Our hotel in Panama City was pleasant enough but a little out of the way for our liking. It was neither in the new part nor the old part and we found that we had to do a lot of walking to get to the interesting places.
Reading the Lonely Planet we decided that the Casco Viejo, which is the old part of the city was just too dangerous – this was far from the truth.
We should have learnt from our experience staying in Raval, Barcelona. These older parts are where the best restaurants and the real soul of the city can be found.
On our first day we found ourselves gravitating to Casco Viejo, where we found a lively rooftop bar that overlooked both the old and new parts of Panama City.
A common theme in Panama was: “It’s broken”
The lift and printer in our hotel and the WiFi at a cafe at Multicentro Mall.
Even on the Hop-On-Hop-Off-Bus, sometimes the PA system worked and sometimes it didn’t.
There were two sections to the bus tour, the canal tour and then the original old city or Panamá Viejo tour. There is nothing in Panamá Viejo but ruins, as it was reduced to rubble by the pirate Henry Morgan in 1671.
We walked around the newest part of the city, an area full of high rise apartments, office blocks and luxury hotels.
It was here that we discovered the Hard Rock Hotel. Now call me uneducated but I have never set foot inside a Hard Rock Cafe, let alone a Hard Rock Hotel.
The foyer was a cross between a rock venue, a casino and a pop culture museum. There were instruments, photos and wardrobe belonging to famous rock stars from the past and present.
We looked to see what the price of a room is at the Panama City Hard Rock Hotel and were shocked.
These rock aficionados must be rolling in it.
If the number of German luxury sedans are anything to go by, then Panama has more wealth than we have seen so far in the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America.
We have also seen more people exercising and more sports stores. If another sign of wealth is self esteem, then Panama City is doing well.
On Avenue Balboa we even discovered a community art project, which was a Mural for autism awareness. When communities can spend time and money on the needs of others, then there is a quality of life beyond survival.
Panama is all about ‘The Canal’ and no visit would be complete without a canal tour.
Our trip, on the Pacific Queen, started with a traffic jam and we nearly didn’t make it.
We asked reception at the hotel how long it would take to get to Isla Flamenco, where our boat was departing from.
Fifteen minutes, was his confident reply.
It took nearly 45 minutes, with Thea texting the tour organiser telling them we were on our way.
Apparently it takes that long every day.
Coming out of Panama City we passed two bridges, the first being the Bridge of the Americas, completed in 1962 and then the Centennial Bridge which is much newer, being completed in 2004.
The canal celebrated it’s centenary in 2014. It was built by the US, starting in 1904 and completed in 1914. Before the US the French attempted to build a canal in 1881. This failed due to engineering difficulties and the high mortality rate through tropical diseases.
The canal is 48 miles in length (77.1 km) and raises the ships by 85 feet (25.9 Meters) at each side of Lake Gatun. This is an artificial lake that provides water for the locks. The sea level is the same on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides. The reason for the locks is to cope with the tidal variations.
All the locks are gravity fed, there are no pumps. It only takes a relatively short time for 26,000,000 gallons to move from one lock to another.
In the morning large vessels travel northward, from the Pacific towards the Atlantic. They cross at Lake Gatun, where vessels that are coming from the Atlantic, pass to the Pacific in the afternoon.
Currently the canal can only take Panamax Class vessels. These are just smaller than the size of the locks – 110ft (33.528 Meters) wide and 1050ft (320.04 Meters) long, and 41ft (12.4968 Meters) deep.
There is a Panama Canal extension underway that will allow Mega Ships to pass through. It is estimated that this will double the income generated by the canal. The canal charges each vessel according to their size, so these larger ships will be able to generate greater income.
We were accompanied through the locks by a number of smaller vessels. One was first owned by J P Morgan, the American financier and then later acquired by the gangster Alfonse Capone.
I wonder how many of Big Al’s ‘colleagues’ ended up overboard.
After six and a quarter hours on the Pacific Queen we docked at Gamboa, on Lake Gatum.
We were then bused back to Isla Flamenco which only took 45 minutes.
The Panama Canal is not the fastest way to cross the Continental Divide, however it’s a lot faster than sailing around Cape Horn.
And I guess that was the point.
On Saturday we took a final walk into the old city – now we couldn’t stay away.
The waterfront isn’t that attractive when the tide’s out, with tidal mud flats, partly sunken boats and garbage.
We attempted to do the walking tour around Casco Viejo, that was suggested in the Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus brochure.
We did do it, but in reverse.
It was our last day and we had to get an early flight the following morning. Rather than do the walk and then eat, we did it the other way around.
We chose a restaurant that was near the end of the walk, so that’s where we started.
Casco Viejo is undergoing a major renovation. It was originally the top end of town then fell into a decline. It’s now starting to regain its former glory. Its here that the new city was established after Henry Morgan destroyed Panamá Viejo.
