Once you’ve traveled to several different countries, especially those within the same region, they start to blend together. For example, when I traveled throughout Southeast Asia, it seemed every country had the same temples and statues. This is why every country I go, I’ve tried to find 5 unique places or things that make that country stand out from the rest. This list is solely based on my experience and may not cover certain well-known traditions or tourist sites.
Panama Canal- The Panama Canal is one of the most important landmarks in the world when it comes to commercial trade. Since the Panamanian government took control of the canal from the United States on December 31st, 1999, it has developed into a symbol of national pride. Thousands of commercial vessels pass through the canal on an annual basis as they look to cross from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean (and vice versa). The canal is composed of three “locks” or gates which control the passage of vessels. The Miraflores lock is located about 35 minutes outside of Panama City and is specifically designed for tourism. The $20 USD (non-resident) fee will allow you to access the four-story museum, 15-minute informational video, and the opportunity to see the canal up close. If you time your visit right, you may even get to see a ship pass through it.
Concurrent Currency- The official currency of Panama is the Balboa, but the US Dollar is also widely used. While I have been in countries where the US dollar is common along with the local currency, Panama is the first where the local currency is equal to the US Dollar and can be used interchangeably. This makes for a unique situation to where you can get both currencies back in a transaction. This is important to remember, especially if you are accustom to traveling to places where the U.S. Dollar is significantly stronger than the local currency.
Volcan Baru- Located about 15 km outside of Boquete, atop the volcanos 3400-meter peak sits the highest point in Panama. As you can see from my experience (here) the volcano is not to be taken lightly and can provide a physical test even to those boasting peak physical fitness. However, should you make it to the top, you can see as far as both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans (on a clear day). The hike adds up to about 17 miles (mostly up hill) and should take about 9-10 hours walking a “leisurely” pace. Many people that I met started the hike at midnight so that they could get to the top at sunrise.
Las Escobas de Venao- Officially called Playa Venado, however the letter “d” has unofficially been dropped from the name, so it is commonly known as Playa Venao by the locals. It is located on Panama’s Pacific coast about 45 km south of the town of Pedasi. While it is very hard to get to by conventional public transportation (took me 6 buses from Boquete), it is worth the commute as the pristine beaches are nearly void of tourists, many who go to the more well-known Las Bocas de Toro. The town itself can be isolated and daily public transportation is few and far between. While there is no ATM in Playa Venao, most restaurants and shops do accept credit cards
Panama City- Panama City earns this spot as it is the only modern “high-rise” capital in Central America and the Caribbean. Fueled by the commerce brought by the Panama Canal, multimillion-dollar condos and towering headquarters for the world’s biggest firms adorn the cities’ skyline. Even more impressive was the cities’ ability to host millions of people from around the world who flew in for both the World Youth Fair and visit from the Catholic Pope. It’s basically New York City with Los Angeles weather year around. Along with its skyscrapers are shopping malls filled with American fast food restaurants (i.e. Subway, Taco Bell, Ruby Tuesday) and stores (i.e. UnderArmour, Nike), harbors with million-dollar yachts, and several getaway islands right off the coast of the city
Today is January 30th, 2019 and it is my first full day at Playa Venao, my third (and final) destination in Panama. Playa Venao is a small beach town on the Pacific side of Panama. While not as well traveled as its Atlantic-side counterpart (Las Bocas del Toro), it is just as beautiful and doesn’t have as many tourists
I FINALLY made it to my last destination; Playa Venao. You would understand why I overexaggerated the word “finally” if you knew the work if you knew the work that I put myself through to get here. Before I get to my chicken bus nightmare, I will tell you about my remaining time in Boquete. It turns out that hiking Volcan Baru on the first day was not a great idea. I had planned on seeing The Lost Waterfalls in Los Naranjos but unfortunately did not regain feeling in my lower extremities until yesterday. I literally spent my last day in Boquete on the patio of my hotel staring at the beautiful landscape. I did utilize the free shuttle to go down to town to restock on water but that was pretty much the highlight of the day.
I originally was going to go to Las Bocas Del Toro, a well-known destination here in Panama but I changed my mind after talking to a friend who used to live here. She told me that Las Bocas was pretty tourist heavy and “trashy”. The tourist aspect was confirmed because everyone I met in my hotel was in fact going to Las Bocas. Another consideration was that Playa Venao was closer to Panama City which meant I wasn’t going to be stuck on a bus for 10 hours trying to come back for my flight. Despite my decision to go to Playa Venao, I didn’t really know how to get there other than what I had read on the internet forums (which wasn’t much).
Yesterday, I woke up at 600 AM to begin my journey to Playa Venao. I paid the same driver who took me to Volcan Baru $5 USD to take me a mile to the bus stop where I got on a bus to David ($1.65 USD). An hour and half later, I was on my way to Santiago ($9 USD) which took about 4 hours. Once I got to Santiago, things began to get pretty stupid. I had to take a taxi ($1 USD) to another bus terminal to take a bus to Chitre, which was literally 35 kms away ($3 USD). From Chitre, I had to take a bus to Las Tablas which was about 25 km away ($1.50 USD). Once I got to Las Tablas, I had to walk about 2 km uphill with my backpack to get to the next bus station where I caught the bus to Pedasi ($2.40 USD). Once I got to Pedasi, I had to wait 40 minutes to take the last shuttle to Playa Venao ($5 USD). I arrived at my hotel at 5 PM last night after SIX chicken buses and two taxis which cost me $29 USD and 9 hours of my life. Outside of the first bus, none of them went more than 40 kms. After a long day of traveling, I had my favorite meal (pollo asado, papas fritas y arroz) at a local spot called La Bicicleta for about $11 USD (including tip) before settling into bed.
