Panama...the Path Less Traveled
by Bill Eldredge
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We had eight family members on this trip and we are all still speaking to each other…amazing. On the trip were Ellie, Sunshine, and Mac Lane, Clara Gilder (my little sister), Carmen and myself; Anita and Tom Ermish flew in on a later flight.
On the flight from Miami to Panama, Clara was upgraded to 1st Class. Talk about luck… An hour into the flight, I was feeling sorry for her because we were eating empanadas that I bought on the run, while we were switching planes in Miami. I went up to her in 1st Class to offer her some empanadas, but she said no thanks. She was eating Steak and Lobster on real china, with a real fork, and drinking wine from a glass. While her poor relations were in the back of the plane eating greasy Cuban empanadas and drinking free sodas. Well excuse me…that is the last time I am going to feel sorry for my little sister.
No rental car in Tocumen… When we got to Panama City, the two cars that Mac and I rented, where not available. The car rental folks did not seem too concerned even though we had confirmation numbers. They basically said… tough, all the cars have been rented due to the holidays. I did some quick thinking, and went to the Decameron counter and told them our situation. The gentleman said no problema…they would take us there for $15.00 per person. It turned out that this was a better deal then renting a car, plus they did the driving.
We had rented a 3 bedroom Villa next to the Decameron Golf Course. The Villa had a full bathroom in each bedroom, a large living room and dining room area, plus a full kitchen. It was close to the resort beach and had a great view of one of the Fairways. Our first excitement was when Ellie and Mac locked themselves out of their room with all there stuff inside…money passports etc.. We tried to get in through the windows, and tried to dismantle the door with no luck. Finally we got security which contacted housekeeping to open the door. One nice thing about the Decameron is that they have a lot of security guards patrolling the facility. Tom and Anita joined us the next day with Awilda Thomas. (Anita’s friend that lives in Panama.)
After we settled in, we went out for dinner. Somehow, Ellie and Sunshine got separated from the rest of us and ended up at a restaurant just outside the resort which served Corvina, Ceviche and other seafood. They told me the food was great as well. Carmen and I eat at one of the many restaurants in the resort which was also very good.
The Decameron is an all-inclusive world class resort with many activities and things to do. It was like being on a cruise ship with all the food and drinks available during most of the day and night. It is located 90 minutes from Panama City, in Farallon near Rio Hato, where the sun shines all day long and the nights are studded with stars. Actually, we did have some light rain in the afternoons which is unusual during the dry season. One could go on a variety of tours, bicycling, golfing, fishing, sailing, kayaking, horseback riding, parasailing and many more activities. Since Mac is a golfer, he played the course one day and said it was great. Carmen and I went kayaking, Clara and I also went sailing. One day we also chartered a power boat and went out to Farallon Island, along Santa Clara beach with the beautiful homes, Noriega’s old beach house, which is now in disrepair, and then up to Playa Blanca Resort. The rest of the time we just laid out on the beach enjoying the scenery. Swimming in the warm tropical ocean was fantastic. I had not felt this healthy in a long time. My sinus problems and aches and pains were gone. Also, while we were there, three jumbo jets came to with 1000 Canadians. Panama is being marketed heavily in Canada. We met some of them and they told me that they felt like they had died and gone to heaven. Panama is wonderful…leaving their freezing climate and coming to the warm tropics was just what the Doctor ordered. Boy, they sure knew how to party.
At this time we separated for a few days. Ellie, Mac, Sunshine, Anita, Tom, and Awilda went to El Valle. They had reservations at Los Nances. I made arrangement for the Decameron Van to drive Carmen, Clara and I back to Albrook via the Centenario Bridge which just opened a few months ago. The bridge looks like two giant magnificent sails spanning the canal. What a spectacular view of the ships transiting Culerbra cut and Pedro Miguel Locks.
