Panama (and Panama City)

Sky-line of Panama City

Wednesday 2 January 2008, The Painted Palms, Costa Rica
We spent 11 days in Panama in December, including Christmas. Although it is not really long enough to make a definite statement about it, neither of us was over impressed by the country, but we are not prepared to write it off completely! Part of the problem was that we had a lot of rain - recently in Costa Rica it had eased off, for which we were very grateful. We entered Panama during a downpour and the rain continued on and off the whole time we were there. We were both saturated in the tax free zone the day we arrived and then the same thing happened at the border the day we left. Another thing which added to our less than positive impression was that on the majority of days there was something which made the day at least partially unpleasant - some of these experiences were worse than others. But to counterbalance that there were also many encounters with things and people that made the days memorable.
One of the main reasons for going to Panama was to find new tyres for the truck. Ours had carried us 40,000 miles and we were very happy with them. In fact we had our first flat tyre for the whole trip on our second day in Panama. This came after trying unsuccessfully to find new tyres at the tax free zone at the border and in David (the first major city we reached) on the first day. But we couldn't have asked for a better place to have a flat - we were parked in a supermarket car park. A local fellow arrived on the scene and immediately got down and dirty and helped Juergen to change it. He then led us to the nearest tyre repair shop to get the flat repaired and then helped to put it back on the truck and to replace the spare in its awkward spot under the rear of the truck. We were very grateful for his help and he was pleased to accept the money we offered, but we really had the feeling that he didn't necessarily expect it. We also learned that all the tyre changing equipment, we had bought in the States, was actually functioning and strong enough for our heavy duty truck (believe it or not, we had never tried it before)!
After spending a couple of hours dealing with the flat tyre, we drove on towards Panama City. We had decided to head for a trailer park at Santa Clara a bit more than 100 km from the city. Because we assumed it was at the beach, we turned toward the ocean as soon as we entered the town. In so doing we managed to miss the trailer park sign, but found a seaside balneario right on the ocean with a traveller's Landrover already parked there. So we decided to stay there and we met Gill and Paul and their son Eliot. They had recently arrived from South America and have spent the last 14 years travelling, including some time in Africa working for a company that runs safaris. They were so interesting to talk to and their son is an absolute delight.
Juergen had also discovered along the way that our camper was no longer connected electrically to the truck - it had come unplugged on some of the rough roads we had been on, and we had no brake lights, indicators or any other lights at all showing on the camper. Consequently the camper battery wasn't getting charged by the truck either. To reconnect it meant lifting the camper off the truck and reaching down to the bed to plug it in again. We were very grateful to Paul, with his long arms, since we didn't have to lift the camper up very far. So we had a couple of problems that day that could have been much more of a headache had it not been for very helpful people around us.
We would have liked to avoid Panama City, but it turned out to be the only place we were likely to find the tyres we needed. It wasn't difficult to find a tyre shop and Luis, who spoke excellent English, was successful in locating some (in less than 24 hours) which were almost what we wanted, but not quite - we had them fitted. Driving in Panama City is a bit of a nightmare because everyone seems to drive with tunnel vision - they just look ahead and expect everyone behind to look out for them. This results in most of them driving out in front of you with never a look behind. Luckily we had our brakes fixed in San Jose before we left! We also got turned around on very narrow streets trying to find a place to camp. We had a couple of GPS readings but the streets are not in a grid pattern and, just when we thought we were getting close, the street we were on went off in the wrong direction. I don't know how many times we recrossed our path, or followed the same path again, before we finally found one of the places we were looking for. Not much fun after dark!
We weren't really sure where we were, but in the morning we discovered that the large, empty car park we stopped in was part of what had been the American base on Amador Peninsular when they still ran the Panama Canal. It was empty the next day, so it doesn't seem to be used except by young couples looking for some privacy and learner drivers - there had been a number of each present during the previous evening. When we drove to the end of the peninsular, we discovered that the road continued on causeways which joined it to three islands. At the end is a very large marina. Stopping there in the pouring rain proved to be a mistake, because when we tried to start the truck again, we couldn't. One of the security guards came to offer assistance and he and Juergen cleaned the contacts on the batteries and the starter motor, and we have had no further problem - let's hope it stays that way. We stayed there 2 nights while we had the tyres fitted and looked a bit around the city. I managed to find an authentic Panama hat for my father's birthday (that even comes rolled up in a box) when we visited the old city, which is the ruins of the first Spanish settlement.

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