I Got New Wheels!

Okay, no, not really. I’m still seven weeks away from needing to buy a car to replace my beloved Nitro, which I sold last November after 11 years together.

What I have done is rented a car for the entirety of my stay in Panama City. Expensive? Yes. But so are tours in Panama. This country is not terribly cheap. Living in Panama City is like living in an average American city, like Denver, but with a permanent 20 percent discount. I’ve got 9 open days here to go out touring (beside the three during which I’m going to the islands with friends), and every tour I’m interested in, with transport from the city, is around $120-$160. That’s assuming there are other people going. If I’m the only one, there’s generally a two person minimum, so I’d be paying twice that if I really wanted to go. It’s too much.

I rented a place that includes a free parking spot, and all in with gasoline, tolls, and insurance, the six-week car rental is costing me around $1400. So it’s essentially a wash, and I’m free to go on my own time, able to go places that tours aren’t available for, make all the stops I want along the way, and I have a car during the week to use however else I want. Mostly I’ve still stuck to places I can walk to in town, although I will say it’s been nice having a car for grocery shopping and not having to shelp bags of heavy fizzy water back to my place.

And then come the weekends. I have the freedom to get out into the wild! I’ve missed that over the last six months that I’ve been entrenched in big city life. There are so many lovely places within an hour to an hour and a half from Panama City. Here are some pics from my weekend wanderings so far.

San Lorenzo Forest and Protected Area

To get to this forest, you have to go by an army post where a soldier is guarding (I guess?) the ruins of the Fort Sherman, an abandoned US army base. I’m not really sure why the guy is posted there but he just waved me on through. You drive past the old barracks and to the right is marina that might as well be America (everything is in English, everyone appears to be American) and to the left is the forest. A little down the road to the forest, there’s another guy at a post – not military this time – who asks where you’re going and then also waves you through.

In the forest, there are several trails you can pull over at and hike, and if you cycled in, each trailhead has a bike rack to lock up, which is nice. I did two trails since they are fairly short. This would be a great place to trail run – the trails are wide and not very challenging, and there’s not a lot of traffic either, so running down the road from trail to trail would be fine.

There are howler monkeys in this forest. I was glad I already knew what they were, otherwise I likely would have crapped myself out there in the jungle alone. They sound like the smoke monster from Lost. There are all sorts of other creatures out there too, but they don’t want to be seen. They were always a few steps ahead of me on the trail, jumping into the dense foliage before I could see them. Probably just some hamburger-hating deer.

Parque Nacional Soberanía

This park is very close to Panama City. I’m sure you can easily take a bus here if you don’t rent a car and you can stay at this resort which has all kinds of trails and animals. The Charco trail is a little half mile loop with an accessible waterfall/picnic area, but it also connects to the longer trails. As I was about to go in, a uniformed man in an official park vehicle pulled up and asked if I was hiking and if I had a car in the small lot. I said yes to both and he told me not to leave anything in the car, no money, no phone. I told him I wasn’t – I had everything on me. And then the conversation repeated itself. And one more time. So clearly I wasn’t understanding something he was trying to say, but eventually he pulled out the park log book and had me register. Odd behavior is a pattern with Panamanian officials.

Once again, I was the only one out there on a weekend. Maybe it was because of the rain, but parts of the trail were really overgrown, so I don’t think it gets that much use. My AirBnB host even told me that people get lost out there from time to time. But also, the canopy is so thick that you hardly feel the rain. What’s more, it’s so hot and humid that the rain you do get on your skin feels great.

The downside is that you really don’t know what’s out there. As with San Lorenzo, I could hear things moving in the jungle all around me, but I couldn’t really see them, except for all the wonderful ants. The ants are an important part of jungle life. But when the rain started, the additional noise of the large drops hitting the leaves made it difficult to tell if something bigger was near. It’s quite different from quiet Colorado forests.

Parque Nacional Altos de Campana

This national park is more forest than jungle. Lots of different types of trees that created the most beautiful walking path. The fallen leaves looked carved out of leather.

But back to the beginning. This park entrance is poorly designed with one man at the entrance to the hiking paths…but he doesn’t give you the entry permission. You have to go back down the road several kilometers to the little hut, register in the log book, and get a very official entry ticket – shown below. This time, the confusion wasn’t a me/language/cultural thing as several locals were also driving back and forth, very confused about what they were supposed to do. Also, there’s no map at the hut. So the hut guy asks you what trail you want to do but there’s no way to know unless you first go up to the trailhead with the man who doesn’t give the permit out… And no, they national parks here do not have websites with this kind of information.

Turns out that most people do the Cerro la Cruz trail, but it was really steep and muddy and it was still raining. Between all that and the people, I opted to do all the other trails – Zamora, Podocarpus, and Panamá. The was a great choice because once again, I had them all to myself. The main Panamá trail ultimately becomes a road that connects to other dirt roads that go across the rolling hills for a long, long way out of the park territory, so this would probably be a great place to trail run, though at one point I heard gun shots, so maybe wear some high visibility gear. It was unclear if those dirt roads were public or private.

