April/May 2008


The Canal, the Bridge, and Shipping the coach

Kathy 1

After our peaceful crossing from Costa Rica, we suddenly found ourselves in Panama!  We had been waiting so long!  Panama, the home of the Canal we had read so much about, and the jumping off spot for our entry into South America.  We were truly excited.

And again, as in Costa Rica, we were immediately struck by how much more modern this country was than what we had been seeing closer to Mexico.  There were stripes and white sidelines on the highway!  Billboards!  Regular trash pickup in all the towns!  Very sophisticated clothes!  Regular laundromats!  Bagels in a Jewish bakery!  Stores closed on Sundays! … you get the picture.  The stores were carrying more and more food we recognized, and we had been told you could buy “anything” in Panama.  The change was quite remarkable.

Something else:  we were receiving by far the most sophisticated appreciation of the Tiger we had gotten since we left the States.  In the less developed countries, people would stare as we drove by, mostly because they had not seen anything quite like us.  But here, and also in Costa Rica, they know motor homes well; it is not uncommon for someone to stop to chat and they either have/had one themselves, and understand why we are small, and like the 4-wheel drive and the diesel, and appreciate our lifestyle.  It’s lots of fun.

So what is there to see in Panama, you ask?  Why is it a booming economy and why are so many North American retirees coming here?  It’s booming to a large degree because of shipping – remember, the Canal is here.  And people retire here because it’s less expensive than other places - although, like most other places, that is changing - there are good medical facilities, the beaches are stunning, and the lifestyle isn’t that different from what they left.  Many folks have second homes here, coming in for six months at a time, leaving before the rainy season starts.  Real Estate is a big deal and American companies like Century 21, ERA, Re/Max, Coldwell Banker all have their signs out.  You get the picture.

DSC 0333-1

Well, we don’t want to live here, but we have visited some mighty fine places, particularly in the western part.  We’ve tried to stay in the mountains (mountains? in Panama? yup) because it’s cooler.  By now it’s the end of April, and things are heating up.  But we crossed into Panama in the mountains, and so were able to pick out some spots to see that were still nice and cool.  That spine of the Continental Divide we talk about actually goes all the way through the country, but gets lower and lower as you get further east.  I know, we keep talking about east and west now.  You thought Central America was to the south.  But by the time you get to Panama, it definitely east and west.  Your geography lesson for today….

Panama has one volcano, inactive (although I saw in the paper that it was beginning to burble a bit and locals were being warned), Volcan Baru.  Baru is lovely, up in the mists of a cloud forest; it is approachable both from the west and the east, and we’ve seen it from both sides now.  The area to the west is more rural and quiet, with small villages selling the spectacular veggies that grow on the sides of volcanoes.  It’s a wonderful area to visit, with small country roads and fresh strawberries and jams of all sorts for sale along the way.  In this area we saw the first indigenous tribes we encountered in Panama.  The women dress in these sack-like loose garments, brightly colored with what looks like rickrack as decoration.  Not flattering, but probably cool in the heat.  Little girls wear them also, but the males are all in western dress, we learned.  Later on, in Panama City, we would see other tribes, from the area into the jungles further east, the Darien.

Kathy 2

The east side of the volcano is a little drier and more developed, and most activity is centered around Boquete, a charming mountain town we really liked.  Developed enough to have a couple of good restaurants already, it is poised to become a major tourist attraction.  We felt we could have been happy settling there if we were to do it today, but five years from now would probably be much less interested.  The countryside is lovely, and Boquete is in a beautiful mountain valley fed by a stunning river; a really nice spot.  We spent several days camped by the river in a field with a couple of horses and really enjoying ourselves.  

We had been told about a wildlife rescue center in Boquete, Jardin Paraiso (Paradise Garden), which we visited, and which proved to be a real highlight of our time there.  They had a capuchin monkey, Monty, that adopted Rick and he could hardly be persuaded to part with it when we left.  I got some really great pictures of the two of them.  Also in evidence were toucans, scarlet macaws and parrots, a maguey who took exception to my attempts at picture-taking; all this in a lovely garden setting created by the owners of the center, an English couple who wanted to retire here and settle down quietly.  It seems they had several birds they brought with them, and by the time they had jumped through the necessary hurdles in order to bring them into the country, the government decided they were a good spot to drop off birds confiscated by customs, and that’s what started it all.  This place was a gem.