The 45 minute flight to David on Aeroperlas modern ATR-42 aircraft was relatively smooth. Looking at the sights of the old Canal Zone during the climb out brought back many memories. I could see Curundu, Balboa, Fort Clayton, Howard air base and Miraflores Locks clearly. We were just about to level off when we heard “ Cock-a-do-dol-do” . I should have known… I told Clara that there is that damm chicken again. On our last trip to Panama, we took a very nice bus to David, and she kept hearing a chicken in some ladies bag. Now we had a rooster in the rear baggage compartment of the plane. That darn rooster kept crowing during the rest of the flight. When we were getting off the plane in David, I asked the flight attendant if the rooster paid full fare, she said of course...”He is a prize fighting rooster.” Then a Panamanian gentleman behind me said, “If he loses the fight, he will be Sancocho in the morning.” (Chicken soup)
I was not sure that I was going to have a rental car waiting for me when I got to the Avis counter. However, it must have been my lucky day. We got a new Nissan Sentra at half the original cost that was quoted to me. God does look out for the good folks… I had reservations for two nights in Boquete at a guesthouse ( Casita ) owned by Jim and Marni Craig. They were a delightful Canadian couple I met on the internet. The road to Boquete was very good and the scenery just got better and better. However, locating the house proved to be quite interesting at first. Clara read me Marni’s email instructions while I was driving up the road in the dark, which sounded kind of comical at first. “Turn left on Volcancito road and go past Café Mozart, pass the 2 white swans, pass 5 speed bumps, pass La Estancia. Do not make any left turns along the way. Go past the fake tin cows, drive past 2 new houses high up on the hill and then around a big bend bearing left, past the yellow house that is for sale. (At night…you got to be kidding.) Take the dirt road off to the right immediately before that house and another immediately after that. Proceed up the dirt road keeping to the left all the way until you come to a fence before a coffee plantation. Good luck…” We were laughing all the way, but we made it.
After a restful night sleep, we woke up to a fantastic sight. The drive was worth it… The property was beautifully landscaped…there were flowers everywhere and the mountains were spectacular. The guesthouse and main house were tastefully decorated. We later found out that Marni was an interior decorated in her past life as well. We had breakfast on the veranda which looked like a movie set. The temperature was perfect, and the food tasted so good in the cool crisp air. We had ham and eggs, warm Micha bread, coffee and tea, and a variety of fresh fruit. Life was good…I felt like I was in Shangri-la.
Marni was gracious enough to give us the royal tour of some of the properties in the area. There are several American style gated communities under development in the Boquete area. We fell in love with Valle Escondido. They have an Equestrian Center, 9 hole Golf course, spa, chapel, and a cute village center all in one place. We liked a couple of the homes we saw. The quality of the construction is as good if not better than the US. However, the prices are higher due to location, location, location… The other area that impressed me was Los Molinos, which is about 5 kms outside of Boquete. It is in the first phase of development. The clubhouse and activity center is being built next to a beautiful canyon. The quality of the construction is the same, but at about 2/3 the cost of Valle Escondido. The area is more open and the scenery is also spectacular. I just want to say that Boquete is wonderful, but it is not for everyone. It is somewhat out of the way. One would have to go to David for city life, but you can find most of the basic things that you need in Boquete. The hospitals in David are good and Panama City is one hour by air for anything major.
That evening we went to dinner with Marni and Jim at the Panamonte Hotel. I have to say that it was the finest dinner of the whole trip. I had Corvina smothered in a mushroom sauce served over a bed of glazed sliced cucumbers and vegetables. For dessert, I had my favorite Flan, but this time with sliced strawberries that were to die for. Again…life just kept getting better.