We met a friend from Australia who has just started a three months project in Panama. He is in the brewing industry and introduced us to La Rana Dorada. This is a Boutique Brewer who are making some rather nice beers.
Now the beauty of slow travel is that you have the time to re visit favourite spots.
La Rana Dorada definitely deserved a repeat visit.
We had another pleasant flight with Copa Airlines from Panama City to David, then hired a car and drove north to Boquete. This is a mountain area close to the Costa Rican border and known as the Valley of the Flowers.
The soil is rich and fertile with acres of flowers, fruit and coffee.
We had come for the coffee, as Boquete is regarded by many as the Nappa Valley of coffee and we planned to do a plantation tour.
It’s also home to a large expat community and the town has two distinctly different socioeconomic areas.
After we arrived we spent the afternoon driving around the surrounding hills. There are a number of loop roads that leave the town and then, inevitably, return.
As we were told It’s hard to get lost around Boquete.
The area has a decidedly non Panamanian feel about it. It’s more like the Swiss Alps in the tropics. The homes were large, many are timber with high pitched roofs and the pace was relaxed.
Admittedly it was Sunday when we arrived, but I had a feeling that Boquete never really built up a sweat.
Our experience at the Art Cafe on our first night was anything but inspiring.
We arrived in Boquete in late in the morning and this cafe seemed like a good place for a coffee.
The owner was a pleasant guy who showed us the menu and suggested that we return in the evening to have dinner.
Not knowing if the town, or the restaurants, were running on American or Panamanian time (Americans eat early, while Panamanians eat late) we turned up for dinner at 7pm.
Apart from one other diner, he was the only other customer than evening, the place was empty.
At 7:40 ‘mine host’ wished us good night and drove away. Immediately the staff started to pack up around us and finally, just before eight, the chef left.
We were still eating our main course, the restaurant was empty and the lights were out in the kitchen.
Then a strange thing happened, new customers started to turn up looking for a meal.
There were at least eight, many were locals and they all got turned away.
The owner, unfortunately I can’t remember his name, told us that he hoped to be able to sell the Art Cafe in a couple of years, for a good profit, and move on.
How sadly mistaken he is.
Another aspect of his business that I didn’t particularly like was that he only accepted ‘cash’ transactions. As we have seen in many places, this is a sure sign that he isn’t paying tax.
I am positive he would be the first to complain when the power went out or the roads needed repairing.
The next day we went looking to see the Cráter de Volcán Barú and then walk in the jungle.
We ended up having coffee.
The view of the volcano was constantly shrouded in heavy cloud. Then whenever we got near a walking track those clouds morphed into heavy tropical rain.
The drive was still spectacular with rich vegetation on all sides and steep, rocky escarpments rising out of the jungle.
The weather improved for our final day in Boquete.
We had booked a half day tour of a local coffee plantation. This was far less grand than the word ‘plantation’ indicates – it was more a hobby farm.
Finca Dos Jefes or The Farm With Two Bosses is only 7 acres and owned by an expat American, Rich Lipner. They are verified organic and very proud of the Arabica blend which has a tasting valuation of 91.
We were shown around the property by Gary Jackson, another American, and then given a rundown on how their coffee is grown, harvested, dried and blended. We were given an overview as to how it is tasted and what the tasters look for in a brew.
Cafés de la Luna is their brand and it has been described as having: “Undertones of dark chocolate, hints of walnuts and taints of vanilla”
It tasted like coffee to me.
If was explained to us that all coffee originally came from Ethiopia, a bit like the human race, and has spread around the world from there.
After roasting some coffee we then tasted two styles, one dark and the other a medium roast.
They were both very good.
These were served using a French Press, what we call a plunger.
Gary did also mention that espresso coffee has less caffeine than filtered or plunger coffee. This is plausible, considering the amount of coffee you have in an espresso is far smaller that in a regular coffee. Added to that is the fact that Robusta beans, used to make filtered coffee, have more caffeine than Arabica beans, which are used for an espresso.
The tour finished up with us all being offered a cold beer. Again this was good but I don’t understand why we were given a beer at a coffee tasting.
Like the Art Caffe, on our first night, Finca Dos Jefes only accepted cash and no receipt was given.
There seems to be a pattern here.
Boquete is also home to the world famous Geisha Coffee, which is the only coffee to have scored a perfect 100 from the international tasters. According to Gary, this coffee’s unique flavour comes from a combination of a perfect terroir and the jasmine bushes that were there before the Geisha Coffee trees were planted.
In the afternoon we went for a six kilometre walk to the Escondida Waterfall in the Volcano Baru National Park.
This is a beautiful rainforest area that has been unfortunately marred by the proliferation of water pipes, both steel and plastic, that remove mountain water from the waterfall and pipes it to the local farms and market gardens.
The actual waterfall was disappointing but the walk was very pleasant.
This area is also the home of the rare Quetzal, a strikingly coloured bird with red, green and gold plumage.
We thought we saw one, but we definitely did see the sign saying they were in the area.