Panama isn't at all how I expected it to be. That's probably because I didn't really know what to expect. When I hear Panama mentioned I immediately think of the Panama Canal and Panama hats. Beyond that I've never really given it much thought. More recently it has become 'that place where you have to figure out the dilemma of how to get your motorcycle across the Darien Gap without bankrupting yourself'. Luckily for us this time our change of plans and the decision we took not to continue further south meant that we could just sit back and enjoy the country without such worries.
My first impressions of Panama were that it is very different to the rest of Central America. Our first night we spent in David, the first big city across the border. Our experience of the place was limited to a Valentine's Day dinner splurge on Angus Bacon Cheeseburgers at McDonald's and then a far-less-seedy-than-it-looks-from-the-outside hotel just off the town square before heading off again next morning.
Day two in Panama we spent riding through roadworks. For hours. The Pan American Highway it appears is being reconstructed for the first 400km or so from the border. Refreshingly though, along this entire length work is actually taking place. Hundreds of workers slaving away using relatively primitive, labour intensive methods under the full force of an unrelenting sun from daybreak until dusk. When we could barely take the heat while standing in the shade with a cool drink, these guys are shovelling tarmac by hand for 8 hours at a time in 40 degree heat. When the road is complete it'll be world class, but right now it made for a very slow and tedious ride (I'll get into trouble for using that word - apparently it isn't possible for riding a motorcycle to ever be described as 'tedious'), occasionally on nice new sections, but more often than not across rocky, gravel surfaces, trying to find breaths of fresh air between the dust clouds while trying to hold off aggressive truck drivers behind who think they have to be somewhere more urgently than you.
I managed to keep myself amused though enjoying all the new road signs - one showed a silhouette of a sniper with a red circle and line across it and another warning you not to throw litter out of the window of your car. The silhouette was of an old fashioned tin can that you have to open with a can opener and it left me wondering what on earth you'd consume from a can like that in your car. It's funny what my mind wanders to when I spend so many hours on the road alone with just my thoughts. Mostly though I realised that road signs are pretty much pointless in Panama. For example they'll put up a sign saying 'Doble Via' after you've already been sharing your lane with traffic coming in the opposite direction for the last 20 mins. If you hadn't noticed then you probably wouldn't have made it far enough to read the sign.
For once we actually had a destination that day. The kindness of strangers had again found us and we were heading for Puerto Uverito on the Pacific coast to the beach house of a Canadian guy we'd never met who had read our ride report on Advrider.com and offered us the use of his house for as long as we wanted as he wasn't currently there. After picking up the keys from his housekeeper in Las Tablas we made our way out to the coast.
The house is a nice little place right on a stunning and very quiet beach. With the security shutters and the air conditioning on, we got the best night's sleep we'd had in months and didn't even wake up until 11am that first morning. It was nice to have a place to stop for a while and we took the time to read, walk on the beach, do jigsaws and just watch the world go by. One night we watched with some amusement as a continuous stream of cars managed to fall into a hole created by a car that got stuck in the sand road outside. One we managed to help get out, another had to wait for a tow truck. We spent time hanging out with the local street dogs and just relaxing before our last push to our turning around point in Panama City.
Phil, the guy who generously leant us his house gave us some tips on several things to check out in the area and also suggested we might want to drop in on Canadian friends of his, John and Michelle, who had a house nearby. It seemed a little odd just appearing on their doorstep given that we had never even met their friend, but they were lovely people and having intended to just stop in early in the evening to say hello, we found ourselves sitting chatting with them over some drinks until the early hours. They have a successful swimming pool installation business in Ontario and spend the summer there working. They then retreat to Panama for the winter. As weird coincidence has it (and this has happened more times than I can count) they have a plot of land and an RV in Wiarton and launch their boat from the dock in Big Bay!
A couple of days later they were kind enough to invite us to join them at their second house in the mountains a short ride away. Bought some years ago from a local person for a song (the place is a finca with a 100ft waterfall in the grounds!) they've done amazing things with the place, as well as sectioning off a portion of the land to build a house for a local guy who has worked for them for many years. We see so many cases where ex-pats move down here only to find themselves frustrated and isolated from the local community, almost always their own doing, and yet here was a perfect example of what happens when you do it right. The local people here are their friends, they are a part of the local community and the respect is obviously mutual. After sharing some more drinks and feasting on fried local cheese and crackers and freshly cooked chicharrons and yucca courtesy of their friend Uber (sp?), we called it a night. We really do meet the best people.
