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The Panama Traveler

Author: Ed A.
Date of Trip: September 2010

I like to Travel

I like to Travel To and In Panama

Considering a location for my next employment, I thought about the areas I had visited through my world-wide-wanderings as a pilot in the U. S. Air Force and then for the CIA. While I have lived and worked in many nice places, some of them, like Bangkok — are off my normal chart / Europe — to expensive / the Caribbean islands — nice to visit, boring to live / Panama — to, to, ah wait, I remember Howard Air Force Base. Howard AFB is just across the Panama Canal from Panama City — A Nice City. I remember the great climate — the hospitable people — the wonderful food. The beaches — the jungle — the low cost of living — Ha, worth a checkout. And one of the best things about Panama — they use the U S Dollar. They call their currency the “Balboa”, using U.S. paper bills — but Panamanian coins. These coins are interchangeable with U.S. minted ones and are the same size — VERY convenient. Overall, a nice, relaxed environment to consider for my future.

There is a Non-Stop flight from my home in Dallas [DFW] to Panama [PTY] that operates seasonally [so check on it] but not when I composed this Blog – American Flt #2101. Many airlines [American, Continental, Delta and others] offer 1 stop service from Dallas.. I chose American [I worked there for awhile] and then called direct with my Frequent Flyer number. Hint — when you decide just which airline you are going to use — call and get one of their Frequent Flyer cards — it makes the staff give you any benefits of doubt, and generally an extra smile. I then went onto the internet and located a Real-Estate company in Panama and asked about a tour around the properties available. This is a good way to get to know the city, and what you get for your money renting or buying — an important consideration if you plan to move [or MAYBE plan to move]. The “Real Estate Tour” average cost is $50, but well worth it if you have any idea to move to Panama or just learn about the city. I did not arrange for a tour right off, but got the telephone number and told them I would call when I was squared away down there. I asked for a hotel recommendation and was told that the Hotel Las Vegas was a reasonable place. I looked it up on the internet [] and it looked very nice. So I called the Las Vegas [using Penny Talk], received a room cost of under $50 a night, asked if they could arrange a Taxi for me [for $15] — I like to have Hotels arrange taxis for me, in that it eases the way through most any airport. A caveat here — if you have a “Name Brand” hotel — Hilton, Intercontinental, Marriott, etc.- they will send one of the Hotel cabs, at about twice the cost of a “Street” cab. A non-chain hotel — like the Las Vegas – will send a “Street” cab — at the proper rate — and it will be a safe journey as generally the staff know the local drivers that hang around the property. SO — I was ready.

My America Airlines Flt 2274 — a spacious Boeing 737-800 — departed on-time on a beautiful Thursday morning. On the 2+45 flight to Miami, I hardly had time to read the “American Way” — the airlines in-flight magazine. It was interesting enough so that I read just about every page, and the puzzles in the back of the magazine were just enough challenging to make them fun to try. I carry a paperback western with me whenever I fly — but did not have to open it on this leg. In Miami, the connection time was only 45 minutes, but that was time enough to stop by the Duty-Free and get a bottle of Jack Daniels — stop at a sandwich place and grab a Ham-Cheese with a Mojito — and make it to the gate in plenty of time. The Boeing 757 from Miami to Panama was moderately full, but I had an open seat next to my aisle seat — very comfortable. The 2+50 flight seemed to pass quickly. After spending about 1/2 the flight dreaming through the “SkyMall” [the neat stuff you can buy for home delivery], I did get a few chapters in my Lassiter western read. All in All — a very pleasant flight. During my career as an Airline Captain, I have flown into about 100 International airports. I have to honestly say the arriving in Panama is one of the nicest — easiest — No Problem airports – in existence. Just be aware that you can pick up the blank Visa [Tourist Card] at the bottom of the stairs — that is so you do not have to be delayed [and delay other arriving pax]. You pay your $5 fee to the Immigration officer — and step over to the Baggage area. The Baggage carrousel was running when I got there, and my suitcase came out in a short while. At the Customs area — you can push a button to give yourself a “Green Light” if you have nothing to declare — and you are on your way.

