Trip to Panama’s Pacific Coast
Wednesday, December 8th, 2010
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Time to go. Yes, it was time for me to leave the country for my tri-monthly passport renewal and my best friends just happened to be in Panama. I was so excited to be meeting George and Nancy in Boca Chica, a little town on the Pacific coast of Panama, just about an hour west of the city of David. I had not seen Nancy since she came to visit me two years ago during the worst rainy season we’ve seen in the Caribbean in twenty six years. It was even longer since I’d seen George. They live in Alaska where George has been a wilderness guide for twenty five years. If you are looking for some rough and rugged fishing fun next summer, he is your man. Check out his web site at Adventure Guiding. In the winter George and Nancy like to go south, usually to Mexico. And by the way, I wouldn’t be here in Costa Rica if not for them. Their invitation to visit while they were camped on a beach between Mazatlan and Puerta Vallarta was my introduction to the Latin world. I was enchanted. The rest is history. This winter they choose Panama. (I don’t know if I’ll ever get Nancy back to Costa Rica after her soggy experience here two years ago.) They had a friend in Boca Chica, whose house they were to share for two months. I was invited to join them.
I left Costa Rica about a week after George and Nancy had arrived in Panama. I took a bus to the city of David, as I’ve done many times before. I was to stay over night with my friends who live there and then head on to Boca Chica the next day. Five minutes after I arrived at my friend’s house in David I got a phone call. “We’re in David and we have to pick you up right now.”
”Ok, where are we going?” I queried tentatively.
”Anywhere but Boca Chica.” George countered flatly. “I’m not going back there.”
Well, with a quick goodbye to my friends, I was up for adventure. I knew traveling with Nancy and George would be fun wherever we went. I never did get to see the tiny town of Boca Chica. My friends were too traumatized to go back. You see, they had been trying to help this somewhat unstable friend with whom they stayed. Very quickly unstable turned into all out, full blown crazy – ranting and raving, yelling in the streets. Fortunately for me, they high-tailed it out of there before I arrived. Our first stop was Las Lahas, a tourist beach further down the coast.
Not bad for $20.00 a night – but not so good either. On this trip our biggest challenge was finding a clean place to stay. Our hotel in Las Lahas was pretty and quaint with a very nice host, but the place was old: the weather and salt air had taken its toll. Tired from a long day of travel, I conked out when I hit the pillow, only to wake up hours later, frustrated at all the sand that had somehow gotten into my bed. Strange, I just put on clean sheets. No wait – that was not sand, it was termite droppings! Termites are everywhere in the tropics. Wood must be treated once a year to prevent their infestation. And wherever they go, they leave little grains of undigested wood, called frass. I thought the mess was coming from the empty bunk bed above me so I tossed my mattress up there and went back to sleep. Good thing I was really tired. I slept through ’til the morning and found that the raining sand had come from the rafters in the ceiling and had sprinkled my bed again. Yuch! I got up groggy but it was nothing that a refreshing plunge into that beautiful blue sea couldn’t cure.
I’d been to Las Lahas once before and I knew that it had the peculiar quality of being absolutely abandoned during the week and inundated on weekends. This weekend happened to be a long one, too. It was a huge fiesta for Panama’s Dia de la Independencia – Independence Day – from Spain. The place would be packed. Now for me, socializing is always welcome. It gives me a chance to practice my Spanish and a break from feeling like a third wheel. But George and Nancy – they’re wild ones – more at home in the wilderness than with a bunch of noisy borrachos. So we moved further down the coast.
Half an hour into our drive, we came to a halt. Just ahead of us, a truck full of empty coke bottles lost a bunch on the road. Glass was shattered everywhere. Only the big dump trucks with indestructible tires dared to crunch through. But no problem. As you can see from George at work here, drivers got out, grabbed branches and made quick work of the calamity.
Perhaps you’d like to follow our travels on the map:
I began on the upper left of the map, in Puerto Viejo. You can see Panama’s border with Costa Rica: it’s the red line running vertical on the left. Follow my yellow line down and you’ll see where I crossed the border. Further south is the inland city of David. Proceeding southeast, you see Boca Chica. Las Lahas is just past that. Since we were going by car, we took the first intersecting yellow line south to Santa Catalina. But when I came back by bus, I had to go through Santiago, further east. For reference, I marked Panama City on the far right.
The countryside was enchanting. Widespread meadows, dotted with tall palms and grazing cattle let us know this was beef country. Cowboys were everywhere: some riding proud, resplendent on their well appointed mounts; others more humble and tattered on a sad looking, bony nag. There were far more horses than cars and as we drove back in time, I could see that in this place horses were indeed the main form of transportation, but for the ubiquitous bus. We passed a large feed lot/meat processing plant, seemingly in the middle of nowhere and I then decided that my aim for this trip was to get a good steak for dinner.
The photo above shows the kind of live tree fences used everywhere in Central America. This is a fairly new one. As they grow they become thick and impenetrable.
