Panama

Discussion in 'Americas' started by bananaman, Dec 17, 2007.

  1. bananaman

    bananaman transcontimental

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    Following the suggestions of several inmates, I'm starting a thread on Panama. I'd like to keep this as informational as possible. If anyone has any first or second hand experience with Panama, please add information that could be useful to other riders. If you have an opinion, please back it up with something objective. I'll try to keep an eye on this thread, and I'll try to alert the mods if things get off-thread. If we can get a thread like this for each country in Central and South America-

    I think The Lonely Planet Guide to Panama is excellent. It has details that I won't go into. When I met the writer, Scott Dogget, he was living near Isla Colon, in the Bocas del Toro province.

    First I'm just going to consolidate some of my other posts.

    (From Lone Rider's thread, "Central America Questions." http://www.advrider.com/forums/showthread.php?t=286459

    1 week in Panama-

    My favorite place to visit for a couple of days is Bocas del Toro. I like the vibe. It's very laid-back. It's tiny. You have to get there by boat or air. If you were flying in from Panama City, it's only an hour door-to-door and it costs $55 each way. I like to stay at the Hotel Bocas del Toro but there are way less expensive places to stay. I don't know of any "bad" places in Bocas Town. Take a day-trip tour into the marine reserve. Chances are pretty good that you'll be able to swim with dolphins. Have lunch on a tiny tiny tiny tiny island and you'll get to swim with a tame baracuda. There are dozens of them, from 6-8 feet long. Your heart will pump!

    Next favorite, but not as relaxed, is Boquette. I haven't been to Boquette for a few years (2003?) (but I was on Bocas last summer) and I've heard that Americans are moving in. There's a hostel right near the down-town for about $10. Boquette used to be one of the last authentic Panama towns (read: no McDonalds). It's high- like 4000 feet, and it can get cold at night. Ask the hostel owner to hook you up with the guy who can take you to the hot springs. Last time I was there they were still kind of secret. Gringos might have wrecked them but you never know.

    I wouldn't go to David. It's never interested me. It's just a busy hot city. Yes, I'm opinionated.

    Be careful in Panama City. It's super, super fun but it's so busy that before you know it, you're sucked in. It's very safe but the traffic is nuts.

    Avoid Colon. If you have to go, then go directly to your destination, and then leave. You will be robbed. Seriously. They won't hurt you (usually) but they'll mug you. Seriously. But you can ride through on your way to Puerto Bello. Definetly go to Puerto Bello. You can also go to Nombre de Dios. If you want to experience decrepit ex-GI style beach-fun, go to Isla Grande. Take your bug spray.

    If you like to scuba, there're are a few dive companies near Puerto Bello. I dove with Panama Divers last time on two incredible dives- one with an 8 knot current (Dangerous! Fantastic! 90 feet deep!) and one with a crashed airplane (spooky!). Panama Divers has an office in the old YMCA in Balboa, and their main dive shop on the Atlantic, near Puerto Bello. Diving in the Pacific isn't as interesting, unless you like BIG fish and good visibility. I mean BIG fish.

    I haven't been to Contadora for at least 15 years, but I heard that it's coming back. Maybe you can go and let us know how it is?

    Go to Yavisa, say you went there, and stay if you want. I've never stayed though. It's just a day-trip from Panama. My dad always stays with a priest down there somewhere, sometimes for a couple of weeks. I guess he's got a dorm or something. If you're interested, PM me and I'll get the priest's info. The priest is about 60 and from Sheboygan, WI.

    I haven't been to San Blas for a while but my sister was just there in the spring. She loved it. Don't go in the rainy season. A few years ago I spent some time just west of San Blas and the sand-fleas made people cry. The snorkeling was amazing, and I didn't bother to scuba. It's so remote that if anything happens... you better have a helicopter because it's hours and hours by land and sea to the nearest clinic, and there aren't any hospitals. The sand-fleas on the Atlantic aren't bad during the dry season, but they do carry some nasty, nasty disease called lieschmaniasis (sp?). There are reasons why nobody lives along the Atlantic, even though Colombus founded towns like Puerto Bello.

    There are some old American forts on the Atlantic, west of Colon, and one of these days I'm going to check them out.

    Do spend a day looking at the Canal. Go to Mira Flores and watch the locks. Go through the museum. For an extra experience, you might be able to go through the locks on a boat. Amazing. If you're down by Mira Flores you can also go through Summit Gardens. It's old but still cool. You can also visit the Rainforest Hotel. It's expensive but also beautiful.

    Staying in Panama City- there are hundreds of hotels. It'll depend on what you want, from $10 hostels to $500 Marriot. If I was there I'd invite you to stay at my family's house, but my grandmother (85 years old) won't let me invite strangers if I'm not there. In Panama people don't just move out when they grow up, like they do here. In Panama unless you need a house of your own, you just stay in your family house.

    Cerveza Panama and Balboa are ok, but why drink beer if you can drink rum?

    Quote:
    <TABLE cellSpacing=0 cellPadding=4 width="100%" border=0><TBODY><TR><TD class=alt2 style="BORDER-RIGHT: 1px inset; BORDER-TOP: 1px inset; BORDER-LEFT: 1px inset; BORDER-BOTTOM: 1px inset">Originally Posted by daveg
    How expensive does it cost for such a dive? I'm planning a trip through CA and love diving but won't have that much money to spend on dives and I'm not going to lug my gear on the back of the bike.

    It didn't even occur to me to look for diving destinations while I'm traveling by bike. I kinda figured it'd be too expensive to consider. But now that I think about it, it'd be foolish for me to miss once-in-a-lifetime diving opportunities throughout CA and SA.

    Can you (or anyone) recommend any other diving areas in CA that would be inexpensive?

    dg

    </TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE>


    Bring your PADI card. If you don't have one, Panama Divers can give you the quick course/temporary certification. You won't be able to do the 100ft/10 knot current dive, but you'll still have loads of fun.

