Wednesday, February 9, 2011


We left for Bahia Drake early in morning, it was sad to say goodbye. But we also excited about the new country Panama. I planned rest of our trip with no planning – going by local transport with no reservation what so ever. As soon as we arrived at Sierpe, we were bombarded with taxi drivers and were quickly hurried into the taxi along with a young couple from Italy. We got to the Palmar Norte, where the bus head to the border stops, but not knowing when the next one will arrive is the hardest part of any travel. At the station we encountered a father and son from Vienna, Austria that stayed at El Mirador for a night. They were waiting for but to San Jose, where they are flying home. Our bus eventually come, and we off to the border. One the bus there was the young Italian couple, heading to David Panama. So we stuck together to get across the busy border. I was worry about the long wait mentioned by the book. But we lucked out, the line wasn’t too long on Costa Rican side – we got there before a bus full people arrived from San Jose. After we got our exit visa, we walked across the “unguarded” border and got our entry visa for Panama (US$1 tax, Panama uses only US$ bills, although it has its own coins made of same size as US, US coins also accepted and circulated.) and again the line was very short, and we all cleared very quickly. The Panamanian immigration officer asked for evidence of a plan of exiting Panama in the future, so I showed him our e-ticket for our return flight. It is not uncommon for this in some less developed countries. Soon as we stepped out the immigration area, we were asked of our destination and quickly we were on the minivan full of people to David. As in other countries, the driver is free to pick-up and drop-off people along the highway and packs as many people as they can. Even with that we arrived in David in good time due to the nice 4-lane highway – not like that of bad roads in Costa Rica. Once we arrived in the main bus terminal in David we said goodbye to the Italian couple and we are onto the bus for Boquete. At this time I started to worry about our stay in Boquete as we didn’t have a confirmed reservation. But on the bus there was a Columbian lady (married to a Canadian) who lived in Boquete and offered to ask her daughter if there is room at her hostel, and although they don’t have a private room, they offered us to stay in a 5 bed dorm room for the price of the a private room. So we are all set for Boquete.

All in all, the journey took about 10.5 hours with 1 boat, 1 taxi, 2 buses, and 1 minivan and 1 time zone crossing.

Boquete sits in a valley in about 3500 feet above sea level, so it is a bit cooler. It is popular with American retirees.

After settling into our room, we are off to check out the town and get something to eat. Since it was Sunday, most of the stores have closed. But we did manage find a tourists restaurant with ok price and good food.

Our first order of business next day was having an x-ray for my mom’s arm. We manage to locate the small local clinic/hospital with help of a nice lady who speaks excellent English. She helped us get an appointment with the ER. Then she told us, when it is our term to see the doctor, come and get her at next door. When it was our turn, I went next door to look for her, but she was busy with a patient, so she sent the patient’s daughter who resides in US to help us translate. Soon my mom had her x-ray taken and doctor quickly pointed out it is broken – right below the shoulder. She told us we have goto David for consultation and treatment and that we have 2 options : option 1 goto to the public hospital there and wait may be 6-7 hours and the price is very cheap or goto the private run hospital there and get to see the doctor within a an hour, but more expensive. We opted for the private hospital since we don’t want to wait around. With the cost of the ER visit of US$12.75, I think we can afford the private hospital. It is a law in Panama, where everyone is covered under the universal health plan, even the tourists!

We quickly went back to our room and packed some food and were on our way to David. The private hospital is very close to the bus terminal and the taxi ride cost $3. After entering the hospital we were directed to the orthopedic doctor’s office, but he was in a surgery and it was around lunch time, so the receptionist told us to come back in an hour, so we had our lunch at the cafeteria. We then met the doctor, who happens to be of Chinese ancestry from Southern China and planned to visit China for the first time in the China. He said we have two options, one is surgery and the other is to immobilize the arm with a modified sling. He mentioned in the US, most of the doctors would have recommended the aggressive form of treatment which is surgery; the doctor has studied in NY. But he said that he always treat his patient as he would treat his own family member and recommend the sling option. So he gave my mom a modified sling that wrap around the wrist and waist that you don’t see here in the states (after we came back US, and the doctor here was intrigued about the sling). Then we thank the doctor and paid the US$50 for the service; why can US’s private health care system as this cheap and efficient as Panama?

After we got back to Boquete, we don’t have much time to do any tours, so we went to look for tours that we can do for the next couple days. I had planned to do hiking in the famous trail called Sendero Los Quetzales, but it was closed for maintenance. It may as well since we lost a day anyway. So we ended up signing up for a jeep tour of a coffee plantation, a short hike in the nearby cloud forest, and hot spring and zip-lining. For rest of the afternoon we just took it easy and walk around the town a little near sunset.

