When I lived in Germany, traveling within a country in Europe or from one to another was easy. So wouldn’t it be the same if I drove from San Jose, Costa Rica to the neighboring country, officially the Republic of Panama? Theoretically!
In actuality much of the highway from the capital of Costa Rica to the border was pock marked, looking like small meteors had fallen onto it from outer space. Not only did one have to concentrate on the curving roads, one zigzagged to avoid pot hole after crater. As a result, in Costa Rica distances are measured by time, not kilometers. Two days of the eight-day trip were spent going from San Jose to the border and back.
Finally arriving at the Panamanian border, it took about 90 minutes to clear Customs. I assumed it would take an equal amount of time as it had in Costa Rica to drive the 50 kilometers to reach David (pronounced Dá - vide). Oops! The border police stopped the vehicle for a routine check and asked if my destination was Panama City, a mere six hours, away even though it was already four in the afternoon. The roads were so good that I had bypassed David located off the highway to the south.
Assuming that most readers would be flying into Panama City, I feel it would be prudent to begin the trip from there and discuss the third largest city later on. Choices abound. One could rent a car in Panama, as natives refer to the City, and slowly tour the country, ending in David and fly back. Or one could opt to take a plane to David and rent a car to tour with the final destination Panama City. Or, drive both directions like I did. Note that many flights are available throughout Panama including those to David in the southwest, and Bocas Del Toro and Chanqinola in the northwest. (If a reader wants to see both countries, please read my earlier article about Costa Rica.)
Panama, an Indian word, translates to “an abundance of fish.” The country varies between 50 and 120 miles wide, and is bounded by nearly 500 miles of Caribbean coastline and 800 miles on the Pacific. The City, 300 years old and known as the “Crossroads of the World,” has a diverse population. A tremendous amount of construction that showed no signs of ending cluttered the impressive skyline, including the first John Hopkins Hospital outside of the States. Panama uses U.S. dollars so no conversion was necessary.
On the Caribbean Sea, in the second largest city of Colón, a Free Zone was established as a center for foreign investment in manufacturing. Duty Free items may be bought here and delivered to your cruise ship, but they can’t be lugged back by car.
Bananas, shrimp and fish products, sugar, clothing and coffee are the leading exports. Manufactured goods, raw materials and foodstuffs are imported. About a quarter of the land is used for agriculture. Panama City that stretches about 20 kilometers along the Pacific coast was once a port but ceded shipping duties to neighboring Balboa.
The purpose of my trip was to investigate Panama for investment, retirement and travel opportunities. Panama’s economy centers on banking (which carbons Switzerland), tourism, and commerce. However, in this article I will concentrate on touring the country.
Before you go, obtain a copy of “Focus Panama.” The map of the country and Panama City inserted in the magazine will be very helpful. Lonely Planet has a good Panama guide which includes a walking tour of Casco Viejo, the old town. Be sure to check if a tourist card is still required. It could be purchased at airline or travel agencies, or upon arrival in Panama, and was valid up to 90 days, depending on the regulations in your country of debarkation.
I found it was easier to take taxis rather than navigate through the busy unknown city streets by car, even with a navigator. Cabs don’t seem to have meters; negotiate your fare before getting in. I found fares were reasonable, especially when compared to those in Dallas, Texas, and only a bit higher than in Costa Rica at the time. Nighttime rates were higher.
The first place I visited was the non-profit Interoceanic Canal Museum located in Casco Viejo. Chock full of information about Panama, its history and the canal, it’s possible to spend hours exploring everything. Children, students and senior citizens get a break on the price, which is often true at facilities throughout the country. The museum, once a hotel constructed by the French in the mid-1870s, faces the Plaza de la Independencia close to the Metropolitan Cathedral and National Theatre.
With so many photo opportunities in the area featuring colonial architecture, cobbled stone streets and ethnic diversity, I meandered toward the fish market called Mercado de Mariscos where a restaurant served great seafood. (Shipments arrive in the market starting about 3AM; it opens at 5AM and by 2PM vendors are nearly sold out.)
Suddenly a tourist policeman was in my face. “Where are you going?” Although certain areas of Casco Viejo are being renovated, this was not a safe section in which to walk, even with a companion. I explained I was in search of a restaurant, and he and an associate then urgently escorted me a few blocks and all the way upstairs to a restaurant. No tip seemed to be expected as they hurried off to help another wanderer.
In a safer part of Casco Viejo, not very far from the museum, I fell in love with apartments (costing more than $100,000 each), being renovated utilizing architectural features such as the original fantastic ceramic tile floors. Views from the rooftop of the bay and surrounding buildings, many with balconies reminiscent of New Orleans, were truly fabulous – and another plus for the rooftop was a bar and hot tub. Many edifices were just facades because the law dictates that the integrity of the area must be preserved by retaining the exteriors. Gutting interiors is acceptable.
Some owners are waiting for prices to increase before proceeding with development so the visitor can expect to witness growth for many years. As a former Texas commercial real estate broker, I predict that once the population in the area increases, at least one grocery store will open its doors. Maybe some enterprising developer will find a building for a parking garage to solve the parking problem.