    I can't believe I didn't write down the cost in my dive log, but I think it was about $50 for two dives, including gear (BCD, short wetsuit, mask, snorkel, fins, etc.). It might be a little more now- but surely you can get a good day of diving, and lunch, for less than $75. If you dive off Bocas del Toro you're not allowed to take gloves or knives because it's a marine preserve. If you dive off Puerto Bello depending on where exactly it might be like the wild west-so lawless that people even eat giant sea turtles. You can also do night-dives if you ask nice. I would not dive at night near San Blas. Actually I would not recomend being on the water around Puerto Bello at night.

    Around Puerto Bello/Isla Grande/San Blas you'll be taken care of whatever your budget. Rooms and hotels range from $10/night to $500/night.

    Quote:
    <TABLE cellSpacing=0 cellPadding=4 width="100%" border=0><TBODY><TR><TD class=alt2 style="BORDER-RIGHT: 1px inset; BORDER-TOP: 1px inset; BORDER-LEFT: 1px inset; BORDER-BOTTOM: 1px inset">Originally Posted by Aussie_Gringo
    I would avoid Boca del Toro, I was there in January last year and every hotel was booked up months before I even got there. Had to settle for a $100/night room and left the island the next day. Lots of drunk gringos. Neal

    </TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE>

    I've never gone in January, only in June or July. I like to travel to out-of-the-way places during the off-season. Last July I was there with my daughters- 11 and 15- and they loved it. They didn't want to leave. The place was empty. When it's like that you can actually negotiate cheaper prices for good rooms.

    I was also there in 1991 right after a nasty earthquake. Everyone was trying to leave.

    You can rent dirt bikes right in Bocas for pretty cheap. The bikes are junk but very fun. Last one I rented had no brakes and you had to kick start it with one hand on the choke under the seat next to the muffler. It was a bitch to start once it was hot. But there's almost zero traffic on the island and there aren't any real hills so who needs brakes? ATGATT on Bocas Island is shoes instead of flip-flops or even barefooted, and a pair of sun glasses.

    If you're going to Bocas in January you should probably make a reservation. I'd recomend the Lonely Planet Guide for phone numbers. I actually met the writer- Scott Doggett- in a chinese grocery store in Bocas Town. He looked exactly like his picture in the Lonely Planet guide. He owns some land on the mainland near Isla Colon (Bocas Island) and really knows Panama. You might see him in Bocas Town.

    It sounds like Aussie Gringo was there at the worst time. That's too bad.


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  2. bananaman

    bananaman transcontimental

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    Panamanians can be warm and wonderful people, but we can also be quick to anger. As quick as we are to anger, we can also forgive, and hopefully we can be forgiven.

    The Darien is a tough and unforgiving place. I've only been to the edge, and that was far enough for me. I know people who've gone in and then come back with terrible disease- and I don't want to die that way! I've done a fair bit of traveling, and the only place I've been that comes close to the Darien, in terms of potential danger, is parts of Bosnia and Republika Srpska. (I was in Bosnia a couple of years ago, and as soon as the Carabinieri found out that a Gringo-type was in Pale, they came and found me and made me stay with them until I promised to go back to Sarajevo. And when I went to Visegrad, they did the same thing. But no Panama army will protect a Gringo in the Darien.) I'm not saying the Darien will kill you- but I'm saying that your chances of a catastrophe are much, much greater than most other places.

    The danger starts around Chilibre. Colon- GatoGato compared Colon to Mogadishu. I wouldn't argue with him. Colon is very, very tough. It's sad that a once great city has fallen so far. But there are a few gems in Colon. The Free Trade Zone is amazing. Cruise ships are docking and tourists are spending money- which is helping the local economy. My favorite restaurant in Colon is in the Yacht Club. It's not exclusive, but it's not cheap. I eat there because it's safe. I used to like to get a Club sandwhich at the old Washington Hotel. I haven't even tried to go there for at least 7 or 8 years. I don't even know if the Washington Hotel is even there. But when I was really small, my mother used to take us on the train from Panama to Colon to visit our cousins.

    GatoGato describes some very real dangers on the slow boat from Colon to Colombia. I'm sure he planned on having a wonderful adventure. He should be proud of himself for having accomplished the transit. I wouldn't do it without a platoon of marines.

    Usually, if someone is for-real missing somewhere along the Darien, the outcome isn't good.

    I don't want to scare anyone away from Panama, Colon, Puerto Bello, or San Blas. Here's my advice: do visit Colon. But be careful on the road to Colon, the Trans-Isthmian, starting around Chilibre. Use extra-extra-extra caution. Be brave and get out of the car, or get off your bike. Be vigilant- but also, give the people of Colon a chance. (Disclaimer: my family is originally from Colon. My grandparents were even married there.)

    When you turn East toward Puerto Bello- that's where the fun starts. Be careful for cattle and horses on the road. Campesinos still ride horses for basic transportation. Stop and say Hi to one if you see them. If you're on your bike, they'll probably warm right up. Even if you're in a car, all you'll have to do is smile, and they'll probably smile back. I have even picked up hitch-hikers along the road. Not too close to Colon, though. After you get a few miles past the last slum, I'd say most hitch-hikers are probably ok.

    Puerto Bello. This is an amazing natural port. The ruins are perfect for staging mock-battles. Canons are ready, walls are strong, grass is mowed... and if you don't want to imagine that you're Black Beard or Morgan, you can at least have a picnic. My kids love it.

    And then there's the church with the Black Christ. Legend is that every ship that tried to take it from Colon ended up sunk. So the Black Christ is considered saint-like. When I was a kid during Lent thousands and thousands of people would walk, pilgrimage, from Panama City to Puerto Bello, two steps forward, one step back. Two steps forward, one step back. They would wear black and walk so, so slowly, two steps forward, one step back. People still do it but not as much. Sometimes we walk that way for maybe a block before the church, just to see how hard it would be to do it all the way from Panama City, two steps forward, one step back.

    Puerto Bello also has some of the best diving in Panama. Maybe not the best, but the most famous. There are several dive companies, and they'll take everyone who wants to go. You can take a PADI course, or you can try it on your own. I recomend Panama Divers. They took me on an amazing dive: 100 feet down, then go with an 8-10 knot current! It's incredibly dangerous (8-10 knots at 100 feet is actually really dumb) but it's the closest thing to flying.

