Monday, February 9, 2009

Panama's Azuero Peninsula...a Short Travelogue

(Check out my photo journal of this short road trip)
I just returned a few hours ago from a wonderful motorcycle over-nighter to the Azuero Peninsula of Panama. Bibiana had to go to Colombia for a week and I determined this would be a good time for a road trip on the ole BMW-650. It's not really outfitted for road trips for a’s more a city bike with no bags or paraphernalia for carrying "stuff". But for one person it is more than adequate to get you and one bag anywhere you want to go...and in a hurry. Actually, the bike had been at the BMW agency for almost FOUR WEEKS getting some touchups and repairs. Having to wait so long made me that much more antsy to get on the road.

I have been pretty much all over the country of Panama that's worth going to. The one area that I had been hearing a lot about but not taken the opportunity to go was the Azuero Peninsula which extends off the south center portion of Panama into the Pacific Ocean. It is known for its rolling hills, good agricultural area, lots of national history relating to Panama's independence from Spain, and Las Tablas in the center of the area is the epicenter of the national "Carnival" which starts up in about 2 weeks. I have heard that hundreds of thousands of Panamanians flock there out of tradition for 3-5 days and over run the little town with a huge street party. Thanks to YouTube, you can see what it is going to be like at this link from last years party. For me, I decided it would be much more attractive to visit before the parades, water cannons, and general bedlam hit that area. Most people I know over the age of 25 leave Panama during carnival. We have seen it a bit the last couple years...and I'm over it, though I don't judge those who enjoy these kinds of "herd" events.

This is the perfect time of year for anything outdoors in Panama. I was so excited to hit the road, I didn't think to pack a long sleeve anything to protect from the sun...and no sunscreen either. It took me around 4 hours with a couple stops to reach Las Tablas Sunday afternoon...and I have a pretty good burn on my hands and arms for driving without gloves or long sleeves. Everything else is "white white white" so far in 2009 since I have been so busy in offices and at the computer this year. I now have a good farmers "burn".

The highway is four lane all the way to "Divisa" which is where the new overpass is that takes you south off of the Pan American Highway. I made good time on the bike as usual on the four lane. There are a few patches here and there of bad highway left over from the rainy season, but as usual, the road crews were everywhere trying to patch up and make things look "pretty" for the coming traffic hoards of "Carnival" break.

From Divisa it is only 40 kilometers or so to Chitre. Chitre has become the commercial center for this central part of the country and I was surprised how big and developed it was with a variety of banks, hotels, shopping and restaurants, including McDonalds of course. There is also a Golf Club, Fiesta Casino, and probably more to offer than I could take in on my short trip of passing through. I did stop for a lunch break at an open air restaurant in Chitre. A nice cold beer was welcomed after a few hours of highway cycling and I added to that a shrimp cocktail that came loaded with about 8-10 large shrimp in a nice sauce. When the bill came, I couldn't believe it was only $4.50!!! It would be more than twice that back in Panama City.

Next I found myself in Chitre's "sister city", Los Santos. This is an artesans center for the region, primarily pottery. It looked like a nice quaint village and probably a preferred place to live versus the traffic and noise of Chitre.

After Los Santos, the road turns hillier and more tree lined all the way to Las Tablas. You pass various little villages, each with their own little Catholic church and town square, or "Plaza". Sometimes living in the big city, you lose touch with the simplistic beauty of these small Hispanic towns. This area reminded me of many places I had been in my Mexico years...the tiny villages that families have lived in all their lives for scores of generations. Each pueblo with it's own colorful cemetery guarding the remains of all their forefathers. In many of these small town cemeteries you will see predominantly 2 to 4 family last names. Many of these areas go back to clans from pre-Hispanic times and I'm sure it would be interesting to study some of their origins. Ah, so little time in such a big world.

The road after Los Santos became more rolling hills, trees and flora. The nice thing about motorbiking is you get to smell the wonderful aromas of flowering trees this time of year. You get back to appreciating some simple pleasures that can evade one's existence stuck in a big city all the time, or in an airconditioned auto. The wind, the smells, the sounds of bugs hitting your helmet put you in immediate touch with all of God's good earth.

