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Two Weeks in Panama

Panama City and Environs

Panama City's Tocumen International Airport greeted us with several sorting areas for recycling and a sign declaring the entire country of Panama tobacco-free. However, these both fell under the category of wishful thinking. Sorting of recyclables seems to be limited to a few key areas, mostly serving ex-pats and travelers. And smoking, while far less pervasive than anywhere else we've been in Latin America, is far from extinct. Still, it was a nice way to make us feel at home—as was the Chanukah menorah we spotted ten days later as we were leaving the country, wishing everyone "Feliz Janukah" (Happy Chanukah).

Our host for the first two nights, Eufracio, picked us up at the airport and drove us on a dusk whirlwind tour of the capital before crossing the Amador Causeway, which connects the mainland with three Panama Bay islands: Isla Naos, Isla Perico, and Isla Flamenco. On Flamenco, we dined harborside at Alberto's Cafe, enjoying fabulous views of the well-lit downtown skyline and the yacht port on the island.

Had we been there during the daytime, it would have been worth exploring several of the attractions along the causeway, especially the new Biomuseo biodiversity museum.

Panama City's Metro is a wonder. While it currently has just a single line, trains run every four minutes and are heavily utilized. And once you have a rechargeable card ($2), fares are only 35 cents for the trains, 25 cents for city buses. In the morning, we took the train to Cinco De Mayo, walked down the busy pedestrian mall of Avenida Central past the well-regarded anthropology museum (closed for inventory during our visit), and explored Casco Antiguo (also called Casco Viejo), the oldest part of Panama City after the original settlement was moved following its destruction in 1671 by the English pirate Henry Morgan. (That original settlement, in a completely different part of the city, is called Panama Vieja, and its ruins are open for visits. But it's not all-that-easy to reach on public transit, and our paths led us elsewhere.)

Casco Antiguo reminded me of Granada, Spain, and also New Orleans. Three- to five-storey buildings in graceful pastels, many featuring narrow iron balconies. Much of the neighborhood has been lovingly restored, its streets lined with cafes. Other sections still feel pretty slummy. Trust your eyesight and your intuition, and stay in the nicer sections.

If you're comfortable reading a fair bit of Spanish, the Panama Canal Museum, located right off the main cathedral square in Casco Antiguo at Calle 5a Este, is worth an explore. It's filled with interesting artifacts and long explanations about the building of the canal, the people who worked on it, life in Panama at that time, and more. Admission is $2.

From the old city, you can follow the walkways along the Cinta Costera (Coastal Belt) for lovely views of the unusual skyscrapers downtown, as well as the harbor.

The next day, we took the train to the big bus terminal at Albrook—also home to a large shopping mall and the domestic-flight airport—and caught a bus to Sobreania National Park. The bus—a 40-year-old US schoolbus with ripped seats and a loud video system pumping salsa music at us—closely followed the Panama Canal. Fortunately, we'd sat on the left side, affording excellent views of ships in the Miraflores locks, before we were let out at the park entrance. There we enjoyed the first of several very nice hikes (and our only one in the Panama City area), starting directly behind the ranger station. The fare was only 60 cents each (payable in cash), though we had to use our Metrocard to pay the 10-cent toll in order to get out on the proper platform. Park admission was $5 each.

It's not legal to take suitcases on the Metro, so when our two nights with Eufracio were up, we relocated by taxi to the Panama House Bed and Breakfast, Avenida 1a C Norte, which offered a very friendly and clean atmosphere, and a convenient location near the Via Argentina Metro station.

In the evening, we took the train to Iglesia Del Carmen, looking for a restaurant and nightclub district around Calle Uruguay. We didn't find it, but we did find Sukhi Thai, Abierto 12, in a neighborhood containing several corporate hotels. The vegetarian-friendly waiter impressed us with his knowledge of what could and could not be made without fish sauce, and the food was far better than we'd have expected from the fast-foody orange plastic decor. It's quite near the Marriott and not very far from the Crowne Plaza. Knowing that Panamanians are not so big on spicy food, I ordered the Jungle Curry, described as "very spicy." The waiter got nervous and said it was really extremely spicy. I assured him I could handle it. I could, but only barely. By orders of magnitude, it was the spiciest thing I encountered anywhere in Panama.

