prepare to visit the fair. "Maybe the one will trip and knock New York over a steep precipice".

And so it was back down the road toward town.
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Oh look dear, the vacas are guarding the steep precipice. Little amused, Gretchen pointed out the path ahead.....up there, and to the right (of course - it's always to the right). 18 seconds later, we were again driving through the suburbs of Santa Fe, guided by the music wafting from the fairgrounds and the vaguely familiar smell of domestic animal droppings. We found a nifty parking space alongside other fair-goers and proceeded to make our way to the center of activity. Wow, now that's a view.
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Along either side of the main avenue were multiple stalls of vendors proffering everything from handmade jewelry to beer and sodas to information on the latest techniques in modern Panamanian agronomy. This was a county fair after all. We visited with some of the folks, each eager in a sense to ask where we were from. The locals were not wearing shorts, Hawaiian shirts, and flip-flops, so we kind of stuck out from the crowd. A couple of beers, and some concerted efforts at explaining that we were from Illinois and we soon blended in.......not. Still, the locals were extraordinarily friendly, not at all the cannibals we were warned of. Several young boys quickly noticed that there were fresh fish in the sea, and clamored over Gretchen showing her their bracelets and sundry jewelry. Si, joven, es bueno, uno por favor......no, solamente uno, gracias. The boys were thrilled to have made a sale of a very nice handwoven bracelet. Further ahead, we found the sugar cane hawkers......using an old hand cranked cane press to make juice for sale. This looks promising. The grizzled old veterans of the cane juice trade immediately took to Gretchen. Ah rubia, quiere jugo? Que es esto?, she replied in her finest Spanish. The men were beside themselves trying to be the one who taught the blond gringa about old fashioned sugar cane pressing. Senora, mira aqui....como esta.....they were insisting that she turn the crank of the press as had their ancestors, though their ancestors likely never wore orange Hawaiian style dresses. The men were smitten, while Gretchen smiled and did her best to understand what they said. What little I could gather, not too many Americans were at the fair, and they were happy to show some of their lives to a willing participant. Plus, it seems the men found her considerably more attractive than anyone else at the fair.
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$0.25 for fresh pressed cane mixed with orange juice. Not bad, so we had two each. We pressed on, though the men were sad to see us leave. Well, maybe not "us" leave.

Up ahead was a novel setting of agricultural marvel. One doesn't ordinarily think of other countries and what they do to grow food, so this was quite interesting. There were a number of different displays ranging from basic vegetable crops to aquaculture. Corn, beans, cabbages, and fish. Fish? Yes, the Extension Agents were working on bringing aquaculture to Panama. We chatted with several of them on the latest techniques in aquaculture, as best we could in present-tense Spanish. They were quite enthused that we had heard of their ideas, and we exchanged some information that could be useful to them. Using agricultural waste to feed the fish could provide a dual cropping system to the people and provide several times the food as a traditional system. This was refreshing to see, as we both have a fair knowledge of the benefits of multi-use agriculture. Still, I liked the cabbage display, even though it seemed that the beetles had already wreaked some havoc on the poor crucifers.
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We continued to stroll along, stopping only occasionally for another beer and to chat with a horse or two, even a few goats. The fair was easily the rival of any to be had in the States, albeit somewhat smaller in scale.

