Panama City and the Pearl Islands, Panama
Between Christmas and New Years, as is now a 2 year old tradition, I went away for a short spell, off to Panama for some relaxation and inexpensive beer in a rustic tropical setting. I didn’t exactly get what I expected, but I think I got what I needed. I went away expecting a backpacker swing through Central America, and ended up having a lovely all-inclusive beach holiday and a city-slicking, urban experience.
Besides for me, the group consisted of John and Vay, who I have travelled with in the past, most recently to Honduras at this time last year, and Joe, an ex-coworker of mine. We had booked to fly out of Toronto on the 26th of December, arriving late into Panama City. The plan was to get up early the next day, head out to the Pearl Islands and find a place to stay, and then head back to Panama City for New Years Eve and New Years Day, flying out on the 2nd of January back to Toronto.
The Republic of Panama is a country located at the very southern most edge of Central America, bordering Columbia to the South-East and Costa Rica to the North-West. It is a small country, in both size (75,000 square kilometers) and population (3 million people), but has a very large stature on the international stage due to the engineering marvel that runs from the North to the South of the country – the Panama Canal. Panama’s official currency in the Balboa, which has a fixed exchange rate of 1 Balboa equaling 1 US Dollar. There are Balboa coins in denominations and sizes exactly equal to the US coins (so a Panamanian 0.25 Balboa coin is exactly the same weight and size as a US quarter). Both Balboa and US coins are equally accepted in Panama. There are currently no Balboa bills in circulation, and the US dollar is used everywhere for paper money.
Panama City – 26 and 27 Dec
As we were arriving late the first night, we decided to pre-book accommodations in Panama City. Further, because we were going to have been travelling for close to 10 hours (from Toronto through Houston to Panama City), we decided to splash out and get a decent place to stay. So the first night we ended up staying at the Hotel Riande Granada in El Cangrejo neighbourhood, booked at $CAN 90 a night (around $US 80) on expedia.ca. The walk up rate advertised for the hotel is $US 95 for a double room. The hotel also has a small but nice pool and a casino on site.
Arriving at Tocumen International Airport after dark, we grabbed a cab into the city, which took us along the Corredor Sur (Southern Corridor) highway. Part of the Corredor Sur runs along a causeway lined with palm trees, and then quickly runs through a tall stand of gleaming glass and steel forest of highrise condos and office buildings. Just two days before landing, I had watched Michael Mann’s movie Miami Vice, and couldn’t help feeling that Panama City could have easily doubled as Miami in the movie. I learnt later, in fact, that Panama City is known as the Miami of Central America.
Panama City has only 1 million inhabitants, but certainly looks much larger than that. It is a very modern city, especially in the central areas were most travellers will end up. I saw tall towers representing most of the major banking chains, as well as a number of maritime companies’ offices. Even more tall buildings are planned for Panama City’s waterfront and commercial districts as Panamanian real estate continues to boom. The 104 story Ice Tower is starting to get underway, and expected to be completed by 2010, and will have a few 90 story buildings joining it in the near future.
As we made our way around Panama City on both ends of the trips, we ran into a lot ex-patriot Americans and other English speakers, which brought to mind for me Hong Kong and the number of British people living there. Perhaps they are holdovers from the hand over of the Canal to Panama, but many of them seemed too young even for that. Panama is very actively courting American retirees and others who want to live or own vacation property outside of the US and have a few dollars to spread around.
We had planned to fly out of Panama City early on the 27 of December, but arrived at the domestic airport (Marcos A. Gelabert, often referred to, even by Spanish speakers, as Allbrook, after the US airforce base that used to occur the grounds) to find that all the flights to Contadora in the Pearl Islands were booked until the late afternoon. Finding ourselves with an unexpected amount of time to kill in Panama City, we went to see Casco Viejo.
Casco Viejo, which literally translates to “old hull,” is the oldest part of the existing Panama City, dating back to 1673. Previous to 1673, there was a Panama City located about 10 kilometers away from the present city, but the dread pirate Henry Morgan burnt it to the ground in 1671. Casco Viejo, in contrast to the shiny skyscrapers of El Cangrejo and Bella Vista, looks very much the typical old-style Spanish colonial city. It reminded me very much of Havana, Cuba or Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, with its stone streets, beautiful churches, charming squares and three story walk-up buildings with many balconies. The area had fallen on hard times, but after being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a lot of investment (much of it from the Spanish government) has gone into restoring the neighbourhood. That being said, we were warned many times not to venture on foot into Casco Viejo at night, as it is still home to many of the rougher elements in the city.
