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Authentic Panama – the real deal!
After a hearty breakfast in Boquete and an official group photo, we were back on the bus for our trip across the Continental Divide from Chiriqui province to the neighboring province of Bocas del Torro. One of the real pluses of the Panama Relocation Tour is the opportunity to visit the primary places where expats call home, however this kind of boots-on-the-ground tour involves a lot of travel time. A good bus with a capable driver and a small group of less than half the bus capacity make the trip as comfortable as possible. Time on the road gives a good opportunity to talk about relocating in Panama, discuss pluses and minuses of various locations, and answer the many questions about expat living in Panama.
In Panama you always need a back up “Plan B” . . . and “C” . . . and “D” . . . etc. People can tell you this in a conference about living in Panama being held in a comfortable ballroom in Panama City, but when you are on the ground and confront the real need for alternate plans . . . “upfront and personal” . . . you understand!
Coming over the Continental Divide we stopped at Fortuna Dam, a giant dam part of a huge hydroelectric project. Panama gets most of its electrical power from hydroelectric plants. As Panama grows there is demand for more and more electricity while at the same time the hydroelectric companies are selling power to neighboring Costa Rica. In Panama all mineral and water resources belong to the government. So the government authorizes giant companies to create dams to create electricity . . . or authorizes the construction of what will be the second largest copper mine in the world. Giant dams often displace and disrupt communities in their path, and when much of this expansionist development is proposed on land granted to Indigenous groups who were here before Columbus arrived, the Indians protest.
After you’ve crossed the Continental Divide there is only one narrow two-lane road for the ride of about an hour to the place where you catch a boat taxi for about a half-hour ride over to Bocas and Isla Colon. When we stopped for lunch we heard that the Indigenous had closed the road until 3 pm to demonstrate against proposed hydroelectric projects that would put their communities underwater. “Plan B”: if we can’t get to our boat, try for an alternate. Extra “scenic” tour. Two places, boats, but our bus driver pronounces them as unseaworthy. “Plan C”: another location, another boat. Seaworthy but, no captain. “Plan D”: Back to the restaurant for our driver to see what he can find out. Bad news. The demonstration originally “scheduled” to end at 3 pm may continue to 6 pm. Decision time. Do we wait it out, or go back to Boquete. 3 hours back over the mountains? Two-thirds of our group are planning to remain in Bocas after the tour concludes and fly from Bocas to Panama City. We have no reservations in Boquete. “Plan E”: give it a try. Maybe we’ll get an afternoon rain that will drive off the protestors. Maybe the road will have cleared. Maybe they’ll let us through. Maybe we’ll wait it out. Maybe the protesters will stay all night and we’ll have to turn around and go back anyway. “Maybe” is a big part of any plan in Panama! The taxi boats stop running at 5:30 pm. Will we make it? There are lots of group suggestions. “Stay at a hotel up the road.” Folks don’t know there ARE no hotels. No Holiday Inns along the way!
So we go! About an hour along a winding, narrow road surrounded by tropical jungle. No cell phone access here. And then we come to the road block. Thankfully we have an air-conditioned bus! Some of us walk up and as best we can communicate with the demonstrators. We are sympathetic to their cause. “Why don’t they demonstrate in Panama City?” Good idea, but many of these people scramble just to buy rice. They can’t afford the $20 or so bus ride to Panama City let alone a place to sleep and food.
“Plan F” The bus driver reports that news is that the demonstration will continue until 6 pm, meaning we will miss the last boat to Bocas, there are no hotels on this side of the water, which would mean turning the bus around, driving all the way back to Boquete, hoping that once we get a cell signal, Jackie Lange can find us rooms in Boquete, and everyone will scramble to adjust plans and flights. We decide to wait it out until 3:20 pm, declare that beyond 3:20 pm we’ve reached the “point of no return” and rather than risk spending the night in the bus, would turn around and head back to Boquete.
Understand that by this time everyone, except for a few men who adapt more easily to the customs of Panama, are “holding it” having consumed soda and drinks at lunch 2 hours earlier. I explain the “facts of life” in Panama and except for a few adventurous guys, most folks decide to hold on a little longer. Great group!
“Plan G”: 3:15 pm, 5 minutes to go. The driver returns having talked to the Indigenous “chief” who promises the road will be open by 4 pm. So we wait. Hoping.
“Plan H”: 3:55 pm we start moving forward. The last boat to Bocas is 5:30 pm and we are behind a truck on a windy road in a bus without enough power to even attempt a somewhat risky pass. There is no cell signal anywhere.
“Plan I”: We roll into the place to get the boat taxi along with everyone else who was stuck in the road block. It is mass chaos. I finally get a cell signal, call Jackie and have her call the hotel and the restaurant and let them know we will be arriving 2 hours after the times scheduled. We make the 3rd boat and . . . finally! . . . make it to Bocas and check into our hotel.
