Monday, March 21, 2011

Honeymoon Redux V: Panama!

And now we come, at last, to the beginning of our trip!

Exhausted, with me getting over a nasty cold picked up in New York (I think it was wedding stress finally come to a head - I also spent the first week of our honeymoon annoyed at the angry red line of zits marching across my jaw, a sure sign of burnout), we arrived in Panama City at about 11pm. Panama City is the safest and most developed of the urban centers of Central America, which is why we chose to start there. Regardless, it's not a place where you want to land at 11pm - although a friend of mine who not long ago landed in Manila at 3am had it much worse.

We caught a taxi into town, all of the collectivos being done for the night. Driving through the red light district that rings the old city at midnight, Brendan said, "Why do I have the sinking feeling that this looks like some of the nicest parts of cities we're going to see later?"

I grimaced, because I knew he was probably right. He probably was, but we miraculously managed to avoid spending a night in any of the other major cities save Tegucigalpa, and there we got ourselves to a decent hotel before you could say "thugs with guns are going through our luggage".

We stayed in the Hospedaje Casco Viejo ("hospedaje" being Latin American Spanish for "crazy cheap place that foreign backpackers stay in") which was pretty nice. Great location, safe enough inside Casco Viejo, with bare-minimum rooms that are fine for US $20 a night, good tourist info and free Internet and wifi. The bed felt like it was basically a square of styrofoam three feet deep, but hey.

We took our breakfasts in Cafe Coca Cola which, despite this guy bagging on it, has exactly what you think it has: cheap, filling breakfasts that deliver exactly what they promise and really good orange juice.

We spent the first day, still exhausted, wandering Casco Viejo, visiting crumbling churches and old colonial buildings. A bunch of children in a gazebo near the Cathedral of Panama were crunching on these things - I forget the name - so we got some too.

It was like Taiwanese shaved ice, only VERY VERY PINK, and it tasted as pink as it looked. Ask me what the "flavor" of it was, and I'll answer "Pink. Pink with sugar".

Brendan in the old city - yes, I posed him like that and he's such a good sport that he actually did it.

We never made it to downtown Panama City - I got the feeling it would look close up much like it does from a distance:

Whereas charming (and slightly grimy) Casco Viejo has a lot of back street charm.

...but isn't always all that nice:

It's advised not to wander too much at night, though as a pair we felt OK in this part of the old city. We enjoyed the Cathedral of Panama by twilight before heading out to dinner.

The next day we walked straight up the pedestrian shopping street leading out of Casco Viejo to Plaza Cinco de Mayo. Every other way out of Casco Viejo is, to be frank, a slum - this is the only reasonably safe way out on foot (which is why a lot of people who stay in Casco Viejo take taxis).

From Plaza Cinco de Mayo, you can catch a bus to a terminal way out in some urban offshoot, from where you can catch yet another bus to the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal. It's touristy, but totally worth it (and a bit of a long walk from the road).

Even today, it's still a technological marvel, and yes, the sailors on the cargo ships get a kick out of waving to people as they go through.

And yet, people still hang laundry from the sign.

The next day we caught a bus to David and transferred to a minibus to Boquete. We stayed at the Pension Marilos - a bit out of town but highly recommended. They have two friendly dogs and a parrot named Ricky (Me: "What's your name?" Ricky: "RICKY!" Me: "Are you a good bird?" Ricky: "RICKY!") and comfortable digs. Reserving in advance is a good idea.

Boquete is cooler, and in the hills. In the rainy season you get dewy, cool mornings and overcast, rainy afternoons every day. On our first day we trekked up to Cafe Ruiz past several homes owned by wealthy American retirees - it's not a myth: Boquete really is a major retirement hub. On the upside, it helps the economy. The downside? Areas that were once coffee farms are now gated communities for rich, old folks and the locals can't afford to live on their own land - a similar problem is cropping up in Costa Rica.

We took two tours with Cafe Ruiz - the coffee tasting, in which we drank a lot of coffee and discussed flavor profiles and such 'n such (I'm a total sucker for that stuff if it means I get to drink coffee), and then a coffee plantation tour.

We learned about coffee growing at Cafe Ruiz from beans... drying and roasting.

We were given free coffee beans as souvenirs (their signature light roast which is delish) and I also bought some Panama Guessha/Geisha coffee - $10 US for a bag that would make one pot - which is one of the rarest and most expensive varietals in the world.

I had my buddy at Drop Coffee (滴咖啡) brew it for us (he did it for free - the "fee" was that he got to drink some, too) and I will say it was...basically...the best coffee I've ever had. Sorry, none for you!
Friendly dog at Pension Marilos - he matches the parquet

The next day we went zip line touring with Boquete Tree Trek, which was loads of fun. One of the guides brought along his five-year old, who's been doing this since he was about three (so it's perfectly safe):

Aww, isn't he just Mr. Happy?

...riding with his dad, of course.

Boquete has one of the longest zip lines in the world, with one stretch of line that is several hundred meters long and thoroughly exhilarating.

It's also exhausting, and my arms, legs and chest (chest?) ached for days afterwards, long after we arrived in Costa Rica.

Brendan recovered more quickly.

The next day we grabbed a bus back to David (a small city near the Costa Rican border which inexplicably has a TGI Friday's) and were at the Costa Rican border by noon - more on how we wandered into a band competition in my previous post.

I do wish we'd spent more time in Panama, and would definitely go back to explore everything we missed. The Golfo de Chiriqui, the Parque Internacional la Amistad, the San Blas Islands...maybe not Bocas del Toro, though. Or maybe just for a weekend.

It's not a commonly considered vacation destination in its own right, the way Costa Rica and Guatemala are, but I would say in many ways that Panama was as rewarding as either of those countries and worth a visit in its own right.


Unknown said...

Hi Jenna,

The 'laundry' hanging next to the welcoming sign to the Panama Canal are actually Molas. These are being marketed and sold to tourists by the local Kuna indigenous tribe.


Jenna Cody said...

I guess you're right! I didn't see them up close (and at the time I needed glasses that I was not wearing). I actually own a mola, bought in Panama City in a touristy area, but I like it.