Sunday, January 19, 2014

1. New Country for a New List for a New Year: Visit Panama

Back in 2010 when I embarked on the original year of new things I did it by travelling to a new country, Nepal, to visit my old friend, Cliff, and his family.  It was a great adventure to start the year, and I’m happy that I am also able to begin the 2014 year of MORE new things by also visiting a new country.  This time, though, I didn’t travel solo and I didn’t go halfway around the world.  Jon has (mostly enthusiastically) agreed to do lots of the things on my list with me, beginning with this visit to a country in our own hemisphere that is new to both of us, Panama.

Though we didn’t plan it that way, we actually managed to miss a truly frigid cold snap (even for Vermont) while we’ve been away, and spent the last eight days enjoying the warmth and rain forests of Panama.  Panama isn’t a big country, with a population around 4 million people, but it sits at a terrific intersection of things that Jon and I can talk about for hours – politics (me), the natural world (Jon) and geography (both of us).  Panama features a super-narrow natural “waistline” that became the Panama Canal to form a water shortcut between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans; a huge diversity of animal and plant life and micro climates; a large population of indigenous people asserting their cultural and political autonomy; and a history of a small nation struggling to carve its own destiny under the weight of the larger and more powerful nations of first Spain, then Columbia and the United States.  Dipping into this fascinating mix of people, animals and history for such a short period, we concentrated our time in steaming Panama City and the cooler highland rain forest of Boquete – with an obligatory beach day to allow us to get the requisite Gringo sunburn to bring back to Vermont.

Jon and me exploring the town of Boquete, which also happens to have some spectacular gardens.
We started and ended the trip in Panama City, spending a couple days in the city and the adjacent Canal Zone on each end, and the middle was spent in Boquete.  Getting to Boquete requires a 7-8 hour bus trip (we took a night bus the first time, a day bus the second) from Panama City to David, Panama’s second largest city.  From David, it’s a one-ish hour bus ride to Boquete.

The Purple House Hostel in David took its title very literally.  The walls, linens, plates, everything --purple.  Here we preparing for our beach day where, because of my poor tanning application skills, I broke the color code and created some big blotches of red all over my shoulders.
The feature that dominates Panama City and the zone around it is overwhelmingly the Panama Canal.  Built between 1904– and 1914 by the United States, which laid claim to the land through the Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty, after a failed construction attempt by the French, it was ceded back to Panama in the 1970s and actually reverted to Panamanian control on December 31, 1999.    There are plans, overwhelmingly supported by the citizens in a national referendum, to expand the Canal, and Panama views it as a key to its economic future.  The three sets of locks through which boats must pass in their 80 kilometer journey are impressive engineering-wise, but not much to look at.  When tourists are done watching the water move big boats up and down, their best bet is to do what we did, and retreat to the Casco Viejo, the section of the city that is full of old Spanish colonial architecture and is coming back as an artist-tourist district after crumbling into disrepair.
Although they're not exactly pretty, it's hard not to be impressed by the operations at the Miraflores Locks.  The ships are pulled by overland caterpillar type "tugs" with super-strong cables  and they have only TWO FEET of clearance on each side of the canal.  You can sit in stadium-style seating and watch the ships get pulled through as the Locks raise and lower.

Inside the National Theater in Casco Viejo.  Breathtakingly ornate, it feels like stepping into a bygone era of opulence.
Inside the Iglesia de San Jose, where the priests outwitted the infamous Captain Morgan when he came a-plundering.  While he was busy pulling all the riches out of the other cathedrals, the priests painted the altar black -- he thought the golden alter had already been stolen, and so he didn't take it, and a reproduction remains in the church to this day (the real one is in a museum).

Our other strong recommendation is to head to Boquete, as we did. Though a country with coasts, in addition to tropical islands, on both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans might seem to be just begging for a beach vacation, anyone with an interest in wildlife, rain forests and hiking should seriously consider Boquete.  We were there for four days, stayed at one of the best hostels I’ve ever visited, and got the chance to go rock climbing, see a coffee plantation (finca), learn about the indigenous people of the area (the Ngobe-Bugle), and did some hiking with a local naturalist. Since the first two of these activities – rock climbing outdoors in a foreign country and learning about coffee in a finca, constituted new things, they will get their very own later posts. 
Jon gets the scoop on some local birds from Hans, our guide, who took us for a hike on a trail that is frequently used by the local Ngobe-Bugle Indians.

The takeaway message for travel enthusiasts is that Panama is a great destination.  In addition to the basic craven desire to escape the ridiculously cold weather being endured by our fellow Vermonters, we got a chance to see some beautiful rain forests, a bit of beach time, a marvel of the modern world, and a fascinating living lesson on the forces of globalization, and how they affect global sea trade, indigenous peoples and post-colonial states.  A great way to start a new year, and a new list.

My favorite "what is that" picture from the trip.  It's a giant fiddlehead from a tree fern.  There were lots of them in the rain forest we visited.

The hostel where we stayed in Boquete -- the Refugio del Rio was pretty great. It sat next to a river, had porches behind every room, lots of great common areas, and the most active kitchen I've ever seen in a hostel.  If you go to Boquete -- and you should -- consider staying there!

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