Monthly Archives: February 2016

Panama City: Stay on the Cobblestones

People should go back to yelling “Fire!” in panic. I think I would have reacted to “Fuego!” Instead, K and I calmly continued our meal as someone shouted and all other patrons rushed to the door. I was matter of fact, “Looks like that tour group overstayed their dinner time.” Then one kind woman ran back for us, clearly realizing we didn’t understand Spanish and explained the building was on fire. We grabbed fistfuls of McNuggets and fries and ran.

For all our precautions in Colombia and Venezuela, Panama City provided our sketchier moments. A planned 5:30am departure the following morning sent us in search of a grocery store to pack snacks for breakfast. We passed the McDonald’s on our way back and walked in to make up for the run of mediocre to awful meals in Caracas. Our guide/wrangler had given specific directions to the store, “Go two blocks down and four blocks over. That’s safe. Don’t go three blocks down!” While we stayed obediently within that radius, the fire forced us off our planned path, and along unlit streets with crumbling edges past a cluster of feral cats (incidentally called a destruction collectively), a trio of hookers and a man who popped out at us from behind the car he was fixing in the dark.

That was our first night in Panama. Our last night we ate at a restaurant in Casco Viejo, the historic centre of the city. The directions here were a firm, “Stay on the cobblestone streets.” We had driven through the neighbourhood that afternoon on the way from the airport to our hotel, a 15-minute drive that took an hour due to Carnival road closures. The streets were flanked by run-down buildings and people lounging in doorways staring stonily at our little white minivan as we crept past in traffic. One guy ran at us from a car parked crookedly in the street waving a US bill but we didn’t stop to find out his motive. But then the neighbourhood transformed from aggressive to attractive within a block. The buildings got older and more stately, people were peacefully strolling and cobblestones appeared underfoot. Casco Viejo proper is charming with narrow streets, churches, a kind of waterfront, stone boardwalk-sea wall, and lots of restaurants. My final dinner of octopus and faux risotto made of Israeli couscous was followed by group drinks at the rooftop bar overlooking the lit-up city. We planned a pretty waterfront walk back to the hotel but were detoured by security through the edges of a Carnival concert and city streets made safer by the sheer number of people and cops on every corner. Our guide made good use of them by confirming the safety of our new route periodically. It’s stuff like that that paradoxically makes me feel less safe. But we laughed as we turned a corner we’d driven by earlier in the day, one about which our guide had said, “Well I wouldn’t walk around there!”

We could have spent another day in Panama City if only to take a boat cruise through the canal. Instead, we watched it from an observation deck and tried to absorb facts and rumours:

Panama is almost exactly a horizontal “s”, not a comma on the end of Central America as I expected.

The canal is in the middle of the country and runs northwest to southeast. It starts with a bay off the Atlantic, goes through a narrow set of locks which open into a large lagoon and artificial lakes before constricting again into two more sets of locks, the last of which is Miraflores, just outside Panama City. The canal has two lanes and all ship traffic moves in one direction in the morning and the other in the afternoon. There is a project underway for a third wider and deeper lane to accommodate the ships of today.

Two little electric machines run on rails on either side of the canal like those rabbits at racetracks and tow the ships through.

Although the average toll is $14k US (a gamillion Canadian), some ships pay as much as $300k for the 10-hr crossing, still a deal compared to the 15-day long way round that costs (rumoured) $3m in fuel and operating costs. An American is credited with the cheapest toll at $0.36 for swimming the canal in 1928.

And so we reached the end of our trip, a slightly different style of travel for us, with more guides and drivers and people taking care of us than usual but with our standard keep moving and see more philosophy that had me on 10 flights over 12 days. I’m back now and people ask me what I thought. I’m not sure what to say because I enjoyed it very much and feel lucky for the opportunity to have gone but also realize clearly the difference for me between travel and vacation. Both are great but Caracas, Bogota and Panama City fall into the travel category, learning more about the culture, about daily life and ancient or recent history. The middle part of the trip to Bocas and Boquete was very much vacation, relaxing and focused on activities like swimming, snorkeling or hiking (not me personally, of course). In spite of all the worry before leaving, Caracas and Bogota were the highlights by far and it is to Colombia that I’d return to see more. I guess when it comes to travel, I prefer not to stay on the cobblestones.



Boquete: I Give Myself a Week

I walked the two kilometres uphill along the highway, admiring mountain views and enveloped by the tonal music of grinding gears and a madrigal of horns blaring at any car with the temerity to slow down before turning off. The brilliant sun lasered a part through my scalp as I passed empty Italian and Argentinean restaurants, an art cafe and the mandatory nightclub called Taboo. This is Boquete, Panama.

