On the Panamanian Roads Again

After my Bocas trip, I had two more weekends to get out and enjoy the jungle. As I mentioned before, I highly recommend renting a car since there is a lot you can do from Panama City, but not a lot of tourist infrastructure for doing it. A few things to keep in mind if you do rent a car:

  • Street signs are non-existent.
  • Highways signs often do not match what your GPS says, so be sure to look at the map carefully and not rely on what the voice says.
  • GPS sometimes just doesn’t tell you to turn or which way to go when the road splits into two or three options. Be comfortable with getting it wrong and driving around in circles trying to get back on track.
  • There are police checkpoints everywhere and you need to bring your passport (not just a photo of the info page) because all the American (and other) expats who move here are required to get a Panamanian license after 90 days, so they look at your entry date and status.
  • Everyone turns right and left (from a one-way to one-way) on red. I don’t know if it’s actually legal, but everyone does it. People also frequently turn the middle lane into another turning lane when it’s not supposed to be, so watch out if you are going straight in a far lane.
  • You can’t be timid. There is so much traffic in Panama City that if you are coming from a side street onto a main street and there’s no light, you just have to go. You can’t wait for a break in traffic or you’ll be sitting there for two hours. Just pull out and force someone to stop. They will. It’s how it’s done here.
  • Be prepared for anything. Besides the usual stray dogs wandering out into the road, it’s not unusual for cars to just stop in the middle of a lane, even on the highway, or for a random concrete barrier to be in the middle of a lane for no apparent reason.
  • You can actually get an automatic car here. I didn’t ask for one and assumed I would have manual, but I think because there are so many Americans here and we don’t know how to drive stick, they give us automatics. My rental car actually had variable transmission, which I’ve never seen before. I was so confused when I started driving because the car wouldn’t accelerate and the RPMs were going wild. I had to pull over (apparently I could have just stopped in the middle of the road and no one would have thought it was weird) and investigate. Then I realized it had this weird little shifter that I had to tap up or down to change the gear, even though there was no clutch. I drove it a few more times before I realized I could put it into fully automatic mode instead.
  • Panamanians are the worst for lingering in the left lane. I think this is also because of the influence of all the Americans living here. You know damn well that Europeans don’t do that nonsense. Driving on the highway here is one big game of frogger because people won’t get the hell out of the way. Also because of the general road chaos, the loiterers are also often going under the speed limit, which makes their refusal to move over doubly obnoxious.

So if you’re comfortable with all that, get out and explore!

Parque Nacional Camino de Cruces

This park is adjacent to Parque Nacional Soberania – it’s part of the “green chain” of protected forests from Pacific to Atlantic that follow the canal line – so it’s barely a half hour from the city center. It has a handful of short trails, a mountain bike trail, and, of course, the longer namesake trail, Camino de Cruces. If you’re so inclined, this park also has a campsite. The park ranger helpfully explained the trails and had me sign the registration book. A normal interaction with a ranger! She seemed a little concerned that I didn’t have a cell phone to call for help if needed, but the trails in this park seemed to have directional signs every 100 meters or so. It would have been impossible to get lost. Also note that people here don’t hike much, so however long the rangers tell you a hike will take, if you are an avid hiker and the humidity doesn’t get to you, you can cut that time in half.

Then I was off with the jungle almost to myself once again. There were only two other cars in the parking lot at 11AM on a Saturday, and I never saw anyone while I was out there. Lots of mosquitos though! They didn’t bug me while I was in motion, but as soon as I paused to take a photo of anything, they would launch a major assault. There was also so many beautiful butterflies everywhere in this park and little frogs that blended into the forest floor. And I saw the back end of some large lizard skulking off into the brush, but as soon as he got wind of me, he bolted. Other than that, these trails were pretty calm. If you can stand the heat, they would be good for running. There’s even a kilometer long hill with 400 feet gain up to two “observation” points, from which you can’t really see anything because the foliage around is so dense. I didn’t run up but I sure ran down.

Parque Nacional Portobelo

So, there is some kind of hiking in this park, but it’s tough to find. I went two kilometers down a dirt road that I think led to trails, but unfortunately, I couldn’t go any further. I needed a vehicle with a little more clearance and a little more oomph than my rented Yaris. But the national park is actually the whole area along the coast, including the forts and the ocean, and Portobelo itself is a nice town to walk around in. After you get off the Corridor Norte and pass through garbage-filled Puerto Pilon, the drive out is picturesque and not crowded. There are beaches you can pull off at if you want to jump in the water and charming seaside cafes. Just be sure to gas up in Sabanitas because there are no gas stations anywhere, even if your GPS tells you there is. I got into a bit of pickle and ended up pulling into the marina into Puerto Lindo (beyond Portobelo) and filling up a borrowed jerry can at the dock to get a little fuel into my car.

Parque Nacional Soberania – Part 2

This park is so close to town that I came back a second time. First, I did the short interpretive trail near the visitors center (no rangers in sight). This trail is really in the thick of the jungle and the ground is covered in all these amazing, camouflaged frogs. The trail tapers off eventually. The trees are still marked orange – indicating there is/was a trail – but it’s so overgrown that you can’t proceed any further.

Then I drove a little down the road to the Canopy Tower parking lot to do the Plantation trail. It’s an 8 mile out and back if you stop at the intersection, but since it connects to other trails, you can easily make this a 20 miler. I got there around 3PM and there were only a few cars in the lot. I hiked out past some nice cascades where you could swim, and saw lots more multi-colored butterflies and quite a few ñeques, which are 8-10 pound rodents.

