THINK IT OVER AND GO TO PANAMA

About Panama City, Panama

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Think Panama, think cruise, right? Or you may think of the western beaches where high-rise condos overlook the Pacific and your neighbours are likely Canadian. Well, think again and think road trip. I went to Panama with my guy friend and in three weeks we put more than 2000 km on our rented Kia Cerato.


My love of the open road probably harkens back to when my parents, new to British Columbia, put the kids in the backseat and explored. Here’s how my idea of a good time played out in Central America.

In Panama City, where all trips begin and end, we stayed in Casco Viejo, the city’s oldest neighbourhood, a cobblestoned haven of colonial buildings recognized as a Unesco World Heritage Site. We wandered the cobbled streets, enjoyed excellent bistros, ate ceviche at the fish market, took in a few museums and ended days where local children played in The Plaza de la Independencia.

Casa Sucre Boutique Hotel was our pleasant lodging and its coffee house was a bonus, as was the American couple who owned it and were generous with their travel tips. On their advice we booked a day trip on the famed canal with Pacific Queen Panama Canal Tours that takes in three locks and provides excellent historical and geographical information. No one should visit Panama without an experience on the canal that was constructed in 1904 and is still an amazing man-made wonder.

But the real fun of this trip began once we picked up our rental car, arranged through Rental Cars International, from home. Getting out of Panama City was a challenge (we later met an American couple who, in order to find their way, had hired a taxi to follow!).

We relied on a GPS that was not always reliable. After battling frenetic traffic, it was a thrill to zoom over the Bridge of the Americas and onto the famous Pan American Highway. Soon we were paralleling the beach locales so popular with North American snowbirds – about 65 km starting from Playa Coronado. We turned down to El Palomar to find a small beach inhabited by locals and Manglar Lodge, a peaceful lodging.

After hearing about the mountain town El Valle from other travellers, we headed for the hills. Later in the trip we knew that every time we turned north off the highway, we were in for lovely landscapes. Tucked into the crater of an extinct volcano and fringed by forests where easy hikes showcased waterfalls and sweet-scented growth, the tiny town is an outdoor paradise. Although this is a popular Panama City getaway, there were few tourists. (We had taken a friend’s advice and driven from the city to the beach areas on a weekday. Weekend traffic is known to be nasty.)

A day later we whizzed along the Pan American eventually turning south to the Azuero Peninsula. While Lonely Planet lauds it as ‘Panama’s next travel hot spot’ due to its pounding surf, the more than 6,000 square km peninsula is mainly farm and ranch country.

Other than the surfing towns – flashback to hippy days - you won’t see many elements of tourism. Ditto for signage, driving here, we were seriously off-track a few times. Even the first day in the town of Las Tablas, no one spoke English and getting out of town was a challenge.

We drove south to Pedasi. While still exuding that laidback village feel – small, pastel buildings, sleepy streets, locals who smile at you – it is slated for condo development. Talking to some locals and ex-pats (who felt they had found their escape) many aren’t happy about future development. We happened upon the Pedasito Hotel, pleasant and clean with a tiny pool to cool off in. A couple of nights here and one could easily forget Internet, email, and traffic jams.

A highlight was a day trip to Iguana Island. About a 30-minute boat ride from Pedasi and ringed by coral, the white-sanded island is made for snorkelling (I trailed a turtle) and that getaway-from-it-all feeling. (My Lonely Planets guide mentioned this isle may be ‘strewn with litter’ but that was not the case.)

Not being in a hurry, we decided to travel up the middle of the peninsula to get back on the highway. We followed rural routes through rolling ranch lands, tiny, tidy villages and enjoyed the freshness of pine forests when we were in higher regions. We were also lost several times as there didn’t seem to be any ‘main’ roads. (I haven’t mentioned that I enjoy being lost so this was one of my favourite driving days.) But heading north, we knew we would eventually reach the Pan American highway that we followed to Santiago and turned north to Santa Fe.

High in the mountains we found Coffee Mountain Inn with a surprisingly classy room – breakfast served on patio where a cheeky parrot was spotted – in this simplistic town. Santa Fe is just a couple of stores and, if you searched, about three basic restaurants. But the hikes through verdant rainforests to raging waterfalls were memorable even amid the raindrops. In the mountains the temperature had dropped to mid-20s C. Our last night there we struck the dine-out mother lode at Hotel Restaurant Anachoreo, run by a Dutch man and his Cambodian wife.

In Panama you drive a zigzag route as you must always return to the Pan American Highway. From Santa Fe we drove south to Santiago where we hit major construction all the way to our turn-off at David – about 200 km with a speed limit of 40 km/hr. Everyone who drives in Central America knows the police scenario: you are stopped, told you are speeding and that you have to return to a distant town to pay a costly fine. When you pay the US $20 ‘fine’ on the spot, your license and passport are returned and you drive on. As a consequence, we found ourselves overly conscientious in speed zones!

Heading north to Boquete, the excellent auxiliary highway was our first hint that after the AARP (American Association for Retired Persons) voted the highland town a top retirement spot it blossomed in more ways than just its gardens.

You feel the buzz as soon as you arrive. Yet with it’s flora and fauna richness, there is nothing not to like: luxuriant gardens to visit, high mountain hikes (we spotted the elusive Resplendent Quetzal here), coffee plantations (I recommend touring Finca dos Jefes) and a wealth of fabulous eateries.

Boquete Garden Inn was by far our best Panamanian lodging. You strolled among the dazzling botanical offerings and breakfasted in the company of the colourful feathered set who arrived at the fresh melons set out for them. It is a magical place.

Don’t miss drinks at the 1915 Hotel Panamonte Inn with its old style elegance where presidents and movie stars have dined and stayed.

Our final destination was Bocas del Toro Archipelago, on the Caribbean coast. From Boquete, we took a country road (only lost once) to cut across to Highway 4 that sweeps you over the Cordillera Central, part of the spine of mountains that forms the Continental Divide. An amazing drive through deep, moody valleys then so high we were in the misty highlands. This about 200 km route that took 4-5 hours was one of spectacular scenery where we seldom saw another car until we were paralleling the Caribbean Coast.

At Almirante, the car was left in one of the several car lots and we boarded a boat to the town of Bocas del Toro where we stayed for five nights. We enjoyed the usual pleasures of a Caribbean island holiday where we boated to other islands, snorkelled, rented bicycles to reach lonely beaches and dined on mouth watering seafood. It all worked.

Yes, we did have to get back in the car to return for our flight home and the drive was more than 600 km. We overnighted in a popular beach resort near Panama City that was pleasant enough but just emphasized for us the pleasures of getting off the beaten track by car in Panama.

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