Photo: Salsa king Ruben Blades' idea of how to promote tourism during his stint as a tourism minister.
BANANAMA REPUBLIC embarked on a tourism trip throughout the country with some friends who were visiting from the US. It had been a while since we traveled this country without being on one assignment or the other. Since the Panamanians started to become serious about developing their tourism industry, about 15 years ago, we were curious to find out if that sector had yet reached maturity.
We rented a car, made some reservations and set out on our exploration of the country that, like aids, "will never leave you." What could possibly go wrong? Well, a lot, as it turned out:
A night at the Wyndham Garden Hotel in the Cangrejo area of Panama City: This used to be the Suites Ambassador Hotel, and other than the name, nothing has been changed in this outfit. Rooms are characterized by dirty, sticky carpet and walls, designed in a way that was once modern but now evokes thoughts of suicide. The "suites" have a kitchenette but no coffeemaker. The elevator didn't work most of the time. The breakfast is rudimentary; one is much better off skipping it and walk instead to nearby Manolo's for the real thing. Actually, just skip this sucky hotel altogether. There are much better options available for similar fees in the area.
Dinner at the Market restaurant: Great. This restaurant has been around for a while now and it is consistent, friendly staff and good food. Also, champagne by the glass which is good for you. Only minus is that they have TV's everywhere.
Harassment by dirty cops: So we get pulled over in the evening by some bad mannered members of the Proteger y Servir goon squad, also known as the National Police. Turns out our driver can't drive our rental car with her US license because she has been in the country for more than 3 months. No problem, we'll just change drivers and be done with it. But that was not what these policemen wanted, demanding instead that the ladies would come with them to the station. No way, your reporter responded, write the ticket if you must, but nobody is going anywhere with you. But police can't write traffic tickets. "So, call Transito," I said - the traffic police. They didn't want that either. Things evolved into a stand-off with more police arriving, threats to tow away the car ("go ahead, it's not mine"), threats to have us all arrested, implicit demands for bribes, cops yelling in the faces of two American tourists who don't understand the language and so on. Two hours later the traffic cops arrived and write a ticket. Half a mile away we run into yet another police checkpoint where they demand to see our papers again. This is just such a great way to treat visitors, a real moment of pride for the glorious Panamanian nation.
More cops: Next day we drive to El Valle. But first there is yet another road block on Tumba Muerto, this time they want to see papers and do a breathalyzer test with a dirty breathalyzer ("I'm not gonna breathe in that!" says one of our guests).
More corrupt traffic cops: In Chame, we're waved to the side of the road at yet another improvised checkpoint. This time, the traffic clown tells us we were speeding, doing 92 where 80 is allowed. I get out of the car and demand to see the reading on the speed gun, because we were doing 70. They have to show you that reading or else no fine and they can go to hell. They didn't even have a speed gun. Sensing that his ploy was falling apart, the traffic cop ranted a bit about road safety and let us go. By now, our guests believed that Panama was a rogue police state, with dangerous gangs of klepto-cops constantly on the prowl for innocent prey. An accurate assessment.
El Valle, Cabañas Potosi: We reached El Valle without further mishap. Cabañas Potosi is a nice, friendly place with beautiful grounds and views, close to town, and the cabins were clean, the hot water worked, the beds were comfortable and so we highly endorse this place.
El Valle, restaurant Bruschetta: Salmon was great, but spaghetti was microwaved (yikes). Bruschetta was the best plate we had on the table and, unlike some of the other dishes, priced normally. Not good, not bad, not special.
El Valle, Carlitos Pizzas & Empanadas: Many dishes on the menu were not available. And $10 for a small and mediocre hamburger, really?
On the road to Boquete: We paid our traffic fine at Transito in Santiago and moved on to Boquete. This gave us the opportunity to study Panamanian road maintenance and construction from up close. For some mysterious reason, the country has decided to work on the Panamericana the entire stretch between Santiago and David. Legally, you can't drive that distance now doing more than 40 km/h, and since we were all terrified by the prospect of having to deal with more armed goons, it took forever. There is no apparent planning or logic in this road expansion scheme.
