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Chiriqui Highlands a Panama Fairytale…Volcan,Bambito and Cerro Punta

“We all have one foot in a fairy tale and the other in the abyss.”  Paulo Coelho

Me in purple flowers 2

I like to think of myself as a resilient and adaptable person,however the contrast coming back from hot to freezing weather was surprisingly challenging. My fairytale is Cerro Punta, and  my abyss is a long and snowy winter. Here, in snowy 100 Mile House,B.C., I am continuing to post the blogs from my notes on our adventure in Panama for December and January . I am starting with the drive from David to Volcan. We are driving a Thrifty rental car that we rented in Pedasi. It had airbags,and was a very reliable vehicle.I am told that most Panama rental vehicles don’t have airbags. We drove from Pedasi down the Pan-American highway to Las Lajas then to Boca Chica and Isla Boca Brava,then on to David. Previous to renting a car we were in Playa Venao, Coronado and Panama City where we relied on public transportation and taxis. Renting a car offered us  convenience,flexibility and greatly increased the amount of area we could explore.It also offered us seatbelt which was not supplied in my experience with taxis and public transportation. As I mentioned in my previous blog about driving the Pan American highway,it does have it’s “heads up” or as a very good friend of mine says “eyes wide open hair straight back.”

Cerro Punta me in purple flowers

We left the maze of traffic in David,Panama and navigated our way back to the main highway. From there it was a 20 minute drive to La Concepcion . We knew where this was, as we breezed by it previously looking for David, and saw the Volcan turn off. From La Concepcion we turned right at the Volcan sign. It was a beautiful scenic 40 minute drive toward the town. It was a winding narrow road, that was well paved. People were passing on corners, with 2 cars passing at once on a curve. They seemed to be going at top speed and in a hurry. There were deep ditches without a shoulder to pull over for them to pass,so driving caution was needed.No pictures were taken due to the fast and furious passing us. We easily found our bed and breakfast Casa Volcan as it was on the main road leading to town. We were received by very wonderful hosts who gave us our private room with it’s own bathroom. They both made sure we had a map and directions to hiking, restaurants and other places to see in Volcan and surrounding areas. We organized our belongings and headed out to explore.

We stopped in Volcan town for water and snacks before finding our hiking spots. It is a smaller version of the artistic chaos that requires your full attention and eyes moving at all times.People pulling out randomly making their own rules,pedestrians crossing,similar to…and very close in chaos to 100 Mile House,B.C. ! The intersection where you turn to Bambito and Cerro Punta(right) is especially busy. If you stay left at the intersection you go to Nueva California, and Rio Cereno and other scenic places that I will mention later. Volcan has cool, springlike temperatures, and we saw a Panamanian selling toques! The place to buy all of your produce is at roadside stands between Bambito and Cerro Punta. You can get a massive bag of veggies for 3-6 dollars.Vendors sell sacks of vegetables, known as puercas.

Volcan town

We followed the map Ruthie gave us and turned right at the intersection toward Cerro Punta in search of hiking trails.

Driving from Volcan to Cerro Punta

The areas of Volcan and Cerro Punta in the province of Chiriqui is known as the Highlands  and are in the District of Bugaba which are 1000 meters above sea level. They have fertile lands of volcanic origin and producing the majority of produce for the country of Panama. Volcan has a beautiful view of Volcan Baru. Volcan is also known as “The Small Switzerland”,since many immigrants of Central European countries, as well as people from Yugoslavia and North America established themselves here in this beautiful area.The protected areas that are found in the Highlands maintain the forest and water resources of the province protecting important endangered species.

Cerro Punta view

The green valleys,forests and brilliant flowers reminded me of the Scottish Fairy Tale “The Land of Green Mountains”.It was like going back in time. We saw a beautiful sight of a Panamanian plowing his field with his horse.