This is the first trail I found in Panama that is truly perfect for trail running because it actually gets a decent breeze. In all other places, although the trails themselves might have been nice for running, the air was stagnant and stifling. But this was breezy and wide (which is good because it’s also popular among mountain bikers) and has enough incline and rocks and dips to be a good workout but not really challenging. I ran on the way back, mostly because I started to get freaked out. The sky got really dark and thunder rumbled for a solid 15 minutes, and that made the jungle come to life. The howler monkeys started howling, animals were charging around shaking trees, birds and other monkeys were chattering to each other. It got loud. Although rare, jaguars and wild pigs do exist in this part of Panama. So I was out of there.

Turned out, I had nothing to worry about because I wasn’t going to be alone on the trail for long. The mountain bikers also came out at this time of early evening. I had seen almost no one on that trail for most of my hike, but I passed eight bikers just starting out as I neared the parking lot, and there were several more getting ready as I reached my car. Regardless, it felt great to run, even if I was wearing cargo shorts.

Metropolitan Natural Park

While this park is in Panama City, which means you’ll hear traffic noise throughout your hike, this was the place I saw the most animals. Even in the heat of a sunny afternoon, so many creatures were out. It started off with lots of small lizards and turtles, then a coati and a three-toed sloth, and toucans absolutely everywhere. Throw two monkeys in the mix, a dozen ñeques, and a hundred millipedes, butterflies, and other birds, and that’s a pretty good day. In the middle of it all, I also saw three deer. Now, that might not seem exotic, but every park I’ve visited here claims to have deer and I’ve never associated deer with jungle. So I didn’t quite believe it. But they were in this park on this day, quite close to me.

So if you are only swinging through Panama briefly on business and don’t have time to get out of the city, this is well worth your time if you’d still like to experience local wildlife. You can get here by cab for a few dollars (it’s also $4 to enter) and do all the trails in just two hours, even with lots of stops for photos, views, and soaking in the sounds.

Lago Bayano

This is the day that almost wasn’t. I messaged the place about this tour my third day in Panama. They don’t have online booking or Venmo or anything, so I had to go to the bank, deposit the money into their account, and text them the receipt. This sounds scammy to an American, but it’s not uncommon in Panama. Unfortunately, by the time I did that a few days later, they had sold out for the weekend. So they booked me in the next weekend. The day came, and I got up at 5:30 am to drive out there. My rental car wouldn’t start. By the time a service person came, it was way too late to make it. Besides, the whole car was dead and I had to get go exchange it. So they kindly booked me for another weekend even though I hadn’t given 24 hours cancellation notice. The night before my next booking, they texted that the guides got COVID. It’s a family-run place, so when one got it, they all did. So that weekend was out.

Finally, my last weekend in Panama, my very last free day, I got up, started driving plenty early (leaving time to make a lot of wrong turns), and wouldn’t you know it, I get stuck in a line of 60 cars behind a group of at least three dozen of cyclists. For over 20 kilometers, I was stuck going 1/3 to 1/2 the speed limit. They weren’t pulling over and there were limited opportunities to pass. I finally got up to the front of the line of cars as we came down a hill with clear visibility, two other cars and I passed the cyclists. And immediately got pulled over by the police at the checkpoint ahead. I got a ticket for illegal passing because

  • there was a double yellow line. Well, maybe there had been years ago, but it was long since washed away
  • I’d passed on a bridge (one of those little 15 foot long deals that goes over a trickle of water) and apparently that’s not allowed
  • possibly it’s illegal to pass cyclists. I wasn’t quite sure if she said that wasn’t allowed or just frowned upon (the whole conversation was in Spanish), but it’s absurd that they had no plan to ever let the rapidly growing line of cars get by. It wasn’t a race.

Had I been in America and not desperately trying to get to this tour on time after so many failed previous attempts, I would have argued, definitely about the double yellow thing when there was not a fleck of paint left. But the guy in the vehicle in front of me did get out of his car start yelling at them, and he still got a ticket, so I figured there was no point.

I made it to the meeting point for the tour at 8:02 AM (my GPS had me scheduled to arrive at 7:29) and off I went across the lake with my guide. Highly recommended! And if you go, you should spend the night. The property has some glamping options a little cabin, a loft area about the dining area, tons of hammocks and swings and lounge chairs, hot tubs, fire pits, grills, the whole works. And chickens, dogs, and enormous pigs. You can bring your own food to prepare or pay for them for meals. My tour was $65 and included the boat transport, the cave tour, kayaking, and lunch, but obviously no transport from Panama City.

I had to chill at the property for an hour after I arrived because of the weather. While much of the cave is actually an open air slot canyon, the first third is a low tunnel and would be extremely dangerous in heavy rain. Water in caves is not something I mess around with, so I was happy to wait until the sun came out partially and the guide decided it was safe. They still make you wear a life jacket just in case. The cave/canyon goes back about one kilometer in a combination of trekking, wading, and swimming. There are caiman in the cave water and small snakes and and crabs and tons of bats flying around, so it’s not for the faint of heart. I saw them all. The trek ends in a small pool at some cascades and you have a bit of time to swim before heading back.

Then we went kayaking down the Tigre River to a point where there are too many rocks to navigate further. We stopped for a half hour of sunbathing and swimming. Again, there are caiman everywhere, though it doesn’t seem like they will bother you. I saw tons of beautiful birds and got my skin nibbled by fish that reminded me of the ones you see in foot spas. It didn’t hurt but it really did seem like they were eating my dead skin cells.

After those activities, the lunch was delicious grilled fish and plantain chips, and then you have an hour or so to just enjoy the property, which I did in a hammock with a magazine listening to the howler monkeys giving a concert in the thunder. It was bliss. Worth the ticket, however much it turns out to be.

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