Our last full morning in Panama City, we walked from our hotel to and all the way around the large and pleasant Parqué Omar (Omar Park), named for the 70s-era dictator Omar Torrijos (highly recommended: a batido—fruit smoothie—or a cold water coconut from the kiosk inside the Porras Avenue gate and a short distance to the left down the park-circular road).

In the afternoon, we toured the massive university campus with our Panamanian friend Mary, a student there. I was impressed to see a number of beautiful murals of Panamanian nature and culture in the Law School courtyard.

For dinner, we walked down hip Via Argentina, which offered many choices. We settled on Los Cedros, a small Middle Eastern place with authentic food, hookahs to smoke (we didn't try them), and a very friendly owner and staff. It's next to Manolo's, just down the hill from and on the same side of the street as the little park. The restaurant also serves Mexican dishes, but we stuck with the Arabic selections.

Boquete and Chiriqui Province

The next morning, we were off to our real destination: the mountain town of Boquete, close to Volcán Barú—Panama's tallest peak—and not too far from the Costa Rican frontier. Most American visitors to western Panama head for the adventure sports resort town of Bocas Del Toro (on the Caribbean side and also abutting Costa Rica). But since we don't do rock climbing, ziplining, or scuba diving, Boquete was a better destination for our needs. Especially since it had a well-reviewed Spanish school, Habla Ya. We'd enjoyed Spanish-immersion courses in two other countries, so we booked a week at Habla Ya.

The bus ride from Panama City to the Pacific Coast city of David took a full eight hours, but it was beautiful. Mountains, farms, fog, sun, lots and lots of birds…50 shades of green…small villages with a couple of banana trees in each yard.

Habla Ya language school’s driver, Carlos, was waiting for us when the bus pulled in, and drove us to Boquete along a four-lane highway opened only a year earlier, which was smooth and fast—a nice surprise, as our guidebook is older and talked about the earlier heart-in-mouth drive that this replaced.

Boquete is situated in a beautiful, mountainous area, with at least two rivers parallel to and on either side of the principal street. Homes range from tiny shacks to huge mansions.

Most of the latter are probably owned by ex-pats, of which there’s a sizeable presence (though at least one was pointed out to us as one of the residences of another former dictator, Manuel Noriega). Counting not only ex-pats but also language students and social action volunteers, there’s a sizeable foreign presence. And thus, there’s also an extensive infrastructure. Our half-hour walk from our host family afforded us ample opportunity to browse this tiny town’s numerous coffee shops, bakeries, restaurants of several ethnicities (Mexican, French, Peruvian, and Argentinian, among others) and travel/ecotourism agencies. The school is located in Plaza Los Establos, a modern plaza in the very center of town.

No matter what size they are, the homes are likely to have gorgeous flowers. Bouganvillia, hibiscus, and roses of many different colors are all quite common, and residents cultivate many other types as well. The area is also known for organic coffee, oranges, strawberries, blackberries, and bananas. Come January, they have an annual Festival of Coffee and Flowers.

At Habla Ya, class sizes are small, and class placements are determined by a written exam pre-administered over the Internet, and an oral exam on the first day of classes. We both placed into the Intermediate level, and it turned out we were the only ones in our class. Two other classes we observed had three students each. Classes consist of four hours of conversation per day, with the mornings free. On this first morning, we took the placement test and then simply walked around downtown, choosing lunch at Café y Cacao. For chocoholic me, the rich, dark, unsweetened cup of dark hot chocolate was nothing short of ambrosia; there was a sugar bottle, but I didn’t want to add any—and I went back for another cup every day of our visit. Dina’s cinnamon-flavored mocha was also quite nice, though not anything really special. We each got a veggie wrap (really more of a panini) as well, and those were fresh and tasty.

Following class, we stopped halfway up the hill at Café Ruiz, with a reputation for the best coffee. The cappuccino we shared was small but tasty, but again, not amazing. But we could definitely taste the freshness in the bananas they used for their whole wheat banana bread.