The next day we said goodbye to Marni and Jim and continued our adventure. I will be back… We drove to Volcan to visit my childhood friend, Dino Barkema. Volcan is less developed then Boquete and a little more out of he way. Just the way I like it… We had lunch at Dos Rios which is one of my favorite places in the area. Then we checked in at Cielito Sur Bed & Breakfast. The owners are Glenn and Janet (Tilley) Lee. (Retired ex-zonians) The Inn reminded me of something you would find in the Swiss Alps. The gardens were impeccable. We did a short hike on a trail through the cloud forest which was exhilarating. That evening we had dinner with Dino at the Bambito Hotel which was very good. Dino and I caught up on old times. He promised to take me deep sea fishing off the Azuero the next time I come back to Panama. Dino, I am going to hold you to that…
The next morning, Janet prepared breakfast for us while we were watching the beautiful hummingbirds outside the window. She said they had 13 species of hummingbirds in the area. For breakfast, she made omelets. She excused herself briefly and went outside, then came back with a dozen eggs. She said the chickens don’t mind, they will just produce more. Boy, you can’t get any fresher than that… The veggies and herbs were also from her garden. I also had fresh squeezed Tamarillo juice which I have never had before.
Volcan is also another beautiful place with spectacular views. The elevation around Volcan and Cerro Punta is around 6000 to 7000 feet and quite cool in the mornings. That morning, Dino, showed us around his new house which is very nice. The home is built to the highest building standards since he was in the construction industry in the states. He also showed us around his onion farm. It looks like he is going to have an excellent harvest this year. The scenery and views are awesome from his place. It was a weird feeling looking down at the clouds from his farm. Volcan is not as developed as Boquete, therefore, the land prices are less than half. However, it will not be long before more Canadians and Americans start moving in. Later we went to the Jansen Coffee Farm. While we were there, they gave us a tour on how they process, roast and package the coffee beans. It was very interesting and I learned something new. Then we drove back to David and caught the Aeroperlas flight back to Albrook. No rooster this time…
On News Years Eve, we met back with Mac, Ellie and Sunshine at Barko’s at the end of the causeway. Tom and Anita had returned back to Dallas the day before. Afterward we went to Shamrock’s, which is co-owned by Doug Webster, another childhood friend that I have not seen in years. The New Years Party was like old home week with all the ex-zonian’s, expat’s, and Curundu maliantes that I have not seen in years. We met George O’Masta, Woody Deganette, and Bob Askew just to name a few. Everybody was drinking, dancing, and having a great time like the old CZ days.
We spent the last 3 days at the Country Inn Amador, which is in a great location overlooking the Pacific entrance of the canal and the Bridge of the Americas. However, I have to say that I was disappointed with the quality of the maintenance at the Country Inn. The hotel is starting to show its age…but the view is great. Looking out and seeing the boats anchored at the BYC brought back wonderful memories of the fishing trips with my Dad years ago. During breakfast, we also met Charlie & Ruth Levitz who live in Gorgona and also have a Villa at the Decameron. We got a lot of good input regarding living in Panama. Allan Hawkins, who I had met on Zonelink, came over and offered to show us around Panama City that afternoon. Allan is a great guy with a wealth of knowledge about Panama and its history. First he drove us to Casco Viejo, which is being transformed into a trendy tourist hot spot with fine restaurants, night clubs and shops. A lot of old homes are being renovated and upgraded to modern standards. The law stipulates that anyone can buy one of the old buildings and renovate the inside; however, they must maintain the old Spanish architecture style on the outside. We also toured Las Bovedas (old fortress) which is also in the Casco Viejo district. The old dungeon and barracks are now upscale shops. One could just imagine being a soldier during colonial days standing guard and watching for pirate ships sailing over the horizon into Panama Bay. Panama was a trans-shipment point for all the gold and silver that the Conquistadors were plundering from Peru. The Spanish ships would bring the gold to Panama where it was packed on mules for the journey, via the Las Cruces Trail, to Nombre De Dios or Puerto Bello to await the Spanish treasure fleet for the trip back to Spain. The King of Spain had a good thing going in those days…
Allan wanted to also show us the other side of Panama that most tourists don’t see, so he drove us into Chorrillo, Sal-Si-Puedes, the old market by the bay, and Chinatown. If we would not have been with Allan, we would not have gone there. It certainly was a cultural experience that we will not forget. I kept looking in the rear view mirror to make sure that Mac, Ellie, and Sunshine were still behind us. Mac was hugging our bumper and his eyes were as big as silver dollars. Their doors were locked, and the windows were shut tight. Ellie told me later that if she could have got her hands on an Uzi, she would have put in under her seat. I wish I would have taken a picture of the expression on their faces. By then, everyone wanted to go shopping, including me…and I hate shopping. Allan then took us to the new Multi Plaza, which is one of the new upscale Malls. Unfortunately, most of the stores were closed because it was New Year’s Day. Poor Sunshine wanted to go shopping so bad… She was a real trooper having to put up with us older folks. Afterwards, Mac, Ellie and Sunshine then went to the Albrook Mall, while Allan continued the tour with Carmen and me. This time he took us into the better parts of the city. Allan really knows the city well. That evening he took us to an excellent Chinese Restaurant in The El Dorado district. I would like to thank Allan for his hospitality and making our trip to Panama memorable.