Hours passed, and when we had seen it all. It was time to return to the hotel. We took our time returning, savoring the sights and sounds and smells around us. 38 seconds later, we pulled into at the hotel. It seemed to be cocktail hour, so we splashed a bit more cold water on our faces and made once again for the restaurant. We considered dressing for the occasion, much as William Powell and Myrna Loy would in the Thin Man movies, but decided against it as we had left our tuxedos and floor-length gowns back in Illinois. Another cold beer, plus a heaping helping of chicken with something (that Panamanian specialty), and we were set for the evening. All we had to do was wait for the floor show, and it appeared before we ever expected. First to arrive was Doctor Gary, who we regaled with our tales of the fair. Gary was quite fascinated with our adventure - oooh, fresh fish my dear. We told him of the fair, and he in turn told us of his adventures wandering the countryside. Several beers later, the New Yorkers returned, walking somewhat gingerly. They (she) told us of their horseback riding tour. We tried to listen interestedly, to no avail, until the woman told us that the surrounding hills were so steep that she felt sorry for her horse and dismounted so as to walk the horse and not be a burden. We could only imagine this horse laughing itself silly that it got to walk, unburdened for a change, while being led by someone who quite possibly would have been devoured by tigers in another time. Perhaps the mall would have been more of a challenge, though to be fair, she was here after all, well out of her normal climate. Her boyfriend downright devoured several beers in a row, perhaps grateful that tomorrow would bring something different. Next in the show were the two botanists, fresh from an adventure afield. They proudly told of the various orchids they had captured, and noticing that we had the same make of vehicle as they, asked if we had tried to drive up the treacherous mountain they tried. No, but it looks like you picked up some mud along the way. They had tried to negotiate a particularly steep hill and were unsuccessful. To their good fortune, several locals in a robust pickup truck rescued them and towed them back down the hill. Leaving their SUV behind, they went with the locals back up the big hill and found more specimens than they had seen previously. The walk back down the hill was truly an adventure unto its own for them, but they had their bounty.

Once again, hotel management was quite pleased with the consumptive abilities of their guests, and late into the evening, we stumbled back to our room. Sleep would have been a fine option, but alas, it was only that, an option. The fair was rolling into a high timbre, and the music levels had grown increasingly loud. There had to be 5 different bands striving for supremacy in the "can we be louder than you?" category. Granted, the music was nice, but it soon took on the urgency and decibel level of twenty million cicadas hell bent on mating. Still, sleep eventually came as the music died down to a low rumble, somewhere around 4am. And so endeth Day 4 of our adventures.

Stay tuned for the riveting forthcomings as we try to decide whether to head for Bocas Del Toro or Boquete....really, it's riveting. Really riveting. Honest. Would I kid you about a thing like this? No, not much. Maybe a little.

Posted by beerman 12:16 Archived in Panama Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Voyage to the Isthmus of Panama Day 3

My mother said there would be cannibals

sunny 40 °C

Day 3. Ah, New York….no wait, that was another blog. Ah, Panama. It seemed the Chinese food from the night before had digested quite nicely, though, as always when eating Chinese food, we were hungry for more. So a quick dash to the restaurant for coffee and cooked meat products was in order. The place had not lost its charm from the night before – the silk wall hangings and lanterns still shouted “You could be in Shanghai”. We shared breakfast with a bus full of tourists who eagerly devoured everything in sight. It seems they were on a “Seniors Tour”, so one had to be of a certain age to be there. Oddly, the people were a mix of elderly caucasian men and equally elderly Oriental women. They chatted and laughed their way through eggs, meat, and flat Panamanian breads as if the day was their last. This brightened our hearts even more with the thought that these old folks were having the time of their lives, and that they might be thinking there would be sex later tonight.

Checking out of the hotel to the gracious thanks of the front desk staff (I think her name was Graciela), we muled our 12 metric tons of baggage back the venerable Nissan. And while loading the car, one of the oddest sights came upon us. Next to the hotel was a little shanty of sorts that catered to not only breakfast for any passersby, but also contained a car wash, complete with hoses, towels, and soap. Talk about the entrepreneurial spirit. This was a gold mine, and the patron saint of car washes was proudly displayed in a large mural on one wall.

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The road beckoned, and in short order we were off, well sated by a novel Chinese Panamanian breakfast. Now where the hell was the highway again? Oh right, left, 4 km, then right again. Santa Fe was our destination, a mere 135 km down the road and up the mountain. The highway itself proffered a somewhat bleak landscape…..OK, it was dry-ish season, and not all was green and lush as we had been led to believe by my mother’s talk of cannibal-infested jungles ripe with malaria and bananas. But it was still more scenic than Interstate 90 between Rockford and Chicago. Small towns came and went, all looking remarkably alike. Men in straw hats grouped together chatting and women laden with all sorts of their daily shopping carried on with their lives. Plus there was the occasional mule or small horse, who had such wistful looks on their faces that they no doubt were daydreaming of verdant green pastures and clear-flowing streams. Oh, and it was still hot. Really hot. But as true adventurers, we were not to be swayed by having to use the a/c. The winds whipped through the car, offering a slight reprieve from the humidity that was hanging in the air like a London fog in April.