Boquete is a town of approximately 22k people, the capital of the Chiriqui province that together with Bocas del Toro above it, fill in Panama’s western border with Costa Rica. It is described as a quaint mountain village and I might have agreed if not for the highway that runs through it. But move off the main drag and some of it’s charm appears. There is a river, a central square with a grandstand, and flowers set off against the backdrop of the Baru Volcano, the highest peak in Panama from which you can see both oceans at once.

The expat community in Boquete is a thriving 15-20% of the population and is actively involved in local business, including producing tasty fish tacos at Big Daddy’s, a Trip Advisor favourite. We met Big Daddy himself, nice guy. Tall. Boquete has been named the fourth best place to retire in the world and takes the number one spot for Latin America, according to the American Association of Retired Persons magazine. I’m not a subscriber, just checking my facts. 

Most of the others in our group chose the three-in-one activity combo of coffee tour, cliff jumping and blanching themselves between hot and cold springs. I designed my own mini Feria de las Flores y del Café (Flower and Coffee Festival) that Boquete is famous for, one we missed by a few weeks. Part one was visiting Mi Jardin Es Su Jardin (My garden is your garden) and I had the highway-adjacent flowerful expanse to myself. 

While K was off hiking to the “Lost Waterfalls of Boquete” on the side of the volcano, I admired my own modest example, water flowing down a channel of wide, shallow steps into a goldfish pond. No Latin signs explained the phylum or genus of plants; just trees and bushes filled with pink, purple and yellow blooms with a few blue or white flowers thrown in as counterpoint. The architects did, however, include wildlife so I surprised a cutout of a moose and dolphin and an oversized plastic flamingo hiding among the greenery. I hopped and sprinted around the gardens, playing double dutch with the ubiquitous sprinklers, which were often hidden so that it felt like someone was throwing a bucket of water at me from behind the bushes.

Part two of my self-created flower/coffee festival was the tour with K of an organic coffee farm, a Franken-farm with pulpers and coffee bean roasters made out of used car engines and drive shafts, and implements soldered together from screwdrivers and spoons. We spent an hour learning to identify seven types of trees the owner uses to make high quality Arabica coffee. All of the coffee on this farm is exported, some under the Royal brand name, a contraction of the owner’s parents’ names: ROsa Y ALfredo. It reminded me of the South African winery I visited that was commissioned by Prince Albert and Charlene to make a wedding wine and call it Chalbert, much to the mortification of the winemaker.

What we learned on our coffee tour:

  • Coffee beans are actually green seeds, living two by two inside plump red and yellow berries or cherries, and growing on trees
  • There are a myriad of ways to tell coffee trees apart but they all looked the same to us after an hour of trudging through the coffee forest in 30-degree heat
  • The farm was organic “because the owner reuses car parts” challenging K and me to refrain from reuniting the guide with the definition of organic

Coffee facts we wished we’d learned from the tour:

  • It only takes ten minutes to feel the effects of caffeine from a sip of coffee (
  • Coffee is the second most traded commodity on earth after oil (
  • Coffee growing regions around the world are contained within the “Coffee Belt” (, a kind coffee cummerbund around the world’s waist if it were dressed in black tie
  • The practice of paying for an extra coffee so that a future stranger gets theirs free is believed to have started over 100 years ago in Naples by people who had had good fortune and wanted to pass it on. It was called ordering a suspended coffee or caffè sospeso (uh,

I’m not sure how I feel about Boquete. A little too touristy for me but looking back at my pictures, all I have are gorgeous views and beautiful flowers. Every meal we had was great, although not especially cheap. But I didn’t take pictures of the traffic or audio of the honking. You can’t feel the humid air or see my lobster-red face peeling off like a mask in a Mission Impossible movie. And we narrowly managed to avoid the room temperature, e-coli-breeding buffet our friends got trapped into. If Boquete is a metaphor for its all in how you see it, I want to take a little of that back home into my real life, overlooking small frustrations in favour of the larger I-have-it-pretty-good picture.

I give myself a week.  





Bocas del Toro: Bursting into Flame

You couldn’t find two less likely people to have a beach vacation than me and K. One of the people in our group said over a few drinks that he was sure I’d burst into flame the minute the sun got a good look at me. 

After braving Caracas, with the dubious distinction of being the world’s most dangerous city outside a war zone according to Business Insider, Panama is a welcome downshift. But a bit like walking into a Costco after spending anytime anywhere outside of North America. Consumer goods abound and a quick trip to the supermarket in Panama City had us fretting the hour-long wait in line, clutching our three items behind people each with multiple overloaded shopping carts until a nice couple let us bud in front of them.