Coming out of customs into the open terminal area, I spied a chap with a sign listing my name. Rolando welcomed me to Panama — took my bag — escorted me to his very clean Toyota — and off we went. The drive into the city takes about 35 minutes. This was a bright-sunny day and gave me a nice clear view of the area east of the Panama City. There was some Government housing — some rather poor areas — then middle class homes — then in view were, it seemed like, 100s of buildings with cranes on them. Panama City is truly a growing city. The Hotel Las Vegas is right in the middle of the upscale Congrejo neighborhood. This area centrally located in the City and within walking distance to shopping areas, restaurants, schools, pharmacies, and several banks. It is a classy area and many of Panama´s most influential have made their permanent residences in this area. My arrival at the hotel was smooth. A valet attendant [a soft-spoken regular chap — not a “Fancy Uniform” type] — greeted me and took my bag inside. The Front Desk also greeted me, took my Credit Card information, I was shown up to my room — and there I was, feeling very comfortable and happy and serene. The hotel was nice. Downstairs is the Italian restaurant -. Pomodoro. It has a small enclosed dining room [for when it is drizzling] — and a large open dining area with trees and flowers– and is arguably the best Italian food in town [the Tiramisu is World Class]. Also in the hotel is The Wine Bar. A place for wine lovers, the Wine Bar has more than 300 wine selections as well as cheese, pizza [The Small Hawaiian pizza with a glass — or two- of a good Chianti, is my choice]., and an in-house live music trio. The hotel is right on the corner — cattycorner to the Veneto Hotel & Casino — Wyndham Grand Hotel. The Veneto is a good place to relax — – have a fine Cuban cigar and a cool drink while you watch an NFL game on Sunday.

The next morning I strolled down the street past the front of the Veneto to the Monolo. This cafe would fit in any upper-middleclass neighborhood in the U.S. It has a great breakfast menu, and the open air porch is a great way to “people watch” as you enjoy your meal. My interest this day was to check out one of the “Off Shore” lawyers. Having purchased property overseas before, I knew it was best to check everything out with the Legal people first. The chap I called — an American — came over to the hotel and drove me to his office. He explained all the possibilities — quoted me what I believe to be very fair prices — and gave me a very comfortable feeling. Panama law is very protective of the “Common Man” — both Panamanian and Foreign — and while it is possible to get ripped off if you are careless [or should I say Stupid], being careful will keep you protected as well as you might be here in the U.S.. They also have a law called the “pensionado”. Requirements for the pensionada visa are minimal. You only need to prove that you have good health, no criminal record and an income of US$1000 per month. The pensionada program lets you bring in household goods without paying duties, and you can import a new car for personal use every two years. You can enjoy discounts of 15% to 50% on hotels, restaurants, movies, public transportation and many other services.. “Panama offers what is probably the best package of (financial) benefits for seniors on the planet,” according to an article in Smart Money Magazine. Many places gave me this discount just because I look like a Pensioner. Taxi’s throughout Panama are plentiful, and can be easily recognized by their numbered markings, however, they come in all size, shapes and colors. All fares are based on zones or areas, and not determined by meters – cab drivers are required to carry a copy of the zone chart with them at all times. Most fares within the metropolitan area average between B/2.00-B/2.50, and for each addition person there is a B/.0.25 surcharge. Trips from Panama City to Tocumen International Airport cost approx. B/20.00 per person, with each additional person paying B/.5.00. The standard hourly rate for taxi rental is B/.8.00, however, that can vary depending on the type of service you are requesting, so establish a price before departing

On the weekend I took a taxi for a two-night stay at the Coronado Golf & Beach Resort, just 60 minutes away by modern highway from the City. This was a very nice community around a Golf course which is aimed towards foreigners’ retirement living. My interest was sparked because of the Stables just beside the property where I rented a horse for an hour [$5]. It was a very clean and well kept stable and the horses all looked happy and healthy. On Monday I arranged a taxi to the development now being promoted at the old Howard Air Base — PanamaPacifico. This Base was given to the Panamanian Government by the U.S. after we gave up the canal. Panama then sent out Requests for Proposals and after deep due diligence, awarded the contract to a British company. It will be, with its preexisting infrastructure, one of the largest mixed-use developments in the world The vision for Panama Pacifico is of a world-class commercial and business hub with highly sought-after residential areas and quality tourism and leisure facilities — all within an ecologically inspired landscape of lush, tropical forest, hills, mangroves and wetlands. In this thriving, quality-built new community, people can do it all — live, work and play. The development is targeted to create 40,000 jobs, 20,000 new homes and apartments, and one million square meters of commercial space. The setting for Panama Pacifico is the 1,400-hectare site located at the mouth of the Panama Canal and the Pacific Ocean. Panama Pacifico is part of a special economic area — or ‘free zone’ — with specific benefits that ensure the viability and success of companies that build or relocate on the site. I spent two days looking over this site, which is in the middle of its first construction stage, and was duly impressed. If I were going start a new business – expand a business — open a small restaurant to cater to the foreigners coming in — whatever – I would chose this location. I then spent a day relaxing around the hotel — checking out the local Super Market — wandering around and enjoying the neighborhood — seeing just how nice Panama really is — blowing 10 bucks on the Slot Machines at the Casino [they seemed to pay a reasonable percentage] and had dinner at a fine steakhouse just down the street.