A mere 90 minutes after our departure from the Guacamaya and we arrived in Santiago, a bustling city of 60,000 or 285,000, depending on which website you choose to believe. Regardless, this was city life again, and we braved the city traffic with little knowledge of where we were or where we were going. What did that road sign say? Dammit, I wish my Spanish was better. Still, I had the opportunity to teach Gretchen a few words of Spanish that would undoubtedly come in handy along the way. “See that? Muebleria. It’s a furniture store. And that? Carniceria. It’s a butcher shop.” These were phrases that all humans needed to know. Furniture and meat, what else would anyone need?

Deftly navigating through the complex of one-way streets, going the right way for a change, we found ourselves very nearly confused. The only thing to do was to follow the creed of the Seasoned Traveler: ask for directions. I pulled over and asked a completely unsuspecting woman where the hell we were and where was the road to Santa Fe. She stood there, half tempted to run for her life and half tempted to laugh uproariously, but her instincts quickly returned and she told me in far too many words that we were in Santiago and all we had to do was drive ggbbbiillngdrrrroopbblllllrrrppps (that’s really what it sounded like) over there and turn left, and we would find our way. She could have been directing us to the church for salvation, or the police station, but she was dead on. We found the road, and a bit of salvation, and turned north. Oh look, a sign for Santa Fe!!!

Over the course of the next fifty kilometers, we found ourselves climbing in altitude. How did we know this? Well, the humidity was certainly dropping, and we hadn’t seen a carnivorous mosquito swoop by for a bit….oh, and our ears were popping. And there were precipitous drop-offs around every bend in the road. This was Gretchen’s favorite thing in the whole world, precipitous drop-offs. But my driving skills and the Nissan were up to the challenge. Just outside Santa Fe, we found the Hotel Santa Fe, the finest hotel in the area. We parked and sauntered stiffly to the front desk, as adventurers are apt to do after a drive. Si, Senor, we have a room for you. Dos noches? Si, we can do this. $13 a night. Were we in hotel heaven? We found our room without the help of the baggage sherpas and checked in. The oscillating fan was a welcome sight.

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Splashing a bit of cold water on our faces, we prepared to make forth and explore. Back in the trusty Nissan, we made for town, just 2 minutes further up the road. Gretchen was pleased that the precipitous drop-off on her side was protected by several tired horses and a few brahma cows peacefully munching away at the road signs. This was to be foretelling, as there were very few road signs in Santa Fe. Apparently, road signs are a delicacy among the local livestock. It took 30 seconds to drive right through town. And then, a sign. Not from God, but for the Rio Muluba. Turn right Gringo. And we did. But wait!!! We had to navigate this road?