Located on Ancon Hill in Quarry Heights, a nature preserve where birds, monkeys, sloths and deer roam, and from which it is possible to see The Bridge of Americans (most spectacular at night), is Mi Pueblito. One section features life sized rural villages found on the Penisula de Azuero, and in Bocas del Toro and Darién, that include replicas of homes, stores, a school and a church. A small air conditioned exhibit space offered a respite from the heat as well as a display of national dresses. The other portion of the exhibit contained buildings, many that just facades, filled with stores. Replicas of Indian huts provide space for tribesmen to sell their well-made artifacts at what I suspected were high prices.
Although many churches are worthy of visiting, the only church I toured was El Carmen, located not far from Panafoto (camera prices were high). Its two towers dominate the landscape. Inside, the baroque altar and stain glass windows were impressive.
While I would recommend taking a cab to the Panama Canal’s Miraflores Visitors Center, if you opt to drive Calle Diablo yourself, be aware that it turns to the right and feeds into Avenida Gaillard. It is necessary to go a short way south again in order to make a U-turn toward the canal’s entrance.
For about two hours I watched as huge ships squeaked inch by inch through the narrow slots at Miraflores, actually two of the Canal’s locks. The Canal is 40 miles long from shore to shore and has six locks, three of which operate by gravity. It’s awesome to contemplate this feat of human effort and engineering begun in 1880 and completed in 1914 at the cost of thousands of lives. The majority of the original structure and equipment is still used. (This may change when the canal is expanded.) Passing through the canal takes a ship about eight hours.
A special treat featured cocktails on a friend’s balcony in a high rise building after dark when it was possible to see ship after ship lined up awaiting a turn to glide through the Canal.
Near the ruins of Old Panama, the original city circa 1519 before pirates sacked it, not to be confused with CascoViejo, is a large building that resembles a flea market called the Mercado Nacional de Artesanías. One of several craft centers in the city, it’s crowed with artisans and craftsmen selling their creations. Prices may be negotiated.
While time didn’t permit doing everything, visitors should be aware that anglers can charter boats and try to catch a slew of fish from Amberjack to Yellowfin Tuna. Outside of the city, a motorized canoe ride up a scenic rainforest river, called the Embera Indian Village Tour, includes food, a native dance performance and an explanation of their way of life and beliefs. Portabelo, not far from Colón, has four Spanish fort ruins, a restored customs house and more.
Crossing the Bridge of Americas as I departed Panama City, but missing the modern Century Bridge this time, I drove the Interamericana Highway CA1 to Las Uvas located just after San Carlos at the water’s edge, and turned right toward El Valle de Antón.
On Sundays El Valle hosts from 7AM to 5PM a market that includes handicrafts; small souvenir shops dot the street opposite it. Legend suggests that this area has been inhabited for hundreds of years by several Native American tribes. It is famous for rare petroglyphs which have yet to be deciphered. With lush vegetation, it features allegedly square trees (well, they’re not round) and golden frogs. A good place to see the frogs as well as the rare orchid called Flower of the Holy Spirit, the national flower, is in the Nispero Zoo and Plant Nursery. If you want to fly Tarzan-style over the canopy and El Macho waterfall, the thrill awaits you. I longed to linger, staying at the Hotel and Restaurant Los Capitanes, owned by a former Capitan in the German Merchant Marine, where I had a delightful lunch and conversation. Hopefully subsequent owners, if he is able to sell the business, will be just as cordial.
Further west down the Interamericana Highway in Capira, a nondescript shop called Quesos Chela sells its famous bread and cheese, and sweets. In Santiago 250K from Panama City, look for the small Galleria Hotel, reputedly offering the best rooms in town, adjacent to the Galleria Shopping Center. Squeeze down the narrow, two-way driveway to the left as you face it and park. Its restaurant features excellent Panamanian fare at good prices.
The road from Santiago to David has sections that are not as well maintained as those closer to Panama City. While the views are incredible, the landscape features farms and villages. The infrastructure in relatively dirty; David needs work but it is laid out in a grid making it easy to drive around except for the potholes. Hot and sticky year round, it doesn’t offer many tourist attractions but is a place to stay on the way to other places.
I had a unique opportunity to visit with the European born manager of the Gran Hotel National, also known as the Hotel Nacional, Mundial Latinomericana, S.A that used to be a train station. (As I didn’t get permission to use his name, and he could move on again, I’ll call him Karl.) When Karl came to David for the first time in 1963, he became president of the local restaurant association. He improved the hotel and tourist business in David but lamented that it is no where close to how he left it. Nothing has changed in the last ten years since he returned after 35 years, he said, except “the prices have gone up like an elevator.”
While I didn’t have the time to investigate Boquete, a picturesque coffee center located north of David with a cool refreshing climate, it would be worth visiting for its flowers and hot springs, and to witness its development. Both the manager and my college roommate, who was born in Panama, recommended it. Some other places to consider are Chiriqui, which has a Swiss look, San Fancisco de Montaòa that features a Baroque church and the archeological Museums of Sitio Conte; and El Caño where tools and skeletal remains date from the pre-Columbian period. They are between Natá which has the second oldest colonial church in the Western Hemisphere, and Penonomé. If you decide to enter Costa Rica, cross at Pasos Canoa about 50 kilometers west from David.
As it turned out, driving around Panama was reminiscent of touring a European country because the roads were good and destinations could be reached quickly.