Before dinner, I called the Real Estate lady I had communicated with before I left Texas, and arranged for a tour the following day. The Real Estate tour around town was just as relaxing. My Real Estate lady had a very nice car — drove it in a sensible manner — explained everything in English as good as mine [or maybe a bit better] and pointed out on a map just where we were and where we were going. She started out in the San Francisco area in the East part of the city, and showed me the types of housing available there — and the cost to Rent, and to Buy. We then moved neighborhood by neighborhood to the West — towards the Panama Canal, ending up at the former Albrook Air Base — a U.S. facility also turned over to the Panamanian government. It is now the Domestic Airport for Panama City. The old Base Housing has been renovated and are now available to rent or buy. They are very well built and definitely worth consideration as a place to live. Albrook also is the location of the humongous “Albrook Mall. This mall is as good as any you might find in a moderate U.S. town. It is also the location the main Bus Terminal — where one can find bus service to everywhere in the country — nice clean air=conditioned busses. I took one of these busses the day following my Real Estate tour, out to a development called “La Pintada Estates. This development is just outside Penonome — in the Provence of Cocle. This town is in the exact center of Panama and is a fine — old rural town. It was founded in 1581 and was the capital of Panama for a short period after Panama City was sacked by Henry Morgan in 1671. The name of this town comes from the words “penó Nome”. Nome was a chief of a local native American tribe, who was put to death by the Spanish colonial officials. “Penó Nome” means “Nome was executed. The development consists of flat areas, gentle rolling hills, mountainous areas and small winding rivers. River lots and view lots are also available. There is a trail that winds throughout the development for horseback riding, walking, jogging or bicycle riding. A community horse stable, tennis courts, and large gazebo party area are available. Most lots are in the +/- area of 2 acres, and are being marketed as “Hobby Farms”. There is enough space to do whatever type of “Farming” you desire to do — with support available from the local labor force. If, for instance, you wished to have a horse: whatever level of upkeep you wished to do yourself, you of course could do — but whatever chores you want help with, that could be arranged. A very nice concept. My return took me through the town of Rio Hato. While here, I took a side trip down to the beach — ‘Beautiful”. The taxi I got at the bus-stop sped through such gorgeous scenery that I was lost as to exact location, but we stopped for moments at hotels that were fantastic — we ate lunch at the “Buenaventura” [ a grilled fish fillet, with a touch of lemon ] – and swung by the “Playa Blanca” and “Decameron” — any one of these would make a great Hollywood movie setting.

Returning to the “City”, I had a great Peruvian dinner at the Machu Pichu. This popular Peruvian restaurant named after that country’s famous Inca ruins occupies an unassuming house a short walk from my hotel. The food is traditional Peruvian, with a few inventions by Chef Brena, such as corvina Hiroshima (sea bass in a shrimp, bell pepper, ginger sauce) and langostinos gratinados (prawns au gratin). You can’t go wrong with such Peruvian classics as ceviche, ají de gallina (chicken in a chili-cream sauce), seco de res (Peruvian stewed beef), and sudado de mero (grouper in a spicy soup). If you like “Hot” food, the Peruvian use of Rocoto peppers [like a turbo-charged Habanero] will perk you up. Be warned !!!!! Stopping by the Monolo cafe for a Flan, a coffee and a cigar on my way back to the hotel, finished off a very agreeable day. My next Lookie — Lookie was out to the Far West of Panama — the city of Puerto Armuelles [PA]. To reach PA, I took a bus again from the Albrook Terminal to the city of David [pronounced Da-veed’. It is a nice 6 hour ride made more pleasant by the quality of the bus, the varying panorama of the countryside and the stop for lunch half-way there. I usually like to eat within local bus or train stations, but there was a long line waiting to go through the line, I decided to walk down to a KFC I spied next door — and have a piece of Chicken. I am not a KFC fan, but the leg and thigh [with mashed potatoes — cole slaw and Biscuit] I got here was top-notch and well worth the 85 cents. After this lunch, we continued on to David where we arrived in mid-afternoon. There is no direct service from Panama City to PA so I had decided to spend a night here. I knew nothing about this city and so hired a taxi at the bus station to drive me around. Taxis are very inexpensive in Panama and a great way to learn about an area you are unacquainted with — $1 will get you most anywhere in town. I like city-centers in old colonial towns and so had the taxi go there — the Plaza. Right on the square was an old, but clean looking hotel [the Occidental}, so I had him stop — make sure they had a room — and entered. It was NOT the Biltmore — but it was clean, the bed was comfortable, and for $23 I could not expect more. I spent an extra day in David, walking around seeing the sites. It is the third largest city in the country [after Panama City and Colon — each end of the canal] and is scheduled to receive an International Airport in the near future. It is a nice town, but I prefer the “City”]