Close up Horse plow

We were in search of the The Los Quetzales Trail. It can be hiked in either direction—from Boquete to Cerro Punta or from Cerro Punta to Boquete. The hike from Boquete is mostly uphill, while the route from Cerro Punta is downhill nearly all the way. It draws adventure minded people who love hiking and bird watching. The Quetzal is an exotic bird, and it was the season for sightings when we were here. It is a pigeon sized bird with emerald plumage. The male has brilliant crimson and trailing feathers.The Quetzal is found at elevations of 3500 feet in the cloud forest The Maya worshipped it as a sacred bird.It loves the avocado like fruit of the aguacatillo. In our search for the trail head we crossed a bridge over a river toward a very scenic and rustic country road. From there I was in celery heaven. You will see why when you look at these pictures of celery fields!

Cerro Punta Celery best shot

We decided to stop and take a hike up the quaint cobblestone road. The weather was like spring, misting,and then turning sunny and warm. Farmers were working harvesting and sowing crops on the steep hills. It reminded me of the Grimms fairy tale “The Elves and the Shoemaker”. I filled my lungs with the incredibly fresh air.

Cerro Punta Purple Flower pic 3

The weather misted and then went back to sunny again in a matter of minutes. Glenn brought his equipment and did aerial  photography that was excellent.I will post the videos he has done later separately.Glenn Cerro Punta

On the way back in Cerro Punta town we saw beautiful flowers and horses being walked by their owner.

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Flower 1

Cerro Punta is home to two very important horse breeding centers. Haras Cerro Punta and Haras Carinthia are both located here and are well known for their thoroughbreds. We saw many different breeds of horses here. I fell in love with a Palomino Peruvian the next day, more on that later.

We then went to a good Italian restaurant recommended by Ruthie on her map and had a fantastic dinner at La Carbonera!

Volcan favourite restaurant

I had a huge dark green salad with a beautiful piece of salmon and house red wine that was full bodied and high quality. Glenn had a delicious pizza with a thin crust with many fresh vegetables. The next day  we planned to continue to look for the Quetzales Trail as well as explore other areas such as Rio Sereno. We were not far from our new comfortable home at Casa Volcan. We looked forward to sharing our adventures with our delightful and enthusiastic hosts.They are Canadians that moved from the cold of Canada’s east coast years ago to a warmer climate and a different way of life in a small town.This was a spectacular day for me as you can tell from the pictures at the beginning!

My next posts will be on Rio Sereno (close to Volcan), Boquete, a bus ride from Boquete to Bocas Del Toro, boating to Isla Bastimentos,Red Frog beach, our stay on Isla Colon, Bluff Beach,Drago Beach,and our flight from Bocas Del Toro with a finale of a stay at Gamboa prior to us going to Panama City and then flying back to Canada.

 

Valley

 

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Driving in Panama Expats in Panama Las Lajas Las Tablas Pan-American Highway Panama buses Pedasi Renting a car in Panama travel to panama

The Indy 500 Pan-American Highway

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Pedasi… Vast and Untouched Land and Beaches,Reassuring to the Soul

The bus picked us up at the corner at Venao Cove as we waited with the couple from Hungary. We had a scenic journey in the small local bus, that picked us up on the corner. The back seat was small so I had to sit sideways, but I was grateful to have transportation. It made several stops along told the bus driver that we were looking for the Terpel gas station. Christine, the home owner of our vacation rental said her house was just up the road from there. We went to a local cafe and called her and she picked us up from the cafe. The one bedroom house among her flower garden was beautiful!

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Her dogs were there to greet us.It had a large kitchen,many fans, and big windows that opened up into farmland with fields with cattle grazing, and chorus of birds singing, with the breeze flowing through the house . We organized ourselves first walking to the Chinese grocery close to our new accommodation,and bought food and a cell phone. The cell phone was 25.00 US the sim card was 3.00 and we bought 15.00 worth of minutes for local calls, this has lasted us a long time. We noticed that the temperature was extremely hot, dropped our groceries in our well equipped kitchen,and took a taxi to the beach. This particular beach was where the fishing boats come in. Fish we are told can be bought locally, however most of the fish at this time of year is sold to restaurants.