Always the first to mix with the locals, George makes a new friend, who is happy to have his picture taken with the brother he is carting around. Although some campesinos (country people) live in cinder block houses, many live in wood or bamboo huts with thatched roofs.
Santa Catalina was a secluded fishing village until discovered by surfing pioneers in the 1970s. Word spread of world class surfing: surf camps, restaurants and hostels moved in, along with sport fishing and diving tours. This brought in the tourists. Schmoo, a local bar owner/renegade from Colorado who’s been in Santa Catalina for many years told me that things were booming just three years ago. Real estate was selling fast, new businesses were starting up and Santa Catalina was a hopping spot. In comparison, when we were there it was all but deserted. Basic services, like a bank, a gas station and a grocery with fresh fruit and vegetables are in the next town, over an hour away. The few good restaurants are struggling. For the past year the economic crisis of North America has dropped the bottom out of this start-up tourist town. I’m told the French, Italian, Argentine, US and locally owned businesses are scrapping over tourists like a dogs for a bone.
Arriving at mid afternoon, we set out on our quest for a clean, cheap place to stay. Cheap was easy, clean was not. We drove up and down muddy dirt roads bordered by field and scrappy jungle. We followed signs, checked the guide book, hit a number of dead ends and looked at five or six places. Each time George “of the jungle” was happy, Nancy was unsure and I pushed us onward, “Lets just look at one more place. We can always come back.” I pleaded.
It’s not that I am that picky, but I can’t stand the smell of mold. Nancy agrees. But it’s hard to escape mustiness when you are in an area that has been inundated with rain for the past six months. Like Costa Rica’s Pacific this year, Panama has had abnormally high rainfall. And besides that, you are already in the damp jungle, in the humid tropics, saturated by the moist sea air – with the lack of sun as of late, things just don’t dry out. You can’t really blame the locals. I think they get used to it. But we were not. Finally we agreed upon Las Palmeras, a quaint and picturesque little place that met with our nose’s approval. With a few modifications after a somewhat tumultuous sleep the first night (extra fan, new sheets, termite clean up – yes, more frass), we were quite comfortable. After all, where in the world could you find this kind of view for $20.00 a night?
Panama emerged, about three million years ago, which is not long considering that the earth is 4.5 billion years old. It arose from the sea as an archipelago of volcanic islands which eventually formed the Isthmus of Panama. Evidence of volcanic activity can be seen in the black sand beaches. At high tide the sea conceals the beach, lapping up at dramatic craggy cliffs. When the tide is low, lava rock is exposed and you can walk for quite some distance along the shoreline. I enjoyed the exercise, skipping and balancing from one rock to the next. And it was easier than negotiating the coral I’m familiar with, which fringes parts of the Caribbean. These igneous walkways stretch to wide expanses, extending fingers reaching and diminishing into the ocean. Wandering out there, alone on a blustery day, set in motion my wild imagination. I envisioned myself stepping on freshly crusted black outcroppings, rimmed in fiery molten red. The distant call of the wind, the splashing and splattering waves and the water worn, ancient rock formations stirred primal feelings of a time when the earth was being born. I’ve often contemplated that the drama and unpredictability of Central America, with its danger and allure are owing to its youth.
The name Panama means abundant fish, in an ancient Indigenous language. With fishing villages all along its 1,547 miles of coastline one can see why fish is the country’s second major export. Again, I felt like we had moved back in time, when I followed George and Nancy, exploring the little fishing village of Hicaco. The town was primitive; with homes of simple huts, a church and a grocery. Its residents have been fishing for generations. Life was focused on the harbor.
One early morning, we counted fifteen fishing boats, scattered across the horizon, from the view in the photo above. Nancy discovered the aged beauty of the wooden relics (photos above), with gaping holes, yet still bound and tied as if they were in use. The ghost fishermen must sail by night, when the moon is waning and no one can see.
I like Panama, but I must confess, this visit bolstered my appreciation for Costa Rica. The countryside seems just a bit too primitive for me. Many of the people are poor and uneducated. The more educated people are in the cities, which have little charm. I call them service/industry cities. Like all cities, parts are rundown and others are nicer, but the nicer parts look just like North American strip malls. There is no doubt that most of the roads are better in Panama. And the landscape – well who can compare beauty? It is everywhere, in every country and each place is precious and unique. I savored the winsome magnificence of Santa Catalina’s rugged shoreline, explored a cliff side abandoned house, ate a really good hamburger (couldn’t find the steak I had hoped for) and after five days, I was ready to leave. I said goodbye to our local friends:
I said “adios” to The Alaskan Explorer, the Lady in Red and my cute little cabina; and I set out for a day of bus travel:
The buses that run between small towns are large vans that carry about twenty people. Well, I should say they have twenty seats, they carry as many as they can fit. On one leg of the trip, I had a seven year old Indigenous boy on my lap. He and his family were standing in the aisle and it was a four hour ride. I just couldn’t bear to see him falling asleep standing up. But crowded or not, I like bus travel. If you start out with the idea that it will take all day and you are in no hurry, you can people watch and enjoy the landscape.