A little more about the place we stayed, Hostal Reufgio del Rio. It has nice kitchen, common room and courtyard. We bought fruits and stuff from markets/stores and prepared our own breakfast every morning. Although as we noticed throughout Panama, the workmanship and material of the houses/building leave a lot to be desired. I am not sure if it is because the rapid development in the country that good and cheap builders are hard to come by and that if the reliance on Chinese imports (like many countries) introduce the concept of as long as it is cheap, who cares. We didn’t interact too much with other travelers, but we did chat with few friendlier ones. There is one couple that was studying Spanish for couple weeks here. They traveled many months in the Americas with her mom; she left for home not too long before we arrived in Boquete. There is one annoying thing about the place: the night time care taker of the place like to hog the computer to play Farmville game. She gets angry when we asked if we can use it. The machine is supposed for the guest to check internet and make skype calls. She would also the kitchen trash can overflow while playing the game, no wonder she is bit chubby!

Next day, we went on our jeep tour of a coffee plantation, a short hike in the nearby cloud forest, and hot spring. The jeep was a very old one with diesel engine and smoke can be overwhelming sometime. We went up the hill surrounding the town and got a good view of the town as well various nice houses of rich Panamanian and American retirees as well as coffee farms. We got to taste the various type of coffee beans right off the tree. We also learn the various roasting types. Wendy bought 3 bags from the farm. Next we drove to a nearby cloud forest, it was almost 11AM, so we didn’t see anything, but it was a nice short hike. We then head back into town and had lunch at a local eatery next to the tour office, very good and cheap (part of the tour). After lunch we were joined by other tourists for the hot spring and scenic drive the jeep.

The scenic drive took us back up the hills, but then the paved road turned into 4-wheel drive only rocky dirt road. My mom’s arm was not happy with constant shaking and jolting. The view was ok, not even worth a photo. We did see the water channel that diverts some of the river water to David. After we came back down from hill, the road is good again, but then we turned off for the hot spring and the road got even worst as well got closer to the hot spring, some of the pot holes are the size of bath tubs! We parked near a gate and walk down rocked filled slope toward the hot spring. By this time, my mom was definitely not in the good mode and that if she had known about this bad ride, she would have stayed at the hostel. The hot spring itself is couple of pools with various temperatures. We got into the hottest one, but very quickly most people got out and went to the nearby river to cool off. And they never came back to the hot spring. Later they said they enjoyed the river dip more than the hot spring. It also rained a little while we were there. So all in all we didn’t spend much time at the hot spring and overall the trip itself was ok, something to do if one has extra time.

Next morning Wendy and I went on zip-lining, which was fun but not as good as the one in Monte Verde, Costa Rica. It is also more expensive – no competition here. We got on another big jeep-truck and up the mountain we go again. The sun was out, so you don’t get that misty and mystery of flying through the cloud and into the unknown. The guides are friendly and funny though. I was not nervous like before, but other people who haven’t done it definitely a bit nervous, so I went first. But I was not sure if I remember all the proper zip-lining techniques and I break too soon on the first line and had to pull myself a little to the platform. After few lines everyone got comfortable. At one of the lines, Wendy didn’t break soon enough and she literately ran into the guide on the platform. After that the guide step more to the side when people are coming in. Afterward we hang around the restaurant area while waiting for them to put the photos and video they took onto a CD (for sale). There is lodging here as well, so one can stay up here. We had back down to the town around 11AM.

We went back to the hostel to pick up our mom and had lunch. We rested a bit back in the hostel before we head out to checkout a nearby garden. The garden is called mi jardin es su jardin (my garden is your garden), and it is part of a private resident. They must enjoy showing off their well cared and beautiful garden to the visitor. We enjoyed our time walking around the big garden, even though the heavily overcast sky was spitting rain shower and the small black flies were eating me alive – no mosquitos because many koi ponds. On the way to the garden, we passed the house of the Columbia lady who helped us on the first day. Her picture is prominently display on the big banner right outside the house. She and her husband run a small bakery right from their home. For our last dinner in town we decided go a Peruvian restaurant and it was pretty good.

Although Boquete is refreshing and pretty, I didn’t feel as relaxed as in Bahia Drake. May it was because my mom’s broken arm, but I think it also has to do with the congested traffic in around the town. Price in Panama is about 25% less than Costa Rica, but much higher than the prices stated in my 4 year old guide book. They are making the nearby city David’s airport into an international airport, and expanding the two-lane highway to 4 to Boquete. I can imagine this place will be overflow with tourists and retired American in not so distance future. One interesting observation from the locals we talked to: the nice lady from local clinic that helped us told us that American are like locust that come and drive up the real estate and cost of living and when it gets too expensive even for them, they move on to another country, they did that to Costa Rica, now Panama, and few has move on to Ecuador. While one of our guide in the coffee jeep tour told us, that he welcome the new transplants and tourist, as it bring jobs and development to his country. I guess it all depend on who gets the benefit and who bear the burden of the cost. Tomorrow we are heading to Panama City, another full day of traveling.

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