After enjoying a few beers on the patio abutting a beautiful little square, and some delicious grilled chicken with rice and beans and fried plantains from a street vendor, we headed back to Allbrook airport, paid $US 38.06 to Aeroperlas Airlines and caught flight 545 for the 43 mile trip to Isla Contadora in the Pearl Islands.
Contadora, Pearl Islands – 27 Dec – 31 Dec
The Pearl Islands are a chain of islands off the southern coast of Panama in the Pacific Ocean. I had heard that they were quite rustic, and so fully expected that the trip would consist of a small bungalow with hard beds and cold showers. I packed a backpack instead of my wheeled suitcase to deal with the rough roads, and filled it with lots of DEET to kill the mosquitoes, as well as other essentials like flashlights (for the constant power outages), a cheap beach towel and a pen knife.
However, after not being able to book our flights until well into the afternoon and being warned numerous times that it was “high season,” we decided it would be best to book something ahead of time. After some discussion among the 4 amigos travelling, it was decided to try and get in at The New Hotel Contadora, a 350 room all-inclusive resort on Isla Contadora. We phoned up Grupo Hotelero del Pacifico, who manages that resort as well as the nearby Hotel Punta Galeon, and booked two rooms. As it was the “high season” with many Panamanians were taking the week off and heading to the islands, the room rates were $US 176 per room per night. That rate, however, included 3 meals a day and unlimited drinks from 9:30am until midnight.
My first trip outside of Canada or the USA in 2001 was a package holiday to an all-inclusive resort in Cancun, Mexico, which had been planned by John, who was also accompanying me on this trip. I’ve done a few more package holidays over the years, in Cuba, Dominican Republic and Playa Del Carmen, Mexico, but have migrated to a more independent style of travel as of late. John has made a similar journey, and was very against the idea of doing an all-inclusive resort for this winter’s trip.
There is a feeling in the “backpacker” community, and one that I hold to a certain extent as well, that somehow doing an all-inclusive, resort holiday is somehow less authentic then “real, independent travel.” That all those holiday makers crowding the beaches of Ibiza or Cancun aren’t getting a true and real experience.
However, once in the bosom of careless freedom and suckling at the teat of all-you-can-drink Panamanian beer, it’s easy to just forget all that. My righteous indignation against “package” tourists and all the “I’m not a tourist, I’m a traveller” sturm and drang just melted away as I lay back on my deck chair, sipped my cold beer and watched the waves gently lap at the shore.
I am writing this back in Toronto, and thus have the creeping feeling that I need to defend myself a touch, so I will say that the resort was filled almost exclusively with Panamanian and Columbian holiday tourists, and so therefore in some respects I was getting an “authentic” Latin American experience. The experience of what Latin American package tourists do during their Christmas break. Of course, you could view that as just a rationalization I am making, and you’d probably be right.
Enough justifications, back to the holiday merry-making!
We landed on Contadora, the fifth largest of the Pearl Islands around 20 minutes after taking off from Panama City. The air strip runs the breadth of this small island that boasts only 300 inhabitants. Many of the workers at the hotels on the island actual live on nearby islands, and arrive to work in the morning by boat. In addition to some nice hotels, there are few less expensive guest houses. The island is also the vacation spot for many ultra-rich Panamanian and foreigners, and there are some very expensive and grand vacation homes on the island, which can best be viewed from the water.
The hotel was about a 5 minutes walk from the airport via a nicely paved road. Upon arrival, a beautiful Panamanian girl in a sarong handed me a rum punch with an umbrella in it, and it was obvious that my flashlight and pen knife wouldn’t be of much use. I checked in, receiving my card to exchange for a fresh, clean beach towel whenever I needed one, and was also delighted to find that there were few, if any, biting bugs on the island, so my DEET remained unused.
There really isn’t a lot to do on Contadora, at least outside of the water. A walk around the island can be accomplished in a few hours, as it is only 7 km around its perimeter and has an area of 1.3 square-kilometers. There is a small “downtown” area with a few shops and restaurants and the small bungalow that serves as the airport.
In the water, however, there is much to do. There are twelve public beaches, and the waves were always gentle, so swimming and snorkeling were easy. The tides are quite large and so swimming or snorkeling in low tide versus high tide can provide some interesting contrasts. There are also a number of independent fishing boats that will take you out for a few hours to tour around Contadora and some of the other 200 islands in the Pearl Islands chain.
