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On the road in Panama

Fri, Apr 4th, 2003
Posted in Features

The Panama Canal is an engineering marvel and provides passage for over 12,000 ocean going vessels per year. It stretches for 50 miles from Panama City on the Pacific coast to Coln on the Atlantic side. Here, a freighter makes its way through the Mira Flores Locks. Photo by Al Mathison

Panama, they say, is the next big destination. The next place to go once youve burnt out on the crowds everywhere else. Its tropical and has pristine beaches on two different oceans. There are rain forests and exotic birds and of course, theres the Canal. Panama is cheaper than Costa Rica and Mexico. Its got lively, friendly people and great seafood. As a bonus, you can even drink the water straight from the tap. What more could you want for a winter getaway?

One travel article I read said that if you go to Panama RIGHT now, youll get there BEFORE everybody else does. Youll see it before its spoiled and bulging with all-inclusive high-rise resorts and spas. With that in mind, I recently talked my old traveling buddy, Marco, who is always game for a trip, especially to Latin America, into going along with me to check it out.

Panama City is about 3 hours or so from Houston and the city from the air is a striking sight of gleaming skyscrapers edged right along the shore of the Pacific Ocean. Our plan was to spend a couple days in the city and then head out in a rental car to explore the rest of Panama.

It was at the rental car office that we met our first group of Canadians, the first of what proved be too many such encounters. There were four of them, all retirement aged men, who looked a little hungover from the night before, but still jovial. I started talking to one of them named Dick.

"Some of us were up sort of late at the casino," Dick admitted. "But now were going to get serious and see the country. Weve got a lot of ground to cover, eh?"

* * *

He went on to say that they were going to spend the next ten days looking for property to buy. He opened up a map of Panama and showed me several sites that he had circled after doing research on the Internet.

During previous winters theyd searched in Honduras, Nicaragua and Belize. They hadnt found the right spot yet and now they were at the bottom end of the Central American road. They were ready to buy.

"We came this close to buying 700 acres in Nicaragua last year," he said. "But the owners wife nixed the deal at the last minute because she was afraid her husband would drink up all the proceeds."

"So you guys must speak pretty good Spanish after all these trips and the haggling with local landowners?" I wondered.

"Nope, we dont," Dick said. "None of us know a word, but you can go a long ways with sign language. Thats how you Yanks bought Manhattan, eh?"

A few hours later we were well into the interior of Panama traveling the Pan American highway. The road was in remarkably good shape and the traffic once outside the sprawl of Panama City had been light. When it was time to eat we pulled over to a roadside open-air diner.

The tables were all occupied and Marco, using Spanish asked a man, who was sitting alone, if we could share the table with him.

"Sure," the guy drawled, "you fellas speak English?

"Not as good as you do," Marco replied.

And that was how we met Vince. He was headed to the city of David, just as we were, another four or five hours to the west. I had read that David was Panamas third largest city and was known for being hot, dusty and dull. Vince said that pretty much summed it up.

"You wont find much there," he said. "Me, Im going there to meet my girlfriend. Shes a Colombian and the best veterinarian in the country. Only problem is shes in love with her horses. She works for a big shot thoroughbred breeder up in the mountains and is so wrapped up in her work she doesnt have any time for me or anything else. I call her the Horse Lady."

Vince had grown up in Panama; his father worked for the Canal Authority and his mother was Panamanian. He had recently retired from 30 years in the US government. Most of his work had been in Latin America. He didnt say much more about his former job and the way he didnt say much, I took him to be a spook from the CIA or at least the DEA. There was an air of mystery and intrigue about him even though he was a non-stop talker.

The roadside food was not very memorable, a cold bony chicken leg over cold rice and even colder beans. I guess it was memorable after all, memorably bad. I picked through it as Vince told us different facts and anecdotes about Panama.

"Giving up the Canal was no big loss for the States," he said. "We just didnt need it anymore. The Chinese are running it now and they arent putting anything back into its maintenance and its beginning to show. The ship traffic is down 40 percent or more. Its a shame."

Vince said that he planned to leave his home in Washington and retire to Panama. He didnt know what he would do to keep busy. "Ill probably go nuts, especially if the Horse Lady doesnt marry me. Panamas my real home. I cant take it up in the States any more. With this Bush administration things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. Believe me, Ive seen it from the inside."

We said good-bye and were back on the road, traveling at a good clip through deforested scrub land where marginal looking Zebu cattle grazed on the brown stubble. A couple hours more up the road, we stopped for gas and what do you know but Vince was standing alongside his car at the pumps.

