Thanksgiving in Panama

Church at Panama Viejo
Church at Panama Viejo

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What an adventure it was going to Panama over the Thanksgiving weekend.  Many months ago Nancy and her sister planned this whole trip out to visit their Father and show Greg and I the place the both grew up.  A trip to a Latin country sounded like a good idea to me and I was on board.  Later I found out the trip would be over Thanksgiving weekend, the busiest retail weekend of the year.  This was going to be a hard sell to Gary to get the time off.  But with a little creative talking I got the time off, Nancy and I were headed to Panama.

As the trip approached I was getting more and more exciting.  This was a totally different place to visit than any where else I have been.  I have been outside the country, but never this far away.  Nor to a country where the primary language was not English.  Our flight left at 5:30am and when you start back tracking on time, it made sense to just stay up all night long and party.  However everyone bailed and we went to bed early for a few hours of sleep.

3am arrives early let me tell you.  The sun was no where to be seen and there was a thick blanket of fog hugging the ground.  When we arrived at the airport I was surprised that it was open and people where around, not a lot mind you, but there was a small buzz.  Everyone here this early wanted to avoid the holiday travel rush later in the day.  By about 6 our flight finally took off after a slight delay from the fog.

After a long flight in a cramped seat I was so happy to finally arrive and get off the plan.  Walking off the plan I was hit with heat and humidity.  We left 50 degree weather and immediately jumped into almost 90 degree weather, it was a shock to my system that took a while for me to adjust to.  After catching my breath we headed off to customs and immigration.  Like most countries we pay a small fee for the privilege of entering the country, passed immigrations, and gathered our bags.  The real fun began when we tried to get the rental van from Dollar.  The cost was not like Greg had booked it online, the full coverage insurance was more, almost a $100 more.  In the end the full coverage was a good idea and I recommend it to anyone that travels in this part of the world.  We quickly realized you need to be “cautiously aggressive” to drive around in the country.  You must cut people off and muscle your way into traffic, no one is courteous like in the US.

a ship through the canal
a ship through the canal

Meeting us at the airport was Nancy’s dad Bill and his girlfriend Maru which was really nice.  After some quick hellos we were off to their house just outside the airport in Tocumen.  When we got to the house we didn’t stay long.  Long enough to dropped off our bags and we were off to explore the city.  Bill showed us some of the places we should visit and how to get there, but more importantly where not to go.  As we drove to the city center you see about 75 skyscrapers if not more dotting the sky line.  Right in the city you can have a $300k/condo apartment building and a few blocks away extreme poverty.

While I am on this subject a few other observations about the country.  They are definitely not a customer service oriented country, you always get the feeling you are bothering people.  There are also armed security guards at ever bank that limit the number of people inside at one time and frisk/wand everyone that walks in.  Apartment buildings have secure parking and controlled access.  High priced neighborhoods have a wall running around the entire complex with barb wire on top, also with armed guards and controlled access.  Coming from America it is such a shock to see this, but it is the norm down there.  Having said that, I would absolutely go back again to visit the country and explore other areas.  I never once felt unsafe, as a tourist you just have to be smart and you will be fine.

So back to exploring the city center on our first day.  We went to Casco Antiguo which is a world heritage site and is the best example of the haves and have nots.  Because of it’s designation everyone wants to live there and property values have sky rocketed.  However, old town was long ago abandoned and the place turned into a slum.  So the poor have had to be forced out and the buildings rebuilt.  You can see the line between the two extremes as the rebuilding continues and expands out.  You would see tourist walking around with police making sure the tourists were protected.  This is one place I would have like to visit again and explore some more on foot.

part of the rain forest
part of the rain forest

Later we traveled to Amador which was an old US Naval base and was giving back to the Panama, just like all other US property at the end of 1999 under the Panama Canal Treaty of 1977.  Amador has been turned into a tourist trap with a ton of restaurants, outdoor cafes and shopping.  This area is the only successful transition area, all others have not taken off.  Howard Air Base is suppose to be a free trade/tax free zone that sits mostly empty.  Another base has been turned into a technology center with only two universities right now.  They have all these great ideas, just not enough follow through.