We started the following day at one of the travel agencies, Boquete Outdoor Adventures, also in Plaza Los Establos (along with a health food store, café, and several other businesses). We’d booked a hike on the Three Lost Waterfalls Trail, but after some discussion with Jim, the owner, and John, the guide, we all decided that the Pipeline Trail was a better fit. We were more likely to see wildlife, it didn’t require pulling ourselves up with ropes, and it also offered a waterfall (actually, several, as it turned out).

As we drove the short distance to the trailhead, John Tornblom—a Boquete native educated in the US and with flawless English—gave us quite an education about coffee. He’d been to coffee school for two years, and explained that 17 varieties of arabica (smooth) and robusta (bitter) grow locally. Coffee cherries are supposed to have two beans each. Some have only one, and they are actually of higher quality. But some, called “floaters,” have three beans, and their quality is lower. These floaters are sold to the large American and European coffee makers such as Folger’s and Starbucks. Occasionally, a cherry has only one bean, and it has all the flavor and nutrition that normally require two beans. The cherry is slightly sweet, and is used to make coffee liqueur. It also causes acute constipation.

The trailhead is through a local vegetable farm, whose products included a whole mountainside of cultivated parsley. I’ve seen other vertical fields, especially in Guatemala, but not, as far as I know, parsley.

Once we started walking, the discussion of coffee and salad crops was replaced by an introduction to some of the plants growing near us: naranjilla, a thistle-like plant with fruits that taste like a cross between a very sour orange and a kiwi; aguacatilla, a tiny-fruited avocado whose fruits are less than half an inch long; and papaya, among others. He also warned us not to touch certain plants, including one that would sting painfully, some others that were poisonous, and a type of bamboo with a collar of sharp spines (I found out just how sharp when I lost my balance for a moment and grabbed one without thinking—OUCH!).

We were on the trail for about three hours of walking, four hours of time, crossing several bridges, moving into the cloud forest, seeing enormous old trees. Then we started to get really lucky. First (after John did some birdcalls) we saw some orange-belied trogons—a brilliant orange bird about the size of a midsized owl. Then several species of butterflies. One, a brilliant black-and-orange type he called the “fake postman,” and another, with transparent wings that he said was among the most rare species of butterfly. We also passed about a dozen small waterfalls, and turned around at an enormous cataract hundreds of feet high.

Near the top of the trail, we arrived at a massive old tree that John said was more than 2000 years old. I believe it; this thing was massive! The trunk was probably at least 40 feet in circumference, and we are completely dwarfed by the roots in our pictures (the actual trunk started far above our heads). Because there’s no cold season and therefore they don’t go dormant, trees in Central America don’t have rings. But there are other ways to quantify a tree’s age.

And then, amazingly, we ran into a guide friend of John’s (Bill, an older man from Connecticut) who told us that a pair of quetzals were in the neighborhood for the first time in months. And sure enough, about five minutes later, John actually spotted a male quetzal, noting that it’s the second most rare bird. A far more experienced nature photographer than I, he squeezed off several pictures in our various cameras, as he’d done for the trogons and butterfly

Adding to our pleasure: the forecast had been for rain all day, but we were greeted with beautiful blue skies.

Wednesday morning, we took a few walks around the town that we’d heard were scenic. However, the walk down into town from our homestay family’s house was far more scenic, offering fantastic views of both the Jaramillo Range on the left, and Volcán Barú, Panama’s tallest peak, on the right. Nor were they as scenic as the view from our friends’ house in Boquete Alto (Upper Boquete), where we had dinner that night—directly parallel to both ranges.

Thursday, it was a trip to the hot springs. Although we had to cross a hydroelectric facility to reach it, hiking down from the high-altitude cloud forest to the much steamier rain forest, the springs themselves were on a small private farm, with no muss, no fuss, no bother. The two pools were each ringed by a stone wall, but that was the sole concession to human intervention. Do not expect lockers, changing rooms, benches, or shelter. To cool off, we walked a short distance down a rock slope to the river below, which had cold water and strong current. Fortunately, the rocks provided plenty of places to lounge around without worrying that the water would sweep us away. Our guide said the river was much lower than usual that year.

Friday, we went with John once again, this time about halfway across the Sendero de los Quetzales (Quetzal Path). This trail had actually a lot less wildlife; John explained that after an earthquake a few years ago, a lot of the habitat had shifted elsewhere. It also required a 40-minute walk from the parking area/ranger station to the trailhead, as well as traversing quite a bit of slippery mud. Still, it was a lovely hike through beautiful forests, and even the 40 minutes walking along the road were quite pretty. Hiking boots and hiking sticks recommended.

