Panama

[Note: As it goes on the road, I lost my memory card reader somewhere in Costa Rica. Until I get home the rest of the photos I post will what can be gathered from my phone or Josh’s. Please forgive the omission of quality visual accompaniment.]

What did I think of Panama? I’m not really sure.

Not including our boat trip in San Blas, we spent just over a week there, between two towns. We had a good time, as we always do, but I feel like something might be missing from the small, skinny, snake-shaped country. Sandwiched between two distinct and passionate nations – Colombia and Costa Rica – Panama, by comparison, has no personality, no identity.

Pulling into Panama City was quite a shock. The skyline is jaggedly defined by countless white skyscrapers that make you question whether you are in Central America or New York City. The entire town is remarkably polished, dotted with fancy restaurants, five-star hotels and high class botiques. Much to our chagrin, everything in Panama is expensive, at least for our budget.

Perhaps what frustrated us about Panama was that it too closely resembled America. We spent American money on American goods at American prices. For every scruffy-headed backpacker there were five gray-haired Americans (ex-pats or cruise passengers) all wearing the same golf visor, fanny pack and velcro sneakers. I’m glad to see these folks getting outside of the U.S., but we felt like we were in Florida when we were supposed to be in Latin America.

We stayed in Casco Viejo, the only barrio in P.C. that breaks the posh mould. 

The colonial streets are a bit dirty, with old decrepit buildings that at least allowed us to pretend we were in the third world. We spent our nights hanging out with friends from the boat trip, our days drinking espresso and catching up on writing.

The Panama Canal is of course the major attraction in Panama. Raking in several billion dollars every year, the canal is the reason Panama is so affluent. Though it is an interesting, obligatory sight, and a grand engineering feat for its time, nothing about the Panama Canal can be described as exciting. That said, we were quite lucky to arrive when we did, as two large cargo ships were approaching the locks. It was cool seeing them narrowly squeeze through the channel, which ships are universally designed to fit. But whereas you might hope it to be a dramatic affair, in reality it moves about as fast as paint dries.

After couple days in the city we were more than ready to escape gringoland, along with the coastal heat. Our solution was a small town called Boquete.

Nestled in the coffee-growing highlands, roughly equidistant from either coast, Boquete is everything that Panama City isn’t. The small town of 7,500 people has clean air, cool temperatures, and hosts some of Panama’s best nature.

Though I’ve never been very picky about the quality of my hostels, more concerned with saving money than the firmness of my bed, I have come to appreciate the influenec a hostel has on one’s experience in a place. We surely found the best digs in Boquete, if not our entire trip. Whereas most backpackers we met were crammed into run-of-the-mill dorms with bar and standard accommodations, we found something far more special in Refugio del Rio.

It wasn’t the cleanest or the fanciest, but Refugio del Rio had everything a perfect hostel requires: (1) affordable, comfortable beds, (2) convenient, central location, (3) a friendly, helpful staff, (4) a massive and well-equipped kitchen, (5) strong, dependable WiFi, and (6) that X-factor that makes it really stand out. In this case, that X-factor was the backyard, complete with comfortable lawn chairs, hot tub and perennial stream running though its length. We spent five nights here (more than any other destination on our trip), and most of the days we could be found lounging by the water, reading and relaxing. 

As the trip has gone on, the presence of a quality kitchen has become more of a sticking point when choosing our accomadations. 

I can honestly report that we have become an expert team of backpacker chefs, carrying a stuffsack of basic meal starters (oil, salt and pepper, condients, rice, noodles, stirfry sauces, and a variety of hot sauces).  

One of our finest or lowest culinary moments (depending on who you ask) was when we accidentally created our own atomic hot sauce. Josh and I are quite the black belts of spicy food, probably going through a bottle of hot sauce per week down here. So it was no tough decision for us to buy a handful of habenero chiles in the street market to throw into our homemade mac and cheese. 

Along with some sweet peppers we diced up the habaneros and threw them into a pan of caramelizing onions. As soon as those chiles got to frying they emitted the most potent of gases into the air. If you thought eating a habanero was difficult, try inhaling one. The inhabitants of the kitchen fled like a bomb had gone off. People were choking and coughing on the toxic air as we rushed to open a window and find a lid for the pan. Once the panic was under control, we cooked the mixture down for a good while, hoping some of the spice would come out. What we got out of it was a potentially lethal sort of chutney. A mere teaspoon was enough to spice up a hole dish. We slowly ate it away with each of our meals in Boquete. In the end we were oddly proud of what we had created, but we didn’t make a lot of friends that night. 