We stayed at the little beach house for a week in the end and could have easily stayed longer, but inevitably we had to move on eventually and so we packed up our things and headed back towards the Pan Am. The road from Santiago to the City was much more complete than the first section we'd experienced. Good pavement for the most part and the addition of cops on white VStroms under every pedestrian bridge, which meant approximately every 5-10km. We've read many warnings about how vigilant Panamanian cops are when it comes to speed or anything else they can possibly issue a ticket for, but just as we've found in every other country down here, they're fair and just and even though we went past several at more than few km over the speed limit, they didn't bat an eyelid. We've found time and again that no matter how much excuse we give them to pull us over, they never have. Maybe we've just been lucky, or maybe like all the warnings not to visit these countries because they're 'too dangerous' those stories are all a load of crap too. We've passed hundreds of police and military checkpoints and I simply smile and wave. 99% of the time they smile or wave back.
Despite our best efforts to get there earlier, we managed to arrive in Panama City after dark on a Friday evening. We never seem to learn. After a week spent in seclusion and quiet on the coast, the city was a bit of a shock. We agreed at the start of this trip that neither of us had any desire to visit capital cities, ANY big cities in fact, but we seem to have managed to visit every single one. We rode round and round in circles in near stationery traffic, trying to find the hostels we knew were somewhere in the area we were in, but never actually finding any. If we tried to stop to get our bearings we were moved on by a friendly, but firm police officer because 'you can't park there'.
Eventually, as our left hands started to give up and we grew increasingly nervous of the cavernous uncovered drain holes on every corner we finally spotted a hotel with parking on the other side of the divided highway and jumped across the central reservation grass to get to it. Luckily it was cheap and had wifi so we made it our base for a couple of nights.
Panama City is a fascinating place. Someone described it to me as 'Miami meets Havana' and that's spot on. Old meets new in a way I haven't seen anywhere else down here. Not just buildings standing adjacent to each other, but districts too. One minute you can be standing next to a brand new glass skyscraper and then one block over you're standing in the most squalid of slums, easily rivalling the most deprived areas of Havana. Drivers there are easily the most aggressive we've experienced in Central America. You literally take your life in your hands when you ride there, there is no lane discipline and people drive in whichever lane they choose, overtaking on both left and right as they please. They also have the most dangerous 'retornos' we've seen yet - the overtaking lane on dual carriageway roads effectively becomes a stack lane for those wanting to turn back in the opposite direction, causing dangerous traffic queues right when you're least expecting it.
We spent the following morning walking around the historic district of the city, followed by a visit to Miraflores Locks and the engineering marvel that is the Panama Canal. We'd caught a glimpse of it already as we rode across the Bridge of the Americas, but the locks themselves were fascinating. Our first reaction though was 'Aren't they small!' I've always thought of the Canal as being vast, but in reality it's not very big at all. Still, it was interesting to see a ship come through and amusing to listen to an American woman whose long suffering husband tried to explain the concept of locks as she looked on with zero success. Someone else commented on what good business people the Panamanians must be, given that we were all standing there having paid good money to watch them carry out their business which was also of course bringing in high fees. Tired after a long day we headed for a sushi restaurant in the financial district to end the day. As we'd become accustomed to it had the usual shockingly bad service, but the food was pretty good.
This was the turning around point of our trip and the next morning we packed our things and prepared to leave. Our bikes has other ideas. Evan tried to start his bike but the battery was dead. He'd suspected for a while that it might need replacing but it was frustrating in the heat to have to mess around with it then. We unpacked the bikes and used my battery to jump his bike. All packed up again he rode out on to the hotel forecourt and as I went to follow him my bike stalled. I tried to start it and nothing happened. Frustrated, Evan pushed my bike outside. The battery was dead on my bike too. A frustrating hour later after a trip to the Casa de Batterias and we were finally on our way. It's funny you know, sometimes it's like the two bikes are colluding against us. If one bike does something odd the other almost immediately does the same thing. I like to think that they were protesting at turning around.
We rode that day not really sure exactly how far we'd get. It was again pushing dusk when we finally saw a sign for the Paradise Inn with rooms from $20 only two minutes away. Well, two minutes to the next sign board for it. And another two minutes to the next sign board after that. That's how it works down here. I guess if they were honest and told you it was still 20 minutes away you wouldn't bother.
We finally found the place and after some long drawn out bartering with the girl on reception (she managed to find us a $20 room after an opening bid of $66) we found ourselves in a place that was worth every bit of $66 and felt a little bad. This was a proper resort type place with two swimming pools, a restaurant and posh cabins. I'm pretty sure the room we had was in the staff quarters but for $20 we weren't complaining.
And that concludes our time spent in Panama. The following morning we crossed back into Costa Rica and back to American Express land. I liked Panama and would like to return and see more of it one day. Right now there is very little in the way of infrastructure outside of the city, especially when it comes to roads, but it's growing and not in the same way as Costa Rica where the focus is on tourist money. Prices are reasonable, the people are friendly and the countryside, while I wouldn't use the word stunning to describe it as a whole, has pockets of extreme beauty. It certainly warrants another visit in the future.