Sunday, April 8, 2012

Welcome, vamos ir a Panamá

For several months now, I’ve been thinking whether by blogging I might be able to add to the fabulous blog content I read and the correspondence I have with my friends.  The most valuable thing I’ve identified is expanding the discussion of books and travel destinations that I have with several good friends.  I know you’re headed to interesting places and reading wonderful works and I think several of you would get along with one another and benefit from the recommendations from a broader group.  I also want to put more time into thinking about what I’ve been reading, especially the books and articles that I recommend and creating some useful travel information for the places I’ve been. 

I know some of my friends have their own blogs and ways of sharing their travels and book recommendations.  I hope some of you will share your wisdom and photos here at some point as well.

For now, I’ll start with a trip from several months ago: Panama

Panama tops the NY Times places to go in 2012 list and it’s awfully nice.  I spent a little over two weeks in several areas of the country with a couple of good friends.

Panama City – Upon my arrival in the capital, I was amazed by the infrastructure and the skyscrapers (only partly because I was coming from Haiti and am coming to worship pothole-free roads and user-friendly public transportation).  A friendly, inexpensive B&B, Dos Palmitos, made me feel instantly at home and offered an amazing breakfast to fuel our day.  Outside of the Casco Viejo and the promenade along the oceanfront, the city is not very walkable, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t try (and march my friends around too).  I didn’t get to try the interesting restaurants that I had read about, but did end up wandering the gigantic malls more than I had intended.  The city is a shopper’s paradise, but the tourist attractions can only keep one busy for a few days.  The public transportation system was navigable to curious outsiders with limited Spanish, which was a welcome surprise.  In addition, locals graciously gave directions and transportation assistance.

Bocas del Toro – An archipelago that’s far from Panama City and San Jose, Costa Rica, and somewhat cut off by mountains. It’s a long drive to get here or a short flight. There are plenty of flights to both capitals. Most of the islands are rather large and forested, though there are nice stretches of beach. High season is the northern hemisphere winter and simultaneously the Bocas (Caribbean side of Panama) rainy season so keep that in mind if you’re planning a trip. Most of the travelers seemed to be backpackers or retirees, but the atmosphere was definitely relaxed amongst travelers in the off season.  Bocas offers beaches (a distance from the main town), surfing, snorkeling and diving, and hiking, as well as fancy resorts that would feel far from anywhere.  We enjoyed a walking tour of a cocoa-growing cooperative on the mainland, learning about how cocoa is grown and processed, complete with samples, but the tour was especially enjoyable because we were the only visitors that day.  Restaurants in Bocas town varied significantly in terms of price and quality, but were generally pricier than we had expected.

Boquete – Sits in a valley below Panama’s tallest point and only volcano, Barú.  The hillsides around are covered in coffee plantations and there are plenty of hiking and rafting opportunities.  We enjoyed a local restaurant in the center of town for a couple great meals and journeyed to the hot springs a 30ish minute drive from town. The springs were wonderfully relaxing and the monkey there is entertaining, but don’t bring sugary drinks or anything you would be heartbroken to lose.  I wished we could have stayed longer here and enjoyed meeting the backpackers who joined trips at a hostel in the center of town and a very good yoga class.

Gamboa – We visited this little Canal Zone expecting to find a small Panamanian town, but since it was constructed for canal workers and off the main road, it felt like a little like an American suburb in the middle of a tropical rainforest. Pipeline road is a popular destination for birders and there are few housing options. Luckily we found a place to stay at the Canopy B&B (part of the pricey, naturalist-catering Canopy Tower set of properties), located in a beautifully restored home.

San Blas Islands – Are a chain of hundreds of small islands in the Caribbean. The drive over the continental divide is one of the windiest, steepest roads I’ve ever been on, (you can also fly to the islands) but the reward is grand.  Food choices seemed limited in the places we stayed and saw and you would probably be best off traveling the islands by sailboat to see more different areas.  The islands are picture perfect, the Kuna Yala people friendly, and the molas (hand stitched panels) enticing.  I loved the feeling of distance from the city and the dominance of the water in the way of life. We heard of fabulous snorkeling and got a good little taste, but not as much as we would have liked.

We did not travel to the Darién, Santa Catalina, or the Archipelago de las Perlas.
Throughout the touristy areas of Panama, the separation between visitors and locals was strong and somewhat disappointing.  However, the Panamanians we did talk to were overwhelmingly friendly and interesting.  Traveling alone with female friends, we felt almost no harassment. 

  • US dollars are used throughout Panama but credit cards were rarely accepted outside the capital.
  • Taxi fares in Panama City are cheap when you know what the price should be.  Bus rides cost $0.25 to $1.25.
  • Spanish was most helpful in Panama City and in the Kuna Yala/San Blas Islands. There were many English speakers in Boquete, Gamboa, and Bocas. 
  • We found that having the Lonely Planet was better than not having it, but practical information was often lacking (more so than most LP guides) and fellow travelers were far more helpful.
  • The rainy seasons on the Pacific and Caribbean sides of the isthmus are opposite.  Check them out as you decide where and when to go.