The Panama Paradox: A wild ride through a contrary country
The moment we step off the plane in Panama City, we follow Alice right down the rabbit hole — and straight into what I have since come to call the Panama Paradox.
Less than an hour after our arrival, we are walking the streets of Casco Viejo, the oldest part of one of the oldest cities in the Americas — a haunting, crumbling ode to the past glories of Spanish colonial rule, much like Old Havana. Our friend Carlos, a Cuban-born former-U.S. Marine and president of a Panamanian airline, is feeling right at home.
Across the bay, a full tropical moon rises over the glittering skyline of the new Panama City.
Now we're in a tapas bar sipping luscious mohitos, hucking cold Atlas beers, and near swooning over the flat-out best grilled prawns we have ever tasted. Then it's on to a restaurant "authentico" — once a dreaded Spanish dungeon — for platters of local delicacies, fresh fish and a pitcher of sangria.
We're off to a very fast start — and about to discover a country of startling contrasts and surprises unlike any place we have seen before.
The pace only quickens the next morning as we pile into a car with Carlos and drive three hours across the emerald isthmus of Panama to the well-kept secret of Isla Grande, one of a cluster of tiny Caribbean islands near Portobelo, where Spanish conquistadors once loaded fat galleons with treasure plundered from the Incas.
We're thinking beaches and palm trees. But once, all anyone ever thought about here was gold.
On his fourth voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus spent an entire year in this area exploring the western coast of the Caribbean searching for a passage to India. In late October 1502, his flotilla of four caravels ran into a raging storm which drove them — miraculously — through an opening in a huge coral reef and into a protected bay. No doubt heaving a sigh of relief, Columbus named this new place "beautiful port" — Portobelo.
A city was born, and within just a few years, mule trains were lugging tons of swag from Panama City on the Pacific to Portobelo on the Atlantic along an ancient Indian road the Spanish called Camino Real. It wasn't long before Portobelo became known as one of the richest towns in the Indies. Today Portobelo's three forts are in ruins and the city that was once the busiest place in the Caribbean behind only Jamaica and Cartegena in bordering Colombia, is a neglected village of potholed roads that backs up against a jungle alive with parrots and howler monkeys.
A short boat ride takes us to the islands of Isla Grande, where we sink into the turquoise sea, shedding the last traces of cold and dark that we left behind only yesterday.
On the way home to Panama City, we stop at dusk to eat in the Don Quixote, a lonely roadside cantina on the far side of nowhere, run by a transplanted Italian family known locally for the quality of its pizza. A British ex-pat wanders in with a sloth hanging around her neck. Aging American hippies occupy the next table. Delirious moths spiral drunkenly in the amber light of a hanging bulb. Green lizards arrive, inching up the stucco walls for an easy snack.
As we settle in with cold beer and dig into the delectable pizza, sweet breezes from the mountains tumble along the Mexican-tile terrazzo. A darkening sky glows with licks of lilac and mango, the little speaker in the ceiling leaks a soft Latin salsa into the jasmine air, and all is right with the world.
In the morning we will be on our way to a very different Panama, and more than one surprise.
The hotel tells us the drive to Azueros in the southwestern province of Los Santos in our rented four-wheel-drive is an easy four hours. But the Pan American highway can be a bumpy minefield slashing through towns and villages, where dogs sometimes run in front of cars, and showers slick the road all the way. So it actually takes six.
Panama is a world-class destination for eco-tourism in the highlands and interior, but seems to look the other way as developers bulldoze natural habitats along the entire Pacific coast.
Panama City, in a frenzy of overbuilding, has a skyline like Miami and an infrastructure second to none in Central America, but is also the only capitol in the world with a rainforest inside city limits.
Panama is an exploding economy, but has more diverse plant and animal species than any place on earth. Just a few miles from Panama City and 54-story skyscrapers is the famed Smithsonian research center, located on an island in a jungle nature reserve.
Panama is no bigger than South Carolina, yet is really seven worlds under one flag: Pacific, Caribbean, mountain, rain forest tropical jungle, more than 400 islands off both coasts, and the anomalous Panama City itself.
In the last 18 months or so, Panama has become a wild west for opportunists. Yet for all the development now underway or planned, the government has still managed to set aside 20 percent of the country as reserves and national parks. In fact, Panama, one of the smallest countries in the Americas, boasts the largest number of national parks.
