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Trip Report Road trip through Panama

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My wife and 2 kids (14 and 15) just completed a 10 day road trip through Panama and it was fanatastic! I will touch on some main themes/experiences for those that might consider a trip to Panama. Last year, a friend of ours spent time at a resort in Panama and enjoyed it. We are not resort-orientated (we get too bored too quickly) so we thought of the road trip. We used the Fodors guide of Panama which helped alot.

The roads in Panama were excellent 99% of the time (some outlining areas had black top mixed with gravel but still very passable). We rented a car and drove from one end of the country to the other (from David to Metetis) along highway 1 (Pan-American highway) as well as numerous roads off highway 1. The driving is more agressive compared to North America (but not dangerously so) but you get used to it and follow suit. Due to a country-wide bus/van service be aware that the people use the roads to walk on (and plenty of dogs too!) and one must pay attention. Most schools are located along the highways and you will see many children walking to and from school throughout the entire country. Here are some things we learned as we went:

1) A road map is essential of course and can be found on-line (we used the one with a bird on the cover)
2) Buy a compass (the kind with the suction cup that sticks to the wind shield). We got 'lost' numerous times but this was OK since it is a road trip after all. The problem is that the signage in Panama is confusing and frustrating. The compass helped set our bearings. Many of the small villages do not have a sign indicating what village it is so we could not match the village up to the map. So we stopped and ask someone, pointing to the map and we found our way.
3) The country is BEAUTIFUL, especially the eastern side (Darien province) heading toward Columbia. You can tell there is a sense of pride in this country. Most of the road services (gas stations, snacks) are first rate. Be aware that there are several police check points along the way through Panama and they will want to see your passports and will likely take them from you in order to write down your passport information. Don't panic (as I did!) They will return them and you will be on your way!
4) Perhaps buying a cell phone in Panama with prepaid minutes would be wise for a road trip. However it would have been near useless for us because of our lack of spanish skills. But it would still be nice to have.

The people of Panama were wonderful and very friendly. Our family knows no spanish! We learned some phrases ('no hablo espanol') as we went, lots of smiles and hand waving and it was all fine. We did notice a difference between the Pacific side and Altlantic side, the Atlantic side being a little less friendly we thought. However, we stayed just outside of Portobello on the Atlantic side at ScubaPortobello (it is in the guide book and Senora Chon at the hotel speaks good english) and was just beautiful and we highly recommend a few days here. There is not much to see in places like Portobello (or Colon) but the beaches are terrific near Portobello (especially Playa Francis, a $10.00 per person water taxi ride from Portobello). In short, we found the Pacific side to be more friendly so we spent more of our time there.

Hotel and food were fine too. We did not book any hotels in advance. We just showed up and asked for a room with 2 double beds. We were fortunate in that July is a slow time of the year for tourism in Panama. The smaller the towns the less likely there would be a hotel so we stayed in larger towns for the evening most of the time (the Fodors guide was great for this). On average we spent about 80.00 per night for the four of us. The food was fine. For us its just food. As long as it was decent and it was. There is no gourmet food when you are on the road. But we did have the best meal of our lives when we stayed at the Rancho de 'Caldera', north of the city of David just outside of Boquette. We got there by accident really. The Rancho was a one night stay and was pricey ($200.00 per night for the 4 of us) but is was stunningly beautiful in the mountains. Owned by 'Craig' a Seattle native who bought the Ranchero, he is also a chef by training.

The weather was a mix of sun/clouds and rain. The temperature was about the same as here in Toronto (85F). Be prepared for bursts of rain. But for the most part the weather was pleasant and was humid, not as rainy as I thought it might have been (maybe we were lucky)

In short, friendly people are everywhere on the Pacific side. The country is beautiful and often first-rate in many ways (roads, food, services) from one end of the country to the other. We felt very safe throughout the trip (the exception was Portobello and Colon on the Atlantic side). Even if you are in Panama for a short while, rent a car from the airport and drive into the eastern provinces for a day trip to Metetis and have lunch at Metetis. Finally a quick story: We were at an internet cafe just outside of Colon checking our email. When we left and drove for about an hour toward Panama city my wife realized she left her bag at the cafe with all our cash, passports, camera, wallet, everything!!! We made the mad dash back, an agonizing hour long trip back to the cafe. Happily, the young man running the cafe had put the bag away for safe keeping for us. I slipped him a twenty and almost hugged him!

I hope this helps. We had many other nice adventures in Panama and hope that you have yours too.

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