    Beyond Puerto Bello, you can go to Isla Grande. Isla Grande used to be popular with US service men stationed in the Canal Zone. I don't think very much maintenance has been done since the servicemen left. Army guys, Navy guys, Air Force guys, and Marines- they'd spend amazing drunken weekends on Isla Grande. Now the island smells... bad. I wouldn't stay there. Brave back-packers stay there, and for Panamanians on a low budget it's fantastic. I like to go there for a day, and leave with time to make the Trans Isthmian Highway before dark.

    Beyond Isla Grande, I've been as far as San Blas. There's more good diving and fishing. In some places you don't even need to dive- snorkelling is plenty because the waters are so shallow. Coral reefs are largely untouched. Sea turtles come ashore, lay their eggs, and push themselves back into the ocean. Unfortunately, lots of campesinos and indians still eat the eggs and turtles. To them the turtles are plentiful, and they don't understand that they shouldn't eat them. The last time I visited my uncle's property, near San Blas, a few of the men working there had just killed and butchered two giant turtles. It was so sad. My children cried.

    If you go, now is the best time. Now is the dry season. The sea can be rough at this time of year, but the roads are more passable, and the rivers aren't too deep, so you can get across. I don't know if motorcycles can make it to Cocolle. Last year my uncle made it in a Honda SUV. My dad usually drives an old Land Rover Defender, with a snorkel and a winch.

    I haven't been to San Blas for a long time, but my sister was there last winter. She had a great time. If you go to San Blas, be prepared to sleep in a hammock and use a latrine over the sea. Not very "ecologically sensitive," but that's how it's done. There are places to stay with real bathrooms, but hey- it's San Blas! Live like the Kuna!

    The rest of Panama is very different from the Atlantic coast. Keep in mind that Panama lies West to East. If you enter at Costa Rica, you're coming into Panama from the West. Panama City is actually East of Costa Rica. It's also straight down from Pittsburgh, not Texas. It's a solid 6 hours of riding or driving from David, near Costa Rica, to Panama City. The roads have improved, but I haven't actually driven it for about five years, because I just don't like it- the buses and semi's seem particularly homicidal. It costs about $60 to fly from David to Panama, and the flight is less than an hour. If you do ride or drive it, you'll see all that Panama offers- banana plantions, sugar cane, pineapple, oranges... forests of teak, wild jungle, small towns and big cities. Panama City, itself, seems to have grown all the way to Coronado. Colombia is actually East of Panama. The Pacific is on the South, and the Atlantic is on the North.

    Coronado is where all the upper middle class Panamanians go to party on the weekends. There's a country club, golf, a decent beach, town houses on the sea, big houses on the sea, a big modern grocerystore (as nice as any in, for example, Park City, Utah). Be careful if you swim though- even though it's a beach community, the surf is rough. If you want to swim, the Atlantic is better.

    I'm going to back up a bit, to Bocas del Toro. It's my favorite part of Panama. The people speak an amazing English dialect. If you ask "Do you speak English," they'll say, "No," but they do. You'll be able to understand, if you really, really listen. I don't think it's actually a patois, although some anthropologists might disagree. Most people also speak Spanish, but even then, it's sometimes... different. I love it. People in Colon, and some people in Panama City's Rio Bajo, still speak a similar language, but Bocas people are unique.

    Between Bocas and David is Boquette and Volcan Baru. If you like coffee. I haven't been to Boquette for a few years, and I'm afraid to go back. Last time I was there I went like a back-packer. I climbed the volcano- all the way to the top! If you do it, take twice as much water and food as you think you'll need. The top is only about 10,000 feet but it's ccccold and windy, it can rain, and the temp can be below freezing, so don't do the climb in tevas and shorts. There are gringos moving into Boquetts like crazy. Last time I was there, it was still like Old Panama, like Pre-US Influence. It still felt like a Spanish colony. It felt like "The Interior."

    When I was a kid we'd go to "El Interior," but now there are McDonalds everywhere, and you can usually get cell service.

    Panama City has over a million people. It's big and modern and loud and dirty and if you're not careful it'll suck you in. That's where my family lives.

    The Canal runs from Panama to Colon. You can go to Mira Flores to look at the locks. Food at the restaurant on top of the museum is expensive, but it's super cool to sit and eat and drink while huge ships go up and down, up and down, up and down.

    The Pan American Highway goes as far as Yavisa. My uncles told me a few weeks ago that the paving, all the way to Yavisa, should be done before the end of the month. I think that's a shame, but that's progress, I guess. I don't like to go into the Darien. It used to be all jungle and trees, right up to the road. Now? Last time I went to the end of pavement, the trees were all gone. The mountains in the distance still had trees, but the rest were gone. Deeper in the Darien there's still jungle (so I've heard) but I've never felt a need to go. In my opionion there's a difference between "jungle" and "rain forest." I like rain forests. I don't like jungles. My dad spends a few weeks every year with a priest from Wisconsin who's been living in the Darien for 30 years. If you want to do a little community service, PM me and I'll set you up with Father Kasubuski.

    If you don't like jungles but you want a taste without having to take anti-malaria pills, The Rain Forest Hotel, on the Chagres where it goes into the Canal, has a tour through the canopy. It's totally cool. You ride on a small gondola with a guide and get a little taste. I recommend it.

    this was my first good post on the GatoGato missing in Panama thread: http://www.advrider.com/forums/showthread.php?t=288266&page=20
    #2
  3. bananaman

    bananaman transcontimental

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    Regarding lobster-

    I learned this the hard way. A few years ago, snorkeling on the beach at my uncle's house in Cocolle. It was raining and the chitres were making everyone cry. There was a spider bigger than my hand in the bathroom behind the toilet, and it took an entire can of RAID to kill it. So we decided to go snorkelling.