Expats and boomers are flocking to Panama, not necessarily for its natural wonders, but because the country is relatively safe, the infrastructures is good, the currency is the U.S. dollar, and the dollar goes a long way in Panama. On top of that, historically, Panama has no major earthquakes or hurricanes, and the government goes out of its way to lure investors, developers, tourists and retirees, offering all kinds of goodies, including tax breaks and senior purchasing discounts.
So it's not surprising that the country is experiencing a kind of metamorphosis.
On the long drive to Azueros, we go through towns boasting McDonald's, car dealerships, supermarkets, banks and Esso stations. But the spaces in between are wide open, practically uninhabited, and more reminiscent of the 19th century than the 21st. Twice we come to a complete stop to allow cows and gauchos to cross the road.
After more than six hours we turn down a muddy country lane with rain-filled potholes the size of toilet bowls. When we finally lurch to a stop at the massive wooden gates of La Camilla, we feel not unlike pilgrims who have mounted the cathedral steps on our knees over broken glass. As the gates swing closed behind us with a comforting clunk, we are embraced by a timeless sense of peace and well-being.
Villa Camilla is unlike anything in Panama. Designed by French owner and architect Gilles St. Gilles as his personal retreat on 1000 private acres, it has only seven rooms, a blend of Spanish and Moroccan design, and food that meets Parisian standards. Because the dollar goes far in Panama, this kind of luxury is actually affordable.
The following day, we drive through countryside reminiscent of parts of Cuba and East Africa to another vast and uninhabited beach, where we push off in a small boat through the surf for the choppy ride to Isla Iguana, which reminds us of the Galapagos Islands. With our captain taking a nap in the boat, we walk across the island for a swim off another white sand beach.
On the third day, three more guests arrive and another Panama paradox unfolds. In this most remote of sanctuaries, we meet a man who lives next door to one of our best friends back home; our son's squash partner from Bermuda; and a woman who grew up just a couple of miles from my childhood home in Philadelphia. They arrive within hours of one another, like weary travelers from a Chaucerian tale, and we all wind up at the same table for Christmas Eve dinner (a testament to the far-reaching and democratic powers of Google).
Our friend's neighbor is Jesse Levin, a 22-year-old entrepreneur from Westport, who already owns almost 200 acres of primo coastal view property just down the road. His dream and passion is to eventually create some kind of research institute that can benefit all mankind.
In the meantime, he wants to show us the "real" Panama. But as we jump back into the car Christmas morning, we are altogether unprepared for the reality he has in mind. We head west through the endless rolling humps and sprawling cattle ranches of the Azueros peninsula, until after 40 minutes we swing left off the main road and thump down a long dirt path until we run smack into a mangrove swamp, where Jesse announces we have to push on from here by foot.
Moments later we are up to our ankles in black muck exposed by the tide, shucking our way half a mile through the mangroves until we finally reach what looks like a river. A small boat crosses to pick us up, and deposits us in a downpour on the far shore where an entire island village is having a party. We have arrived, soaked to the bone, in the far outpost of Isla Canes.
The sun explodes like a nuclear flash, and somehow we are swept onto a flatbed truck with a rowdy knot of happy revelers for the ride of our lives. Someone produces a screwdriver, which is apparently necessary to start the engine. The dinosaur awakens with a rumble, and we hang on for dear life as the battered old GMC lurches through the village and onto the beach.
In seconds, we're barreling down a long flat stretch of wet sand, suddenly heaving to a stop to pick up a family of Indians who have been out harpooning iguanas for Christmas dinner. Now we're tearing back up the beach, suddenly swerving and banging down the dirt road back to the village, where we pick up an important passenger — the designated jefe-for-a-day — whose only job is to make sure everybody joins the party.
When we finally pull back into Villa Camilla, filthy and exhausted, we are re-united with the "real" Panama that seems to suit us better. Tonight it's just the two of us for dinner, out on the terrace under a great platinum full moon so big and fat it looks like you can reach up and grab it.
Here comes the bottle of excellent Spanish vino blanco, followed by the plump moules finer than any I have ever tasted in France. Now a nice piece of grilled fish with asparagus and mushrooms.
I am content, frankly a little surprised how spoiled I have become, glancing again at the moon, drinking the cold wine, and amazed that just a few hours ago we were staggering through the mud.
In this moment of peace, we have time to reflect once again on the incredible Panama paradox — a world of recurring bold contrasts, such as we have just experienced today — that will reveal itself time after time in the days ahead.
Next week: Exploring the western mountains of Boquete and the islands of Bocas Del Toro.
Granville Toogood, a former news producer for "Today" on NBC, lives in Darien and is an occasional contributor to the Darien Times.