All’s well that ends well
I guess all is well that ends well. We have an hour to decompress before boarding a local water taxi to take us across to another Canero Island and BiBi’s restaurant on a hut out over the water. I have to say they make the best Passion Fruit Margarita’s I’ve ever tasted. A few drinks and everyone was relaxing and in the spirit of Bocas del Torro.
by Richard Detrich, author of Escape to Paradise
After a night in Santiago and a hearty breakfast we headed West to the province of Chiriqui, home to David, Boquee and Volcan. The stretch from Santiago to the Chiriqui border checkpoint is the roughest section of the Pan American Highway in Panama. Two lane, full of potholes, a road that is always cracking and shifting due to the geology of the area, so we bounced along. All the bouncing necessitated a bathroom stop, and although the drive is spectacular there are few places, aside from lots of trees, where you can stop along the way. We found a tiny restaurant with basic accommodations for 25 cents a person (included in the tour!!) and the lady even provided toilet paper. The group is getting very good at adapting and realizing that, hey, “This is Panama!”. The key to successful expat living in Panama is to accept early on that it is NOT the USofA and that things are different, so you adapt.
Having a small group enables us to answer lots of questions while at the same time seeing and experiencing Panama. There is a lot of hype that you don’t have to know how to speak Spanish to live in Panama. And although true, the group has quickly picked up that once you get outside gated, guarded communities like Valle Escondido, not everyone understands English. In fact . . . Panama is a Spanish-speaking country. It is not “Press one for English; press two for Spanish.” You can struggle along in English, but the more you know or at least try to speak in Spanish the better things go. Because it is a Spanish-speaking country all official documents need to be translated by an official translator into Spanish.
Pipa Fria is a Latin American tradition. This is REAL coconut juice, not the knock-off, highly diluted stuff sold in the US for $3.50 for a little bottle. We stopped along the way to sample freshly cut coconuts and sip the juice. Panamanians say that if you have one coconut a month you will never have intestinal parasites.
After a typical Panamanian lunch in David the group headed off for a boots-on-the-ground tour of the shopping available in David. We visit David every other week to shop at PriceSmart, sometimes called by expats “Costco Light”. It’s a scaled down version of US “big box” shopping. The group visited Chiriqui Mall next door where there is a multi-screen movie theater and where you get your driver’s license, saw David’s hospitals, all the construction of additional retail stores going on, and then visited Plaza Terronal, the giant, relatively new mall with several department stores, Do It Center, a number of stores selling appliances, and a giant Rey supermarket.
After the shopping adventure and feeling confident that pretty much anything anyone could want is available in David, about 30 minutes from Boquete, the group headed up the mountain to Boquete and settled in at the Oasis Hotel, nestled in “downtown” Boquete. After freshening up, everyone was off to dinner at the Art Cafe on Avenida Central in Boquete. We had the restaurant to ourselves for a private party and began by hearing the experiences, observations and recommendations from two expat couples.
By Richard Detrich, Author of Escape to Paradise
After breakfast at Sheraton Bijao overlooking the pools and ocean, the group boarded our bus to get on the Pan American Highway and head west. Remember, the Isthmus of Panama runs east – west connecting Colombia with Costa Rica. As we passed the new Rio Hato airport and under the main runway we talked about some of the beach developments on the Pacific side, like Bijao that attract expats to both high rise beach-side living and condos, and some exclusive projects like Ventura that have large, individual beach side properties.
We headed out the Azuero Peninsula toward Chitre, another Panama town that is booming. Along the way we stopped at the little, historic Spanish colonial town of Parita and were able to get in the beautiful old Spanish colonial church there with a ceiling of hand hewn pegged timber and amazing altar pieces and sculptures from the Spanish period.
With no bathroom facilities in Chitre we made do with what was available. A kind gentleman who was cleaning the local cantina let us use the restrooms. Like I’ve said before, this is a boots-on-the-ground tour with a chance to see the real Panama!
Now on an “authentic” roll, we had lunch at a “fonda” restaurant where everything is fresh and cooked outside over wood fire. In the outdoor kitchen chickens are being plucked, corn is being husked and soup simmers in giant pots over open wood fires. The result is amazing taste and a great culinary experience!
The area around Chitre and Las Tablas, the center of Carnival celebrations in Panama, has been increasingly attractive to expats because of the availability of stores and services. We drove by the giant new hospital under construction, and then on to one of the many beaches near Las Tablas. Although it was a weekend, we had the beach virtually to ourselves.
This is a great group and our “Girl Power” group manages to keep things lively! From the Azuero we drove back to the Pan American Highway and on to Santiago, another rapidly expanding area of Panama. We stayed at a funky, Mexican-themed Panamanian hotel and casino where we enjoyed relaxing in the pool and having dinner together.
If you are thinking of maybe moving to Panama, there are “tours” which consist mainly of “conferences” where you sit in the ballroom of a giant hotel in Panama City and here various presenters, some who pay to participate, presenting various “opportunities” for you to invest. There are other real estate tours where real estate sales people and developments, again some of whom have paid to participate, try to sell you properties. Panama Relocation Tour is neither: it is an opportunity to see and visit some of the places expats call home, to meet and get the straight scoop from real expats, and to get an overall feel for Panama. It’s a busy, boots-on-the-ground tour, but in my humble opinion it is a better way to decide if Panama is for you, or if it remains on the list of countries you may be considering.