    Right off the beach are pockets of coral. Walls go down maybe 15 or 20 feet, and each wall of coral was like a lobster high-rise. Every little hole had lobsters in it. So I grabbed one. And that little fucker squirted himself backwards so hard and fast that he slices my thumb and fingers with his sharp little shell. Right into the back of the little hole that he called home. So I reached in and tried to grab him, and he found a way to go deeper, and I kept reaching and reaching. Meanwhile I was down about 15 feet and starting to run out of air. And right then, I stuck a black spiny sea urchin right up my fingernail. With my arm shoulder-deep in the hole. Down that far I couldn't shout.

    So I went into the house and wasted a glass of rum by sticking my finger in it. As soon as it stopped stinging like hot lava, I put on a pair of welding gloves and went back after that little fucker. He was in the same hole. There were other lobsters but I wanted that one. For lunch. So I reached in and grabbed him but instead of lobster, with my arm shoulder-deep in that little hole, I grabbed another spiny black sea urchin.

    Later on I learned from the men that you use a stick with a lasso. So I paid one of the men ten bucks and half an hour later he came back with a gunney sack full of lobster.

    Just remember that if you go to San Blas, there aren't any grocery stores. Bring your own butter. Actually, bring everything. You can't buy anything out there.
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  4. bananaman

    bananaman transcontimental

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    My grandfather's father was an actual Pirate. He dug all kinds of holes and we're still not sure where all the treasure is. Digging is in my nature. Digging is Panamanian. We have a thing we called "The Big Dig." It's a trench from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. We have a way to lift entire ships- even old aircraft carriers- right up off the top of the ocean and right through the continental divide. We're still digging and when we're done even the biggest ships ("Post PanaMax") will go through.

    If you want to see the canal as it's been since it opened, come now. In a few years the locks are going to change.

    You can take a tour on the Canal. If you're really into it, you can spend a day on a tug. The tug-tour is cooler than the standard tour. "Standard" is on a boat that just passes through. If you go on a tug, it's absolutely amazing. You'll be on a little boat that's all engine, and you'll push huge ships around. HUGE. You'll feel tiny and at the same time, you'll feel... All Powerful.

    One of my cousins is a Tug Captain. He'd wanted to be one his entire life, but he was Panamanian. The Canal Zone didn't hire Panamanians to be Tug Captains. But now things are better, and he's a Tug Captain.

    If any of you though I had attitude... my cousin the Tug Captain is the quietest, nicest, meanest man ever.
    #4
  5. bananaman

    bananaman transcontimental

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    Cops in Panama ride dirtbikes, two-up. One guy drives. The other carries an Uzi.

    They have a ZERO TOLERANCE for mis-behavors. Their main job is to get to crime scenes through traffic, but they totally love to arrest average trouble makers. And they have radios.

    Panama City is more like an island than a regular city. The Canal is on one side, the Pacific Ocean is on one side, and only a few roads leave to the North and East. Even though there's a million people, everyone seems to know everyone. Six degrees of separation in the world equals about two degrees in Panama. If you have a big bike, especially a big orange one like a KTM, you're going to be known. If you ride like a nut, well, I'm pretty sure they'll just take it away from you. You'll be able to argue, and maybe they'll give it back. Even if you're, like, rich, or powerful, or your dad is important or something, it won't matter. Only the pizza guys get to ride like idiots.

    That doesn't mean you don't have to be aggresively defensive. You have to be. And you can't show any weakness. But Panama drivers are also capable of curtesy. Most of the traffic rules are organic- streets don't have signs, and drivers ignore most every logical rule. But it works. And if you're riding, just make eye contact and you'll get an awful lot farther than if you ride like a dick.

    Lane-splitting is only for delivery drivers.

    If you crash, it's going to be a while before you get to a hospital, and if you crash on a bike, you're going to get zero sympathy from the cops or the ambulance drivers. If it's nasty, you'll get your picture on the cover of one of the newspapers. And it's going to be your fault, because you're the one on a motorcycle. And if you crash and need an ambulance ride, it's not like you're going to have awesome paramedics taking care of you.

    And if you have to go to jail... it's gonna suck.

    This is for Panama Ciy, not for the rest of Panama.

    Ultimately, you're going to have to decide for yourself how you want to represent yourself. I try not to lose my temper, but once in a while the traffic makes me go balistic. I don't trust myself on a motorcycle in Panama City. I've ridden dirt bikes in the interior but not in Panama City. I'm not looking forward to it.

    The biggest risk in Panama- road hazzards. Dirt, leaves, rain, mud, blind corners- I know a guy who bit it on the road to Puerto Bello. It had rained higher up one of those little storms where it's dry one place, wet somewhere else. A driveway going up from the road was just a little river that brought red clay onto the road, and it took the tires out from under him.

    Getting to Panama: I've only driven it once. Others have better info regarding border crossings. My impression is that it's pretty straight-forward.

    Getting there: most flights come in through Miami. The new airport is big and modern. It takes about half an hour to get from Tocumen Airport to Panama City. Americans can get in with a normal passport- no visa required. They have to pay for a tourist visa that's issued on the plane. I travel on my Panama passport so I don't know how much it costs, but I think it's about $5. Getting out through the airport everyone pays $20.

    If you get a cab from the airport, it costs extra. It's better if a friend picks you up, or you have your hotel send a cab for you.

    Panama uses US money. They call a dollar a "balboa." Don't believe that it's different from a dollar. A dollar is a balboa is a dollar. Quarters and nickles and dimes and pennies are the same, too. Panama is a global banking center. You can get money from cash machines everywhere around Panama City. Elsewhere you're going to need cash. Some gas stations take credit cards, most take cash.

    You can drive with a US drivers license. I haven't been stopped for speeding for an awful long time (damn- I just jinxed self?) so I don't know if cops will take advantage of Americans. My experience has been that cops in Panama are no different from normal cops anywhere else.

    It's against the law to drive and talk on a cell phone and a lot of Panamanians try not to break the law.

    Shopping and stuff: there are a few new malls that are better than any mall I've ever been to anywhere else in the world. Way, way better than The Mall of America, for example. There's a food court in the big one where you can get shrimp and fried plantains for $5.00. Delicious. Elsewhere there's shopping- you can buy anything you want. Anything.