The national park also has a small campground, if that interests you, and when you leave the park, if you continue down the road the other direction, instead of back to the city, you come to the charming town of Chica in just a few kilometers where you can get a nice bite to eat and buy some beautiful flowers from the many vendors. But be careful driving – the locals seem pretty unconcerned about staying on their side of the road around the windy mountain curves. If you just head back Panama City way, there is also a great little snack bar that overlooks the whole valley before you reach Highway 1.

Valle de Anton

Valle de Anton is a popular weekend destination from Panama City. It’s a two-hour drive on a normal weekend, three on a holiday weekend. After you get off the mostly ugly highway 1 (although there are some fun S-curves), you have 30 more beautiful and enjoyable kilometers inland, and the landscape only gets more beautiful as you arrive in town. There is a butterfly haven, an orchid farm, an excellent farmers market, great restaurants, and the main attraction – the India Dormida hike. This hike has several lovely waterfalls along the way, and the Sleeping Indian is so named for the profile of the hills, which you can see here, but not in any picture I took because I got stormed out.

There was a light rain when I started out, which, once again, felt great, though I barely felt it at all. I stopped at a watermelon vendor two-thirds of the way up and ate it while I continued upward. The total gain is around 1,000 feet in barely a mile, so it’s fairly steep. Then, just as I hit the treeline, the real storm began. Torrential downpour. I had a proper rain jacket but with no foliage cover whatsoever, I would have been soaked really fast regardless. So I descended just a bit and crouched under a scrubby tree for a solid half hour. It was honestly still really nice. No one else was around and the mist rising up from the hills was beautiful. I didn’t mind waiting it out.

Eventually, the rain subsided to something I could walk in, so I decided to traverse the open trail. Within five minutes, I regretted my decision. Thunder came rolling back in with a vengeance and there was nothing around. There was no visible lightning – there had been not a single lightning bolt at all that day, only lots of loud, cracking thunder – but I was still really nervous. I bolted forward and then went down the other side of the hill, slightly off trail, to shelter as much as I could under a boulder. I got soaked anyway, but like I said, it’s so hot and humid in Panama that it didn’t feel bad.

After another ten minutes, the thunder faded into the distance and the rain let up again. I was very close to the summit, so, after waiting another five minutes to make sure there was no more thunder, I started hiking again.

I got to the top and, I could see a trail intersection down the back side, this one with the red arrow that I had seen halfway through the hike (I was on the blue arrow trail). My AllTrails app also showed this was a loop, even though the map at the trailhead showed an out and back. So I went for it. The way down to the crossing was extremely steep – hands-and-butt, slow-going steep. And there, as I maneuvered down, exposed to the world with not a tree or bush in sight and stuck on a slippery slope with no way to move quickly, the world’s biggest bolt of lightning lit up the entire sky. I screamed out loud. I was by far the tallest and most prominent thing around, and it was impossible to move quickly to get to safety. The next 10 minutes until I got down into tree line again were the scariest of my entire life. I was so certain of my attractive status as a lightning rod that, after I descended from the steepest part, I took two seconds to look behind me at the gorgeous green hills and thought, “So this is how it ends, on a hike in Panama.” I wanted one more look at the beauty. I mean, if I got to choose, I’d choose that place.

But there was no more lightning. Truly just that one massive bolt at the worst possible time. The universe’s reminder of how insignificant I am. And that, of course, is why I hike. That feeling when you reach safety but know full well your life could have ended. From lightning, a fall, hypothermia, a mountain lion, whatever. That feeling when you come back alive is a powerful drug.

And then it turns out the hike wasn’t really a loop and I got a bit lost wandering around all the trails that lead to people’s homes up there. The $30 a year I spend on AllTrails pro to have downloaded hiking maps is my best annual investment. I couldn’t get really lost. I let myself wander a bit for the joy of it before I opened the app up to get back on trail. Turns out I wasn’t that far off. Later, I intentionally went off trail again, but was stopped by a nice man in gum boots with a large basket of greens strapped to his back who insisted I not go that way. I’m not sure if that’s because I was invading the privacy of the people who live there (the hand drawn map at the trailhead does say “NO” at the off-shoots of the main trail) or if he was trying to be helpful and point me to the touristy things. But I’d also heard gun shots at one point on this trail too, and I didn’t want to be disrespectful. I don’t know if the residents get any money from the tourism ministry since it costs $3 to hike there. I doubt it. So we walked together down a little ways and then he pointed out a boulder to me that was slightly off trail that had old petroglyphs carved into it! That was so nice. A little while later, we said goodbye as I wanted to stop at one of the waterfalls to breathe in the mist and he – in those clunky gumboots and unwieldly basket half the size of his body – was much faster than I was in all my high-tech gear anyway.

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