I left Santa Catalina destined to the city of David. Where this time I would actually be able to visit my friends there. In order to get to my next stop, the city of Santiago, I changed buses at a town called Sona. This time I sat next to the woman who owns the Argentine restaurant where I got my delicious hamburger. Anita takes the bus from Santa Catalina to Santiago – a four hour ride one way – at least once a week, to pick up provisions for the restaurant. Life is not easy for this mid-thirties mother of two. Apparent indifference to her lackluster appearance – messy, mousy hair and mismatched clothes – showed me a woman who works hard and worries. This is not exactly the life she signed on for. And it’s not what she expected when she married her Argentine husband. They met on the romantic Spanish island of Majorca. Searching for an alternative to the big city lifestyle and a place to surf, he swept her away from her native Spain, to Panama. They decided to live and raise their family in Santa Catalina. This newly discovered surf town, showed great potential. Six years ago, property was cheap and prospects were good. Four years into it, with a restaurant, a home and two babies, tourism declined sharply. Today they struggle to get by. Yet Anita told me she wouldn’t go back to Spain or Argentina. Upon further questioning I discovered we shared some of the same reasons for living in Central America. Apparently life in Madrid or Buenos Aires is not so different from the United States.
”My mom and my sister – they think I’m crazy for living here! But they are consumeristas – materialistas,” Anita laughed. “And they worry about my kids. But the jungle is a great place to grow up – my little ones are a couple of bien salvajes (good little wild ones)!”
The “economic crisis” seems to have impacted even the most remote corners of the world, yet it hits some worse than others. In Costa Rica’s Caribbean, where I live, the merchants complain but they manage. Our town is awake and alive, still thriving with tourists. Santa Catalina seems half asleep.
In Santiago I got a real treat. I arrived on schedule to get a seat on the double decker bus coming from Panama City and had time to spare for a good cafeteria lunch. Sitting comfortably for the next few hours, I was up on the top deck, right in front of the big picture window. It was just like a movie screen! We were quick to leave Santiago, the third largest city in Panama. And there was virtually nothing but lovely landscape between there and David. Later on, I was happy to spend a pleasant evening with my friends in David before heading home the next day.
As you know, Christmas trees are a North American convention. It seems odd to see them for sale in Central America – but the up and coming want to be just like us (at least some of them do). Others prefer their traditional nativity scene. The Canos go all out in creating the town of Bethlehem, with sparkling lights and artistically painted ceramic people, homes and shops.
”But where’s the baby Jesus?” I asked, looking at the empty manger.
”Oh, he’s not born yet,” they told me, “He will appear on Christmas morning.”
The last of my trip was another day of bus travel, this time on the small bus/van. As we drove up and up the high mountain crossing, I remembered my last trip through this place, in my car. The car broke down just before dark near the huge and remote hydroelectric dam, Fortuna. ( You can read all about that misadventure in a previous post about my road trip: Calamity on the First Day.) I was so happy to be on the bus this time.
During the four and a half hour drive, the bus stopped frequently, picking up and dropping off local Indigenous who lived in the tiny mountain towns. I was impressed with the road work completed on this, the only cross continental access south of San Jose, Costa Rica. Two years ago when we had severe rainstorms, flooding and landslides in the Caribbean of Costa Rica, they suffered the same on Panama’s Caribbean side. Roads were ruined, bridges washed out and blacktop dislodged and disappeared. It took a while, but the whole highway has been very well repaired, complete with cement drainage ditches to thwart future flooding. Panama’s road engineering may well be the best in Central America.
After a healthy fruit and yogurt at the bus stop along the way, we arrived in Changuinola and I was able to get a ride to the border with the same taxi driver I’d used on the way in. Salomon is a congenial guy who speaks Spanish very clearly. When I talk with him, I feel my language skills advance! He is also a local guide. I’ve been wanting to explore the San-San Pond Sak Wetlands, which is just across the border from Costa Rica. (That link is all in Spanish. Here is one in English: San-San) Lonely Planet says: “These fantastic wetlands, also called Humedal de San-San Pond Sak, harbor a great variety of flora and fauna. The fresh water of San-San is one of the few known Central American habitats for manatees. Sloths, river otters, white-faced monkeys, caimans, iguanas, poison-dart frogs and more than 60 bird species also inhabit the wetlands.” This would be a great day trip for those of us who need to leave the country to renew our passports every three months. I hope to soon add it to my list of tours. I want to see a manatee!
Although this trip was not an exciting adventure or a catastrophe, every trip offers something interesting. No matter where I go, I love to travel. And after week in Panama and a short walk over the rickety, border bridge, I was happy to be back home in Costa Rica.