When we arrived home we decided to hit a restaurant called Wine Bar along the causeway for dinner.  Bill and Maru recommended it to us for a good place with an excellent wine selection.  When we arrived, we where the only ones there.  Arriving for dinner at 7pm is early for the locals, we ran into this the whole trip.  Sitting on couches outside, Greg and I were able to smoke our cigars in peace.  We decided to just order appetizers and bottles of wine which were very good that night.

On Friday we headed off on our own to do a little exploring and reminiscing.  First was the old city, Panama Viejo, now just ruins that are slowing being restored.  The old city sites on the edge of the modern city and was built by the Spaniards in 15919 as the first permanent city on the Pacific Ocean.  The city was great to walk around, even in ruins.  It was a little crazy seeing this old city right in the middle of the hustle and bustle now.  While walking through the surrounding gift shops we ran into a woman that remembered Nancy from Howard.  It was over 12 years ago that Nancy lived at Howard Air Base, what an impression Nancy left with her.

Nancy's old house
Nancy’s old house

The rest of the day was spending driving around all of Nancy’s old haunts.  The most important of these was her old house on Howard.  Her old house has not changed much.  It is a little run down seeing as no one has lived there for almost 10 years.  The surrounding neighborhood was just the same.  Kinda eerie seeing this ghost town that once was a vibrant community.

For lunch it was off to the locks at Miraflores, they have a small cafe that over looks the locks.  We got the complete package deal which allowed us access to the roof to get a better view, the museum, and a short video that we didn’t have time to watch.  This is what Panama is famous for, the canal and the locks.  I can now say that I have seen first hand one of the great industrial projects of the century.  After going through the museum it is amazing they cut the canal through the dense jungle almost a hundred years ago.  When you look at the equipment they had at their disposal, it is more amazing.  The place was great, but the food left a lot to be desired.  It was a very expensive buffet that was not worth the money.  Being the closest lock to Panama City it is definitely worth the trip, but bring a picnic and skip the restaurant.

That night for dinner we decided to cook dinner for Maru and Bill to show our appreciation for letting us stay at their house.  We tried to cook a meal from home, something they wouldn’t necessarily find in Panama.  We tried to do ribs but couldn’t find them at the grocery store.  Instead we parboiled some chicken and finished it off on the grill.  After dinner we sat around for hours just talking and emptying bottle after bottle of wine.  It was like being at home, the family gathered for good food and good wine, just talking.


Saturday was beach day.  With it being the rainy season we were taking our chances, but we all wanted a nice day in the sun at the beach.  We headed off to Santa Clara for the afternoon.  When we arrived we quickly found a bungalow to setup camp.  Inside there were two hammocks, this is where I spent most of my time.  I had a cigar in one hand, beer in the other, life was so good it was hard to leave.  I did manage to walk the beach for a few minutes and take some pictures.  I even meet a guy who went to the University of Arkansas while walking.  He saw my camera and we chatted for a while about photography.  In fact the whole time I was at the beach I only got into the water for a few minutes, and up to my knees at that.  I just didn’t want to leave the hammock.

Eventually we had to leave the beach and head back to the house.  We couldn’t stay in paradise for ever, we had plans to explore the city on a drunk bus.  We were suppose to meet the chiva parrandera outside the Hotel El Panama but that turned into a cluster fuck.  When we asked the hotel staff they said the bus wouldn’t show up till 9 or 9:30, we had arrived at 7:30.  So we killed a little time in the casino, but ended up spending most of our time standing outside the hotel.  Eventually two people came up to us, I guess we stuck out, and asked if we where catching the drunk bus.  We where on the completely wrong side of the hotel and they where waiting for us.  After  a short walk we made it onto the bus and got a much needed drink.

The next few hours where spent driving really slow through the city center trying to reach a small bar near Ancon Hill.  Never once did we have an empty cup on the way to the bar.  There they served some appetizers and we got a couple of beers while we smoked outside.  I was so proud of myself that I could order two beers and pay for them.  When I found out they where only $2/bottle I about crapped my pants, man it is cheap to drink in Panama.  After a short pit stop it was back on the bus as we headed back into town.  On the trip back we drank everything on the bus, yet still managed to partied like rock starts.  After a long night of drinking we were hungry and headed to Niko’s Cafe, and old haunt of Nancy’s.  This restaurant chain is a staple in Panama, they are found every where and open 24 hours.  It reminds me of a cafeteria in how food is served.  Excellent way to top off the evening.