We are not really beachy people, but on Saturday, we found the perfect beach: Bilaños. It’s an island national park several miles off the (Pacific-side) coast of Boca Chicaiking boots and hiking sticks recommend, and we went once again with Boquete Outdoor Adventures. Our group was a mix of young professionals from Europe and the US, retirees living in Panama or considering it, and the two of us, in our 50s

This beautiful island of coconut palms and secluded coves will probably be “discovered” within the next few years and overrun with dozens of tour groups on a sunny Saturday like this one. But for now, it’s challenging enough to get to (an hour and half driving, a quick bathroom stop as there are no facilities on the island, and then a 40-minute ride in a water-taxi) that after the first half hour, we had the entire island to ourselves.

The water was perfect: quite calm, a lovely temperature, and clear enough to see the bottom even when the water was over our heads. With a coral reef harbor, the island is protected from the strong currents and pounding waves. And as the crew from the travel company harvested and cut a fresh coconut to add to the buffet they’d brought of veggies, fruits, cold cuts, and assorted alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages, it was easy to understand the lure of the beach life.

On the return trip, we stopped for drinks (and to let two of our party off) at the beautiful Hotel Boca Brava on the island of the same name, very close to the Boca Chica docks. It was the perfect capstone to a beautiful day.

To close out our Panamanian adventure, our new friend Luis (a good friend of the family we stayed with) gave us a tour of his 40-hectare (99-acre) coffee and vegetable farm on our last morning in Boquete. This was a highlight for us, located on a beautiful piece of mountain property. We walked through fields of onions, a screenhouse full of tomatoes and peppers (no need to shelter from cold, but wind is a problem), and some small experimental plantings of crops uncommon in Panama, including arugula and fennel. He topped our visit by brewing us each a cup of coffee from his own plants—far and away the best coffee we had in Panama.

General Impressions

In a country this sunny, you’d think solar would be very visible. In Israel, for instance, nearly every home has solar hot water, and some have photovoltaic too. In Panama, however, solar is almost invisible. I saw exactly two solar installation/sales businesses, one in Panama City and one hundreds of miles away in David. I also saw one lighting store that does (low-energy) LED lightning exclusively.

Two factors explain the near-total absence:

1. All of Panama’s electricity is supplied by hydroelectric, and

2. The Panamanian culture does not see hot water as important. We were in three private homes and many public bathrooms; except for the hotel we stayed in and a couple of restaurants in gringo areas, none even had a hot water spigot.

I found Panamanian Spanish quite a bit more challenging to understand than in other places we’ve been in Latin America. The speech is rapid and slurred, and with many idioms that I haven’t heard anywhere. Even in Puerto Rico, we had an easier time (although not among Puerto Rican communities in the northeast US.

Panamanians in the capital skew heavily toward fashion, while dress in the farther areas is much more casual. However, a local in Boquete told me that was not because people are less fashion-conscious, but because the price of fancy clothing is double or triple what it is in the capital. We only saw one traditional pattern among the indigenous: a simple mid-length dress with an embroidered border of red flowers; the dresses came in every color of the rainbow, but were all in the same style.

Our experience of Panamanians was nearly universally friendly and helpful. Despite the gringo invasion, we received a warm welcome pretty much everywhere we went. Whether we were eating at two-dollar local cafes or tourist-oriented restaurants, whether we were walking through attractions or in places only locals went, whenever we had a question, someone was willing to answer.

Despite the many warnings we'd heard, we felt safe in most sections—but we stayed out of the ones that looked sketchy, and we did hear about several incidents. One of our taxi drivers told us it would be unsafe to walk around with our suitcases, but we didn't know if he just wanted us to call him again so he could get another fare. Yet even in the Metro, at one point, they announced over the PA system that they had arrested eight pickpockets. However, the Metro, and Panama City in general, is very well patrolled, by several different types of police as well as numerous neighborhood watch groups.

Shel Horowitz’s latest book is Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green. His goal is to show the business community how to solve hunger, poverty, war, and catastrophic climate change, using the profit motive.

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