Panama was the main destination of our trip and wanting it to be low maintenance, planning-wise, we signed up for an adventure tour, which means you are one of 10-16 people who generally aren’t new to travel and willing to carry their own bags and brave a cold shower or two. There are no tour buses, only minivans or public transport, no guides with umbrellas and no lollipop signs with the leader cloyingly asking, “How are we all this morning?” In fact the guide isn’t a guide at all, just a type of personal concierge who travels with us doing glorious things like arranging for the water taxi to drop us at the hotel dock instead of having us lug our bags up, hot and sweaty, from the wharf in town.

We’d both used this particular company, G Adventures, before on separate occasions and enjoyed it as an economical, hassle-free way to see more of a place in a short time than going it on your own. I’d forgotten that it is also a Canadian company which means out of 16 there are only two couples, from New Zealand and Germany, and a solo Russian traveler based in the States vs 11 Canadians. I was momentarily dismayed not to have more cultures represented but am now painfully aware that Canadians are not a homogenous people. Or maybe more accurately that personality quirks are not limited by nationality.

We have a few who talk like they are giving performances, including the way oldest of the group who described in three acts the various sizes of socks her son uses. But she also had the best line the other day when climbing from bench to bench in our tippy boat, a bridge of hands raised to help her along. At one point she spread-eagled slightly when her foot slipped and we all gasped and asked if she was alright. She hopped the final bench and said, in her blunt, crotchety voice, “Well, at least I didn’t go into labour.” 

The first test of our flexibility was turning the entire schedule on its head and doing the trip backwards to adjust for Carnival, the large festival that takes over most of Latin America in the week leading up to Mardi Gras. We took that in stride as a group but the reminder of the per bag weight restriction on domestic flights sent the others into a tailspin. K and I sat smugly in the knowledge of our compact duffel bags while the guide calmed everyone else down. Of course we are paying for it now, rotating the same crumpled t-shirts and shorts while everyone else changes for dinner.

Bocas del Toro is the Panamanian province that borders Costa Rica and a number of our group compare it endlessly to that country. I like it as it is, kinda grubby in places, with bright macaron-coloured houses that have their edges chewed off. We’re staying in Bocas Town, the provincial capital on Isla Colón, one of the islands in the Bocas del Toro archipelago. Colón is Spanish for Columbus and much is named after him in this area based on his 1502 visit, although a local told us he is not well liked here because he was mean to the indigenous people.

Still unspoilt by large resorts but with a serious lack of waste management, the nearest beach to our hotel was a disappointing sludge of seaweed soup, not flowing up gracefully from the sea floor but marauding in large hairy packs that wrap around you, transforming you into a swamp thing as you cringe back up the beach from the “water.” That made our day out among the islands that much more paradisiacal (look it up). The water is a bright turquoise and glints in the sun. The sand, fine and pale beige. The island trees, dark green with broad leaves hiding a large lump that turned into a sloth called Pépé. The mangrove forests, low and root-tangled in the sea water. And the snorkeling, something you had to wait out with Zen-like patience as K pointed out, but then were rewarded with deep purple and orange coral, striped fish of many colour combinations and unidentified plant life that looked like the pottery vase Demi Moore was trying to build in Ghost before, well, you know. We’d resigned ourselves to a lone fin or two in Dolphin Bay but were treated to a mini-pod that stealthily stalked us, breaking out of the water near our boat when we’d been tracking them in the distance. As we left the other boats behind to move on, our captain revved the engine and cut a wide circle that had the dolphins leaping through our wake and us laughing and whooping with excitement.

For our free time (aka non-mandatory-group interaction), we donned crumpled t-shirts sticky with aloe vera gel (there is no shade on these beaches), lathered up with sunscreen in the tradition of barn doors and horses, and behatted, rented bikes at $1.50 an hour, touring the blissfully flat island, and enjoying the picturesque palm tree views, the new construction, the old buildings for sale, and the posted signs of Vecinos Vigilantes which sound so much more ominous than Neighbourhood Watch.

We survived our dicey Caracas weekend and two and a half days in the sun (toss up on which is scarier for us) and flee tomorrow cross country to coffee plantations and waterfalls and most importantly, shade.


Caracas: Black Market Handshake

“It’s Sunday so the streets are too empty to be safe.” As an opening statement from the local guide who picked us up at our Caracas hotel, it left something to be desired. It was her casual explanation for us taking the metro instead of walking.
The Caracas weekend was planned with great enthusiasm but much less research than is usual for me and K. It was a quick 2-hr flight from Panama City and a cheap points ticket so we jumped on it with the same insouciance as hopping to a neighbouring country in Europe. We realized our mistake after mentioning our plans to a few friends. Oh, there is a travel warning on Venezuela? But what does that mean, really? Colombia has one too but friends, after spending a month there, reported back that the danger generally felt exaggerated. So we read some more and talked to others. One colleague had heard tell of a 1 in 5 chance of being car-jacked on the road from the airport. Another website said not to fly in or out (or venture outside) after 7pm. As we were flying during the day, I hoped that 2/5 people get car-jacked at night and 0/5 in the day. You can prove anything with stats.

