“How long for Panama d’ya reckon?” I asked Marcus in a rare and rash attempt at planning before we arrived here. “Dunno…” he said “…three, four weeks? Not much there, is there?”. “Dunno” I replied. Truth is, we really had no clue as to what there is to do in Panama. The Canal was on our bucket list, but other than that…. who knows? Even if you’d offered us a few $$$ to do so, we wouldn’t have been able to name another town or attraction that Panama had to offer the casual overlanding tourist – particularly not in the wild western Panama.
Our time in Panama is as much proof as one could ask, to demonstrate the pointlessness of planning timescales for overland travel. Our last blog explained the dentistry delays in Panama City… over a month later than we would otherwise have anticipated, we eventually set off westwards out of the city.
Western Panama – the Boquete Breeze
So what jewels did we find in western Panama? There’s no glitz like Panama City. It’s much more rural and wild out here in the west. There are fine remote beaches like Las Lajas and generally we do love a nice beach. But at this point in time, we weren’t so keen to beach-linger. We even skipped the renowned Caribbean beaches of Bocas del Toro. We’re certain we’ll be seeing many more stunning examples of beaches on our way through Central America, so we focussed on other things: a conservation project for the almost extinct golden frog, the oldest in-use church of the Americas and a hunt for the elusive Quetzal bird in the jungle. We ended our time in Panama around the cooler, high ground, the strong-hold of the American retired ex-pat: Boquete.
Boquete is not a pretty town to look at, but there is lots to do in the area. The local economy (arguably) hit the jackpot by attracting US retirement investment and as a result, there’s probably more English than Spanish spoken in the village. The area is popular with expats for two reasons: first, it sits in a beautiful setting at the base of Volcan Barú. Secondly, at around 3,000ft asl, it has a perfect climate. Temperatures average around 25-30C during the day, dropping to around 15-20C at night. There’s a permanent gentle breeze down the valley which lifts any heat that may settle on an ϋber-sunny day. After the oppressive heat and humidity of low-land coastal Panama, this climate could keep us around for a while. And in fact, it did, for two weeks over Easter.
We went for several hikes in the jungle to beautiful waterfalls and we particularly targeted the inaccurately named ‘Quetzal Trail’. The allegations of inaccuracy stem only from the fact that we were not fortunate enough to see one of these rare and elusive birds. However, they’re indigenous to much of Central America, maybe we’ll have other chances to see one.
It’s not only retired US expats who are attracted to Boquete. The climate and activities make it a popular place for overlanders too. We met lots of lovely travellers there, but we particularly enjoyed spending time with Joao and Ioana and their very cool green, Cuthbert sibling Iveco Daily 4×4.
Way back during the great dentistry delay of Panama City, we had decided to take a chance on having a few items sent out from UK by DHL parcel. We were pleasantly surprised how quickly it arrived: within just four days we could collect it from the DHL office in Panama City. Good service huh?
The only unfortunate thing about the arrangement is that it lulled us into a false and naïve sense of complacency. A month later we realised that a few more things might come in handy. For one thing, the mosquito net in our bathroom roof-hatch was no longer keeping the little critters out. With malaria, zika, dengue and whatnot around, we needed to do a good fix on this. So we (rather foolishly, it turns out) arranged to have another parcel sent out by DHL. The ingenious plan was not for us to wait in Panama City any longer, but to have the package sent to the town of David near the Costa Rican border. This way we could see the west of the country and collect the parcel on the way to the border.
The package arrived very quickly in Panama, but the combination of customs clearance and Easter holidays (which as jobless travellers we had completely overlooked) meant that almost three weeks after its arrival, the package was still not authorised for release. On the administrative front, Cuthbert’s temporary import permit (TIP) was soon to expire. On the practical front, we are impatient to get exploring Costa Rica before the tropical rainy season kicks off. The meteorological clock is ticking and the rains could start any time in the next month or so.
The DHL staff in Panama were pretty good. But after three weeks waiting and less than 24 hours before our TIP expires, customs still held our parcel. Luckily for us, DHL came-up trumps and offered to send the parcel on to Costa Rica at no charge, for us to collect there. So we’re now free to leave Panama, but with the question hanging over us: will Costa Rica be any easier/quicker to import a package to than Panama? Watch this space.
Looking back on Panama, our time here kicked-off to a fine start by sailing through The Canal. But we have to admit that (save for the wonderful reception and hospitality from long-term expats Stacy and Josette) our first impressions of the country weren’t full of glory. We found Panamanians to be a tad cold, unfriendly and unapproachable.
The income from the Canal sees that Panama is not a poor country and the people enjoy a reasonable standard of living, but you wouldn’t guess as much from their faces. Basic courtesies for customers seemed to be rather too much effort for most shop and restaurant staff. From the geographically limited viewpoint of our first weeks in Panama City, the country looked modern and glitzy by Latin American standards, but let down by a population struggling to crack a smile.
Curiously, in a few places we found pockets of chatty, friendliness which initially puzzled us. A few minutes of conversation soon revealed that these amiable chaps were all, without exception, Venezuelans who had fled their troubled homeland and settled in Panama to start new lives. It became our standing joke that if we noticed anyone, anywhere, smiling they must by default be Venezuelan immigrants – they couldn’t possibly be Panamanian!
Having said all that, we did like Panama City. With hindsight we may have judged the people a little harshly arriving as we did, directly from the exceptional warmth and super-friendliness of the Colombians. Had we arrived in Panama from any other South American country it would’ve been a seamless blend. Those Colombians set the bar pretty high for the poor Panamanians following on.
Luckily, our first impressions of Panama didn’t last. Once we got out to explore the wild-western highlands we found a warmer welcome. Western Panama has a friendlier people, beautiful scenery and above all, a fabulous climate. It’s not hard to see why Panama is a popular US retirement spot. Could it be the Trump exodus effect? Maybe. But I think these guys were here way back when Trump still had hair 😊.
That’s all from Panama folks! We’ll see you on the other side of the border in country No. 40: Costa Rica-ca-ca.