We walked along the isolated beach…the heat was extreme. I went down to the water. The beauty of it was breathtaking, with the beach continuing on for miles and miles. The water had many powerful waves, and I stayed along the outskirts. As we strolled along I saw a bug about one and a half inches long with a curled tail approach my leg. I screeched loudly as it bit me feeling like a wasp bite x 20. Pain in the hand of nature was sculpting me to stay in touch with my highest self. Swelling and red, the pain was searing and lasted for a long time. At least with a wasp you know what it is. Once we reached the road, there was a policeman, and I  tried to ask him in English with sign language as to what the insect was. He shrugged and walked away. It had a curly tail and was very aggressive in the manner that it bit my leg. Are there scorpions on the beach? No one seemed to know. I decided it was just going to get better, and put on polysporin that I had in my bag.There was a local area where the fisherman were drinking beer, so we had a Balboa for 1.00, and I used it to ice my leg.Here is some information I got from the internet on biting insects on the beach in Central America. Apparently the best treatment is to put vaseline and then a bandaid,and use deodorant for the itching.It was about an inch and a half long with a curled tail..that is what I know for sure, and I thought for sure it had wings.If anyone can what bit me was actually a large type of sand flea please let me know for my research.All I can find is what I have below.

Tungiasis: Tungiasis is caused by the burrowing wingless flea Tunga penetrans(Tunga penetrans is also known by the following names: chigoe flea, sand flea, nigua, chigger flea, jigger flea, bicho de pé, pico, sikka, kuti, and piqui, ) which is endemic to certain areas of the world including Central and South America, the Caribbean Islands, Africa, Pakistan, and India. The impregnated female burrows into the upper dermis resulting in a lesion resembling an abscess. If secondary infection does not occur, the lesion usually resolves without treatment following discharge of the eggs and the death of the female. Complications can include secondary infection and rarely tetanus and gangrene.

We eventually got a taxi by spotting one and running down to the road. It was driven by a Panamanian man who looked 80 and he wore a cute hat with the front curled up.

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I was getting hungry, and needed to have nutrition at this point. We asked to go to Smilies which is a local restaurant that is owned by an expat, and is a popular place that expats go and listen to music. I ordered a big salad with fish. Glenn had a great conversation with John the owner of the restaurant. John loves music and plays music with his friends and comrades in the band. John has an amazing history of the events that led to him and his wife becoming expats and settling in Pedasi.The town is quiet and clean with friendly local people and expats. Fresh vegetables are difficult to get in the Azuero Peninsula, and I am told that expats shop for them in David. Eighty percent of produce comes from the Chiriqui Province in Panama.

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The next morning we woke up with the intention of looking at real estate, and connected with Mark Heilbron who gave us an incredible safari tour of properties for sale. There were some amazing properties in the area, and Mark gave us some insights of the land in his four wheel drive that were very thorough and well informed of years of them first visiting the area and renting and then living in it for many years. We went in his four when drive to many areas of Pedasi and had honest local details and accounts of people, places and possibilities.There is a prince and an ex president that have chosen this beautiful Azuero Peninsula to live.We saw cattle round ups,horses grazing in lush grass and stunning rolling pastureland with rivers running through it, with many large beautiful tree.Howler monkeys are living in this area along the river.

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After much research we decided to rent a car to travel across Panama.We asked local expats how to bus to Las Lajas in Chiquiri and then onto Boca Chica and they were not sure of the logistics. We researched buses online, and although they do travel between Panama City and David ,It was tricky to travel from Pedasi to Boca Chica. We would first need to find our way to Las Tablas, transfer to Chitra and then Santiago and then hope that our connection could get us there all in one day. At this point in our trip driving was the only reasonable option. Glenn rented a car from Thrifty’s in Pedasi, and they provided us with a nice compact vehicle for a reasonable price with good seatbelt and airbags. We were happy to have the freedom of the vehicle, but were aware there could be challenges with driving in Panama. We packed and were on on way to the Chiriqui Province.

