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Panama Travel Article

Big City Style in the Jungle, One of Panama’s Many Surprises

by Susan Coburn

Don’t be fooled by Panama’s Tocumen International Airport – it is the smallest, most unassuming airport outside of an Indiana Jones movie, but it is part of the secret to discovering this well-known, colorful, but little traveled Central American country. Think understated and unexpected and you will understand a part of the travel experience in Panama that many travelers miss. Right outside this small old dark airport is a city no one expects to see.

You expect dusty streets with holes, yes they’re here. You expect to see lots of folks walking around, yes, that’s here too. You expect downtown to be a wide spread of one to two story rather dingy buildings in fading paint, yes that’s…no wait – not here! Panama City has the second largest banking center outside of Switzerland and as you know, bank buildings can be big glitzy multi-storied affairs. Panama City surprises you with its three brand new shopping malls, its multitude of residential and corporate highrises, and its big city atmosphere, all of which you can see along the main drag, Balboa Avenue on the Pacific oceanside. This place does not look like what you expect from a Central American country. Here you can have all the amenities you are used to from ‘back home’, along with a true adventure, the type only mimicked in the jungle sections of the big theme parks. Here you can explore on your own at your own pace, or you can go online and set your tours ahead of time.

First, the easiest way to see Panama is to find it on the internet! Various sites specialize in trips to mountainous coffee growing areas, waterfront villages, rainforest resorts, jungle bird watching locales, deep sea fishing adventures, and pearl island tours, real estate or retirement home shopping, fashion shopping or gambling, among many other experiences. You can visit Panama in a rented 4X4, a helicopter, prop jet, bus, boat or taxi. Make your arrangements through their sites, or you can just land in Panama with your adventure starting the minute you step out of the plane. Most visitors to Panama need only their passport and a tourist card ($5) which can be purchased at the airport from the airline you’re booked on. There’s no need to change money – Panama’s currency is the American dollar, which they call ‘una balboa’,

Panama’s understated air begins at the airport. No lively tour solicitors waving brightly colored signs will be hawking their services trying to engage you. At best, a baggage handler may point you in the direction of the taxis (no buses either). Taxi prices from the airport are regulated; expect to pay $20 into town. If you don’t have a hotel, you could try the Hotel Panama in Paitilla (pron: pie-tee-yah) , (just tell the taxi driver) a slightly older equivalent of a Ramada Inn perhaps, very centrally located, with rooms starting from $45 a night. On Fridays, they have a folkloric show, but it’s not the dances that are so engaging as are the award-winning elaborately embroidered Panamanian ladies costumes and the unique musical tones, a kind of yodeling, produced by the dancers.

For even more local color in Panama, you will regularly see Kuna Indian women in traditional dress walking through the streets; the culture here respects and protects their Indian tribes and cultures. Their brightly colored legs are woven from the ankles up their calves with strands of tiny red and orange beads, forming traditional geometric designs. Many travelers leave with one of their beaded anklets. Along with their dark blue and yellow skirts and peasant style blouses, you will see another handicraft – the mola. These fabric ‘paintings’ are about the size of a sheet of paper and are sewn horizontally across the fronts and backs of their blouses. To make traditional molas, Indian women layer 3 to 5 or more pieces of fabric together, and then cut away through the layers to reveal the colors below. Tiny stitches along the edges of the cuts seal and border the cut-away designs. The resulting molas vary from typical geometrical designs to parrots, turtles, hibiscus flowers, lizards, fish and tribal rituals. Look for molas that are highly detailed for the best buys. They can run from $20 and up, with the average price between $25 and $35 each. Go to the artisans markets in Balboa City (in the old YMCA building), and at Panama Viejo for the best selections and if you enjoy the hunt for something special to take home. Once you start shopping for Indian wood carvings, the intricately woven and waterproof baskets, or the brightly colored molas, you may just have taken the first step to becoming a collector!

To get a taste of a completely different life, for a nominal fee and half a day, you can ride with your Indian guides in a cayuco (Indian canoe) into the jungle (only 40 minutes from town) to their homestead and experience for yourself a true National Geographic moment. From the first moment you meet them, they will greet you with warmth and a handshake. At the time of this writing, your Indian guides would take no money for your tour – that will come at the end of your visit.

The Indians are interested in sharing about their culture, but as a gesture of friendship, will greet you in western wear – typically docker shorts and sandals. Once you arrive in their village, and before you enter, they will change into their typical dress, out of respect and honor for their ways. From then on, you will be in their world.

Be prepared for a reverse take on gift shopping – before you enter the village you will be shown ‘the gift shop’. Your guide will first show you their lovely handicrafts (some artisans are more gifted than others) ranging from intricately woven small baskets (good for storing nightstand jewelry or display) or carved wooden insects, animals or plants of their area. Another commonly seen handicraft is the carved tagua. Tagua is known as the vegetable ivory for its whiteness and carveability. These white nuts, about the size of an oversized walnut, are carved into small animal or insect shapes, and then painted. The detail is so tiny that you wonder how they see to paint it without magnifying glasses! In case you were wondering about the prices of the handicrafts (they’re never displayed), they are a fraction of what you’d find in the city. Consider offering $5 to $25 for an object, or bargain a little for what you like. Taguas are typically more expensive. All the proceeds from these sales goes to cover their living expenses – an electric light, a cell phone for communications, medical costs for members, nutritious food, transportation, etc.

After your trip, you might want to refresh yourself and enjoy the gourmet food at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, which is a full-service resort with spa right on the Gatun Lake and across from the Indian village. At the lakeside Los Lagartos restaurant, you can peer into the waters from the covered deck and see a full scope of fresh water marine life and most likely see several large ships with tall stacks of blue, green and red containers, passing through the Canal. If you travel between January and March, you may even catch a glimpse of a local team practicing for the upcoming Ocean to Ocean Cayuco race in March, a three day race which covers the length of the Panama Canal from the Caribbean side to the Pacific side. If you’ve always liked dugout canoes, this is the extreme sport you’ve been looking for.

And, no trip to Panama would be complete without mentioning the buses. These old yellow school buses are brightly painted with advice on the bumpers, a famous person’s face on the back outside door, a bucolic scene that might have come right out of a postcard of Kentucky, and cartoon characters along the sides. A number of buses are outlined with Christmas lights regardless of the season. Try deciphering the sayings for practice in Spanish.

Whether you’re looking for local color, adventure, shopping or just to relax, a trip to Panama will take care of you, providing just enough fun, attention and comfort you’d expect from a visit to old friends.

Susan Coburn W. has worked independently as a writer for over 5 years. She has recently turned to writing as a fulltime profession, following successful careers in education and sales and marketing. She travels frequently and currently lives and works in the quietly surprising country of Panama, close to the city, in the jungle, next to the Canal.


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