Staying at the Cabañas el Parador in Boquete: Nice, rustic cabañas in a beautiful setting with spectacular views. The owners are friendly and helpful. Bananama Republic has become a fan of Boquete. It's laid back but not sleepy, there are some good places for lunch and dinner, many expats run quirky little businesses that grew out of hobbies, and the mountains are extremely beautiful. One of the few places in this country where tourism is run the way it should.
Boquete's Sugar & Spice bakery and restaurant: We can't recommend this place highly enough. Have lunch, good coffee, they have wifi, a small terrace, very friendly people and everything they serve is delicious. These people love what they do and it shows.
Back to the capital, we dined at La Teca restaurant in Coronado: Question: Why is it that restaurants in Panama feel that their interior is not complete without television monitors everywhere? If I want to have a TV dinner, I might as well stay home, thank you very much. I go to a restaurant for the food and the company, not to watch crap TV. So can we reverse that trend, please? Other than that, La Teca is weird. The waiter would not tell us what the fish of the day was. He simply refused, saying that it could be anything. Then half of my party did not get what they ordered, with the waiter insisting that this was indeed salad X while it was evidently salad Y. Finally the manager was called, who apologized and gave us coffee and desserts on the house. In itself, the food was good.
Back in the city, we stayed at the Principe Hotel & Suites: It's a relatively new outfit near Via Argentina. Through the big windows at the reception, we could see the receptionist picking his nose for a snack while we pulled up with our car, with the same fingers that would later touch our passports. In one of our rooms, we had to have them change the sheets because there were bloodstains on them. Nuff said.
Drive to airport over Corredor Sur: Unhelpful and unfriendly people at the toll booths when it was discovered that you can't pay cash any more but need some sort of card - something visiting tourists obviously do not know.
So, what have we learned, dear readers? Here's the rundown:
- The biggest impediment to a healthy tourism industry are the Panamanian authorities. You're not advertising your country if tourists are constantly met with hostile and corrupt police and have to navigate incoherent rules and laws that are impossible to find anywhere. For example, you can stay in Panama as a tourist for six months. Yet, after three months, you can't use your foreign drivers licence any more. You need to go to the drivers license office and get a Panamanian tourist license. Who knows that? Where is that info to be found? On the official website of the Tourism Authority: Not a word. Nor can anyone explain how it is that after three months in Panama you suddenly lose your ability to drive a car. This kind of nonsense is just a license for the police to shake tourists down - and they are eager to do so.
- The next obstacle are the bigger hotels. We've found that the smaller operations are usually run by friendly people who really do their best to accommodate their guests. There was, on the other hand, often something wrong with the bigger hotels we stayed at. They couldn't find the reservation. The room was dirty. Breakfast sucked. And so on. No wonder occupancy rates are down.
- Panama is definitely not a culinary hot spot. More often than not, you pay New York prices for mediocre food and bad service. There is a rich diversity in the capital and in areas like Coronado in restaurants, but to go out and eat there is often disappointing. There are exceptions of course, but if you visit for the first time and spend just a couple of weeks here these are too difficult to find. One reason for this sad state of affairs is that restaurant owners often charge first-world prices and then turn around paying the kitchen staff and waiters third world wages. This is - forgive the pun - a recipe for disaster, but common practice in Panama, and not just in the hospitality industry.
- Avoid Panama City. It's a mean, dirty, nasty town full of corrupt police goon squads and scam artists. Casco Viejo is nice but not as special as Panama may think - if you want old Spanish colonial towns you're much better off visiting Colombia or Nicaragua or Ecuador or most other Latin American countries for that matter. Or Spain. The further you get away from Panama's capital, the nicer the country becomes.
- Coronado is also best avoided, unless you come to Panama to visit southern Florida-style strip malls and beaches with black sand littered with white trash expats and yeyes.
- If you want a trouble- and hassle-free vacation, Panama should not be your choice. On the other hand, if you have a sense of adventure and aren't afraid to navigate the many pitfalls and idiosyncrasies of this country, there is plenty to explore. Just bring a healthy dose of humor and summer clothes.
Disagree? Other experiences? Leave them in the comments!