My next blogs will be about driving the Pan American Highway from Pedasi to Boquete, Las Lajas,Isla Boca Brava,Boca Chica,David, Boquete,Isla Bastisimos,Colon in Bocas Del Toro Panama.

 

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Aerial photography Boca Chica Bocas Del Toro Boquete David Expats in Panama Isla Bastásemos Las Lajas Pedasi Playa Venao travel to panama

Playa Venao or Never!

This post finds us in Volcan,Panama. I am back tracking as internet connections have been challenging. We did an entertaining jaunt with Pedro from Coronado to Playa Venao. We went through Chitre and Las Tablas as well as other small towns. We should have been taking notes on Pedro’s expertise with the one ways in Chitra as we rented a car later and ended up in a chaotic one way(more later!) The land opened up into beautiful vast range land and farms,trees and jungle along the way. I am very excited at how different the land is here toward Playa Venao.It is isolated beauty, and can feel the beach approaching. We got lost and asked where Venao Cove Hostel was at a local beachside hotel. We needed to travel further. We pulled up to the location, and I could hear howler monkeys close by. We made sure we had our room, and then said our goodbyes to Pedro. One of the staff showed us to our room. It was two shared rooms and bathroom with a big kitchen and an outdoor shared area.We met the people that we shared the kitchen and bathroom with. She looked like Halle Berry, and worked in the fashion industry in Germany, and he was a surfer. We quickly changed to go to the beach.As you can see in the pictures the beach was astounding, with not a soul on the beach, and I ran down to the water dramatically tossing my hat and sandals.

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The drive from Pedasi was at least 5 hours with one quick grocery stop, and it felt fantastic to be on the beach. The water was warm, and the waves very gentle and easy for swimming.

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We hiked along the beautiful isolated beach.As you can see I found a beautiful set of lime green glasses at a local store.

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Glenn found a spot to do an aerial video. See below the pictures for his video.

We spent 2 nights at Venao Cove waking up to the sound of ocean waves,howler monkeys and tropical beach. I woke up early and decided to do yoga on the bed listening to the tropical sounds outside the window. I stretched up doing a sun salutation and put my left hand right into the low ceiling fan in the dim light.I screeched loudly looking at my bloodied and contused hand.Glenn had a fully equipped first aid kit with him, and cleaned and bandaged my hand.That was quite a lot of pain for a moment of not thinking. I was grateful that nothing was broken, and it gave me an opportunity to have a caring conversation with a Hungarian woman who offered us assistence. A lifetime of learning!

Wisdom comes from life experience; life experience is the result of repeatedly taking corrective action while courageously learning from mistakes.”
― Ken Poirot

I love quotes that are just honest and state the obvious!

The next morning at 9 am we took the local bus to Pedasi for 35 cents each,for another incredible adventure.

Next blogs will be about Pedasi,renting a car ,driving through Las Tablas, Chitre,Santiago, driving the Pan American Highway, Las LaJas Chiqiri,Isla Boca Brava,Boca Chica, David,Volcan,Bambito,Cerro Punta, Boquete, Bocas Del Toro(Colon) and Isla Bastisimos. I have a feeling that internet will improve once we leave Volcan and go to Boquete.

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Our Strategy for Adventure to Panama and Costa Rica

Trip planning to Panama was a kaleidoscope of many incredible possibilities. I have had ideas rattling around in my mind for 6 months! Although it was no where near like planning the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, this had it’s challenges.With not knowing a country it was a chess board of information with different squares that needed piecing together.The biggest piece missing in the puzzle is transportation. I did stumble across a site called thebusschedules.com which has Panama bus routes. What I do know is Panamanians take the bus often and there is a bus I am told to just about anywhere, as well as shuttles. We will know more about this once we are there.