    Concealed weapons are legal, if you're Panamanian.

    Most of the good and lots of the old and cheap hotels are around Via Espana. You can stay at super-expensive Marriot or super cheap push-buttons. There are new hotels on the Causeway, in what was the Canal Zone. Lots of hotels also have casinos. If you see pretty girls in the casinos... they're probably exactly what you think they are. It's legal and regulated but it's not all legal and not all regulated. The simple way to find out is to just ask. If it's legal, they'll have a license, and they have to show it to you. If they don't have a license, don't buy it.

    The things to see in Panama: CARNIVAL! But Carnival doesn't happen every day, so- go to the old city.

    Wait. The coolest thing is the Panama Canal Authority Building. It's on the hill above Balboa, right up hill from the old Balboa Elementary School. Inside the Panama Canal building there's a mural of the men building the canal. Around it are plaques and stuff from famous people who contributed to the canal, and there's an awesome quote from Teddy Roosevelt. Hardly any tourists go to see it. It makes my spine tingle. Just tell the guards that you want to see the mural.

    There's Old Panama and the French Embassy. Of course Old Panama is the worst ever, but it's not as bad as Colon. Be careful, but walk around, and walk to the end of the wall by the French Embassy. The French started the Canal, and there's still a connection between the French and Panama. Around Old Panama there are art galleries and shops but I don't go there much because it's a pain to get in and out. Also, the Panamanian Presidential Palace is down there so security is a nightmare sometimes.

    There's also a street called Sal Si Puedes. I dare you to walk it.

    Ride, walk, run, or drive to the end of the Causeway. All the dirt that makes the road from Balboa to the islands came from the ditch that became the Canal. The islands used to be off-limits to Panamanians. You can still see remnants of what used to be.

    Also on the Causeway is a new stadium. I like the boxing. Panama has great boxing.

    At the other end of the bay is Panama Viejo. It burned a few hundred years ago. The ruins are cool.

    Before Panama Viejo is Paitilla. Sky scrapers full of expensive apartments. Donald Trump has a casino and hotel. It's just like... it's a Panamanian version of Miami.

    Panama has a new system of toll roads. Use them. Use them carefully, though.

    At the end of the causeway you can take a boat to Taboga. Taboga is fun. Good diving around it and some of the other smaller islands. If you see a scuba mask off the little one to the South West, it might be my daughter's.

    There are also boats to Contadora Island. I used to go to Contadora every year, but I haven't been back for a long time. Everyone says it's changed. I might check it out again pretty soon. It's easier to fly to Contadora than take a boat. Contadora has Panama's only nude beach. I've never seen any actual nudes though. Panama is a pretty conservative Catholic country. People don't even sunbathe topless.
    #5
  6. bananaman

    bananaman transcontimental

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    When I said that you could get into serious trouble on the Darien, I hope that everyone will believe me.

    I have an attitude about adventures. The harder it is, the more fun it's going to be when I remember it later. I don't complain about the people who live where I go on my adventures. I might be thinking it's an adventure, but other people actually, like, live there.

    A few years ago one of my neighbors took her daughter on a trip to China. My daughter said, "Isn't that cool, dad? Hardly anyone gets to go to China." I said, "Honey, most people LIVE in China."

    Panama City has embraced tourism. A few years ago most Panamanians resented rich tourists. Now they love them. Panamanians are trying to learn more and more English, so that now most non-English speakers can get by just fine. But outside of Panama City, Spanish is still pretty much the only language. The farther away from the main cities that you get, the less likely you'll find an English speaker.

    Even as I'm writing this, things are changing. Americans are buying more and more land everywhere, and you never know when you'll run into one. They come in all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds. Some are super nice, and some are hiding- hiding themselves, hiding from everyone. Panama doesn't have an extradition treaty with the US. People like to go there and hide.

    And then there's the "anonymous corporation." These work like the famous Swiss numbered account. Most American ex-pats have them. If you want one, all you have to do is walk into most any bank. The bankers will speak better English than you.

    The Bridge of the Americas. I'll try to post a photo later. You've GOT to walk it. Riding it- I've never ridden a motorcycle over it but it's got to be an amazing bridge crossing. I've crossed the big Duluth/Superior bridge, but... the Bridge of the Americas has got to be awesome.


    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]


    This bridge closes the gap between North America and South America. Even when the Canal was American, the bridge was open to Panamanians. It's a very big source of pride for all Panamanians.

    There are some people in Panama who have an extremely low opinion of humanity. Some people disrespect life. I don't know why they're like that.

    What I've seen in Panama since I was a little kid is a kind of machismo and selfishness that attempts to place ones own banal priorities over the very lives of others. Speeders or drunks will flaunt the traffic laws just because they feel like they're above the rules. But for the last ten years (about ten) there's been a collective growth of self esteem. I think it has to do with the complete reversion of the Panama Canal from US control to Panama control.

    The Canal has always been a source of pride for Panama, but it was also a source of uncertainty. It took 25 years to negotiate the return to Panama, and even during the transition, there were a lot of doubts. Some of the questions were about Panama's ability to efficiently run the canal. Some worried about corruption. Others worried about growing influence from China.

    Eight years now since the transisition ended, and the Canal is operating at record capacity, the Panama Canal Authority is flush with cash, and work on the new locks is going forward. For Panamanians, this is like winning the super bowl and the world series. People are nicer to each other. More people are making more and more money. The middle class is growing at an incredible (and probably unsustainable) rate. The lower classes are shrinking. And Americans are coming back, spending money, and helping Panama's economy grow even more.

    And the drivers are getting better. They're not as rude. Sure, there are still more rude drivers than in, for example, Des Moines, and Panama City traffic is as bad as ever, but people are just... nicer.

    The cars are getting better, too. The buses that used to toot-toot-toot like crazy? They're quieter. Buses all go through the central terminal, and regulating them has improved. Check out the mall that Aleman built. Everyone said it would fail. But it's successful, the buses are going through it, and people are driving better. Since more people have more money, they're able to buy and maintain better cars. Car maintenance used to be a disaster. Now it's only bad.