In our hostel we also met Bruce, a fellow Boulderite and recent graduate of our college. Meeting Bruce was like teleporting back to Boulder. With his influence we did yoga by the stream, made fresh garden salads, and talked about homeopathic medicine, tinctures and healing stones. And people wonder why why had to escape that city.

We spent plenty of time outdoors in beautiful Boquete, including a pleasant hike to a large waterfall. 

However our big adventure, and surely my best memory in Panama, was climbing Volcan Baru. At 3,474 m. (11,398 ft.) Baru is the highest point in Panama. The novelty of this treacherous hike is that it is traditionally done at night, with the payoff being to watch the sun rise from the summit while viewing both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea at the same time. How could we say no?

Due to the unfortunate recent disappearance of two Dutch tourists, the town was on high alert. Our hostel tried to convince us we were required to hire a guide, but at $60 a head we decided to look into other options. Through a friend we learned that another hostel in town runs a nightly shuttle to the trailhead for five bucks. Much better.

Along with Bruce and about 7 others, we were dropped off at 11:30 p.m. Our directions from the driver: follow the road all the way to the top; when the road forks always stay to the right; don’t hike too fast or you’ll freeze your ass off at the top waiting for the sunrise. With that we clicked on our headlamps and started walking.

I can’t say I’ve ever done a hike quite like this one. Without even the help the moon, we were more or less blind to the terrain outside of the ground we lit in front of us. We had the piss scared out of us when we almost walked into a massive bull standing in the middle of the road. We also found some lizards and a tarantula in our path. Unsure of what kind of calories we’d be burning, Josh and I made and packed eight P.B.J. sandwiches. We only needed about half of that.

The long, dusty road rarely changed in incline or direction. For all we know we could have been hiking on a treadmill. Even after consciously taking extra breaks, trying to slow ourselves down, we reached the last covered outpost around 4 a.m., about 90 minutes ahead of schedule. In hot, sweaty Panama it’s hard to believe you can actually find freezing temperatures, but that’s what we had to deal with. I probably would have been comfortable if I didn’t feel the need to lend my shell to poorly prepared Bruce, who was on the verge of hypothermia. In our desperation for warmth the gang hopelessly tried to start a fire with toilet paper and wet branches. In the end we lined up on the ground like sardines, restlessly napping the first glow of the sun emerged.

Stiff, cold and a little cranky, the group eventually made our final push just in time to reach the narrow, rocky summit. Marked by a large iron cross, we were initially disheartened to find ourselves completely fogged in. However, as soon as the sun came out from hiding the clouds made their steady and dramatic exit. In the course of 30 minutes we witnessed one of the most magnificent shows of light and color I’ve ever seen. Standing from the highest point in any direction, we were definitively at the top of the world, at least in our view. Though unable to say if we were looking at both oceans, we could clearly see one body of water. It’s hard to get picky with such a sight.

In total the trek took 12 hours for a round trip of 28 km. (16.8 mi.). Out of sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion, the last few kilometer were a bumbling, stumbling affair. Our minds were fried in equal proportion to our bodies. Having begun the hike as strangers, we reached the bottom as friends, cracking jokes, sharing the leftovers of our food and water. (I traded a P.B.J. for a warm beer.)

Upon our noon arrival to Boquete the whole group headed straight for the bar for a celebratory round of drinks. We were completely delirious at this point. Even words were difficult to form. After making some mac and cheese at the hostel, Josh and I passed out cold for the rest of the day, only rising for a few hours to make some dinner and pass out again. Now that was a hike.

After recovering another day at our beloved Refugio del Rio, it was finally time to leave Boquete. 

Though we had initially planned to visit Panama’s tourist magnet, Bocas del Toro, our elongated stay motivated us to head directly to Costa Rica. (I never wanted to go to Bocas in the first place.) After island hopping in San Blas, urban life in Panama City, and nature immersion in the highlands of Boquete, I’m still confused about Panama as a nation, a culture, an idea. Nonetheless it exists as a vital and memorable chapter in our ongoing journey.

 



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