It was time to take the plunge into driving in Panama after much research.We asked local expats about taking the bus to Las LaJas in Chirquiri and then on to Boca Chica. It appeared to be a tricky and complicated event for a bus journey, with long waits in the hot sun, and possibly not making it to our destination in time. We rented from Thriftys and purchased the extra insurance policy,paying a drop off fee in Boquete. We had a nice compact vehicle with air bags and air conditioning.
At 8:30 am we left our beautiful breezy and comfortable home in Pedasi and said our goodbyes to Christine and Wayne. The country drive out from Pedasi was very scenic with beautiful pastureland,cattle and rolling hills. This is Panama’s dry area with the sun beating down as hard as a hammer in the summer. One knowledgable expat said there may be very little rain until about June.Once a lush paradise,Azuero was deforested in the course of two centuries to make way for cattle.The peninsula is cowboy country, and we saw many cowboys on Paso Fino type horses with lassos. It feels western, and very spacious.
When we looked at real estate with Mark Heilbron we were told that a cattle rancher just bought a big piece of property in Pedasi. We continued our country drive out. As we headed out of the quiet country town we realized quickly that the driver needs to stay very alert to the situation and keep eyes moving all of the time, and the passenger needs to be mentally sharp and be reading the map for reference points at all time. There may be little or no signage or it may be worn or covered. Looking for the small towns as a reference point was the key for me as my job as a navigator. I had tuned us into an audiobook, and turned it off, as our complete attention was needed. I observed dangerous passing and tailgating as well as vehicles backing into the road without looking or stopping suddenly to pick someone up. Las Tables the provincial capital and is the heartland of Panama’s folk tradition and is known for it’s festivals. Each July it hosts “The Festival de la Pollera”. A poller is a beautiful national costume ,an exquisite short sleeved rushed blouse and a two tiered full length skirt. made of fine linen. Flowers, birds or native designs are woven into the fabric with a large matching pom pom or “mota” entered at chest and back with 4 matching graceful streamers “galardetes” hang from the waist at the front and back. Five chains of gold coins “cabestrillos” hang from the neck to waist. A gold cross or medallion on a black velvet ribbon is worn as a choker. A silk purse is fastened to the waistline with gold brooches. To complete the outfit,she has on satin slippers,hair in a bun held in place by 3 large gold combs adorned with pearls and worn like a crown. Also worn are “quivering pins” patterned after flowers or butterflies, which shimmer with her every move, and the earrings are gold or coral.
We got lost in the chaos of this lively town, and pulled over to ask directions several times to Chitre. People were kind and cheerful, and helpful. One gentleman was too helpful in fact,jumping in the back seat to show us how to get back to the highway.Glenn asked which way, and the gentleman was pointing and gesturing. I found it very unsettling that he was in the back seat. Note to self to lock our doors while driving.I have had disturbing experiences in the past in my youth trusting people who seemed like good samaritans. Glenn very skillfully gave hime the message that although he was very kind it was unnecessary . He then called his son on the phone who spoke English, we got directions to the highway, and he then understood that we were not going to drive him anywhere and left the vehicle (on Panama time). With my adrenaline in check, we were on our way….but not quite. We took a wrong turn again and ended up in a Panamanian subdivision. We got directions in Spanish from a friendly elderly couple wearing traditional Panama dress, and were understanding now what left and right meant in Spanish.
The double lane freeway was a welcome sight, and it was clear sailing with both of us on high alert, and me clutching the map with eyes peeled for Chitre signs.
There were absolutely no Chitre signs, only one that said La Arena, so we kept going and ended up in the heart of absolute madness in downtown Chitre. What we should have done is stayed on the highway turn off that had the sign La Arena sign before Chitre, but who knew? La Arena is a tidy colonial village,lined with artisan stores famous for ceramic workshops using traditional spinning wheels and ovens.