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“Not on your life my dear!!” C’mon, it’s only a dirt road , and the washouts are only two feet deep on either side. The Nissan can handle it. It has 4-wheel drive. “It’s not the car I’m worried about, it’s our lives”. OK, fair enough, and besides, we were down to a quarter tank of gas. If we were to continue exploring, we would need more SUV juice. Backing up and turning around as delicately as I could, we made the return minute trip back to town. “I didn’t see any gas stations here”. Neither did I. (This is one of the great stories of this trip). So we parked at the town square and walked to the Farmers Market, hoping that someone could advise us of a solution to our dilemma. The Farmers Market was a series of stalls in what looked to be something like a large band shell in the center of an old Iowa town, but with less paint. There were only four or five vendors hawking a few items each to virtually no one but us. No one even spoke (the hawking was very quiet). We approached one woman and asked about petrol. No Senor, no hay gasolina aqui. Dammit, someone must know. We forged on, asking another vendor. Oh Senor, no se…..momento, hay una mujer que tiene gasolina. SI? Bueno, donde esta la mujer? The woman directed her 14 year old nephew to get in the car with us and show us where the mujer was. Muchas Gracias senora!! The boy nervously stepped into the back seat of the Nissan and directed us to drive ahead. Alli, y entonces alli, no, a la derecha, y ahorra a la derecha otra vez. We felt rather like Albert Schweitzer navigating the Congo in search of souls to save, guided by a mildly nervous child. We drove through what passed for the suburbs of Santa Fe for what seemed like 30 minutes, until finally the boy exclaimed “AQUI!!”. We pulled into the drive of a modest little home surrounded by chickens, goats, some laundry on the line, and 300 children. A woman came out of the house looking rather puzzled at the sight of two gringos dressed in Hawaiian shirts and shorts and driving a rich car. The boy quickly explained to her that we were in search of gas. Oh, Si, cuanto quieren? Um, uh, tiene cinco gallones? My Spanish was poor. The woman furrowed her brow momentarily, scratched her chin, then signaled to the 300 children to bring fuel for the gringos. At once, children poured from under the porch with 5 one gallon Wesson oil jugs. The woman directed me to open the gas lid, then she pulled out a plastic siphon hose. No, you’re not really going to siphon gas for us? Si Senor. In one massive effort, the woman had the hose tucked into the tank opening and was happily siphoning gas into our tank. One jug, then two, then all five. This woman had talent to say the least. I sheepishly asked this brave woman what she wanted for the gas. Again, she furrowed her brow, calculating what the market price for 5 gallons of gas was for 2 nattily dressed gringos. Gas was $2.50 in town, and I could see this woman calculating like Einstein on a physics problem. “Doce y media”, the woman finally said ($12.50). She was fair, not trying to rip us because I believed that she was an honest, hard working woman. I reached into my pocket and found I had only $20 bills. I gave her one, and she again furrowed her brow and rubbed her chin about how she was going to get me change. She began to signal the 300 children to retrieve cash from the house when I said “momento Senora, el cambio no es necessario (the change isn’t necessary) porque tu eres muy simpatico (because you are very nice).” The woman looked at me with mouth agape, as if I was the savior come down from Heaven. She was shocked, stunned, and very nearly without words. The words returned very quickly, and it took about 15 minutes of hugging and blessings and more hugging until this woman would let us leave. We were certainly grateful, but she would have none of my thanks. She was too well occupied blessing us on our journey, and after the hundredth “Vaya Con Dios y Gracias”, we were allowed to leave her presence. A bit stunned ourselves at our fortune, we drove the boy back to the Farmers Market. We returned our reluctant tour guide to his aunt, thanked them both profusely, and made for the river once again.

“You’re sure we can make that?” Yes dear, we will survive – we have been blessed, and no harm will come to us on this adventure. And down the hill we went, pausing only briefly for a horse and cart to pass before us. The bridge held our weight well, and we drove on. In four-wheel drive, just in case. Where’s the river? It’s got to be here somewhere. Again, as true adventurers do, we had to stop for directions. Several men were waiting at a ramshackle bus stop, so we figured they had our answer. Si Senor, bbbrrhhhgglooopddssiillaeeerpperrssszz, y alli, entonces, al la derecha. Was everything off to the right in this country? Apparently so, because we turned down a road that would barely pass for a farm field road back home, past several small houses, and came upon the river of boulders. The real river was just past the river of boulders. Good thing we had four-wheel drive, because there were some sizable boulders.

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Relax dear, it’s a rental. And besides, there’s an old Chevy pickup further on ahead….if he can make it, so can we. We parked as out of the way as we could and strolled to the water, as well as one could stroll over boulders the size of large watermelons. We waded into the waters, soothed by their coolness, and sank below the surface as we water babies tend to do. Fortunately, the girls who were washing their hair in the river were downstream, so we missed the shampoo floating by. We luxuriated in the water for some time, until a small group of school boys came by and decided that they enjoyed the music coming from our car (the Desperado soundtrack) so much that it was time for a bottle of seco (fermented sugar cane - Panamanian rum) and a bit of partying. Not to worry dear, they are children out for some fun. It was time to go anyway, we had survived the river of doom. Braving the river of boulders and the hill of despair, waving to the boys as we left (who waved back), we made it back into town and to the hotel.

It was late in the afternoon when we finally made it to the hotel restaurant. It was a smallish place, with 5 or 6 tables scattered around the room and open to the balcony overlooking the hotel grounds.

