A few days ago, I returned from my latest adventure, a 10 day jaunt through Panama with my brother. It was an amazing trip – I’d never been south past San Antonio before, so this was my first exposure to the non-north Americas and a Latin country. We arrived at Panama City and spent three days exploring the neighborhoods and downtown. Then we flew up to Bocas del Toro, a tropical island on the Caribbean side, where we spent three rain and rum-soaked days exploring tropical jungles, caves and beaches by foot, bicycle and ATV. After returning to Panama City, we took a daytrip out to En Valle, a former volcanic crater that’s now home to a lush rainforest. The last few days were spent seeing the canal and the surrounding canal zone’s flora and fauna, shopping, eating and enjoying the city’s nightlife.
It’s a really interesting country, supposedly not as touristy or developed as Costa Rica (yet), but hardly a place where you have to rough it. Panama stands at a crossroads at a nation. It’s blessed with location – the Canal pulled in $2B in revenue last year, and this is supposed to increase by a quarter next year. Low tariff rates and other provisions make it business-friendly; its economy has expanded eight percent a year since 2005. Despite this good mojo, Panama’s likely to face significant challenges in becoming the “Singapore of Central America” such as government corruption and structural inefficiency. Poverty, inequity and poor education will continue to exacerbate the availability of skilled workers going into the next few decades. While this isn’t unique in the region, given Panama’s strong economic potential, it may matter more here.
The view from Ancon, a historic hill north of the city
Ambling about the city, you can easily tell where efforts have been made to modernize, clean up or otherwise upgrade the city. For every manicured Oceanside boulevard or sanitized public space that reminded me of Singapore, there is a stretch of derelict buildings or seedy neighborhoods that reminded me of India. Though unevenly distributed, the wealth is evident in nice cars, fancy restaurants and hotels, and plenty of shopping.
We randomly stumbled upon a Gandhi statue while exploring the marketplace. I found this really interesting – apparently in 1971 Panama also issued a limited edition set of Gandhi stamps that are supposed to be very rare. A cab driver asked us where we were from, and after our response of “We’re American” garnered a long, skeptical glare, we answered “Indian” instead and he immediately launched into a broken English tribute to the Mahatma and how he was a beautiful man. As I stared at the multiple Jesus trinkets on his rearview mirror and dashboard, he switched gears and offered to take us to a strip club for some “fucky-fucky.” My Spanish is pretty bad, but I had an idea of what he meant so we politely declined.
High fashion in Panama
The highlight of the trip came on day 6, when we rented two old bicycles in Bocas Del Toro, adorned cheap plastic ponchos, and set off to bike around the island. About 8km in we found a sign for ‘La Gruta.’ We locked up our bikes to the signpost, paid a gentleman nearby $1 for headlamps, and started down the trail, at the end of which we saw the entrance to the cave adorned with several statues of the Virgin Mary. We changed into our trunks and bundled up before venturing into the water.
Holy Bats, Batman!
The first wildlife we saw was a miniature frog outside of the entrance, smaller than a penny. Upon entering the cave, while there was still some daylight, we saw ginormous crickets that were easily bigger than a quarter – looking up and around, we quickly realized that they were everywhere; over our heads, on the walls, and on the ground. We quickly opted for the aquatic path and hurriedly waded through the deepening water for about 25 meters before it was pitch black. At this point we were chest deep in water and almost completely terrified. Then we heard the squeaking. Wading around a bend in the cave, we saw a distant exit to the cave, about 100 meters away. As our eyes adjusted back to natural light, we saw a few bats flitting in and out of the cave. It was only after we paused to take a few pictures of them that we realized how many bats were inside with us. Lots. Hundreds. We crossed through and biked home, surviving a broken bike chain and hitching a ride with some locals on a minibus.
Other highlights of the trip included renting an ATV to ride through the rain to Bocas Del Drago on the northern part of the island, renting tickets for a party bus that drove around the city (not my video, though we weren’t lucky enough to hear any Rocky soundtrack on our ride), and ziplining 120m across a waterfall in the middle of the rainforest.
We spent a lot of time in Panama City. While people knock on it as a place where there’s nothing to do, I’ve always preferred big foreign cities as a place to unwind, soak in the culture and simply get to know the city. We visited innumerable cafes and bars (this one is just awesome), explored the historic quarters of the city by foot, snuck into two rooftop hotel pools and saw the same skyline from over half a dozen different vantage points.
Infinity Pool at the Trump Towers
It was an amazing trip, and a great conclusion to a year where I’ve been lucky enough to visit five foreign countries on three continents. Hopefully next year will bring even more adventures. Thanks for reading!