We booked a boat called the Pobre Diablo (Poor Devil), captained by Ninos for 5 hours. Ninos took us to see one of the beaches that was featured during one of the seasons of Survivor. The CBS show has filmed three seasons in Panama’s Pearl Islands, and the resort we were staying at was used to house crew and those contestants voted off the island. After that, Ninos took us to a couple of beautiful, deserted beaches, including one island that was nothing but a mound of sand and some rocky outcrops that couldn’t have been more than 100 feet long.
The boat rental cost $25 an hour for four people.
After a few more days of lazing in the sun, it was time to head back to Panama City for New Year’s Eve festivities.
Panama City – 31 Dec through 2 Jan
We returned to Panama City on New Years Eve ready to party like it was 2007, because it almost was. As all pretenses of any backpackerish, budget vacations had been smashed at this point, we checked back into the Hotel Riande Granada, and decided to head out for an expensive steak dinner. Sadly, all the really nice restaurants were already booked up for the evening, but we found a decent and inexpensive substitute at the nearby Restaurante Machu Pichu. After dinner, we wandered down to the Bella Vista area again, which is home to many clubs, bars and restaurants. Unfortunately, these were not the clubs, bars and restaurants that many people had decided upon frequenting for New Years Eve. A theory was floated, based on a conversation we overheard on the plane back from Contadora, that many of the local Panamanians would spend the passing of the new year with their family, only to head out after midnight for some late night clubbing, but we have no proof of that.
We spent a quiet few hours at La Bodeguita, a restaurant / club that was empty save for a few tables of dinners and a trio of rowdy American ex-pats. At midnight the staff of the club went outside and shot off fireworks, which we watched from the second story balcony. It was nice, but the TVs were playing the New Years Eve celebrations from Times Square in New York City, and I couldn’t help but feel that I was missing a little something with the lack of crowds. We next headed to Punto PTY, a bar nearby which on New Years Eve was mostly full ex-pats and backpackers sucking down the local Panamanian brews and dancing to 80s music, though now that I am back home and have googled the club, find that it comes up a lot of pages dedicated to Gay Panama, though there was no evidence of it being a particularly hopping gay club when I was there.
The next day we went to see Panama’s most famous feature, the Panama Canal. A canal through Panama had been an idea that had been around almost since 1513, when Vasco Nuñez de Balboa first crossed the Panamanian isthmus and figured out it wasn’t that far to the Pacific Ocean. Nothing ever progressed past the paper stage until the French started building a canal in 1880. However, the inhospitable conditions of the mountainous jungle between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean sea soon proved too much for the French effort, and in 1898, the French sold the rights to the project to the USA. The USA, after supporting a revolution that saw Panama become a country independent of Columbia, started construction in 1904, finishing the canal ten years later in 1914. The canal was under USA control until a 1977 treaty was signed by USA President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian president Omar Efraín Torrijos Herrera laid out a timetable for a transfer of power over the canal to Panama, which Panama got complete and total control of on December 31, 1999.
We went and saw the Miraflores Locks, the closest set of locks to Panama City, which also contains a small museum and a theatre that shows a film on the history of the canal, alternating between English and Spanish showings.
We then went down to the Causeway area of Panama City. The causeway was created with fill from the digging of the canal. It connects 4 islands and provides a breakwater for the Pacific entrance of the canal. It is currently being developed as a tourist center, with lots of big shopping malls and restaurants. It has a very long pedestrian and bike trail, which many local Panamanians use as an early morning jogging trail away from the smog of the city.
The Flight Home – 2 Jan through 3 Jan
The 2nd of January was scheduled to be a long travel day, flying from Panama City back to Toronto via an airport who regular readers will know that I have resolved not to mention this year, but suffice it to say that its name rhymes with DEWARK. Our flight out of Panama City was late due to having to replace a leaky brake, and thus we missed our connecting flight and spent the night (courteous of Continental airlines) at the Four Points Sheraton (INSERT AIRPORT NAME HERE THAT I CAN’T MENTION) hotel.
I only mention this whole incident because along with our foursome, there was a couple and a solo woman traveller coming from Panama and heading to Toronto who also got stranded. Now this falls into the small world category, because the solo woman travellers turned out to have worked many years ago with Vay, who I was travelling with, and the couple turned out to live in the EXACT SAME BUILDING as I do in Toronto.
So I don’t think I broke my resolution not to mention the unmentionable airport, as I wasn’t complaining about, just simply reporting something interesting that happened at such airport, which that sometimes it takes a trip of over 3,500 kilometers to meet someone who only lives 100 meters from your front door.