    If you live in Panama for any length of time, you'll see the changes. It's really exciting.<!-- / message --><!-- sig --><!-- / message --><!-- sig -->
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    #6
  7. bananaman

    bananaman transcontimental

    Joined:
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    7,981
    For some people it's easy to travel in different countries and with a little bit of politeness have a wonderful time, maybe even an adventure. For others, travelling gets a little... overwhelming. They out-pace their abilities and they start to get cross. They start to get an attitude of superiority. Often they're much richer financially than the people whose lives they're looking at as if through the glass at a zoo. Panamanians can tell the difference between the seasoned traveller and the pompous gringo. Working-class Panamanians exact their only revenge by being un-helpful, slow... expensive... and rude.
    #7
  8. bananaman

    bananaman transcontimental

    Joined:
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    Another word of caution before anyone else takes the slow boat to Colombia:

    If drugs are found on a boat, everyone gets arrested. If you're arrested by Panama authorities, you're going to go to jail in Panama for a very long time. Nobody cares if you're American of Canadian or anything else. The more drugs on the boat, the longer you're going to go to jail. And the more innocent you seem, the harder it's going to be for you to prove that you're innocent. You will be "guilty until proven innocent," not like in the US, where you're at least given a pretense of being presumed innocent. I don't know what the Colombians do when they arrest you- I've heard stories of summary executions. Not all the "authorities" who do the "arresting" are legit. They might be rival drug smugglers. They might be paramilitary. Even the Kuna have been known to kill drug smugglers. And the Kuna have even less compassion for outsiders. The Kuna have resisted outside influence with an iron fist. Nobody influences the Kuna. If you're lucky, and you're caught with drugs by the Kuna, all they'll do is chop off a hand. And if you think those little Kuna men are just little men- did you see the photo of them swimming and pushing barrels of diesel? I don't know why the Kuna aren't winning the olympics for swimming. They swim like fish. And they're super, super, super strong. I don't know why they're so darn strong. Don't try to armwrestle them.

    The Kuna are so strong, during the 1960s Lunar programs, NASA sent astronaughts to live with them.

    The Kuna are so tough, not even Colombian drug smugglers mess with them.

    The Kuna are also super, super nice. They sell their "molas" in the oly YMCA in Balboa, near the Bridge of the Americas and Panama City. If you want a real mola, buy it in San Blas. But the YMCA molas are just as good.

    One thing that GatoGato left out about the Kuna, they have gold. Nobody knows where they get it from, but it's somewhere in the Darien. They've been mining it, or collecting it, for centuries. Colombus and Balboa and a ton of other conquistadors searched and fought to find the gold but the Kuna keep beating them. All the Kuna women wear beautiful gold noserings, and when they get dressed up they appear with even more gold. The Kuna are different from the Embarra- the Embarra women don't always wear shirts, and they don't wear as much gold.

    The US Coast Guard still patrols the waters off the Darien. They're not as aggressive as they used to be, but they're still oportunistic. For example, if a ship is in distress, and the US Coast Guard is nearby, they'll "render aid." They'll also search the boat for drugs. Even if you're just a "back packer" or "adventure rider," you're going to be arrested.

    The worst American jails have nothing on the best Panamanian jails. Especially if you're arrested for suspicion of drug smuggling.

    The only places I know of that are harsher than Panama when it comes to drug smuggling are those countries in the far East that still execute drug smugglers.

    So, if you still want to take the slow boat, consider your risks very carefully. You might save a few hundred dollars. If you get through, you might have an awesome adventure to talk about.

    My suggestions: tour San Blas carefully, with a tour boat or with a private sailboat/yacht. Or get a job with one of the dive companies- they're always looking for PADI certified divers. If you're PADI certified, you don't even have to be a dive master to be a dive master. If you're not PADI certified, but you speak English, the dive companies will train you. Or you can get a job on one of the tour boats. Or you can volunteer with the Smithsonian, or any of many other scientific organizations. If you're smart, you might even be able to work for the Smithsonian. A good friend of mine worked for the Smithsonian in Panama and she has amazing stories- Indiana Jones stories. One of my uncles worked on an archeological dig on the coast of the Darien- I think they were looking for a lost Scottish community, one of those failed Utopia's that was thriving when the last ship left, and was completely gone when the next ship arrived.

    If you still want to take a slow boat- take a small private boat from one of the tiny communities along the Atlantic, closer to San Blas. You can ride to about 30 miles from San Blas. Depending on the roads and rains, you might be able to ride to within 10 miles. From there, ask one of the fishermen to ferry you closer to San Blas. Or ask them to take you (and your bike) fishing. The boats are small- maybe fiberglass, maybe a dugout kayuko. They'll probably be able to take you to San Blas. I've hired one for $70 from the last town before San Blas, round-trip. They took us to Cocolle, and picked us up again a few days later. From there, you should be able to continue hitching on small boats all the way to Obaldia, and from there, Colombia. This way might take a long time, and it's going to be dangerous, but the boats are too small to hide any amount of drugs, so at least you won't be surprised if you're searched and drugs are found. Of all the risks, I'd almost prefer to risk myself with the paramillitaries and rebels. At least they only represent one degree of risk- while the drug smugglers also risk you having to deal with being arrested.

    A few years ago one of my uncles went with a friend past San Blas to a river and then into the Darien- on jetskis. They had a 42 foot boat tow the jetskis to the river, and then they went up until they'd used half their gas. Along the way they met a nun who was looking for a ride out- so my uncle gave a nun a ride on his jetski. I really wish I had a picture.

    If you're on a small ship or large boat going from Panama to Colombia and the ship is in distress but doesn't call for help, then they're smuggling.

    Some of you might be wondering, why would a ship smuggle drugs from Panama to Colombia? Don't the drugs go from Colombia to Panama? The answer is, no. Drugs don't always go one-way. There are also drug operations in Panama. Colombia isn't the only drug-producer in Central and South America. Not all drug smugglers are smart- the regularly defy logic. And drugs like cocaine and marijuana are traded like any other commodity- they're just not traded openly in a public commodities exchange. The big dealers are moving drugs around the world in a pattern not unlike orange juice, coffee, sugar, oil... The big dealers don't represent very many risks to the casual traveller. It's the small dealers who are most likely to get one of us in trouble. But they're easy to avoid- no harder to avoid than, for example, the drug dealers in Washington D.C., New York City, or Chicago.