"You fellas must be following me," he laughed.

"It must be our fate, man," Marco said.

Vince told us of a good hotel in David and sure enough, after we checked in at the Gran Hotel Nacional, a stately old place with an inner courtyard bar/restaurant, pool, movie theatre, and even a casino, we saw Vince sitting at the outside bar. I could hear him talking in Spanish to the woman behind the counter. He was talking about his girlfriend.

"Come on over and pull up a stool!" he shouted, when he saw us. "The Horse Lady isnt coming down to see me tonight. She just called on my cell phone. Shes too busy up in the mountains with her damned horses. I hung up on her."

Vince was a good guy and I felt like Id known him for years. "Man, am I ever glad I keep running into you guys," he said. "It helps me forget about her. I know, I know, I sound like a teenager. But this Horse Lady just does something to me."

* * *

The next day we drove up into the mountains and entered the rain forest, a part of the country that hadnt yet been cut down and grazed over. We kept our eyes peeled for colorful birds, monkeys and jaguars. At the top was the Continental Divide and we got out and tried to see both the Pacific Coast and the Caribbean but the clouds rolled in and obscured the horizons.

We were headed to the Caribbean and the islands of Bocas Del Toro (Mouths of the Bull), an archipelago of several hundred islands. The main one, Colon, was visited by Columbus in the 1490s and more recently the area has been targeted by developers and land speculators.

On the mainland, we parked our car in what we hoped was a secure spot at the Almirante fire station. Almirante was a dilapidated-looking town known mainly as a banana-shipping port. There was a railroad and docks for loading ships but the locals lived in falling-down bamboo shacks.

A 45-minute boat ride later we were at Colon and it was totally different world. There were funky looking restaurants and hotels on stilts over the waterfront with rock n roll blasting into the air and satellite TVs tuned to American sporting events. Gringos and Canadians sat around talking about the weather back home and the impending war. Outside on the muddy streets troops of European hippie backpackers strolled around. There were water taxis to take you to the other more underdeveloped islands. On one of the remote uninhabited islands we heard that a French TV crew was filming a version of "Survivor."

Over the next couple days we kept running into a father and twenty-something year-old son team from Delaware. These two looked like theyd never been more than fifty miles from home. We had seen them wandering aimlessly several times before striking up a conversation with them. The son, Chip, said that they had come to Bocas on "business". There was something tentative about the way he said the word "business". And once they found out we were not also there on "business" they opened up and told us they were looking to buy property in Bocas.

"From what Ive read on the Internet you can make a killing in real estate here," Chip said. "Property values are virtually guaranteed to go sky-high in the near future. People have set their sights on Panama now."

"I read that somewhere, too," I said. "But except for here, we havent seen that many gringos in Panama."

"You just wait," Chip said confidently.

The only problem was the dad and Chip didnt much care for Bocas. There were too many rough edges. The electricity was sporadic, it was the only place in Panama where you didnt dare drink the water and the fishing, they said, was just plain awful.

"Its like I keep telling Dad," Chip said, "In Panama theres a little bit of everything and a whole lot of nothing."

And there you had it. In the classic and cliched Ugly American tradition Chip reduced the entire country to one sneering little sentence.

* * *

"Yup," his dad agreed, "you hit the nail on the head there."

I could write another 2,000 words on Panama. I could write 5,000 with enough coffee, but alas, the editor has told me that this is enough. Hes cutting me off.

So I dont have space to go on and on about the whitewater-rafting trip we took on the wildest river in Central America. It was rated a Class 4 route with 73 sets of rapids in a steep 18-kilometer course. The owner of the whitewater rafting business was an American in his forties named Kevin, who had moved to Panama from Illinois. He told us that a Class 1 river is like walking a horse, while a Class 4 is akin to hanging onto a bucking bronco for dear life. A person could fall out, he said, when caught between the churning water, the boulders and the froth.

Several times over the daylong journey through the remote primordial river country I felt like I wouldnt be coming back home in one piece. It was that intense. But upon reaching the end of the trip, without falling out even once, I felt like I could walk on water - once my knees stopped trembling. Now I knew firsthand what the term "extreme adventure" meant.

Panama, its no wonder that the secret is out. And Im a little sad for it. I like it just the way it is.

"Do you think Panama will be the next Costa Rica?" I asked Kevin, who started his rafting business a little over two years ago.

"I sure hope so," he said. "Im tired of losing money."

Al Mathison can be contacted at alanm@rconnect.com

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