Monday, July 9, 2018

Panama Trip - Day 1: Here There Be Balboas!

Earlier this year I embarked on a trip of a lifetime. A trip to Panama's steamy tropical province, Bocas del Toro.

Now, before this year I had never heard of Bocas -- as it's so lovingly referred to by travelers to this jungle paradise -- but I was searching for someplace exotic to take myself that year, and frankly I had plenty of options. A cultural exploration of the mountainous region of Romania's back country? I really wanted to do that. Or how about a photography tour of Western Ireland? Oh man, oh man!

But then I came across this guy's account in Condé Nast Traveler of his 2012 solo trip to Bocas del Toro in Panama, and suddenly I knew that this was the place I just had to go to. It spoke to me on so many levels!

This is my account of that 7-day adventure.

DAY 1: Here There Be Balboas!

I was so excited the night before I was to fly out to Panama. I checked and double checked everything, went through my suitcase to make sure everything was still there, and most importantly I made sure that my camera equipment was safely stored within my carry-on bag. This was going to be a big trip for me, and a perfect opportunity for which to practice my newfound hobby.

So with that in mind, fair warning: From here on out -- all pic are mine!

The flight from New York City to Panama City (there are no direct bookings to the capital of Bocas) is straight forward and painless -- that is, if you book with the country's premier carrier for International flights, Copa Airlines. It's a 5 hour direct flight between the two cities, and I had made arrangements to spend a day and a night in the country's capital before boarding a local flight to the province of Bocas del Toro, my ultimate destination.

Luckily the country has a 1:1 monetary exchange with the United States, what with its deep historic and economic ties to the U.S.A. and all. So this means the US Dollar and the Panamanian Balboa hold identical value there, and in fact the USD is accepted as legal tender throughout the country. So, there was no need for me stop by the Currency Exchange bureau on my way to the taxi stand outside of the airport. I simply grabbed my bags and hailed the first cab that pulled up to the curb.

And I was off to my first destination just like that! Which, in this case, happened to be the historic "Old Town" of Panama City known as Casco Viejo -- aka, Casco Antiguo. You'll find both names used for the district, although the latter seems to be used more by locals. All the cabbies know how to get there, however, as it's practically tourist central.

My cabbie spoke almost no English, and I speak only a little Spanish. But between the two of us we managed to cobble together a weird Spanglish shorthand for conversation during the 45 mins ride. He enjoyed very much that I was wearing my NY Yankees baseball cap, since after all baseball is the No. 1 national sport here, and the legendary Yankees closer, Mariano Rivera, is their native hero. No, seriously, this country is quite obsessed with their local boy turned sports legend. Mariano could probably run for president there and win handily.

Anyway, the drive through Panama City that early afternoon was quite a sight. The poor areas are extremely poor and rundown. It pretty much looks like the back towns of Mexico. But the more well-to-do districts where most of the corporations have their offices and the big chain hotels cater exclusively to tourists -- you would not be out of place thinking that you were driving through downtown Miami!

Tourists using downtown Panama City as their selfie backdrop.

This city definitely has a southern FL vibe going on if you stick mainly to the affluent areas. So, yes, the differential between rich and poor in this town is HUGE to say the least. It's quite disconcerting to the outside visitor, this stark contrast.

Where I was headed was such an affluent area, of course; where the country's President even has his residence set up. Armed guards casually watch entry into and out of the district, although the dangerous barrios I was warned never to wander into bordered it just on the other side of the main street.

And, Side Note:

Not unlike a street in the South Bronx, actually.

Yes I did wander into that area I was told not to go into, of course. And late at night, as you can see by the above street photo I took just inside this dangerous neighborhood. But I only stayed for 15 minutes before getting a bad vibe from the locals watching me, and beating a hasty retreat back into the protection of tourist nirvana across that main drag.

Backtracking to earlier that afternoon ... Once I settled into my beautifully old hotel in Casco Viejo, I set about to wander the streets as I often do first thing upon arrival at a new destination. It's seriously my favorite thing to do! I don't nap or recover from jet lag, or lounge by the pool, and I don't grab lunch. Nope, I hit the pavement running, camera in hand, and get a real feet-to-the-cobblestones feel for the place.

And I have to say, just heading out there in the 90-degree heat, with the humidity at about 87% and the sun mercifully hidden behind some leaden skies that day -- this was the best way to just see and listen to the people of the city mill about me, and to taste that unique smell each country has that is like its own signature scent. I'm sensitive to such things, and each country is different than the other. My mind catalogs these signatures! Yes, even now if I close my eyes I can remember the looks, sounds, and smells of Panama City's Old Town:

Later that night, after dinner at my hotel's little restaurant on the ground floor, I headed to the wonderful rooftop bar which was already pumping loudly with music, dancing, and drinking on an early Saturday night. This place was bananas! Filled mostly with tourists, but not always from Europe or North America. No, quite a few seemed to have hailed from Costa Rica up north, or from Colombia and Venezuela to the south. Brazil, too, had a few representatives as I distinctly discerned Portuguese being spoken here and there.


I love these sorts of gatherings. I soak up all that energy and let it carry me away into the night. And, yes, I did partake of a few drinks while I was up here. I had a few rums, and also a few of the local cervezas of choice -- a brand called "Balboa," in particular. Hey, just like the national currency! But the real story is that this beer gets its designation from the Spanish conquistador of the same name. And I was beginning to realize quite a few things in Panama was named after this dude, in fact.

Electric skies over Panama City during a thunderstorm.

As I chatted with a few American ladies who were here from Atlanta, we all stopped to marvel at the thunderstorm happening just about a mile away and across the bay from the Old Town. The night sky split asunder with chain lightning above downtown Panama City, and loud rumbles could be heard even above the music at the bar. One of the women pulled out her phone to snap pics, and that suddenly reminded me that I wanted to get out there and take some night photography with my camera and tripod. So I cut the revelry short and headed back down to my room to change and grab my gear, and then I was off into the night!

By this time it was after midnight, and hardly a soul could be found in the streets of Casco Viejo. I was used to wandering the streets of my hometown New York City late at night, however, so I wasn't particularly concerned. I actually enjoy being out in a big city all alone!

And I did manage to pull off a few nice photos of the streets after midnight, which made it all the worthwhile:

Eventually even I realized it was time to retreat indoors and get some shut eye. I wanted to be up early the next morning to check out souvenir shops before checkout time and my afternoon flight up north to my final destination . . . . into the jungle.

Continue on to Day 2 ---> (click)


  1. Looking forward to reading more about this trip. Very convenient that you don't need to bother with currency exchange. On the other hand, we always used to find that part of the excitement of travel when we used to visit Europe :)

    1. I find it exciting, yes, when the exchange is to my favor. Like when I traveled to Canada. :) But the Euro, on the other hand, can sometimes hurt!

      The best was when I traveled to Morocco last year and the rate was 1:9 in our favor. Although, their currency is fashioned after the Euro in both design and denomination, so I had to make sure not to mix it with the Euros I also had on me at the time.


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