    The boats might not be smuggling drugs. They might be full of cash. Which do you think the crew will protect more?
    <!-- / message --><!-- sig -->
    #8
  9. bananaman

    bananaman transcontimental

    Joined:
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    7,981
    From Nico Reynier's thread, "BMW Dealers in Panama," posted 12-15-2007, http://www.advrider.com/forums/showthread.php?p=5900722#post5900722

    Quote:
    <TABLE cellSpacing=0 cellPadding=4 width="100%" border=0><TBODY><TR><TD class=alt2 style="BORDER-RIGHT: 1px inset; BORDER-TOP: 1px inset; BORDER-LEFT: 1px inset; BORDER-BOTTOM: 1px inset">Originally Posted by nico_reynier
    Alright, here are the news. I have spent the day there.

    1) they have been extremely welcoming. I have explained I am on a budget and wanted to work on the bike myself as much as possible, to limit the costs. They were completely ok with it.

    2) The place is very big, but only a small corner is allocated to bikes. Still, plenty of staff and action going on in there.

    3) Luis, the main bike mechanic, worked with me for free. Happy to help. He apparently helped quite a few riders travelling through. Nice guy. He helped me on silly things, such as brake pas, just to gain time. Dont know how good he would be on a big engine issue, but from what I´ve seen he was efficient. A clue is that he cared by himself about torque settings, which is a sign of a minimum of knowledge and attention. Great guy. he was the help I needed.

    4) Prices of parts. Some silly things are reasonable, such as a litre of oil for $5.5. But others are clearly overpriced, whether it is justified in this place of the world or not. like gatogato, I had to pay $53 for rear brake pads. Oh well. At least the time in the shop was for free. But I can imagine a higher bill for big things.

    5) They are being also very helpful to try to sell the bike locally. My price is very cheap, but still the dealership wouldnt buy it. however they are calling people of the BMW club (which they belong to) to see who would be interested. One guy came and will give an answer on monday. whether it works or not, they let me reach people I would have never reached.

    I hope this helps.
    Nicolas

    </TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE>

    thanks for the update. I'll post a copy of this under "Panama."
    <!-- / message --><!-- sig -->
    #9
  10. Brennan

    Brennan @OliveOilandGasoline

    Joined:
    Aug 21, 2005
    Oddometer:
    887
    Location:
    Europe or on my RTW
    I will also post this info in Biker friendly hostels and bike shops around the world.

    Antonio Cabazas' bike shop. Is located in the financial district in Panama City. I have met a ton of mechanics on this trip of mine through South America. This guy is a superstar for sure. He is soft spoken, speaks English and could turn your bike into a dodge viper if you asked him to. He has a 20 year old son Antonio Jr who is studying to be a mechanical engineer. He also speaks English and can help you find parts throughout the city. Great kid. Both of these guys can talk about cars and bikes for days. Sr. is bordering on genius in my opinion.

    Antonio was also the president of the APM (Association of Panamanian Motorcyclists) he took a step down because his lovely wife has breast cancer. If you get a chance to go to a meeting with him you will meet all kinds of amazing people. With these contacts you can find and or do anything in PC. All that I ask is that you be extremely respectful of these people. They were very kind to me.

    Contact Info:
    N8 59.557 W79 31.292
    email for Antonio Cabatony@cableonda.net
    I have a track from my GPS but I'm not sure how to upload.
    I have Antonio Jr's phone number as well. PM me if you need it.

    Casa De Carmen is a great hostel five doors down from Antiono's shop. This hostel has all the amenities for overlanders. In PC there is also Mama Llena Hostel and Voyager Hostel. Both are dumps to be avoided, however, both have comprehensive bulletin boards regarding boat travel to and from Panama and Colombia. It's a long walk or a short cab ride from Casa De Carmen to either of the above hostels, don't bother staying in either one just for boat info. In my opinion the only boat worth taking is here. www.stahlratte.org: Contact This website no longer has Ludwig's (Captain) cell phone number in Panama or Colombia, sorry guys, I don't have it. Berlin is not helpful but they can tell you what country the boat is in at least. For the boats, timing and luck are everything.

    Contact Info:
    Casa De Carmen
    N8 59.603 W79 31.258
    Telephone: +507 263 4366

    BMW Dealer in Panama. Luis the Chief mechanic is an awesome guy. The three times I was there he never charged me for labor. Don't count on it but he might do the same for you. After reading the moto guest book it looks like that is his MO. Plan on paying to be safe though. Please do not expect not to pay for labor and cause a scene or mention my name. Antonio is a far more accomplished mechanic. Unless you have a warranty I would take your bike to Antonio, he charges very little.

    If you need help with English at the BMW dealer ask for Armando in car sales. All these guys love travelers and will be happy to help.

    Contact Info:
    BMW Panama City - Bavarian Motors
    Address: Edificio BMW Calle 50 y 65
    N8 59.385 W79 30.715
    Luis' work phone +507 301 5400
    I have Luis' Cell PM me if you need it.

    If you get into a bind while anywhere in Panama get in touch with me. I have numbers and names that might get you out of a bad situation. I am happy to help.
    <!-- / message --><!-- sig -->__________________
    Brennan Dates
    #10
  11. Lone Rider

    Lone Rider Registered User

    Joined:
    Jan 29, 2002
    Oddometer:
    25,130
    Location:
    out and about
    Brennan,

    If you could post this great info in the stickied Mex/Central America hotel info thread, that would be super.
    #11
  12. bananaman

    bananaman transcontimental

    Joined:
    Jun 20, 2007
    Oddometer:
    7,981
    #12
  13. bananaman

    bananaman transcontimental

    Joined:
    Jun 20, 2007
    Oddometer:
    7,981
    Father Kasubuski:

    http://panama.usembassy.gov/panama/fatherpablo.html

    Here's a link through the US embassy in Panama to Father Kasubuski's work in the jungle. He's originally from Ripon, Wisconsin. Like I said before, if anyone is interested in a totally crazy adventure or just some charity work, send me a PM and I'll help put you in touch with "Padre Pablo."