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We were greeted jovially by the waitress (the owner’s daughter), who eagerly brought us a couple of beers to enjoy. The sun was just setting, and the air was still, yet the atmosphere was golden. The gardens were magnificently in bloom with all manner of flowers which scented the air heavily. We ordered two meals of chicken and something, something being a Panamanian specialty, and were joined by other hotel guests. A medical student from New York and his girlfriend, a doctor named Gary from Oregon, and two doctoral candidates in Botany from the University of Florida who were on a mission to harvest exotic orchids. The New York woman went on about how excited she was that they were going to rent some horses the next day and go riding, while Gary pretty much kept silent, but for the occasional nod of agreement or disparagement. The two students were quite entertaining, telling stories of their research and where they had been. This lasted well into the evening, and our hosts seemed pleased that business was good……we all consumed many beers.

Drowsy from the beers and the days’ adventures (blessings can be draining, let me tell you), we lay down, kissed each other goodnight, and drifted off to sleep, assured that our next adventures would be good – hey, we had been blessed after all. And so endeth day 3 of our voyage.

Stay tuned for Day 4, wherein we find out why high maintenance New York girlfriends shouldn’t ride horses, and how to talk agronomy with the local County Fair Extension Agents…..in Spanish.

Posted by beerman 10:28 Archived in Panama Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Voyage to the Isthmus of Panama Day 2

My mother said there would be cannibals

sunny 36 °C

We awoke on Day 2 to bright sunshine glaring through the window of our room at the lovely Continental Hotel Riande, and we knew that adventure lay before us. It had to, we were adventurers, and here we were. The picture below isn't really our hotel, but rather the one across the street which was not nearly as nice as the Riande. But you get the point. It did have a big sign on top that read "Panama".
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Adventure began the day with a quick jaunt to the hotel restaurant, as it generally does for us. A good night's sleep does wonders for the soul, and we immediately settled in to the life that is Panama.....lethargy. True, people go about their daily lives being productive members of society, but the heat and humidity were a tad more than we were accustomed to. It was a good 75 degrees warmer than home. The restaurant provided a delightful repast of strong coffee, cooked meat products, and Panamanian breadstuffs. We could have stayed there all day, but our spirits were in the mood for travel. And so it was off to the front desk to check out and procure our rental chariot. We forayed into the streets of Panama City in search of the Hertz agency......it was only 4 blocks away, and they were waiting for us. Well, sort of. Turns out this particular agency was not the one we had reserved with, and they had no idea why we would come to them. "But you're Hertz, you have our car". Ha, bad computer - this WAS the agency we had reserved with, and they dropped the proverbial ball. "Senor, please accept my sincerest apologies. Please go back to your hotel and we will bring a car from another agent and bring it to you". Fair enough, no harm done. But time was ticking on, and adventure awaited. Mind you, just walking the streets of Panama City is an adventure unto it's own. The buses, colorfully adorned in every color imaginable, plied the streets and sidewalks picking up passengers and re-depositing them at will. Many of them rather looked like home projects for the drivers. They were chopped and shredded and ready for work. The drivers too. The passengers appeared non-plussed by the fumes and the noise. Panama City buses spew the equivalent of several small countries worth of carbon monoxide while plying through the streets. Still, it was sight to see.
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Back at the hotel, the Bellman greeted us with bemusement. "Senor, did you not get your car"? "Si, el coche will be here shortly". And so it was. 30 minutes later, a shiny new Nissan XTrail SUV appeared, and it had our names on it. Not literally, figuratively. Though our names were on the rental agreement, so close enough. The Bellman packed our 12 metric tons of baggage into the back and waved, the kind of wave that tells you he thinks you'll never make it back alive. It was pushing noon, so off we drove into the wilds of the city, not having the vaguest idea where we were headed, just a general heading: west. The Bellman had done his best to give us directions to the CA1, the Pan-American Highway. "Is very easy Senor - take Avenida Balboa to the west until you see Avenida Central, then turn right and go until you see my brother Jorge's bus parked at the corner of Avenida Central and Avenida Roosevelt. Stop and ask him where to go from there". Simple enough. And we were off. But we've known that for some time.

A Nissan XTrail is a remarkable vehicle, not unlike a strong mule with bucket seats and cup holders. Apparently, in Panama, only the rich folk drive SUV's, so we were looked at by the locals as two rich gringos. Who were not completely lost. A short drive through the suburbs, past the red light district, bypassing Jorge and his broken down bus, around the canal, and we found the CA1. The open highway. It lay before us, so I laid on the gas. Windows open, flying down the highway at 80 kph, the wind blowing our hair, our nostrils filling with all manner of smells, breathing deeply to absorb all that was to be had, including precious oxygen, we headed west. Sort of northwest actually. But still, the open road was at hand. Damn, a toll booth. No problema, we have change.