Glenn was gripping the steering wheel pilot eyes moving, people were backing out, pedestrians holding babies crossing the road at the last minute. We went up a one way, actually and did not know it until a Panamanian driver flagged us and gestured and pointed.Glenn backed up despite complete chaos behind us and we turned around and pulled over and took a breath.This provided us with valuable learning opportunities!
Big trucks backing out into the street, everyone passing at once,it was like a video game Glenn said that was continual. The best was yet to come. We have been sheltered a little bit by taking buses and taxis through Costa Rica in previous years(even though I felt like hiding under the seat many times), but this was a completely different survival experience. We got ourselves routed out of the confusion of Chitre with direction from friendly Panamanians in Spanish and were back onto the highway toward Santiago. We were preparing ourselves as on the map the highway 1 looked like it was tangled in a big traffic circle, and taking the wrong turn could lead you into an insanely different direction. It was a yellow circle with the University on one side,an airport, several small towns in the mix. I had my eyes peeled as all Glenn needed to do was focus and drive, the signs were my job. At what appeared to be the Highway 1 near Santiago there was a stop check with a traffic jam. We had our passports ready, and checked through. Once the traffic after Santiago was moving we checked for David signs-still none.It appeared we were in the right direction and kept going-it had to be the main highway. I looked at my map and saw clues..Los Castillos, Ok we are good!
The piece between Santiago and Las Lajas turn off in my opinion takes someone with sharp and extreme sharpness,experience and mental toughness as a driver.
The road was surprisingly good in some spots and then seemed to disappear into a winding goat trail with small cars and buses passing two to three cars at once, large semi trucks passing semi trucks just barely getting into the lane ahead. We saw a bad crash with a dump truck, and then shortly afterward someone tailgating us in a threatening and aggressive manner. Glenn tried to let him pass but he would not as though playing a cruel game. Apparently if you tailgate you can save fuel that way.It has a name for it. Although I marvelled at how a highway could appear in the jungle in the middle of no where, I remembered what a Coronado car rental place said to me “Kim you don’t want to do that drive. If you break down and are on the highway overnight it is unsafe. In the dark with a break down it would not be good”. I now know what he was talking about. What was good about this is that we had an excellent vehicle from the Thrifty Car Rental in Pedasi, a full tank of fuel as there are no gas stations on the windy challenging highway between Santiago and Las LaJas. You are basically on your own, and stopping on that narrow road is not an option with Indie 500 top speed Panamanian drivers, reckless vehicles sharing the road with families with children that all want to stay safe. Ultimately the section of highway from Santiago to Las LaJas turn off in Chiriqui takes about 5-5 1/2 hours is winding one lane in each direction with construction, and irrational drivers. It has been said to drive this with caution and do not drive this section at night.The curves in the road are not to code and you can find yourself too close to speeding traffic in the opposite direction. The other disturbing part to me is that repeatedly,buses and several cars would pass at once and I did not think they could make it back in their lane in time.
For me I felt bladder shrivelling fear, and could feel my pulse the entire drive.Glenn, being a pilot was completely focused on our safety, alert and leaning to see the oncoming traffic which was coming at us with lightening speed with of course people passing. There were big potholes in the road in places where people are dodging at top speed.
We thought we would see a sign that said Las Lajas as it is a significant town on the beach, so all I can say is watch for a store on the right and a big ranch like structure on the left that is faded and says Las LaJas .I could not see any signs.For reference it as a left after the bridge with a corner store on the right. There was a small sign with a different town name…I can’t see the town on the map even now. If you are not paying attention you could easily breeze right through to David. We took the country turn off to Las Lajas and drove a lovely country road dotted with pastureland, trees and cattle, and arrived to a quiet family sanctuary on the beach. We were here for one night, arriving at about 4 pm, and saw an incredible sunset.The beach is a very quiet earth toned sandy beach 7 miles long, and very gentle and easy to swim. Off in the distance you could see far away islands.