Bridge of the Americas
Bridge of the Americas

Sunday, traditional a day of rest , was going to be anything but.  We were driving back to the interior and headed to El Valle which is a billed as a natural wonder in the country.  We got an early start so we could visit the market in town before it closed at noon.  But first we had to make a couple of stops.  The first was to a small memorial just across the Bridge of the Americas.  It is dedicated to 150 years of the Chinese being in Panama, kinda weird to see this pagoda in the middle of a Latin American country.  The other quick stop was to Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente with a great view of the surrounding mountains and valley leading to the ocean.  Normally there is a blanket of fog in the area, but since we arrived in Panama the weather has been anything but normal.

Even with these two stops we made it with plenty of time to spare.  After finding a place to park we walked the market and it was buzzing with energy.  Definitely a tourist trap with “high” priced goods, still very cheap by American standards.  I got a local orange for .30 (rip off down there) and it was fantastic.  While waiting for Greg and Maggie to finish shopping, Nancy and I decided to spoil our lunch and get a snow cone.  Nancy has raved about these for as long as I can remember and I must admit it, it was great.  They add condensed milk that adds an extra sweetness, and for .05 you can’t beat the price.

Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente
Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente

After working up an appetite we ate some street meat (against my better judgment) and headed to a real restaurant.  Here we ate lunch with magnificent fog drenched mountains in the back ground.  To boot my meal with only $5 which included a beer!  I couldn’t believe it, the presentation was excellent and the stewed chicken was awesome.  All the food I ate while there was top notch.  Eating local food was something I was looking forward to doing while there and I was not disappointed.

I was certainly going to need a good meal because I was headed into the forest for a little hiking.  No one wanted to join me, they all decided to go horse back riding.  After what happened on the trail, I should have gone with them.  They dropped me off at a small hotel at the end of one of the side roads and I walked the nature trail on the grounds.  The trail was great, well maintained, well marked and feature vegetation that was marked.  I certainly got some great shots, had some off trail adventures and saw things I have never seen hiking in the states.  When I reached the end of the trail I was running late in meeting everyone.  So I decided to run down the trail back to the hotel.  What a mistake that turned out to be.

I was doing very well in my out of shape state and making good time.  As I crested the top of a slight hill the grade went down and the trail appeared to be without obstructions.  However I stepped on a root or rock and my ankle gave up the ghost.  In an instant I was falling forward and my right foot wasn’t moving.  As I was falling towards the ground, trying to protect my camera that was around my neck, I hear a loud “POP.”  Oh shit!  I just broke my ankle in the middle of the forest.  Immediately I pick myself up and look at my ankle.  In the two seconds it took it had swollen up to the size of a baseball, not good.  I didn’t panic but quickly started to asses how bad things where.  Could I stand up, check.  Could I put weight on my foot, check.  Could I bend my toes, check.  Could I move my ankle, check but with pain.  I started to think it wasn’t broken, but definitely badly sprained.  The whole time I limped back all I could hear in my head was the loud pop.

crazy jugle bush ride
crazy jungle bush ride

Eventually was able to get back to the hotel and meet everyone else just as it started to rain.  Nancy could see something was wrong so I showed her my ankle and she freaked out.  Fortunately the day was over so we headed back to the house.  Me in the back of the van, leg propped up with a huge bag of ice to keep the swelling down.  When we got back both Maru and Bill did double takes.  Bill had broken his foot before and said mine looked worse than his did, not good.  Maru suggest we wait till the morning and reevaluate then.

I for one was not going to let this ruin my trip nor was I going to worry about it.  Here I am in a third world country, possible with a broken ankle and I was not worried.  I was in paradise and loving every minute of it.  After a quick shower we all headed to the Multicentro Mall for some food and shopping.  First stop was to the cigar shop to buy some smokes.  I am not a Cuban whore so I only got one, a Bolivar Robusto that I smoked that night on the back porch.  Great little cigar.  After a big meal at the food court I headed over to the casino for some gambling.  With my ankle busted up I didn’t want to walk around the mall.  The casino had mostly slots of a penny or nickle, needless to say I played for a long time.