    For those of you doing Spanish Emersion classes, this would be a great place to practice your spanish. You won't find many English speakers in Chepo.

    Don't worry about Father Kasubuski being an evangelical-type or anything. Anybody, even adventure-riders, would be welcome to lend some sweat to an aquaduct or a building. I don't know what kind of projects he's working on right now, but there's always something.
    #13
  14. bananaman

    bananaman transcontimental

    Joined:
    Jun 20, 2007
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    7,981
    20 years ago, the US invaded Panama. It was, and still is, a huge success.

    In the last four years, since I started this thread, there have been many changes in Panama. Profound changes.

    When I was a kid, back in the early 70's, a drive on the Trans-Isithmian highway from Panama to Colon took about an hour. A few years ago, it took about 4 hours. Now, there is a toll road, and the drive takes less than 20 minutes.

    When I was a kid, a drive to Coronado was a trip to the "Interior." It could take hours. We used to go to our beach house in Santa Clara. It was about a 4 hour trip. The roads were terrible. Now, the road is a 4-lane highway, and it takes about 50 minutes.

    20 years ago, there were only a few high-rise apartment buildings, and they were all in Paitilla. Now, there are hundreds, and they are reaching 100 stories. Even Donald Trump has an apartment/hotel complex, in what is called Punta Pacifica.

    Four years ago, Trump's building was only a dream. Now, it's boring.

    Four years ago, expanding the locks on the Panama Canal was only a plan. Now, it's happening, in one of the biggest endeavors ever. I mean big, in terms of size: they are moving an awful lot of dirt. Panama is doing it on its own. Sure, they have non-Panama contractors, but Panama, without the United States, is managing it, and we are doing just fine.

    I wish you guys had seen Panama 20 years ago. Luckily, I wasn't there for the invasion. I was there a year later, though, and evidence of the battles (mainly one-sided, but still, battles) was everywhere. Now, it's gone.

    Sorry if this post is a little not-organized, but when your country gets invaded by your other country, and 20 years later it's all-good, you can be a little excited. We're having a party later.
    #14
  15. Parcero

    Parcero Mundial Supporter

    Joined:
    Aug 7, 2008
    Oddometer:
    1,724
    Location:
    Chicago physically, Colombia en mi mente.
    This is all really interesting and helpful information. Thanks for taking the time to post.

    I have been coming to Panama only for the last four years, and the changes during that brief period, especially those during the last two and a half years or so of the Martinelli presidency, have been absolutely unbelievable. On my recent (and first) moto ride from Chicago to Panama, I was blown away when I crossed the border from Costa Rica into Panama. Just into Panama, the PanAm highway becomes a four-lane divided highway made of machine-laid concrete, and lighted at that, with wide lanes and shoulders, guardrails, and built to what appear to be US DOT standards. No more bumpy hand-laid asphalt with fading or non-existent lane markers or side lines. With relatively few exceptions, the road conditions continued to be excellent all the way to Panama City, and I mean excellent by US standards.

    I have friends in Panama who were in high school when the US invaded the country. For them, is was a non-event, almost over before it began, and even got them out of studying for exams so they could watch whatever futbol game was going on at the time. And now, 20 years later, they all continue to benefit from the positive changes the country has seen.
    #15
  16. crashmaster

    crashmaster ow, my balls!

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2007
    Oddometer:
    5,566
    Location:
    Alaska
    Too long, didnt read. Just tell me where the putas are. :lol3


    :hide
    #16
  17. bananaman

    bananaman transcontimental

    Joined:
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    7,981
    Right, like you don't know. :freaky

    In case anybody is wondering, prostitution is legal in Panama. If you go, there are a few things you should know: the prostitutes in the casinos, and on the streets, are not regulated. They are not legal. It is not a good idea to employ them. The legal ones are easy to find. They work in brothels and out of strip joints. They have a license- it looks like a drivers license. It shows that they've had their weekly "checkup," and, more importantly, that they're not victims of human trafficking. It is totally fine to ask to see it. If they resist, then move along- there are thousands of legal prostitutes. If anything looks, or seems, out of place, then get yourself safe asap. Don't trust taxi drivers who come up to you asking if you want a ride to a brothel. If you want a late-night taxi, have your hotel get you one.

    If you are riding a motorcycle, or if you have any self-esteem, you won't need to hire a prostitute. Be nice, be polite, show off how you can be a gentleman, and you will attract attractive women. Seriously. Just be patient. Old-fashioned courtship will get you very, very far.

    :evil
    #17
  18. Pedro Navaja

    Pedro Navaja Long timer

    Joined:
    Aug 19, 2008
    Oddometer:
    2,590
    Location:
    USA
    Hey! Quit telling the Gringos how to pick up Latinas. Let the Gringos visit the puteros instead.

    BTW folks if you are interested in canal history, The Path Between the Seas by David McCollough is pretty good. There's a lot of good info there, new stuff to most Gringos on the French contribution and stuff like that. Even has a few relatives of mine mentioned in the book.
    #18
  19. Panama

    Panama Been here awhile

    Joined:
    Dec 12, 2007
    Oddometer:
    143
    Location:
    Jacksonville Beach, FL
    On the Atlantic side of the Canal there is no bridge. When there are no ships transiting they allow traffic to cross.
    It is a amazing feeling to be at the center of the Gatun Locks on 2 wheels!

    [​IMG]
    waiting for ship to clear the Gatun Locks
    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]
    #19
  20. crashmaster

    crashmaster ow, my balls!

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2007
    Oddometer:
    5,566
    Location:
    Alaska
    Until they find out you are going to hop back on your bike and ride into the sunset. :lol3 I must have heard "que lastima" about a thousand times. With some quick thinking I managed to avoid getting slapped in the face though. :1drink The putas dont care, they just ask for a tip. :lol3
    #20