Taboga, the island of flowers… The boat to Taboga Island now departs from a new dock at the end of the Causeway. When we passed Naos Island, we ran into a school of Dolphins swimming near our boat. What a treat… As far as the eye could see, there were ships of all nationalities waiting to transit the canal. When we arrived, we went to visit our friend Melodye who is now managing a small Bed & Breakfast Inn. It is a very charming place located up the hill from the old Hotel Chu. Bye the way, the Hotel Chu was torn down and is being rebuilt. It may be better, but it will not have the same feel as the old hotel. Melodye is doing well and happy in her new adventure running a B&B. We spent the rest of the day on the beach next to Hotel Taboga. This beach also brings back many wonderful memories from many mango seasons ago. The warm water seems more salty and therapeutic to me. I was so relaxed and stress free. It was a wonderful feeling… While we were on the beach, an old American guy came by and started talking to us. He was the perfect example of the Ugly American. He told us that he bought one of the beach front homes and that soon most of the homes would soon be owned by Americans. He had been there five years and did not speak Spanish and had no intention of learning it. In fact, he hated the language but he loves the country. Boy, this guy is going to have problems with that attitude. What is he doing in Panama if he doesn’t even want to try to learn the language? He kept going on and on and then started name dropping. He said he was a friend of the Kennedy’s and John Kerry etc... At that point I had had enough of this jerk and I let him have it with some colorful language. I am usually an easy going fellow, but this guy was something else. He was shocked and avoided me on the beach the rest of the time. Thank God most Americans are not like that.
That evening in Panama City, we went to Manolo’s for Sancocho. It was delicious!!! In my opinion, the best in Panama... Then to the new Veneto Hotel Casino which is across the street. It is a Las Vegas style Casino…very upscale. This time we all walked away winners.
On our last day, we finally met with Stacia & Paul Morgan and sister-in-law Peggy for breakfast. Stacia was in my class at BHS. They were also vacationing in Panama after many years of being away. It was great to finally meet them.
In summary Panama is a wonderful place to live. The people are warm and friendly, but they march to a different drummer. Things happen at a slower pace so one just has to go with the flow. A lot of Canadians, Europeans and Americans are retiring in Panama because it is safe, the weather is nice and the dollar goes a long way. Retirement communities are being built all over the country, from the highlands of Boquete and Volcan to the old CZ areas near Panama City etc. One just needs to decide what life style you want. Panama City has everything you could want. Night life, excellent restaurants, stores, culture etc… It is just like Miami The beach areas are wonderful, but the countryside and highlands are less stressful. That is what I am looking for… You just need to go and see for yourself. Panama…where the women are beautiful, the men are handsome and the children are above average. I wish I would have thought of that before…
February 5, 2006