Finally in the late afternoon I found myself entering Las Tablas, my destination for staying overnight. A nice boulevard brings you into town and you soon realize you are in a fairly old little town which represents to many the beginnings of independence of Panama from Spain way back in the early 1800s. As stated earlier, this town in a couple weeks will be overrun with hundreds of thousands of Carnival revelers. Lots of noise, drinking, water cannons spraying the crowds, maybe an annual catharsis celebrating national pride and the pure joy of life. When I see these festivities in person or on video, I am thoroughly reminded of the main difference between us gringos and the Latinos. Latinos work to live...while we gringos tend to find ourselves living to work. You sometimes have to wonder which culture is truly happier during their lifetimes. Yet, I find myself happy to hit this town in its current quiet, peaceful, Sunday afternoon mode. Lots of people are milling the streets though there is little traffic and it is pretty quiet as I arrive.

After exploring the town and scoping out some motel and restaurant options for the evening, I decide to head out about 13 Kms to the beaches outside Las Tablas. I saw a sign for a couple seaside hotels and think maybe I will try staying out there. The beach road is a bit narrower and bumpier on the bike, but I finally find "Playa Uverito" (I think that means "little grape") and alot of local Panamanians enjoying a late afternoon at the beach. Lots of cars, lots of wind, and the waves are pretty large. Its a pretty setting, but marred by a lot of trash littering the parking lot area and the beach itself. I have seen this at most of the "locals" beaches in Panama, and I find myself not respecting the Panamanian's lack of couth when it comes to littering. Almost every day in this country I see brazen acts of throwing plastic bottles or fast food wrappers out of cars and buses. Here at the beach it is obvious people just leave their trash sitting next to their cars or at their beach blanket location when they are ready to leave. Who do they think is going to pick their crap up when they leave? There are no park authorities or "cleanup crews" budgeted in most of these little bergs. They did just pass some stricter heavy fines for littering in the country, but without enforcement or enlightenment, it does little to stem the problem. I guess there is no Mecca anywhere, huh?

I find the Hotel Luna which while it looks like a fairly new building; I don't see any manicured lawn or tapestries that tell me this is of any quality. With seeing the local trash element around, I figure it may not be that relaxing to stay here. When a campesino gentleman comes out to greet me at the entrance, he quotes me $60 for a single room for the night. My suspicion is this is the "gringo" price and not worth it to me. Instead of dickering and dealing, I just head back to the city knowing I probably have more and cheaper options along with more restaurants to choose from for the evening.

I finally get a room for the evening at Playa del Sol Hotel in Las Tablas. It's nowhere near a beach so I don't get the name, but the price of $25 attracts me since don't plan to spend much time in the room and head out to Pedasi early the next morning. It has a good hot water shower which feels good after a day long journey on a motorcycle and I set out on foot to explore the little town and find a hot meal. I had spotted a small hotel near the main square when I first came in that had a restaurant, so I ended up eating there. Again, a low priced menu was welcomed and I had a large chicken dinner in a tasty pepper sauce, salad and patacones, washed down by another cold beer...and when the bill came I was again happily surprised at the $5 check. That means I ate today for under $10!!!

After dinner I walked around the village a bit more and ended up sitting in the Plaza between 8:30 and 9PM just watching the locals mill about greeting each other or chatting at various corners of the plaza. The evening church mass had ended while I was at dinner, but various people were still hanging about the plaza like they probably do each and every Sunday after mass. It was a full moon, a pleasant breeze was still filtering through the trees of the plaza, and little kids were running around, some curiously checking out the only "gringo" downtown visible at the moment. Little girls were riding around on their little bikes at going on 9PM. Teenagers were here and there flirting with each other...mostly groups of 2-3 girls walking by groups of 2-3 boys. It took me back 40+ years to what I view as a lost time in America when we kids would be out after dark running around on our bikes, visiting the neighbors, playing imaginary games. No one worried about bad elements or danger for us kids. We had no video games or computers to take up our time and attention. Life was simpler, cheaper and less complicated than it is now for kids. I found myself thinking THESE kids have a richer life and are more adjusted than most kids I see back in the USA in this kind of setting. Yep, I miss Mayberry, Andy, Opie, Aunt Bee and Barney Fife...