About an hour down the road, we began to think that we had been windblown sufficiently, so a stop was in order. Santa Clara, that sounds promising. Besides, there's a nice resort just up the road in Farallon we can check out for the evening. But first, the beach. Santa Clara has a smallish downtown surrounded by mud and plywood. Hey, it was clean. People were out and about shopping and socializing. We found the beach area with little issue....look for the sign that says "playa". My Spanish was as sharp as ever. We parked and stepped out to discover a very nice beach relatively devoid of people. Hmm, was there some occasion or natural disaster keeping people away? No, it was just too hot for reasonable people to be out at this time. We strolled along the beach hand in hand doing what we always do - looking for shells. No shells here, sorry, devoid of sea life too. Half an hour of strolling caused the bottoms of our feet to start melting into the sand, so it was time for a refreshment. A cold beer would be just the thing....OK, 2 beers.....each. The few people around were great fodder for watching - several Europeans setting up a tent for the night, some locals watching us and no doubt curious if the massive quantities of sweat pouring from us would ever cease, and the beer vendor, pleased that I didn't ask for my change back. "Right my muse, it's off to the resort to book accommodation". And so we left Santa Clara, pleased to have seen it at all.

Up the road in Farallon, we found a sizable resort brimming with people. We parked and made our way to the front desk. No reservations? Of course not, we are adventurers. "Lo siento Senor, but we are all booked up....it is Carnival you know - everyone is booked". Drat, confounded by adventure. Notwithstanding this misfortune, and happy to not pay $300 a night to sleep, we pulled out the trusty map and found Penonome. "Just up the road another hour, and we'll be there". Plus, it would be dark soon, and adventurers such as us dislike viewing the scenery when there is nothing to see but headlights. Adventurers yes, but not stupid. And so we drove to Penonome, a lovely town noteworthy for it production of classic Panama hats, woven so tightly that one could carry water in them. There were stalls on almost all the streets with people doing this weaving with hands gnarled from years of labor. Damn that looks hard. Rounding the last corner in town in our rich-mobile, we spotted it: The Hotel Guacamaya (macaw in English). This was to be it, for it fairly called to us. "Si senor, we have a room for you....just for one night"? "Si, solamente una noche, gracias". "That will be USD $25 please". Hot damn, a deal. We coaxed several hundred locals into carrying our baggage up to our room and paid them happily and with a smile. Photo is of the Guacamaya. Oh look, there's our Nissan. No wait, that's someone else's.
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"Cocktail dear"? Of course, that was the ticket. The sun was just beginning to set and all around glowed orange. An unexpected treat was the hotel restaurant: Chinese food. It was decorated as if right out of Shanghai, complete with hanging lanterns, silk wall hangings, and red cotton tablecloths. How unusual. We were served well, and ate with abandon. Seemingly a week passed before we crawled back to our room. Right, now to plan for tomorrow. But wait, there's a television, shall we see what's on? One channel, and it was playing an old and rather pathetic Steven Seagal movie, subtitled in English. Keen to improve our Spanish, we watched and read the subtitles, hoping to gather some fresh information about how to speak like Steven Seagal in Panama. It didn't work, as even in Spanish, Steven Seagal is a terrible actor. So on to planning it was. Perhaps a day or two in the mountains. The tiny town of Santa Fe sounded promising, and it was only a few hours away, nestled several thousand feet up in the Cordillera Central, the mountain range that bisects Panama down the middle. Ah, the mountains would be a nice relief from the heat. Probably no mosquitos either, which we learned had the ability to swoop down from above and pick up women or small children in their beaks. Big bugs, let me tell you. And so we drifted off to a deep slumber, content in the fact that we had not disappointed as adventurers.

And so endeth Day 2 of our 14 day voyage. Stay tuned, because Santa Fe holds one of the great stories of this voyage. And please turn off the light when you leave.

Posted by beerman 10:09 Archived in Panama Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

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