In the morning I boarded a “Combi” style bus to continue to PA. The route here goes up to the Costa Rican boarder — which in itself is interesting in that they have 10 acres of grubby business crammed into about 1 acre — and then turns west toward the coast,passing through farm land and banana plantations This port city is the location of a proposed Oil Refinery which will add tremendous opportunity for investors in community support facilities such as Housing — Hotels and support for the many foreign engineers that will be based there. It is the site of an old Chiquita Banana plantation which has been turned over to a local cooperative. It is a very typical Panama country town with still some International flavor. It has a Commuter level Airport, used mainly by the World Class Fishing Lodge [Tuna and Sailfish] just outside town. This Lodge welcomes anglers from the entire world and has a top-notch reputation for the quality of its sport. There is a 9 hole golf course and horses wander around all areas. All in all it is an interesting town. The lodging lacks a little — and the best place is a centrally located hostel — with shared bath @ $5 a night. There are a few nice restaurants — but could stand an upgrade in quality. I ended up spending a week here because of the interesting things to see — old town, the fishing, the golf club and talking to the vast variety of people that call PA their home.

My next destination was Boquete — a town built in the shadow of an American Expats’ “Retirement” community. To get there I had to return to David — spending the night at the same hotel, and finding some new restaurants [Panama has legal casinos and they are found in surprising places] and overall enjoying the evening. The next morning I got on a bus to go up the hill [Boquete is located at 3,600ft elevation nestled next to the Baru Volcano to its west. Boquete enjoys a year-round climate ideal for active retirement living and outdoor adventure seekers alike- birding, hiking, mountain biking, rafting, etc. In addition, the near perfect weather and rich, fertile soil has created an ideal setting for floral exportation and coffee growing. Golf is available at Valle Escondido, the aforementioned Expats’ developement. The town itself is really just a wide-spot in the road, but it does have its own charm — and it is “Relaxing”. After 3 days here, just looking around, it was back to David for the night — then the bus back to the City. I then checked on the ways to get to Colon — the Atlantic end of the canal. There are flights, a train, taxi and bus service. I chose the bus so as to see more of the country side — it was a good choice. Again leaving from the Albrook terminal, I purchased a 1st class ticket for $2.50 for the 11/2 hours ride. Quite a scenic journey – Mountains, valleys, country side, villages, open pasture land, jungle = nice. Now Colon is NOT a tourist town. It is a “Duty Free” Business town. Rather interesting — I did enjoy going there, but without Googling enough about it, I was lost. It is a BIG town — with the Downtown area rather ordinary. Feeling that a Taxi would know more than I did — I spied a Taxi driver sitting on a stool at a street side Chinese Noodle stand, and set down beside him. I broached a little English, and found him to be a linguist – his English was most excellent. We talked awhile about the city, about what to see, and then took off on a tour the sights — the “Nice” neighborhoods. We worked our way to Fort San Lorenzo. A little out of town on a “not so good” road, it is a wonderful site and sight. It is very well maintained and looked like it could still blast any enemy ships that would dare approach. The beautiful day, the clear blue sea, the wonderful blue sky with fleecy white clouds — I would like to return here someday. But now it was getting late so asked Javier about a Hotel. He looked at me with a sad face and allowed there were no good hotels in Colon — no tourists stayed in the city — all the fair priced ones had “bugs” — Only the new Radisson was safe but it was expensive [a bit over $100] — best I go back to the City. Not wanting to do that, I decided to go to the Radisson and check it out. I am glad I did. It is nice [a complement to the Radisson chain], they had a room, so I asked Javier to hang loose while I checked in. No luggage – they did not raise their eyebrows. I looked at some tour brochures in the lobby, and picked out the Restaurant Concolon. When we Arrived, I was a little quizzical — the ad had looked nice — this place did not. But, after walking upstairs into a beautiful, relaxing, almost “living room” like area, I was glad I had made the choice. I had a small shrimp cocktail, a small lobster cooked just right [with Buttery tasting butter] and then a fantastic chocolate cake with my coffee. I WILL return there. I then arranged to meet Javier in the morning and hit the sack.