Thus started some interesting pre-trip texts.

  • K: I used up a lot of luck in Rio over 2yrs
  • Me: And our trip to Syria in 2010
  • K: and Lebanon
  • Me: Israel… Jordan…
  • K: We’re screwed
  • Me: Let’s try to get mugged before we go

Bogota had given me a false confidence that eroded somewhat when we arrived at the Caracas airport. We’d planned to be as safe as possible by arranging airport transfers, a full day with guide and driver and a hotel in the nice part of town. We scanned the signs being held up upon arrival but ran the gauntlet without seeing our names. I cold-shouldered a man who followed us around speaking rapid Spanish until I realized he was an airport official making sure we didn’t do anything stupid. He stayed with us for the minute it took our driver to find us. Our driver’s “sign” was a picture of our names on his cell phone. No wonder we didn’t see him in the throng. 

Cash is king here but almost worthless at close to 180% inflation, by some reports. We passed 50+ people waiting in line at bank machines. We were told not to exchange money at the airport, but neither to do it in the street since the largest bill is an 100 Bolivar note, worth about 15 cents. The $50 US exchange we’d prearranged with the tour company came as a 3-inch brick of bills the driver conjured up from the recesses of the car. We counted that into 8000 Bolivares bundles in anticipation of paying for a $12 lunch as discreetly as possible.

Caracas is built in the aptly-named brutalist architecture style, or 1980s concrete chic if you want to be more positive. All hard angles and cement lines, it looks both pre- and post-Apocalyptic at the same time. K likened it to the futuristic Hunger Games and she was right. She is also much more well-read and well-traveled than my quoting her references to tv and movies would suggest.

Approximately 5m people live in Caracas, and a panoramic view from the mirador (lookout) showed office buildings, residences and favela-like barrios stretching from end to end out of sight. If Venezuela is your hand, Caracas is the thin white edge of your closely-trimmed thumbnail. Or the almond sliver on your Danish pastry, if that resonates more.

We learned a lot about Bolivar, who is universally loved and was apparently extremely short. But as liberator of five South American countries from the Spanish, his lack of stature was only physical. We learned as much about the late Hugo Chavez who is adored by some and less so by others. The cry of “Que viva Chavez!” is used in equal measure reverently and sarcastically, the latter by people waiting in long bread lines. He did odd things like modifying the design of the centuries-old coat of arms, flag, and bank notes. And in addition to allegedly liberating much of Venezuela’s wealth, he exhumed Bolivar’s skeleton, opening up the coffin’s lead lining like it was a tin can and broadcasting it on tv. Many Venezuelans believe that was the start of a curse, the effects of which they are feeling today.

Those effects? If 50 people waited in line for the bank machine, down the road 150+ people queued up for food. A similar system to the Bogota driving restrictions exist for all goods here: food, shampoo, diapers, really anything but clothes, which they don’t need to line up for because they can’t afford them. A cheap car costs $8000 US, on a minimum wage of $10 US/mo plus another $7/mo for food.

Based on the last digit of her identity card, our guide, early thirties, single mom, can only shop on Tuesdays and Saturdays. She can buy up to two kilos of rice, for example, if she can find it (the Venezuelan staple of black beans is no longer to be found at all) but can only buy that once a week. They keep track of what she buys, where, through a thumbprint scan. She was confused by the concept of “grocery shopping.” It is all dictated by what is on the shelves. Each week she might be allowed to buy two kilos of corn flour (which lasts a week), but can only find it on the shelves once a month. The same goes for ev-er-y-thing. Her friend, who had twins, was limited to diapers for one child and now only parents can buy diapers at all, after producing a birth certificate. People get around some of the limits by knowing which stores enforce them less than others. But sugar can only be found on the black market, at 4x the official price. If you negotiate a good rate on the black market, though, $1 US will be enough to ride the metro for a year. 

But now that we are safe and sound in the Caracas airport on our way back to Panama, I’m glad we went. We clearly didn’t get the full experience, being quite protected. And though we never felt at immediate risk, we were hyper-conscious of anyone walking nearby and less blasé than normal about the men who catcalled or sang drunkenly about women as we walked by. (Mujeres was happily the only word I understood.)

We acclimated pretty quickly and I was feeling some sympathy for would-be muggers after hearing what daily life is like here. By the end of the day we even felt up to braving the streets for dinner outside the hotel but decided against it when a drive circling the block showed no one on the streets and no destination worth the risk of walking around like the only two tourists in Caracas. Instead, we ate safely in our empty hotel restaurant and I got my thrills from negotiating an extra black market money exchange with our bellboy, slipping him a US $20 in the coolest of hidden-money handshakes and looking nonchalant when he found me a few minutes later and passed me another ostentatious brick of cash.