The next morning my ankle was worse so we headed to Centro Medico Paitilla (a private hospital) to have a doctor look at it.  I was going to experience health care in a third world country, I was a little worried.  However, after talking to Bill and Maru things were going to be fine.  As long as you have money, things are fine.  There is free health care in the country but the lines are huge.  Here the wait was very short and the hospital staff was exceptional, most of them spoke English.  In the few hours I was there, I saw a general practitioner, had four x-rays, and saw an orthopedist.  All this for only $427, I was shocked.  If I twisted my ankle in the states it probably would have cost me thousands of dollars.  All in all a good experience.

the market at El Valle
the market at El Valle

The other shock of the day was Nancy.  While I was in the hospital she was off getting her hair straightened.  When she walked into the house I was amazed at how good she looked, it was like looking at a different person.  I think it would almost be worth the trip to Panama every six months.  Once we both got reacquainted we ate some fantastic food for lunch.  I was not going to let my twisted ankle slow me down on this trip.  We planned on going to the zoo and Gamboa before heading out to dinner on our final night.

We had some more bad luck while getting to the zoo for when we arrived at 4 o’clock is exactly when they close to the public.  Couldn’t believe we missed it.  So we decided to just head into Gamboa and get closer to nature, but we got horrible lost.  Come to find out when we left the zoo we should have turned right and we would have been right there.  But instead we decided to drive around for about 40 miles, almost reaching Colon at one point.

Late in the evening we arrived and walked around the Gamboa Rainforest Resort and their beautiful vista.  Their hotel looks across a wide section of river that leads down to the canal.  Off in the distance a small mountain covered in trees and fog.  All over the hotel grounds is a splash of purple to mix up the dominate lush green of the forest.  Very nice place for what I have seen in the country.  But you will certainly pay western resort prices for the privilege to stay here.  Prices start for $180 and rise to over $400 per night.  The hotel is know for its ecotourism so it offers plenty of diverse excursions into the jungle and along the water.

Once we finished up it was to late to head home to change for dinner, we would have to slum it.  We headed across the causeway back to the Wine Bar however it was closed.  Later we found out most places are closed on Mondays.  Luckily Bucanero’s at the very end was open.  There was only one couple in the restaurant besides ourselves.  This dinner was a great way to finish off the trip.  We sat down for a good meal and a couple of bottles of wine while we reflected on the whole vacation.  We had seen so much in our limited time in the country, a full week would have given us more time to explore further out in the country.

Santa Clara
Santa Clara

Our last stop on our vacation was to Vasco Nunez de Balboa Park right along the water.  It is a park that sits between Avenida Balboa.  It has many activities and is a favorite among the locals.  At all hours of the night you will see people walking and having fun in the park.  We took the opportunity to smoke one last cigar as well.  We stopped not only at the monument of Balboa but at the sea wall as well.  It was crazy looking across the black ocean with the lights from the city reflecting off the water.  Casco Antiguo was bathing in different color lights and really stood out from the rest of the city.

Tuesday came to early for me but there was nothing I could do about it.  We had a late flight so the day became like any other day there, after breakfast we head out into the city.  We decided to do some last minute shopping and to kill time.  The only other thing I wanted to do was mail off some letters.  I was only able to write three letters while down there.  It cost a mere $2.50 I sent all three letters airmail to the US, later I sent over a dozen post cards and that was only $3.50.  Understand, there is no home delivery service any where in the country.  If you want mail delivery you have to go to the post office and rent a mailbox.  Most bills are handled by a curry service that deliveries to the home customer.

The day just seamed to drag on as the flight approached.  Check in was long, security was long, the food was awful, and my ankle was starting to hurt.  I was miserable.  The 5 hour flight back turned out to be better than I thought, I switched seats to get the aisle.  It was from a kid that recently finished college and was hiking from Costa Rica to Columbia.  He just finished his journey and was headed back home to his friends and family.

The night just never ended.  After landing it was off customs, baggage claim, taxi ride to Greg’s, then driving to Nancy’s apartment for some much needed sleep.  All this and me being the supper hero I am I had to be at work at 8am the next morning.  It sounded like a good idea at the time, but when it came down to it, I should have taken Wednesday off like Nancy did.  Even with just four hours of sleep, it was still good to be home.

The trip was an experience I will not soon forget.  Bill and Maru where very accommodating to us all and Nancy and I can’t thank them enough for their hospitality.  Not only did they provide a place to sleep each night but a wealth of local knowledge that made things easy.  As poor at the country is, it is very modern in many aspects.  If you travel there buy the full coverage on any rental vehicle, be careful where you travel, and just enjoy yourself in this amazing place.