This morning the weather was perfect. While the northeast United States was getting hammered by snowstorms and sub-artic conditions, it was 82 degrees with a slight breeze. That alone made coming here worth it. I was also able to get a 3.5-mile nice run in on the beach, which also means that I have functional legs again. I was also able to find a $5 Yoga class that runs every night. The only downside is public transportation is few and far between and there was no ATM in the town meaning I have to reserve the last little bit of cash that I have. However, the best part of this place is there are virtually no tourists (probably because its such a pain to get to), which will make this week a truly relaxing experience.
This will be my last post until I leave Panama next Monday (barring some drastic change in my circumstances), not because I don’t want to write but I don’t really plan on doing anything worth writing about the next 3 days. My days will mostly consist of doing a morning run, spending the next 5 hours rotating between laying on the beach and swimming, and finishing with an evening Yoga session. While I won’t blog, I will post pictures and videos as the opportunity arises. With that being said, the computer is going off so that I can start my real vacation. See you again on the 4th.
Today is January 27th, 2019 and I am currently in Boquete a small town in Panama’s Chiriquí Province. While the town is nothing to write home about, it serves as the gateway to Panama’s highest peak, Volcan Baru.
I first want to point out that I am glad that I don’t need toes to type, because right now I lack feeling in both of my legs. It is 5:30 PM and 2 hours earlier I was crammed in a chicken bus on my way back to Boquete after successfully climbing Panama’s highest peak, Volcan Baru. I say it was a success based on the fact that I did it, and by no means was it stylish. However, every experience presents itself with learning opportunities. This won’t be a traditional blog as I have written before summarizing the days’ events but rather a reflection on today’s climb and how it both reinforces some of my beliefs and changes others.
I Travel Alone for a Reason- One of the questions that I am always asked by people who follow the website is “Why I never travel with other people”. The truth is, I am not a fan of being beholden to others’ timelines unless I’m getting paid for it. In addition, I hop around so much and cover so much ground in a single trip, I frankly don’t think others could keep pace. This belief was reinforced last night when I met a nice German couple who wanted to do the hike with me. Despite my preference to fly solo and even though they told me they weren’t in great shape, I figured it would be a nice opportunity to meet other people and I could save a little money on the taxi. I told them to meet me at the front of the hotel at 630 AM sharp the morning of the hike as I had arranged a cab to take us. Sure enough, 630 AM rolls around and the cab pulls up. However, the couple was no where to be seen. Being the nice guy that I am, I decided to look for them for 10 minutes. Eventually, the cab driver had to leave and so I left them and was stuck with a $20 USD cab ride. Ironically, I saw them 6 hours later as I was halfway down (they were still going up). They told me they were having their morning coffee in the kitchen and didn’t think I was serious when I said we were leaving at 630 sharp. That is why I travel alone…….
Not Every Mountain is Equal- So this isn’t the first mountain I’ve climbed, however I found out the hard way that some mountains are harder than others. The last mountain I climbed was Mount Halla on Jeju Island. Mount Halla also took me about 8 hours and was 9.6 km. However, most of it was via a steady incline and there were plenty of people on the trail. I took that mindset into this hike, and while I expected it to be long time wise, I wasn’t prepared for how difficult the hike was. I was sucking wind 1.5 km in and the ascent was 13.5 kms (with a return of that same distance). In addition, I was the only going up while those that were coming down were few and far between. The most important difference was the difficulty, out of the 27 kms (up and back) that I walked, 18 kms were on an incline of over 6% grade. I definitely would not have been able to do this hike 3 months ago (and I was barely able to do it now). Research is important, especially when it comes to mountain climbing.
Water and Food are Essential- I feel extremely embarrassed writing this one, but this is probably the number one reason why I had a miserable time on this hike. In my infinite wisdom, I brought only a liter and a half of water and a pack of Skittles on a 16-mile hike. I was fortunate that I didn’t have to deal with the full force of the Panamanian sun, or I probably wouldn’t be alive to write this. Historically, I been in such good shape that I am able to persevere with minimal water intake. The difference now is I’m almost 30 and I wasn’t going on 17-mile hikes up 3500-meter volcanoes. I found out today how important a sufficient water supply is given that there wasn’t even a creek to get dirty water out of in the whole hike. I was spoiled into thinking that there would either be food shacks at the entrance or locals hustling water and food along the trail. The point is, even in the United States, snacks and water bottles are cheap enough to where you should never have to rely on others to save you because you embarked on a hike unprepared.
You Can Get a Workout Walking- When I’m home in the United States, I live a pretty regimented lifestyle health wise. I average 2 marathons a month long-distance running, do CrossFit, and only eat fresh foods that I have specifically prepared. One of my biggest concerns about long-term traveling is that the life style will lose many of my “gains” I had worked for in the months prior. Although I try to do fairly strenuous activities when traveling, it doesn’t make up for running 20 miles a week or doing wall-balls on 6-minute rotations. My diet also tends to go down the drain on the road. However, I learned today that enough walking under strenuous conditions can leave you just as sore as one of the aforementioned exercises.
Satisfaction Stems from the Struggle- If you would have asked me at 1130 AM when I was struggling in the scorching Panamanian sun climbing 1 km at a 12% incline how I felt, I would have probably included a few choice four letter words in my response. Ask that same question after seeing a group of “hikers” drive down the summit in a four-wheeler, punches may have been thrown. It is true, that as with most circumstances in life, having enough money will simplify things. However, I can’t help but think (now that I am not worried about getting down alive) that the summit itself was nice, but it was going through the experience (and overcoming) that made it that much better. Sure, I could have paid $150 USD to get escorted to the top, but then would I be able to write this blog about the lessons I learned along the wat? Point is…. the easy way of doing something isn’t always necessarily the best way of doing it.