The next morning, after a very nice Warm bread, Fresh Fruit and Yogurt breakfast, and again checking the lobby brochures, we went off to Isla Grande. It is about a 1 ½ hour drive through B-U-Tiful countryside — then a 10 minute boat ride to the island. Great Beaches. And it is B-U-Tiful also. By the time we got there it was about lunch time so, as was recommended, we went to “Millies”. The menu had a wide variety of plates, but I don’t go to the beach to eat meat, I go for the Sea Food. I had a “Pulpo a la criolla” — a Spanish style Octopus. It had onions, green peppers, red peppers, tomato sauce and just the right touch of spices to make it super tasty [the wine helped also]. I would also like to interject here that when I say “We” during this trip, I mean Javier and me. Meals cost so little that inviting a driver — who can converse in my language — was a definite plus Anyway — a very lazy afternoon. Returning to the Radisson I dug out my Western, found a comfortable lounge chair near the pool, ordered a Mojito [my favorite Latin American drink] and continued my relaxation. I did not get much of my book read as there was a cruise ship in port, and many of the passengers were at the hotel for supper. I am a “People Watcher” and had a very prime opportunity to engage in the sport here at the pool. I made a reservation with Javier to take me to the train to return back to Panama City [or just the “City” as the locals refer to it]. It leaves at 05:15 pm and takes about an hour. The cost is higher than the bus — but it has very “upscale” accommodations and a different view. A very nice, comfortable ride and I do recommend it. Returning to the Las Vegas hotel, I had a small Hawaiian pizza and a glass of Merlot at the Wine Bar — strolled across the street to the Casino to blow another 10 bucks [ but ended up winning 5 ] — watched a soccer match for awhile — strolled down to the main avenue in the area — Via Espana — to enjoy a good Cuban cigar, a Mojito and a talk with the cigar shop owner and stay lazy like I like — and then returned via the Monolo cafe for a coffee.

The next morning, which dawned on my last full day in Panama, I took a taxi over to the Casco Viejo — the “Old City” area of town. This area has many buildings over 300 years old. It is definitely worth more than just a day trip and I will most definitely plan on spending more time my next trip to Panama. It is becoming “Gentrified”, and losing some of its character — but still an interesting area. The fish market at its entrance is worth a stop. Most every kind of seafood you can imagine can be found there. I walked from that area down along the seafront road [Pacifico or Pan American Highway] — an area which will soon be “reclaimed” and offer Parks and Walkways and will greatly improve the overall situation in the city. Stopping at various places, I slowly made my way back to Congrejo and my hotel area. My flight back to Dallas [via Miami] was scheduled early in the morning [07:30 is early for me] so I relaxed in the hotel — had Fusilli with White Clam sauce for dinner, with a ST.EMILION that was exquisito — followed by Chef Willy’s World Class Tiramisu and a fine cup of Duran Panamanian coffee. A stroll down the street — with a look-see into the casino, a final cup of coffee at the Monolo and back to the Las Vegas to turn in — happy — contented — but a little sad that my time in Panama was about over.

I had arranged for Rolando — my taxi when I arrived — to pick me up at 05:30am for my ride to the airport. He was awaiting me when I came down the stairs. After my checkout — which went very smoothly — we were off. The airport was busy, but not overly crowded. It took about 15 minutes to reach the front of the line — 5 minutes to check-in — and I was ready to leave. The Duty Free shops were all open, so I bought a few gifts and a couple of bottles of 7 year old Abuelo Rum — then had a ham-egg sandwich and a coffee — and was in the departure lounge for a short while until they called my flight. And then I was off – the flight home was as smooth as the flight down. I got to finish my Lassiter western — read the tourist book I picked up at the hotel — talk with the lady in the window seat — and all in all relax and recall the fine time I had just spent in Panama.

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