With Central America again beckoning, this winters respite is going to be a flash in the Pan-ama. Images most often coming to mind are of a pineapple faced Noriega, drug running, and of course, the world’s greatest shortcut, the Panama Canal. However, we are keen to discover what else the country has to offer.
We start the ball rolling with a flight from Panama City out to Contadora; one of the Pearl Islands where 16th century Spanish Conquistadors came in search of the coveted pearls. Flummoxed at the airport when security confiscates Christine’s eyelash curlers, I try arguing they are not a problem, but it’s like trying to explain the Theory of Relativity to an ostrich! A ludicrous image pops into my head, of some daft dolt brandishing the curlers on a plane yelling, ‘Take me to Columbia, or I curl your eyelashes’!
The pint-size puddle jumper of a plane called Aeroperlas lands on a rugged runway about the length of a driveway, labouring to a halt far too close to the sea. We learn this is one of the last flights to use this broken, too-short runway, as it’s about to close for major repairs. The ground is so rough that the plane tires are only inflated to half pressure to stop them from blowing out on landing.
Contadora can best be described as rustic, with neon and traffic unknown entities, and transport requiring the use of either a golf cart or our feet. Islands in this archipelago have filmed several of TV’s SURVIVOR shows, and the Frigata Magnifico room we are renting is where the show’s host Jeff Probst also stayed during filming; kind of cool since we are longtime fans of the show.
With a hankering to try some fishing, we hire the local expert Pedro to see if he can work his magic. After a couple of hours we’ve enjoyed a pleasant, but fish-free boat ride. Fortunately, I’ve brought along mask and fins in hopes of a close encounter of the marine kind. Off Isla Chapera I jump overboard to snorkel in a sea just oozing with tails and scales. The name Panama translates to ‘place of abundant fish’, and from what I see in the sea, I now understand why, and could likely morph into an aquaholic, given the stunning variety.
With the meter still running, we head back to Contadora, but Pedro’s ‘fishful thinking’ is that we keep the rods out on the way back. With a dose of skepticism we agree. Sure enough, ten minutes later off Isla Mogo Mogo, my rod is thrashing about with a large angry mackerel on the line. Clearly it is difficult to persuade the fish to give up its salty life for a hot frying pan, but finally I reel it in close enough to use the gaff, and victory is mine. Holy Mackerel; I guess we know what’s for dinner tonight.
On a hike to the vandalized ruins of the Contadora Resort at Playa Larga we sadly find the abandoned beach has a ghost town feel. Covered in a trash-strewn sea of plastic, it is pretty clear Panama has a failing grade in environmental awareness and recycling. A long abandoned Soviet-built ferry lays rusting on the beach, so I scramble up on top of it, standing with arms splayed in a starring role of my own little version of Titanic.
The reason we’ve come here is for a second helping of snorkeling on the coral reefs just off the beach. Christine opts to sit on shore as she is extremely paranoid of everything in the sea; even to the point of being ravaged by hostile plankton! Giving her a wave, I plunge into the limpid sea, rife with life.
Things are going swimmingly, until pausing at a huge cloud of purple and yellow fish. Suddenly, in a flurry of fins, they scatter like wind-blown confetti, revealing a ferocious looking eel. It’s obviously been chawing on a meal, with leftover scraps attracting the minions; but now, the toothy snake-like creature begins writhing towards me! With both my adrenaline and flippers pumping, I vigorously head for shore; chagrinned to see a ‘told-you-so’ smirk on the face of you know who! I think of new lyrics to an old Dean Martin song; ‘When you snorkel the reef … and an eel gives you grief … that’s a-moray’!
Isla Contadora has four resident policemen, who for some unknown reason all show up at the house today! Have we done something wrong? Naah, it turns out they don’t have enough to keep them busy, and have temporarily swapped their weapons for sandpaper, as they’ve been hired to resurface the sundecks. We’re feeling quite mellow and relaxed on the island, but our four Contadora days have disappeared as quickly as cookies at a pot party, and it’s time to move on.