We finally decided to move on; we had a tentative arrangement to ship La Tortuga and needed to get to Panama City to talk to the shipping agent.  So we dropped down out of the mountains, knowing that was it for cool weather until we were in the mountains of Columbia!  Yuck!  It got really hot immediately.  We were back on the Pan-Am highway, and Panama’s portion of that road is not so good – sections with big holes in the pavement – so we resumed playing dodge ball along with the other drivers.  But we persevered and finally got to the big city.

Kathy  2953

One weird thing happened along the PanAm Highway: we were cruising through the large burg of Santiago.  Suddenly, around a corner I saw truck that said Truly Nolan Pest Control.  Now Truly Nolan is a huge outfit out of Texas.  What the hell is he doing in Panama?  (And isn’t that the most bizarre name you’ve ever heard?)

But the coolest thing:  as you approach the city, you go across this huge bridge – over the Panama Canal!  We were really jazzed.  We have spent a lot of time reading about the Canal; we each have read David McCullough’s Path Between the Seas – twice.  We know more than your average person about it all, and were so eager to see everything.  We checked out the Miraflores Locks, on the Pacific side, and the visitor’s center there.  The Transisthmian Canal (the official name – try saying or even spelling that one 12 times) was turned over to the Panamanians in 1999, with great trepidation.  No one was sure they would be able to maintain it properly, and apparently we left in kind of a hurry, leaving them a bit of a mess.  But by all accounts Panama has succeeded admirably, and the locks are being handled efficiently and at a greater profit than the U.S. had been able to manage (or at least so say the Panamanians).  We did leave them with about $5.2 million in deferred maintenance, with which they are still struggling.  However, the visitor’s center is new and very nice, with lots of good information, and the views of the ships passing through are pretty darn neat.  We got in as seniors (jubilados here) – the American influence can still be felt!  And for the first time since we left the United States there were toilet seat covers in the bathrooms – la di dah!

DSC 0353-1

We will visit the Caribbean side of things a bit later.  Colon is the port side there, and that is where we will be taking La Tortuga to put him on the ship for Columbia.  While there we will visit those facilities.  For now we have retreated to a nice spot along the water, near the Canal, where we are hanging out in a huge, shaded parking lot across from the yacht club (free wi-fi, thank you).  We can see the ships going by; at night they are quite lovely.  The breezes help keep the temp under control and we have been joined by 2 German couples, an Austrian, and an Icelandic couple.  We are quite the international group!  As has been true all along in Central America, far more European travelers than North Americans are in evidence.  

We’re on Eastern standard time now (they don’t do Daylight Savings time down here), at about 8 degrees above the equator, and sleeping under a strange starry sky.  Panama is a real combination of the familiar and the foreign.  While waiting to talk to the shipping agent, at one point it was 105 degrees and about to rain.  That wasn’t fun.  But the women in this city are quite sophisticated and they dress very provocatively; I think they look trashy but Rick is in 7th heaven.  I compensate by realizing how handsome the men are, and how the older ones really seem to appreciate me!  So we’re both happy…..

We expect to ship the rig about the end of May.  We will have to leave it in Colon a couple of days before it departs, and then fly to Cartagena to pick it up, hanging around a hotel while it is in transit.  It will be very exciting, as the method of transport we are using involves loading the coach onto the flat bottom of a rack, having it strapped down, and then watching it be lifted into the air, over onboard, and then lowered onto the top of a stack of containers.  If I can keep Rick from having a heart attack during all this I will consider the project a success.  We are both nervous, but that’s how it’s done.

For our report on our shipping experience, go to our Shipping page.

Click here to see more of our pictures of Panama.

© Rick & Kathy Howe 2001-2018