The next morning I was up bright and early...these little town people are up and about bright and early every morning. The trucks, people chattering, the many pedestrians in the street start right at sunrise. I can never figure out where all these people are going since most things don't open until 9 or 10AM...but they all seem to have somewhere to go at the crack of dawn.

I had a quick breakfast at the same hotel restaurant as the previous night…$2.50 for and egg and cheese scramble, bacon and coffee. Then it was direct into the eastern rising sun as I headed to the coastal town of Pedasi. Remember, you can really get your directions mixed up in Panama because most of the country runs east/west as an isthmus which means the Pacific is on the SOUTH coast while the Caribbean is on the NORTH coast. Since I was on a peninsula, I actually had to go east to get to the Pacific bay oceanfront. Go figure.

It was a beautiful morning to ride, passing lots of pickups and other farm equipment on the road. There is a large meat processing plant just out of town…and the farm vehicles were already lined up dropping off cows and pigs destined for processing. No PETA people in this country that I know of. Animals are not worshipped in this country like they are in some pockets of the home country. About 40 minutes of smooth sailin’ and I hit the town of Pedasi.

Pedasi is a quaint little village and happens to be the birthplace of the previous president, Sra Mireya Moscoso. There is a huge billboard as you come in depicting that fact. There seem to be a number of little hotels and restaurants…some quite new. It tells me that maybe tourism IS growing out here as I had heard. Still, I don’t see many gringos, tour buses or anything else of that nature. I DO see the signs directing me to turn left to the beaches…and the two projects I have come to check out in particular…”Andromeda” and “Costa Pedasi”. The paved road quickly turns into a large loose gravel road…not the most comfortable for traversing on a road bike. The trusty Beemer bumps along a couple kilometers to the first development…Andromeda. All it is one vast open large field. No trees and you can’t see the beach from the road. Someone had told me they would have a golf course here, but I see no sign or announcement of any such thing on their project signage. It’s looking to me more like a typical “track home” setup like back towards the city where they throw down slab homes all in tight formation for Panama’s lower and middle class workers. Doesn’t look like a high end or custom home layout to me. Well, let’s move down to Costa Pedasi and hope to find things a little more likable.

I head another 1.5 Km down the road and come upon the entrance for Costa Pedasi. There are a number of workers on the entrance and doing some plantings there. There are 10 new Palms planted at the entrance, but otherwise, a big barren, dry, brown piece of land overlooking rough seas. I still can’t see the beach, only the water over the high bluff. As I proceed down the narrowing beach road to the beach, I am shocked by what I find. I don’t know whether it’s high tide or low tide, but all I see is HUGE volcanic rock formations littered with lots of driftwood and surf junk. Very little sand and surely not an attractive swimming or walking beach. What were these people thinking? I guess maybe they got a good deal on the land, and I’m sure views from up on the bluff can be attractive. But, what are you going to do out here? Meanwhile its only 9AM and the wind is already howling off the sea and drying up the coastal land in a hurry only 6 weeks into “dry season”. I can’t even find a smooth flat stone to skip on the water…and I would have to be a professional rock climber just to get to a place where I could throw into the water. This is NOT my idea of high end oceanfront living. Sorry to those of my friends who are selling properties out here. I just don’t get it. My Lake Gatun developments are looking better all the time as I get around this country.

I quickly got back on my bike and headed back to the city. I find a sign telling me of about 10 more beaches further down the road past Pedasi, but I am newly inspired to get back to selling my prospects around the greenery and fresh water within an hour of Panama City. Maybe I’ll get out here again in search of a true sandy beach in Pedasi when I have more time.

On the bright side, life out here in Azuero is much less expensive than in or near Panama City. I’m sure it is much more secure and laid back. I’m also sure I’d get a lot more reading and writing done if I lived or spent more time in an area like Azuero. But, after a couple days out here I realize once again that I am a “city boy”…and to that end I am willing to work harder and pay more to have all the amenities, lights and pizzazz the city affords. But, it has been a peaceful couple days “on the road again”…

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