Back in Panama City, we quickly realize this is not a city for the timid, as there seems to be almost as many police in town as fish in the sea. Dressed in bullet proof vests and armed as if they’re going into battle, the cops travel in packs, and stop us to issue a warning about avoiding the Panamaniacs in the bad-assed barrios like El Chorillo, on the grounds they may prove detrimental to our health!
The choked city traffic teems with red devil buses known here as Diablos Rojos. These ancient 12-ton diesel chariots chug through the city taking ‘pimp’ to a whole new level with their brightly airbrushed snouts and butts adorned with images of Christ, Al Pacino, cartoon characters, Osama Bin Laden, Clint Eastwood, etc. Some even have shiny streamers hanging off steering wheels and outside mirrors; much like a kiddie’s bike.
To escape the city’s disagreeableness we pay a call to the Amador Causeway, a 3 ½ mile breakwater built from 18 million yards of rock that was part of the 270 million tons of ground excavated during construction of Panama’s great cross-country ditch. Walking back to town we meander about out the historic Casco Viejo area, admiring wonderful buildings splashed with a floral vibrancy cascading down over balconies sculpted with iron railings crafted in the previous century.
Flying north to the town of David we collect a rental car, and in the Chiquiri Highlands, accidentally run over a large iguana scampering out in front of us. Leaving the squashed reptilian speed bump behind, we continue on to the flower filled town of Boquete, where the devastation from a severe flooding two weeks ago is obvious, and has made a mess of the town’s roads, buildings, and bridges.
At the foot of the extinct volcano Volcan Baru on Rio Pianista our lodging is the boutique Boquete Garden Inn, with lovely tropical gardens providing fruit feeding stations for a colorful menagerie of birds; including honeycreepers, tanagers, and iridescent little hummingbirds that sparkle in the sun like flying jewelry.
Unfortunately, several of the hiking routes we hoped to experience are now inaccessible due to washed out roads and trails. Checking with staff, we’re told of a small mountain path used by the indigenous Indians, and decide it will be tomorrow’s explore; which happens to be Christmas Day.
Our trek begins with an udderly unusual sight, as grazing cattle dot the top of the steep green mountainside, in what must surely have been quite the bovine workout to ascend it. Shimmering neon blue Morpho butterflies dazzle us with their aerial dancing along the muddy path which leads to a family of indigenous Ngobe-Bugle Indians and their scruffy kids, chickens, and puppies. Our chilly turnaround point is shrouded in the misty rain and a gathering of swirling clouds that the area is famous for.
Back at our hotel after a five hour workout in the grey gloom, it’s time for a hot shower and a splash of rum! Christmas dinner is a lovely candlelit affair in the fireside lounge of the first lodging ever built in town, the 1914 built Paramonte Inn. Surrounded by a white picket fence the old inn has a storybook charm.
Swollen clouds promising rain crowd an ash grey sky today while driving through the countryside to the mountain villages of Volcan and Cerro Punta. Along the way we hike in to Caldera Hot Springs, and despite the rain, enjoy a bottle of wine while wallowing in an outdoor bath where the water never turns cold.
Driving back to the town of David for a flight to Panama City, ‘iguana karma strikes’ as now it’s our rental car tire that is flattened! We start to panic about missing the plane, but working with pit-crew speed, manage to change the tire and make it to the airport with mere minutes to spare.
While in the air we contemplate how to fill our last few days, as I’d rather pour honey over my genitals and lie on bed of ants, than spend any more time in Panama City. We hatch a plan to bus over the distinctive Bridge of Americas, spanning Panama’s ‘great gash’, to the mountain town of El Valle. Located on the floor of the largest inhabited extinct volcano in the world, it’s a good choice for some healthy elevated hiking.
Our last free day in Panama is spent 12 miles off the coast on the small island of Taboga, known as the Island of Flowers. After climbing the ‘Cerro de las Tres Cruces’ Trail, Christine and I simply hang out on the beach enjoying the sunshine and a swim. Then, with the setting sun painting the sky a bubblegum pink, it’s time to boat back to Panama City to conclude our sojourn in the Banana Republic of Panama.
Mark Colegrave Dec 2008