Panama (Part 1): From the Busy City to the Quiet Countryside

My bags are packed, I'm ready to go...

My bags are packed, I’m ready to go…

Vancouver-Las Vegas
We could finally relax. We were at the gate waiting for our flight and there was nothing else to do. After a week of being on the go all the time it felt nice not to think about the next errand, or packing or making another trip to the storage unit. We were both fast asleep before the plane even took off. The three hour flight to Las Vegas seemed too short. In Las Vegas we were stuck with our two huge bike boxes that we had to keep with us till the next flight. The options were spending about 11 hours in the boring airport, or going out to the sin city. Sin city won. The MGM Grand Hotel agreed to keep our boxes, and we were off to explore. I honestly don’t understand the attraction to Las Vegas, to me it seemed like a horrible place. We walked the Strip passing through fake New York, fake Paris, fake Rome and the most hilarious one – fake Venice, with gondolas and guys who sing serenades.

Fresh cevich and the fish market

Fresh ceviche and the fish market

Panama City
Panama City is the city of contrasts. Even from the taxi ride from the airport we could see the high sky scrapers and a skyline that reminded me of Tel Aviv, but with much taller buildings. The taxi dropped us off in Casco Viejo, in the older part of town. There’s no doubt that the fish market was our favourite part and we visited it frequently to eat fresh and cheap ceviche (from $1.25). From the boardwalk of the old city you can view the new city. In the older part there are many small stores, people selling fruit from trucks or street corners, and older people playing games in public parks. In the new part we visited a mall which could have been anywhere else in the world.

Views of downtown from the old city

Views of downtown from the old city

The Panama canal is one of the first things that come to mind when thinking about Panama. It was quite impressive to see a huge boat crossing the narrow gap in the Miraflores Lock. After two days of foot exploration, the time had come – it was time to take the bikes out of the boxes… After Gili had put them back together we took them out for a spin. We passed through some rougher neighborhoods where kids were bathing in plastic pools to keep off the heat. We were even splashed with buckets of water, which was very refreshing… We rode to Amador, where there is a nice cycling trail near the water. But the traffic was insane, that is – kids on bikes, riding and stopping wherever they pleased.

Crossing the bridge over the Panama Canal

Crossing the bridge over the Panama Canal

Traffic
It was time to start riding for real, and the biggest challenge was getting out of Panama City. We had to ride on the highway and even though we left at 6:30am, rush hour traffic was already at its peak. Luckily the Bridge of the Americas, which runs across the Panama Canal, had a sidewalk, but it was still pretty bad… After the bridge the road at least had some shoulders and traffic eased off a bit. It was incredibly hot with almost no shade on the main road. There were some nice things though like a mother and two sons from Colombia selling pineapples and quickly peeling one for us. Or a place selling cold coconuts (pipas) at the end of a hot and sweaty uphill.

Pineapples on the way

Pineapples on the way

Rough dirt road

Rough dirt road

Small Roads
After our first experience with the highway we decided to keep off it whenever possible, which meant a lot of climbing… The first detour we did was to climb the hills near Capira. It included beautiful views and fresher air and a visit to the small village of Chica. The climb however nearly killed me, I guess the fact that I wasn’t feeling well didn’t help. Then just as I thought things were getting better a gravel road from hell appeared, luckily only for a few kilometers. Then came a fast descent back down to the main road. We didn’t stay on it for long as we were on our way to Punta Chame, a kite surfing paradise, at the end of a long and narrow peninsula. We camped for two nights at the kite surfing school near the beach, watching the kite surfers and enjoying the wind.

Sunset in Punta Chame

Sunset in Punta Chame

The climb to El Valle

The climb to El Valle

El Valle
Then came another big climb up to El Valle, which lies inside of a crater of an extinct volcano, so it is surrounded  by hills. We had met Harry the day before when we passed a shopping centre, a cyclist himself who warned us how tough the climb to El Valle would be. He was very happy when we showed up at the door of his hostel the next day.

Harry with Sammy the pet sloth

Harry with Sami the pet sloth

We spent the next three days hanging out in El Valle, enjoying the cooler temperatures and fresh air. We did a few hikes to waterfalls, natural pools and a cloud forest. We spent some time with Sammy, the pet sloth at our hostel. Harry and his family saved her after her mother died, when she tried to cross power lines and was electrocuted. For our trip out of El Valle Harry and his daughter Carmen joined us on their tandem bikes, it was nice to ride with local company, and the views were spectacular.

Harry and Carmen who joined us for part of the way

Harry and Carmen who joined us for part of the way

Azuero Peninsula
We were making our way towards the Azuero Peninsula and in order to get there we had to put some distance in. We stopped for the night in towns where we were the only tourists in the area. We ate the local food which mostly included a combination of rice, chicken or beef and lentils, or pizza… In Chitre it seemed like we were in the watermelon capital, and we enjoyed some other fresh fruit like papaya, melon and passion fruit.

Watermelon capital

Watermelon capital

Then we reached the more touristy fishing village of Pedasi where we discovered the local cheese factory which also makes excellent yoghurt. We took a boat through some very rough water to the nearby Isla Iguana – it was like a roller coaster ride, with the boat crashing down hard after every wave. There we watched some frigate birds and snorkeled with colorful fish.

Isla Iguana

Isla Iguana

Keeping cool from the intense heat

Keeping cool from the intense heat

We continued riding, making a loop around the peninsula. We stopped for a few hours at the popular Playa Venao, a long sandy beach. That was the last we’d seen of the tourists. The next few days led us on very quiet roads, through small villages, cows, milk jugs on the side of the roads and a few generous people. We were offered juice, ice cream, fruit, cold water, cake and crackers along the way. The road was very hilly so any excuse for a break was accepted. We are now in the small village of Ocu almost at the edge of the peninsula, where we have taken a day off from all the hills, before moving on.

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5 Responses to Panama (Part 1): From the Busy City to the Quiet Countryside

  1. Philippe says:

    Glad you’re off to a great start with beautiful sceneries and nice people. You’ve got the right life, enjoy!

  2. Mari Pighini says:

    Maya and Gili, you have captured the beauty, the heat, the contrasts and the adventure that you have just begun. Thank you for sharing this with us…it is very special, especially when it is coldish and greyish up here…Many blessings…

  3. Krystil says:

    Looks awesome! Have some watermelon for me 🙂 looking forward to your next post.

  4. Pingback: Panama: Backroads to the Mangoes

  5. Scott says:

    Great pics! we’ll be excited to see updates as you head north!

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