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Panama - April 30, 2000
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Greetings from Panama! This is the last of my travel emails for a few months, although I may start traveling again in July. I'll spend June at home visiting family and friends, and playing tourist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Tonight I fly to Margarita, Venezuela where I'll spend the month of May windsurfing.

Panama has been very interesting, primarily because is so much less touristed than the other countries I've visited. I also had the opportunity to see some very unique and traditional celebrations for Holy Week and Easter. Because there are few tourists, travel here has been a bit more challenging, thus more interesting. The downside is that there are still many beautiful places that are inaccessible by public transportation. Panama is also the first of the Central American countries where I've truly experienced the "ugly" part of the culture - constant hisses, whistles, honks and catcalls from men on the streets. While I experienced a bit of this in the other countries, it seemed to happen constantly in certain parts of Panama.

Some tidbits... I found it interesting that the currency here is the US dollar although they call it the Balboa. Bills are US bills and coins are both US coins as well as Balboa coins, which are the same shape and weight as the US coins. The music is fun, upbeat, and is always playing in the buses and stores. The younger generation also listens to American music, but the Panamanians are very proud of their music. The food is terrible. It seems that virtually everything is fried, it is so hard to find vegetables, and when you do ask for vegetables, you almost always get a salad. A salad is lettuce or cabbage, sometimes with a few carrot shavings and topped with a tomato slice. There is no salad dressing unless you like mayonnaise. My favorite places in Panama are the islands of Archipelago de San Blas. Below I've written about the various areas I visited.

Panama City
Panama City is completely different than the other capital cities of Central America. It is an interesting mix of old colonial buildings (San Felipe area) and modern highrises, and has some nice spots, especially Avenida Balboa along the waterfront. There is a walking path that extends a couple of miles along the Bahia de Panama on the Pacific Side. In addition to watching the sunset from there, my favorite places in Panama City were Panama Viejo and San Felipe. Panama Viejo is on the east end of the city by the ocean. It is where the ruins are of the first Spanish city built in Panama. The ruins are great and the area is very green. It is a peaceful place to wander around, like a really nice park. The San Felipe district, also called Casco Viejo, is the colonial part of the city and has some beautiful old buildings.

I guess I should to say something about the Panama Canal. While I think the history and many facts about the Panama Canal are incredibly interesting, I did not find it interesting to go to the Miraflores Locks to see the canal. The only thing that was sort of cool was seeing a huge ship going through. I also flew out of Panama City to go to Bocas del Toro, and seeing how long the Canal is from the air, was pretty amazing. I've since talked with a few Panamanians who told me it was much more interesting to visit the canal when it was in the hands of the US because the US military did a great job of giving tours, showing videos, and really explaining a lot about it. Now that it is in the hands of the Panamanians, they aren't doing what they should to show it off. The people are so disappointed about that because it is such an amazing engineering marvel. I was told that as soon as the Panamanian military took it over, the workers' salaries there dropped to one third of what they made before. The US government did a much better job taking care of these workers but now they are making Panama's minimum wage of barely more than $1.00 per hour and have no incentive to do anything.

Archipelago de San Blas
The islands of the San Blas archipelago are strung out along the Caribbean Coast of Panama from the Gulfo de San Blas to nearly the Colombian border. I was told that there are more than 365 islands and that 46 of them are inhabited. The islands are home to the Kuna Indians who live in virtual isolation from the rest of Panama. The economy is based almost entirely on coconuts and fishing, and now as tourists are starting to visit, the Kuna women are selling their intricately hand-stitched, multi-layered applique molas. I'm not sure what to do with the two that I bought, but they are small squares that could be framed or used as pillow covers.

Staying on these islands was so peaceful! The Kuna women are dressed in gorgeous costumes, the beaches are spectacular, there is no electricity except for a couple of hours in the evening if the generator is working. There are still only a few hotels and many are Kuna-style with communal baths, meals and sand floors. My favorite day was the day I arrived and I was the only hotel guest. The daughter of the hotel owner was there visiting from Panama City so I went with her by boat to the island where she grew up, two hours away, to visit her family and friends. I just tagged along meeting everyone. It was really fun.

Several of these islands have airstrips but the islands are tiny so the airstrips are very short. The runway goes from the ocean on one side to the ocean on the other side! You feel like you are going into the ocean on take off and landing (I wonder how often that actually happens). I asked people where I could run for exercise since the island is so small and they told me that the only place is on the runway. It only took two and a half minutes to slowly jog from one end to the other. I had to run back and forth 24 times to get my hour run in! It was boring, but beautiful, as I could see the ocean no matter where I was.

Bocas del Toro
This is a place I really expected to like but I only stayed two days because the local men there were so obnoxious. They were worse there than anywhere else I visited. Bocas is on the Caribbean in Northwest Panama, fairly near Puerto Viejo, my favorite place in Costa Rica. Bocas has a cute town and the main attraction is getting out in a boat to snorkel and explore the national park called Marino Isla Bastimentos. I did think that area was really beautiful and was able to take a kayak out with a dive boat one day and paddle through the mangroves. It was so peaceful! Due to my negative experience with the men here, I don't recommend that women travel here alone. It is a better place to travel as a couple or with a group of friends.

Chiriqui is Panama's southwest province. Here I stayed in several places including Boquette, Cerro Punta, Concepcion, David, and I visited the Baru Volcano, Panama's only volcano and the highest point in the country at 3475 meters. Both Boquette and Cerro Punta are agricultural areas and are very green with tons of flowers everywhere. The elevation is higher there than most of Panama and was great to get out of the intense heat and humidity that I experienced everywhere else. The most interesting thing for me in this region was meeting a brother and sister on my bus trip from Cerro Punta to David, and being invited to stay at their home in Concepcion. It was fairly uneventful, but it was a cute home, in a pleasant small town, and the food was good, which I did not find in the restaurants. I also learned a bit about their business of importing clothing and shoes from other nearby countries. They sell them at the Costa Rican border. With how difficult it is to get to know the locals here, I was surprised at how outgoing and hospitable this family was.

Peninsula de Azuero
The Peninsula de Azuero is on the Pacific Coast. It was settled by the Spanish in the 16th century and has maintained many Spanish colonial traditions for centuries due to its relative isolation. The area is especially known for its festivals and handicrafts and is known for its excellent beaches. I went to this area for Semana Santa (Holy Week) and Easter. I met a woman early in my trip from a little town in this area called Pese and she told me it has the best celebrations for Semana Santa. I confirmed this with a few other people and then decided to spend several days in the region. It was scorching hot, but really interesting! I stayed in Chitre and visited Arena, Los Santos, Las Tablas and Pese. All of these towns had various masses and processions each evening during Semana Santa. The ones in Chitre and Los Santos were big with lots of people. Pese was a bit difficult to get to, but I got lucky and met an American photographer for the Associated Press working out of Panama City, who brought me to Pese during the events while he took photos. We watched open-air theater outside the church, including reenactments of the last supper and the crucifixion. It is so amazing that this has been done for hundreds of years!

Adios until my next adventure,

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