My first stop was Bocas del Toro, an archipelago on the Caribbean. I flew there from Panama City and stayed in Bocas town on Isla Colon. Some travel books describe it as a place that is quickly evolving from a great backpackers’ secret into a more upscale destination but that seems to be an overstatement based on what I saw two years ago. Maybe there are a few more hotels and restaurants but it was very much a one-street town with lots of rough edges.
In order to find a taxi I had to haul my suitcase along a rocky, dirt path to the street and when a taxi finally arrived it was a truck. A few minutes later the taxi driver unceremoniously dropped my off at the edge of nowhere because the road ended and indicated that I should cross a ditch and walk for 5 minutes to reach my B&B.
The B&B was actually quite charming, purchased seven months earlier by an American father and son team. Much had changed since they bought it, they said. The municipality had put in new sewers and the path running behind what were mostly simple homes was slowly being paved, so while there was no road at least walking there would be easier. The son had managed to get high speed, wireless Internet installed and they were on a campaign to slowly beautify the neighbourhood by paying local kids to pick up garbage each day.
It was an open concept cottage but instead of being on a lake it was on the ocean (Panama is south of the hurricane zone). It attracted an interesting mix of guests: Two young British women who invited me to go surfing with them; a Dutch couple who had rented a car (parked on the mainland) with the intension of exploring the remotest corners of the country; and three Americans who left their boat off the coast of Costa Rica to explore the area on foot.
Along the strip there are several youth hostels and young people seem to enjoy a party atmosphere when not surfing. The town itself is not a beach resort for there is no beach where you could surf, swim or even sunbathe (too much rubbish). Instead, you catch a boat and go elsewhere for that.
After 8 days I took a plane from Bocas to the city of David in the western highlands and then caught a taxi north to the town of Boquete. Boquete is a charming place situated in the mountains with a river running through it. It is known for its coffee plantations, orange groves, lush gardens, exotic birds, indigenous people, and the number of American and Canadian retirees living there.
I stayed at a B&B about 2 km outside the village owned by a Canadian and British couple. With hindsight, it should have rented a car at the David airport for this area is just the place for driving the back roads. I also wish I’d hired a guide to take me birding, inspired as I was by the exquisite array of birds that dropped by for leftover fruit at my B&B each morning.
Panama City didn’t thrill me and the traffic is crazy. I spent a couple of hours walking around the old city (Casco Viejo) and stumbled upon a great taxi driver who for a fixed price showed me the city sites. The skyline may look a bit like Hong Kong but it is no Hong Kong as it is rather poor and seedy.
Although the taxi had a cracked windshield and doors without handles, I liked the driver so I hired him to take me to the Panama Canal zone the following day. He was a great promoter of his country and insisted I see everything that deserved being seen including the canal museum, which is excellent.
I have travelled through many Latin American countries and here are some Panama ‘oddities’:
- No one –not even the kids–asked me for money or candy or anything.
- They don’t bargain.
- If a taxi driver doesn’t want to take you someplace (because of the traffic or because the road is bad), he doesn’t ask for more money but simply says no and takes off.
- Vendors aren’t after you to buy their stuff but just silently follow you with their eyes.
- When I was out walking everyone I met would greet me with “Buenos” or “Hola”.
- The currency is the US dollar.
- English is spoken, which is surprising given that the US had governed the Panama Canal Zone for many years.
- I felt comfortable flagging down any car with a taxi sign, something I would never do in most Latin American countries.
- I was not fearful about walking by myself and no one discouraged me from doing that, although I read that certain places in Panama City and just about everywhere in Colon are rather unsafe.
Next time I go to Panama I will travel by bus or rent a car and just lose myself on the back roads for a while.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012